Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

On the Virtues of Laziness

It's more a question of effective energy management!

Being lazy is often frowned upon by society but I'd like to argue here today that not only is being lazy a virtue, it's actually a personality trait that benefits wider society.

There are some great definitions of the word lazy such is this one from Merriam-Webster:  disinclined to activity or exertion : not energetic or vigorous. Most of them reserve overtly negatively charged terms, but when you look at synonyms for the word 'lazy' it's a different story. Try these out for size: apathetic, careless, dull, inattentive, indifferent, lackadaisical, lethargic, passive, sleepy, tired, weary, comatose, dallying, dilatory, drowsy, flagging, idle, indolent, inert, laggard, lagging, languid, languorous, lifeless, loafing, neglectful, procrastinating, remiss, shiftless, slack, slothful, slow, slow-moving, snoozy, somnolent, supine, tardy, torpid, trifling, unconcerned, unenergetic, unindustrious, unpersevering and unready. Ouch!

By way of proving the point I'm about to make, I've already used my laziness to my advantage in preparing that list of words. These similes all appeared in the thesaurus.com website in a list which, when cut and pasted, turned into 43 words on separate lines. In order to turn them into a comma-separated list I wrote a 'macro' in my text editor by going to the end of the first line, hitting delete, adding a comma, then running the macro 42 more times. Easy! It maybe only saved me a couple of minutes but time is money right?

I was first alerted to the fact that I was lazy back in the 1980s by my boss when I was working as a small systems developer, so called because our job was to shrink down programs from mainframes onto desktop computers. After I was handed the third really stinky job in a row after having seen my colleagues given much easier jobs, I pulled him to one side and asked him why he put all the tough, awkward jobs my way. He said "Because your a lazy bugger! I know you'll be guaranteed to find the easiest way to solve problems with the least amount of time and effort." I don't know if this was already a management maxim in the IT industry but years later a similar comment appeared in a meme being attributed to none other than Bill Gates! Anyway I smiled because I knew he had a point. I do generally look for the easy way to do things.

Don't get me wrong, I have no trouble sticking to routines for arduous chores nor attending to tasks that need to be done in a timely manner such as emptying a cat litter tray. I'd sooner just avoid arduous tasks by looking at the big picture e.g. having a small house or not having a cat! Making life easy for oneself is a pursuit worthy of more attention than people give it!

Do you remember those maze puzzles from comics when you were a kid? You know the sort, there would be like a mouse hole and three mice on three independent paths all tangled together and your job was to find which mouse was on the right track to get home and eat the cheese? Well the first time I saw one of those I immediately saw the easy way to solve the puzzle was to trace the path in reverse from the cheese back to the mouse. Simples! I soon learned this applied to academia too. I had an amazing history teacher for GCE O-Level who had a 100% pass rate. Everyone who took his class passed! His secret was he started from the exam questions and worked backwards! Instead of making us read a book from one end to the other, my hero Mr Martin would take a subject, say the 'Bay of Pigs Invasion' and he would highlight as bullet points, each of the questions that he thought were most likely to be asked on the exam paper. Then he would give us the story as an outline that answered each of those questions. It was just like fiddling the mouse maze. Working back to front saved so much time! It worked for his students year after year. It was genius!

I soon learned this worked with other subjects too. You didn't have to read the works of Shakespeare, just read Lamb's tales and you glean all of the salient points of the Bard's important stories in a fraction of the time. Math? Learn how to derive equations from 'first principles' which takes all the rote donkey work out of learning formulae. Physics? Similar thing. Instead of anguishing over Maxwell's equations, breaking them down into physical phenomena makes them easy to remember, e.g. upside-down triangle with an arrow over the top (vector for divergence) times B with an arrow over the top (vector for magnetic field) = zero.  All this really means is the magnetic flux lines always balance out because a magnet always has only two poles. You can't break a North/South magnet in half to get separate North and South poles because there is no such thing in nature as a mono-pole magnet. This makes the math so much easier to remember when you know and understand the physical effect underlying the formula! An ingenious shortcut for recognising which artists did which works recently appeared online https://www.boredpanda.com/how-to-recognize-painters-by-their-work/ I'd kind of developed my own version of this over the years from watching the Open University picture round until they irritatingly started showing pictures of book titles in foreign languages instead!

In the world of commerce then I found this approach to work served me well as employers generally don't want time wasters, they want time disruptors, people who can produce quickly, ship products fast, develop services that are 90% there but good enough to release. In the Civil Service I also found many kindred spirits, who, once they had made their way into higher layers of management, had discovered they can use their skill for work-avoidance even more effectively by delegating, especially if those being delegated to are given the minimum information to do their job so they don't get ideas above their station. Mushroom management my boss used to call it. 'Keep you in the dark and throw shit at you!'

In fact this blog itself is testament to my propensity for laziness. I never write anything too technical, historical or factual that need hours of research. I generally choose a topic that is personally anecdotal, spew it out into the page and try to brighten it up with a few gags. Anything more would take way too much effort and that would never do!

Anyway I feel the giant dormouse in me stretching away, begging me for a snooze. I could go on making my case but I've near enough hit my 1000 word target now and I can't be bothered to write anymore!

 

Why isn't the world worshipping Elon Musk?

Some thoughts the Tesla/Space-X boss.

 

We all know who Elon Musk is, Tesla, Space-X yada yada, yet he seems underrated by the press and positively despised in the comment section of tabloid newspapers. I'd like to address that here by highlighting some of his thought processes. Normally I aim to blog about 1000 words for a nice bite-sized read, however to cover Musk's brain in such limited space will be a zesty challenge so please forgive if I overrun!
 
Musk is seen by some as a nutcase who smokes dope on the Joe Rogan show, makes unfortunate Tweets about the 'pedo guy' and who got into a very public altercation with rap artist Azealia Banks about acid-taking etc. Only last Friday (1st May 2020) he made a seven word tweet that devalued Tesla stock by $14 billion dollars. Yet despite his maverick social media profile he is capable of thoughts of the loftiest brilliance.
 
I can't for the life of me remember where I originally read it (and I've been unable to find a source - doing a weekly blog doesn't allow as much time to research as I'd like), but the thing I first heard about Elon Musk that really impressed me was the simple idea he had to validate the ownership of bank accounts for use with PayPal. I was a web developer back in the 1990s involved in building e-commerce websites. We used to do them from scratch in those days before generic e-commerce platforms had matured, so I was familiar with the problems involved in taking and making payments online. Systems soon evolved to take payments by credit cards since the card companies had a more modern infrastructure, expiry dates, CV codes etc. Banks however, with their systems rooted in the dark ages had no way to validate the ownership of an account online. Say a client sent you an email with his bank account and you needed to send him some money for the exchange of goods, how did you know the bank account was actually his and not that of some hacker? 
 
Elon came up with the simple yet brilliant idea of paying two micro-payments to the account, say $0.34 and $0.83. The client had to read these numbers from his bank statement and enter them in the PayPal website. Musk had therefore generated the equivalent of a PIN number to verify the account. At first I thought how dumb, to give money away to verify a bank account, but as I thought more about it I realised it was genius. The two numbers would never cost PayPal more than $1.98, an expense which would easily be offset by the reduction in fraud and that would enable PayPal to transact directly with bank accounts, which had much cheaper transaction costs than anything else. You could for example send cash via say Western Union, but then the Western Union agent, usually the post office, would need to be paid to validate the identity of the payee by physically checking the passport which is a costly process in comparison. So from then on, I hailed Musk as a genius capable of conceiving ideas the like of which I could not. 
 
PayPal was not even Musk's first multi-million dollar venture. He'd already founded an online city guide, Zip-2 with his brother Kimbal in 1995 which was sold in 1999 with Musk getting $22million for his 7% share. Prior to that, while in college, Musk has spoken about his musings on the essential matters which would most affect the future of humanity and came up with five things. These were:
 
The Internet
Sustainable energy (both production and consumption)
Space exploration (more specifically the extension of life beyond earth on a permanent basis)
Artificial Intelligence.
Rewriting human genetics
 
Clearly the guy thinks big. Unlike other students with big ideas however, Musk is realising them one by one. With the founding of Tesla in 2014 Musk helped create the first successful new car manufacturer in America in over 90 years. Right now, as CEO, Musk is on the verge of winning a 3/4 billion dollar remuneration payout as part of compensation plan that depended on the company achieving a six-month period of $100 million dollar market capitalisation. This would make him the most highly paid executive in US history. The incredible thing about this is that when Musk negotiated this contract, such a target was unthinkable. The company was only worth $60 billion at $250 per share back then. Musk made it happen, even though he's a part-timer dividing his hours between several other companies. The other somewhat unsung truth about Tesla's success is the way it is transforming the automotive industry away from the dealership model that has pervaded for over a century to a direct model where cars can be bought online. The low maintenance of electric vehicles is also challenging an industry that fed off consumers need for servicing and repair. Musk doesn't just compete in a market, he smashes it to pieces.
 
Musk also heads Space-X, the rocket-company he founded in 2002. In case you've been living under a rock, Space-X has been successful too, winning a number of private and public US defence contracts. By making as much of his rocket technology as reusable as possible, he has undercut the price of all competition for launching satellites. Musk has said many times he sees the future of mankind as multi-planetary. The idea is that by sticking only on planet earth, mankind could (in fact probably will) succumb to some sort of extinction event. Only by having colonies on other worlds can the human race escape such events and survive into the future. This is a lofty goal but one which Musk is edging towards. Again, one of the things that most impresses me here is how Musk is funding Space-X. One of the key planks of the strategy is the Starlink Internet programme, a network of satellites designed to bring Internet connectivity to all parts of the globe. As well as the much publicised plan to bring affordable Internet to poorer countries in Africa and so forth, Musk has another trick up his sleeve. The satellites will exchange data using line-of-sight lasers. Because space is a near vacuum and there is no medium in space to slow the light signals down, transmission of information will be even faster than the fibre optic cable used on the ground. This lack of latency is expected to be of extremely high value to certain commercial sectors that depend on timely information such as stock brokers. The premium service is expected to provide big bucks for Space-X to fund its future developments.
 
Somewhat crazily, these achievements in themselves would be remarkable enough, yet Musk continually applies his brain to disrupt other industries. Tesla's energy grid batteries are beginning to change the way electricity companies handle the storage of electricity, while boosting the future of fledgling solar and wind-power industries. The Boring Company is set to revolutionise travel by establishing a tunnel network that promises to reduce congestion and journey times. Tesla has recently entered the car insurance industry. By using the data from its own network of cars, Tesla can fine tune risk assessments allowing it to offer insurance at up to thirty percent less than its competitors who themselves are tentative about insuring Tesla automobiles because they have only been on the roads for a decade so the old school actuarial data they use is insufficiently mature. Neuralink is Musk's foray into the world of medicine, developing high bandwidth brain to computer interfaces. He also founded and Artificial Intelligence organisation called Open AI. (He's done all this and yet I have trouble finding something to blog about once a week!)
 
Doubtless in all these other industries, Musk has probably figured out the way to get them to pay for themselves, and has envisaged a sneaky way to undercut competition leading to a big disruption in an existing market.
 
The thing that most impresses me about Musk is that his innovations, which drive market change and arguably the direction society is taking, all take place from within the private sector. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool lefty who believes at some level, the state should be planning the future of society through policy, either with a totalitarian boardroom strategy like China or with a presidential "let's get man on the moon" approach like Kennedy. Musk is proving to me that isn't necessary. He's teaching this old dog (and many like me) new tricks! 
 

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.