Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dubai in 2015

I've just returned from a restorative two-week break in Dubai. The emirate is a kind of 'maximum city' that thrives on tourism and commerce (oil revenues are negligible). Development is quick and experimental and growth is fuelled by a heady spirit of conspicuous consumption, and equal parts Western ex-pat brainpower and Asian subcontinent elbow grease. These are the ingredients required to make a modern Dubai in line with the the astutae Sheikh's grand development plan, which has a cook time of over a decade.

A few notes from the holiday (a brief diary from my last visit in 2008 can be found here):

- Each day seemed about 30% longer than a regular day in the UK, due to the novelty factor experienced on most holidays in foreign lands.
- Over the fortnight we experienced 36 degree heat, hail, rain, and even a couple of days of sand storms.
- Tourists don't use dedicated cameras anywhere near as much as they did several few years ago, and instead rely on their smartphones to capture their experiences. Tripods have been replaced with 'selfie-sticks'

- The more things change, the more they stay the same: the pace of development is unchanged and the emirate feels very much like a place that is still under construction. The main road that runs through Dubai is now fully seven lanes on either side. Drivers are less reckless than before but still take way more risks than in the UK, and traffic is hell and probably will always be hell.
- The price of street tea has doubled in English money terms and now costs around 45-50p. It's way better than the coffee and tea sold by the chains, which costs 10x as much.
- The taxi drivers all drive Toyota Camry's - the Camry was the best selling car in the US for 12 years straight but the Toyota stopped selling the car in the UK back in 2004 as interest dwindled. A shame, as I would have marked it as a potential next car.
- There are far fewer stray cats about the city. We did come across a completely famished ginger cat in one of the parks, who eagerly lapped up two thirds of a spare almost croissant!
- Sites visited included: several parks, various malls, souks and beaches, the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa), Sharjah, Abu Dhabi (Grand Mosque), Ajman, lots of restaurants, a fish market, the Dubai Fountain (lit by 6.600 lights and fires water over 150m high, all choreographed to music), the terribly gaudy Miracle Gardens, the Dubai Creek, and the Bastakiya artistic area which houses a wonderful coffee museum.
- Even though we enjoyed two to three outings a day, I found lots of time to read through a pile of books, both virtual and paper-based.
- On returning to the UK, the weather was some 15-20 degrees lower than Dubai. However, I didn't feel a shock of cold and am happily wearing the same clothes I wore when I left Dubai. The chill in the air is quite invigorating, although I am keenly await the coming of Spring.

Photos from the trip will trickle in over the coming week or so. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book quotes: How To Be an Existentialist by Gary Cox

"How to Be an Existentialist" was read and reviewed last year (link). Notes and quotes from the book have been a long time coming because there was so much good stuff to copy out. Indeed, this is a good one to leave up for a couple of weeks before my next blog posting - there's a lot to think about ... also, I'm off on my holidays until the end of the month!

If you are only going to read one book on existentialism, this is the one.



People who reject existentialism tend to do so not because they don’t understand it but because they can’t face it.  As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil:  “I do not like it.” – Why? – “I am not up to it” – Has anyone ever answered like this?”   … understanding existentialism requires far more intellectual honesty and courage than cleverness and academic ability.

A person can know about existentialism and be convinced of its truth, but they are not a true existentialist if they make no effort to live the life.

To fail to live accordingly is to live in what existentialist philosophers call bad faith.

…it outlines how you can go on to live an honest and worthwhile life in spite of the fact that human existence is ultimately pointless and absurd. The general idea is that you can’t create a genuinely honest and worthwhile life for yourself on the basis of a fairytale. You have to build your life on an understanding and acceptance of things how they really are, otherwise you be fooling and deluding yourself as you hanker after impossibilities like complete happiness and total fulfilment. Ironically, existentialism is saying, if you want to be happy, or at least happier, stop struggling to achieve complete happiness because that way only leads to disappointment.

Some of the most unhappy people in the world are those who hold firmly in the belief …that there is a such a state as ‘happily ever after’. They are constantly hurt and frustrated that they never manage, for example, to transform their life into an endless summer afternoon in a rose filled cottage garden. Such a paradise is unachievable, not only because the price of cottages in the country is beyond most people’s financial reach, but because endless summer afternoons in the real world always turn into evening, because roses have their thorns and flowers wilt and because more than a few days in even the most beautiful garden becomes utterly boring.

The person who chooses to be positive and confident, or at least genuinely tries to be positive and confident, will encounter a very different world from the person who chooses to be negative and timid.

Consciousness is always predisposed to find something lacking because lack is intrinsic to the very meaning of every situation for any particular consciousness. This is why, according to existentialist philosophers, a consciousness, a person, can never be completely satisfied. A person will always interpret  a situation in terms of what it lack for him. If he is cooking, the meal lacks being cooked. If he is halfway through a movie, the movie lacks an ending so far. If the movie is poor and he does not care about the ending then his situation is lacking interest.  If he is tired he lacks sleeps (tiredness is lack of sleep). If he has just woken up and is ready for the day he lacks the things he hope to achieve that day and so on and so on.

In general a person always lacks the futures toward which is constantly heading, the future which gives meaning to his present actions and beyond which he hopes in vain to be fulfilled and at one with himself. Ever onward, the endless march of time, towards a future that is presently lacking, an absent future that will fall into past as soon as it is reached, a past with its own absent future. It seems that the endless march of time constantly cheats us of what we are, prevents us from becoming one with ourselves, but really, what we are is this endless march forward in time, creatures that can never become one with themselves.

Perhaps this is the harshest of all the existentialist truths of the human condition. You will always experience some conditions that you lack, some boredom, some dissatisfaction. You will always be waiting for some current problem to become a thing of the past, you will always be looking for future fulfilment until death is the only fulfilment, the only possibility, left to you. This is not a bad thing, it is just the way it is, so you would be wrong to get depressed about it, although many people do.  A true existentialist doesn’t get depressed about it. He or she says, ‘Okay, so that’s the way it is. Never mind. I’m still going to make the most of my life, my relentless journey to nowhere, my freedom.’

On Temporality

…Sarte insists it is more accurate to refer to the past as a past-future. What is now my past was once my future. Similarly, what is now is in my future, if it comes to pass, will so undoubtedly become part of my past that it is more accurate to refer to my future as my future-past. …consciousness is never in the present, it is only ever present (has presence) as a being endlessly passing on toward the future. Like an object in motion, consciousness is never there or there. Consciousness is constantly not where it was and not yet where it will be.

Something is always lacking, namely the future. The future never satisfies and fulfils us completely because we only fulfil our future intentions for them to become part of our past … and we must again launch ourselves towards a new future …

Existentialism claims that is it fundamental to what we are to want to be at one with ourselves, to be what we are instead of having always to strive to be it, to achieve a future state of total completion in which we no longer lack anything. But we never arrive at this godlike state of total smug self-satisfaction because we never arrive at the future. …For existentialism, it is just the way things are, and the way things are is the price you pay for existing as a conscious being at all. After all, you can’t be conscious without being temporalized … time and consciousness are almost the same thing.

Existentialism recommends bravely accepting that this is how life is and making the most of it. It recommends building your life on the firm basis of hard, uncomfortable truths rather than the shifting sands of soft, comfortable delusions. Ironically perhaps, there is also the suggestion that people will actually be happier and relatively more satisfied if they accept what the endless temporal flight of consciousness towards the future implies, namely, that it is alien for a person to be completely satisfied and contented for any length of time. If people genuinely accept this truth of the human condition and take it to heart they will cease to hanker after complete fulfilment and total happiness, or at least be less disappointed and far more calm and philosophical about life when fulfilment and total happiness are not achieved. Existentialism offers satisfaction of a stoical kind through the acceptance of the inevitability of a certain amount of dissatisfaction.

..the key point to keep in mind for now is that we are free precisely because we are not fixed in the present. Only a temporal being can be free because to be free is to have possibilities and genuine alternatives in the future.

On being-for-others

Each person constantly confronts the existence of other people, not simply as objects in his world, but as subjects who see him and judge him and reduce him to an object in their world. To be an object in the world of the Other, to be for the Other, to be in danger of being belittled by the Other, this is the meaning of being-for-others.

A man called John is walking all alone in the wilds down a beautiful valley beside a rushing stream. He drinks in the fresh air and the stunning scenery and feels he is master of all he surveys. …John feels he is at the centre of the world, that it is all arranged for him alone, that it exists only from his point of view. ….John suddenly catches sight of a stranger in the distance walking up the valley towards him. With deep irritation and disappointment John realises it is the dreaded Other. Even tough the Other hasn’t seen John yet, the presence of the Other immediately affects John’s situation. …John was the centre of the world but now the Other has decentralised him.

Even when a person is physically alone, miles from the shops, miles from anywhere and anyone, other people are likely to be in his thoughts. Even if, unlike most of us, he is not particularly paranoid, he may well be plagued by the actual and imagined judgements of others and be unable to stop thinking about what others think of him … The Other makes him into something he feels he is not, something he does not want to recognise or feel responsible for.  …other people force him to be what he is for them rather than what he is for himself.

The Other possesses part of what a person is and is free to judge him; free to admire, respect, or despise him. Having aspects of belonging to others, aspects that he is nonetheless responsible for, makes a person uncomfortable. A good deal of most people’s behaviour is directed towards seeking to influence their being-for-others, or even gain complete control over it. People generally desire to impress and certainly go to great lengths to encourage other people to love, respect or fear them. People talk about feeling good in themselves and about setting personal goals, but really they are all shouting, ‘Look at me, I’m so beautiful, so clever, so hard, so cool. Even if I’m not better than you, I’m just as good as you in my own way.’ Those with ability and determination do it by winning Olympic gold medals or qualifying as doctors. Those with less talent do it by learning to juggle, having tattoos or wheel spinning their car at traffic lights. As many great philosophers and religious teachers have noted through the ages, ‘All is vanity.’

It is vital to a proper understanding of the existentialist theory of personal freedom to realise that it is just as much a theory of personal responsibility. Freedom is not freedom from responsibility, freedom is having to make choices and therefore having to take responsibility.

“Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose” – Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Perhaps, in the end, Sartre is not offering us a philosophical theory worked out in every single detail so much as an ideal to aspire to through sheer unrelenting will power and implacable bloody mindedness – a life of maximum responsibility and minimum excuses. Or would you aspire to be a whinging, irresponsible slob. There is a surprisingly large amount of public funding available for people with the latter aspiration.

On bad faith

By far the biggest obstacle or pit fall on the voyage to being a true existentialist is bad faith. …Sartre is obsessed with bad faith because it is so widespread and right at the heart of the way most people behave most of the time.

Bad faith is often described as self-deception, as lying to yourself. Bad faith cannot be self-deception for the simple reason that self-deception, lying to yourself, is impossible. … bad faith is more like an ongoing project of self-distraction or self-evasion…

Being a true existentialist, practising authentic behaviour, can be as simple as … the difference between having your hand held and holding hands. The difficulty with being a true existentialist, however … is keeping it up. The difficulty is producing responsible responses all the time across the widest possible range of circumstances…

To help explain his theory about bad faith and wilful ignorance Sartre takes the example of a woman with tuberculosis. The woman refuses to acknowledge that she has TB despite having all the symptoms – fatigue, weight loss, night sweats…refusing to acknowledge their collective meaning. She engrosses herself in activities that do not afford her time to visit the doctor, activities that distract her from making the time the choices required by her situation. …For Sartre, to dispense with wilful ignorance and irresponsibility and instead to courageously affirm the existential truths of the human condition – abandonment in a Godless universe, freedom, responsibility, mortality and so on – is to overcome bad faith in favour of authenticity.

On contingency

The truth, according to existentialist philosophers, is that things only have meaning and purpose relative to other things and the whole lot only has the relative meaning and purpose that our ultimate pointless activities give it.

Sartre does not recommend that people should be like Antoine Roquetin in Nausea, always dwelling obsessively on contingency, always striving to live under the aspect of eternity in a meaningless and absurd world. That way madness lies. Sartre himself, like most people most of the time, lived and acted in the world of relative meanings and purposes. …he kept his sanity and sense of perspective by directing his attentions to the task at hand…

He believed, nonetheless, that an occasional or background awareness of contingency is vital if a person is to achieve any degree of authenticity and avoid living a lie. Sartre’s philosophy is characterised by an abiding hatred and distrust of people, usually middle-class (bourgeois) people, who seem totally unaware of life’s contingency; people who once glimpsed life’s contingency and were terrified by it and are now on the run from it. The fundamental project of these people is to evade their own contingency and that of the world by acting in bad faith.

The world, they tell themselves in bad faith, is not contingent but created with humankind as its centrepiece. …They believe the moral and social values they subscribe to are objective, absolute values and that the way things are in society constitutes the only possible reality. …They learn to see themselves only as others see them and avoid thinking about themselves in any kind of philosophical way. Dwelling on the strangeness and contingency of their existence is strictly off limits. As far as possible, they avoid thinking about anything at all, except on the most mundane and clichéd level. You have probably met these people. You can recognise them by their conversation. When you talk to them you feel you are following a script that permits the listing of mundane facts and forbids all discussion, analysis, introspection and flights of the imagination.

…Being an existentialist is not so much about what you do, as your attitude to what you do. As always, the choice is yours.

On authenticity and getting real

Inauthenticity is the denial of the fundamental existential truth that we are free and responsible…

Authenticity involves a person confronting reality and facing up to the hard truth that he is at all times a free being who will never obtain coincidence with himself.  The authentic person responds fully to the appeal to get real that pervades existentialism. ....authenticity consists in embracing human reality for what it is and living in accordance with it rather than pretending it is something else:  a nice fairy-tale reality where dreams come true without effort, where debts don’t have to be paid back, where knights in shining armour ride to the rescue and we all live happily ever after.

…-it involves accepting that this is his situation… .If he is not imprisoned he can, of course, reject his situation by running away, and often beating a hasty retreat is a wise option, but this still involves a choice. A choice that gives rise to new situations and to new demands to choose. With the exception of suicide – the toughest choice of all – it is not possible to run away from being situated altogether, and every situation is a demand to choose.

Sartre – “To be authentic is to realise fully one’s being-in-situation, whatever this situation may happen to be: with a profound awareness that, through the authentic realisation of the being-in-situation, one brings to full existence the situation on one hand and the human reality on the other. This presupposes a patient study of what the situation requires, and then a way of throwing oneself into it and determining oneself ‘be-for’ this situation.”

To be truly authentic, (one) must fully realise his being-in-situation without regret. Authenticity involves a person coming to terms with the fact that he will never be at one with himself, that he will never become a kind of thing that no longer has to choose what it is. Surprisingly though, authenticity does not involve a person abandoning the desire for one-ness, substantiality and foundation.  …In trying to escape his desire for a foundation a person can only aim at being nothing at all.

The project of authenticity is actually more successful at achieving a kind of substantiality than the project of inauthenticity because the project of authenticity reconciles a person to what he really is, an essentially free being…

The substantiality achieved through authenticity is not achieved by consciousness once and for all, it is a substantiality that has to be continually perpetuated and re-assumed. A person cannot simply be authentic, he has to be authentic. That is, he has to constantly strive to be authentic without ever being able to become an authentic-thing. If a person ever thinks he is authentic in the same way that a rock is a rock, he is no longer authentic and has actually slid back onto bad faith. Authenticity is not a permanent foundation that a person choose to establish at a particular time once and for all, but rather what existentialist philosophers call a metstable foundation that a person must constantly maintain by constantly choosing authentic responses to his situation.

Authenticity is not a possession or an essence, it is a way a person responds to his facticity and the way he chooses himself in response to that facticity. Authenticity is the continuous task of choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility rather than responses that signify a flight from freedom and responsibility. The authentic person takes on the task of continually resisting the slide into bad faith that threatens every human project.

Considering the world’s endless temptations to slides into bad faith and the difficulties people face resisting them, Sartre takes the example of a family man who is called to war. Prior to his call-up the man was a boring bourgeois who treated his life as though it was on rails with a course dictated by the expectation of his family and his profession. He allowed himself to be what others wanted him to be.
The stark realities of war open his eyes and inspire him to put his life into perspective. He assumes freedom and becomes his own man. Sartre says, ‘He’s led to think about those [past] situations, to make resolutions for the future, and to establish guidelines for keeping authenticity as he moves on to other events’. He has become a warrior and wishes to remain a warrior even after the war. A man who is ready for anything, a man who takes responsibility for himself and does not make excuses. A strong, silent, noble, dignified type who refuses to compromise himself or to say what others want to hear just because they want to hear it.

Resistance to his noble resolution comes not from within him but from the world around him and from his own past.

...His wife, who he still loves, comes to visit him at the front with all the expectations he has always fulfilled for her in the past. Without any effort or intention he behaves differently towards her simple because he is different. Her expectations, however, present him with the image of his former inauthentic self. This is the real test of the newfound authenticity because ‘he can’t revert to his old errors vis-à-vis that woman without, at a stroke, tumbling headlong into inauthenticity.’

The difficulties facing a person striving for sustained authentic existence are enormous. Sartre does not mention, however, why others should achieve what he, of all people, failed to achieve. If the great champion of authenticity, with his vast will power and his superior mental strength cannot achieve  authentic existence, what hope is there for the rest of us?

...A quick summary: Authentic existence is a project that has to be continually reassumed. A person is only as authentic as his present act. Even if he has been consistently authentic for a whole week, if he is not authentic right now then he is not authentic. Given the world’s endless temptations to bad faith, the difficulties of resisting regret and imposed inauthenticity, the fact that habit and other people’s expectations shape a person’s life as much as his capacity to choose, it is very difficult for anyone to sustain authenticity for a significant period of time. Most people are only capable of achieving authenticity occasionally. Nevertheless, authenticity is an existentialist ideal worth struggling for.

In most cases, it is not because people lack intelligence that they do not see the existential truths of the human conditions, but because they do not want to see them. The fact that they do not want to see them implies, of course, that they have already seen them. Having already seen them and having been made terribly anxious at the sight of them they desperately want to avoid seeing them again. The way they avoid seeing them is by resorting to bad faith.

Although the pursuit of authenticity need not necessarily be an intellectual project, some people are, nevertheless, inspired to pursue authenticity as a direct result of studying existentialism. Studying existentialism highlights existential truths, exposes bad faith and emphasises the necessity of freedom and responsibility. Studying existentialism can be a process of profound personal enlightenment that influences the very nature of a person’s existence in the world.

Authenticity, it has been suggested, is an heroic ideal.

After WWII showed them how interdependent people are, Sartre and Beauvoir began to acknowledge that authenticity involves conforming to some extent the expectations of others.

People, they argue, are responsible for living up to the expectations that result from their social and historical circumstances. A person who seeks to evade this responsibility by refusing to be a person of his time acts in bad faith. He acts as though he is a fixed and self-sufficient island existing outside society, politics and history, when in truth he is a person rooted in the social and political situation of his day and age who exists only in relation to his day and age. …It is therefore authentic for a person to acknowledge the existence and freedom of other people and the inevitability of having to have relations and dealings with them.

To exercise freedom negatively is to adopt what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal. The ascetic ideal values self-repression and self-denial above all else and for their own sake. …Opposite to the ascetic ideal is Nietzsche’s notion of the noble ideal. The noble ideal involves positive affirmation of freedom. A noble person positively affirms himself as a free being. He does not deny and repress his freedom but enjoys it and is constantly aware of it. He does this by acting decisively, overcoming difficulties, taking responsibility, refusing to regret and, most importantly, by choosing his own values.

Sartre’s idea of a radical conversion to authenticity involves a person becoming something like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. If you’ve come across this German term before it might well evoke images of blond, blue-eyed, jack-booted Nazi Stormtroopers goose-stepping in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate, but it literally means ‘overman’; the man who had overcome himself. As the creator of his own values the overman creates himself; he is the artist or author of his own life.

Nietzsche on authenticity – regret nothing

Nietzsche holds that the highest affirmation of life is the desire for eternal recurrence. 

Nietzsche: “The greatest weight – What if, some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterable small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this though gained possession of you , it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become  towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.

Heidegger on authenticity – authentic-being-towards-death

Heidegger holds that that the project of authenticity involves a person affirming the inescapable truths of the human condition.

…what Heidegger recognises is that people can have an authentic or inauthentic attitude towards the fact that they are going to die. …not surprisingly, people tend to acquire and authentic ‘I must die’ attitude as they grow older.

A key character of Nietzsche’s overman is his recognition and acceptance of his own mortality. The overman is a person who, through fully aware of his mortality, is not petrified with fear at the thought of it. He does not allow fear of death to prevent him from taking certain risks and living life to the full. Simone de Beauvoir argues that this attitude towards death is an essential characteristic of the adventurous person who value the affirmation of his freedom above timid self-preservation. ‘Even his death is not an evil since he is only a man so far as he is mortal: he must assume it as a natural limit of his life, as the risk implied by every step.’  Unadventurous people who fail to live life to the full because they fear death, still die. They die, however, never really have lived. This is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’ (Julius Ceaser, II, ii)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book fails: Don Fernando and Liza of Lambeth by Somerset Maugham

I thought my collection of Somerset Maugham books comprised of works of fiction, and was surprised to discover that 'Don Fernando' is actually a travel book and cultural commentary on Spain. I enjoyed the first and second chapter, which reads like a condensed Don Quixote. And the fifth chapter on Spanish food is interesting enough, as is the sixth chapter on Spanish literature (the author says there is a poverty of quality Spanish literature and that it effectively starts and ends with the magnificent Don Quixote) . After this however, Maugham moved on to subjects which were of little interest to me and I gave up reading, despite the author's engaging style.
"On the whole  the defects you find in the Spanish writers are those you expect amateurs to have. They provide literature not of sustained force but of brilliant beginnings."

“And if I am not mistaken here is the secret of the greatness that was Spain. In Spain it is men that are the poems, the pictures and the buildings. Men are its philosophies. They lived, these Spaniards of the Golden Age; they felt and did; they did not think. Life was what they sought and found, life in its turmoil, its fervour and its variety. Passion was the seed that brought them forth and passion was the flower they bore. But passion alone cannot give rise to a great art. In the arts the Spaniards invented nothing. They did little in any of those they practised, but give a local colour to a virtuosity they borrowed from abroad. Their literature, as I have ventured to remark, was not of the highest rank; they were taught to paint by foreign masters, but, inapt pupils, gave birth to one painter only of the very first class; they owed their architecture to the Moors, the French and the Italians, and the works themselves produced were best when they departed least from their patterns. Their preeminence was great, but it lay in another direction: it was a preeminence of character. In this I think they have been surpassed by none and equalled only by the ancient Romans. It looks as though all the energy, all the originality, of this vigorous race had been disposed to one end and one end only, the creation of man. It is not in art that they excelled, they excelled in what is greater than art--in man. But it is thought that has the last word.”

Liza of Lambeth is another Maugham classic which I gave up on after thirty odd pages. This is the novel that made Maugham's name, and I'm sure it has much merit, however I couldn't get past the 19th century cockney type dialect. With so many books to read in one's lifetime, it pays to know when to call it quits and move on. 

Next up is 'Ashenden', a collection of tales of espionage in the first world war, based on the author's own experiences.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book quotes: Johnny Bunko

I just discovered some old scribblings from a book called Johnny Bunko, a pretty decent graphic novel type book about career advice which I read back in 2011:

There is no plan
Life isn't an algebra problem. You can make career decisions for two different types of reasons:

- Instrumental: because you think it's going to lead to something else regardless of whether you enjoy it or its worthwhile.
- Fundamental reasons - because you think it's inherently valuable regardless if what it may or may not lead to.

Instrumental reasons usually don't work. Things are too complicated, too unpredictable. ...The most successful people – not all of the time but most of the time – make decisions for fundamental reasons. They take a job or join a company because it will let them do interesting work in a cool place – even if they don’t know exactly where it will lead. They’re not fools [they don't just follow any whim], they’re enlightened pragmatists.

Ask what activities create flow for you?
Stop worrying about your weaknesses and focus and start using your strengths.

Think strengths, not weaknesses.

You're here to serve, not to self-actualise....the most successful people improve their lives by improving others' lvies. That's where they focus their eneergy, talent and brainpower. > it's not about you.

Persistence trumps talent
Intrinsic motivation is important because you simply like doing the thing you do versus doing it purely for an external reward. The more intrinsic motivation you have, the more likely you are to persist and the more you persist, the more more likely you are to succeed.

Make excellent mistakes.

Get some exercise - there is nothing like a good run to clear the head.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SMBC: uugh, Superman is the evil one!

Another classic from SMBC. Click on the picture to embiggen.

; )

Monday, February 09, 2015

Better Call Saul

Just watched the first episode of Better Call Saul, a Breaking Bad spin-off based on the fantastically sleazy but likeable 'criminal' lawyer Saul Goodman. So far, so good and credit to Netflix for bagging the rights.

I'll happily pay £6.99 a month for my Netflix subscription if they keep providing decent content - also, it's way cheaper than a TV license, which is only required for live broadcasts. Another plus point from my perspective is that the series is being uploaded one epsiode a week, which gives me something to look forward to and means I can't indulge in binge watching (I know my weaknesses!!!).

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Film: Being in the World

"...the source of meaning in our lives isn't in's in our way of "being" in the world.

...when people are at their best and most absorbed in doing a skillful thing, they lose themselves
into their absorption and the distinction between the master and the world disappears.

...Seeing what the masters can do and seeing that we can do it to, that everybody can, in their way, bring out what's best in themselves, and in the world, we can experience what people call the sacred."

A quote from Hubert Dreyfus, from the documentary "Being in the World" (a film on Heidegger and existentialism, which doesn't dig very deep but is a pleasant watch).

Buddhist quotes and a new blog for the reading list

Here are some Buddhist quotes from Thích Nhất Hạnh (via a blog called RefineTheMind, which has been put together by a young writer who is wise beyond his years. I've just spent a few hours over at the blog, reading the archived articles).

"Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views.  We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.  We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth.  Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives."

"Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever—such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination—to adopt our views.  We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide.  We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue."

"Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering.  We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy."

"Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying.  We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need.  We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness."

"When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger.  We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at those we think are the cause of our anger."

"Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life.  We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealously in the present.  We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment.  We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness."

"Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.  We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break.  We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small."

"Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world.  We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill.  We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war."

"Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. We will practice generosity by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.  We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings."

Friday, February 06, 2015

One oat to rule them all? Mornflake Scottish Jumbo Oats

I do like a warming bowl of oats porridge in the winter months. Previously my 'go to' porridge was Sainsbury's own brand but I have just discovered Mornflake's "Scottish Jumbo Oats", which are quite a bit better and are still extremely cheap on a per serving basis (6.7p).

For the protein-freaks out there, a bowl of this stuff gives you 4.8g of aminos, which is almost as much as you'll find in a medium egg (more if you add milk instead of water). Not bad goings.

As an aside, I've taken to add a sprinkling of salt to my porridge, something that started off feeling completely wrong.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Coursera - Circadian clocks: how rhythms structure life

I'm three quarters of the way through a fascinating on-line course on chronobiology, learning about the internal body clock(s). This is another one of those great courses that opens up a person's understanding of the world.

I'm particularly interested in the last two weeks of the course, when the focus shifts to broader influences of the circadian clock on human beings, from life to death, from illness to health. This is especially relevant because I have recently moved to a job where I work shifts, including a stint of night shifts, where I work from 9:30pm through to 7:30 am.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Differing opinions between scientists and the general public

The below survey is specific to the US but it is still very informative:

It would be interesting the survey results if the survey was replicated across European countries, to enable some cross-country comparisons. For example, the typical European is likely more averse to GM crops than Americans, but more likely to believe in human evolution. It would also be useful to add some granularity so we could see how the opinion of the average 'scientist' varies from scientists working in the field in question, such as geology specialists when it comes to the subject of fracking, climatology for global warming, and genetics for the GM issue. Afterall, scientists tend to be specialists in specific fields only.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Netflix: Arrested Development

Arrested Development is good, silly fun. It's the only thing I'm watching right now and even though I only started the series a few weeks ago, I'm already on season 3. I'm not properly "binge watching" but the episodes are only just over twenty minutes a piece so I can happily pack in three of four in a row before I start feeling like a lazy, couch potato.


Podcasts listened to while ironing

Econtalk is a great podcast economics series, often featuring the first class economist Russ Roberts as host. I've just listened to a fascinating podcast with Russ and Alex Tabarrok on 'Private Cities', in which they discuss the limits, failures and successes when it comes to leaving it to private enterprise to making a city work.  Lots of examples are given, although the focus is on an Indian city called Gurgaon, which has minimal municipal government. In Gurgaon, the private sector fails in the areas you might expect, such as in the the provision of an effective sewerage system and a main road network, but it has also led to one of the best fire departments in India. Also, a lot of the failures don't compare too badly to the alternative, which is corrupt public control (traffic is hell in most cities in India). As India and China expand at a dizzying pace, it will be interesting to see how the different models fare, what works and what doesn't. The podcast also touches on China and US, which I keep telling everyone is far less 'free market' than is widely thought by us European folk.

On a side note, I've always been in favour of living in a city or town with a broad cross-section of the population, providing vibrancy, edge, colour and a sense of opportunity for all, in contrast to the opposite extreme, which would be a city for the rich and privileged. A trade-off to this is that there would naturally be a higher crime rate, higher civil disobediency, higher taxes due to higher social provisions etc. The long-run problem of such a city however, is that if richer folk have the option to move to private neighbourhoods or cities nearby, you can't blame them for it, but the result is that a process of ghettoisation begins and the once valued diversity becomes skewed toward the less favoured elements. I used to think private cities were morally unfair primarily for this reason. These days, I see them as inevitable and while I still think there are many negative spill-over effects, I no longer have a moral opinion about whether they are 'right' or 'wrong'.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

doveryai, no proveryai - trust but verify

Here's a nice little learning:

"doveryai, no proveryai" (trust but verify)

This useful Russian maxim was a favourite of the American president Ronald Reagan, who was apparently fond of repeating it in his meetings with Gorbachev. Gorbachev meanwhile, cited Ralph Waldo Emerson's 'The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.'.