Serendipitous Conversations

Last week I was waiting at the station for a train to make a trip to a nearby town. For a change I decided not to take the car. Whilst waiting, a gregarious Glaswegian starting chatting to a man and a woman standing nearby. They ended up talking enthusiastically about the music scene in Glasgow in the 80s. He used to play in a band and so knew lots of musicians and she, by chance, was a journalist who also had lots of music connections. As I’d lived in Glasgow for three years I decided to join in the discussion too. A very friendly, relaxed and enjoyable conversation then took place revealing lots of unexpected connections (illustrating in part the famous six degrees of separation).

I shared part of my journey with the journalist and her father and found she worked for the Los Angeles Times and was visiting the UK. In turn he was Irish and I’d lived in Dublin for three years so there was an enjoyable chat about that too. There were lots of other links. Emails were exchanged and will presumably be followed up.

All this was pure serendipity and it made me wonder why more of this doesn’t go on, particularly as it’s obvious there are connections everywhere (they normally just remain hidden). Thinking about this one specific occasion, the conversation ingredients were:

  • Speaking up, participating or initiating
  • Finding an exciting and perhaps unusual topic to generate interest
  • Letting conversations go anywhere (there will be rabbit holes of course, you can always double back)
  • Keeping the atmosphere light and friendly, with no one trying to impress or dominate
  • Allowing people to open up in the ways they like best
  • Developing an atmosphere of ‘play’

What about the physical circumstances?

A small group of people all waiting, near to each other and with nothing much else to do, open to relieve (perhaps) some boredom.

None of this seems special.

It’s a perennial topic of how you can stimulate similar sparky conversations in the (more formal) workplace to encourage innovation and creativity. We can all do it easily out of the workplace. So maybe we need to create sub-environments in the workplace as a sort of halfway house? I mean more than the standard internal coffee bars or similar which can sometimes seem a little forced.

Any thoughts or details of attempts in this direction?

A New Kind Of University

I’ve written previously about interdisciplinary mindsets so was interested to read about a new breed of university in The Times (paywall unfortunately).

I’m a product of the UK educational system; A levels at grammar school, university degree via maths/physics modules and then a doctorate in high energy physics. This lead on to further academic research and later transitioning to government and then commercial research management. I developed tools during the first phase of my career that were primarily technical (although international collaboration was also a strong feature). Moving to the other sectors, softer skills became increasingly important mixed with an awareness of (rather than detailed knowledge of) rapidly developing technologies. More and more a big picture outlook was required but I always had the feeling that I was looking at the world through a much narrower ex-physicist’s eyes.

How would it be different if one started with a big picture outlook, emphasising connections to different disciplines? This seems to be the idea behind The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS).

The development of a new kind of university was possible due to the widening of the legislation that allows institutions to award their own degrees. The political motivation for this change was the thought that the current university system was too confining and even acted like a ‘cartel’.

One aim of this new breed of university is to break down the barriers between the arts and sciences and to move away from the model of (often) large class sizes and relatively low staff contact time. Another radical departure is how they choose applicants (traditionally it has been through exam grades plus interviews). Now they can drop the customary A level requirements and rely instead on two very detailed interviews (allowing a much better understanding of backgrounds). This approach benefits students who come from deprived circumstances and may not have strong or even any A levels. However they may have a strong motivation and drive to help improve inequality for example.

The problems/topics addressed in the courses seem very challenging; climate change, inequality, sustainability and so on where a multidisciplinary approach is essential. I guess this means seeing the ‘problem’ from many different points of view and using a broad mixture of techniques to address/improve it. To this end, students learn qualitative and quantitative techniques such as survey design, statistical analysis and coding.

It sounds an interesting experiment. It reminds me of this quote:

“Requirements are actually Hypotheses and your Projects are really just Experiments. Realizing this should be liberating.” – David Bland

Two Feynman Courses on Physics

Feynman at the research meeting in Wangerooge in 1988 (see here)

I started out my career as a theoretical physicist and I’ve written a number of blog posts relating to this topic and period. The most popular have been those that featured Richard Feynman (I have an incidental connection to him as I co-organised the last conference he spoke at, see picture above).

I’ve recently come across some lectures of his that I wasn’t aware of, one set from the 1960s, the other from the 1980s. They are both quite technical, the former aimed at general and research scientists and the other at postgraduate physicists.

However, even if you do not have this specialised background, it may be interesting to take a quick look. The lectures are mainly of historical interest but still fascinating as they give an insight into the unique way that Feynman thought about things.

Feynman Lectures given at the Hughes Corporation
These are pdfs of notes taken by John Neer, who attended a course Feynman gave to general scientists at the Hughes Aircraft Corporation during 1966-71. How the notes came about is explained here.

Screenshot of website, see here

The course covered

  • Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Cosmology (224 pages)
  • Relativity, Electrostatics, Electrodynamics (209 pages)
  • Quantum Mechanics and QED (314 pages)
  • Molecular Biology (65 pages)
  • Mathematical Methods in Physics and Engineering (163 pages)

They reflect the ideas and understanding of these areas at that time and there have obviously been many developments since.

Desciption of Volume 3 of the Hughes Lectures

Sample page from Volume 3

These physics lectures can be seen alongside the very beautiful digital version of the famous undergraduate course he gave at Caltech (entirely free and available here).

Screenshot of main web page for the Caltech Feynman Lectures

Feynman Lectures on the Strong Interactions given at Caltech
This was an specialist research-level course he gave at Caltech towards the end of his life (he died in 1988). The notes were taken and collated by James Cline and are available as a free pdf (see here).

“These twenty-two lectures, with exercises, comprise the extent of what was meant to be a full-year graduate-level course on the strong interactions and QCD, given at Caltech in 1987-88. The course was cut short by the illness that led to Feynman’s death. Several of the lectures were finalized in collaboration with Feynman for an anticipated monograph based on the course. The others, while retaining Feynman’s idiosyncrasies, are revised similarly to those he was able to check. His distinctive approach and manner of presentation are manifest throughout.”

To give a feel of the technical level, see the screenshot below. They’re interesting as they also include some research problems he was interested in at the time.

Contents of the Feynman Course on the Strong Interactions

If any of the above sounds interesting but unintelligible/daunting, some excellent preparatory reading at a lucid and descriptive level is provided by:

QED – The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is a fascinating book by Feynman originally published in 1988 that focuses on the breakthrough in the understanding of the interaction of light and matter (new edition with intro by Anthony Zee published in 2014). Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (together with Schwinger and Tomonaga) for this achievement. The book (aimed at a popular audience) also mentions the successful extension of these ideas to the other known interactions and particles. After reading this, you could then try

Lectures on Particle Physics by David Tong of Cambridge University (free pdf)
The four (fully up-to-date) lectures cover, using few equations; quantum fields, the strong and weak forces and ‘things we don’t know’.

Researching Time and Life

I’ve written recently on the conundrum of time (as viewed across many disciplines, covering both the arts and sciences) so was fascinated to read that a nearby university has been successful in winning a large grant to research this topic. From their website:

“The University of Surrey has received its largest ever philanthropic grant, funded by the John Templeton Foundation and worth US$3m (£2.1m), to lead a major new research project. The project will focus on the fundamental nature of time and its potential to reveal both scientific and philosophical insights into the quantum world – whose implications for life itself are explored in the new field of quantum biology.”

The public outreach activities sound quite exciting and it could be interesting to participate in some of them, so I’ll be monitoring news and progress.

What is quantum biology? A clear and detailed overview (from November 2018) is given here:

“Biological systems are dynamical, constantly exchanging energy and matter with the environment in order to maintain the non-equilibrium state synonymous with living. Developments in observational techniques have allowed us to study biological dynamics on increasingly small scales. Such studies have revealed evidence of quantum mechanical effects, which cannot be accounted for by classical physics, in a range of biological processes. Quantum biology is the study of such processes, and here we provide an outline of the current state of the field, as well as insights into future directions.”

And from the conclusion to this paper:

“The first book on quantum biology is entitled ‘Physics of the mystery of organic molecules’ by Pascual Jordan. Since its publication in 1932, however, many mysteries about the nature of life remain. It is clear that coarse-grained classical models fail to give an accurate picture of a range of processes taking place in living systems. The matter of ongoing debate
then, is the extent to which quantum effects play a non-trivial role in such biological processes.”

A popular science book is also available: Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.

Brain Filler and Blogging

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”― Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

I’m reviewing how I take notes and jottings as there’s certainly room for improvement. The situation is summarised by this graphic:

I use a time-varying collection of apps to help me, this is sometimes advantageous (offers new insights) but often a hindrance (finding information across various apps is time-consuming and annoying). What I need is a simpler system that is supported by a few chosen apps.

It’s not helped that there is currently a flood of note-taking apps and many of them are excellent. The pace of development is quite frenetic so it’s easy to get distracted by the latest must-have features. An informative and balanced overview of the note-taking landscape can be found on the site of Steve Zeoli.

I have a memory of someone saying focusing time on apps is easy and fun and but is low hanging fruit, the real gains come from overall strategy and habits not short term tools and tactics. That might be a bit extreme but it does make a good point. Anyway, this topic has lead to a number of very interesting sounding courses (see Forte Labs and The Sweet Setup for good examples, there’s also a lot of helpful information freely available there).

Regarding usefulness of information and knowledge, for me this currently revolves around assembling info to support my writing/blogging and also collating info on realising various personal projects. The first is creative (so a network of loose links is handy) whilst the latter is more pragmatic and focused.

A separate matter is gaining insights from previously created work that was itself based on research and thinking. I have been blogging for over 10 years now and have published over 650 articles (with over 200,000 views). However a lot of this material I’ve forgotten about which seems a pity, especially as some older articles get regularly rediscovered by readers and are presumably still interesting/useful.

As certain themes persist and develop over time, a blog may not be the best way of bringing this all together (you can set up categories and keywords as I have done but this is still not ideal). A slowly developing/emerging website might be more appropriate along the lines of the ‘digital gardens’ that are being talked about.

An interesting article on this is from Maggie Appleton, which gives a brief explanation plus some details on implementing them with currently popular programmes:

“Gardens are…
a) Explorable, rather than structured as a strictly linear steam of posts. This is usually achieved through deeply interlinking notes where readers can navigate freely through the content.
b) Slowly grown over time, rather than creating “finished” work that you never touch again. You revise, update, and change your ideas as they develop, and ideally find a way to indicate the “done-ness” state to your reader.”

She’s also written an interesting article on the history of digital gardens.

So I’m considering starting a project on reviewing all that I’ve done and extracting and pulling together the most useful/important strands (even if only for my own use and satisfaction). This is very much a research project, just playing around with options and ideas at present. But it’s clear that having a solid approach to so-called personal knowledge management would be helpful and perhaps even key.

Handling Procrastination

I’ve been reasonably busy the last 6 months and I’ve been telling myself this is the reason I’ve not posted much over this period. However rethinking this the other day I came to the conclusion my lack of productivity was mainly procrastination.

At the same time (serendipity) I came across a very succinct and helpful summary of the key points on procrastination from a company called Amazing Marvin. They offer software to help this ‘affliction’ and provide a free pdf (How To Beat Procrastination) as a taster. It’s an easy and attractive read with some very handy tips and suggestions. There are of course many books and articles on procrastination as it’s a very common problem but I found this particular booklet to the point and really helpful.

Here are the some of the points that strongly resonated with me.

They define procrastination as ‘the irrational avoidance of a task or activity’. The adjective irrational gives it away as there are (in a simple model) two parts of the brain competing with each other. The ancient part saying ‘let it go, isn’t there something easier to do?’ (perhaps prompted by a negative feeling associated with the task) and the rational (pre-frontal cortex) part trying to get something done (because it makes sense).

Once you give in to procrastination, it’s easy to do it again and the process then becomes self-perpetuating. In addition, short term, everything seems fine but longer term the task or activity is still there, waiting. It’s true that sometimes tasks naturally disappear and you can tell yourself you were clever in not doing them (another way of rewarding procrastination) but the majority of times this doesn’t apply.

They make the interesting point of raising self-awareness and realising when these two parts of the brain are competing. Then you can step in before battle commences (ie do something versus do nothing).

A related situation is when an emergency arises and it’s easy to focus as putting things off would be totally counterproductive.

Also, in my experience, when there is structure and organisation (say working in an organisation or having deadlines), you’re much less likely to procrastinate (although it’s still possible to leave things to the last minute). The most productive people I know seem to be those that introduce quite a lot of self-imposed discipline into their lives. It may be that some personalities find this easier than others or this could be just another procrastinating excuse once again!

One of the best tips they give is just to start doing the task or activity as it’s nearly always easier than you imagine and afterwards you’ll be bemused what the big deal was. This has happened to me countless times. You can even limit yourself to just 10 minutes on a task, you’ll often find that as the momentum increases it becomes easier and easier to avoid distractions.

Another interesting tip is to schedule a set period for ‘time wasting’ into your day so you don’t think you’re missing out on fun phone calls or social media. I’ve never tried this, I expect I wouldn’t like it and would want to do something more productive, perhaps that’s the point. They suggest quite big periods, say 2 hrs.

In addition to these and other techniques, they also talk about mindsets (fixed or growth). Fixed means you consider you have what you were born with and your early start in life and that’s that, no further significant progress possible. The growth mindset says you can always change, at any stage of your life. For example, you can acquire new habits and skills, become more open minded etc. The fixed mindset is certainly conducive to procrastination as it says ‘don’t bother there’s nothing you can do about it’ whereas the growth mindset is open to doing new things (and is ok with not being perfect and having the occasional failure).

The booklet goes on to consider a range of other aspects such as brain training, good mental and physical health habits etc.

You can register to get their free article (an impressive 73 pages) at Amazing Marvin (a pop-up appears from the left, you may have to click on a section to prompt this).

By the way, I have no relationship to the company whatsoever (this post is not a disguised advert).

In summary, I reproduce the key takeaways (extracted from their pdf):

  • Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem
  • Figure out what you procrastinate on and why (raise awareness)
  • Learn to minimize and tolerate negative emotions through mindset shifts, methods and practice
  • A procrastination supporting productivity system can reduce procrastination
  • Prevent negative spirals, focus on creating positive spirals
  • Use a custom mix of procrastination tools and strategies to take action on tasks
  • A training program is key to fixing the problem long-term
  • Mindset shifts help to minimize negative emotions
  • A strong brain can overcome procrastination more easily, learn how to take care of your brain

Figuring Out Whether You’re Happy

Here’s a fascinating TED Talk by Daniel Kahneman, the famous psychologist who got the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for his pioneering work on the role of behaviour (such as irrationality) in economics. The talk deals with the duality and conflicts between experiencing things and remembering things.

He points out that we have two distinct selves, the experiencing self (that lives in the moment) and the remembering self (that puts a story around selective past experiences). In figuring out whether we are ‘happy’ there are thus two versions, corresponding to the opinions of the two selves. There are studies to back this up and he describes these. He sums it up nicely via the difference between ‘being happy in your life versus being happy with or about your life.’ So a lot more complex that you might imagine.

Regarding the stories we remember or tell ourselves, the key factors are the ‘changes, significant moments and endings’ with endings being especially important. Time itself does not play such a key role.

From the transcript:

“So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they’re really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two-week vacation is twice as good as the one-week vacation. That’s not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation is barely better than the one-week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self; time has very little impact on the story.”

Another interesting point is that decisions come from the remembering or reflective self even though it’s very selective and most experiences are simply totally forgotten. I presume the mind is trying to figure out what may be most useful or helpful in the anticipated future from the colossal mass of experiences we all have.

“And yet, somehow you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It’s the finite resource that we’re spending while we’re on this earth. And how to spend it would seem to be relevant, but that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us.”

The thought provoking video is 20 minutes long and well worth listening to.