Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

Singing in the Brain – the impact of music

A few weeks ago while I was celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Dutch branch of our company, my mum and my best friend went to a theatre lecture by professor Erik Scherder. The plan had originally been that I would go to the lecture too, but the anniversary party took priority. The party was in theme park Efteling and it was fantastic. But I was also a bit bummed that I missed the lecture. Luckily my mum and friend are awesome and both of them got me a (different) signed book!!

In Singing in the Brain professor Scherder discusses a whole lot of scientific studies and their findings on a wide range of subjects that have to do with music and our brain. There are references to all studies if you want to dive in deeper. To keep this book readable for people who aren’t professors the information is simplified a bit.
The book does describe the different areas of the brain and what their role is in listening to music, playing music and how the brain is impacted by music. I hope professor Scherder isn’t too disappointed that I don’t remember the names of the areas of the brain and the role that they play. I believe that if you don’t have a significant amount of prior knowledge about our brain it is impossible to remember it all.

What did stick is that listening to music that we like has a positive impact on our mood. This is not just true for people with a healthy, regular brain, but also in many cases for people with depression, Parkinson, dementia or people who are suffering the aftermath of a stroke. Note that music doesn’t cure any of these diseases. It makes people temporarily feel better. That might seem obvious, but I find it interesting that this can also be proven by studying the brain.
Do also note that forcing people to listen to music that you like, but that they don’t necessarily enjoy will not have a positive effect. You can’t use the results of this study as an excuse to force your grandparents to listen to your favorite music!

What’s also interesting is that it’s scientifically proven that women around their ovulation are attracted to men who create music. If you always wanted to learn to play an instrument to pick up girls you had the right idea.

There is also a study that suggests that people run faster and technically better while listening to music. This is something many runners have different and often strong opinions on.
I personally don’t run with music. I like to hear my thoughts while running and I don’t want to worry about earbuds that might fall out (in the old days this was wires getting stuck and being annoying).
The same study also suggested that listening to soothing music after running allowed for a faster recovery. This sounds interesting, but I doubt the impact will be significant unless it makes me dance. The main impact after running is often getting a bit stiff if I stop moving (also after cooling down and stretching), so if music can stop me from sitting still for too long that might be helpful.

All in all Singing in the Brain is a very interesting book. I enjoyed reading it, but I do feel that you will get even more out of if you have prior training and a better understanding of our brain before you start reading it. If you are looking for specific information on the impact of music on our brain this book is a great starting point. It will lead you to a list of more specific studies that dive into a particular aspect much deeper.

If professor Scherder does more theatre lectures next season I will definitely try to go to one of them!

Erik Scherder

Good night stories for Rebel Girls – inspiring women with inspiring stories

I bought Good night stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo for a very smart and ambitious 14-year-old girl and loved the idea so much that I bought it for myself. The book starts with some advice.
To the rebel girls of the world:
Dream bigger
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.
I’m not entirely convinced parents of 14-year-olds will agree that they are always right, but believing in yourself is a good point to start from in life.

The book contains 100 stories of special, fierce, talented and successful women. I find it inspiring and I’m fascinated by the stories. I have no idea if it is inspiring to a teenage girl. I don’t remember how the brain of a 14-year-old works. I do strongly believe that having role models helps. To see someone like you do something means that it’s easier to imagine that you can do it too. I’ve written before about my mum being a perfect role model for me as one of the first female software developers.
I’m not 100% sure that a short story in a book is enough to be a role model. But it also won’t hurt. I hope some of it sticks for the girls who read this book.

I tried to pick out one or two stories that I liked most, but I ended up with almost every page having a sticky note on it. In the end, I did make a selection but even if you feel you don’t need a role model I highly recommend reading the book and learning about all these inspiring women.
The stories are very diverse. There are stories about inventors, scientist, professional sports people, journalists, and activists. Something else that I love about the book is that it picks up on many themes that are relevant for all girls and women.

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (love the name) was a painter before women were allowed to get close to artists’ studios and people didn’t believe the paintings were hers. When her father found her a tutor, he pressed her to become his lover. She refused and had to fight this powerful man in court. She lived between 1593 and 1653, but this is something that still happens today, 400 years later.

Brenda Chapman is a director at Walt Disney Studios, who at a very young age decided that she wanted to create animated films with strong and brave girls and women in them. She didn’t like that the girls she saw in most animated films were helpless princesses. She moved on to create Brave with the strong princess Merida and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it.

Irena Sendlerowa is a Polish war hero who saved 2,500 children by fostering Jewish children in Christian families and give them Christian names. She wrote down their real names and their new names on slips of paper that she hid in jars in a friend’s garden. After the war, she dug up the jars and was able to reunite many kids with their real families. It’s something a certain modern-day organization with much more advanced options to keep track of children could have learned a lot from if they were at all concerned with the wellbeing of these vulnerable kids.

In Mexico, an exceptionally bright girl called Matilde Montoya wanted to be a doctor. She was told that women couldn’t be doctor’s and the university tried to expel Matilde more than once. Matilde wrote to the Mexican president, who stepped in and stood up for her in her fight against the unfair treatment she received from the university. It’s an example of men speaking up in support of women can really make a difference. Yes guys, I’m looking at you!

Women sticking together can also have a big impact as Wangari Maathai proved in Kenya by creating a movement of women who all planted trees in their villages. She started small. Several women from her own village collected seeds from the forest and planted them in cans at their homes. When they were strong enough, they planted them all around the village. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement expanded beyond the Kenyan border, forty million trees got planted and Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of small changes added together can have a huge impact. Don’t be discouraged by starting small, if we don’t start with small steps because we think they won’t matter we will not be able to achieve significant change.

Wangari Maathai

My heart hurts not being able to also write in more detail about the first suffragette’s in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who worked for NASA and saved the Apollo 11 mission by solving an issue that could have stopped Apollo 11 from landing on the moon in mere minutes. I hope you will read the book and learn about all the inspiring stories for yourself.

The Happiness of Pursuit – revealing the quest that I’m on

Some of the world’s best-known stories reflect our desire to hear about struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. We get drawn in because we want to know if the hero is going to succeed.
When I started reading The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau I thought the book would describe an inspiring adventure like this. I picked the book based on a recommendation I came across on Pinterest, so I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research before diving in.

As it turns out the book is more a “how-to” that provides advice and insights about starting a quest. It suggests that if you feel like something is missing from your life that it would perhaps be a good idea to find a quest of your own. The quest would give you a purpose and a goal to pursue, thus giving your life “meaning”.

A quest is defined as a journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout, that will require personal growth and a sacrifice of some sorts. Most quests don’t take special powers, but persistence and dedication are essential. The book has clichés sprinkled all over it like “If you want to achieve the unimaginable you start by imagining it” and “If you don’t try you might always wonder ‘what if'”.
Both mostly true of course, that’s why they are clichés.

The book describes the quests of many different people, including that of the author. The author’s quest was to visit all countries in the world while many others also have a physical challenge in them like walking across the US or riding a bike or sailing a boat around the world.
Most of the people that were interviewed for the book were unable to clearly explain why they gave up their existing lives to go hunt for something elusive, with a real chance of failure. They were simply unsatisfied with the life they were living and were looking for something deeper.

You can probably tell that I’m not about to sell my home to go on a quest around the world anytime soon. However, almost every book provides some insights or inspiration and so does this one. I did realize that I’m on a quest of some sorts myself, and this might be a good moment to share a bit more about it.

Towards the end of February, I realized that I had read well over a book per week in 2019 up until that point. I made the biggest splash during the Christmas holidays when I spend most of my days reading and running. At that point, it dawned on me that perhaps I would probably be able to read 52 books this year. I’d heard about other people doing that, but until now I’ve always assumed that they would have to be crazy people without much of a life. If that’s true then I now fit into that category and I’m quite comfortable there.

The Happiness of Pursuit is the 26th book I’ve read this year and we’re only 4,5 months into the year. The amazing thing is that I don’t even have to try hard. During the week I keep the television turned off on most evenings and instead I read a book (when I’m not running, rock climbing, or playing tennis or piano). It might not be a quest according to Guillebeau as it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I love reading and I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not watching TV.

As I was struggling to come up with topics to write about regularly, I figured that writing about the books I read would provide me with an ongoing stream of topics as well as some structure. As long as I finish a book I’ve got the subject of the week’s blog post covered and I just have to sit down and do the actual writing.
So while The Happiness of Pursuit wasn’t what I thought it would be, it did provide a trigger to write about my own goal this year and thus was still useful. Now that I have shared my goal publicly it will be harder to weasel my way out of it in case it does for whatever reason become harder to keep going later in the year. I hope you will follow me on my journey through the books. It would make me very happy!

Thinking Ahead – dealing with the impact of increased complexity

Thinking Ahead is a collection of essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society (co)written by Dirk Helbing. Helbing’s Wikipedia entry is mostly a very long list of achievements and awards in several areas. His interest and expertise run from traffic management to crowd disasters to the risks and opportunities of the digitalizing of the world. The constant is that all these topics are about managing complex systems. The definition of complex systems as used in the book is: “Complex systems are characterized by numerous interacting actors and factors. Examples are social, economic, or traffic systems, as well as the behavior of crowds or ecosystems. The behavior of these systems is often dominated by their internal dynamics. Attempts to control them from outside frequently lead to unexpected and unintended results”.

Complex systems and the financial market
The financial market and crisis are frequently used as an example by Helbing. The global financial market is so complex that it can’t be monitored and controlled anymore. More and more assets don’t have real-world value. It’s almost impossible to understand what is behind these completely virtual assets, which means that we can’t tell whether their value is realistic or if it’s inflated.
Many ideas about the financial market (conventional economic thinking) and how to manage it and keep it from crashing are either outdated or just plain wrong. These ideas don’t take the effect of all systems being connected into account. The fact that globalization has led to more interconnections between financial markets means that the risk of a local problem leading to a global crisis has increased significantly. The resilience of the system is not described by the average stability, but by the weakest link. To be able to isolate risks a system needs compartmentalization and there are no safety points in the financial market today.

The current models for how the financial market will behave is based on the idea that people are completely rational. That we act as “homo economicus” and make optimal decisions.
It turns out that this is not a truthful projection of how humans behave. While some people might take decisions based on purely rational arguments, most people are impacted by emotions. It’s also not true that all people make decisions that are most favorable for them personally. There is not just “homo economicus”, but also “homo socialis”. “Homo socialis” displays other-regarding and cooperative behavior. While older models might suggest that other-regarding behavior is unfavorable in terms of evolution and will therefore eventually disappear, it turns out that this is only the case if a cooperative person is placed amongst a group of selfish people. If a group other-regarding people can stick together it’s the cooperative behavior that gets favored and allows “homo socialis” to spread.

Big Data
Helbing also dives into the challenges and opportunities of “Big Data”. Big Data is a term that has been around for more than 15 years now and it means that data sets are now so big that they can’t be coped with using standard computational methods. Big Data is also referred to as the oil of the 21ste century. It’s worth a lot of money if we can process it. Big Data in itself doesn’t pose a lot of value or risk. We must learn to drill and refine data so we can transform it into useful information and knowledge.

Big Data

While the processing of Big Data offers a lot of opportunities, it also poses a lot of risks. We share information almost constantly, both implicitly and explicitly. Of course, sharing information on social media platforms is explicit. However, by using services like Google Maps we share our whereabouts. By using loyalty systems in the supermarket it’s possible to determine how you live your life and when your life might be changing. Even just browsing the internet we leave behind a telling tale of our lives, our loves, our hates and our opinions.

The way in which information is processed can reinforce patterns. This means that it can reinforce discrimination and promote homogeneity. If that would happen it could of course negatively impact any minority, but it would also be bad for everyone else. Innovation only takes place if people with unique interests and ideas, who are ahead of the curve, can flourish. Filtering out uniqueness would be disastrous for our well-being and economy.

Another challenge is that we can’t really opt out of all of this information sharing. You can decide to not join any social media networks. Web browsers make it possible to turn off cookies, although it means that many web sites become almost unusable. There are tools that support obfuscating your IP address while you are browsing the web, but this still doesn’t guarantee that you are browsing anonymously. And as the number of smart and connected devices is increasing the amount of data that is being collected is exponentially increasing.

Staying in control of data from you or about you is hard, if not impossible. We cannot control what information companies and people collect about us and we cannot control what they will do with the information, or how long they will keep it. Incorrect information about us might also be stored and even spread. This can happen either on purpose or by accident and it’s very hard to correct it.

The European GDPR law has been created to try and protect people from misuse of data from and about them. It forces companies collecting data to be transparent about what data will be used for and it prohibits them from using it for any other means. Once data has outlasted its original purpose it has to be destroyed and if your data is leaked because it wasn’t adequately protected companies will have to pay significant fines.

Conclusion
To me, the book provided a very interesting brain exercise. In the essays collected in Thinking Ahead Helbing does an excellent job of explaining the challenges and risks of globalization and Big Data in a way that’s relatively easy to understand. He also talks about several ideas that might go some way towards limiting risks and providing solutions. None of these ideas will be easy to implement in the real world though and a lot of them will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Based on the book I find it hard to form clear ideas about solutions.
I would personally be interested in exploring some potential solutions a little more and learning about what steps we could take to get closer to a more stable and a more fair world.

Creativity, Inc. – Constant change requires continuous improvement

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and until the end of 2018 president of Pixar Animation Studios shares his story and what he learned along the way. It’s a comfortable read and it’s not pedantic.

Despite the fact that I work for a consultancy company and systems integrator and not for an animation studio there are a lot of learnings in the book that feel very relevant. The three most important insights are:

  • Trust your teams
  • Change is constant and necessary
  • You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it

Trust your teams
The first insight is universal and doesn’t depend on the type of work you do. If you are a leader you should trust your teams and your people.

You are in charge. If a significant problem pops up the person who’s responsible, is ultimately you. Perhaps people weren’t comfortable sharing their concerns with you, or perhaps the processes you put in place don’t have the effect that you thought they would have. If a problem occurs, try to find the cause and therefore the first step to avoid similar problems in the future. To be able to think and act like this requires both self-confidence and a lack of ego. I find this idea very inspiring. When looking for improvements, start by trying to be better yourself.

You should of course also work with your teams to support all team members in their growth. People need to feel empowered to take decisions within their area of responsibility and to find solutions to resolve mistakes. Those solutions can include informing you, or asking for your help, but they don’t necessarily do.

Change is constant and necessary
The world is constantly changing. Hanging on to something that works today and not wanting to change it means you will eventually fall behind. You have to make decisions, even if you’re not sure. If it turns out it’s the wrong decision, admit that you were wrong and adjust the course. Finding ways to experiment can allow you to fail quick and cheap, thus saving time and money.

Because the world is constantly changing it’s also important to keep a learner mindset. It’s not just your organization that has to constantly adjust to the changing world around you. You have to adjust personally too, which means that you need to continue to update your knowledge and skills.

You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it
As a leader, you need to actively look for things that don’t work, in your company and in your leadership. Even if you are looking for potential challenges, you might still miss them. It’s almost impossible to look at your own company and leadership objectively.
Finding the issues in your organization is also made more difficult because issues will often be hidden from leaders. People do not talk to their leaders the way they talk to their peers. Even if you think you are very accessible and open, there will always be a barrier, simply because you are a leader. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though. If you are actively looking to find potential issues you will always find more than if you are not looking at all!

Please note
I enjoyed the book. I’m not a huge animation nerd, but the story was interesting and engaging. Some of the tips are quite specific for companies that have creativity at the core of their business, but many of them are applicable to working with people, regardless of the industry.

I should mention though that in the book Ed Catmull paints a very positive picture of John Lasseter. I had not heard about him, but shortly after I finished the book I found out that he has been pushed out of Pixar and Disney after reports of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and groping female employees. As far as I’ve been able to find Catmull has not distanced himself publicly from John Lasseter, which I think is a mistake.

Finding all this after finishing the book has a significant impact on my feelings about the book. I will not read it again.

How our collective imagination rules the world

I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the moment. The book, that describes our extraordinary journey from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. At the same time, the book is the best antidote to insomnia (which I don’t suffer from) that I’ve ever come across. I just can’t seem to stay awake for more than ten pages at a time.

I’m about 50% through the book now and so far the most interesting part, as well as the most shocking revelation, to me has been how the most impactful and powerful concepts in the world today are fiction or myths.
Let me track back a little bit. Around 70.000 years ago, we were still hunters and gatherers we lived in small tribes. Language wasn’t very far evolved yet, and the things we had to communicate about were all physical. It was very useful to be able to tell someone they should cross the river near the big tree, or to watch out for the tiger that was looking at a member of the tribe from a little distance. Around 70.000 years ago though, the cognitive revolution started and fictive language emerged.

A group of up to around 150 people can live or work together and function through intimate relationships. When the group gets bigger though it no longer works like that. The way in which humans resolved this, was through the introduction of fiction. Our language evolved and we became capable of communicating about things that weren’t physical. It turns out that large groups of people, strangers even, can cooperate successfully if they believe in a common myth. And so the first stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities emerged.

Religions have been very important and powerful myths that have brought people together, but that have also been used to create false dichotomies and drive polarization. Religions have had a huge impact on the history of humankind. And they are still powerful today.
Religious myths aren’t the only powerful fictional constructs that we’ve invented. Present day states are common national myths. A state is not a physical thing like a tree or a river. It’s a construct that humans agreed would be valid and because of that it can exist and hold (a lot of) power.
In today’s society, we have powerful and modern institutions that are based on the tales told by business people and lawyers.

Two lawyers who have never met can work together to defend a stranger, because they believe in the same laws, in the concept of justice and in human rights. Yet all of these things, laws, justice, human rights, only exist in the stories and common imagination of human beings.
The last striking example that stayed with me is that of modern-day companies and corporations. Let’s take Apple as an example. If all iPhones and iPads that exist in the world today would disappear, Apple would still exist. If all of Apple’s offices would be wiped off the face of the earth, Apple would still exist. If everyone that works for Apple would quit today, Apple would still exist. However if a judge would order the dissolution of the company, Apple would cease to exist. Despite all the people, the offices and the devices still being there. A corporation is a figment of our collective imagination.

Like a lot of people, I was very well aware of the myths and stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities. However, I have never stopped to think that the most powerful institutions in today’s world only exist in our own collective stories too. It’s very easy to chuckle at the myths and stories of other people, but we all take our own myths seriously. So seriously that people are being killed and wars are being fought to force our stories onto others.

I’m not delusive enough to think that the people fighting to defend their stories will stop doing that. I can make sure though that I continue to examine “my” stories and that I look at other people’s stories with empathy and compassion.
It’s easy to be hard on someone else’s opinions, but a lot harder to be just as hard on your own.

An update on my flow

About six weeks ago, I started to make some changes to the way I work to create more focused time. I wrote about my thoughts at that time here (https://kalliopesjourney.com/2017/10/21/from-buzz-to-flow-regaining-focus/). Since then I removed about 5 hours of weekly recurring meetings from my calendar, which of course immediately created a significant amount of time in which I could work. Not having unnecessary meetings also meant I had a lot more energy to spend on the tasks I wanted to complete. As an introvert, meetings require more energy than working on something on my own. So, while some meetings are fun and sometimes even useful, a better mix helps me to manage my energy throughout the day and week.

I also tried to be more effective while working on my tasks. I turned off all email notifications, so the only way to see if new emails came in, is by opening Outlook. This limits “external” interruptions. It also makes it easier to stay focused during meetings, as I don’t have to contain my curiosity.
I also tried to change my habits so that wouldn’t distract myself all the time by looking at my phone, Facebook or Instagram. This is working particularly well at times when I have enough energy. I still notice that when I’m tired, frustrated, or stressed that I look for distractions every few minutes. Managing this requires more practice, although the more comfortable and effective solution would be to manage my energy a bit better.

The first few weeks I was managing my calendar rigorously. That worked so well that after a few weeks I loosened my grip a bit, thinking that I had this under control. What followed were several weeks with training and off-site meetings though. Meaning that multiple days in those weeks were lost for doing actual work and having “normal” meetings. In those weeks the normal work got stuffed into the other days, which meant I tried to do five days’ worth of work and meetings in three days. I’ll just state the obvious: that doesn’t work. I got stressed out and frustrated over not being able to manage my schedule and too much time spent in meetings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the progress that I was able to make in my way of working. I was able to complete a lot more pro-active tasks and manage my energy better. That last both good for me and for the people around me. I will need to stay very alert though, loosening my grip means that my calendar fills up beyond what I feel comfortable with.
I also need to remember to take care of my energy first and other people second. If I’ve been in two days of off-site meetings I want to be in the office, to be available to other people. However, after two days like that I’m also in need of some solitude. Choosing to be in the office works well for a couple of hours, but after that I get frustrated by trying to combine too many meetings, catching up with work and unplanned conversations.  I’ll try to improve on that by planning a day of working from home after full day meetings next time.

All in all, some very positive results in a relatively short amount of time, with several opportunities to grow and improve on.