Sunday Snapshots (6th October, 2019)

Stillness is the Key, Ethics in research, Seniors as a customer segment, and cold weather

Hey everyone,

It was a beautiful Sunday in Evanston. This week has been very happening – catching up with friends, interviews, and getting in the groove of classes. But over the last couple of days, I’ve been able to catch a breath and just relax. It has also led to some reflections, which is the theme of this week’s Snapshots. I enjoy writing these issues the most. I hope you like reading them too.

In this week’s Snapshots, I want to talk about:

  • My reflections on Ryan Holiday’s Stillness is the Key

  • Ethics, research, and fake news

  • The newest customer segment is old people

  • And more!

Book of the week

This week, I read Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key. The book wraps up his trilogy on Stoic philosophy. Ryan is a fascinating author because he was a practitioner before he started writing. The battles scars from his stint as Director of Marketing at American Apparel are apparent in his writing on practical philosophy. It also means that he explores the dichotomies of his advice more than the typical writer.

The book is structured into three parts – the mind, the spirit, and the body. Instead of summarizing my main takeaways, I want to try something different this week. I’ll take three chapters from the book and use the title as a prompt to talk about my experiences. Next week, I’ll do three more chapters.

  1. Find confidence, avoid ego: The difference between ego and confidence is simple – ego is unjustified confidence. It’s about creating a mythical version of yourself with unrealistic expectations not backed by actions.

    When you’re young and ambitious, it’s easy to tell yourself a narrative. It’s easy to get complacent and develop a feeling of entitlement. I’ve certainly struggled with this. My first few months at Northwestern, I felt as if I had gained a “safety net” of going to a good college. I lost the chip on my shoulder that ensured my 110% commitment to everything I did. In Ryan’s words (and the title of one of his books), ego was my enemy.

    I definitely recovered from this malaise, but not until after I did poorly academically my first quarter here. I made a promise to myself to never take things for granted ever again. Avoid ego like the plague.

  2. Cultivate silence: There’s a dichotomy here that I struggle with. On one hand, I’ll never have so many of my friends in the same place with a bunch of free time as I do at college. So obviously, I want to spend time with them. At the same time, I really appreciate time alone to read and write. I also have a feeling that I won’t have free time after I graduate to indulge all of my interests so I want to take advantage of the lack of structure at college.

    My current solution is to have days of the week where I am very social and days of the week where I coop up in my room, a coffee shop, or the library and focus on my work. It’s effective, but I’m often left feeling lonely on the days without social interactions and unproductive on the days when I don’t “cultivate silence.” I don’t think I’ll ever find out the right answer here – just constant adjustments based on what I’m focusing on at that time in my life.

  3. Find a hobby: I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with friends who said that the people they respect the most are ones who manage to devote time to their hobbies despite their busy schedules – because everyone has a busy schedule.

    This newsletter has become my most involved hobby. It gives me a chance to take a step back and build a catalogue of what I’m learning (and eating) throughout the week. I collect pieces of it throughout the week and write it as soon as I wake up every Sunday morning. At this point, it’s become a habit.

I highly recommend the book and suggest that you do a similar reflection on the chapters as I have done here. It really maximizes the value you get out of it.

Stay tuned for next week’s reflections.

Long read of the week

Deep Architecture for generating automatic comments

Should all research – even if it can be used for evil – be funded? My gut reaction is no. But we need to be careful that we come up with a reasonable framework for deciding the answer to that question.

This paper comes from Beihang University and Microsoft China. It focuses on building an architecture for generating automatic comments to news articles by first developing an understanding of the news article and then generating comments. It seems ripe to be exploited by fake news factories. According to the researchers:

The reading network comprehends a news article and distills some important points from it, then the generation network creates a comment by attending to the extracted discrete points and the news title. We optimize the model in an end-to-end manner by maximizing a variational lower bound of the true objective using the back-propagation algorithm. Experimental results on two datasets indicate that our model can significantly outperform existing methods in terms of both automatic evaluation and human judgment.

The neural network they use is very sophisticated with multiple layers of processing. Typically, this translates into decreased interpretability of why the results are the way they are. That’s very dangerous when you’re dealing with information that voters might use to decide who to vote for. The pollyannaish assumption has gotten us into trouble recently, especially when technology is involved.

Business move of the week

The New Old Age

With the average population age rising across most developed countries, there is a new customer segment that is growing rapidly – seniors. They demand everything from senior living to Uber for seniors. While there are big challenges to overcome, companies that do manage to do that will have a large moat to leverage. Companies like Umbrella have made big moves in the space. Will Robbins was an intern at the company and has a great article about the space. Here’s an excerpt that I particularly enjoyed:

Your customers love you more than you thought was possible. One of the best parts of working at Umbrella has been the immediate and significant impact we’ve had on our members. Every week we’d get a call or note saying “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” or “Umbrella is a godsend.” It’s a lot easier to push through an intractable bug in your code when the users are so genuinely grateful for what you’re doing.

In the business news cycle of multi-billion dollar mergers and IPOs, we often forget the value these businesses create for the end user. This is a customer segment that is not only monetarily attractive, but also attractive in terms of the impact that it will have on seniors. I’m excited to follow the space more closely.

Meal of the week

Chicago is certainly not the ‘second city’ when it comes the transition from fall into winter. Temperatures have been dropping and that means that spicy becomes a lot more attractive. This week, I went to Evanston’s Koco Table and had the Chicken Bibimbap and Spicy Cold Noodles. It’s a Northwestern student staple and definitely worth a visit.


That wraps up this week’s Sunday Snapshots. If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Until next Sunday,

Sid