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intelligence is over rated

An interview in New Scientist this week caught my eye: an Artificial Intelligence researcher casually began answering a question with “I didn’t want to conflate intelligence with skill…” It set me thinking: what if intelligence CANNOT be divorced from skill? What if it’s impossible to separate the two? Take an IQ Test- a measure of raw intelligence- look at how many skills it requires: reading- fast and accurately, counting- fast and accurately, taking on data in a conventional way (ie. don’t be too lateral with an IQ question), physical skill in holding a pen and ticking boxes. These skills may be taken for granted in the west- so much so that they are invisible to a phd student- but they are, in fact, hard won skills requiring someone to have spent a fair amount of time sitting down and acquiring them. What if IQ measures not intelligence but skill? 

Science drives wedges between things that are normally joined in order to generate new insights. Like a diamond cutter the scientist turns the gem of his study over and over looking for the ‘fault lines’. These are the places of least resistance- get it wrong and the diamond will shatter. I spoke to a geneticist earlier this year and he told me scientific research was all about asking ‘the right questions, formulating the question in the right way’. In other words, choosing where to drive that wedge in.

Some places admit the wedge easily. It makes sense to separate the weight of a ball when you drop it, from its size- as Galileo did. From this division Newton went on to derive his classical laws of physics. Some wedges work for a while- highlighting the gene generated vast amounts of science; but it now looks as if the cell is the real cornerstone- epigenetic feedback systems have made the gene look increasingly less important.

Maybe the scientific fraternity will discover that making ‘intelligence’ an isolated and comprehensible concept to drive psychological research was a bad choice to make. Maybe 'intelligence' should be replaced with notions of varying types of skill.

Almost the first job I had was putting up fences around building sites in Birmingham. It was job for skivers as the council paid our wages to keep us off the dole. The foreman was an Irishman who’d spent his life doing real building work and he tried in vain to get us to work hard. He once took a pick out of my hand and in a few quick effective blows broke up the concrete below allowing a hole to be dug. Lads mocked him (behind his back) because he couldn’t read or write but this man had real intelligence in the way he worked. Put an Oxford graduate (me) next to him and I was the one who looked unintelligent.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist but he used to call himself ‘physics smart’ acknowledging his inability in other areas.

Psychologists have spent over a century and a lot of ink trying to define intelligence- maybe the intelligent thing to do would be to see that concepts of intelligence without ‘skill’, which has a qualitative side that can’t be given a number, are meaningless.

Lots of things become clearer. I have a friend who is brilliant at maths but made two huge marriage blunders resulting in great unhappiness. He’s about to make his third. He has maths skill: remembers patterns, likes numbers, can do arithmetic in his head- and as a result has a high IQ- but he doesn’t have people skill, can’t tell a good person for him from a bad one. Normally we’d call him one of those super-intelligent people who are also stupid. But I think he just has skills that he has over and under developed.

Learning ‘skills’ have been mocked for being too ‘basic’, but perhaps they were simply ill thought out when presented for judgement. Real learning skills such as a good memory, the ability to get ‘into’ a new subject, the ability to find your own way into a subject- these are all vital sub-skills that relate to the acquisition of further skills, some of which will earn you the soubriquet ‘intelligent’.

But we all know what an intelligent fellow is don’t we? That’s the problem. An intelligent chap is someone with a skill for analysis, a quick logical mind and doesn’t make the same mistake twice in the area under consideration. It is simply a conflation of several skills- all of which can be taught and honed.

When my kids were at the British School in Cairo I remember one child who had been been written off as utterly dim. But then one day a maths teacher noticed the girl had got a very hard maths question right- and all the others wrong. Was she cheating? The girl was of Indian origin and her English wasn’t very good. And her handwriting was appalling. More to the point she was very slow at forming letters and numbers- which later she found hard to read. It was only by chance that she managed to copy down a maths question right. No wonder she got so many wrong. But the real breakthrough came when they saw how she held her pen- in a way that made it impossible to write fast. She lacked a single crucial skill. The school gave her an intensive course that remedied this- and her improvement was amazing. Her ‘maths intelligence’ was dependent on a physical skill- holding a pen.

We talk about ‘street smart’- someone who can look after themselves in a non-institutional environment, someone who knows the ‘ways of the world’. His or her intelligence cannot be divorced from their skill at reading people and situations.

When people say “I’m not that intelligent” they almost always mean they were poor at maths at school and not brilliant at any other academic subject. Sometimes you meet people who announce “It took me until I was 30 to find out I was intelligent after all.” Both are being played by a bogus concept. It is better to think of life as a place where certain skills are needed. You may find you have some painlessly, having been to a school and university, others you may need to work hard for. But unlike ‘intelligence’- which in its fairytale world is a constant, something you are born with, skills acquisition never ends, and skills can become rusty with lack of use. 


new york times review of red nile

Review of Red Nile in New York Times this Sunday...HERE


Going higher: altitude, breathing and success

I was counting my steps as I went higher towards the 5000 metre Goeche-La Himalayan pass. I wasn’t walking that slowly but I found after 100 paces I had to stop. OK then, I would count 100 paces then rest and then keep going. After a short while I was down to 80 paces, then 60 before I had to rest. I wasn’t breathing that hard- altitude isn’t like that- your WHOLE body is starving for oxygen (even at this relatively ‘low’ altitude people feel it) but you just CAN’T go any faster- a leaden feeling in the legs is just as debilitating as the feeling of being puffed out. Your body knows there is enough air- so you’re not panting like a dog or someone who’s been holding their breath- what it doesn’t ‘know’, at first, is that this air is different and only has a third as much oxygen as usual. So it keeps on breathing as normal but registers the difference as headaches, nausea, odd body pains, yawning, increased flatulence- general system upsets. Over a few days the body (which is even dumber than the emotions) finally ‘get’s it’. The body’s systems realign. Your guts calm down. The lungs start breathing more deeply allowing the heart to stop beating so fast. More red blood cells are produced. It is this highly subtle interplay between heart, lungs, digestive and excretory systems that makes altitude such a hard one for modern medicine to pin down. Sometimes super fit young people are poleaxed by altitude while old unfit smokers have no problem. But if you look at the thing from a more general viewpoint certain things emerge:

Overweight people have a harder time than thin people

Fit people with mountain experience do better than fit people without mountain experience.

People with big packs do worse than people with no pack.

But the two key features of doing well at altitude are behavioural: don’t be a hero, and, act like a tortoise rather than a hare.

We all know the heroes on the hills; they carry massive rucksacks, often with other people’s gear in them too, just to show how strong they are. They do unnecessary excursions, wear heavy boots and crampons on flat snow and run downhill when they can. The heroes are often among the first victims of altitude sickness.

Heroes are also temperamentally unsuited to being a tortoise. It’s far more glamorous to being haring off ahead (and then getting that sneaky rest while the others catch up)- then haring off again. But as I was to find- the periods of haring get shorter and shorter- until you are resting as much as you are climbing or ascending.

Moving at altitude is fundamentally different to operating at sea level- you don’t recover quickly. You can’t have a quick rest and be good as new. You’re depleted every time you have to rest and won’t recover until the next day or even later. You have to be sly and cunning, husband ALL your resources and never waste any energy. And you have to be  tortoise.

Being a tortoise doesn’t mean you have to be super slow- though you may be. It simply means a 100% change in the way you approach moving at altitude. Forget pace, distance, time- forget all that usually motivates you in walking and running and think SOLELY of breath. The tortoise goes exactly as fast as he can without needing to stop, without his breath rate rising and his pain rate rising so much that he has to stop. You have to feel that the rate you are walking at you can carry on forever. In addition, when you get to a flat or downhill bit you have to resist the urge to hurry up, instead, you must act like someone who has switched out of gear on a hill, freewheeling to the bottom- going at a similar speed to other downhill drivers but not using any energy to go faster just because you can. Instead of wasting that downhill energy by running on ahead, maintain an only slightly increased pace and save energy.

I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about being ‘sly with the river’- how you have to use every advantage you have when ascending a fast river. The same is true about moving at altitude- carry the lightest pack you can, or better- a bum bag or no pack at all. Forget lugging tons of water- hydrate heavily at the start and end of each day. Leave the extra lenses behind. Don’t wear monster boots, use approach shoes. Some altitude experts use cleated shoes even on glaciers, waiting until the last possible moment to switch into big boots and crampons- remember Nanda Devi (2nd highest mountain in India, 23rd highest peak in the world) was climbed without crampons because the bag containing them was lost. The sly ones, who may look like speed merchants, carry less weight and save all the energy they can.

But the main thing, for a beginner like me, was learning the ‘tortoise pace’, learning to key everything into whether I thought I could continue forever at this pace or not. And slowing down even to a crawl the minute I felt my breathing and heart rate soaring- say on the very steep bits.

As I approached the pass I still hadn’t learned. I was resting and resting more and more often. But when I arrived the guide had some bad news- the real pass was about a half kilometre further ahead- down 200 metres, up another 300, down 200 more and up another 400. I was crushed, but when the guide suggested I wait here until the party returned some inner pigheadedness rebelled. Bugger it- I was going to get to 5000 metres like everyone else.

This time I fixated solely on breathing rate. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop and rest and I knew by now that those who kept going without rests always overtook the ‘resters’ sooner or later. I didn’t need to worry how slowly I was going as long as I never stopped. And sure enough, as the final pass emerged, I was right behind the guide- who had been stopping with the front runner (who needed rests).

In that final ascent I ‘pushed myself’ in the sense that I could feel my legs getting a muscle burn- but that didn’t matter as long as I maintained the breathing rate. The breath rate – as many meditation systems proclaim – is the key to the whole thing.

Days after this Himalayan excursion to a Sikkim pass, I read of a fascinating character in a book entitled Running for their Lives recommended by my good friend Ramsay Wood. Arthur Newton was an Englishman living in South Africa in the 1920s when he decided to take up distance running at the age of 40. Four years later he was the holder of every amateur running record from 29 miles to 100 miles. Mere marathons were too short for him. Newton’s secret was that he was tortoise. His average speed was often 7mph- which is why a marathon was too short for him- but not many people can keep up 7mph for 13 hours without a single break. Newton’s whole training method revolved around forgetting the opposition, forgetting speed and simply aiming for a pace that he could maintain hour after hour without a break. A pace that would enable him to climb any hill without stopping and walking, because in a very long race it is the breaks that ruin your overall time.

Newton smashed all the distance records of his time by approaching running from a completely different perspective. Instead of treating a long race as an extension of a short race he treated it as a completely different beast, one that required energy saving as a key factor. Just as formula one drivers must worry as much about fuel and tyres as overtaking- unlike a drag racer- so, too, Newton realised that maintaining pace, as long as it was the right pace, was way more important for conserving energy. And energy conservation- which is repaid as second, third and fourth 'winds' is more useful than speed the longer you go for, the higher you attempt to climb.

If you want to go higher or further then the message is simple: treat the enterprise as one of energy conservation, slyness, maintaining your breath rate as much as one of power, determination and fitness. Ask yourself of any enterprise; how can I structure this so that I can keep going forever? It may reveal some surprising answers. 



adventure my ally

A long gap between my last post and this, reason being I have been travelling the length and breadth of the Himalayas for a new book I am writing...and it has been incredible. I don't always start a trip with a good vibe, often I am wary and full of foreboding, which all goes the minute you get on the plane. This time was no different, and yet by pure luck and happenstance I've managed to do far more than I anticipated- from trekking the Kuari Pass at the foot of Nanda Devi to meeting former headhunters in Nagaland to crossing into Burma to drinking tea in the Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong (former residents Alastair Crowley and Alexandra David Neele) to walking over the 5000 metre Goeche La Pilgrimage in Sikkim to where I am now- at the Tawang Monastery 3000 metres up and about 30km from Tibet. Enough shameless boasting; I am soon going back to Cairo so what I have gleaned? Many things, which I shall unpack over the next several months; for now I am revelling in what I call the 'travel grinder'. Over time you get ground smoother by travel, your prejudices and ideas seem more like mere thoery and puffery, you get to living without 'having a view'. you naturally have to exercise intuition and best of all you have to start learning again- or else the grinder will get you but not in a nice way. Crammed into shared Sumo taxis going down atrocious roads you see how much you can strip away that you thought was 'you', was essential if not assumed. It's a lot about getting rid of baggage, seeing yourself in unfamiliar situations or reflected in your default reactions, the grinder wears it all away. Not over yet so luck still required, but if ever I needed reminding that solo adventure travel renews and reorients this last 2 1/2 months has proved it.



'it is always dangerous to be reasonable with stupid people'


Mario Puzo


Thinking in patterns

As Idries Shah wrote in The Sufis, 'the average person thinks in patterns'. Different cultures have different patterns, travel between cultures and the patterns begin to emerge. Whenever we react without taking a step back, whenever we attempt to think sequentially or !in the correct way' we are usually thinking in some age old pattern, or even a new one. Such patterns reflect no doubt well worn circuits in the brain, rat runs of thought worn in through repetition and rewards, social and material. But the real thing is to evade these thought rails and live intuitively. 

We know that 'masters, such as aikido masters and wine experts use fewer brain cells to perform similar tasks over time. This frees up neural space for greater and greater appreciations of subtlety. At some point a mysterious flipping point is reached when they suddenly 'know' what to do without having to reason it out. You might argue that the patterns have simply become so internalised they aren't noticed anymore, but I think tHat is a side point. As a writer I know the feeling of using my intuition rather than logic as a guide, but it only came after many years of grafting away and relying on rules and reasonable procedures. The point comes when you decide to trust your intuition. It's really as simple as that. Faced by having to navigate a canoe down powerful Rapids I had no time to dither. Instant decisions were required and I was certainly no master of paddling. But I found that necessity forced me to trust myself and the river was descended safely.

Greed, distraction, fear, expectation, all these things cripple intuition. Necessity, meaning situations where only intuition works (and not mere guesswork) is not so easy to engineer in routine life. Get out of the routine then, but also start running less important areas of your life on intuition. Get used to feeling a strange reluctance to do certain things, which can only be sharpened by spending some time doing stuff you hate and comparing strange reluctance with laziness. Often there is no warning bell, just a clean transparent feeling that one course of action is Mildly better Than another. But in the end you have to trust.

Trust your intuition, it's as simple as that. I find it's useful to lose the idea that intuition delivers 'hole in one' results, spot on every time. Well we don't live in a perfect world. Broadbrush success is all you should need or expect. But play enough good golf and you can expect the odd hole in one, a byproduct rather than an aim of the enterprise.


You have to be sly with the river

Joe Vermillion was a Chipewyan Indian I met on the Peace River about twelve years ago. I was engaged, then, in the seemingly impossible task of paddling against the 8mph current of that river- which was over a 1000 miles long. Joe said we could do it, but we had to be sly with the river. We had to use the back channels, the places near the bank where the current was slack, the reverse currents you get behind obstructions; we had to tow the boat when the bank was clear, we had to sail when there was a good tailwind. If we tried to tough it out, battle headlong into the current like heroes we’d last about a week. I saw that when I started. We had to be sly with the river.

I was thinking today it is the best advice for any adventure. And maybe for life, especially for long drawn out and difficult tasks. Use every advantage, every place where the current reverses for whatever reason. Even when things are against you, when you’re battling against everything you can make progress, bit by bit, looking for the easiest route, the openings. You have to be sly with the river.