Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book: Zen Meditation by David Fontana

My main hang up with Zen is that its rejection of knowledge and intellectual application makes it very difficult to swallow. As the above book states, in Zen 'Little time is wasted in philosophical discussion and the amassing of knowledge...'. The BBC's page on Zen also states that "Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so that the student can become more aware and realise their own Buddha-nature. Sometimes even (mild) physical violence is used to stop the student intellectualising or getting stuck in some other way" and  "Zen is concerned with things as they are, without trying to interpret them."

That said, I musn't knock it too heavily. After all, Zen, like Buddhism, emerged well before man had a meaningful appreciation of how science can light up our understanding of the world and its wonders. In this relative dark age, perhaps achieving an 'awareness' of universal oneness was the most we could ask for. In today's era however, I would look to incorporate scientific understanding with deep Zen like contemplation, to get the best of all worlds.

Here are some take-away points from this okay-ish book on Zen:

- Zen comes from within Buddhism but is said to be 'outside the teachings'.

- Zen meditation is concerned with sartori or enlightenment (a glimpse into the nature of existence). The sartori experience should be treated as any other and not sought directly. It is but progress on the Zen path. The feeling of separateness from the world, or self-containment, is a block to this.

-  Soto zen focuses on zazen (seated meditation) and Rinzai zen on cryptic statements that aim to produce sudden enlightenment.

- Zen mediation is about attaining a state of mind similar to the 'flow' experience from a hobby i.e. total absorption.

- Zen accepts reincarnation and has monasteries (it was not a monastic tradition in the beginning) and reverence for Buddhist scriptures, but the emphasis is on the present moment. Worship and iconography play a minor role.

- Theoretical knowledge is no substitute for experience. Teachings are only fingers pointing to the moon, and must never be mistaken for the moon itself.

- Zen increases compassion by gaining an experience and appreciation of the connectedness of people and nature. The less we feel in conflict, the more we can live in peace in the world.

- Zen expression can be found in a garden, in making tea, in a haiku, in a place. The emphasis is on simplicity, unity or harmony with nature, natural beauty, calmness, rejection of elaborateness, attention to detail, emptiness and stillness.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book: Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen

Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen is a great introduction to the principles of Buddhism, a way of thinking that is centered on the realisation that humans have set ourselves up to never be satisfied.

The one aspect of the book I take issue with is the how Hagen describes the notion 'right view', which he says is the idea that we can see reality for what it is if we strip away our conceptual thinking and if see with actual experience rather than what we think.  The idea states that we are already enlightened with this underlying truth and we have the capacity to see this unshakable reality, and in so doing we can achieve a certain freedom of mind, which is a step too far for my rational way of thinking.

To me, the awareness aspect is about no more than being present, and living a richer, balanced, calmer life. It is not about tuning in to an underlying reality beyond to me is about contemplative appreciation for the interconnectedness, ephermal and interchangeable nature of  everything - I agree that this is not a underlying truth that we can fully appreciate just by thinking; it takes learning and contemplation both.

In contrast, the author states that:  'Liberation of mind is realising that we don't need to buy any story at all. It's realising that before our confused thought, there actually is a Reality. We can see it. All we have to do is to fully engage in the moment as it has come to be."  This is a step too far in my eyes, as there is no ultimate reality beyond our senses that we can tune in to, and reality is different for each of us (at the extreme, animals see the world completely differently to us, and one perception isn't necessarily 'truer' than another). He also states that 'To explain Reality is to box it up and cart it away. It's to ignore the reality for the map.' I can't buy into this. Surely our understanding of concepts such as impermanence are enriched by our understanding of the moving of atoms, natures cycles etc. .

Despite this little critique, this is a cracking book.

- When Buddha was asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, 'Awareness'. ...It's not about belief, doctrine, formula, or tradition. It's about freedom of mind.

- Buddha is not someone you pray to, or try to get something from. Nor is Buddha someone you bow down to. A buddha is simply a person who is awake - nothing more or less.

- Buddhism is not a belief system. It's not about accepting certain tenets or believing a set of claims or principles. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's about examining the world clearly and carefully, about testing everything and every idea. Buddhism is about seeing. It's about knowing rather than believing or wishing or hoping.

- The message is always to examine and see for yourself.

- The point of Buddhism is to just see - that's all.

- The buddha-dharma does not promise to make our lives problem-free. Rather, it urges us to examine the nature of our problems, what they are and where they come from. The buddha-dharma is not an armchair philosophy. It isn't pipe dreaming. It's about getting down to basics and acting on them.

- Generally we think of a journey as involving movement and direction, either going out somewhere in the world or else leading inward, into the self. But in Buddhism our journey must go nowhere - neither in nor out. Rather, ours is a journey into nearness, into immediacy. Our journey must be to awaken here and now, to awaken to here and now. To be fully alive we must be fully present.

The question is: how do we do it?

In order to experience the answer to this question for yourself, you must come to three realisations. First, you must realise that life is fleeting. Next, you must understand that you are already complete, worthy, whole. Finally, you must see that you are your own refuge, your own sanctuary, your own salvation.

- You don't have to look 'over there'. You don't have to figure anything out. You don't have to acquire anything. And you don't have to run off to Tibet, or Japan, or anywhere else. You wake up right here. In fact, you can only wake up right here. ...The table is spread before you.

- For example, suppose you notice, 'I'm craving pizza now'. That's fine. Just notice it. But we don't usually stop there. Rather than just seeing, we act upon what we notice instead: 'I shouldn't be wanting pizza. I must stop this desire for pizza.' This very reaction is more craving. We're desiring an end to desire. We're doing the usual thing again - reaching for, insisting, grabbing. This is bondage, not freedom. This is a subtle but crucial point.

- This is not a call to complacency or inaction. To act or not to act is never the question. You can't help but act. The question is whether you see. The entire issue rests on this.

- If we're not careful, we make our lives busy, complicated, and unnecessary. We fill ourselves with a sense of vacancy and meaninglessness. Our minds become complicated by petty details and wants, and we become ever more confused. But in our quiet moments, we sense that no freedom lies in maximising petty choices. It's the wrong game plan...and we know it.

- Recall that everything we see, hear, feel, and think is in constant flux and change. Nothing endures. We long for permanence and as a result we suffer, for we find none. There seems to be only this coming and going, coming and going, this unending arising and ceasing.

- If we satisfy one craving, another arises to take its place.

- ...just follow the breath. As you do, thoughts will arise. Don't be bothered by them. Don't think they're bad, or that you shouldn't be having them. Don't try to drive them away. If you leave them alone, they'll depart of their own accord. This is how to 'cease all the movements of the conscious mind'. You cannot do it by direct application of will.

If you find you've been distracted by thoughts and feelings, and have forgotten your breath, just come back to breathing. There's no need to scold yourself that you wandered away. To scold yourself is to wander away again.

...As you meditate, all kinds of self-comments may arise: 'There I go again' or 'I can't do this' or 'I'm not very good at this' or even 'I'm not sure I'm doing this right'. These comments are quite normal. Observe them, and let them go - they will depart, if you let them.

Don't strive for some special state of mind. There is no special state of mind. If you strive for some special state of mind you'll only disturb your mind.

- The deep, hollow ache of the heart arises from a life in search of meaning. But it's by our very desire to find meaning that we create meaninglessness. The very idea of looking for purpose and meaning arises from our deluded thought.

- We shouldn't make the buddha-dharma in to something holy, something to put up on a gilded pedestal in a prominent place.

The path simply reminds us of how we're engaged in the world. It's like the raft that carries us to the opposite shore. We use it to a point, then leave it behind. Once the stream is crossed, we leave the raft for someone else. We don't need to lug it around. It will only burden us.

- Whatever you can point to - a physical thing, a person, a though, an emotion - all are without self. All of them change. Even memory shows nothing but flux and change. There's nothing, no component of mind or body, that isn't in constant flux. Whether we talk about our physical body, or the bodies of the natural world - animals, plants, stones, lakes, raindrops, stars - or the objects of our purposeful world
- chairs, windows, milk cartons, and sewing needles - we find nothing but flux and change. Every atom, every minuscule part of the universe, is nothing other than movement and change. The same is true of our mental experience, our feelings, thoughts and images.

It's an indistinguishable fact of experience - of our direct, immediate perception- that all things are empty of self. Yet we think and believe and act and hope otherwise. It's by holding onto this notion of self - and we hold it most dear - that we live in defiance of Reality.

This is the means by which we suffer, and suffer greatly. It hurts to defy Reality.

- We experience dukkha because, not seeing the true nature of things, we long for something permanent, something that doesn't change. Yet our actual experience provides nothing but change.

Because of this basic confusion, we long for something we can get our hands on. We want to hold it, to cling to it. What we love, we want to last. What we hate, we want to get rid of forever.

Because of change, however, what we hate can't be forever kept away, but returns. Because of change, what we love doesn't remain, but surely fades. If we'd only relax, we'd notice that, because of change, what we love continues to appear, and what we hate never lasts forever. We'd also observe that there's no abiding self to be either pleased or damaged.

This is what we have to see - that all is flux and movement and flow. It's because we believe there's some static being in the midst of all this - an imagined permanence we call 'I' - that we suffer dukkha.

- Waking up to Truth isn't painful. It's through our confusion about Reality that we suffer, not through Reality itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book: Living the Mindful Life by Charles T. Tart

The author of this book isn't quite on the same plane as me when it comes to mindfulness - he's a few more notches toward the New Age spectrum. Nevertheless, there is lots of good stuff to take away from this book. In particular, Tart provides particularly useful explanations on the value of mindfulness, which can be difficult to capture in words. The author also reminds us that doing the practice (being mindful and practicing meditation) is not the hard bit. Doing it is simple. The hardest bit is remembering to remember to be mindful, particularly in our daily lives.



- What then is it that mindfulness brings? It allows all the warring and fragmented aspects of ourselves to settle and become friends ... Nyoshyul Khen Rinpoche calls mindfulness 'the fortress of the mind' and 'the friend of wisdom', for in its magical simplicity come a presence and a peace which are sane and grounded, clear, joyful, and awake, and full of compassion and wisdom.

- When I first began to teach in the West, I found to my surprise that many spiritual practitioners today lack the knowledge of how to integrate their meditation practice with daily life. It cannot be said too strongly or too often: to integrate meditation in action is the whole ground and purpose of meditation.

- We do not need the slightest bit of mindfulness to get through everyday life; we can run totally on automatic.

- Mindfulness practice, in its purest sense, is simply this: be aware of what is, what is here in this moment. In formal mindfulness meditation practice, such as vipassna meditation, you do not attempt to change or improve what is, you try to refrain from judging it.

- Many situations in our lives require more depth, but unless we've developed the capacity to be more present, more mindful, we won't recognise these situations.

- One way it (meditation) can be understood psychologically, is as trying to practice disidentification. When you are doing vipassna meditation, for example, you are told to just watch whatever comes up - sensations, thoughts and emotions-with equanimity, without following after them, without analysing them, without craving some and rejecting others. You are practicing disidentification.

- In our ordinary state of mind, multitudes of things come up, and things we are conditioned to identify with automatically grab all or most of our attention and energy....

- The other side of formal meditation practice ... that is that as you discover your own essence and begin to bring it out there is a basic security that develops. There is a basic liking of yourself that slowly grows, a basic, essential confidence.

I almost said self-confidence, but I deliberately did not. It is not a confidence in your ordinary self so much but rather a confidence in something much greater than your ordinary self.  All these elements we have spoken of far - disidentification, greater ability to focus, self-remembering - can combine to put you on a much more secure footing, so that you do not have to desperately get approval from people. Then you can be genuinely nice to people - or firm when it's needed- without getting caught up in the need for approval.

- De Ropp said that we can imagine our minds to be like a medieval walled city, and access to the town is controlled through one main gate. Like any town, there are different sections. There are art galleries, museums, and theaters on one part, markets in another, a manufacturing district, universities in another part, and there are also slums.

The things that happen to us in life are like travelers coming to the open gate of the town. Ordinarily, travelers wonder in and out as they will. Life happens to some of us. Some of those travelers will come in and give a useful lecture at a university, and we are richer for it. Some bring supplies we need to exist. Some of them are, so to speak, emotional provocateurs who come in and agitate.

Doing this sensing, looking, and listening is analogous to having a watcher at the gate, who sees travelers coming and makes some discriminating judgements about them. For certain travelers he opens the gates wide, but for other travelers he closes them. In order to intelligently select which 'travelers' are allowed to enter, you have to be present. These people can come up to the gate very suddenly, and if you are looking away for even a second, they may slip inside.

- Learning to be more present, more mindful, more attentive, can lead to a lot of moments of vividness, of beauty, of satisfaction, and of insight...Gradually you develop a wider psychological space to live in...

- Don't Be Too Hard On Yourself: You are going to do it, and you are going to do it "wrong". You are going to do it again, and again you will do it wrong. I must emphasise this, We are people. If we could do things perfectly, we would not be here learning about mindfulness. So you are going to do to the practice and you are going to do it wrong. And you are going to do it again and you are going to do it wrong, over and over and over, but you gradually learn something.

- I have been trying to cultivate mindfulness, especially the self-remembering kind, for a number of years, with varying degrees of success. One of the most interesting observations I and others doing the practice have made about it is that it is not all difficult to be mindful in most circumstances. A tiny effort, a small shift of attention is all it takes. What is difficult is to remember to remember.

- The qualities that make the retreat situation so good for initially learning mindfulness are, unfortunately, poor ones in terms of generalising the practice of mindfulness to everyday life. ..We have not practiced mindfulness in phone calls, during decision making, while reading mail, and so on, so it is not surprising that these situations do not make it easy for us to be mindful.

- One response to he deadness of ordinary life, to the shallowness of living in samsara, in a consensus trance, is to seek out danger. ...In certain dangerous sports, for example, like skiing to the limit or auto racing, you must be present to the physical world. ..You are forced to be present.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Princess Bride by William Goldman - a re-read

I've just finished reading "The Princess Bride" for the second time, having read and reviewed it back in 2012. It's just as good the second time around. There is something special about this book, about the way it's written, the length, the commentary, the mix of characters and adventures, everything about it is just right. 



- This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.
"Has it got any sports in it?"
"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."

- "Excuses are the refuge of cowards", the Sicilian (Vizzini) interrupted.

- But in fact, the King was barely hanging on, could only rarely tell day from night, and basically spent his time in muttering. He was very old, every organ in his body had long since betrayed him...

- Buttercup's mother was a gnarled shrimp of a woman, thorny and worrying...

- "Who are you?", he (Inigo Montaya) screamed.
"No one of import. Another lover of the blade"

- And in the open, unthinkable as it was, the man in black was superior. Not much. But in a multitude of tiny ways, he was of a slightly higher quality. A hair quicker, a fraction stronger, a speck faster. Not really much at all.
But it was enough.
- The next morning, Inigo began the track down. He had it all carefully prepared in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would simply say, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montaya, you killed my father, prepare to die" and then, oh then, the duel.

- “When I was your age, television was called books.”  - W.Goldman

- “Now what happens?" asked the man in black.
"We face each other as God intended," Fezzik said. "No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone."
"You mean you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword and we'll try to kill each other like civilized people, is that it?”

- “Why do you wear a mask and hood?"
I think everybody will in the near future," was the man in black's reply. "They're terribly comfortable.”

- And that's when she (Edith, giving advice to W.Goldman) put her book down. And looked at me. And said it: "Life isn't fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it's a terrible thing to do. It's not only a lie, it's a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it's never going to be."

-  “I could give you my word as a Spaniard," Inigo said. "No good," the man in black replied. "I've known too many Spaniards.”

- “Let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book: Principles of Taoism by Paul Wildish

I picked this book up in a local charity shopm, looking to enrich my understanding of Taoism and expecting much of what it had to say to resonate with my broader outlook on life. A few parts did echo with various aspects of Buddhism that I buy into, but there was way too much mystical and astrological content that is in outright conflict with my views. I was expecting more of a practical nature but the emphasis on historical scholars and texts, and even this material was not particularly well written. Instead, I had to go back my Tao of Pooh quotes to restore my interest in the central ideas of Taoism, which this book muddled up. Nevertheless, I still walked away with some useful ponderings (see below).


Appealing points, quotes and thoughts:

- The overall idea of following a Middle Way is something I find attractive, as is the notion of working with the flow ("The Water Course Way"), where the individual reacts to their environment appropriately but also harmoniously (wu-wei), instead of always going against the grain, which would make for a draining existence. "Wu-wei is energetic when required, but always relaxed and never pushed to the point of stress or strain". While this outlook suits my nature, I am not sure that nature and environment should be treated so completely exogenously; afterall, so much of the 'nature' around us is the work of men who have gone before. Instead I would modify the outlook somewhat by analysing siutations in terms of paths of least resistance and most resistance, putting aside whether they are 'natural' or not, and trying to be mindful of investing energy in change in the appropriate circumstances. From this modified perspective, a person could still apply a long-term lens to man-made situations and apply the principles of we-wei accordingly.

- The book states that Taoism gives no independence to the soul, and emphasises a healthy mind and body as the primary means to achieving peace.

- "Lao-Tzu declared the Tao to be the One that is eternal, natural, and spontaneous, and which can never be named or described. It is the the primordial potential that predates creation and all existence. It is the undifferentiated void that exists as pure spirit...The Tao is thus an abstract concept, not an ethical principle, and is therefore unknowable, beyond description, eternal and unmeasurable". Me: This really doesn't help...on the one hand it sounds like baloney from a science perspective, but on the other hand perhaps I am not grasping the meaning.

- Taoism places an emphasis on stillness. The author notes that 'any activity we pursue for the cultivation of the health and well-being of the body...must be balanced by remaining still and quieting the mind.'

- When discussing wu-wei, the author describes it as an unconscious instinctive action that is skillfully applied, like riding a bike or driving a car. Here he notes that the martial artist trains himself until the actions of the body become second nature, or at one with nature. My issue here is that the actions are the work of effort, be they efforts in training or in the heat of the action. Either way, they will start of as uncomfortable until they are repeated over and over that they become natural i.e. we are making the unnatural natural. For consideration here is also the fact that mindful becomes mindless when trained to the point of automated, reflex action.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book: Wait - The Useful Art of Procrasination by Frank Partnoy

"Wait - The Useful Art of Procrasination", by Frank Partnoy, contains some good material but is way too broad and disjointed. I was expecting more around procrastination in particular, as my book was sub-headed 'The Useful Art of Procrasination', but this topic isn't discussed directly until about 150 pages in. Note, the above image has the broader sub-header 'The Art and Science of Delay', which is more accurate. The problem of breath is that while Partnoy provides interesting comments on his chosen topics, which include subjects as diverse as sports, high-frequency trading, and dating, most fields or pursuits include delay as a key element, e.g. cooking, driving, shooting, hunting, reading, exams, etc, and these would haven't looked out of place in the book.

** 1/2


- Timing is a skill, both an art and a science, that involves gut instinct, expertise and trial and error. Broadly speaking, we tend to react too quickly. Generally, it is favourable to wait until the last possible moment. 

- David Foster Wallace is quoted on how the return of serve in tennis is a largely unconscious reaction, given the speed of the ball, yet the service returner appears to have processed and responded to a cascade of information: 'Temporally, we're more in the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought. And yet an effective return of serve depends on a large set of decisions and physical adjustments that are a whole lot more involved and intentional than blinking, jumping when startled, etc.'

On reaction times in tennis: Visual reaction time is about the same for all of us, at approx 200ms. This is the 'seeing' bit, which needs to be followed by the 'physical reaction' bit. The hitting of the serve takes around 300ms. Connors practised returning really hard serves and developed 'fast eyes' (zoning in on the ball and translating this into a quick attack) and quick muscle response times, executing his  return that little bit faster than most. This created a relative liberation from the time constraint vs the competition, giving time to either return earlier or to go slow and pick spots (i.e. going fast in order to go slow).  Note, professional servers can disguise their serves so the returner can't predict ahead of time, thus, it's not about faster visual reaction times but about quicker physical reaction times.

- Look to optimise latency, not minimise it i.e. not just about being quickest but about being right.

- Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist, proposed adding slack to complex systems. Financial market regulators use circuit breakers forcing traders to step out of the moment.

- Be wary of the simplification of Blink. Debunks idea of super thin-slicing e.g. making decisions in the first two seconds. Some decisions are rightly snap decisions but more complex decisions require more time. It is a continuum. It can be useful to pause to consider biases, stereotypes, etc and adjust accordingly.

- Panic can turn experts into amateurs.

- Procrastination. We all do it and there is no unifying theory. It may be rational or irrational, or a bit of both.

- A great quote from Michael Lewis on procrastination:
'...I get up, take my child to school, then come back to my office and usually procrastinate until I panic, and then I write. I procrastinate to a point where I'm filled with self-loathing and then I start writing. It's usually a state of self-loathing that gets me going.'

And what lessons could I take from the book?
- Practice hard to improve reaction times
- Consider the optimal time to wait and decide. 
- Consider importance of slack in complex systems, even in timetables.
- Trading: widen stops and don't over trade.
- Keep in mind the trade-off between time and cost, and complexity.
- Snap reactions - pause and consider biases.
- Be mindful of decision making under stress.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book quotes: A Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Here is my collection of quotes and notes from Carl Sagan's wonderful "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark", a book that should be compulsory reading in science classes everywhere.

 Carl Sagan

In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, human life expectancy was about 20 to 30 years. That's also what it was in Western Europe in Late and Medieval times. It didn't rise to 40 years until around the year 1870. It reached 50 in 1915, 60 in 1930, 70 in 1955, and is today approaching 80 (a little more for women, a little less for men).

The sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility - more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective ... Mistakes are becoming too expensive.

Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to comic book heroes today, and earlier, to the gods).

Trotsky (1933): "Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in magic powers of signs and exorcisms...Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters."

Every time a scientific paper presents a bit of data, it's accompanied by an error bar - a quiet but insistent reminder that no knowledge is complete or perfect. It's a calibration of how much we trust what we think we know. If the error bars are small, the accuracy of our empirical knowledge is high; if the error bars are large, then so is the uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).

The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is a pervasive, visible self-assessment of the reliability of our knowledge.  You often see error bars in public opinion polls ('an uncertainty of plus or minus three percent', say). Imagine a society in which every speech in the Congressional Record, every television commercial, every sermon had an accompanying error bar or its equivalent.

Again, the reason science works so well is partly that built-in error correction machinery. There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. The openness to new ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend - substantively and in depth.

Don't waste neurons on what doesn't work.

Michael Faraday warned of the powerful temptation 'to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them...We receive as friendly that which agrees with [us], we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense"

...if we don't practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.

The lust of marvellous blunts our critical faculties.

...everything hinges on the matter of evidence. ...The more important we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People makes mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they're seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren't there.

Keeping an open mind is a virtue -but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out. Of course, we must be willing to change our minds when warranted by new evidence. But the evidence must be strong. Not all claims to knowledge have equal merit.

The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether that premise is true. Among the tools:

- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the 'facts'.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight - 'authorities' have made mistakes in the past. ...Perhaps a better way is to say that in science there are no authorities, only experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that disproves Darwinian selection among 'multiple working hypothesis', has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way-station on the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea.
- Quantify. ...what is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course, there are truths to be sought in many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) - not just most of them.
- Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypothesis that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle - an electron, say, in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof?

Control experiments are essential / Variables must be separated / often the experiment must be done 'double-blind. Any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do:

- Ad hominen - Latin for 'to the man', attacking the arguer and not the argument.
- Argument from authority
- Argument from adverse consequences (e.g. the defendant must be found guilty; otherwise, it would be an encouragement for other men..)
- Appeal to ignorance - the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true.
- Special pleading
- Begging the question/assuming the answer (e.g we must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime, or the stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors.
- Observational selection ...or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses.

Sagan writes: My favourite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War Two with US flag officers:
So and so is a great general, he was told.
'What is the definition of a great general?' Fermi characteristically asked.
'I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.'
'How many?'
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
'What fraction of American generals are great?'
After some more back and forth they settled on a few percent.
But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32, which is about three per cent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles, purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles?

- Statistics of small numbers (e.g. they say 1 in 5 people is Chinese. ...I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Or I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.)
- Misunderstanding the nature of statistics (e.g. being surprised that half of the population are below average).
- Non sequiter - Latin for 'it doesn't follow' (e.g. our nation will prevail because God is great. Often results from failing to recognise the alternative possibilities.
- Post hoc, ergo procter hoc - Latin for 'it happened after, so it was caused by'. e.g. before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons.
- Excluded middle, or false dichotomy - considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities. e.g. either you love your country or you hate it.
- Short-term v. long-term - a subset of the excluded middle. we can't afford to educate kids / feed malnourished children. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets.
- Slippery slope - e.g. if we allow abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant.
- Confusion of correlation and causation (e.g. a survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with a lesser education. Therefore, education makes people gay).
- Straw man - caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack.
- Weasel words e.g. calling wars 'police actions', 'armed incursions', 'protective reaction strikes', 'pacification'.

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world, not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.

Part of the success of the tobacco industry in purveying this brew of addictive poisons can be attributed to widespread unfamiliarity with the baloney detection kit, critical thinking and the scientific method. Gullibility kills.

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to acknowledge , even to ourselves, that we've been taken.

Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlour magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation.

There are many better responses than making the child feel that asking deep questions constitutes a social blunder. If we have an idea of an answer, we can try to explain. Even an incomplete attempt constitutes a reassurance and encouragement. If we have no idea of the answer, we can take the child to the library. Or we might say: 'I don't know the answer. Maybe no one knows. Maybe when you grow up, you'll be the first person to find out.

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a question to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

Bright children are a national and world resource. They need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. We must also give them the essential tools to think with.

Ignorance feeds on ignorance. Science phobia is contagious.

Given our manifest human limitations, what is surprising is that we have been able to penetrate so far into the secrets of Nature.

'We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not the more consoling' - Henri Poincare (1854 - 1912)

We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the discoveries that will drive the economy and safeguard our lives.

If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're putty in the hands of those in power. But if citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Book quotes: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

As promised, here are a selection of quotes from this magical, one-of-a-kind book.

From "The Book of Disquiet" by Fernando Pessoa:


I'll be living quietly in a house somewhere in the suburbs, enjoying a peaceful existence not writing the book I'm not writing now and , so as to continue not doing so, I will come up with different excuses from the ones I use now to avoid actually confronting myself. Or else I'll be interned in a poorhouse, content with my utter failure, mingling with the riffraff who believed they were geniuses when in fact they were just beggars with dreams, mixing with the anonymous mass of people who had neither the strength to triumph nor the power to turn their defeats into victories.


"What has become of those people who, just because I saw them day after day, became part of my life? Tomorrow I too will disappear from Rua da Prata, .... Tomorrow I too - this feeling and thinking soul, the universe I am to myself - yes, tomorrow I too will become someone who no longer walks these streets, someone who others will evoke with a vague: 'I wonder what's become of him?' And everything I do, everything I feel, everything I feel, everything I experience, will be just one less passer-by on the daily streets of some city or other. "


Today, suddenly, I reached an absurd but unerring conclusion. In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I'm nobody, absolutely nobody. When the lightning flashed, I saw that what I had thought to be a city was in fact a deserted plain and, in the same sinister light that revealed me to myself, there seemed to be no sky above it. I was robbed of any possibility of having existed before the world. If I was ever reincarnated, I must have done so without myself, without a self to reincarnate.

I am the outskirts of some non-existent town, the long-winded prologue to an unwritten book. I'm nobody, nobody. I don't know how to feel or think or love. I'm a character in a novel as yet unwritten, hovering in the air and undone before I've even existed, amongst the dreams of someone who never quite managed to breathe life into me.

I'm always thinking, always feeling, but my thoughts lack all reason, my emotions all feeling. I'm falling through a trapdoor, through infinite, infinitous space, in a directionless, empty fall. My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.

And I, I myself, am the centre that exists only because the geometry of the abyss demands it; I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin...


Everything that surrounds us becomes part of us...


I want a rest from, to be other than, my habitual pretending.


After his third lion, the lion hunter loses interest in the hunt.



Everything that was ours, simply because it was once ours, even those things we merely chanced to live with or see on a daily basis, becomes part of us. It was not the office boy who left today for some part in Galicia unknown to me, it was a part, vital because both visual and human, of the very substance of my life. Today I am diminished, no longer quite the same. The office boy left today.

Everything that happens in the world we live in, happens in us. Anything that ceases to exist in the world we see around us, ceases to exist in us. Everything that was, assuming we noticed it when it was there, is torn from us when it leaves. The office boy left today.


No one likes us when we've slept badly. The sleep we missed carried off with it whatever it was that made us human. ... All day I've dragged my feet and this great weariness around the streets. My soul has shrunk to the size of tangled ball of wool and what I am and was, what is me, has forgotten its name.


There are some deep-seated griefs so subtle and pervasive that it is difficult to grasp whether they belong to our soul or to our body, whether they come from a malaise brought on by pondering on the futility of life, or whether they are caused rather by an indisposition in some chasm within ourselves - the stomach, liver or brain. How often my ordinary consciousness of myself is obscured by the dark sediment stirred up in some stagnant part of me. How often existence wounds me to the point that I feel a nausea so indefinable that I can’t tell if it’s just tedium or an indication that I’m actually about to be sick! How often…

My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me - memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. The limpid brightness of the day, the great pure blue sky, the steady tide of diffuse light, none of this touches my being. I remain unmoved by the autumnal breeze, that still bears a trace of the forgotten summer and lends colour to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there, in the street strewn with boxes.


Sometimes when I raise my heavy head from the books in which I keep track of other people's accounts and of the absence of a life of my own, I feel a physical nausea.
We live through action, that is, through the will...What's the point of calling myself a genius when in fact I'm just an assistant book-keeper? When Cesario Verde had himself announced to the doctor not as Senhor Verde, commercial clerk, but Cesario Verde, poet, he was using one of those expressions of futile pride that stink of vanity. Poor man, he was never anything but Senhor Verde, commercial clerk.

The poet was born only after he died, because it was only after his death that his poetry came to be appreciated.

To act, that is true intelligence. ...Success means being successful, not just having the potential for success. Any large area has the potential to be a palace, but where's the palace if no one builds there?


Condillac begins his famous book with the words: 'However high we climb and however low we fall we never escape our feelings.' We can never disembark from ourselves.


It is a rule of life that we can and must learn from everyone. There are serious matters in life to be learned from charlatans and bandits, there are philosophies to be gleaned from fools, real lessons of fortitude that come to us by chance and from those who depend on chance. Everything contains everything else.



I deliberately seek out the longest distance between two points. I've never had a talent of the active life. I always bungled the gestures no one else gets wrong; what others were born to do. I always want to achieve what others achieved almost casually. Between myself and life there have always been panes of opaque glass, undetectable to me by sight or touch; I never actually lived life according to a plan, I was the daydream of what I wanted to be...


No one imagined that there was always another by my side, the real me. They never doubted my identity with myself.


I look for myself but find no one.


I'm playing a card that belongs to some ancient and unknown suit, the only remnant of a lost pack. I have no meaning, I do not know my value, I have nothing to compare myself with in order to find myself...


I isolated myself and, in isolating myself, exacerbated my already excessive sensibility. ...And thus, with my sensibility heightened by isolation, I find that the tiniest things, which before would have no effect on me, buffet and bruise me like the worst catastrophe. I chose the wrong method of flight. I took an awkward short-cut that led me right back to where I was, compounding the horror of living there with the exhaustion of the journey.


I've never managed to see myself from the outside. There is no mirror that can show us to ourselves as exteriors, because no mirror can take us outside ourselves. We would need another soul, another way of looking and thinking. If I were an actor captured on film or could record my speaking voice on disc I'm sure that I would still be a long way from knowing how I seem from the outside because, whether I like it or not, record what I will of myself, I remain stuck here inside the high-walled garden of my consciousness of me.


Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value it may have. The dreamer is a distributor of banknotes and these banknotes are passed around the city of his spirit just as they would be in reality. What does it matter to me if this paper money of my soul can never be converted in to gold, since there is no gold in the factitious alchemy of life?


Direct experience is the subterfuge, the hiding place of those devoid of imagination.
...Things only acquire value once they are interpreted. Some men, then, create things in order that others, by giving them meaning, make them live. To narrate is to create, whilst to live is merely to be lived.
To belong to something - that's banal. Creed, ideal, wide or profession; we would not feel so proud of it if we realised that it is just the string we're tugged along by. No, no ties, not even ourselves!


Happiness exists outside itself.
There is no happiness without knowledge. But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know one is happy is to know that is passing through happiness and is, therefore, soon obliged to leave it behind. In happiness, as in everything, happiness kills. Not to know, however, is not to exist.


That is what I believe, this afternoon. Tomorrow morning it will be different, because tomorrow morning I will be different. What kind of believer will I be tomorrow? I don't know, because to know that I would already have to be there. Tomorrow or today not even the eternal God I believe in now will know, because today I'm me and tomorrow he perhaps may never have existed.


Happy the man who demands no more from life than what life spontaneously gives him and guides himself with the instinct of cats who seek the sun where there is sun and, when there is no sun, find what warmth they can.  ....Happy the man who renounces everything and from whom, therefore, nothing can added or subtracted.


I feel I am always on the eve of awakening. Beneath a suffocating welter of conclusions I struggle with an outer covering that is me. I would cry out if I though anyone could hear. ...I'm like someone engaged in a random search for an object no one has yet described to him. We play hide-and-seek alone.


Did I say I re-read these pages? I lied. I daren't re-read them. I can't. What good would it do me? It's some other person there. I no longer understand any of it...


I have so completely divested myself of my own being that to exist is to clothe myself. Only disguised am I myself.


Sometimes amidst the accumulated banality of my literary work stored randomly in various desk drawers, I come across things I wrote ten or even fifteen or more years ago. And many of them seem to have been written by a stranger; I don't recognise myself in them. Someone wrote them and it was me. It was me who felt them, but in another life from which I have awoken as if from another's dream.


Alone I am hemmed in by multitudes. I have nowhere to flee to, unless I were to flee to myself.


If there is one thing life gives us, apart from life itself, and for which we must thank the gods, it is the gift of not knowing ourselves and of not knowing one another. The human soul is an abyss of viscous darkness, a well whose depths are rarely plumbed from the surface of the world. No one would love themselves if they really knew themselves and thus, without vanity, which is the lifeblood of the spirit, our soul would die of anaemia. No one knows anyone else and it's just as well, for if we did, be they mother, wife, or son, we would find lurking in each of them our deep, metaphysical enemy.


In the masked ball that is our life, we're content to put on the lovely clothes that are, after all, what matters in the dance. We are the slaves of lights and colours, we launch ourselves into the dance as if it were truth itself...


Fate gave me only two things: some account books and the gift of dreaming.


There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.


I'd woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.


Everything around me is evaporating. My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality - it's all evaporating. I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else. What I'm attending here is a show with another set. And the show I'm attending is myself.


I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book: Daily Rituals - How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to Work by Mason Curry

Daily Rituals focuses on the routines of creative types such as artists, writers, composers, and directors, as well as the the occasional scientist and psychiatrist, and is packed with colourful profiles and quotes.

The profiles are short and snappy, and the book proved quite inspirational; it certainly had me pondering about when I work best in different modes (e.g creative, persevering, admin, physical, cerebral, etc), and how one might experiment with different approaches. The profiles also serve as a reminder that putting the time and effort in to an endeavour is almost always a pre-requisite for achieving quality output, something that is blindingly obvious and yet easily forgotten.

As expected, there were few common themes in terms of habits. People find what works for them and they go about doing it. There is no magic bullet. Some wake very early in the day, some wake later, some wait for inspiration to strike, but most just go to it, inspiration be damned. Drinking coffee and going for walks were two things that stood out as particularly common features. Taking walking breaks, for example, featured in the patterns of Dickens, Mahler, Kierkegaard, Darwin, Beethoven, and Flaubert. Vigorous exercise was less common, although the author Murakami runs marathons and the artist Jean Miro practiced running and boxing for an hour a day. There is a lesson here: many people today are drawn to their e-mails and electronic devices when they want a break from the task at hand, but these breaks continue to tax the brain instead of giving it a deserved, restorative rest.

Procrastination is looked upon severely by the likes of the psychologist William James, and Samuel Johnson, whereas Descartes believed it an essential component to good work. I quite like Maira Kalman's (artist and designer) take: "I procrastinate just the right amount", "there are things which help me get in the mood to work. Cleaning for one. Ironing is great. Taking a walk is always inspiring."

Several authors managed to squeeze in writing entire books around their day jobs, and full-time authors would know when to call it a day, recognising that any further effort would prove counter-productive, which was typically after just three to four hours of writing each day. And there is something to learn from Hemingway's practice of stopping at 'a place where you still your juice" so you are eager to return the following day.

Curry leaves the best quote to last, which sums it all up:

"There's no one way  - there's too much drivel about this subject. You are who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There's no particular time or place - you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he's disciplined, doesn't matter....Eventually, everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you." - Bernard Melamud (author)



"I write when the spirit moves me", Faulkner said, "and the spirit moves me every day"

"For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart" - Morton Feldmen.

"I am not very bright or witty or inventive after the sun goes down.", says Toni Morrison, who rose at 5:00 to make coffee and watch the sun rise, commenting that "It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense."

On Joyce Carol Oates - Given the number of hours she spends at the desk, Oates points out her productivity is not really so remarkable. 'I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a single day's work, it is a single page, and these pages add up." ..."I have acquired the reputation over the years of being a prolix when in fact I am measured against people who simply don't work as hard or as long."

Oates again, on how it isn't always easy: "Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a dirty peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor."

William James writing on the value of forming habits: "The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for who the lighting of every cigar, drinking of every cup, the time and rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation."

William James also confessed to severe procrastination, telling one of his classes: "I know a person who will poke the fire, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without predetermination, simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests."

Yeats on writing literary criticism to earn money: "One has to give something of one's self to the devil that one may live".

Franz Kafka: "time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straight-forward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers."

Woody Allen on using the slithers of time available: "I think in the cracks all the time."

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Book: Rip it Up by Richard Wiseman

In "Rip It Up", Richard Wiseman offers more more evidence-based advice on how to go about changing the reader's life for the better.

The book is premised on the As If  principle, which is about acting and behaving in order to create an emotional state, instead of acting upon an emotional state. This is shown to be well supported by experiments by multiple psychologists, going back to the work of William James, an eminent 19th century psychologist.

This is a first rate book which I believe has the potential to change a person's life. See below for my take-away scribblings.


On Happiness

William James, in Principles of Psychology (1890), developed the idea that behaviour causes emotion, a theory he described as 'bottled lightning' given its potential. The implication is that we can manufacture positive emotion by acting happy (e.g. sitting with positive body language, smiling, and generally acting as if we are already cheerful). James stated that 'to wrestle with a bad feeling only pins our attention on it, and keeps it still fastened in the mind.'

In contrast to the common sense direction of causation: feel happy > smile, the As If theory states the opposite is also true (smile > feel happy).

To give yourself a boost, say each of these sentences to yourself, slowly and convincingly (see work of Emmet Velten, 1960s):

I feel surprisingly good about myself today.
I think I can make a success of things.
I am glad that most people are very friendly towards me.
I know that if I set my mind to something, it will usually turn out well.
I feel very enthusiastic right now.
It's as if I am full of energy at the moment, enjoying what I am doing. 
I'm very optimistic at the minute and expect to get along very well with most of the people I meet.
I'm feeling very good about myself and the world today.
Given the mood that I am in, I feel particularly inventive and resourceful.
I feel my life is very much under my control.
I am pretty certain that most of my friends will stick with me in the future.
This feels like one of those days when I'm raring to go.

The theory is supported by experiments on facial expressions (smiling makes people feel happier, angry expressions build anger). Experiments with speech and movement also support this idea. For example, when people shuffle about like old people, this affects their happiness and makes them feel old.

The brain centre of fear, the amygdalla, is active not only when we experience fear but also when we wear a fearful expression.

Research also shows that happiness and other emotional states spread like an infectious disease.

 Attraction and Relationships

'Whatever we learn, we learn by actually doing it; men become builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts we become self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave.' - Aristotle

There appears to be two varieties of love:
- Passionate love: attraction focused, activates parts of the brain commonly associated with drug use and alcoholism.
- Compassionate: more about attachment vs attraction. This is experienced in secure, long-term relationships.

Friendship and love tend to be enhanced by prolonged contact.

Conventional theories struggle to explain why so many emotions produce the same bodily responses: fight or flight (variability in heart rate, sweating, oxygen to the muscles, digestive juices in stomach, adrenaline, etc), falling in love, presentation, fear, etc. Shacter says it is all just a fight between just one system, that there is a tug of war of emotional intensity that provokes this bodily response.

'Depending on the context, a thumping heart can be seen as a sign of anger, happiness or love.'

Following in the footsteps of William James, creating these states can be used to experience heightened emotion (see Dutton and Aron's famous experiment looking at attractiveness ratings by men of a female market researcher on a rock solid bridge and one that swayed in the wind). Lesson: if you are going on a date, avoid country walks and meditation classes and instead head to theme parks, high bridges, comedy shows, and scary films.

Epstein, a psychologist believes that love develops according to established principles, in contrast to the magical love myth promoted in Western civilisation, and that people will fall in love if they behave as if they are in love (this often happens with actors).

Boredom is one of the sources of an unhappy marriage.

The Dice Man exercise to bring back the magic between people:

Circle the activities you find interesting and add some of your own. Select six that you both find exciting. Roll a dice and ensure you carry out the activity over the next week. Repeat the process every fortnight. 

Countryside walk / See a live concert / plan a trip or holiday / shopping trip / some kind of artwork / redecorate your home / attend a sports event / go to a new restaurant / go to a lecture or talk / go camping or hiking or boating / invite friends for a meal / go dancing / visit a fair or zoo / learn to windsurf / eat snails / go on a long car journey / bet on a horse race / place a pin on a map and go there / enter a pub quiz / learn some circus skills / arm wrestle / go canoeing / sleep under the stars / go on a long train journey / get a massage or go to a spa / go to the gym / visit a museum / watch a film / travel on a hot air balloon / do a parachute jump.

Mental Health 

'Action is the antidote to despair.' - Joan Bez

Studies looking at paralysis and botox treatment support the notion that action causes emotion; physical inhibition can dampen certain emotions, both positive and negative.

Behavioural change exercise: Identify problem behavioural problem areas (e.g. avoiding seeing friends and family, stopped taking part in activities you enjoy, stopped taking care of yourself?), and identify desired goals relating to one or two of the following (relationships, work and education, recreation, community, physical health). Identify target behaviours to avoid and to achieve; not general things like 'be happier', but specific things like waking up by 9am, registering for x, calling x once a week, etc. Create a plan, putting a time against each of the planned activities, stating when and how they will be achieved.  

Don't try to change all of your behaviours at once. Build up gradually. Don't let your thoughts get in the way. If you have negative thoughts, accept them and move on. Everyone fails once in a while. Don't fall into the trap of 'I'll do it when I feel better.'


Be careful when rewarding behaviour. This can stifle creativity, problem solving, etc, and can lead to thinking you need to be paid to perform an activity instead of doing it for its own sake.

Working on something for a few minutes increases the probability of its completion.


Behaviour can cause belief (the Benjamin Franklin effect, going to an event = favour it vs other options, desegregation in the US and increased support after the fact, i.e. we justify after the event).  Again, it's the As If theory at play.

Creating a New You (based on the As If principle)

"No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true." - Nathanial Hawthorne

Demeaning experiences lead to low self-esteem, and you can end up blaming yourself (the negativity feeds off itself.

Taking risks increases confidence and more confidence encourages more risk taking.

Power posing increases confidence (see work by Dana Carney) and risk taking - testosterone is raised and cortisol levels reduced. If you don't have time to strike a power pose for a minute, you can make a fist.

Clothes maketh the man: Clothing influences other people's perception as well as your own perception e.g. black = authoritarian (also increases aggression). Seeing a man in a professional suit = automatically judge a level of competence.

Think back to Zimbardo's famous Stanford prison experiment, which ran for six days before being shut down. People acted in ways they though they were incapable of, consistent with the roles that had been randomly assigned. People became the role.

Studies show that when people are given more responsibilities they become more assertive.

We can use these ideas to shape our life, instead of thinking of our personality as fixed. The psychologist George Kelly believed people can change their personality much like an actor can change their role, and also that how people saw themselves was at the heart of many of their problems.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing" - E.B. Shaw
See Ellen Langer's experiment on reversing the clock on men in the 70s and 80s. Fully recreated the environment of their youth, playing the same radio vintage songs, and engaging in activities to heighten this sense of youthful age > the people started behaving younger, with dexterity, speed of movement, blood pressures, etc all improving. The BBC recently repeated the experiment with similar results.

Tips to slow down aging:
- Maintain a sense of control in your life - don't overly rely on others.
- Keep mentally active - be interested in the world, find out what's happening, start a blog, stay curious, maintain hobbies and interests, and stay in touch with friends and family.
- Young at heart: Spend time with younger people.
- Actively active: Keep involved in sports, maintain a spring in your step.
- Make an effort: The way you look influences how you feel.

In order to change, you need to act

William James: "If you want a quality, act as if you already have it."

Monday, December 08, 2014

Book: 59 Seconds - Think A Little, Change A Lot, by Richard Wiseman

59 Seconds is the type of self-help book I'm happy to read because it's based on scientific research. Of course, that still doesn't mean I'll practice any of what it preaches but it does at least make for interesting reading. The author, Richard Wiseman, writes very clearly and he doesn't dwell on any particular point for too long, which keeps things skipping along nicely.

I would have scored this book a little higher but I'd already come by many of the findings, and I can't be sure but I may have read this book once already! After reading 59 Seconds I went straight to his follow up book, "Rip It Up", which is ace and which I definitely haven't read before.


Scribbled take-aways for future reference:

'Hedonistic habituation': take up new pleasurable hobbies and choose intentional change (e.g. painting, new sport, etc) over circumstantial change (e.g. new car). To avoid habituation, change what you do and when you do it.

'The Spotlight Effect' - we think all eyes are on us in a room but they aren't. Experiments run where people wear naff t-shirt. The wearers are all too conscious of the t-shirt and their image but other people often don't pay any attention. People are too caught up in themselves.

Remember that the body language-emotional state relationship runs in both directions (smile, sit up, walking, gestures, use positive phrases).Be wary of trait transference: if you moan and talk about negative things, people associate you with these traits.

'Benjamin Franklin Effect': Getting people to do you a small favour may actually put you in their good books.

Motivation: break large goals into small sub-goals. For each sub-goal:

 My first sub-goal is to ...
I believe I can achieve this goal because ...
To achieve this sub-goal, I will ...
This will be achieved by the following date ...
My reward for achieving this will be ...

What are the benefits of achieving the overall goal?
Benefit 1 ...
Benefit 2 ...
Benefit 3 ...

Procrastination trick: work on something for just a few minutes and you may find that you want to go on for longer.

Incorporate some greenery - the colour green seems to help creativity.

Visualisation techniques don't seem to work. They can actually reduce the motivation to put the effort in.

Attraction: how much we desire an object depends, in part, on how easy it is to obtain. "Easy things, nobody wants" - Ovid. In dating, for example, playing hard to get doesn't always work - the optimal approach may be to highlight value e.g. 'I'm normally really choosy but I really like you.' This will have broader application.

Relationships: form stronger in high risk situations e.g. on a bridge (heart rate beats faster). Touch is also powerful, as is natural mimicry.

Relationships: Surprise and escapism from the norm are better sustainers of a relationship than materialism.

Relationships:  Watch out for negative criticism - this can be very damaging.

Stress: Aggressive relief appears to be counterproductive. Focus on the benefits of the event/stress. Even watching a stressful film increases stress. Get a dog (blood pressure and heart rate) vs a cat (study shows lesser impact). See the dog/no dog stockbroker study. What's causing the effect remains a mystery (talking to it, stroking, taking for walks?).

The Power of the Placebo: People who believe they are taking alcohol can act drunk. Also experiments with caffeine and fake knee operations to relieve pain. On the flip side, if you are putting the effort in, then you need to believe it is going to benefit (e.g. sports).

Planning Fallacy - everything takes a lot longer than we expect, even when we have accounted for the planning fallacy! Mentally unpack everything into its part and estimate a time for each part.

Maximisers vs satisficers: achieve more but a lot more stress, anxiety and time over choices.

'Most psychologists now believe that the apparent complexity of human personality is an illusion. In reality people vary on just five fundamental dimensions.'5 fundamental OCEAN dimensions of personality:
- Openness (curious, broad-minded, good at tolerating ambiguity).
- Conscientiousness (self-discipline, reliable, organised, punctual).
- Extroversion (need for stimulation from outside world and other people, fun, impulsive. Low scorers more considered, controlled and reserve, social life revolved around a few people and prefer a good book to a night on the town).
- Agreeableness (cares about others, altruistic, trustworthy, likable).
- Neuroticisim (emotional stability, coping in stressful situations, prone to worry vs resilient, calm, emotionally secure).

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Book: A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani

A Fortune-Teller Told Me proved to be a highly challenging read. The book is written by the journalist Tiziano Terzani, who travels the Far East over land and by sea, after taking the prescient advice of a fortune teller to avoid travelling by air.

I'm not sure how valid this gripe is, given the title of the book, but I found the heavy emphasis on mysticism in this book almost overbearing. Terzani seeks fortune tellers at every possible point on his journey and while the tellers' efforts prove to be a very mixed affair, this didn't deter the man in his quest. There was endless advice against travel by different modes, fortune tellers provided protections against various evil spirits, and they churned out the usual spiel on wealth, health and relationships.

On the plus side, both Terzani and the places he visits are reminders of the superstitious world we still live in. And Terzani's land travels enabled him to experience the cultures and customs of the Far East, which are giving way to the capitalist creed and homogenisation that comes part and parcel with globalisation, so he says. Unfortunately, Terzani can't help but to keep hammering the negative points of modernity and capitalism, although he does it in style:

"Music now seems to be made for the ears, not the soul; painting is often an offence to the eyes; literature, even literature, is increasingly ruled by the laws of the market. Who reads poetry anymore? Its exalting power has been forgotten! And yet a poem can light a fire in the breast as strong as the fire of love. Better than whisky, better than Valium or Prozac, a poem can lift the spirit, because it raises the vantage point from which we see the world. If you feel lonely you can find more company by reading poetry  than by switching on the television."

"Sitting at the stern, I wondered how much longer such a world can last, based exclusively on the inhuman, immortal and philistine criteria of economics. ...I imagined a tribe of poets, held in reserve for a time when humanity, after this dark age of materialism, will begin once again to sustain its existence with other values."

"Somewhere there is a someone who is pushing to make the world turn faster and faster, and to make people more and more the same - in the name of something called 'globalisation', the meaning of which which few understand and still fewer have said they want. "

I too lament the homogenisation of cultures but I believe Terzani's views are overly one-sided, ill-informed and romanticised. It's almost like he can see the beauty only in some part of reality and the shutters are down on the rest. For example, I don't know anyone who seeks progress in the name of 'globalisation', but they do it to make better lives for themselves. Nevertheless, Terzani writes well and what kind of reader would I be if I could only read books that I was in full agreement with?

The last few chapters of the book were the most interesting and I'm glad I didn't abandon the book mid-way. In the penultimate chapter, Terzani spends time with a major drug lord (Khun Sa of the Golden Triangle). He even passes off the drug lord's birthday as his own when he goes to a fortune teller, and is given a strikingly accurate reading for the drug lord!

In the final chapter, Terzani has been struggling at a meditation retreat and finally has a breakthrough of the type that seems typical for many people trying their hand at meditation:

"My mind was no longer a monkey leaping from branch to branch. It was mine. This was a great pleasure. Then I heard John's words: ' Let it go ... Let it go. Attach yourself to nothing. Wish for nothing'. Even the joy of having tamed the mind, having conquered pain, was transitory - anicca - and I let it go."

And here's a bit on the lightness of being that comes with the Buddhist mindset:

"What I have always liked about Buddhism is its tolerance - the absence of sin, the absence of dead weight that we Westerners carry with us, the cement that holds our civilisation together: the sense of guilt. In Buddhist countries nothing is ever terribly reprehensible, no one ever accuses you of anything, no one ever preaches at you or tries to teach you a lesson. Hence these countries are very pleasant to be in, and many young Westerners, seeking freedom, feel at ease there."


Saturday, December 06, 2014

Book: In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming


"That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time." - J.S Mill

In Search of the English Eccentric is an excellent celebration of eccentricity across the nation and across all strata of society. Notable eccentric characters include: a chap who covertly creates crop circles with the aim of manipulating people's beliefs; people who take part in a swimming race along The Serpentine (a river in Hyde Park) on Christmas morning; the Leopard Man of Skye, a peaceful recluse who is covered head-to-toe in leopard tattoos; and a man who believes he may be King Arthur (this is my favourite profile). The wonderful final chapter includes shorter profiles of creative eccentrics, including inventors and artists, including the striking dandy Sebastian Horsley, singer Pete Doherty and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. 

Throughout the book, Hemming looks at eccentrics through history and reflects on the state of eccentricity today, astutely observing that while eccentricity is by definition about being away from the centre, as the economy has moved away from manufacturing toward more creative enterprises, so originality and childlike curiosity is being encouraged at the very core of society. Another important point emphasised at different points in the book is that the term eccentricity carries a stereotype and perhaps a connotation of acting up and playing the role, whereas it is actually about being honest to yourself without any pretension or trying to be eccentric. The characters profiled in the book have no sense of playing up to the label.

Henry Hemming is a surprisingly masterly writer, and his weaving together of endearing character profiles with historical context and reflections on eccentricity added unexpected depth and made for excellent reading.


Friday, December 05, 2014

Book: This Will Make You Smarter - New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman

In 'This Will Make You Smarter', scientific intellectuals are asked to contribute an idea they believe will improve the reader's state of understanding of the world and how it works. This is a chunky book and the hop-scotch format can be difficult to wade through; afterall, many of the concepts could easily be fleshed out into full books. Nevertheless, it is packed with a bucket load of good ideas, some of which are recorded below for future reference, you know, so I can make myself smarter and all that.  

All in all, this is good, mind-expanding stuff.


Quotes and Notes

When you're facing the wrong way, progress means walking backwards.

Knowledge as a Hypotheses - Einstein said "all our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike and yet ... it is the most precious thing we have."

Everyday Apophenia - The brain is an amazing pattern detecting machine but we often see patterns where none exist. The term was originally applied to patients suffering from certain forms of mental illness but it is clear this tendency is more broad based.

The Pointless Universe - Purpose and meaning are things that we create, not things that we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value.

The Double Blind Control Experiment - Over and above its research value, to understand it is to improve your thinking.

Promoting a Scientific Lifestyle - "Then there's what we do with the information we have. The core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with information that disagrees with your views, avoiding intellectual inertia, yet many of us praise leaders who stubbornly stick to their views as 'strong'. The great physicist Richard Feynman hailed a 'distrust of experts' as a cornerstone of science, yet herd mentality and blind faith in experts is widespread. Logic forms the basis of scientific reasoning, yet wishful thinking, irrational fears, and other cognitive biases often dominate decisions.

Good scientists understand they are part of a process of approximation. ... All of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong > pay more attention to counter evidence, hold beliefs "a bit more humbly, in the happy knowledge that better ideas are almost certainly on the way"

Microbes Run the World - Microbes run our atmosphere. They also run much of our body. The human microbiome in our gut, mouth, skin and elsewhere harbors three thousand kinds of bacteria with 3 million distinct genes. ...New research is showing that microbes-on-board drive our immune systems and important parts of our digestion.

Experimentation - Every aspect of life is an experiment that can be better understood if it is perceived that way. But because we don't recognise this, we fail to understand that we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, carefully consider the conditions under which our experiment has been conducted, and decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results. The scientific activity that surrounds experimentation is about thinking clearly in the face of evidence obtained from the experiment. But people who don't see their actions and experiment and don't know how to reason carefully from data will continue to learn less well from their experiences than those who do.

Self-Serving Bias - The question "What have I done to deserve this?" is one we ask of our troubles, not our successes. Also, we think we are better than average drivers, lecturers, and that we do more housework than our other halves. Perceiving ourselves favourably protects us against depression, buffers stress and sustains our hopes. But it does so at the cost of marital discord, bargaining impasses, prejudice, national hubris and war.

Cognitive Humility - We may be good at storing information but we are poor at retrieving it. We can recognise a face from years ago but forget what we had for breakfast yesterday. Human memories are subject to context - e.g. scuba divers are better at remembering words they studies underwater when they are tested underwater. We are more prone to recall evidence consistent with our beliefs rather than information that is inconsistent with it. Overcoming these biases is a life long struggle but recognising them is a first step.

The Focusing Illusion - When people are induced to believe that they 'must have' a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life.

The Usefulness of Certainty - The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore, a good scientist is never 'certain'. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than conclusions of those who are certain, because a  good
scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view...

The Name Game - ...we use it all the time when we're teaching, leading students to believe that a phenomenon named is a phenomenon explained, and to know the name is to know the phenomenon. ...called the 'nominal fallacy'. In biology, especially, we have labels for everything - molecules, anatomical parts, physiological functions, organisms, ideas, hypotheses. The nominal fallacy is the error of believing that the label carries explanatory information.

The World is Unpredictable - We can't predict and we can't control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and peace. We're part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.

Failure Liberates Success - Failure is not something to be avoided but something to be cultivated. That's a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research but design, sports, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced. A great graphic designer will generate lots of ideas, knowing that most will be aborted. A great dancer knows that most new moves will not succeed. should aim for success while being prepared to learn from a series of failures. More so, you should deliberately press your successful investigations or accomplishments to the point where they break, flop, stall, crash or fail. ... Children in many parts of the world are taught that failure brings disgrace and that one should do everything in one's power to succeed without failure.

The Umwelt -by David Eagleman  In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexkull introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: Different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odour of butyric acid. For the black ghost knife-fish, it's electrical fields. For the echo locating bat, it's air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebnung.

The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the objective reality "out there". Why would any of us stop to think that there is more out there beyond what we can sense? In the movie the Truman Show, the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point, an interviewer asks, "Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?" The producer replies, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented." We accept our umwelt and we stop there.

To appreciate the amount that goes undetected in our lives, imagine you're a bloodhound. You long nose houses 200 million scent receptors. The slits at the corners of each nostril flare out to allow more air to flow as you sniff. Even your floppy ears drag along the ground and kick up scent molecules. Your world is all about olfaction. ...without their olfactory capabilities of a bloodhound, it rarely strikes us that things could be different.

A good illustration of our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt is that of colour-blind people: Until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colours does not hit their radar screen. The same goes for the congenitally blind. Being sightless is not like experiencing 'blackness' or 'a dark hole' where vision should be. Like the human compared with the bloodhound, blind people do not miss vision: they do not conceive of it. The visible part of the spectrum is simply not part of their umwelt.

The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of our reality. Our sensorium is enough for us to get by in our ecosystem, but it does not approximate the larger picture.

It would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, of imagined possibilities.

Interbeing - "To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is." - Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist Monk). At what point did you last breath of air, sip of water, or bite of food cease to become part of the outside world and become you? Precisely when did your exhalations and wastes cease being you? Our skin is as much permeable membrane as barrier - so much so that, like a whirlpool, it is difficult to to discern where "you" end and the remained of the world begins. Energised by sunlight, life converts rocks into nutrients, which then pass through plants, herbivores, and carnivores before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth, beginning the cycle anew. Our internal metabolisms are intimately interwoven with this Earthly metabolism; one result is the replacement of every atom in
our body every seven years.

...It turns out that "you" are not one life-form - that it, one self - but many. Your mouth alone contains more than seven hundred distinct kinds of bacteria. You skin and eyelashes are equally laden with microbes, and your gut houses a similar bevy of bacterial sidekicks.  ....current estimates indicate that your physical body contains about 10 trillion human cells and about 100 trillion bacterial cells. In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90 per cent nonhuman...You are not an isolated being.

...The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life-forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travellers in the current of this ancient river.

Entanglement - In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: We can separate our "entangled buddies" as far as we can, and they will remain entangled. A change in one is instantly reflected in a change in the other, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean even in different countries).

Defeasability - An inference is defeasible if it can potentially be "defeated". ..It is the hallmark of the scientific process that claims are forever vulnerable to refinement and rejection, hostage to what the future could bring. ...Between blind faith and radical skepticism is vast but sparsely populated space where defeasability finds its home.