Rich, +Asshole Syndrome; Productivity; How to Write Fiction & Non-fiction; Reduce Your Chance of Death

Burgess anticipates Brexit (1989); bumble bee flight paths; Diana Krall

  1. Why Are Rich People So Mean? Insightful and important thinking from Christopher Ryan at Wired on never having enough, in a world where many don’t have enough. The core problem: “…as a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases.”

    But there are potential working cures for the rich, +asshole, syndrome…

    Firstly, try to have some personal insight into how your behaviour is seen by others: ‘anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated’ (!). Who, Mr Smithers apart, loves or even likes, Monty Burns?

    And, secondly, ‘small psychological interventions, small changes to people’s values, small nudges in certain directions, can restore levels of egalitarianism and empathy,” said Piff. “For instance, reminding people of the benefits of cooperation, or the advantages of community, cause wealthier individuals to be just as egalitarian as poor people.”

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    Takeaway: if you’re rich, hang out with a larger reference group - one with people who are less well-off than you, and remember we’re all in this together. It will help inoculate you against rich+asshole syndrome.

  2. When Does Work Actually Get Done? The tl,dr: ‘If we're going to be precise about it, work gets done at 11AM on a Monday in October. At all other times of day, we're basically slacking from our most productive’ (see graph at top).

    Takeaways: Of course, this analysis confuses output with productivity, and measures time at the laptop as ‘productivity’. Truth be told, downtime is just as much a part of productive life as output time. You need to sleep on it (memory consolidation and problem solving proceed during sleep), you need to talk about about, you need to forget about it for a while, you need to spend time away from screens reading about it; you need to exercise on it, you need to gaze out the window in an unfocused fashion. You need to slack off in order to be productive!

  3. How to Write Non-fiction. I’m always fascinated by what is sometimes called a writer’s process - how they go about the writing of their books. There are so many methods - but, in the end, a book must emerge. But how do differing writers actually write?

    I came across this eye-popping piece on the late historian Tony Judt’s writing process. His wife, Jennifer Homans, writes that ‘He was a great writer because he was always fine-tuning his words, craftsmanlike, to this inner pitch. He had a system for writing, and the essays in this book were all written according to the same method, even those from 2008 to 2010 when he was ill and quadriplegic. First, he read everything he could on a subject, taking copious notes by hand, on lined yellow legal pads. Then came the outline, color-coded A, B, C, D, with detailed subcategories: A1 i, A1 ii, A2 iii, etc. (more legal pads). Then he sat for hours on end, monklike, at the dining room table assigning each line in his notes, each fact, date, point, or idea, to a place in the outline. Next—and this was the killer and the key—he retranscribed all of his original notes in the order of the outline. By the time he sat down to write the essay, he had copied, recopied, and memorized most of what he needed to know. Then, door closed, eight-hour days of writing back to back until the piece was done (small breaks for marmite sandwiches and strong espresso). Finally—“polishing.”

    Takeaway: this is a remarkable insight into the discipline applied to writing practice - and how, for want of a better word, scrupulous was his writing practice. Judt is not aiming for some ineffable, lyrical, beauty in his writing, or some particular wordy style. Instead, Judt writes out of his scrupulous research, rather than simply word dumping whatever happens to be in his head at any particular time. This intense discipline, if more widely observed, would lead to a lot more honesty in our public lives (and a lot less nonsense spoken in the public square).

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  4. How to Write Fiction. Two (sometime) favourite novelists of mine, Anthony Burgess and Graham Greene, were very different in their approaches to writing.

    I have a signed (but, sadly, not personally-dedicated), copy of Anthony Burgess’s second volume of memoirs - ‘Little Wilson and Big God, Being the Confessions of Anthony Burgess’. He claimed he had an early-life misdiagnosis with a seemingly-terminal brain tumuor, and wanting to leave his wife a source of income, decided to be a writer.

    He describes his writing process thus: ‘"I got on with the task of turning myself into a brief professional writer. The term professional is not meant to imply a high standard of commitment and attainment: it meant then, as it still does, the pursuit of a trade or calling to the end of paying the rent and buying liquor. I leave the myth of inspiration and agonised creative inaction to the amateurs. The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included. I discovered that, if I started early enough, I could complete the day’s stint before the pubs opened... Two thousand words a day means a yearly total of 730,000. Step up the rate and, without undue effort, you can reach a million. This ought to mean ten novels of 100,000 words each. This quantitative approach is not, naturally, to be approved. And because of hangovers, marital quarrels, creative deadness induced by the weather, shopping trips, summonses to meet state officials, and sheer torpid gloom, I was not able to achieve more than five and a half novels of very moderate size in that pseudo-terminal year. Still, it was very nearly E.M. Forster’s whole long life’s output.’ (emphasis added; Paris Review interview with Burgess here; and here’s a YouTube of an interview with Burgess on his writing practice).

    Burgess was astonishingly prolix, knocking out novels, reviews, even musical symphonies, all the way to end of his life. I have a faded memory of seeing Burgess wandering about in a small bookshop once, a few years before his death (or, at least, I think it was him - I was too star-struck to go closer). My courage failed me, and I just looked on at a distance. (I had a similar experience with Kingsley Amis too in a different, small, bookshop - he was ready to sign books for a non-existent crowd - it was before lunch, and there was nobody present. I watched him swig an early-day whiskey, thinking ‘no, no, no’!)

    By contrast, Graham Greene was much less prolix compared to Burgess, producing an exact word count per day, as Michael Korda observed: ‘I observed Graham (as he had asked me to call him) at work. An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, "That's it, then. Shall we have breakfast?" I did not, of course, know that he was completing "The End of the Affair," the controversial novel based on his own tormenting love affair, nor did I know that the manuscript would end, typically, with an exact word count (63,162) and the time he finished it (August 19th, 7:55 a.m., aboard Elsewhere). Greene's self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute.’

    These are such disciplined writing practices. I’m less disciplined than either Burgess or Greene. I write until I run out of words, or I’m too tired, or have to go make the dinner, or whatever. And then to recharge for the next bout of writing - I read something by someone else, edit what I’ve previously written, sleep, listen to music, occasionally binge-watch something, talk, chat, walk - lots and lots of walking! And, of course, coffee (but no more than three cups per day!).

    I often think being an academic is a little being a journalist - you have to write lots (research grants, journal articles, end of grant reports, etc., etc.), to very exacting deadlines, with a very precise word-count and page limit, and you expect to be brutalised by peer review on a regular basis. But it is good practice for writing.

    Takeaways: want to be writer? Then, the advice is: just write, lots; then edit, lots; read, lots; be disappointed, lots; never wait to be inspired, just get going. Rinse and repeat. Inspiration takes practice. As Burgess says above: ‘I leave the myth of inspiration and agonised creative inaction to the amateurs. The practice of a profession entails discipline…

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  5. Reduce Your Chance of Death. Two studies, one famous, one new. The key? Changing your behaviour - get up, and out, and moving - but you knew that anyway…

    The famous study: Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Very large scale indeed: ‘416,175 individuals (199,265 men and 216,910 women) participated in a standard medical screening programme in Taiwan between 1996 and 2008, with an average follow-up of 8·05 years (SD 4·21)’.

    Findings: ‘Compared with individuals in the inactive group, those in the low-volume activity group, who exercised for an average of 92 min per week (95% CI 71-112) or 15 min a day (SD 1·8), had a 14% reduced risk of all-cause mortality (0·86, 0·81-0·91), and had a 3 year longer life expectancy. Every additional 15 min of daily exercise beyond the minimum amount of 15 min a day further reduced all-cause mortality by 4% (95% CI 2·5-7·0) and all-cancer mortality by 1% (0·3-4·5). These benefits were applicable to all age groups and both sexes, and to those with cardiovascular disease risks. Individuals who were inactive had a 17% (HR 1·17, 95% CI 1·10-1·24) increased risk of mortality compared with individuals in the low-volume group’ (emphasis added).

    The new study: Metabolic Architecture of Acute Exercise Response in Middle-Aged Adults in the Community - exercise is good for you (see famous study above or this), but why is this? Presumably, exercise stimulate the production of molecules that are in someway good for your body and brain health. And this is what this study finds: in ‘a large sample of community-dwelling individuals, acute exercise elicits widespread changes in the circulating metabolome. Metabolic changes identify pathways central to cardiometabolic health, cardiovascular disease, and long-term outcome’ (emphasis added).

    Takeaways: exercise (and physical activity more generally) is really, really good for you! Exercise turns on metabolic pathways that strengthen and repair brain and body. Exercise fosters resilience in all sorts of ways that extend your life - three years, in the case of the famous study above. And these are healthier years! Any amount of exercise above the most sedentary works, but more is generally better (up to some threshold). So, get up out of your seat every 15 or 20 mins, and try and get about 5k steps per day more than you usually get.

Diversions

Anthony Burgess anticipates brexit and English nationalism in 1989 (at about 16 mins in - pity he wasn’t asked to elaborate a bit more)!

Like bees? Who doesn’t? How about a sped-up radar track of a first orientation flight of a worker bumblebee? (from this paper: ‘Life-Long Radar Tracking of Bumblebees’ by Woodgate et al.)

Music

Diana Krall, ftw.

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