Survivorship Bias: The Fantasy of Big Time

The Art of Thinking Clearly is a book by Rolf Dobelli.  It claims to be an international bestseller but I’d never seen it along art-of-thinking-clearlyside all the other self-improvement and management guff during my trawls through airport book shops over the years.  Which is unfortunate because it’s a really great book and a refreshing antidote to the positive thinking nonsense that props up much of the Neoconservative, Neoliberal bullshit world we live in.

Dobelli does not pull his punches and wades straight in with the powerful first chapter called “Why you should visit cemeteries”.  It does not turn out quite a morbid as I’d hoped for which would have been more along the lines of sending every politician and corporate alpha-jock to a graveyard and having some sorry looking soul in a stained shell suit yell at them in a thick accent, “Even youse’ll end up in here”, kind of like some of the smarter Roman Emperors did in order to keep their feet on the ground.

No, what Dobelli does is point out that the chances of most endeavours succeeding are way lower than we tend to imagine.  We’re hammered with images of successful musicians, actors, business tycoons and associated hangers-on. Our chances of joining this exclusive set are frighteningly low even if we actually got off our arses and made a go of it.  It’s hard to accept that even the best damn effort in the world is also hugely influenced by dumb luck.  In the book Accidental Empires, Robert X. Cringely (great name) details how one early Silicon Valley success was hinged on whether one single rather brilliant but OCD/ADHD engineer would get around to finishing a product design … once he was done with trying to measure the acoustic reflectivity of the ceiling tiles.  accidental-empires

Conclusion: despite having the idiotic “winner takes all” mentality drilled into us, you should not actually build a high probability of success business, community or nation on the remote chance that you hit it big time*.  You build it piece by piece on a strong foundation that is conducive to incremental progress with the possibility of a breakthrough.  But you do not rely on the breakthrough.  Like discovering unobtainium in them thar hills.  Or selling your soul so a dodgy flavour of the month hard nosed multinational will set up their tax loop hole factory in your backyard.  You make the lot of the average person a comfortable one and make it your priority because that’s exactly what most people are: average.  And there is nothing the hell wrong with that.  With the right leadership and support system average people are capable of incredible things and quite possible a modern, efficient, caring, healthy, highly educated, egalitarian society is the greatest achievement of mankind.

* Of course the modern tycoons and leaders also do not play the high risk, make or break game that they force on the rest of us.  They play a rigged game: lobbying, revolving doors between business and politics, being above the law, and tax payer bailouts.  True capitalism is left to the suckers.

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How does UK compare with Holland? Badly

How does UK compare with Holland?  I’m asked about this once in awhile. To be honest I should be asked this more often by Brits. Because despite the relatively small amount of water between the UK and the Netherlands, the differences are staggering.  Maybe not if you’re a comfortably well off Brit in a village in the shires with your eyes closed to what is happening beyond your comfortable bubble, but I digress.

I’m a Scot who has lived the last 14 years in Holland.  Going back to the UK is a strange experience for me.  On the one hand it’s great to be back in the familiar culture (which had changed to be honest), language, friends and all that, but within a few days it begins to grate and disturb.stock-footage-netherlands-close-up-waving-flag-hd-loop

Sometimes someone in the UK will say to me something like “Yes but you must pay so much tax in Holland.” Well maybe I do pay more than in UK and indeed if your raison d’être is to pay the least amount of tax on your pittance then it may not be the best country.  If however you as an average kind of person want to earn more, live in safety, have a clean environment, have no poverty to deal with or witness (in the UK sense), have smooth road surfaces and an excellent road network, an affordable and reliable train system, be able to bike everywhere on dedicated bike paths, have a proportional representation electoral system, not swing between drought and flooding every six months, have good housing, have good education, have extremely low teenage pregnancy rate, have relatively low drugs problem, have no pensioners freezing to death in winter, etc, etc, then it may just be the country for you.

You see the main stream media in the UK does a good job at keeping the loyal minions in their place by either misreporting news from our European neighbours or simply not reporting at all.  Years ago when I lived in Scotland the only TV programme that consistently reported on Europe was in Gaelic: Eòrpa.

If someone wants to transfer money from UK to me in Holland then with most banks in the UK this is a big issue.  You’ll need to go into the branch and fill out some paper forms. neoliberalism In most of Europe the process for paying someone abroad is IDENTICAL to paying someone around the corner: on-line banking, same IBAN number based system for people at hone and abroad.  Free.  Yes in UK we’re so cut off from the reality it beggars belief.  Phone roaming charges?  EU is normalizing these.  UK lags behind in implementing.

I could go and on.  The point is that the UK feels very backward.  Are the average people genetically different?  No of course not.  The difference is in leadership.  The UK has been run by an elite for hundreds of years that have no interest in the lot of the majority of people.  There is no sense of representing the people or doing what is in the long term best interests of the country.  The super rich are a nation unto themselves, free of borders. eilean-donan

Scotland has the perfect chance to break this stranglehold and demonstrate what a modern, egalitarian country can achieve.  There is no real satisfaction in having an extra few quid in your pocket when the infrastructure and society around you is collapsing.  So I’ll pay my extra few percent taxes in Holland.  It’s not perfect here, nowhere is, and there are many things I miss about the UK, but it truly puts a smile on my face every day that I drive on pot hole free roads, that my wife can ride her bike back from the station safely at midnight and knowing that there are no kids going hungry, cold or suffering from TB and other illnesses that have no place in a modern society.

Vote YES on 18 September and return to a reality where normal folk come first, where a decent, respectful life is the priority and not some every man for himself game of cut-throat survival.

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The Rise of the Arsehole in Modern Society (Book Review)

Book Review: The Rise of the Arsehole in Modern Society (Scottish Edition) by Daniel Désespéré. Illustrated. 867pp.  D. Watkins Press. €39.99

rise-of-the-arseholeIn what many will come to regard as his tour de force, French academic Professor Daniel Désespéré, charts the rise of idiocy in public life during the late 20th and early 21st century.  Using a mix of manual and computerized research backed by scathingly critical analysis, Désespéré conclusively proves that the intelligence – both intellectual and emotional – of prominent and private figures has been in steep decline in recent decades.

Surprisingly, the obvious inclusion of the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is kept brief, their failings in the intellectual realm being so transparent as to hardly warrant a foot note in this hefty 867 page tome.  Désespéré argues that such characters are virtually blissfully unaware of the repercussions of their actions.  To be classified as a true arsehole a certain self-awareness is required; an awareness that is then immediately ignored or projected against a background of an enormous, self-righteous ego.  The true arsehole does not believe God to be on his side, he knows it.  The arsehole can without conscience release a faulty product, bring down a banking system or launch a military attack upon civilians.

Yes, arseholes are to be found in all walks of life from the jobs-worth security guard (“Sportcullis” is the amusing word utilized for such characters in a nod to the hilarious and hitherto unmatched  Not 1982 rip-off calendar) to the wanna-be business tycoon, such as those that grace the set of Dragon’s Den.  The sexing up of entrepreneurship and extreme wealth in the 21st century and the parallel influence of the Self-Improvement industry receives a breathless, almost poetic, 37-page non-stop rant, peppered with the kind of flowery language rarely seen in academia.  How Désespéré pulls this off while remaining credible is nothing short of staggering.

Gaining special attention in the contemporary English speaking world are characters such as Tony Blair, David Cameron, Barack Obama, Nigel Farage, Jamie Dimon, Alan Greenspan and Condoleezza Rice to name just seven.  What arseholes have in common is an overriding sense of their own immortality and importance.  They fail to comprehend that no amount of power or money will ever satisfy the empty rawness at the heart of man.  In a surprising discussion of ancient Eastern philosophy, the global phenomena is brought back to the personal level.  We are all human beings.  We are all mortal.  At heart we want the same things.  We differ in our means of obtaining this inner desire, this balance that we all seek.  Zooming back out Désespéré explores how despite their need for global acknowledgement and importance, top political and business arseholes have little grasp of the interconnectedness of life or the fragility of the planet’s ecosphere or indeed of the vastness of the universe.  It is the void of space that the author leaves us in; leaves us in a state of awe and of having a new view of this world.  Unless you are a total arsehole.

Faults?  The good professor perhaps does not investigate how the balance could be addressed.  What could we do as a society to minimize the destructive force of arseholes?  This is glossed over.  It is also natural to take issue with the claim that this edition of the book is a so called Scottish Edition.  Apparently a search and replace was run on the oft used word “ass hole” and it is replaced by “arsehole”.  Ditto words like “shit” and “shite”. Furthermore a few Scottish case studies are thrown in with Johann Lamont and Alistair Darling being a rather obvious attempt to cash in on the numerous intellectual pro-independence supporters that may elect to purchase the book in the run up to the referendum.  Interestingly Désespéré is a firm believer in independence for Scotland and in a candid foot note apparently claims that such a split in the United Kingdom may indeed signal a decline in the relentless rise of the arsehole.

Highly recommended.


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Why can’t you plebs just behave?

Why can’t you plebs just behave?  This must surely be the line of thought of the politicians and business leaders throughout the world.  If everyone would just quietly toe the line there would be no need for trouble.

Thrown out of Commonwealth Games pool for having a Yes badge

Thrown out of Commonwealth Games pool for having a Yes badge

  • Why can’t everyone just use the internet for buying our crap and sharing pictures of their cats?
  • Why can’t you just sit at home and watch X-Factor instead of protesting about media bias?
  • Why can’t these Palestinians just quietly die of a mysterious illness?
  • Why doesn’t the whole world follow USA’s lead and give 100% support to Israel?
  • Why do the Scots need to go upsetting the United part of the UK?
  • Why do people use the internet for bypassing the main stream media?
  • Why do you object to us monitoring your every action?  Surely you have nothing to hide?  You wouldn’t have a problem if you just behaved yourself?
  • Why do you need to wear a discrete Yes badge at the Commonwealth Games? Yes we know the Union Jack is not a flag of a competing nation and it is also not allowed officially, but come on, we need to keep the Queen happy and not break Cameron’s heart.
  • Why don’t all you plebs politely remain consumers on internet and not attempt to produce and disseminate information?
  • Why don’t you all trust us that the Neocon, Neoliberal agenda is the only option?  That as Queen Thatcher said, There Is No Alternative?


    Queen Thatcher: TINA

  • Why don’t you all play along and understand that while Trickle Down Economics may not work for you, it works bloody well for us and hey if you can spell Trickle Down then you are probably not living too badly, so what do you care for if others are?
  • Why don’t you take laissez-faire to heart?  Do whatever the hell is in your own best interests, don’t give a flier about anyone else and trust the market will moderate the extremes?
  • Why can’t you trust us that the environment will be all right by itself, that a solution will present itself without changing our lifestyle.
  • Why don’t you all just do what you are told?!
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Preserving Ourselves and the Status Quo

Why do otherwise intelligent and decent human beings begin to act in a certain pro-establishment, Neoconservative way that smacks of a new world order and secret g20-g8Bilderberg group meetings?  Are the multitudes of journalists, editors, businessmen, politicians, broadcasters, civil servants given a handbook telling them the rules of a modern right wing state?  Not likely. I’m not one for conspiracy theories.

How does the BBC with its thousands of employees manage to overlook demonstrations on its own doorstep?  Or 50000 people protesting against austerity in London?  How does the mainstream media avoid any genuine pro-Scottish independence grass roots organizations, but picks up a one day old astroturf campaign and runs with the story all day?  How do they manage to ignore the criminal activities of Israel, or water it down?  How can an MP be suspended for speaking his mind regarding understanding for the Palestinians?  How can a British ex-ambassador be black listed from appearing on the BBC?  bbc

There is in general no book of rules.  In general there is no one explicitly telling someone else this is how we report the news.  For the answer it is best to look inwards in the Eastern tradition, instead of outwards.  Are the people with power, with money, even the middle classes with their just enough comfort, not slightly afraid of the alternatives?  We’re all mortgaged to the hilt, the result of insane housing prices.  We’ve got insane tuition fees to pay.  We’re maxed out on credit in the quest to purchase latest gadgets and cars.  We’ve got an image to live up to.  Do we not sense that if we start questioning the ethics of the higher echelons of society that this whole comfortable status quo that we currently inhabit will come tumbling down?

If I start asking too many questions, or deviate too much from the current way of behaving, then am I singling myself out for banishment?  merkel-cameron

If I have to admit that my leaders, my authority figures have got it all wrong, that’s going to cause uncomfortable security for me.  We make a map of the world in our heads – if we learn that the map is inaccurate that is a disconcerting state.

Can we really have an equal society?  Are people innately good or bad.  These lower class people are lazy, uneducated and threatening.  Do we really want to empower them?  Will I become poorer as a result?  Will they form a revolution?

These Muslims are dangerous.  They’re going to out-breed us and take over; send us back to the stone age.  Probably we should control them.  Monitoring all internet traffic, why is that a problem?  I’ve got nothing to hide.  If it makes a safer world, then so what?

eilean-donanSplitting up the United Kingdom?  An independent Scotland?  That could set a worrying precedent for other parts of the UK wanting more authority.  What kind of a message would this send our allies and our enemies if the UK cannot even keep order within its own borders?

And an independent Scotland?  Equality?  Fairness?  Nuclear-free?  Peace loving?  Doing what’s ethically right on the world stage?  Who the hell do we think we are?  Stand up amongst legions of identikit national leaders and say, No, this is not right!  Can we survive without weapons contracts?  Can we survive if others impose trade embargoes on Scotland because of our liberal, democratic stance?  What happens then to my comfortable house, new car, status in society?

It’s not a black and white decision to start supporting the status quo.  It’s a slippery slope,  born of fear, of having too much to lose.

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We’re the Self Preservation Society

The Self Preservation Society was the theme song of the original “Italian Job” film from 1969.  It rings truer now than ever before as the world is plunged into a bizarre global fight over every scrap of comfort and wealth that remains.

It’s evident at all levels. We have the likes of China and France buying up land and resources throughout the third world as if they were Christopher Columbus at Inca’s “R” Us New Year clearance sale.  Then we’ve the oligarchs slipping money to their friends in oligarchs225government to ensure they can scoop up massive wads of national wealth at fire sale prices.  And politicians doing it at their level, eating up political financing in return for votes; or simply cheating on their expenses and not even being punished.  Cannot forget the banks, too.  Blow the world’s financial system to pieces then hoover up an equally big slice of tax money in bail outs, and a few short years later their bonuses are back to pre-crisis levels.

And then there’s us ordinary folk, we’re at it too.  So long as we’re earning more than our neighbour and driving a better car, all is well in the world. And don’t make me pay for those poor, disabled, elderly scroungers!  I am a self made man, only did it on the back of a state financed education, government tax breaks, subsidies and the efforts of my staff and customers.  But except for that I did it all myself.  And I deserve everything I earn.  And why should I pay tax that only goes to support scroungers and foreigners.  I am the creator of wealth!  Nothing wrong with tax for the little people, I mean I need those government contracts.

Media floods us with images of musicians, film stars, celebrity chefs, business tycoons, all screaming this is the way.  Then there is the wanna-be level of TV: X-Factor, Dragon’s Den, lottery shows spouting contradictory messages.  All false icons to be aspired to, all dragonsdenfaces with more to do with fantasy than reality, all with this high probability that one day we’ll witness some Jimmy Savile style story emerge on our false idols.

Yes, if we work hard enough, make enough money for ourselves, get famous enough, then elusive contentment, happiness will present itself; never mind how many homeless we must step over outside of our climate controlled fantasy world.

Recently a good friend gave me her reason for voting No to Scottish independence.  She believes that too many Scots are scroungers and wasters and we cannot be compared with Scandinavia.  My response was to ask how that leads to a choice for nuclear weapons, gross inequality, Westminster corruption, illegal wars, short term economic policies, environmental destruction, the list goes on.

There is no direct answer to this.  Because it is more to do with a feeling than a concrete belief.  It’s not that No voters, Scottish unionists, are endeared with Westminster.  No, they are not really any more happy with the politicians down there than the ardent Yes supporters.  It took me some time to understand and it is this:  The fairness and equality of scotland-flagthe Scotland that Salmond, Sturgeon and the pro-independence supporters want to build is not actually seen as a positive case to large numbers of people, possibly the majority of people in Scotland.

The thought that we are all responsible for the rampant poverty in Scotland and that we’ll all need to finance its eradication is a frightening one for many.  The thought that we may need to reject policies being implemented wholesale throughout the western world – nuclear power, anti-terrorism, war, plundering of resources, buoying up of casino banking, surveillance, reduction of liberties, xenophobia – is also frightening.  Nuclear power is unsafe.  Nuclear weapons are insane. Environmental destruction is unsustainable.  Driving a wedge between rich and poor is a recipe for a USA style, manic, unstable society.  We know all this, but there is something appealing in this familiar madness.

Of course when you boil it down even further you come to a rather disturbing truth: we do not believe all people are born equal.  This is the stuff of genocide, it makes uncomfortable reading and thinking.  Can someone vocally admit that they will vote No to Scottish Independence because they believe there is a large element of Scottish society that they do not believe can ever be “saved”?  These poor untouchables must be kept at arm’s length, suitably up4punished to keep them in their place.  And who better to do this than the Westminster psychopaths with their elitist, privileged backgrounds?  They’ve hundreds of years of experience at dominating colonies, developing slavery, concentration camps, divide and rule, genocide.  Some dreamer like Salmond thinks he can make a fairer and more equal society when there are so many hopeless, A housing estate in Glasgowwork-shy, illiterate, sub-humans in Scotland?  Can Salmond not see that they are genetically different?  We’re middle class, we’re still doing all right.  And what about the same lower class inbreds in foreign lands, especially those of dark skin or from Eastern Europe.  Salmond’s going to let them all march right in here and then help them too!  Westminster may be a festering pit of corruption and warmongering but they’re the best bet for self-preservation.

Scotland may be a very small land.  But at this time and place in history, this independence referendum raises global questions that go the heart of ethics and the human condition.

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Poverty | 2 Comments

UK Never Got Post-Empire

I watched the BBC documentary “Das Auto The Germans, Their Cars and Us“.  You can watch it complete on YouTube and I recommend you do even if you have no interest in cars or Germany.  It’s the “Us” – the United Kingdom – in the title that the programme is really about.

Volkswagen Beetle

What was very quickly apparent is that the UK never figured out how to make an honest living in this world.  To become great it had needed to exploit the weak at home and abroad.  Whether it was the colonies or the working class, there had to be someone getting short changed.  Post-war Germany had a strong sense of working hard and playing fair for the common good and the UK just never got this.  The concept that we can all benefit and live better lives never really clicked.  UK manufacturing was a case of us and them, the elite and the workers and both groups had attitudes that were doomed to failure.  Complacency and a sense of entitlement and superiority were the roots of doom for the management and business tycoons.  A sense – right or wrong – that they were being shafted and disrespected led the workers to place impossible demands on the employers.

Ultimately no aspect of the business was run correctly.  Germans had robots in their factories when the Brits thought robots only existed in science fiction.  Germans had works councils and stewards attended board meetings.  Germans fanatically sought to improve Robotsconstantly, to never stand still or believe they were God’s chosen people.  Possibly the loss of the war was so fresh that they understood that they needed to reinvent themselves and unlike the UK there were no past glories to relive.  We even saw the Germans managed the money side far better.  The great success of the Austin Mini was likely not so great in that it is now believed that about 10% was lost on every single one of the millions sold.

The documentary tried to zero in on the reasons, levelling blame at both workers and mini-coopermanagers.  However the conclusion is rather more transparent, in that by the end we see Minis still being made in the UK, but under German ownership.  Same workers, different managers.  The new BMW Mini Cooper has been a major success and the British factories are efficient and productive.  When the Japanese began making cars in the UK twenty years ago many laughed at the concept of the UK factories even getting in the same ballpark for efficiency or quality as their Japanese sister operations.  However as history showed, the UK factories managed to even outperform the Japanese factories.

Take what you like from this.  My conclusion is that with the right leadership – politically and in business – almost any people can rise to surprising levels.  Germany of a few hundred years ago was almost the polar opposite of the stereotypes we have now: lazy, careless, cheating people.  Japan had similar adjectives upon it in the past.  South Korea was in the poorest 10% of nations just 40 years ago.

It takes good leadership, a willingness to invest and a desire to benefit the maximum number of people to really make a country successful.  It does not need vast natural resources, exploitation of the poor or military might.

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