How to ask good questions
What I learned hosting podcasts. Projects for 2022. Watching Don't Look Up. Meeting a Traveller at a station. Train mindfulness. My latest COVID thoughts.
Hope you had happy holidays and Happy New Year.
These are three things I learned this year doing podcasts.
Asking good questions
Projects for 2021L: How We Die, Progress Unconference
Watching Don’t Look Up: All about Culture
Meeting a Traveller at a station
Latest COVID summary thoughts
On podcasting. In order to have an in-depth conversation with a virtual stranger but a public writer, I decided I’d have to read/listen to their works. This caused me to examine their writings more deeply with a view to asking what I then could not understand further or what I thought was particularly insightful. I ended up learning about a wider range of experiences and ideas than was usual and in more depth. Three practical skills emerge:
Concise follow up emails
Asking good questions
Concise emails: At least 3 guests responded to follow-ups once the initial email had faded. The hit rate on well-worded concise (cold) emails is higher than you might think.
Active Listening: To hold good conversations, you need to truly listen to what the person is saying, process that with knowledge you have or you’ve heard earlier and formulate the next point. I think “active listening” covers this point, but it’s about absorbing what the person is saying or trying to say, combining it with other information and formulating something new from this.
Good questions: This leads into being able to ask good questions. For many, the more specific or detailed you can go then the better. I often end up succinctly summarising an idea I think my partner has and then asking them to develop it further and add anything I have left out or misunderstood. This show them how far your understanding has reached and gives them a little time to process what the answer should be. It also gives a general listener a brief baseline for the conversation.
The higher the level of prefaced information, the better the answer as they will not need to go over basics you’ve already expressed.
Avoid bland unanswerable or rote questions.
Dinner parties or conversation with strangers in real life are somewhat different to podcasts. But another principle I like is to try and get your partner to be the best version of themselves and their argument. Rather than flat out deny or challenge, you want to tease out to the fullest what your partner is expressing even if - and perhaps even more so - if you think you disagree.
(For dinner parties, I like to try and find out the things or areas my partner knows that I know nothing about. Even better if it’s a secret. And if you are up to it, diving into a deeper topic, not simply a shallow one. You can pick upon the internet these type of questions (or books eg Gregory Stock questions, Amazon link ): Would you rather lose a hand or all access to telecommunication devices? Rather live in the greatest city in the world, or a remote beautiful town? Whose reputation would you destroy? ….)
If a guest, if you can find out about a hobby/cultural interest and ask you often find a revealing answer.
With a stranger on a podcast, try and make your introduction sincere and ask a challenging/insightful question first. Typically, I find after 10 or so minutes, the guest will know by then if you’ve done your research and if you are genuinely interested in what you they have to say. This then makes it fun for everyone.
The ability to talk to strangers on a train platform. I’ve had this inclination for a while, but hosting podcasts has made it easier. This week while on a north west London platform. A boy with dyed dirty blond hair, mostly hidden in crumpled one piece white jumpsuit.
He likes trains? [JP is often an ice breaker and entry point]
-Yes. The rhythm and routine. That jumpsuit reminds me of Finland, have you ever been?
-No. I have Danish roots though.
-Finnish students on their Labour day, dress in jumpsuits and have an all day party. I think they find them warm enough to fall asleep in the street in. Or maybe that’s the drink.
-I have a onesie on underneath. They are warm! I’m a traveller and a squatter. I attest to their warmth.
-Which communities do you travel with?
-Mainly queer communities and activist com mutinies. Did you know they are changing the laws on squatting? Making it illegal. We will fight them. An animal can sleep where it likes. But as a human, I can’t do that.
-What do you make of XR?
-They are no activist like me. On a HS protest. They told us we were not with them. But used our group to advertise on the media.
-I think they are decentralised.
-I’m wary of them.
-How do you end up Travelling?
-I started in a Jehovah’s witness Tory family. Some family members died. I went through drugs, addiction, a commune in Copenhagen but I’ve always felt welcome with Travellers. Now, I’m fighting for our rights. I’m not hopeful, I think things are getting worse.
I recount my podcast with Aella. How she lost her faith and forged a different path. Then how Leopold Aschenbrenner thinks on existential risk and how things might have to get worse before they get better.
-Nice to connect.
His train arrives. He is going to Wales. I don’t know his name. We wave. He takes his RP English, his jumpsuits, his bicycle, a piece of graffitied skateboard and backpack with him.
Transcripts on ThenDoBetter.
Riffing on trains and stations. Anoushka has written of this between time.
Also on Jpike’s sense of doom at this time of year.
This has taken us back out on our train journey randomosity. We found ourselves in Snaresbrook. A place in North East London, we’ve never been before. After dark, he wanted to walk in Epping Forest.
I’ve briefly recounted on how these journeys take me places I would never think to go. Often unlovely places, or between places, or quirky. For instance, passing this 1872 drinking fountain in Snaresbrook.
These journeys are clearly important for Jpike’s state of mind. His mental health would deteriorate substantially without them. On the surface, the monotony could prove painful for certain kinds of mind, as opposed to soothing which I think it often is for Jpike’s mind.
There can come a time or moment more akin to meditation or mindfulness where you detach from the surface and place your mind somewhere else. In the moment, as mindfulness might suggest the details of the sound, the place, the sights, the feeling. Or, away on a sea of connected, disconnected thoughts.
Some days, I reflect that this seems a concentrated form of the challenge of being in the present moment and how to deal with painful thoughts. These thoughts can break us, or some how, we can absorb, deflect or let them go.
Looking ahead to 2022. My death performance-talk is slated for Friday 11 March, 9pm at Camden People’s theatre. There’s a certain ellipsis here, as I pretty much first met Anoushka at CPT in 2003 for my play Lost in Peru. So, I am back 19 years later.
I’m hoping to continue writing practice and see where that goes, along with the podcasts. I have tentative thoughts around an Unconference on Longtermism and Progress. I expect I will be hosting more meet-ups as we emerge from the pandemic.
There’s also still plenty of work to do around investing, sustainability, and healthcare.
On COVID. I’ve been asked for an update on views given Omicron. It’s really fairly complex to put down in a post and I still think most articles miss much of the nuance especially on personal risk (or not) because of differing weights of views and ideologies (which of course we all have).
So in summary:
-Vaccination and natural infection protect against severe disease, hospitalization and death (80-95+ for 2-3 vaccine shots). Boosters really help.
-Being young and healthy is robust protection against severe disease and death. Old and/or unhealthy means more risk.
-Long Covid risk is small. But real for all age groups, vaccination likely helps. (This is probably true of many classes of viral infection which we’ve been underestimating cf: chronic fatigue, Long Lyme etc.)
-Surfaces and food are mostly harmless. This virus is airborne. Outdoors activity is pretty harmless, as ventilation disperses the virus effectively.
-Air ventilation is an effective and cost effective tool.
-N95 masks are effective but in the right circumstance. Lots of people talking in restaurants with masks on and off, mean masking effectiveness would be very limited.
-Due to Omicron’s infectiveness it’s very likely (70% chance, IMO) that you will have caught COVID by early 2022 eg in the UK). But, as most of you reading this are vaccinated, you will have mild or even asymptomatic disease. Almost all children will also have mild or asymptomatic disease. The cost of avoidance is now impractically high for most people.
-For those who need to try and lower risk (eg immunocompromised). P-100 masks, ventilation, and isolation / social distance can do this.
Depending on where you live, from sometime in H1 2022 eg about April, you should probably live your life as you would normally and only employ low friction life modifications, and for some people on an individual risk basis low friction life modifications is probably the way to treat life now. The disease is entering the endemic phase and while in some places, slowing the waves will have some value, we are long past being able to halt the spread.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule of thumb (eg immunocompromised in your family). And another strain in the future has a good chance of occurring (60%) in the next 7 years (a little like flu cycles).
I watched Don’t Look Up. The satire made many points about our society on both left and right, but my over-arching observation is how human behavior is ultimately driven by intersubjective beliefs.
Or more simply “culture”.
None of us are immune. But these are the beliefs that become true because enough humans believe them to be true. Some of these beliefs are very core to all of us eg money, legal systems. Money is intersubjective because the parrot or the dog cares not for it.
Some of these beliefs are very contested by different groups of humans.
I am now coming round to the view that part of what gives humans great satisfaction is a sense of belonging to a “tribe” or “culture”. We then interpret these cultural signals and most of the time then act on those interpretations - often led by (tribal) leaders, who themselves are involved in self-reinforcing loops.
The President of Don’t Look Up ends up with attributes of both Trump and Clinton within this.
My young jumpsuit friend moved from tribe to tribe until he found his queer Travellers community.
In that many human tribes don’t wish to look up, look ahead or want to believe in god, gods, soul, spirit, the individual or collective.
The film stayed true to the rules of its world and humans ended where those rules suggested they should.
In the last 200 years or so, we’ve had several moments where humanity’s collective intersubjective myths, our cultures, have changed. For instance, over slavery, or over women’s rights.
I am coming to view this as our social or cultural progress and this progress is intimately tied to our progress in other domains.
Don’t Look Up is an argument that only if we have an enabling culture would we be able to harness our other forms of progress (eg technology). I’m unsure, but there is chance this is correct and if so not only suggests that cultural thought is important in understanding how human organisations and tribes behave but whether humans survive over the long term.
New funding ideas:
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