Will Self, Walking; Corporate Bullshit; Enjoyable Daily Living; Science of Learning; Covid Vaccines, by the Numbers; Mesmerising Origami Samurai Warrior
Music: Curtis Mayfield; Melody Gardot
This edition: Will Self on walking; preventing corporate bullshit; what we humans do all day long; the science of learning; vaccine efficacy numbers; origami samurai warrior.
Author Will Self’s lovely tribute to the powers of walking: ‘Forget the Gym: Walking Is the Superior Form of Exercise -Abandon your punishing fitness plan!’ where he argues, goads, suggests, that nothing beats a good walk for attaining your personal ‘true physical and existential salvation’ (I’ll leave you to decide on those…). He also says here that the ‘great virtue of walking as a serious pursuit is that it requires nothing by way of equipment or specialist kit except the comfortable and hard-wearing shoes you already possess.’ This echoes what I’ve written in In Praise of Walking (p 140; US edition here), something that is clear to all walkers: ‘Walking offers the supreme advantage of needing nothing more than a decent pair of shoes, perhaps a raincoat, and little else. If undertaken in regular doses during the day, it provides the small, cumulative and significant positive changes for lung, heart and especially brain health.’ Self is an extraordinary walker - especially of the urban, and at night (something I also love: I’ve posted many of my nightwalking pictures on Instagram).
This has got to be the best title to an academic paper I’ve ever read: ‘Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit’. Here’s the abstract: Many organizations are drowning in a flood of corporate bullshit, and this is particularly true of organizations in trouble, whose managers tend to make up stuff on the fly and with little regard for future consequences. Bullshitting and lying are not synonymous. While the liar knows the truth and wittingly bends it to suit their purpose, the bullshitter simply does not care about the truth. Managers can actually do something about organizational bullshit, and this Executive Digest provides a sequential framework that enables them to do so. They can comprehend it, they can recognize it for what it is, they can act against it, and they can take steps to prevent it from happening in the future. While it is unlikely that any organization will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, this article argues that by taking these steps, astute managers can work toward stemming its flood.’ (emphasis added; original source here).
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt emphasised and amplified the need to distinguish between lies (the deliberate inversion of the truth), and bullshit (the simple indifference to the truth) in his book ‘On Bullshit’. The key claim is straightforward: ‘bullshit is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether their listener is persuaded.’ The confrontation between truth and bullshit is different to the confrontation between truth and lies, or truth and simple error, or misunderstanding, and the tools required are different. Who says philosophy isn’t practical?
Bullshit afflicts more than corporations: states become infected with it too. The psychologist Maria Hartwig and national security professional Mark Fallon have co-authored an important and widely-circulated article: ‘State-Sponsored Bullshit: The Manipulation of American Minds, the Illusion of Freedom, and Why Truth Matters’. The tl,dr: ‘Bullshit is designed to be a trap, but it is a trap one does fall not have to fall into. In fact, piercing through bullshit rather than wading through it merely demands critical thinking, fact-checking, and a familiarity with the concept – it demands a recognition of the age-old wisdom of Sun Tzu, to know thy enemy.’ (but do read the whole piece - if only to see why it required prepublication review by the US Government prior to publication).
Takeaway: when someone says something big, outlandish, something that claims your attention and neural real estate, ask ‘is it true? are they being scrupulous with their sources? have they considered other possibilities? does their income depend on their saying something that pleases someone powerful? does their saying it bind them ever closer to a group they derive social standing and identity from?’ All tough questions, but the age we are in demands no less.
How do people across the world spend their time and what does this tell us about living conditions? Lovely piece from Our World in Data, giving a comparative perspective on what we do all day (and night) long: ‘We spend the most time working and sleeping; and paid work, housework, leisure, eating and sleeping take together 80-90% of the 1440 minutes that we all have available every day. But if we look closely, we also see some important differences. Consider sleeping, for example. From this sample of countries, South Koreans sleep the least – averaging 7 hours and 51 minutes of sleep every day. In India and the US, at the other end of the spectrum, people sleep an hour more on average.’ (emphasis added; caveat - I wouldn’t have expected those sleep data differences - they seem a little high compared to smartphone data).
And what do we like and hate doing? ‘We see that the most enjoyed activities involve rest or leisure activities such as eating out, sleeping, going to sports events, playing computer games or attending cultural performances. The activities receiving the lowest ratings include doing school homework, looking for a job, or doing housework.’
Sleep is very highly ranked as an enjoyable activity!
Takeaway: we have too little time to waste! I mean that in two ways: productive downtime, when we can rest, regenerate, and engage in the unfocused thought at the core of creative life; and unproductive uptime, where we are too busy running on the treadmill.
The Science of Learning: Here’s a podcast I did on the science of learning, and how we can improve our tactics regarding learning, especially as applied to exam performance.
I draw largely on what it is the very best book on the science of learning:
It is brilliant from start to finish: a clear and comprehensive explanation of the science of learning, applied to actual humans trying to learn stuff, and longing to make that stuff stick – this book tells you almost **all** you need to know (one caveat - it doesn’t focus on sleep and memory, really – which I discuss it more detail here. Another caveat: it mostly ignores neuroplasticity and learning, and the brain systems responsible for learning and memory - and that’s not a problem. You don’t know how your TV remote control works, do you? You don’t really need to know about the interactions between the cortex, hippocampal formation and anterior thalamus in order to be an effective learner).
I’ll write more on the science of learning in a later newsletter.
Covid vaccines, by the numbers:
(i) A really helpful guide to understanding vaccine efficacy numbers: money quote - ‘Imagine 100 people are ill with Covid-19. “90% efficacy” means if only they’d had the vaccine, on average only 10 would have got ill. Vaccine efficacy is the relative reduction in the risk: whatever your risk was before, it is reduced by 90% if you get vaccinated. There is a lot of confusion about this number: it does not mean there is a 10% chance of getting Covid-19 if vaccinated – that chance will be massively lower than 10%.’ This really is public service journalism at its very best: straightforward, clear and to the point.
(ii) Here on Substack, Emily Oster has a fantastic piece where she considers ‘herd immunity and how we think about policy around vaccines. Then I want to dig into how vaccines might change your family behavior — including the issues around kids.’ She also suggests systematising your thinking around covid risk in terms of a five-component decision process: ‘Frame the question, mitigate risk, evaluate risk, evaluate benefits, decide.’ We need this decision aid everywhere (note: it generalises far beyond covid: think about driving - ‘should I drive this car, although I know the brakes are dodgy?). Even post-vaccine, it does seem likely that covid will be with us for a very long time to come.
Mesmerizing: The folding process for an origami Samurai Warrior, from a single sheet of paper. If you want to lose a few minutes, this is for you.
In what I hope is the theme for this year, Curtis Mayfield sings ‘Move on Up’
Who is Melody referring to?