Alain de Botton on Plan B’s

We grow up – inevitably – with a strong attachment to a plan A, that is, an idea of how our lives will go and what we need to do to achieve our particular set of well-defined goals. For example, we’ll do four years of law school, then move out west, buy a house and start a family. Or, we’ll go to medical school for 7 years, then go to another country and train in our specialty of interest and hope to retire by fifty. Or we’ll get married and raise two children with an emphasis on the outdoors and doing good in the world.

But then, for some of us and at one level all of us, life turns out to have made a few other plans. A sudden injury puts a certain career forever out of reach. A horrible and unexpected bit of office politics blacken our name and forces us out of our professional path. We discover an infidelity or make a small but significant error which changes everything about how crucial others view us.

And so, promptly, we find we have to give up on plan A altogether. The realization can feel devastating. Sobbing or terrified, we wonder how things could have turned out this way. By what piece of damnation has everything come to this? Who could have predicted that the lively and hopeful little boy or girl we once were would have to end up in such a forlorn and pitiful situation? We alternately weep and rage at the turn of events.

It is for such moments that we should, even when things appear calm and hopeful, consider one of life’s most vital skills: that of developing a plan B.

The first element involves fully acknowledging that we are never cursed for having to make a plan B. Plan As simply do not work out all the time. No one gets through life with all their careful plan As intact. Something unexpected, shocking and abhorrent regularly comes along, not only to us but to all human beings. We are simply too exposed to accidents, too lacking in information, too frail in our capacities, to avoid some serious avalanches and traps.

The second point is to realize that we are, despite moments of confusion, eminently capable of developing very decent plan Bs. The reason why we often don’t trust that we can is that children can’t so easily – and childhood is where we have all came from and continue to be influenced by in ways it’s hard to recognize. When children’s plans go wrong, they can’t do much in response: they have to stay at the same school, they can’t divorce their parents, they can’t move to another country or shift job. They’re locked in and immobile.

But adults are not at all this way, a glorious fact which we keep needing to refreshing in our minds and drawing comfort from in anxious moments. We have enormous capacities to act and to adapt. The path ahead may be blocked, but we have notable scope to find other routes through. One door may close, but there truly are many other entrances to try. We do not have only one way through this life, even if – at times – we cling very fervently to a picture of how everything should and must be.

We’re a profoundly adaptable species. Perhaps we’ll have to leave town forever, maybe we’ll have to renounce an occupation we spent a decade nurturing, perhaps it will be impossible to remain with someone in whom we’d invested a lot

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Alain de Botton is a Swiss-born British philosopher and author.

Interview: Kim Stanley Robinson

SP: As a science fiction writer, do you have a particular mission to imagine what our future might be like? Is that part of your job?

KSR: Yes, I think that’s central to the job. What science fiction is good at is doing scenarios. Science fiction may never predict what is really going to happen in the future because that’s too hard. Strange things, contingent things happen that can’t be predicted, but we can see trajectories. And at this moment, we can see futures that are complete catastrophes where we cause a mass extinction event, we cook the planet, 90% of humanity dies because we run out of food or we think we’re going to run out of food and then we fight over it. In other words, complete catastrophe. On the other hand, there’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia — a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.

SP: Yet if we look at popular culture, dystopian and apocalyptic stories are everywhere. We don’t see many positive visions of the future.

KSR: I’ve always been involved with the positive visions of the future, so I would stubbornly insist that science fiction in general, and my work in particular, is about what could happen if we did things right. But right now, dystopia is big. It’s good for movies because there are a lot of car crashes and things blowing up.

SP: Is it a problem that we have so many negative visions of the future?

Fear is a very intense and dramatic emotion. Hope is more fragile, but it’s very stubborn and persistent.

KSR: Dystopias express our fears and utopias express our hopes. Fear is a very intense and dramatic emotion. Hope is more fragile, but it’s very stubborn and persistent. Hope is inherent in us getting up and eating breakfast every day. In the 1950s young people were thinking, “I’m going to live on the moon. I will go to Neptune.” Today it’s The Hunger Games, which is a very important science fiction story. I like that it’s science fiction, not fantasy. It’s not Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. It’s a very surrealistic and unsustainable future, but it’s a vision of the fears of young people. They’re pitting us against each other and we have to hang together because there’s a rich elite, an oligarchy, that’s simply eating our lives for their own entertainment. So there’s a profound psychological and emotional truth in The Hunger Games.

There’s a feeling of fear and political apprehension that late global capitalism is not fair. My Mars books — although they’re not as famous and haven’t been turned into movies — are quite popular because they’re saying we could make a decent and beautiful civilization. I’ve been noticing with great pleasure that my Mars trilogy is selling better now than it ever has.

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Kim Stanley Robinson is an American writer of science fiction

Fashion Design – Alexander McQueen


I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naïve… I want woman to look stronger… I don’t like women to be taken advantage of… I don’t like men whistling at women in the street. I think they deserve more respect. I like men to keep their distance from women, I like men to be stunned by an entrance. I’ve seen a woman get nearly beaten to death by her husband. I know what misogyny is… I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.

Lee Alexander McQueen, CBE was a British fashion designer and couturier. He worked as chief designer at Givenchy from 1996 to 2001 and founded his own Alexander McQueen label in 1992

Dieter Rams: Ten Principles of Good Design

Dieter Rams | Vitsoe at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

1. Good Design is Innovative

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted.
Technical development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.     

2. Good Design makes a product useful    

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.     

3. Good Design is aesthetic    

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. Only well-executed products can be beautiful.

4. Good Design makes a product understandable    

It clarifies the product’s structure, better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.     

5. Good Design is honest

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. It is not an attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.     

6. Good Design is unobtrusive    

Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should, therefore, be both neutral and restrained in order to leave room for the user’s self-expression.    

7. Good Design is long lasting    

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throw-away society.     

8. Good Design is thorough down to the last detail    

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect toward the consumer.       

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Dieter Rams is a German industrial designer and retired academic 

Playlist of the Week

Shola Ama – You Might Need Somebody
Aretha Franklin – I Say a Little Prayer
Labi Siffre – So Strong (Something Inside)
Maribou State, Khruangbin – Feel Good
Ella Mai – 10,000 Hours
Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing
Robbie Williams – Angels
Nik Kershaw – Wouldn’t It Be Good
Survivor – Eye of the Tiger
U2 – Pride (In The Name of Love)

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it. 

Juhani Pallasmaa on Cross-Disciplinary Relationships

One could say that he has written the textbook on architecture, literally. The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, a book he wrote back in 1996, is on the reading list in most design schools world over. After a conversation with the Finnish polymath, I was richer – his thoughts and theories on the human connection with architecture, in my opinion, are universally applicable. An architect, academician, prolific writer, former museum director, and revered critic, he spends his time these days writing essays and lecturing around the world.

“I often tell my students that I am not going to teach them what architecture is, but will try to show them who they are. Because, one’s sense of self is a fundamental realisation, and everything else is related to that,” he states, for he believes that the role of the body is paramount in everything we do. “In architecture, vision is not the most important sense. Instead, we confront architecture as a full body encounter,” adds the 81-year-old scholar.

In 2009, he authored The Thinking Hand, where he upholds the endless potential of the human hand. Tracing the origins of this concept, Juhani recalls spending his childhood on his grandfather’s farm in central Finland, while his father fought in the World War. “My grandpa gave me my first knife at the age of four and I still have scars on my fingers because of it. But I’m so grateful for them because I learned to use my hands. I assisted him in carpentry and construction work,” he deduces.

Juhani was a young rebel who completed his formal education only as a necessity. He felt the need to learn outside of the institution and joined the newly founded Museum of Finnish Architecture where he met and interacted with the greats. “I think that’s where my interest in philosophising and verbalising ideas about architecture germinated,” he infers. Before practising architecture, he worked on construction sites and even in a furniture factory. “I think it’s very important for an architect to understand how things are made. I always tell my students not to waste their time with architect friends. Seek other friends – carpenters, bronze casters, glass blowers, sculptors, poets, painters – and you’ll widen your world. By only talking to colleagues, you’re only reinforcing a preconception of the craft, whereas when you collaborate with a friend who is a sculptor, you begin to look at your own work from a different angle.”

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Juhani Uolevi Pallasmaa is a Finnish architect and former professor of architecture and dean at the Helsinki University of Technology. Among the many academic and civic positions he has held are those of Director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture 1978-1983, and head of the Institute of Industrial Arts, Helsinki.

Q & A with Daniel DeNicola

As recent political events on both sides of the Atlantic have demonstrated, ignorance is trending. Politicians boast, “I’m not a scientist” or that people are “sick of experts”, and rather than expertise, lack of experience is framed as a credential. In this climate, fake news is on the rise and flagrant lies by those in positions of authority are accepted – lies which shape beliefs amongst the populace. The upshot is that although we are living in the information age, we do not appear to be well informed. In his new book “Understanding Ignorance“, philosopher Daniel DeNicola explores this trend, examining the abundance, endurance and consequence of ignorance. Here, he discusses his arguments.

What brought you to the subject matter of ignorance?

I would call it a convergence of academic interests and current events. For years, I taught a seminar for first-year undergraduates called Secrets & Lies. We studied the ethical issues involved in the concealment and revelation of the truth, both at the interpersonal and governmental levels. But over time, I was drawn to thinking about the ways in which secrecy and lying construct and exploit our ignorance, and about the ethical dimensions of the interplay of knowing and not-knowing. Meanwhile, the democratic ideal of an educated citizenry was coming quaint, as our public life seemed to become driven political and willful ignorance. I came to believe that if we are to grapple with “a culture of ignorance,” we need first to understand the nature of ignorance.

During the Brexit referendum, we had a senior minister say “Britain has had enough of experts” – and similarly in the US, expertise is often framed as elitist. What is behind this political trend?

Populism has always rejected expertise, and the reliance on experts presents a problem for democratic theory. The libertarian strain of democratic thought, for example, has always prized individual autonomy, agency, and independence. So, the idea of yielding one’s epistemic autonomy to an expert—of depending on another person for the truth—is an uncomfortable idea at best. Both liberalism with its value of freedom and democracy with its regard for the equality of individuals reject authority. And expertise represents a type of authority—although its rejection may confuse political and epistemic authority. The conflict is ancient: Plato, in the Republic, actually proposed the unity of political and epistemic authority (thus cementing the confusion) and described vividly the ways in which democracies would reject expertise.

But although the tension may be old and endemic, there are aspects of contemporary culture that have intensified this rejection. Some of the blame can be placed on experts themselves: we learn of fraudulent or corrupt experts; we see the rise of mercenary professionals whose expert opinions are for sale; we regularly witness the spectacle of experts who hold opposing opinions; we are battered with continual revisions of expert advice in economics, social policy, and especially medicine—what foods are healthy, what not; what screening is recommended to detect early-stage cancers? Though these issues are not new, increased media coverage of them has magnified their impact.

Moreover, specialization and the increased complexity of research often isolate experts. They hobble the ability to communicate knowledge to a general audience.

But beyond all these, there is a key factor: the rise of social media. In times past, experts would talk with other experts, or dispense their knowledge to an interested lay audience or in private appointments with their clients. These patterns still go on, of course. But now, with social media, the members of the audience, the clients, are talking to each other. Who needs the pronouncements of a well-educated film critic when Rotten Tomatoes can provide the opinions and ratings of thousands of movie-goers? Why seek the judgment of a gourmet food critic, when Zagat or TripAdvisor can summarise the views of hundreds of diners in rankings. As this model of the wisdom of crowds engulfs the work of economists and other social scientists, and even natural scientists, the effect is to collapse the fragile but vital distinction between knowledge and belief, between informed judgment and unreflective opinion.

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Daniel R DeNicola is the professor and chair of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and the author of Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know

Aaron Swartz – How to be Productive

“With all the time you spend watching TV,” he tells me, “you could have written a novel by now.” It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment — writing a novel is undoubtedly a better use of time than watching TV — but what about the hidden assumption? Such comments imply that time is “fungible” — that time spent watching TV can just as easily be spent writing a novel. And sadly, that’s just not the case.

Time has various levels of quality. If I’m walking to the subway station and I’ve forgotten my notebook, then it’s pretty hard for me to write more than a couple of paragraphs. And it’s tough to focus when you keep getting interrupted. There’s also a mental component: sometimes I feel happy and motivated and ready to work on something, but other times I feel so sad and tired I can only watch TV.

If you want to be more productive then, you have to recognize this fact and deal with it. First, you have to make the best of each kind of time. And second, you have to try to make your time higher-quality.

Choose good problems

Life is short (or so I’m told) so why waste it doing something dumb? It’s easy to start working on something because it’s convenient, but you should always be questioning yourself about it. Is there something more important you can work on? Why don’t you do that instead? Such questions are hard to face up to (eventually, if you follow this rule, you’ll have to ask yourself why you’re not working on the most important problem in the world) but each little step makes you more productive.

This isn’t to say that all your time should be spent on the most important problem in the world. Mine certainly isn’t (after all, I’m writing this essay). But it’s definitely the standard against which I measure my life.

Have a bunch of them

Another common myth is that you’ll get more done if you pick one problem and focus on it exclusively. I find this is hardly ever true. Just this moment, for example, I’m trying to fix my posture, exercise some muscles, drink some fluids, clean off my desk, IM with my brother, and write this essay. Over the course the day, I’ve worked on this essay, read a book, had some food, answered some email, chatted with friends, done some shopping, worked on a couple other essays, backed up my hard drive, and organized my book list. In the past week, I’ve worked on several different software projects, read several different books, studied a couple different programming languages, moved some of my stuff, and so on.

Having a lot of different projects gives you work for different qualities of time. Plus, you’ll have other things to work on if you get stuck or bored (and that can give your mind time to unstick yourself).

It also makes you more creative. Creativity comes from applying things you learn in other fields to the field you work in. If you have a bunch of different projects going in different fields, then you have many more ideas you can apply.

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Aaron Swartz was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist.