Handling Feedback

May 13, 2017

simple-jacket

I’m a big fan of cookery books, even though my level of expertise in that area is still rather low (although enthusiastic). There are a lot of things that are wrong with these books (I’m still rather vaguely thinking of writing one myself to correct these errors, if only for my own use). You can easily read about the common complaints (usually too many and/or difficult to find ingredients, loose practical instructions etc) in Amazon reviews (once you’ve excluded the gushing ones).

In one case (book given above), I was quite surprised to find that the author had taken the time to reply to these criticisms, which was quite unusual although delightful. It’s a pity this is not taken on board by more authors, it could be quite enlightening. In fact, whilst checking this post, it turns out that the author, Diana Henry, replies to quite a few comments, quite exceptional!

It’s illuminating comparing and contrasting the two viewpoints, with the answer (at least in my case) being to aim for somewhere in between (so the response of the author has certainly been worthwhile and helpful).

As an example, first a reader’s comment (an extract actually):

When the ingredients of a recipe go well into double figures – that’s not simple. When the ingredients include ‘nduja (that’s an actual ingredient and not a typo), sambal oelek, smoked almonds, black “venus” rice, fregola – that’s not simple. I’m not saying I won’t cook some of these dishes, but they won’t be for midweek meals for my family. And while I may consider around 40% of these recipes to be simple, there are probably less than ten that I would attempt to put on the table midweek.

There are dishes that I will cook, that I want to cook, but this is aspirational rather than inspirational cooking. Make sure you know what you’re buying, so it doesn’t end up another beautiful cookbook on your kitchen shelf that you never open.

and now the thoughtful reply (extracted, that follows the comment referenced above):

Dear Lesley,

I’m the author of Simple and I’m really sorry (especially as I am also the mother with plenty of fish fingers and ketchup on hand) that this book was a disappointment to you. I did write in the intro to the book that I think you need to have some unusual ingredients to make everyday food a bit more exciting…

You cite the sea bream with pomegranate and walnut stuffing. You just mix the ingredients for the fish, fill the cavity and put it in the oven. It’s one of the simplest dishes in the book…

There are no difficult techniques in this book at all – I am not a chef – but there are interesting ideas and combinations of flavours. You are clearly a cook – as you say there’s lots you want to make – but please try some dishes which seem more unusual. I think you’ll be surprised. Often they seem more complicated – because they’re unusual in some way – than they actually are…

Very best wishes,

Diana Henry

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Clarify Your Uncertainty and Talk

May 9, 2017

Sage advice from the writer Tim Kreider:

The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.

Spotted here.

I’ve noticed, in connection with an idea I’ve been developing, that chatting to friends about it for 30 mins (attempting to explain it in a couple of clear sentences, handling the immediate objections, taking on board some incredibly useful suggestions) far outweighs researching it on Google (and getting endlessly distracted) for 2-3 hours! It’s amazing how helpful people can be (if you let them).

This is well-visualised below (you’re tapping into what and who they know, see here):


The Death of Expertise

May 4, 2017

I’m still suffering from bouts of insomnia but one of the odd useful side-effects is that I listen to all sorts of radio programmes in the middle of the night. Some are quite fascinating and I get hooked although I usually doze off before it finishes. Often I can’t remember the names or details of the topic, just that it was interesting but some fortunately stick in the mind.

A recent example was an interview with Tom Nichols, who is the author of a book entitled ‘The Death of Expertise’ (Oxford University Press, 2017). The book discusses the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion as a cultural trend. In the current climate (US Trump plus UK Brexit) this is especially relevant.

I’ve not read the book (although I’ve ordered it) but here are some extracts from a detailed review:

“He (Nicols) sees the longstanding (probably perennial) shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container filled with the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century American life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion. Like Christopher Hayes in ‘The Twilight of the Elites‘, he acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.”

“But one really interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)”.

Note (see here): The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is.

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.


Inspiring Questions

April 7, 2017

I started my career as a research physicist and later moved into the commercial R&D sector. However I still keep in touch with various friends who stayed in academia. Now and again I’m tempted to take a look at research papers from people I knew just to get a feel for things (there is an excellent preprint service available: https://arxiv.org/ ).

Most research papers start with some motivation for the problem, the approach taken (with lots of details) and the results obtained plus a (usually brief) discussion of remaining issues. However looking at one paper I was surprised to find that a whole page was devoted to the open questions that the work lead to plus initial ideas on how to progress each one (and sometimes why an obvious approach had failed).

So the investigative work lead to results plus a string of further interesting questions (that anyone could pick up on if they were interested) and this was an aspect that was emphasised. I won’t give the reference as the work is very technical, the main point is the notion that progressing one question leads to concrete progress (‘answers’) plus a set of further incisive questions.

This may seem rather logical and obvious except that, at least in my experience, this is rarely the way things are presented (either written or through a talk). It seems to me that this observation is not restricted to technical areas but more or less anything that involves some investigative research and thinking.

Often the impression is given that a major issue has been ‘solved’ by a certain approach whereas the truth is more likely that a certain degree of clarification has been made and a number of really interesting follow-on questions tumble out (which should be exciting/inspiring!).

To take advantage of this, it would be natural to invoke an interactive conversation. So, instead of slides plus a general and typically short Q&A session, there would be an overview of the approach (with a few clarifying questions) plus a highly interactive and dynamic conversation with the aim of pushing things on or at least deepening the collective understanding. Although this may not be suitable for all topics it should work for some.

It’s obvious why this doesn’t happen as it shows vulnerability, there are loose ends and truly interactive group conversations are still relatively rare and unfamiliar. However, at the same time the issue of ‘death by Powerpoint’ is still prevalent and acknowledged to be seriously lacking.

Maybe the germ of something new here, or perhaps some sort of hybrid as a less-threatening compromise approach?

On the general issue of thinking about and running good conversational events, take a look at David Gurteen’s very interesting site here (work in progress).


Ignorance, Knowledge and Action

April 7, 2017

Interesting quote spotted recently:

“The gap between ignorance and knowledge is much less than the gap between knowledge and action.” –  Anonymous

I spend ages collecting all sorts of information and knowledge (probably because it’s rather easy and pleasant to do) but how much focused or useful action results from this is highly unlikely to be proportionate (it’s much harder, takes more time etc). So, as the above quote neatly emphasises, if anything, you need to cut down on the former (as it’s easy to rectify) and progressively aim at increasing the latter activity (and through practice get better at it).


Selling The Future

April 5, 2017

From Seth Godin:

When we buy a stake in the future, what we’re actually buying is how it makes us feel today.

We move up all the imagined benefits and costs of something in the future and experience them now. That’s why it’s hard to stick to a diet (because celery tastes bad today, and we can’t easily experience feeling healthy in ten years). That’s why we make such dumb financial decisions (because it’s so tempting to believe magical stories about tomorrow).

If you want people to be smarter or more active or more generous about their future, you’ll need to figure out how to make the transaction about how it feels right now.


Hard Work or Magic?

March 16, 2017

I came across this interesting quote:

“I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have got ourselves. I suggest, furthermore, that when you feel that you could almost have written the book yourself—that’s the moment when it’s influencing you. You are not influenced when you say, ‘How marvelous! What a revelation! How monumental! Oh!’ You are being extended. You are being influenced when you say ‘I might have written that myself if I had not been so busy.’” – E. M. Forster, “A Book That Influenced Me,” from Two Cheers for Democracy

It reminded me of a quote from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe on the famous physicist Richard Feynman:

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.” — Hans Bethe

I’ve written on Feynman a number of times previously, see here.