#Toastmasters—The Road Towards Competent Communication (part 2–overview, FAQs)

Toastmasters International club helps you become a better public speaker by taking you through a series of speech projects which build up the various skills that make up an effective speech presentation. This posts gives the overall view of the Toastmasters International educational program with regards to communication skills, and gives details about the first part of the program, that of becoming a Competent Communicator.

1. Toastmasters International Communicator Educational Program—overview

The communication program takes you through four different levels of competency, the basic level (Competent Communicator), and three advanced levels corresponding to the traditional Olympic Games levels of Bronze, Silver, and Gold (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1.

Communication Educational Program Track Progression–Overview

You have to complete 10 speeches to win the Competent Communicator Award. The advanced levels have the same requirement of 10 speeches, but there are additional requirements for the Advanced Communicator Silver and Gold levels.

The Silver Level requires you two additional special presentations that are on a specific educational theme relating to the Toastmasters program itself. The Gold Level requires only one additional special presentation, but it requires you to be a mentor for a new member of the club while they go through their first three speech projects. The idea is that, while you are advancing your own skills at the advanced level, you are trying to help those who are just starting out in Toastmasters.

Figure 2. Communication Educational Program Track Progression–Details

2. Competent Communicator (basic level)—details

There are 10 speech projects to be completed for the first level of being a Competent Communicator. How it works is that each project is designed to focus on one aspect of making a good speech presentation: organizing it, emphasizing it, and delivering it. Here are the speeches I did for my award, which shows the project title and the actual speech I used to complete each project.





1 The Ice Breaker The Power of Language AutobiographicalIntroduction
2 Organize Your Speech Risky Business Introduction to Risk Management
3 Get to the Point Mr. X and Mr. Y National SecurityPolicy
4 How to Say It Sound of Silence Silence as a form of communication
5 Your Body Speaks Eat that Frog—Now! Procrastination andhow to stop It
6 Vocal Variety Garden of WordlyDelights My love of language
7 Research Your Topic Celestial Music Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
8 Visual Aids Map of the Mind Introduction to IntegralTheory
9 Persuade with Power 2 Weeks to Eternity History of Cuban Missile Crisis
10 Inspire Your Audience The Power of Now The Works of Eckhart Tolle

3. Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to complete the 10 speeches you need to get your Competent Communicator award?

Based on the assumptions that a) there are 20 members in a Toastmasters Club, b) there are 3 speeches given per meeting, and c) the club will meet twice a month, it works out that individual member will be able to give about 4 to 6 speeches per year or one every two to three months. At this rate, it will take you between two and two-and-a-half years to complete the requirements for a Competent Communicator award.

Is there are any way to get it done even faster?

Yes, there are three ways to do this, two of which I used to get the award done in less than a year-and-a-half.

a. Fill in for absent members

Each meeting there are three speeches given, but sometimes people will cancel at the last minute because of a sudden illness or they have to work overtime at work on a special project. In this case, one of the club officers will contact members to see if they can fill in for the missing club member. This is why it is vital to at least prepare an outline of your next speech ahead of time. Also you should try to get a draft of the speech completed by the meeting BEFORE the one where you have to give yours. In that way, you can work on polishing the speech in the two weeks you have before your speech is to be given, but in a pinch you can complete the speech on short notice and be able to volunteer to give yours early.

b. Have a Speak-A-Thon meeting

Clubs usually meet twice a month on a specific day of the week, like every second and fourth Tuesday, as in our club. However, there are usually two months out of the year where there is an extra fifth week. Our club has an extra meeting on those months where we dispense with the first portion of the meeting on impromptu speeches and have 5 prepared speeches rather than 3. This gives an additional 10 speeches during the year, which helps the club members get additional opportunities to speak.

c. Do speeches at more than one club

There are an increasing number of Toastmasters International Clubs, and you may have one than one that are in comfortable traveling distance from where you live. In this case, you can either join an additional club and give speeches there, or you can contact the President of your own club and express your desire to give speeches at another club in your area as a “guest speaker”.

One of our club members got her Competent Communicator program done in a single year using this method.

How much does the program cost?

There are two components to membership dues: membership in Toastmasters International, the parent organization, and the dues to your local club that you are applying to. The membership in Toastmasters International is $36 for six months (with additional $1.55 for sales tax if you are in a club in California), and then your own club will have additional club dues to help pay for rental of the club facilities, etc.

How do I choose a club?

Go to www.toastmasters.org, fill in “Club locator” in the search box, and then on the left-hand side there will be a box labeled FIND at the top of which is a square button under the title “Meeting locations”. Press this button and it will take you to a form for you to fill out with information on a) what days you would like to meet, and b) what your location is and how far you are willing to travel to go to the club.

How do I try out a club?

Once you get a list of possible clubs, then go to the websites provided for each individual clubs and see those that are of interest to you. Some clubs are open membership, and others, usually those that are corporate-sponsored clubs for members of the company, are closed membership.

Once you find two or three clubs that interest you, contact the club membership officer or other club officer whose name should be given on the site. Call them and get more information—and then make a date to visit the club!

I found my own club through word of mouth, from two different people I knew who had recently joined a Toastmasters club and were very enthusiastic about it. I figured that if two people independently thought that the club was great, well then, that’s good enough of a recommendation for me.

What should I do when I decide to join a club?

Get the two manuals you will receive and look over the Communicator manual from cover to cover for about half an hour to acquaint yourself with all the resources at the end of the manual, as well as getting a brief overview of all the speeches you need to do.

Then ask a club officer for a mentor who will guide you through the first three speeches in the manual.

Then go through at least the first three speech projects and get an idea of the speech topic you would like to do for each of them and have your mentor review your ideas. Then start within the first two weeks before your next meeting to write a sketch or outline of your first speech, followed by a draft, using the speech manual as your guide in terms of your speech objectives. Your mentor should help you here as well. Perform the speech with notes and time yourself so that it takes you no more than 5 minutes to complete. Here’s where you make editing decisions about what to leave our. Then perform it FIVE TIMES to get it to the point where you perform it smoothly, and you figure out what works out well, and what needs to be changed.

Then you’ll be ready for your first speech, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a Competent Communicator!

One of the most overlooked benefits to being a Toastmaster is not just being a good speaker, but being a good leader. The next post will focus on the other educational track sponsored by Toastmasters International, that of being a Competent Leader.

#Toastmasters — The Road Towards Competent Communication (part 1—Introduction)

Yesterday was a significant day for me for two reasons: first of all, it was my birthday. (And there was much rejoicing: yay!) Second of all, I received word from Toastmasters International that I have been granted the Competent Communicator award for having completed 10 speeches.

For those of you who may be interested in Toastmasters, I wanted to write a series of posts that may help explore how Toastmaster may be of benefit to you by showing how it has been a positive influence on me.

1. Introduction to Toastmasters

The first person who told me about Toastmasters was my aunt Mary Hose, my father’s older sister. She was a bank manager in St. Louis in the 70s and 80s. When she was promoted from being a teller to being part of management, she noticed that many of her male colleagues belonged to a club devoted to public speaking called Toastmasters.

She asked if she could join and her question was met by, well I was going to say “howls of derisive laughter”, but that’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. However, one comment she received was particularly memorable for being offensive: “honey, that’s where we go to get away from our secretaries and our wives!”

A secretary in the office overheard that remark and gestured for Mary to talk to her. “There’s a public speaking club just for women that you may be interested in,” she said in a hushed voice reminiscent of Yoda when he said to Luke “there is … another … Sky … Walk … urgh!” Mary’s disappointment of not being able to join Toastmasters was quelled by her quest to follow this new lead she had been given.

She was put in contact with a parallel group that had formed by professional women who had been excluded from Toastmasters, and they called it Toastmistresses. Imagine the smile on Mary’s face when she was introduced to the local club president, who told her “this is where we go to get away from our bosses and our husbands!”

About five years later, Toastmasters was made co-ed, and she continued to be a member of the newly-expanded organization for the next few decades. She said it gave her confidence to be a woman manager in a mostly male-dominated field at that time. Joining Toastmasters was always on my Someday Isle task list, as in, “someday I’ll …”  But I always felt too busy to join a professional organization that didn’t seem directly related to my job, so I didn’t pursue the matter.

When I was in transition after working for an insurance company, I joined a professional networking group called Experience Unlimited.  Two members of the group had joined Toastmasters and asked if I was interested. Now it was my turn to increase my self-confidence, albeit for different reasons that my aunt Mary had had. If it helped her confidence, maybe it could help mine at a time I really needed it.  And the two members confirmed that it was helpful to them in gaining confidence during job interviews, so I decided to go to one of their meetings.

My first impression was that it was well-organized and professionally run, a swiftly and deftly-moving piece of human clockwork. An additional impression I had was that it was supportive: all suggestions for improvements that came from the people I later learned were called “evaluators” was done with an underlying tone of encouragement rather than approbation. And finally, it was fun! There were many moments of laughter, not just scripted ones from remarks done in prepared speeches, but by people who got up to speak spontaneously during various portions of the meeting.

Well, this is definitely a group I want to be part of, I thought, and I joined right then and there.   The two members who introduced me to the club have since gone on to get employed in the field of project management, something which I am aspiring to enter now.  This series of posts is dedicated to them and to my Aunt Mary, because the three of them together were responsible for giving me that push towards joining Toastmasters.

I on the other hand have introduced several other people in Experience Unlimited to Toastmasters, and am happy to say that two of them ended up joining our club. One dropped out of the club because our meeting night conflicted with a certification class he was taking; the second just joined and I have hopes for his becoming an active member of the club.

In the next post I want to talk about the two educational tracks of professional development that Toastmasters provides, the communication track and the leadership track.

John Cleese on Creativity (part 3)

John Cleese of Monty Python fame gave a talk for Video Arts on creativity at the Hotel Grosvenor House in London.   The video can be found on YouTube.   I listened to the lecture and am presenting below a summary of the talk.

After his presentation of how to enter the open mode, John Cleese shows how to maintain the open mode, how to collaborate with a team to foster creativity, how the Japanese use the open mode in their meetings, how the concepts of creativity and humor are bound together, and finally a tongue-in-cheek presentation on how management can successfully strangle at birth any possibility of creativity in their organization.

11. Maintaining the focus in open mode

While you are in the open mode, you must keep your mind gently around the subject you are pondering. You may daydream and wander away, but just keep bringing it back as you would in meditation. The amazing thing about creativity is, if you just keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious—maybe in the shower later, or at breakfast the next morning. Out of the blue, a new thought mysteriously appears—if you’ve put in the pondering time first.

NOTE:   In a different talk on the subject of creativity, John Cleese goes into more detail on how, if you work on a problem in the evening just before going to sleep, you are more likely to be rewarded by your unconscious with a solution to the problem the next morning.

12. Creative collaboration and the open mode

It is easier to be creative if you’ve got other people to play with. If two or more people throw ideas backwards and forwards, you get to more interesting and original places than you can ever get to on your own. But there is a danger: if there’s one person around you who makes you feel defensive, you lose the confidence to play and it’s goodbye creativity. So always make sure your play friends are people whom you like and trust. And never say anything to squash them either; never say “no” or “wrong” or “I don’t like that.” Always be positive and build on what is said. You should say things like the following:

  • “Would it be even better if …”
  • “I don’t quite understand that—can you just explain it again?”
  • “Go on …”
  • “What if …”
  • “Let’s pretend …”

13. Japanese and the open mode

Try to establish as free an atmosphere as possible. Sometimes Cleese wonders if the success of the Japanese isn’t partly due to their instinctive understanding of how to use groups creatively. Westerners are often amazed at the unstructured nature of Japanese meetings. But maybe it is because it is that very lack of structure, that absence of time pressure, which frees them to solve problems so creatively. And how clever of the Japanese to plan that unstructuredness, insisting that the first people to give their views are the most junior so that they can speak freely, without the possibility of contradicting what’s already been said by somebody more senior.

14. Creativity and humor

In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way. For example, there was a woman who was doing a survey of sexual attitudes. She stopped an airline pilot, and asked him, amongst other things, when was the last time he had sexual intercourse. He said, “1958”. She was surprised at this remark, and asked him about it, “well, it’s only 2110 now.” (Laughter in the audience.)

The joke comes at the moment of contact between two frameworks of reference; in this case, the way we express what year it is and the 24-hour clock. Now having a new idea is exactly the same thing. It is connecting two hitherto separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning. Connecting two ideas together isn’t difficult; you can connect “cheese” and “motorcycles”, “moral courage” with “light green” or “bananas” with “international cooperation.” You can get a computer to make a billion random connections for you, but these new connections or juxtapositions are significant only if they generate new meaning.

As you play, you can deliberately try inventing these random juxtapositions and then use your intuition to tell you whether any of them seem to have any significance to you. That’s what the computer can’t do; it can produce millions of random juxtapositions, but can’t tell whether any of them smells anything interesting. And of course you will produce some juxtapositions which are absolutely ridiculous. In that case, good for you! Because Edward de Bono, who invented the notion of lateral thinking, specifically suggests in his book “Po: Beyond Yes and No” that you can try loosening up your assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls such absurd ideas “intermediate impossibles.” He points out that the use of an intermediate impossible is completely contrary to ordinary logical thinking where you have to be right at each stage. It doesn’t matter if the intermediate impossible is right or absurd; it can nevertheless be used as a stepping stone to another idea that is right. It’s another example of how when you’re playing, nothing is wrong.

So if you don’t know where to start, or if you’ve gotten stuck, start generating random connections and allow your intuition to tell you if one might lead somewhere interesting.

15. How to stop creativity in your employees

In the final part of his talk, John Cleese talks about how to stop your subordinates from being creative, which is the real threat. No one appreciates more than Cleese does what trouble creative people are and how they stop decisive, hard-nose bastards from running businesses efficiently.  If you encourage someone to be creative, the next thing is they’re rocking the boat, coming up with ideas, and asking questions. Now if you don’t nip this kind of thing in the bud, you’ll have to start justifying your decisions by reasoned argument, and sharing information the concealment of which gives you considerable advantages in your power struggles.

So here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going:

A. Allow subordinates no humor

It threatens your self-importance, and especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive, because subversive is of course what humor will be in your setup as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition. This is because if they expressed their opposition openly you’d come down on them like a ton of bricks.

So let’s get this clear: blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working.  Solemnity is no laughing matter!

B. Criticize everything

Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence.  A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in immediately on all the things you can find wrong. Never ever balance the negatives with positives: only criticize, just as your schoolteachers did.  Always remember that praise makes people uppity.

C. Constantly press the accelerator

Demand that people always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. Demand urgency at all time, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies, and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety, and crisis. In a phrase: keep that mode closed! In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiniest, microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization can all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment, and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able to control ever again.

As a result of this talk, I bought a separate diary or journal which I am dedicating to the “open mode”.   I have been keeping a journal ever since college days, but I have been using mine recently mainly as an organizational and inspirational tool.   After listening to John Cleese’s speech, I remembered how I used to capture the open mode in my journal, and decided to buy another new journal just for the open mode.   We’ll see where it takes me!

John Cleese on Creativity (part 2)

John Cleese of Monty Python fame gave a talk for Video Arts on creativity at the Hotel Grosvenor House in London.   The video can be found on YouTube.   I listened to the lecture and am presenting below a summary of the talk.   

This part goes into detail about how you enter the open mode in order to foster creativity.

7. Fostering the open mode—the first two elements: space and time (endpoints)

There are certain conditions that make it more likely that you will get into the open mode and that something creative may result. You can’t guarantee that something creative will result; it is more of a happy accident when it occurs. You can, however, make yourself more accident prone, as it were.

There are five elements you need to enter the open mode:



1. Space Create space for yourself away from demands that accompany the closed mode. Seal yourself off where you will be undisturbed.
2. Time (endpoints) You need to create your space at a specific beginning time and a specific ending time in order to create an atmosphere which is closed off from the closed mode in which we normally operate.
3. Time (duration) You need to create sufficient time within which to allow truly creative solutions to emerge.
4. Confidence Allow yourself to play and suppress the fear of making a mistake.
5. Humor Use humor to become more spontaneous and creative.

John Cleese never realized the true importance of the first two elements until he read an historical study of play by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in which he said, “play is distinct from ordinary life both as to locality and duration. This is its main characteristic, its seclusion, its limitedness. Play begins and at a certain moment, it’s over—otherwise, it’s not play.” Combining the first three elements you create a place where creativity is possible by setting boundaries of space and of time which is separate from everyday life.

8. Fostering the open mode—making the transition

After you’ve arranged to take no calls, and sat down to ponder whatever problem it is you are trying to turn into an opportunity, you may find after about 90 seconds that your mind starts procrastinating going the open mode by presenting you with a parade of all the things that you must attend to. It is easier to do trivial things which are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent. It’s easier to do little things we know we can do rather than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

You need to tolerate the racing of the mind and slight anxiety that comes with the mind switching over from the closed to the open mode. After a time your mind will quiet down.

9. Fostering the open mode—the third element: time (duration)

Because it takes some time to enter the open mode, it is no use to arrange an oasis of time for the open mode that lasts only 30 minutes because just as you enter the open mode, it’s time to go back to the closed mode. You must allow yourself a good chunk of time; John Cleese recommends an hour and a half. Allow yourself a half hour to enter the open mode, and an hour for something to happen (if you’re lucky), but don’t put a whole morning aside. After about an hour and a half, you need a break. It’s better to do three hour-and-a-half sessions spaced throughout the week rather than to try to do a single four-and-a-half hour session on a single day.

Why do you need an hour and a half? To illustrate the necessity of using a sufficient amount of time, John Cleese told the story about a fellow writer from Monty Python who was more talented than he was, but who would not produce scripts as original as his. If he was presented with a problem, he would take the first solution that came to mind, although the solution may not have been that original. Cleese on the other hand if he were faced with a problem and saw a solution, would continue to write after that point, sometimes as much as an hour-and-a-quarter longer. In the end, he would consistently come up with more creative solutions than his colleague because he spent a longer time working with the problem.

He said he was excited to find that his experience was corroborated by the findings of Donald MacKinnon, who found that the most creative people were prepared to play with a problem much longer before they tried to resolve it. They were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort that we all experience when we have not been able to resolve a problem.

We feel inside a sort of internal agitation at the prospect of not having solved a problem, a tension that makes us uncomfortable. So in order to get rid of that discomfort, we make a decision–not because we sure it’s the best solution to the problem, but because taking the decision will make us feel better. The most creative people have learned to tolerate that discomfort for much longer. So just because they put in more pondering time, their solutions are more creative.

The people who John Cleese finds hardest to collaborate with in a creative endeavor are those who need to project an image of themselves as decisive, and who feel that, in order to create this image, they need to decide everything very quickly and with a great show of confidence. Cleese finds behavior to be the most effective method of strangling creativity at birth.

Cleese is not arguing against real decisiveness; he is 100% in favor of making a decision when it has to be taken, and to sticking to it while it is implemented. Before you make a decision, however, you should always ask yourself the question, “when does the decision have to be made?” Then you defer the decision until then in order to give yourself maximum pondering time in order to create the best solution.

If somebody accuses of you of indecision while you are pondering, realize that don’t have to make the decision yet, and don’t chicken out of your creative discomfort by making a snap decision before then. So, summing up the third factor, give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.

9. Fostering the open mode—the fourth element: confidence

When you are in your space-time oasis getting into the open mode, nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake. If you think about play, you’ll see why. To play is to experiment, “what happens if I do this?” The essence of playfulness is being open to anything may happen, the feeling that “whatever happens, it’s okay.” You cannot be playful if you are frightened that moving in some direction will be wrong, something you shouldn’t have done. You are either free to play or not. As Alan Watts put it, “you can’t be spontaneous within reason.” So you have to risk saying things that are silly, illogical, and wrong. The best way to get the confidence to do that is to know that, while you’re being creative, nothing is wrong. There’s no such thing as a mistake; any drivel may lead to the breakthrough.

10. Fostering the open mode—the fifth element: humor

The main evolutionary advantage of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than everything else. We all know that laughter brings relaxation, and that humor makes us playful. But how many times have discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was so “serious”.

This attitude stems from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between “serious” and “solemn”.

Cleese suggests that a group of us could be sitting around after dinner and discussing matters which are extremely serious, like the education of our children, our marriages, or the meaning of life (and he is not referring to the film), and we could be laughing. That would not make what we were discussing one bit less serious. On the other hand, Cleese doesn’t know what solemnity is for. What is the point of it? The most beautiful memorial services he has ever attended had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed them all: it made the services inspiring and cathartic. But solemnity only serves pomposity and the self-important always know at some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor and that is why they perceive it as a threat. And so dishonestly they pretend their deficiency of humor makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.

Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how serious they may be. So when you set up a space-time oasis, giggle all you want. So these are the five elements which you can arrange to make your life more creative, space, time (endpoints), time (duration), confidence, and humor.

In the last part of his speech, John Cleese elaborates on the link between humor and creativity, and how the lack of humor associated with solemnity can “strangle creativity at birth”.   He concludes with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of how a leader can destroy any possibility of creativity in the organization.    This was entertaining as well as very informative.

John Cleese on Creativity (part 1)


John Cleese of Monty Python fame gave a talk for Video Arts on creativity at the Hotel Grosvenor House in London.   The video can be found on YouTube.   I listened to the lecture and am presenting below a summary of the talk.

1. What is creativity? It is not

–a talent or innate ability

–correlated with IQ (above a certain minimal level)

However, as John Cleese puts it, a negative definition is only of limited use. It’s like asking a sculptor how he sculpted an elephant, and hearing the reply, “I took a big block of marble and hacked away all the bits that didn’t look like an elephant.”

2. Early studies of creativity—Donald MacKinnon

To look at the historical research on creativity, John Cleese consulted Brian Bates, former Chairman of Psychology at the University of Sussex. He told him about the work of Donald MacKinnon, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was an expert on the creative process, who formulated controversial theories on creativity in the 60s and 70s.

Donald MacKinnon studied scientists, engineers, architects and writers who were regarded by their peers as being more creative. They had acquired an ability to get into a way of operating which allowed their natural creativity to flourish. This ability to play or to become childlike allowed them to explore ideas, not with any immediate practical purpose, but just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

3. Open mode vs. closed mode

John Cleese wrote a book with Dr. Robyn Skynner called Families and How to Survive Them, in which they explored the habits of psychological healthy families. They did a sequel called Life and How to Survive It in which they took the lessons learned in their earlier book with regards to families and used it to foster psychological healthy relationships within corporations and other organizations.

He and Dr. Skynner looked at the work of Donald MacKinnon and realized that people work in two modes: open mode and closed mode. Creativity is possible in the open mode, but not in the closed mode. Here’s a comparison between the two:



Relaxed Anxious
Expansive Focused
Playful Purposeful
Humorous Not much humor

4. Examples of open mode

Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin had arranged Petri dishes the previous day so that culture would grow upon them. Upon noticing that on one of the dishes, no culture appeared, rather than throwing it away, he started to wonder why, and this led to the discovery of penicillin. He must have been in the open mode when he made the discovery. In the closed mode, an uncultured dish would have been an irrelevancy; in the open mode, it became a clue.

Alfred Hitchcock, when working with co-writers on a screenplay, if there was some sort of block and the discussion became heated or intense, he would say, and then suddenly start telling a story that at first seemed to have nothing to do with the work at hand. One of the co-writers in describing this said at first he was annoyed because it seemed that Hitchcock was avoiding the problem, but in reality, he was helping solve it by getting the conversation to steer towards the open mode. Hitchcock would say, “we-re pressing; we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.” And the co-writer said, of course, it finally always did.

5. Cycling between open mode and closed mode

In practical terms, one must use both the open mode and the closed mode in order to effectively create and implement ideas. How does this process work?

In the diagram below, the green boxes representing the open mode and the yellow boxes representing the closed mode:

In the first part of the process, one uses the open mode to ponder and create a solution.

In the second part of the process, one must switch to the closed mode in order to implement it. Here is where one needs to narrow one’s focus and act decisively towards one’s purpose.

After the solution has been tried out, then you go to the third part of the process, where you review with an open mind the feedback arising from the decision. Once you’ve looked at the solution, you can then go to the fourth stage, and use the closed mode to make a decision to either a) accept the solution or continue with the next stage of one’s plan, or b) to create a plan to correct any error perceived. This will start the cycle again.

It is important to distinguish the two modes: being in the closed mode when you should be in the open mode it not good. The example he uses is that it is normally a bad idea when you take a running start at the edge of a ravine and are about to leap over, to suddenly start reviewing alternate strategies.

Likewise, it is a bad idea to be in the open mode when you should be in the closed mode. The example he uses is that when you’re focusing on attacking a machine gun turret, you should not be putting any mental effort into seeing the funny side of what you’re doing.

6. Getting stuck in closed mode

The problem according to John Cleese is that we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under pressure, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view. This is particularly true of politicians. They become so addicted to the adrenaline of dealing with problems that come up almost on an hourly basis that lose the desire and/or ability to ponder problems in the open mode.

In the next part of his speech, John Cleese talks about the five elements that go into fostering the open mode.    The discussion of these five elements begins in the next post.

In Search of Symmetry–Marcus du Sautoy’s TED Talk

In Search of Symmetry

I watched a TED talk called Symmetry:  Reality’s Riddle given by Marcus du Sautoy, an Oxford mathematics professor:


He studies the concept of symmetry by means of mathematical structures such as groups and the building blocks of prime numbers, which are the “atoms” of number theory.    This mathematical concept of symmetry underlies a lot of physical phenomena.

It was a fascinating talk and it brought me back to the days when mathematics was the polestar around which my academic world revolved back in junior high school…

1. When Logic Ruled my World

My eighth-grade math teacher was especially encouraging, and she allowed me the creative outlet of doing special reports on various subjects like symbolic logic, complex numbers, or abstract algebra.  These reports kept getting longer and longer, until the last one I did covered two full spiral notebooks. It was a comparison between the symbolic logic notation our algebra books used and the so-called Polish notation that was popularized with the logic game called Wff ‘n Proof.

My interest in the syntax of mathematical logic was connected with my growing interest in the syntax of natural languages. In the same way that there are natural languages that have different syntax in the form of differing word order, logic notations can have a different order of the logic variables (x, y) and the logic operators (AND, OR, NOT).

So the logic notation used in our algebra books was an infix notation, where the logic operator comes in between the two variables, such as A OR B. The Polish notation was a prefix notation, so the operator comes before the variables, such as OR A B. Something called Reverse Polish Notation or RPN was yet another syntax where the operator came after the variables, such as A B OR.

Why is this significant? When you have an infix notation, such as the one used in our algebra books, you need brackets to make sure you do the operations in the correct order if you have a more complex expression such as A AND B OR C. This can be interpreted as (A AND B) OR C or A AND (B OR C). But if you say A B AND C OR in postfix notation or RPN you get the same as the first result unambiguously without parentheses, and the second you would get with B C OR A AND. The elimination of clumsy parentheses made RPN useful for handheld calculators, and many engineers got used to using it.

As my education progressed, my passion for mathematics started to be rivaled by other passions: foreign languages and music in high school, physics and philosophy in college, art and literature between my undergraduate and graduate school years, and finally history in graduate school.

2.  Adventures in Mathematics

However, Marcus du Sautoy’s talk brought me back to the primacy of mathematics as my main intellectual interest back in junior high school.   As I mentioned above, I did special reports in the areas of abstract algebra, which I learned these through a series of advanced mathematics textbooks that my father got me called Adventures in Mathematics published by Science Research Associates.   It tried to introduce various concepts of higher mathematics in a form that would be palatable to those in the upper school grades.   For example, it taught abstract algebra by introducing “clock mathematics.”  If it’s 9:00 AM, and you have a four-hour meeting, it ends at 1:00 PM, which you get through the following logic: 9 + 4 = 13, but any time your answer is over 12, you subtract 12 from it until you get an answer that it between 1 and 12, in this case 1. You can perform arithmetical operations on a clock that has a different number of hours than 12, such as 5, and you would get the following if you constructed an addition table of the hours for a 5-hour clock, with the 5th hour being designated by a 0:

Figure 1: Addition on a five-hour clock (modulo 5)





































You notice how each of the hours is represented in each column and each row. This is a property that shows that there is some underlying symmetry in this operation (addition) on this particular set of numbers (those on a 5-hour clock).

This “occurs once in each column and row” symmetry is precisely the symmetry which underlies the popular math game called Sudoku. You figure out the puzzle by using the underlying symmetry to deduce what the various numbers should be in the blank spaces.

Just in the same way that you can do an addition table using clock or modular arithmetic as it is known, you can also make a multiplication table

Figure 2. Multiplication (modulo 5)





































Except for the 0 row and column, which give you 0’s all the way down or across, the other rows and columns also have the property of having every number appear from 0 to 4.  However, if you were to do a multiplication table for a 4-hour clock or a 6-hour clock, you would not have this same property of symmetry.   I was trying to figure out why, and then it suddenly dawned on me: an n-hour clock would have this Sudoku-like property for addition AND multiplication if and only if n was a prime number. I still remember the thrill I got in having my mind pierce to the heart of a mathematical truth.

This was the first mathematical insight I remember having with respect to abstract algebra.  Although this is several orders of magnitude less significant than British mathematician Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s last theorem (namely that an+bn=cn has no solutions among positive integers a, b, and c if n > 2), I still feel some sort of spiritual kinship with him, because I know what that thrill of discovery and challenge of proof feel like. You don’t have to be able to climb Mt. Everest to experience the thrill of mountain climbing.

I thank Marcus du Sautoy of reminding me of one of my first academic interests and bringing all of those years of “mountain climbing” back to me.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully

Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully

This post is on the last chapter called Lightly, Carefully, Gracefully of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

According to Bill McKibben, the most effective way of mitigating the risks due to climate change is through decentralization. The current situation according to the World Economic Forum in its Global Risk Report 2012 is given in the following diagram, where the most prominent global risks are given in various categories: environmental (green), societal (red), economic (blue), technological (purple), and geopolitical (yellow).

How would Bill McKibben’s preferred strategy of decentralization work to mitigate these risks? Here’s a summary of what measures can be taken to implement this strategy based on the five categories of risk listed above:

1. Urban Farming (societal)

Using undeveloped urban space for the growing of fruits and vegetables is not radical; it was done at another crisis point in our recent history, which is World War II. The food output in Britain almost doubled due to the implementation of these measures.

2. Supporting Credit Unions (economic)

Having the government support measures which help break up the big banks would make our system more robust, since the top six banks now have assets equivalent to more than 63% of GDP. However, waiting for the government to act on this in an election year is unrealistic. One way to support the decentralization of economic power is to encourage people to take their money out of the big banks and put it into more locally-controlled banks and financial institutions such as credit unions.   This is not explicit mentioned by Bill McKibben but is an example I thought of which would be consistent with his decentralization theme.

3. Conservation (environmental)

Americans could save three-fourths of the electricity they use by adopting relatively inexpensive conservation measures. This is probably the most promising area for decentralization, because it reduces energy consumption in the most local area of all: your own home.

4. Social Media/Meetups (technological)

To spread information about conservation and other measures, social media and the internet can be used, but Bill McKibben encourages local meetups and other forms of local neighborhood interaction to spread information. It will reduce our reliance on the government, and promote societal ties at the neighborhood level.

5. Reform (geopolitical)

Finally, to decentralize the power of both government and business it will be necessary to promote those reforms which do so, such as the Dodd-Frank law. To push those reforms in an election year will require people power.


All of these measures are things that can reduce our dependence on the centralized system of distribution and control which will make it easier for people to survive the shocks to the system that Bill McKibben feels are coming.   In the series of science-fiction novels by John Barnes called Daybreak, a technological terrorist attack debilitates the Federal government in the first novel called Directive 51, but the second novel called Daybreak Zero shows that the ordinary people of small-town America are the main force driving the reconstitution of civilization.    That is why I found the series terrifying in its initial implications, but ultimately uplifting in its faith in the power of ordinary people to band together and persevere in the face of adversity.

It happened before, when people in this country rode out the dual shocks of the Great Depression and World War II, and the government helped steer the country successfully between the political Scylla and Charybdis of communism and fascism that overtook Europe.    This fueled a sense of optimism after the conclusion of the war which took us from here to the Moon.

I look now at our nation’s capital and all I hear is the language of diminishing dreams.   I do not have faith in our current governmental system to steer us to anything but a standstill during this election year.   However, as Nietzsche once said in the quote that opened this series, “The fates lead those who will–those who won’t, they drag.”   We have received a repeat of the economic shock that started the Great Depression, but the enemy we face is more implacable than anything we faced during World War II, namely the cold equations of physics and chemistry, which are preparing for us a shock of an order of magnitude greater than we have ever seen before.    We must stop relying on the large, complex systems within which we live, and start forging links with our neighbors like the struts of a geodesic dome in order to withstand what is coming.

There may be resistance to these ideas, but ask yourself if the place the resistance is coming from has a vested interest in the debate.   I think this is perfectly illustrated by a Jules Pfeiffer cartoon which has the picture of someone in a business suit sitting at a large desk in an office saying, “you want oil? We own the oil fields.  You want coal?   We own the coal mines.  You want nuclear power?  We own the uranium mines. You want solar power?  We own the … we own the … it’s just not feasible!”