Clyde Street

Learning, Teaching, Performing

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Fate and Fortune?

This week has thrown up a number of opportunities for me to contemplate fate and fortune.

In my synchronous life I have attended a selection event for a national team, engaged in discussions about organisational change, worked with colleagues to explore learning opportunities in open spaces and have contributed to an open tender to write a wiki history of paralympic sport in Australia.

My asynchronous life has prompted me to reflect on how I get involved in such events.

Last Saturday (19 February) Radio National broadcast a Radiolab program, Fate and Fortune, about life trajectories.  The program explored the genetic links to destiny:

If destiny isn’t written in the stars, could it be written in our genes? Kids struggle to resist marshmallows, and their ability to holdout at age 4 turns out to predict how successful they’re likely to be the rest of their lives. And an unexpected find in a convent archive uncovers early warning signs for dementia in the writings of 18-year-olds.

The hour-long program includes:

  • Paul Auster talking about rhyming events.
  • Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment.
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of talent.
  • Ian Lancashire, Kelvin Lim and Serguei Pakhomov sharing their work on textual analysis.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the ideas in Radiolab format.  Each of these topics is a journey of discovery.

Whilst pondering some of these ideas I received a link a few days later to Patricia Kuhl’s TEDxRainer talk on the linguistic genius of babies.

The link from Stephen Downes that took me to the talk directed me to a post about Gary Small’s work too.

Patricia and Gary have a great deal to share about plasticity, fate and destiny. As I was contemplating their work I recalled reports of a study I had seen late last year. The study by Geraint Rees and Ryota Kanai discussed political affiliation.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, Professor Rees and his colleague Dr Ryota Kanai at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL (University College London) analysed the brain structures of ninety young adults who had reported their political attitudes on a scale from ‘very conservative’ to ‘very liberal’. They found a strong correlation between an individual’s view and the structure of the brain, particularly two regions.

People with liberal views tended to have increased grey matter in the anterior cingulated cortex, a region of the brain linked to decision-making, in particular when conflicting information is being presented. Previous research showed that electrical potentials recorded from this region during a task that involves responding to conflicting information were bigger in people who were more liberal or left wing than people who were more conservative.

Conservatives, meanwhile, found increased grey matter in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with processing emotion. This difference is consistent with studies which show that people who consider themselves to be conservative respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions.

I enjoyed reading a critique of the left wing, right wing brain in this post. I liked in particular the suggestion that:

The brain is a powerful organ designed to help you deal with reality in all its complexity. For a lot of people, politics doesn’t take place there, it happens in fairytale kingdoms populated by evil monsters, foolish jesters, and brave knights.

A link to Ravi Iyer et al (2010) in the post has left me with some more reading to do with regard to psychological predispositions in the organisation of political attitudes.

All in all it has been a great time to contemplate plasticity, rigidity, free will, determinism, genetic endowment and cultural empowerment! Next stop … following up on Kent Anderson’s post about Margaret Atwood and cheese sandwiches. Kent quotes Margaret to end his post:

The book is not dead. Reading is not dead. The human interest in stories is not dead. But we are in the midst of a sea change in transmission tools, the likes of which we have not seen since the Gutenberg print revolution. As with that historical moment, there was a lot of turmoil, and nobody could foresee all the consequences.

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Where do we go from here?

I came when the sun o’er that beach was declining

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Coincidence, Serendipity and Synchronicity

An item on Radio National’s Book Program introduced me to Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz’s Australian Encounters. It is a “little book of literary trivia about chance meetings, and some influential ones too, between writers, politicians, artists, singers and activists.”

Subjects in the book include Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, Donald Bradman and Boris Karloff, Margaret Fulton and Elizabeth David, Michael Hutchence and Kylie Minogue, Nana Mouskouri and Frank Hardy, Martina Navratilova, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Brian Burke, Henry Kissinger, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Menzies, Helena Rubinstein, and many more according to news of the book’s publication.

I had not seen Shane and Chris’s Encounters when they appeared in The Monthly. Shane notes that:

As the title suggests, these are snapshots depicting a connection, relationship or meeting between famous or notorious Australians or, occasionally, an Australian and a famous foreigner. However unlikely they sometimes appear, all are real – and as accurate as I can make them, based on historical documents or interviews with the people concerned.

This is an example … Bob Hawke and Frank Sinatra.

As I listened to the interview I thought of the words we use about meeting important people in our lives … coincidence, chance, synchronicity, serendipity, happenchance, fortune, fate, destiny. I remembered too discussions long ago about the role serendipity plays in qualitative field research and the classical example of Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown studies.

More recently Allen Foster and Nigel Ford (2003) have observed that serendipity is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” It first appeared in a letter Horace Walpole sent to Sir Horace Mann on 28 January 1754.  They note that “Serendipity has been considered in the literature to form an integral part of the creative process in the arts and humanities, social sciences and the sciences. In each, however, the experience of serendipity may be different.”

I like Seth Baker’s approach to Happenchance:

Happenchance is for anyone who wants to do things better: creative people, adventurers, travelers, wanderers, and dreamers. Anyone who won’t settle for the status quo, who wants to rise above mediocrity and conformity, and do something exciting, amazing, or engaging.

This site is for people with an open and relaxed attitude towards life.

  • People whose passion and interests take them in new and unexpected directions.
  • People who don’t mind trying new things.
  • People who aren’t afraid of failing.
  • People willing to embrace chance and serendipity.

I believe that by making our own luck, embracing chance, and working hard, we all have the opportunity to make our lives richer, more satisfying, and more fun.

If you have an opportunity to listen to the Book Show interview with Shane Maloney then your journey will start with a story of a chance meeting with a young poet, Leonard Cohen, on a Greek Island, the purchase of a blue raincoat and someone called Marianne. Perhaps the chance encounter with this post will lead you on your own reflections about meeting people who have helped to establish your identity.

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To meet by chance


Unexpected meeting



Qu’est-ce que la chance?

Whilst catching up with my Facebook account, by chance, I found a post from a friend that linked me to this video Qu’est-ce que la chance ? on a French comedy site (‘Rechercher dans la plus grosse base d’humour de francophonie’).

There was no embed code for the video so having tried Vodpod, I used WordPress’s Press This to form the link to the video and embed it here.

If you go to the link it contains some remarkable visual examples of chance (or fate). I was predisposed to share this by a post in Stephen Downes OLDaily with a link to Karyn Romeis’s post. Both discuss the distinction between giving and sharing.

Does someone give us luck, is it shared with us or do we make our own luck? (This prompted me to revisit the Atheist Bus Website for inspiration.)


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