#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!”

Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—Backing Off

 This post is on the third chapter called Backing Off of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

“The whole intellectual edifice collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the last two decades, a period of euphoria.” Alan Greenspan, a few months before the financial meltdown in 2008

 1. Too Big to Fail?

 Bill McKibben in his third chapter starts off with talking about the problem with systems that are large too to cope with the stresses put on them. He starts off the example of the financial system, which avoided collapse in 2008 but which has been severely stressed ever since. The Global Risk Report 2012 put out by the World Economic Forum is discussed in the following post:


 In this report, the five most serious risks currently facing global civilization were listed for the five risk categories of 1) environmental (green), 2) societal (red), economic (blue), technological (purple), and geopolitical (yellow). The problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions is, of course, the subject of Bill McKibben’s book as a whole. But the book also illustrates the connection between some of the other risks and that facing the environment. For example, the last chapter deals with the problem of chronic fiscal imbalances and how it is making it more difficult to spend resources on environmental protection.

Figure 1. Top five global risks based on Global Risk Report 2012

The third chapter, the one I am writing about in this post, deals with the geopolitical risk of global governance failure which is linked to the economic problems we are facing. In the economic arena, the big banks were labeled as TBTF or Too Big To Fail, as a reason for the enormous government expenditure made to keep them afloat during the financial crisis of 2008.

However, the problem now is that the banks are even BIGGER than they were at the beginning of the crisis. Two years before the crisis, the assets of the top big banks accounted for 55% of GDP in the US; two years after the crisis in 2010, that figure had risen to 63%. If the collapse of the Eurozone later on this year causes another “Lehman moment” to occur, what is the chance that the big banks will NOT ask for another bailout? Zero. What is the chance that the government, especially right before the election, will NOT give it to them? Given that even more of the nation’s GDP is tied up with the big banks, there will be more pressure on them from the financial and business community in general.

The response from some of the electorate is that the government itself suffers from being too big. This anti-government populist strain is entertained by those who view government as a constraint of business, but Bill McKibben takes the radical view that both government and business have to be constrained and their power decentralized. This seems like a radical notion to sum, but he tries to put it in historical perspective in the next section of the chapter.

2. Centralization and decentralization

Greater concentration of wealth and power followed by periods of decentralization of that same wealth and power are the two polestars of American history (and one might argue world history as well).

In the political sphere, the Declaration of Independence represented a movement away from the political and economic dominance of the colonies by Britain, and the fledgling United States were set up with Articles of Constitution. The weaknesses of this system were recognized and a Constitution was set up as a compromise between those advocating for a strong Federal Government and those trying to preserve the rights of the individual States within the Union.

In the late 19th century, the economic inequality we faced as a country caused a political backlash which took the form of the Progressive movement, and eventually to the mixed economic system which was ushered in by the New Deal. The reaction against this started in earnest with the Reagan administration and now we are in the midst of what I call the Gilded Age II. This is where we are now, where the extreme economic inequality is creating feedback loops of corruption which are undermining our democratic framework of government.

Bill McKibben would argue that the decentralization of both economic and political power is a good thing, because it will prove stronger and more capable of coping with the tremendous stresses that the environmental problems of climate change are putting on the system.

I think the best analogy for this would be the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller.

The individual links are not strong in and of themselves, but they interlock with so many other links that when a stress is put on any one point of the dome, it is dispersed through so many different nodes that it doesn’t overwhelm the structure. This theoretical concept was tested in one of the first uses of the geodesic dome, to house US government installations in Antarctica which face tremendous winds during the winter.

Supporting farmers’ markets and other more local forms of food suppliers rather than large agribusiness may not seem efficient, but it is effective in reducing the burden on the infrastructure of roads, highways, etc., AND it also increases social cohesion by encouraging people to interact with each other on a local level.

In the science fiction series called Daybreak by John Barnes, a major technological catastrophe (the spread of biological and nanotechnological plagues) cause the central government to collapse. The first book describes this breakup, but the second book shows how it is the small communities that are the more isolated from the system pre-Daybreak that actually do better than the urban areas which are dependent on resources that only the system can provide.

Although the stresses our society will face in the next 10 years are more likely to come from environmental problems rather than technological ones, I think the same principle applies that “smaller is better” under the current circumstances.

The next post covers the last chapter, which outlines some of the forms that this decentralization may take.

Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—High Tide

 This post is on the second chapter called High Tide of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

 1. Cost of action vs. cost of inaction

This book was written in 2010, after the financial crisis of late 2008 and the ensuing recession from which we are still slowly recovering. He recognizes that the cost of taking action to control the emission of greenhouse gases is a formidable barrier. However this chapter shows that the cost of not taking action is even greater.

Here is a comparison of these two categories of cost when it comes to controlling the emission of greenhouse gases:



1. Reduction in growth rate of economy 1. Increased cost of infrastructure, insurance
2. Sunk costs in fossil fuel extraction 2. Increased incidence of dengue fever and malaria
3. Reduced profits to extractive industries 3. Increased geopolitical problems due to struggle over water/energy resources

Why was SOPA or the Stop Online Piracy Act stopped in Washington? Because it pitted two corporate sectors against each other, namely, the entertainment industry vs. the tech industry, with the entertainment industry being for it, and the tech industry (Google) against it. It transferred the liability from one industry to another, rather than onto the taxpayer directly, as corporations would normally prefer.

It is interesting to me that although the extractive industries are against greater regulation in the area of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the insurance industries would be supportive of such regulation because they are the ones that are bearing the consequences of the increased risk caused by climate change. However, Bill McKibben mentioned one ally in the fight against climate change that surprised me, namely, the Pentagon. Their interest is particularly when it comes to the third category of costs mentioned above, namely, the increasing number of geopolitical problems that resource scarcity will most certainly lead to. In that case, they are the ones that will have to bear the consequences of increased risk.

In my opinion, rather than environmentalists railing against corporations and capitalism in general as the ultimate cost for our fetish for growth that fuels our need for increasing amounts of energy resources, it would behoove them to positively engage those corporations or government entities which have a vested interest in mitigating the effects of climate change.

2. Global politics

Bill McKibben said that the various international accords such as the Kyoto accord of 1997 have not been supported by the US Congress or by the Bush Administration.   The reason given was that the accord would force the US to make sacrifices when the powerhouses of the developing world, that is China and India, are not willing to make the same sacrifices. The echo on the other side of the argument from China and India is that the US has a vested interest in having the developing world sacrifice its economic development for the sake of the accord because this would then allow the US to continue its economic hegemony over the developing world.   It is cast as a zero-sum game: either the US wins, or the developing world wins, but both cannot win in the frame of the argument.

However, the underlying assumption of this argument is that the developing world SHOULD consume natural resources as the US. There simply aren’t enough resources in the world to allow the developing world to consume at the same rate as the US; therefore, a better plan would be for the US to share those resources with the developing world.

This would reduce the extraction of those resources from the Earth AND allow growth in the developing world: you would then have a non-zero-sum game where both sides can win. In reality, there are no “sides” to the debate: we are all on the same side when it comes to the real argument against the reality of physics and chemistry, and we are all currently losing that argument.

3. Limits to Growth

The Club of Rome got together and used computer models to simulate the level of global population given the various inputs and feedback loops that were known to exist at the time. The results were released in a book called The Limits to Growth that was published in 1972 and are summarized below.



1. Growth In the next 100 years, the limits to growth would be experienced in a collapse of global population.
2. Stability This collapse could be avoided and global equilibrium achieved by implementing measures that would promote global equality.
3. Mitigation The sooner such measures are implemented, the greater the chance of their avoiding such a global population collapse.

I think this explains some of the popularity of the movie Soylent Green that was released in 1973, because it was a timely topic, the Limits to Growth having been released the previous year. I remember reading this in high school and being very sobered by its conclusions. However, as Adam Curtis mentions in his 2011 documentary on the history of computers called All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, there was one element missing in the computer model used by the Club of Rome, and that was the role of government and non-governmental organizations.

Bill McKibben argues that these institutions can allow us to make a choice. We are being offered a choice, not by the nanny state, as many conservatives would frame it, but by the even greater authority of the physics, chemistry, and biology of the planet itself. We cannot have unlimited growth because we don’t have unlimited resources. We cannot even sustain the growth we have in its current form based on the consumption of fossil fuels, because it will make our planet unlivable.

Therefore the only way to mitigate the risk of effects of climate change and bring us to a sustainable growth model using renewable energy sources to use the institutions we do have, either public institutions such as government or public-private partnerships such as non-governmental organizations.    This would allow us to achieve a managed transition rather than an uncontrolled collapse as envisioned by the Club of Rome.   This will be the topic of the next chapter.

Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—A New World (3)

This is the third and last post in a series on the first chapter called A New World of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” James Joyce’s Ulysses

6. The curveball—positive feedback loops

One of the complications with the chain of causation that was shown in the second post on this chapter is that some of the effects of climate change, as seen in the first post on this chapter, are unleashing processes that accelerate the processes behind climate change and make it worse. The book gives three examples which illustrate this process of acceleration:

Figure 1. Melting sea ice

This feedback loop occurs when the increasing global temperature of the atmosphere causes the Arctic icecap to melt. Right now, the icecap reflects the sunlight back, but with the icecap gone, the ocean beneath the icecap will absorb rather than reflect light and increase the temperature of the ocean. This heat will transfer from the water to the atmosphere and feed back into the cycle of increasing global temperatures.

Figure 2. Permafrost becomes perma-gone

This feedback loop occurs when the permafrost or tundra, in areas near the Arctic Circle like Siberia, starts to melt and release the methane trapped within. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, and releasing this feeds ever-higher concentrations of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, intensifying the cycle.

Figure 3. Forest fires

The structure of this loop is similar to the last one, but it is forests that are storing greenhouse gases in the form of CO2. However, higher temperatures and increased severity of thunderstorms mean that forest fires are more common. The forest fires release CO2 into the air, but they also destroy the trees that absorb CO2 from the air in the first place.

The real end result that I am concerned with is the destruction of the ocean food chain. We all have become increasingly aware of the collapse of certain fish stocks in the ocean, but at the very bottom of the food chain are phytoplankton.

(WARNING: Spoiler alert!) The whole premise for the movie Soylent Green made in the year 1973 was that in the year 2022, environmental catastrophes would continue in magnitude until the phytoplankton start to die off, and the government in increasing desperation moves to the one food resource that is in abundance: people, due to increasing overpopulation. They are manufactured postmortem into Soylent Green which is sold as a new and revolutionary foodstuff. Charlton Heston plays a New York detective who uncovers a plot to prevent this secret from being known to the public.

I irreverently thought of this movie recently when I found myself mistakenly in the pet food aisle of our local supermarket and saw on display a box of “People Crackers” that were geared towards dogs as a response to the “Animal Crackers” which human beings love to consume.

The quote I began this post with comes from James Joyce’s Ulysses, but rather than history being a nightmare from which one should try to awake, the dystopic future represented by Soylent Green is the nightmare from which we should try to awake. However, awakening has its costs and these are addressed in the last section of the chapter.

7. The price of action and the price of inaction

The cost of mitigating the risks of climate change comes down to the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are several ways to do this:

a) reducing consumption through conservation measures,

b) increasing storage of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere (a process called carbon sequestration), or

c) switching to energy sources that do not create as much greenhouse gases.

Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by government regulation does represent a cost to corporations, especially those in the industries that extract, refine and produce petroleum products, with indirect effects on the economy as a whole. This is a legitimate question to be raised, but it must be balanced by the effects on the economy as a whole of inaction or insufficient action.

To illustrate the difficulties of just one of the strategies, let’s say the third one, one must use the concept of EROI, or Energy Return on Investment. How much energy does it take to produce a certain amount of energy? EROI measures this by taking the usable energy acquired and dividing by the energy expended to acquire it.

For example, in an oil well, you must drill the well and then extract the oil. But with shale oil, you have to break the shale apart in a process called fracking, and then extract the oil. This fracking process itself costs energy, so the EROI is only 5.2:1 as opposed to a 20:1 ratio for a simple oil well.

The above chart is taken from Murphy, D.J.; Hall, C.A.S. (2010). “Year in review EROI or energy return on (energy) invested”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1185: 102–118.doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05282.x.

If you take a look at the above chart, anything to the left of the 20:1 ratio, the standard for fossil fuels that are easily extracted, is LESS ENERGY EFFICIENT. You can see that wind power is on par with oil, but solar panels have an EROI of somewhere between 2.5 and 4.3:1, and are thus much less energy efficient at this stage. Therefore the economics of energy extraction as expressed by this graph show that solar power cannot replace fossil fuels. However, if solar panels become slightly more energy efficient, they would be more efficient than extracting fossil fuels from tar sands.

Bill McKibben feels that the global economic crisis that started in November 2008 has distracted the world’s governments from the global environmental crisis that is in actuality of much greater potential impact. This topic opens up the next chapter of Eaarth called “High Tide”.