Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The World Upside Down

When I was a little chap, I loved the World Upside Down Game. Lying on the floor you look up at the ceiling and imagine a world where that was the floor. You need to step over the edges as you walk through doors. The floor has a light pointing upwards in the middle. Taking a bath is particularly awkward.

The game quickly descends into madness. Things clearly can't all be upside down. Unless you go to Australia. In the real world upside down you get to watch world cup cricket during the day. Even though you are upside down, you don't really realise it. The friend who I am staying with's driveway  is straight out of Kill Bill. Theoretically it should have been easy to walk up this near vertical path with my backpack since I was upside down. 

No, everything can't be opposite. The advantage of there being lots of different places is that we can see how differently things can be done. With social media there isn't even a filter so that we only hear the things that make it past the editor and potentially the government censors. As you travel around the world is mostly the same with a few different flavours, but we should be able to easily spot the things that are upside down. The things that need to change.

I spoke in 'Not Personal' about the Asymmetry between companies who don't depend on one particular employee and employees for whom jobs come to define a big chunk of their lives. The same thing exists at a Nation State level. Within a country, you can move around quite easily between cities and find places where things are done well. For all the problems facing Europe, I am a big fan of the idea of free movement of people and ideas. This can decrease the dependence of individuals on states in the same way states aren't dependent on (particular) individuals. You can vote with your feet. In the same way I believe companies would treat staff very well if it was very easy for them to leave, countries would have to work harder for loyalty if the same was true.

The same could be said for politicians. Sports teams have recently started professionalising coaching. You can get someone from a different nationality helping the team. I would be keen to see something similar for politics. What if we could see someone doing a great job doing somewhere else and they could then come run for president elsewhere? Alarm bells go off in our tribal cores! No. The person must be one of us. Why should a country have to work for loyalty? Where is your patriotism! 

I have realised my patriotism lies with good ideas, good people and figuring out how to do things better. Sometimes that requires looking at things a little differently.

Steep driveways are still steep in the World Upside Down

Sunday, March 01, 2015

No Marco Polo

Today I handed over my keys to my landlord. I now don't live anywhere or have a job, and from tomorrow I won't own any property. There is a Trev on the loose. I was visiting family earlier in the week and we were watching a show on nightmare travel experiences. Great stuff just before you go on an adventure. It didn't actually make me worry though. All the stories came from people who had really got themselves into silly situations. They were also surrounded by people who were trying to help them. The only person giving them problems was often themselves.

Things are so connected now that a brief whatsapp to some people when I land will let them know I am fine. I intend to keep up my daily blogging. I am going on a 22.5 hour flight though, so it may be a case of daily blogging with slightly delayed posting. Hardly a Marco Polo situation. I still have a desire at some stage to put myself in a situation where I am forced to learn a new language by being in a place where no one speaks English. This is not that occasion. Going to Australia and New Zealand reinforces just how much culture is shared across the globe. I felt like that in the US which I visited for the first time last year. When I looked at their history, it was my history too.

I have a growing bugbear about how openly people speak in a derogatory way about immigrants. It seems that now that sexism, racism and homophobia are beyond the tipping point of acceptability, being anti-immigrants is one of the last forms of condoned bigotry. Moaning about immigrants is not cool. Perhaps because I am an immigrant (although I don't consider myself having left anywhere). Any form of ingroup/outgroup moaning about 'them' making 'our' lives difficult without any empathy is going to be very embarrassing one day.

The notion of nation states is very young. The Marco Polos of this world did put themselves at risk but they could also travel freely into the dangerous unknown. I would love a world where people could move freely and be welcomed wherever they obey the law of the land they find themselves. A world of global citizens free from Xenophobia.

Leaving for the airport

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Last Sleep

Home is where the 'what' is? In Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert talks about the traditional three big drivers of how your life and happiness are defined. Where you live. What you do. Who you marry. In the past you will have lived where you were born, did what your parents did, and married someone from the neighbourhood. Ken Robinson figured out that 7 of his 8 great grandparents lived within a few miles of each other growing up. Things have changed.

Last night I had my last sleep in the place I have spent the second longest in my life. I was very lucky in finding my flat pretty quickly when I moved to London. Although I looked at several places in a first day of hunting, the very first place I looked at was the one I moved in to. It has been good to me.

I have had many friends stay here with me as they pass through London. In a new Global world I have found you can't really choose to live close to family and friends or not. People move. People scatter. Our jobs are less fixed and more big decisions are open to discussion. You have to make an effort to see the people who are important to you or life can swallow you whole.

Snow greeted me shortly after arrival. Regular sunsets stuck around.
(pic taken by buddie guest Jon Adams)

From tomorrow I will no longer have a fixed base to call home. Home is a fuzzy concept though. I always smile when, well... after... my grandparents move. This doesn't happen very often and is a great source of stress in the run up, but their home seems to move with them. They have always been happy a little while after the change. Maybe it is partly because of the furniture that there place seems to be the same. Maybe it is because they have been married over sixty years. Maybe it is because they have their kids close by. Despite the global scattering, my Dad and his sisters still live in the same city as them.

Home is created by the relationships that get formed. The reason their home seems to move with them is my Gran and Grampa are a home. Wherever they are when I get to see them is their home. If that is true then we don't need to panic about the confusing world we live in. Home can be defined by how you allocate your time. There are ways to allocate that to the people who are important. Home is where the kuier is.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sneaky Stuff

Objects carry meaning for us. We like them when we buy them, but after we have had experiences with them they carry some sort of mystical attachment which we find hard to let go of. We wrap objects with authentic stories. We make objects holy. All this pleasure we get from extending our story into the physical world makes nesting very appealing. I have been nesting in the same place for 6 years and have been attempting to purge over the last couple of weeks. 6 years isn't that long, you'd think. I also think I don't tend to buy lots of things. Yet the bags after bags of trips to the charity store would suggest otherwise.

Some of the stuff has been easier to part with that others. Clothes is one example. I have far more than I need. Some get worn over and over till they really shouldn't be worn any more and others with less attachment sit in the cupboard virtually untouched. These new'ish and not regularly worn shirts were easy to add to the out pile. Less easy were some of my favourites.  One of those is a green and gold Madiba T-Shirt from global teez at the waterfront in Cape Town. There is something about living outside South Africa that makes South Africans wear clothes that identify them as Saffas more. Whatever the reason, I love popping my head into that store whenever I am back to see if anything grabs me. A friend asked me to get him the Madiba shirt but it was never in - so instead he got JouMa. It suited him because he tried to imitate the picture at his wedding after a hockey incident. Unsurprisingly, his wife insisted on false teeth. 


It is time to say goodbye to the T-Shirt. And to a whole bunch of mugs. I am a bit of a memory hoarder. That is fine, but when the memories start mutating into things it can get a little silly. I had a cupboard full of these mugs. This is particularly dangerous when you consider the limitless tidiness challenges I am trying to conquer. Sinks full of mugs, and mugs scattered around the house. Perhaps mugs should be like the highlander. There can be only one.


Friends of mine do a '40 bags in 40 days' purge each year. Each day they need to fill a bag that has to go. The husband gets an embarrassed look when the story gets told saying that he wishes they just didn't collect that much stuff in the first place. They do have an excuse with a houseful of 4 kids but stuff is very very sneaky. We keep a lot just 'in case'. Beyond the price tag, there are also the less obvious hidden costs. Not just the use others could have got from the hoard, but the energy sapping drag it is when you eventually decide to pack up or move!


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Full Nana

One of my favourite movie scenes of all time comes from 'Limitless'. Able to see the world clearly for the first time, (almost) the first thing Eddie Morra does is tidy his flat. The scene is awesome, and whenever I decide things have descended a little too far in my living environment, belting out The Black Keys soundtrack from the movie gets me going. 

The sad truth is that while I am not the most useless cleaner in the world, I leave a lot to be desired. In my gap years between school and university I worked as a waiter and a porter for a while during the summer holidays of the school I was teaching at. On one occasion I was tasked with cleaning the glass of the display cabinets. I took ages, and on inspection my job still wasn't good enough. All I was doing was cleaning glass! Surely it is not that complicated? My cross line manager felt the same.

Cleaning can't possibly be a Usain Bolt style inborn talent. There have to be tricks to the trade. The problem is you often only get to do things once or twice and that isn't really the way to learn. It is a good thing many of us don't have to get subjected to army conscription. The tales I hear from my parents generation though is that that is where you really learnt to iron, make beds and peel potatoes.


Until deciding to go down the learning and blogging route and leaving my job, I have always felt very justified in getting help to do cleaning. I love a clean house, but cleaning isn't exactly my idea of a favourite way to relax when I wasn't working. I also figured I was 'contributing to the economy' by getting someone else to do the cleaning for me. My working time would be better suited to focus on my qualifications.

There is some truth to that. There isn't enough work to go around. When you are working full days in an office, cleaning can become a real bitterness inducing grudge chore. So paying someone else does seem a reasonable 'win win' solution. It does leave you as a less than complete human being though in terms of some pretty basic self-sufficiency skills. I have heard stories of high powered CEOs retiring and not knowing how to buy jam. They hadn't been in a shop for decades. Cleaning can actually be fun if you aren't in a rush and can add a touch of silliness.


Washing dishes can be fun if you add a little silliness to the mix

Embarrassingly simple tasks become something we just don't know how to do. I have a friend who defines cleaning in fractions of a Nana. His Grandmother was the Usain Bolt of cleaning. A full Nana is something equivalent to an end of tenancy deep clean of the home. The only way I could do a full Nana to his standards would be to buy a new build home. He regularly laughs at me when I ask him about simple domestic cleaning things that I have no idea about. I reckon I have trained myself up to about quarter Nana level when I have Black Keys belting out.

I like practical solutions to issues of happiness. I like the idea that if things aren't going well, you should start with the basics. Are you exercising? Are you eating right? Are you making time for proper relaxation? How is your breathing? Are you thinking positively? Then you can move onto more complicated things like building quality relationships and finding something you are good at that challenges you.

Before you do any of that. Clean up.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Casual Advice

In theory, friends should be best placed to give advice. They should know you best and be able to apply your context to whatever problem is being solved.

Alex Tabarrok on Marginal Revolution talks about the rise of Opaque Intelligence. As things get more and more complicated, there is distance between our various specialities. We may struggle to talk to each other about work related issues because we simply don't have the shared vocabulary and understanding. Experts talk in chunks. As they push to the lonely edge of knowledge they need those they are engaging with to have done some work simply to be able to understand a little of what they are saying. An idea that takes years to conquer may be summarised in a sentence. They may also have forgotten what it is like to not understand. Tyler Cowen wrote a great (short read) book on the subject called Average Is Over.


This makes asking a friend who knows something about something you don't know for advice awkward. There is a catch-22 situation. We need to trust people or machines that we don't understand, but we are wary of blind faith. If we don't understand something but it feels wrong, I think we are fighting a beast if we just try to go with it. If a friend gives advice and then things go wrong in the eyes of the advice taker, the friendship may be at risk. The very source of trust that may enable blind faith may be the thing not worth risking.

This is additionally complicated by the fact that those best placed to make decisions are still those on the front lines. Whether it is medicine or finance, our individual circumstances are complicated and it require someone to really get to know us if they were to make the best decisions for us. You can't just casually show a friend who is a doctor a mole and ask for a diagnosis. On the outside chance your buddy has specialised in the relevant area, a doctor needs to do a full examination to get a good picture of what is going on. The same is true for friends who are lawyers, accountants, architects or whatever. Even in their relevant field it would be hard to choose a King or Queen to make decisions for us. This means someone has to spend a lot of relevant time with you to help you. Casual advice over a beer is dangerous.

I think the tug of war between trust and communication will be interesting to watch as we choose which way to go. Less blind faith is needed if you keep things simple enough to wrap your head around. But letting go of control may let you lean into the magic.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Masters of the Rational Universe (by Chris Young)

Guest Post: Chris Young

Chris said writing his guest blog post reminded him of school newspaper days. We know each other from Westville Boys' High where I also attempted to get people who didn't usually write to get articles in. I had to try hard to convince them that the paper wouldn't be boring. If they wrote, it would be more likely that they read what they wanted to read! The same is true now. If we only hear from professional writers about what is going on in professional writers lives it would be rather boring. A little like the Oscars regularly giving the award for best film to films about Hollywood. Oh wait. The down side was that schools did have to censor what we put out. One particularly hilarious edition (well, we thought so) was severely trimmed - but I still have  the uncut edition safely tucked away. I may be purging almost everything I own, but I am still a hoarder of memories.

Chris is a super star. He is an Academic Neurosurgeon and former Rhodes scholar with multiple publications and other really fancy awards. He is also a great guy. He is currently a Research Fellow in Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard University. Like Samir said, writing a blog is something Chris has wanted to do, but never really gotten around to. Hopefully this is the start of him regularly sharing some of his thoughts with us.


Master of the Rational Universe
By Chris Young

You may be alarmed to learn that the human brain is not quite the perfect machine we would like to believe.  Nor are we assuredly in control.  The brain is fraught with fragilities, susceptible to external influences, and prone to making poor judgements.  Indeed, with a mind of its own.

To demonstrate, try answering the question below:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

The intuitive answer is 10c.  If this was your answer, you can take comfort that this is the incorrect answer given by the majority of Harvard students. The correct answer is 5c.Daniel Kahneman, renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

A number came to your mind. The number, of course, is 10: 10c. The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong. Do the math, and you will see. If the ball costs 10c, then the total cost will be $1.20 (10¢ for the ball and $1.10 for the bat), not $1.10. The correct answer is 5c. It is safe to assume that the intuitive answer also came to the mind of those who ended up with the correct number—they somehow managed to resist the intuition.
Many thousands of university students have answered the bat-and-ball puzzle, and the results are shocking. More than 50% of students at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the intuitive—incorrect—answer. At less selective universities, the rate of demonstrable failure to check was in excess of 80%. The bat-and-ball problem is our first encounter with an observation that will be a recurrent theme of this book: many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.
Kahneman proposes that our mental function can be thought of as two interconnected systems: a fast, intuitive one that is prone to errors, and a slow “rational thinking” one that has limited capacity.  The bat and ball question illustrates the frailty of the fast, intuitive system.  The limited capacity of the slow “rational thinking” system is something we have all experienced. Take the math problem 18 X 13.  Very few people will know the answer immediately. However, you also know that with some effort, you can probably work it out. If you were walking, there is a high chance that you might come to a stand-still to perform the mental calculation. If you were navigating rush-hour traffic, you might decline to solve the problem whilst driving.

In addition to intrinsic software and hardware issues, our constant interactions with the external environment also impact our thinking and decision making. In an elegant experimental paradigm, the experimenter accidentally drops pencils onto the floor. Experimental subjects with money on their minds helped pick up fewer pencils compared to those thinking about arts, sciences or politics.
How do our mental failings affect us in real life?  Decisions made by an Israeli parole review board over a 10 months period were analysed. The parole board sits from morning to afternoon, spending 6 minutes reviewing each case. Overall, the decision to approve the parole application occurred in about 35% of cases (i.e. rejection is the default position).  However, at the start of each session which was preceded by a meal break, the rate of approval exceeded 65%, gradually tapering down close to 0% by the end of the session.  This study of 1,112 judicial rulings involving 8 judges provides irrefutable evidence that even the most able and scrutinised of decision makers are limited by basic biological parameters.  In a state of fatigue and hunger, their capacity to make rational decisions was impaired and they fell back to the default position (rejection).


I want to point out: the mechanisms which underlie some of these "flaws" are probably also responsible for some of our most valued human qualities: the ability to remain optimistic in the most adverse circumstances, and the willingness to persevere when the odds are clearly against us. Perhaps the most valuable lesson in this: despite the obvious mystique of the brain, it is really a human organ like any other. Fantastically complex? Yes! But we will do well to study it, dissect it, and strategize to train it to reach new heights.
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In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com 

Defend or Attack

At the heart of most systems I have seen working is the understanding that we don't know. We use a combination guesswork, imagination, storytelling, emotions, rigour, effort and humour to do the best we can do. Sometimes excessive effort is wasted on the defence or attack of ideasMaria Popova reviews the book 'This Idea Must Die' which asks many of the world's leading thinkers which ideas are holding us back. John Brockman paints the idea that science progresses through a series of funerals of an older generation tied to old ideas and opposing progress. If it is true that most people stubbornly stick to their views, arguing becomes fairly pointless. Better to focus energy on people who listen and want to learn. 


A friend of mine said that when he realises that a discussion is not in fact a discussion, but a lecture, he just switches to Anthropological mode. There is a useful signal that this is happening because we tend to slip into a lecture or drama voice. Like a child repeating what a parent has said. Often in an embarrassing setting. So rather than getting frustrated, it becomes useful to see the experience as an opportunity to try and really understand how someone thinks and give up completely on whether or not what they are saying is true. Maria Popova says 'The stories we tell ourselves, whether they be false or true, are always real'.

If you allow someone their Bull Quota you can start to treat what you are hearing as art. Like watching a movie. You can suspend disbelief. You can simply appreciate a set of ideas for what they are initially. Since we already know that there are bundles of assumptions that we have that are wrong, we may find something that is useful in someone else's wrongness. They may be so spectacularly wrong that they come up with something brilliant that no reasonable person would have stumbled across. As writer Ian McEwan puts it 'Truth is not the only measure. There are ways of being wrong that help others to be right. Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help found a discipline. Aristotle ranged over the whole of human knowledge and was wrong about much. But his invention of zoology alone was priceless. Would you cast him aside?'

I have been told that a good Anthropologist dives deeply into the world of those they are studying. They silence their own perspective so much that they feel like they become one of their subjects. The trick is to be able to extract yourself afterwards. To be able to attack the ideas vigorously, but only after you have given them their chance.