Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Cold Tea

Every now and then I make a cup of tea or coffee and then forget about it because I am doing something else. An hour or two later I see the cold cup sitting there looking forlorn. I wanted the drink which was why I made it. I just got distracted. I think that happens often. There is too much going on for us to remember all the things we want to do. We forget the things that matter to us. Sometimes we need a nudge

Books on accepting a little help
'Nudge' & 'The Checklist Manifesto'

There are two books I have been told are base reading for trying to understand the political conflict we find ourselves trying to get out of. 'Anarchy, State and Utopia' by Robert Nozick and 'A Theory of Justice' by John Rawls. It gets quite philosophical and I am not sure there is a right answer of how we can best get along. I have started with Nozick's book. Beyond knowing what the right thing to do is, politics seems to boil down to two questions.

1. What should you be able to force someone to do for their own good? (Paternalism)
2. What should you be able to force people to do for other people's good?

The world is too complex for us to work through all the possible solutions to any choice. Making imperfect decisions when we don't understand is what makes us human. Without any biases or blindspots, we wouldn't do anything. We would always come up with a reason why an action could go wrong. There are always tradeoffs. Irrational tastes, preferences and styles narrow down the huge debilitating world of choices. This is good.

But when our styles clash, we have to come up with new shared illogical biases. For most of our existence we just did our own thing in small groups. Very recently Monarchs, Dictators, Religious Leaders and Governments have been the ones who have got to make those choices for us. Slowly those got replaced with majorities who forgot minorities. Then those got replaced with Constitutions. You don't get to vote on freedom. But freedom without constraints isn't freedom. In our Utopia, it would be our flavour that got to answer those two tough political questions. Autonomy is delicious.

Sometimes outsourcing a little autonomy can make things even better. It doesn't have to a Government. We could create our own 'Council of Elders' from our friends and people we respect? One of the best bits of religion is the ability to go, for free, to someone who has your and your communities best interests at heart for instruction. They will have their own biases and blindspots, but these will help you narrow down your choices and act.

Whether it is a checklist, a phone reminder, a letter to yourself, or people you trust, perhaps it is good to have outside forces who can force you to do things?

I wouldn't mind voting for something that told me my tea was getting cold.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Why and How

A guy I once kind of knew, heard of a girl, whose previous dog's owner overheard a conversation about a foreigner who used those region-hacks for DVD players. You know those ones that stop you watching it because it was meant for another country. The same thing that stops us watching the Trevor Noah clip on colonisation. I imagine that person knows a hack for that too. All illegal of course.

The hacks involve an algorithm of rather bizarre steps that result in the DVD player becoming region free. Something like 'press... right arrow, yellow button twice, mute, help, left, up, 5, box office, up, pause, 3, 7, increase volume, down, boil an egg, tv guide, 4'. Then the screen allegedly goes black and they think they have broken the machine. About two minutes later, lo and behold, they have a region free machine. A mysterious algorithm that if followed correctly does what it is supposed to.

I am busy learning to solve a Rubik's cube via YouTube clips. By stop-starting your way through the video, you can learn what to do. In the beginning the steps are quite understandable. Towards the end there are just algorithms to learn. If you see a yellow fish, make sure its nose is pointing down and then '(R)ight face (c)lockwise, (U)p face (c), (R) counter-clockwise (CC), (U)(C), (R)(C), (U) 2X, (R) (CC)'. The last few stages all have these semi-mystical algorithms that magically solve the cube if you make no mistakes.

It reminded me of some of the things I learnt at university. In one particular subject I was desperately keen not to 'just learn the algorithm'. I wanted to understand why it worked. I sat down with the 700 page text book and started my way through it. Each page took about an hour to understand. I decided to persevere, but after 20 pages my speed wasn't increasing. I did the more simple arithmetic of how many hours it would take to understand the course. I didn't have that much time. I had to suck it up and learn the algorithms. In the case of this course, I didn't even understand the steps! So I had to just learn the various rows of proofs having no clue what they meant. I recognised the symbols, and so sometimes I would spot a pattern. If there was a (-1) at the end you swapped everything around on the next row. Why? Don't know. Fortunately I was not alone. Humility was dolloped out to all my classmates.

Learning how to do something you don't understand can be done through repetition. A university Maths professor once told us at school that if you want to do well at school maths, you can. Just do enough past papers until you recognise all the questions that could be asked of you, and you know the next step. Learn maths like you learn history. He told the story of a girl who had been failing maths, so she did something like 90 past papers and ended up getting close to full marks. Don't do examples till you get them right, do examples till you stop getting them wrong.

There aren't enough hours in the day to learn how to do everything. Fortunately we can solve problems and then share 'simpler ways' to do things. We will likely need the experts when things go wrong. Real understanding comes from knowing the why, not the how. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Time and Place

Daniel Dennett points out that we will never get a novel by Proust about his experiences in Vietnam. Proust didn't live at that time or in that place when that thing was going on. Although none of the things we do in and of themselves are unique, we each have a style. A style that is the product of all the people we come in contact with, the experiences we gather, the history of the places we were born and combination of moments that make us up.

Handel's Messiah couldn't have existed without his Christian story. That story couldn't have existed without the almost two thousand years of cultural development to that point. Without the creation of the instruments involved and the choral tradition. That story itself wouldn't have started without the hundreds of thousands of years of development of religious tradition. A tradition of making sense of a world we don't understand yet have to exist in.

Our style is a constraint. Being human, we can only see the world through a particular view. Everything we relate to connects to something else. Reminds us of something else. Our understanding of the world doesn't come through epiphanies. We gather ideas together. We don't notice everything. Ideas that resonate or challenge us may slowly start to change our world view, but that change will have a history. It will be built up of new experiences and interactions. Epiphanies happen in hindsight.
Constraints carry in them our collective wisdom. Lessons we and others have learnt. And then they clash, often violently, as they get challenged. Constraints are full of flavour. There isn't enough time to evaluate everything, think about everything, read everything, let it sink in and then make decisions. We have to get on with it as best we can since the real way we learn is through mistakes. Constraints narrow our choices down to something manageable. Not necessarily the best decision, but a decision. Making no decision because you are searching for the best decision means you don't move.
What I love is that despite the fact that my world view is largely pre-packaged by lotteries of biology, geography, culture and relationships - I have tools to expand my vision. I can choose to accept the world views of others, the good and bad, as 'mine' but for chance. We also have to take the people with us who haven't had the same drip drip drip of experiences that helped us forward. We mustn't fall for the 'curse of knowledge', forgetting what it's like not to know what we know. We have to hope people will help us with the drip drip drip where we are still wrong because we won't know we are wrong.
There are millions of books, plays, pieces of music and friendships that will never happen. But because of language and culture we can influence our style. We don't have to be defined by time and place. We can rise above. We can sink below. We can take the best bits and create the style we want to see.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Ignoring Everything Else

A lot of problems can be quite easily solved if you ignore everything else. This morning I was handed a Rubik's cube to solve. I don't know how. I know it took the Professor of Architecture who invented it a month to figure it out. Nowadays, you can sneakily look on YouTube to get tutorials. I don't plan on doing the month long version but the short version could be fun. 

Without an algorithm, and just turning and twisting, you can fairly easily solve specific bits. You can get one row. Or one face. Or a diagonal line. This made me think of some comments Daniel Dennett made about ethics. With just one goal, it becomes fairly easy to solve problems. If all you care about is one of poverty, racism, freedom of speech, conserving a way of life, your community, minorities, sexism, meritocracy, or creativity etc. then the big questions in the world have very clear answers. Where it gets tricky is the co-ordination. Sometimes you need to solve things in a specific order and it takes a long time to figure it out. 

The advantage of language and culture is that we are able to learn together. I can benefit from your mental heavy lifting. Erno Rubik spent a month figuring out the cube. I will be able to go away and look at a youtube clip.

Even though we like our individual things that need solving, we know that when we get too protective over them, it means other problems can't be solved. Building the trust to know that letting go for a while is not destroying our goal in the long term is hard. 

The other advantage of language and culture is it creates a shared memory. A memory that can extend beyond short term goals. We can think about the next step. We can also step back and think about how to think about the next step. We can think about how the various steps may connect together. We can think about steps we and others have taken together. Then we can write it down and just think about now. Till just now

When Newton, and others, said 'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants', it was not false modesty. Quite often progress is made 'independently' around about the same time by different individuals. By making errors in public, we can all chip in to solve them. We are learning not just from our own experiences because our words and deeds connect us all.

Focus is good, but we can't solve our issues by ignoring everything else.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Time to Retire (Malcolm Black)

Guest Post

My Dad is the one person who gets my humour. I am the one person who gets his. It's ours. Beyond that, we have had to make our way through life finding people who can tolerate our silliness. One of the things that makes my Dad a particularly special man is how our relationship has transitioned into a friendship. We have a lots of shared interests and my life is richer because of him. I was super chuffed when my inbox delivered his guest post this afternoon. Dad and Bev, through their business Potential Unlimited, help people embrace the transition into retirement through the creation of a fulfilling and meaningful lifestyle.

Time to Retire
by Malcolm Black

Retiring? Why do you need to retire and what are you retiring from? Well I suppose we have come to understand by now what this is supposed to mean. We work at making a living from the time we leave school, or from a tertiary institution, build a career working in one company or moving around as life takes us and then the day comes when someone higher up the corporate ladder tells us we have to retire. We have reached 60 or 65 and we have to step out the door of the working world.

If we have a good pension fund and have been saving a bit extra because we have been financially astute and planned well, we may be looking forward to the day with excitement and anticipation. Now we can do all the things we have never been able to do, and we will be free to do just as we like. Play golf all and every day, or watch tennis whenever we want (my personal dream: to take two weeks to do nothing other than have bacon, eggs, toast and tea for breakfast, and watch Wimbledon from start to finish, not missing a single game, while snacking on biltong and nuts, and having high tea with strawberries and cream!)

All we have to do is manage our nest-egg, stay healthy and we can have a ball for as long as we live, which can be up to 30 years for many people these days. The reality is that for many of us this is not the way it turns out. Loss of work often means loss of identity, loss of status, loss of friends and loss of meaning. Those dreamed of day long leisure activities turn out to lose their glow when that is all there is to do. In the right quantity and when our lives are balanced they are most enjoyable, but when purpose and meaning go out of our lives we often become lost and despondent. The research literature on retired persons has shown this to be the case for many retirees. As Victor Frankl says, "Our search for meaning is the primary motivation in our lives." (Man's Search For Meaning)

And when the day to retire comes and we do not have a great pension and very little money saved we may lament and gnash our teeth. We may think we cannot go and do the things our hearts desire as we still need to earn a living and could feel cheated.

This may in fact be a blessing in disguise, as we will need to keep ourselves on the go, requiring mental and physical stimulation from an ongoing purpose and sense of meaning. What will help to add to a little sparkle and pleasure to our lives is if we focus more and more on what turns us on and fills us with enthusiasm. This is the time, if we have not done it already, to steer our work and play towards the things we are most passionate about. It is a time to expand beyond the mundane, focus on the joys of now, and just be focused on the next step.

Can't Blame Barney's

I have mixed feelings about the animosity created with clashing ideologies and ideas in social media. I think it is a good thing that we can't hide some of our crazy ideas that easily anymore. But ironing out the inconsistencies in these ideas can get very aggressive. A natural tendency when the temperature rises is to check out. I come from a family of debaters. I loved debating at school. People who become my close friends often have very strong opinions. So figuring out a way to challenge ideas and keep the ones that are strongest is appealing. Appealing but draining.

When I was in first year university, Thursday nights was the night the night to drink. Gareth Cliff, a controversial radio host, coined "Phuza Thursday". I had rugby practice on Thursday nights and so by the time I would be able to catch up with my buddies, they would be too advanced down the path for it to be much fun for a sober late comer. Friday morning also used to have a poorly timed tutorial that had a group assignment that had to be handed in for our most difficult subject. So I often ended up getting the task of herding a few hung over friends towards completing the job. 

My memory of Phuza Thursdays is more closely linked with the effects on Fridays

I am at my very worst when I get into task mode. If something has to be done in a fixed time all my social graces can disappear. I try compensate for this by starting things very early, but that can't always happen. If things get tight, democracy isn't very useful. There needs to be a dictator. You need to be the teller or the doer. Add hangovers and difficult questions that required debate to the mix and you get some great fodder for self-reflection about what really matters. One of the biggest insights a friend has ever given me as feedback came on one of these post Phuza Thursday Fridays. 'Donkey', he said 'You have no interest in the truth, you just want to be right'.

Take away my elaborate excuse of rugby, Phuza Thursday and short timelines and the accusation still rang true. I did like being right. I got a huge kick from winning an argument. I spoke much more than I listened. I convinced much more than than I heard. In debates, you get given a topic and you have to try win either as the opposition or the proposition. The truth is not the aim. This is possibly okay if after the debate, people are able to disentangle themselves from the two sides and then ask, independently of how well something was articulated, which is closer to the truth.

I can't really blame Barney - the local watering hole

Disentangling is where things fall apart. Our identity is made up of our ideas. Our ideas don't only belong to us. The network of relationships that build up our world is glued together by these ideas. Changing an idea, particularly an important one can threaten things you care about much more than the truth or otherwise of the idea.

With Social Media, we realise that our network of 'idea carrying people' include the ideas that we thought were crazy. Offline, we have social skills that allow us to read body language and avoid controversial topics. Online, we start seeing people we like, respect or value exhibiting glue dissolving ideas. It is tempting to defriend or disengage. As the temperature rises, just step away.

In the Academic world you have to 'defend your thesis'. Progress happens by making errors in public so that people can help you by aggressively pointing them out. This leads to temperatures rising. So the benefit of the social world is you get to retreat to bubbles where you are right. I don't think we can do that anymore. We have to be brave enough to make our social errors in public.

The thing I am trying to work on is being less task oriented in ending the argument. Add a little time. I think the better ideas tend to win in the end. Perhaps what we think is less important that what we think our grandchildren are going to think?

Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Next Step

Life can be hard. Brutal at times. At times, I have ended up convulsing with tears, a dull throb in the pit of my stomach and then momentary pauses when my body simply has no more energy left to feed my pain. An overwhelming, visceral, physical domination by life. So I stared blankly. Wondering what next. Wondering why. In 'The Happiness Hypothesis' Jonathan Haidt says there is very little evidence that catharsis works. Simply being angry at the world for anger's sake. In my experience this is true. Anger feeds anger. What does help, and what may involve anger, is communication. And time.

Whenever I feel a deep injustice has been done, I desperately want to be able to tell someone about it. Even if it is a little injustice that I know isn't worth getting upset about. I try to be all mature and breathe and all that stuff, but the thing that helps me let it go is often when I get to retell the story. A friend nodding, and saying 'what an idiot' is the best muti. What Haidt says is one of the best forms of therapy is effectively sense making. Get angry. Write it down. Speak. Then again. Again. Add time.

People are remarkably resilient at taking something that goes wrong and twisting it into a story that makes sense. When things go properly wrong for me, I try and do something really awesome that I wouldn't have been able to do if those things had gone right. Something going right means a constraint. Constraints force us to think in novel, creative ways. We do wonderful things, but we aren't defined by those constraints. When something awful happens, we often get to recreate the rules. Step back and choose new constraints in a world that could not possibly have existed if the other things had gone the way we wanted.

I like the metaphor of a loving parent and a brave, exploring child. The parent offers safe, unconditional love and knowing this, the child is able to go out, get hurt, learn, and prosper. They can always call on that unconditional love. My worst case scenario is full of this love, and that makes me feel incredibly confident.

If I was to wake up tomorrow in a parallel world where all the people I knew were gone, I had no money, I was naked, I was in a country that didn't speak English, and no one looked like me - I like to think I would be ok. That base is something that can't be taken away. It's mine. I would be able to find help. Perhaps after a stint in jail while they understood why I was wandering around naked. I think I would be ok because I have been lucky in that unconditional love. Over my life, I have come in contact with so many wonderful people that have provided that secure base to recreate the story if things go wrong.

What matters, the only thing that matters, is the next step.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Go Outside

For a big city, London gets very quiet.  I have been slowly upping the distances I walk each day as I try to morph myself from a usually still person, to a usually moving person. Today, I got to 30km while London was being bathed in sunshine. We get snow days when people can't get to work. On days like today, we should get sun days when people shouldn't get to work. If the jokes about English weather are true, there should be a general agreement that if something really matters, it can wait. Get outside. The beautiful, wide open parks and lakes should be where people are.

Fortunately I could do that so I wandered the quiet rows of houses everyone had vacated to get to their offices. Perhaps Aironc will be an offshoot relative of Airbnb? All these gorgeous homes could act as shared 'office and coffee' places. Instead of sitting empty. Instead of people fighting to get to work in packed tubes.

Today's post is short. I am going outside.