Showing posts from August, 2020

149. It's all about the bike

The title of this post is shared with a book by Rob Penn, based on the construct of Rob travelling all over the World to his favourite manufacturers of bike parts, to build his perfect bike. It’s a great idea and an enjoyable read. For me, it’s not about a specific bike, but about being on a bike. Specially, on the high roads. The great passes of the Alps, the Pyrenees and even of other, minor chains. The tunnels of Tourmalet from St Marie de Campan, the innumerable hairpins of Finestre, the desolate heights of Iseran, the majestic solitude of the climb over the last wall to the glacial cirque of Troumousse. The bike opens up landscapes in a way that no other means of transport does. Silent. Outdoor. Hard. Reaching each peak demands pain and pays back in satisfaction and awe at nature’s beauty. Every descent demands temerity and rewards with the occasional feeling of that perfect high speed line through the bends. A good bike is beautiful to look at, but even more beautiful to look fro

148. The accelerating pace of progress

Technological progress is becoming a challenge for the average human, continuously accelerating at a pace hard to keep up with. Whilst a XII century citizen would have almost immediately understood the World if suddenly transported to the end of the XVIII century, a 1930s citizen would be lost today, amidst internet, social media, continuous communications, gridlocked traffic, etc. Fast adaptation has become the sine qua non condition to success in modern society. And the pace of progress is likely to increase, a snowball rolling down a hill. The real time collaboration and knowledge sharing afforded by connectivity and the impending incorporation of artificial intelligence to problem solving efforts mean we will solve more problems, faster. At least those with technical solutions, we are perhaps slower in solving social issues, as individual behaviours adapt faster than social construct. But adapt we must, we should not miss the opportunities the golden era of technology offers us  Le

147. Are we really that busy? And what doing?

As you can see from the number at the beginning of this post’s title, I have been writing and publishing Twitteretter for a good while. Getting an established readership is proving extremely hard work. In fact, quite often I cannot even get my friends and family to read it. The Twitteretter format is designed to make it very easy to read and follow, as it is daily, very short and predictably so, due to its character limit. Are we really that busy that we cannot spare the time for one or two minutes of reading a day? I fear the answer is yes. There is huge competition for our attention nowadays, and it is very difficult to focus it on what is worthwhile (I am not implying Twitteretter is, that is for you to decide). It is not uncommon to finish a day feeling you have not stopped but you have not done much. Your smartphone is full of apps armed with functionality designed to catch your attention and keep you engaged. And when you engage with your phone, you disengage from all else  Lengt

146. The debilitating effect of corruption on a society

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed, at many levels of what were perceived to be transparent and honest societies, shocking levels of corruption in the political and civil service system. UK and Spain are examples of this, where massive orders for PPE and other essential supplies have been given to organisations closely connected to the current government, costing the taxpayer huge amounts of money and shutting out bona fide suppliers who are losing the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to develop their business to the benefit of the local economy. Corruption has a high social cost. It impoverishes society, getting taxpayers less value for their money and hurting the prospects of honest businesses, to line a few pockets with fortunes which are, in the main, not spent or invested locally. These practices seem to carry on with the connivance of a large section of the population and, whilst there is no price to pay, they will continue. Citizens hold the key to cleaning their society 

145. The longer life promised by science

Our technological capacity is growing at unprecedented speed. One of science’s Ithacas is enhanced longevity. Futurists like Ray Kurzwell tell us that the first humans who will live to 150 years old are walking the Earth today. Many react to this idea with concern, particularly about overpopulation, but such a change in life expectancy would also bring a change in habits, conception age, etc., which would most likely mean total population numbers will be unaffected even if life extension becomes widely accessible. It is easy to dismiss enhanced longevity as a fool’s dream, but the fact is that a longer life could be put to excellent use in the pursuit of greater knowledge, understanding, the solving of more complex problems or the creation of more beautiful objects. But most of the population are not engaged in these activities. The question we must answer is: do we want to extend life as it is today, or to change it at the same time, to give true meaning to its extension?  Length: 988

144. Whatever happened to getting lost

Technological progress is your paradigmatic Damocles sword (if you don’t know the story that gives birth to this expression, you should read it, yet another beautiful early Greek story, but don’t google it, read the original). It brings great convenience and, in many matters, necessary support and certainty. But it has a downside, the difficulty to get lost. Google or iMaps will ensure you never deviate from the planned route, no more taking that wrong turn which will deliver you to beautiful, unexpected places. No more finding that quaint little hotel out of the way by chance, or that restaurant you stumble upon and keep going back to for many years. Technology allows us to plan and execute efficiently, and in turn threatens us with the lost opportunities of over planning and over efficiency. Intelligence (and that is still us, for now) allows us to decide when to use it, and when to leave things to chance. The choice is important, if variety and surprise still matter, which they do 

143. Old contracts we have forgotten

A common feature of the utopias and dystopias depicted by science fiction from the 60s and 70s was that, through technological success, humans were freed of work, which was carried out by machines. Humans freely explored their artistic and personal interest, free loving and carefree (I use free 3 times intentionally). This was also the consensus of predictions from most futurists in those days, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley et al. Today’s reality is very different. We work longer hours than most of the population have at any time since the 1930s, chained by continuously growing demands on our time as labourers and consumers. We have exchanged citizens freedom for corporate profit, which grows exponentially as the anticipated benefits of technical progress concentrate in a few hands. We must go back to the original entente, we did not consciously forsake a realisable utopia for the profit of the few and we should not accept it willingly. We have the power to return to the old course 

142. The Art of War, or how not to do business

It has become fashionable, in the last few years, for business people to read ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, a war treatise by a 5 th Century BC Chinese general. I would not go as far as saying it is their favourite text, but many have told me over the last few years that they are reading it. The concept is striking for its significance. It indicates that many of these business people think they are at war and that, to do business successfully, they must understand the apparent wisdom of a warlord from 2,500 years ago. It is paradoxical that business, a discipline that is meant to move technology and human capability forward by bringing discovery and science into application, improving lives in the process, is looking so far back for inspiration. It is worrying that, at a time when we have the collaboration tools needed to foster unprecedented cooperation to faster achieve humanity’s objectives, and with them those of businesses, many engaged in this activity think they are fighting oth

141. What do you mean you are not interested in politics?

I often hear this statement in conversation. I would believe it of an anchorite or a shipwrecked, but not otherwise. Those who state it mean they are not interested in the political options available to them in the electoral process, that choices are too complex, or that they are disenfranchised by political tricks and lies and don’t feel represented. But politics is much more than the four yearly election of members of parliament and a Prime Minister. Politics is every decision we make as to how we live. We are making political statements when we vote and when we don’t, when we use a local shop or a supermarket, when we buy organic, cycle instead of driving, take a cash payment to evade tax or buy The Big Issue. Every choice we make, every breath we take, is politics. We cannot hide from it and, since we must participate, we must be interested, or give away control of our lives to others, we relinquish the one power society affords us, the power to choose how we want to live our lives

140. On the alternative Marxism

Still on Marxism, Groucho did, like his homonym, cast a critical eye on the weaknesses of our system. His at first sight strange statements were, on further consideration, profound, iconoclastic and eminently sensible. Take, for example, the following two: ‘I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member’ and the brilliant: ‘I do have my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others’. Groucho’s genius was in satire, and with these axioms he was taking the proverbial sledgehammer to some of the big social issues already apparent in his time, which plague us today. The emergence of tribes (political, racial, social) and their danger to collective society, hence the refusal of clubs which, by their nature, by including the likeminded, exclude others. And the lack of principles shown by many in private and, even worse, public life. The latter is particularly apt to ridicule current political leaders, who govern by opinion poll, rather than political and ideological agenda

139. Does Marxism really exist, and is it what you think?

Few terms have suffered as much misuse as Marxism. This thought came to my mind during a conversation with a friend a few days ago, in which, after Marxism was mentioned, the question followed: which one? Groucho’s or Karl’s? The question is more apt than you may think at first. Most people believe Marxism is a doctrine which incites the working classes to revolt and recommends the elimination of private property and equal (not equitable) distribution of resources amongst all. This is not the case. Marxism does not in fact make any recommendations. It analyses capitalism from the perspective of Hegelian dialectics and concludes that the opposing forces and interests driving the system will destroy it. This prediction does not request or require action from any social class. Karl’s extremely competent analysis of the inherent contradictions in capitalism have been interpreted and exploited by many, Lenin the first one that turned analysis into recipe, but Marx only observed and analysed

138. Choosing your intellectual partners in the age of social networks

  I’ve grown concerned lately by the apparent difficulty that internet age natives have reading books. Snapchat and Instagram are always there, demanding attention whenever they dare lay down their device to immerse themselves in a book. The risk is that the quality of content we receive from social networks is a lot lower than from books. Not because people today are less creative or capable but rather because, with books, we get not only the very best of each period in human history, but also mostly only what has withstood scrutiny by subsequent generations. 10 or20 may have made it from each decade, the best, rising from a cacophony of completely forgettable heaps of less valuable content. When we put down our book to check Snapchat, we prioritise the forgettable cacophony of now over the very best selected for us by millions of readers before us. It is tantamount to rejecting a 1967 Margaux to drink a recently harvested, run of the mill wine (and I am being kind to social networks)

137. The mirage of success on the rearview mirror

George M Moore Jr, an US veteran bound to a wheelchair by a fighter jet crash during the Vietnam War has become famous by his quote ‘A winner is just a loser who tried one more time’. This was put even more eloquently and much more profoundly by Samuel Beckett in what may be my favourite quote: ‘Ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again, fail again, fail better’. They both mean the same, success is the result of many failures, of small steps on the road of improvement. But success is deceiving. We often see it in others only when reached, so we miss the journey. In our culture of celebrity, people enter our field of vision once they succeed, and we don’t see the toil and sweat spent to get there. This creates a false expectation, condemning us to disappointment when we do not succeed easily, tempting us to give up and therefore fail the Moore, or Beckett, test. Understanding success as a process may be the most important tool in your luggage when setting off on the journey of life

136. The new retail

There is a bookshop in my hometown of Santiago called ‘Follas Novas’ (New Pages). It has a huge amount of books, every conceivable space is full of them. They keep inventory in the store computer, and also in Jose Antonio’s, the owner, head. He can pinpoint the location of any of the many thousand books immediately and with unfailing precision. It is like a tiny local Amazon, with less stock and slightly faster fulfilment. The latter may be an advantage, but small and likely to reduce further once drones can be used for deliveries. And this is a problem. ‘Follas Novas’ will probably disappear, because it becomes irrelevant as a retail option or because Jose Antonio, its soul, retires, whichever comes first. This will leave a void in the town, but only a few will notice. It makes me think that these local bookshops must mutate to survive, as Darwin or Dawkins would tell you. They must become a space which offers what Amazon cannot, combining shopping with experience in a new way. Ideas?

135. Our biggest challenge and how to tackle it

  Global warming (or the euphemistic climate change) is the biggest challenge humanity is facing today. Given the lack of consensus about policy to tackle it, the continuous failure to fulfil agreed targets and the disinformation onslaught surrounding it, it is easy to despair, but we cannot afford to. We cannot leave the answer to our politicians only, rely on them to save us from impending disaster in the same way we relied on them for pandemic prevention. Green Parties may be unelectable, due to limited funding, media bias and an extremism tarnish in public perception. We must therefore do more as individuals, as citizens. It is high time to take it seriously, and it is up to each one of us to inform, to convince and to act, thinking about the impact of each one of our decisions and continuously striving to do more. There is a lot that we can do as individuals, if we believe we can have an impact, targeting our consumption, our economic actions and our human to human interaction Len

134. The problem with accumulation

  Capitalism as described by Adam Smith, its ideological father, is based on the accumulation of capital, which keeps the system operating. The capitalist (in modern terms, the entrepreneur, as for Smith the capitalists were the factory owners) accumulates wealth to reinvest it in additional means of production, growing his capacity and as a result his competitiveness. This in turn increases general wealth, as more competitive production means cheaper consumer goods. Alas, the XXI century is very different to the XVIII. A large proportion of global wealth today is unproductive, tucked away in tax havens and invested in obscure assets, not engaged in tax paying, employment creation or productivity increase. This robs the population of the benefit of accumulation, without benefitting the accumulator, who has nothing to show for it other than an inflated bank balance. Our system needs to find a new way to employ accumulated capital in the productive delivery of society’s objectives Length

133. 150 year old solutions to much older problems

  Inequality is one of our major social challenges nowadays. The political turmoil agitating our societies today is a direct consequence of it. In fact, inequality is nothing new, humanity has lived with it for centuries, at many times graver than currently. But, alas, as we grew wealthier in the last century, there was hope that we may start to address it, that mindless accumulation of profits would be superseded by more lofty objectives and focuses from the powerful and the mighty. It is interesting, revisiting John Stuart Mill in the last few days, to note that he was already, 150 years ago, preoccupied with the same issues and also that his blueprint for solving them, and his actual expectation of the evolution of capitalism, remains relevant today. It seems that, in socio political terms, we have made little progress since the Victorians. His recipe? Higher inheritance taxation and workers cooperatives competing in a capitalist system with private enterprises. Would they work toda

132. Are we the victims of a 250 year old oversimplification

  Economics, or political economy, as the discipline was called then, became a pseudoscience in the late XVIII century, through the contributions of people like Smith and Ricardo. At the time, a critical simplification was made in order to model mathematically the behaviour of the system. Humans will act always to maximise their own self-interest, or utility. This is plainly not true. We are moral animals (at least some of us) capable of acting for the benefit of others over our own, but introducing this degree of freedom would make the modelling of inputs, processes and outputs necessary to be a science impossible. This simplification has become ingrained in the economic theories which actually inform the design of the actual system we live in. As a result, the system is better suited to those who best fit the oversimplification, sociopaths who always and unconditionally prioritise their own interest. We see the consequence in the success of Johnson, Trump, Putin, Koch, etc. Length: 9

131. Chess symphonies

  Chess is an ancient pastime, which has perdured for many generations. It is a great means to entertain oneself whilst developing cognitive and reasoning capacities. Excellent to exercise memory and calculation. And it is a beautiful game. A well constructed, game winning combination has a rhythm which you can almost hear, it is irrepressible, deterministic and beautiful, a crescendo of energy perfectly fitting of a Beethoven or Wagner symphony. In fact, when I am fortunate enough to execute such a combination in a game, I literally hear that music, as the pieces sweep energetically across the board, putting my opponent to the figurative sword. As we witness the development of the first generation to grow with digital devices, I wonder what will become of chess. Will the wide availability of entertainment on consoles and mobile devices leave room for old pastimes like chess in human schedules? If not, we will lose not only a great tool to educate and shape the mind, but a thing of bea

130. The Last Question

  Have you read Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Last Question’? If you haven’t, you really should. I came across it after it was referenced by Michio Kaku in ‘The future of humanity’. It is a beautiful story, and it may have the best ending I’ve ever read (I may be a bit biased as I just read it, and it is much more present in my mind than others, but it is truly stand up and clap spectacular). If you wanted to get an idea of what it is about – and I really advise against this, you should just read it, it is only 15 pages – you could do it by reading my Twitteretter number 10, ‘On God and Evolution’. At the time I wrote it, I was struck but what I hoped may be an original thought, inspired by listening to a Richard Dawkins interview. A couple of years later, I discover that Asimov, at least, beat me to it by a number of years. The feeling is bittersweet. Is it better to be original, or to share an idea with someone of Asimov’s stature? Both are good and, since it is the latter, I take

129. The power of ethical individual economics

I am lucky to have significant acquisitive power and spare income. I see this not only as a privilege, but a responsibility to use my good fortune to influence my environment positively. One way is by making purchasing and investment decisions with not only my short-term self interest at heart, but the general interest. I buy sustainable products through socially better channels and invest in globally beneficial companies and initiatives which may not yield best short-term financial returns. By deploying my individual resources socio-politically, I can have small but significant impacts. This is long-term sensible and satisfying, I buy a chance to shape my world. My ability to earn above average is a combination of the right opportunities and a bit of fortune, not a god given right or the result of a superior intellect or work ethic, as too many believe. If all of us who can made a conscious decision to produce and consume strategically, we could have a great impact shaping our society

128. Fighting monopoly, a tough ask for all of us

After a digital Hay Festival this year, I ordered my books from Waterstones, the partner selling the books of the authors participating in the literary festival. I could have bought them from Amazon, but I decided to support Waterstones, as I feel Amazon’s power in the bookselling market is too great. This, however, is not an easy decision to make. Amazon’s economies of scale and purchasing power means that, on my first order alone (4 books), I could have saved £20.67. On my total ordering for this year’s festival, close on £100. Choosing to pay over the odds is a similar decision to buying organic foods, but with less health benefits, as the book is exactly the same. I am paying a premium for the sustainability of high street bookshops and for a strong independent book market. Other, non festival books, I buy at single book stores, at even higher prices. But many others who may care as much as me about these issues may not be able to afford to make these choices. Those who can, should

127. Feminism, an industrialist's dream

I realise I am about to open a huge hornets nest, but in thinking about the incorporation of women to the workplace in the 50s and 60s, a critical step on the emancipation of women, as many would tell you, I cannot help but thinking also about the impact that this had on the value of labour in its ages old to and fro with capital for the share of the wealth created in the economy. By doubling the supply of labour overnight, it over time halved its value. The result is that a working couple today has, all else being equal, similar relative acquisitive power to a one worker couple in the 60s, whilst corporate profits have exploded since. This is a bad deal for workers and a capitalist dream. Women should, of course, have access to the workplace in fully equal terms, but the way this should work, in the interest of the working class, should have been with one of the couple, it does not matter who, entering the labour force, thus preserving the unit value of labour and the price it command

126. Is protectionism bad?

Modern economic theory, á la Friedman and Hayek, would have us believe that protectionism is bad. As citizens, we are quite conditioned to buy into this idea. But it is a red herring. Protectionism is bad or good depending on perspective. It is bad for the most developed economies, as it prevents their companies from accessing other markets, winning them and sending the resulting loot back home. Fledgling competitors in less developed countries cannot stand against fully grown industrial or commercial giants. But, for less developed economies, protectionism is the only way to successfully foster own industries. A great current example is the birth and growth of WeChat, Ali Baba, Lenovo and Huawei in protectionist China, not replicated in the EU, which opened up its markets to the US giants and has not developed a competitive chat app, search engine, marketplace or computer manufacturer. We gave away the crown jewels of the future economy to an apparent friend who may turn out otherwise

125. Investing in preparation for future events

One argument I have been hearing of late which seems sensible at first sight is that it is not possible for societies to prepare well for something that we don’t know is going to happen. It has been used, to good effect, to defend the fact that we were fairly (not completely) unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The argument sounds sensible, but it does not stand careful analysis. Firstly, we did know something like this was going to happen, and the same is true of the next global problems, climate change, antibiotic resistance, the diabetes pandemic and growing inequality. We know they are coming, we should be preparing much better. Secondly, the same politicians and leaderships who use the argument as an excuse disprove it daily with their security and military investment. Countries spend annual fortunes in military capability and exercises, to prepare for the uncertain eventuality of conflict. But the wars that really matter will be fought against the challenges listed above Len

124. 2001: Amazing technology we have not yet reached, but no internet, mobile devices or Google glasses

Last night I rewatched ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the great Stanley Kubrick movie. Have you seen it? If you have not, you definitely should. It is a movie from a time when movies were different and did not all follow the same rhythm and formula. That can make it a bit hard going, but it is incredibly beautiful and interesting. It plays with many concepts which would warrant their own Twitteretters. Alien gifted human intelligence, rogue AI, space and hyperspace travelling. The last 15 minutes are mind bending, light speed travelling, time travelling, uncertainty principle… What I also find very interesting is seeing the technologies they expected to have by 2001, and the ones they completely missed. The most noticeable of these are internet and mobile devices. Humanity can colonize the moon and travel to Jupiter with a conscious AI on board, but video calling happens from an over teched phone booth paid for with a phone card. I wonder what future technologies will completely blindside us

123. The lie of free markets

I have commented on the inadequacies of free markets in post XXX. It is striking to the observer that countries and even regions most aligned with these philosophies are performing much worse than all others in protecting their citizens from a health crisis like coronavirus. Free market fundamentalists are loath to imposing the wearing of facemasks, or lockdown, on their population. For them, the illusion of an individual’s freedom is more important than safety or the rights of others. The consequences are not only obvious in catastrophic pandemic statistics in Brazil, US or UK, but also for example in the Madrid region in Spain, governed by a particularly fundamentalist cabal of PP politicians. Free marketeers undertake a systematic long term reduction of Health and other Public Safety resources. Its effects on local populations (longer queues, dropping standard of treatment) are blamed on invented pressure from immigration. Alas, this may fool voters, but it does not fool viruses Len