links for 2007-07-30

Thinking about procrastination, possibly too much

I’m reading a book at the moment called Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (thanks to Derek Sivers for giving me his copy), which takes a look at how our brains remember the past, make sense of the present, and imagine the future. Our brains get this sort of thing wrong quite a bit, which means we end up being rather bad at predicting what will make us happy (or unhappy), and how strong our feelings of happiness (or unhappiness) will be. I’m not finished with it yet, so I may be missing out a key point, but I think that’s the gist.

One thing really leapt out at me, on page 18/19:

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience (most of us can recall an instance in which we made love with a desirable partner or ate a wickedly rich dessert, only to find that the act was better contemplated than consummated), and in these cases people may decide to delay the event forever. For instance, volunteers in one study were asked to imagine themselves requesting a date with a person on whom they had a major crush, and those who had had the most elaborate and delicious fantasies about approaching their heartthrob were least likely to do so over the next few months.

Is this perhaps a part of what procrastination is about? Some of the tasks that I put off longest are the ones that I have thought about in detail and which I have built up in my mind to being some sort of behemoth. It’s not necessarily that I think they are difficult or complex, but I have thought – or even fantasised, if you like – about them a lot. The fantasy might not necessarily have been ‘delicious’, but it would have definitely been elaborate even if the task itself wasn’t.

Of course, standard advice is to break tasks down into small, bite-sized portions – next actions that you can complete quickly and easily. Indeed, this is what many productivity and ‘to do list’ tools do – they allow you to break your tasks into small bits, and keep track of each one so that when you’ve done one bit you can move on to the next.

But perhaps that might end up being counterproductive, at least, if you put too much thought into it. If imagining doing something provides more pleasure than actually doing it, then it will seem preferable to delay doing it forever. At times like that, tasks that feels easier will be more attractive, such as reading RSS feeds, Twitter, IM or email (but not necessarily replying to the email – that itself can be something in which we’ve invested way too much imagination and which therefore takes on gargantuan proportions).

I think it’s important to know what you have to do, and to be careful to prioritise well so that you know both intellectually and emotionally that you’re doing what you need to be doing, or that you’ve done what you needed to have done. But I suspect that thinking about it too much, e.g. having your To Do List open in front of you all the time, might just turn out to be the straw that breaks the camels back.

One way to think less about what there is to do is to use Marc Andreessen’s approach:

On another topic, the tactic of each night, write down the 3 to 5 things you need to do the next day has struck some people as too simplistic.

That may be the case for some people, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived home at night and am at a loss as to what I actually got done that day, despite the fact that I worked all day.

And I also can’t tell you how often I’ve had a huge, highly-structured todo list in front of me with 100 things on it and I stare at it and am paralyzed into inaction (or, more likely, structured procrastination).

So a day when I get 3 to 5 concrete, actionable things done in addition to all the other stuff one has to do to get through the day — well, that’s a good day.

Writing down tonight what you have to do tomorrow gives you a good night’s sleep (hopefully!) during which you can forget about the longer To Do list, and clear your mind. I personally find that I get a lot more done when I can forget about everything else and just focus on what’s important.

But given the background noise of all the stuff that needs to be done but which isn’t important enough (yet) to claim my full attention, it’s very easy to feel like I’m drowning in a flood of equal priority tasks, until something genuinely important pops up and I can focus on that. If there isn’t something genuinely important, I search for it by repeatedly checking email and, if that doesn’t reveal anything pressing, I focus instead on easy but pointless things like Twitter or IM.

Instead of searching for that big thing, I shall pick five lower-priority things and just ruthlessly ignore everything else until those five things are done. If something urgent comes along, I shall deal with it, but I won’t search for it. I shan’t think too hard about all the other things that I have to do, and will attempt to stop myself fantasising about doing them or having them done, lest I end up ‘complixificating’ them to a point of self-paralysis.

Note to clients: Obviously, I’m very efficient when working on client projects. Money is a great motivator.

New health fears over big surge in misleading and irresponsible science reporting

As soon as I saw the news that Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who first alleged that there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, was to be brought before the General Medical Council on charges of professional misconduct, I knew that there’d be a media feeding frenzy. Despite lots of evidence that the MMR vaccine is safe and a distinct lack of evidence that there is any link between MMR and autism, journalists from every corner of the media insist on writing stories that lead the public to believe quite the opposite.

As the misconduct story broke, I saw stories on both ITV’s morning show GMTV and on the BBC, which managed to paint Wakefield as some sort of misunderstood hero and imply both that the link between MMR and autism was real, and that the ‘establishment’ was working to deliberately mislead the public. Both broadcasters used the same ‘reporting’ tactic – to interview the parents of autistic children, (along with the autistic children themselves and their non-autistic older brother, on GMTV), giving them the opportunity to promulgate their beliefs for five minutes, whilst a GP was given two or three sentences in which to respond. The last word, on GMTV at least, was given to the parents.

The pieces were incredibly biased, pitting beliefs against evidence, with the presenter clearly coming down on the side of the parents and, to all intents and purposes, dismissing the evidence and views of the medical experts out of hand.

This, by itself, is appalling. Beliefs are not evidence. Nor is suffering. No matter how much sympathy I have for children and adults with autism, symptoms by themselves are not evidence of the cause of those symptoms. And the fact that people are suffering these symptoms should not be interpreted as proof that studies finding no link between MMR and autism are ipso facto wrong. Believing things does not make them true – science is not some sort of Secret where the power of the mind can change reality.

What is true is that the media have exploited the beliefs of those who are suffering, and in doing so have denigrating the work of many respectable, honourable and diligent scientists in order to create outrage, because outrage sells. They have portrayed the flawed work of a minority of doctors – now charged with acting unethically and dishonestly – as David to the rest of the medical world’s Goliath, purely so that they can profit from covering the manufactured conflict.

Things got even worse on the 8th July when The Observer’s Denis Campbell wrote an article entitled “New health fears over big surge in autism”. The original article has been removed from The Observer website (i.e. Guardian Unlimited), so if you click that link all you’ll get is a 404 page, but the whole thing has been posted in the comments of Ben Goldacre’s blog, Bad Science. The chances are that the article has been pulled for legal reasons, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

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links for 2007-07-26

‘Think of the children’. Yes, but also think about the journalism

As friends will know, I have a habit of relating almost everything in life to the Simpsons. I blame it on the fact that while I’m an American, I’ve worked for British news organisations for almost 10 years now, and the Simpsons is one of the few common cultural touchstones that we both have. But as the Culture show on the BBC pointed out tonight, the Simpsons while being really good for a laugh is also brilliant for its social commentary. One of the clips they played was from an episode called “Much Apu about Nothing“. After a lone bear wanders into Springfield, Homer whips everyone into an anti-bear frenzy. The chanting mob marches on City Hall.

Homer: Mr. Mayor, I hate to break it to you, but this town is infested by bears.

Moe: Yeah, and these ones are smarter than the average bear. They swiped my pic-a-nic basket.

Helen: [frantic] Think of the children!

Quimby: All right, I promise to take swift and decisive action against these hibernating hucksters.

“Think of the children.” The phrase is one of those debate stoppers. It’s akin to Godwin’s law – invoke the Nazis and short circuit a discussion. In the US, it used to be enough to call a proposal in Congress ‘socialist’ to stop it dead in its tracks. These arguments can sweep aside rational debate on issues and nullify evidence by pressing people’s emotional emergency stop.

I thought of this after I was interviewed on BBC World today about MySpace and registered sex offenders. The root of the story was that the popular social networking had banned 29,000 convicted sex offenders, up from 7,000 in May.

My professional take on this was that this was a PR battle between MySpace, which wants to be seen as being responsible, and a coalition of attorneys general who want to use the emotive subject of sexual predators to increase their political standing. MySpace was pretty clear in the PR bump it wanted by calling on other social networking sites to follow their lead in banning sexual predators. The site is under pressure from a coalition of state attorneys general in the US to do yet more to make sure that sex offenders are not allowed to use the MySpace. The attorneys general are proposing predictable solutions that support their political ambitions but do little to address the real issues.

“Think of the children”. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? It is framed as a problem of convicted sex offenders preying on and abducting children while MySpace and other social networking sites does little to protect them. The problem is much more complex. The BBC story quotes that there are 600,000 registered sex offenders in the US. Are all of these 600,000 paedophiles? No, as I said in the interview, at least one of those registered sex offenders was guilty of “baring her ass out a bus window in college”, Regina Lynn writes on Wired’s Sex Drive blog. Another man was placed on a sex offender list for public urination.

In the interview, I also tried to question the presentation of the internet as a no-go place for children and teens. What is the threat? Stephanie Booth pointed me in the direction of a report in 2000 in the US that showed of statutory rape cases, only 7% were internet-initiated. Steph speaks widely about child safety and the internet. She gave me more information than I possibly could have repeated in four minutes. Rather than re-iterate her arguments, I’ll link to two excellent posts she wrote. MySpace Banning Sex Offenders: Online Predator Paranoia and Parents, Teenagers, Internet, Predators, Fear…

The fundamental question is that the facts don’t support the standard presentation of blogs, social networks, chat rooms or the internet in general as a dangerous place for children. As a matter of fact, in research presented by David Finklehor in testimony before the Congressional Internet Caucus in the US, hardly any children under 13 were victims of online sexual predators. Dr Finklehor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Resource Center and co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire. Most of these cases are teens. Most of them know the age of the people they are communicating with online. These are cases of criminal seduction, as Dr Finklehor called it.

I didn’t really get to go into any of this in four minutes, as you can imagine. I was asked why MySpace didn’t turn over information about sex offenders to authorities in the US. I would have liked to know the exact information that they were being asked. The US Department of Justice has in the past used the pretext of trying to collect information about sexual predators for wide-ranging requests from internet companies. Google is the only company we know was asked it because they contested the request as overly broad. I was asked why MySpace didn’t block the registered sex offenders from setting up a profile in the first place. I questioned exactly what it took to get on the list. (See above.)

I’m not taking issue with the interviewer, Mishal Husain. She’s an old friend of mine, and she’s intelligent and an excellent interviewer. I am not trying to minimise the concern that parents had. As a matter of fact, after the interview, another old friend was very concerned about his 13-year-olds profile on MySpace. I should have asked how she got an account seeing as I thought the minimum age was 14, but after all of the precautions that he had taken, including having a chat with her and moving the computer into a public space, the kitchen, I told him that he was doing the right thing and just to keep communicating to her about her activities online.

I am taking an issue with the format and the journalistic assumptions made. Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s not the one that is being shouted in the headlines. The facts don’t support the sensationalist story of a predator lurking behind every MySpace profile or blog post. As Steph points out in her posts, the threat to youth isn’t in them having blogs or being on social networks. The problem is one of emotionally vulnerable teens being preyed upon by opportunistic adults. It’s more complicated and less emotive than saying: Keep the paedos off of MySpace.

How we can we possibly fashion effective public policy if the debates are so simplistic? Isn’t it our jobs as journalists to question the emotive grand standing of politicians, not simply repeat it? Isn’t it a disservice to repeat misleading quotes without context? How can we have these discussions in four-minute – or worse one minute 30 – chunks? That only leaves room for sound bites filled with false dichotomies that bleed the nuance and complexity out of issues.

Contrast this with the discussion online. It’s filled with complexity, nuance and links to source material that allows concerned parents to weigh the evidence. I’ll link to a few more here to give a sense of what I mean. Brandon Watson of IMSafer, a service that scans IM conversations for ‘predator issues‘, responds to posts by danah boyd and Steph. I agree with Danah that this is a PR exercise for politically opportunistic state AGs, but I’m not sure that I would under-estimate the PR office of Fox Interactive Media, parent company of MySpace. In Brandon’s post, he mentions reports by Dateline NBC. Anastasia Goodstein on the excellent Media Shift blog for PBS in the United States says of the Dateline NBC series: “If I was a parent, this would scare the crap out of me.” But Anastasia adds: “The problem with this message is that it’s both fear-based and divorced from reality.” There are some good follow up comments on Anastasia’s post.

Is there any way to bring this level of complexity and depth to the discussions that news organisations host, whether on air or online? There has to be, but we have to take the responsibility to make it happen.

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links for 2007-07-23