Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

The Thief of Time

You've no idea how long I put off writing this blog-post!
 
 
I remember the occasion that I learned the meaning of the word procrastination. It was 1974 and I was in my first computer class. Our teacher, a dear man called Stan Smith, who in a previous profession had been a scientist at Jodrell Bank, had taught us about loops and set us an exercise - to write a program that printed a phrase 10 times. That phrase was "Procrastination is the Thief of Time". Why he broke with the traditional convention in computer programming of having us print "Hello World" is a mystery to me, but for whatever reason I'd learned a new word.
 
verb [ I ]
uk/prəˈkræs.tɪ.neɪt/ us/proʊˈkræs.tə.neɪt/
to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring
 
Perhaps he was being ironic because computers, machines, electronics and robots simply don't procrastinate. As John Conor said in the 1984 movie Terminator, "..when Skynet went live it decided our fate in a microsecond".
 
Humans do procrastinate and me more than most. I don't think I'm alone in this but I'll watch a movie rather than do something arduous like clean the bathroom, but then when I'm watching the movie I'll pause it at a dull moment to go and check Facebook before resuming the movie. In programming terms I'm a recursive procrastinator.
 
I've never found myself able to stop procrastination altogether, so over the years I've developed techniques for working around it. I split my tasks up so that I give myself divided targets, chunking a big job into several smaller ones, then give myself a foreseen ration of more interesting things to entertain myself with as procrastination treats.
 
As we identify procrastination with the evils of modern life like TV, Video Games, Social Media and worst of all, YouTube, one could be forgiven for thinking procrastination was a recent phenomena. Not a bit of it. The Stoic philosophers were writing about how to combat procrastination 2000 years ago. Seneca wrote (In 'On the Shortness of Life' https://archive.org/stream/SenecaOnTheShortnessOfLife/Seneca+on+the+Shortness+of+Life_djvu.txt )
 
It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it's been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it's spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn't notice passing has passed away. 
 
Seneca offered many insights into dealing with procrastination. He advocated structure and planning, anticipating work to be done and analysing it for the pitfalls that await to distract and divert one's attention. Many of the suggestions of Seneca and the other stoics distilled into the writing of Tim Ferris in his famous book 'The Four Hour Work Week', for example in the recommendation that one only checks email once per day. Ferris talks much of the stoics in his works and it amazes me how relevant their insights are when applied to modern life.

It's a shame then, especially with PM Johnson being a classics scholar, that the US/UK governments have not observed the lessons of the stoics. The pandemic crisis of COVID-19 engulfing the world as I write has been met by successive countries, not with decisive action but with procrastination. In fact the World Health Organisation procrastinated in declaring Coronavirus a pandemic. There were over 100,000 cases in all continents save Antarctica before the WHO yielded to the admission. Prior to this it was calling it an epidemic. The distinction may seem a small one but it is quite important. An epidemic can in theory be contained. A country can close its borders and maybe receive aid and medical assistance from outside its borders. A pandemic is confirmation that the whole world is an infected area. Closing borders no longer is an effective way to contain the spread of the disease so that each country has to take responsibility for containing its contagion domestically. It is a starting gun for governments to act.

When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March it then became up to national governments to take effective action to battle the disease. Spain acted quite swiftly bringing in a total lock-down last weekend. Meanwhile Britain and America are still procrastinating. America has brought in local lock-downs in cities where the infections have been seen. Britain's government have advised people to stay at home but delayed 10 days before taking the decision to close pubs, restaurants and gyms. Most shops remain open and people still have freedom to leave their homes, unlike Spain. It's easy to understand why, they didn't want to cause an unnecessary panic and the economic cost of shutting down businesses will be severe. However the message from Seneca is the relationship between short-term pain and long term gain. The longer Britain and America stave off the decision to bring in a complete lock-down, the larger will be the strain on the health services, the more people will die and the greater will be the socio-economic impact. The thief of time will become the thief of life.

I won't bloat this post with more detailed description of the failings of the UK and US governments in their handling of the crisis but here are some links to stories documenting the issue.

Working From Home. Why Not?

2020 is the year that COVID-19 made home-working a must.
With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home. 
 
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association. 
 
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and Meetingroom.io available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning. 
 
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for. 
 
The reasons seemed to be twofold.  Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
 
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
 
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
 
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
 
Somehow I doubt it.  At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be  the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat. 
 
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer! 

On mumbo jumbo

Is there anything to the Supernatural?

We live in a strange time. The Internet has given us instant access to a greater plethora of information than has ever been possible in history, yet rather than serving to better educate as all, the amount of mumbo jumbo seems to have risen rather than fallen. Flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, folk who swear by the healing power of crystals and Gwyneth Paltrow, all find it easier to get a platform these days.

Now I'm a logical sort of chap, a great believer in the scientific method, which basically stated is that "if a theory is disproved by experiment it isn't true". However there are a few wrinkles and crevasses in my belief system. These are what I want to share with you today.

Take divining for example. It's clearly rubbish as there is no verifiable force that can be detected by a human with a divining rod. However I recall as a kid we had a blocked drain. My father knew a lot about water. He had spent a decade as a plumber and worked for a time for the Water Board. I watched him fashion a couple of diving rods out of an old coat hanger. He than marched steadily back and forth across the garden. Each time he crossed a certain point the rods moved. He dug down a couple of feet, found the water pipe, disconnected it (it was the ceramic sort connected in sections) and found the blockage exactly where the diving rods had indicated. So I know first hand that diving works but I can't explain why. My best guess is my father knew subconsciously where the drain started, and where it exited the property, so he could have been making an educated guess with that information. How he guessed down to the nearest foot is still beyond me.

I know astrology is complete twaddle. But time and time again certain character traits do seem to reoccur in individuals according to their star sign. Leos are invariably extroverts. Cancerians are crabby and have mood swings. Virgos are organised and boringly safety-conscious, Scorpios are the undisputed masters of exacting revenge etc. It seems there are two possible explanations for this. Firstly we learn about our own sign in childhood and it is possible we either subconsciously (or possibly consciously in some cases) grow to fulfil our own prophesy. Another theory is that the seasons may play a role. The younger you are, the slower time passes. Imagine you are a newborn infant born say in September. Your first six months would seem like a life time, but much of it would be cold and grey, whereas if you were born in April those all important formative months would be bright and sunny. Many things other than the weather influence adult moods thorough-out the seasons, holidays and so forth, all of which would be absorbed by the infant. Is it then any wonder that people born at different times of year have a different outlook on life? The only snag with this theory is the character traits in the Southern hemisphere would be six months out of kilter with those in the northern hemisphere, though I still think it is a sufficiently interesting proposition that it warrants further investigation.

What I'm getting at is that for most phenomena considered supernatural, there is usually a more mundane explanation.

And now for a good old ghost story. Clearly ghosts don't exist according to science. However strange things happen. This is one I experienced myself.

Back in Murcia a couple arrived from the UK with the intention of establishing a pub, which they did by converting an old residential property, and a very good job they made of it too. They named it the Yorkshire Rose. It was heaven. Just before it opened, they invited an elderly neighbour in to show her what they had done to the place. She was happily admiring the decor until she reached the far right-hand corner of the bar, at which point she burst into tears. It turned out that is where her friend, the previous occupant had gasped her last breath.

I didn't know this until the story was recounted to me some years later. However I recall dining in that corner of the room and thought it felt chilly. I mentioned it casually to the waitress who laughed and said she had lost count of the people who said that. Stories abound that cold spots like this are associated with hauntings, but perhaps I'm just putting two and two together and making five. Perhaps it was explanable by air-flow, fluid dynamics and the fact that air-conditioning unit was just above my head!

However this wasn't the only spooky thing that happened in the bar. One night, I and a bunch of pals had a late-night lock-in playing poker. It was a bright moonlight night and very still. There was not a breeze in the air we had no music playing, so it was just the flick of the cards and our banter that could be heard. At about 1:30 a.m. there was an enormous crash. My first thought was that someone had thrown a brick through the window. As I was nearest the door, I unlocked it and had a look outside but there was nobody there, and anyway the windows were protected by wooden shutters.

Meanwhile my fellow poker-buddies looked around inside. It turned out that a glass had smashed behind the bar. This was strange, as nobody had been behind the bar for a while as we were all involved in the game. Also the shelf on which the glasses were kept didn't have a direct path to the floor. There were freezer cabinets and cupboards on which the glass should first have bounced, but this isn't what any of us heard. We all heard one large crash, so loud that we all agreed it sounded though it had been thrown down deliberately by a human hand. We got back to the game scratching our heads. I considered things always sound louder at night when it was quiet and dismissed it as a freak accident.

I was in the bar again quite early the next morning as I was due to meet a client there. A different barman was on shift. Thinking the owner may have told him the tale already (but setting my self up to segway neatly into the tale if necessary) I jokingly asked him if anymore glasses had smashed this morning. He turned to look at me, eyes like saucers, the colour running from his cheeks.

"How do you know about that?"

"I was here last night", I replied.

"No, just now. After I opened I was standing here at the sink washing up a few glasses and all of a sudden a glass smashed on the floor behind me. It sounded like someone threw it at the floor - I jumped out of my skin!"

It turned out the owner was having a lie-in and the barman knew nothing of the night before. After I shared the story with him, we did the only sensible thing in that situation and had a couple of nerve-steadying brandies!

Coincidence? Maybe. There are a lot of earthquakes in Murcia. Sometimes these come in swarms and are all but imperceptible, but resonance at a particular frequency can cause individual objects to move while everything around them is still. However, there is a primitive part of me that cannot shake off the notion that not everything is mumbo jumbo. Some things do go bump it the night!

Logical Thought

Recalling the Book Straight and Crooked Thinking.

I make no apologies for how ever dull, dry and boring some of my blog posts here may seem to some people. This may be one of those posts, but this is my blog and I'll write want I want to. 

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly New Statesman, February 25, 1933

My favourite pastime is studying. I like learning about all sorts of things, music, science, politics, economics, history and current affairs. This led me towards MOOC - Massive Online Open courses. These are being run by universities all over the globe. They use them as a sort of sales vehicle in the hope that if you get hooked on them you will upscale to a paid course.

I've done dozens of these courses in recent years. One that I particularly enjoyed last year was run by Stanford University and was entitled Introduction to Mathematical Thinking and hosted by a well respected mathematician called Dr. Keith Devlin.

Much of the course was devoted to the application of the rigors of mathematical logic to the everyday language we humans use. All human languages have shortcomings that make it easy for meaning to be distorted and misconstrued (as do the users of them). By applying certain mathematical rules, we can overcome many of the errors of thinking people make everyday.

This concept was not entirely new to me. In fact the course reminded me that when I was a kid, maybe in the first or second year of secondary school, I was lucky enough to read a book by RH Thouless called Straight and Crooked Thinking. This book was quite famous back then but seems to have fallen out of fashion of late. You can however read it online: Straight and Crooked Thinking by RH Thouless.

The book was a revelation to me then. I was just becoming interested in politics and reading the newspaper at that time, so the book helped me avoid some of the pitfalls that one encounters in dealing with communications that have an agenda at heart.

Many concepts are covered in the book, certainly too many to explain here within the confines of the 1000 word target of this blog post. However I'll give you a few examples of the type of issues the book addresses and how they come in handy when listening/reading the daily news.

The first chapter introduces the concept of emotionally charged words. Often, especially where a newspaper is trying to trigger a prescribed response, a journalist will use similes of harmless words, replacing them with alternatives that may contain stigma, prejudice or some other emotional colour. The Daily Express is particularly good at this using it as a technique to elicit clicks in its online version every day. Here is a random title from today's edition "Sturgeon FUMING as she's savaged for IndyRef2 obsession amid SNP-led Scotland 'CRISIS". Can you see what they did here? FUMING, savaged, obsession and CRISIS are all emotionally charged words that could have been written with milder alternatives (annoyed, condemned, concentration and situation for example), but the author has deliberately used the most extreme alternative for each of these words with the deliberate intention of making the SNP leader look bad because the Express don't care much for the SNP.

I saw another good example in a tweet this week. The MP Zarah Sultana had made a speech in the house. She tweeted a video excerpt from her speech along with the message:

Just because they want to learn, young people are burdened with colossal student debt.

My debt is nearly £50,000 & last year alone it grew by more than £2,000 in interest.

Now someone who is obviously a supporter of the party on the opposite benches replied:

Just a thought Zara , is it fair that kids whom choose to become bricklayer, plumbers , electricians etc pay via their tax for their peers to drink and socialise throughout a 3 year course in media studies at some spurious polytechnic ?

The chap has used a series of emotionally charged words and concepts in his reply to belittle the MPs position. Let's deconstruct this because it is quite skillfully and mischeiviously done. Firstly he uses the word 'kids', suggesting that children are being taken advantage of. Yet he's actually talking about people of working age. Would have been less inaccurate perhaps to say 'young adults'. Then he names three trades, bricklayer, plumbers and electricians, as examples of these working age adult's jobs. Notice he chose to use types of work associated with the working class. He could have said 'banker, stock broker or civil servant' none of which necessarily require a degree to enter, but his choice again emotionally colours his argument. He then asks why these people's taxes should pay for their peers to 'drink and socialise' - notice that he didn't say 'study' which is what student loans are for. The vast majority of students don't borrow enough to pay to drink and socialise, many indeed have jobs to help pay for food, but again he's cleverly invoking a stereotype of student days of the past which were much easier than today. Then the last two stingers, 'three year course in media studies' and 'some spurious polytechnic' both of which are deliberately designed emotional triggers. Media Studies are often derided as vacuous and easy options by right-wing commentators, however ironically the people on media studies courses are the ones learning the very pitfalls and traps the author is laying. Again 'polytechnic' is a derogatory term for university, as they were tertiary educational institutions in the UK which, prior to 1992 were regarded differently to universities due to their specialization in STEM subjects, a distinction that was abandoned in 1992 by the further and higher education act.

So nearly every word and phrase in this tweet has been tweaked with emotionally charged language, designed to persuade the reader to believe a particular political viewpoint.

For what its worth I replied with:

Is it fair that many have no choice other than to become bricklayers, plumbers, electricians etc because they can't risk taking on student debt as they already come from a poor background?

Twitter's character limit makes it hard to address each of the authors' word choices individually!

Talking of limits, I've just reach mine for this blog post. In fact I'm over the 1000 word target already! But I hope I've introduced you to the gist of Straight and Crooked Thinking, a topic I may revisit in the future.