Archive for the 'mood' Category

20/11/2008 Cropped

About a year ago I suggested I might post a fractal image each Friday. What was I thinking?

Well, a combination of guilty conscience about a commitment unkept and this sentence in Didier Sornette‘s cheerily entitled book Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems prompted me to revisit this partial promise:-

It turns out that many of the natural structures of the world are approximately fractal and that our aesthetic sense resonates with fractal forms.

Those who remember my misdirected concern about dangerous trees may appreciate that the oak has been safely pruned, and the only objects falling now are the autumn leaves and occasional acorn.

My recent routine interest in trees, and flora in general, seems closely correlated with a) the acquisition (for no financial outlay) of a Nokia N95 mobile phone containing a 5 megapixel digital camera and b) adherence to the paleo diet. The latter, you might think, is not seriously possible. But putting aside the confirmation bias, it has not been the only manifestation lately of a heightened sensitivity to fractal forms. Spooky.

More, if you can bear it, at my Flickr Photostream.

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If I had to nominate a piece of music to emulate Alan Yentob’s fMRI scan experience, I wonder if Andreas Scholl‘s performance of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater would do the trick. I bought it at random in the Music Discount Centre CD shop near St Paul’s many years ago and could not stop listening to it — a complete accident, and something so arch I would have run a mile in the opposite direction if you’d suggested that I’d be forever captivated by the purity of this counter-tenor voice.

Well, to keep ploughing a furrow of recycling BBC programmes, here is a link (valid for about six days) to a show from Tuesday on Radio 3 where Scholl was interviewed (about 15 mins in), proving the virtue of my wall-to-wall listening to Radio 3 the past two months.

For students of corporate hubris (like me) it’s always interesting to hear experts in their particular field — let alone a virtuoso of the highest standing — explain how they tackle performance. When it is mastering the Erbarme Dich within the Bach St Matthew Passion, we should all sit up and pay attention:-

Scholl: Whenever you open your mouth and try to do justice to this piece, it is only possible with 100% heart, soul, body, technique. Everything needs to come together in that moment.

Sean Rafferty (Presenter): And a degree of humility, I think.

Scholl: Absolutely. The right perspective I would say. You should not walk out in a sense as if you composed the Matthew Passion or like the greatest moment will be me singing the Erbarme Dich. That’s vanity and that will destroy the piece. But also it will not help to walk out and thinking: ‘Mr Bach, I am not worthy of singing your music’. Because if you open your mouth you better are worthy to do that, better are good enough. So you either think you can do it then you give it everything. But if you have doubts that you can really bring justice to this piece then you should not sing it. It’s all or nothing with Bach, I would say.

So, it’s crucial to be neither too confident nor too humble. Well, Andreas Scholl may not be everyone’s bag, and I dare anyone to tell me the Pergolesi is better. I will stop now as I am at the very limit of my musical knowledge.

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The Economist this week has two stories back-to-back in its Science and Technology section on cognitive enhancement. Not surprisingly the first one, which is about the widespread use of cognition-enhancing drugs (such as Ritalin and Provigil) to help you pass exams or improve performance, and the expectation of more to come, has been given the greater attention by the wider press. It’s a scare story about competition and cheating and raises the possibility of the need to test students as potential drug cheats. But The Economist takes a controversial tack in its editorial, likening this to “harmless” coffee and arguing it is a good thing.

It falls on deaf ears here because this is a week when I did not drink or eat any coffee, milk, wheat product, potato, rice or any refined carbohydrate excepting that contained in one bar of 85% cocoa chocolate. I drank no alcohol either. I’ve been doing this as a stricter enforcement of a paleo-style diet to help regulate my weight, but above all else to enhance cognition, and for longer-term preventative health. As far as I’m aware, it is working. With one or two qualifications. Those qualifications being a coincident virus that caused a migraine which lasted longer than I’d normally expect, prompting a little hypochondria and Googling for ideas about nutritional deficiency — to no avail.

The paleo-style diet (or lifestyle) is hard to sustain and I can tell you that it has been a lot harder in the short run than popping a few pills. But my argument with The Economist‘s view is that the brain is a complex system: don’t mess with it if you don’t need to. My own experience seems to suggest that I’m a little insulin-resistant, with diabetes in the family, so a lower-carb diet is likely to be beneficial.

But the second story in The Economist pairing owes more to my approach than the pill-popping. This other story describing research that social position can be detrimental to cognition has received no mainstream attention elsewhere, as far as Google can tell us. It has been, thus far, editorially cold-shouldered, and subordinated, and yet by far and away it is the more interesting story for self-experimenters, self-improvers, collaborationists, diversity specialists, managers, teachers, coaches and parents.

Pamela Smith and colleagues from Radboud University Nijmegen suspected that a lack of social power might reduce someone’s ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve goals in difficult and distracting circumstances. This seems like common sense, not least because I’ve seen a number of situations, for example, where even senior executives have lost confidence and status and then suffered a quite immediate impairment. I’ve even experienced it myself at significant moments. I once had to pitch for $30 million for a management buy-out having been booked into a shoddy lower-Manhattan hotel where the breakfast was served on paper plates. Not a good start to the day. The next day, for the next pitch, I moved to a different hotel and a waterside suite — ironically for much the same price.

The Economist says:-

To explore this theory, she (Dr Smith) carried out three tests. In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates’ payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.

Not much, you might say, to induce a sense of inferiority or superiority when compared with the real-life stress of a domineering boss or other confidence-draining circumstance, but nevertheless enough to make an impact on several cognitive tasks:-

In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks.

A common problem in evaluating how well someone is doing relative to their ability is the often-mentioned fundamental attribution error: a pretty universal cognitive bias where we will tend to ascribe another‘s failure in a task to their personality rather than their circumstances — largely because we will probably have more data about their personality than the circumstances. Conversely, we judge our own failures more kindly because we know what extenuates them.

What Pamela Smith’s findings suggest is that when we are judging an individual for promotion, for example, it is quite possible that their performance will be transformed once they emerge from a subordinate position, and even more so if we have failed to motivate them properly. They may have been swimming hard against a tidal flow that we cannot see.

Of course, this applies from hiring manager to teacher, coach, and parent, and should require CEOs and other leaders to show a little more humility given the cognitive momentum their high status affords them.

While I love what the cognitive sciences are doing these days, I can’t help but be reminded of the existing literature on these matters. This one evokes the first record I ever owned: Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Ugly Duckling. And this YouTube rendering is not so different from the way I used to enjoy it nearly 40 years ago.

Take a look. And believe that you are a swan.

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A few weeks ago, at an EBDM seminar at the London Business School, happiness economist Bruno Frey put up a slide entitled:-

Television weakens the will of active people.

I know that feeling. Professor Frey does without television completely, from what he said, as a route to optimising his own happiness function.

I asked Professor Frey if any similar research has been conducted in relation to the internet: as to whether the internet might do the opposite. He was not aware of any. It’s hard to tell from personal experience; I’m still in the process of evaluating whether or not extensive interaction on the internet is a time-sink or a route to more expansive individual productivity. No doubt there is an optimum balance, and discovering it may be more a matter of luck than judgement. The galloping growth of social media is frequently disdained by professionals in the mainstream media; the glib response, shared by a good number of ordinary friends and acquaintances, is that these social media types (to which I now increasingly actively belong) need to get a life.

But a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Matt Mason whose book The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Hackers, Punk Capitalists, Graffiti Millionaires and Other Youth Movements Are Remixing Our Culture and Changing Our World (Allen Lane/Penguin) I’ll be reviewing sometime this week, alongside some interview snippets. You can get hold of the US version here. Matt recommended a new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Allen Lane/Penguin) (US version available here) by Clay Shirky.

From the following video, it’s clear why Matt is recommending Clay’s work. Clay quantifies rather neatly in an historical context what is going on in terms of shifting patterns of behaviour, and why Wikipedia is so important to understand in a more positive light than many do. Above all, in a very amusing way, he highlights why the old-media perception of this phenomenon is so often wildly misconceived in terms of how attention is distributed these days. Of course, what Clay does not highlight is the malign possibilities of this cognitive surplus combining in the wrong way.

Thanks to Dave Morin for the pointer.

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Having indicated a while ago that I would plump for an iPhone, I chickened out the other day and defaulted to my previous rule of thumb which was buy the best Nokia. But this also satisfied that other aforementioned heuristic, i.e. the gift-horse mouth-staring one. The cost to replace my existing pda-phone was less than zero, because they offered me a contract better than the previous one, and much better than anything I’d seen advertised on any network.

Sometimes I wish I had not bothered, because having had the device nearly a month, I have not had time to programme it or migrate contacts. And the storage card is delayed, so loading music, podcasts, portable Russian lessons and other audio joys has had to wait.


And yet. The thing has a 5 megapixel camera in it with Carl Zeiss optics, which Apple‘s Steve Jobs is dismissive of, having made the iPhone’s camera to a lesser spec. There may be nothing to choose between the two really, but I’m strangely overjoyed and inspired to photograph any time, any place and in a way that the graininess of my old phone discouraged. I’m a fully-fledged Flickr fan.

Fortunately too, the phone has an FM radio in it, which sounds a bit retrograde in this day and age. But over the past week or two I’ve been looking for inspiration and concentration. The BBC‘s classical channel, Radio 3, has been providing it, offering as ever a wide range of frequently unfamiliar classical music of all centuries. And it stops me from listening to Pink Floyd when I’m out running. Shine on you crazy diamond. Auditory variation indeed.

Trees and woodland seem to do the same thing for me visually, and the phone camera now means that I capture some of that stimulus for posterity, and the limbic of you, my long-suffering reader. Excepting the flower, these pictures were taken Monday at Claverton Manor (AKA The American Museum) near Bath, which overlooks the Avon Valley. Topographically, I think it may be true to say that this is one of the most varied landscapes on the planet, and readers of Simon Winchester‘s The Map That Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemptionwill know of its crucial contribution to geological and subsequent evolutionary theory. It floats my boat.




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