How to Focus in the Age of Distraction

Focus-mindmap-for-web

I absolutely love this mindmap (originally found here). Becoming effective is an ongoing process, one that I became increasingly aware of in my final undergraduate year. Writing an honour’s thesis was my greatest research task to date, an eight-month long project. I was genuinely inspired by my topic, but had to be mindfully aware of my work habits and inclinations.

I like to believe that my own effectiveness skills have increased dramatically in the past couple of years (although of course I can still readily blow an entire day making cookies, absorbed in a novel and mindlessly perusing the interwebs). For me, using a timer is especially helpful for focusing in on a task, whether for long or short amounts of time. Gently talking down perfectionist tendencies has been another important step. Putting off a task because conditions aren’t perfect, because I think I don’t know enough, or because I feel I’m not in the right frame of mind doesn’t mean things get done better later.  I try to remember that getting things done just feels good, and I likely know more than I think I do.

There are too many important and interesting things to be done in the world – why waste time?

Climate science communications

What would I advise climate science communicators?” from Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School:

The “science communication environment” consists of all the normal, and normally reliable, signs and processes that people use to figure out what is known to science. Most of these signs and processes are bound up with the normal interactions inside communities whose members share basic outlooks on life. There are lots of different communities of that sort in our society, but usually they all steer their respective members toward what science knows.

But when positions on a fact that admits of scientific investigation  (“is the earth heating up?”; “does the HPV vaccine promote unsafe sex among teenage girls?”) becomes entangled with the values and outlooks of diverse communities—and becomes, in effect, a symbol of one’s membership and loyalty in one or another group—then people in those groups will end up in states of persistent disagreement and confusion. These sorts of entanglements (and the influences that cause them) are in effect a form of pollution in the science communication environment, one that disables people from reliably discerning what is known to science.

The science communication environment is filled with these sorts of toxins on climate change. We need to use our intelligence to figure out how to clean our science communication environment up.

How we know what we know (or think we know what we know, particularly within distinct cultural communities) is seriously interesting and seriously messy. I’ve been reading through Robert Burton‘s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, which comes from the actual neuroscience side of things and reminds us that we essentially have no idea what’s going on.

On Being Certain

Couple those untrustworthy personal minds with complicated group dynamics… aren’t people interesting? Kahan’s remark that communities generally “steer their respective members toward what science knows”  seems optimistic to me, particularly in light of this country’s ongoing political shenanigans. (Sidenote: Manfriend was listening to Bill O’Reilly and Colin Powell talk gun control last night. I had to shut the door and not listen anymore).

On the Canadian front, Norm Kelly, the chair of Toronto’s parks and environment committee, has once again expressed doubt as to whether climate change is real, citing that considerable scientific debate still exists. In this case his “scientific debate” traces back to the activities of the Heartland Institute. Yep…

On that note, Dan Kahan ends his discussion on scientific communication with this solid reminder:

Where to engage the public, how, and about what in order to improve the political economy surrounding climate change are all matters of debate, of course. So you should consult all the evidence, and all the people who have evidence-informed views, and make the best judgment possible. And anyone who doesn’t tell you that this is the thing to do is someone whose understanding of what needs to be done should be seriously questioned.

So, as Carl Sagan said, “science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign”. Here’s to evidence-informed views, and effective science communication.

Dark Pines Under Water

trees in water

Dark Pines Under Water – Gwendolyn MacEwen

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

From The Shadow-Maker. Toronto: Macmillan, 1972

Accessed from Canadian Poetry Online, University of Toronto Libraries 

One of my favourite poems by one of my favourite writers. The quiet, foggy swamp brought it to mind during a recent ramble.

Small adventures

Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it. A wave rolled toward you
out of the distant past, or as you walked
under an open window, a violin
yielded itself to your hearing.

 – Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies 

I love this snippet from the first Duino Elegy. It surfaces every year, around April or so when I’m inspired with wild spring feelings. It comes to mind at other lovely moments, and fills me with the sense of the animate, the beautiful wonder humans imbue the world with through our astonishing sentience. There’s a whole planet, busy with small processes and functionalities that have no need and nothing to do with humans. Plants breath in and out, a bird’s adapted wings propel it through the air, stars burn, ants crisscross sidewalks. We blunder oblivious or pause to engage. The world’s simply magical enough all on its own accord, but we’re the ones who write poetry on it.

There will always be some small and interesting adventure to be had, no matter where you find yourself. While currently spending the winter in an unappetizing housing complex, I am lucky enough to have West Lafayette’s Celery Bog within sight of my window – a beautiful 195 acres of marsh, forest, prairie and savannah.

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In the summertime the marsh was an astonishing riot of species, many of them new to me. (One favourite being the striking red-headed woodpeckers, which nested in standing dead timber throughout the marsh). The woods closest to the complex consists of some elegant old trees, a shadowy deep-green mass beckoning across the parking lot during the summer. (Putting me firmly in mind of Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest, if somewhat less glamorous in location).

Even in the quiet cold of winter the bog is still lovely. The dormant maples, oaks and beeches I see from my window are just as enticing. A tepid day of rain was followed by cold nighttime temperatures earlier this month, and of course the bog was transformed: every stalk of grass and tree branch, every withered leaf and twig encased in ice. With the sun out in full force it made for a beautiful and cold morning, especially as the wind moved through the frozen trees like a cascading series of chimes.

I ran into old familiars: the white-breasted nuthatch (pictured above, who worked his way curiously down the entire length of a trunk to check me out), black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and Canadian geese (who I frightened up from the marsh in great cacophonous numbers). A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers called back and forth across the woods, another handsome species I’m not so familiar with.

My toes and cheeks were numb after rambling through the bush and down along the marsh. I felt properly justified in making another pot of coffee and curling up with a book for the rest of the morning – entirely thankful for small adventures.

Inspiration & new learning

Ideology – the place where theory and morality meet – is, at its best, a dynamic rational tool, vital to the task of building knowledge. It is when our personal ideologies are taken for granted, or left unexamined, that they lapse into dogma, and it is therefore important that this is not allowed to happen.

From “How scientific is political science?”. David Wearing, the Guardian UK.

Life was entirely busy these last few months with GRE preparation, especially for the quantitative portion of the exam. I’ve been one of those all-too-common cases of someone who just never “got” math – a reality that I found discouraging, particularly when other academic pursuits were so integral to my sense of self. Faced with the GRE and knowing that math skills would be essential for my future goals, the time finally came to buckle down… and I did!

Learning math meant going back, way back, and revisiting every small concept that I’d failed to absorb since grade three. (Do I need to add that there were a lot of them?) I’d dearly love to see younger Heather, feeling stupid, miserably hunched over in the back of high school functions class, and tell her she didn’t have to spend the rest of her life fearing numbers – despite what guidance counsellors, math teachers and child psychologists all seemed intent on convincing her. (And what I defeatedly told myself, too). I’ve been lucky to have the total support of my partner and parents, who all helped me in a myriad patient ways over the past few months. While I’ll never be a math genius, I can genuinely say that I’m looking forward to calculus.

Math and statistics are so important and I’d hate to never become reasonably fluent. So this has been a pretty serious and far-reaching endeavour, which is far from over. I’m starting a pre-calculus course in January and will continue working all the time to get up to speed.

Yet with all that being said, my original motivation in writing today was the brief article quoted at the beginning of this post, and the happy fire-in-my-brain that it inspired. Math has been great… but I’m so excited to turn a bit more of my attention back on political science, epistemology and environmental issues! Phew.

Thanks Kaplan!

Apples

These city apple trees know about survival. More than their country counterparts, city apple trees attain a sense of time. People-time – watching concrete poured and concrete ripped up, bus shelters assembled and smashed, streams made then channelized under highways. Houses and trains and abandoned bicycles. All the while putting out blossoms, making fruit. Sucked at by wasps and rolling under the wheels of cars. Smashed or sent spinning, unnoticed.

Urban Agriculture Summit

As excellent as living in the United States has been (immersed in the ongoing drama of American politics, for example) I’m pretty disappointed I won’t be able to attend the Urban Agriculture Summit beginning in Toronto this week. I imagine it will be an amazing group of people, and a genuinely inspiring combination of policy discussion plus practical skill-building. Food is definitely an interesting focal point (and catalyst) for positive social, environmental and economic change to occur, and from so many different perspectives and disciplines.

Urban Agriculture Summit

Water

Watched the storm.
Thunder filled out the edges of my dreams into wakefulness, drew us outside. Skies, tumultuous clouds, cornfields and trees illuminated with the constant, flickering lightning. The storm was immediate and alarming, tremendous roaring thunder that echoes across the sky and leaves the house shaking. Rain misting our arms and faces. We sat on overturned wooden crates, tucked under the eaves, watched the wind toss trees and throw down shifting sheets of water. The parched soil and all the dry hungry roots, yearning for damp.

An hour after we’d crawled back into bed I’m up again – the world is cool, lovely. We may be in for more rain and only pale soft patches of blue show through the grey overhead. The goats are out in their pasture, the ducks happily splashing, chickens scratching for bugs and worms.

In the city this rain would be rivers in concrete, spluttering-down runoff to overflowing storm sewers. I’m thankful instead to be here and see the pond refilled, vegetables and fruit trees soaked through.