Inside the Dark Bone Vault

The Science of Storytelling[1] is a self-help book masquerading as a neuroscience book inside a writing guide. But this is not evangelical American self-help with an enormous whitened smile bounding onstage to thumping pop rock. This is self help written by an English recluse.

Author Will Storr is a man who has gazed long into the abyss. The introduction opens, “We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love.” “The cure for the horror is story,” he continues. Bleak, empty reality is why our brains “conjure up a world for [us] to live inside”.

The link between storytelling and neuroscience lies in how our brains render stories. When we hear a story, our brains generate a hallucination that allows us to “see” what’s going on in the story and to experience the sounds and textures that are described to us. Characterisation allows us to empathise with fictional characters.

The reason that our minds have the ability to generate these hallucinations of fictional worlds is because that’s what they’re doing all the time for the real world. We have no direct experience of external reality. Your brain is, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman,[2] “locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull”.

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Continue reading “Inside the Dark Bone Vault”

Methode Glaswegienne

“Scottish cuisine” is not a phrase that fills you with hope. It doesn’t suggest the sophistication of French, the urgent, exotic freshness of Thai, or the “what the hell did that used to be?” of Chinese. Well, maybe the last. No, “Scottish cuisine” makes you think of mashed up sheep’s organs stuffed into a different, unmashed-up sheep’s organ.

Haggis

Nonetheless, Scottish nationalists have reacted with outrage and denial at the discovery that haggis may have originated in the south of England rather than in Caledonia. Food historian Catherine Brown has made news with her claim that a haggis recipe published in 1615 in The English Hus-Wife predates any Scottish mention by a hundred years.

The claims have been rebutted by a representative of the Scottish Institute for Arts and Sciences who said, “If yer repeat that again I’ll fuckin’ nut yer, yer little gobshite.”

However, the claim rings true. English cuisine is shaped by England’s climate. That is, it’s crap. Traditional English dishes are, by-and-large, horrible – jellied eels, damp chips with mushy peas, and vegetables boiled until they’re grey. Things have changed a bit recently with the now-widespread addition of Jamie Oliver’s frothing spittle.

So haggis will fit right in in England. With its loss, the only item remaining on the traditional Scottish menu is the deep-fried Mars bar. While this sounds disgusting, and is enough to give everyone at the Heart Foundation a stroke, it is in fact a work of genius. But you will only ever appreciate this if you consume one when you’re pisseder than a tankful of ill-disciplined newts. I discovered this while living in the Edinburgh of the South.

The unlikely saviour of Scotland’s culinary tradition could be chicken tikka masala. Ali Ahmed Aslam, founder of the Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow, lays claim to inventing the dish. With the help of his local MP, he has applied to the European Union for “Protected Designation of Origin” status.

Protected Designation of Origin status is what’s responsible for rules like the one saying that fizzy wine that doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France has to go by the clumsy appellation of “Methode Champenoise.” Likewise Parma ham that’s not from Parma, Newcastle Brown Ale that’s not from Newcastle, and Stilton cheese that’s not from some rigorously defined bit of the English Midlands. (It’s illegal to make Stilton cheese in Stilton, which is near Cambridge, but you don’t need all those acres of bureaucrats to come up with rules that are simple.)

Unlike these products though, chicken tikka masala doesn’t have the word “Glasgow” in its name so I’m not sure what they’re trying to protect. My Hindi’s not that great (although it’s better than my Glaswegian) but I think “chicken tikka masala” means something like “chicken lump mixture.” Presumably, under the proposed rules, restaurants outside Glasgow’s West End would have to refer to the dish as “Glaswegian-style chicken lump mixture” – an advertiser’s dream.

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The EU’s meddling would at least clear up any confusion that the dish might be of Indian origin. A tin of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup is not a traditional ingredient in the Punjab. England, however, looks likely to get stuck with the haggis unless they can pass the blame on to the Vikings.


This article first appeared on Not PC many years ago. It is almost as true and relevant as the day it was written. Make of that what you will.

Flowchart Cooking

Following a written recipe while simultaneously trying to do the cutting, measuring, and stirring that it requires is harder than it needs to be.

Going back to the recipe to check a measurement or find the next instruction breaks my flow. Stop. Find my place. Read the next thing. Do the next thing. Ideally, everything would be in my head, but conditions in my kitchen (or, indeed, my head) are rarely ideal.

A recipe is software to be executed on food. A food-flow diagram describes the program. The first thing I do is copy a new recipe out as a chart, grouped and showing the flow, then Blu-tack it to the kitchen wall for instant easy reference.

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The grouping and ordering shows what can be prepared ahead of time. The mise en place, if we’re going to be fancy. The horizontal timing and use of colour and pictures can highlight hidden horrors like “refrigerate overnight”. Yes, I know I should have read it through already, but I didn’t.

Not everything makes it from the written description to the flowchart. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s frenzied description of succulent peach flesh. Anthony Bourdain’s threats of bodily harm if you substitute “Reddi Wip” for whipped cream. But these are about the cookbook as its own experience and have nothing to do with making dinner.

My scribbled charts are recipes to cook with. Recipes as simple as possible but no simpler.

Waking Up to Excellence

Excellence Is the Next Five Minutes

“Excellence is the next five minutes”. So says Tom Peters, author of innumerable management books from 1982’s In Search of Excellence to 2018’s The Excellence Dividend.

This excellence thesis says that excellence is not some grand strategic thing. It’s a decision about how to approach each moment. Excellence is the next email. It’s how you say, “thank you”. It’s how you respond to a mistake.

If you’re supposed to be giving someone feedback on a presentation, genuinely pay attention and frame what you say with the presenter’s objectives in mind. If you’re supposed to be playing Bananagrams with your children, play the game well, engage with your kids, and try not to worry about dinner, or work, or the effects of loose monetary policy.

Excellence is not something you aspire to; it’s something you do. “Forget vision,” Peters says. “Forget dreams. Do the best you can right now.”

In The Excellence Dividend, he quotes former IBM chairman Thomas Watson. When asked how long it took to achieve excellence, he replied, “One minute. You make up your mind to never again consciously do something that is less than excellent.”

“Then,” Peters says in The Pursuit of WOW!, “you work like hell for the rest of your life to stay on the wagon.”

On the one hand, this is a relief. There’s no need to torment yourself coming up with a 25-year Excellence Strategy – just make sure that you do a good job of that next email. Consider the person on the other end. Be thoughtful and helpful. That much, we can all do.

It also kills dead the number one fault with grand resolutions, the idea that once they’re broken it’s all over. You don’t need to wait until the next big reset to try again. If you didn’t make it to the gym on the 3rd of January, the rest of 2019 can still be fine.

On the other hand, the idea can be intimidating. There are 288 five-minuteses in a day. That’s a lot of excellence to live up to. Even if I take the heat off when I’m asleep, that’s still 192 times I need to be on top of my game.

I just spent ten minutes idling around on Google image search pretending to look for pictures to illustrate this post. That wasn’t excellence. That was my brain switching into power-saving mode. Now it’s nearly lunch time and I’ve only got 132 chances left today to be excellent.

Worrying about every five minutes is just another version of the grand resolution fallacy. It’s just being smuggled in in five-minute chunks. Forget what’s been and what’s still to come. Just think about the one thing at hand.

Lessons from Meditation

There’s an analogy with meditation that I think is useful here. The first myth of meditation is that you need to empty your brain and if you have thoughts, fantasies, and all the other monkeys-of-the-mind popping up and distracting you, then you’re doing it wrong.

The opposite is true. The whole point of mindfulness is to notice the noise – which is going on the whole time regardless – and to return your attention to your breath or whatever your point of focus is.

As Dan Harris says in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, “Meditation is unlike anything else you do in life, in that here, ‘failing’ – that is, noticing you’ve gotten distracted and starting again – is succeeding.”

Meditators call the moment of noticing that you’ve been distracted, that flash of alertness, “waking up”. Noticing the distraction and refocusing isn’t getting it wrong; it’s exactly the thing that you’re practicing.

A similar “waking up” can be applied to the pursuit of excellence. You won’t be excellent, whatever standard you hold yourself to, every minute of every day. The point is to notice when you’ve drifted off, when you’re half-assing it, when you’re phoning it in, accept that calmly, and then recommit to doing a better job. And when you inevitably drift off again, repeat.

It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the last five minutes or the last twenty-five years. You can always “wake up” to excellence.

You don’t have to do anything fancy.

Excellence is the next five minutes.