Master time Jedi style
…pay attention to stuff that is important. Not that which is urgent. This is a wonderfully illustrated answer that goes in a lot more detail.
For a writer, obsession is a good substitute for self-discipline. - Vikram Seth
How to get creative
From the BBC Horizon programme: Do something mundane (to turn off the frontal lobe and allow new ideas to flow more freely) Do something unexpected (that does not need to be connected to the task you want to get creative at, to help your brain connect new ideas).
What surgeons learnt from firemen, F1 pit crew and...
From Kevin Fong’s BBC Horizon programme: Multi-tasking comes at an expense. Use checklists to reduce human errors In a team know who is responsible, at all times. When in emergency, follow rule 2.
Ain't nobody got time for this?
There is an excellent paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that discusses how to deal with self-deception. I have a longer blog post on it, but here is the most important bit: For a truth-seeker, the key question must be how sure you can be that you, at the moment, are substantially more likely to have a truth-seeking, in-control, rational core than the people you now disagree with. This is...
The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information…...
72 is the new 30
It helps to, from time to time, take a step back and realise how fortunate we find ourselves to be today. Scientists reported today that human beings in the 1800 had lifespans that were closer to the earliest hunter-gatherer humans than they would to adult men in the rich countries today. Put another way: Hunter-gatherers at the age of 40 would have the same odds of dying has a Japanese man at...
Writing is about rewriting, so get something done...
Chip Scanlan’s tips on writing: 1. Lower your standards 2. Get something done 3. Swallow the bile on your first draft 4. Print out early 5. Read aloud 6. Apply critical standards
The key to modern life
It was David Foster Wallace’s birthday yesterday. He nailed it when he said: “To be, in a word, unborable…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” – The Pale King (2011)
Thumb rule for using hyperlinks
In an excellent article Robert Cottrell makes a smart point about online writing: It helps, too, that when you’re writing online, there’s no need to introduce and source every person, place and fact you mention, and no need to fill in the backstory for those new to the subject. You can link out to the source document or the related story – or just assume your reader knows how to use Google and...
The role of religion
Ever since I took the time to explore my own religious views, I’ve been rewarded with more and more questions about life. One that haunted me for quite sometime was: how to explain (concisely) the role of religion in our society? So I tried. This is what I came up with: some people find it too hard to find meaning in life. Religion gives them one. And then they find meaning may be from...
The key to happiness is...
…being in control of our life. Of all the hundreds of claims made about how to be happy, this is the one that I can agree to the most. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi finds that: Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live....
What one cause do you support?
I never understood the Facebook invites that I get asking me to associate myself to a “cause”. From averting catastrophic climate change to improving women’s plight, there is much to do in this world. But if you truly care about doing something, it helps to focus on a singular cause. If that cause happens to be pouring more and more money into charity work by being an investment...
Aristotle on persuasion
According to Aristotle the best way to persuade someone is to make an argument in a structure that balances three key areas: credibility, logical appeal and emotional appeal. Some call it the Rhetorical Triangle.
Old is gold
We overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing. - Robert Cottrell in the FT I cannot agree more with Cottrell’s observation. From now on I am not going to feel guilty about sharing articles that are old. Be it a month old or many years old.
Eugenics was a serious academic discipline, and not just in Facist countries. By 1930s it was being studied in universities in Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Germany, America and Norway. Its founder, Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, even became a fellow of the Royal Society. Galton felt that the average citizen was “too base for the everyday work of modern civilization”. It...
You become what you do, not what you think
According to psychologist Timothy Wilson: People draw inferences about who they are by observing their own behavior. Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. Two powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book,...
The scale of our universe
Here is how John Cassidy explains the scale of our universe. He instructs us to find a large open space and place a soccer ball in the center to represent the sun. He then directs us to walk 10 paces in a straight line, stick a common pin in the ground. The head of the pin stands for the planet Mercury. Then take another 9 paces beyond Mercury and put down a peppercorn to represent Venus. Step...
Do not track me. Do get it.
I’m a Google Chrome user and there are some add-ons on the browser that should really become part of it. The first one is AdBlock Plus and the other is DoNotTrackMe. Yes there are people who survive on online adverts. I’m a journalist, I know. But AdBlock Plus allows for non-intrusive ads. This is the future of online advertising and the add-on is only accelerating us getting there. ...
Invention is a product of inventorying
This is so far the most convincing reason for why it is important to commit a lot of (useful) things to memory. Joshua Foer explains: Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to drawn on. Not just an inventory but an indexed inventory: to find the right information at the right...
Einstein was wrong about time...
…or, more precisely, the humourists who tried to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity were wrong. This is what you commonly hear: When you sit next to a pretty girl for one hour, and it feels like a minute. As opposed to when you sit on a hot stove for one minute, and it feels like an hour. That is relativity. That’s got nothing to do with the concept of relativity of...
A telling fact about memory
We don’t remember isolated facts; we remember things in context. Grand masters can react to a complex chess board within seconds, novices can’t. But arrange the pieces randomly (not by the rules of the game) and they perform just as novices do on remembering which pieces were where. A board of randomly arranged chess pieces has no context—there are no similar boards to compare it to, no...
What's the number 7 got to do with our memory?
Apparently a lot. It turns out that just like a computer has RAM (short-term or working memory), we do too. And in this RAM of our brain we can store 7 discrete things. Of course, that is an average number. But most people can store 7 plus minus 2 things in their working memory. And just to prove that i am not kidding, close your eyes now and reread the last sentence in your head. Got it? Good....
Liberation movements enjoy long honeymoons
Having been suppressed for so long, when countries are liberated from dictatorial or colonial rule, they prefer stability to economic growth. Thus political parties that provide for such stability tend to reap benefits of continuing at the top for some time. In India, and now in South Africa these honeymoons have lasted over two decades (longer than most places). From 1950 to 1977 Congress party...
Best way to remember names
Associate names with a powerful visual image. Reagan with ray guns. Lincoln with chain links. Manmohan with a smiling brain. It can be more powerful if you place this image in your mind at the place you came to know about their name. Now read on to know why this technique works. Here is the Baker-baker paradox which helped develop the best way of remembering names: A researcher shows two people...
The largest human migration occurs annually
Captured in the 2009 documentary The Last Train Home by Lixin Fan: Ever year tens of millions of migrant workers go home to see their families for the New Year holidays. For most, the cheapest and the fastest route home is by train, but the impossible crowds strain the system past the breaking point. Police use bullhorns, batons, verbal abuse—whatever means necessary—to keep the...
My PhD described using the 1000 most used words
Challenge set by XKCD’s Up Goer Five: At the big boys’ school I worked on making really, really tiny things that can help many people not be sick. To do that we spent days reading books and learning how to add smaller bits together, one by one, to make the whole tiny thing. All the things around us are made of these tiny bits held together in different ways. But because these bits can...
If you want good ideas, stop censoring yourself
Paul Graham notes: In 1989 researchers tracked the eye movements of radiologists as they scanned chest images for signs of lung cancer. They found that even when the radiologists missed a cancerous lesion, their eyes had usually paused at the site of it. Part of their brain knew there was something there; it just didn’t percolate all the way up into conscious knowledge. In just the same...
The perception of India in the West and, indeed, among Indians themselves has never been more amorphous as it is now. - Amartya Sen on his book The Argumentative Indian
Things that don't make sense: Part I
In this day and age when information travels at the speed of light (well, almost), why is it that some movies get released in the US months before they are released anywhere else in the world? It’s the same with music and books. Here, here and here are some plausible but not entirely convincing answers. PS: I’ve noticed that there are somethings which shout “What...
What drove Steve Jobs?
In 1995 in the Lost Interview, Steve Jobs said that an article in Scientific American sparked his passion for building tools for humanity: I read an article when I was very young, in Scientific American, and in it researchers measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on Earth. So, you know, bears, chimpanzees, racoons, fish…and humans were measured too. How many...
The God of the gaps
One side of the debate over God’s existence focuses on the notion that what science cannot explain today must be the doing of God. Neil deGrasse Tyson neatly explains this God to be “an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance”. But what’s funnier is that the God of the gaps argument was actually used by Henry Drummond, a 19th century evangelist, to decry the...
The opinionated Indian
Indian cricketers, according to its fans, are either the best in the world or the worst, depending on the result of the last match they played. And while some may want to believe that such extreme opinions exist only in sports, they cannot deny that this opinionatedness exists among Indians in most other areas of life. It is better then that we accept this state of being, especially if we find...
For everyone else's good, don't be a follower
Friedrich Hayek said that followers are always a bad idea. Followers were always much worse than the people they followed. Marxists were much worse than Marx; Keynesians were much worse than Keynes; and so he really hoped that there wouldn’t be any Hayekians.
Nothing beats a good analogy
One of the characteristics of a great writer and thinker is the ability to bring a beautiful analogy to explain a complex idea. Here is Ludwig Wittgenstein on how language is an organic entity: He talks about being in a city and starting in a square and moving into different districts and coming to know some of them and reencountering them from different directions. And realising that the city...
The true meaning of words
If I have more than a few seconds to spare when looking up a word in a dictionary, then I don’t look at the definition but at the etymology of the word. (The Oxford English Dictionary is particularly great for it.) The reason is that it is the roots of the word that give the true sense of what the meaning of the word in a particular context may have been and how best to use in the future...
Pragmatists in America: What an irony!
Baseball may be popular in America, but the sport hasn’t really taken hold in many other countries. Its philosophical equivalent is pragmatism. - David Edmonds, of Philosophy Bites. According to the Pragmatists, a statement is meaningless if it’s not empirically viable (aka if it can’t be tested). Thus, “There is a god” is a meaningless statement. The pragmatists...
The necessary virtues
One of the greatest books on political thought is Machiavelli’s The Prince. In it he asks a great prince to possess three virtus: 1. clementia : The quality of mercy 2. liberalitas : The quality of geneorsity 3. fides : One who honours his words Even today, these are three virtues that everyone must possess.
Socrates was a damn good journalist...
…except that he never took written notes. A form of conversation, which Socrates owns copyright for, is called the Socratic method. To use the method one must aim to have a conversation with no holds barred and find things out by merely talking. Such conversations often end up being between two individuals each defending their positions. But the eventual aim ought to be to collaboratively...
We all live in a bubble...
…just different ones. There is only so much information that one can, at any given moment, comprehend and act upon. The inability to appreciate everything around us, along with our human biases, means that all of us end up living in bubbles. Thus when choosing where you want to be in life, consider which bubble lets you be your best self and allows you to contribute the most to the world....
Don't overthink social media
Ed Yong distills the notion of self-promotion through social media in one sentence: The way to think about this is to map any [online] behaviour onto the physical world. And here is the explanation in full: So, would I tweet about something I wrote. Yes. That is basically telling friends about something I did that I’m proud of. Who wouldn’t do that in real life? Would I tweet about...
You don't need time...
…you only need to decide.
Who's your audience?
A writer writes for an audience. What comprises that audience is, or should be, one of the most important questions. Are you writing for a man standing in the subway in the middle of a 15-minute journey back home after a long day at work? Are you writing for an old lady that sits and knits at home on most days? Are you writing for an internet-savvy person who spends 12-hours of his waking hours...
The timing of conversations
There are many types of conversations. One that concerns me today is the result of self-contemplation. During this phase, you tend to build a train of thoughts that lead to a question. The question needs to be answered, but you can’t find the answer. That’s why the need for a conversation. For this purpose, you usually seek a person who knows you well. And these people are usually in...
The beauty of a blank page
For a writer, a blank page can be one of the most intimidating things. If he spends 10,000 hours in becoming an expert writer, then a big chunk of it tends to be spent staring at a blank page (on the screen or otherwise). Likewise, the first sentence of an article may be the sentence that gets rewritten the most. After all, that first sentence marks the birth of a piece of writing and the end of...
Why would someone read your story
With a flood of news available to every reader today, why would someone want to read what you write? William Blundell in The Art and Craft of Feature Writing has, what he calls, the laws of progressive reader involvement. Or as I call it, why would I read your crap: Tease me, you devil: Intrigue me a little. Give me a reason for going on with your story instead of doing something else. Remember,...
Anyone who for long pursues the calling of a job in opinions eventually arrives at the condition of an intellectual slot machine. If the penny is inserted, either by the asking of a question or by the happening of an event, then the wheels will turn and a nicely packaged opinion will emerge. - Geoffrey Crowther, editor of The Economist (1938-1956)
The internet is cool
The internet is cool. We all know it. But why? Seth Godin puts it succinctly: The dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s...
The opportunity cascade
We look at opportunities and feel many things. One common reaction is excitement with fear. The joy of feeling something new combined with the fear of the unknown. To be able to make use of the opportunity we need to overcome the fear and embrace the excitement. One way to do that would be to look at an opportunity not as a single occurrence but a beginning. Kevin Kelly calls it an opportunity...