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Musical Musings

Travelling Songs

For a recent Palantir event, I was asked to state a song that I enjoy listening to whilst travelling. I had a few candidates in mind, but went with This Town by Niall Horan. I didn’t have to justify my choice – but I had several reasons in mind.

Most of my travel for work is done solo. This makes sense for going on-site, but even for larger company events and conventions I find that I end up travelling on my own fairly often. Also, quite a lot of my travel requires flying; even when it is not long-haul, the overhead of going through airports and ensuring that I am on time already adds quite a bit of travel time. I thus find that I have a fair chunk of time where I spend time thinking and reflecting on how things have been going. I thus picked a quieter, more downbeat song which gives me enough space to maintain a thread of reflective thought. That said, interestingly the other songs I had in mind were unlikely to be as conducive to that!

I should count myself fortunate to have travelled quite a fair amount for work (that said I’m sure there must be people who are sick of excessive travel). One “class” of songs that might be relevant for some would be a sense of adventure and anticipation; for me personally on work trips that is a bit less relevant. Many trips are to places I’ve already been to (I guess the company only has a few major offices) – in the past three years I think I have visited Palo Alto about eight times. Of course, that may change with university on-site recruiting picking up; I first visited both Denmark and Croatia on these trips, and I did enjoy those travels a fair bit.

I think of myself as fairly ambitious. There are often more things I like to do than have the time to execute on (and hence metaphorically “words I never got to say the first time around”). In some ways, this is especially true of my travels to Singapore, as I’m there only about three to four weeks a year out of 52. Separately, work trips often involve very intense iteration (that tends to be what motivates the trip in the first place), leaving little time to explore the place I’m in.

Thinking about it, the song does also mention the act of travelling (“drive highways and byways to be there with you”). I didn’t pick the song for that reason, though – identifying work as the thing one is always chasing is dangerous.

The other songs I had in mind included Fury of the Storm by DragonForce; that follows the “sense of adventure” theme. That song also brings back memories of my first internship at Palantir, which involved a decent amount of travel. I’m not sure I could imagine listening to metal for ten straight hours or so, though. I also considered James Arthur’s Back from the Edge which I featured in a review about a year and a half ago; travel certainly doesn’t provide a clean or blank slate, but it does provide a temporal boundary for how I categorise things, I think.

During the event, nine other engineers volunteered their choices. There was a fairly broad range of picks, ranging from rather bubbly dance pop (Elastic Heart by Sia) to harder rock picks, and a couple of alternative choices I was completely unfamiliar with. It was nice to see this variety, though.

On Challenges that Build

On my return flight from Singapore to London, I listened to quite a few hours of music. Two of the songs I listened to and enjoyed at least partially for similar reasons were It’s Gonna Be Me (by NSync), and I Can’t Be Mad (by Nathan Sykes). It’s a bit of a strange pairing as the former seems to be an upbeat, relaxed pop song while the latter is a fairly moody piano ballad. However, the common element I latched on to here was that both songs feature sections that are repeated multiple times, with the vocals developing additional complexity on each iteration (thinking about it this is fairly common in songs that are critically reviewed well, and also in songs I like). For example, in It’s Gonna Be Me there is a line in the chorus which is sung four times over the course of the song, and its complexity develops:

The challenges in I Can’t Be Mad have a couple of changed notes, but also (if trying to reproduce the original) demand different productions of the notes (falsetto vs not, belts, etc). There’s always a risk of adding too many embellishments, though I find expanding upon base melodies can be quite interesting. Singing these, and considering what would be reasonable for my voice (adding a closing run to the last syllable above, for instance) and what would not be (adding a +1 semitone key change after the second chorus in I Can’t Be Mad – original is already awfully hard), can be enjoyable too.

Generalising this, I quite like the idea of “increasingly complex variations on the same theme” when learning concepts and when teaching them. This already seems to happen for many concepts in mathematics. Over the course of an A-level student’s mathematics education, he/she might understand how to write a quadratic expression as a product of linear factors (e.g. converting 6x^2 - 19x - 7 into (2x-7)(3x+1)). This could first begin with expressions where inspection works feasibly. However, students should also be presented with some examples where inspection is extremely difficult or even impossible (though probably only after gaining some confidence with the cases where inspection is plausible). For general expressions, one could try to use both the quadratic formula and factor theorem to factorise something like 6x^2 - 19x - 8 into -\frac{1}{24}(-12x + \sqrt{553} + 19)(12x + \sqrt{553} - 19). However, there will be some expressions like 6x^2 - 19x + 16 where the solutions to the quadratic are not real; later, with some understanding of complex numbers, these would make sense. Students will also learn about problems which may not obviously be quadratics but can be written as such (like x^4 + 2x^2 + 1); the ability to synthesise the various techniques can then be tested with something like 7x^8 - 10x^4.

To some extent my Masters project also had this theme – linear time logic, adding knowledge, adding dynamic modalities, generalising that to full branching time logic, and then switching out the infinite traces for finite traces. I haven’t written a course or a book on a computer science topic yet, but I can imagine that there might at least be sections that follow this kind of sequence.

This pattern also occurs a fair bit in many technical interviews I’ve seen as well, where problems start easy, but additional and progressively more challenging constraints are repeatedly introduced. The purposes here could include testing for a breaking point, seeing how candidates react to problems without an obvious solution, or whether they are able to synthesise additional information to come to a solution.

I find that I often learn best by practicing on smaller examples at first, and then (attempting to) generalise their conclusions to larger models, considering when these conclusions may fail or not. Having multiple variations of progressive difficulty can be useful as they can give a sense of achievement as partial progress towards an overall goal is made. Furthermore, I find understanding how changes in the problem scenario leads to the base solution method being applicable or inapplicable to be a key part of understanding as well; there is a clear need to reason about this when considering incremental variations. Going back to It’s Gonna Be Me, for example, aiming downwards at the word ‘love’ and not conserving sufficient air or energy for it might work for the first three passes, but it’s unlikely to on the last round.

There is a risk that the method can be frustrating in that it seems like it is consistently ‘moving the goalposts’, especially if one forgets that the partial goals are partial goals (and starts to think of them as complete ends in and of themselves). The standard I’m using for understanding (ability to critically evaluate applicability in novel contexts) may be seen as a little high. I also haven’t covered how to bootstrap the method (that is, how to develop an understanding of how to attack the base problem before any variations are introduced). Nonetheless I think there are some contexts where this works well. I’ve found it to be useful in singing, mathematics and interviewing at least!

Up All Night

“Knew we would crash at the speed that we were going
Didn’t care if the explosion ruined me…”
– Charlie Puth, “Dangerously”

The quote above is from a song that I’ve been listening to a fair bit recently, and I’ve picked up on those two lines although in a different context (as you might expect, the original song is concerned with a reaction to a breakup). I’ve been thinking about how my work practices could work in the longer term and what would be sustainable. Nonetheless, hearing those two lines makes me think of deep surges; some of the most short-term of these could perhaps take the form of all-nighters.

I’ve been fairly lucky in that I haven’t had to pull many all-nighters for quite some time. I think I only did this once for MCMAS-Dynamic (during the report-writing stage; generally given the technical complexity of the work I don’t think it would have made sense), and I don’t think I did one during the third year group project. I also remember having executed one during second year when revising for the exams, though that was thankfully well before said exam period. There have been several hackathons, of course, as well as other occasional personal surges but generally I find that I perform best if I have adequate sleep, and even in the relatively short run I’d be better off doing three say 15-hour days, punctuated by relatively normal sleep (well, as normal as that can be given such a schedule) than plugging away in a continuous stretch.

Anyway, besides the Charlie Puth song I’m also writing about this now because I voluntarily did one this week, though for a rather different reason: watching the US presidential election. I had a couple tabs open with various election newsfeeds and a couple watching market futures and GBPUSD. On hindsight I’m not sure exactly why I did it since it was pretty apparent midway through (I think around 2-3 am in London time) that things were going Trump’s way, and I wasn’t trading through the night (by the time markets opened in the morning there wasn’t too much of a cheap-buying opportunity). That’s a subject for another post, though.

I think the negative effects of sleep deprivation are well-documented; I’m not sure exactly why I pulled the all-nighter for the MCMAS-Dynamic report (probably wanted to rush something out for a supervisor meeting the next day), but I do distinctly remember that the two or three pages that I cranked out, while probably not bad per se fell particularly far short of my quality standards in a later proofread. The problem I’m trying to address with an all-nighter involves not having enough time to deal with a short-run (typically next-day) requirement, and in less extreme cases it’s not the only solution; where possible, I’d also like to try an alternative of waking up abnormally early to work on the issue. Understandably, there are risks that one might fail to actually wake up early, though I think this can be mitigated with suitable (read: loud and highly dissonant) alarms.

However, there are cases where I find this to be the best solution anyway. Some of this might involve external time constraints (for example, if it involves live following of current events – the aforementioned US election is one, or the recent World Series if one’s so inclined; examples from software engineering could include firing off long-running performance or integration tests, or meeting sudden customer requirements). Also, for suitably short time spans this is likely to be an optimal or near-optimal solution (even then, a 1.5 hour nap could potentially be useful in such cases). I think another useful factor to bear in mind would be the activities planned for next day (an exam or interview would be very bad, for instance).

Once the decision to forego sleep has been made, I usually don’t find the direct implementation of all-nighters to be too bad, perhaps because for things to have reached that point there must have been a compelling reason. Typically, by then the outcome-oriented side of me takes over and decides that it would be a night of crushing things (though it doesn’t always calculate the costs appropriately).

I think for me at least the most challenging part of this is managing its costs the next day. I personally don’t perform well if I haven’t had enough sleep, and there’s also a risk of overcorrection (that is, sleeping too early, which messes with the sleep schedule for the next few days). I guess caffeine can be deployed to some extent to address this, though I’ve been on the wrong side of that as well. I find that removing access to a bed at least until only a few hours before one’s normal bedtime can help as well – in fact, staying outside is probably even better (I can sleep on a chair if I’m at home).

In summary, it’s a very useful tool in my experience, and there are circumstances where it might be necessary or optimal, but generally speaking where possible this should be avoided.