Thursday, 17 August 2017

Technology: taking back control

Somehow I can't do without my mobile phone, which packs as much computing power as a roomful of kit in the '70s. It helps me not get lost, enables me to read books or check the etymology of a word on the go (geeks simply migrate to available technology), check the weather forecast, share a calendar, pay for car parking without getting out of the car, buy stuff without even going outdoors, even video-phoning which in Dan Dare's future was still a phone attached to a wall.

The problem is that this thing can easily take over one's life, what with messages, emails and apps. One can get sucked into the phone screen and lose minutes or hours in some parallel universe of dreamlike disconnectedness, emerging later like some bewildered time-traveller. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? - to quote the late great Freddie Mercury. It can drain energy if one is not careful.

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” warned Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emails. No, I don't want a Russian bride and I've no idea what the people are advertising whose emails are entirely in Cyrillic script. I'm considering blocking all emails with a .ru domain. Nor do I know why Chinese companies think I would want to buy bulk raw materials. I don't need Viagra or Xanax and I don't think that a computer program that shorts the stock market will make me rich. Somehow we get onto mailing lists of companies we've never heard of.

The company that hosts my email account blocked 726 spam emails in the last week. That's over 100 a day I'd have to sift through and delete if they weren't blocked automatically. Even of the 10-20 daily that get through there are usually fewer than half a dozen that I actually want to read.

Marking emails as spam is easy on a Mac using Mail, but I have yet to find a way of marking and blocking spam on an iPhone. There are apps that claim to do this, but then you have to give them access to your account details. How do we know we can trust them with our information? That is why I pay my ISP for spam blocking, and I still cannot mark emails that get through on my phone as spam. As for spam blocking, I have blocked the very persistent Anastasiia but now she has been replaced by Oksana. Sorry .ru, if any of my Russian friends want to contact me they'll have to get a gmail account.

Within my lifetime there was no internet and no email. If someone wanted to contact me at work they would have to bleep my pager and then I would have to find a phone and phone in. Needless to say when not at work and out of the house I was uncontactable.

Sometimes I feel a bit of nostalgia for the days when the world was a little less busy. If people wanted to write to me they'd have to write a letter, which meant there weren't that many of them, and the time taken to reply would necessarily slow the whole world down. There is also something soothing about the purposeful movement of an ink pen on paper.

We need to take steps to bring technology under control, so that it serves us rather than driving us. All advice welcome.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Stranger in a strange land - derealisation and realisation

(Somewhere in England) 

It is possible, for example while commuting to work, to entertain the fantasy that one has just this moment been put into this body going about its business, that one has come from somewhere else (perhaps a previous life which one has forgotten).

Luckily this body knows where it is going, and one knows that if one thought about it one would easily remember details such as what one's job is, one's home situation, loved ones and so on. But for the moment one doesn't pursue those thoughts. Therefore there is no need for any anxiety, yet at the same time one experiences the world as a stranger in a strange land.

The current Wikipedia article describes derealisation as "an alteration in the experience of the external world so that it seems unreal." However what I am describing makes the world seem more real. One realises that most of the time one is preoccupied with some thought or other, barely noticing one's surroundings. As a stranger freshly arrived from somewhere else one notices everything.

A similar phenomenon occurs when driving or walking to a new place. Even if the journey is quite short, it seems long, because one has to notice things in order to find one's way. The same journey when familiar seems short, and one remembers few details. It is possible to drive for an hour on a familiar route in perfect safety and remember nothing.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that derealisation includes "feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional colouring, and depth." However with this experiment the world has more depth and colour, and things are generally brighter. If there is beauty, one notices it, sometimes in unexpected places.

Interestingly the Wikipedia article says that derealisation is related to depersonalisation, which is sense of unreality in one's personal self. There may well be an actual psychiatric or morbid condition characterised by this, but it is also of note that psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that the idea of 'self' itself has an unclear meaning, or even, the 'self' does not exist. Am I the same person I was yesterday? The one who decided to get up as soon as the alarm went off is the same as the one who decided to lie in for an extra 15 minutes instead? But this is a topic for another time.

I went in search of the original quotation, 'stranger in a strange land.' It comes from the King James Bible translation of Exodus 2:22 and is spoken by Moses in exile. I was also led to this excellent poem by Rita Dove. At the beginning of the poem Rita Dove quotes Emily Dickinson: "Life is a spell so exquisite, everything conspires to break it." It is by experiments like the one I describe, and others, that we can try to return to the magic of reality.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The wisdom of a Barbados taxi driver

Our taxi driver on a trip round the island in Barbados was called William. He said William is a good name for a husband, because you always have bills. He said there are people in the world who don't want to be happy. He will have their happiness if they don't want it.

Something unexpected happened to him: one of the passengers on the trip was visually impaired, and required a lot of assistance (although actually the man was pretty independent to have come on the trip on his own in the first place). William said that all difficulties thrown in his path are a test and an opportunity to see how well he will deal with things.

This last idea is the one I like best. If we live in a heartless mechanical universe, then anything that happens outside our expectations is annoying and makes us grumpy and negative. It puts us in a small dark place in our minds. If on the other hand there is some purpose to it all, then we can place ourselves in the hands of that higher power, do our best and be happy.

What if it is all meaningless? Someone once said that the Greeks dreamed the right dream. Since, one way or another, we dream our way through our lives, it is good to dream a dream that works ('a path with heart' as Carlos Castaneda put it). To keep our minds open and in the light. To take challenges with a good attitude. Better still, to dream well and know that we are dreaming.

Attributed to Meher Baba: "Don't worry, be happy, make efforts."

(Note: I have not found the source of this quotation despite an internet search.)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Uncertainty in economics and in life

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one." -- Voltaire, quoted in Mervyn King, The End of Alchemy.

"At the heart of modern macroeconomics is the same illusion that uncertainty can be confined to the mathematical manipulation of known probabilities." -- Mervyn King, ibid. p.121.

As has been argued elsewhere, for example in Taleb's Black Swan and in Mandelbrot et. al. The Misbehaviour of Markets, many market analysts, economists, politicians and others, including probably most of us ordinary folk, imagine that most things stay more-or-less the same most of the time, and when things change they do so within reasonable boundaries. Those of a mathematical persuasion may further imagine that things follow a normal or Gaussian distribution, that is, events are distributed in a bell-curve, in which very few things are extreme and most things are more-or-less average.

This is the case with things like people's height, for example, or fitness, or biological variables (see my earlier blog post about the misuse of this) or workers' incomes (excluding oil billionaires and bank executives). However it is not the case with non-linear dynamic systems.

What, I hear you ask, is a non-linear dynamic system? It is any system in which there is any degree of complexity in the relation between inputs and outputs, and in which the outputs feed back as inputs. An example is the weather and the so-called butterfly effect, in which the flapping of a butterfly's wings can change the course of a tornado several weeks hence. An outcome can be radically changed by a small change in initial conditions. This is why even with much more powerful computers it is unlikely that the weather will be predictable with any accuracy more than ten days ahead, because it is simply not feasible that we could ever measure the initial conditions with sufficient accuracy.

When we come to the stock market there are so many variables and so many unknowns that long-term prediction is impossible. Someone bets on an oil company, then a major accident happens and the stock falls, or else someone announces a major breakthrough in solar power and the stock falls, or there is a war involving a major oil exporter and the price of oil rises. I such cases the unexpected occurs frequently and is better represented by some kind of fat-tailed distribution, in which uncommon events happen more frequently.

There are up-sides and down-sides to this. Our lives in general are subject to the unexpected. We enjoy the stability of relationships and our homes and jobs and we value living in a country that is not at war, if we think about it at all. But the unexpected does happen. We prefer not to think about it, other than the approximately 1 in 14 million chance that our lottery ticket will win.

The up-side of the butterfly effect, though, is that if the beating of the wings of a butterfly in China can change the course of a tornado on the other side of the world, imagine what the effect of a smile could be!

Thursday, 22 June 2017

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in Mexico!

A Mermaid in the Bath is now available in Mexico!

I have made it especially cheap in Mexico because Lola in the story is Mexican. I have also made it especially cheap in India just because I feel like it. If it is cheap in the USA that is because of Amazon's pricing policy, however I do not think that the official price of $3.99 for the Kindle edition is all that much for a philosophical love story.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Free Silly Stories for Grown-ups

I have created a selection of stories entitled Silly stories for grown-ups. It is in Kindle format (also readable on your mobile phone with the free Kindle app) and you can get a copy by subscribing to my emailing list (not the same as the signup for receiving notifications of blog posts).

It contains such gems as The girl who was not a vampire and The true story of Redcap and the Wolf, and how vengeance was wreaked on the woodcutter. There is also a drabble (a hundred-word novel) called Love in space, and a couple of other things to brighten your early morning commute. Don't read Chocolatina on public transport as random giggles tend to create an odd effect on other travellers.

I am using MailChimp so you will not get any dodgy files because MailChimp does not allow email attachments. The ebook is hosted on MailChimp's servers and they know where I live, so no dodgy business. Also I don't like spam and neither do you, so there is a big fat unsubscribe button if I send you too much rubbish. (It may be rubbish but at least it's British rubbish.)