Understanding the brain – from the inside

It’s one thing to be able to measure and research people’s behaviour in order to interpolate the underlying relationship between the operation of our brains and our moods, modes of thinking, performance and so forth.

Over the last 50 years I have been keenly aware of my thoughts, moods, patterns and behaviours.  Since I was seven or eight years old I have been depressed and traditionally blamed it on my circumstances.  I lived for these “causal” reasons to drop away away at a given event/milestone and emerge, liberated, at the next stage.  I was concerned my aged parents would die one day.  (My father was 56 years older than me).  When I was 9, he did.  My world went from empty to less than empty.  I remember looking forward to getting to school, to be amongst people and not be left alone with my thoughts.  I remember looking at the sky and the clouds outside my bedroom window and willing the yellow sunshine to thaw my gloom and sadness.

Over the course of my life I have learned that this is me.  No turning 13, graduating high school, getting a degree, driving a car or owning my own car ever did it for me.  There was always a gloom which I could never fully disperse except through wild behaviour, getting drunk, living university life to the full.  To this day I am not sure what would be a worse outcome: my current state of unfulfilled dreams, or achieving my dreams and discovering that they were hollow.

There was a short period in which my earnings expectations went up dramatically, and I remember thinking how pointless it all was as I couldn’t think of anything that would dramatically improve my life, even if I could afford it.  Exceeding the expectations of my upbringing, having a wonderful family, living in a style that I would have envied of my friends’ parents growing up – none of it has had a bearing on my mood.

I have tried antidepressants and got chubby and lived my life as though wrapped in cotton wool.  As Kalil Gibran put it, “I would   laugh, but not with all of my laughter, and cry, but not with all of my tears.”  I wasn’t me for over five years.  I stopped and now there are days in which the pain is so bad its like my heart and inner organs are being twisted in a vice.  But I have lost weight again, play sport better (in as much as I was ever a sportsman, even though I look like one), and regained a sense of urgency that prevents me from resting on my laurels at work.  I keep what may be termed, “a healthy paranoia.”

Even though I keep fit, have meditate, am spiritually involved, involve myself with my family there are days I wish I had a remote control which would allow me to fast forward my life to the end.  Indeed, I pray for it.  I would forgo any pleasures and reward there may be in the world to come or the afterlife, any fame, fortune and/or respect just for the pain, or even the threat of pain, to disappear.

I try sharing my depression and my feelings of hopelessness with my family but there is nothing they can do to comfort me or help me.  I now pretend it doesn’t exist so that they can live without worrying about me, or getting upset unnecessarily.  I dont talk about it to anyone because I dont want to let the cat out of the bag.  Once released it can go back especially in this connected world.

Thus I have been forced to think about thinking, and understand what influences my moods, my clarity of thought and all of those things in order to do battle with my demons.  I can’t even discuss my thoughts with many people because the complexity of the ideas is almost reaching beyond communication.  I can understand that every time they talk to me they dont want to be dragged into an in-depth discussion with someone akin to “Marvin the paranoid android”.

With regards to the brain I have been following researchers into willpower (Baumeister et al.), split brain experiments, nutrition, ADD (Hallowell et al.), “Thinking fast and slow” but what makes a difference is when I read something almost everything is applicable to something within the realm of my experience, be it myself or a daughter with Aspberger-like symptoms.

I have theorized mechanisms and ideas which seem to make sense to me although I can only validate them against new books and new information in which I can see outcomes I have predicted being validated in new studies.  The effects of sleep, the clearing of amyloid-b (associated with the “plaque” of Alzheimers) and transport of fatty acids through interstitial spaces in the brain, the dynamic nature of communication between the hemispheres, eradication of petit mal seizures and epilepsy in a friend (allegedly without medication) all feed into a model that starts to make sense to me.

It sometimes bothers me that I think I know this stuff.  Who would believe me?


Why leaders need to demonstrate an understanding of risk and return

Most people dont understand themselves and their own perceptions of risk. As ‘logical’ beings we analyze everything on its own instead of considering the bigger picture. How many minutes a fire service takes to reach a blaze is just one such example. If it takes $200 per household per year to reach a blaze on average in 10 minutes we know it would cost more to reach it (on average) in 5 minutes and we could literally spend every cent we owned but could not reduce the time below say, 20 seconds from notification to arrival.

Cancer care works the same, as does wait times for doctors, or classroom size or teacher/child ratios. Anything of any significance today can cost anything you want it to, and by and large the service will improve. (The jury is out on salaries of politicians).

Decisions that we, the public, need to make regarding any one service cannot be viewed in isolation. The salacious argument, “what happens if it was your child who died because of egg allergies, or your spouse who died of breast cancer” only holds water when we consider that there is only one decision to be made, not a whole lot of priorities to be balanced.

Furthermore, we the public, are not qualified to make judgement in many cases because we dont understand the issues. If we were to say that fire responses less than 120 seconds are likely to save 50% more lives and property than a 5 minute response, but that we are only talking about 20 lives at risk per annum for the whole of Toronto, in other words we save 10 more lives per year, then how much are we prepared to pay?

If we say its $1 million, then if we were to take that $1million and use it for policing we might be able to reduce assault-related injuries by 20%, but affecting 10,000 people per year. What is more important? Our media and politicians would have us believe that whatever is topical is the most important thing.

By turning down a plea for donations to help burn victims or heart research on the phone I am not heartless or uncaring. I might be donating to help peanut allergy research which might not save individual lives, but vastly improve the overall quality of life to the entire North American population.

We intuitively know all of this stuff already, but its convenient to ignore it because it makes the world seem unmanageable – something we are all more comfortable ignoring. In my experience however, when we shine a light in dark corners the monsters have a habit of disappearing. We need to take this on.

Should we be spending more on teachers or fire fighters or police on the beat? I really couldnt tell you, but I know of the law of diminishing returns, and I know there has to be a cutoff point for all of them. And it doesnt mean I dont appreciate police, teachers, firefighters (and yes, politicians as well), but we all need to make ends meet, and there comes a point of tough love, just like for our kids.

Petraeus, Kennedy, Netanyahu but NOT Carter

Petraeus, Kennedy … dealt with situations which required decisive action and a strong sense of empowerment.

Would Carter have had the “balls” to stand up in the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Is there something wrong with elected officials having affairs?

It really reduces the field to the dregs that either dont have initiative or do not take calculated risks.

Is there anything we can measure (ex ante) to support a hypothesis?

Do voters get a package deal?


Development then and now; how the mystery and fun is gone…

Today the realization finally dawned upon me of how sterile most professional programmers have become.

Many years ago I was in awe of the masters of Cobol, Adabas/Natural, IMS, CICS and the high priests of mainframe.  In the early parts of my career I was impressed by the depth and knowledge of my peers and of the people who could pick up these complex things and use them effortlessly to design systems and make things work.

In those days computers, languages, compilers were all far less reliable than today, and getting things to work often took patience, perseverance and all-nighters.  With the era of the PC some people seemed to take to it while others treated us as children, because everyone knew that applications were only made by serious programmers for serious applications on serious (MVS 360, B-Series, Sperry, Univac Burroughs, IBM, Tandy).  Over the years the PC and the workstation have evolved, and now I am part of the main stream.  Even the PC is easier and more powerful (remember the difference between huge, tiny, far pointers?  Programming for 16 bit instructions on 8 bit computers? Programming EXPANDED memory? Hitting the ETX key?  Paging up and down with F6 and F8?).

I have spent too many years of late in management and consultancy, finance, manufacturing, banking trying to earn too much money, but was too often frustrated by the “development experts” who told me to give them the requirements and leave the design to them.  I respected their need for professionalism and not to tread in their turf, although I admit to giving into temptation from time to time.

Unfortunately it appears I threatened them, but in my naiveté I thought they were a little anal and needed to be humoured.  I know now that I seldom worked with the “real” programmers – most of the places I worked in large corporates nobody did anything great or unusual, but merely slogged along avoiding mistakes, and certainly not doing anything risky, like inventing a new way of doing things.  Most of the time they really didn’t know what they were doing, but merely sticking to the tried and tested stuff that they knew worked.  How can you say “outside the box”, to people who are too short sighted to see the walls?

The real programmers are the kids writing stuff like Facebook, and creating new sites with exciting features, but seldom under the auspices of a big name in the computer industry.  I no longer want to even try to be a cog in the big wheel, you merely get to grind your teeth.

I realized too late there is no role for someone who understands too much except President or CEO; and they dont get to do any of the fun stuff.  So I am likely going to do the career equivalent of doing painting on sidewalks.

And if someone stops by and wants to talk – I may tell them about how my paintings took a week and not a year, how I used the natural colouring and contours of the stones and dirt to supplement the shape and form; and how in the final stages it ended up painting itself.

How I painted masterpieces to acclaim; without exhaustive use-case testing trying to prove they were not subject to the unknown unknowns … Hey, Mr Kafka wait for me! – I finally understand …

Machinae ex dei

In this world of complexity we rationalize, categorize and mechanize.

We treat others like machines, we now treat ourselves like machines.

What’s the point?  The answer affects our very souls and outlook on the world.

With advances in technology we have accustomed ourselves to thinking in mechanistic terms. For example: It should be pretty simple to identify all of the tasks we need to do during a particular day, prioritise them, put estimated times next to them, allocate time for them..

… and then execute our plans with clockwork precision.

Okay, we may not completed each of our tasks, but we will have dedicated the planned time to actually EXECUTING them.

We simply don’t take into account the very human needs that we have on a regular basis such as bathroom breaks, sugar cravings, interruptions and buggy software.  We plan with logarithmic memory and execute linearly.

This results in a lot of frustrations and a feeling that our lives are out of control. If we do this to ourselves, how much more so must we do it when managing others?

The advent of outsourcing programming in various computer and systems operations and development to other countries has only emphasised the need to separate tasks into discrete bundles that can be precisely described and e-mailed. No longer do we have roles such as Analyst/Programmer but everything is very precisely defined with the precise requirement associated with it.

 Taylorism has returned with a vengeance; sucking all the fun and creativity out of building systems for example. The mechanistic paradigms that we  commonly use  (like UML) cannot precisely define systems when used in the extreme. We fail in defining the common vision required for great achievements. (Kind of like Goedell’s theorem, there will be no doubt be new theorems emerging about the  theoretical limits to hierarchical divisibility of work in the next 30 years).