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”

Keep on rollin’

Attracted by algorithms some while back, I bought myself this audiobook… it sounded like exactly what I was looking for:

I found it hard going if I’m honest. Listening at 1.25x speed helped.

But while the ‘optimisation problems’ of public parking turned out to be vaguely useful at work, my heart sank a bit the other Saturday when rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice served up the answer: ‘Audiobook’…

…Ho hum. But you have to trust the dice.

And sure enough ‘Algorithms to live by’ proved the point; the chapter on ‘Randomness’ validates a lot of what I’ve been trying recently:

Recent work in computer science has shown that there are cases where randomized algorithms can produce good approximate answers to difficult questions faster than all known deterministic algorithms.

One problem they help with is ‘Hill climbing’ and local maxima.

At any point in life – however much you’ve perfected it, the risk is it could still be better. Like a climber in the mist, you know you’re in a good place – but there might be an even better one you can’t see for the fog.

And randomness is the way to find out.

Try something a bit different and you can find out whether you’re at the top of a small hill of possibilities – or surveying the entire range from the highest vantage point.

The truth of life is: you never can know if you’re stuck in a local maximum. But the odd throw of the dice now has the full weight of computer science behind it!

Keep on rollin!

Happy Tracks II

Has anyone else in the entire world got a playlist with Tom Jones, Vic Reeves, The Bee Gees, Bass-O-Matic and The Skids in it?

I’d be surprised.

But that’s the joy of Spotify – it learns what you like.

Every Monday the ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist serves up more songs like the ones I’ve ‘liked’ before, and the number and variety of my ‘Happy Tracks’ just gets bigger and bigger.

It has become a standing joke in the car with the kids; my Happy Tracks are frequently unlistenable to younger ears. But they get me toe tapping and steering wheel slapping.

Of course there must be a natural limit – I’m up to 504 songs now in less than a year – and growing steadily. Plus we know that learning algorithms drive ads, monetisation and ‘fake news’.

My original Happy Tracks were assembled by me – now a computer does it. That can’t be all good.

But sometimes you just have to know when you’re beat. Months ago I bought a book on computer science and algorithms to see if I could do exactly this: train an algorithm to serve up my taste in music, art and writing… And then I realised that’s exactly what search engines and social media firms are doing… doh!

Still you can’t be too happy. And Happy Tracks simply puts me in a better mood every time I put my headphones on.

So here’s to artificial intelligence – and stupidity – because Spotify is smart enough to come up with enough duds to kid me I still have superior taste!

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!

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.

Think small


I’ve signed up to a terrific blog from a chap called Eric Barker from UCLA. Loads of great resources, links to thought-provoking books and simple ‘to do’ lists to do more.

This week’s top tip is how to create a habit: 

Think small. Real small. No, even smaller. From Stick with It:

“Focusing on small steps allows people to achieve their goals faster than if they focused on dreams. Focusing on small steps also keeps people happier and more motivated to keep trying because they get rewarded more frequently.”

Simple – I couldn’t agree more. 

This is one of the top lessons from Martin Seligman [as here]. Break stuff up into smaller chunks and you get more stuff done; and feel good about getting more stuff done. Simple. 

Thinking small wins big. Here’s to more from Eric Barker.

Gaia II – Truth and Beauty

James Lovelock ends ‘Gaia‘ with a rather profound summary: 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I googled for the origins, and should have guessed the first two paragraphs – they are from the King James Bible; Ecclesiastes 3. 

But the third line is interesting too. If indeed ‘beauty’ is the lion’s share of ‘all ye know’ and ‘need to know’ on earth, and ‘truth’ the rest; does this give a simple recipe for the ‘good life’? 

Perhaps not quite that simple. The meaning of this line from Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn‘ has been heavily debated down the years.

Still – this week I found from myself looking at nature more intently as a result of Lovelock and Keats. But Lovelock’s own ‘last word’ set me thinking too…

There can be no prescription, no set of rules, for living within Gaia. For each of our different actions there are only consequences.

This connected my with my developing ‘inner Buddhist’. Life takes is course; many thing happened before us and many more will happen after. 

This morning, I scanned my instagram photos from the last few years, to look at what I take photos of… 

Far from exhaustive; but a funny old selection of the beauty of nature, mankind’s profound and profane imprint on it – and our ongoing search for truth…

Truth and beauty might not be such bad guides. 


Ecclesiastes – King James Version 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Gaia 


I’m reading James Lovelock’s famous ‘Gaia’ – the first airing of the hypothesis that the planet (and not just we creatures on it) is itself a self-regulating living system.

Lovelock got plenty of stick for this book. A scientist accused of straying into mysticism and anthropomorphism for personalising Gaia as a ‘being’ or a ‘living thing’; not just a bunch of chemical and physical processes.

He freely admits in the later foreword, that he had to write a much more dull and prosaic version to get anywhere with the scientific community. 

It’s one of those books like ‘On the Origin of Species’ which more people will know of than will read. But I’m glad I picked this out of an otherwise lifeless ‘Science’ shelf in the local library. 

It’s a super read. And even allowing for all that has changed in our knowledge and understanding in the 40+ years since it was written; like ‘On the Origin of Species’, you feel you are witness to a remarkable moment of synthesis. A whole array of concepts and ideas join together in one person’s mind and become a new picture on how the entire planet – and possibly the whole of creation works.

The simple facts of how the ‘perfect’ level of of the supremely reactive ‘vital’ ingredient oxygen (21%) is kept in the atmosphere are fascinating. It simply could not and would not be there without deeply interconnected living systems. 

Similarly the seas – without Gaian processes they’d get saltier and saltier within 80 million years; instead of the aeons at a stable 3.5%, which allows half the earth’s biomass to life in three-quarters of its surface.

It’s a terrific read. A moment in historic and scientific time maybe; but as important a science book as has ever struck the popular conscience. It’s also a book which reminds us that the planet we live on is so much more wonderful than we yet understand.

Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.