Killing Time

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Jan 232016


I’ve never liked the idea of killing time – not even the expression. It seems so violent to be “killing” time. What harm did it do to you? In any case, it’s another way of saying “wasting” time, in my opinion, and the idea of wasting time for the sake of it has always rubbed me up the wrong way. As I get older the notion gets more and more troubling. It’s not as if there are a number of things I absolutely must accomplish before I die, or anything so foolish. I just hate the idea of sitting around doing nothing in particular because I am waiting for something important, or interesting, or whatever, to occur. Very puritanical of me, no doubt. I hate to waste time.

Let me be perfectly clear so you do not think of me as some kind of rabid Spartan. No matter what I am doing as long as I am enjoying myself, I do not consider that I am wasting my time. Furthermore, I might have something pressing to do and instead I am watching a favorite movie. It’s perfectly fair to say I am procrastinating, or avoiding my work. But I am not wasting my time. In my worldview, any pleasurable moments in my life are not wasted time.

Let me quote Kipling’s “If—“:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

        With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,  

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it . . .

When I was a schoolboy I was made to believe that Kipling was being a slave driver here. Every minute was “unforgiving,” it moved on relentlessly. Your task was to fill each one with “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” But what is “distance run”? I expect Kipling meant productive work, or the like. But I’m all right with taking the idea that “distance run” means getting somewhere – anywhere – rather than nowhere. I’m not so puritanical as to believe that I have to be always making a buck, working on a cure for cancer, or reading a great book – that is, tangibly “good” things to do. I just feel the need to be engaged – always.

My fourth form (9th grade) English teacher, John Pearce, was an immense influence on me as a writer. His big thing was that to write well you had to read ALL THE TIME. But he didn’t care what we read. We could read comic books if we wanted; as long as we read. It was the act of engaging with the written word that was important. That’s how I approach “distance run.” I want my mind at work somehow or other, but I don’t particularly care how. When my mind is not engaged I feel as if I am wasting time or killing time. Wasting time always feels bad to me. Even so, it can happen, so I am putting measures in place to stop it before it happens.

For me the biggest potential for time wasting arises when I am waiting for something to happen. I can divide such times into those that are self imposed and those that are unavoidable. Unavoidable sitting and waiting is a fact of life everywhere, but the countries where I have lived for the past 6 years – Argentina, China, and Italy – have made it into an incredible art form. Argentina may be the worst of the three. I once had to see a doctor at a specialist hospital for a minor problem, and ended up spending 13 hours (6 am to 7 pm) at her clinic, of which time, being exceptionally generous, I calculate I spent around 80 minutes doing something connected with my medical care (including filling in forms). I spent 11 hours and 40 minutes sitting and waiting for something to happen. That was a marathon, but it is not uncommon in Buenos Aires to wait for an hour in line to pick up a package at the post office, and the like. Every day you have to wait for something. However this is unavoidable, and you just have to live with it.

I find the other kind of waiting, self-imposed waiting, especially annoying because I have no one to blame but myself. This kind of waiting occurs for me all the time because I hate to be late for things. If I have to meet you at a specified time, I’ll be there at least 10 minutes early (because I don’t want you to waste your time); I always arrive for a class I am teaching at least 15 minutes ahead of time; I routinely make every effort to be at the airport 3 hours before my flight is due to depart (doesn’t always work – I’ve missed a boatload of flights); and so on. The penalty for this kind of consideration and efficiency is a lot of slack time, and I only have myself to blame.

Whether I am to blame for time spent waiting, or someone else is, there is always something I can do about it, however. Here I find it important NOT to “kill” (i.e. waste) time, but to do something that makes me happy. There are obvious standbys like always having a book with me – very important at airports. Of more importance to me is always carrying a small notebook and pen. I get ideas for my writing all the time, and it’s good to jot them down before they get lost.

Furthermore, I like to have something to do all the time – reading, writing, photographing etc. That way I feel OK doing “nothing.” Here’s Pooh and Christopher Robin:

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Doing “nothing” is supremely important to me. I love it when I feel free to do “nothing” – staring out the window of a train or bus, lying in bed daydreaming, walking in the woods, etc. Doing “nothing” is the perfect opposite of killing time. Jerome K. Jerome starts out in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by saying, in effect, that you can’t do nothing if you have nothing to do. Doing nothing requires that you have something else to do, and you are not doing it. Then it is endless pleasure. When I quite literally have nothing to do, I am in purgatory — just wasting time.  When I have something to do and instead I am doing nothing, I am blessed.

To be continued . . .

Feedback (2)

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Jan 212016


In my last post I talked a little about feedback within systems, and, in the process, defined negative feedback as being stabilizing, and positive feedback as being destabilizing — Let me sound a note of warning. If you search the internet you will sometimes see feedback that is out of control labeled as negative feedback. This is wrong !! Stabilizing is negative, destabilizing is positive. Now I want to look a little closer at feedback that is destabilizing, and what can be done about it when it is harmful.

First we need to examine the nature of systems a little more closely. A system made up of two elements – a dyad – can take many forms, but two kinds are very common: symmetric and complementary. A symmetric system is one in which the two elements have roughly equal status and act with each other in roughly the same way. So, for example, two tennis players make up a symmetric system. One of them hits the ball to the other, who hits it back, and so forth. People of roughly equal status doing similar things to one another can make all kinds of symmetric systems by, for example, conversing, or working together, and the like. Each is doing roughly the SAME thing.

In a complementary system, the parts are doing DIFFERENT things which together complete the system (are complements). Examples include, teacher/student, doctor/patient, employer/employee. Each half of the dyad needs the other half to function properly as a system. Often (not always) in a complementary system there is a dominant part and a subordinate part. This state of affairs need not be burdensome if both the dominant and subordinate parts are getting what they need from the system. Employers need workers to do certain jobs, and employees need jobs. If both employer and employee are satisfied with the situation the system can be in balance. Let us suppose Bob is the owner of a factory making widgets and Tom is one of a number of employees who makes widgets. As long as Tom makes good widgets (in an efficient way) Bob is content. But what if Tom starts falling behind on his quota or making defective widgets? At this point Bob can step in and try to fix the problem. Maybe Bob needs to lower the quota, or maybe Tom has developed a bad work habit which needs to be corrected. If Bob can correct the problem, the system goes back into balance and everyone is happy. This is negative feedback at work. Negative feedback keeps systems in balance.

But let us suppose the widget market falls on hard times and Bob is not making as much money as he used to. Maybe he has to start firing employees to cut costs, and increase individual quotas so that fewer employees are turning out the same number of widgets. Bob (the dominant part of the system) becomes more demanding, and Tom (the subordinate), who needs to keep his job, becomes more submissive to Bob’s demands. Now the system is in positive (unstable) feedback, where a change in one part of the system changes other parts of the system. As Bob becomes more demanding, Tom becomes more submissive. No one is happy. Tom is overworked and Bob has a discontented workplace. Bob and Tom move further and further apart.

Whether the problems of positive feedback in a complementary system can be solved depends on a great many factors having to do with the particular nature of the individual systems. I’d say that as a general rule the most important first step in correcting runaway feedback is being aware of its existence, and understanding the way in which it is operating. Sometimes nothing can be done. What happens if Bob becomes so overbearing that all the employees quit? Or there is no way to meet profitable quotas? Presumably the factory dies. But often changes can be made to slow or even halt positive feedback if the causes are recognized, and components in the system can change. If either Bob or Tom is inflexible, the factory is doomed. But notice that there is no need to place blame on either Bob or Tom. The system as a whole is not working. In this case, both parts need to adapt.

One solution to runaway feedback is to invert roles for a while, making the dominant, subordinate and vice versa. Bob could, for example, hand over full control of the factory for a day to Tom. Tom can now see the exact nature of the problem from his boss’s point of view. At minimum he can understand why Bob is being overbearing, and, for a short while, he can feel relieved of pressure. At best he might see efficient methods of production that Bob has missed.

Occasional inversion of roles can be good for everyone, and is common in numerous cultures. I call times of role inversion, “safety valves” because they take the pressure off systems that are in danger of getting unstable because of constant positive feedback. Nowadays formalized role inversion is very rare in Western culture, but at one time it was common, particularly at certain festival seasons. At one time in the Royal Navy, for example, the most junior midshipman on a ship was made captain for the day on Christmas Day. In many cathedral cities across Europe in the Middle Ages there was a custom of making a young choirboy bishop for the day on Holy Innocents (28 December), and so forth. These, and like customs, held up to mockery for a short time positions of power, and the power structure in general, in order to let off steam and vent frustrations on the part of the subordinates. Afterwards the participants felt that the constantly destabilizing positive feedback of the system had been countered, and so they could go back to work with a renewed feeling of stability and security.

Symmetric systems may also go into positive feedback from time to time. For example, two companies may sell very similar products within the same market. To gain a competitive edge one company may cut its price. This may force the other company to cut prices even more, triggering further price cuts at the first company, and so on. Such positive feedback is good for the consumer, but not necessarily good for the companies. Sometimes, therefore, companies may work together to fix prices to stop deliberately undercutting each other’s profits. But normally in capitalist countries, such collusion is illegal precisely because it is harmful to the consumer.

Finally let us look at dyads that are not obviously complementary or symmetric, but which can be pushed into one or other mode. What about storekeeper and customer? This is probably a symmetric relationship normally – you have something I want, I have something you want  — what I have and what you have are EQUAL in value. But what if you are a storekeeper with a product that everyone wants and it is in very limited supply? Now you are dominant and I am subordinate – a complimentary system, where I am at a disadvantage and may be subject to positive feedback (ever-rising prices). One solution to this situation is to force the system back into a symmetric relationship. This can be done in a number of ways.

Years ago I applied to become a U.S. citizen. The process took over 5 years because I asked (quite legally) to be exempted from certain requirements, which included agreeing to military service, and swearing an oath in the name of God. You come under special scrutiny if you ask for those exemptions. Eventually I was called in for an interview. First thing the interviewer asked me to do was sign a form which stated something like, “I swear by almighty God that the statements I have made are true . . .” I saw this and told the interviewer that I could not sign in the name of God, to which he replied, “well, I guess you don’t want to be a citizen today.” He was used to a complementary system where he was dominant and the interviewee was subordinate – “sign or else” was his implicit message. Such a tactic would possibly have worked if I were desperate for citizenship. But I was not. Becoming a citizen was a convenience, not a necessity. I could do without it. So I replied, “in the United States I am legally entitled to refuse to sign in the name of God and if you hold up my application I will report you to your superiors.” I had inverted roles, asserting my potential dominance. In the end he backed down and altered the form to suit me, and the rest of the interview proceeded with us as symmetric equals.

There are all manner of situations in our daily lives and globally that can be seen as complementary or symmetric systems. If we understand how feedback within those systems works we can control it better to our advantage.

To be continued . . .


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Jan 192016


In my last post I talked a little about relationships as dyads:

My main point was that we should not see two (or more) people who are interacting as if they are two separate individuals, but, rather, we should see them as a new thing that is not simply the summation of two people. Together they make something new. The whole is different from the sum of the parts. This phenomenon can be obvious when you see a mob acting in ways that the individuals who make it up would never behave as individuals.

In Mind and Nature Gregory Bateson goes even further than just talking about pairs of individuals, or multiple individuals, interacting. He argues that a similar kind of outcome occurs when an individual uses any kind of tool. A man with an ax is not simply man plus ax, but becomes a new entity which we can call a “man-ax.” A tool is an extension of some part of our bodies. Many tools, including an ax, are extensions of what we are capable of doing with our hands. Glasses or a telescope enhance our eyes, telephones or microphones increase our vocal capacities, and so forth. What we often fail to realize is that a man-ax or a woman-telescope are entities that THINK very differently from the way that a man or a woman thinks in isolation. We know this when we think of certain examples, such as person-car or person-computer. Road rage and flame attacks come from the minds of person-cars and person-computers – empowered in ways that individuals in isolation are not.

This idea brings me back to my thoughts on “a good guy with a gun” — The mind of a person-gun entity is not the same as the mind of a person alone (plus a gun). It is fundamentally different. In fact, it is possible that in some cases a good-guy-gun entity is not so “good” after all. Even accepting that the concept of a “good guy” is legitimate (which I don’t), the addition of a gun may not create what you expect, or hope for.

Let me return to the model of the furnace and the thermostat I talked about in the last post. It is wrongheaded to think that in that situation the furnace does the work and the thermostat controls the furnace. The thermostat turns on the furnace when the room gets cold, the furnace heats the room, and then the thermostat turns the furnace off. Even so, the thermostat is not controlling the furnace. Rather, the furnace and thermostat are working in tandem – they control each other. The furnace, by giving out heat, tells the thermostat what to do, and the thermostat by measuring the heat tells the furnace what to do. This is known as feedback. Information runs in a circle: thermostat to furnace to thermostat . . . ad infinitum. If the thermostat-furnace system is working the way you want it to, the heat in the house remains within prescribed limits, and we say that the system is stable (or in homeostasis). The house temperature is not completely static; it fluctuates a little. Sometimes it is a little warmer (when the furnace is on), sometimes a little cooler (when the furnace is off). It is the constant feedback that keeps everything within a certain range. But not all systems are stable.

Human systems may be stable – or not. A happy marriage, for example, need not be completely static. Sometimes the couple may get “hot” (have a fight, for example), but then they have feedback in place that “cools” things down. Thus, the relationship (system) may have periodic changes over time, but the overall relationship is stable because it is balanced – if it gets too “hot” for a while, it is balanced by a period of “cooling down.” It is not static, but it is stable. Such a system is said to be in balancing (or negative) feedback. We use the term “negative” to indicate that any change made in the system is balanced (negated) by other changes – making it stable. What about the opposite: positive feedback? Despite the nice sounding name, you usually don’t want positive feedback.

Positive feedback in a system occurs when a change in one part of the system is increased (not balanced) in another part. In this case the system can run out of control, do things you don’t want, or break down. The simplest example involves a microphone, amplifier, and loudspeaker. Sound goes in the microphone, passes through the amplifier, and comes out the speaker. If this system is linear, you get what you want. But if it is put into positive feedback, the results are unpleasant. Point the microphone at the speaker. Now any sound that goes in the microphone gets amplified, comes out the speaker, and then (amplified) goes back into the microphone to repeat the process round and round – causing a horrible noise.

Human systems can also be thrown into destructive positive feedback. Our happily married couple exist in negative feedback where a fight triggers a balancing action that calms down the situation. What about an unhappy couple? A fight starts for some reason, but positive feedback kicks in. One insult going one way triggers a bigger insult in return, which leads to yet another from the first person, and so on. The insults go round and round, getting more and more heated until things break down. Ultimately a relationship cannot survive if it is constantly fueled by this kind of feedback.

Now back to the person-gun system. One can imagine numerous feedback situations. In a sense it does not matter if the person is a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” Feedback between person and gun can be negative or positive. If the feedback is positive (unbalanced), the person-gun can come to feel more and more powerful and more emboldened to act. Add a second person-gun in positive feedback and you have the potential for disaster. Each person-gun, confronting one another, is more and more emboldened, escalating the situation. We see this scenario played out daily in the U.S. with tragic results. We need a new way of thinking.


To be continued . . .

It’s not you . . .

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Jan 102016


The common breakup line, “It’s not you, it’s me” has so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to know where to start. Most obviously, it’s a craven way of rejecting someone using a thin veil of hypocrisy to hide the truth. To be sure, the supposed underlying sentiment is something like “you did nothing wrong,” which is meant to ease the pain of rejection, I suppose. But the fact of the matter is that people end relationships because they are not working out. What I want to do in this post is challenge the notion that we operate in our lives as distinct individuals, rather than as units within systems. I know, I know – I am going to be arguing against the cherished Western notion of individualism. Guilty as charged. I think individualism is not just bad thinking, but can be profoundly destructive.

Most of what I have to say here is drawn from the work of Gregory Bateson, especially in his classic, Mind and Nature. Bateson was the great exponent and champion of systems theory, also known sometimes as cybernetics, a theory that views human behavior as part of a giant and complex system, rather than as a series of individual actions loosely collected together. I can’t lay out the whole agenda of systems theory here, but I can point out some important uses of it. Let’s start with the “it’s not you . . .” bit. That line assumes that there is a discrete thing called “you” and another discrete thing called “me.” Systems theory rejects this analysis in favor of seeing a “dyad” – a single entity with two discernible parts. It’s rather clumsy, but we can call this dyad “you-me” (or “me-you” if you prefer). You-me is not simply the addition of two entities, it is a new, different entity.

One classic way to explain the notion of a dyad is to think of a house that is heated by a furnace which is controlled by a thermostat. You can think of the thermostat and furnace as distinct entities if you like, but they are really parts of a system. Each needs the other to be able to function. The thermostat needs the furnace, and the furnace needs the thermostat. Without the thermostat the furnace cannot turn itself on or off, and without the furnace the thermostat has no function beyond registering the temperature. Together they complement one another.

Here’s the point. There are many kinds of thermostats and many kinds of furnaces. It’s easy to envisage endless pairings. There are, for example, furnaces that generate vast amounts of heat very quickly, and others that take their time to warm up. Likewise there are thermostats that are very sensitive and others that are not. Pairing them differently creates different systems (different dyads). Put together a powerful furnace and a very sensitive thermostat and you’ll end up with a house that is constantly fluctuating in temperature as it gets periodically charged with high heat and then cools down, only to be charged with heat again. I’d call that a “bad” dyad, not because the components are doing anything wrong as individual elements, but because together they produce an undesirable outcome.

Now go back to “It’s not you . . .” Instead of assigning blame to “you” or “me” (which would be as nonsensical as blaming either the furnace or the thermostat), you can say “the you-me dyad is not working well” or words to that effect. There’s NO BLAME involved. You are both free to go your separate ways without blame or guilt.

Much of the time we are unaware that what we think of as individual qualities or characteristics are actually components of a system. I can, and often do, say “I am a teacher.” But this is not an absolute quality in me. To be a teacher I need students (a dyad or dyads). The same can equally be said of many professions – doctors need patients, lawyers need clients etc. Likewise we are in the habit of describing ourselves using what seem to be absolute qualities – shy, smart, pretty, lazy etc. But a little thinking makes it clear that these are not God-given attributes but aspects of dyadic relationships. I’ve known plenty of students who self-identify as “shy” yet pour their hearts out to me. I used to call myself a “lazy” student at Oxford because I didn’t put much effort into my studies, when I should have seen that the dyadic relationships between my tutors and me were not engaging.

In other words . . . all behavior is situational, it has to be understood in context. In my next few posts I will explore this idea much further.


To be continued . . .

New Year’s Resolutions

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Jan 022016


It’s now 2nd of January and I suspect an awful lot of New Year’s resolutions are lying in the dust. That good intention to quit smoking or go on a diet, or whatever, may have been well meaning but probably didn’t make it past coffee and a hangover. This is generally the result of not thinking things through before deciding to make a radical change in your life. It can be a good idea to choose a significant date, such as 1st of January, to make a change, but little will come of the decision without adequate planning. That’s the essence of this post: Having one big blowout on a single day is fun but not satisfying in a lasting way. Both Christmas and Easter have a period of preparation before them – Advent and Lent – that you need to take seriously if the big celebrations are going to have deep meaning. So it is with any life change. Don’t plant the seed until you have prepared the soil. So, if you are going to change something in your life , it is less important what date you do it on, and much more important that you are fully prepared for the change when you decide to make it.

Making a change means thinking through ALL of the ramifications. I remember quitting smoking about 40 years ago without thinking about anything other than the benefits to my health and cost saving. At that time I was teaching at a secondary school in England, and generally hating it. One way I had of relieving the tedium was to leave class for a few minutes and catch a drag in the staff room. I quit smoking but still had the urge for a periodic break. First day, I left my classroom and went to the staff room and stood there thinking “now what?” After a few minutes of twiddling my thumbs, I went back to my classroom with zero sense that I had taken a break.

You can’t give up smoking, or any other bad habit, without figuring out the TOTAL place it occupies in your life, and finding other – satisfying – things to take their place. I used to smoke to cap off a meal, at the pub with a pint, as a time filler when waiting for a bus, pondering over my writing etc. etc. I couldn’t just quit smoking and leave a void. I had not thought all of this through ahead of time, and might have failed in the effort were it not for my iron will (at times), and the ability to adjust after the fact, even though it was hard for a while.

That was then; this is now. What I would like to change now is my constant habit of worrying about the future – not anywhere near as tangible as giving up smoking but every bit as destructive. The thing is that I know it serves no practical purpose. If I have a problem looming there’s either something I can do about it, or nothing I can do about it. In either case worrying is no help. If there’s something I can do about it, I should do it. If there’s nothing I can do about it, I should get on with my life and not spend wasted energy worrying. Easier said than done, I’m afraid. But I do have life experience to fall back on. A lot of the things I was worried about in the past never happened, in which case the worry was needless and downright harmful. In some cases the thing I was worried about was less drastic than I expected, and, in some cases the eventuality was what I expected, or worse, but I got through it and lived to tell the tale. That’s step 1 in my preparation: seeing the pointlessness in worrying. Step 2 is harder: figuring out what place worrying occupies in my life.

To work on step 2 I’ve been thinking back on times of worry. For example, most of the time I lived in China I worried about my visa situation. My paperwork was always a problem because of my age and my dual citizenship. There was always something I had to do with the outcome always in doubt. This state of affairs dragged on for well over a year. Finally, I got a job where there were people to handle the problem and I thought I was safe. Nope. There was a fatal flaw in my paperwork and I was given 10 days to leave the country. Fortunately a friend came to my rescue and I ended up with a job and an apartment in Mantua. Obviously my worrying was useless, but what place did it have in my life?

I am not entirely sure as yet, but I think for me worrying was a lazy substitute for actually DOING something. If I had had a solid exit strategy for leaving China I could have worried a lot less. Then it would have been, “They’re threatening to deport me. So what? I have other options.” Instead I just tried not to think about the possibility and floundered around.

So, what can I do when I start to worry from now on? I think writing things down is a good start. Getting out of my head is always useful. Things can churn around in my head endlessly, with no coherence or resolution. If I write my thoughts down they come into sharper focus, and the way forward is clearer. I’ve noticed this in the past when I’ve been stuck, and managed to break free by writing to a friend about it. That way I have to get it straight what the problem is because writing is much more tangible and linear than thinking, which can be confused, inchoate, and circular. When I write I am not asking for advice or even comfort. It’s simply the act of writing things down that helps.

It would also be a good idea to have written reminders scattered around my apartment, so that when I get into a panic I don’t just collapse in on myself but, instead, have an overall strategy to hand which I have already thought through (in case of emergency). It’s not so very different from a fire drill. No good starting to figure out how to exit safely when the building is already on fire. In addition I need to have readily available a written list of things to do to occupy myself when I am worrying but can’t do anything about the situation. Going for a walk is no help unless it has a purpose other than simply walking. I can fret just as much walking as sitting still. Watching a movie won’t work. Nine times out of ten the movie just reminds me of my problem.

No, I think the best line of attack is to start cooking when I get to worrying. I love cooking, and it’s a really active process. You can’t be fretting when you are cooking; you’ve got to turn your mind over to it completely – at least, I do. It’s because I care about the process and don’t just slap things together. The end product is a nice meal and a full belly, both of which give me a sense of well being. Now all I need to do is prepare a few stock cards, write on them “COOK,” and stick them in strategic places.

Please bear in mind that I am not giving advice here. I don’t know what your problems are nor what the solutions might be. All I’m saying is that life change requires preparation, otherwise it is doomed to failure. By failing you only make matters worse. Repeated failure can lead to serious loss of self confidence. So . . . think and plan before you decide on a change. You may still fail. It happens. Try again. Rethink your strategy. If something is worth changing you will ultimately win.

To be continued . . .