Archive for September, 2008

How should we live?

Friday, September 26th, 2008

As a youth, I often pondered on the value of philosophy.

At the time I was preoccupied with earning a living in a capitalist system and that system inculcated in me a belief that if you can’t sell something, then it was worthless. As far as I could make out, philosophers dealt in ideas. How could they possibly make a living working with ideas that didn’t make any money? Not only that but the ideas themselves seemed like a waste of time; why should anybody care whether a tree falling in a forest devoid of humans makes a noise or not?

Then as I made my journey through life I started to notice more and more that very little was arbitrary or natural about human society. Somebody made a decision about how to do things – will we endorse slavery, or will we oppose it? To make such a decision, you have to consider many things, the most important aspect being the morals of the argument. And where do our morals come from?

Ahh, so that’s why philosophers exist.

Morals are a human invention. Philosophers ask the question, “how should we live our lives?” and the answers form the basis of our society.

I have now come to realise that this question is, in fact, the only question worth asking. Everything that happens to human society is grounded in this question.

Which brings me onto capitalism. Up until quite recently I used to believe that capitalism was spectacularly successful at increasing our standard of living (I also believed it was intellectually bankrupt in the developed world but that is for another blog post). Then I realised it was in the interest of the owners of capital to convince everyone else that this was the best system in exactly the same way that communist Russia inculcated its people with communist propaganda about its system.

The truth is, it is merely a system which certain people have adopted because it suits their interests. The increased standard of living is due to the creativity of human ingenuity. This ingenuity would exist within any system. Whether a social system attempts to suppress the ingenuity or not is a decision for the organisers of that system. An increased standard of living is not an exclusive benefit of capitalism. I have even heard some people argue that capitalism stifles real innovation because it is too short sighted with regard to return on investment; that return is exclusively fixed on financial return to the detriment of any other societal or environmental benefit.

Here is Noam Chomsky elucidating further on this topic. What a loose canon he is.

What problem are you solving?

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

At a recent meeting, one of the speakers asked this question of the audience. He had borrowed it from a popular business programme on television. In the programme, he explained, one of the would-be investors stopped the would-be entrepreneur in his tracks by asking him this question. Presumably, the invention or service of the entrepreneur didn’t answer any need.

Later, I pondered this idea and applied it to the real world. I even applied it to the most successful product that humankind has ever seen; cigarettes.

So what problem is a cigarette solving Mr. Smartypants? I can’t think of any. Unless it is to satisfy a craving for nicotine. But then, where did this craving come from?

When you look closely at the vast majority of products and services on offer in today’s society, they don’t solve any problems. On the contrary, they create problems. They artificially create a need, then try to satisfy that need.

The problem with such a question is that it appeals to our rational brain. “Of course!” we tell ourselves, “it’s so obvious.” But psychologists have known for a long time, that when it comes to a purchasing decision, rationality comes a poor last on any list of criteria. Just look at the last car you bought.

How clever are we?

Monday, September 15th, 2008

As a corollary to the previous post, some questions occurred to me;

Why had the editor chosen this story?

Who stood to benefit?

What were the interviewees supposed to do with the information given to them?

How stupid do they think we are? #2

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

The propaganda shows we have here in the UK which masquerade as news programmes are becoming more ridiculous by the day. They have become like puerile Saturday night game shows hosted by insincere actors affecting a serious demeanour… “Welcome to the incredibly simplified and ‘made to fit’ stories we largely invent to play on your easily manipulated levels of greed and fear… So let’s play ‘How stupid do we think you are’…”

This evening they have launched what is obviously intended to be a long running story. A reporter was shown in a helicopter hovering over a housing estate as he dramatically announced the tragedy of falling house prices. What followed was interviews with shocked householders after they had been told their properties were now worth £40,000 less than from their peak.

‘From their peak’ is the key phrase here and gives a clue to the reality of the situation.

Several months ago house prices were in the news again but this time it was because they were rocketing and first time buyers couldn’t get a look in. Any rational person could have told you that such a rise was unsustainable and that a correction was due sometime in the future.

So instead of an aside in the news about house prices duly correcting themselves and giving first time buyers some slack, we have this hysterical report about the catastrophe of falling values.

So what’s the big deal about house prices? We live in houses thus the news imagines this will make the story personal. But Imagine this scenario.

The value of shares has fallen after a spectacular bubble rise in prices. Some shares have almost halved in value. An hysterical reporter buzzing about the country in a helicopter interviews various share holders. “Did you know your shares have lost 40% of their value/”

Shocked interviewee, “You mean share values can go down as well as up!!!? Oh no! So the 40% fall in value means I am only 60% up overall after my shares doubled since I bought them just a few years ago.”

Such a scenario would be laughable and people would have to check that they weren’t watching a satirical sketch show instead of the news. But this is actually what is happening; the media obviously do think that we are that stupid.

Another example is Clinton and Obama. As I recall, the two were sworn enemies in the race for the nomination and pointed out each others deficiencies. Then when Clinton failed to win the nomination Obama appoints her as running mate (this may not be strictly accurate as I tend to avoid any news of this circus but I think I have the gist of the thing). Clinton then does a volte-face and sings the praises of Obama just days after denigrating him. So what happened to all the things that were supposed to be wrong with him? And this is all on prime time news.

I think George Orwell was far too generous to Big Brother in his novel 1984. Winston Smith (who’s job it was to alter old newspaper stories to match the new ‘facts’) was asked to imagine the oppression of Big Brother as a boot grinding into the face of the masses.

The media aren’t even that subtle.

Did they get you to trade in your passion for a pension?

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

How many of you left school with a dream of doing something that you really loved to do only to find that the real world demanded that you conform and earn a living like everyone else? Maybe you kept promising yourself that one day you would make the break and live that dream but as the commitments mounted, you felt it got harder and harder to give up the monthly salary until eventually, after years of procrastination, the pension seemed like the only way out.

So they got you to trade in your passion for a pension.

But in these uncertain times nothing is guaranteed, not even a pension.

None of the old rules seem to apply anymore. A storm is coming and no one knows what to do. So what can we do? It seems are options are severely limited.

But we have always had a choice, only we didn’t dare contemplate the alternative because it always seemed so scary. And, paradoxically, as more change threatens us, the less we have to lose. So it is at times like these that some of us can summon the courage to finally go back to the counter and reclaim our passion.

Doing something you love and making a living can be done, it just needs some new thinking.

The problem with Intelligent Design is…

Monday, September 1st, 2008

we’re intelligent.  And being intelligent we look for patterns in things which, once spotted, allow us to predict certain outcomes. It’s how we operate as human beings and so to imagine a different intelligence is very difficult – how does a finite mind conceive of infinity?

Let’s take the guinea worm as an example (see the previous post).

As it emerges it causes a burning blister at the exit site. This is so painful it causes the sufferer to find relief in the coolest place she can find; water. As the worm detects water it releases its eggs to continue the life cycle.

On the one hand, this could be seen as intelligent design; the ‘clever’ worm forces the sufferer to look for the very thing it needs to continue its life cycle. But on the other hand, this outcome could be the result of pure chance.

Imagine evolution plays dice; it throws a billion dice using trillions of throws. Eventually a combination is going to arise that ‘works’. Certain dice are withdrawn because they don’t work with this process and the remaining dice are continually thrown with certain results reinforcing the existing process. Over time the ‘intelligent’ process gets refined by pure chance.

For example, a chance combination could have been that the guinea worm emerged from the body without producing a burning sensation. The need for relief didn’t occur so the chances of the life cycle continuing were diminished if water was needed for the complete process. So that particular set of chance combinations ultimately failed.

And just how ‘clever’ is the worm? The chances of death for the host are high, not really what you want if you are a parasite. A head louse is still a successful parasite today in the western world because it is a nuisance rather than a killer, but all that matters in evolutionary terms is the end result – does the complete process survive or not for the parasite?

So with an infinite number of chance throws of the evolutionary dice, our finite minds – which are trained to see patterns – sees incredible ‘intelligence’ in the world. We see the end result and try to reverse engineer to a creative intelligence starting point. This is a lot easier than trying to imagine something beyond our own particular template (an infinite number of chance combinations) but rational thinking tells you the possibility is there.