Alcohol or Algorithm II

Up before 7am – a cup of tea made, the bed stripped and sheets in the washer before 9am. Out to the shops before several of them were open, and it’s a Saturday!

What’s going on?

18 months without drinking is what’s going on… Who’d have thought it? Not me that’s for sure. Least of all when I wrote this blog on New Year’s Day 2020.

Still (as subsequent reading has helped me realise) the signs and signals were there some while before. Five years ago in fact:

And then more recently:

So how did we get here? Two books, some Lego, a flower and a podcast…

Book one, by Simon Chapple, spoke to my cultural background as a middle aged British bloke; and dealt with my conscious mind:

Reading this led me to book two, by Annie Grace, which gave me stories, science and neuroscience; this dealt with my subconscious mind:

To get through the first days in early Jan 2020 (and it sustained me through the onset of the pandemic and more) I bought myself a Lego ‘clock’ which I converted into a day counter:

Coming up to three months…
At the turn of the year I gave up counting.

The flower is the carnivorous pitcher plant. It lures unsuspecting insects in search of a pool of delicious sweet nectar. Some varieties have a gentle slope which invites you in. Indiscernibly the insects passes a point of no-return. And then ‘plop’, into the drink and a sticky end.

The argument is we’re all inexorably wandering down the enticing slope of the pitcher plant with alcohol. It’s just a question of whether we’re meandering, or marching purposefully.

Finally, regular reinforcement as been helped by a podcast series, which is so culturally different for me (largely American, deeply personal life stories, mainly from women) that I find it incredibly powerful. It gets through my residual subconscious resistance to the reality of alcohol:

In sum, it’s a bit like when I quit smoking; thoroughly disgusted with myself after smoking three packs (and drinking a skinful) at a wedding in 2001. I’ve not had a cigarette since. I think I’d just had enough – and reminding myself of quitting smoking certainly helped on the odd day I’ve fancied a drink since 2019.

I can’t see myself going back though; and this week has given me a couple of reminders why.

Heading indoors to a pub (for the first time since lockdown) on Monday to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I arrived to find tequila shots already on the table. I smiled and said:

“Sorry chaps, I’m still not drinking.”

A few disappointed and incredulous looks, but people are getting used to it now. I ordered a low alcohol Erdinger and settled in for the evening.

Two and a half hours later it was getting on for time to leave. A half-hearted shout went up for “One more beer?” Everyone was tired, we’d had a good laugh and it was a ‘school night’ so there were mumbles of “Not for me”, “I’m good” etc. But then the inevitable happened in the ‘world of men’… someone pressed the group into “one more”. Another shot of tequila. I smiled and said I’m off.

As any heavyweight boxer will tell you (if they still can) it’s the late-career, late round punches that do all the damage. Into our fifties at past 11pm on a Monday night, we have no business doing shots. That’s a younger man’s game. I’m glad to be out of it.

And so to this morning. Bright, alert, healthy, happy, well-rested and ready for my day. And the only explanation (and it takes a year for the brain to rewire, the chemicals to rebalance and the urge to hit the alcohol ‘kill switch’ and turn your mind off to pass) is the absence of alcohol from my life.

Turns out it’s no loss at all.

Shocking

After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.

My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.

As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.

Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.

So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…

How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.

Peace at last!

No laughing matter…

One of the things I noticed on completing my latest Coursera psychology course is that I’m not laughing much these days…

Having checked out the late Chris Peterson’s Strength Based Perspective on Mental Illness – I found I’m suffering a bout of ‘dourness’.

Here’s Peterson’s table:

Peterson’s work bears more than a passing resemblance to Aristotle’s virtues, strengths and character deficits:

Notably Aristotle doesn’t have ‘humour’ in his list per se; instead he has ‘wittiness’ in the virtue of ‘conversation’ and ‘friendliness’ in the virtue of ‘social conduct’.

Now, following Aristotle’s logic, I can see why I’m not laughing much – laughter is a social thing more than a personal humour, joking or consuming ‘funniness’ thing. You need people for laughter. It’s infectious and contagious. And given the other infectious contagious thing out there right now, we’re just not rubbing along with people as much. Too little witty conversation and not enough scope for seeing friends. No wonder I’m laughing less.

And this chimes with Professor Sophie Scott’s work on laughter – in a nutshell you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…

We typically link laughter and humour very profoundly, but the link may not be as close as we imagine. When I started working with laughter, as part of my work into vocal emotional expressions, I always used to refer to it as “amusement”. However, our lay understanding of laughter is not quite on the ball – while we do laugh at jokes and comedy, we laugh most in social situations.

Watching comedies on my own on Netflix (as I’ve tried) doesn’t really do the job. Watching comedies with the family does… Not so surprising, as Scott’s research shows:

Laughter, like yawning, is behaviourally contagious, and we can catch it easily from other people, especially if we know them.

And it matters too – Peterson is right ‘dourness’ is bad for you and as Sophie Scott concludes:

In short, we do laugh because of humour and jokes, but we laugh mostly because of love and affection. We laugh to share meaning and understanding, to make ourselves feel better, to reaffirm relationships and to make new ones. It’s probably time to be taking our laughter more seriously.

So laughter is far less about ‘funnies’ and far more about conversations and friendship. On reflection, I have actually been laughing a bit lately – on Zooms with people at work.

Laughter is a highly infectious social phenomenon, and Scott’s work explains why the other one – Covid-19 – is getting in the way; I need to phone a few more friends!

Hallelujah!

Bowling along a sunny street today, with the hound and my AirPods in – a couple of ribald thoughts came to mind. I smiled inwardly.

And then what should boom out via iTunes shuffle but Handel’s ‘Hallelujah chorus’

…And I smiled some more.

And he shall reign forever and ever

King of kings forever and ever

And Lord of lords

hallelujah

hallelujah

And he shall reign forever and ever

Forever and ever and ever and ever

Etc.

Stirring stuff.

And as I sang along in my head, I thought of my poor old ‘inner voice’ who I’ve been giving a hard time of late.

Ignored; in favour of mindfully contemplating my breath and feet and whatnot. Berated; for worrying and dredging up unhappy memories. Muzzled; from saying anything funny, spontaneous or inappropriate. Sidelined; in favour of endlessly listening to others, accepting their points of view (however unreasonable) and looking for common-ground.

My poor old inner voice feels a bit like King George III in the fabulous musical ‘Hamilton’, the under-appreciated autocrat to whom the people of America turn their back.

So, even though my ‘internal King George’ is a right old pain sometimes, I’ve decided to give him a standing ovation today.

Pompous, opinionated, selfish, self-absorbed, self-pitying, sometimes petty and childish and often wrong, my inner voice is thoroughly Hanoverian at times.

And like the Georgian era it can be bawdy and rowdy; but also rational, curious and enlightened.

So here’s to my very own internal King George! A day of appreciation is in order; and an internal reprise of Hallelujah with the obligatory standing ovation to boot.

Hallelujah was written for George II, who set the trend by apparently spontaneously rising to his feet to applaud it on its first performance – although possibly by some accounts more because of pins and needles, gout or the simple desire to stretch his legs.

A bit like the Georgian inner voice – always up to something…

Frankish

Out walking the dog, what should pop up on my podcast playlist than Keith Frankish on Philosophy Bites explaining why I was lost in thought, while the dog was 100% focused on the walk…

The difference between us is he lives in the immediate, whereas we spend a lot of our time elsewhere.

Why?

Frankish explains:

Consciousness is the distinctive feature of the human mind. Because a conscious thought is a thought about something that isn’t perceptually present. We can react to thoughts about the world detached from immediate perception.

So if we can do it, why can’t animals? Not least given we have ostensibly similar sensory apparatus and not massively dissimilar brains?

The crucial difference is we have language… Frankish’s proposal is that it is the presence of language that enables us to have conscious thought, not just conscious perception.

We don’t just use language for communicating with each other, we use language for communicating with ourselves; for stimulating ourselves in new ways, for representing the world to ourselves, for representing situations that aren’t actually real… situations that ‘might’ happen and this enables us to anticipate, to plan to prepare for eventualities that haven’t yet occurred.

He continues:

This, I think is the function of conscious thought. Conscious thought, I think, is essentially a kind of speaking to ourselves.

And by talking to ourselves we can mentally shift in time and space in ways which my trusty hound probably can’t. He’s a clever little chap – but apart from chasing bunnies and squirrels in his sleep (you can see his legs twitching as he runs them down) he’s a creature of the immediate present.

As Frankish explains:

We might say that one of the main functions of mind generally, in us and other animals, is to lock us onto the world; to make us sensitive to the world around us so we can respond quickly to changes to enable us to negotiate the world in a rapid and flexible way.

But Homo Sapiens has another trick…

The function of the conscious mind, I think is quite different. It’s not to lock us onto the world, it is to unlock us from the world – to enable us to consider alternative worlds, to consider what we would do if things weren’t as we expect them to be, to make plans for how we might change the world.

So this ability to step back from the ‘immediate’ and use language – talking to ourselves – to reflect on what is, has, might or will happen is what our unique combination of language and consciousness give us.

So far so generically interesting. But potentially even more interesting is how I’m going to try and use this insight…

Here are the mental steps:

  1. Most of the bad things that are happening to me in work (and there are plenty) are made worse be me running over them in my mind.
  2. Because I’m quite verbally dexterous I may be guilty of sharpening them in my inner dialogue to the point of exquisite pain.
  3. There is increasing evidence that most mental health problems contain a common ‘p’ factor of generic susceptibility.
  4. Treatments may vary but nearly all (bar the most serious) respond to ‘talking therapies’ which aim to change the inner dialogue.
  5. Mindfulness, which helps too, is all about turning off the ‘inner talking’ and returning to the moment – in effect locking back onto the world as a trusty hound would.
  6. Although bad things are happening to me at work (as they are for most people right now) they are still not as bad as the versions in my mind (at least not all of the time) and most of them are anticipated and haven’t actually happened yet.
  7. My inner voice is currently more negative and ruminative than is good for me.
  8. And talking to other people makes it even worse.

So what to do?

Simple – switch language, and here’s why:

  1. People in several different workplaces down the years have commented that I’m very cheerful and animated when I speak French.
  2. I remember that when I used to live in France I couldn’t really do numbers very well in French; it’s like I was saying them in my head but the ‘numbers bit’ of my brain wasn’t properly engaging.
  3. If I’m thinking about something terrible – like getting made redundant or making other people redundant it makes me feel really sad.
  4. If I consciously think about the same thing in French, there is little or no physiological effect… it’s as if the ‘pain connectors’ aren’t there; I think it, but more slowly and not sadly…

Perhaps it’s because I have to work at it. I think more slowly, and my vocabulary is less ‘fine’ in French – but it seems the pain and sadness just isn’t there when I think the same thought in French. In fact it’s not really the same ‘thought’ at all, its more a daisy chain of words which register in the mind but aren’t ‘felt’ in the same way.

So based on Keith Frankish, when bad and sad thoughts crowd in, I clearly need to switch to Frankish – or French as we know it these days. Whenever I start ruminating or feel chest clenching anxieties about work I plan to try thinking about them in French to get them under control.

Let’s see if it works… And if not there’s always Italiano! Vive la France.

Itchy and Scratchy

Turns out dopamine isn’t what I thought it was… I thought I was a simple lab rat seeking sugar solution with my many pastimes.

But it turns out dopamine is a motivator not a reward… Dopamine is the itch not the scratch; and that’s why it’s so motivating.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

In popular culture and media, dopamine is usually seen as the main chemical of pleasure, but the current opinion in pharmacology is that dopamine instead confers motivational salience; in other words, dopamine signals the perceived motivational prominence (i.e., the desirability or aversiveness) of an outcome, which in turn propels the organism’s behavior toward or away from achieving that outcome.

And thus dopamine doesn’t bring satisfaction. In fact, I’ve discovered, the opposite – the more you scratch the more it itches. Dopamine powers learning and curiosity; and seems to reward it. But once you’re in a dopamine cycle it just itches and itches and itches.

It’s dopamine which powers all addictions: drugs, gambling and alcohol most notably. But it also fuels any form of compulsive behaviour; wherever your subconscious tells you you need to “feed your need” from marathon running to marathon eating, dopamine is urging you on.

So now I’m starting to understand why my jockey is forever lost

I’ve been chasing dopamine; instead of letting life be its own reward.

Cardiac Coherence

I’d forgotten all about cardiac coherence having first read (and written) about it in 2010. But finding it again is a wonderful thing…

As I put it to someone at work: what’s not to like about about a regular feeling of ‘lightness, warmth and expansion in your chest?’

Even better when it becomes something you sometimes default to; as I found listening to Happy Tracks on a busy bus into work this week.

Here’s what it is and how you do it from David Servan-Schreiber’s wonderful ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’:

Enjoy.

: )

Randomness

I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.

But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.

A pseudorandomly generated bitmap – Wikipedia

Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…

After all, life is all about optimisation.

Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.

But there are (and should be) limits:

The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.

I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.

But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:

If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.

‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:

Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.

Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:

Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.

And third from ‘Simulated Annealing‘:

You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.

And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:

Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.

At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.

Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:

Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”

Hilaritas mentis

After a full (and indeed a fulfilling) schedule of festive feasts and gatherings; the final set piece hoves into view – the big one: New Year’s Eve…

Classically the ‘bridge too far’, I usually approach New Year’s Eve with a heavy heart and a bulging acid stomach. But not this year!

Perhaps in part thanks to Josef Pieper and St Thomas Aquinas.

Last night I finished ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’ and found myself reflecting on temperantia which Wikipedia has thus:

Temperance is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint. It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.

Temperantia, by Luca Giordano (Wikipedia)

But not for Josef Pieper, who offers a typically full blooded rebuttal of this ‘modern’ interpretation:

The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess.

He continues:

Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content.

Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.

Boom!

Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.

Which kinda makes sense. So what of the gustatory arts? St Augustine offers a very reasonable take:

It is a matter of indifference what or how much a man eats, provided the welfare of those with whom he is associated, his own welfare and the requirements of health be not disregarded; what matters is just one thing, namely, the ease and cheerfulness of heart with which he is able to renounce food if necessity or moral obligation require it.

To which Thomas Aquinas adds pithily.

To oppress one’s body by exaggerated fasting and vigils is like bringing stolen goods as a sacrificial offering.

And furthermore:

If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt;”

After all as Pieper points out, the Bible says:

“When you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks!” (Matt. 6, 16).

Because it transpires, the whole point of temperantia is to keep heart and soul happy and healthy – no more and no less. For as Pieper warns:

All discipline… bears in itself the constant danger of the loss of self-detachment, and of a change into self-righteousness, which draws from its ascetic “achievements” the profit of a solid self-admiration.

And we wouldn’t want that on New Year’s Eve, would we?

Instead, having eaten, drunk and been adequately merry (and stayed on the right side of 11 stone this Xmas) I’ll follow Pieper’s advice and crank out another evening of hilaritas mentis – namely: cheerfulness of heart.

Here’s to temperantia!