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Initially, I expected something of more depth from this book, but I ended up enjoying the book and the story telling style of Malcolm Gladwell.  He narrated the  Audilbe edition of his book ‘BLINK’. At times he was irksome with his repeated reference to the story of the buying of the Greek kouros by the Getty Museum. The blink referred to by Malcolm is that quick subconscious impression or decision we make about things for which we later find rational reasons to justify. 

Malcolm is not very familiar with recent developments in neuroscience and makes little attempt to drill deeper into the possible dynamics by which Blink might work. The subconscious remains unfathomable. He refers to it as ‘thin slicing’ and the ability of the mind to recognize patterns given the bare minimum of information. 

A better explanation of ‘thin slicing’ is given by the Nobel Prize winner (2011), Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The fast system is intuitive, and emotional; the slow system is more deliberate, and more logical.

Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. 

Gladwell on the other hand taps into a deep mystical yearning to be healed by nature, Blink exploits popular new-age beliefs about the power of the subconscious, intuition, even the paranormal. Blink devotes a significant number of pages to the so-called theory of mind reading. While allowing that mind-reading can "sometimes" go wrong, the book enthusiastically celebrates the apparent success of the practice, despite many scientific studies showing that claims of clairvoyance rarely beat the odds of random chance guessing.

Gladwell does acknowledge that intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. This is the key to the understanding of ‘thin slicing’, or Blink. The brain receives billions of bits of information and where possible it fits them into patterns, much like the ‘training data’ in machine learning —  the field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed (see previous post) -- the quality of the subconscious brain knowing without knowing. Also there would be the genetic bias as to how your brain works depending on what ‘traits’ you have (see previous post). 

In summary then, Blink is not that mysterious, but Malcolm Gladwell knows how to spin a good yarn

the urban monkThis is a review of the book The Urban Monk by Pedram Shojai -- in this case it was the Audible version which made it easy to listen to at sporadic intervals on my iPhone. This turned out to be a practice entirely in keeping with Pedram's approach to being an urban monk. The book is filled with practices that you can do while waiting for an appointment, being stuck in traffic or walking in the park. You can bookmark it, make notes or send extracts to your friends. The Urban Monk is designed to become your own personal trainer and companion in your day-to-day life and to bring peace to chaos.

It reminds me of the book by Robert Pirsig - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and his elaborate discussions on the  metaphysics of Quality -- a book I took on my world travels in the mid-70's.

Pedram received his Master’s in Oriental Medicine from Emperor’s College and then his OMD from the PanAmerican University. He's studied Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga, Meditation, and medicine diligently for the past 20+ years. He reveals the secrets to finding an open heart, sharp mind, and grounded sense of well-being, even in the most trying circumstances.

Here is a video clip with Pedram being interviewed by Jason Prall.

For those with a Taoist inclination, you may be interested in a blog post Pedram made in 2012.

We can’t learn meditation from a book or a series of workshops that teach us to focus our minds because true meditation happens OUTSIDE of the mind. When we allow our true nature to simply BE and let go of doing anything, we can slip into this realm of pure consciousness.

……. we can proceed to unlearn what is inhibiting us and actually grow in awareness. The essence of Taoist practice lies in this.

I highly recommend this book.

For The Urban Monk 7-Day Reboot  Course -- Click here.

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This is the last posting on the edX online course: The Science of Happiness. As well as providing video clips and written material about happiness, the course provided weekly 'happiness exercises' all based on research linking these practices to greater happiness. They are in keeping with the overall goals and philosophies of the Great Good Science Center: 

Here are the do-it-your-self practices or exercises that can help you on your way to greater happiness.

Happiness practice #1: Three good things
To be happier, spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening
One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.

Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness
Do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).

Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving
Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened. Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing
Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation
Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. Learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter
Write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down. This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self
Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings. Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal
One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time. To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it. This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter
Think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you. The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter. The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe
Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.

Activity: Expressive writing
Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings, about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved. This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.

Summary
Each individual will have their preferences as to which exercises best suit them, but the suggestion is to try some that may not initially appeal in order to discover the possibilities. For a quick fix: Active listening and Random acts of kindness are good places to start.

For more click here.

Following on with the edX online course, the topic that took predominance  was mindfulness. According to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. He is well known for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique developed in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week program translates Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context.

For more Kabat-Zinn, click here

Beyond affecting the mind, mindfulness is claimed to have helped people reduce chronic pain, clear up skin psoriasis, increase the immune response, reduce stress and boosted telomerase activity, the hallmark of a longer life expectancy. With these kind of claims, mindfulness has spawned a plethora of self-help multimillion-dollar industries — “a Buddha pill without religious beliefs or unforeseen side effects”.

There is a heavy bias in media reporting where moderate positive effects are highly inflated whereas non-significant and negative findings go unreported. As pointed out in a recent NewScientist report there are some cautionary tales.

 The purpose of meditation was to challenge and rupture the idea of who you are, shaking one’s sense of self to the core so you realise there is ‘nothing there’ (Buddhism) or no real differentiation between you and the rest of the universe (Hinduism).

Such meditation for 20 minutes a day is likely to provoke mild changes in self-perception. While practising this, you usually feel more aware of your breathing, body and thoughts. Now imagine going on a meditation retreat and extending your focus on the flow of awareness for six hours or more each day.

This might feel blissful for some as everyday concerns dissipate, but for others the outcome will be emotional distress, hallucinations or perhaps even ending up in a psychiatric ward.

“Meditating can produce powerful effects, but not all of these are beneficial”. Meditation and detached killing became the norm in Japan during the second world war.

Returning to the edX course and the training of the mind for happiness. Here is a list of some toxic thought patterns to avoid:

 * Perfectionism, where we strive for perfection and almost always find ourselves lacking. Being praised in childhood for intrinsic traits (like intelligence) rather than changeable traits (like effort) can promote perfectionism.

* Social comparison. Comparing ourself to those who are better off than us leads to lower self-perception, while comparing ourself to those who are worse off than us makes us look down on them.

* Materialism. In fact, research has shown that buying experiences gives us much more of a happiness boost than buying things.

* “Maximising” rather than “satisficing.” Maximisers try to make the optimal choice (a form of perfectionism), while satisficers pick the first available choice that fits their criteria. Maximisers tend to feel more regret over decisions, and be less optimistic, more depressed, and less satisfied with life and with any success they do achieve.

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These photos of Isfahan are a follow-up to the previous posting Trip to Iran - Isfahan. The photos were taken during the visit to Iran in November, 2014.

Isfahan is famous for its Islamic architecture, boulevards, covered bridges, palaces and mosques. During 1050 - 1772 it was the centre of the north-south and east-west (The Silk Route) trading routes. The Naqshe-eJalan Square, the largest city square in the world, was built during this time.

We stayed at the Abbasi Hotel, named after Shah Abbas the Great who in 1598 made Isfahan the capital of Persia. During this time thousands of Georgians came to live in Isfahan. The Si-o-Seh Poi Bridge of 33 arches was built by Shah Abbas.

Isfahan is where the nuclear experimental facilities are located. It also contains a major oil refinery and produces fine carpets, textiles, steel and handicrafts. The city was resettled by a large number people from southern Iran following the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's.

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These photos of Persepolis are a follow-up to the previous posting Trip to Iran - Shiraz. The photos were taken during the visit in November, 2014.

Persepolis was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire from 550 - 330 BC.  Darius 1 began building the 125,000 square metre terrace, with tunnels for sewage, upon which the palaces and Great Halls were built. Persepolis was finally completed by Xerxes the Great and it became the symbol of the Empire. In 480 BC Xerxes lead a Persian army into Greece that sacked and burnt another symbol city, the Acropolis of Athens. And 150 years later in 330 BC Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and set fire to Persepolis although reported in a drunken ravel with his troops. Athens was rebuilt after 480 BC by the Greeks and the Romans but Persepolis remained a ruin and with time much of it became covered with sand.

Enroute to Persepolis from Shiraz we travelled to Naqsh-e Rustam, the site of the tombs of the Achaemenid kings of Persia. Four tombs were carved out of the rock face at a considerable height above the ground. They are believed to be those of Darius 1 the Great (c. 522-486 BC),  Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC),  Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II (c. 423-404 BC).  The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great.

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These photos of Shiraz are a follow-up to the previous posting Trip to Iran - Shiraz. The photos were taken during the visit in November, 2014. Shiraz is famous for its tombs and mausoleum to the Persian poets Saadi (1209 - 1291) and Hafez (1324 - 1391). In the 18th century it was the capital of Iran and it is known for its crafts of inlaid mosaic work of triangular design and for its carpets. Shiraz was nicknamed "The Athens of Iran" due to the presence of many Persian scholars and artists. A variety of black wine grape called Shiraz is believed to have been brought from Iran by the Crusades.

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Although I had purchased this eBook about a year ago, I had only recently finished reading it. It had the Catch 22 factor - exhorting one to consume more information while warning one about the deluge of READ ME and self-improvement books, magazines and articles — the problem in the first place. This the dark side of the age of information overload — where amongst all the hype and infotainment do you find something of value. This book gives good advice as to how to control our information consumption — i.e. how to go on a diet.

About the author
Before going further it is useful to know something about the author in order to get a perspective as to where he is coming from and maybe also where he is going.

“The author Clay Johnson is best known as the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama's online campaign for the presidency in 2008. After leaving Blue State, Johnson was the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, where he built an army of 2000 developers and designers to build open source tools to give people greater access to government data.
The range of Johnson's experience with software development, politics, entrepreneurism, and working with non-profits gives him a unique perspective on media and culture. His life is dedicated to giving people greater access to the truth about what's going on in their communities, their cities, and their governments.”

The first part of his book compares the obesity epidemic with our information over consumption. “We are what we eat” - becomes we are what information we consume. In summary:

“While our collective sweet tooth used to serve us well, in the land of abundance it’s killing us. As it turns out, the same thing has happened with information. The economics of news have changed and shifted, and we’ve moved from a land of scarcity into a land of abundance. And though we are wired to consume — it’s been a key to our survival — our sweet tooth for information is no longer serving us well. Surprisingly, it too is killing us.”

He compares ‘junk food’ to churnalism:

“In an effort to cut costs, journalists often become more filters than reporters, succumbing to the torrents of spin heading their way, and passing on what’s said by the scores of PR consultants. Rather than report the news, they simply copy what’s in a press release and paste it into their stories. It’s a kind of commercially advantageous and permissible plagiarism called churnalism.”

We don’t seek information to inform ourselves, like comfort food, we consume what we already agree with. We find ourselves both addicted to more information and vulnerable to misinformation for the sake of our egos.

Fear of Missing Out
Fear of Missing Out

“Finally, it means a moral choice for information consumption: opting out of a system that’s at least morally questionable, for a different way — a way that chooses to shun factory farmed information, politically charged affirmations — and choosing to support organizations interested in providing information consumers with source-level information and reporting that contains more truth than point-of-view.”

How do we get a healthy information diet? This will vary from individual to individual and may change as one changes one’s life circumstances. He does advise visiting the website of the book: InformationDiet.com and to consume consciously. He suggests three resources that may be useful:

The second part of his book is about transparency in communities, cities, local and state governments — greater access to what is going on. But he cautions about the dark side of transparency.

“Even the most open and transparent systems must compete with buckets of information that are more interesting. The second is our poor information diets — that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth makes the competition all the more difficult.”

In some ways the two messages — information consumption and transparency of governance could have been written as two separate books, one for each topic. The Information Diet is a must-read book but it feels more like I had eaten a 10-course meal.

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From Shiraz we flew to Isfahan (pop. 4 million) famous for its boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques and minarets. There is a Persian proverb that says: if you have seen Isfahan then you have seen half of the world. It has also been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We were able to rent for 4 nights (at $750), a 2-bedroom suite with en suites, lounge and a balcony over-looking a beautiful garden at the 5-star Abbasi Hotel — breakfast included.

The Abbasi Hotel
The Abbasi Hotel
Breakfast included
Breakfast included

While staying at the Abbasi Hotel we had an amusing incident. After two weeks of eating kebabs my wife and I were keen to have a piece of fillet steak. We noticed that one of the restaurants at the Hotel had fillet steak on the menu. So at this very lavish restaurant we ordered fillet steaks -- cooked rare to medium rare and awaited with anticipation. We were served thin slices of veal cooked to destruction -- upon complaining to the waiter, he politely smiled at us and said in Farsi the equivalent of: "you don't travel all the way to Isfahan to have a fillet steak!"

It is interesting to note that due to the economic sanctions there are no ATM’s or EFTPOS or credit cards. We were advised to bring American dollars and these were converted to rials (1$USD = 27,000 rials) which meant we were carrying fat wads of paper bills, but despite our ignorance the local merchants always gave us the correct change, we were told, and never were ripped off.

While in Isfahan we were able to visit the mosques and on one occasion were greeted by a mullah who offered us Russian toffee and spent time explaining the architecture and religious practice in a softly spoken English accent.

Mullah-2
Mullah in the Imam Mosque

Isfahan is a truly beautiful city and where ever you went there was something amazing to see.

Mosque-Isfahan-3
The Imam Mosque at Naqsh-e Jahan Square
The bridge of 33 arches
The bridge of 33 arches - Siosepol or Siose Bridge

Before leaving this description of Iran, there is a somewhat sinister aspect to the country’s Islamic system — the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards were set-up in 1979 to protect the Islamic system from foreign influences as well as coups by the military or ‘deviant groups’. Since then they have become very powerful and have ground, air and naval capabilities. They are seen at customs and passport control in green uniforms young, well-trained, educated and courteous. The Revolutionary Guards own hotel chains and business ventures. They make investments overseas and have universities and health centres. They are the infrastructure that hold the mullahs and every aspect of Iranian society together. They are the hidden power of the country. They are reminiscent of the “Ten Thousand Immortals’, the elite force of soldiers that fought for the Achaemenid kings of Persia.

The Revolutionary Guards
The Revolutionary Guards

We flew back from Isfahan to Tehran and then onward to Dubai, Sydney and New Zealand. We spent a day in Dubai and after the rich cultural experience of Iran were disappointed by the glitz and bling of Dubai. The fountains at night were delightful but the rest was a ‘waste of space’.

The fountains in Dubai
The fountains in Dubai