Smile, surf, sleep

Smile

Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile. 

I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.

This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation. 

Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.

Surf

I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy. 

More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it. 

This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together. 

So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily. 

As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.


Sleep

My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm. 

All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.

Stations on the road to Freedom

I shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the road to freedom” with an old friend this week.

I bought a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Ethicswhen I was searching for a famous quotation – which is actually by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 by the Nazi authorities and survived first Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps.

Niemöller’s famous statement, reminds us that sometimes if you don’t take a stand, there may be no-one left to stand up for you:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” 

Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the war. His ‘Stations on the road to freedom’ were written in Tegel prison before his death at the hands of the Nazis.

His words really speak to me. But they have a few bits where God intervenes as the ultimate answer. Those bits aren’t for me. So with a gentle edit, here is my secular version of Bonhoeffer’s four stations.

Secular “Stations on the Road to Freedom” after Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Discipline

If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow. Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

Action

Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in those commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.

Suffering

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended; you sigh in relief; so now you may rest contented.

Death

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed.

As I said in an email to my good friend: 

“I’m doing ok on 1) Discipline and 2) Action, haven’t a huge amount to complain about on 3) Suffering by global standards, and I’m still in the prime of life – albeit number four will get us all in the end.”

“That and the greater number of protons which have cascaded across membranes in my body than there are stars in the observable universe in the time it has taken to write you this, are my thoughts for the day.”

I’m somewhere between half and two thirds down the ‘road to freedom’. Important, amid all the ‘action’ to remember that; and enjoy the ride.

Throwing Stones

Is there anything more annoying than egos. We all have them; but some people more than others.

I like to kid myself I don’t have a big ego. I probably do, but my saving graces are: I’m not bothered about being right, I’m not bothered about power for its own sake and I’d be quite happy with a quiet life.

Not so other people. I suppose I’ll have peace when they nail the box lid down on my old bones; and I’m in no rush for that – but this week has been a right old ball-ache. And all because of egos.

Thank goodness for the comforts of family. Children are usually pleased to see you, and my other half has rallied round. 

As I often say at work though, apparently humankind had two stand out strengths on the savanna plain: stamina and overarm throwing. Keep jogging after problems and eventually they fall to the ground – if you can avoid all the people throwing stones…

Alcohol or Algorithm?

  

On an exceptionally relaxing family break (with the in-laws last week) I had an epiphany; floating for the first time in my life in a hot tub…

If I feel like I have no time… if I’m often tired… if work (as Aristotle predicted) is “absorbing and degrading my mind”… and there’s no way out until my middle 50s… what’s the solution? 

The solution, requires a lot less C2H6O in it. Yes alcohol is terrific: a mood enhancer, a relaxer, a taker away of social inhibitions – it helps me (in the right circumstances) to be the life and soul of the party; or at least not a party pooper.

But alcohol is also rubbish: a low grade tranquilliser, a duller of the senses and a bringer of a fuzzy mouth and an even fuzzier head. And there’s the alcohol rub – it leaves you doped, dulled and dozy, and at times downright poorly.

I came to me, as I lolled in that hot tub – at this stage in my life and work, I haven’t got enough time to be regularly tranquillised, dulled and fuzzy; still less to be feeling below par. 

The opportunity cost of pouring that glass of red or a cheeky prosecco is a welcome numbness; but also a decline in judgement, self-control and useful activity… 

I begin to graze the fridge and sweetie cupboard, as my expanding waistline testifies. And since starting my new job I’ve been more and more attracted to the tranquillising effect… and that’s not good.

So the antidote to less time; is to consume less C2H6O. 

A weekend into my new regime, more jobs were getting done, more of the things I know are good for me – reading, cooking, washing, learning languages, domestic innovations, getting to bed earlier, exercise, cups of tea, hanging out the washing, sitting in the garden.

This week at work, I have carried all before me, with a combination of good cheer and industriousness. As well a packing in 10 hour days and a stack more exercise.

Not that most of this wouldn’t have got done before; but I’m far less tired, I haven’t eated half a kilo each of cheese and chocolate en route and I just feel better.

And so to the second half of my epiphany – if less alcohol is one good move, on what should I spend the time and energy dividend? I’ve bought a book on Machine Learning and algorithms to see what computer science and coding can offer a modern life… 

A life is, after all, just developing our own ever-improving Bayesian algorithm: as we see more, do more and learn more. Assuming we’re not sleeping off a heavy night that is.

But I’ll not be saying no to booze full stop. Oh no!

When there’s a fun to be had; people to enjoy a drink with and a reason to celebrate – bring it on. It’s just the routine quaffing I need to tackle. 

Or as my new Machine Learning book suggests:

  • If Situation = Social|Drink
  • If Situation = Kitchen|Don’t

The simple question is Alcohol or Algorithm? 

If there’s no good reason to be drinking, I’ll be trying not to – so I can have more time for thinking and learning and doing new stuff.

Rumination

  
An interesting discovery from Learned optimismis that rumination is the optimist’s worst enemy… Chewing the cud leads to pessimism and inaction.

One thing I’ve learned at work down the years is: ‘if in doubt, do something’

Armed with this new insight I’m even more sure taking and helping others take action – sometimes any action – is my best defence against mine and their pessimism.

And this reminded me to look up Hannah Arendt the great 20th century philosopher, who I seemed to remember was big on action too… 

  

I was right. Here’s a boiled down extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  

“For Arendt, action constitutes the highest realization of the vita activa, via three categories which correspond to the three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action. 

Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction.

Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use.

Action is judged by its ability to [manifest] the identity of the agent and to actualize our capacity for freedom.

Although Arendt considers the three activities of labor, work and action equally necessary to a complete human life, it is clear from her writings that she takes action to be the ‘differentia specifica’ of human beings.

Action distinguishes [us] from both the life of animals (who are similar to us insofar as they need to labor to sustain and reproduce themselves) and the life of the gods (with whom we share, intermittently, the activity of contemplation).”

Nuff said. I made myself a little flowchart last Sunday to remind me, which still seems on the money…

 

In the face of setbacks, troubles and ugliness; don’t ruminate – act. 

In the presence of success, progress and beauty; act – but don’t forget to contemplate too.

Or another way to look at it, less Theo van Doesburg

  

More Franz Marc

 

No more chewing the cud.

Optimism Epiphany

   

I’ve had an epiphany. It all comes down to three Ps; and avoiding learned helplessness

First discovered in dogs and then in humans, Wikipedia takes up the strain here:

Research has found that human reactions to a lack of control differ both between individuals and between situations. For example, learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations.

An influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. 

For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.

If you want to bounce back fast from setbacks and beat the blues, Martin Seligman’s book and the thesis of learned optimism are well worth a read. It’s certainly working for me. 

I’m ruminating less, and actively breaking up permanent, pervasive and personal interpretations of bad situations when I hit them…

I’m regularly reminding myself: 

“It’ll pass”, “it’s just one part of my life”, “it’s not me that’s causing this.”

And directing myself – and others – toward action, not helplessness: 

“Ok but what can we do about it right now”,  “OK if we can’t fix that, what else can we fix” and “if anyone is going to make this better we can, so let’s have a go.” 

I feel a lot better, and people around me do too. It transpires the main benefit of pessimism is you predict the future better. 

Optimism might help change it.

Deep Time

  

Reading Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 objects, on chapter 91 I came across the concept of ‘deep time’. And deeply troubling it must have been in the 1800s; as people began to come to terms with it.

‘Deep time’, I discover, was the dawning recognition that the world was much much older than people had thought – and far less constant. Prior to ‘deep time’ the world was assumed to be capricious (hence gods) but unchanging (hence the need to pacify them).

The geneticist Steve Jones (who I’ve been fortunate to spend some time with) is quoted thus: 

The biggest transformation since the Enlightenment has been a shift in our attitude to time, the feeling time is effectively infinite, both the time that’s gone and the time that’s to come. It’s worth remembering that the summit of Everest, not long ago in the context of deep time, was at the bottom of the ocean; and some of the best fossils of whales are actually found high in the Himalayas. 

Deep time threw everything up in the air – origins, purpose and our place not just in the world; but in those unfathomably vast aeons of time and the unimaginably vast expanse of the universe. We went from the centre of everything to tiny, transient and trivial.

Faced with this reality I’ve often cheered myself up with the thought that bits of me were formed in stars. And I read somewhere once, we all have some molecules in us which were once in Julius Caesar and Napoleon. 

Nice therefore to read an entire feature in the New Scientist today, predicated on exactly this; the calcium atom formed in a star which is now in our bodies, the water in our blood which was once in a dinosaur etc. But the one which sparked my imagination was Stephen Battersby’s story of the iron ion formed in a supernova. 

I pick up the iron nucleus’s journey here, as it is spat out from the periphery of a large black hole: 

By the time our iron nucleus leaves this maelstrom, it has an energy of about 8 joules, millions of times greater than anything Earth’s Large Hadron Collider can provide. Now at about 99.9999999999999999 per cent of the speed of light. It is flung out of its native galaxy into the emptiness of intergalactic space.

As the iron nucleus wanders between galaxies, pulled this way and that by magnetic fields, its view of the universe is a strange one. At this ludicrous speed, the effects of relativity compress faint starlight from all directions into a single point dead ahead. Relativity also does strange things to time. While the nucleus is travelling, the universe around it ages by 200 million years. In another distant galaxy, Earth’s sun completes one lazy orbit of the Milky Way, dinosaurs proliferate, continents split and rejoin. But to the speeding nucleus, the whole trip takes about 10 weeks.

On the last day of its intergalactic holiday, our traveller finally approaches the Milky Way’s messy spiral. It heads towards a type G2 dwarf star, and a planet where the dinosaurs are now long dead. According to onboard time, the iron nucleus passes Pluto just 16 microseconds before it reaches Earth. When it arrives here we call it an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray.

The wispy gases of our upper atmosphere present a barrier far more challenging than anything it has encountered so far. The iron nucleus hits a nucleus of nitrogen, and the extreme energy of the collision not only obliterates both, but creates a blast of pions and muons and other subatomic particles, each with enough energy to do the same again to another nucleus, generating a shower of ionising radiation that cascades down through the atmosphere. 

Some of these particle will hit an airliner, slightly increasing the radiation dose of passengers and crew. Some may help trigger the formation of water droplets in a cloud – perhaps even help spark a lightning bolt. Some will find their way into living cells, and one will tweak an animal’s genes, spurring on the slow march of evolution. But it is very likely that nobody will even notice as the atmosphere scatters the ashes of an exceptional traveller that once flirted with a black hole in the faraway Virgo Cluster.

Remarkable. When I had the chance in 2011 to spend a couple of hours with Sergei Krikalev (at that time the cosmonaut who had spent the most time in space) he told me you typically see eight to ten scintillations in your eyes every minute in orbit – little flashes in your vision – which are the cosmic rays punching through your eyeballs.

But this story of an iron nucleus would surely seem as far fetched to a person in 1815, as the things they believed then may sound to us now. A reminder that deep time for us, is only 200 years old – just a blink (or twinkle) of the eye for a cosmic ray.

I am a Londoner

  

I’m not from London, so I’ve never felt a real Londoner. Still, I’ve lived here on and off nearly half my life; my family is here, my life is here, both my kids were born here.

On Friday, I found myself walking across one of London’s bridges by night and took a photo (above). The people I walked past were from many different places, indeed many different countries; all enjoying a beautiful London evening.

Of course it’s not all fantastic. Too busy, too expensive, often choked with people and traffic. And you see people struggling: sleeping rough, struggling with booze, drugs, crime and poverty; people who are really up against it. 

But London is a great city. Of all the great capitals I’ve visited, only central Paris beats it for beauty – and maybe New York for chutzpah. There are places of antiquity with stunning sights and history – amazing Istanbul or Rome. There are places I’ve lived with more steel and glass: Hong Kong the most obvious. But London has pretty much everything you could ever want or need.

But why London is so special came home to me the other week; on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings. 

July 7th 2005 was a terrible day. One I will certainly never forget, and was followed by anxious weeks for everyone in this city. Ken Livingstone, then London Mayor (and whatever you think of him, a true Londoner) said this at the time: 

“In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.”

“They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.”

I arrived in London 25 years ago, and as Ken said, this great city has enabled me to achieve my potential, and fulfil my dreams. Just as he describes, I have been free to live the life I have chosen, and to be myself.  

I’m proud that this city – my city – finds a place for all sorts of people, and lets them be who they want to be. Ken Livingstone’s words from ten years ago made me realise; although I wasn’t born here – I am a Londoner.

Stop Hoovering

  
I knew this (or at least I kind of did) but a line in a book has recently kept it on my mind… ‘Mood’ is more a matter of biochemistry than anything else.

In the right mood everything is possible: ingenuity, problem-solving, creativity and joy. In the wrong mood, it’s all too much; all too hard and nothing can be done.

Win the lottery, lose your job, whatever happens most people’s underlying ‘mood’ ticks along remarkably unaffected; so long as you let it. Apparently only bereavement really affects mood for extended periods. It seems we can’t short circuit grief.

So ‘mood’ in fact, is not really about how happy, fulfilled, successful, busy or creative we are. It’s about noradrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and melatonin. These operate in an internal chemistry set, controlled by the limbic system – which is pretty much the same as in a bear, a monkey, a cat or a dog.

The limbic system is very resilient, very effective and very old – crocodiles have one. But it needs looking after. Apparently if you stress it to much, it chemically crashes and puts you into a state of hibernation. Literally. 

My book says the physiological symptoms of stress-related depressive illness are best understood, as exactly what happens in a bear’s body when it prepares for hibernation…
  

Why? Because the limbic system interprets the signals from the environment as too ‘hostile’, and that same old system kicks in: which enables a crocodile to lie dormant in mud for months; or a bear to hole up in a cave. We shut down; to wait for better days.

And here’s where the Hoover comes in. Because if you’re working yourself to the point your limbic system is about to blow a fuse – you have to stop; however exhilarating is the sense of achievement of getting more things done, or however great the pressure to do even more.

The test for hard-working diligent people is this; literally and metaphorically can you sometimes ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’..? That is, can you visibly leave half-finished a task, you and people around you expect you to finish? 

Ouch, guilt and fear of humiliation – that hurts…

Because if you can’t – and you don’t listen to your body and look after your mood, there’s only one place you’ll end up…. shattered, flat and feeling like hibernating. 

This much I have learned in the past few weeks – if you want to avoid becoming a very grizzly bear, sometimes you have to leave the Hoover in the middle of the room.