artifical intelligence · Big data · Computer Science · Culture · Economics · Fiction · Film · Learning · Psychology

Ready Player One: a vision of the future

If you haven’t watched it, stop now, go and rent it, and watch Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One“ (RPO).

The movie is set in “the Stacks”, a high density city of container homes situated in Columbus Ohio in 2045. It is a world where everyone spends most of their time online in Virtual Reality world called the Oasis. It centres on a group of video gamers including our hero Parzival (Wade Owen Watts in the real world), who spend their time playing different computer games in this virtual world. The Oasis was created by a geeky tech programmer, James Halliday and has made his company, Gregarious Games, the world’s most valuable business.

It always surprises me how little known this film seems to be beyond the circles of science fiction fans. And yes, for science fiction fans it’s a great film. But I think it’s more than that: I think it is a prescient vision of what the real future may well look like. I am not talking about the storyline itself or the fairytale ending, but about the vision of how our future world might operate socially and economically.

I am going to describe how and why I think this film is such a prescient a picture of our online future.

I will structure this as 3 sections

1. Why is Ready Player One a likely vision of our social future?

2. The idea of online virtual economies, and some of my own speculations of how these might develop in future

3. The interaction between those online virtual economies and real world economies

1. The vision of a virtual social future

Let me state my hypothesis: that an online virtual world is going to be the future of the majority of our social interaction.

Already some of our children spend more time interacting with friends that they meet online, than they do with the friends from their own school.

Why? Because those friends they meet online have by definition the same interests: they are playing the same game. It’s unlikely you are going to find 5 people in your local neighborhood with the very specific interests you have, but online you can find your “tribe” of 50,000, amongst the millions of players out there all brought together by the phenomena of online social gaming.

For many it is easier to connect in the virtual world. In the words of James Haliday: “I created the Oasis because I never felt at home in the real world. I just didn’t know how to connect with the people there.”

Just like in the movie, the beauty of online is that your avatar can be whoever you want – you can choose how you want to portray yourself to the world. The ultimate version of “how you choose to identify” in an age of gender fluidity. You can choose to identify as a beautiful girl when in reality as H says, “‘she’ could be a 300 pound dude who lives in his moma’s basement in suburban Detroit. And her name is Chuck.”.

In this online world you will gladly pay real world dollars to buy a fashionable cloak or “skin”, and to get the upgrades and artefacts. Just like real world fashion, this is the price to be “in” with your tribe, to communicate who you are and provoke the envy of your peers.

In the words of Parzival, “People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be”

Beyond the ability to self identify, why are virtual worlds so alluring? In psychology, the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is “self actualisation”. This is what we most aspire to as humans. Online games offer an quick way to a superficial level of “self actualisation”: players learn new skills as they master a game; they create new art and architecture in Minecraft. They post a video of it that is admired by many on YouTube, and if it goes viral they get their 5 minutes of fame. These are things that give people a sense of value and contribution and potential aspiration. And anytime they get bored, there is always the option of starting on some new game.

The film depicts an evolution from today’s gaming, which we are already starting to see: it is not about a single game, it’s about a virtual online platform on which many games are hosted. These different games are available on the platform, perhaps created by different developers. Players can jump around between games in the same virtual environment.

It’s not just computer games that will be hosted in this virtual world. Think of the real world places that we go to socialise such as bars: would you members of the Curiosity Club fancy having our next meeting at the Moss Isley Bar on Tatooine, or the Distracted Globe in the Oasis?

It will also host real world events like concerts, and music festivals. Hopefully you had the chance to Have a look at the recent virtual music concert by US rapper Travis Scott, attended by 12.3 million people live, simultaneously on the Fortnite platform. Compare that to the largest physical concert ever, by Jean Michel Jare, in Moscow in 1997 with an estimated 3.5m live audience. Having watched the music show, you can now buy a Travis Scot “skin” for only 2500 V Bucks in game, real world price $25.

Beyond social interaction we are also likely to see many real world business services in these online worlds. Healthcare consultations, meeting your insurance broker or banker, may all be far more efficient than meeting face to face in the real world.

So the future of our social interaction it seems, will be predominantly virtual!

Which brings us to point 2, the economies within these virtual worlds

What is particularly interesting to me is that these games are creating online economies. These virtual gaming economies are already exhibit many, but not all, of the characteristics of a real world economy.

In RPO people are out to collect coins, and artefacts (clothes and weapons), which they can lose if something happens to their avatar in a game.

At the moment most games have some form of currency. Just like Fortnites VBucks. This virtual currency is typically earned through game play, or purchased with real world dollars in order to speed up game play and enjoyment.

Players can get paid for work they are prepared to do. In RPO, H is building an Iron Giant and repairs other peoples broken artefacts. He has skills that are valued and paid for in the virtual world.

Games like Minecraft already enable players to work with each other , and for each other, in virtual worlds. My son will often offer to help out some other player building an “iron golem farm” (don’t ask) on a Minecraft server, in exchange for some online compensation like “enchanted diamonds.”

In Online Minecraft servers, the prices of virtual commodities like “red stone”, “wheat” and “enchanted diamonds” fluctuate with supply and demand created by other players. You can execute sophisticated real world strategies to make “money” in these games. For example, my son has figured out, entirely on his own, time zone arbitrage: buying goods cheaply in the morning in Britain when there are fewer players and less demand, selling the same thing more expensively in the evening when the American players come online and demand increases. In real world financial markets, arbitrageurs routinely engage in these sorts of strategies across time zones.

And there are all the real world characteristics that come with this virtual commerce: both the good: creativity, deals, alliances, productivity, and altruism, and the bad: cheating, reneging on promises, and stealing.

So all of this already exists today. If you will permit me, here are some of my speculations of how these online economies might develop in future:

I anticipate we will start seeing forms of virtual currency being created that are interchangeable between games.

Just like in the real world perhaps different games on the same platform exchange different currencies, and there are exchange rates between the currencies of the different games. Exchange rates set not by the game developer but by the community of players based on supply and demand.

And more importantly there will also be two way exchange rates between real world and virtual currencies. Thats when it starts getting really interesting economically speaking: When you can quantify the value of an hour of virtual world work in real world dollars.

How do these virtual economies differ from real world economies?

One of the challenges in these virtual economies is that the game designer is god. They could at any point modify the rules of the game, and reset everything. That could be unfair both for players and for any businesses that develop in the ecosystem around the game. I anticipate that in time there will need to be governance systems developed for these online virtual worlds in order to keep users and virtual businesses engaged, invested and protected.

Successful real world economies are built on a sense of “trust” in the governance of the economic system. How can this be created in these virtual worlds? More sophisticated games in future will no doubt allow the formation of virtual legal contracts between players, or between players and virtual businesses (including the games creators), for the delivery of virtual goods or services.

Block chain technology (the technology behind cryptocurrency like BitCoin) could be part of the answer. This technology could be used to guarantee ownership, to manage currency creation and secure other other forms of contracts in these virtual worlds. This might form the equivalent of “rule of law” in an online economy, creating the necessary framework and stability for a flourishing of these economies.

Might we see virtual independent central banks that have power over the supply of virtual currency to these worlds? There will quite possibly be a virtual world reserve currency… perhaps that will be Bitcoin?

3. Finally what about the real world Economic implications of these virtual economies?

Economically speaking, in the real world the biggest beneficiary of course will be the owner of the platform.

The gaming platform can create new virtual goods at zero marginal cost, target demand and charge real world money for your latest invisibility cloak or light sabre. All of this supported by AI algorithms that are designed to exactly optimize these experiences based on realtime feedback from millions of users, for that perfect dopamine hit; to keep us predictable human beings coming back for more and more and more…

We are already starting to see the idea of gaming platforms hosting multiple games with the likes of TenCent providing a gaming platform for developers and companies like Epic Gaming, the creators of Fortnite talking about making it into an online platform that hosts different games.

The power of social network platforms is the size of the social network. Network economics are exponential. The more people using one network, the more people are drawn to using that network, the more powerful it becomes. As they say in RPO ”Except for eating, sleeping and bathroom brakes, what ever people want to do, they do it in the Oasis. And since everyone is here, this is where we meet each other, this is where we make friends”.

So it’s very natural that there will be only a handful of dominant companies like james Haliday’s aptly named Gregarious Gaming, and Innovaitive Online Industries, their rivals.

Just as Facebook, Google, Alibaba and TenCent are dominant in today’s world because they have the network effect and they own the data. It’s not the AI algorithms that are valuable, it’s owning the data of the network on which they operate.

I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to future real world employment. I think AI automation is going to replace a lot of menial jobs, and a whole lot of not so menial jobs. We will need coders, data scientists and medical scientists and so forth, but they are not going to be needed in such volumes as to replace the jobs lost in the real world. Even tasks like computer programming are going to become far more automated.

There will be many new jobs created in these online worlds and a new generation will find their job opportunities in these virtual worlds. Just as today Search Engine Optimisation has become a career option, virtual world optimisation will likely be a career choice in the future. No doubt many new online businesses will be created in these virtual worlds, making their creators wealthy.

The challenge is going to be the exchange rate between the real world and these virtual worlds. It’s very unlikely, in my opinion, that an hour of work in a virtual world is going to provide anything like minimum wage in the real world.

These platforms are built around classic network effects. A handful of gamers, or artists, gather the largest followings and are our future celebrities. They live in symbiosis with the platform. They get huge publicity, and their real world wealth builds as they get more followers, endorsements and marketing power. Just as in today’s social networks, the wealth is distributed across a very steep exponential pyramid, with very few at the top getting fabulously wealthy, a few more behind that making a decent living and a multitude beyond that being hopeful but earning only a pittance.

Given the diversity of special interests across the globe, there is plenty of opportunity for smaller chieftains to emerge, people who become the leaders of special interest groups because of their passion and their ability to sell themselves online as an expert or influencer to the 50,000 people interested in “that one thing”. But in every tribe the structure is the same, a few at the top of the exponential pyramid reaping relatively large rewards compared to a large base of fans who put in more than they get out.

To illustrate: my younger son explained his calculations to me this week: Mumbo Jumbo, his favourite Minecrafter, gets about 1.5 million views per video, he posts two videos a week, and therefore earns, from YouTube, between £2000 and £4000 per week. This all seems to be common knowledge for today’s 11 year olds. “So you can make a lot of money being a YouTuber”. My reply to him was, “yes you can, and you and approximately 1.5million other kids watch and want to be Mumbo Jumbo twice a week. That’s a lot of competition for that top spot…”

So as in RPO, in the real world we might end up living in a distopian world, with very large swathes of the population scraping together what they can in the real world from very low paying virtual world jobs. Their aspiration may we’ll be to afford just enough to buy that new VR headset or suit that allows them to experience their next virtual vacation.

In this virtual world we will see all the same tendencies and deviancies we see in the real world, but amplified in this online world.

Those with compulsive gambling tendencies are sure to be easy targets for AI algorithms, as demonstrated by Rick, Aunt Alice’s loser boyfriend who bets all their home deposit savings on upgrades for a game he was sure to win if he just had the right pair of gloves. People are likely to be met with scammers and charlatans. Policing, fairness and justice will all be big challenges.

Here I hope that RPO is not a prescient vision of the future. In the movie many people work for IOI in “loyalty centres”. They are forced to work to repay loans advanced by IOI to them. IOI also make money in the movie by selling Virtual Reality hardware (haptic suits, gloves, omni-directional treadmills) to people in the real world; but as our evil arch nemesis Nolan Sorento says in the movie “debt services dwarfs hardware”. And of course they make their money like our tech giants do, “selling up to 80 percent of a players visual field [to advertising] before inducing seizures”.

One of the things I am very concerned about is the burden of debt in this future world. In a world where real world income is shrinking, debt will be the killer.

In the movie it is Art3mis’s dad who, having borrowed gear, built up debt, got sick and could not afford to pay off his debt. He died in an IOI loyalty centre trying to work off those debts. Then IOI purchase and consolidate all of Art3mis’s (Samantha’s) debt and remand her to an IOI loyalty centre until her debts are paid off.

Just as in RPO, many individuals in the real world will likely have substantial debt burdens, from student loans, credit cards, medical bills and possibly, in game obligations. Add to that governments that are currently as heavily indebted as at any point in history, made even worse by the recent COVID19 crisis, will need taxes to pay that off. All of that Real world debt needs to be paid for with real world income.

Already as society we are starting to see a questioning of whether the tech behemoths are contributing to society fairly for the profit they extract. It’s likely that tax changes will occur to ensure that both these companies and the wealthy few who benefit from them pay a substantial portion of the tax burden. Solutions will have to be found to tax where revenue is generated in these global ecosystems.

Another possible development is the idea of a Universal Basic Income: a social safety net whereby everyone receives a certain minimum income from the state, presumably afforded by taxing the tech companies. Andrew Yang, one of this years early Democratic presidential candidates in the US, championed the idea of UBI as an antidote to automation lead job loss.

On a bleak note, I am afraid I don’t expect to see RPOs fairy tail ending. In particular I think it’s relatively unlikely that we will end up with a benevolent “High five” set of idealistic gamers in charge of the greatest profit generating business in the world. And I don’t anticipate that they will close it on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We are going to have to find the will power within ourselves to tear ourselves away from the virtual world.

So in summary, my speculations are

1. In future the majority of our work and social interactions will happen in online virtual worlds

2. Those virtual worlds will have virtual economies and there will be exchange rates between the virtual world currencies and real world currencies. They may have to develop forms of governance and virtual legal contracts to enable those virtual economies to flourish.

3. Because of automation and the pyramid nature of the online world we might see even more inequality in society with large swathes of the population enjoying themselves in the virtual world but scraping together a minimal income in the real world. How will society adapt to these challenges?

Is it all doom and gloom?

The luddites beleived technology would destroy jobs and they were wrong. The Prometheus myth has always instilled the fear that steeling fire (inventing new tech) will draw the wrath of the gods destroying human-kind but it’s never been the case. On that basis these fears may be overblown, perhaps we just don’t have the imagination to know how we will adapt to this new world.

All is not lost: In the words of James Haliday at the end of the movie: As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place that you can get a decent meal.

And that’s not about to change any time soon.

Because like James Haliday said, “Reality is the only thing that’s real.”

Health · Learning

Why we sleep by Matthew Walker

This book was recommended by so many podcasts and work colleagues and I finally got around to reading it. It’s an excellent read I would thoroughly recommend it as one of the most potentially life changing reads you could complete. As a society we don’t understand sleep, and don’t value it. This book will change your attitudes towards sleep completely.

Sleep is one of the oldest evolutionary functions present in all known animals even down to the most basic like worms (and sharks and fish in case you wondered do sleep even though they keep moving, just like your heart keeps pumping). So it must serve some very useful functions! But the nature of the sleep does differ significantly between species

The basic structure of sleep

NonREM sleep – slow wave sleep with regular pulses of activity from the prefrontal lobe to the back of the brain. These are accompanied by occasional “spindles” of electrical activity that appears to be associated with the transfer of memories. This deep sleep facilitates the “file transfer” or consolidation of information recently learnt from the hippocampus used for short term memory to the neo-cortex for longer term storage, freeing up space to absorb new information. It is also used to pair down unnecessary connections and undo information that we know to be incorrect. Ie it is selective and intelligent about what memories and facts are stored or forgotten depending on how they are labelled! This seems to happen because of cycles of the spindles between the frontal lobe which directs intention and action, and the hippocampus. This storage function also applies to “motor memory” (particularly in hours 7 and 8 of sleep) and in fact can even enhance performance of repetitive tasks relative to what we were able to do pre sleep! We actually get better at tasks because of sleep!

REM sleep – rapid eye sleep, when we dream, the brain switches off our voluntary motor control systems so that we are paralysed and don’t act out our dreams. In this stage it seems new data is integrated into our brains forming and strengthening new connections between neurons allowing association between very different historic experiences to develop, and creativity to flourish. Our prefrontal lobe which regulates emotional control when we are awake is more disabled during this period allowing emotional processing to occur, almost like having your own therapist. (Disorders like PTSD could be due to an inability to process emotionally traumatic events during sleep). Without this sort of processing during sleep our ability to respond appropriately to emotional cues decreases substantially the next day.

We cycle between NREM and REM every c 90 minutes throughout the night, typically for about 5 cycles in a night. We get more NREM earlier in the night and more REM later in the night. The mix and length of sleeping also varies dramatically over our lifetimes. Babies have massive REM as the brain forms, in the late teenager years we need more NREM in order to prune down the connections and develop more emotional control.

The most important point is that your really really need both types of sleep to function well.

What drives sleep?

Melatonin production is triggered by darkness in the early evening leading to the onset of sleep a few hours later, but it’s not what makes us specifically go to sleep. Melatonin production is substantially decreased by blue light especially LED light from our devices.

Our circadian rhythm is our “wake up drive”. It is controlled by our bodies internal clock driven by a group of neurons in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus that sits just above the crossing point of the optical nerves. This naturally keeps track of an approximately 24 hour cycle but takes signals from senses such as our eyes and eating cycles to keep the clock synchronised to 24 hours.

The circadian rhythm drives many functions across the body including in part our sleeping rhythms but also core body temperature which peaks in the evening and then drops as we go to sleep until the early morning when it starts increasing again.

Adenosine is a “sleep pressure hormone” that creates our “go to sleep drive”. It increases steadily from morning until late evening. Once we fall asleep it decreases until we wake up again in the morning.

It’s the combination of the circadian rhythm and Adenosine that makes us go to sleep or wake up. The difference between our circadian rhythm and adenosine peaks in the late evening when we feel tired, and troughs in the early morning as the Adenosine is at its lowest and the circadian rhythm begins to pick up.

Fun facts and hypotheses

The patterns of sleep differ substantially between species. Most fish, insects, amphibians seem only to have NREM sleep. Most birds and all mammals with a few exceptions seem to have REM sleep (birds and mammals evolved separately so REM sleep seems to have evolved twice independently). The exceptions are aquatic mammals like dolphins and killer whales because they can’t afford to be paralysed in the water (they may experience REM sleep but for very brief periods of time). Seals have REM sleep on land but only NREM sleep if in the water. Some mammals and birds can sleep one half of their brain while the other half remains active! Some birds can literally have one eye open and vigilant for danger, the other closed and sleeping, but they can’t sleep for long periods while flying (on long migrations some do have short periods of sleep in the air).

Humans have more REM sleep than other species. Unlike all other apes we have much more REM sleep. Probably a function of not sleeping in trees: during REM sleep muscles are paralysed which is a bad idea if you are sleeping in a tree. Apes sleep in trees to avoid predators and ground bugs. It’s possible the development of REM came about as a result of the mastery of fire which allowed human ancestors to start sleeping on the ground with smoke and fire scare off predators and bugs. Hence enabling greater periods of REM sleep and perhaps leading to our greater creative intellect.

Babies in the womb have huge amounts of REM sleep as the brain develops, in the second and third trimesters, peaking at up to 12 hours a day just before birth. However that’s not when baby is kicking you because the REM sleep paralyses the muscles!

Infants have 50/50 % NREM/REM decreasing to 70/30 % by age 5 and 80/20 by the late teens. NREM is also when the brains usage is “pruned” aiding brain development and maturation as a teenager refining cognitive skills, reasoning and critical critical thinking.

Teenagers also have a shift in their circadian rhythm towards waking up later. There are compelling studies to show that allowing teenagers to sleep in rather than waking too early for school dramatically improves their mental and learning abilities. There is good evidence from many studies globally that starting school later in the morning eg. A 9am or even 9:30 start leads to better outcomes particularly in teenagers.

In mid to old age, quality of sleep deteriorates. It’s not that older people need less sleep, it’s that they fail to get good quality sleep. NREM sleep quality is typically what deteriorates into late 20s and 30s. By your 40s your quality of NREM sleep has typically decreased by 60 to 70% compared to your teenage years. Sleep becomes more fragmented. Starting off with having children. Then later we wake up more often at night, for many reasons but including because of a weakening bladder, needing to head to the loo more often. One challenge is that we are really poor at self assessing the quality of our sleep so we may not notice this, or make the association between poor sleep and other health conditions we might be facing.

The human population consist about a 1/3rd Larks, 1/3rd Late Night owls and 1/3rd in between. These are genetic drivers linked to the circadian rhythm. Evolutionarily this is valuable because it gives members of a group ability to overlap their wakeful hours reducing the total time the whole group are asleep and might be exposed to danger because of sleep.

Health and lifestyle impacts

Matt Walker links a lack of sleep to a whole host of health problems. Good sleep is linked to a whole host of lifestyle benefits. At first you think these will just be associative links but in case after case he points to very tangible scientific evidence of the linkage to sleep with credible biological mechanisms. These are the things that really drove me to seriously consider changing my sleeping habits. Whether they actually achieve that shift is another thing… check in with me in a year!

Humans do naturally have biphasic sleep. We tend to want a post lunch afternoon nap of 30 to 60 minutes, preferably before 3pm so as not to interfere with our night time sleep. And then 7 to 9 hours of night time sleep. There seems to be good evidence of increased risk of 37 % of death due to heart disease in societies forced to move from a siesta to a continuous working culture eg. A study done in Greece.

To learn best we need to have had good sleep before we start learning. This resets the hippocampus, transferring information to longer term memory allowing us to store new information. Naps during the day will allow us to reset and store more information.

A good sleep the night after and for the next several nights then seals this storage of information (via NREM sleep, particularly later NREM closer to the morning even though sleep is the night more dominated by REM) and makes new creative associations (via REM sleep). Good sleep can even allow us to repair and remember past memories we might have been unable to recall. And you can even be intentional about which memories you wish to store by intentionally recollecting those specific thoughts prior to going to sleep. The brain will actively filter those for storage and discard any data you are intentional about wanting to forget! And the brain can even improve on what you learnt during the day, working on problems that you could not master during the day but having slept on them, you can find they come naturally the next day.

REM sleep drives creativity by creating links between distant ideas stored in our brains, particularly as the executive function control and logic is suspended allowing us to make unusual leaps.

Conversely studies show that poor sleep makes us much more likely to forget things. Not only because the “file transfer” doesn’t happen front he hippocampus but also because the hippocampus is less able to absorb new information.

Poor sleep makes our emotional control less good the next day and we are less able to assess social cues. This is driven both by more activation of our amygdala (which controls flight or fight responses) and by our striatum (which is assosciated with reward responses) and deactivation of our prefrontal cortex which gives us executive function and control. It can cause us to swing both positive and negative exacerbating conditions like depression, aggression, overeating, and substance abuse.

Poor sleep is a massive contributor to motor accidents. People who have been sleep deprived are not only less alert, they can experience “micro sleeps” when they loose consciousness for a few seconds often leading to dangerous motor accidents. You are 11 times more likely to be involved in a car accident if you have had less than 4 hour sleeps, and twice as likely if you have had between 5 and 6 hours sleep compared to over 8 hours.

Caffeine has a half life on 5 to 7 hours, ie 50pct is still active after 5 to 7 hours. Caffeine bonds to receptors of all of the cells in our body preventing the normal sleep hormone Adenosine, binding keeping us awake. Once the caffeine wears off the built up Adenosine hits and you crash Ie. Don’t have caffeine after mid day if you want a good nights sleep. Caffeine disrupts NREM sleep.

Alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep. Alcohol is a sedative. But sedation is not sleep. It has more in common with anaesthesia than natural sleep. Alcohol results in very fragmented sleep, though we may not be aware of this fragmentation afterwards. It is a significant suppressor of REM sleep, due to aldehydes that are metabolised from the alcohol by the body. Memory retention is far worse in experiments for those having alcohol compared to those don’t who did not.

Athletes perform more poorly and get more injuries on less sleep. On less than six hours, physical endurance can decrease by 30 %.

A lack of good quality REM sleep could be correlated with conditions like autism, as REM sleep is thought to be important in wiring the brain, and there seems to be some correlation between atypical sleep patterns (30 to 50 pct less REM sleep than a normal child normal ) and autism. Causality is unclear.

Other psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, ADHD, bipolar, depression all tend to appear first in teenage years and their may also be linkages to sleep quality, here particularly to do with NREM sleep. ADHD in particular symptomatically is easily confused with poor sleep, and unfortunately the treatment with amphetamines like Ritalin causes those children to be very much awake.

In older age poor sleep can also contribute to and is Assosciates with diabetes, depression, stroke, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s!

Stroke recovery is aided by good sleep, particularly REM sleep as the brain rewires itself to bypass injured parts of the brain.

In older age, some symptoms that might be attributed to dementia might in fact be due to poor sleep quality eg. Forgetting things. There is a link between deterioration in brain health and deep sleep in that brain deterioration often begins in the middle frontal lobe that generates NREM deep sleep waves. This may explain the forgetting since it’s not the memory part of the brain but this “file transfer function” that is most affected.

NREM sleep already deteriorates with age, but in Alzheimer’s patients that is much more pronounced. Alzheimer’s is assosciated with a build up of a protein called beta-amyloid, particularly in the frontal lobe, responsible for generating NREM deep sleep. Rather than affecting the memory parts of the brain (the hippocampus and neocortex) the protein buildup is seen more in the frontal lobe. Hence the poor memory may be a function of the failure of the file transfer part of the brain because of the failure of the NREM sleep. A system in the brain called the glymphatic system, is responsible for “clearing the brain” of all the waste products produced by metabolism in the brain throughout the day, including the beta-amyloid and tau proteins associated with Alzheimer’s. This systems functioning increases 20 fold during NREM sleep, as glial cells shrink between neurons allowing a deep “wash” of cerebrospinal fluid cleaning out the brain. Without proper NREM deep sleep this cleansing system may not be working properly allowing further buildup of the harmful proteins and hence further deterioration in NREM in a self reinforcing cycle that makes the disease worsen.

In support of these hypotheses, there is now increasing evidence that getting too little sleep through the adult life may heighten the risks of Alzheimer’s disease, explained by the mechanisms above. Conversely it may be possible to delay or minimise the chances of getting Alzheimers by getting good sleep.

Poor sleep is also directly associated with heart disease and heart attacks. Studies show this even after correcting for other influences such as smoking diet etc. A short nights sleep increases blood pressure and heart rate measurably, people is less than 6 hours sleep are 2 to 3 times more likely to have calcification of arteries which can lead to heart-attacks. The bodies sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response we have when we come under stress. A lack of sleep puts this nervous system into a continual state of activation, causing higher heart rates, construction of blood vessels through, higher cortisol release (a stress hormone), and a reduction in Growth hormone – a repair hormone that is released at night that repairs arteries and other parts of the body. NREM sleep is usually associated with a slower heart rate, and a calming effect in the cardiovascular system so you need it! Every year when we switch to daylight savings time with one hour less sleep, that day correlates with a spike in heart attacks relative to base rate, and when we get an extra hour sleep it’s associated with a drop!

A lack of sleep is also assosciated with weight gain and increased chances of type 2 diabetes. Like heart diseases the effect is found in studies even after allowing for other common correlates such as body weight, alcohol consumption, smoking etc. After a week of sleeping only 4 hours a night, participants in a study were 40pct less able to absorb a dose of glucose than normal. This was due to both less insulin release and cells becoming less sensitive to insulin. Also affected are hormones grehlin which triggers the sensation of feeling hungry and leptin which signals feeling full. With short sleep, grehlin increases and leptin decreases causing us to eat more and put on weight. In well controlled trials people on short sleep ate significantly more calories and tended to gravitate more towards unhealthy snacks. This may be explained by sleep depravation decreasing activity in the prefrontal cortex where we exercise judgement and increased activity in parts of the primal brain like the striatum that drive desire. On top of that when sleep deprived we tend to feel more lethargic and be less prone to exercise. Further more if you are sleep deprived and trying to diet, more weight loss comes from muscles, whereas if well slept more comes from fat. When sleep deprived the body tries to hang on to its fat reserves.

Very interestingly, some argue that we need more calories when we are sleep deprived because we will burn more as we are awake longer. it turns out this is not true. A person who is awake for 24 hours burns only 147 more calories than someone who has 8 hours sleep! Sleep is actually quite a metabolically active state for the brain and the body.

Ample sleep can really help achieve the opposite in many of these cases. It may also affect your microbiome, again through less activation of the sympathetic nervous system which cultivated different bacteria in our guts compared to when less cortisol is present.

Sleep seems essential for a good immune system response to infection. Hence why we tend to sleep when we get sick. Those with better sleep have better initial immunity to avoid catching a cold. You are much more likely to build much higher level antibodies if you get good sleep prior to a flu vaccine than not (and this must therefore be similar to getting sick since a vaccine is using a dead virus to activate the immune system to get antibodies).

Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythm is assosciated with increased risk of various cancers shown by studies on shift workers. The WHO classifies night time shift work as a possible carcinogen. A european study showed a 40 % increase in cancer risk for those sleeping 6 hours or less. Again the sympathetic nervous system seems to be implicated here, putting the body into a state of more sustained inflammation when we get less sleep. Some cancers use the bodies inflammatory response to start growing, and may aggravate metastasis (spreading to other parts of the body). In mice models sleep deprived mice develop cancer tumours at 3 times the rate of non deprived mice. It looks like a lack of sleep may also diminish cancer fighting M1 macrophage immune cells and increase cancer inducing M2 macrophage cells in the body.

Finally it seems that poor sleep can actually damage cells directly though shifting the expression of different genes, (increasing harmful, decreasing helpful expressions by as much as 200%) and even damage the DNA in our cells through shortening the telomere tips that protect chromosomes in our DNA from damage. This is a very similar effect seen in natural aging a telomeres get shortened… ie poor sleep makes you age faster literally.

Poor sleep in the health professional, especially by doctors where long shifts are seen as a badge of honour could be contributing to massively to incidence of mistakes, so our life might depend on other people’s lack of sleep

A final finding: there is no good evidence that too much sleep is bad for you. We naturally seem to need somewhere around 8 hours in 24. If you are sleeping for significantly longer on a continual there might be something else going on but sleep itself does not seem to be harmful. Ideally you sleep until you wake up naturally rather than having to have an alarm clock.

What’s going on when we dream?

One function of Dreaming is to be our own inbuilt therapist to help us process emotional experiences. We dream during REM sleep. During REM sleep a key stress hormone Noradrenaline is completely shut off within our brain (the brain equivalent of the bodies adrenaline). Key emotion and memory related structures are activated during REM sleep. It’s possible to therefore reprocess emotional states in a “safe” dream state. This may help us remember helpful details and forget some of the more painful parts as we experience the experience without the same stress.

PTSD sufferers suffer from disrupted REM sleep. PTSD might well be contributed to by a breakdown in this emotional trauma processing function in REM sleep, particularly because noradrenaline is not shut off. A drug that reduces noradrenaline has now been approved for the treatment of PTSD.

REM sleep generally seems to retune our emotional calibration and function the next day, making us more able to understand the emotions playing across other peoples faces, a key skill in navigating every day life as a human.

Dreaming also seems to be the creative centre of our brain. Many great breakthroughs seem to have come to people after a night of dreaming including the construction of the periodic table by Mendeleev, some of the great songs by the Beatles etc. Experiments on associations formed in wakeful periods versus just after REM sleep show very different associative patterns, with dream associations being far less obvious and connecting more distant concepts compared to the waking associations which tend to be far more logical.

In studies participants are far more able to spot short cuts and innovative solutions after sleeping on a problem, 20 percent when presented with the problem and asked for a solution 8 hour later compared to 60 % spotting it if they had slept overnight!

It does seem that the content of the dream matters. If you are dreaming about something related to the problem you are working on you may fix it, if it’s something else it might not be very effective.

Some people including Thomas Edison develop habits of waking themselves up from a dream to then write down the creative ideas they had.

Some people seem to experience “lucid dreams” where either they are aware that they are dreaming or in some cases they seem to be able to direct what the dream is about. Experiments have shown that lucid dreamers are able to communicate to researchers through their eye movements while in REM sleep.

Recommendations for good sleep

Matt has a whole section on sleep disorders which I will not recount, if you suffer from any then please read the book. His biggest recommendation is to be very wary of sleeping pills, most of which do not result in a proper natural restful sleep but more like a coma induced state without the benefits of either REM or NREM sleep.

He also makes the point that the issue is really as a society we need to change our attitude towards sleep: to move away from wearing short sleep as a badge of honour and undervaluing it and towards understanding that getting proper sleep is one of the most powerful life and health enhancing habits we develop.

His strongest recommendation To get good sleep: go to sleep at a consistent time every night (including weekends) and wake up at a consistent time every morning. This stops unnatural shocking of the circadian rhythm on a regular basis.

Don’t look at blue light late at night, this suppresses melatonin production by only 50 %. Make sure your device tones down blue light after a certain time. Ideally just ban devices from the bedroom.

Maintain darkness for your sleep, blackout curtains, no flicking lights from devices.

Keep the temperature cool. To initiate sleep your body’s core temperature needs to drop by 1 degree Celsius. Hence it’s easier to fall asleep in a cool room. A drop of temperature also indices melatonin production. Your hands feet and head help radiate away heat from the core. A room temperature as cold as 18.3degree C seems to be optimal given standard bedding. A hot ironically helps with this because it draws blood to the skins surface allowing you to cool off as you dry off and go to sleep.

Don’t doze off or nap after 3pm, that will disrupt the later circadian rhythm. Don’t doze off in the evenings infront of TV, if your are sleepy go to bed.

If you are awake in bed, struggling to sleep, don’t lie there, get up and do something and then come back to bed

Cut out alcohol and caffeine at night, perhaps even after 3pm

An alarm clock can be bad for your blood pressure. Hitting the snooze button repeats this. Try to just have a consistent time getting to sleep and waking up. But if you need to use an alarm clock this is okay if you are following a consistent sleep schedule.

Exercise is good for sleep and sleep is good for exercise but don’t exercise in the three hours before going to sleep.

Don’t eat and drink too much late at night

Do something relax before going to bed, not on a screen. Eg have a hot bath, read, listen to music

Get bright light, preferably sunlight in the morning. 30 minutes of sunlight is good.

Culture · Evolution · Genetics · history · Learning · Science

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read about human evolution from c 12000 bc by a scientist anthropologist with tremendous real world experience. He hypothesises about the key driving forces that have really made the world as we know it today, a world largely dominated by Eurasian societies and provides compelling evidence in support of those hypotheses.

This book has been recommended on numerous podcasts and one the Pulitzer Prize. I think it connects well with some of Edward O Wilson’s themes from Consillience and I suspect, though I have not read it it should connect through to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which is still on my reading list.

Jared argues persuasively that the differences in human development across the globe come not from innate differences in the cleverness or superior culture of one group of individuals versus another but really due to a few simple overarching realities of human development driven ultimately by geography. I like it because it really addresses and decimates some of the common rather racist views of cultural superiority that tend to be espoused.

He traces the dispersion of humans from Africa through Eurasia, to New Guinea and Australia, to North and South America and to the islands of the Pacific.

In the end he argues that there are several very basic key determinants of human development:

1. The development of agriculture through the domestication of plants and animals which allowed a move from simpler hunter gatherer clans into more complex societies. Agriculture allowed specialisation with some members feeding more than just themselves, allowing others to become crafts men, warriors or politicians. This also lead to our more familiar societal structures with leaders and hierarchies, and tax and tribute and the need for collective narrative like religion and culture to keep those societies working effectively together. Effectively in almost all instances globally, agrarian societies displaced hunter gatherer societies.

2. That the domestication of animals lead to us being exposed to many of the germs from to those animals that created many of our common disease: measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, flu, whooping cough etc. The more domesticated animals, the more diseases. This lead to greater immunity via natural selection in those communities who first domesticated these animals. Later contact with communities who had not domesticated as many animals or the same animals resulted in massive devastation by the germs carried in by those with immunity eg. The Spanish and European invasions of America introduced these new diseases with devastating consequences.

4. That it was pretty much evolutionary luck across the globe as to which particular areas had more plants or animals that could in-fact be domesticated, with the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia happening to be particularly lucky in this regard.

5. That simple Longitudinal geography makes a huge difference. The Eurasian/North African east west landmass along similar latitudes made it possible to have rapid transmission of technology, agriculture and germ immunity across that land mass with similar enough climate conditions. It was much harder to move North South, the Tropics have very different diseases to the temperate regions, very different cultivatable plants, hence transmission of agriculture and technology along north south continents like from North Africa to Southern Africa, or North to South America, or North Asia to Australia was far slower.

4. That cultures with head starts in agriculture then developed further technological advantages, from metal working, first copper, later iron, to boats and sea-faring, to writing as a means of organising and transmitting knowledge, to eventually guns allowing the further consolidation of power ultimately into empires.

He covers developments of all parts of the world in fascinating detail including China, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific islands.

This book has really brought home to me the power of evolution over long periods of time to completely transform societies. Also very relevant today as we face new viral pandemics to understand that and the innate connection between humans the contacts we have with animals.

Overall I found the book fascinating but it is a long read where he argues and seeks to prove his hypothesis and it can feel a little repetitive in places. Still I enjoyed it immensely.

artifical intelligence · Big data · Business Culture · decision making · Investment · Learning · Maths · Statistics

The unrules by Igor Tulchinsky, founder and CEO of WorldQuant

Igor’s rules

  1. The UnRule: all theories and all methods have flaws. Nothing can be proved with absolute certainty is, but anything may be disproved, and nothing that can be articulated can be perfect.
  2. You only live once. Your time on earth is the only truly irreplaceable resource. If today was my last day, what would I be doing with it?
  3. Life is unpredictable. There are limits to planning; the key is to act. Foster opportunities, then take advantage of outcomes. If you have to decide and you can’t, flip a coin. If it’s the wrong action, you will feel it and reverse course. Actions have a compounding effect; it’s bad to deliberate for too long.
  4. Establish concrete quantifiable goals and always go from A to B. Concrete things are attainable. Abstract and nebulous wishes are not.
  5. Develop willpower and persist. The most important limit is how much ability and persistence you have. Age means little.
  6. Play to your strengths, don’t compromise. Weaknesses can only be improved marginally, but strength can be improved more.
  7. Obstacles are information. If you can’t get something to work there is a reason. Learn adjust and attack it again.
  8. Aim for the anxious edge, the point of mild anxiety
  9. Arrogance distorts reality. Arrogance makes you perceive the environment in the way that maximises your ego. Environment does not exist for you, so your perceptions turn into fiction. You make bad decisions by chasing illusions. This gets harder after success when hubris slips in.
  10. Make everyone benefit
  11. Opportunity is unlimited, ideas are infinite
  12. Blame no one else. Minimise regrets.
  13. There is a virtue in economy of expression. Efficiency implies clarity and economy of thought. Pretend you have a fixed number of words in your life. The sooner they are all said, the sooner you’ll die.
  14. Value diverse and competing methods. Because all theories are flawed, the best approach is to collect as many of them as possible and use them all, in as optimal a fashion as you can devise, simultaneously.
  15. Value multiple points of view.
  16. Make everyone benefit. Align your endeavours with everyone around you and you will create your own tail wind.

Quotes and other insights

  1. To be successful in this investment business you have to think about it all the time. Thomas Peterffy
  2. Keep losses small. Profits will take care of themselves. Izzy Englander
  1. Don’t get emotional about your trades. React instantly to bad news. If it’s scary run. Take aggressive risks but manage losses. Aggressive behaviour forces your environment to react to you, rather than the other way around. You’re in control; you have the wider array of options in a higher probability of success. You need an exit route if it doesn’t work out.
  2. In systems with a high degree of interactive complexity, multiple and unexpected interactions of failure are inevitable.
  3. A good business runs itself. And create this by choosing the right people. A lot of time should be invested in that activity. Optimal compensation schemes are vital.
  4. Minimise bureaucracy. Time is money; time is scarce. Bureaucracy wastes time and money. If you have the right people, right systems and the right compensation scheme you can scale without adding bureaucracy.
  5. What makes a good trader? Intelligence, focus, action orientation, and the ability to learn from errors; economy of words and thoughts, honesty, and a strong sense of self; the ability to take risks, compartmentalise, and handle setbacks without ego getting crushed.
  6. What makes a good researcher? Creativity, tenacity, attention to detail, intelligence, relentlessness, follow-through, and top-level programming skills.
  7. What makes a good manager? Empathy, intelligence, creativity, relentlessness, and follow through.
  8. In their view, quantity of alphas is far superior to quality. Quality cannot easily be defined. They seek to maximise exponentially the number of Alphas they pursue.
  9. If data increases exponentially, predictability should improve linearly.
  10. They key to testing ideas is to have good simulation software.
  11. As complexity increases so will the number and frequency of non linear events will also increase (ie many std dev events – rogue waves, schrodinger equation)
  12. Power laws very common in nature. In some systems the largest entity often brakes scale invariance, ie. it is even bigger than predicted eg. In network systems, dominant player much bigger.

WorldQuant online university in financial literacy worth checking out.

Business culture · Culture · Learning · Relationships

Team of teams by General Stanley McChrystal – leading teams to work effectively together

The book has a few essential ideas which are worth while but it takes quite a lot of background to get to them. Below are my key takeaways.

The context for McChrystal was trying to get specialist units in very different parts of the military, who each worked incredibly effectively in their specific area, to form a cohesive whole to adapt to rapidly changing situations in Iraq Eg. Getting Army Rangers, working with Navy Seals, with airforce, with the NSA and with the CIA. Each branch tended to create its own cohesion creating tightly knit teams but resulting in territorial behaviour and collectively failing to complete their missions.

The basic message is that in the the 20th century progress was made through industrial efficiency with perfectly planned production processes around complicated problems but with perfectly predictable outcomes that engineer can solve. In these structures vertical command and control management worked effectively with each team operating efficiently but limited need for close interaction between teams.

In the 21st century, in modern organisations, we face problems of complexity, networked systems where small perturbations can lead to unpredictable outcomes. To operate in complex problems we need to be able to function with much greater flexibility and adaptability, connecting disparate information, and making quick decisions with dynamic and changing plans. To do this requires a very different management style for our organisations.

His prescription is three fold

1. A need for complete information sharing across all teams to create contextual awareness across teams and a “shared consciousness”

2. A need for strong trust between teams with multiple connection points, to create a team-of-teams type operating mentality

3. The need for the right type of leadership creating an environment of “empower execution” , where the leader is focused on culture and prioritisation to drive the team dynamic

Taking each of those in turn

1. The need for information sharing across teams

  • “In a domain characterised by interdependencies, what ever efficiency is gained through silos is outweighed by the costs of “interface failures””
  • Emergent intelligence between teams can be achieved in larger organisations willing to commit to the disciplined deliberate sharing of information
  • Fuse generalised awareness, “shared consciousness” with specialised expertise
  • To achieve this there needs to be common purpose.
  • Emphasis on group success to spur trust, cooperation and common purpose.
  • To do this they created a daily common forum, using technology, like a global video conference where everyone called in from all of the world. Anyone from any team could participate, everyone had access to all the information with almost total transparency.
  • The success of this depended on it being quality useful information rather than beautifully dressed up rehearsed message sending.
  • The update piece from a team outlining their facts would be short eg 60 seconds, then there would be 2 to 3 minutes of open questioning and conversation from leadership. Key is active listening and real exploration, potentially followed by some perspective or framing from the senior team, but then letting the individual team decide how they would proceed. Allowed all teams to see problems being solved real time and the perspectives of senior leadership team. This gave teams confidence and permission to solve their own problems, rather than having to have decisions come from the top.
  • Think about the physical space and the way you go about doing this information sharing carefully, but also about your decision making procedures.
  • Information was shared widely without constraint. As information was shared, it encouraged others to share.

2. Creating real trust and collaboration between teams

  • The key issue is that good collaboration between teams requires sacrifice (of resources or achievement in one area) on behalf of each team for the greater good. This happens any time there are scare resources, eg engineering resources working for something good for one team or something else for another team.
  • In Game theory the prisoners dilemma type problem illustrates a situation where the individually dominant strategy (betrayal, taking the resource to further your own ends) is suboptimal to the collectively dominant strategy (cooperation but sacrifice of the resource to the greater good). Even with wholistic awareness of the situation the prisoner still has to take a leap of faith in trusting the other party.
  • The dominant strategy in a multi round game is to start with cooperation and then to always follow what the other person did in the previous round. If they betrayed you, you betray them in the next round as punishment. If they cooperate you continue to cooperate. The punishment only lasts as long as the bad behaviour continues and stops as soon as there is cooperation. A track record of cooperation at a certain point then becomes the norm and trust builds.
  • Leaps of faith are only possible when there are real relationships of trust between individuals on the different teams.
  • To build trust they encouraged individuals from one unit to spend a secondment with another unit, to be a liaison officer with that unit. And they encouraged the teams to send their best people on these assignments. People capable of building relationships even in an initially hostile environment on another team, people with low ego. They encouraged the units “if giving up this person does not cause you pain, you are sending the wrong person”
  • They supplied the liaison officer with continued intelligence and information that would be useful to the unit they were in, and gave them access to the senior team so that when a liaison officer called in a favour, they could deliver value to that team.
  • This built a system where teams got more out of accepting these liaisons and were then willing to commit their own best people to do the same in reciprocation.
  • When it comes to sharing scarce resources, if teams can understand why and how their resources will make a difference somewhere else they are much more willing to make the sacrifice of giving up that resource.

Together, the strong sharing of information around a common shared purpose, and a strong bond of trust and mutual cooperation at multiple levels between teams create the ground for “shared consciousness” across teams. Hence the books title team of teams.

3. The role of leadership

So their aim is coordinated operations that exhibit an emergent adaptive intelligence, decentralised control with empowered decision making built around a shared consciousness and information. The role of leadership is to enable all of that.

  • The role of a leader is to build, lead and maintain a culture that is flexible and durable.
  • Don’t misinterpret empowerment. Simply taking off constraints can be dangerous
  • It should only be done if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely.
  • Team leaders and members can be free to make decisions as long as they provide full visibility under the “shared consciousness” model. They have to provide sufficient clear information to leadership and other teams about what they are doing.
  • It’s an “eyes on – hands off” model of leadership.
  • The objective is “smart autonomy”, not total autonomy, because everyone is tightly linked in a shared consciousness with the same purpose.
  • The role of the senior leader is “empathetic crafter of culture, rather than the puppet master”. It’s a gardner creating the right environment rather than the heroic leader or chess master taking all the big decisions.
  • The leader should be taking fewer decisions, but should be keeping the organisation focused on clearly articulated priorities.
  • This leadership comes from consistently explicitly talking about what the priorities are but also demonstrating the way the team should operate, leading by example,
  • Less is more, focus on only a few key messages and repeat them consistently. Nothing is learned until it’s been heard multiple times, and it’s only sunk in when it’s echoed back in the words of others.
  • Your strongest form of communication is your own behaviour.
  • Eg. Information sharing sessions never cancelled and attendance mandatory
  • The rules for any meeting are established more by precedent and demonstrated behaviour than by written guidance.
  • Be clear on your central role as a leader. To lead, to inspire, to understand, to guide, to prioritise
  • Watch the small behaviours. If you look bored, if you are unprepared you send a message. Interest and enthusiasm are your most powerful behaviours. Prepare, ask questions, demonstrate you have really listened, compliment work publicly, suggest improvement privately, and say thank you often.
  • Get the balance of reporting information vs active interaction right for the meeting. Get the right level of candour through the way you interact.
  • Think out loud, summarise what you have heard, how you process the information, outline your thoughts on how we might proceed, ask the team members what would be an appropriate response and what they plan to do. Ask for opinions and advice. Admit when you don’t know. Empower them to take the decisions.
  • Develop the art of asking good questions. Questions that help people arrive at the answers and see errors for themselves.
  • Be careful of overcommitment on your schedule, when you cancel people get disappointed, work done preparing for meeting with you is wasted.
  • Avoid a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging a situation may be. The leaders first responsibility is to to the whole, to the big picture, no matter how good they may be at the particular situation.
artifical intelligence · Business · General · Learning · Philosophy · Psychology · Science

Books of 2018

As I don’t have time to do full write-ups on everything I get through, here is just a brief few comments on the books I chose to read in 2018 and the key things I want to remember of them. Roughly in the order I would recommend them for general consumption…

  • 1. Man’s search for meaning by Victor Frankl
  • (See the separate blogpost on this) This is the book I would most recommend you read, it addresses very deep and meaningful challenges we all face, particularly suffering. It’s a short and easy read, but very powerful.
  • 2. Poor Charlie’s Almanac, Charlie Munger

    An amazing read, in echoes of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richards’s Almanac, full of down to earth wisdom and common sense, not to mention that this should be compulsory reading for anyone in the investment field.

    The single biggest concept is the idea of being well acquainted with the core mental models used in a wide variety of disciplines, and then be able to apply those in other situations in a methodical way. This is perhaps the best articulation of the multidisciplinary approach to which I aspire.

    The incredible moments for me are his insights into psychology. Many of these are now better understood with progress in modern behavioural economics, but Charlie Munger was years ahead in figuring out a lot of this for himself. He also makes some astute observations about the current state of psychology which, relative to many other sciences, seems in its infancy.

    3. The biography of Benjamin Franklin: an American Life by Walter Isaacson

    I had no idea just how prolific a thinker, scientist and statesman/politician Benjamin Franklin was. This book gives a real sense of that. Standout thoughts for me:

    • He was in many senses the ultimate pragmatist, choosing what was useful over ideology over and over again
    • His basic industriousness and strong drive towards practical daily work
    • His own awareness of his fallibility, while striving towards this industrious ideal
    • His role as a scientist and his curiosity about the natural world, including much around an understanding of electricity, inventing descriptions such as battery, positive, negative, charge etc.
    • His role as a printer, the power of the media in influencing society’s direction and thoughts
    • His passionate forming of societies to further all sorts of ends, and his ability to network
    • The interplay between aiming to find a diplomatic solution versus knowing when to take a stand. The role he played in the founding of America and its independence from Britain was quite incredible – from diplomacy to the leading of militias. And while this happened over much of his life, he achieved the majority in his last 10 years from the age of 65 to around 75.
    • He was instrumental in writing of, and was the only common signatory to the Declaration of Independence, the peace treaty with Britain (and with France) and the US Constitution. He was instrumental in forming a governance system that would bring the various independent states, into one United States, and in creating the two chamber structure of the Senate and the House.
    • The contrast between his pragmatic beliefs in “salvation by works” and a frankly not very deep religious conviction, versus Jonathan Edwards’ thinking, a leading Christian spiritual thinker of the timewho emphasised salvation by grace and grace alone, which I find spiritually curious.
  • Takeaways for myself: to be more industrious, pragmatic, and turn to action when needed, to be more outgoing in fostering connection (which is possible in a very different way in today’s internet-centric world) to continue to be curious, broad ranging and diplomatic.
  • It’s a fairly easy read, quite long and a bit repetitive at times but definitely worth pushing through. The second half of the book, which concentrates on the last 10 years of his life and many of the political developments between the US and Europe, is very interesting.
  • 4. Consilience by Edward O. Wilson

    His key concept is the unification and “consilience” of all fields of knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, art, spirituality and religion, with a scientific underpinning. The book was helpful to me in several ways:

    • In furthering this idea that what are traditionally thought of as separate fields of enquiry, are in fact highly related; and understanding one, may lead to deeper understanding of another.
    • Along side this, is the observation that most people become specialists in one area and few are the generalists making connections across what are considered separate areas of expertise. There is great opportunity for those willing to span the fields.
    • The idea of deeply rooted genetic origins to some of our cultural- and spiritual practices, and that our minds grow in a cultural context as part of a communal mind.
    • He was quite prescient in his insight that it would be the development of our understanding of the mind, that would become a connecting force across many of these areas.
    • The idea of social- or collective-Darwinism, the importance of culture in creating cohesion, that group cultures can evolve and individuals may subserve their needs to the group in order to ensure its survival.
    • This then leads to discussions of the social sciences from evolutionary biology to economics to psychology and hence onto art, ethics and religion.
    • While many may disagree, I found he had a positive light on spirituality and religion in the sense that, it is necessary for the effective organisation of our cultures
    • He is again prescient in looking forward at issues like gene therapy and environmentalism

    This is an intellectually exhausting read, with many concepts tightly packed and demanding language, so I would recommend it if you are interested in the idea of reconciliation as the basis for all forms of human knowledge; but be prepared to put the effort in.

    5. Deep Work by Cal Newport

    An easy read and some good practical advice too which I will be applying in the coming year to try and improve my productivity and general focus. (I have put out a separate post summarising my takeaways on this book.)

    6. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

    This book has been hugely helpful in understanding our family’s internal motivations and drivers. The world can be split into two types of people: those who believe in personality types and those who don’t! Jokes aside, personality types can be useful mental models. Rubin develops a mental model of what motivates people: are we driven by what others expect of us, or are we driven internally by our own expectations, do we balance other people’s and our own expectations or do we reject all expectations – those arising from within and those of other people? Which of these types is dominant, has a great deal to say about how we approach life, and what approach in work or relationships will be effective in motivating in specific situations.

    In our experience her mental model was highly descriptive of the different members of our family. Each of the four different ‘types’ she describes is a good fit to one of the four of us. It’s been very helpful in understanding what approach to take in working with one another. Recommended for anyone in a relationship or parenting, struggling to make things work better.

  • 7. Life and Work Principles by Ray Dalio
  • I am a huge admirer of what Dalio has achieved at Bridgewater having followed their investment thinking for many years. He is possibly one of the most systematic of thinkers and this book of his Principles does exactly that, starting from elementary components and building up. The book also gives a good insight into him as a person and family man which round out a view, if you know him only as an investor.
  • There is too much to distil into one summary but a few of the key highlights and takeaways for me include:

    Life principles

    • What I have seen is that the happiest people discover their own nature and match their life to it.
    • Two worthy life goals: meaningful work and meaningful relationships
    • Embrace reality, see it as it truly is, and deal with it
    • Love your mistakes and learn from them. pain plus reflection = progress
    • Weigh second- and third-order consequences when making decisions
    • Have good mental maps (to help you understand the world), humility and open mindedness (to know you don’t have all the answers and be open to other’s solutions)
    • Understand your own ego barrier, preventing you from understanding or accepting your weaknesses and blind spots, versus your executive function, a higher level ‘you’ that wants to make the right decision – these are in conflict.
    • A concept of believability: weighted decision making I think is very powerful – weight the opinions of those with proven track records and who are most expert. This is a better model than either consensus decision making or dictatorial decision making. One of the most important decisions you can make is who you ask the questions of.
    • Other people genuinely see the world very differently from the way you do. Sincerely believe that you might not know the best possible path. You must suspend judgement and empathise to properly evaluate another person’s perspective.
    • Decision making is a two step process. Take in all the relevant information, then decide.
    • Thoughtful disagreement is an art: how to be both open minded and assertive.
    • Everything looks bigger closer up, and ‘new’ is overvalued relative to ‘great’.
    • Navigate levels effectively, high, intermediate, detailed. Synthesis requires back to the big picture, not getting lost in the detail. Simplify. It takes a genius to make it simple.

    Work principles (a few of the many he suggests)

    • Organisations consist of people and culture
    • An idea meritocracy = radical truth + radical transparency + believability weighted decision making
    • You have to be able to put your honest thoughts on the table, have thoughtful disagreement and abide by agreed-upon ways of getting past disagreement
    • Be loyal to the common mission, not to anyone who is not operating consistently with it
    • Create a culture where it is okay to make mistakes but unacceptable not to learn from them
    • Get in sync
    • Don’t leave important conflicts unresolved
    • Once a decision is made everyone should get behind it, even if individuals still disagree
    • Who is more important than what, hire right: for values, then abilities (ways of thinking and behaving), then skills (learnt tools), pay attention to track record
    • Don’t tolerate problems
    • Diagnose problems and get to their root cause
    • Evolve the machine
    • Have good governance

    My suggestion for using this book in a business context (after you have understood the big principles and concepts) is, if you have a specific set of challenges you’re facing there will probably be a section of his book that applies to that. See if applying them in your situation would be helpful. There is way too much to hold it all in mind, at once.

  • 8. 21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari
  • I have wanted to read this author for some time (his book, Sapiens in particular). This one touches on most of the major themes that I think will be hugely important trends over coming years. In some ways it is a short cut covering many of the topics in both Edward Luce’s Demise of Western Populism and Kasparov’s Deep Thinking, including
    • Politics and the rise of populism
      The rise and impact of Artificial Intelligence
      Issues around education, truth and fake news, power
      The development of secular spiritualism
      The workings of the mind and our understanding of it
  • One key perspective that he brought through for me was the power and centrality of the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves and our tribes, that this is both a defining feature of humanities success and our own greatest chains and shackles.
  • (With all it covered and some great quotes, there is a separate blogpost on it.)
  • 9. Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov
  • I put out a separate post on this book too picking up on the themes of Artificial Intelligence and its increasing impact on work and the world, and on decision making psychology. A relatively accessible read with a bonus for anyone interested in the chess itself.

    10. The retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce

    (Again, one I have done a separate blogpost on.) Articulate, and well-written, this is an excellent read for anyone wanting to understand the changing political landscape and rise of populism.

    11. The Psychology Book (published by DK)

    Psychology and the way our brains work has been an increasing area of interest for me both professionally and personally. I believe that psychology and the mind is going to be greatest and most important frontier on which we will make progress over the coming decades. I see its relevance everywhere: in interpersonal relationships between adults, both personal and professional; with children, as parents; in the aged; in the rise of interest in meditation and self help, in the rise of mental health issues amongst friends, colleagues and our community, and in my own self. I think mental health will become bigger than physical ailments as the frontier to address of human suffering. And compared to many of the other sciences it is its infancy, only just emerging from the dark ages. The subject it is studying is the most complex machine ever devised, the human brain. And studying cognition as opposed to the physical brain, is one of the most difficult things to do scientifically because most of it is happening in our heads, which to date are not terribly transparent to scientific inquiry.

    However as one approaches this subject it’s inevitably starts off as very confusing, with lots of different terminology and theories, and everyone appears to think that their theory is the perfect one to address your current situation. In the words of Charlie Munger, “to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. In an attempt to try to make some sense of the cacophony of theories and approaches I am trying to get a more global picture of the field of psychology, this book by DK has been immensely helpful. It summarises the key ideas that each major psychologist contributed to the field and its helping me create a mental map of the different approaches and lineages we know of to date.

    12. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

    This was my fiction read of the year, a wonderful yarn combining the modern history of cryptography from World War Two through to today (slightly before the advent of crypto currency). It’s a bit long and some descriptions of less relevant facts can go on for a while but it’s a good nerd’s adventure, and he certainly knows his facts when it comes to cryptography.

    artifical intelligence · Culture · decision making · Learning · Philosophy · politics · Psychology

    21 lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari

  • The book picks up on several themes that I think are very important for understanding where the world is trending over the coming years.

    Politics

    • Disillusionment picks up on the rise of anti ellitest autocratic and populist rulers (connections to The Demise of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce).
    • Issues of identity, nationalism clash with global problems. Identity and the definition of your tribe are themselves changing rapidly in today’s world.
    • Immigration also poses growing challenges in many parts of the world, both to the countries from which people are departing and those to which they are aiming to immigrate to.
    • Traditional democracy offers no solutions to the global technological disruption and ecological challenges we are facing.
    • All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than understanding the global truth.
  • Many are writing about the potential impact of AI on jobs in future (connections to Deep Thinking by Gary Kasparov). Yuval draws out some interesting insights:
    • In the past machines competed with humans in raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge over machines in cognition. AI has the potential to change that.
    • In the future machines will become better at analysing human behaviour and predicting human decisions. (Already happening with social media’s ability to draw and captivate us). AI May out compete us in jobs that require intuition about other people, it may be able to more accurately assess people’s emotional states.
    • AI gets its power and ability to outcompete us not from replacing a single human but through integrating the experience of millions in a single network. AI cars will have far more driving experience than any human. AI doctors similarly. Healthcare could become far better and far cheaper.
    • What jobs will be more immune from relegation? Jobs that require a wide range of skills and an ability to deal with unforeseen scenarios. Human care for young, sick and elderly will probably remain a human activity. Human creativity is often lauded as the area AI will least impact but there he argues as AIs get to understand what touches human emotion they will start to impact this.
    • The idea of human being augmented by machines in all of these areas will inevitably be correct, hopefully greatly improving productivity but continuing the acceleration of change.
    • What do we do to try to create enough new jobs? Will governments create effective retraining programs? How will we cope with the psychological challenges of having to retrain multiple times in our careers?
    • And what happens if job losses far outstrip job creation? What if we get to the point where a large portion of society just don’t have much of a relevant role to play in the work that is economically valued and paid for?
    • What sort of changing social policies will we need eg. Universal Basic Income and what sort of tax policies if the value creation is owned by a few large data owning corporations?
    • Will we start recognising the enormous value of jobs that are not currently paid for such as careers and parenting?
    • Can we envisage a society where work is not where most people find their meaning and purpose? How will we pay for that?
    • Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations, and how we compare our condition to those of other people. How will we adjust our expectations in this new world.

    The other big questions he raises

    • How do we regulate the rise of big data and protect freedoms, who owns the data (see Kasparov’s comments about us sacrificing our privacy for service willingly, and the need for transparency from the big data owners)
    • What does terrorism look like in future?
  • On spirituality, ethics, secularism and religion
    • The future of spirituality, our concept of God, the contradictions between religions preaching individual humility but exercising collective arrogance in its exclusive demands. Marrying this with secularism and science, a seeking of objective truth, the development of secular ethics around concepts such as compassion, equality, freedom, courage.
    • “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better than answers you cannot question.”
    • But even secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds, especially in times of war or economic crisis where societies must act promptly and forcefully. Eg. communism’s of capitalism both become dogmas. Even the right to freedom can become a dogma against all censorship. At some point in time a search for objective truth is circumvented by the desire for expediency and simplicity.
    • “Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’.”
  • On truth and power
    • Ignorance: you know less than you think. “People rearely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like minded friends and self confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
    • Providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we hold these views out of group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire.
    • “If you want to go deeply into any subject you need a lot of time, and in particular the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time you will never find the truth.”
    • Power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.
    • Power depends on creating and believing fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
    • For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit. By bringing people together religious and cultural creeds make large scale human cooperation possible. The power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
    • As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.
    • How to avoid fake news? If you want reliable information, pay for it. If some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the scientific literature on it.
  • On education
    • You will need to reinvent yourself again and again in order to keep up with the world.
      To survive and flourish in such a world you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. Unfortunately teaching kids to embrace the unknown and keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them a physics equation.
      People don’t need more information, they need the ability to make sense of the information, to tell the difference between the important and the unimportant and to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
      What should we teach: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity
      To do this you need to work hard on knowing who you are, and what you want from life, know thy self.
  • How do we usually get to know ourselves? The power of stories
    • We usually do this by telling ourselves stories to give meaning to our lives. My story must give me a role to play, and it must extend beyond my horizon, giving me an identity and a meaning to my life by embedding me in something bigger than myself.
      However when you believe a particular story, it makes you extremely interested in its minutest details, while keeping you blind to anything that falls outside its scope.
      Often we want our personal story to carry on beyond death, either through religious reassurance or through something tangible in either cultural or biological form.
      Why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. By the time their intellect matures they are so heavily invested in the story, that they are far more likely to use their intellect to rationalise the story than to doubt it. Most people who go on identity quests are like children going treasure hunting. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance. Second, not only our personal identities but also our collective institutions are built on the story. Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of the story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. Once you suffer for a story it’s usually enough to convince you that the story is real. And in following our own story we may even inflict suffering on others. We do not want to admit either that we are fools or villains and so we prefer to believe that the story is true.
      Throughout history almost all humans believed in several stories at the same time, and whenever absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. This uncertainty rattled most religions, which therefore considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be amongst the worst possible sins. With the rise of modern culture the tables were turned. Faith looked increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom.
      Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining what ever fits his or her taste.
      One common modern story is the Liberal story. Like all of the cosmic stories, the liberal story to start with a creation narrative. It says that the creation occurs every moment, and I am the creator. What then is the aim of my life? To create meaning by feeling, by thinking, by desiring, and by inventing. Anything that limits the human liberty to feel, to think, to desire and to invent, limits the meaning of the universe. Hence liberty from such limitations is the supreme ideal.
      In order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and re-write. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now. And like government Spin Doctors, the inner narrator repeatedly gets things wrong but rarely, if ever, admits it. My inner propaganda machine builds up a personal myth, with prized memories and cherished traumas that often bear little resemblance to the truth.
      We humans have conquered the world thanks to ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us.
  • Philosophy and the final frontier: our minds
    • In Yuval’s view the big question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life?” But “how do we get out of suffering?” (Vs Victor Frankl who looks to find meaning even in suffering). He believes “suffering is the most real thing in the world”.
      He goes on to discuss how he can, as a sceptic still wake up cheerful in the morning.
      He turns inward on himself in mindfulness meditation.
      How does one study the mind? The only mind I can directly observe is my own. If I cannot observe some external thing without bias, how can I objectively observe my own mind? But the only tool available is meditation: the direct observation of one’s own mind.
      “The most important thing I realised was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step towards ceasing to generate more suffering.”
      Serious meditation demanded minutes amount of discipline. If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you notice is how wild and impatient reminders.
      We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.
    Business culture · decision making · Learning · Philosophy

    Deep Work by Cal Newport

  • The basic idea behind this book is that in an age of increasing distraction, being able to really concentrate and do deep focused work is a super-power. He spends the first half of the book explaining why he believes this is the case and the second half offering some really pragmatic strategies for achieving this.

    Deep work is completely undistracted, focused problem solving, in a state of “flow”, where we do our most meaningful work. We can only really achieve this for between 1 and at most four hours a day. But very few of us achieve even the one hour, true deep work is rare. Mos to the time spent responding to emails, in meetings etc. Is not facilitating deep work. Most of us proxy business for deep work, they are not the same thing.

    His key insight is: developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life design to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

    He sets out 4 depth philosophy’s

    1. Become a monk. Set your entire life up to minise distraction and do only deep work

    2. Become a monk some of the time: A bimodal philosphy where for parts of the year you are able to become completely isolated and work intensely

    3. Have a rhythmic schedule to doing deep work every week, clear well defined periods where you will be uninterrupted – this is probably the most practical for most of us

    4. Journalistic approach, jumpy into deep work with every spare minute of time, as journalists are trained to do because they often work to tight deadlines. The main challenge here is the context switching which makes getting into a deep work mindset very challenging.

    He then has a series of very practical suggestions to maximise your deep work and its impact.

    Ritualise your deep work

    • Have a specific place to do deep work
    • Decide for how long you will do it, and don’t be over ambitious to begin with
    • Decide how you will work eg. Ban internet and email completely, have a cup of coffee before hand
    • Keep track of how much time you actually do it, in a clear visible place eg. On a calendar, see if you can build up a habit of tracking and expanding the time you do deep work
    • Commit to it with grand gestures eg. Money, time commitment, public commitment, stuff that will make you more psychologically committed to achieving it.

    Interestingly he is not saying it has to be in complete isolation. There are many examples of good collaboration producing meaningful work and often improving the quality of thinking but this probably comes through an approach of coming together meaningfully and then separating out meaningfully again.

    Don’t just know what you need to do, also focus on how you will execute.

    • Focus on the wildly important. Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work don’t try to do too much.
    • Focus on lead measures, not the results. Lead measures are the things that you can control that drive success that create the output eg. The time you spend on deep work.
    • Keep a scoreboard
    • Create a cadence of accountability: confront the scoreboard, with a team eg. A weekly review, identify when it went well and when it went poorly why and what could be done to improve it.

    He also emphasise the need to create mental space around the deep work. When you work, work hard, when you are done be done.

    • Down time aids insights, give you unconscious mind time to untangle more complex problems
    • We suffer from Attention fatigue. Having walks especially in nature very helpful. Exercise probably has a similar effect, Having “inherently fascinating stimuli” that fascinate the mind but do not tax it in terms of directed concentration and decision making is very restorative to the mind
    • Have a shutdown ritual: as you complete your work day, identify incomplete tasks, capture them where you can and let you brain know that you have a plan for how to complete it, and then ritualise leaving your work behind you and switching off to it.
    • Embrace boredom and specifically here, don’t fill it up with constant stimuli, overcome our desire for constant distraction. People who multitask all the time cannot filter out irrelevancy. We are wired for distraction and crave it, more so in the social media age. His specific recommendation here is to “schedule the occasional break from focus to give into distraction” rather than let distraction be the default in our down time. Eg. Schedule when you watch Tv or browse the internet or check the news.

    Other suggestions

    • Work with intensity like Teddy Roosevelt: schedule high intensity work and give yourself a drastically shorter hard deadline than you would ordinarily give yourself to get the task done, though it must still be feasible. Do this only once a week to begin with and then systematically increase it.
    • Productive meditation: take a period when you are occupied physically but not mentally eg. Walking, showering, exercising, and focus your attention singularly on a well defined problem you are working on, and specifically what part of it you need to think through next. When your mind wanders away from it bring your attention back to it.

    He then makes various suggestions to limit the impact and time spent on shallow work or not important goals

    • Select the tools (specifically networking and digital information tools) that you use very carefully to maximise your chances of success at your key goals. Identify your key goals and the factors that will determine success and adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative.
    • 80 % of your productivity comes from 20 % of your activity/tools etc. Cut out the other 80 % ruthlessly to allow more time on the 20 % that makes the biggest difference. Eg. Cut out social media

    Manage your schedule ruthlessly

    • Put more thought and structure into your leisure time evenings and weekends.
    • Schedule every minute of every day. That does not mean you have to stick to the schedule, if something else comes up that is more important, change the schedule but it forces you to be thoughtful about the day and how you are spending your time. Including scheduling time for the admin and the unexpected. This also helps improve your realism about how long different tasks take.
    • Quantify the depth of every task (how long would this task take you to teach someone else to do?)
    • Set your self very strict work time allowances and a fixed time by which you need to have finished your work day eg. 8 hours a day, finished by 5:30, once everyone has less time to get their work done they respect that time even more, people become stingy with their time and don’t waste it doing things that just don’t matter.
    • Decide what percentage of your time should be spent on shallow work vs deep work and get your boss to agree that.
    • This changes perspective:any obligation beyond your deep work objectives is potentially disruptive.

    Manage other people’s demands on your time

    • The most dangerous word in managing your productivity is saying “yes”
    • Become hard to reach
    • Manage your email
    • eg. On email train people not to expect a response and have people filter out what they send you themselves and what sort of response to expect from you.
    Learning · Philosophy · Psychology

    Book review: Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl

    Viktor Frankl was a Jewish pioneer in psychotherapy. He was developing his own insights into psychology in Austria prior to World War 2. In the war he was arrested by the Nazis and transported to Auschwitz. In his book “Man’s search for meaning” he relays the experiences of surviving in a concentration camp and his insights into what motivates humans, which he gained as a result of those experiences.
    There is no way I could do justice to the horrors he experienced in the camps in a few brief lines in a blog post. I highly recommend reading the book, it’s not very long and will lend far more depth to the few excerpts I am relaying below. It is harrowing but well worth while.
    Instead I have focused on the psychological insights and some of the quotes that really struck me personally. (Please note that he tends to frame everything in the male third person, so his references are often to “man” but he means it generically as all humans, men and women). Below I put my own words and thoughts in italics and quotes from Frankl are in plain type.
    Frankl developed his own form of therapy he called logotherapy. He believed that the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must be fulfilled by him alone.
    Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on condition that his suffering has a meaning.
    Suffering
    In the first half of the book he describes the experience of the concentration camps. In a situation of such depravity, suffering becomes the central theme of most of the prisoners lives, and while his work focuses on meaning in the broader sense, he is particularly insightful in his understanding of human suffering.
    And while he is clear we don’t have to suffer to find meaning in our lives, most of us will probably experience some form of unavoidable suffering in the course of our lives. In that sense his insights and challenges to us are highly relevant.
    One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. The question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked. 
    We had to learn ourselves and for the more, we had to teach the despairing man, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.
    Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. 
    Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man maybe required simply to accept his fate, to bear his cross.
    When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
    For us as prisoners these thoughts were not speculations for removed from reality. They were the only ones that could be of help to us. They kept us from dispair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had past the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the obtaining of some aim through the act of creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embrace the widest cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
    Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us [that bearing suffering with dignity in itself gave meaning to the life and suffering], we refused to minimize or alleviate the camps tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized it’s hidden opportunities for achievement.
    There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
    Frankl’s insight was that humans in these extreme situations often need a very specific reason to carry on living, “what life was asking of them”. For him it was his manuscript explaining some of the concepts of his logotherapy which had been taken from him as he entered the camp. For others it was to be reunited with a relative who needed them. 
    In Nietzsche’s words, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”.
    Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. He can only answer to life by answering for his own life.
    It’s up to him to decide whether he should interpret his life’s task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.
    In the concentration camps we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualised depends on decisions [he makes] but not on conditions [that he faces].
    Optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of human potential, at its best, allows for
    1. Turning suffering into human achievement and accomplishment
    2. Deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better
    3. Deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action
    Finding meaning in life
    According to Frankl meaning can be discovered in three different ways
    1. By creating a work or doing a deed
    2. By experiencing something (eg. goodness, truth, beauty) or encountering someone (loving them)
    3. By the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering
    In no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.
    Being human is not freedom from conditions [that afflict us], but it is the freedom to take a stand [in our attitude] towards the conditions.
    What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.
    Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.
    It is a dangerous misconception that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
    What is demanded of man is not to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. 
    Insights into broader psychological issues
    More and more a psychiatrist is approached by patients who confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms.
    Self actualisation is possible only as a side effect of self transcendence.
    Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the most core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualised but yet ought to be actualised. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.
    Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you’re going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on carrying it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run I say! – Success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
    Our current mental hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.
    Happiness, faith, hope, love, optimism, laughter, success, all of these cannot be commanded or ordered or pursued; they must ensue from a reason to feel these things. Once one has a reason, these things follow automatically. A human does not pursue happiness but pursues a reason to become happy, through actualising the potential meaning inherent and dormant in any given situation.
    Practical insights
    Frankl focuses often on reframing for someone, what their life might mean if seen from a different perspective. Eg, imagining looking back on this moment from your deathbed. Imagine your life was vastly different without the situations you found your self in, would it still have the same meaning?
    People often suffer from anticipatory anxiety. It is a characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid. Forced or excessive intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes. 
    For example some struggling with insomnia gets more and more anxious about not being able to go to sleep and can’t go to sleep as they attempt to force themselves to go to sleep.
    Logotherapy makes use of “forced intention” or “paradoxical intention” to address this. For example in the sleep example, a patient can be asked to focus very intently on staying awake for as long as possible. 
    In conclusion
    This is a book I would recommend to everyone. It recasts our existential quest for meaning into a much more concrete, practical responsibility to be our best in the circumstances we find ourselves, no matter how extreme.