Sleep is one of the most under appreciated sources of energy and clear thinking.
Because of the multi sensory experience of living outside my comfort zones continuously and trying to wrap my brain around new words and a brand new culture, my early days in Jordan were enveloped in a dull cloud of tiredness. At times I felt like a zombie: there, but not really there.
After a while this deep tiredness began to subside, but I’ve noticed that having enough sleep, even slightly more than I’d need in my home culture is a winning ingredient for absorbing new vocabulary.
If I try and memorise new words at the end of a school day they do not stick. My brain hasn’t had time to absorb everything I’ve been learning during the day, so it’s like pouring water into a glass that’s already full: the extra water just trickles down the sides.
But I found a way to get more out of my afternoons. If I take a 15 minute nap after school, I feel refreshed and ready for an afternoon of studying and visits.
In the last few days of the experiment, the subjects who were restricted to a maximum of six hours of sleep per night showed cognitive performance that was as bad as the people who weren’t allowed to sleep at all…
One of the most alarming results from the sleep study is that the six-hour sleep group didn’t rate their sleepiness as being all that bad, even as their cognitive performance was going downhill. ( FastCompany)
Unsurprisingly, the group that had 8 hours’ sleep a night performed the best.
As for the connection between sleep and memory, some research has shown that while we sleep our brains replay experiences from the day, which deepens our recall of those events later. If we don’t go through full sleep cycles, we miss out on this memory-consolodation process.
Want to improve your memory? Get yourself a good sleep habit.
I’ve found the ideas in the book so engaging that I’m going to write about some of them before I’ve even finished reading it, since I think I’ve got a handle on at least the core of the idea, and writing about it will help me encapsulate what I’m thinking…
First off, I should probably summarise the idea of antifragility:
Whereas fragility is a state in which the more pressure something is put under, the more damage is caused to it, antifragility is the state in which the more pressure that something is put under, the tougher it becomes. This is not the same as robustness, since something that is robust simply isn’t affected by pressure: it becomes neither stronger nor weaker under pressure.
Nation States vs. City States
In part of the book Taleb juxtaposes the popular idea of the modern nation state with systems that have a more devolved approach to power. He describes how, prior to the rise of the Baath Party in the Levant, the region enjoyed 12,000 years of economic industriousness and prosperity. This was thanks to devolved networks of power that allowed local elites to run the regions. First it was the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. Both had a relatively light grip on everyday affairs, so long as they received their taxes.
After this era, the Nation State Project took over, as western influenced powers insisted that this was the best, most ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ way to organise a nation.
Power became more centralised and the region which was governed by a single government became larger. Larger governments give the illusion of stability for a longer period of time, but when they fail, things are cataclysmic. This is because large states hoard more powerful weapons and possess more organised military, and because when they make a mistake its impact is amplified across a larger region.
When power is organised into smaller groupings, those groups may make more mistakes, but the mistakes have less impact. Mistakes made on a smaller scale allow for correction without the risk of mass-scale crisis. Decisions can be reversed.
Taleb compares the Nation State with how Switzerland is organised into smaller municipalities that are largely self governing. People vote more regularly in referendums on issues that affect them. They are engaged. Switzerland is one of the most hardy (antifragile) nations in the world, and the book argues that this is precisely because it’s government isn’t highly centralised.
When power is top-down and distant from the electorate, it becomes easy for those making decisions to lack empathy for those they are representing. They are just another name, another row in a database.
It also creates room for disproportionate influence of unelected corporate-funded pressure groups. In the Swiss setting, a lobby group would have to focus their efforts on the entire population to be able to sway lawmaking in their direction. In a nation state, they just need access to the corridors of power (which can usually be purchased in one way or another).
An example from my own life:
I occasionally email my local politicians in Wales: Members of Parliament who represent the interests of me and my neighbours in Cardiff North. The emails are usually related to some issue that I’ve become aware of, that I know that Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on: refugee reunification, aid to Syria etc.
Usually, after several weeks I get a response like this:
“Thank you for your email, which I take very seriously. You will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party cares more about this issue than you do. We actually have the _________ scheme and the __________ scheme already running to address this problem, and we’re doing better than any other government in the history of planet Earth. You really should be pleased that you have a Conservative Government.”
Of course the content of the email varies, but this is the tone and general message of the emails that I get back. Always.
A Cradle of Apathy
There are two problems that result from this system:
Apathy towards the political system
Reduced ownership for our surroundings
Ordinary people become alienated from the political process and make fewer attempts to redirect the attention of their leaders.
The leaders are left to their own devices to make decisions in their own interests (or the perceived interests of their electorate).
In a more devolved system, where I know the people making decisions and am actively participating myself (through referendums, community gatherings, submitting email feedback), the opposite is true:
The people are engaged because they know their input creates results
They take greater ownership
If I know that my input will affect my family and my neighbours’ family, I am willing to give it.
Conversely, if the political system is mysterious and inaccessible, it becomes irrelevant to my life until the Government begins infringing on my freedoms (by which time they have the legal and militaristic means by which to control me).
Can smaller groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?
I really like the idea of devolving power to its lowest possible level, having seen first hand the effects of apathy and disengagement. But I also see the need for some kind of centralised expectation on the way that the least in society are treated. In a globalised world, there’s a place for documents like the European Convention on Human Rights.
That said, the humane treatment of human beings is more desirable than words on paper. After all we live in a world where Saudi Arabia, the bastion of human rights abuses, can chair a UN panel on human rights.
I suppose the question could also be reversed: “can larger groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?”
Right now in Europe and America there’s been a surge of people voting for anti-immigration parties and representatives who would happily deny asylum to (and even deport) those fleeing war.
Our voting systems are built on the idea of anonymity, because anonymity encourages people to vote honestly, without the pressure to conform to our peers, bosses or family members. I think in principle this is wonderful, but I also wonder if it allows inhospitable values to fester like untreated wounds.
I’ve noticed people on Twitter recently asking “who are all these people voting for Trump? I haven’t met a single one.”
I’d guess that they have probably met several dozen, but the anonymity of the voting system means that you can vote one way and profess another. And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.
But I’m not sure that it would be as easy to express anti-immigration views if you had to do so in front of your neighbours. If you have to look people in the eye (including the very families that you’re discussing) and admit that you don’t care for the outsider, the orphan, the traumatised, the widowed mother.
Is it possible that smaller communities could become more hospitable, more caring, if the individual members felt more empowered and more accountable?
There are some of us who learn really well directly from books. But most of us are wired to learn experientially: by doing. Although this applies to other spheres, it’s especially true of language learning. Learning a language isn’t just about the words that we’re speaking, but about the whole culture that those words belong to.
For example, an Arabic dessert like Kanafeh.
There’s nothing like it in Britain: a sweet cheese desert with caramelised strings of sugar and pistachio nuts on top.
To learn the word Kanafeh, don’t just look at the word in Arabic.
Repeat it out loud.
But don’t just repeat it out loud. Look at a picture of Kanafeh.
While you’re looking at the picture, with the word written underneath it repeat the word “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh!”
But while I know you’re having a super fun time doing that, even the repetition while looking at a picture, while reading the word isn’t the best you can do.
Go out for a walk. Find a shop that sells Kanafeh (if you’re in Amman, head for Habiba). Stand in the queue and breathe in the sweet smell of kanafeh. While you’re doing this, repeat to yourself “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh”. As you get to the counter, use your words to order yourself a slice.
Walk into the room and hand over your receipt for your order. Look at the trays of sweet, syrupy kanafe just waiting to be eaten. Think “kanafeh”. Say “kanafeh”.
As you put the kanafeh in your mouth, remind yourself what you’re eating. Savour it: think about the flavour, the smell, the feeling against your tongue. You aren’t just imagining Kanafeh, YOU’RE LIVING KANAFEH!
Words get caught up in our memory much more easily when they have hooks to hang them on. Stories act as great hooks for these words.
I find this particularly true of stories that I know well in my mother tongue. Movies are great for this. Or if you know a lot of Bible stories or fairytales. Anything that won’t take effort to reconstruct the basic narrative.
Using stories like this means that we can focus on our target language and not on some complicated and unfamiliar narrative.
Once you’ve chosen your story, work through it in your head in your target language, identifying any words that you need to look up or learn.
Make a list of these words and find out what they are in the language you’re learning.
Then tell the story as best you can in your target language.
Write out the story in your target language. Read through it.
Then put away the text and tell it back to yourself without referring to your notes.
Then go back to your notes and re-read the story to see if there’s anything you missed out.
Once you’re confident that you’ve memorised your story, go and tell it to someone else. The pressure of an audience will help you to assess how well you really know the story.
This is where emersion can come in handy, but it’s not essential. The key is to do the ordinary, habitual things that you do, in your target language.
If you watch movies to unwind, switch to movies in your target language.
If you use Twitter, start an account in your target language and follow people in that language.
Like music? Find some artists in your target language. It doesn’t have a lot of words, but I’ve been enjoying this recently:
On Facebook? Add some people who only speak your target language as friends and start messaging them (it turns out this is way more normal and not at all as stalkerish here in Jordan than it is in the UK).
My wife and I have recently started using Arabic when we’re together at home for ordinary conversations. It’s been a challenge, and often frustrating, but the practice has paid off when we’re with our Arabic speaking friends.
For a while one of the things I found hardest to get was Arabic numbers. I just couldn’t seem to convince my brain to recognise a ٥ as a number 5 (not a 0), or a ٦ as a number 6 (and not a 7).
So one day I switched the time on my phone over to Arabic numbers. That way, if I was going to get to appointments on time, I was going to have to master Arabic numbers.
The first week was super frustrating, and I regularly mistook ٦:٥٥ for 7:00 (6:55) but after that, I became faster. With heavy exposure, my brain finally absorbed these new shaped numbers.
This might seem super obvious on paper, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to carry around some kind of recording device for the new words you’ll discover in your target language.
I take a belt-and-braces approach with my word collection and carry a paper notebook and have the Anki app on my phone for creating electronic flashcards.
Why the two? Several reasons:
Not everyone is good at spelling. In fact some people I come across can’t read and write. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn new Arabic words from them, I just need to be cautious about creating a long-term record based on what they tell me. If I put the words straight into my phone, I’ll end up learning an incorrect spelling (and pronunciation) of the word.
There are local variations of how you say everything in Arabic. Even simple things like what people call their parents can be different between towns. I like to record what I’m told while on visits and double check with another person, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a friend, who help me filter what I’m learning.
Repetition. It’s actually really helpful to write the word down, as well as to type it. With Arabic, I’m learning a whole new alphabet, and writing right-to-left, which means that I can use all the practice I can get.
So I usually scribble down my best attempt at a spelling for the word, check it with someone else, add it to my electronic dictionary and regularly revisit my new words until they’re committed to memory.
At the moment the biggest change I’ve been going through is the transition from being a mono-and-a-half-lingual to bilingual.
I’ve spent the last year and eight months learning Arabic. Before this point I was a mediocre Swedish speaker. I’d picked up most of my Swedish by osmosis, living in the country, hanging out with my in-laws, watching Scandinavian crime dramas.
Learning Arabic was different. I’ve given it my all and was even able to press pause on my web business to throw everything into it.
Now that I’m approaching the end of my formal schooling in spoken Levantine Arabic (with some Modern Standard thrown in for good measure), I thought it might be nice to blog about things I’ve learned along the way.
Some of my tips will be best-case-scenarios: things I managed to do on the good weeks and might not have been so hot on in the weeks that involved juggling extreme amounts of homework, homesickness, culture shock, guests and more than 15 hours of home visits.
But they are sure fire ways that I’ve found to learn more.
Before I sign off on this brief intro to the next couple of posts I want you to know something: I’m no language learning whiz. Language learning doesn’t come as second nature to me, and I didn’t grow up in an environment that made it seem normal.
These tips are things that have helped me keep placing one foot consistently in front of the other. They are small, achievable activities that can be integrated into everyday life.
When my wife told me that she wanted to start watching Downton Abbey, I was a little reluctant. Although I enjoy reading the Brontes and Dickens, I’m not usually enthralled by TV period dramas. That said, after sticking with it for a season, I started to enjoy it for several reasons…
Before I get onto them, I want to talk about StrengthsFinder. When I got my results from Gallup’s personality profiling tool, I learned that Futuristic is one of my strongest themes. This means that I’m always looking ahead, and can picture fairly vividly what it might look to take certain turns in life. I gravitate towards ideas about the future, so am more naturally engaged by Sci-fi than by period dramas.
But there’s something interesting about Downton: it’s all about change.
After a few episodes I began noticing the overarching narrative: a traditional aristocratic family in the first part of the 20th Century coming to terms with a rapid succession of changes.
Transitioning from Honour to Guilt
Right now I live in the Middle East. The dominant culture here leans towards collectivism and honour much more than the individualism and guilt of my birth culture. People recognise themselves first and foremost as members of a particular group – usually a family or tribe. Even in Europe, Middle Easterners can learn a lot about each others’ history by exchanging last names.
Honour is a big part of collectivism. What one person does affects the standing of the group as a whole, so it’s important to make decisions that honour your family.
The family in Downton Abbey are on the knife edge between collectivism and individualism, and this is incredibly interesting. An example of this from season 5 is when Lady Mary decides to stay at a hotel in Liverpool with her potential fiancé in order to decide if she wants to marry him or not.
In the collectivist mind, this is outrageous. Think of the damage she could do to her family! But Mary is making a decision that she believes is in her interest as an individual.
Of course, because she is still living in an honour culture, her grandmother goes to great strains to cover up Mary’s behaviour, in order that the family, and her future prospects, are not harmed.
Embracing The Other
One of the intriguing things about the Crawley family is that they are continuously faced with opportunities to accept or reject people who are outside of their social sphere, and who others would consider outcasts.
One of the first of these is Tom Branson, the socialist chauffer who wins the heart of Lady Sybil. The family are faced with a choice: lose Sybil, or accept Tom. To begin with they reject Tom and push away their daughter, but over time, and with the untimely death of Lady Sybil, they begin to accept Tom as one of them.
As time goes by, the Crawley family become adept at absorbing people from outside into their family, whether it be ex-convicts working as servants, nouveau riche businessmen, or Lady Rose marrying into a Russian Jewish family.
The Best Educated Are Not Always The Best At Embracing Change
It’s easy to think that society’s elite are the best suited for embracing change. They’ve been to the best schools, had access to the most information, and been exposed to the highest standard of art and culture. However the Downton story shows that these things don’t automatically result in people with open minds.
In reality, Lord Grantham has been raised to maintain a system. His goal is to maintain the honour and reputation of his family, and that means stewarding Downton well. He and his butler, Mr Carson, are kindred spirits. They see the world that was as the way it should be. If possible, they must uphold the old ways and traditions.
But the world is changing and the foundations of the old system are beginning to crumble. The finances of the aristocracy are no longer entrenched. The working and middle classes are asking for more opportunities and exerting themselves politically.
For each character in the series who is intent on maintaining the norm, there is another who embraces change. The Dowager Countess has Mrs Isobel Crawley, Lord Grantham has Tom Branson, Mr Carson has Mrs Hughes. Each of these relationships is a mix of polar opposite attitudes to change, and extreme fondness for one another.
Why is this important to the future?
Each of these themes is important to our world at the moment: Exploring honour culture should help us better understand the challenges refugees face when coming to terms with European society.
As our cities and towns become increasingly multicultural, it’s good to ask ourselves if we will open the door to embrace and include the outsider, even if it means that we may be changed in the process. Check out this small town in Finland that did just that.
And when we see the entrenched elite squirming at the rise of new leaders from more ordinary backgrounds, we can remember that they’re not always the best suited for facing change. We mustn’t fear change just because they do.
Who knows, perhaps the trouble Lord Grantham had with accepting the future is the same that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wereexpressing at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn gaining power 🙂
Before we’re finished with January, I thought it’d be fun to present my list of things that inspired me this year. To begin with, I was going to present my “best reads of…” but felt like this would be more interesting…
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: the true story of a Syrian man and his family living in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane arrives and the rest of his family leave town, Abdulrahman Zeitoun decides to stay behind to keep an eye on theirs and their neighbours’ homes. This book was produced as part of the Voice of Witness project that seeks to use storytelling to illuminate human rights issues.
To the newcomers from Syria: Welcome to Canada: The Toronto Star’s welcome message to the first wave of Syrian refugees they received in December. After months of unease in the European and American media over the subject of immigration, this stood out as an example of a country wanting to do things right. It felt right on so many levels: a warm hearted welcome to these families, naming the troubles they’ve faced, while at the same time challenging them to embrace life as Canadians. It also set the bar of hospitality for those receiving refugees.
Canadians have been watching your country being torn apart, and know that you’ve been through a terrifying, heartbreaking nightmare. But that is behind you now. And we’re eager to help you get a fresh start.
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee who finds her life intersecting with that of a young widow in Kingston Upon Thames. A beautiful novel that documents the realities of life as a refugee, the effect that embracing people who are different from us can have on our lives, and that reminded me of the power of a story well told.
Manifesto of a Doer: they may be simple or even obvious, but I enjoyed this concise list of challenges for people who want to effect change. Here’s one of my favourites:
Avoid easy deadlines. Deadlines serve you best when they are short, hard and, at first glance, impossible. Urgency gets things done.
Fluent in 3 Months: a regular newsletter (and blog) that aims to take the fear out of language learning and encourages people to start speaking their target language from day 1. As a full time language learner, I’ve enjoyed getting regular tips on everything from language learning in general, to specific techniques and resources for students of Arabic.
What ISIS Wants by Jon Foreman: a heartfelt appeal not to give in to the fear mongering of the so-called Islamic State.
Red Moon Rising: the story of the 24-7 prayer movement, which began with a small group of friends with a growing desire to pray, and led to a movement of people praying 24 hours a day, all over the world. At times the story feels like something out of Fight Club, as the movement’s ‘founder’ happens upon groups he never knew existed.
Refugees Welcome and United Invitations: while these projects may not be perfect (what project is?), I’ve taken great delight at seeing the rise of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help refugees.
They carried out experiments to see if they could increase levels of empathy of one side in a conflict towards those on other side. They showed Palestinians fake news articles of an Israeli leader criticising his own government. After reading this news article, they found that the group had greater empathy towards Israelis. They reversed the test, and found that it had the same effect on Israelis.
By observing self criticism, the readers started to see that the unified group that they were used to thinking of a single identity was actually made up of people with many different perspectives. They began seeing people as people, not just a category.
The researchers also questioned the leaders of these conflicting groups about what it would take for them to begin discussing solutions for peace in their region, and the answers they received were fascinating.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of The Israeli Government said,
I have nothing to discuss with Hamas until recognise the right of the Jewish people to be here. If they’re ready to recognise that right, then anything is on the table to discuss.
Khaled Mashal, of Hamas asked researchers,
Will they ever apologise for the harm they did our people in 1948, for their dislocation and dispossession?
Many of the answers surprised researchers because they weren’t based on monetary or material restitution, but on showing recognition and respect for the other’s story.
Each side in a conflict has a different history on which their worldview leans. In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, the other side needs to recognise this alternative history.
As I listened to it, rather than hearing an institution at odds with another institution, I heard the voices of people who have been wronged and who need their pain legitimised, recognised, owned up to, so they might move forward into something constructive.
Essentially they were saying time and again something akin to “we need forgiveness.”
Too often in popular society forgiveness is seen as either something easy and insincere or too costly (the Husband forgiving his wife’s murderers the day after she’s killed). But at the core of it there’s something essential to forgiveness that frees both parties to move forward into the present. It’s something divine, the effects of which have the potential to unstick centuries of misunderstanding.
But it also takes daring. It takes leaders who won’t let pride stop them taking the first step.