Smart privilege

Screenshot anime

“When I grow up, I’m going to be an art club.” Not every aspiration is realistic. (From the anime fittingly named “This Art Club Has a Problem”.)

“Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold” said Mark Twain. Salman Khan seems to disagree: Anyone can become anything, it just takes longer time. Or that is one of the two main points of this TED talk: TED Talk – November 2015.

His first point should be uncontroversial: You don’t start building the first floor until the foundation is finished. If you have teams building at different speed, it makes no sense to tell them to move on to the next phase after the average amount of time has passed. Those who work fast would hang around with nothing to do, and those who work slowly would make a house that would likely fall down before it was even completed. So why are we doing this in school? It is a very good point indeed, and one that Khan himself has struggled to solve by giving students more tools to improve their skills, particularly in math and related disciplines, in a systematic and slightly game-like way. Khan Academy.

Now if people fail algebra because they did not understand basic arithmetic well enough, or fail calculus because they did understand algebra, it makes sense to conclude that there is nothing within the human realm that you cannot master if you just master all the steps leading up to this. Khan makes a comparison between literacy in the time before public school, and imagines asking the literate people of that age how much of the populace could learn to read given the opportunity. He assumes that the answer would be less than twice as many as those who could already read. (I am not sure this would actually happen, but I agree that most likely the answer would fall well short of 100%.) Now if you ask people today how many could become a cancer researcher, the answer will also be fairly modest. So Mr Khan leaps to the conclusion that, in a hypothetical future where robots do most other things, anyone could actually become a cancer researcher if that was what we needed.

This is what I call “smart privilege”. You know, like “white privilege”, “male privilege”, “straight privilege” etc. By all means feed the phrases into Google or one of its inferior competitors if they are unfamiliar to you. It can be quite eye-opening. But the same part of the political spectrum which most fervently embraces knowledge of all these privileges, is generally allergic to the notion of smart privilege.

***

Smart privilege: I have it. I was born with it, although it did not unfold during my childhood, except for my hyperlexia, basically the opposite of dyslexia. But otherwise my brain actually grew up more slowly than other kids my age, just like the rest of my body. As such I had plenty of years in which I was mostly mediocre, unlike my genius brothers. It was a learning experience of sorts, although I was too foolish to learn from it until later. At the time I stuck to my conviction that my early reading skill was a sign of being inherently superior. It is not quite like that, but luckily for me my brain (and the rest of my body) continued to mature for a couple years after my classmates had stopped. And so  from high school onward, I could reliably get top or near top grades simply by listening in class and doing mandatory written homework. I did not need to read, and when I had to read, I could grasp all I needed from a book by reading it straight through once.

Now there are others who are closer to average. They may need to read a book several times, underline, write in the margin, take notes, make mindmaps, reflect on what they read, repeat it later and ask others to explain parts of it. But if they do this, they will understand it just as well as I do, and perhaps it will stick better because of the effort they put into and the time they spent on it. For these, Khan’s statement is perfectly valid, and a good point.

But just like there are some of us who are outliers in one direction, there are others who are just as far on the other side. They can still learn, but it takes much longer time. They may need to work not five but ten times as long with the matter before they “get it”. Sure, in the end they get there. But here’s the thing: Until we discover a way to extend the human lifespan greatly, there just isn’t enough time for these people to come far.

***

Back when my friend “SuperWoman” studied medicine in Germany, there was one guy who just wouldn’t give up. He had no chance of getting into the medicine study in Norway, where the entry requirements are super high. (At the time you need pretty much perfect grades.) In Germany you could start with less, but he had still needed to retake many classes to qualify even for starting, so he was noticeably older than his classmates. Then he failed in university too, so he had to retake each year at least once. But he would not give up. He was firmly decided to become a doctor, whatever the cost.

This is an attitude that we generally praise in our society, and Hollywood assures us that people like this will eventually reach their goal. But was his goal a good one? As “SuperWoman” asked: What about the patients? Even if he eventually got his degree, this was actually only the beginning. The degree would not magically confer upon him the same cognitive capacity as his peers. He would still fail half the time, only now his failures would cost human lives and human suffering. You cannot retake those. You don’t always get second chances.

This guy was not stupid. He was just an ordinary man with an extraordinary aspiration. But there are others who are still less gifted. This does not make them bad people, but it makes them a bad fit for work that requires lots of learning and lots of thinking and the ability to quickly grasp the essence of new situations and solve new problems. There are limits to how much of our life we can dedicate to learning something. The most obvious is lifespan itself, but in practice unless we are born into riches, we will also have to reap the financial rewards of our education at some point. If you go to school for 40 years, there will not be a lot of time left for your career.

For those who are just a bit less privileged with regard to cognitive capacity, there are things we and they can do. Education can be improved. (The science of learning has improved by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, I have written about some of this over the years.) Free time can be spent catching up. We can and should encourage these to stretch that little inch further to reach their goal. But there are others who simply cannot reach their goals by stretching or jumping or climbing. Perhaps some day we will find other ways for them to catch up. Perhaps there will be safe drugs that improve the brain function, or other technologies. (Brainwave entrainment seems to work but only to a modest degree and not equally for all.) But for the time being, telling ordinary people they can be whatever they want to be is SMART PRIVILEGE. It is blaming the victim of circumstance.

1988 and no time for books

Cardboard box that once contained monochrome display

This box once contained a monochrome display. Those were the days, when we had time to read books but did not know where to find them. (There are still a few books in this box, though. All non-fiction.)

Using my amazing powers of mind, I recently traveled to the year 1988, in a timeline very close to this one. OK, so it is not some supernatural power that nobody else has – it is just a combination of imagination, memory and Google. (And occasionally dice.) But it works for me.

One thing that struck me was how different 1988 was from now. On the surface of it, things were much the same. Most people had already begun to work in the post-industrial economy, for instance, and the cars did not look all that different from now. It was already common for men and women both to work outside home, and (in sometimes unrelated news) divorce was already common. All significant political parties had the same names, at least in the western world, and the borders between nations were the same as now with a few exceptions (mainly in the communist world). Ordinary people ate pizza, watched TV and occasionally had sex. It does not really look all that different.

But then there are the computers. Oh, we had computers in 1988 too. The IBM Personal Computer was launched in August 1981. I already had one at home, and we had a few at the office too, as had many other offices in the reasonably rich world. But they were not really the same thing as we have today. They were slow and primitive in every way. Their capacity was very small. The pictures on the screen were blocky and usually in monochrome, typically green and black, although by 1988 there were color monitors and color video cards (typically bought extra). They were still blocky though.

The power of computers double roughly once every one and a half year. Let’s see: 3 years = 4 times, 4.5 years = 8 times, 6 years = 16 times, 7.5 years = 32 times, 9 years = 64 times, 10.5 years = 128 times … Conveniently, this means 5 years is approximately 10 times and 10 years approximately 100 times. So the computer 25 years ago was 100*100*10 times weaker than today, overall. 100,000 times. This kind of explains why my smartphone is fantastically more powerful than all the computers of my workplace back in the day.

In 1988, we still had physical file cabinets to store the vast amount of paper required by the bureaucracy. Bored housewives were hired to store and retrieve these papers, and spent much of the day with their butt in the air because some uncharted law of the universe ensures that most of the papers always end up in the two lower drawers, no matter what sorting your choose in advance. Many of these later developed severe back pain and became disabled, although around the time the physical file cabinets disappeared and were replaced by virtual file cabinets which you can still see on your computer screen. Kids these days probably don’t know that the folder icon is actually a picture of something that once existed in the physical world.

There are still books in the physical world, but Amazon.com has for quite a while now sold more ebooks than the sum of paperbacks and hardbacks, and the proportion keeps sliding toward more e and less paper. Of course, there wasn’t an Amazon.com back then. At a time when there were no awesome computer games, no social networks and no YouTube to distract me, I still did not read thousands of interesting books, because I did not know that they existed. And even had I known, I would have had no idea how to get them. Even if I knew the publisher, chances were small that the books were imported to Norway unless they were extremely mainstream (and therefore not all that interesting to me). Although I think I discovered Piers Anthony around that time? That sounds early, but I had read him for several years when someone made a computer game based on one of his Xanth books, and the game was rather bad and mercifully forgotten by most of the world long ago.

Now, I can get almost anything from Amazon.com, and in many cases download the books instantly to my lightweight Samsung tablet. But now I have so many fun things to do that I end up not reading many books. There is never a time for books, it seems.

 

Food is too cheap now

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

What is the proper way to eat hamburger and fries? No more than once a day. ^_^ Food has become so cheap that there are now more obese humans than starving ones.

Back to our world, which has its own troubles. But most of these troubles are not natural or technological or even economic, but moral: Greed, anger and ignorance. Today, let us look at the Quora question “What would be a good plan to produce enough food for everyone on the planet?

Ryan Carlyle pretty much nails it in his answer, and I am happy to say that this is the most upvoted answer at the time of writing. We already produce 2700 calories a day for each human on Earth, enough for everyone to get a little chubby. But some of the food spoils, some is wasted, and much of it is eaten by those who already are a little chubby (and then some). The real problem however is bad government, says Carlyle.

I tend to think that for the most case, bad government stems from bad culture, specifically a culture of war and strife. The most terrible places to live on earth are those where people have a tradition for war, civil wars or tribal feuds. It is impossible to have a good government in such places. Bloodthirsty people will follow bloodthirsty leaders. Those who do not feel bad about people being shot will not feel bad about people going hungry either.

If it is not obvious to you that the problem of starvation is human rather than natural, just read his explanation again until you get it. It is pretty straightforward. If there is more than enough food for all, then the problem is not in the soil but somewhere between the farm and the mouth, at least I hope we can agree on this.

***

What I want to bring up is related to that, but not quite the same. What would happen if all the wars ended, the dictators set their peoples free, and the ruined roads and warehouses were repaired? What would happen if hungry could finally eat their fill? The price of food would go up.

Today, because a billion people don’t get to eat their fill, there is that much more for the rest, and this presses the prices down. You may not think food is cheap, but in that case you are probably thinking of the wrong food. (Or you are reading this in the future, when various things have happened that I may or may not have predicted.) The price of food to farmers is so low that a great deal of arable land lies unused – the people who might have farmed it prefer to do things that are better paid, and buy their food in the supermarket. In the rich world, almost the only land being farmed is that which is suited for full-mechanized farming, where the work is done with large diesel-powered tractors and other farm machines. This is because if it required more manual labor, the hourly wage would simply not be worth the trouble.

If a billion more people came to bid for the same food, the price would necessarily rise. The supermarket may not look like an auction, but the food that ends up there has often passed through an auction earlier. Grain, potatoes, even cattle are auctioned. Unless you are getting your food from the local farmers’ market, chances are it has been auctioned. And even the local vegetable farmer will keep an eye on the Net to check what the current prices are.

So if all goes well, if we manage to end the wars and not start new ones (a big, big if) then food prices will go up. But this is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. First, it is a good thing because it is a sign that more people are getting food. But it is also a good thing because it means farmers will reopen their fallow fields, and small farms that would have been closed down will get new owners and continue to operate. With higher food prices, it will be worth the time to farm in terrain that is not quite as perfect for large machines. The production of food will expand until the price stabilizes, and it will likely do so on a level that is still very comfortable for us in the rich world. Even a ten percent increase in the hourly wages of the farmer would bring a lot of land back into production.

Over the last couple decades, the number of Chinese who have gone from poverty to middle class is large than the population of the USA. This means their eating habits have changed. No longer eating rice for all meals unless it is a public festival (in which case the family eats a chicken), people now eat pork and beef. It takes about ten pounds of corn to make one pound of beef (somewhat less for pork and poultry) so a lot of grain has gone into this process. But the world has not really noticed. The prices of food vary somewhat, but other factors have much larger effect. (Here in Norway, for instance, groceries have been consolidated into a few chains so the competition is less fierce. The chains have a lot of profit now, which they would not have had if we bothered to enforce competition. But food is too cheap for us to bother. Your state may vary.)

The population is expected to peak around 9.5 billion at the middle of the century, barring some unimaginable disaster (which will likely happen, but it is not clear whether this will make the number lower or higher). We can feed them all with a moderate increase in food prices. Of course, this is not a big deal in northern Europe or America. But there are other parts of the world where food is a big part of the budget. The solution to this is to let these people earn more. And this is currently happening.

While my friends in Europe and America feel like they are trapped in an endless recession, the developing world is growing at about 5% a year. That is from a low level, of course, but as Albert Einstein said, “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”. The next time it grow by 5%, it is 5% of a higher number. And as an old friend of mine would say: “$10 is a lot of money when you don’t have it.” For the poor, 5% more money makes a big difference. It allows them to improve their lot even more. With a bike, they may be able to commute to a better paid job in the town. With that better paid job, they may be able to afford an Android tablet. With that tablet, their kids may improve their school skills and get a better job than their parents ever could. Poverty is a deep valley, but the higher you climb, the higher you can climb. By 2050, it may not be the same parts of the world that are struggling. It may be those who are fat and lazy today.

We do not need cheaper food – we need less poverty. And we know the way to that. As the Buddha said, we need to remove the 3 poisons of the mind: Greed, anger and ignorance. The world is not Heaven, but we could make it a lot closer just by this.

Being human is hard enough

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

I am human too, you know. Just with more books. ^_^;

I have written a number of attempts to describe the reality of spiritual gestation, how the spiritual life begins as a small embryo, stuff like that. But it remains above my pray grade, it seems; I cannot express it in a way that I feel sure will do more good than harm. So let us talk about being human instead.

A lot of humans live in poverty. I am not one of them. Even in my childhood, I did not go to bed hungry. I wore patched clothes when I was at home and played with used batteries and tin cans, stuff like that; but I was never worried that I would not get enough food or that we would be evicted or anything like that. So I can’t bear personal testimony about that kind of thing.

In Norway, there is something like a security net that catches people when they fall on hard times, although they can get through it if they are crazy enough. There is also some resistance for those who try to become rich. Both of these borders are much weaker in the USA, from what I hear. I just read on Quora a highly educated and intelligent man describing his rapid descent into poverty because of medical expenses for himself and a loved one. Once he was poor, medication was hard to come by and his health got steadily worse. He was too poor to go to job interviews even when his health allowed it, because he could not afford to travel to the place where the interview was. Eventually his luck turned and he got a job where he could use his old high-income skills. If he had not had them, things would have been grim indeed. As it was, he was able to gradually improve his health and replace essential things for living in America, like a super cheap car.

This kind of problem would not have happened in Norway, but it is a matter of degree. It is expensive to be poor here too, just not that bad. Higher education is free, but you still have to live somewhere (it is pretty could outside most of the year here) and you still need to eat. You won’t get paid life support by the State if you are taking an education, but you do if you are just refusing to work. I am not sure about the logic of this. I suppose you could stealth educate yourself using the local library (in towns where there still is one) or a cheap laptop and the Khan Academy. But you are unlikely to get a job without an actual college degree these days, so sooner or later you have to go there, or be parked on the side line of society.

If being poor is hard, being stupid is no walk in the park either. Or rather, that may be what you end up doing for the rest of your life. This may actually be worse here in the zeroth world, because we need only productive workers with the ability to quickly adapt to ever new challenges and keep their skills from rusting. OK, perhaps not worse than in the USA, since we at least have health insurance for the unemployable. So they are likely to live to a ripe old age unless they drink a lot, take dubious drugs, fail to take prescription drugs, or eat immense quantities of unhealthy food. All of these things happen with alarming regularity, but it takes quite a bit to kill a stupid person, so they still tend to live quite a while. What they do beside writing comments on Net News sites is a bit of a mystery. But from what I see, ignorance is not bliss.

But even if you are employable, life is not a dance on lilies. People who earn more than me, and have nice homes and nice cars, still suffer. The most common reason is problems with relationships. They have unhappy marriages or almost-marriages, or are living alone with a screaming kid, or living alone and paying child support, or have troubles with their friends, troubles with their parents or children, troubles with their boss or their coworkers, trouble with their siblings or trouble with their neighbors. And almost all of them thinks there is nothing they can do about it. Either it is always someone else’s fault, or (in the rare case where people actually realize they are not anywhere near perfect) they are just born that way and they can’t help it.

There are also numerous health challenges, and even more so for our mental health. There is hardly a person who does not have a phobia or two, or a recurring depression, or an addiction or compulsion, or thoughts and worries that assail them and don’t take no for an answer. And if you are lucky enough to not have any severe disturbances yourself, it is a good bet that someone close to you is suffering, and eagerly sharing their suffering.

With all that, it is a bit of a miracle that there are happy people in the world. But there are. For most people this is the result of being in the right place at the right time, I think. But some people have a tendency to wait out at the right place, while others are rarely there to be found, so there is also partly a matter of character. It is not an either / or, it is about increasing one’s chances, not a guarantee for success. That is life in this world. This world is called Earth, not Heaven. It is not a world of absolutes, there is a random element in it, but it is not completely random, not by a long shot.

Jobs are obsolete

In the life simulation game The Sims 3, anyone can live off painting, sculpting or writing books, if they have the patience, although the talented will earn more. In real life, few would trust such a hobby to feed them. But what if they already had food and a roof over their head? Might they be tempted to try to add to their income through art then?

The age where paid work is the measure of a man, that age is coming to an end. What will we do to distribute money after jobs?

It has been going on for a while already. In most of the western world, unemployment is high and chronic. Here in Norway, unemployment is low, but disability pension is widespread. This may be a more realistic take on it, for the old jobs will never come back, barring a disaster of horrifying dimensions. I am not sure we would even physically survive such a disaster. So disability it is, in a matter of speaking. But many of these men and women are not in pain or bearing visible scars. In fact, a study a few years ago told us that the disabled rated their health on average as better than those who were still working!

Rather, it is generally assumed that if a person cannot be gainfully employed, they must have some kind of illness that prevents it. As pretty much all of us have some kind of illness or weakness, especially after years of constant stress, there is usually some hook to hang the coat on. But in many cases, people simply don’t have the intelligence and concentration needed to work in the Information Age.

We may need a stupidity pension, and we may need to make it almost universal. For every year and a half, computers double their processing power. Artificially intelligence remains out of reach, it seems, but we are still able to automate more and more tasks. And machines that we don’t think of as robots, still contain more and more computing technology. And don’t be sure you can always get a job as a taxi driver: Self-driving cars are now allowed to drive on roads in Nevada and California.

The office assistants who used to fetch documents in file cabinets and file them away after use are long gone. I started my adult working career as such an assistant (although I got into a different job at the same place a year later). Today, I would probably have needed to stay in school for another three or four year to get into what is the new entry-level job. Some years from now, today’s entry-level jobs will most likely not exist either. People may need to stay in school till they are 30, and only work at highly specialized jobs. On the other hand, the profit from those who work will be very high. We may discuss whether they ought to keep that money or whether the owners of the businesses should keep most of it (in so far as these are still different people). But what about those who are patently unable to study for 25 years? And what about those who educated themselves for jobs that disappear?

An unfair but practical solution is to give a small “living wage” to everyone, whether they work in the traditional sense or not. The idea is that a human life probably has a value even if you are not employed in the traditional sense. You probably have relatives and friends who appreciate your existence, for instance. We might take the conservative approach and tell those relatives and friends to keep you alive if they think you are worth it, but this will likely cause even more resentment than taxation does. Given that those who are employed will earn a lot of money even after tax, it may be easier to give a “living wage” to everyone, and leave it to their own inventiveness if they want to earn more money. Of course, some of that inventiveness may take the form of crime. But not having food and a place to sleep is no less likely to lead to crime. And if we are not going to let people starve on the streets anyway, we may as well give a modest amount to all instead of a larger amount to those who are good at imagining illness. (For instance, whiplash symptoms tend to fade within a few weeks after compensation is paid.)

There is a lot of economic activity already that does not take the form of jobs, exactly. People make various goods and sell them, or perform services against payment without a regular employment. I hope to see much more of this in the future. Many humans are quite creative.

So I expect jobs and freelance supplemental income to coexist for a long time, but the jobs becoming fewer and more specialized, while the informal economic activity grows. But I may be wrong. I may have to confer more with the voices in my head to know for sure. But for now, they are telling me to hang onto my job. ^_^

Half-a-theism

Watching you: A dark and jealous god arises.

Atheists will often say to monotheists: “I just believe in one less god than you do.” In practice, the difference is arguably even less. I would argue that the vast majority of atheists today believe in “half a god”.

There is an invisible, benevolent but still dangerous being that has the power and the wisdom to decide over life and death. Due to its nature, this being is not visible to the human eye, but its commands are carried out by a large staff of human servants. This being is also considered competent to regulate our lives (and, perhaps more important to most of us, the lives of our neighbors) in great detail, down to who we are allowed to have sex with. But it also looks after us, and gives us each day our bread even if we don’t deserve it, and far more than bread if we serve it faithfully. Generations are born, live and die, serving this great being, giving their lives if needed. I am, of course, talking about the state or nation.

The gradual growth of the state has given it steadily more of the powers that were in the past considered suitable only for God, and this process has particularly gained speed over the last few generations. During the same time, and in the same countries, open atheism has begun to blossom. In the social democratic nations of northern Europe, atheism is now the norm. But how much of a leap is that really, if the state conveniently provides pretty much the same framework for individuals and societies, which religion provided in the past?

Now you may argue that the state is thoroughly this-worldly and does not promise salvation or a blessed afterlife to the soul. That is hopefully the case, but I will point out that neither did Yahweh back in the days of the Pentateuch. Even as late as Solomon (or whoever wrote in his name), God’s own truth was that “the dead know nothing” and have no more part in what transpires under the sun. Toward the end of the Old Testament, there are more or less clear promises of a future resurrection. But the concept of a non-corporeal afterlife in an invisible paradise is at best hinted at in the New Testament, where the resurrection is still the main event. So today the state is roughly at the level of Moses’ God in that it can kill and that’s the end of it. If the technology advances enough, it may start offering selective resurrections, and perhaps eventually promise to upload us to the Cloud. This could certainly happen in your lifetime if you are young, although it may not happen at all, depending on how history unfolds.

My point is that it is a lot easier to be an atheist these days, as long as you are allowed to trust in a state that does its best to make itself as godlike as possible. It is rather less impressive than it would otherwise have been. And monotheists may not need to actually use their faith a lot either, since they can just float along on the same current as the atheists – for now. There are times and places where you cannot serve God and State, and where the State basically says, “Thou shalt have no other god before me.” I am not  fond of this practice. I’d rather we give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and not much more.

But at least, don’t crow about being an atheist if you depend on an invisible higher power to give your life direction.

Now is the Age of Faith

Do you really know for sure that bacteria are not thinking, feeling organisms? Chances are you have only seen them for a couple minutes through a school microscope, if at all…

It may sound highly unlikely when I say that we live in an age of faith, the like of which the world has never seen through all the ages. But it is true. It is just not true in the sense most people hear it. Their internal translator reads “religion” where I just wrote “faith”.

This misunderstanding is easy to explain: In the Middle Ages, faith was mainly needed in religion. You went to church on Sunday and listened to stories about things that happened far away and long ago, or in a world unseen by human eyes. The rest of the week you spent working with animals or crops or iron or clothes, things you could see and touch. There was no need for faith in those things. You could see for yourself.

But in our age, we spend upward of 15 years in school, and only a tiny fraction of this is spent on hands-on experiments. Most of the time is spent listening to stories about things that happened far away or long ago, or in a world unseen by human eyes. Even the things that could be experienced, such as the view through a microscope or telescope, are usually just transmitted by faith. Far more so the more complex teachings, such as the structure of the atoms or the evolution of species. We learn these things by taking them on faith from people who have taken them on faith, usually from people who have taken them on faith again. Sure, there are scientists who have actually researched the various things we learn about. But they are few and far between, and each of them has only experienced a tiny corner of a small part of one field of science, while taking the rest – including most of their own branch of science – on faith.

Now the voices in your head may be jumping up and down screaming. But I am not saying that science is a religion, or that there is no big difference between science and religion. What I am saying is literally that we live in an age where we have very little experience, and the rest of our knowledge rests on faith. It rests on trust in authorities. Almost all you know rests on trust in authorities. Think it over if you don’t trust my authority…

 

Not everyone can be smart

If something is difficult to learn, it is good to have someone to explain it to you. I wish I could do that sometimes. 

Certainly a lot can be done to improve our thinking, and perhaps most for those who start out with less, as I mentioned yesterday. But it is also a fact that we are born with different resources of the brain, just as with the body in general. Some are stronger, some are faster, some have more endurance, and some aren’t really good at sports even if they work at it. Everyone can improve, but not everyone can become a master, and certainly not without the most extreme effort. In the same way, some simply learn faster and think more quickly, and there are various other talents as well.

Reality is not a democracy. We are not all given the same number of “points”, like in some role playing games, where you just place them differently. In real life, some just start out with less. The world is not a level playing field. But that is not a reason to quit.

***

Let me take an example. After buying the Go board that I wrote about a few days ago, Amazon wanted to follow up by selling me some beginner books about Go. I don’t think that is necessary, as there are so many resources on the Internet. But the books exist and some people buy them.

Reading reviews of the books, I noticed that people had different opinions. Some criticized the classic Go for Beginners by Iwamoto, saying that it was hard to read, it was not suited for real beginners, you should read an easier book first such as for instance Learn to Play Go by Janice Kim. And what do you think people said about the first book by Janice Kim? It is too little substance, it is very friendly and easy to read but where is the beef? Is the author trying to earn more money by writing four books instead of one? You would be better off with a less fluffy book, like Go for Beginners by Iwamoto…

So that is how it is. For some people, learning Go is fairly easy, so they find a book “for dummies” to be fluffy, patronizing and a waste of time and money. For others, learning Go is hard, and they get lost and disappointed when the book treats difficult problems (for them) as something obvious.

***

It is good that there are many different books, then, and not just about Go! A book that is too hard for one, may be just right for another. And if you have to give up on one book, you may read another and then perhaps return to the first when you understand more.

This is not just for “dummies”. I could read newspapers and books before I started school, and used to read my school textbooks soon after I got them. Decades have passed with me being like that, and there are still many books that are hard for me to read. Indeed, some of my favorite books are so compact, half a page can be enough for me to digest in one session. And there are some books I think highly of, but which I only understand bits and pieces of, even though they are in English. But I have also experienced that after reading more on the topic, I could come back and read in the book again and gain more from it. There are books that may require several reads even for me, and I am not just talking about holy scriptures. These books would be out of reach for many gainfully employed people, unless perhaps they dedicated decades of their spare time to studying them.

But as I said, luckily there are books that are not written for scribes and professors. Some people have a gift for writing luminous prose, and some have trained themselves to keep the ordinary or even simpleminded reader in their thoughts when writing. I also do this when I take the time. I often go over what I have just written and replace words with more simple and common ones. Some detail is lost, but perhaps more people can get the gist of what I write.

I have left MSN as the start-up page on my Internet Explorer, so that I can be reminded each time I start it about the plight of the simpleminded. Not everyone can be smart, but they should be spared the indignity of being preyed on. Even if you are not smart, you are still human. The truly important things in life and death are the same to all of us, and it is not fair to distract people with breasts and dresses all the time. Not that there is anything wrong with breasts and dresses as such, but you should not need to be a sage to look for something deeper. Not everyone can be smart, but we are all human. We all deserve a chance at understanding ourselves and the world where we live.

Sanity for the simple

Many people have admirable aspirations, but lack the mental resources to achieve them. I feel that something should be done to help them, starting from the very basics of understanding the human mind. 

I had a brief interchange on Google+, where I mentioned that there are days when I wish I could upgrade the brain of everyone with improved software. One of my online acquaintances replied: “You never know whether that would crash them completely (RAM problems)”.

But I have already given that some thought. I believe that, in fact, it may be more gain from upgrading the “program code” of brains that have less memory and less processing power. I certainly think this is better than the modern path of just adding more and more data to them.

Today, education just goes on and on. Whereas my grandfather went to school for 7 years – and I believe 3 days a week, at that – and I took a few college courses after high school, young people today need 3-4 years of college to get a job, and sometimes stay in schools until they are closer to 30. That is not in and of itself a horrible fate, but if you have “RAM problems” – not very good memory – it must be a taste of purgatory. To know that you either have to cram all that knowledge over and over, or face a life as an outcast, unable to win your own bread.

This cannot be necessary. There must be better way to teach people to think than to just throw books at them and hope that the information overload will make their brains shift into a more effective way of thinking to deal with it. I acknowledge that in our information age, younger people seem to become steadily more intelligent (the Flynn Effect), but I don’t think the excessive schooling is the cause. It starts too early in childhood for that, and it also started before the current “education bubble” – we can trace it back to right after World War I. It is more likely that the Flynn Effect has opened the way for the education society. But not everyone fits in that mold. And frankly, it seems a bit of a waste of time and resources.

***

I think we should still teach basic skills like reading, writing and basic maths. But rather than trying to teach everyone a whole lot of knowledge they most likely won’t need, the next stop should be to teach basic thinking skills. And not just logical thinking, but brain use more generally.

Mediation. Self-control, how to get along with basic instinct and primitive emotions. How to deal with insomnia.  How to avoid destructive stress behaviors like overeating, booze and drugs. Self-reflection, seeing oneself as if from a neutral person. And yes, basics of logic, the use and limits of generalization and prejudice.

Study techniques: The different types of memory, how to learn by spaced repetition, association, triggers, involving more senses. How to sort what is most important to remember, and when we can wing it. This can help prevent cram purgatory and the despair of forgetting anyway.

This does not need to take decades. And it would pay off for the rest of their life, for them and for those around them and society at large. The more people we could get onto this, the greater the benefits for their families, their neighborhoods, their country and the world.

Even learning mind skills poorly is a huge improvement from not even knowing that they exist. And it is particularly valuable for those who haven’t picked up these skills at home or figured them out on their own. The current situation causes a lot of suffering. It needs not be that way.

Problems of our time

She's grown up to be really considerate of other people

If we could grow up to become really considerate of other people, we could overcome the challenges of our time. It is this we lack, more than money or technology.

Modern technology and economics have certainly made life easier for billions of people. But the challenges we face now in the 21st century are mainly challenges of the mind. I don’t mean necessarily insanity and such, although of course mental health problems are widespread and very troubling. Rather I mean what we might call “spiritual problems”, although they should be obvious even to those who don’t believe in spirit. Perhaps we could call them “problems of attitude”?

The error of our times is to try to fix attitude problems with technology, economics or legislation. I will not say that these are entirely ineffective. But they can be compared to fixing a leaky roof by placing umbrellas. Not only does it look absurd to those who see it from outside, but it is a short-sighted “solution”, suitable only for those who have no responsibility for the building and are planning to leave soon with their whole family. Hopefully we won’t all be in that situation with regards to this world.

For example, there is now plenty enough food in the world for everyone to eat their fill, and then some. But that is not exactly what happens. True, obesity is now actually afflicting a greater number of humans than is starvation, but there is still starvation. It usually only happens – at least widely – in countries at war or civil war. So it is certainly a problem of attitude, although not necessarily the attitude of the starving. (Although that can certainly happen too, that they are one of the sides in a war, and have some responsibility for it. That is not always the case, though. And in most wars, it is the stronger who attack the weaker.)

Speaking of obesity and health challenges: I know, I know. There are various hormone and metabolism problems that cause people to gain weight at an unnatural pace. It seems unlikely, however, that a fifth or so of the population have mysteriously mutated over the course of a generation or two. In any case, there are good news from science: Even if you are heavier than recommended, this will do little or no harm if you are physically active, exercising at least at moderate intensity for half an hour a day or so. (Or an hour every other day.) So unless you have a mutated metabolism and also a broken spine, you should be doing fine. If you have the right attitude, that is. The attitude that makes you force your body to do things it does not particularly like sometimes.

Unfortunately, many people really exercise their mind making up excuses instead. If people would eat when they were hungry and stop before they were full, and be physically active at least some minutes each day, that alone would stop the huge growth in health expenses in the rich world. I am not kidding. Sure, there are many expenses that come because we can treat illnesses that were fatal in the past. Treatment for these is typically very expensive. But living a life of moderate self-restraint will dramatically reduce the risk of falling gravely ill. Mind you, we are talking of risks here, possibilities and percentages. It is not like the law of gravity which is very simple and predictable. So you can eat right, exercise regularly and die horribly anyway. But on a large scale, like that of a whole nation, a more responsible lifestyle would have a dramatic impact.

Then there is the whole thing about fearing death. Now, this is an attitude that I sympathize with personally to a very high degree. There are few things I want less than death! But even so, here is something to think of: A very large part of the medical expenses in an average human life happens in its last year. This is independent of the age. If you live to 90, most of the expenses will be in the year from 89 to 90. If you live only to 50, most of the expenses will be from 49 to 50. Of course, this is not without exception, but it is the rule. In other words, a great deal of our hospitals, our doctors and our medicines are employed to prolong life by months or weeks. Of course, in some cases we just can’t know. There is a chance, even if it is small, of survival. And there is nothing we want more, usually.

Still, if we are actually old and we have an illness that is anyway going to end our life within months, I feel that there should be an option to submit to the course of nature. I am told that in America this is what happens if you are poor. But for those who have nothing to fear from death, I feel that it should be an option even if you could afford to stay around for a few months longer. In days of yore, it was not uncommon for old people to feel that they had accomplished what they came to Earth for. “Now let thy servant depart in peace.” I can’t say I feel like that now, but I hope to be able to say that some day. We may long for eternal life, but it is folly to think that science can do that for us, even with tax-financed health care.

Another attitude problem is that we consider our personal luxury more important than the planet. There has been some progress in this, in some parts of the world. But not enough. We are still destroying the biosphere at a terrifying speed. Species go extinct all the time. Fertile soil is washed away or blown away by the wind because of thoughtless agriculture that leaves the soil open to the elements at times when flooding or drought occurs. Forests are cut down that protected the soil, wetlands are drained that absorbed floods. And of course arable land is covered with roads and buildings. So far we have managed to keep food production high enough, higher than ever actually. But we cannot afford to lose more arable land as population is still set to grow. And we should not unravel ecosystems except in the most dire emergency.

***

In short, the great challenges of our times and probably the next generation as well, is our attitude. As long as we think in terms of money and not time, of luxury and not happiness, of receiving and not giving, of being done to and not doing – as long as we think in this way, it will be difficult to solve our problems, and new ones will appear. The roof will leak in more and more places until it collapses on our heads. For now, we have only this one planet, and we must share it with each other better than we do today.