Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

In life there are select moments when external and internal reality syncs perfectly, when ticking time shuts down and one is completely present.  For some, this state of grace may unfold when scaling a mountain (understandable, given that continued existence is delicately tied to that monumental rock!).  For others, these moments might be associated with the creation of music or the joy of painting, or for still others sifting rich loam while planting a garden…  Basically such moments can occur whenever the boundary between you and “not you” dissolves and you find (or lose) yourself in deep involvement with life.

These perfect, engrossing moments are the focus of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, an interesting read by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  In this treatment, Mihaly C. outlines research on the state of grace he calls “flow” and resulting thoughts on how being in flow profoundly affects the degree of enjoyment and satisfaction with one’s life experiences.  Mihaly C. argues that this flow state is the warp and woof of a rich existence; as individuals that seek and experience flow states create more opportunity for fulfillment regardless of circumstance or the experience in question.

Interestingly, a large section of Mihaly C.’s work focuses on the importance of the autotelic personality as a factor in frequent flow experiences. An autotelic personality is one that is strongly motivated by internal benefit as opposed to external reward, for example, a person that has an internal sense of purpose that is not as influenced by external conditions (i.e. those that happily make lemonade martinis when life gives them lemons).  Probably one of the better known examples of an autotelic personality is Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and a Dachau concentration camp survivor.  Viktor Frankl’s strong internal drive – or autotelic personality – was a large factor in his survival and triumph over his external environment and offers profound lessons on finding meaning in the darkest of places.

On a more contemporary basis, the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful description of one man’s lifetime dedication to mastering his craft: sushi-making.  It also offers a subtly wrought treatment of another formidable autotelic personality and illuminates a critical aspect to sustaining flow experiences.  As the flow state can be precipitated by taking on tasks that we find challenging, this means that it is important to increase the complexity of these tasks over time as our skills improve (as otherwise the activity becomes meaningless and boring).  In the film, we see Jiro’s passionate yet methodical dedication to elevating the art of sushi-making to new heights over his lifetime, where he dreams day and night of how to improve, how to better, how to create anew…

Essentially, where one man would find drudgery in placing bits of raw fish on rice for 70-some years, another has created an eternally challenging and deeply satisfying flow experience. The film ultimately provides a thoughtful reflection on the art, beauty, and pleasure of mastering a craft to increasing levels of perfection in keeping with the precepts of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Viktor Frankl.  Similarly, by looking upon our myriad actions as potential flow experiences – no matter how pedestrian or mundane they may seem – we all have the profound opportunity to infuse meaning, purpose, and growth into every moment.

P.S.  Mihaly C. suggests that societies can also influence the opportunity for frequent flow activities, citing examples as in the BaMbuti pygmies.  When not otherwise occupied with hunting or improving their villages, every adult in this society “is expected to be a bit of an actor, singer, artist and historian as well as a skilled worker” which leads Mihaly C. to suggest that “their culture would not be given a high rating in terms of material achievement, but in terms of providing optimal experiences their way of life seems to be extremely successful.”

In a related vein, the New York Times recently published a piece on the merits of being less productive, making the case that our chase after prosperity, productivity, and growth is at the expense of an economy of care, craft and culture. The author posits that far greater well-being and fulfillment would arise from more focus on aspects like craftsmanship and culture, i.e.: “It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year? “

A sweet little creature

The problem with traveling is sometimes you fall in love, and that love is usually intense and ephemeral, because someone – eventually – will depart. This time, I fell in love unexpectedly… with a mouse deer.

It all started when I was out in the ancient ruined city of Polonnurawa, Sri Lanka. It was about 7am, sweltering hot, and the BBC documentary film crew was in action trying to incite a confrontation between two toque macaque monkey troops. I was milling about uncertainly at the periphery, feeling a little useless, when I noticed the project lead and a field assistant looking intently at something on the ground. I wandered up, and saw that they were looking at this incredible little creature that was nestled underneath a shrub: a baby mouse deer.

I immediately thought it the cutest animal I had ever seen, and judging by the smiling faces all around, I wasn’t the only one. When it was suggested that I keep an eye on it for a few hours I happily agreed. I was ready to do my part and guard this little guy from danger! As well as see if the mother would return, or if he was well and truly alone in this big world.

I spent the morning sitting on the grass near the mouse deer, gently corralling him when he strayed too far. He was a pretty plucky little guy, not even a half hour had passed when he ventured unsteadily on his tiny legs to see what I was all about before nestling back into the security of his shrub. At one point, a bunch of toque monkeys came close, curious to see what I was looking at.  I instantly picked him up and shielded him – he didn’t struggle or protest and seemed quite content to sit with me afterward. I knew right then that this encounter was something special.

As the mother was still nowhere in sight and the mouse deer was very weak, we decided to bring it to the research camp and see if we could help it live. And that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  It took to infant formula after some coaxing, and after a day or two it was starting to nibble on figs, and banana, and even leaves.  What was really amazing was how instantly he connected with people.  Curious, I read up on the mouse deer, discovering it was part of the family chevrotain – well and truly a deer as opposed to mouse, and one of the most ancient mammal species.  Finding a baby is also a rare occurrence, the project lead here hadn’t ever had a mouse deer baby in camp in over 40 years of field work.  In fact, scour the Internet and you’ll find precious little on raising a baby mouse deer.

Despite his rarity, day by day he got stronger and our hopes grew that he would become a wonderful addition to the camp – maybe even a film star for the next BBC shoot! He would take to following me, bouncing around at my feet and coming when called, running across the camp floor and sliding all over the place on his tiny hooves.  As the days passed, I would spend hours watching him, petting him, feeding him, walking with him…  It was a source of – I fully admit – continual joy to open the box every morning and see these bright eyes looking up at me, followed by a tiny u-shaped stretch as I’d bend down to take him out of the box.

Unfortunately, the time we had was cut short.  I had to leave camp for a few days, planning to be back on my birthday.  While I was gone I thought of the mouse deer daily, worrying and hoping that he would be ok during my absence.  Things got complicated when I was gone, and I was asked to delay my return by a day.  I wish so much now that I hadn’t, as my return one day later was to the news that the little mouse deer had died that morning.  He had lived until my birthday like I had hoped for… but like the story of the monkey’s paw, the wish had a flip side, as the day after he tried to jump out of his box and I guess the fall was too much for his delicate body.

When I returned to camp I went to his box sadly and said goodbye, stroking his broken little body.  His spirit was already gone, and there was no trace of the life that had animated such a wonderful creature. I moved his small hooves in the air a bit, and brushed his tail, but under my hands there was only stillness.

Looking back, I had been given the indisputable gift of spending time with an unusual and brave little animal.  Although I’m profoundly grateful for the time I had with him, I wish those bright eyes would have shined on just a little longer.

The last of those summer hooves

Infinity, you say? Right this way please.

You probably all remember those glorious two months of summer when you were a kid, when school was out for the best time of the year and the next hazy cricket-hum days were spent running around like wild, swimming, playing, exploring, until the sun went down and your parents called you home.  I can always distinctly remember that the end of summer – and going back to school – meant putting on my socks.  The socks would feel real funny, as it was the softest thing my callused feet (a.k.a. “summer hooves”) experienced in what was like, forever.

This memory always gets me to thinking.  If only I had known the very last time my little summer hooves experienced that soft velvety sockness I would have KNOWN that was the last time that we ever had a full two months of the best times of our lives to run around carefree like the wind…

I read somewhere once that we humans are eternal optimists, that we live our lives as though the moments ahead are infinite, and that at any time we choose, we could experience any one moment again.  The reality is that these experience possibilities are not infinite, they are finite, and when it comes to the sum total of our lives we never really know when we’ve experienced the last of something.

For example, over your lifetime you may only fully watch 134 sunsets, you might only ever have (gasp!) 57 perfect cappuccinos, or 78 swims in the ocean… but the possibility of the 135th sunset, the 79th swim, and the 58th perfect cappuccino, is always there.  It seems that for us, Pandora’s Box rings eternal and it’s a blessing, as we think that there will always be another sunset to fully appreciate, never really knowing that the one we watched way back when was actually our last.

NYC’s Lowline Underground: The Future of Parks?

Just another sunny day in the hood..

You may have heard of that unusual new idea to create an underground park in NYC.  Nicknamed the LowLine (formally Delancey Underground), the project was trending on kickstarter.com (155K raised) to create a full-scale demo this spring.  The thinking is to transform a 1.5 acre abandoned trolley terminal into the world’s first underground park.

It’s a nifty idea, replete with the requisite tech-fixes, i.e. gathering sunlight via fibre optic cables to reflect light and enable photosynthesis underground.  The community component is also pretty cool, as you can imagine what opens up to people when you have a year-round green public space available in the hood.  Re-purposing derelict urban areas to augment green space and amp up community vibrancy is a pretty fantastic thing to do in general.

When you step back a bit though, an underground park is bit of a curious idea. It kind of flies in the face of getting fresh air, feeling the sun on your face, and squishing the grass between your toes.  For those old enough to remember, the concept echoes The Secret World of Og, a fantastic underground place populated by green men and um.. mushrooms.

Now, one can definitely argue that the creators of the Delancey Project are prescient, thinking ahead and planning for how the future of how urban design will play out as the human population expands and resources shrink.   In fact, one phrase on the DU website speaks to this very idea, which states that the LowLine is “essentially part of the next phase in urban design, in which human scale and increasing resource scarcity force us to imagine smarter, more creative use of public spaces.”

That’s kind of a scary statement.  Not the LowLine project per se, but the presupposition that the future of urban design is one that “forces us to imagine smarter and more creative use of public space”.  Surely there exist immediately available opportunities for public space that don’t require only a “technology as panacea” epiphany, or some other creatively convoluted approach.

Take High Park for example, Toronto’s little above ground gem.   What a lot of people don’t know is that this park is the result of one guy (John Colborne) thinking ahead, perhaps musing as follows: “Hmm… I wonder what happens if x city grows by y amount.. and if so, perhaps it would be good for the city to have z greenery”.  As High Park was a pretty hefty trip from downtown Toronto at the time, city planners thought his suggestions unnecessary and Colborne had to do a lot of convincing to get the City onboard.  The happy result was that Colborne bequeathed the Park to the City in 1873, and now we have this great green space that over a million people a year visit.

(When you really stop to think about it, Colborne’s legacy is pretty amazing. The foresight of one man way back in the 1800s created a place that so many people enjoy in different ways, and also one that hosts a number of native species.  If you’ve ever spent a few hours in the park, and many of us have, we all recognize how rejunevating it is to spend a few hours au plein air.)

Now, there’s some differences between the context for High Park as it was created then, and NYC LowLine as it’s being envisioned now (i.e. massive growth in population, transportation, urbanization, densification, etc.). And it stands to reason that LowLine may be an indicator species for a new conceptualization of green space that can flourish underground, which would be pretty great.  This said though, it would be a shame if the only solutions available to the future of urban planning – as implied by the Delancey project – were seen as those involving some kind of cool new high tech approach instead of boring old low tech conservation – especially given that it’s these latter projects that tend to stay the course over the longer haul.

Just look what Colborne did over 100 years ago.  Thank you Mister Colborne, you rock!

What Dilbert has in common with oil pipelines

About time we oil got serious around here

You have all heard of Dilbert right?  Yes, that Dilbert, the cute, muzzy-headed engineer king of the nerdworld.  What you might not have heard of though is his free-flowing hydrocarbon sidekick: “DilBit”.  Yep, you read that right.  There is a character called DilBit living large on the world stage out there, and he’s worth noticing.

Who, or what, is Dilbit?  Basically DilBit is short for Diluted Bitumen, a relatively new arrival on the Alberta tar sands scheme. DilBit was created in order to get thick viscous oil like bitumen to flow through pipelines (by adding fun stuff like naptha). The problem with Mr. DilBit – aside from his suspect origins – is that he is even more toxic, explosive, and corrosive than previous generations of his oily brethren.  Wait a second, corrosive you say?  Yes, and unfortunately DilBit is the prime stuff planned for the two big pipelines making the headlines these days: TransCanada’s Keystone XL through Alberta and the Northern Gateway through British Columbia.

(As a brief backgrounder, the planned Keystone XL is expected to transport on order of 550,000 barrels of this DilBit per day over a 2,000 mile stretch.  Unfortunately much of this pipeline passes through sensitive areas in the US and in Canada, as in Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer, the most heavily used aquifer in the US.  Similarly, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project is expected to also carry 525,000 bbl per day.  This route crosses more than 785 rivers and streams and the headwaters of three of the continent’s most important watersheds – the Mackenzie, the Fraser, and the Skeena.  The route also traverses.. wait for it… a seismically active area).

Ok, so this is where it gets interesting. TransCanada estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline could see – hmm, maybe about 11 spills over the next half-century, with each spill releasing an average of 50 barrels of oil or so.  Doesn’t seem so bad right?  Keep in mind though, that TransCanada’s current Keystone pipeline had 35 leaks in its first year in operation – 21 in Canada and 14 in the US. Other precedents exist, including four large Enbridge spills just between 2009 to 2010, which ranged in scale from 3,000 barrels of syncrude up to 19,500 barrels of tar sand oil.  It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that these are orders of magnitude and frequency higher than the projected “11 spills or so, 50 barrels of oil, next half century, tops.”

When you combine this context and history with Mr. DilBit’s little personality quirks, as he is rather a corrosive type with toxic tendencies, what could possibly go wrong?

P.S.  I decided a P.S. was warranted as the above only points out a problem.  Setting aside the bigger issue of tar sand oil extraction (as we are principally dealing with oil transportation here), other alternatives to pipelines exist. CN rail for example already ships oil and coal – did you know that 5 – 7 trains alone can match the daily capacity of the Keystone XL, and move five times faster?  Each railcar can carry ~ 660 barrels of bitumen.  What’s more, because the bitumen does not have to be diluted to be transported = no DilBit.

Lastly, because bitumen does not flow at ambient temperatures (unlike Dilbit, which does) – any sort of “spill” would be quickly contained, as opposed to the scenarios posited above.

Makes one wonder…

Why David Eddie’s cool

Where to, Your Highness?

So, I happen to think that the advice columnist from the Globe & Mail – David Eddie – is a pretty top-notch writer (yes, I’m admitting I read advice columns, ok moving on!!).  Not only that though, he generally gives good advice – warmhearted, empathetic, yet also cuts to the chase when someone’s not being a class act.

For example, last week Mr. Eddie posted a little spiel by somebody who was upset their sister rudely canceled on attending a family dinner party.  The hostess was upset given the amount of work hosting can entail, yet was unsure of how (or if) to convey her displeasure.  Mr. Eddie’s response to this dire social conundrum?  “Well, you know, we advice columnists are always counselling people to take the calm, rational route, adopt the long view, be the better person, and la la la.  But in this case, I think you should let your sister have it, right between the eyes.”

Ha, ha!  Way to go, Mr. Eddie!

But then, he blew the whole kind of trite-advice-on-social-mores thing to a whole other philosophical ballpark by going on to quote: “We teach people how to treat us”.  That pulled me up short.  Now when it comes to small fry things like getting mad at dinner party cancellations and such, of course there are a lot of people that wouldn’t be fazed one whit and go on with their lives (as many of the G&M comments pointed out). However, to me anyway, the quote supersedes its arguably shallow origins because it’s one of those deeper truths – we do teach other people how to treat us.  And that’s the bigger lesson he’s delicately imparting, whether we’re talking about little things or far bigger ones..

So, next time I’m ranting about why so-and-so did or didn’t do x or y, I’m going to take a little look in the proverbial mirror first (but just a short one, as ranting is fun!)

Why is email addictive?

Alllooo? Where's my email?

A while back, the bloggers at MindHacks posted a theory as to why email is so addictive. (i.e. “I must hit the ‘get mail’ button at least a hundred times a day. Sometimes, if I don’t have any new mail, I hit it again immediately, just to check. I interrupt my work to check my mail even when I know that I’m not going to find anything interesting and that I should just concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing….”)

Ok, that sounds way too familiar for my liking!

Now, although there are varying theories as to why email can be an incredibly addictive pursuit (for some), MindHacks base their conjecture on the principles of operant conditioning, which is the theory that what we do and how we act depends on the rewards and punishments resulting from what we did last time around.

The salient angle here lies with the concept of intermittent or variable reinforcement, which occurs when we receive rewards only some of the time for performing certain behaviours.  What’s curious is that intermittent reinforcement has actually been shown to be the most effective way to ensure repeated behaviour.  Loosely translated, if a kid gets a candy only some of the time, that kid is more likely to repeat the potential candy-resulting behaviour than a kid that gets rewarded all of the time (i.e. mucho candy, all day long).

Why, you ask?  Well, because the kid is never sure as to whether the reward is coming or not, not only do they get used to performing the behaviour without reward, they also take longer to stop the behaviour even if the reward is removed!  Sort of a cruel but effective trick really.

Now, in the context of email, the authors suggest that a possible “reward” could be when one gets an email from a friend, or a funny joke, or some kind of fun distraction, like say a blog of some kind :).  As you never know when one of those bundles of joy will be in your inbox, we hit send/receive ad nauseum..  And thus, because the infinite ‘next time’ just might be the occasion that produces sweet reward, so hope springs eternal and off we dash after that elusive – oh hang on sec – I just got an email!!

P.S.  One of the classic examples of experimentation in this area is the so-called Skinner box – which may recall Psych101 for some.  The Skinner Box in its most basic iteration is in effect an operant conditioning chamber.  In one particular experiment, rats were given food pellet rewards when they pushed a lever in the chamber.  True to the tenets of intermittent reward, rats that were given food pellets only once in a while (as opposed to rats given pellets every single time they depressed the lever), went ballistic on the lever, pushing it as many times as they possibly could, in the faint hope that this time the pellet cometh!

Facebook Timeline and the quantified self

Right there with you, every step of the way

By now, most Facebook users know about the widespread introduction of Timeline, which is an adaptation of the site to share more of its users life through infographics.  Basically the site now takes all the personal data dropped into the Facebook void and knits this into a lifeline that reads like a cross between an illustrated story and an annual report.

The format is largely credited to Nick Felton, the design-uber genius who rose to fame by charting a year of his life in annual report style.  Felton’s approach is impactful, visually appealing, and somewhat provocative as it essentially quantifies life by the numbers, and the supposition is that the numbers you choose to quantify add up to the totality of your life (or, at least the totality of it you want to show publicly).  For example, Felton’s 2011 annual report contains randomness ranging from the number of hours spent at work (2,567.5), to the number of alcoholic beverages consumed (806), to the number of teeth lost by his cat (1).

In a sense, this “quantified-self movement” is somewhat iterative, as one has to ask how many of Felton’s 2,567.5 work hours were spent quantifying those very work hours. (A 1,000?  Perhaps 2,000?)  And how many of those hours were spent quantifying hours spent quantifying?  And so on..

Stepping back, this never-ending virtual solipsism is a pretty bizarre ride we’re on.  It’s as though you were to find yourself standing in between two mirrors, and, turn around as you might, you can’t quite catch a good look at the smaller versions of yourself stretching out into infinity.

P.S. The Walrus recently penned a piece on Facebook’s new Timeline format which has some interesting thoughts.

i.e. “Yet to call the sudden regurgitation of years of photos, messages, contacts, and comments disconcerting is an understatement. All along, Facebook has been tracking your data, waiting for this moment to arrive. Because it’s not just your Facebook life that Timeline captures: the first date is not, as you might expect, the day you joined; it’s the day you were born. A site best known for disseminating awkward party photos is now imagining itself at the foot of your mother’s bed at the moment of your delivery, diligently taking notes…

Rather than downplaying the mountain of data it has collected, Facebook put it on display. Look, it says, look at how much we’ve learned about one another. We’ve come a long way, you and I. Look at what we’ve built together. You wouldn’t walk away from that, now, would you?”

André the seal gets fishing permit, whales wait patiently

Opening up our thinking

A while back in Scotland, a wee seal named André was awarded a fishing permit by the Loch Lomond Angling Improvement Association.  Fortified with his new permit and passport sized picture, André was now legally allowed to fish to his stomach’s content until October 31st, 2003.  The Association’s reason for its generous donation?  “André has been committing a poaching offense by eating all our salmon. He has already cost us thousands of pounds in fish and through loss of permit sales, so the least we could do until he is caught is to make it legal.”

Too funny.

In a letter to his newest member, Mr Brady, the Association Chair at the time, wrote: “We have decided to issue you with a fishing permit for the season. This will allow you to fish in Loch Lomond and the River Leven. Last year some of your friends (two otters) moved into the River Endrick, so you may wish to visit them and (unfortunately for us) share a salmon or two with them.”

What’s particularly interesting about this one though, is that eleven years later The Economist, stalwart economic orator that it is, has taken the unusual step to publish a proposal by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The proposal?  That whales and dolphins, based on their degree of intelligence and self-awareness, are “persons” too and as such should be accorded these rights.

According to the proponents, this idea – that is, what we call a person – does not necessarily need to be human.  Instead, in philosophy, a “person is a being with special characteristics who deserves special treatment as a result of those characteristics.” Based on this premise, cetaceans do indeed count as “persons” and therefore have moral rights as appropriate to their species.

Although the proponents have cautiously and understandably left some wiggle room here, i.e. “as appropriate to their species”, it’s interesting – and perhaps testament to our moral development – that these conversations are occurring at the level of AAAS and being picked up by The Economist, no less.

P.S. A couple of tongue-in-cheek commentators on the Economist article thought that perhaps the whales would take offence to being called people.  Still others indicated that perhaps immigration might become an interesting issue.. i.e. “the Grey Whale crosses from Mexico into US waters early each year without any documentation. Then the entire population spends months eating American molluscs and having sex in American waters until returning to Mexico (again without bothering to get their passports stamped) where each winter the next generation of illegal immigrants is born. If we recognize whales as equal to people we may have to (at last) develop an immigration policy that treats Mexicans (and others from the South) as human beings!”

Canada and the Arctic Grail

Sheesh how far do I have to go to get ice around here

In 2007, a chap by the name of McKenzie Funk published a nice piece in Harper’s, “The Coming Fight for the Melting North”.  It’s a gorgeous piece of writing on what’s happening in the Arctic given the melting ice and the subsequent opening up of transportation routes and resources (you need a subscription to see the article, but summaries can be viewed here, here, and here).

Basically Funk does a bang up job describing the intricacies of the maneuvering for territory occurring up in the Arctic.  It’s a pretty huge deal given the commercial, military, and resource value of that area (i.e. the U.S.G.S. estimates the area holds up to 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil, and whoever controls the shipping up there is going to be set).

This means that who owns what and whose territory ends where is of increasing interest. How much interest?  Well, with its expanded holdings the United States could potentially grow by 4.1 million square miles to become the world’s largest country (and acquire $1.3 trillion worth of resources to boot).  That’s… quite a bit.

Funk goes on to say that with the Arctic ice melting, “experts foresee numerous conflicts between the five nations whose borders meet there. Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States all have borders along the Arctic, and all of them have already begun research into what swathes of territory their continental shelves entitle them to claim“.  As you can imagine this has made Canada a little nervous, as suddenly its continuing entitlement to its northern coastline and waters has become somewhat more nebulous.

Although it’s tricky to predict how this will all play out and there’s been renewed interest in collaboration of late, two things stand out a bit:

  1. Despite the continuing debate about whether climate change is real, there is a very real jockeying for position predicated on melting ice floes; and,
  2. Given what’s at stake in an increasingly constrained world, if push comes to shove there’s likely going to be a lot of shoving.