Archive for January, 2011

Weather to believe ’em or not….

Friday, January 21st, 2011

A tale of two headlines: Daily Mail – 2010 was ‘second warmest year’ since records began in 1850. Daily Telegraph – 2010 was the coldest year since 1986. The gist of the story is that pretty much everywhere on the planet had a record-breakingly hot year… except us in the UK.

There are those that will clutch this information as further evidence of anthropological (i.e. man-made) global warming. However, the newsworthy weather events around the world this year are all manifestations of the regular La Nina weather pattern which predicts cooler currents in the central and eastern Pacific, leading to increased rainfall. This impact of this La Nina has been particularly strong, with huge swathes of Queensland, Sri Lanka, Brazil and South Africa flooded (the latter doesn’t seem to have generated so much news coverage though). As I’m sure you all know, La Nina is the reverse of the El Nino warming of the Southern Oceans, reputed to show its impact around Christmas time, hence the name. El Nino episodes reduce rainful and therefore have the opposite effect – droughts and forest fires.

Nasa Satellite Image

Regularity does not imply predictability though:

  • La Nina conditions do not always necessarily follow El Ninos,
  • the cyclic frequency varies from 2-7 years,
  • the length of the cycle from 7 months to 2 years
  • the strength is also variable – effects lasting less than 3 months are ignored, changes in sea-surface temperatures lasting up to 7-9 months are categorised as El Nino / La Nina conditions, and only if they last longer than 9 months is it officially an El Nino / La Nina episode

So what is a “standard” La Nina year? Yes we have unprecedented photographic and media coverage of the impact this year, but does that mean its an unprecedented year meterologically speaking?

I am not a climatologist, but I know something of complex systems, and weather is one of the most complex around. I’m just not convinced that 160 data points is enough to draw any conclusive trend on global temperatures for any more than the 160 years measured. Nasa report that they only have solid La Nina data going back 50 years. That’s not even an eye-blink of time in comparison to the history of the planet. Not even enough time for a synapse to fire to begin the thought of blinking an eye. This is the strongest La Nina in 50 years – that’s all we can state. Anthropological global warming may be true, but be very wary of anyone who declares that to be a fact – we have insufficient evidence to call it that. It’s a hypothesis, and even if it is true, solar effects as part of the sun-spot cycle could easily mask or reverse its effects. I’m not convinced humans are important or clever enough to change anything.

Just Add Water

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

A-ha! I’ve found the article I alluded to in my last post. It was: 10 Virtually Instant Ways to Improve Your Life. What a fantastic title – the concept that with a few minor, virtually unnoticable tweaks, you become rich, beautiful, successful and able to eat chocolate til it oozes out of your ears without putting on an ounce. Of course reality isn’t like that, and in fact this list isn’t the usual, stop smoking, eat healthily, get some exercise, marry a goat blah blah blah of other lists. It is subtly different; it’s not about what you do, but about how you think. Of course one can argue with the premise that one can change one’s thoughts in an instant. Nothing is that simple, apart from instant mash. Anyway, I reproduce it here.

  1. Stop jumping to conclusions. There are two common ways this habit increases people’s difficulties. First, they assume that they know what is going to happen, so they stop paying attention and act on their assumption instead. Human beings are lousy fortune-tellers. Most of what they assume is wrong. That makes the action wrong too. The second aspect of this habit is playing the mind-reader and assuming you know why people do what they do or what they’re thinking. Wrong again, big time. More relationships are destroyed by this particular kind of stupidity than by any other.
  2. Don’t dramatize. Lots of people inflate small setbacks into life-threatening catastrophes and react accordingly. This habit makes mountains out of molehills and gives people anxieties that either don’t exist or are so insignificant they aren’t worth worrying about anyway. Why do they do it? Who knows? Maybe to make themselves feel and seem more important. Whatever the reason, it’s silly as well as destructive.
  3. Don’t invent rules. A huge proportion of those “oughts” and “shoulds” that you carry around are most likely needless. All that they do for you is make you feel nervous or guilty. What’s the point? When you use these imaginary rules on yourself, you clog your mind with petty restrictions and childish orders. And when you try to impose them on others, you make yourself into a bully, a boring nag, or a self-righteous bigot.
  4. Avoid stereotyping or labeling people or situations. The words you use can trip you up. Negative and critical language produces the same flavor of thinking. Forcing things into pre-set categories hides their real meaning and limits your thinking to no purpose. See what’s there. Don’t label. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
  5. Quit being a perfectionist. Life isn’t all or nothing, black or white. Many times, good enough means exactly what it says. Search for the perfect job and you’ll likely never find it. Meanwhile, all the others will look worse than they are. Try for the perfect relationship and you’ll probably spend your life alone. Perfectionism is a mental sickness that will destroy all your pleasure and send you in search of what can never be attained.
  6. Don’t over-generalize. One or two setbacks are not a sign of permanent failure. The odd triumph doesn’t turn you into a genius. A single event—good or bad—or even two or three don’t always point to a lasting trend. Usually things are just what they are, nothing more.
  7. Don’t take things so personally. Most people, even your friends and colleagues, aren’t talking about you, thinking about you, or concerned with you at all for 99% of the time. The majority of folk in your organization or neighborhood have probably never heard of you and don’t especially want to. The ups and downs of life, the warmth and coldness of others, aren’t personal at all. Pretending that they are will only make you more miserable than is needed.
  8. Don’t assume your emotions are trustworthy. How you feel isn’t always a good indicator of how things are. Just because you feel it, that doesn’t make it true. Sometimes that emotion comes from nothing more profound than being tired, hungry, annoyed, or about to get a head-cold. The future won’t change because you feel bad—nor because you feel great. Feelings may be true, but they aren’t the truth.
  9. Don’t let life get you down. Keep practicing being optimistic. If you expect bad things in your life and work, you’ll always find them. A negative mind-set is like looking at the world through distorting, grimy lenses. You spot every blemish and overlook or discount everything else. It’s amazing what isn’t there until you start to look for it. Of course, if you decide to look for signs of positive things, you’ll find those too.
  10. Don’t hang on to the past. This is my most important suggestion of all: let go and move on. Most of the anger, frustration, misery, and despair in this world come from people clinging to past hurts and problems. The more you turn them over in your mind, the worse you’ll feel and the bigger they’ll look. Don’t try to fight misery. Let go and move on. Do that and you’ve removed just about all its power to hurt you.

This is a fantastic list! Apart from the last one – I remain unconvinced that when karma is taking its time to even the score, a helping hand might not go amiss, but nevertheless. But there at No. 8 is the one that stuck in my mind: Don’t assume your emotions are trustworthy. It even gives a few benign, non-contraversial examples: hungry, tired, annoyed. To which, I might add, pre-menstrual. What? I’m a woman, I’m allowed to say it. Look down & check your underpants – if they’re lumpy, you are not.

Are mental habits easier to change than physical ones? Phobics would say not, Paul McKenna would disagree. But both physical and mental habits improve with attention and effort. These are worthy ones to attempt.

Emotions vs Reality and Normality

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Perception of RealityAgain I’ve found myself absorbed by this evening’s programming on BBC4. The second hour’s viewing was the incredibly well researched yet wiltingly safe second of the three-part documentary – Michael Mosley’s The Brain: A Secret History, which looked at the role of emotions in our lives.

However I missed the first 5 minutes in my efforts to recover after the preceding, far more hit-and-miss, anecdotal, emotionally nuclear option of Sectioned. This was a documentary that followed the stories of 3 men: Antony, Andrew and Richard.

Antony had been in and out of hospital for 26 years since a breakdown in 1984. He had a diagnosis of schizophrenia which he disagreed with, but his daughter could attest that without regular anti-psychotic drug injections, his ability to look after himself disintegrated to a worrying level. While the terms of his section insisted he received the injections, he was well enough to protest that they weren’t required. After 5 months with no treatment, he began to slide back towards self-neglect.

Andrew represented the statistic that a particular demographic “at-risk” are men in late-middle age, adjusting to upcoming retirement. He was also the token middle-class story, having had a successful long-term career as a pathologist, despite suffering from bipolar disorder. However this had spiraled out of control as retirement loomed, leading to an unfortunate paranoid incident involving a high-speed chase. His wife was at her wits-end, lost 3 stone and at one stage could see no future other than divorce.

The most tragic case was that of Richard – 34 and since the age of 19, helplessly “mad”, in common parlance. Despite his section, he seemed free to leave the secure unit long enough to get alcohol and drugs, and the team working with him accepted he would always have a drug and alcohol problem. He was happy to confide to camera that the voices in his head that he called his Gods told him to overdose on heroin on Christmas day. As the date loomed and it seemed unlikely he’d be able to get the necessary supplies, he was relieved when the voices told him it would ok if he did it after Christmas. He died: death recorded as accidental overdose. He was funny, optimistic and personable. One can only assume that the unit did their best to stabilise him with prescription drugs, but his death seemed horrifically inevitable.

My background thoughts were around something I read a couple of weeks ago, when launching this blog, about ways to improve your life and get out of a rut. One of the options I read and meant to go back to investigate further was essentially: while your emotions are real to you, they do not necessarily represent impartial reality. That struck a chord with me, and I’m annoyed that I can’t now find the article I was reading. Nevertheless, the impact of emotions on moods, and how we judge their reality will be the subect of the next few posts.


Sunday, January 9th, 2011

The 50’s were a time of great leaps forward in psychology and psychiatry. And great leaps backwards..Four Experiments than should never be repeated. Thanks Martin.

Automatic for the people

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I’m watching The Brain: A Secret History on BBC4, about Mind Control. In amongst a scarily breezy canter through the history of ECGs and MK Ultra is the point that its not just dogs and pidgeons that respond reliably to Pavlovian rewards. So in my quest for self improvement, do I need a specky bloke in a white coat to chuck me a scooby-snack whilst zapping my backside off the sofa? Are humans really so automatic?

The Self-Help Industry

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

I’m currently pinned to the sofa waiting for the boiler man to show up, which is my excuse for watching Paul McKenna’s “I Can Change Your Life”. The expert self-publicist is currently featuring people with deeper problems – a middle-aged female agrophobic who can’t be alone in the house for more than 10 mins who has 9 kids (well if you don’t get out much..!) Coming up later is a compulsive gambler and a bloke with a flying phobia.  (Update – McKenna: “The good thing about ringing agrophobics is they’re always in”)

I don’t have any deep-rooted problems – I’m reasonably adept at understanding myself and what is rational thinking and what isn’t. Having said that, I’m not some super human, there is room for improvement. People exist who run marathons, are superb musicians and heart-surgeons in their spare time. Good for them.

But while we’re all wise to the wiles of the diet industry, making women (and increasingly, men) feel ugly and fat, there is a whole self-help industry dedicated to making people feel generally not good enough. It fills ranks of shelves in bookshops, and the internet is cluttered with it. Like all advertising, it creates a fear – that we’re not successful enough, fit enough, attractive enough, rich enough, loved enough. Then it promises the solution, but its a mirage. Mostly we will stay as we are, but why? Most would benefit from some improvements, so what stops us? The books say fear, I suspect it’s more laziness. I am incredibly lazy. But it’s more complex than that. Why do I (and again, I’m pretty sure, its not just me) not do things I positively enjoy? What is the psychology behind that?

5 Ways to Improve your Life – Update

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

So – Epiphany. Have I had one?  I started this blog to help edge myself out of a rut, and relieve my unemployed frustrations. I came up with an arbitrary list of 5, for no better reason than it makes a snappy title, and I’ve been concentrating on those. As a review, they were in precis:

  1. Don’t make New Year’s resolutions.
  2. Stop buying chocolate.
  3. Start a blog
  4. Get a job.
  5. Don’t do things I “should”, instead do things I “want”.

Listed like that, I’ve realised that I ranked them from easy to hard – well aren’t I intrinsically organised! The first is of course very easy – I’m sure I’m not alone in my facility to do nothing.

The second cycles between simple and tricky. I’ve noticed over the years that when I am stressed or unhappy, I buy chocolate. Seriously – I associate buying chocolate with rebellion and comfort, and I’m soothed by having it in the fridge. It can sit there for a week or two, but eventually I’ll eat it, so if I stop buying it… I don’t buy/eat biscuits or cake. Probably alcohol & bread are the main sources of my flab, but I’m not ready to give either of those up. I’ll think about cutting down some point!

The third has been startlingly simple from conception to action. From thinking of the domain name (of which more in a future post) to registering, installing Word Press, choosing a theme and uploading the first post took all of two hours. Geek!

The fourth is an interesting one. I was quite prepared to have 6 months off, but was contacted while I was travelling and had an interview lined within a day of getting back. It all seemed extremely promising until it melted away like an ice-cube in the midday sun, with no real explanation. After that, an extended period of sulking was disguised by a potential opening with a friend’s new business which didn’t come to fruition. The final stimulus was a combination of irritation at signing on and a friend getting a new job at the same time. Of course, starting to job hunt 10 days before Christmas isn’t ideal, but I got one interview in before Christmas and it hasn’t put them off. Another company has also got in touch, but they seem unsure what exactly they want to recruit. But I’m hopeful that something will resolve in the next few weeks.

And finally, the biggie – do the things I want, not the things I should. And within this deceptively simple statement lies the devil of detail. This last six months should have been glorious – lots of free time to do…what? Well, not knowing how long I had to eek out the money, the habit soon arose not to go out so much, in case I spent unnecessary cash, which rapidly degenerated into a swamp of sofa surfing. But if that was what I wanted, what was the problem? Except it wasn’t. And it is around this theme of understanding of and motivation to do that this blog will whine on about.

Five Simple Ways to Improve Your Life

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
List of Stuff

Pointless Resolutions

Trust me – this post will go right to the top of the search rankings. These lists are hot – everyone wants to use the change of year as impetus to change their miserable, excreable lives, but is it realistic? Depends what’s on your list.

  1. Don’t make any new year’s resolutions. No really, if your life is worth improving, it’s worth improving on a dreary Wednesday in November. If its not worth improving, price up some sausage rolls for the funeral.
  2. Lose weight. This is on everyone’s list. You could throw yourself into some mad diet consisting mainly of courgettes and soya milk, but really, I thought you wanted to improve life? Courgettes improved nobody’s life – I know someone who can attest to this at great length, but here’s an easy step forward – stop buying shit. No crisps in the cupboard, no crisp sandwiches in your gut.
  3. Start a blog. I have read this on other lists, I’ve had it recommended to me, and lo – here I am. Of course it does nothing for any resolution to go to bed at a sensible time, but early days. It gives you something different to think about, and actually, digging your way out of that rut through organising your thoughts is no bad thing.
  4. Get a better, higher paying job. If you want one. You might like the one you’ve got – it may give you plenty of time to sit on t’interweb reading rubbish like this. If, however, you dreamed of more – saving African children from malnourishment, finding a cure for cancer, starring in a hit movie – I have news for you. You will never be Angelina Jolie, ever. No matter how great a percentage of your diet is devoted to courgettes and oily fish. But you can become a slightly better paid office fly, with slightly better benefits than you have now. So do 1 thing more than you do already. If you talk about getting another job, but never check the vacancies, look online. If you look but never apply, read up on how to polish a turd and dig your CV out. Hell, have a liquid lunch to get up the courage and send it off – what’s the worst that can happen?
  5. This one is great, and it’s not even nicked off another blog. It was my personal revelation. ELIMINATE THE WORD “SHOULD” FROM YOUR VOCABULARY. There are things you need to do, and there are things you want to do. If you need to do them, get on with it, stop whining, get them over with. Then there are things you want to do. Allow yourself time to do them. Everything else, well you’ve already identified that you don’t want or need to do it, so why do it?

So there you go, my list of how to improve your life. Of course, I could be any old snake-oil salesman. The proof of its efficaciousness is whether it works, so I will be following this list and reporting back.

New Year Revolutions

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

The way it's going

Ok, so I’m not there yet. But it won’t be long at this rate. New Year, new efforts, time to make those pointless resolutions. “Pointless?” – the Pollyannas gasp in horror. Yes – pointless. How many people have changed their life as a result of a drunken promise to themselves as they downed the bubbly at midnight on 1/1/xx. Have you?

Massive change requires revolution, and well, us British aren’t that keen on revolutions. We tried it, once. Back in 1649 after a little local unpleasantness, we installed the 17th century equivalent of a teetotal personal trainer as ruler of the country, demoting the fun-loving, hard-living king, and sending him to the big charity shop in the sky. But we kept a spare in the back of the wardrobe, just in case, and in 1660 we dragged out the heir and reinstalled him. Revolutions aren’t us.

But change is possible. We the people now apparently have a say in the running of the country – well, thank God at least the latest Prince Charles doesn’t. There’s plenty of research that New Year resolutions don’t work as this article from the Guardian attests. The linked white paper on how much money people waste promising themselves they will go to the gym is particularly amusing. So I’m not stupid enough to do that.

But the fact remains, I am unemployed and planning far too much of my day around Jeremy Kyle. This must stop. Incrementally. But the repeat of this morning’s episode that I slept through is on in half an hour…

Pollyanna Does Crack

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

p45 - Tax form for the newly unemployedThat’s what this blog was nearly called. Why? Because I hate Pollyannas – those bloody cheerful types that say “Oh well, look on the bright side..” and blether something about making lemonade out of lemons. Ridiculous, as they are usually the types that make a career out of dodging fruit and veg. Fat and happy? Yeah right.  Lemons go in gin, and you drink gin when you’re pissed off. Everyone knows that – especially me. I’m not a Pollyanna, I’m a realist. Some call me a corrupt, cynical pessimist, but that’s because they are not realists, they are fools.

Nevertheless, life is what you make it, and you can’t escape from yourself, not alive. So skipping the motorway bridge alternative as messy and traumatic for Yorkie munchers, I have decided to investigate the possibility of changing my mental attitude. To understand that, you need to know a bit about me first, and what has driven me to this point. Long, naval-gazing posts about my childhood can wait. The nub of the matter is that for the last 6 months of 2010, I have been unemployed.

It was redundancy, from an industry that is moribund and unlikely to improve. I work in Strategy – therefore this outcome was not unexpected. In fact, it was eagerly anticipated. I travelled for a bit, came home and looked forward to a bit of quality leisure time… which is where it all started to go wrong. It’s not as easy as it looks, you know.