Award! Award! Photo! Photo!

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 17/09/2013 - 12:01pm

Once again the Coffs Advocate is first with the news that one of it's advertisers has received a slew of slightly-coveted industry awards. If only there were some way to show our appreciation for the Advocate's remarkably diligent coverage of stories of absolutely zero relevance to the public interest. Perhaps some sort of award?

Scientific controversies: Brain size and intelligence

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 17/09/2013 - 10:22am

I had such fun researching and writing this essay for my science class, I had to post it online for posterity (a.k.a. the Wayback Machine).

As my tutor noted, the abstract and introduction were basically incomplete, because I had already cut the body as far as it could go in order to meet the word count restriction. I can't see any academic justification for word count limits. The university unit information guides say that these are imposed "on equity grounds", but this is bunk; every student has the same resources and the same amount of time at their disposal. If somebody manages to adequately address the subject matter in fewer words than average, good for them. If they pad out their essay with loads of irrelevant waffle, deduct marks. Equity doesn't enter into it. Furthermore, writing to a word count isn't an academic skill, it's a skill for journalism - print journalism at that, so an increasingly irrelevant one. The university should fess up and say they just don't want to pay people to mark long essays.

My inability to read French posed a bit of a problem for reasearching a debate that largely took place in 19th century Paris, hence my recourse to citing Gould almost exclusively on this, but a highlight was the charming paper that anti-racist German anthropologist Freidrich Tiedemann delivered to the Royal Society in English, as a way of saying "well done, you!" to the British for the abolition of slavery.

It's even hard to feel too much ill will towards our contemporary racist craniometrists, since they're so barking mad that it verges on the endearing. The recently-departed J. Philippe Rushton (may he rest in peace in the whites-only section of the cemetary), having decided that, due to some law of the conservation of flesh, brain size and penis size were inversely related, even went so far as to wander around his local shopping mall quizzing people about their willies. When disciplined over this behaviour by his university, he was appalled. Who were they to prevent an intellectual ubermench from conducting serious scientific enquiry into the inferior subspecies that infest his local shopping precinct?

Still, one must remember that these short-handled cranks often come dangerously close to respectability, and the sciences - indeed all fields of human endeavour - require periodic attention from philosophers so that they know when they're crossing the line between a little bit mad and altogether too mad. Unfortunately, beyond a few elite institutions, philosopy is history, as is history, and the rest of the humanities are under deathwatch, so things are likely to get a lot madder. Enjoy the ride, folks.


The issue of bias is an important one to consider when examining the process of scientific enquiry. Culturally determined and scientifically unwarranted assumptions can lead us to seek to account for non-existenct phenomena, and to find significance in meaningless data. This report examines these problems with reference to the work of Paul Broca and his modern followers, in their endeavours to locate the varying determinants of human intelligence within biology.

1. Introduction

Paul Broca was an eminent 19th century comparative anatomist whose work on localisation of brain function is justly celebrated. He was also a product of his time, and his cultural biases led him to a misguided  attempt to demonstrate a non-existant relationship between brain size, intelligence, race, class, and gender. This dubious enterprise had devastating social and political consequences over the following century, and it's pernicious effects are still felt today.

2. Analysis

2.1. The essence of the conflict or debate.

Broca believed that by demonstrating that the brain sizes of different genders, races, and classes of human beings varied in consistent ways, one could account for the different social status of each as the inevitable result of biology. He and his colleagues “were not conscious political ideologues. They [...] confirmed all the common prejudices of comfortable white males - that blacks, women, and poor people occupy their  subordinate roles by the harsh dictates of nature." (Gould, 1996, p. 106). However this hypothesis did not go unchallenged.

In 1861, Broca and Louis Pierre Gratiolet, Broca’s collaborator in his work on aphasia, duelled over the supposed correlation of brain size and intelligence (Gould 1980, p. 145-148). German anatomist Friedrich Tiedemann had already concluded “that the opinion of many naturalists [...] that the Negro has a smaller skull and brain than the European, is ill founded, and entirely refuted by my researches.” Tiedemann also observed that, correcting for body size, “the female brain is for the most part even larger than the male” (Tiedemann, 1936). Broca’s colleague Léonce Pierre Manouvrier expressed doubts about the validity of attempting to quantify intelligence at all: “Women displayed their talents and their diplomas. They also invoked philosophical authorities. But they were opposed by numbers [...]" (Manouvrier, cited in Gould, 1980, p. 153).

Nevertheless, Broca’s hypotheses has remained resistant to refutation, forming the foundation of the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and still retaining a vocal group of adherents in the contemporary scientific community (Rushton & Ankney, 2009).

2.2. The evidence presented on both sides of the conflict.

Broca's evidence was entirely confined to comparative anatomy; that brain size between males and females, and between different races and classes of humans, varied to a statistically significant degree. He  considered the intellectual inferiority of women to men to be self-evident (Gould, 1980, p. 154) and, arguing from consequences, claimed that brain size must be of significance if for no other reason than if this were not the case craniometry would “lose most of its interest and utility” (Gould, 1980, p. 145).

Due to limited access to non-European skulls, much of Broca's evidence rested on the assertion that the cranial capacity of African male skulls was equivalent to that of European female skulls, although Tiedemann's data strongly refutes this (Teidemann, 1836). Broca was able to discount Tiedemann's results by subjecting his methodology to a devastatingly rigorous critical review, although as Gould (1996, p. 116) observes, similarly suspect data from anthropologists whose conclusions supported Broca's were spared such scrutiny.

Tiedemann's corrections for discrepancies in male/female body mass were dismissed by Broca's a priori claim that “we must not forget that women are, on the average, a little less intelligent than men” (Gould, 1980, p. 154). This did not discourage Manouvrier from going further, observing that gross measurements of height and weight were inadequate to account for gender diffference in brain size, because body mass is distributed differently in males and females. By correcting for this factor he termed “sexual mass”, Manouvrier concluded that women actually had a slightly larger brain size on average than men (Gould, 1996, p. 138). The belief in the relationship between brain size and intelligence persists among some researchers to this day, although throughout the 20th century it was more common for the results of intelligence tests to be used as evidence for, or as a direct proxy for, intelligence than brain size. To these measurements a wide array of other quantitative observations have been brought to bear, including reaction time, genetic studies, and neuroimaging techniques (Rushton & Ankney, 2009).

2.3. Describe in detail, what part the scientific method played in the conflict.

“I have the greatest respect for Broca's meticulous procedure,” writes Gould (1980, p. 153), “His numbers are sound. But science is an inferential exercise, not a catalog of facts. Numbers, by themselves, specify nothing. All depends upon what you do with them.” Indeed a recent paper asserts that it is “unacceptably easy to publish 'statistically significant' evidence consistent with any hypothesis.”:

“The culprit is a construct we refer to as researcher degrees of freedom. In the course of collecting and analyzing data, researchers have many decisions to make: Should more data be collected? Should some observations be excluded? Which conditions should be combined and which ones compared? Which control variables should be considered? Should specific measures be combined or transformed or both?“ (Simmons, Nelson, & Simonsohn, 2011.)

Gould (1996) identifies many instances where Broca and his peers employ researcher degrees of freedom to support their cause: Broca is most diligent in applying corrections to data when he finds the data uncongenial (Gould, 1996, p. 121-125), for instance against Gratiolet he applies body size correction to the case of Frenchmen versus Germans, but notably makes no such correction for women versus men (Gould, 1996, p. 136); Topinard explains away the existence of large-brained criminals by positing, without evidence, that they constitute a small minority of masterminds (Gould, 1996, p. 127); and where the contention that intelligence is determined by gross brain size is contradicted by evidence, Broca nimbly leaps to the conclusion that in these cases the distribution of brain matter between the front of the brain (where it contributes to intelligence) and the back (where it does not) is a mediating factor (Gould, 1996, p. 129-130).

The parallels between Broca and his modern counterparts in this respect are striking. For example, to explain the “paradox” of small-brained women performing as well as large-brained men on IQ tests, it is hypothesised that that the brain mass not required for “General Mental Ability” (GMA) is used for tasks requiring “the 'purest' spatial measures, such as rotating an imaginary object or shooting at a moving rather than a stationary target,” which correspond to ”intellectual abilities at which men excel” (Rushton & Ankney, 2009). The “paradox” is thereby explained away by a recapitulation of Broca's “front and back” argument; GMA is invariably determined by brain size, except where it isn't, in which case the superfluity of male brain accounts for the schoolyard taunt of “you throw like a girl”!

The problem of researcher degrees of freedom is compounded by publication bias against null results. Academic publishers typically consider nonsignificant findings difficult to interpret or otherwise problematic, and are inclined to reject them. Consequently, individual scholars may “file-drawer” studies that don't “work” “simply because they believe null results will not be published ” (Ferguson & Heene, 2012). One unintended outcome of this is that ideologically-motivated researchers can characterise their critics as themselves politically motivated and lacking empirical support, while their own arguments are backed by repeated, consistent, peer-reviewed evidence. Rushton's (1997) review of Gould is a striking example of this. According to Ferguson and Heene (2012), “if null results are summarily rejected, notions of replication and falsification are mere mockeries of what they should be in a fully functional science. What is the point of replication if all the failed rejections are dismissed out of hand?" We are left, they argue, with “virtually unkillable” theories based on false positives.

2.4. What position did the scientific community take and why?

As noted above, Gould identified a number of “black sheep” among Broca's contemporaries, including Tiedemann and Manouvrier. Educator Maria Montessori dissented along with Manouvrier on the matter of women's intelligence, but followed Broca on all else, dutifully measuring the heads of her students (Gould, 1980, p. 158). In 1883, Francis Galton sythesised Broca's work on race and intelligence with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection into the eugenics movement, which was very influential in the early 20th century, until falling into intellectual disrepute through association with the Nazis. In the post-war period “research on brain size and intelligence virtually ceased” (Rushton & Ankney, 2009), although some of the social and political effects of the eugenics movement, such as the Australian Government's attitude towards its indigenous population, would linger for decades (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997).

Nevertheless, by the late 1970s, science writers felt able to consider Broca's folly a historical lesson rather than a matter of contemporary debate. Sagan (1979) wrote that it was “a little unfair, I think, to criticize a person for not sharing the enlightenment of a later epoch [...]”, and Gould (1980, p. 151) even asserted that “I trust that no one would now try to rank races or sexes by the average size of their brains.” Both were somewhat premature. The publication of The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) attracted an extraordinary amount of media attention for an eight hundred and forty five page review of academic literature. It's central thesis that racial biological determinism is real, and that the US ignores this fact at its peril garnered much public attention, but relatively little was given to the fact that the majority of the literature reviewed came from a small group of scholars who had all at one time or another received money from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation established in 1937 to promote eugenics research (Naureckas, 1995; Lane, 1994).

In response to this public sensation, the American Psychological Association (APA) felt obliged to publish a statement clarifying the status of the concept of intelligence within mainstream psychology. They note that “no such conceptualization has yet answered all the important questions and none commands universal assent. Indeed, when two dozen prominent theorists were recently asked to define intelligence, they gave two dozen somewhat different definitions,” and concluded “In a field where so many issues are unresolved and so many questions unanswered, the confident tone that has characterized most of the debate on these topics is clearly out of place. ” (Neisser, Boodoo, Bouchard, Boykin, Brody, Ceci, Halpern, Loehlin, Perloff, Sternberg, & Urbina, 1996). The American Association of Physical Anthropology (AAPA) was even less circumspect, saying that "Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they existed in the past," so “it is meaningless from the biological point of view to attribute a general inferiority or superiority to this or to that race." (“AAPA statement on biological aspects of race”, 1996). This is not to say that race does not exist as a sociological phenomenon, although it has been suggested that when referring to race in this sense within the natural sciences, less misleading terms such as “ethnosocial ” or “ancestral” should be used in preference (Keita, Kittles, Royal, Bonney, & Furbert-Harris, 2004).

Regardless, the Pioneer Fund grantees continue to insist that “The preponderance of evidence demonstrates that brain size is correlated positively with intelligence and that both brain size and GMA are correlated with age, socioeconomic position, sex, and population group differences ” (Rushton & Ankney, 2009), “population group” here being a transparent euphemism.

3. Conclusion

What, then, are we to make of this seemingly intractable but ultimately nonsensical debate over the relationship between brain size (or brain shape, or some other measure), various contentious and indirect measures of an undefined psychological property (“intelligence”), and a non-existent zoological category (“race” in homo sapiens)? At best, it may serve as a cultural Rorschach test, revealing the prejudices of those who choose to participate. Gould (1996. p. 361) was forced to conclude with despair that the currency of the Bell Curve “must reflect the depressing temper of our time - a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be so abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be aided due to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores."

4. References

AAPA statement on biological aspects of race. (1996). American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 101, 569-570.

Ferguson, C. J., & Heene, M. (2012). A Vast Graveyard of Undead Theories: Publication Bias and Psychological Science’s Aversion to the Null. Perspectives on Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/1745691612459059

Gould, S. J. (1980). The panda's thumb: More reflections in natural history. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New Yourk, NY: Free Press.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. (1997). Bringing them home. Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.

Keita, S. O. Y Kittles, R. A., Royal, C. D. M., Bonney, G. E., & Furbert-Harris, P., Dunston, G. M., & Rotimi, C. N. (2004). Conceptualizing human variation. Nature Genetics, 36(11s), p. S17. doi:10.1038/ng1455

Lane, C. (1994, December 1) The tainted sources of "The Bell Curve". The New York Review of Books.

Naureckas, J. (1995). Racism Resurgent: How Media Let The Bell Curve's Pseudo-Science Define the Agenda on Race. Extra!, January/February 1995. Retrieved from

Nelson, L. D., Simmons, & J. P., Simonsohn, U. (2012). Let's publish fewer papers. Psychological Inquiry, 23, 291-293. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2012.705245

Neisser, U., Boodoo, G., Bouchard, T. J., Boykin, A. W., Brody, N., Ceci, S. J., Halpern, D. F., Loehlin, J. C., Perloff, R., Sternberg, R. J., & Urbina, S. (1996).

Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns. American Psychologist, 51(2), 77. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.2.77

Rushton, J. P. (1997). Race, intelligence, and the brain: The errors and omissions of the ‘revised’ edition of S. J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1996). Personality and Individual Differences, 23(1), 169–180.

Rushton, J., & Ankney, C. (2009). Whole brain size and general mental ability: A review. International Journal of Neuroscience, 119, 692–732.

Sagan, C. E. (1979). Broca's Brain. New York, NY: Random House.

Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D. & Simonsohn, U. (2011, May 23). False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant. Psychological Science.

Tiedemann, F., (1836). On the brain of the Negro, compared with that of the European and the Orang-Outang. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 126, 497-527.

Today's winner of the "I Feel Good About Myself and What I Do for a Living" award is …

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 02/09/2013 - 10:04pm in

Sunday, 4 August 2013 - 9:50am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 04/08/2013 - 9:50am in

Do you think that heavily salted foods like popcorn and crisps might be favoured in cinemas because different channels of sense data can interfere with one another? If this were true it would seem reasonable to suppose that the barrage of visual and auditory stimulation designed to prevent you from noticing that you're in a crappy little multiplex booth theatre might also prevent you from tasting less heavily-seasoned snacks.

Sunday, 28 July 2013 - 10:21pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 28/07/2013 - 10:21pm

The packaging for the Coles "Smart Buy" non-brand of "Choc Coated Ice Creams" features a photograph of said product lying on it's side, with a corner taken off, on an otherwise completely featureless white box. The striking thing about this design is that running alongside this illustration of what you can expect from the contents, in a tiny font, are the words "Serving suggestion".

Who made the suggestion? Yoko Ono? "You are alone in a large, completely bare white room. You take a bite from your ice cream and place it delicately on the floor. Breathe. Then you go home."

Saturday, 27 July 2013 - 10:21am

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sat, 27/07/2013 - 10:21am

I am so impressed to see that the Coffs Advocate has boldly come out in support of the plan which, just last year, they and their "key stakeholders" designed. Who could have foreseen this?

It's this unwavering commitment to objective journalism, contemptuous of financial or political consequences, that regularly produces headlines like:

  • "Everything is Just Great in Industry X, Says Chairman of X Industry Association! (See advertisement below)" and
  • "There's Never Been a Better Time to Buy and/or Sell Y, Says Local Y Trader (See listings opp. page)"

When print media is finally taken off life support, and the roll of courageous independant journalists is assembled, below I.F. Stone, below Seymour Hersch. keep going, keep going, getting warmer, nearly there, just a bit more, there we are at last: just below Andrew Bolt and just above Mystic Meg, you'll see a picture of the Advocate's fearless editor Graeme Singleton, wearing his trademark winning smile, a cheeky wink, stockings, heels, and a sandwich board reading "THIS SPACE FOR RENT. CHEAP."

Do as I say I'm going to do, not as I do

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 22/07/2013 - 11:56am in

The good news, I think, is that I have a cold, I think, and not some exotic lethargic illness, probably. The bad news is I'm still non-optimally organised.

I had known all along that there was one assignment due in week five and three in week six. I knew that I should therefore at least start the other three before completing the first. I had a colour-coded chart to tell me this, with arrows and everything. I don't even have to tell you that it's the end of week five, and I'm only just starting three assignments simultaneously, do I? This is where the weekly planner is supposed to support the session planner, and I have yet to sort that out. Urgent and important, I would say.

I've also just returned from a meeting with a web development client for whom I owe work. I have two major non-domestic extra-curricular obligations: this project and the one day a week volunteering at the Men's Resource Centre. Which of these is important? Both. Which is urgent? The web development project. I'm going to have to tell the Men's Resource Centre they can't count on me till the end of this session.

One of the many asinine aphorisms from the productivity course I did a few years ago was "You don't find time; you make it." Really? Out of what? (You can't get the wood, you know.) The key insight for me from the chapter from Covey (1996) on our reading list was that the above should be reframed as "You don't find time; you take time from something else." And this often means saying "no" to somebody. This may be painful, but not as painful as eventually disappointing absolutely everybody, yourself included.

Getting Organised, Part II

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 19/07/2013 - 3:57pm in

Tutor Mike has had a major win. I have talked about my suspicion of schedules, and the anxiety I feel when thinking about more than one task at once. Assignment 1 for Managing your Study, in fact for the course as a whole, was to put together a weekly planner and a session planner. And to do them both in Microsoft Word.

We'll take the last one first: Session planner. Useless, I thought. This is a single-session course. There are barely more than half a dozen deadlines or exams, and they're all listed in the Unit Information Guides and a good few other places besides. Who needs this?

Still, concluding that the main purpose of the assignment was just to do the assignment, I duly marked in my deadlines on a table, colour-coded them, and put in some big arrows for good measure. The result is kind of a Gantt chart rotated 90° clockwise, with the vertical axis denoting time, the units of study along the horizontal.

Then I found that having done this, whenever I wanted to recall which assignments were due when, I went for the PDF I'd made of this Word document before any other source of the same information. Last weekend I thought hang it all, I'll print it out and carry it with me. Education: 1; Matthew still to score.

The weekly planner is a bit more problematic. I already have a perfectly fine calendar, which I've adjusted to spit out a plain text file of the next week's worth of commitments. I print this out on Monday morning, fold it up and put it in my pocket, using the reverse side for task-related notes over the course ofthe week, like a proper GTD hipster.

But the point of the weekly planner is not just to put in your fixed, non-negotiable commitments (classes, appointments, etc.), but also to fill every other hour of the day with negotiable commitments, even if it's just "cuddle cats". If it's important to you, it should be on there somewhere.

Initially I rebelled against this too, thinking it a ludicrous degree of obsessive over-planning, but then I appplied an IT analogy. The negotiable commitments are just default values. If I sit down to study unit EDU10446, and realise that my next assignment for EDU10445 is soon due, I can bump the one in favour of the other, in the expectation that it will all even out in the end (more or less). Having a default activity for any given time just means you don't spend half an hour deciding what to do before realising you don't have time to do it any more and you should have started half an hour ago.

In Covey-speak, about which I shall say more later, you are scheduling for Quandrant II (non-urgent, important), while allowing for Quadrant I (urgent, important) activities (Covey, 2006).

So whither Just One Thing™? Well, it turns out that Just One Thing™ is granular. It applies to hours as well as days. When you sit down (or get up) to do one of your scheduled activities, what exactly do you choose to do? Doesn't matter; just do one thing, and then you're off the hook. If it's study, just open a book for the relevant topic and read a chapter. Likely you'll find something in there that you can use in an essay, or reminds you of the next thing you can do, and you're away. Or not, in which case make yourself a sandwich and feel good about having done one thing instead of nothing.

Now there is no way on Earth I am going to manually compile a colour-coded weekly planner in Microsoft Word (or even a freedom-respecting equivalent), every week for the next three and a half years. I am going to have to build something in Drupal, to pull in my appointments from my existing personal calendar, and allocate the free space around them. I shall shedule this task in my weekly planner retrospectively, once it is complete.

A Glitch

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 4:17pm in

I crashed yesterday. It's the second time I've crashed in five weeks at Uni.

The first time was on my day without classses in the first week. I'd done four days straight of cycling, and just couldn't get up the next day for volunteering at the Mens' Recource Centre. They are always very careful to emphasise how valued a part of the team I am there, but I'm under no illusions that I'm an indispensible part of the team, so no big deal. I put it all down to going a bit too hard a bit too soon on the bike.

Yesterday I had no such excuse. I haven't been on the bike in weeks. Barely even gone for a walk further than the Bowling Club. The night before, my friend Paul called as I was winding down for bed. We talked for a bit too long, then I had to wind down all over again, and probably had a glass or two more wine-based product than I otherwise would have. However I had the requisite number of hours sleep, and had not had enough to drink to be hungover, so - cursing Paul mildly for my sleepiness but not thinking anything more of it - I drove off to class. I was more tired than I was comfortable being behind the wheel, but confident that a bit off caffeine would soon put things right. I was wrong about that.

Ever feel so tired that you feel sick? Again, I stress not hungover; I know what that condition feels like and have become expert at titrating my alcohol dosage to avoid it. My body was just refusing to work, and was begging for a nice lie down on the floor, and was prepared to make me vomit if necessary to get it. I managed to make it to the end of my last class for the day, and abandoned any plans  for further study in favour of the perilous drive home. There should be a breath test for exhaustion.

I am worried that I may have found how much exertion my 42-year-old body can take, and that it's really not very much at all.

Okay. Take stock. Yes, I know regular consumption of not quite enough alcohol to cause a hangover is bad in the long term. And yes, I have been working from home and not exercising for a decade.

But on the other hand, what I have been asking of my body (after that first week at least), isn't any more demanding than the average clerical job. I've known more than enough fat, florid, middle-aged, middle-rung executives who weren't in the habit of passing out mid-meeting to know that I should be able to cope with this.

I suppose all I can do is keep an eye on the situation and mention it to my GP. Make an appointment ahead of schedule if it happens again.

I could stop drinking althogether. Ah, now that's the spirit! Nothing like a bit of absurd levity to lighten the mood. Cheers! [*slurp*]

Getting Organised

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 17/07/2013 - 3:29pm in

We were warned during O' Week that most students find university study much less structured than what we were used to. I suppose I'm one of the exceptions to that rule. My expectation, borne out by experience so far at least, was that scheduled classes and set deadlines would be a blessed relief from the degree of self management required in self-employment. It even compares favourably to the constant stress and uncertaintainty of unemployment.

That said, I know that keeping on top of things will be a challenge. Fundamentally, I would prefer to live day to day directed by whim. I've lived like that in the past and found it quite satisfying. However this isn't now a viable modus vivendi (Like that? Latin, that is. Dead posh.) for a number of reasons:

  • I'm partially responsible for the welfare of a spouse and three cats. I can't go off on a whim in case the latter decide to gang up on the former. It's bad enough being only outnumbered three to two.
  • I'm dead broke. Whims typically cost money.
  • Building up a good whim requires a certain degree of stimulous from the environment, and I live in Coffs Harbour, possibly the least stimulating environment in the country, outside of Canberra.
  • I wouldn't mind actually achieving something useful before I kick the bucket.

As noted last week (ahem), I had little reason to worry about being efficiently productive during school, and much of my past employment history has been in undemanding dirty-white-collar jobs. I've been sent on more than my share of courses which promised huge productivity gains from nothing more than a humourous video featuring John Cleese paying his alimony, a Powerpoint presentation, a trust exercise or two, bad orange juice, bad coffee, and platters of little sandwich triangles.

I even regrettably paid a substantial amount of money for a course in Coffs which shall remain nameless involving acronyms, slogans, inspirational aphorisms, bewildering exercises disturbingly reminiscent of the time I thought it would be a jolly lark to take a Scientology personality test, and endless CDs of an American man with a smile in his voice congratulating me on how well I was doing, the remarkable improvement in my productivity, and observing what a great idea it would be to do another course. It was a cult, not an educational, or even a training, course.

There's only on personal productivity strategy that has ever worked for me, and - for not quite the first time - I shall let the Internet in on the secret: It's called Just One Thing™.

My first problem in trying (and gradually failing) to run a business was actually doing work. No matter how trivial the project I was embarking upon was in reality, when I sat down in front of the computer in the morning it seemed overwhelming. Too often, the temptation was to say "Oh, well. Because of [insert excuse here], there's not much point in trying to get anything done today. Tomorrow will be different." And of course it never was. Part of the problem was that all the advice I'd received to date encouraged practices like slicing up your day into ten minute intervals and scheduling what you plan to achieve in each. This is totally inappropriate for a job which is mostly creative problem solving, where each problem is likely to be quite unlike any one you've solved before, and getting your head around what you're planning to do takes half an hour by itself. What you end up doing is planning to achieve far more than you ever could in a day, and ending the day inevitably berating yourself for abject failure, even if you've achieved quite a lot.

Eventually it dawned on me that the alternative to inevitable failure (or not trying), was to lower the bar for success. Start the day by saying "I don't have to work miracles. I merely have to do Just One Thing™." At minimum what you'll have done is one thing, which is preferable to going back to bed, curling into the foetal position and gently sobbing for a day. What is more likely, at least if you are a nerd, is that Just One Thing™ will lead to the next thing, and the next, and before you know it you'll have your nose stuck in the tram line and be well on your way to the terminal.

So Just One Thing™ is a form of self-deception, but it works for me. Well, I should qualify that by saying that it's improved things over the past few years. Will it be enough to get me through a minimum three and a half years of study? Almost certainly not.