Slow philosophy. [Weekly Head Voices #64]

I’ve spent days writing this post in my head, and now it’s taken more than two weeks to get done. It’s not that I have something complicated or difficult to tell you, it’s just that I was privy to three absolutely awesome weeks of vacation in an undisclosed location to the very far south of my current coordinates, during which I attained ultimate levels of relaxation that caused my brain to shut-down large parts of itself. The only parts that managed to remain online were those dedicated to slow living, appreciation of people and surroundings and, finally, deep thought. My brain is currently taking its sweet time to come fully online again.

Oh well.

I did bring you a photo of Disa Uniflora, a special little orchid that likes living close to little waterfalls, for example just like the one that can be found on your hike up Leopard’s Kloof. Look:

Pretty Disa in Leopard's Kloof.

As is usual for sunny vacations during which we transition into a new year, a number of realizations and resolutions slowly bubbled up to the surface from some usually submerged part of my consciousness. I’d like to share some of them with you:

Life goals are bad. Let’s stop doing them. The problem is that humans are awesome at adaptation. Unfortunately this means that two days after having celebrated your latest epic life achievement, you’re bored with it. Some people even get bored with their lives in general, and then buy a leather jacket and a motorbike because they think that that’ll somehow solve the problem, only to get bored with their new image soon after. Fortunately, there is a way to sidestep the problem quite elegantly. Don’t set life goals, but rather set life directions. Instead of defining the point that you want to go towards, define your preferred direction. If you do it right, you’ll pass those points as you go along in any case, except you won’t land in the depressing goal vacuum right after reaching the point that you’ve been moving towards for so long, because you’re motoring along in a direction, and that’s what’s important. To those more mathematically inclined, ignore the life function, rather design its derivatives. This is a practical way of applying the well-known addage that life is about the journey, and not the destination.

Disconnecting is good. I do love the internet. I also think it’s one of the most awesome achievements of the whole of humankind ever, and it really empowers humans everywhere. I’m more or less addicted to being constantly connected, having constant access to the sum total of human knowledge and in principle to a large percentage of my fellow humans. However, there is a fine line between having constant access and being constantly interrupted by too many not necessarily valuable packets of data. We’re very vulnerable to this latter situation, due to our brain chemistry being optimized by all of evolution for novelty, and for foraging, so we keep on clicking on “refresh”, and our ears perk up whenever a phone goes “ping”. However, when not being interrupted, human thought gets the room it needs to grow and deepen, into importance and into impact.

I’ve also been thinking about consumption. I’d like to do much less of that, and when I do, I’d prefer to consume quality. In my thoughts, it was primarily about information, but it applies to many other things. It’s an ongoing process.

I’m adding all of these to my growing list of little life tips. As regular readers of this blog, you know some of these by now: Keep on  striving for balance and harmony, focus on the now, create value, study your manual, and, most importantly, drink lots of coffee. One day I’m going to combine them all nicely into the Unified Dogma of  Me (UDM) and then I’ll start a sect. Seriously though, it’s quite challenging keeping these and the other ones in the front of my mind all the time. The UDM would definitely help. And I could start a sect.

One more thing before you go: I came across this recent PNAS article via the science pages of my newspaper. William Ratcliff and colleagues at the Michigan State University showed with a terribly simple experiment that single-celled yeast cells can evolve into multi-cellularity quite quickly. Pouring yeast from one test tube into another about 60 times, an action that favours, or selects, yeast cells that clump together, resulted into a multi-celled organism: The clumped together yeast cells started showing internal specialization. Pretty awesome results, especially considering the fact that you could probably reproduce this experiment in your kitchen.

That’s all for this week kids. Have fun evolving!

Weekly Head Voices #20: A Lamarckian Knot.

Welcome dear fellow-monkeys, to the 20th edition of the Weekly Head Voices, exceptionally vaguely associated with the 13th week of the year 2010. In this post, nothing much happens, except that I tell you about the bowline (the king of knots), present the usual GTD analysis, spiced up with some perspective gravy and conclude with a brief introduction to epigenetics, something that I’ve also very recently learned about for the first time.

Here is the knot I promised, as well as one of this post’s major visual elements:

I just love the gentleman’s wooden delivery! It somehow suits the knot. It turns out that the version below, albeit of exactly the same knot, is a more correct or accepted execution (but the delivery is not as cool):

This is the knot I use to tie my keys to my James Bond-small 8G USB stick and to my iButton with a length of diabolo string (that’s seriously good stuff!), as a sort of makeshift and extremely space-efficient key-ring. With the bowline knot, you can make a fixed-size loop at the end of a rope that won’t slip and is also easy to untie. It turns out this is often called the King of Knots, which is kind of nice, as it’s dead simple to make and extremely useful. To my few sailing friends this is probably old news, hopefully to some of you it’s not.

During week 13, consisting of only 4 work days (we had us a nice long weekend here in NL, hence also the lateness of this post), I had about 15 hours of regular meetings and managed to complete 26 GTD tasks spread over 9 projects.

As part of my new high-priority theme of keeping things in perspective, I’ve been revising my work strategy in a number of regards. Importantly, I’ve taken a hard look at my work-at-home policy. Somehow, I’d forgotten about my rule of only working at home on the fun parts of my job, and otherwise only in case of a looming deadline. However, there had been so many deadlines, that I had gotten into the bad habit of simply continuing at home with my work day, without applying the fun-filter. That’s all over now. The fun-filter is back on ultra-strict, thank you very much. I just have to remember next time deadline-season comes along again.

Further, my GTD-brainwashed inbox-emptying compulsion had reached pathological proportions. I wasn’t able to open up my work inbox without stressing out and immediately going to work emptying the thing out again by processing all mails, a situation that would occur at the most inopportune and unsuitable times. I’ve now got this in check as well, and I’m able to stare at my inbox when it’s not mail processing time without breaking down. (So what if I have to bite down and have those bulging veins on the sides of my head!) This is a refinement of the first of my three rules of stress-free email productivity, in that sometimes one has to check mail for other reasons than processing the whole inbox, and in those cases it’s important to remember that it’s not an inbox processing moment.

In a slight variation of the usual backyard philosophy theme, I’d like to tell you briefly about epigenetics, something that I’ve recently heard about for the first time. This weekend’s Volkskrant had a good article on the topic by Frank Grosveld (professor of Cell Biology and Genetics at the EMC in Rotterdam) and Jos de Mul (professor of Philosophy of Man and Culture, also at the EMC). Epigenetics is the study of external influences by the surroundings, feeding and habits on gene expression. The DNA itself is not modified, but how the DNA code is read and reacted upon: This happens through chemicals that attach to the nucleotides in the DNA. In this way, there’s an extra regulatory layer, allowing the environment to influence gene expression.

Sounds reasonable, until one ponders the implications: A number of studies have shown that this mechanism makes it possible for environmental effects to be inherited, even being passed on for example from grandparents to grandchildren! The Volkskrant article mentions a number of examples:

  • Men who were underfed during their pre-adolescence have grand-children with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease whilst grandfathers who lived in times of plenty have grand-children with a significantly higher risk of diabetes (Pembrey and Bergen 2006).
  • In gestating rats, exposure to an anti-fungal agent used in wine-making affects offspring three generations down the line (Skinner 2008).
  • Mice placed in a stimulation-rich environment have offspring with a similarly improved memory, even when they grow up in a stimulation-poor environment (Feig 2009).

Besides shedding new light on the whole Nature vs. Nurture debate, this has the profound implication that we live in a kind of post-existentialist reality, where your actions and experiences affect not only yourself, but also your future offspring, and even the offspring of those around you, in more direct ways than hitherto recognised.

Think about that for a while, ok?

(P.S. Figuring out the first part of the title of this post is left as a simple but gratifying exercise for the reader: You too will be able to use this impressive-sounding qualifier in full sentences at cocktail parties.)