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Wednesday
Apr012015

passion or money? Take a cross-over path

You hear it all the time- especially on self-help blogs- go after what you are passionate about and money will follow...er, right, but what if you're skint?

I have said similar stuff- my solution, for myself, was to work for money at weekends or downtimes and use my primetime- the day- to do my own thing.

But what if you have a family to support? You can't do that easily working a couple of nights.

You need to be both self-supporting and also, preferably, on what I call a cross-over path.

If you earn your bread at a call centre and spend your free time doing what you are passionate about the passion will probably fizzle out. You'll be so pissed off you'll want to spend your downtime doing other stuff.

A cross-over path is one that earns money, reasonable amounts, but allows you to cross over more and more to what really interests you. Journalism is a good cross-over path to writing and film making. Think of activities that are congruent with your ultimate ideal way of earning a living/spending your days. Take a long term approach. Look for other people who are doing what you want to do and see what cross-over path they used.

 

Sunday
Mar292015

Polymathics #1

I see polymathics as a re-orientation.

Definitions of Orient:

(i) via Latin oriri, ‘to rise’, from the Greek words ornynai ‘to rouse’ and oros ‘mountain’- implying both the sunrise and the sense of rising up, improving. The feeling of climbing a mountain to its summit where the sunrise will be seen.

(ii) A pearl of great lustre

(iii) To turn towards the significant

(iv) The East

Therefore, to Re-orient is to re-establish the above- which might also mean: look again at the pearl in the oyster- a piece of grit which over time evolves in the right environment into a great jewel. Reconsider the East where a different less materialistic approach to knowledge flourishes even today. Return to climbing that mountain. Rejoice in the sunrise- where the source of all energy resides. Return to the significant in life and eschew the trivial. Reflect on self-improvement, personal evolution.

Polymathics could be the most dramatic change in the way we view knowledge since Descartes set us on the wrong path in the early 17th century. Polymathics is a way of studying something from multiple angles, using knowledge and insights from many subject areas- from art, science, craft and personal experience. A polymathic study of violence would include reading about it, studying the psychology of it, observing it, learning martial arts, looking at violence in cinema and art, meeting the victims of violence and its perpetrators. Polymathics is not mere generalism, a fuzzy image. It is like taking shots of a subject from multiple angles, creating a complete view.

There are no subject areas as defined by medieval schoolmen (which is where the categories we now use ultimately derive from (and before that, from Aristotle). 

Descartes was not a monk- unlike all the earlier medieval philosophers. He could earn his living as a tutor to others. This gave him great freedom. He also lived for twenty years in the Netherlands which was a very liberal society at the time.

Descartes was fed up with the theoretical speculation of the schoolmen- medieval philosophers who theorised about theological ideas. Instead he longed for a method of getting at the truth of anything. One of his earliest works- unpublished in his lifetime- was a list of rules for 'the direction of the mind'.

Descartes, despite being a maths genius, was an arrogant type, he decided to ignore all knowledge that had come before him. But what about language- why not ignore that too? Or the language of maths? He’s actually quite inflexible- in one sense a typical product of the medieval education he reacted against. There’s a reason why Pascal and Dr Johnson dismiss sceptics like Descartes and Bishop Berkeley- their childish insistence on doubting everything leads us astray- it looks like a promising method but it’s really a reaction to the sudden increase in book knowledge in the 16th/17th/18th century. It was no long possible to know everything- which was equated with having read everything- so the arrogant move was to dismiss everything as nonsense and start again. And this does generate new material but it isn’t really useful to us right now.

Descartes, despite his scepticism, was still dependent on the concept of certainty. He shows all the hallmarks of someone who had invested a lot in concepts of theological certainty used to indoctrinate children in Europe (as opposed to intuited certainties of the divine). He then ‘woke up’ and over-reacted but because he was conditioned to having certainty he looked for it elsewhere. He found it in logic, maths and his sceptical method. Instead of being a grown up and realising certainty only makes sense as an intuition, a passing intuition in a moving world, he produced a whole ‘philosophy’ rooted in this weird thought experiment of doubting everything. As a byproduct (think Kepler and Newton who produced scientific breakthroughs on the back of crazy ideas) Descartes discovered a lot of things. His status therefore remains high- but this doesn’t alter the fact that the quest for certainty is flawed.

Certainty appeals to children, those who live in troubled times, and those who have mental problems. I define a mental problem in this context as mental inflexibility as a default safeguard to preserving identity. Everyone knows people who seem very smart but through mental inflexibility are unable to learn anything new because it ‘threatens’ them in some way. You have to be comfortable with a grey zone, not really knowing ‘for sure’ when you start learning something new. Linguists are usually comfortable with this lack of certainty, that’s why they make good travellers- they are comfortable with a shifting state of affairs. Young people usually learn better than old because the grey zone is normal to them. Scientists, engineers and mathematicians are usually averse to learning new languages. Richard Feynman famously mocked knowing the name of a bird in four languages as opposed to knowing ‘the reality’ of a bird- presumably though observing its life or even dissecting it. Note the odd need to oppose these forms of knowledge- a form of inflexibility in itself. But Feynman later reversed this- he learnt Portugese and lived in Brazil- a sense of curiosity overcoming the natural rigidity of thought associated with scientists and others who work in tightly policed thought zones.

The idea that knowledge is rooted in certainty seems ‘obvious’- but isn’t it just a weird reversal of seeking certainty in knowledge- in that which is written down? In illiterate societies there can be no such demand. There is no set text- only stories and proverbs. A story is remembered because it doesn’t work if it isn’t- legalistic minutiae doesn’t feature at all. Proverbs work because again our minds seem fitted to recalling them, though, like quotations they can lose their edge. Stories, too, can lose sophistication and become mere genre examples- a tale of complex multiple meanings reduced to a horror tale. I’ve seen people round a campfire reduce their own interesting experience to just a funny tale with a punch line, in more congenial and relaxed company many more dimensions of their experience would have emerged. But, in general, stories and proverbs are among the most durable storage containers we have for human knowledge.

The quest for certainty is not the quest for knowledge. Descartes asks a naive question- how can I be certain of anything? He is looking for something to stand against the assumed certainty of the Bible. Descartes is using the equipment of knowledge seeking –asking questions, testing the answers against experience- to undermine the reality of all knowledge. There is something decidedly screwy about this- but it is legitimised by the assumption that the quest for certainty is a legitimate goal.

What if certainty is a transcendent goal? By this I mean, the more you aim at it the further you get from it. Relaxation is like this- the harder you ‘try’ to relax the tenser you get. Some things you have to kind of sidle up to like a crab. You have to ‘aim off’ a bit. The front gate may be locked but there’s a way in at the back. Some things aren’t obvious. Non-scientists often don’t realise how much palpating and massaging goes on before data is extracted from ‘real life’. I liken it to rock climbing- the famous faces are scrubbed clean. But come across a rock face in real wilderness and it will usually be messy, may have trees growing out of it, grass on ledges, loose rock- it will need to be gardened before any real climbing takes place.

But gardening changes the ‘reality’ of the face. And some things are so fragile and subtle- are not, in fact, tough like rock, and the process of ‘gardening’ destroys their essence. You want to photograph snow leopards- you don’t go stamping around shouting about it – you have to get a bit sneaky and lateral minded.

But most of all you have to accept the possibility that knowledge has many different textures. Some things – just as ‘real’ as the science of optics or genetics- may only be intuited. People who have ‘the eye’ – and make a good living out of it as art dealers- know that science is a baby in such areas, useless in its fumble fingered requirement for ‘holds’ that just aren’t there.

The texture of some knowledge might include the fact that it is surrounded by things that falsify our direct perception of it.

Take that away- that certainty should be an important focus, and replace it with something that is less culture bound- something that can be seen as truly human, encompassing as many different cultures as possible.

Maybe 'the ability to learn new things' is a much better focus. It is a dynamic concept. It can also be measured to some extent- people can either walk a high wire or they can’t, they can either speak Japanese or not.

The more areas, the greater the breadth of someone’s learning the more ‘open’ we can say they are. We can also say they have good learning abilities.

If someone only knows maths they only know maths. If they then try to ‘describe the world’ in maths terms then they will have to do a lot of ‘gardening’. Physics is hard like granite- only a few loose rocks there to clear away, but most of what is important to us gets swept away before maths can find a hold. Hence mathematical geography and biology seem less useful and real then plain accurate observation in the field linked to comparative knowledge from elsewhere.

Justin Majzoub is an entrepreneur with a wide base of learning- he studied maths at school but Arabic and Persian at university. He has devised several revolutionary ways to help beginners learn ‘difficult’ languages like Arabic. I travelled with him in the Egyptian desert to the ruins of Qsar El Sagha- described by several archeologists simply as a temple. Majzoub observed it has several features in common with the oracle temple at Siwa- namely odd intentional holes in walls that would enable priests to listen and speak without being seen. He was also aware of the mixture of real insight and sleight of hand that goes on in modern oracles and fortune telling. All this knowledge from a width of experience and learning informed his discovery- that El Sagha is an oracle temple. When I told an officially qualified archeologist this excited considerable interest.

If you are looking at birds in Alaska and notice something that reminds you of ants in Bulgaria you may make a new discovery. But the whole effort of modern science lies in specialisation. To get your Phd in Alaskan birds you’d need to spend three years in a frozen hide just staring at them. Only by chance would you know anything else.

Science loves randomness. Its also the way science advances. Only because of some random experience OUTSIDE the field under study does a new insight occur.

Except it isn’t really ‘random’. You can choose to study a wide variety of subjects. You can look for likely useful links before you even start. You can devise a large knowledge map and deliberately look for links between widely separate areas.

And an essential element has to include practise. Real world physical interaction not just reading and thinking. This real world practise provides perspective- which is absolutely essential.

Polymathics aims to enlarge and in some cases radically alter much of conventional knowledge. A polymathic study of French would range from the way the muscles move in a French native speakers mouth, to studying people who rapidly acquire French, to learning to speak it, to reading French History to travelling and living in France.

Polymathics replaces science as the cornerstone of knowledge acquisition. Science is downgraded to being just one tool in the box (by analogy think of the way science is only one factor in technological innovation, another might be business application). Science is downgraded because science as a research program is flawed and dangerous. It has lead us to great material wealth but to experience poverty, narrowness, arrogance and mental inflexibility. Science ‘gardens’ reality and distorts it, this is then fed back to us via social experimentation that is useless and even dangerous. We need less theory and more experience. We don’t need depth we need greater breadth of study.

Be honest- the only students who really like undergraduate study are the dorks and nerds- university is an education in becoming a dork! I exaggerate but young people intuit the grave unnaturalness of many university courses where theory and over indulgence in mathematical reductionism have made things boring.

Boring. But polymathic study is the opposite. It is naturally interesting. It has to be interesting because then you are ‘open’. Research shows that being open and ‘into’ a subject is vastly important in speeding up learning.

Theoretical knowledge becomes counterproductive and useless without a parallel increase in practise and experience. You end up like the schoolmen debating angels on pinheads. Which is current string theory.

This is radical stuff. All school curricula would change- language study would involve biology and drama. Physics would involve art and music!

Universities would cease in their present form. Product design courses which admit people with a bit of engineering and some art and tech drawing could be replaced by creative products courses that would include sociological, anthropological and technical study balanced with time spent in third world workshops where traditional technology, bodging and necessity allow a hi-tech product to be fixed in what looks like an allotment hut. Studying French would involve biology, much travel and drama studies. History woud include re-enactment. Archeology would include war studies and time in a monastic environment. I polemecise but the gist is: breadth but not breadth without practice/travel/experience.

Descartes downgraded experience. He rooted knowledge in that which could not be doubted, rather than in that which is useful, valuable, important and significant.

Even his celebrated bedrock statement: I think therefore I am means little more than ‘a thought exists’. 

Obsessed by maths and the way it builds from very few propositions all that logically interlink, Descartes thought all knowledge proceeded this way.

Of course it doesn’t. More important is the fact that Descartes cuts us off from experience.

I don’t just mean experiment- which is a part of experience- I mean experience itself.

Experience- always overlooked- from childhood through to death- is what informs our hierarchy of values. What we hold to be worth spending time on, and what we think is a waste of time.

The ‘experiential net’ is the web of experiences we have which assigns importance to things we perceive or simply live with, come across.

You can get some idea now that pure book learning- by which I mean information encoded in language and written down is greatly lacking in one dimension- experience. Though the author can convey something of his own experience, and convey his own experience inspired hierarchy of values- unless the reader has some shared experiences he won’t really make sense of what he is reading.

Roger Bacon says that unless you perform the proof in Euclid book one, proposition one you will not be certain- you won’t KNOW. Mathematicians are fond of saying this- unless you’ve proved it yourself you don’t really know it. And it doesn’t mean inventing your own proof, it just means experiencing the process of doing the proof.

Even the ultimate ‘head’ subject, maths, needs experience.

But what about the acres an acres written about economics, farming, psychology, finance, gambling, martial arts and religion? How many economists have actually tried to make money or run a firm? Experiential nets are needed to learn anything – to KNOW anything.

Polymathics posits the science of experiential nets, how much we need to get a value hierarchy for a subject, how to fine tune the experience you have and how to use the experience of others- by connecting to the ‘mastery code’.

Why now? Because the world is experience poor.

Drugs are seen as a form of experience, a version of Bacon’s ‘divine inspiration’, a way to rank in importance what you have already experienced. When you are young you don’t know if earning money is more ‘important’ than doing what you think is significant. How do you rank them? You look for insights, a sense of certainty- what we call ‘knowing what to do’.

Experiential nets versus pattern thinking. When people lack experience the current culture cons them into accepting pattern thinking as a substitute. Ever wondered why most liberals, conservatives, engineer types, hippies all share group beliefs? They don’t all start out the same. But once you subscribe to one corner of the pattern the rest makes ‘perfect sense’- it absolves you from having to actually experience anything. Pattern thinking allows you to ‘know’ what is important because it is part of the pattern. If you subscribe to a conservative pattern you may ask yourself are state schools any good? The answer will be no- you’ll ‘just know’ this is true. But actually when sceptics take time to visit a variety of state schools they find they are often very good and teachers can be found everywhere who are excellent. If you are liberal you will ‘automatically know’ that someone who bad mouths immigrants is a ‘bad person’. But why? They may even be joking at your expense and may even be working with immigrants in their job and trying to help some actual immigrants in the flesh instead of just talking about them in general. Which is how you know you are in a form of pattern thinking- you ‘know’ something without any experience and you react to its generalised form rather than anything real and specific.

An 'experiential net' is different from pattern thinking. Definite experiences- and most importantly, the experiences of others- together with factual information (which is only given a value through experience) combine to form a sort of net that can be thrown over something newly encountered. It includes the need for noting ones intuitive responses. It includes learning strategies such as 'submit to the discipline, then master it'. The net is a learning approach not a way of turning 'other' into 'same'- which is all that academia does.

The object of a polymathic method is to get at the truth. By using multiple approachs it aims to avoid the pitfalls of a single viewpoint. If it can lift 'knowing' from meaning 'book based academic knowledge only' then a real step has been taken.

 

 

Thursday
Mar192015

the simple and the subtle

Broadly speaking, formal, ‘public’, or, if you like, ‘modern’, life presents things as significant the louder more shocking and in your face they are; it also presents things that are super complicated as being more significant than that which is very simple. 

But I wonder if the opposite is true: that life is better appreciated by looking for, and showing a preference for, the simple and by being better attuned to the subtle.

When people start aikido they quickly get into very complicated discussions about foot placement and angles and such like. The real masters tend to say the same things again and again: it’s all about stance, for example. After a while you realise it isn’t the actual words that matter so much as the importance you attach to them (if that makes sense). The better you get at aikido the more importance you attach to something seemingly very simple that is ignored by a beginner who prefers more complicated (an by implication, truer) explanations.

Becoming more aware, building awareness builds an appreciation of subtleties. All wine tasters know this. Having the courage to stick with the simple also helps. I wonder if a preference for over-complication is a dry intellectual substitute for subtlety.

Monday
Mar162015

Arabeye Media Monitoring

I have been most impressed with this new service reporting on arab social media and focusing on somewhat overlooked news http://www.arabeyemedia.org.uk/

Saturday
Mar142015

New Statestman review of Prank book

This came out this week in the New Statesman...somehow I never get around to saying how much I love public pranks- Virginia Woolf dressing as an Abyssinian Prince and visiting a Royal Navy battleship comes to mind, as does Jaroslav Hasek sending fake science reports full of learned references to the Czech version of Nature. Private pranks are practical jokes...which aren't as much fun for some reason..maybe because the crime is never victimless- or the victim is us- or the joker is a self-righteous git...not sure, anyway here is the article:

Click here

Friday
Mar132015

nano adventures

My esteemed fellow adventurer Alastair Humphreys has made a great job of popularising micro adventures, yet only the other day I thought- some times the day is so short there isn't even enough time for a microadventure! Of course it's largely psychological, one should make more time, de-stress, take it easy etc etc...and yet- sometimes all you need is a nano-adventure. This is the tiniest possible division of adventure possible- there is none smaller. A nano adventure is so potentially short, time doesn't really come in into it- it is pure experience. Here are a few I've had: walking across Corfe common knowing it was Enid Blyton's choice for Kirrin Common in the Famous Five books; brewing up in the lee of an outdoor loo in a storm using an M kettle (I know, it takes all sorts); nightwalk from Chapman's rocks to pub in Worth Matravers; climbing a dartmor tor in the snow wearing inappropiate and very slippy DM shoes; spending two hours at midnight in a vigil reading the Kasidah at the grave of Richard Burton on the 100th anniversary of his death; circumnavigating Portland Bill on foot; sit on top canoeing through rock arches near Salcombe; sneaking under a locked door at the bent Pyramid at Dahshur; finding a horned viper 3km from Cairo's ring road; fishing for grey mullet using a hazel stick and a bent pin and bread paste; locating a standing stone on a map and finding it; driving through flooded roads with water coming in under the doors; tickling trout; running the undercliff at Lyme Regis; walking across stepping stones on any river you choose...simple stuff that takes less than an afternoon- start looking for potential nano-adventures in your life!

Tuesday
Mar102015

Tibetan monks raise body temperature

 

In Magic and Mystery in Tibet Alexandra David-Neel talks about the incredible ability of certain Tibetan monks. They are reputedly able to raise their body temperature at will. She writes of monks draped in wet sheets at -35 degrees C and great gouts of steam rising from the wet cloths as their superheated bare torsos turned the icy garment into something like a steaming pudding cloth. Other travellers have also made passing mention of this technique but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Western science was able to catch up with Eastern expertise.

Greater knowledge of Tibet and her monks- whether they live on the Indian side or the Tibetan side of the border, indicated that the monks involved were practitioners of gtum-mo- (pronouced ‘dumo’) a form of breathing found in the teachings of the Tibetan Vajrayana. This was derived originally from the Indian Buddhist Vajrayana tradition.

Gtum-mo is a combination of breathing exercises and meditative concentration. The basic form involves performing ‘the vase’- this is a breathing technique where air is brought deep into the lower abdominal region and held there, making a pot belly or ‘vase’ of the stomach. There is a forceful version of this where the air is sucked in, held and then expelled with great vigour. There is a also a gentler version where the transitions are far less marked and the intake and exhalation of breath, though deep, is gentle.

Accompanying the breathing are two varieties of meditation. For the forceful breathing (which is used to ramp up body temperature quickly from ‘cold’ so to speak) the meditation is to picture internally an inner flame, something like a Bunsen burner flame, roaring hot, that starts at the navel and shoots up to the crown of the head. You have to imagine that flame in all its heat, roaring noise and light burning up through the core of the body.

For the more gentle variant of body temperature manipulation the mental image is of a surging sensation of bliss and rising warmth throughout the body.

In January 1982 Professor Herbert Benson[1] reported in the august pages on Nature on his studies into what he termed gTum-mo yoga. Conducted in the Dharamsala monastery of the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, three monks were able to raise the temperature of their fingers and toes by a creditable 8.3 degrees C. This is rather impressive- certainly it would make the difference between frost bite and frost nip or merely coldness. If climbers and others who venture into highly refrigerated environs could learn these techniques many digits might be saved.

In 2002 Harvard Gazette reported 2 monks- of Western origin and living in Normandy- who were able to raise their body temperature using gtum-mo techiniques.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that a more comprehensive set of tests and a general survey of previous attempts  was made. In the previous thirty years it had been found that raising peripheral temperatures- of hands and feet- could be made quite easily through various easily taught meditations, and, in fact, by training people to use simple biofeedback techniques. Typically a digital thermometer would be connected to sensors on the subject’s hands and feet. By sensing a greater awareness of the temperature of the hand or foot, whilst avoiding trying to force it up, the temperature could be made to rise as long raising temperatures was what was on the agenda.

But complications entered the field when it was found that raising core body temperature did not accompany raising peripheral temperatures. One theory suggested that various forms of muscular contraction served to raise hand temperature.

In the 2013 tests Dr Maria Kozhevnikov and her colleagues[2] showed that unlike biofeedback results, gtum-mo genuinely raised core body temperatures- so much so that the wet sheet dried by body heat alone was shown to be fact not fiction.

Kohevnikov located one of the very few nunneries where a body temperature raising ceremony exists. This was at the 4200 metre high Gebchak convent close to Nangchen in Qinghai province. The ceremony was held annually and the nuns participating would wear only a short skirt, shoes or sandals with a wet cotton sheet draping the rest of their body. It would be performed in winter when air temperatures would be dry but -25 to -30 degrees C. Anyone who has dipped their hand in water at these temperatures will know the extreme discomfort involved, and how hard it is to regain skin warmth after drastic colling like this has happened. Ranulph Fiennes dipped his hand in icy sea water to release a sunken sledge and did not dry and warm the hand immediately. He later remarked that these two minutes of carelessness cost him the finger tips of that hand. I’ve swept a frosty tent surface with a bare hand at -15 degrees C and found the hand still cold even ten minutes later after wearing a mitten. Such anecdotal evidence makes even the existences of the sheet ceremony all the more impressive.

The nuns were aged between 25 and 52 years old and some performed the forceful variety of gtum-mo and some the more gentle kind. It was reported that the forceful kind could not be sustained for very long, so it was used to warm the body up, after which the gentle type would be used when walking and wearing the wet sheet.

Nuns raised their peripheral temperatures easily by 1.2 to 6.8 degrees C. More importantly the forceful type of gtum-mo raised core body temperature by over a degree. One woman was able to get it higher and only stopped because she felt uncomfortable. Another stopped because she was developing fever symptoms.

If peripheral temperature raising results in a lowering of core body temperature then using techniques to merely warm the hands might actually hasten hypothermia. However, if, as the gtum-mo tests show, you can raise core body temperature and peripheral temperature you have the means to withstand great cold- as the nuns show during their freezing sheet ceremony.

As a control a group of westerners who had some experience of yoga or meditation or kung fu, were taught the gtum-mo technique. Very quickly they were able to show similar effects of raised body temperature as the much more experienced Tibetan nuns. Something that appears mysterious and oriental turns out to be rather ordinary after all. I for one will certainly be using it when I next find myself shaking with cold in some Himalayan fastness.

 

 



[1] Herbert Benson “Body Temperature changes during the practice of gTum-mo yoga” Nature 295 21 Jan 1982

[2] Maria Kozhevnikov March 29 2013 PLoS ONE “Neurocognitive and somatic components of Temperature Increase during g-Tummo meditation”.