Don’t just ‘think positive’

January 6, 2015

This time of year is full of guff about how to make and keep resolutions. This piece stood out as at least being rather more specific and practical, and rooted in evidence (even if from small scale studies).

What I found particularly interesting was the contention that the bland old exhortation ‘think positive’ can, by missing out the barriers that stand in the way, actually make you less likely to achieve whatever you’re aiming at. What does work, apparently, is this:

[Professor Gabriele] Oettingen has found that a specific method of positive thinking can lead to better outcomes. She calls it mental contrasting. “It starts with identifying a wish,” she explains. The wish can be big or small—a major life change or just a task that needs to be completed today. “And then,” she says, “you identify the best outcome if you fulfill that wish.” That’s where the daydreaming comes in. You fantasize about what your future will be like if you attain your wish.

But don’t stop there, even though it’s enjoyable. Instead, make a serious effort to think about the obstacles that stand in your way. “Now what is it in me that holds me back?” Oettingen says. “What is it actually that stops me from fulfilling that wish and experiencing that outcome?” This is the “contrasting” portion of mental contrasting. Once you identify the obstacle, you go back to fantasy land and imagine what you need to do to overcome that barrier. The last step is to lay out a plan—either by writing it down or simply by thinking about it—that includes both your desired outcome and the ways in which you can overcome the obstacles that have thwarted you in the past.

“We have plenty of experiments which show that this mental contrasting is effective,” says Oettingen. And not just in one domain—mental contrasting works for problems related to your work, your family life, and even your interpersonal relationships.


Two books I finished reading on holiday

August 18, 2014

Hard to think of two novels less alike than Iain M. Banks’ penultimate sci-fi epic Surface Detail and the first in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All The Pretty Horses. For me they’re linked only by having started both whilst working in Abu Dhabi, and having finished each from a grapevine-sheltered terrace high above Dubrovnik.

Surface Detail is awesome, and serves as a potent reminder of how much of a talent we’ve lost in IMB. Such a clever, complex but action-packed tale: I couldn’t recall a better Banksian space opera. This features the best of his moralistic dark side – fabulously gruesome renderings of virtual hells maintained by otherwise super-advanced futuristic civilisations – and brilliantly fun interplay between primitive humans, advanced pan-humankind, mad aliens and spectacularly-intelligent, ultra-powerful sentient spaceships.

I’m reading McCarthy in order, and All The Pretty Horses has much in common with his earlier books: utterly rooted in wild American landscapes, dominated by lengthy and often lonely journeys, and packed full of pain and discomfort. But unlike its predecessor Blood Meridian, which is utterly extreme in its violence – surreally so – Horses seemed to me warmer and softer, with love between a young man and woman and brotherly love both balancing out the scenes of hardship, murder and privation.

The hazards of a fast start

May 12, 2014

I would be even prouder than I am of having finished the Paris Marathon a month ago if I hadn’t messed it up a bit. With the benefit of hindsight I did several things wrong: my time goal was unrealistic in light of my fitness, I made no adjustment to that goal to account for it being fairly warm on the day, and… I committed the MOST common mistake in the book by running the first couple of miles too quickly. Why did I do the last of these when I was fully aware it was a no-no? This article, and in particular the passage below, offers a fascinating explanation:

Going out too fast is caused partly by the excitement of the race. This excitement releases a surge of adrenaline, which changes our perception of effort and time. I’ve seen my Heart Rate while standing at the start line reach well over 100 BPM, a sign of the adrenaline that has been released. A good taper will cause us to feel far stronger at the start of the race than we do in training, compounding the effects of the adrenaline. Another factor behind going out too fast is the optical illusion of having runners around you. On most training runs we have nobody blocking our vision, so we see our forward motion represented by the ground and scenery appearing to move towards us. These visual clues are an important part of our sense of pace. At the start of most races, all we can see is other runners, with little of the ground or scenery visible. Because most of the runners will be moving a similar speed, they will appear stationary, and a key visual clue to our pace is lost. If the other runners are actually going faster, then the illusion becomes more intense on we can get a sense of moving backwards even though we are running faster than we should.

I’m having another go, with the benefit of ‘real’ experience to guide me, later this year in Bournemouth.

Take note

May 3, 2014

My job involves lots of notetaking, at meetings, so it was with real practical interest that I read this article in The Atlantic, about a new study into whether taking notes on laptop or by hand helps you to recall what you’ve written better. The nub of it:

“We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of lecture content verbatim,” Mueller [one of the researchers] told me. “The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.”

She thinks this might be the key to their findings: Take notes by hand, and you have to process information as well as write it down. That initial selectivity leads to long-term comprehension.

“I don’t think we’re gonna get more people to go back to notebooks necessarily,” Mueller said. “Tablets might be the best of both worlds—you have to choose what to write down, but then you have the electronic copy.”

I take longhand notes on my iPad, using a stylus on Penultimate synced to Evernote, which certainly works well in terms of combined free-flowing notation and cloud-based storage, but I’ve never considered that there might be memory benefits too…

Obama’s better organised campaign wasn’t the deciding factor

April 23, 2014

Really interesting article this on which were the decisive factors in Obama’s general election victory in 2012. Particularly timely and potentially relevant in light of the recent news about David Axelrod being hired to advise Labour’s campaign… whilst the context is obviously very different, the key point seems to be that it’s the big issues and the candidates’ ability to frame them (or not) in favourable terms that was crucial. Not, say, how well the ‘on the ground’ campaign was organised – I for one had always assumed Obama’s superior ‘get out the vote’ team had made a major difference.

…while it may be true that Obama possessed a superior ground game, the evidence suggests that the marginal impact of that advantage, if any, was not big enough to change the outcome of the race. Indeed, overall turnout in 2012 was down from 2008, by 3.4%, as was Obama’s share of the vote, which dropped in that same period by 1.9%. Moreover, in five of the eight key battleground states, the drop off in Obama’s vote was greater than the decline in his overall national vote. In short, it is hard to prove that Obama won because his organization’s ground game outperformed Romney’s.

Norfolk was nearly nuked

March 21, 2014

The Special Relationship between the UK and US: forged in the white heat of the world wars and the years following, right?

Or: England used as far-enough-away prep area for terrifyingly unstable early nuclear weapons. Some partnership!

If I ever had any doubt that this relationship was always, ultimately, carried out on the United States’ terms, then Eric Schlosser’s really excellent near-miss saga Command and Control put them to bed.

In the course of charting the development of the American nuclear capability (and the systems of control that grew up alongside), Schlosser covers this mindblowing episode:

In 1947 the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project decided that the final assembly of Mark 3 bombs must always occur outside the United States. The reliability of the weapon’s electronic, mechanical, and explosive components was unknown, and [Norris] Bradbury [director of the Los Alamos atomic bomb factory] thought that a crash during takeoff would pose “a very serious potential hazard to a large area in the vicinity.”

An area like, say, Norfolk:

The Mark 3 was considered too dangerous to be flown, fully assembled, over American soil. But no safety restrictions were imposed on flights of the bomb over Great Britain. Atomic bomb-making facilities were secretly constructed at two Royal Air Force bases, in Sculthorpe and Lakenheath.

Before attacking the Soviets, American B-29s would leave the United States with partially assembled Mark 3s and land at the British bases. Plutonium cores would be inserted into the weapons there, and then the B-29s would head for their Soviet targets. If one of the B-29s crashed during takeoff [as they had a tendency to so do] the RAF base, as well as neighbouring towns, might be obliterated.

Anticipating that possibility, the U.S. Air Force explored sites in the countryside of Norfolk and Suffolk where atomic bombs could be hidden, so that “if one blew, the others would survive.”

Dickensian debtors’ jails… in the modern US

March 17, 2014

A fifty-something woman, Debra Ford, is pulled over by the police in rural Alabama for a faulty taillight. She is driving without a licence and receives a fine which she struggles to pay, having been surviving on $670 a month disability payments after a car accident a decade earlier. What happens next is an astonishing example of the potential impact of part-privatisation of a criminal justice system, taken from an article published by The Nation:

Ford tried to meet her mounting debt to Harpersville, but as the months passed and the fees added up, she fell behind and stopped paying. In June 2007, the company sent a letter telling her to pay $145 immediately or face jail. But the letter was returned as undeliverable—a fact that did not stop the Harpersville Municipal Court from issuing a warrant for her arrest. Almost two years later, in January 2009, Ford was arrested on that outstanding warrant and promptly booked in the county jail—where, to offset costs, the town charged her $31 a day for her stay.

Ford spent seven weeks in jail, during which time her debt grew into the thousands. She did not, however, see the inside of a courtroom. All the lawyer hired by her family managed to do was to eventually get her transferred to a work-release program, which stopped her jail fees from growing and allowed her to live in a closed facility, the Shelby County Work Release Center, while going to work. Ford found a minimum-wage job at a local thrift store, but after buying food and handing a cut to the work-release program—40 percent of her gross earnings—there wasn’t much left to pay off the fines that kept her there. What had started as a simple traffic violation had become an indefinite sentence in a debtors’ purgatory—one that would take years to pay her way out.

Charged for each day in jail??? Is this just an isolated incident, the product of twisted small town demagoguery? It seems not:

What happened to Ford in the small town of Harpersville was tangled and unconstitutional—but hardly unique. Similar tales have been playing out in more than 1,000 courts across the country, from Georgia to Idaho. In the face of strained budgets and cuts to public services, state and local governments have been stepping up their efforts to ensure that the criminal justice system pays for itself. They have increased fines and court costs, intensified law enforcement efforts, and passed so-called “pay-to-stay” laws that charge offenders daily jail fees. They have also begun contracting with “offender-funded” probation companies like JCS, which offer a particularly attractive solution—collection, at no cost to the court.

There’s a lot of compelling stuff in this detailed article, including other examples of the impact on people struggling to make ends meet, and examples of the overweening influence of private probation companies on under-resourced courts. Terrifying when you think this is the richest country on Earth.