Now

Clock Clock Face Wave Present Year
Standard

A couple of weeks ago, when some of the company I work for were away for a team meeting in Oxford, the late evening talk turned philosophical. The conversation revolved around spirituality vs. ‘secularism’ (for want to a better word), and the idea that what many perceive as God, or some kind of spiritual agent in their life could just as easily be perceived as the Extended Order in action – whereby ‘coincidences’ appear to happen because you are on the look out for something that just happens to pass by as you were expecting it. The causes of that event are usually so complex that the brain has reduces it down to two things, a) it happened for a reason, there must be someone/thing making it happen, or b) our poor brains could never begin to guess the complexities of what caused the event to happen, it’s all bit of a mystery, but it’s nice it happened then, just when I needed it to.

I’ve touched on all this before, but it struck me this evening that there is a parallel between that debate and the argument of two very good books I’ve read in recent years – The Power of Now by Elkhart Tolle and Clarity by Jamie Smart. Both, I think, argue the same point; that by worrying about future events, or spending too much time in our thoughts obsessing about the future is a waste of time, and that the true way to think is to focus only on the present moment.

I like this idea a lot, and if taken to it’s logical conclusion, can mean that life becomes one walking meditation or prayer. Difficult to maintain, but quite fulfilling if you can pull it off (I rarely achieve anything close to it).

The point is that Echart argues his point from a quasi-religious perspective, Jamie from very much a rationalist/scientific perspective. Both achieve the same result.

As I’ve said before, rational viewpoints and religious viewpoints both emerge within the Extended Order, and people choose one or the other depending on their subconscious biases. Either way, they often end up at the same place, one where the future is not set in stone, but open to chance and the vagaries of randomness.

Many find a future they cannot predict to be terrifying (particularly those of a negative disposition), but really that’s all it will ever be – a terrifying future; the present is rarely scary, and we are usually more than capable of dealing with unpleasant or bad things if they do occur. Take a look around you now and appreciate all that you have. It may not be everything you wanted or even expected, but there is always plenty to be positive about.

Keep it simple

Hacking Security Cyber Privacy
Standard

With our penchant for maximising complexity, sometimes when someone truly cuts through the crap and comes up with something stunningly simple, it really makes you see the world in a completely different way.

I had such a moment this afternoon in, of all places on the day the Prime Minister announced her resignation, the Houses of Parliament. As a guest of cybersecurity experts, CNS, we enjoyed drinks and nibbles on the terrace overlooking the Thames, along with some short but interesting presentations from various clever people.

One that stood out for me was from Deep Secure, a company that has turned the whole idea of virus checking on it’s head. Rather than playing constant game of keeping up with all the clever types out there intent on causing tech trouble and making money from inflicting malware-related woes on people and businesses, Deep Secure have done something of a volte-face and gone in a completely different direction.

They realised that more often than not, the payloads for malware are Word/Excel files and PDFs. Rather than wait for people to be infected by a new piece of malware, have it reported and then some clever person work out how to detect it and deactivate it, they thought, well, the original content itself of the file is usually OK, so why not find a way to extract the bit that the person was expecting to receive, the content of the file, and create a clean file on the fly, stripping any nastiness that may be residing there.

Sounds simple, but it’s taken them 14 years to perfect the technology to the stage where it can take files and make clean files that match the original in terms of content in a quick and efficient way. Now they’ve done it, it seems the boffins at GCHQ and the NSA are very, very impressed.

I must admit, once the presentation had ended, my brain was whirring and I spent the next hour trying to reframe the my digital world into this new way of thinking. I didn’t draw any definite conclusions, but I had a good chat with Dan Turner, the CEO of Deep Secure afterwards. He was, quite understandably, very happy with the way things were going for the company. I think they have a very bright future.

I believe

Street Sign Note Direction
Standard

Robert Tombs made an interesting argument yesterday on the difference between Leavers and Remainers. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the logic, but I do agree with the conclusions that on the whole, Remainers seem to come from a position of pessimism, while Leavers are naturally optimistic.

Tombs argues that the Remainers are irrational, and have an unhealthy fixation on their gut instinct that drives them to denigrate Britain’s ability to survive outside of the EU, and a logical consequence of this is to look down on the plebs of Britain, imagining themselves not British, but part of the greater European Empire. In contrast, Leavers must be rational optimists.

I would argue that the pessimism vs. optimism argument holds true, although the rationalism vs. irrationalism does not.

We are all ‘rational’ creatures, but what we ‘think’ about various subjects is down to our subsconsious (see Why Do I love You?). As our subconscious does not deal with language, emotions bubble up from our subconscious, mostly filtered through the right brain before the logical left brain can start to make sense of them.

Those opinions espoused by the subconscious are driven by our unconscious biases which have been shaped over the years by the countless stories we’ve been told and we repeat to ourselves. We try to make sense of these emotions with our logical, rational mind, and usually fail (or at the very best manage to stop ourselves saying anything too politically incorrect or embarrassing). Unless the debate is blindingly obvious, (and Brexit is not), rationalising anything usually ends up in us trying to grapple with things our brains can’t really deal with, so we just end up going with what we feel is right.

As the debate for Brexit was, from a rational perspective, fairly balanced (you could comfortably argue for or against), the final decision comes down to our unconscious biases. Thus, the general attitude towards Brexit of Leavers, from what I’ve seen, is one of optimism and belief in the country; that of Remainers, one of pessimism and a lack of faith in the country and its people. It is this issue of faith that is, I think, the real dividing line between Leave and Remain. It’s down to whether you believe we can or we can’t.

I personally choose the optimistic outlook every time. I believe that we are all intelligent, clever people (and not so dissimilar as those obsessed with class or of a liberal authoritarian bent would like to believe). We may express this in many different ways, which to me just makes the whole thing more wonderful. Time and again, we are the embodiment of proof that when we work together the result is much, much greater that the constituent parts.

Brexit was not a populist vote

Demagogue Populist Autocrat
Standard

One thing I’ve seen popping up time and again in the media, and in conversations at home and work is how Brexit was some kind of populist vote.

It was not.

To be populist, in the strict sense of the term, it has to:

1) be pioneered by someone who is not part of the establishment

2) claim to be representing the ‘all of the people’ in some kind of opposition to the establishment, even though, in reality it may only actually cater for a small percentage of the population

Clearly, from these definitions, the Brexit vote was not in any way populist. It was pioneered by the Prime Minister and the Conservatives, who promised to abide by the result, and both sides had representatives from the main political parties campaigning for the respective votes. It was offered to the whole of the UK. Everyone took part.

So, in and of itself, Brexit was not populist. In fact, the only thing you could argue was populist about it was Nigel Farage’s comment on the day after the vote, when he said that it was a ‘victory for real people’, clearly indicating that the Leave vote represented the whole country and that somehow the 48% who voted Remain were somehow less than real.

The Brexit Party now, though, is classically populist. Nigel Farage, continuing his rhetoric from after the vote, claims to represent the country outside of London, when really he’s just representing the Brexiteers. He rails at the ‘elites’ in power, something the failure of the Conservative party to deliver Brexit thus far has only inflamed.

Mr Farage’s piece in the the Telegraph today is gloriously populist, ticking all the boxes, with a clear and simple argument (us against them because democracy has failed). The shame, I think, is that he has a point, particularly after Theresa May’s latest offer. Even though I can see the sense in a lot of what the Prime Minister is trying to do, it all feels like a bit of a mess, trying to pander to too many different agendas and satisfying none of them.

For a really good exploration of Populism, check out Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism.

Cuts both ways?

Brexit Europe Britain Referendum
Standard

One of the enduring cries from those who voted for Remain in the Brexit vote (and one the government seems to have taken the line of itself, being on the whole, pro-remain – the ‘rational’ position), is that as the vote was ‘so close’, we should respect the views of the losers too, to try to find a balance between the two viewpoints. William Hague argues just such a thing in the Telegraph this morning.

I guess the whole dogmatic democracy vs. liberal democracy debate will bubble along under any democratic system, and I would hate to paint myself as a dogmatic type, but sometimes, context matters, and it does here.

If the vote in 2016 had gone as expected and remain won, what would the remainers have done in respecting the opinion of those who lost? There’s nothing they could have done, as nothing would have changed. They would have ignored calls to reform Europe, particularly after David Cameron’s failed attempts to change things.

Leavers would have continued to voice their protest – ‘It was so close, let’s have another referendum!’ These cries would certainly have fallen on deaf ears. Dogmatic democracy would have prevailed and it would have been considered reasonable.

Yet, Leave won, and because the majority of Leave voices promptly went silent after their unexpected success, liberal democracy suddenly seemed perfectly acceptable, giving rise to the ludicrous populist situation we find ourselves in now, with those ‘out in the sticks’ beyond London feeling betrayed by their ‘elite’ masters in their crumbling edifice.

Which is a shame, because Brexit was never a populist thing (more on that tomorrow), but now we find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. The Conservatives, in taking the liberal democracy approach have fluffed it up, and are now staring down the barrel of a gun they handed to the Brexit Party, which will divide their own vote and more than likely allow Labour to waltz into Downing Street.

Just goes to show, it’s not only the socialists that get hung up on rationalism to their cost.

Oh, and while I think about it, if we’d had Dominic Raab’s proposed 15% tax for the £11.5K – £45k bracket in 2017/8, it would have reduced the amount of tax by around £16 billion (down to £100.8 billion-ish from £116.8 billion-ish). Make of that what you will, but I suspect merging a few government departments wouldn’t cover it too well, although I applaud the idea of reducing tax for the lower earners.

UBI

Money Rain Dollar Lottery Business
Standard

Along with my incredible actuarial analysis of our tax system over the weekend, I also figured out how much Universal Basic Income (UBI) would cost. If we were, straight off the bat, to give everyone in the UK over 18 £500 a month, it would cost somewhere in the region of £312 billion a year.

Which is a lot of money.

That said, it’s only half of what HMRC brought in in the 2017-18, but one would have to assume that they’d be less than impressed if the government suddenly nicked half of their ‘hard earned’ money and gave it away again.

It struck me you could do a phased rollout over a few years, which would have much less of an impact on the coffers.

YearAge Ranges

Annual Cost (Cumulative)

1

18 – 29

£61.4 billion

2

30 – 39

£113.6 billion

3

40 – 49

£165.4 billion

4

50 – 59

£218.5 billion

5

60 – 69

£260.9 billion

6

70 – 79

£292.6 billion

7

80+

£312 billion

Obviously, you’d have to take into account people getting older as you progress which will shift the figures about a bit, but it is probably do-able and I’m sure could it be used to replace various benefits and other payouts that many people get.

If I were running the system, I’d insist on three rules:

1) Everyone gets it, no exceptions (else it’s not universal)

2) What you do with it is up to you (no caveats)

3) If you don’t want it, don’t refuse it, give it away to someone who does

A lot of people assume that if you give people free money they will spend it on drink and drugs, which is a) very cynical and b) from the studies I’ve seen, not the case. Most use the money for helping with paying for life or for setting up their own businesses.

I think the latter is really important. Between 2012 and 2017 I worked as a freelance contractor, and it was hard but rewarding work. However, it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I really wanted to make films or work on more speculative web projects, but with a young family to feed and not always knowing where the next month’s pay packet is coming from, I never felt able to take the risk and really go for it. If I’d had UBI, knowing that at least there would be food on the table each month, I think I could have achieved so much more.

(Data sources: statista.com)

Not great news for Mr McDonnell

Chest Treasure Pirate Money Box
Standard

WARNING: Amateur economist possibly making rash comments about things he doesn’t know enough about.

With Labour making waves promoting Universal Basic Income, and threatening to raise taxes for the ‘rich’, I’d thought I’d do a bit of investigating to see how much tax we actually pay into the coffers each year.

Using some handy dandy stats from statista.com on UK population and earnings, and some genius coding by yours truly, I created some fairly rudimentary graphs like this, which shows the number of people per ‘salary band’ in the UK during 2018:

The first thing that struck me was just how many people are in the £20 – £30k salary bracket. I’m not sure what I was expecting, and it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but there you go.

Then I broke the various salary bands down in the to current tax brackets to work out how much tax we paid last year – a healthy £116,867,500,000 (give or take a few pence), as it goes.

The obvious thing that sticks out is, even with the current tax regime, just how much more tax those earning over £50k pay. That got me thinking, how much would we have earned if Labour were in charge and had bought in their revised 45% for the £85k+ bracket, and 50% for over £123k.

That would have bought in £120,876,600,000, a good 4 billion extra. Healthy, if not somewhat annoying for the higher earners, who already feel they are shouldering a disproportionate amount of the tax burden.

But what if then, I wondered, should the recent article in the Times have come to pass and 1 in 10 of the higher earners (over £150k) had cleared off and got their salary paid in another country?

In that case you undo all the hard work of changing the tax system, and bring in just £117,080,680,000. That’s an improvement of a mere £213,880,000, which in the grand scheme of things, and with upsetting a lot of people to boot, hardly seems worth the effort.

Tomorrow: UBI, how will it work?

Four days

Standard

I’ve been thinking more about the four-day working week I mentioned yesterday, and the more I think about it, the more I think it’s potentially irresponsible to even suggest the notion.

We live in a fast-moving age where there is a lot of stress, and stress is not good for us humans. Not only does it affect the way we form memories, shutting down our hippocampus and forcing memories to be stored as implicit memories, it can have a devastating impact on our brain in general.

It’s one of the reasons I think Universal Basic Income is a good idea, (and is one of the few things I agree with Jeremy Corbyn on) as stress over money is at the core of a lot of domestic abuse, homelessness and suicide. Getting people out of poverty or stress caused by financial issues should, in my view, be one of the key drivers of and government. I firmly believe that any ways we can reduce financial stress and alleviate poverty have to be explored fully (although how to fund it is always problematic, and would have to rely on a bit of a leap of faith that the money will be re-invested back into the economy).

I can’t imagine for one moment that many companies would allow people to drop to a four day week without the accompanying drop in salary, or putting in the extra hours to maintain their salary. I suspect also that lower paid jobs may be open to abuse and forced to reduce their hours (if it were to come to that), while the higher earners would either choose to remain on their full day rate over five days, or find ways to circumvent the system to keep their full pay over four days.

I can only imagine that, should it happen, stress levels of those earning under £30k a year would increase massively, and make things like saving for a house even harder. This would have a knock on effect on the bank of Mum and Dad, and make family relationships more strained.

So, for a would-be Government to propose effectively cutting people’s salaries at a time when the cost of living seems to be going through the roof is somewhat reckless. It might play well in an election, but I have a feeling it won’t play well in reality.

Funnily enough, I haven’t even mentioned the one reason I was going write about – the good old extended order! There’s probably a lot of reasons we settled a five day working week; it’s a system that’s proved itself the winner over time.

Working 9 to 5-ish

Circle Mail Email Marketing Time
Standard

Momentum, it seems, are trying to get Labour to adopt the four day working week into their manifesto (as presented by the Green Party at the last election, as I recall).

This seems like little more than their usual tactic of coming up with some appetising promises that just won’t work in the real world.

Where I work, we’ve been experimenting with various options for ‘agile’ working over the past few months, including 9 day fortnights, stacking up hours earlier in the week to finish early on a Friday, and regular work from home days, among others. What’s become clear to me, even before the trial has ended is that there is no one format the works for everyone. I’m happy with the current arrangements I have with my boss, others have found what works best for them.

What is not on offer is a four day week, or, indeed, any reduction in the number of hours worked. Various studies have proposed that the four day week has health and productivity benefits, but common sense tells me that cutting out an entire day’s productivity would lead to either a huge slowdown in production (or more costs to employ more people to take up the slack) or more stress as people try to get things done in less time (or both), which a three day weekend would not really remedy.

And if you one of those that suffer from Sunday evening feeling, and poor sleep before going back to work, imagine how much worse that will be after an extra day of rest?

Momentum’s spokesperson called for the collective wisdom of the Labour membership to prevail in the democratic decision making process. I wonder how many of them will rue the choice, should it be made, when options that would have worked better for them are taken away?

Prediction engines

Cup Coffee Drink Tea Morning
Standard

One of the big ideas from David Eagleman’s book, Incognito, that has really got my mind whirring in the past week or two is the idea that the brain, to a greater extent, is nothing more than a prediction engine.

In fact, it could be argued that what we perceive as ‘now’ is for the most part what our brain thinks now should be. It uses our experience and knowledge to build up an image in our head of what is going on, promoting sounds, sensations and visuals that are a bit out of the ordinary and may require our attention.

For the most part, your brain ignores the vast majority of what is going on around you, because it can fairly accurately guess what comes next.

This is, for me at least, quite a shift from how I assumed the brain works, and possibly explains quite a few strange things – why time seems to pass more quickly as you get older, for one.

When we are young we lack experience, so we are more present and take in more detail as we assess things. As we get older, the brain takes a lot of that processing and deals with it subconsciously, it’s done it so many times. So you plod through the day in a bit of a daze, and time apparently seems to zip by.

It may also possibly explain that horrible thing that seems to become ever present in your life after the age of forty; forgetting what you were doing.

You think, ah, I’ll make a cup of tea, and go through the whole process on auto-pilot, you’ve done it so many times. But if something interrupts the flow of the activity, and you become aware of what you’re doing, it all gets messed up because you can’t immediately access the actions your subconscious has just had you do. “What was I doing?” you say to yourself, feeling a right plum.

I’m no expert, but taken to it’s logical conclusion, maybe some kinds of dementia are not so much the brain mis-firing, as being too effective.