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.

Brain Cocktail


Shaken but not stirred, I spotted this fascinating diagram yesterday. It describes moods, mental states and conditions in test tube form.

So which comes first – the chemical state or the state of mind? Are we in love or just hydrogen bonded. Are we low or just low on the right hormones.

It’s complex chemistry – but it is chemistry. The brain is a wet sugary computer – but that I think is why it’s so different from silicon chips and solid state physics. Hormones diffuse and dissipate they don’t switch on and off.

Computers are yes/no. Brains are a constantly changing cocktail of ‘maybe’.

I am a Scientist


Like most people I guess, I get irritated by folk who are wrong. But unlike most people, I actually don’t mind so much when I am.

Perhaps that’s because I believe in a ‘Bayesian brain’. Mash up all the facts, data and experience you have (however little) and come up with a probabilistic answer. That’s certainly how my mind works.

Of course we all live trapped in our own heads. So what seems common sense to me, absolutely may not to other people. Different experiences, different world views, different data.

As a recently deceased US Senator said:

“Sir, you are entitled your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

But what are facts anyway? Just a combination of data, theory and interpretation.

If someone says something I disagree with, generally speaking, I’ll have a quick go at saying so – and what I think. If pushed, I’ll point out the flaws in their position, if they are obvious.

But except in the most extreme or important situations, I’ll generally leave it after one or two tries. Experience tells; people don’t change their minds easily.

One of the weaknesses in a Bayesian approach is similar to the ‘ethical’ problem I used to have as a Utilitarian. The balance of probabilities, like the balance of morality, isn’t easy to explain or justify to people of principle and belief.

Most of the calls we make are analogue not digital. They are ‘probably’ not ‘binary’. So I’ve learnt, in the main, to simplify what I’m thinking when it comes to persuading. In the art of human persuasion, a single strong argument trumps several reasons.

And this cuts us to the chase. Why is it so hard to reason with people? Because most of human existence was in the pre-scientific era. Belief, superstition and commandment drove most people’s thoughts and deeds.

And a quote I read from the late great populariser of science, Carl Sagan, sums up the difference:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they would actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I am a scientist.

Crystal Ball


What if the purpose of memory is not to remember things?

We generally judge our memory on accuracy and completeness – and we are generally disappointed. Memory is jumbled, retouched and unreliable as a definitive record of the past. But a recent New Scientist suggests perhaps that’s because remembering is not what it’s for.

Thinking in evolutionary terms, what use is a perfect record of your entire past on the Serengeti plains? Not much. There would have been precious little time for introspection with four-legged food to chase and four-legged death to avoid. Not to mention increasingly cunning two-legged competition alongside.

Memory must have conferred a survival advantage – so it seems reasonable to think it developed from what other mammals probably have: recall of close shaves, sources of food and – if elephants are anything to go by – key life events: births, deaths and marriages.

And this is why dates get jumbled, memories get intertwined and autobiographical narratives develop in our heads – to guide us on what to do next, not produce a perfect historical record. Memory exists to better predict and guide our future.

Memory tells us who to trust, how to act and what might happen. Yes it’s flawed by inductive logic. Past performance is stricto sensu no guide to the future. But we remember what we need to remember – what’s useful for our future.

This difference in purpose is the big difference between computer memory and ours. Ours is constantly shuffled, refined and selected for its Bayesian predictive power, not its precision.

No wonder it’s sometimes cloudy; human memory isn’t a time capsule, it’s our crystal ball.

Sugar Solution


In a workshop this week I learnt a bit of the brain science behind ‘fast thinking’ and how it leads to ‘unconscious bias’. I suspect it’s just a different way of framing what I think of as my ‘Bayesian brain’: rapid-fire probabilistic assessments of people and situations based on a lifetime’s experiences and situations.

We were informed that ‘fast thinking’ leads us very often to bad judgements. ‘Slow thinking’ – when we deliberate – is the alternative. And indeed there are things we can do with slow thinking which we simply can’t with fast – complex arithmetic for example.

But slow thinking also suffers from ‘confirmation bias’ – where we look for evidence to confirm our decision or prejudice and screen out data which doesn’t fit. So ‘slow’ ain’t necessarily so, if it just seeks to confirm ‘fast’.

I think where our trainer went wrong was to leave the impression we should all think harder. I think the answer to unhelpful bias is to stop thinking and absorb more data.

I found myself, at times, in the workshop completely relaxed – open and with a conscious feeling of just soaking up what our trainer was saying; new data and new ways of looking at data.

Where I found myself far less at my best, was when asked to make spot judgements on what it all means and what we should do about it. Or indeed listening to other people disputing or challenging when I’d have rather just listened.

My feeling was, unless you’re a brain scientist or a trained psychologist don’t waste energy or thought arguing or critically appraising stuff you don’t know about. Just soak it up.

As our trainer explained our brain runs on glucose. It’s a big sugar soaked sponge, with its myriad connections made and laid down by filigree fibres powered by sugar solution. A bit like a wet candy floss. But too much thinking and the glucose runs down. And temper and thought deteriorate.

The answer to changing your mind, I reckon, is to soak up more info and leave the soggy sugar to work it out. Thinking hard just makes your glucose run out, your head sore and your mistakes worse. From soaking and sweetness comes good judgement.