Waiting for the marshmallows: on patience & delayed gratification

Waiting / Photo by Paul Chiorean (under CC licence)

It is sometimes ironic and almost amusing how life will surprise us with challenges in the areas where we struggle most. Patience has never been my forté, and while I have improved myself in that regard over the course of a decade or so, I admit that I am often incapable of waiting the remaining three seconds for the microwave to heat up a bowl of meat for my cats.

And now that I’m in a long-distance relationship, I’ve been challenged with a lot of waiting and longing before my partner and I can settle together in one place. And while this can be hard to endure at times, I have learned to treat it as a training of patience, for, as Lisa McKay says in an article for Lifehack, “When you are being patient in your long-distance relationship you are not just nurturing love, you are developing your character”.

This training is indeed very valuable, since waiting is something we generally struggle with in the modern age. We are surrounded by an increasing number of things advertised as “instant” which not only take away the need for self-improvement, but make us even more impatient. Instant delivery, instant nail varnish, instant meal, instant coffee, instant download, instant sex. In his article Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient for the Boston Globe, Christopher Muther quotes Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, who examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users. Sitaraman discovered that people started displaying impatience only after two seconds of waiting for the video to load and would abandon it if it didn’t start loading after – yes – mere two seconds. He is genuinely worried that “someday people will be too impatient to conduct studies on patience.” Compared to that, my inability to wait for the microwave to do a full 2.5 min cycle without me interrupting a few seconds before the end, seems entirely normal, for impatience seems to be the norm these days.

Maruchan Akai Kitsune instant udon / Photo by Richard Masoner  (under CC licence)

But impatience takes its toll on our perception abilities. How often do we keep multiple tabs open in our browsers and rather than read one article from start to finish, we merely scan it and skip between several webpages, reading snippets of completely different pieces, without giving either of them our full attention and focus? Darrell Worthy, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University who studies decision making and motivation, cited in Christopher Muther’s piece, says that we’re turning away from reading books and magazines, and spending more time with quick fun in the form of mobile apps and games (i.e. Angry Birds on the iPhone). Which is hardly surprising, given how much more time and focus a book demands over an online article. According to Worthy, immediate gratification is the default expectation, and overcoming these urges is becoming increasingly more difficult.

We are hooked on instant gratification, even though we have very clear data demonstrating how the exact opposite helps us achieve success. The most important study on this topic is of course the famous Stanford experiment (often referred to as the “marshmallow experiment”), conducted 50 years ago by Walter Mischel on hundreds of children around the age of 4 and 5 (here is an excellent in-depth piece from The New Yorker on both the experiments and Mischel himself). Each child was offered a choice between one small reward (a marshmallow, cookie or a pretzel) provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e. two marshmallows) if they waited for approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester would leave the room and return with the reward. Among the 600 children who took part in the experiment most attempted to delay the gratification, and one third of that group deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow. Over the course of forty years following the experiment, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found out was that those kids who were willing to wait for the second marshmallow ended up having “higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures”, as James Clear writes on his blog.

Heavy Traffic / photo by Vera & Jean-Christophe (under CC licence)

It’s often easy to fall for the trap of thinking that deferring making a decision and giving oneself more time to ponder stuff will inevitably lead to missing out on opportunities and falling behind those who act and respond instantly. But patience doesn’t necessarily mean missing the boat. Distance, be it time or spatial, facilitates a deeper reflection, appreciation, and gratitude. As Elle Kaplan writes in How the Simple Power of Waiting Can Radically Improve Your Life and Your Wealth for The Medium “Science has proven that even 50 millisecond delay can drastically improve our decision-making abilities. And as the old saying goes, ‘don’t make a permanent decision out of a temporary emotion’.”

The trick is not just to learn to wait, but to learn to wait well. Or, as Petrus Spronk puts it, to “use the time waiting in a positive way, rather than getting upset, which is the negative version and uses far too much energy.” In her lovely piece The Art Of Patience And Inner Guidance for The Huffington Post, Joan Borysenko describes a conversation she had with a friend dying from AIDS whose plants she was looking after, which gave her an incentive to take a critical view at her own impatience. Having noticed that one of the plants, a large Christmas cactus, was about to start losing its already drying blossoms, and wanting to spare her friend the need to go on his knees to clean the fallen bits, Joan began pinching off the dying flowers. That’s when her friend said to her: “Everything has its own destiny. People, trees, plants, clothes, even stones. And the cycle isn’t done for these flowers yet. I know they’re kind of ratty looking and that they’ve passed their peak. But please, let them finish life on their own timetable. I’m happy to pick them up off the floor.” She admits that she will still occasionally get annoyed with traffic, or that she will want to hurry through conversations and meals but has now a lot more willingness to let her life unfold at its own pace.

World Class Traffic Jam 2 / Photo by joiseyshowaa (under CC licence)

My willingness to wait to be with the person I love, to have a work schedule and lifestyle that I dream of, is not just a response to the Marshmallow experiment or other studies. I have a deep conviction that good things are worth waiting for. Which doesn’t mean waiting idly and passively, but working towards our goals with the acceptance that they won’t happen overnight.

The process of waiting is also useful in helping to establish the level of our passion for something or someone, as opposed to a temporary spark of enthusiasm. As Kim Quindlen writes in her article on long-distance relationships, “LDR’s involve a lot of coordination – asking for days off, saving up money for flights, knowing when you’re free to talk on the phone. It requires even more work than a regular relationship. So you can’t help but be very open with yourself about whether or not you see a future with this person and what it is about them that makes you willing to drive or fly hundreds of miles to be with them for forty-eight hours.” If the relationship can survive long distance, it can survive most other things as well, thanks to all the skills developed in the process of building it when being physically apart: trust, communication, commitment, appreciation.

In the work area, patience and perseverance can mean a lot more than talent, skills, connections etc. Seth Godin wrote about persevering and pushing through “dips” – the periods between starting a project and successfully finalising it – which weeds out one’s competition, for most people are likely to give up after the initial excitement has worn off and there are no signs of success on the horizon. As one reviewer summarises the idea, “If you can make it through the Dip, you’ll come out on the other side as one of a very small number who can call themselves the best in their chosen field. And being the best carries big rewards. Microsoft, Stephen King and Starbucks all survived the Dip.”

Hugh MacLeod also wrote about patience in his excellent book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Ways to Creativity (first published on his blog, Gaping Void):

I get asked a lot, “Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?”

Standard Answer: Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me.

What gives the work its edge is the simple fact that I’ve spent years drawing them. I’ve drawn thousands. Tens of thousands of man hours.

So if somebody wants to rip my idea off, go ahead. If somebody wants to overtake me in the business card doodle wars, go ahead. You’ve got many long years in front of you. And unlike me, you won’t be doing it for the joy of it. You’ll be doing it for some self-loathing, ill-informed, lame-ass mercenary reason. So the years will be even longer and far, far more painful. Lucky you.

Delayed gratification is nothing other than choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction, to quote James Clear again. And while I have no problem with discipline, thanks to years of working and learning from great books that came my way, I know that waiting well is a skill I need to improve on. Therefore, being aware of my shortcomings in this area, I welcome opportunities to learn how to be patient. Even if the “training” is simply not getting annoyed when stuck in the longest queue to a till. Or patiently waiting for that microwave beep.

Blissful uncoolness & comfortable solitude. A weekend in Berlin.

Kreuzberg, Berlin

Kreuzberg, Berlin

Some weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Berlin and on a Sunday afternoon found myself in Prenzlauer Berg, sitting at a lovely place with a somewhat ironic name, given how left-wing the city is, the Kapitalist Café. I was sitting there with a glass of wine, an oldskul notebook and a head full of thoughts and observations, which I proceeded to jot down and have recently returned to.

I don’t aim to say anything revelatory or particularly clever about Berlin, for a lot has been said and written about the city by people a lot more knowledgeable than me. The picture, haphazardly painted upon and after my visit, is naturally going to be subjective, filtered through my eyes which were dazzled with beautiful typography and architecture, and my soul cherishing a momentary escape from the everyday patterns and uniformed shapes of lifestyles and thoughts surrounding me.

Berlin is a city of expression – true, free, unrestrained self-expression. Anything goes. It’s like London’s once-upon-a-time subversive Camden blown-up, multiplied several times, and scattered around town. The abundance of artists, art, galleries, arty things, arty places, arty people, arty objects; graffiti’s and markings, both on the architecture and human bodies, is overwhelming, even for someone who spent almost a decade in the Big Smoke. “Coolness” is inescapable, it penetrates all street corners and nooks, is breathable like the smell of weed, sold here right outside of tube stations. “No one cares” was a sentence that friend of mine who I was visiting kept repeating whenever he saw me rising my brows in curiosity. No one cares that the entire Görlitzer Park is surrounded by drug dealers, that people are shooting up right in the middle of a street in Kottbusser Tor, referred to as “Kotti”. No, that doesn’t shock anyone. Neither did we, drinking beer at any point of the day inside S- and U-bahn carriages. Anything goes.

Görlitzer Park, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß (https://www.instagram.com/oligrand/)

Görlitzer Park, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

But listening to a lot of conversations and reading about the city, I realise there is a very strong wave of criticism directed at the German capital. Apparently, I am in a small minority of few people who don’t crucify today’s Berlin and long for its old identity. The question whether Berlin is still cool or not, seems to be a major concern, both for born-and-bred Berliners, as well as recent migrants. Drew Schwartz starts her dramatically titled piece Is Berlin Still Cool? with an even more dramatic statement: Bad news: Berlin is dead. In her grim stance regarding the city’s status, she is supported by other pessimistic critics, such as Thomas Rogers from New Republic, and Max Read from Gawker, both of whom believe that Berlin, as the capital of livability, anti-authoritarianism, and sophistication is over, and it is Leizpzig that is quickly becoming the new “coolness” destination. Though, as many point out, it is likely to suffer from the increasing “hypezig” just as much as the German capital.

For a lot of people, this hipsterdom expansion is so intrusive that according to Schwartz, locals have started a whole anti-hipster movement. This includes “No fucking hipsters” signs outside selected cafes and “Kill the hipsters” graffiti tags. In her article Berlin Shoos its Hipsters Out, Clara Mazuir writes that “Some cafes have blocked their front entrance with a barrier so that bobo mothers can’t wheel in a stroller of baby hipsters. All this hate and refusal because hipsters brought to Berlin certain overly-priced organic stores and hip coffee shops…”. Obviously, as a tourist, I have no right to comment on that, but not only did I not notice any signs of that sort, I saw neither a flock of foreign hipsters, gawking at its gems like vultures, nor any kind of resentment towards young lads in skinny jeans. And that’s despite the fact that for the second time in a row I was staying in Neukölln, a popular district of South-East Berlin, which, as Mazuir puts it, “has become host to the hipster virus.” Maybe this is because while in Warsaw hipsters are still very much a “movement”, with a fairly identifiable dress code, hipsterdom in Berlin, because of the variety of (life)styles it covers, is almost the default human landscape one no longer questions or gets annoyed with. The “coolness” is not ostentatious, it is part of the landscape, like the modernist buildings along Klopstockstraße, gently merged with the area, to be admired by perceptive eyes of architecture fans.

Neukölln

Neukölln, Berlin

Klopstockstraße, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

Klopstockstraße, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

With terms like “hipster” and “cool”, I am purposefully using scare quotes, because to me, the question whether Berlin is “still” cool or not, is completely redundant, for coolness as a concept is entirely abstract and subjective. Saying that 20 years ago Berlin used to be cool because there were no hipsters around is a romantic fantasy. There’s always “a” movement, subculture of people who feel safer expressing their style within a group, and the fact that flannel shirts got replaced with skinny jeans should not make the slightest bit of difference. If there’s any substance to these anti-hipster claims Mazuir talks about, it is the fact that any trendy area that experiences an influx of people, gains value in the economic sense which inevitably drives up the property prices. The liberalisation of purchasing laws means that “(…)  much of formerly affordable, trendy neighborhoods like Neukölln has been snapped up by faraway buyers in Ireland, Norway, or the United States. And this process only gained steam after the 2008 beginning of the euro crisis, as real estate became one of the safest forms of investment in Europe”, as Thomas Rogers writes for New Republic. However, in comparison to cities like London, where one is lucky to afford a room the size of a shoebox, Berlin housing is still dead cheap.

One would wonder that with so much “coolness” and “hipsterdom” around, it is impossible not to start feeling somewhat plain at the very least, or completely uncool and embarrassingly unfashionable at most. Constantly passing people wearing garments from Bikini Berlin (which, incidentally, is the first shopping mall I genuinely enjoyed walking around), tattooed necks, chins and foreheads, beautiful retro bikes, and general air of “coolness” about them, I felt uncool. Deeply, deeply uncool. And yet, I felt extremely comfortable, relaxed and happy.

Bikini Berlin shopping mall

Bikini Berlin shopping mall

To be fair, I’ve never felt, nor tried to become cool, at any point in my life. It was quite early on when I realised that a lot of things I am interested in or attracted to, can’t be combined to form a coherent style of any sort. And that I’m unwilling to narrow them down just to gain a consistent identity. Which isn’t bad at all. In his article, Don’t Be Afraid to Be Uncool. In defence of escaping the herd, David Greenwald says that “Cool is a sword to live and die by, a binary system that pits you against others. It requires not only love, but hate: a rejection of the mainstream. Or the alternative. Whatever.” Instead, Greenwald advocates “embracing the sincerest distillation of yourself and your taste.” Which doesn’t mean becoming an omnivore and liking everything but it means not limiting oneself to liking pre-approved things. I like black metal and Moomins, leather corsets and 40s dresses, dingy bars with half-naked transvestites, and elegant afternoon teas. There’s no “movement” I could sign up to with that.

Michael Conniff from the Huffington Post adds another vital thought: “The acknowledgement of your own uncoolness is the only thing cool about it. If you can look at yourself and say “uncool” then you have learned something very important about the human condition, about the haves and have-nots — and especially the unfairness of life.”

Currywurst in Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

Currywurst in Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

I will argue that Berlin is a good place to acknowledge one’s uncoolness. There’s no sense of obligation to fit in, one can happily stick the middle finger at the world and do own one’s thing. In every sense of the word, not just in terms of one’s appearance. Just like a friend of mine, Andreas Schmidt, who opened his own gallery four months ago in Pankow, a space which is not meant to be a gallery in a traditional sense, for his aim is to show only the art he himself believes in and likes. There’s no pumping euros into a heavy PR campaign, sucking up to Important People, making calculations, going on compromises. Andreas’s independence and uncompromising attitude make his space a real gem on the art map, because a vast majority of galleries don’t operate that way – instead of risking showing an “unbranded” artist, they will choose someone fashionable to secure sales. Benjamin Genocchio writes about this in his article for Artnet, In Praise of Unfashionable Art, Or Let the Artwork Convince You Not the Artist’s Brand:

“Being a brand, a package, aids consumption, and the more easily and widely consumed we all are the better—or so the conventional wisdom goes. No wonder so many artists conceive or engineer their artworks to cater to a quick, disposable visual experience. The social media explosion, especially on Instagram, only seems to feed this trend. (…) As we know, the upshot is a new sort of art world in which the bland uniformity of a Big Mac with fries rules. (…) We critics are implicated in this, gravitating toward stories we know editors and publishers want to pay for and, in theory, people want to read. We end up writing the same stories about the same people over and over. It is the same in museums. Right now two Ai Weiwei retrospectives are touring, one in Europe and one here in the United States. Why? You all know the answer. Then there are the galleries, where dealers often have no choice but to chase fashionable, branded artists to secure sales. It just makes everything easier: If art dealers don’t play the game they slowly go out of business. And so it goes, one set of imperatives leading to another, and on and on.”

The complete lack of pressure, be it internal or external, to prove anything to anyone, is in my opinion the base for a real artistic success. But this freedom is not something one can easily get in a competitive market of a large city. And while I’d be cautious to comment on Berlin art market, because I don’t know much about it, I believe that running a venue in the way Andreas does would be impossible in London, for economic reasons alone. In a world where everything becomes a product and the fear of being unable to sell it stops people from taking artistic risks and experimenting, Berlin somehow seems to allow artists to ignore the world to a certain extent, to borrow Hugh MacLeod’s book title, in a way many places wouldn’t.

There’s another aspect of Berlin I feel very much attracted to. One of the things I seek in a place to live in is an atmosphere of tolerance and space for one’s individual choices and values. I like places which celebrate oddities and make weirdness the norm. Places where you don’t feel people’s eyes resting on you on a public transport. Places where you can be comfortable with your sexual orientation and beliefs. Places where you can be comfortably alone. In Berlin, which is one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in all of Europe (its openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit famously said, when coming out, ‘I’m gay, and that’s a good thing’), there is space for an infinite number of alternative lifestyles, though if it’s a big family you’re genuinely after, the government will provide support with that and the city will give you an infinite number of child-friendly places and kids clubs. (Poland does neither. It disciminates the LGBT community and cares about unborn foetuses instead of their mothers.)

Akademie Der Künste, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

Akademie Der Künste, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

Unable to answer her own questions, whether Berlin is still cool or not, Drew Schwartz decided to ask several people about where they think the city is headed in the next few years. Richard, owner of Spike Coffee, says that “I think what makes it cool goes beyond bars and restaurants. It’s more about an attitude, and the people who move there and create the scene. That will only get bigger as more people find it appealing, until it gets saturated. I think what makes those places amazing is that people like to feel that they’ve got something that no one else has got. As a place gets saturated, that feeling goes away. So naturally, those people move somewhere else.”

I like you, Berlin. And I can only hope you won’t get saturated too quickly, that you will survive the inevitable gentrification process without losing your edge, and that you won’t fall a victim of nationalism and terrorism, two forces that sweep European cities and plant seeds of fear, mistrust and hatred. So that I can feel comfortable knowing there is a place I can escape to, when I am no longer allowed to safely express myself in my own country.

The Art & Science of Kissing

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry's Refuges album

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry’s Refuges album

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” ― Ingrid Bergman

The first kiss, like a job interview, can be a thoroughly nerve-racking experience. This curious way of passing approx. 80 million bacteria from our lips to someone else’s generates so many anxieties and uncertainties that the internet is flooded with articles dedicated to dispelling fears surrounding it. A blogger, calling himself Dr Nerdlove, writes that  “Outside of “How do I meet girls?”, “when should you kiss her” is easily the most common dating question I get.” But when you’re in a relationship, kissing quickly becomes one of the elements of your everyday physical connection with your partner. Enjoyable, for sure, but no longer as weird, exciting and terrifying as it was before we crossed that physical barrier with someone. Having recently experienced the excitement of a first kiss with a new romantic partner (who is sadly no longer my partner), I had a chance to take a fresh look at kissing, and examine the phenomenon through the eyes of an alien visitor to our planet Earth. A visitor who, as Alain de Botton points out in a great essay on his Book of Life blog, would most likely have a hard time understanding it:

Mutual desire is normally signalled by a pretty weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements. One would have to carefully explain to an alien visitor from Kepler 9b what is going on.

Why do we kiss? From the biological point of view, the activity stems from our need to identify whether someone might be a good mate for us or not. Contrary to animals, which can detect smell at a distance, our sense of smell is exceptionally poor, so for us kissing is a “culturally acceptable way to get close enough to another person to detect their pheromones.” But not all humans adhere to these methods of analysing chemicals. A recent study which examined 168 cultures from around the world, discovered that as little as 46% of them practice the romantic–sexual kiss, and its frequency is correlated to the society’s relative social complexity. According to anthropologists from the University of Nevada, certain hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Brazilian Mehinaku tribe, consider kissing deeply revolting, while the Oceanic inhabitants pass open mouths over each other, without having actual contact. In order to learn more about each other, they might, instead of kissing, smell their partner’s face, which they are likely to consider more sexual. The Pacific Islanders and The Maori of New Zealand also practice “Eskimo kisses”, i.e. rubbing noses together. And some cultures don’t kiss at all—like Somalis, the Lepcha of Sikkim or the Sirono of Bolivia.

Max Ernst, 'The Kiss' (1927)

Max Ernst, ‘The Kiss’ (1927)

In many countries, especially Muslim ones, kissing in public is considered offensive and often illegal. It is ironic that India, a country where the Kama Sutra originated, is so opposed to kissing and Indian conservatives go as far as charging couples kissing in secluded seaside spots with obscene behaviour, and attacking shops which sell Valentine’s Day cards, as Emily Wax reports for The Washington Post. In the ancient Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 3,500 years ago, kissing was described as “inhaling each other’s soul”, while now it is perceived as a symbol of Western invasion, posing a threat to Indian values. But half of the world does kiss. And we do it for several reasons. Aside of being a way of detecting pheromones, kissing lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, kissing can access any one of three primary brain systems used for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love and long-term attachment. Also, as Alain de Botton points out, it has other important psychological merits: showing acceptance and willingness to take a risk with someone.

The huge meaning of kissing is something we’ve built up by social agreement and its fundamental definition is: I accept you – accept you so much that I will take a big risk with you. (…) Ordinarily it would be utterly nauseating to have a stranger poke their tongue into your face; the idea of their saliva lubricating your lips is horrendous. So to allow someone to do these things signals a huge level of acceptance.

Reinier Lucassen 'De Kus'

Reinier Lucassen ‘De Kus’

There are also other merits. A 10-year study conducted in Germany in the 1980s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live approx. 5 years longer, earn 20-30% more and get into fewer car accidents than married men who don’t. Aside of still being a perplexing phenomenon (why, for example, kissing increases the level of oxytocin in men, but decreases it in women?!) and a subject of continuous study, kissing has also been a subject of numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and all sorts of art works. I have gathered a number of kissing-depicting images, some by my favourite artists, and some by artists I have only just discovered, which I have scattered around this post. I do not intend to analyse them, for I believe they should be left to interpretation and contemplation by a reader. If I can say one thing, it would be that what makes these works so strong is their ability to escape the clichéd, the kitsch and the obvious. Having researched imagery for this post, I have seen an infinite number of realistic depictions of kissing, which were devoid of any sort of magic, atmosphere and emotion. The paintings I’m showing here are very different.

Obviously, kissing is not only depicted in masterfully executed oil paintings, but it seems to appear absolutely everywhere, from telecom ads, such as Vodafone’s The Kiss, to cigarette ads (see the infamous Don’t Be a Maybe campaign by Marlboro), to giant Benetton billboards, presenting world leaders in passionate lip-locks with their enemies. “What’s more personal than a kiss?”, asks Mark Glaser (Marketing at Google) when explaining the inspiration behind the Mulberry Kisses campaign, aimed at bringing the romantic view of the brand into the internet. So kissing is everywhere and yet we don’t seem to tire of it. An example of just how much excitement kissing can evoke, is First Kiss, a 2014 video directed by   Tatia Pilieva, which had 3 times more traffic than President Obama’s appearance on the popular online comedy show, Between Two Ferns, posted online the same day. The low-budget video was commissioned by fashion label Wren to showcase their clothing line’s fall collection for Style.com’s Video Fashion Week. It featured several couples, straight and gay, kissing in front of the camera, and proved an instant hit on the internet—it was viewed about 42 million times on YouTube. John Koblin in his article for the New York Times quotes Pilieva, who attributes the popularity to the sincerity of the video: “They shed all these layers in front of our eyes and in front of the cameras and that sweetness and kindness resonated with people.”

Another example of is Kiss Me Now, Meet Me Later, a social experiment, in which Toronto-based cinematographer Jordan Oram asked 8 blindfolded strangers to kiss each other after a brief introduction. Unlike similar videos, which focus on merely presenting the act of kissing, Oram’s film is trying to make us ask some questions. The film-maker said: “there had been nothing that really showed the reason why people were kissing… The reason behind the kiss: what if you meet the person you fell in love with from the first kiss? What if it was like your first kiss? What if you met someone, you kissed them, and then you introduced yourself? And then you built chemistry from that.”

Kissing can be truly magical. And it’s worth waiting for the right person to come along to share the magic with.

Marc Chagall, 'Birthday' (1915)

Marc Chagall, ‘The Birthday’ (1915)

On Praise and Criticism

Image by Piotr Łohunko (CC)

Coming to Warsaw after living in London has given me an opportunity to re-examine my homeland and culture. A lot has changed in the past few years, Warsaw is becoming an incredibly dynamic, vibrant and multicultural city, with lots of new business ventures, startups, and great new energy. Being a foreigner is no longer a problem, as there are plenty of international social initiatives, groups and other opportunities to meet people, network and fully enjoy what the place has to offer. I can honestly say that I’m very fond of the city. Thanks to its relatively small size (in comparison to places like London or New York) and excellent public transport, moving around is easy and unlike London, going out isn’t a big production—spontaneous meetings over coffee without much of a notice are common here. I also think that Warsaw has a higher standard of living than London. Of course, I’m not thinking about Chelsea bankers here, but an average Londoner whose housing choices are often limited to suburban flats which leave a lot be desired, due to sky-rocketing property prices.

That said, there are certain elements of Polish culture that I find myself perpetually questioning. A lot is changing when it comes to the attitude towards other cultures, to racial, sexual, religious etc. minorities, and to alternative life choices, and the stigma of intolerance is certainly lifting, as it the stereotype of a homogeneously Catholic country. But there is something that seems almost unshakeable, that penetrates all areas of work and social interaction: non-constructive criticism.

I’ve started thinking more about it after a couple of conversations I recently had with two expats who have been living in Poland. One of them works in finance and the other in media, but their observations were very similar: Poles tend to be very self-critical and often inhibited, while at the same time they’re quick to criticize others, especially those who are successful. This sort of mindset and way of being, in my opinion have one distinctive root: lack of sufficient appreciation at school and during upbringing.

For there is in fact something we can call an optimal ratio of praise to criticism. In an article for Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman are referring to the research conducted by academic Emily Heaphy and consultant Marcial Losada, which examined “the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company”. According to the research, the factor that played the biggest role in making a team successful or not, was the ratio of positive to negative comments. In the case of the highest-performing teams, the average ratio was 5.6 which means almost six positive comments for every negative one. Below is a little chart that demonstrates results of the study.

Of course negative feedback is important, if not necessary, when we’re off track, or doing something wrong or potentially harmful. But due to various cognitive biases our brain is prone to, negative feedback can have much more impact than praise, and it can easily become destructive rather than constructive. Neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote an article analysing the different scientific factors which make criticism such a powerful tool, and how these biases have developed in the process of evolution. “Research suggests,” Burnett writes, “that there’s an actual neurological bias our brains exhibit, placing more importance on negative stimuli, eg criticism. It’s a very persistent bias. We’ve evolved to respond quickly and strongly to negative stimuli, and have dedicated brain regions like the amygdala, which encodes the emotional component (eg fear) of an experience so that it remains potent and we can rapidly learn from it.” So while negative feedback has its role and can change behaviour, as Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman say “it doesn’t cause people to put forth their best efforts. Only positive feedback can motivate people to continue doing what they’re doing well, and do it with more vigor, determination, and creativity.” Rajiv Popat, Principal Officer at eFORCE and author of Leadership, Constructive Criticism And Not Playing The Blame Game article, says that “If you must criticize, do so constructively, followed by empathy, followed by genuine help.”

The five-to-one ratio isn’t limited to workspace, it applies to other areas such as relationships too. According to John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail, in which he analyses the chances wedded couples have at staying together, the determining factor is the exact same ratio of positive to negative comments made by partners to each other: “(…) as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.”

Unfortunately, Polish education system is a place where the opposite ratio of positive to negative feedback takes place. With lack of encouragement, it is very easy to develop resentment towards sharing ideas and knowledge, for the criticism can be incredibly unpleasant. I was lucky to have very encouraging parents,  always eager to congratulate me on any success, however big or small, but if I had to rely on school and the environment for motivating feedback, I would probably grow up insecure. The system of harsh criticism and little encouragement continues beyond the walls of primary, secondary and high schools. When a few years ago, I found myself doing an MA at the Academy of Fine Arts, I was taken aback with the behaviour of both students and tutors. My collaboration and experimentation-oriented BA course at Central Saint Martins in London put a lot of emphasis on giving and receiving feedback, both from tutors and from our peers, as well as on self-assessment. The atmosphere around presenting and discussing our work was so friendly and inspiring, that I considered those project assessments one of my favourite things about the course. It was always a great opportunity to hear what my strengths are, where I had succeeded and where I can improve from my tutors and other students, and each assessment made me want to do better next time. I never felt ashamed to ask a question and admit that I didn’t know something or express doubts about my work. People were enthusiastic about each other’s projects, happy to engage with them and appreciate them, and motivate each other to push their boundaries.

The Warsaw Academy was far from that. Group assessments were non-existent, though the one-to-one sessions with tutors (called “corrections”—this unfortunate name already implies that there is something wrong with our work) usually happened in the presence of other students. Those students, however, would hardly ever comment positively on each other’s work, and would stare at it with an expression of either aloofness and sense of superiority (if they found the work weak), or poorly disguised jealousy (if the work was good). Needless to say, I found those assessments rather unpleasant. Also, I quickly discovered that praise in general was considered deeply uncool—people would be very careful when expressing opinions about a theatre performance, film, book, etc. as if saying something nice about it would make others perceive them as “easily pleased” or lacking a refined taste. At the time, I found this a bizarre phenomenon, but I didn’t give it too much thought, as I was focused mainly on my own work, and returned to London as soon as my MA was finished.

Image by Hilary Perkins (CC)

And now I am finding myself again in the epicentre of Polish culture, looking at it, again, through the eyes of a foreigner (I spent many more years in London than Warsaw) and being able to compare my observations with expats who have lived here longer than me. The friend who works in finance said that Poles are very hard-working, ambitious and dedicated, but the fear of failing is stopping them from experimenting, bringing forth new ideas and trying alternative solutions. That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. If our whole experience of schooling is based on being criticised, punished and ridiculed for making mistakes, then no wonder people aren’t eager to say something that might evoke this dreaded reaction. At the same time, the lack of appreciation for achievements at school means that people grow up not used to expressing appreciation, and others’ success is often met with resentment, which the other expat friend has had a first-hand experience of.

This is a shame because in terms of the level of education, Polish schools are doing great. According to The Sustainable economic development assessment (Seda) by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which measures wellbeing across 149 countries, Poland got a score of 90 (out of 100) in the education sector, which puts it ahead of Britain (74). “Poland is ahead of the UK when it comes to teacher-to-pupil ratio and levels of tertiary enrolment,” we can read in George Arnett’s article in The Guardian.

According to the article in The Economist, international rankings put Polish students well ahead of America’s in science and maths. Our maths classes apparently tend to be “more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.”

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way adds that “Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed. Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (…). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”.”

The outcome of those studies doesn’t surprise me, for the level of education in Poland is indeed high, and our schools are very good at enforcing discipline, hard work and absolute dedication from students. My MA course was incredibly complex, thorough and I had incomparably more individual contact with tutors here than in London. But I wish that the passion for acquiring knowledge in Polish schools came from encouragement and motivation, rather than pressure and fear of being criticised. Students who have succeeded thanks to their own will and resilience, but who haven’t been sufficiently appreciated, are likely to become the sort of managers that Rajiv Popat is describing in his article: “During his very early days as a manager for a brief period of time, Pops wrote fairly heated emails to people in his team when they indulged in the acts of incompetence. Very soon, he realized that those heated emails were creating one consistent output: More Incompetence. That added incompetence of course resulted in more heated emails being sent by Pops. This thing was almost like the infinite loop of failure.” A simple change like acts of encouragement and honest support makes a tremendous difference: “I’ve seen individuals on the verge of being fired by managers turn to one of the most critical team members by a mere change of role”.

Poland is changing rapidly, and I am positive that it won’t be long before we begin recognising the power of positive feedback in both work and personal environment, and the magical 5-to-1 ratio. And I hope that stories like my friend’s, who recently told me that the only boss who was eager to compliment her after she had done good work, was a foreigner, will be an exception to the rule, not the other way round.

Faith, Delusions & Woody Allen

'Magic in the Moonlight' movie still

‘Magic in the Moonlight’ by Woody Allen, movie still

In the time of emotional turbulences in my life, I tend to become a bit of a film addict. I often turn to my favourite directors and re-watch old movies. Recently, it was Woody Allen, who I have been a fan of ever since I was old enough to watch “adult” films.

The two films I chose to re-watch, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), explore a very similar topic: faith vs. rationality. This was a purely accidental choice, though it strangely coincided with some events in my personal life. A close friend of mine had recently been prescribed anti-depressants. That friend is a devoted believer and a very spiritual person, who has always seen significance in everything that a non-religious person would consider random. Her recent breakdown, which I found very upsetting, made me think a lot about the common notion of religious people being sheltered from depression.

In Magic in the Moonlight, which takes place in the 1920s—time of exquisite fashion, jazz and an interest in séances—we have Stanley aka Wei Ling Soo, a celebrity illusionist who is on a mission to expose the trickstery behind the work of Sophie, a young woman who claims to be a medium. His long-held atheistic and rational views of the world and unmoderated condescension towards anyone who thinks otherwise are challenged when it becomes clear that Sophie does indeed have magic powers to predict the future. The discovery that “there is something more to our life than we see” turns bitter and cold Stanley into a much happier person. But as he is on the verge of starting to believe in God and prayer, his rational mind begins to rebel and Sophie does in fact turn out to be charlatan.

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, we have a group of characters, who, typically for Allen, get their lives complicated in various, both dramatic and comical, ways, and mostly end up unhappy. This includes Roy, a one-book writer who ends up destroying his marriage and career. He lives off the financial support of Helena, his mother-in-law, whose spirituality he viciously mocks. Yet the recently divorced Helena, who takes advice from a fortune-teller, and her new friend Jonathan, a widower, who runs an occultist shop and tried to contact his departed wife, are the only characters who are genuinely happy.

By making the rational Stanley grim and unhappy, and the rational Roy a self-destroying loser, Woody Allen makes a very strong point about atheists being unable to find true happiness. At the press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, asked to share his views on the subject of Helena and Jonathan, Woody Allen said:

“This is my perspective, and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it, I always have since I was a little boy, it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies, and deceive yourself. And I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person, it was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill: one must have one’s delusions to live, if you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise. So I feel that those people are the only two people that are happy, they are capable of deluding themselves. If I saw them at a party in real life I would think that they were foolish people and dumb, and silly, and I would laugh at them, but they would be happier than me.”

'You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger' movie still

‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ by Woody Allen, movie still

If we disregard Allen’s dry and sarcastic sense of humour, his perception of faith as the happiness-bringing factor was until recently a common belief among psychiatrists. It was believed that religion and spirituality can provide shelter from depression. But a recent study, analysed by Dr Raj Persaud in an article for the Huffington Post, has demonstrated that “there is an opposite relationship between religious belief and depression. Religion, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low mood, and could even be linked with more depression.”

When reality does not meet our expectations, we are likely to feel bitter, sad and hopeless. The problem with religion is that it creates unrealistic expectations: unanswered prayers are likely to deepen our frustration. If we then add a sense of guilt on top of that (prayers haven’t been unanswered because we don’t deserve kindness etc.), the result can be crushing. Accepting the randomness of life takes away a big chunk of the frustration that comes from futile attempts at examining the reasons behind everything that happen to us. To quote Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” (Androcles and the Lion, Preface, 1916)

Of course, what religion can bring to one’s life is a very strong sense of purpose and meaning. According to Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who conducted his research in concentration camps as well as at a private clinic after the war, these two things—purpose and meaning—are crucial for individuals to survive and thrive in life. Frankl, mentioned by Gleb Tsipursky in his article for The Richard Dawkins Foundation, called them a “will-to-meaning.” Tsipursky mentions also Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, whose research “demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

But religion is not the only path to gain a sense of life meaning and purpose. Having discovered that Sophie doesn’t possess any magic powers and that most likely there is nothing more to our life than we see, Stanley from Magic in the Moonlight doesn’t go back to bitterness and grimness. He falls in love with Sophie and this new love gives his life a whole new meaning.

Naturally, love is not guaranteed to happen to everyone, so it’s best to look for purpose in things that are within our reach and ability. Self-development, working on emotional intelligence, getting better at interacting with people and forming relationships, making a contribution towards the society, making use of our skills and the time we have, learning and sharing our knowledge, being a great partner/parent, becoming a sportsman, a musician, a politician, a scientist —there is an infinite number of things, big and small, one can choose as their purpose. On a website dedicated to lifting the prejudice many feel towards nonbelievers, we can read how various atheists define their purpose and meaning in life:  “What makes me happy is the ability, freedom, and courage to follow my dream.”, “I find my happiness in watching my children and grandchildren grow and mature.”, “Whether I’m in the lab investigating cellular respiration, or on stage making your feet move, my happiness is passionate and personal. I live on a big, beautiful planet with the health and freedom to explore it any way I choose. Add to that a world full of diverse altruistic humans who make every day unique and valuable.”, says Mark D. Hatcher, CFI–Washington, DC.

These ultra-positive testimonials clash with Woody Allen’s grim views on life. Given his speech at the conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, I would imagine him laugh at the “beautiful planet” sentiment. Still, however cynical he might be, he has his own purpose: telling stories. His relentlessness to make films with the regularity that doesn’t cease to amaze critics and audience makes it obvious that to him, film-making is the “delusion” he considers crucial to make life more bearable. Films, theatre, literature, any sort of storytelling can provide a great deal of healthy escapism—both for the creators and the audience—that is healthy precisely because we don’t question its fictitiousness.

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (CC)

The approach atheists take towards the nonexistence of God, varies greatly. Allen’s is a cynical yet charming mockery with the acknowledgment that religion does have some merits: “To me … there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful”, he said in an interview for The New York Times. Darwinist Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal and active anti-religion warriors, and the author of The God Delusion bestseller, certainly wouldn’t share Allen’s lenient attitude. Dawkins considers religion as a whole “a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality”, and compares it to a kind of mental illness. Likewise, Steve Pavlina, famous American self-help author and entrepreneur, bluntly rejects all aspects of religion, and is not afraid to ridicule them in his blog post titled 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion. Pavlina says:

“For reasonably intelligent people who aren’t suffering from major issues with low self-esteem, religion is ridiculously consciousness-lowering. While some religious beliefs can be empowering, on the whole the decision to formally participate in a religion will merely burden your mind with a hefty load of false notions. (…) Religion is spiritual immaturity. It’s entirely possible to enjoy your life without spending so much of it bent over in submission. Pull your head out of your rear, and look around with your own two eyes. If you need something to worship, then feel grateful for your own conscious mind.”

But writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has recently protested against dismissing religion as a whole, and came up with what he calls Atheism 2.0, which can take inspiration and positive elements from religions without the belief in God, deities or supernatural spirits. In a very popular TED talk, de Botton says that “there is something to learn from the example of religion—even if you don’t believe any of it. If you’re involved in anything that’s communal, that involves lots of people getting together, there are things for you in religion. If you’re involved, say, in a travel industry in any way, look at pilgrimage. (…) If you’re in the art world, look at the example of what religions are doing with art. And if you’re an educator in any way, again, look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they’re highly effective mechanisms for doing so.” Asked about what Atheism 2.0 can offer in place for spiritual experience, de Botton says that one can find the “so-called spiritual moments” in science and observation, without believing in the spirit. “I, like many of you, meet people who say things like, “But isn’t there something bigger than us, something else?” And I say, “Of course.” And they say, “So aren’t you sort of religious?” And I go, “No.” Why does that sense of mystery, that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe, need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling? Science and just observation gives us that feeling without it, so I don’t feel the need. The universe is large and we are tiny, without the need for further religious superstructure.”

Alain de Botton at TED

Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 at TED

Alain de Botton has been widely criticised in the atheist community, but I am much more sympathetic to his ideas than the hard-headed atheists. As an ex-believer brought up in an ultra-Catholic country, I am very aware of the dangers of an organized religion, and the way it hampers the development of conscience. At the same time, I can see the benefits of some of its elements: the community, the rituals, the routine (I’ve written about the merits of routine in the past). I agree with Alain de Botton when he says that “The people in (…) the secular world, who are interested in matters of the spirit, in matters of the mind, in higher soul-like concerns, tend to be isolated individuals. They’re poets, they’re philosophers, they’re photographers, they’re filmmakers. And they tend to be on their own.” As much as I love science and data, I would happily share with fellow atheists and agnostics not just facts and figures, but the experience of, for lack of better word, soul-searching, mindfulness, meditation—and the dizziness I feel when I look at NASA’s photo of Andromeda galaxy.

I do believe that turning into one’s own mind for answers and recognizing that the ability to be happy lies in our own hands, not someone else’s, is incredibly powerful and positive. As charming and funny as I find Helena’s character in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, my sympathy goes to her daughter Sally who deals with things as they are and decides to follow her dream of opening an art gallery. But at the end of the day, religion is a choice, and everyone is free to identify their own sources of happiness and comfort—even if they are a complete delusion.

To quote Woody Allen: Whatever Works.

Left, Right and Wrong: Political Labels & Biases

Bias

Photo by Sohel Parvez Haque via Flickr (CC)

In just a few days, polling booths in the UK will open for the general election. For the past weeks, all social media platforms have been buzzing with excitement and anger. “Scandal! Lies exposed! So-and-so must go!”, shout people as they share the newest cartoons mocking those they hate.

Since most of my friends are in the arts, media, film or theatre, I am surrounded by a very left-wing tone of discourse. Some of that discourse aligns with my very liberal social views. I’m a passionate supporter of freedom and equal rights for everyone and I strongly believe that people should be able to live and work anywhere and with whomever they want regardless of origin, sex, gender, etc. I recycle and I am moderately concerned about the environment. I oppose military conflict and any form of aggression. It’s easy to assume that I am left-wing. I am not—not in the economic sense at least.

At the same time, I am not right-wing either: as much as I support economic freedom, many of the policies traditionally found on the right (attachment to the Church, protection of “family values”, anti-abortion laws, restrictions on immigration) don’t resonate with me.*

Who am I then? With my liberal views on all four “wings”, I probably best fit into the “libertarian” box**. But here’s a problem: I don’t really like boxes. For one thing, they’re tight and restricting, for another: they are a sure way to prevent people from communicating and understanding each other.

If I were to vote in this country (which I’m not yet eligible to), I would have a hard time deciding who to vote for. But to be clear: this post isn’t about Labour, Tories, LibDems, UKIP, SNP or the Green Party. It’s about why these names evoke the kind of emotional response that limits our ability to see, read and listen beyond the tag, and about the errors we encounter at the very core of forming political beliefs.

3 for 2

Photo by Rob Watling via Flickr (CC)

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend who at the time was looking for a job and got what seemed like a good offer but declined it. “The owner is right-wing,” she explained, “So you see—I couldn’t work for him”. At that point, I realized just how bad these labels can be. Did my friend know what the owner actually believed in and why? Maybe she did, maybe not. Quite often a label, a name of a political party, a politician’s name is enough to end a conversation. Labels are shortcuts we use to classify other people as friends or foes. Instead of trying to understand each other, we make assumptions and judgements. We cease to discuss our ideas with those who don’t repeat the same slogans, and high-five those who share our articles and cartoons. We are right, THEY are wrong. Political debates, as Jeffrey A. Tucker points in his article for the Freeman, are often “shrill and unproductive, with two sides battling it out and making no intellectual progress. They bring more heat than light. If you are going to change that pattern, you must have the confidence to listen carefully to other ideas and not be threatened by them.” He adds that we should familiarize ourselves with ideas different from our own: “Read broadly”.

This isn’t easy. Even the process of acquiring information itself is challenging, because we are all equally prone to cognitive biases—tendencies to think in ways that can lead to deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgement.

Some biases are useful, for they allow us to process information more efficiently, and act quickly especially in dangerous situations (if we see something on fire, the cognitive shortcut tells us to put the fire out). But most biases aren’t useful at all, because they lead us to make dubious decisions and reach wrong conclusions. And there are hundreds of them. Enough for psychologist Daniel Kahneman to have dedicated his career to exploring human (ir)rationality, which revolutionised cognitive psychology and social psychology, opened up the field of behavioural economics and got him a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Vernon L. Smith).

Wrong Way

Photo by Elaine with Grey Cats via Flickr (CC)

Among cognitive biases, there are a few that are especially detrimental to forming political beliefs.

The Bandwagon Effect, which stems from our need to fit in and conform, leads us to shut our individual judgement, and follow the group, however large (nation) or small (family), adopting their mentality and behaviour. The Ingroup Favoritism, linked to the “tend and defend” effect of joy hormone oxytocin, makes us favour and trust members of our in-group, while feeling defensive towards out-group members.

And then there’s the confirmation bias: listening to information that fuels our pre-existing opinions, and ignoring or dismissing opinions that threaten our world view, regardless of their validity. Tucker’s plea for reading broadly is an ambitious one. If you are a die-hard believer in traditional Christian values, you will be very reluctant to read LGBT press. Most articles my left-leaning friends share on social media are from the Guardian. The tendency to search for information in a way that confirms our beliefs is so strong that most of us aren’t even aware of it. Once we’ve become X or Y paper readers, surrounded by a circle of like-minded (or like-biased) people, it’s very hard for us to critically evaluate our beliefs.

But biases can and should be overcome, and the way to do it is through objective examination of data and statistics. In the meanders of complex subjective ideologies, facts and figures can help remain sceptical and refrain from spreading contagious falsehoods. A bunch of numbers and graphs without any particular name attached to it minimizes the risk of having our mind clouded with emotional response. You might hate certain politicians, but you’re less likely to hate statisticians and independent economists.

Numerous people complain about rising crime, a criticism that gets thrown into a general negative evaluation of current times. If you’re one of them, you’ll be surprised when you look at the data. Crime isn’t rising—it is in fact going down, and in the UK it is currently at its lowest since 1981.

The fall of crime, result of the coincidence of several causes, is a good example of how flawed our beliefs can be. As The Economist points out, “Cherished social theories have been discarded. Conservatives who insisted that the decline of the traditional nuclear family and growing ethnic diversity would unleash an unstoppable crime wave have been proved wrong. Young people are increasingly likely to have been brought up by one parent and to have played a lot of computer games. Yet they are far better behaved than previous generations. Left-wingers who argued that crime could never be curbed unless inequality was reduced look just as silly.”

Complex issued such as whether or not to privatise (areas of) large public-funded bodies (i.e. the NHS) are complex for a reason—the number of factors to analyse and predictions to make several steps ahead is huge. But again, before getting locked in our pro or against stance, it might be worth looking at some figures pertaining to an institution that underwent a similar process. The history of the rail in Great Britain could provide some insight. From 1830 until 1923 the rail was private, and the number of its users was escalating rapidly. The government was however concerned about the multiple companies competing with each other and potential chaos resulting from that, and in 1923 divided the lines between four companies (The Big Four period, 1923-1947). In 1948, “for both practical and ideological reasons, the government decided to bring the rail service into the public sector”. The nationalisation resulted in a gradual decline in popularity, until 1995, when the rail was privatized with the hope that this would improve passenger services. It did, and passenger levels instantly increased. According to the Wikipedia, they are not only increasingly more popular but also the second safest in Europe after Luxembourg. But the privatisation issue is hugely controversial and it’s one where the Status Quo Bias kicks in—we like things to remain as they are, believing that another choice will most certainly be inferior or destructive.

Rail passenger numbers in Great Britain, 1830–2012 (millions)

Image by Tompw for the Wikipedia, 2012 (CC)

In the case of the healthcare debate, a common preconception is that there are only 2 available options: the freely available NHS in the UK or the convoluted system of private insurance in the US, which leaves people out of pocket. Compared to the American system, the NHS surely is better. But there are other options. Singapore, ranked as the 1st most efficient healthcare system in the world in 2014 (government healthcare amounts to only 1.6% of annual GDP, compared to 15.2% in the US), has a system where “the government ensures affordability of healthcare within the public health system, largely through a system of compulsory savings, subsidies, and price controls. (…) Patients are free to choose the providers within the government or private healthcare delivery system and can walk in for a consultation at any private clinic or any government polyclinic.” According to the World Health Organisation, Singapore has the lowest infant mortality rate in the world (equalled only by Iceland) and among the highest life expectancies from birth. In Europe, a very good model of healthcare can be found in the Netherlands. The Dutch system combines mandatory affordable universal coverage with competing private health plans, and people have freedom to choose where to buy their health insurance and get their healthcare service. Wikipedia tells us that “Based on public statistics, patient polls, and independent research the Netherlands arguably has the best health care system of 32 European countries,” according to the Health Consumer Powerhouse Research.

If the first thing you ever read on the minimum wage was an article supporting it, the Anchoring Bias will make you stick to that view. This is a controversial debate, with no obvious right or wrong answer. It is worth suspending the hostility towards the “out-group”. The minimum wage supporters believe that it protects the poor, therefore they assume that people who oppose the minimum wage are only concerned about the welfare of CEOs. But people who oppose minimum wage do so because they believe the minimum wage actually harms the poor, making it harder for the unemployed to get a job.

It is perfectly possible to understand why people defend the minimum wage. But if you favour following expert opinion on, say, climate change (i.e. a majority of climate scientists believe in global warming, so global warming probably exists) then, to be consistent, you should be unsure of the benefits of the minimum wage because the economics profession is unsure of its benefits.

The economist William Dunkelberg analyses figures and explains the process:

“Consider a community based pizza parlor selling 100 pies a day for 360 days at $10 each. Total revenue is $360,000. It employs 10 minimum wage workers earning $7 per hour, working 2000 hours a year, making labor costs $140,000. Assume rent, utilities, equipment, depreciation, insurance, supplies, licenses, and food costs come to $170,000 per year, leaving a profit of $50,000 for the owner and his/her family. Raising the minimum wage $1 would raise labor costs by $20,000 (paying more for the same amount of labor) and reduce profit to $30,000. The owner must either move into a smaller house or raise prices, which reduces the demand for pizza, resulting in the loss of a worker.  So, the full increase in the wage cost of an increase in the minimum wage comes out of the pockets of customers or the owner’s family, and the one person who loses a job. (…)The Law of Demand always works:  the higher the price of anything, the less that will be taken, and this includes labor.”

The burden of the minimum wage falls on those who are in real poverty and need jobs most. As Lorraine Woellert from Bloomberg puts it, “The minimum wage is an inefficient tool for poverty relief because so many of its beneficiaries, such as teenagers and part-timers, aren’t poor.” As economist Milton Friedman would say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Work place democracy

Photo by Becki Scott via Flickr (CC)

Even when faced with evidence contrary to our beliefs, we are reluctant to change them. If anything, our views are likely to get strengthened.

In his excellent book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini gives a powerful example of this bias, describing the startling success the Guardians’ cult. Started by Dr. Thomas Armstrong and Mrs. Marian Keech, the cult, which initially avoided publicity, focused its activity around the prophecy of an impending flood that would destroy the world. “Although the cultists were understandably alarmed at first, further messages assured them that they and all those who believed in the Lessons sent through Mrs. Keech would survive. Before the calamity, spacemen were to arrive and carry off the believers in flying saucers to a place of safety, presumably on another planet. Many believers quit their jobs or neglected their studies to devote full time to the movement. Some even gave or threw away their personal belongings, expecting them shortly to be of no use.”

And then the bizarre happened after midnight on the night of the supposed catastrophe: “No saucer had landed, no spacemen had knocked, no flood had come, nothing had happened as prophesied. Since the only acceptable form of truth had been undercut by physical proof, there was but one way out of the corner for the group. It had to establish another type of proof for the validity of its beliefs: social proof.” From “secretive conspirators”, Dr. Armstrong and his followers became avid missionaries, committed to their prophecy more than ever, despite the physical proof of its falsehood.

When in 1998 a study by Andrew Wakefield was published, which suggested that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was increasing autism in children, multiple anti-vaccination organizations began sprouting up around the world. In the years that followed, Wakefield’s study turned out to have been manipulated, and got completely discredited, while numerous further studies found no link between any vaccine and the likelihood of developing autism. Yet the anti-vaccination organizations are still very active, and are an example of the effect called Persistence of Discredited Beliefs, when at least some of the initial belief remains even after the falsehood is exposed.

Despite our capabilities to produce self-driving cars, record images of individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long galaxy, and do uterus transplants, we can think and act in spectacularly irrational ways. Prone to multiple cognitive biases, we’re wrong more often than any of us would like to admit. People behind initiatives like Less Wrong are concerned about the problem, but most of us not only aren’t concerned—we are simply not aware of the deviations in our thinking.

In the light of the upcoming election, I think it’s important to be aware of these biases, and also bear in mind that people who support different parties and politicians don’t necessarily have opposing values—in fact, they might share the same goals (peace, security, financial stabilization, fighting poverty and unemployment, etc.) but have different ideas for solutions to the problems.

There are many circling preconceptions on both the left and the right: the hatred for bankers and corporations, the assumption that free-market supporters aren’t concerned with the welfare of the poor but the small group of the rich; the idea that wealth distribution can only happen through governmental initiatives or the opposite—that any governmental regulations can result in a police state, and that morality doesn’t exist without a religion. To perpetuate these assumptions is a sure way of closing a conversation before it even begins. Is that a way forward? I very much doubt it.

Let me end on a quote from Jeffrey A. Tucker: “Do you know anyone who actually opposes human freedom? I don’t. It’s just that we all have different ways of understanding that idea and different levels of tolerance for its inconsistent application.” Think of other people as allies, not enemies. We’re on this planet together and we all want it to work.

Heart

Photo by Project-128 via Flickr (CC)

* For the life of me, I could never understand why social liberalism had been paired with governmental control over the economics, and social conservatism with free markets.

** Humourist author Dave Barry has been quoted saying, I’m a libertarian… Does it matter to me that it’s Democrats who think we need more elaborate programs that involve shifting money from one group to another group, or it’s Republicans saying we need to take a harder look at what kinds of things people are watching on cable TV? Neither one of those things strikes me as a good idea.

The Art of Competing and Losing in Settlers of Catan & Everyday Life

Settlers of Catan

For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure, it’s research. 
— Billie Jean King, former World No. 1 professional tennis player

Last week, my boyfriend and I got invited for a game of Settlers of Catan at our friends’ house. I must say that when it comes to board games, my experience is fairly limited. I had a mild obsession with Talisman: The Magical Quest Game, when I was a child, but in general, I didn’t venture very much beyond the classics: Monopoly, Chess, Mastermind, and Scrabble. I am not a big fan of games like Backgammon, where the roll of the dice dictates who wins, so I enjoyed the fact that Settlers of Catan allows for setting up strategies, analysing probabilities, and building relationships with other players.

The game was designed by Klaus Teuber and first published in 1995 in Germany. As the title suggests, players are settlers, whose main objective is building settlements, cities, and roads to connect them, while trading and acquiring resources (brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore) with each other and with the “bank”. Different settlements have different values, referred to as victory points, and the goal of the game is to reach 10 victory points.

The game is one of the top-selling games in the world, with multiple variations and extensions, and has gained praise from game writers. Richard Dansky called it “a hardcore game and a light social pastime and everything in between, a laboratory where I can test a hundred different play styles and a genuine reason to invite friends over,” as Wikipedia tells us.

I was keen to play but didn’t initially share the excitement of fellow players—to me, the game was merely an excuse to socialize with my friends, not a challenge to be overambitious about. Half an hour into the game, and I was no longer blasé about it, I was seriously hooked: emotional, tense, and cursing my opponents. I was genuinely surprised how much I wanted to win and how great it felt when I did (I keep joking that I only win when I play a game for the first time, which has recently happened with Munchkin and Cards Against Humanity).

Munchkin

A few days later, my friends came over and we played the game again. It was an intense battle, and even though I was initially far behind everyone else, in the end we all came very close, which really put us on tenterhooks. But something interesting happened towards the end. I had a Monopoly card, which enabled me to claim a chosen resource from other players, and had been waiting for the right moment to use it. I needed wheat, so calculated how much of it had been going around, but when it came to my turn, I got confused and asked for rock—which nobody had. It was a really stupid mistake and I got angry. Yet I was not angry because of bad luck—I was angry because it was my mistake and I could have prevented it. The feeling didn’t last for very long and I still enjoyed the game, but my emotional response baffled me and after my guests had left, I kept thinking about it.

We live in an age of competition. At school, we compete for grades, diplomas, popularity, and teachers’ approval. Later on, we compete for jobs, internships, scholarships, prizes, opportunities, promotions. In overpopulated cities like London, we compete for rooms, flats and houses (when some friends of mine were selling their flat at auction last year, they had a massive queue of people waiting outside of the building). We compete for antiques and designer clothes on eBay. We compete for the attention of a potential partner on an online dating site; we compete with all the attractive people “out there” our date might want to choose instead of us.

The writer Ayn Rand said that “Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal. A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” Healthy competition inspires individuals and teams to develop and improve their skills, to be at their very best, and to achieve great things. But competing with others is stressful, and losing doesn’t come easily to most of us. Everybody has witnessed the sort of tantrum a child throws when they lose at a game. With their fragile nervous system and little control over their emotions, children react hysterically, which is why their parents often let them win. As adults, we are aware that throwing a tantrum would make us look pathetic and immature, but just because we don’t manifest our emotions in the same way as children do, it doesn’t mean we accept defeat without any hard feelings.

After I got so annoyed with myself for wasting my Monopoly card, I began thinking about the benefits versus drawbacks of playing games. A quick research on internet gamers’ forums shows that getting irrationally angry when playing a game is incredibly common. It is also a reason why many people don’t play board games to start with. In a very interesting article, An observation about why some people don’t like board games (and how to cure them of that terrible affliction), Nick Bentley presents a few hypothesis on people’s reluctance to engage in games, based on numerous conversations with non-players. One of the major reasons behind their aversion is the fact that they actually… care more about board games than anyone else. “What I mean is,” he says, “those who dislike board games invest themselves more heavily in their outcomes, to such an extent that their identities are affected. When they lose, they feel they’ve endured a public demonstration of their ineptitude. When they win, they feel they’ve subjected their opponents to the same.”

chess

The ability to deal with stress differs a lot between people. Sportsmen, for whom competition is the core of their profession, are specifically trained to cope with competitive stress and pressure, and use many different strategies and techniques to control the anxiety levels during competition. But even sportsmen, despite the extra training, are not always able to handle stress well. Last year, a chess player died in the middle of a match during Chess Olympiad in Norway. Kurt Meier, 67, a Swiss-born member of the Seychelles team, collapsed during his final match of the marathon two-week contest.

The same applies to business investors. Alex Turnbull, the CEO & Founder of Groove, in an article called Why I Don’t Stress Over Competition Anymore, gives an example of the rise and fall of one of New York’s hottest startups, Fab. The company, with approx. 700 employees, $336 million in VC backing and a $1 billion valuation, started to collapse when its CEO, Jason Goldberg, decided to put gigantic financial resources into destroying Fab’s European competitor, Bamarang. This pixel-by-pixel clone of Fab was launched by the infamous copycat-incubator, Rocket Internet, who make money by making European copies of successful American companies, and forcing the original company to concede defeat or buy them out. Goldberg’s frustration was justified, but his inability to act rationally in the face of competition was fatal. His recklessness in spending gigantic money on marketing and expanding his company overseas to defeat Bamarang resulted in a Titanic-style crash that doesn’t cease to baffle people.

With my Settlers of Catan, and even more so, with my chess experience—a game where nothing is left to chance—I can relate to those who “care too much”, as Bentley had put it. But here is a conclusion I’ve come to: The very fact that a game carries a high risk of losing is the sole reason to play. Playing and losing over and over, as often as possible, is a fantastic way to practice becoming comfortable with loss and defeat—regardless if the defeat is due to chance, mistake, taking too big of a risk or not taking a risk. All of these losing scenarios happen in real life pretty much all the time. Sometimes you don’t get a job because you didn’t present yourself particularly well at an interview, while at other times, you’re the perfect candidate, but other 9 people are exactly as good as you, and some random factor decides that X or Y gets the job. (Maybe they come from the same city as the CEO or mention a band they had recently seen which happens to be the hiring manager’s favourite band). Sometimes your focus on safety and security means you will miss out on an opportunity to expand your business, and some other time, your fearlessness will result in a big loss.

Games teach us to accept whatever happens on the board, and to make the most of the resources we have and the position we’re in. Often a game might start badly, but evolve into a victory, or vice versa—you’re way ahead of the opponent(s), and then suddenly you’re overthrown. A while ago, I was at an early stage of a chess game, when I developed a rather complicated strategy and overlooked an obvious move from my opponent, which led to me losing the queen. Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated and thought the game was over. But I pulled myself together, and, depraved of the most powerful piece on the chessboard, I had to come up with clever ways of using my other pieces and pawns. And I won.

People generally agree on the positive effects board games have on social skills, intelligence and memory. A few years ago, Newsweek published an article about a study conducted by Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist from UC Berkeley, on a group of children from an elementary school in Oakland which historically has low state test scores. The children were given board games, card games, and video games that demanded distinct mental functions. After eight weeks of playing, their “reasoning scores, on average, leapt 32%. Translated to an IQ standard, that bumped them 13 points.”

But it is the psychological and emotional benefits that I find particularly interesting. I have read about people for whom playing board games provide a positive outlet for negative emotions that they have to keep under wraps in their daily life. By indulging in activities that they wouldn’t allow themselves to do in normal life, like lying, manipulating and playing aggressively, they release a lot of every-day tension. Then there are introverts, for whom games provide a structure for safe social interactions where they don’t have to engage in demanding small talk.

If you’re somebody who clings onto an unsatisfying job to avoid going through the process of competing with people and getting rejected, or is reluctant to ask someone on a date because they might say no, playing games can be the first step in the process of learning to accept not getting what we want. Some people might like to tackle the fear head on, like Jason Comely, a freelance IT guy from Cambridge, Ontario, who made it his goal to be rejected every day and transformed rejection into something he felt good about. But Settlers of Catan might be an easier place to start.

Unlikely homes: Jing Jin City & Miracle Village

Andi Schmied, "Glass House", 2014 | Sofia Valiente, "Paul", 2013

Andi Schmied, “Glass House”, 2014 | Sofia Valiente, “Paul”, 2013

The Jing Jin City and Miracle Village exhibition, which opens at Daniel Blau gallery in January 2015, is likely to arouse discussions. Very important, and quite possibly very heated discussions. The gallery has invited two very ambitious and courageous artists. Andi Schmied and Sofia Valiente, who were among the winners of 5 Under 30 competition in 2013 and 2014 respectively, are more than just photographers seeking interesting shots. They’re passionate adventurers who collect stories in remote parts of the world and bring them to an audience in the form of skilfully presented photo essays and books.

The exhibition revolves around the idea of home: people who found an unlikely home and houses that are not likely to become homes.

Jing Jin City, which Andi Schmied unofficially inhabited for several weeks, is a satellite city an hour outside of Beijing. The development covers more than 54 square kilometres and boasts 3,000 villas, a five-star hotel, hot springs resort, golf course, museum, temple, two colleges, and entertainment facilities. What it lacks is people—most of the villas are empty.

Miracle Village, on the other hand, lacks any architectural sophistication; the priority here lies in its inhabitants, the majority of which are sex offenders. If it wasn’t for 52 bungalows, set amid vast sugar cane, bean and corn fields in south Florida, these people would have been homeless. According to the Florida legislation, sex offenders are required to live a minimum of 1,000 ft. from any school, bus stop or place where children congregate. In reality, this distance gets increased to 2,500 ft. which makes it extremely hard, if not impossible, to find a place to live. As a result, many of those people end up on the streets, with little chance to re-integrate into society. The village, founded in 2009 by a Christian minister Dick Witherow, seeks to help offenders that have no place to go.

Andi Schmied, “Tile House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Andi Schmied, “Tile House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Sofia Valiente, "Paul House", 2013 | © Sofia Valiente, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Sofia Valiente, “Paul’s House”, 2013 | © Sofia Valiente, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Among the Miracle Village residents there are no medically diagnosed paedophiles or convicted child rapists, according to Lisa F. Jackson and David Feige, authors of Sex Offender Village documentary. The range of their crimes varies from serious offenses to consensual teenage relationships with an age gap. Yet to many people, those residents are monsters who should not be provided with a home, and Witherow’s community project is constantly a subject of criticism. The problem lies in the extremely broad definition of the term “sex offence”. Jackson and Feige think that “in the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offences have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless,” and that “our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.” Among 747,408 people on the US sex registry (55,000 in Florida alone), there are people who had consensual sex with a younger partner when they were both minors, people convicted of inappropriately touching their siblings, people charged with the possession of child pornography, sometimes accidentally downloaded from the internet like in the case of Ben, No. 405.

Ben aka No. 405, Miracle Village

The Miracle Village book consists of a series of photographic portraits of the community, which are followed by diary-like notes, hand-written by a few inhabitants, all of which have been allocated a number. These intimate confessions, often a little difficult to decipher, bring an even greater human element to these painful stories. | Ben aka No. 405

On Valentine’s Day weekend, I had plans to get together with my girlfriend, however that’s when my life changed forever instead, and not in a good way. On the way to our date, I got pulled over. The cop said there was a warrant out for my arrest, on charges of child pornography possession. (…) It turns out that while I spent a weekend at my girlfriend’s in December, a thunderstorm was overheard outside my house. My roommate, according to his statement to the police, went in my room to turn off the computer. Instead of shutting it down, he was curious to see what I had on there. Apparently, he came across the folder where my porn was downloading to, saw some files which had people in it that were under 18, and called the cops on me, himself. Had my computer been password protected, he would have just shut my computer down, and none of this would have happened. As I’m pretty partial to large breasted porn stars anyway, I’d probably just have deleted the child porn along with the rest of the files I’d have deleted, and never given it a second thought… But I didn’t have my computer password protected, and now I’m a sex offender. Such is life. If the Buddhists are right, and we get reincarnated after we die, maybe in my next life, I’ll have better luck…

The aim of Sofia Valiente’s project was, in her own words, to portray the community’s residents in a way most people have never seen. For her book, published this year by Fabrica, she chose 12 stories of people who ended up sharing the same label as a result of very different circumstances. She doesn’t judge, condemn or defend any of these people. Instead, she invites the viewers to make their own judgement. Her portraits of the offenders and their personal, painful, and brutally honest stories bring back the human element that is missing from the public registry.

David and Matt: "David and I are like two peas in a pod." | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

David and Matt: “David and I are like two peas in a pod.” | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Matt aka No. 611, Miracle Village

Matt aka No.611, Miracle Village

It takes a lot of work to adapt to a life with the stigma of the “sex offender” label. It’s a highly restrained life with very specific rules. On top of the distance restriction and publicly visible data, there is curfew, monthly home inspections and reports, prohibition of smartphones and computers, censorship of one’s books and films, random drug tests, GPS monitoring, weekly sex therapy. Gene, No. 404, says: “As a sex offender I cannot trust anyone because maybe someday they could be in a bad mood, tired of dealing with me or just mad. All they have to do is call 911 and say that a sex offender has bothered them and Bang! I am in jail. No questions asked.”

But despite having to carry this punishment throughout their lives, there is surprisingly little resentment and a strong sense of gratitude among the Miracle Village residents. “Honestly I’m the one who says thank you ‘cause being sentenced to prison saved my life from drugs. And I was blessed with a safe place to live and a place where I fit in at,” says David, No. 209. Doug, “The Kid”, No.401, is actually happy in the community: “I like living here. I have a home and a key and real friends that care about me.” Ben, No.405, a food enthusiast, is grateful for sharing his room with an unemployed Italian chef: “I actually eat so good now that I needed to buy all new pants, as my old ones became too tight!”.

Patti Aupperlee, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, talks about the perplexing irrationality of the legislation that makes it impossible for sex offenders to make a new start after having done their prison sentence: “There is no other crime that follows you for the rest of your life. You can kill a person and you get out of prison and you’re done. Our laws are not rational or even meaningful.”

There is a broader problem here, and the paranoia around sex crimes is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the rejection of logical analysis and hypothetical contemplation on difficult and uncomfortable topics. In an article published a few months ago, Are There Emotional No-Go Areas Where Logic Dare Not Show Its Face?, Richard Dawkins described the problem very aptly: “When a show-business personality is convicted of paedophilia, is it right that you actually need courage to say something like this: ‘Did he penetratively rape children or did he just touch them with his hands? The latter is bad but I think the former is worse’? How dare you rank different kinds of paedophilia? They are all equally bad, equally terrible. What are you, some kind of closet paedophile yourself?”

Only last month, the best-selling author John Grisham stirred up a hornet’s nest, when he spoke of the US justice system and over-incarceration in an interview with The Telegraph. “We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child. (…) But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.” Grisham, who has spent a lot of time and money advocating for criminal justice reform and often criticized racially biased drug sentencing laws, became an immediate source of harsh attacks (“Dear FBI,  please visit John Grisham and check his hard drive and brain while you are at it,” wrote M.C Reynolds on Twitter). Again, he didn’t say that child pornography is ok, quite the opposite: “I have no sympathy for real paedophiles. God, please lock those people up.” He merely questioned the disproportionate punishment, given the degree of the crime: “So many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting.” Even his later apology did little to calm down the aggravated public. As Richard Dawkins says, “rape and paedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area.” A mere attempt to discuss whether the penalties are justified is unforgivable. Dawkins advocates the freedom to discuss all “spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them.” The hypothetical comparison between forms and degrees of a crime is neither its endorsement nor an insult towards the victims.

Contrary to what sceptics say about the Miracle Village, it does not victimise the offenders. Pat Powers, the executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, who was convicted of sexual contact with 11 minors in the early 1990s, doesn’t deny anyone’s crime. In an interview with Linda Pressly for the BBC he says: “I can see through these guys’ stories. So if we get someone here and they say, ‘I’m not guilty, all I did was look at a picture. I say, no. You’re guilty, period.’ Because the only way you’re going to change is to admit you are wrong.”

In this light, Sofia Valiente’s project has a tremendous value in the sense that it invites us all to brave the taboo areas and talk about these sex offenders as individuals who made bad choices in the past, as opposed to some mass evil. “They would be lepers in society. Here, they’re not lepers,” she told Josh Sanburn from Time magazine. The assumption that someone who hasn’t been medically diagnosed as a paedophile or a psychopath will most certainly harm others again, if only given a chance, and therefore should carry the “sex offender” stigma until the end of his life, does nobody any good. Especially when you look at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s statistics which demonstrate that no sex crime has been reported in Miracle Village since it was founded.

Thanks to Matthew 25 Ministries initiative, 107 sex offenders have a place where they can feel human. There is hope that thanks to Sofia’s project people will begin regarding them as humans too.

While Miracle Village remains the desired home for many more sex offenders than it can accommodate, Jing Jin City, explored in Andi Schmied’s project, attracts a very small number of people. According to Guo Huaxu, one of the few residents at Jing Jin City, at any given time less than 20 out of 400 villas are occupied. The 800-room Hyatt Regency hotel has no more than 100-200 guests and a dozen or so staff. Most of the villas have been bought as an investment, for retirement or holiday use. But with very few amenities, and a long commute to Beijing and Tianjin, Jing Jin City isn’t an attractive place to live for anyone regardless of their age.

Jing Jing City catalogue

“In the super garden with the area of thousand square meters, I can live up to my ideal life” (from Jing Jin City catalogue)

The project was built by Hopson Development, the Hong Kong-listed developer, in collaboration with Tianjin’s Baodi district government for a sum of 20 billion yuan (over 2 billion pounds), according to Time Weekly. Zhao Yuting, Hopson’s regional general manager, says that it was much more than just a housing project: “We are not just building houses, but a city instead. It’s not that we can create a city within 10 years”.

Just like Sofia’s documentation of the Miracle Village remains impartial, Andi Schmied’s project isn’t criticising the Hopson Development’s unsuccessful endeavour either. Her interventions are merely a “response to the current state of these empty buildings that populate this utopian resort. (…) Constructing Nothing emphasizes the Sisyphean nature of their labours.” The “strange stillness” of the city is most visible in the winter time, “when temperatures plunge, transforming the river moats surrounding the gated communities into frozen roads – giving us access to the empty properties.”

Jing Jin City (Volume I), a  publication which accompanies the exhibition, consists of five space interventions into the emptiness of the Jing Jin City buildings. Andi inhabited the place and created installations with materials she found lying around in the houses, abandoned and unused. The Wall House, located on one of the most luxurious parts of the island, was full of concrete blocks. The Tile House had four stacks of concrete tiles waiting to be assembled into a floor. In the Glass House, empty window frames were waiting for the glass to be put in, and the Grass House had an overgrowing garden which had just been cut and was waiting to be cleared. The fifth space, Curtain House, got decorated with curtains of a different colour for each room.

Andi Schmied, "Glass House, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

Andi Schmied, “Glass House”, 2014 | © Andi Schmied, Courtesy Daniel Blau

There isn’t a defined purpose to these constructions. As Andi says, they are “a trace that may or may not be legible to future visitors. A guard, a gardener, an estate agent, or an investor might enter the interior. To them, we will be anonymous and our role as authors will be unknown. For them, the construction will be a manifestation of a place whose reason for existence is unclear.”

Perhaps the absurdity and futility of ghost cities like Jing Jin, where guards go to sleep in the empty houses they are meant to guard and sheep graze corn on the balconies of luxurious bedrooms, mirrors the futility of heated debates between people who condemn the project. It is easy to juxtapose 400 empty villas with the problem of homelessness and shortage of housing in overpopulated areas, and chastise the existence of Jing Jin City since there are people with no place to live. But one should not forget that a building, no matter how big and fancy, won’t be inhabitable for a vast majority of people unless is surrounded by good infrastructure. “Compared with thriving districts in China’s great cities, these lifeless urban areas had no established industries, and people were unwilling to move there given the lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure,” says Many Zuo in an article for South China Morning Post. In that light, the only upsetting element is that the development was partially subsidised by the district government, so effectively Chinese citizens helped fund a project that doesn’t benefit them. If this involved private money only, then aside from a general waste of resources, it would be the investor’s loss.

But then again, if one digs deeper, more questions and dilemmas arise. Questions about the disproportions in wealth between different society groups, which manifest themselves in the fact that while one family can barely afford a small suburban flat, another will own a villa in the city centre and three summer houses. A quick read through internet forums shows that a great number of people would want the wealthy owners to pay extra high taxes or have their houses repossessed if it’s not used for more than 6 months. But without a deep understanding of economics, one should be careful in these speculations, as we can see by looking at examples from other countries. A large portion of older properties in Portugal are derelict, and therefore unoccupied, because rent controls prevented the landlords from ever increasing their charges. Trevor Abrahmsohn, an estate agent specialising in the famous Bishops Avenue aka “Billionaires Row” in London with several empty mansions, says that the way to tackle housing shortage is by making changes to the planning system, not by imposing control over private properties: “One of the things people love about this country is its freedom and liberal views. You can’t start affecting what people do with their assets.”

Both Sofia’s and Andi’s projects are likely to inspire difficult debates. Although the Miracle Village happens to expose very specific problems of current legislations, both projects are successful at addressing a very important issue: humans as individuals and humans as communities. Sex offenders suffer from being treated as a group of identical elements. Jing Jin City, created with wealthy individuals in mind, suffers from lack of understanding about developing communities: a city won’t be built around a few individuals. Understanding the mechanism behind the unsuccessful development in China and a faulty legislation in Florida is a step towards a greater understanding of humanity.

In search of La Dolce Vita: Breaking with the nine-to-five

Fornetella in Tuscany

I celebrated the end of this year’s summer in Italy. This last-minute and fairly spontaneous holiday trip provided a much needed break after several weeks of hard work and disappointing weather. Deprived of work tools and all sorts of big city-type of stimuli, I turned to the simple pleasures: food, swimming, sunbathing, reading. And I devoured them all.

My head, unpolluted by social media-induced information that lingers on one’s brain like smog, was free to think and observe. I watched people in small towns and big cities, and read with great interest about Italian history and modern life in Maciej Brzozowski’s book, Włosi. Życie to teatr (English: The Italians. Life is a theatre). After this 10-day internet detox, I returned to London with a wonderful feeling of tranquillity, and a desire to investigate the idea of la dolce vita. At the same time, I approached the topic with trepidation, worrying about defaulting to clichés, and I found it difficult to start writing.

A few days after my return, as I was fighting for oxygen on the tube, standing next to about-to-fall-over guys in suits, it dawned on me: it isn’t the weather, the incredible landscapes, the possibly best coffee in Europe, or exquisite clothes. Between the pizzas and the piazzas, the main component of la dolce vita is being able to rest. In their more relaxed attitude towards working hours, Italians are one step closer to what the New Rich advocate in their self-help books: stop being a slave, get a life and live it well.

The truth is, here in Western Europe, we live in a culture of neurosis, with a perpetual sense of inadequacy and uncertainty, which we chase away by burning ourselves out. The cultural model on one hand tells us to enjoy our youth because once it’s over, the door to fun, adventures and possibilities shuts for good. On the other hand, it says: work as hard as you can, so that in 40 years time, if you’re lucky, you can have some rest. Slave, save, retire.

And while we, Britons, pour hectolitres of coffee down our throats in the battle with mid-afternoon sleepiness, Italians don’t fight. Just like Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor, who used to, after his midday meal, “eat some fruit and take another drink; (…) remove his shoes and undress completely, just as he did at night, and rest for two or three hours,” they close their shops, and offices and go home to rest.  A siesta, in Italy referred to as riposo, is an afternoon break that usually lasts between two and three hours. Therefore a shop will close at 1pm and reopen at 4pm (or even later—from what I’ve seen, places often decide on the length of their break.) Even a parking meter, though inanimate, seems to be napping—in Portoguaro it counted the hours up to and after the break, which resulted in a much smaller sum to pay. In our nine-to-five regime, a three-hour rest seems massively extravagant. But not only does it make perfect sense, especially in the summer heat, but it is beneficial to our health—according to medical studies, the siesta habit is associated with a 37 percent reduction in coronary mortality.

Why do we not have a siesta in the UK? That’s a good question. (The fact that the temperature doesn’t go over 30 degrees for most part of the year is not a sufficient reason.) Another question that follows is: why do we not have more control of our time in general, especially in the digital age of instant information access? Why do people sit glued to their office chairs for at least 8 hours? (Or 12, if they’re corporate lawyers.) Perhaps, as Eve Hankins says in an article written for The Stylist, it is because “the notion of working nine to five, Monday to Friday is so entrenched in our national psyche that we rarely question it.” In fact, the origins of the 8-hour work day stems from 19th century norm for running factories. Why this model applies now, is puzzling.

Leo Widrich analyses the stale nine-to-five concept in his article The Origin of the 8-Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink It. The fact is, people are not able to work efficiently for 8 hours. And what we need isn’t a siesta—it is four or five siestas. “The basic understanding is that our human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes,” Leo says, “Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again.” So a more efficient working day would consist of, let’s say, four or five 90-minute working sessions with half an hour breaks between them.

That’s already an improvement but if all of this happens at an office, then those in-between breaks, while they might improve our well-being and focus, don’t enable us to get any more out of our life (spend time with family, learn a language, work-out at a gym). Thirty minutes is fine for reading a book but not for getting out of an office to achieve something, unless it’s grabbing a sandwich from a nearby shop.

Also, the Mediterranean siesta isn’t just about sleeping and solitary rest. It’s a chance for a nice meal at the table with friends for family. Southern Europeans are appalled seeing British businessmen shoving down Tesco sandwiches whilst walking from one meeting to another. Food is taken seriously in the south—it’s one of the greatest life pleasures, and should be enjoyed properly. But in the corporate world there really is very little space for enjoyment, and people continue being glued to their chairs for hours, not quite working, not resting, and waiting for the day to end.

Caorle in Veneto

This is pretty bad but thankfully more and more people recognize the problem. And some go further than Widrich’s idea of chopping work into 90min chunks—Tim Ferriss, for example, cuts the 40 hour week to… 4 hours. His reasoning is based on the Parkinson’s Law: “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.(…) The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”

A 4-hour work week—now, that’s radical. But Tim Ferriss, the famous American writer and entrepreneur, author of three bestsellers, is radical. In fact, his advice on lifestyle, work, body-building, health and cooking takes the term “radical” to a new level. Tim is like Marmite—you either instantly fall in love with his hyper-optimistic, can-do-anything approach, or develop a deep hatred for the guy (“Tim Ferris is a SCAM!”) because he’s shown you that life can be designed according to one’s own vision. Ferriss went from working 80 hours a week for $40,000 a year to working 4 hours a week for $40,000 a month, thanks to coming up with a profitable and efficient model of prioritizing, outsourcing and delegating. Many take his success as an insult to the omnipresent belief they never questioned—that the more money you want, the harder you need to work for it. But Ferriss ignores the haters, following the rule that says “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do” (I recommend his talk on the subject), sticks his middle finger at those who call him the Antichrist and goes on enjoying his life, learning new things, and breaking new world records.

Of course, Ferriss’s model can’t be applied to every workspace. But there is no reason why employees shouldn’t be given a lot more flexibility. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, has just offered his staff unlimited holiday which they can take whenever they want, as long as “their absence will not in any way damage the business.” The number of negative comments this has raised, both from hysterical sceptics (“this will be a catastrophe!”) and cynics (“yeah alright, this is just a cheap ploy to exploit the workers!”) is astounding. But Netflix, the largest provider of commercial streaming video programming in the US which has market cap of nearly $7bn (£4.5bn), has used the same policy for a while now and hasn’t experienced any negative results. At Evernote, they’ve gone a step further and are actually offering employees $1,000 of spending money as an incentive to take the holiday—to prove that they really do want people to take time off and not get scared of getting sacked for overstepping some invisible line.

In June this year, a new law was introduced that grants all UK employees the right to request flexible working, which includes part-time working, flexitime, job sharing, shift working and home working. I really hope the law won’t remain a solely theoretical possibility and that employers won’t be clinging onto their right to decline the holiday.

Caorle in Veneto

“In much white-collar work today,” says Daniel H Pink from The Telegraph, “where one good idea can be orders of magnitude more valuable than a dozen mediocre ones, the link between the time you spend and the results you produce is murkier.” Flexible working time and unlimited holiday inspire productivity and focus and, since they demonstrate the employer’s trust in his employees, can really help build strong relationships. A paranoid employer micro-managing every action of his workers creates hostility and resentment.

Whenever I travel on the tube around 6pm, squashed between people whose only desire is to crush on the sofa and eat a ready-meal from a supermarket, I want to go right back to the Tuscan valleys. But la dolce vita is not restricted to geography or nationality. Effective work and good organization can mean that you don’t have to give all your time away, and after a couple of hours of super focused work from home, you might be able to enjoy a relaxed lunch. Hopefully, once people realize that life is not something that will happen when you’ve retired or accumulated enough funds to stop working, they will fight for their siestas.