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.”

Writing

Here’s to Eric Barker, who more than once has put me on a better track. His weekly writings are well worth signing up for here in my humble opinion.

He’s given me a handy reminder that apart from anything else, there are good mental health reasons for writing stuff down:

We ruminate endlessly but that just makes things worse. When you’re merely thinking about your problems, you hop, skip and jump all over the place, never resolving one issue before moving on to the next. Writing forces us to put a structure around life. To make sense of it.

And it’s not just about venting:

The effects were not due to simple catharsis or the venting of pent-up emotions. In fact, the people who just blew off steam by venting their feelings without any thoughtful analysis tended to fare worse…Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection merely adds to our distress…

Writing is about codifying and coming to a deeper understanding…

The authors asked students to write about their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Those who showed more deep-level thinking along with constructive problem solving were less depressed later and had fewer health care visits. Those students who merely expressed their emotions and described their anxiety had more health care visits…

A large number of good scientific studies conclude that the mere expression of emotion is usually not beneficial on its own. Rather, people typically must learn to recognize and identify their emotional reactions to events.

In effect:

Once you understand something, once you can find a place for it in the story of your life, that’s when you can put it behind you and move on.

And, that’s just one of the many reasons it seems to me (and to science) that regular writing is so important…

Here’s where the some of the science comes from:

More than thirty years ago there was a guy named Jamie, his marriage was in the toilet, and he was utterly depressed. Despite having big problems, he didn’t go to a therapist. (Which is ironic because Jamie was a graduate student in psychology, of all things.)

Instead he started writing. A lot. He wrote about his marriage, his career, his childhood. He basically covered every serious issue in his life and how he felt about it. And then something happened… He felt better. A lot better. And he realized how much his wife meant to him. They resolved their issues. Then he had a thought:

“Maybe writing might help anyone feel better about their struggles in life.

And being a psychology grad student, he did a study to test the theory… And he was right. Since that first paper was published in 1986 hundreds of other studies have shown the power of expressive writing to help people. In the thirty-plus years since, many students on the University of Texas at Austin campus have come up to Professor James Pennebaker and said:

“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”

James Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Pennebaker’s book is: “Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”

Hard Work

I’ve not been enjoying work recently; but it could be worse…

Here are some stats on how the rest of the British workforce feels about the daily grind:

According to research by YouGov, 37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Half (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure.

At least I get over this hurdle. Stuff I do, and make possible, does make a difference to thousands of people; and potentially to many many more. I tick this box.

Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).

In a week where we learned men are invariably better paid, why are men more gloomy? The hormones we have, the expectations society sets or the jobs we disproportionately do?

Whatever the causes, I’m on the right side of this one too.

Despite this, most people with ‘meaningless’ jobs say it’s unlikely they will change jobs in the next 12 months (53%, compared to 35% who say they might change jobs).

I’m in the 35% here. Never say never, I say…

I’ve moved sectors, countries and jobs plenty of times; so although the grass is usually no greener, it always pays to keep your feelers out – if only to feel you have options and skills people want.

The survey also asked if British workers find their jobs personally fulfilling, and a similar portion (33%) say they do not. 63% say their job is fulfilling, although only 18% say it is very fulfilling.

I scrape into the 63% here – my work is not very fulfilling, nor does it feel like the very best use of who I am and the skills I have; but hey you have to get over yourself a bit don’t you. As my son once famously said “it’s not all about you Dad.” Cheeky monkey.

As for explaining myself to others…

Many introductions at social occasions begin with a conversation about work, but only 49% of British workers say they’d be proud to tell someone about what they do when meeting for the first time. 8% say they’d even be embarrassed, 41% say neither.

…I usually start embarrassed but end up more proud. Education is the Lord’s work; even if academia can be a fractious and frustrating place.

Compared to many, I’ve not got that much to complain about. It helps to be reminded of that by the travails of others.

Showtime

A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.

We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.

Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.

As for me, absolutely shattered at the end of last week, I returned to “The Big Book of Happiness: 87 Practical Ideas” for solace and some new impetus.

Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.

Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.

So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.

My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.

The magic of Hamilton helped.

Curiosity killed the Habit

This week I’ve been enjoying a fascinating insight from psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer on ‘reward based learning’ and rewiring habit loops.

The simple trick is to use curiosity; not attempt self-control. As he explains (below) the bit of the brain which exerts control is way less ancient, and way less powerful than the bit that imposes cravings. So a battle with smoking or snacking with willpower alone is likely to be a losing one.

The key according to Brewer is curiosity. If we can stop and curiously examine an urge; not instantly act on it or try to make it go away, we can ‘hack’ our ‘reward based learning’ system by enjoying the experience of learning.

This – when I think back – is how I quit smoking nearly 18 years ago; actively exploring the craving made it manageable. I’d read ‘aversion’ doesn’t work. So I used to think of the famous Bisto gravy ads: and with a deep breath go ‘ahhh!’ remembering the ‘hit’, sensation and reward of a deep drag on a cigarette when I smelt one or the urge came upon me. Enjoying the urge made it pass.

Brewer’s is a very simple but clever idea – curiosity is its own reward; it could be habit-forming…

The Midlife Crisis

Of course we’re all ultimately barrelling towards the abyss; but there’s something about the middle of life that starts you thinking about it…

The ancients, the Stoics, the Buddhists; even the most whacko Californians all agree: at least half of the purpose of philosophy is to cope with our own mortality. And that need kicks-in big time around half-way through.

Elliot Jacques coined the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ in his 1965 paper Death And The Midlife Crisis. And MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya has had a proper go at really thinking about what it is and what to do about it, in this terrific podcast from the ever wonderful series Philosophy Bites.

The essence of his advice lies in giving up ‘telic’ living: the life focused on ‘projects’ and achievements. Defined by their completion: projects, achievements and ‘bucket lists’ are either constantly being consumed or are eluding you – increasing the feeling of time running out.

Instead the focus needs to be on ‘atelic’ living; enjoying ‘categories’ of activity and the process of doing them. It’s about enjoying philosophy, not ticking off the great philosophers; listening to classical music, not methodically completing the works of Beethoven; enjoying really looking at Art not consuming, categorising and collating it…

One approach endlessly pursues endpoints; of which and there is an infinite supply versus a finite amount of time. The other enjoys the time there is, in the doing of enjoyable things; not just the completing of them.

It’s a subtle thing; often the identical activities, but with a slightly different mental approach – enjoying the journey, not racing to complete as much as possible before the end.

Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

What I’d spend a $billion on…

There is so much that is shocking about this book; I almost can’t begin…

West Coast life is a million miles from South-East London; but there’s something in the heady mix of crazy diets, dotcom startups and whopping egos which makes Tools of Titans a veritable page turner… albeit I have it on Kindle so no one can see I’m reading it!

In fairness, author Tim Ferriss says right up the front that not all of it is for everyone. But I have to say I’ve picked up five or six things from the lists, watchwords and obsessions of the featured folk which are actually rather transformational.

Five rep weights, Kettlebells, cracking down on carbs, single ‘golden’ rules and (in an otherwise toxic chapter featuring a right old narcissist) a moment of clarity on the thing I’d spend a $billion on – if someone gave me $1bn to change the world… I’d promote Learned Optimism à la Martin Seligman.

Optimism – and crucially the fact you can indeed ‘learn’ it – is perhaps the single most important thing I’ve discovered in my adult life. Shame I didn’t find that out until just under two years ago!

Everything improves with optimism. Well worth remembering given the state of the world in 2017.

So here’s to 2018; a shiny new optimistic year. And thanks to Tim Ferriss for reminding me.

Happy Tracks

Sitting in the car singing along, I’m reminded to be eternally grateful for one of Chris Croft’s top tips from the Big Book of Happiness: get yourself a playlist of ‘Happy Tracks’.

Quite simply these are pieces of music which always make you happy. I’ve been building and editing mine for a year; and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

From Sinatra to Leadbelly, Beyoncé to Chumbawumba, Finlandia to Bach; I’ve got every genre. Some came from the radio, some from Spotify – one I was reminded of over a supermarket tannoy…

But wherever I am: standing crushed by the stairs on a fully loaded bus, schlepping across a windswept Waterloo Bridge or bowling along on a Santander bike; ‘Happy Tracks’ reliably puts me on top of the world.

Happy days.

Distracted? There’s an App for that…

Eric Barker writes a great blog; I’ve told three people about the thesis in this post, in the last week or so.

Neuroscience increasingly suggests we’re all more a bunch of impulsive Apps than a well designed rational operating system.

Makes a lot of sense to me; and has reminded me to actually make a bit of time for mindfulness for a week or two – as opposed to reading about it, avoiding it and constantly distracting myself by doing other things. Let’s see how I get on…

“The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…

They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.

Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:

In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.

Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.

So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…

Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.

Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”

Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:

  • Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.

  • Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.

  • Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.

Here’s University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Robert Kurzban:

Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.

Here’s Robert Wright:

The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.

How To Prevent Brain Hijack

Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.

And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.