Brexit: A personal perspective

Edit: I've added some of my favourite photos from my time in the UK to highlight how great it is. Enjoy.

On the 23 of June the UK public voted to leave the EU, the so-called Brexit.

I've been unsure whether to write on the topic. Until now, I didn't understand why the events of last week bothered me in a way that no other political issue had ever done.

Last week the people of the UK voted to end their membership in the European Union by a narrow majority of 48.1% vs 51.9%.

Lost in the political and economic sabre-rattling that has been going on in the media are the personal stories of the that have already been affected by Brexit.

I lived in the UK for almost 9 years as a foreign student at Royal Holloway university near London 1. As a non-EU student I'm familiar with the immigration process in the UK and have experienced the effects of and increasingly restrictive immigration policy2. Interminable forms, high application costs; fingerprinting; six month-long waits in limbo without a passport; and most importantly, the feeling that the road was getting harder and harder to traverse. Each extension got more complicated and cumbersome; requirements changing from year to year. The international student team at my university do their best to keep up which changing regulations, but towards the end I got the sense it was starting to wear on them. Regardless, I went through each application because I knew that it was worth it. What I thought of as the UK was worth fighting for.

From 2006 to 2015 I was proud to call the UK my home. I've met wonderful people, some of whom became my best friends; I worked hard and got two degrees in physics; and was lucky enough to meet the person I love the most during my time at university.

I can say without a doubt that the person I am today is a direct result of my time there, surrounded by people from all cultures, with a rich history, and a general collective understanding that being nice and polite is for the benefit of all. I was privileged to work with students and staff from different corners of the globe, from Portugal to the US, Russia and Canada, and many other countries, all coming together to build on our understanding of the universe. To build a common understanding of the reality we live in, knowing that all that matters is your passion for the work you do and how your treat others. I'm better off today because I was part of that vibrant, multicultural, and accepting community.

Its because of those experiences that the results of the referendum bother me so much. Whether you are for Leave or Remain you cannot ignore the outright racist undercurrent of the Leave campaign and a large part of its voters.

The EU referendum gave a chance and a voice for the worst parts of society to flourish. The racist rhetoric spewed on television by the leaders of the Leave campaign has emboldened and legitimized those who until now shared their hateful messages over a beer with the mates or on online forums.

We are already seeing the social effects of this referendum and the Leave campaign, with a series of isolated, but nonetheless serious attacks against immigrants and their communities. What was until now a simmering undercurrent has already bubbled into outright violence and hate crimes.

It appears that a part of the Leave camp feel that multiculturalism, immigration, and globalization, have made the UK worse off. The Leave victory last week and the events that followed highlighted that the country I lived in wasn't mostly about diversity and inclusivity. What I optimistically saw as a prejudiced and backwards fringe turned out to be a portion of the population that I cannot ignore.

 
 

A large part of the population said no to everything I represented and hold as important: rationality, acceptance, diversity, and multiculturalism. They said no to what my partner and myself are as an international couple, British and Israeli. We considered getting married and moving back to the UK. Is that still an option? And more importantly do we even want to at this point? Perhaps it's too soon to tell.

To be clear not everyone in the Leave camp is a racist or bigot. Many have serious concerns about the direction their country and their community are taking. They are concerned that their way of life is changing in ways they do not like or can control. I'm not an expert on this issue so I will leave it to better minds to tackle.

There are millions of people who believe that the UK is better when citizens of different nationalities work together for the common good. People like my friends, my girlfriend's family, my university lecturers, and the thousands of other people I've had the pleasure of meeting while I was there. It's not all bad.

However, Leave did win. The campaign that depicted images of refugees as a plague and was headed by an out and out racist, won by popular vote. When that happened the picture that I held in my mind of my home for 9 year cracked just a little.

My niece asked me last week about the university entry requirements outside of Israel. I was genuinely happy at the prospect of her getting the chance to experience a country rich with history and culture, and with lovely people and places. To experience the UK that I got to experience.

But now I'm not so sure I can look her in the eye with that same pride as before and tell her she should go. And that, is just a little sad.

Until next Time. Have a great one.

-- Jay Blanco

Footnotes

  1. Well it's not really near London but it's close enough. Google maps is your friend.
  2. Just to be clear I lived in the UK with a Tier 4 visa which is defined entirely by the UK government and is unrelated to free movement facilitated by EU membership.

You might wanna start looking up more

People don't tend to look up. It's a surprising behavior with which game designers have to grapple. How do you add verticality to your game and have people see it? Game designers have to get clever about signaling to lead the player's vision using lighting, geometry, and moving objects.

I heard about this a few years ago and the phenomenon intrigued me. I realized that I was looking down for most of my walk to class, so I decided to conduct an experiment. When I caught myself looking down, I would shift my gaze upwards to just above eye level. After a while I noticed a few interesting things:

  1. Luckily, I didn't trip on things as often as I thought I would.
  2. Instead of seeing people's legs I would see faces. Being at an international university, I got to see faces from dozens of nationalities every day. I did add a culturally-sensitive quick smile so people wouldn't think I was just staring at them.
  3. I was shocked to learn that there are birds, flowers, and beautiful trees up there. During clear sunny days, the foliage around campus would light up with such vivid colors you'd think somebody cranked up the saturation.
  4. Over time I started to feel better. I had more energy during and after my walks, I would get places earlier because I was unintentionally walking faster, and I was in an overall better mood.

I'd known about the research that linked so-called power-poses with improved energy and self-esteem. You can find a TED talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy on the topic below. While researching this article however, I found a few other interesting studies that take this idea further.

 

One study from researchers at SF State University and Kaohsiung Medical University, shows an apparent link between posture while moving and energy level. In general, a slouched and hunched posture appeared to result in decreased levels of energy. In contrast, when the subjects did a "cross crawl skip"-or as I like to call it, jumping around like a happy idiot-they reported significantly higher levels of energy.

The study also shows that students with stronger self-reported depression are apparently more susceptible to the negative effects of slouching. In comparison, those with the lowest levels of depression were not susceptible to those negative effects. Regardless, both groups exhibited significant increases in energy level after jumping around like happy idiots.

Another interesting study shows an apparent link between our ability to recall positive memories and posture. Simply put, the results suggest that standing upright and looking up makes it easier to recollect positive memories.

My habit of smiling at people might have acted as a mood booster for people around me. I found a few studies, one that discusses how seeing different facial expressions appears to activate different parts of the brain. The second paper suggests that the areas of the brain that allow us to recognize when feelings in other's facial expressions are also involved in our own experience of that same feeling. Finally, another study appears to support the so-called facial-feedback hypothesis which suggests that smiling can enhance how we experience positive events. You're welcome students of Royal Holloway university from 2008-2010.

It's clear that how we feel affects how we carry ourselves, but there seems to be significant evidence to suggest that how we carry ourselves affects how we feel. So next time you're walking down the street do yourselves and others a favor: Look up and smile1.

Until next Time. Have a great one.

-- Jay Blanco

Editorial note: My background is in particle physics research not experimental psychology, so I don't have the expertise to assess the quality of the results detailed in the papers. They are interesting papers that have been cited in other works so if you get a chance, read them yourself and make up your own mind.

Footnotes

  1. I had a ton of fun researching and writing this article, so my meta-suggestion is to research topics on positive psychology because they make you feel empowered and awesome.

New Beginnings #3: New habits and routines

Oh boy, this was the hardest part in the series to write. I'm still trying to figure what I'm doing and it helped me realize I have a lot of walking on the road to being productive.

I'm in a transition period, I recently left my job in Ireland and moved back with my family in Israel. I covered this in parts 1 and 2 of the series. Today we'll go through trying to build a new routine and pickup some new habits along the way.

On taking habits

I've been trying to pick up three new habits:

  • Running
  • Meditating
  • Learning Japanese

All three require some amount of planning and preparation and getting some basic gear to support the habit.

Running

Exercise has been a long neglected habit of mine. I used to attend the gym religiously and for a few years at university I felt fantastic. I was making progress, putting on muscle, and had a ton of energy. As it always happens priorities shift and I neglected to work on my body for more than 2 years.

I bought some snazzy new running shoes that match my foot type and running clothes. Thanks to my brother I've discovered I'm flat-footed, so I bought a pair of Asics Kayano's in neon orange and blue. The idea of the costume as an aid for habit building has been mentioned by a few experts. David Allen himself talked about getting his mind into "exercise-mode" by putting on the "costume" of a runner.

It's crucial to have a goal and a plan. The goal has to be clear and specific, and the plan builds towards that goal. My goal is to be able to run 5 km without stopping at 8'00" pace within 3 months. I'm using a Couch to 5K plan which is recommended by running coaches and health organizations as an effective and safe way to work towards 5k. I'm on day 3 of week 2 of the program and feeling good. I've been steadily improving my pace while still finishing the run feeling good.

Meditation

Meditating is a strange beast. The benefits of a long-term meditation habit have been documented in many studies, and include better mood control, improved focus, and increased empathy and improved interpersonal relations. Who knew something you can do for free on the floor with just your body could be so beneficial?

The problem to start with is that it's hard to know if you're doing it right and there's different disciplines to the seemingly simple activity of sitting and thinking.

There are many resources on meditation and things can get confusing. I've read a long book on meditation before which focused a lot on the philosophical aspects of the practice. While this was interesting in an academic sense, it wasn't helping me with the physical act of meditation.

Based on the recommendation on the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I picked up a book called The Mindful Geek and an app called Headspace. I've been making my way through the book while starting the practice with the Headspace app.

The app includes a free starter pack of ten 10 minute-long guided meditation sessions. Thereafter you have to subscribe to continue with the program, and you also get single sessions targeted at specific issues, and longer programs designed to help with sleeping, stress, etc...

The reason why I picked up The Mindful Geek is because it takes a pragmatic approach to the practice, while not disparaging the philosophical and religious roots of the practice. The author also included a bunch of scientific studies to highlight the positive effects of a long-term meditation habit, and even tweaked parts of the program based on the results of those studies.

Today marked the twelfth day of consecutive meditation. Unlike running, It's more difficult to quantify the positive effects of meditation. The act itself can be difficult even painful at times or really nice and relaxing. Regardless, after each session I have a sense of calm focus, so I'm gonna say that is good. I'll let you know how I get on.

Learning Japanese

This habit is by far the hardest. There are many moving parts and at the beginning you don't know how much you don't know, which makes it harder to know what to you need to learn to know (You know?).

I got the most popular book for learning Japanese, Genki I, and started going through the exercises. My plan for now is to learn enough to find a tutor and start practicing speech. I'm going for practical approach, being able to converse with people will help me 80%, so I'm hitting that hard first.

Habit tracking

To help me build the habit, I got the recent Apple Design Award-winning habit tracker app Streaks. It's got a simple interface, reminder support, Health app support, and custom habit scheduling. You can set habits for a number of times a week or for specific days and Streaks will remind you. I use my Fitbit for this, but Streaks can also write into your Health data for nutrition and fitness-related habits.

One feature that seems to be missing from the trackers I've tried is support for habits that require more than one action in a day to complete like drinking water. My workaround has been to add 4 separate reminders to Due, which is not an ideal solution.

Building a routine

Oh boy I am struggling with this one. I can make excuses all day long about having to go to bed late to speak to my partner in Japan, or how I'm at home all day with no external force giving me structure, or maybe it's being at home with distracting things around. The truth is I'm being real lazy and that needs to stop. After a (really) long morning routine the rest of the day is kind of a mess.

I've never been great at managing my time when I'm at home. It feels like I have too much of it, so I try to fit too much work and then fail to finish everything. From now on I'm gonna reduce the number of projects I work on in a day, add more relaxation time, and focus on getting everything done.

Don't overload on tasks. Focus on completing things.

Beyond that I'm gonna try to setup a consistent sleeping schedule. Having my Fitbit record the amount of time I sleep has been really useful. Looking at the results after a few weeks was a little shocking, I go to bed and wake up at different times every day. This is not good.

Setup a sleeping schedule and then stick to it.

Because I don't have a 9 to 5 job, weekdays and weekends melt together. That doesn't mean that I can do focused work every day. I need to start taking weekends to relax and run errands just like I would if I had a regular job.

Take weekends off.

Planning every day hour by hour was very beneficial. Even if I missed my target or had to push something back. At least I knew that something was being delayed. On top of that, it helps with not overloading yourself. Once you start putting time towards specific tasks it becomes really clear there are not enough times in the day.

With those principles in mind I think I'm well on my way to rebuilding my routine while incorporating some healthy new habits into the mix. I'll let you know what happens.

Until next Time. Have a great one.

-- Jay Blanco

Why can't I delete my account?!

Normally I talk about the topic of self-improvement and productivity, sharing things I'm trying out or ideas that I find interesting that others might want to explore. Today I'm gonna go on a rant.

I decided to start taking my personal online security more seriously, I've been using 1Password for a while but some older accounts still use the same password or haven't been updated in years. So I started with the most obvious first step, delete accounts on services that you don't use any more.

Here I ran into a problem, and this is where the rant begins. The number of sites, including e-commerce sites, which do not let you easily remove your information from their site is enfuriating. If I don't use your service, not letting me delete the account won't change that. At this point, that account is at best and inconvenience or at worse a security liability.

Instead of being able to hit the Delete Account button, I now need to find all the bits of personal identifying information and set it to something ridiculous. Why is this a thing that I need to do to keep my information online safe? What's the point of making this harder for me?

Dear every site that requires you to setup an account, please add an easy to find Delete Your Account button written in huge red letters to your My Account pages.

I urge you to look into your password manager and see how many unused accounts you have and see if you can delete them. Just Delete Me provides a directory with direct links to remove your account from different services. I am not sure if it's comprehensive or up to date but its a start.

Thank you, yours until I am not Jay Blanco