What the Dickens?

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Along with a colleague today, we took a small group of people from our office around the Hatton Garden and Smithfields area on a ‘Wellbeing Walk’ (as part of our Wellbeing Week activities). The walk had a Dickensian theme, with lots of fun facts about the area, and a good time was had by all.

One thing that came clear to me was that Dickens was a man with a passion for campaigning. He fought for justice in the ‘cruel and harsh’ magistrates courts that operated in the Hatton Garden area, fought to improve the lot of the poor children growing up in the slums around Saffron Hill, campaigned for public executions at Newgate Prison to be carried out behind the prison walls, contributed to the debate around the closure of Smithsfields Market (for live animal slaughter, anyway), and campaigned against the Yorkshire Schools (which he wrote about in Nicholas Nickleby). I suspect this was just scratching the surface of what he got up too.

It got me thinking that I really do need to be doing more in this regard. I must confess to feeling somewhat impotent at times; ‘why would anyone listen to me?’ But then, going back to my post recently about extreme ownership, is not the right attitude at all. It isn’t a case of why would anyone listen, it should be a case of ‘why aren’t you listening to me’? It’s an important realisation to make.

Just be

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I’ve read and listened to a fair few self-help books in my time, and for the most part they were a complete waste of time. Most dwelt on the fact that I was there because of a lack of something; I’m not this, or I haven’t achieved that. Yet, few of these book actually gave helpful advice, and those that did (and I’m only looking at a few people here), gave very similar advice.

That advice boils down to just be. Be the person you want to be. Don’t focus on what you think you don’t have (confidence or patience or some other personality defect). Very few people have bundles of confidence day in, day out. We all have our ups and downs. We all get frazzled and ratty with other people. A lot of us get depressed.

If you do feel the need to go down the self-help route, for whatever reason, I’d strongly recommend Paul McKenna’s material – primarily, because his techniques (mostly based on NLP and CBT) revolve around visualising the person you want to be and stepping into that person. This is a powerful tool. Learn it and use it.

Responsibility

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One thing that has struck me in recent weeks is the idea that for society to work well depends on everyone adopting a level of responsibility that is probably above most people’s comfort zone.

Having read about the concept of Extreme Ownership that comes out of the Navy Seal training (see Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin) I’ve tried to adopt the principle at work. The idea is simple, take ownership for any all all situations you find yourself in, no shying away, no blaming and pointing fingers if it goes wrong.

Bizarrely, I find it both difficult and easy to do at the same time. Easy, because people are always happy to work with you if you show a positive attitude, but quite hard, because I’m no natural leader, so I do have to put little reminders around my desk to keep me on my toes.

I’m sure I could do it all much better, but it has shown me just how much work it is to keep on your game. I do feel like both I and the team are reaping the rewards for it too.

If everyone in country all upped our game just a little, I suspect life would be much better all round.

Now

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A couple of weeks ago, when some of the company I work for were away for a team meeting in Oxford, the late evening talk turned philosophical. The conversation revolved around spirituality vs. ‘secularism’ (for want to a better word), and the idea that what many perceive as God, or some kind of spiritual agent in their life could just as easily be perceived as the Extended Order in action – whereby ‘coincidences’ appear to happen because you are on the look out for something that just happens to pass by as you were expecting it. The causes of that event are usually so complex that the brain has reduces it down to two things, a) it happened for a reason, there must be someone/thing making it happen, or b) our poor brains could never begin to guess the complexities of what caused the event to happen, it’s all bit of a mystery, but it’s nice it happened then, just when I needed it to.

I’ve touched on all this before, but it struck me this evening that there is a parallel between that debate and the argument of two very good books I’ve read in recent years – The Power of Now by Elkhart Tolle and Clarity by Jamie Smart. Both, I think, argue the same point; that by worrying about future events, or spending too much time in our thoughts obsessing about the future is a waste of time, and that the true way to think is to focus only on the present moment.

I like this idea a lot, and if taken to it’s logical conclusion, can mean that life becomes one walking meditation or prayer. Difficult to maintain, but quite fulfilling if you can pull it off (I rarely achieve anything close to it).

The point is that Echart argues his point from a quasi-religious perspective, Jamie from very much a rationalist/scientific perspective. Both achieve the same result.

As I’ve said before, rational viewpoints and religious viewpoints both emerge within the Extended Order, and people tend to choose one or the other depending on their subconscious biases. Either way, they often end up at the same place, one where the future is not set in stone, but open to chance and the vagaries of randomness.

Many find a future they cannot predict to be terrifying (particularly those of a negative disposition), but really that’s all it will ever be – a terrifying future; the present is rarely scary, and we are usually more than capable of dealing with unpleasant or bad things if they do occur. Take a look around you now and appreciate all that you have. It may not be everything you wanted or even expected, but there is always plenty to be positive about.

Prediction engines

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One of the big ideas from David Eagleman’s book, Incognito, that has really got my mind whirring in the past week or two is the idea that the brain, to a greater extent, is nothing more than a prediction engine.

In fact, it could be argued that what we perceive as ‘now’ is for the most part what our brain thinks now should be. It uses our experience and knowledge to build up an image in our head of what is going on, promoting sounds, sensations and visuals that are a bit out of the ordinary and may require our attention.

For the most part, your brain ignores the vast majority of what is going on around you, because it can fairly accurately guess what comes next.

This is, for me at least, quite a shift from how I assumed the brain works, and possibly explains quite a few strange things – why time seems to pass more quickly as you get older, for one.

When we are young we lack experience, so we are more present and take in more detail as we assess things. As we get older, the brain takes a lot of that processing and deals with it subconsciously, it’s done it so many times. So you plod through the day in a bit of a daze, and time apparently seems to zip by.

It may also possibly explain that horrible thing that seems to become ever present in your life after the age of forty; forgetting what you were doing.

You think, ah, I’ll make a cup of tea, and go through the whole process on auto-pilot, you’ve done it so many times. But if something interrupts the flow of the activity, and you become aware of what you’re doing, it all gets messed up because you can’t immediately access the actions your subconscious has just had you do. “What was I doing?” you say to yourself, feeling a right plum.

I’m no expert, but taken to it’s logical conclusion, maybe some kinds of dementia are not so much the brain mis-firing, as being too effective.

We could be heroes

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I’ve always had issues with two types of novel/film: dystopian and zombies. Zombies, because, well, they’re just silly (not necessarily implausible but, in the most part, daft) and require too much suspension of disbelief to work. Dystopian, because it would have meant that somehow the leadership or population ended up heading down some kind of extreme, totalitatrian route and got lost, which is always a depressing thought for me.

Philip K Dick’s Galactic Pot Healer has such a dystopia; a mainly socialist backdrop of state control, heavy-handed police, ridiculously centralised services (Mr Job!) and faulty technology, which all build up quickly around the hero, Joe. Obviously, Philip K. Dick is a master and knows what he is doing, using the situation to force the hero into decisions he might not ordinarily take, but it often requires a crap situation for a hero to appear.

It still amazes me that even though the ‘good guys’ are often fighting the defenders of such dystopian worldviews (1984, Brave New World, Star Wars, The Matrix etc.), a good proportion of the world today would happily vote for parties and leaders that would take society down into the very depths detailed in many of these stories.

I cannot fathom why. Perhaps the rational mind, from which most of these situations would arise (more control, more centralisation etc.) can’t see beyond the immediate ‘benefits’ of what their worldview would lead to. Or they haven’t learned from the mistakes of countries today ruled by angry army types or socialist megalomaniacs.

I don’t know anyone that would, hand on heart, say, “I want to balls up society so much that it stagnates and everyone is miserable and no-one has any food or money.” And yet people go out and vote for parties that would willingly bring this about.

Perhaps they secretly dream of being the heroes to save people from the very misery they inflict on them?

Digital democracy

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I see the Brexit Party are proposing using an app to help people either vote, or express opinions matters to share with their MP. This is something that I’ve long thought would be a good idea.

I guess it wouldn’t be much use if you were ‘on the payroll’ in government, as it were, but as a backbench MP, it could be a great way of ensuring that you are in tune with your constituency, which, in this day and age of liberal authoritarianism, seems to be notional at best.

There would be issues around security, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with some decent web protocols, programming and a bit of thought.

I keep coming back to the idea of social currency that Corey Doctorow outlined in his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I did come up with a web idea a couple of years ago (and have since discovered it was based on sound actuarial principles), but most people looked blankly at me when I tried to explain it to them.

It worked on the idea that everyone has a limited amount of Whuffies, social currency that they could assign to people they thought were worthy. Depending on various factors, like length of time assigned to a person etc. the Whuffies could increase in value, much as money accumulated interest, and hence your social worth increased or decreased. And in the best tradition of feedback loops and evolution, the system could morph and grow with reciprocal assignations and ways to increase your stock of Whuffies. I think I even worked a little bit of blockchain theory in there to keep it all secure.

I dare say the economists out there would laugh at the idea, and I’m not entirely sold on it myself, but it was a fun little project. I wonder if, in the future, technology will make us more democratic, or will we head down a more socialist route? As with anything useful, technology can be used for good or ill, but in the same way we have an extended order that generally keeps us on the straight and narrow in the real world, it will grow to encapsulate the digital world as well.

Priorities in filmmaking

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I find it quite telling that while the UK film industry, from my limited viewpoint, appears to be bogged down in left-thinking, anti-Brexit, anti-capitalist mind-think*, one of the greatest neo-liberal Presidents of the USA was an ex-actor.

It always struck me as a bit of an over-simplification, but the simple difference between Hollywood and the Indy scene is their attitude to money. Hollywood is a business, it’s run by free-market thinking types keen to return a profit to make their next film with, the Indy scene by ‘artistic’ types, who have no idea about making a commercially viable product, and who balk at the thought of creative such a vulgar thing as a profitable film.

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film by Peter Bisking, as well as being a great read, displays the dichotomy well (even if he does slightly blur the sound marketing and commercial sensibilities of the Weinsteins with their more unpalatable traits, although, I suppose, what else could he do?).

I’ve never really understood the auteur mentality. The age-old struggle of any filmmaker is where the money for the next project is coming from. Money tends to create money, so if you want to prove yourself, make a ‘commercially viable’ film. To do this you have to start with the audience in mind. An inventor worth his salt wouldn’t set about trying to improve society by creating a device that didn’t solve a common problem. The problem that the entertainment industry should be looking to solve is simply that people need entertaining. They just want to be carted off to another place, become someone else for a while and enjoy their suffering and success in a nice comfy chair.

I get the feeling, seeing reports in The Hollywood Reporter about the preponderance for data and spreadsheets at places like Netflix, that the industry is starting to overthink things, but that’s still possibly a better place to be than not thinking about these things.

It’s not easy to make a low-budget, entertaining film, but it’s not impossible. But if you don’t start with the audience in mind, you’ll get nowhere fast.

* Yes, I know not everyone, but a lot of people!

Need to know

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At the moment I’m reading the fascinating book about the brain, Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. One of the big takeaways for me so far is that the Extended Order, to continue briefly on the post from last week, could be seen as a mirror of our unconscious in the outside world. Our subconscious is a vast network of neurons and memories all stored away and relatively inaccessible to our comparatively limited conscious minds. It’s full of rules and regulations on how the body works, much as the Extender Order controls society with its rules and traditions.

The subconscious, and indeed the Extended Order, is so vast there is no way the conscious mind could ever hope to know all that goes on in there. Indeed, even our explicit memories, those we can access readily, tend to be locked up until we need them. And so the brain operates on a need to know basis. As matters arise in our daily life, so we tap into the stores of memories, both implicit (gut feelings) and explicit (autobiographic) memories.

All the time new contexts and situtions present themselves to us and we seek relevant information depending on what we want to know. Hayek argues that this is why trying to control trade/commerce/economics will always fail, as those put in control of trying to order such enterprises can never hope to know all things in all circumstances.

Always better to defer and decentralise to those that can specialiase in specific situations in specific circumstances in more local settings. Making arbitrary, central decisions that try to cover too many different circumstances will always be doomed to fail.

On Screenwriting – Part 3 – How to improve

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Many people say you should read lots of screenplays. I say this is guff advice. Read some for sure, but in my experience, you will always be disappointed. They are nearly always (what I would consider) badly written, particularly the ones they release around awards season ‘for your consideration’, many of which are either verbose early drafts that ‘read’ better to the layman, or are just so full of the stuff I’ve told you to avoid above that they will make you cringe and wonder how on earth the film was ever made.

You’re better off trying to write your own version of scenes you like from films to develop your own style. This is also a good way to get into the director’s and editor’s heads. Why did they choose these shots? What do they say? How would you do it differently?

And beyond that, just keep writing. Write, write, write. When you hit a road block, keep writing, even if it’s utter bilge, or work on something else. The more you write, the more the brain is engaged in the process and ideas will present themselves from your subconscious (the little guys downstairs doing their work, as Stephen King says).

Follow the rules in the previous two posts and you’ll be streets ahead of the majority of Hollywood hacks. Unless they read this…