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.

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.