Egonomics by David Marcum and Steven Smith

16 May

Written in an accessible and conversational style, this book is an easy read. Marcum and Smith decided to study ego, within the context of business, setting out with the idea that the ego was “negative and needed cold-blooded elimination”.

Once they started studying it (and I suspect clarified their definition), they found it can also be very helpful, hence the subtitle of the book “What makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability)”.

While the book is written with a business focus, it’s blatantly applicable to life in general, and the business context simply gives a nice set of examples through which to understand the concepts they’re teaching.

The most interesting idea from the book is that our greatest strengths can be turned against us when our “ego isn’t balanced”. Some examples:

-         assertive becomes pushy

-         charismatic becomes manipulative

-         discerning becomes judgemental

-         pragmatic becomes uninspired

-         determined becomes stubborn

-         innovative becomes impractical

This is a double whammy as our weaknesses can feel almost the same as our strengths, so it can be a dangerous blind spot. This is where having trusted people around you is important – we are great at spotting the faults in the reasoning in others, but not in ourselves.

Marcum & Smith give some nice systems to aid awareness of these issues. When ego is working against us it is likely that we are:

1)      being comparative

2)      being defensive

3)      showcasing brilliance

4)      seeking acceptance

Being comparative means we become less competitive, as we give up our own potential to the goal of only being better than the person with whom we are competing.

Being defensive is when we start to defend ourselves rather than an idea. If we separate ourselves from our ideas then we can let the best argument win.

Showcasing brilliance means that we want people to recognise our expertise. The irony is that while we’re showcasing, people will tend to ignore the good points that we are making, however brilliant they may be.

Seeking acceptance is when we need others to validate who we are. It’s important to be aware of what other people think, but that must not keep us from being our true selves.

To counter these they give “three principles of egonomics:

1)      humility

2)      curiosity

3)      veracity

In the second half of the book they expand on these principles to give practical advice on how to put them in action.

They make the excellent point that intensity should not be confused with aggression, and humility should not be confused with meekness. They define intensity as the ability to argue a position with passion and strength, and humility as the ability to question everything. Both of these qualities are needed to come to the best conclusions. Otherwise you either have confrontational clashes without conclusions, or courteous but meaningless exchanges. They argue (strongly!) that vigorous debate is extremely productive if there is humility alongside it. People need to understand that it is ideas that are being questioned, not their identities. I think this distinction is very, very important.

Regarding curiosity, it’s easy to go with the first solution that presents itself, especially if that solution is your own. The ability to take other solutions on board and weigh them equally is key. So the authors give 4 questions to aid curiosity, a mini-version of Socratic questioning:

1)      What do we mean?

2)      What are we seeing?

3)      What are we assuming?

4)      What does that lead to?

The final area is veracity. They define veracity as an active searching for truth. People often avoid this as “the reaction to hard-to-hear truth when revealed isn’t usually favourable. As a result of the typical reaction to candour, most people believe truth telling is risky… A major barrier to hearing truth is our belief that dissent is disloyalty. If we view dissent as disloyalty, we’ve closed our mind. More often than not, there’s positive intent behind a negative comment.” Both those speaking truth, and those hearing it, have equal responsibility towards humility.

To counter these issues, before speaking up they suggest you:

1)      establish permission

2)      make your intentions clear

3)      be candid.

To be able to understand these lessons, and apply them to myself, I found it practical to digest this book in small chunks over time. I read a few chapters every week or so, then observed myself and others, looking at ways to improve.

Usually we are our own worst enemies, so it’s worth a read if you find yourself slowing down your own progress.

Insomnia

17 Apr

Insomnia sharpens your maths skills because you spend all night calculating how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now.

- Anon

Like one in four of the population, I get problems sleeping. I tend to wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep again. Others I know struggle getting to sleep in the first place.

Experts aren’t completely sure what sleep is for, though we know that it has lots of health benefits, physical and mental. But learning about these really doesn’t help you getting to sleep, it just makes you more frustrated.

So in the years of getting pissed off by lack of sleep, I’ve picked up lots of tips. There is no panacea, but with a combination of physical and mental approaches, you can go a long way.

Physical

  • if you’ve been lying awake in bed for a long time, get up and move around – this releases tension in the body, and takes the mind off whatever thoughts are distracting you from sleep.
  • wash your face – I can’t remember the details of the research I read on this, but the face being cool helps getting to sleep.
  • don’t eat sugary snacks before bedtime – slow release energy is better, such as cereal with milk, or yoghurt with granola. If you have chocolate for example, your blood sugar will drop shortly afterwards, and your body will wake you up for you to get food. Slow release energy will keep the blood sugar stable so you are more likely to stay asleep.
  • get lots of sun in the day time, avoid light before bedtime and keep your bedroom dark – there’s a little receptor in the back of the eye, not used for seeing, that is sensitive to blue light. The blue light makes your body suppresses melatonin production. In the dark, the body produces melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Getting this light at the right time of day helps to regulate your sleep cycle. It’s interesting that for me sleep is better in summer and worse in winter. I’ve recently got a daylight bulb in the living room, and a daylight lamp in the office. And the corollary is to stay clear of strong light the hour before bedtime. If you must use a computer or mobile phone, get an app that reduces the blue light (you can use f.lux for the PC and there are plenty of mobile apps available).
  • it may be an obvious suggestion, but no drinks after 8pm is good idea – a full bladder can wake you up.
  • keep the same sleep schedule on weekends as you do during the week.
  • steer clear of the drugs – they may be of help in the short term if you’re desperate, but in the long term they can have really messed up side effects, and can often make the problem worse.

Mental

  • try not to get annoyed and frustrated about it. That keeps you awake longer. Acceptance really helps. It’s interesting to know that back in the day two sleeps of around four hours was the norm – in between sleeps they’d get up for a few hours and chat, eat, or even indulge in a spot of rumpy pumpy.
  • if you have things on your mind, write them down before sleep. Even if you feel like you don’t have anything consciously going on, it may be worth writing whatever comes to mind when you can’t sleep.
  • the standard advice is to keep your bedroom for sleep only; don’t have a telly, or use it as an office.

Often with insomnia, the mental state when lying in bed is key. It’s easy to get stuck in the mind, perhaps re-living a past event, or thinking about the future. Maybe getting stuck in a loop. There are two approaches here: calming the mind, or taking your focus out of the mind altogether.

  • mindfulness, is a great way to break out of that cycle and relax the mind. I did a mindfulness course last year and it has a lot of benefits. I know it sounds like airy-fairy nonsense, but take it from an inveterate skeptic: there is a lot of scientific evidence behind it. Check out my recent post on the topic.
  • try to take your focus out of your mind. An easy one is just wriggling your toes, maybe once with every breath. Another approach is the body scan – it’s a mindfulness exercise that works most times with me.
  • while I would normally agree with the mindfulness training I’ve done, and say that watching the breath without controlling it is preferable, when trying to sleep I think slowing the breathing down is useful, as it can help to calm the body and mind.

Alternatives

It’s worth bearing in mind that insomnia can, in many cases, be a reaction to life circumstances. Much like depression, it can have great utility; when we have a problem, laying awake at night can be a way the mind gets our attention that we have a problem to solve. Also, as described here, it can give us the time, free from interruption, where we can contemplate our situation away from the mundane pressures of the day, and come up with solutions to improve our lot.

As a result many recommend CBT as a way to beat insomnia.

And if you’re up for trying something a bit more edgy, get a load of lucid dreaming.

I do hope some of these suggestions are helpful. I’ve largely beaten this issue using the mindfulness techniques, but if you have other things that have helped you, feel free to add them below.

Good News, Bad News

21 Mar

What we are given is not ‘the’ news, just ‘some‘ news.
– Alain de Botton

Sometimes the news can be plain tiring. It can feel like a constant roller coaster of fear mongering, being nasty to famous people, and vested interests pushing their views. Worse still, is the power the press wields over most politicians and their choices, essentially subverting our democracy. And the way some stories are prioritised over others is beyond me.

Innocent Or Guilty?

Pretty near the top of my list of problems is the way the media wields its power over people’s lives. While I am a staunch advocate of free speech, the British media is irresponsible in the way it vilifies people, particularly those accused of certain crimes. Publicising allegations of sexual or violent crimes forever tarnishes someone’s reputation. There are many examples of people whose lives have been ruined by such allegations, Christopher Jefferies being a sad example. There are too many other heartbreaking stories like this.

Alas mob rule is alive and well. Trial by media does occur and people’s lives are ruined by this. We have a fundamental rule in decent societies, that being “innocent until proven guilty“. We erode this at our collective cost.

The libel laws in this country may not be perfect but they are there for a good reason. Once a person’s reputation is ruined, so is their life; it can affect their job, their family and can exact a heavy psychological toll. In other more civilised countries, the press is not allowed to publicise allegations until a guilty verdict has been passed. Yes, people who transgress society’s rules may be held up to public view, but only if those accusations have been proved. I think people accused of serious crimes, particularly sexual crimes, should remain anonymous, as otherwise they are already punished, regardless of the final verdict.

The Leveson enquiry demonstrates very well the parlous state of the British press. Hugh Grant summed it up best in his statement. He easily demolishes the arguments many papers have for treating famous people like shit, doing things like breaking into people’s homes, or publishing false accusations about people and ruining their lives. Arguments such as “it’s in the public interest“: I have no interest what a politician does in his private life, much less a golfer. It’s none of my business and is certainly not in the interest of this member of the public. Such prurient attitudes belong in backward religious circles, not in real life. He ably dismisses the poor argument that all celebrities need the publicity good and bad, pointing out “for most people I know who are branded ‘celebrities’, the celebrity was not the end [in] itself. Those people do exist, but I would argue that they are in the minority. Most so-called ‘celebrities’ are just people who happened to become singers, or actors, or footballers, or whatever, and then also happened – through luck sometimes, but also sometimes hard work or talent – to become successful.

Sometimes I have the feeling the press sees a successful person, and are just waiting, like vultures, to pounce once they make the slightest mistake.

News vs Opinion

In the news, there is ostensibly a split between reports that inform us and opinion pieces. However when you start to look at news stories, the bias is usually fairly blatant. This can be seen in two ways.

First you see how different newspapers report the same story: a news story about Europe, for example, would be reported in a right-wing newspaper as another example of why the UK should leave the EU, and a left-leaning paper would hail it as another reason why staying in Europe is good for the UK.

Given how the same story can be reported so differently, I try to read papers and websites from different parts of the political spectrum, so I can get a clearer view of what is happening, and hopefully better understand the biases of all sides.

The second, more insidious way we see this is in the subtle use of language. When talking about a government supported by the West, say Israel or Saudi Arabia, reporters will talk about the president of the country, the secretary of state for defense and so on. But if it’s not currently in favour, then reports will talk of the ruler of the regime and his lieutenants.

I just saw one today: usually an American claim to be fighting terrorism is taken at face value, whereas when China made the same statement today, the word terrorism was used in quotes, implying they were using the word as a fig leaf to cover more nefarious behaviour. This was on the Al Jazeera English website which is usually a little better with that kind of thing.

Will Hutton says that the press “are not disinterested guardians of the public good. They, too, have political and social agendas. Nor are they guaranteed to behave ethically and professionally. Moreover, private power has become steadily more potent, more unaccountable and more willing than ever to exert overt political force“. He says their argument is not for “press freedom” but for “arbitrary press power“. The press clearly need to be regulated, and not by themselves!

Alternatives

There are people that see the negativity, and the destructive nature of much of the press and they have responded well.

Russell Howard’s Good News is a satirical comedy show with a happier-than-usual look at the news. It is ended each week with a piece called It’s Not All Doom And Gloom, which regularly shows some of the most beautiful and heart warming stories you’ll hear. I’ve often shed a tear watching them.

The Metro newspaper’s Good Deed Feed is a wonderful way for people to say thank you for the kindness of strangers in London, such as making sure lost wallets get back to their owners intact, or helping someone who has fallen over. When I read it I am genuinely inspired. Small acts of kindness can make a bigger difference than we realise.

There are websites that only publish positive news stories, such as Good Mood News. There are others too, one of which has a great quote from Dostoevsky:

Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it.

While nice story websites are encouraging and heart-warming, it seems they’re missing something. I’m not sure simply ignoring the bad stuff really addresses the problem. I wrote this post a year ago, but wasn’t so happy with these alternatives.

Until…

Man Writes Book

Step forward Alain de Botton. He wrote a book. In this lecture he gives an excellent overview of the book. I was nodding along and agreeing with him when I watched it. I appreciate he couldn’t hear me.

Two cool things came out of his book.

First, he wrote an excellent website, News Therapy, which gives good answers to a lot of the problems we feel when we consume news. I recommend you go see and click around.

Second, he and some philosopher friends have started up the Philosopher’s Mail, which I now read regularly. It’s a “news” website, where they write articles about the news stories of the day, however vacuous they may seem, but apply their philosophical wisdom to draw out encouraging and illuminating points about the human condition. They write stories about Taylor Swift’s legs and the queen, yet make rather profound statements about life, the universe and everything. And all in a nicely bite-sized and digestible format. You’ll notice it’s taking the mick out of the Daily Mail, parodying its style.

He saysFor too long, philosophers have been happy merely to be wise and right. This has offered them huge professional satisfaction but it has not influenced the course of society. The average work of philosophy currently reaches 300 people.” And now he has a much larger readership with this new project.

My favourite one this week is apt to this discussion: “Mean journalism has traded the truth for the satisfactions of cheap insult. … The only fruitful way to proceed is to be ‘nice': not in the sense of naive sentimentality but in the sense of wanting to enter into the mindset of another person, even one who deeply challenges your beliefs….we’ve unfortunately confused being nice with a couple of things we rightly fear: being naive and being weak. Listening carefully to what someone says, trying to see the world through their eyes, this has nothing at all to do with agreement.

They say that their aim is to be “nice’ with a purpose: to get to the truth. Meanness merely confirms prejudice. Niceness is a better scalpel.

Oh, and watch out for their weekend edition.

That’s it.

Have a nice day.

Art As Therapy by Alain de Botton

26 Feb
Soleil Levant by Monet

Soleil Levant by Monet

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

- David Hume

Being a long time fan of Alain de Botton I jumped at the chance to see him talk on a new subject – Art As Therapy. His previous work has been fun to read and often helpful, and given I know very little about art, this is an interesting concept where I could learn some new things.

His idea is that “art is ultimately a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism“.

Grand claims.

He added that some of the consolation that people previously found in religion can be found in art.

He says that this can be achieved using “a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks“.

After a fairly short introduction to this approach, he dived right into interpreting paintings, pottery and the like, making some excellent points with his psychological and philosophical interpretations, and I enjoyed hearing them.

However I found I had a real blocker with this approach. I actually wrote a comment on his Facebook page, on a post where he’d ‘interpreted’ some art, hoping to get some help with my problem. Here’s a snippet:

Alain,

I’m one of the 96.5% you referred to on Friday night, that don’t ‘get’ art, in the way that those ‘in the know’ apparently do. Sure I appreciate the colours and shapes, the aesthetics of a picture. I also appreciate when a picture is skilfully produced.

I did enjoy your pithy aphorisms when looking through the works of art. But when you showed the Korean jug, I just saw a badly made jug – I didn’t extrapolate the commentary on the imperfections of human nature. Again the two-tone picture by a Japanese sounding artist from which you drew parallels to our human perspectives was a nice comment, but I just didn’t get it from the picture.

If we could all have our own mini-Alain to take around galleries with us then we could derive such consolation and insight from art. Otherwise it feels that – rather than drawing out from the works deep meanings intended by the artists – you’re projecting your philosophical and psychological expertise and experience onto the artworks.

Hence I could gain way more insight and consolation from an essay, a chat with a friend, or one of your books, than I could from a picture…

Alas the picture was taken down and the comments with it, even though I got quite a few likes beforehand!

I guess part of the problem is the certainty; he often phrases comments as if he’s telling us what the picture is saying, rather than what it might be saying. It’s blatantly subjective, because there could be plenty of alternative interpretations.

The other part of the problem is, as I say above, that contrary to the famous phrase that “a picture speaks a thousand words“, I disagree, and find I can gain so much more from words than a picture.

Now before I go any further, I should be clear – I’m not really into art. I think the Mona Lisa is crap, and find most art galleries exceptionally dull. I’ve been to loads of galleries including the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Prado, Musée de l’Orangerie, Tate, Vatican and the National Gallery and not found too many artworks that make me look twice.

But then I came to a bit of a eureka moment when idly jotting notes for this post. I was writing down what I thought of the few pieces of art that I have enjoyed, and some interesting things started to come out. Amusingly, it seems in writing this post, that maybe I’ve started to get what Alain is on about. Here you go:

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

Part of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Even though I am not that ‘into art’, I have found an occasional piece that I really enjoy looking at. I can appreciate the technical prowess of some art works: say the Sistine Chapel. I was very impressed when I realised what looked like three-dimensional pillars with sculptures on them, were in fact just a part of the painting. I can appreciate the accuracy and detail in Canaletto’s painting of Venice.

Aesthetically, I appreciate beautiful landscapes, especially impressionist ones. I suppose an art aficionado might turn up their nose at such a populist viewpoint. But then I don’t really care.

I really like Monet – I’ve got Soleil Levant hanging up in my living room. But it took me being pissed in a pub in Edinburgh for this painting to catch my eye. Alain did argue strongly that the context in which we usually see art, namely galleries, is not conducive to getting the best out of art.

Monet's Bathers at La Grenouillère

Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère

Since then I’ve seen Monet’s stuff in four or five different galleries and I love staring at it. I think it’s something about the way that with really simple brush strokes he can project a quite complex and beautiful image. Perhaps part of it is that I, as an observer, fill in the gaps. Just pondering it now, in the light of Alain’s approach, perhaps I like it because one of my primary joys in my work is to solve a complex problem with something very simple, elegant and easy to understand. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence. His pictures certainly look nice.

I was stopped short by one image of Jesus on the cross in the Prado. Usually they show a chilled out dude looking all holy with a bit of a glow, but this one showed the agony of a man being tortured to death. The realism was good, though I suspect what drew me is that the artist was able to break a taboo.

Goya's Dog

Goya’s Dog

The only other one that really made me look twice in the Prado was Goya’s painting of a dog. For some reason this forlorn looking fellow, looking lost against the vastness of it all, stood out to me. Perhaps because that’s how I can feel when I contemplate the vastness of time.

So perhaps it is possible for someone like me to get something out of this method. But given the thousands of artworks I’ve seen, compared to the handful I’ve enjoyed, it’s pretty hard work.

If you want to explore the idea further, check out his website . I’ll be interested to hear your views on the way he interprets the art.

If you’re interested to ponder on questions such as what is art, and what is art for, then I recommend Grayson Perry’s excellent attempt at answering them in last year’s Reith Lectures.

The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman

10 Feb

Power doesn’t change you. It reveals who you really are.

Jeremy Paxman‘s book is a perspicacious insight into the way politicians and politics work in the UK.

I enjoyed his book about the English people and this book is bigger and better: more in-depth and better researched.

Before I go any further I have to shout at anyone who says ‘ah, politics, boring, nothing to do with me‘. Rubbish. Politics is about how we interact; it’s about the rules by which we operate with each other and how the government looks after us.

He looks at the kind of people that get into politics, and how this has changed over time: from families that have always supplied MPs, to the modern breed of career politicians. I definitely agree with his view that more experts in their field are needed in parliament.

He describes the varying motivations of politicians, and looks at how they have such an oddly disparate set of roles: from constituency support worker to legislator to party poodle.

Paxman gives Simon Hughes a lot of credit for his constituency work – one of the few stars among the cast. Hughes is someone who works very hard to ensure people with no one else to turn to are given help.

He looks at the amazingly unrepresentative way possible MPs are selected, then once they get in what they have to deal with: the ludicrous pomp, the allegiance to the monarchy, even the impracticality of the houses of parliament.

He looks at the influence political parties have – I’ve never liked them anyway – and the way individual views are steam rollered into submission by the whips, sometimes by physical violence, often by bribery. This is something that gets me very annoyed. In my uneducated view, the party system nullifies an MP’s ability to represent the views of their constituents, and means they can’t act on principle.

He looks at the price of fame, and how the path to power can sadly take away a person’s idealism. For example, a person will start off with a set of ideals by which they think the country must be run, for the betterment of the people. However to get into a real position of power, they must toe the party line and do as they’re told to get the promotions and even to get a better office at Westminster. The end result is that “the game becomes more important than the reasons for which they started playing”.

He discusses the immense difficulty of life after politics; it’s not an easy transition, contrary to the way it seems from the handful of stories we read about how the top politicians schmooze with big industry.

A lonely looking plus point is that (even taking into account Archer, Hamilton, et al) ours is one of the least corrupt governments in the world.

He calls for action when he says: “a society which loses faith in the way it governs itself is in danger of falling apart”.

I’m fairly cynical about politics, and have often been frustrated by the many faults of our democracy. Reading this book has made my view even worse by an order of magnitude! However, he does briefly offer up some ideas for improvement:

  • remove the anachronistic ritual and traditions
  • change the shape of the commons so it’s less adversarial
  • use it better so there is real debate
  • change the people in there
  • and give select committees real power.

If you want to understand how the UK government works, read this book. It’s well written, very informative and well researched, informed by years of being one of the most recognised reporters in the country.

Politics And The English Language by George Orwell

22 Jan
Note to readers - hover mouse over links for word definitions.

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

- George Orwell

As one partial to a spot of sesquipedalianism, Orwell’s essay is a particularly poignant piece of prose.

I do get big fat chufties from using fancy sounding long words, but of course logorrheic loveliness adds gravitas groundlessly.

Some delightful consonantal alliteration there, don’t you think?

As there are a million wonderfully diverse words available to the English speaker, it is great to be able to choose a word, however unknown, if it really pins down the quiddity of a concept. But if your audience does not know of that delightfully descriptive term, then what use is it?

I remember learning this showy phrase at a young age:

A slight inclination of the cranium is as inadequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic to an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visual capacity“.

Translation: a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

As the first one sounds so well spoken, it’s easy to think ‘oo, that sounds like someone clever wrote it, therefore it must be true‘, but the presentation of a message is not necessarily an indicator of its truthfulness, a kind of argument from authority.

A good example is in the previous sentence: I wanted to say ‘veracity‘, but ‘truthfulness‘ is a word that is more easily understood – given it’s used more often – so will be more likely to help you understand the point I’m making. On the other hand, the Latin etymology of the erudite alternative does make it sound more authoritative. There are studies that prove if something is written simply, and even if the font is easier to read, then the reader is more likely to accept the points made – it’s a cognitive bias called cognitive ease.

Anyway, enough waffle. To the essay at hand. In it Orwell describes how to write terse, clear English, which clearly communicates with the reader. He decries the use of obfuscatory language, saying we should use simple concrete language, only adding more words if they add more meaning.

We should use fresh metaphors that evoke a strong image in the mind of a reader, rather than one dulled by overuse – ‘carrot and stick  is a good example.

When a metaphor is new it has a great effect as it brings a sharp image to the mind of the listener, adding weight to the case. However, once one is accustomed to the turn of phrase, it simply becomes an abstract grouping of words with a meaning attached, and loses its visual power. Interestingly many linguists argue that most if not all words were birthed in a metaphor, so its power may have increased in other ways: once it is in common use, it has a well defined meaning and can convey that meaning more efficiently.

C. S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Orwell says we should use ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘method’ rather than ‘methodology’… the list is literally endless. Sorry about that one – I had to squeeze in that pet hate. Using literally as an intensifier, or in place of its antonym figuratively, is egregious.

He opposes the use of unnecessary words. The pretentious “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” should be replaced with “I think“. It may make the presentation appear more grandiose, but it adds no meaning. We all know that when a politician answers a question, they do go on and on with their formulaic phrases; hearing them answer a question with a simple ‘yes‘ or ‘no‘ is quite jarring, yet I see it as refreshingly clear and honest.

Whilst discussing such things it behoves me to point out that ‘while‘ is a perfectly serviceable word. Why do people insist on using its anachronistic predecessor? Dost thou think thine utterances carry increased weight? No, they just sound asinine.

I will say that while I like well written English, I do object to a slavish following of the rules. Old Churchill puts it well: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”. Orwell says “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear“.

Orwell says: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against“. Ahem. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

Orwell ends his essay with six rules for writing good English, which are nicely summed up in this comment: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.

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