All posts by Ben Harack

My name is Ben Harack, and I am the founder of the blogs Vision of Earth and Condensed Matters.

I love to read and write, as well as listen and argue. I pursue knowledge voraciously but I also constantly look for ways to apply it meaningfully to the real world. I play badminton competitively and pursue many other physical activities avidly.

My current plans for the future as far as education and employment are broad at this point. What is certain is that I will continue to try my best to learn and teach about those things that I feel are important to me and my society.

I enjoy living, thinking and doing. The what, when, where, why and how of those are not as important to me as doing them. I try to better myself and the world around me.

I am a firm believer in the power and value of knowledge, and also the responsibility that comes with power. I am humbly grateful to be alive, and hope to make good of the opportunity.

Nurturing insight

I want to try something, and I am hoping some of you readers will participate.

In a nutshell, the idea is that we spend a little bit of time during a week (even if it is just 20 minutes) in a situation that nurtures insight.

It is possible for ideas to deeply change our world. How can we nurture the development of the ideas that might be game-changers in the coming months/years/decades?

My approach has two parts:

  1. Learn deeply and broadly about the world, including the major problems and proposed solutions. Useful insights generally require that they be based on accurate perceptions of reality.
  2. For some period of time, create the conditions under which deep insight into issues becomes more likely.

The central thrust of this ‘experiment’ has to do with what constitutes the conditions in part 2).

I imagine that there is a fair bit of individual variation on this front, but I am going to throw out some broad statements that I believe are reasonable based on what I know about human attention and education.

  • Our culture is becoming increasingly dominated by subject changes. Our attention is being chopped up into smaller bits as we interact with increasingly fast and engaging social media. I claim that deeper insights are not likely to come about through spreading our attention more thinly or by multitasking more. Whatever advantages this culture change offers, we are hopefully already taking advantage of them.
  • Teachers often complain about the quality of students in schools today. A central concern is the student’s ability to concentrate on one thing and to demonstrate the fact that they are capable of insight into the material at hand. Psychology has shown that our attention span is getting shorter. I believe these facts are all closely related. I believe the lack of insight in current students is due in part to the fact that they are not used to simply rolling an idea around in their heads for many minutes at a time. In short, I believe that the shortening of our attention spans is connected with reduced abilities to garner deep insight.
  • Distraction seem to have a complicated relationship with insight. While distractions do represent a fragmentation of attention, they can also be the foundation for connective insights – where we put different ideas together in new ways. These connections can help us understand the ideas and the relationship(s) between them.

I propose that each of us spends some amount of time this week (I suggest at least 20 minutes) in a situation that is well-suited to the development of our personal insight. For me this might be walking through Parc Mont-Royal, sitting at a desk with a blank piece of paper in front of me, or even meditating. I suggest that people do what they are comfortable with, but again I have some specific ideas that might help:

  • Get comfortable.
  • If you have a burning desire to interact with something else like friends, the Internet, a book, social media, etc, write down what you want to do on a piece of paper, tell yourself that you will do it later, and continue with your efforts to gain insight. In light of this, it can be helpful to have somewhere to write nearby.
  • Be content. Getting upset probably won’t help.
  • Be your own person. Don’t bother thinking about what other people might think of what you are thinking.
  • Embrace the fact that your thoughts may be mostly about your own mundane concerns. Let them go where they will. Your thoughts will eventually turn to the things you care about most.
  • Follow your trains of thought wherever they may lead. Don’t be afraid of thinking anything. We might like some thoughts more than others, but any one of them might hold the key to a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I would like to hear from all of you about what your insights were and in what circumstances you achieved them.

Forgetting who we are

Our identity exists at the core of everything that we do in life. Our sense of self, as hard as it is to discuss in language and science, is fundamental to everything we experience.

How is it possible then, to forget who we are? You might be thinking about the various forms of amnesia present in studies of psychology and sensationalized in our fiction. Anyone with personal experience with the loss of a friend or family member to any form of amnesia or dementia understands how deeply painful it can be.

Here I am talking about the everyday experience of forgetting who we are. I am talking about the sense of losing touch with our innermost desires and dreams. I am talking about how the external demands of the world can drag us further and further from a state in which our wishes and hopes for our lives are being realized by our actions.

Who are we?

If you ask someone who they are, they might tell you their name and what they do for a living. Pressed further, they might tell you about their family situation and hobbies.

Who are we really?

This question has nagged me for years. It was in the writings about humanistic psychology that I found the answer that has satisfied me the most (so far). The self is not a thing to be identified and scrutinized. The self is an evolving experience.

So you and I, or at least our sense of our selves, is a set of continually transforming experiences. We experience our innermost self – and the outside world – simultaneously. For most experiences, these two worlds are inseparable.

How can you forget an evolving experience?

You might ask, “Well, if I accept your claim that my ‘self’ is an experience, how is it possible for me to forget who I am?

You are happening every day. Every time you make a choice or think a thought, you are happening. Every time you feel happiness, pain, or sadness, you are happening. Every one of these experiences resonates with your being to greater or lesser extent.

We all have activities that we prefer over others. Broadly speaking, each of us will have a set of experiences that we identify as pleasurable, and a (mostly distinct) set that are painful. We generally organize our lives around the idea of maximizing our well-being in whatever manner seems right to us.

Our dreams and aspirations are often deeply connected with those things that we like to do or states of being that we would like to enjoy.

We forget who we are by forgetting to experience those things that resonate deeply with us.

Acting towards our dreams

Our choices shape our experiences. With every experience, we are becoming something new. Some experiences are deeply connected with our dreams and aspirations while others are not.  If our actions are aligned towards the achievement of one of our dreams, then our experiences will be filled with some of the pleasure that pursuing our dream gives us. This experience reinforces our choice if it is pleasurable, but can cast doubt on our path if it is painful.

A painful process can cause us to give up on a dream – for good reason! If our best assessment of the situation is that the pleasure we might attain in the future is not worth the pain we feel and foresee, it is a very sane choice to allocate our efforts elsewhere.

This can be particularly painful if we are chasing a prerequisite to a dream. Perhaps we think we need a degree in order to work in a field that we love. Perhaps we feel that we need to save up a lot of money so that we can be safe. Perhaps we don’t want to go hiking before we get in better shape. The list of prerequisites can sometimes seem endless.

Attaining prerequisites can be painful, as many of us know from our own experience. This pain often brings with it feelings about the meaninglessness of our pursuit. It may be that we don’t actually want the degree or the knowledge, we just want the job. Perhaps we don’t actually want money, we just want to feel safe. The pain involved in attaining our prerequisites can be enough to cause us to give up on the dream itself.

Again this can be a completely sane choice to make. What we have to guard against is the feeling of disconnection from our dream that we experience because we are preoccupied with the present moment. The process of attaining a prerequisite might feel very different than the experience of the dream itself. Being a student during your achievement of a degree often feels very different from the experience of working in the field you have chosen.

If we aren’t experiencing a facet of our dream, we are slowly losing connection with it. Dreams can be tenacious, holding on for years or decades without substantial attention. I believe however that it is in our personal best interest to keep our deepest dreams alive and happy with experiences oriented towards them.

If you are getting a degree, remember to save some time for reading about, or volunteering in, your field of preference. Find media that inspires you, and create a stash of it that you can use to bring back the feelings that galvanize your passions. Stay in touch with the dream so that you can remember who you are.

Forgetting

When our experiences are consistently not oriented towards the attainment of our dreams, we begin to forget what that taste of our dream feels like. We begin to forget what it feels like to be in the process of becoming who we want to be.

How does this happen?

These answers will not be surprising. Tales of the soul-deadening 9-5 job are rampant. University professors continue to express the sentiment that more and more students are simply doing the minimum they can to get by and finish their degree. Almost everyone knows a person who is so caught up in the concept of money that they cannot enjoy what they have – or would have – if they would loosen their death grip on their life a bit and learn to spread their wings.

Rigid, or unyielding, demands on our time can slowly erode our ability to be ourselves (as we knew ourselves to be). We forget a lot of who we were if we consistently do things that are not congruent with the dreams and passions that we held.

Realizing that you have forgotten

Have you ever had a very intensive section of your life – perhaps final exams, deadlines at work, or a crisis among family or friends – after which you found that you did not know what you wanted to do with your time?

Have you ever worked a very hard day, or week, and returned home to unwind, only to find yourself unable to muster the energy to do anything but watch TV or movies?

Individual occurrences are not indicative of a problem. If you are truly burnt out and want to just zone out, who is to argue with you? In these cases we tend to placate ourselves with those things that take very little energy. This in part explains the enormous appeal of all forms of passive entertainment we have access to in the modern era.

The problem is that habits quickly form to fill the gaps in your time. Many of us work jobs that we aren’t particularly passionate about. We then have to use our limited free time to pursue those things that make us genuinely happy. Instead of watching TV you might really actually want to be writing a play, painting a canvas, studying physics, or doing yoga.

If you want to spend your time in ways that you believe serve your long-term happiness more, then pay attention to those little twinges that you feel deep down. Grab hold of the twinges and genuinely examine them. Do you really want to practice your dance steps? Yes? Well, fire up some music and get to it. Do you really want to read more? Yes? Grab that book that you are two thirds of the way through and make a sprint for the ending.

I have often felt guilty when I feel those twinges, but guilt is not something we need to hold on to. Learn what you can from your past, and let go of the guilt. If you are genuinely trying to pursue the things that you care the most about, I can guarantee that you will be able to minimize the intrinsic guilt you feel about your actions or inactions.

One of the best pieces of advice I have heard regarding guilt of this sort is: think of it as a success. If you are feeling guilty, it means that you have successfully remembered that you wanted to do something differently. Try to use this as an encouraging thought. Next time you will be able to remember earlier, and perhaps feel more strongly that you want to make a different choice.

I have forgotten

What is the problem with forgetting? Can’t we just dig through our memories and remember what we were passionate about before?

To some extent this is true. You will likely be able to remember what you were passionate about in the past. You may even be able to recollect a bit of what it felt like. However, it is most likely that these remembered passions will feel hollow compared to what you feel they should feel like.

Why? Because you have fallen out of practice in experiencing your passions. Our experience tends to be very emotional and transformative, while our recollections of the past tend to be inexact and fleeting. It can be very difficult to recapture a passion that you have ignored for some length of time.

Passion is hard to muster on demand. If you have been slaving away at other aspects of your life for a long time, your previous passions can feel dessicated and empty. Be patient. Give yourself some time to take it easy and explore what you are feeling. If you enjoy yoga or any form of meditation, those can be a great tool for letting your experience of yourself come into sharp focus. If you remember what you liked before, try to tiptoe back into those activities. Patience is key because unreasonably high expectations tend to directly lead to negative self-evaluations that damage one’s self-esteem and cast doubt on what might be a deeply-held passion. So your first golf tee shot flies off into the shrubbery? That’s life, and you know it. Try to hold off negative self-evaluations as you explore, or re-explore, your experience.

Stay in touch or reconnect

I believe that in order to truly live the life we want to, we need to actively follow at least some of our passions. The best case is that in which we can stay in touch with them throughout our lives. In this case we are in no serious danger of forgetting what it feels like to pursue our dreams.

However, life happens. Whether we like it or not, many of us have had the experience of losing touch with those activities that we used to love, and the dreams that we used to chase. If we don’t make efforts to stay in touch with our passions and remain open to new ones, we may end up living a life that we honestly think is pretty empty and unsatisfying.

If you are headed down this path, I implore you: Take some of your time and put it towards rediscovering yourself. You may find oceans of buried passions that can help you fill your life with meaning. You may find that you have grown and changed. The ideas that once inspired you may have faded, and unexpected thoughts may have replaced them. You may have lived half your life since you last really gazed within, so it may not be surprising to find that you have grown into someone new. You will, however, still be the authority on who you were, and who you are. Your choices dictate much of how you will grow from this moment forward.

You might like to create a list for yourself. What are some concrete activities that you can do this week that will reignite your passion? Post that list right on your TV screen or computer so that next time you sit down for some passive entertainment you are reminded of your other options – options that will be more invigorating and remind you of who you are, and perhaps help you glimpse who you want to be.

Now

Experience yourself as you are. The past is useful for understanding, but experience always exists in the present moment. All of us experience at least mild amnesia. No one’s memory is completely perfect. To some extent, our past is hazy to us all. While the future tends to be even more inscrutable than the past, it is the future over which we have some control.

Knowing ourselves can only take place in the present. So what are you doing right now?

Excellence relies on opportunity and hard work

I recently read the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book focuses on people whose abilities and successes are so far outside the scope of normal experience that our society tends to consider them lifeforms that are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

The central message of the book is that these people, while appearing so different from the rest of us, owe their success to a combination of talent, luck and good opportunities. Gladwell points out that our society is fixated on the concepts of personal initiative and intrinsic talent, despite the inability of these two factors to truly explain the spectacular success stories that we are surrounded by.

Talent vs Practice

When I talk about talent, I mean the differences in natural (innate) abilities among different human beings. Defined in such a manner, talent definitely exists. Human beings are different from one another in a myriad of ways. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “Thankfully!” to this obvious fact.

Where things get a little bit hazy is when we consider to what extent talent predicts our level of success in life. On one extreme there is the argument that talent predicts all of our success in life. I am not really going to consider this argument in great depth, since it seems unable to explain either the facts of which I am aware or my personal experience. If anyone is passionate about the concept of talent/potential, I recommend the movie Gattaca.

I think most people will admit that success has something to do with both talent and practice. All other things being equal, those who work harder tend to be more successful. The main question is, to what extent does our ability or skill depend on talent, and to what extent does it depend on practice?

First of all, there are some abilities that are pretty much entirely innate, such as physical height. Assuming good nutrition, the adult height of a human being seems to be based entirely on genetic features. I would rather call this sort of quality an ‘attribute’ rather than an ‘ability’. For this analysis, I will focus more on the term ‘skill’, which I would regard as a subset of ‘ability’.

Ericsson and Charness

Gladwell cites some famous research on the subject of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness have researched this subject extensively, and their work is regarded very highly in social science circles. In fact, during my psychology degree I had to read one of their papers: Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition. I thought it was an excellent read and recommend it to anyone who finds this subject interesting.

I would summarize the research in the following way: Most of the observable difference in performance (in almost any field) is a direct consequence of the practitioners spending different lengths of time engaged in deliberate practice. The more you practice, the better you tend to be. The effect of practice seems to massively overshadow the effect of talent in the subject areas that Ericsson and Charness studied.

Additionally, Ericsson and Charness found that the amount of dedicated practice necessary to achieve grandmaster level skill (equalled only by perhaps a few people in the world) is remarkably constant across all skills and cultures: 10,000 hours. This averages out to about 3 hours per day for ten years. Someone who dedicates themselves to this amount of practice will, at the end of ten years time, be among the best in the world at their chosen skill.

I would like to add a qualification to this conclusion based on my own experience and knowledge. When considering elite performance such as Olympic athletes, it seems clear to me that even slight advantages offered by genetics can be telling when two dedicated athletes go head to head. It is a well-known fact in most athletic endeavors that gains in measurable ability tend to be large for beginners, but very small for experts. A small difference in ability that is due to innate factors could be as important as months or even years of training in certain skills. When exploring the ultimate reaches of human ability, even small differences in talent can be important.

Human Intelligence

Gladwell argues that in some areas of human endeavor, we encounter what are called threshold effects. His most extensive example of this is human intelligence. It has been estimated that Albert Einstein had an IQ of around 150. There are actually a fair number of people who have been measured to have IQs higher than this value. Does this mean that they are ‘smarter’ than Einstein?

IQ does a relatively poor job of differentiating between very intelligent people. Once into the genius range above IQ 120 it is very difficult to predict test performance or academic success using the measure of IQ. Gladwell calls this a threshold effect. Once people are above IQ 120 or so they are smart enough that other factors begin to be more important if we are to try to predict their level of success. For more info on this subject, read the book! 🙂

Opportunity

Perhaps the central theme of the book is opportunity. The people who are recognized as being the most successful in our world tend to owe their success to important opportunities that they were offered during their lives. Gladwell draws on examples from a variety of industries including law, high-tech computing, and science. In every area he shows how these now-prominent people were offered important opportunities at a time in their lives when they were able to take advantage of them.

In closing, Gladwell knits together the various threads of this work into a cohesive picture of how we can try to make our society better. Primarily what he is driving for is a change in the way we perceive achievement in general. Great achievement is accomplished through a combination of practice, luck, and talent. If we as a society accept this broader view of personal accomplishment, it will be possible to improve our lives in many meaningful ways. Gladwell cites a number of specific examples, along with his supporting data.

Current academic and sport selections all too often confuse ability with maturity. Thanks to the cut off dates for each year’s class or competition, the children who are the oldest in a given year have a very notable advantage in both academics and sports. In part this is because we tend to provide more advanced schooling or training for the more advanced children in each year. This leads to a widening gap in ability that started as only a small difference in ability that was primarily based on age.

If we wish to create the environment that is most conducive for development of our children, we will try to challenge them to think for themselves, split their yearly classes and sports leagues into at least 2 or 3 sections according to age, and make a distinct effort to prepare them for the opportunities that our society will offer them (intentionally or unintentionally) in the coming decades.

Overall, I think this is a book well worth reading. Gladwell’s look into the nature of success and achievement is worth considering. It is interesting to see how our conventional wisdom about human development so often fails to explain the reality. Outliers attempts to convince us to look more closely at how we, as both individuals and as groups, choose to structure our lives, institutions, and societies. We can all help to improve our collective lot in life if we understand more about human development and the role that our collective culture plays in our progress.

Reading on the Internet – Good, Bad?

Reading on the Internet has its ups and downs. In this piece I will first go through some of my favourite aspects before I dig into the things that bother me.

Positive Qualities

Searching Power

It is easy to find information on topics that I know I am interested in. If I know what I am looking for, I can generally find it. The only problem sometimes is one of wording or word choice. For instance, in a recent example with my friends, we were looking for a specific topic using the search terms “loss of forests” rather than “deforestation”. Until we looked for the latter, we were floundering.

Skimmable

Internet material is often very easy to skim so that you can pick out the useful facts and ideas. Many people who write for the Internet realize that their readers are not likely to read every word.

Speed

News on the Internet is astonishingly fast and interconnected. I can learn more from the Internet in the same amount of time than I can from either Radio or Television.

Levels of Depth

You can read the Internet at many levels of depth. For instance, if you are reading the Google News headlines, they will give you a snapshot of some of the major events that are going on in the world.

Want to learn a bit more? Open up the major news items and read them. If your thirst for knowledge goes deeper yet, it is time to start following more links and searching for related terms. You can tailor your information gathering to both your level of interest and the time you have available.

Dialog

On the Internet, you can end up in a direct discussion with the creator(s) of the content that you are consuming. Unlike most other mediums, on the Internet it is often possible to directly engage the author of a piece of information. No other medium has such vast powers for connection and discussion.

Dangers

Confirmation Bias

You tend to find what you are looking for. This can contribute to the confirmation bias, the natural tendency of people to feel that information that agrees with their preconceptions is somehow more trustworthy than the information presenting the opposite side.

The Well-Informed Illusion

The speed of reading and the brevity of writing on the Internet can lead to an illusion of deep understanding. Many people fall prey to the often mistaken conception of themselves as well-read because they keep up-to-date with Google News or a social bookmarking site such as RedditSlashdot, or Digg.

While Google News provides an overview of some world issues, the social bookmarking sites generally highlight sensational, inflammatory, and opinionated works of note on the Internet. Neither of these approaches is necessarily well-suited for the acquisition of high-quality information about the world.

This topic is particularly close to my heart, since I am the founder of Vision of Earth, a website attempting to provide high-quality information to the general public about practical ideas for developing the unrealized potential of human societies.

You might also be interested in my broader article about the misleading nature of all media forms.

Reading Books – The Good AND The Bad

Despite the growing power and spread of the Internet, there are still some reasons that I often prefer to read books. Unfortunately, I have slowly begun to comprehend the scope of the problems with books as they are today. In this piece I will attempt to show you the good and the bad, as I see them. I hope you will stick with me to the end, because I think this topic is of prime importance to each and every one of us.

The Good

Editing and Fact-Checking

Books generally undergo more intensive editing and fact-checking than the average Internet source. Both books and websites vary in quality a lot, but in general I can expect a book to be more cohesive and clear than an average Internet source. It is also less likely to have blatant typos.

Single Voice

Authors develop a powerful voice in a book in a different way than they do on the Internet. Very few websites have changed my life after I read a lot of their content, but several books have. Sometimes a single perspective is incredibly valuable. Sometimes the finest of insights would be watered down or corrupted by bringing in multiple authors, each with their own voice.

That said, one of the finest-written books I have ever read was written by four authors. The book “Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society” was written by Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, Betty Sue Flowers. This book changed the way I look at both the concept of change and my own life.

The Bad

As far as fiction books go, I divide them into two distinct categories:

  1. Just for the fun of it fiction. If you enjoy it, read it. There isn’t much of an underlying motive other than the telling of a good story.
  2. Illustrative and evocative fiction, designed to make a point. These books create a set of circumstances through which the belief system of the author is articulated. For example, I recently read the libertarian industrial epic Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. In this book she creates (and destroys) a complicated world to illustrate her beliefs about the world. Despite my problems with this style of writing, I believe that the book is actually a good read. It is definitely the responsibility of the reader to realize that a contrived world is not ‘proof’ of a concept. While fiction can be educational and illustrative, it is not the real world.

Most of my problems are with non-fiction books. Here we go.

One Perspective

One author, or a set of authors, are presenting a single viewpoint on their subject. I claim that this often leads to the subject material of the book being presented through the lens of a single perspective.

This can have disastrous results for our public discourse when the topics are important and multi-faceted. To be fair, some book authors do an excellent job of presenting their considerations of multiple points of view on their topic. This is not to say that all points of view are equal; it is to say that even a single issue can be validly approached from a number of directions, each of which might lead to a different interpretation.

The best non-fiction authors will draw upon data and experience to knit together a clear picture of the way the world seems to be. These authors will consistently refer to externally verifiable data sources of the highest quality.

Publisher’s Control

High quality content might be watered down by the editing undergone in conjunction with the publishing house. The publishers are the gatekeepers of content. While the systematic effects of this may not be as evident today for the most part, it was certainly the case in the past that publishers exercised great control over what they would allow to be published in the books that they printed.

This is perhaps more important in other forms of media, such as television, where most of the market is controlled by a few major players who exercise great control over all of the content that they deliver.

Slow Spread of Knowledge

Books are now a relatively slow way to spread important knowledge. Compared to the Internet, they operate at a snails pace.

Consider the following scenario: You hear about a book you like. You acquire it either at a bookstore, or at a library, or perhaps even an ebook from either an online bookstore or library if you are tech savvy. Getting the book might take minutes to weeks depending on the situation. You then read the book, find it to be excellent, and start to recommend it to your friends. You could give your copy away to one other person, and recommend that other people also buy it or get it from libraries.

The problem is that there are definitely limited quantities of books to be ‘consumed’ and all have time limitations on how they can be acquired. Other than the case of an e-book that can be acquired instantly online, all other forms of books have delays in their spread and acquisition. On the other end of the spectrum, if you read something you like that is publicly available online, you can send the hyperlink to your friends via email and they can access the content instantly.

Out of Date

Unless revised and reprinted, books do not change with the times. While many books can be startlingly relevant for a very long time after publication, I claim that this is the exception rather than the rule.

You may also be interested in another piece of mine that looks more broadly at the misleading nature of all media forms.

The Misleading Nature Of All Media Forms

How media misleads us

I love to read and watch TV shows and movies, but I have lately come to believe that everyone should be made aware of how misleading all media forms can be. Here I will talk about some serious issues I have with content in general.

These issues apply equally well to both Internet and physical media.  These criticisms have more to do with the process of deliberate media creation and the intent of the author than with the specific medium used.

These problems apply to our public discourse in all media. Television, talk radio, news media, movies and documentaries are just as likely to employ these techniques as books, magazines, and websites.

No reader or watcher is safe from these effects. Through deliberate efforts (such as broad media consumption, study, and skeptical analysis) people can transcend these inherent flaws in all forms of media. This transcendence requires constant vigilance to guard against the corrupting influences of our increasingly opinionated and flashy media.

‘Facts’

Finding some facts to support your argument does not make your argument correct. A collection of facts is not necessarily a sufficient analysis to show the truth of your claims. Why? Well, for example, there may be more facts that actually support a different claim, you just neglected to include them in your analysis or book.

Incorrect, or deliberately mis-represented facts are often the foundations for arguments made in media. For example, I have recently flipped through a number of books in which I spotted a large number of claims that run counter to the scientific consensus on various issues that I am very familiar with.

I don’t claim that the scientific community has a monopoly on the truth. However, if a person is making a knowledge-based claim that runs counter to the scientific consensus, the burden of proof is on them to explain why their position differs from the scientific one, and where the scientific position went wrong. Some books and TV shows are full of claims such as these.

Science is the process of systematic data acquisition and analysis. It is our best tool for establishing what is known in our world. I feel that this movement towards the cherry-picking of facts is undermining our public discourse and thus the very structure of our society.

Pushing an Agenda

Many books (and other media) are written to push an agenda, not as an attempt to communicate the truth. Many authors are not writing with the goal of informing you of the truth of a matter.

Some (perhaps most) authors write to convince you to believe what they believe. Some other authors deliberately mislead their readers in order to push a predetermined agenda. Many of these misleading authors are employed in large media companies that have big projects with a specific ideological position.

The source of a belief is incredibly important. Did this belief come about because of careful observation of the real world, or was it decided upon before any careful analysis of the world was done. The first case is belief that grows out of data and experience. The second is what I would call ideological belief – that which is distinctly not rooted in the real world, but decided upon for other reasons. In the world of business this same distinction is sometimes referred to as evidence-based decision making versus decision-based evidence making.

This is how I draw the distinction between someone who is pushing a predetermined agenda, and someone who is genuinely looking to inform you of the truth of a matter. The really insidious thing is that a person may not be aware of the fact that they are pushing an agenda that is not congruent with the truth.

The nature of belief systems is such that they tend to be self-confirming. In order to not fall into this trap, authors must make a special effort to be open to the idea that there may be more correct beliefs about the world than the ones that they currently hold. Subjecting all ideas (and especially your own beliefs) to skeptical scrutiny is the only sure path to being able to accurately talk about the real world.

Reading/Watching More is Not Enough

I believe that a person must read/watch a wide variety of subjects, authors, and viewpoints in order to gain for themselves the knowledge that is needed in order to distinguish the fact from the fiction.

Many books/shows are only masquerading as non-fiction. It is up to you as the reader/watcher to apply your own knowledge and critical thinking to the media that you experience. Fail to do so, and you are likely to be increasingly misled with regards to the subjects that you care the most about.

I believe that acquiring the mental state of open-minded skepticism is as important as the media you choose to experience.

Getting Into Graduate School

Interested in getting into graduate school? So was I. My problem was that I was rejected from three graduate schools the first time I applied.

I have since been accepted into one of the schools that originally rejected me. During this process, I have learned a lot about how grad student selection tends to take place. I do not claim to be an expert on this topic, but I do feel that my experience and knowledge may be helpful to some people considering this life choice.

Graduate school is a definite goal for many of us who are passionate about knowledge and study. It is important to keep in mind that the competition for admission can be stiff, as there are usually more applicants than available positions.

How students are selected

The process of applying to grad school can be complicated and demanding. It is important to know what type of selection process is typical for your field and/or school.

Selection by committee

This approach to selection is common in non-thesis programs where you do not have a direct supervisor. These programs will often have a committee go through all the applications received. This group of people will analyze each applicant, rank them, and offer positions to the highest ranked people.

In this case it is often impractical or impossible to get to know any of the people who will be selecting you. This relatively common process bears a lot of similarity to applying for a high-end job. As such, you may want to approach this application process much as you approach applying for a job. Your qualifications, volunteer experience and how you present yourself through words are of primary importance.

Selection by supervisor

Now I will talk about what I think of as the more traditional approach to graduate studies. This selection process is typical if your program has you being supervised directly by one or more professors. The professors are the people who are primarily responsible for helping direct you in your academic and research path. To a great extent you work for them and with them. Good supervisors seem to be a mix of peer and boss.

The department might receive several hundred applications. They sort them into piles according to the sub-fields that are present in their subject area. For example, physics has experimental and theoretical sub sections, but it also has sub-sub-sections that are much more specific. A big department will end up with a number of distinct piles.

For example, a professor in experimental condensed matter physics might directly receive only those applications that cite her/him as the proposed supervisor. Alternatively, they might be presented with, or have access to, the pile of applications that are for experimental condensed matter physics, maybe with the applications that cite her/him as the proposed supervisor on top of the pile.

Professors choose who they want as grad students

One of the key things to understand here is that a professor will only even look at applications if they are looking for a new grad student. It is possible that a professor might have funding available, but might feel up to the challenge of digging through a huge pile of applications. They have to keep in mind that they are essentially agreeing to pay someone a salary for a couple years. From just an application it is pretty hard to be sure that you will like a person, an important factor for supervisors to consider as well as students. Their quality of life also depends on the quality of their interactions with their grad students.

As early as possible, talk to any professors that are doing research that interests you. If possible, talk in person. You might be working with them for years, and it is ideal if you can talk to them in person to see if they jive with you. This is a great opportunity to ask any questions that concern you with regards to the possible graduate work you might be doing.

Professors direct funding instead of departments

This is one fact that wasn’t actually that clear to me as an undergrad. At least in the Canadian universities that I have been in, professors are given direct grants for their research that they allocate at their discretion. If you are a student in such a department, your financial support is primarily through your supervisor’s research grants.

How do I talk to professors?

How to get it started? This is what I did at McGill in Montreal, Canada.

My method was to walk up to offices that had their doors open and knock as I stood in the doorway. When the professor asks what I want, I would ask if they have a moment to talk to me about grad studies. At this point most profs either perk up and invite me in, or tell me that they are busy. When they are busy, I found most profs would usually give me a time that I might drop by when they are less busy.

I found the professors at McGill to be very friendly. They were also very willing to talk about what work they and their group do. These people are generally doing what they do because they are passionate about it at some level. I also found that professors will be very up front with you about whether they have any open positions in their groups.

Email and phone if you have no recourse

If you can’t physically go to the graduate schools you are interested in, all is not lost. While email and phone aren’t as good as a face to face meeting, they are infinitely better than nothing. If you are dedicated with your efforts to contact people who you are interested in working with, then at the very least when they look through the applications directed at their department, your name might catch their eye a bit.

A very likely result however is that by dint of your efforts to contact and communicate, you will rouse their interest in you as a potential graduate student. Even without face-to-face meetings it is possible to cultivate a relationship through which you can acquire a graduate position. The more technically savvy professors may also be convinced to give you some time via a Skype video conference as well. While even Skype isn’t as good as a face to face meeting, it does have a lot of advantages over email and phone, at least as far as actually getting to know your supervisor is concerned.

I think this is crucial

As far as I can tell, this is the single most important facet for getting into graduate school under a particular supervisor. The most important thing is to start and pursue a genuine conversation who are doing things that interest you.

Don’t be too timid, don’t be too overbearing, just talk to them. While the details of how you conduct yourself depend a lot on which medium you are using (in person, email, phone, Skype), I do have a couple tips.

Do your homework on who they are and what they do. I’d highly recommend knowing at least a bit about what their research focus is before bothering them with a conversation and/or questions. You should be able to tell them why you are interested in working with them. What aspect of what they do interests you?

Most professors have a personal webpage on which they list their research interests and/or publications. If nothing else works, you can look up their work on a academic search engine like Google Scholar.

Feel free to introduce yourself in a way that seems to make sense to you with regards to your field. For me, this included telling professors that I had recently finished studies in Regina where I acquired four undergraduate degrees and am now interested in pursuing graduate studies in physics.

Feel free to ask questions. Perhaps you are interested in hearing more about some aspect(s) of their research. Perhaps you want to learn more about what it is like to be a graduate student. Perhaps you want to know who their favourite musical artist(s) are.

Ask whatever questions occur to you as being important enough to warrant them spending the time to answer them. This is your judgement call. The questions you choose to ask will say a lot about who you are and how you will approach your possible graduate studies with this professor.

Start early. If you are planning to apply in a couple months, get going on this. It is woefully easy to procrastinate on, but it is the single most important factor for getting your foot in the door. If you want to do graduate work that excites and challenges you, start emailing professors today.

Life Changing Book on Time and Life

I recently finished a fascinating read. The Time Paradox is a book by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd about how our personal perspectives of time have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives.

You have have heard of Zimbardo before, he is one of the more famous social scientists in the world thanks mostly to his fame for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has written a major work on the subject of “Understanding how good people turn evil”. On the first page of my copy, he says that writing this book, The Lucifer Effect, was not a labour of love. I find this understandable; investigating the ways in which human beings can be turned evil is an extremely dark subject. I think the world owes Zimbardo thanks for pushing through the mire to discover how we can reorient our institutions towards bringing out the good in all of us rather than the evil.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Zimbardo briefly during his visit to Regina in November 2009. While I was pretty sure that his presentations would be good, I didn’t expect to be blown away by how caring and conscientious of a person he was. I observed him in person-to-person interactions far from the stage in which he was extremely kind, caring and patient with every person who asked him a question or for advice. I thought to myself, here is a man whose time is very valuable, giving it away to people because…well I hesitate to speculate…but I think he really just wants to help people. Even after a five-decade teaching career in prestigious universities, he still cares about people he meets on the street. I was profoundly moved by this experience.

Now, back to The Time Paradox.

Overall, this book was transformative and challenging. It lead me to understandings about my life, and the lives of those around me, that are profound and clear. I originally thought that I probably would not learn very much from the book, being a reasonably thoughtful metacognitive person. I turned out to be wrong, and this book fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.

What perspective did I gain from this book?

Time perspectives are important. A significant part of the book is dedicated to making0 clear just how important they are. What also comes along with that knowledge is a firm understanding of how far reaching the consequences of ignorance about time perspectives can be.

Time orientation is a fundamental life perspective. Anyone reading this article of mine will have no trouble understanding the different ways of looking at time presented in the book. The perspectives in the book are roughly based on positive and negative views of the past, present, and future.

The question for each of us is: Which time perspectives do you live, and how do they affect your life?

Respect for differences

Throughout the book there is a genuine respect for the fact that while social science can collect general data about the results of habits that people have, it cannot predict the outcomes for any one individual. The wisdom of this book must be applied by each person to their own personal context.

Time therapy (applying the ideas from this book in the field of clinical psychology) seems to be incredibly powerful. However, for me the most important aspects of this book are those that have to do with each of us as individuals. Each of us lives our own journey through time, and this book is a good step towards understanding ourselves a bit better.

Balance is the key

There is no cookie-cutter solution to perspectives of life. The best answer is not any particular time perspective, but a combination of all. The authors espouse a very balanced time perspective based on the best data that they have.

What does a ‘balanced time perspective’ mean? Well first of all it means that there is more than one time perspective present, because fixation on any single time perspective tends to lead to large problems in life. Fixation on only one perspective means you are missing out on a lot of your own experience and potential.

I would summarize the balanced time perspective as follows. It is a mental and emotional state in which you:

  1. Regard your future filled with quite a bit of hope, though tempered with the knowledge that you have to spend effort (and thought) now to create a better life for yourself later.
  2. Keep in mind your happy memories because they help you stay happy and live in a hopeful present, but keep enough realism about the past to learn from mistakes and hardships.
  3. Live today well, and be happy with the moments you have. Be aware of the central importance of the present moment. Everything happens now and no other time really exists except within our minds. We must live now, but we can also choose to shape our future and call to mind our happiness and lessons from the past.

What about you?

I scored the following on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.
Past-negative: 2.00

Past-positive:  4.89

Present-hedonistic:  3.80

Present-fatalistic: 1.22

Future: 4.00

Transcendental-future: 3.00

What are you? Take the test here.

Well worth your time

I needed to read this book. The insights I have gained from reading have helped me towards a more balanced and happy life. I firmly believe that this book has the potential to help others do the same.

You can find The Time Paradox for a pretty decent price (and in several different formats such as Hardcover, Softcover, and Kindle Edition) on Amazon.

Tips for Reading More

I like to read. This post is about how I have integrated more reading into my life.

These tips vary in their applicability depending on your lifestyle and preferences. This piece is written from my experience alone. It is intended to highlight ideas that may help you integrate more reading into your life.

In this post I detail how to read more by:

  1. Reading during other compatible activities.
  2. Replacing TV with reading.
  3. Make reading material more accessible in your home.
  4. Using audiobooks for reading while walking, running, folding laundry, etc.
  5. Skimming books and articles to see if they are worth reading.
  6. Read what you love. Read what you want to.
  7. Utilizing technology such as ebook readers and smart phones.

Take reading to where you have to wait

I can bring a book to many places that I go during my day. I find that I often have a few minutes of ‘doing nothing’ at several points during my day. Some of these times I can fill with reading.

I have found that reading can be done simultaneously with many other activities. What I focus on here is waiting, or ‘down time’ of different types.

You might think that you don’t spend that much time waiting during your day, but I guarantee you that it can add up to quite a bit even for a busy person. Even a few minutes here and there means a few pages here and there. A few pages per day can mean an extra book or three per year.

Do you find yourself spending time:

  1. in lineups
  2. on the bus
  3. on the train
  4. on a plane
  5. riding in a car
  6. waiting in lobbies
  7. waiting for friends (or your food) at restaurants or cafes
  8. on the toilet
  9. in the bath
  10. at the laundromat

What do you do during these times? Perhaps you are idly staring off into space, or scanning the headlines of tabloids. If you are very performance oriented, you might find yourself stuck thinking circular thoughts about the time you are ‘losing’. Finding something productive to do during these times, such as reading, can help with both passing the time and stimulating new ideas and thoughts.

I am not espousing that you begin to read instead of socializing. I am merely saying that you may have some alone time that you might want to spend reading.

Put a book in every room

Some people swear by this technique. Having an interesting book at hand can be very helpful for integrating more reading into your life.

Replace TV with Books

This concept has been floating around for decades. North Americans watch an average of four hours of TV per day. If you would like to read more, but you find that much of your time is consumed by TV, a change may be in order.

Find the book or books that you want to read the most, and use them as an incentive to drag you away from the TV some of the time. Put them somewhere visible such as on top of the TV or coffee table.

You may be surprised about how engrossing a good book can be, especially if it has been a long time since you read for pleasure.

TV is designed to grab and keep your attention so that you stay there, plastered to the screen between commercials (the primary revenue of TV stations). Books, on the other hand, rely on the quality of your attention and the fact that you care about what the author is saying. It is thus clear that books and TV shows become popular for very different reasons.

Audiobooks

My Sandisk Sansa Clip 4gb. Sturdy, reliable, and easy-to-use

I have recently become a fan of audiobooks. Audiobooks still come on tapes or CDs but these mediums are rapidly being replaced by the mp3 and other computer audio formats.

My key point is that audiobooks have some flexibility that normal books do not. I routinely listen to audiobooks:

  1. When walking / jogging.
  2. When biking, though in traffic this can be a bit of a problem. Be sure that you don’t have the audiobook playing overly loudly, or it may seriously hamper your hearing (a very useful sense for an urban cyclist).
  3. When standing in lines or when shopping.
  4. When doing mechanical tasks around the house such as washing dishes or sorting laundry.

In the last two years I estimate that I have used these techniques to read about 25 audiobooks. These have included such hefty titles as Atlas Shrugged and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

My Audiobook setup: Sansa Clip and Sony Headphones. The headphone design is great for walking, jogging, and biking.

I have found this medium to be very useful, and I believe that it may be more socially acceptable for some people because of the growing popularity of headphones in public spaces. If you have a long commute on transit, but do not want to carry around a book, give audiobooks a try, you may be surprised by the results.

If you want to make even better use of your time, you may find it helpful to increase the speed of your audiobooks. I routinely listen to my audiobooks at 1.5 times normal speed. Some of my friends listen at much higher speeds. You can often modify the speed of playback on mp3 players or in computer software.

If you wish to read non-book texts as audio, there are some text-to-speech converters available that may be able to help you transform the text into a mp3 or similar audio format.

Skimming (and Stopping)

Be discerning about what you give your attention to. Not all books will be enthralling for you. If you find yourself getting bored or not learning anything new, don’t be afraid to skim (or just stop). For fiction books this might be a really bad sign, but for non-fiction is may just mean that the ‘meat’ of the book is elsewhere.

I have been known to skim entire books in under 5 minutes while standing in a used book store. Sometimes a skim-through informs me that I want to buy the book and read it. Sometimes it tells me that I should read the final concluding chapter that knits together all the topics of the entire books. Sometimes it tells me that I should put the book down and look at other things.

Skimming is more difficult with topics that are new to you, or especially complex. I find that if I have read a lot on a topic, skimming can be a powerful tool for discerning the quality of a possible read.

If you are reading for fun, don’t waste your time on things you don’t enjoy. This may sound straightforward, but I find a lot of people start reading things ‘for fun’ that they don’t even enjoy. If you really want to read for fun, go spend an hour in a bookstore skimming through some books to find an author who has a voice and a topic that you appreciate.

Don’t place heavy restrictions on yourself. What would I classify as a restriction? Here are some habits and beliefs that I would consider restrictive with regards to reading.

Restrictive reading beliefs

  1. I must read only one book at a time. (I must finish my current book before starting a new one, regardless of how uninspiring my current book is.)
  2. I must finish all books I start.
  3. I can only read just before bed. (Or I can only read in bed.)
  4. I can’t read for fun because I have too many textbooks to read (or work books, paperwork, memos, stock reports, post-its, etc).
  5. Reading damages your eyes. (From some reading around on the Internet, this seems to be untrue. If you want to, you can read about more eye health myths.)

Ebook Readers, Smart Phones, etc

These new electronic devices allow increased mobility of information. It is possible to carry many ebooks on a single device, which itself may be smaller than a book. These devices are developing rapidly, and already offer what I would call an impressive reading experience. They are trendy and slick, and may be just the thing for getting more reading into your life.

These devices are often multi-use, meaning that they may be useful for much more than just reading.

The downsides of these devices that I am concerned about are the fact that they often have relatively short battery life (a few hours), and they may have difficulty with wet or very cold weather. Choose a device that fits the usage patterns (and weather) that you expect.

I hope that some of these ideas prove useful for you. If you have further ideas you would like to share, I invite you to comment!