Santa’s On His Way

December 24, 2016



Spotted in a neighbour’s garden…and usually there’s an imaginatively dressed scarecrow in the summer!

Decisions Versus Engagement and Curiosity

December 17, 2016

From David Brooks in the NYT:

And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?

Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?

We don’t decide about life; we’re captured by life. In the major spheres, decision-making, when it happens at all, is downstream from curiosity and engagement. If we really want to understand and shape behavior, maybe we should look less at decision-making and more at curiosity. Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?

The Clash of Intuition with Probabilities

December 17, 2016

From an interesting article by Michael Schermer in Scientific American on how probabilities can seem unintuitive (the neuroscience of chance):

Have you ever gone to the phone to call a friend only to have your friend ring you first? What are the odds of that? Not high, to be sure, but the sum of all probabilities equals one. Given enough opportunities, outlier anomalies—even seeming miracles—will occasionally happen.

Let us define a miracle as an event with million-to-one odds of occurring (intuitively, that seems rare enough to earn the moniker). Let us also assign a number of one bit per second to the data that flow into our senses as we go about our day and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day. We get 43,200 bits of data a day, or 1.296 million a month. Even assuming that 99.999 percent of these bits are totally meaningless (and so we filter them out or forget them entirely), that still leaves 1.3 “miracles” a month, or 15.5 miracles a year.

Thanks to our confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore or discount contradictory evidence, we will remember only those few astonishing coincidences and forget the vast sea of meaningless data.

We can employ a similar back-of-the-envelope calculation to explain death premonition dreams. The average person has about five dreams a night, or 1,825 dreams a year. If we remember only a tenth of our dreams, then we recall 182.5 dreams a year. There are 300 million Americans, who thus produce 54.7 billion remembered dreams a year. Sociologists tell us that each of us knows about 150 people fairly well, thus producing a social-network grid of 45 billion personal relationship connections. With an annual death rate of 2.4 million Americans, it is inevitable that some of those 54.7 billion remembered dreams will be about some of these 2.4 million deaths among the 300 million Americans and their 45 billion relationship connections. In fact, it would be a miracle if some death premonition dreams did not happen to come true!


The Enjoyment of Reading

December 13, 2016


A handy set of principles from Austin Kleon (see also here).

I read quite a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the fiction comes through book club suggestions and this sometimes violates the reading recommendation 4 above. There have been a number of such books that I wouldn’t have finished unless there was a deadline and a physical meeting.

Interestingly some books I wouldn’t say I enjoyed exactly but nevertheless found demanding and were ultimately quite worthwhile. It’s also fascinating to hear others’ viewpoints and to challenge and discuss them. I guess this is social reading.

Regarding personal reading, I’ve left many books after the first chapter or that point where they seem to be fizzling out. Oddly I tend to feel a bit guilty or dissatisfied about this and recently came across this:

“I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory… If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read it because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old…. If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.

Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament—which I do not plan to write—I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writer’s reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment. It is the only way to read.” – Jorge Luis Borges

I think there’s another mode, that of intelligently skimming books, especially non-fiction. In particular many business related books often have little truly original content and what there is tends to be splattered around, often subsumed in the obligatory sample or illustrative stories. You can read this as a common complaint in Amazon reviews.

Paradoxically of course if someone wrote a really concise book and cut out all the superfluous filler, they’d then get lambasted as being too expensive for so little content!

So I think it might be a useful skill to eke out the gems as quickly as possible and then just move on. I presume this is what professional reviewers attempt to do all the time, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Regarding keeping stacks of books (that you may never read), I’ve written about this before (see here and image below)…


Adding Mess To Enhance Creativity

October 29, 2016

I suffer from occasional insomnia and as a result have often found myself listening to all sorts of talks on the radio in the middle of the night, usually the BBC World Service.

Now and then I’d hear something that really catches my attention, to the extent that it buzzs round my head the following day and I’d try to follow it up (terrible for my insomnia of course). Sometimes I’d be too sleepy though and, frustratingly, only a vague memory of the talk persists.

One recent example was a description of the way the outstandingly popular jazz piano concert by Keith Jarrett in Koln Cathedral came about. I’d bought the double album (vinyl) in the 80’s when I lived in Germany as lots of my friends were talking about it so the topic had a special ring to it anyway.

I’ve now tracked the talk down, a version is available as a TED Talk by Tim Harford. It’s well worth a listen (see above, just 15 mins long). Here are some extracts from the transcript.

Keith Jarrett had inspected the piano and decided it was unplayable and so wanted a new one, plus a tuner.

So Keith Jarrett left. He went and sat outside in his car, leaving Vera Brandes to get on the phone to try to find a replacement piano. Now she got a piano tuner, but she couldn’t get a new piano. And so she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, “Never forget … only for you.”

And so a few hours later, Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house, he sat down at the unplayable piano and began.

Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It’s an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it’s full of energy, it’s dynamic. And the audience loved it. Audiences continue to love it because the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

It’s one example that Harford gives of the impact of adding ‘mess’ to problems to help come up with more creative and unusual solutions.

Another interesting example (from a social psychology experiment) is the effect of putting ‘strangers’ into team conversations to disturb complacency and promote improved decision making. I’ve actually tried this myself when I was a manager in a large R&D company and it worked quite well (although it naturally raised lots of eyebrows).

He also emphasises that it’s usually the last thing we try to do as it requires additional and often ‘uncomfortable’ work and we may not even feel good about it afterwards!

The three friends and the stranger, even though the stranger didn’t have any extra information, even though it was just a case of how that changed the conversation to accommodate that awkwardness, the three friends and the stranger, they had a 75 percent chance of finding the right answer. That’s quite a big leap in performance.

But I think what’s really interesting is not just that the three friends and the stranger did a better job, but how they felt about it. So when Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups of four friends, they had a nice time, they also thought they’d done a good job. They were complacent. When she spoke to the three friends and the stranger, they had not had a nice time — it’s actually rather difficult, it’s rather awkward …and they were full of doubt. They didn’t think they’d done a good job even though they had. And I think that really exemplifies the challenge that we’re dealing with here.

The trials and tribulations of creativity.

The book related to this topic, Messy, was published in October 2016 and has had very positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (4/5).

I’ve written on ‘oblique strategies’ previously, see here.

More interesting background information on the concert here.

Economics for Everyman

September 1, 2016

I’ve always had an interest in getting to know the fundamentals of economics. I’ve even bought a number of introductory books over the years to educate myself. Unfortunately I found them all a bit dull and gave up. However I’ve always been on the outlook for something accessible as it’s clearly an important subject.

All this was heightened by Brexit. I followed articles and opinions in a variety of media (hoping to develop an informed and balanced viewpoint) but ended up confused especially as many of the competing arguments were quite direly presented (here).

I often think this is clumsily deliberate with a blatant diversion to emotional triggers and kneejerk responses (which doesn’t say much for the politicians estimates of the voting public). If more people were better informed, it must be a good thing.

The above video by Ha-Joon Chang is a welcome relief (‘95% of economics is common sense’). Well made and very instructive and gives just enough info to tempt a longer investigation.

‘Economics is for everyone’, argues legendary economist Ha-Joon Chang in our latest mind-blowing RSA Animate. This is the video economists don’t want you to see! Chang explains why every single person can and SHOULD get their head around basic economics. He pulls back the curtain on the often mystifying language of derivatives and quantitative easing, and explains how easily economic myths and assumptions become gospel. Arm yourself with some facts, and get involved in discussions about the fundamentals that underpin our day-to-day lives.

A recent book of his is: Economics: The User’s Guide. It gets excellent reviews but is still a daunting 528 pages! I’ll order it from my local library (partly to help keep it going and partly because I’m trying to buy less books, the house is full of them).

Background on Ha-Joon Chang:

“I was born in Seoul, South Korea, on 7 October, 1963 (there are stories about what life was like in South Korea in my youth in the Prologue of my book, Bad Samaritans). I came to the UK as a graduate student at the Faculty of Economics and Politics, University of Cambridge in 1986. I earned my PhD in 1992. I have been teaching economics at the Faculty of Economics (as it is called now) and the Development Studies programme at the University of Cambridge since 1990.”

Serendipity and Portobello Road

August 4, 2016

A few weeks ago I published an article on photowalks, giving some examples from a trip to Portobello Market in London. Fairly soon after this, I was in the local library looking for books to read and came across the title Portobello by Ruth Rendell (crime fiction).

I thought it unlikely that there would be much mention of the area, except for passing references and general backdrop. Also, not being sure if it was the sort of book I was in the mood for reading, I used the ‘first page rule’ – just read it and see if it has an immediate impact!

Consequently I was quite surprised to find this on page one (see here):

“It is called the Portobello Road because a long time ago a sea captain called Robert Jenkins stood in front of a committee of the House of Commons and held up his amputated ear. Spanish coast guards, he said, had boarded his ship in the Caribbean, cut off his ear, pillaged the vessel, then set it adrift. Public opinion had already been aroused by other Spanish outrages, and the Jenkins episode was the last straw to those elements in Parliament which opposed Walpole’s government. They demanded British vengeance and so began the War of Jenkins’s Ear.

In the following year, 1739, Admiral Vernon captured the city of Puerto Bello in the Caribbean. It was one of those successes that are popular with patriotic Englishmen, though many hardly knew what the point of it was. In the words of a poet writing about another battle and another war: “That I cannot tell, said he, but ’twas a famous victory.” Vernon’s triumph put Puerto Bello on the map and gave rise to a number of commemorative names. Notting Hill and Kensal were open country then where sheep and cattle grazed, and one landowner called his fields Portobello Farm. In time the lane that led to it became the Portobello Road. But for Jenkins’s ear it would have been called something else…

Street markets abounded in the area, in Kenley Street, Sirdar Road, Norland Road, Crescent Street, and Golborne Road. The one to survive was the Portobello, and from 1927 onwards a daily market was held there from eight in the morning to eight in the evening and 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. on Saturdays. It still is, and in a much reduced state on Sundays too.”

I was not expecting to be educated! It made me realise how superficial my knowledge of London really was and how intricate and surprising some of the historical stories are.

Moral – it’s worth dabbling, you never know what you might find!