Tag Archives: Bad Ideas

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

If you need a machine to work your abs you’re doing it wrong

There is a never ending supply of new exercise machines that are supposed to build miracle abs. The truth, however, is that they’re virtually all gimmicks and completely unnecessary.

You don’t need any machines to work your abs. None. So turn off the Shopping Channel and get on the floor and work those abs. In the time you’ve made the call and ordered one of those miracle ab machines you could have pumped out 2-3 sets of cross body mountain climbers. You could have done a 3 sets of 30s of RKC planks*.

Part of the problem behind these ab machines and marketing in general is that they create a false need. You’re made to think that normal exercise is hard and ineffective. Marketing serves to muddy the waters and distract you from finding out what truly works.

The typical ab machine advertisement depicts traditional training as arduous and sometimes dangerous. They’ll show some poor guy or girl straining through crunches and situps and holding their back as if they’ve slipped a disc. Trouble is, the way the abs and core work means you don’t ever have to do crunches (many trainers warn against it — for good reasons) and situps are virtually outlawed in many gyms (there are much safer and effective exercises).

Beyond crunches, back pain and poor posture

Crunches involve pulling the neck forward to isolate the abs. In doing so you’re reinforcing poor posture as well as pushing the lumbar spine into the floor. It’s therefore unsurprising that crunches are used as fodder by marketers to show much easier their ab machine is.

What the core and abs actually do and how to work ’em

Biomechanically, the abs and core generally, have two major functions: core stability and rotational power. It is becoming more apparent that the core’s primary function may in fact be to prevent movement rather than produce it.

For that reason, stability planks are great starter exercises for core development as they can be progressed a number of ways. The logical step from planks on the floor is to move them to a stability ball. Providing an unstable platform for the hands and elbows while in a plank posture will help challenge the core to prevent movement through the hips and thoracic spine.

RKC planks mentioned earlier involve a less stable arm arrangement while pushing the arms forward more to provide a greater challenge to the core. Squeezing the glutes forces the core to activate even further. Here is a demonstration.

Ab rollouts are also great exercises particularly for the anterior core. This can be done with a small roller, stability ball or simulated by walking the hands out while in a kneeling or plank position.

Complement these exercises with side planks and you have a great all round routine that will target the entire midsection.Side planks can also be progressed by raising one or both feet on a couch, bed, chair or stability ball.

Additional exercises:

To this point I’ve ignored some of the best challenges to your core — leg raises. Hanging leg raises being the challenging version and lying variations being a great starting point. Start with bent knees and then move to straight legs for more challenge. Try performing a figure 8 with your feet while lying flat on your back, legs extended. This great variation will hit the core muscles from many different directions providing for more muscle activation.

Mountain climbers are simply plank positions with the legs thrust forward (or diagonally) as if climbing. This article is the best I’ve found on how to perform mountain climbers and how to throw in variations for maximum impact on the core. These can also form the theme of a great conditioning workout.

No machines?

If you think a stability ball or small hand roller count as machines, consider that (a) they’re optional but incredibly worth it, and (b) you can pick them up cheaply. Whereas ab machines are designed purely to cost you as much as possible and only for single use, a stability ball will open up an entire range of workout opportunities, from leg work (hamstring curls) to hyper extensions for the lower back. You can use the ball to challenge your push up.

Whatever you do, don’t fall for an ab machine that is promoted as being the most awesome, ultimate machine ever. It is only the ultimate machine ever until the next piece of junk replaces it.

*RKC — Russian Kettlebell Certification.

Regression: Hamilton drops fluoride from water supply

Fluoridation has been proven time and time again to reduce public health costs and dental problems. So it is with some disgust that I stumbled upon the decision by Hamilton City Council officials to bow to a misguided minority and remove fluoride from the city’s water supply.

There are many pseudoscientific beliefs prevalent in society so I shouldn’t be surprised that the removal of fluoride from Hamilton’s water supply has happened. But I am shocked and I am perplexed. Fluoride naturally exists in water just not in adequate quantities to protect teeth from decay. And for fuck’s sake this is 2013.

So there are several things wrong Hamilton City Council’s decision:

  • Firstly, pandering to a vocal minority clearly misguided and misinformed is not an example of good local governance.
  • The majority of Hamilton’s residents want fluoridated water, so if we’re talking about democratic decisions, the removal of fluoride is a massive fail.
  • Refusing to listen to the people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about is also a bad idea. Surely public health measures should be based on expert opinion (in this case dentists and medical professionals who are aware of the scientific evidence)?
  • Most disgusting of all — the deputy mayor  of Hamilton Gordon Chesterton claims there is a “lack of clear evidence” for the benefits of fluoridation in water. Since when did Mr Chesterton become an expert in the science behind fluoridation and dentistry?

A public official, like say, a deputy mayor, has an ethical obligation to check the facts behind a policy proposal — especially one that affects the health of the people he/she is representing.

Ignorance is a poor substitute for data

Mr Chesterton’s ignorance is being used to push a political agenda and for what? To appease the whingeing from people who reject science? The dropping of fluoridation is a symptom of a greater problem: The anti-scientific intuitions popular today stemming from bad assumptions (“if it’s natural it must be good”) and poorly constructed conspiratorial musings. All of this bad thinking is inevitable in human populations which is why we need science. Turning our backs on the data (or claiming the data doesn’t exist when it does) is problematic and sad really.

“People are entitled to their opinion, just not their own facts.” – Dr Steven Novella

Ignorance is a poor platform for making decisions period — especially when it will affect the health of citizens. We are lucky to live at a time when science is answering more and more questions and solving more and more problems. We turn our backs on science based medicine at our peril.

And despite what the advocates of the fluoride removal say, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that fluoride in water supplies is a massive public health benefit (see list below).

I think we can watch dental health deteriorate in the Hamilton region, and it probably won’t be in the people who are opposed to fluoridation. Instead, it will be people in lower socioeconomic homes who can’t afford dental care, have poor dental hygiene and have diets loaded with sugars.

A massive public policy fail

This is yet another massive public health fail. Massive. The ignorance of a few and a pompous deputy mayor who presumes far more expertise than he has will lead to suffering and more pressure on health services.

Let’s be clear about this — those opposed to health measures based on scientific medicine are the exact opposite of what they claim — they’re the ones turning back the clock on progress to a time when a person’s prospects in health, longevity and quality of life were dire.

In the event Mr Chesterton is reading this, here is the evidence you seem to have imagined doesn’t exist:

The functional fitness revolution

Fitness and health is such a massive industry that the conventional advice is often never questioned. Despite this, a quiet revolution is happening in the fitness industry.

[This is the first in a 2-part series of posts on how the fitness industry has changed and how you can avoid bad advice and hokey marketing gimmicks].

It was bound to happen. After the heyday of the muscle bound bodybuilding hulks in the 1970s and 80s, physical training had to change.

When I began looking into training and physical fitness in the mid-1990s, pretty much the only resources you could find were of a bodybuilding nature. Many fitness programmes relied on weight training and a bit of aerobics to develop that cardiac-respiratory system (aka heart and lungs!)

While all this is great and the average guy or gal could improve their fitness, these routines were limited in scope and therefore may not have been entirely appropriate for the average gym goer.

Recalibrating fitness goals

Muscle growth in and of itself is great but there must be something more to training than that. Whether this was an overt observation of the fitness community or not I can’t be sure of. What I do know is that sports science and the study of kinesiology (how humans move) have come along way since weight training really took off in the period from the 1950s–70s.

The fitness industry as a whole owes a lot to the pioneers of bodybuilding and strength training. The musclebound hulk like figures (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno and Lee Haney) were poster boys for an entire generation of trainers.

Bodybuilding is awesome, but in some respects it is a victim of its own success. The huge bulging over-bloated bodybuilders that have become the norm now are such extreme outliers that most guys don’t want to look that way, don’t have the time and simply the perseverance to develop such massive physiques.

Muscle isn’t the end of the story

At heart, all guys are secretly wannabe superheroes. While bodybuilders no longer represent the ideal that most guys are after, professional athletes do inspire awe and respect in the general populace.

It is hard not to admire a Usain Bolt, a Sidney Crosby or a Lebron James. These guys inspire awe in what they can do, rather than in how massive their biceps are.

There’s nothing wrong with big biceps and this post is not an attack on bodybuilding. I’m keen to bloat my chest, shoulders and biceps through training as much as the next guy. An awesome physique is well, awesome! But there is something about a guy who can move like a cheetah, jump like Mike or power his way through opponents like a charging rhino.

What is this functional buzzword anyway?

Modern life combined with the growing realisation that training for just muscular development has led to this functional fitness revolution.

So functional simply refers to the idea that the average person can reach their physique potential in size and ability. Guys can be powerful athletes; ladies can be nimble like a dancer. In fact, these are powerful reasons for why training has gone the functional way — people play sports, hike, cycle, mountain bike and run marathons. Unfortunately for many of us, we spend hours a day de-training ourselves for basic movement by sitting hunched over desks or other suboptimal arrangements.

The sea change in the way training is done can in part be attributed to a number of popular gym disciplines: Pilates, Yoga, Military training approaches and the emergence of Crossfit. Popular exercise magazines are Men’s Health/Women’s Health and Women’s Fitness/Men’s Fitness magazines. There are many more but these publications capture the essence of fitness as a lifestyle rather than an aesthetic only.

Resources

Get off the new year’s resolution merry-go-round

It’s 5 days into the new year and we’re already tempted to cave in on our newly formed, I’m really gonna do this resolutions. Before you get sucked back into the vortex of bad habits, I’ve got a few ideas that might help.

This year, I only have two resolutions — to adopt two very simple principles that will open up the world of possibility in everything else I want to achieve this year. Let’s call these meta-resolutions.

After much failure and frustration in my own life, I realised the problem is busy-ness. In other words, I was doing stuff but ultimately progressing very slowly. This was true in my career, playing the guitar and finances.

The meta-resolutions in a nutshell:

  • Cut your options down — focus on a few things
  • Quit looking for the magic bullet

Too many options

Realise that too many things — be they books, websites, audio and video material or whatever — is ultimately a distraction. To make progress, cut your options down to a few resources, and focus on reinforcing the fundamentals of what you’re trying to learn/achieve.

This is the root meaning of the word “decision” — literally to cut off. The more “stuff” the more time you’ll spend sifting through it rather than actually learning.

Psychological research has shown clearly that it is not always a good idea for a company to expand its product line. There comes a point too many options makes it hard for the consumer to make that snap decision in the store, therefore the decision can be delayed or even completely withdrawn.

Cut to the chase

  1. Find out what the fundamentals are: the 20% you can focus on critical content — those actions that will result in 80% of successful results. (This takes a bit of upfront research).
  2. Take everything you have on the subject you’re wanting to learn and choose the top 3. These resources will cover off all your critical content and action steps.
  3. Focus on these resources exclusively.

It may not be necessary to focus on everything a particular resource has to offer — in fact you can cull even further by finding the absolute essential chapters and action points that will contribute the most to your progress.

Then stop searching for more. If something good comes up, great, but once you’ve decided what is most important, make sure you focus most of your time on that. Stay on the path!

There is no magic bullet

It is human nature to look for the one thing that will change the game but this kind of thinking is illusory. The Next Big Thing (NBT) can at best give you a new idea or approach but the problem  remains: you still need to take action.

Ultimately, the search for the NBT is fruitless because (a) it doesn’t exist, and (b) all you’re really doing is delaying action (and most probably using the search as an excuse for why you’re not succeeding).

The neediness cycle
You see, another thing humans are great at is doing a bunch of stuff that makes us feel better but ultimately is not leading to our goals at all. Once in place, this self-fulfilling failure cycle doesn’t stop. As long as you continue to think there is something better, the more you’ll fall into trap of seeking. and reinforcing that failure cycle. This distracts from what you should be doing which is using what you have and extracting as much juice out of it as you can.Positive momentum
By focusing on the fundamentals right now (which you can usually find in one or two good resources) you create a foundation for success as well as the habits of success in your chosen area. Quit searching for more and start using what you have.

The perfect consumer
Marketers love people in the neediness cycle, in fact they actively try to amplify that neediness. It seems to work.

Central to the chase for the NBT is a scarcity mentality. People that exhibit this form of neediness are essentially saying “what I have isn’t good enough, I need something else”. As mentioned earlier, this insecurity is the symptom of something that “more stuff” cannot fix.

If you’ve seen the TV show Hoarders knows the last point too well, but we all do hoard to a certain extent.

The solution: Use what you have

Whatever you want to do, chances are there are tonnes of material and experience you can draw inspiration and knowledge from. The basics are always present and while approaches vary in scope and effectiveness, the next ebook, next course, next book, next new way is mostly a marketing gimmick and definitely a distraction from what you should be doing now.
So use what you have. It is (often) enough and when you’re in the position to say you’ve conquered your present resources, then you can expand your knowledge.

Can we at least learn something from this Mayan apocalypse mumbo jumbo?

The failed Mayan apocalypse ramblings could be a positive awakening for humanity, but it won’t be. Read on for why I’m not optimistic.

Sorry but I can’t not talk about the supposed Mayan apocalypse hubbub. I just think that we can learn some lessons from this whole thing. I mean, we laughed at Harold Camping for his absurd pronouncements about the end of the world last year (twice as the math was slightly off).

For starters, the Mayans never made such a prophecy. Even if they did — so what!? The obsession with what the Mayans may or may not have said/thought seems in part to be due to the romantic (false) notion that ancient societies were in some sort of wonderful place, in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

My basic premise

Claims such as those made about a mysterious Planet X destroying the Earth or any other apocalyptic ramblings fail because those making/believing such claims are arriving at conclusions from a faulty epistemology.

Check this list of failed predictions of apocalyptic events (Wikipedia).

Remember, ancient peoples were ignorant of many basic facts that we take for granted today. In fact, you only have to go back a few hundred years to see how primitive our collective human understanding really was. It wasn’t long ago we had no idea of: the germ theory of disease; sun centered solar system; expanding universe; DNA and heritability; evolution and the origin of species; radio waves; electricity; gravity… We were blind to so much.

Misconceptions galore — A Primer on Knowledge

A claim I was presented with recently went as follows (paraphrasing):

“At one time, the research of the day showed that the Earth was the centre of the universe”.

I hear similar statements from people quite a bit. The idea that science is somehow flawed because our understanding of the world was primitive at one point is really unconvincing.

Claims such as “the Earth is at the centre of the universe” stem from primitive intuitions based on limited data — such claims come before research is done.

Remember, science isn’t a “thing”. The word is a noun for a process of fact checking and observation. At one point knowledge on a subject is minimal. The scientific method helps us grow a body of reliable knowledge and increases our understanding. This is what makes science a reliable and valid epistemology.

Therefore (and this is the key point): Human understanding improves over time.

That means, we cast off that which is shown to be false and accept that which we find to be true.

Science has allowed us to open our eyes, lift the veil of ignorance and reveal a world that rich and wonderful and even more important — science has shown us that it is comprehensible, even to our limited brains.

“But science changes over time”

Wrong. Knowledge changes over time. Science is just the method we use to acquire knowledge/discard hypotheses. This is a good thing.

The Mayans had a primitive understanding of reality

The Mayans, like all ancient cultures were superstitious, attributing all manner of natural phenomena to gods and mystical beings. Human progress has been a long history of superstitions being replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

I think we can learn some valuable lessons from these facts about our collective understanding of the universe in which we live, and yet another failed end of the world hypothesis:

  • Knowledge improves over time.
  • The process by which we accumulate claims has changed: We now can produce reliable information about reality through validation and testing.
  • Ancient cultures did not validate claims through a stringent process of checking facts.
  • They didn’t have sophisticated tools to investigate reality and therefore couldn’t be expected to ask better questions.
  • Ancient cultures were largely ignorant of basic facts about the natural order.
  • Ancient cultures did not have privileged information that we don’t know now (as much as we would like to romanticise and claim they did).

Ergo… We must ask ourselves, “How does the ancient claim/philosophy square with our understanding of nature today?”

Ignorance and default thinking

People can still choose to believe that lightning is still mandated by higher powers and that cyclones and earthquakes are sent by gods but this thinking is now optional. When people didn’t know better they defaulted to the supernatural claim. That’s just part of being human.

Conclusion — why nothing will change

If human knowledge improves over time then we can’t look back into the deep past and expect to see great understanding of reality. Even if an ancient culture claimed something about today, that isn’t a reason to believe it (again the Mayans didn’t make an apocalyptic claim, people interpret it that way today).

Here is a prediction: Those invested in the Mayan apocalypse nonsense will probably not change their beliefs even after yet another failed attempt to predict the end of the world. That is just human nature, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action

What we will see is more ad hoc justifications on and beyond 22 December 2012.

Then the next craze will hit town and the we will be entertained/bemused at yet another prediction stemming from flawed epistemology and more lame justifications.

“That’s just what I believe” inadequacy

With the US Presidential Election just days away, I thought it timely to look at one of the most annoying statements politicians can make (indeed people generally).

Disclaimer: Though there was an emphasis on Republican politicians in this article, I by no means think the phenomenon described here within is confined to any one group (Democrats do this too). We all think our beliefs are right and wonder how others can’t see it. Politicians, however are in the best position to screw others over because of what they think is right.

Sitting in a hotel room in Berlin in September last year and flicking through the TV channels to find an English speaking channel, I happened upon Piers Morgan’s show on CNN. The guest that night — Rick Santorum — the uber-conservative Republican, who was then campaigning for the Republican Primaries.

Piers didn’t really test Santorum too much with his questioning but what did pique my curiosity was a statement Santorum made regarding the theory of evolution. At the time I didn’t realise that this would be the first time of many that I would hear Santorum say these words:

“That’s just what I believe”.

It was of course in reference to the fact that Santorum didn’t believe in evolution and that he believed the everything was created by God (in 6 days).

Think about that statement “That’s just what I believe”. As an interviewer, it would have been nice to hear Piers say “Okay, but you do understand that you can’t force that view on everyone else?” Of course, aligning himself with religious conservatives, Santorum did want to force public schools to teach creationist garbage as science, setting back science education 200-300 years.

I have since learned that when Santorum said it was “just what I believe” he means, “and if you disagree you will pay when I rule the land”.

That’s Just what you believe — so what?

Given that people can believe anything (as Santorum himself shows) we should put little stock in what people believe.

“Oh you believe that taking vitamin C intravenously will cure influenza?”
Or “That face on Mars is obviously a sign of intelligent life”.

People believe a great many things, which is interesting but simply not enough, especially if you’re going to represent a diverse populous as a political representative.

Which is my point really. What right does one have to legislate on the basis of what they believe when it is contrary to fact; marginalises and restricts the rights of others?

I’m picking on Santorum because he was the Republican candidate who was most over-confident of his own beliefs about the world, but the others all exhibited the same pattern.

When confronted with an issue where their statements/policy platform were not supported by evidence, politicians (at least in the Republican primaries) claimed “that’s just what I believe” in an effort to put a full stop on the conversation. No rational justification needed right?

Sorry — you really do have to provide factual justification for your statements

No idea is so great to be immune from criticism and justification. If you think evolution is sent from Satan then we’ll need to fact check that. Hell exists? We gonna need co-ordinates and a map thanks.

If you think the potential foetus from a “legitimate rape” (?!) will be terminated by the woman’s body automatically by some magic means, you are proving to us all that your grip on reality (Tod Akin) is tenuous and that you sir should not be in power.

Again, what you believe is really not that interesting (it is irrelevant) unless it correlates with reality.

It’s politics stupid

Yeah I get it… Politics is about value judgements, but what are value judgements decided on the basis of beliefs and outright fantasies of a political elite?

If we as a species are to evolve (yes evolve) beyond our innate stupidity and ignorance, facts and evidence are really, really important.

So, “that’s just what you believe?” is fine, believe whatever you want — Just don’t inflict your warped reality on the rest of us. Cheers.