Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sweating to the Oldies

Like Kanye West I'm a proud non-reader of books, maybe too proud. In fact... almost certainly too proud. But I have my workaround - and that workaround is called Audiobooks. I actually am a member of Audible.com and receive a credit every month in exchange for $$$. But though it may be a workaround, I still have so little interest in books that I'm now in the habit of allowing my credits accumulate until they can no longer be rolled over before I'll actually put any thought or effort into acquiring new books to listen to.

And it's hard in a world where there is often more to be learned about the world we live in by watching back episodes of cooking reality contests than there is listening to *respectable* news. Scarily listening to fake-news might actually become more informative. 

Anyway, in the month that followed the US election, there was a huge gaping behemoth sized whole in my life which was where to get information from. Currently I'm plugging that hole with the Roman Empire. Specifically Marcus Aurelius and his merry meditations. 

I tried googling for the exact quote and it didn't come up and I can't be bothered digging up my copy of 'The Bed of Procrustes' and finding where in it the aphorism I had in mind came from but it goes something like 'to get a true sense of progress consider that in 2000 years we've gone from Cicero to Sarah Palin in our standard of politicians. If you really want to scare yourself, extrapolate that trend out into the future.' and as a matter of interest this was written while President Trump was a completely unforeseen future.

Now I was told (via book, by I think Peter Drucker) that the entire administration of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt fit in one building (probably the west wing) where as it has to be acknowledged, that there are just a fuckload more politicians and bueracrats and what not now than the entirety of everyone to serve in the senate of the Roman Republic/Empire. There's enough politicians in the world that we have politicians that smoke crack. So to some extent you'd just expect that the present day will always produce worse politicians than history ever did because the probabilities always increase that an unlikely candidate will come into office somewhere and get our attention through some act of stupidity.

But, I notice, we are also not living in an era that seems to routinely produce the best politicians history has ever seen, even though in the sheer numbers game - the best leaders in the world have more avenue than ever to get into public service. One explanation could be that that the private sector is in fact the fragmented but real world power and that's the darwinian jungle people worth their mettle go into, rather than public service. 

Whatever, the world is very complicated, and that complicated world is largely complicated noise. So after watching Trump get elected, and concluding that I really didn't know anything about the world even though I had more warning than others on top of global trends that should have made the result much less surprising than it was to stupid old me. I decided to go listen to some old dudes.

And the first old dude was Marcus Aurelius. And from listening to it, here is what I have to say. The world has changed very little in 2000 years. Case in point, the first book of meditations is a long list of people Marcus feels he has learned virtues from like "Of Alexander the Platonic, not often nor without great necessity to say, or to write to any man in a letter, 'I am not at leisure'; nor in this manner still to put off those duties, which we owe to our friends and acquaintances (to every one in his kind) under pretence of urgent affairs." which is to say, his friend Alexander is great because he isn't one of those cunts that constantly tells people 'I'm busy' and puts off meaningful interaction. That's advice well suited to my social environment in every direction, yet this was clearly an excuse people used in 160 BC. The unfairness of the comparison from now to then being that far more people in 160 BC probably had to work to actually survive. And I don't mean pay the bills or mortgage but literally had to work the fields in order to live through the winter and shit. Very few people are required to produce food for themselves and everyone else these days.

This is a digression though, consider this, if you were to acquire two nuclear warheads, as portable and independently/self-sufficiently launching warheads and a time machine and went back and handed one warhead to the Romans and one to the Visegoths or Egyptians or Persians or whoever who cares, you would probably see the two newly minted nuclear world powers basically handling their policy and diplomacy in the exact same way that modern minds have. 

I feel a good place to start looking at how government and governance works then it's Machiavelli's 'The Prince' but I read that a long time ago. After reading the degustation of governance that is Niccilo's menu, I'm now of the mind (clearly) that you want to walk upstream, get the story from the horses mouth and listen to the successful rulers of history.

There's huge advantages to doing so - firstly, history has judged these rulers now. Probably thousands of times over. There consensus to say, this person drove good policy, people's welfare increased, the state became more secure blah blah blah. And in the case of the '5 good emperor's' much fewer of them tended to be stabbed to death by the disaffected. The 5 good emperor's didn't really even use security to protect them from assassination. 

So they got to sit down and write books or letters being 'this is how I think it should be done'. Obviously they are going to be as prone as any other successful person as downplaying the role of luck in their lives. But they are not, like modern day leaders going to wildly speculate as to the role of social media and how it's changed politics.

So I have Marcy Marcus' meditations to finish, then about 30 hours of Seneca to get through. I'm looking forward to some stoic drawing sessions ahead. Let me know how reading progressive blogs about the alt-right phenomena works out for you.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Things of interest

I'm struggling to find time between vices and obligations to actually write here. Thus allow me to present an unsatisfying degustation/taster menu of the concepts I find interesting at the moment and why, without actually exploring them to any level of satisfaction:

boredom - I'm fascinated by it, clearly a negative emotional state - but what exactly? What do evolutionary psychologists have to say about it? And why does it seem to increase in my case in proportion to my access to entertainment? Why are we almost never bored in the presence of a mirror but I'm often easily bored by the internet? Does anyone else find the major internet media players obsession with tayloring content via algorithms something that has made the internet much less interesting than a decade ago? Do people with more routine, simpler lives find they experience less boredom rather than the intuitive expectation they would experience more? Since practicing mindfulness I've also experienced that boredom is seemingly an entirely optional emotional experience. I also wonder if boredom relates to guilt? How related is it to procrastination? When historically did boredom emerge as a concept?


Infantilization - Has been on the plate for a while, but not while enough for the touted concept to become a recognised word by google spell-check. I imagine there'd be two ways of looking at it not necessarily mutually exclusive, the first being a regression by adults to childhood, the second being an extention of the duration of an infancy period. However the phenomena is certainly readily observable in my social environment and even on my travels. There's the easily identified economic/demographic footprint of infantilization everywhere as well - staying in school longer and/or returning to tertiary education, later marriage ages, later reproduction, later moving out of the parents house etc. And beyond socio-economic factors that explain the more mundance elements - mortgage inflation exceeding property rental inflation exceeding wage inflation vs return on personal investment in education ever diminishing - there's the generational aspect as well, in terms of Baby Boomers holding most management and leadership positions for 40 or 50 years. Then there's the consumption by adults of entertainment and products previously stigmatized as childish. I'm not a big believer in widespread cultural phenomena like that being 'designed' and when you don't believe in the illuminati convincing us to be spoon-fed babies in order to control us...profits! Then such phenomena becomes actually interesting.


The redundant channels of progress - Is something that has been lingering literally for years but I've never actually written about it. The catalyst being when I used to sit and listen to petty semantic arguments between members of an organisation I used to be involved with at board meetings when patently, the organisation at the time was not really achieving much. (Since those days I've become less involved and the organisation more successful. Coincidence?) Sitting in those meetings though, I observed a lot of proclamations that people were all after the same thing, but borderline insane acts of organisational sabotage. It occurred to me (and I recognized in myself) that I was witnessing not just a desire to 'fix the problem' but the desire for 'me to fix the problem' in terms of, it wasn't good enough for the problem to be fixed, intrinsic in the thought process was that 'we' needed to be the ones to fix it. If you will, it was not important that somebody climbed Everest, I need to climb Everest and everyone needed to know that I did.
So I wonder broadly what this attitude of needing to be the one, costs us in terms of common achievement. For arguments sake, do Oxfam and The Salvation Army need to both exist? I'm sure there are meaningful and important differences between them, but lets just pretend they both are charity organizations that aim to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Why do I have choices between multiple organizations often addressing the same causes? How much waste and inefficiency between them? And as an economist, what is optimal for progress redundancy and competition, or monopolies spared having to compete between fickle donars. Or is there some optimal coopetition that the market is already achieving?

which leads me to

Capitalisation - in the sense Malcolm Gladwell is obsessed with. Again this has been long simmering on the hob, but recently the question has become fascinating again because I've started to doubt the conclusion I took for granted. I think about it often because I work in a call center, one of the most diverse work places I've ever experienced. It attracts ungraduated university students, recovering addicts and artists and other deadbeats. I imagine one could pick through the resumes of the employees on the books and even briefly conduct some interviews and create a 'skillbank' of all the various skills and knowledge my employer actually sits on. The brains trust of the call center staff. Then the question becomes 'is this the most valuable thing we can do with this collection of talent?'
A separate anecdote that relates was one from my old work mentor - he asked us if we knew what the most recent developed piece of tech was in the first working Television. The answer I was told was the cathode ray tube (why TV's are/were refered to as 'the tube') which were invented aprrox 50 years before the first Television sets. The point being that sometimes the components for something are all already there we just need to figure out the right configuration.
So when you have a diverse team of 100 people, is the best thing those people can achieve for the wages paid them by the company, what they actually do, routinely with little variation? I used to think the obvious answer was 'no' there are far more valuable things (even in the strict capitalist-monetary sense) than cold calling. Now I am not so sure. Chiefly because figuring out the right way to configure all those diverse skills to maximise return is some kind of nightmare.
I'm fascinated with questions of capitalization because I suspect the better world we imagine we want to live in is perhaps often a logistical nightmare. Consider the distribution of wealth and questions of fairness. If it the following premises are true a) we don't need everyone to work to generate our current GDP and b) we don't want all the wealth to concentrate in two small a population, then how do you go about distributing income? This scenario kind of featured in a trailer for a documentary I never watched 'Hypernormalization' where the v/o suggested that many of us work in fake jobs while our real job was to shop. Something in my intuition tells me it is not so easy to dispense with the fake jobs, and at the same time, nobody wants an economic system where the minority of people who do all the actual productive work are the only ones with income. Hence we insist people at least make a show of working in order to be distributed the income necessary for them to fulfill there basic needs and some of their wants. That's fucking tricky to devise an alternative yo.

and eternally fascinating

why are smart people so stupid/ineffective? - I'm constantly amazed in life how well informed everyone is. watch Russell Brands 'the Trews' and probably everything he says won't actually be news to you. Watch some New Age speakers and while suppressing your strong distaste for woowoo notice on how many issues you actually kind of agree. I mean that might differ between you and me, but while I feel notions like a 'source consciousness' are vapid containers of bullshit, as is talk of 'vibrations' and 'frequencies' in some inter-dimensional sense, I do basically agree that alienation is systemically being increased in our society and community needs to be reestablished to fix much of the problems of the world.
While I don't advocate joining any new-age movements, what I notice is a large echochamber of lucid arguments that have a consensus on what's up, and yet this body of intelligent people appear unable to actually change the world in any significant way. Myself included.
That is interesting to me.