Monday, January 26, 2015

Big Hand to Big Mouth

The pursuit of equality can be a direct obstacle to the pursuit of happiness. Equality forces relative comparison. In order to impose equality, you may have to remove liberty. I think liberty is a more attractive goal. Branko Milanovic wrote a great post yesterday on the fact that `Wealth is not income and income is not consumption'. It is a good reminder that statistics should be treated as questions rather than answers. One of the first questions you should ask back is what is the measure ignoring. Usually you have to look at something in lots of different ways to get a sense of the problem. Averages, for example, are very dangerous. One of my favourite quotes comes from Howard Marks in 'The Most Important Thing' who said 'Never forget the six-foot man who drowned crossing a river that was five foot deep on average'.


To super-summarise Milanovic' point. There are plenty of people in wealthy countries who have zero or negative net wealth but live to a very high standard. To work out wealth, you subtract all you owe from all you own, and ignore income. Where there is lots of financing or someone earns a fat salary, their lack of wealth will certainly not be visible to someone in the street. Someone who lives hand to mouth can have a very big hand and a very big mouth. When it comes to consumption, there are limits to what a mouth can fit in it. Arguably it is the size of the stomach that decides what is needed for equality, and the person who eats till they are 80% full that is happiest. If you live in a rich country, you are typically a cultural billionaire. How do you incorporate into the picture of someone's equality the happiness of their city? How do you incorporate that someone with a very high income may be time impoverished? How do you incorporate scale limits which prevent the very wealthy from being able to control everything - you still only have two eyes, two ears, a limited memory and an annoying lack of omnipresence.

Being someone who practices Yoga, I have many people I know who have chosen a life of volunteering. Some live in beautiful surroundings. They have no wealth and their income is close to board and lodging. They spend their days teaching yoga, cooking, cleaning, reading, exercising and sitting thinking about their breathing. They are happy. They would fall into the wealth and income measures of poverty. Some live on very, very simple diets and could possibly fall into measures of consumption poverty if those measures were poorly designed. Outside the Ashram, others have also chosen a different path. I wrote about Bill Cunningham whose view is 'If you don't take the money. They can't tell you what to do. That is the key to the whole thing.' He is a Cultural Billionaire and has zero interest in wealth or income equality. To force it on him would be to remove his liberty.

I have just finished binge watching the first season of Marco Polo after completing Borgia. While the focus of the series is on political wranglings of the elite, most of the normal people were living in poverty. Power seemed like a pageant to give desperate people some sense of belief that their hunger may end. The kings of those days would marvel at the material wealth and living standards of common men of today. When things are working, we don't have anyone who has the power those kings had. I still bristle at politicians who talk of being 'in power' or 'majority rules'. No one should rule. Constitutions and Laws decide what you can and can't do. There is often discussion over who the most powerful people in the world are. Obama's new wrinkles will argue against his candidacy. Janet Yellen will get some supporters, and her main role is just to influence a interest rate that most people in the world probably have no idea of. Putin may flex his muscles but all that does is decrease his influence.

There is still a lot of extreme poverty, prejudice and powerlessness in the world. We need to be careful what we measure, what it means, and if it is important.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Effective v Meaningful

Incentives matter. Constructing incentives we are conscious of and respond to, which are in line with what we want in the long term is hard. The ideals of a Communist/Socialist society with people being treated fairly clashed with getting the economic incentives and power incentives right. Although a fan, I spoke about four of the big challenges facing Capitalism in 'Hard & Soft'. I think getting things right boils down to understanding and creating the right incentives and feedback loops.

One of the challenges is the gap between effective feedback and meaningful feedback. A friend of mine is one of the best Dads I know. He also happens to be a teacher and his kid goes to the school he teaches at. He told me a story of how one his colleagues told him that the little guy had been cheeky. At the first possible opportunity, Dad went directly to Cheeky Chops and got him to apologise. Event. Feedback. Learning. Cheeky Chops is actually one of the best behaved and happy kids I know. On another occasion, teachers approached Dad about a delayed punishment for an offence from a few days before. Rightly in my view, he was less inclined to act. Changing behaviour is difficult as distance grows. This is the same with learning a skill. In 'Instant Feedback and Fat Tails', I spoke of the success of helping Japanese speakers learn the difference between English Ls and Rs through instant feedback.

This issue rears its head in investing with the problem of stale data. When you make the decision to buy a business, you don't know whether it was a good decision for years. There is also so much noise (things outside your control) that any one decision is close to meaningless. It is your ability to regularly make good decisions that matters. Even then, noise may swamp you. A great investor will still have long periods of under performance. If a 5-10 year period happens to be in the start of your career, you likely won't get a second 5-10 year period. Reverse the luck, and you will get given lots of money to manage just before your period of misfortune starts. Lucky for you. Not so lucky for your clients. The challenge for those deciding who the good investors are is that they want enough data to be meaningful, but as soon as there is enough, it may no longer be meaningful because the situation has changed. 5 years is a really long time for a person. It is only starting to get helpful in terms of figuring out whether decisions were good. By that time though there is already a disconnect with the original behaviour.

All this results in incentives tending to align with quantitative, tangible things that give short term feedback. Time is often the easiest choice. That makes being busy the signal we use to see who is working hard. The problem when you start pricing time is you are undervaluing the priceless. The real answer may be in making more time to step back. By creating space in our days, reflection and opportunity to connect the dots may be the only way to connect the meaning gained over time with the effectiveness of instant feedback.

Priceless Time


Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Education and Happiness (by Karabo Morule)

Guest Post: Karabo Morule

KB is a wonderful person. And not just because she always remembers my birthday. I don't feel an introduction is necessary as the beauty of her guest post articulates her warmth, compassion, intelligence and mojo better than I ever could. I am truly lucky to count her among my friends and heroes.

KB and a super proud Grandmother


On Education and Happiness
by Karabo Morule


Education has been a strong pillar in the foundations of my family. In particular it is a pillar passed on from my parents and from their parents as well, as evidenced by the number of professionals in my family as aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings: teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, architects, even an actuary, shock horror, and many others. Education, formal or informal, was a way of helping people progress in life - doing better that what one's lot was expected to be, especially being black in Apartheid South Africa. It is still globally acknowledged as the best way to progress through historically established social structures such as class, or between the have- and the have-nots and to break through the cycle of poverty. And seeing so many people in our family do "so well" because of their education brings great happiness to our elder family members, who see this as evidence of great custodianship of a family legacy.

To consider happiness from the other end of the family, from the perspective of this particular youngster, I have a yearning to learn more about my elders and forefathers and foremothers. I have a yearning to learn about what their life was like, and what the life of their parents was like. I love to hear stories about my grandfather, Oupa (Jacob), such as how he used to be the chauffeur to a Nationalist MP but that through this occupation visited many cities around the country and even Windhoek, but that during downtime, used to cycle with his brother 180kms sometimes looking for a piece of land to purchase and own with his savings. I love to hear stories about my grandmother, Nkgono (Mmeiki), such as when my dad recounted his trip to England to complete his studies as a Fellow of the College of Surgeons and how they flew over Egypt, she remarked, "Egypt?! How can you fly over a place that is in Heaven?" somewhat dismayed (alluding to its reference in the Bible). I love to hear stories about my grandmother, Koko (Deborah), who relocated from a school she founded in Limpopo to work "in the kitchens" of Johannesburg after her husband, my grandfather, a pastor, passed away leaving her with six young children to look after with the help of relatives living in Alexandra and Soweto in the 1950s and 60s. Koko also used to be the cook and cleaner of a boarding house in Houghton which was home to seven expats, three ladies and four gentleman from Europe who used to remark that they like South Africa but just missed the TV (which hadn't arrived as yet in South Africa at the time). And when the children of tenants of this boarding house outgrew their school uniforms, they would give them to my mother who would then wear them to her school, but merely cover the school badge as it obviously differed to that of her school but she loved how smart the uniform was. That donated uniform belonged to a school which my sister and I would one day attend, something which was beyond my mother's wildest dreams given the times and the fact that it was a prestigious school set up by founders of English provenance.

A manuscript page from Timbuktu

I yearn to hear about the stories of my birth land - the stories which Sol Plaatjie wrote, like the epic tale of Mhudi, the first novel by a person of colour ever published in South Africa; like the novel Chaka by Thomas Mofolo which is a fascinating tale about the great statesman and warrior, a tale which also seemed to have a tragic feel to it making this written account exceptionally unique. I love to hear stories of Ancient Nubia and Kmt, of warrior women like Queen Nzinga, the story of Adolf Badin, and in our more recent history, the stories of Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, all of which I generally randomly came across. I love to hear about the manuscripts in Timbuktu in Mali, which infer a history of reverence towards education by Africans from many centuries ago. I long to learn more about this history, a history which seems more difficult to access as it often isn't documented and often only passed down through oral tradition, a history which is my mission to get to know better, for I know that this will make me happy.



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In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com 

More Fun

When we compare the amazing learning ability of kids to adults, we are often comparing thousands of hours of patient, wide-eyed, listening, playing and trying to tens or hundreds of hours in a classroom or listening to a CD on the way to work. Listening to an adult learning a language can sound to a native speaker like a beginner violinist. When young Jamie Boy learns the violin, it is cute. When James senior learns the violin, it is a case of killing me softly. You may have to wait till he becomes Grampa James, when frankly, he doesn't give a damn and will do whatever he wants.

I have always listened with a sceptical ear when people wax on about kids learning abilities. The little monsters have a completely unfair advantage since besides being surrounded by cheerleaders - they aren't busy. Learning is their full time job. Some have full time servants, sorry I meant parents, monitoring their well being. They are eating right and sleeping right. They have someone monitoring how much time they spend in front of the TV and how much time they play outside. Worrying only seems to come in the teen years. Till then, it is outsourced to Mom and Dad. I would love to outsource my worrying. I reckon that if I could recreate the environment and support a kid gets I would kick their ass. Me vs. a 5 year old. Hell, make her 10. I am not scared of you little girl. Gabriel Wyner points out that adults possess gifts of their own. 'We're very good at spotting patterns and we've developed better learning strategies than toddlers and preschoolers. Take that, kids'.



Besides trying to undo the damage of years at a desk and bad eating habits, my main learning focuses at the moment are writing, piano and French. The writing is a case of just do it. Every day. Piano too, which has been a lot of fun. It has been great being able to prioritise stuff there is very little chance of me making any money out of, and that isn't the point. I have kept up about an hour a day for the last 4 months or so. French got interrupted, and now I have lost momentum. I have a similar thing with exercise. If I am doing something regularly, and then can't do it for a few weeks, it becomes hard to get back on track. The thing is, it isn't really hard in the sense that there are actual obstacles in the way. I was just learning 10 new words a day and then stopped. I can do that, and perhaps writing a blog post on it will inspire me to start again today. I think the trick is fun. My approach to improving my diet is to try add very tasty, healthy meals rather than forcing myself to stop eating things I enjoy. If there is a better option, I will take it. I think that is what will happen with the French. The 'Fluent Forever' approach is to learn the 625 most common words first. That covers something like 80% of spoken French so you can start to have fun. You can learn by listening to music, watching TV series and reading entertaining books. Kids learn best when teachers make it fun. At the end of the day we are all really just big kids. When in doubt, choose the more fun option.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Trigger Happy

Memories are triggered. The reason I don't think we are going to outsource our memories to Google is that there is a big difference between consciously taking the time to look something up, and instant recognition. Three wonderful books which look at how our memory works are 'Tricks of the Mind', 'Fluent Forever' and 'Moonwalking with Einstein'. These books should be standard reading for every teenager. The tricks would both inspire them and save them a lot of study time. Well, it may lead them to study more because the ideas suggested are fun. They all talk about how awesome our minds are at recognising things that matter to us - using links. The more something matters, the more links there are. Knowing this and creating links is fun because you link things to likely triggers. Rude, Sexy, Funny, Colourful images provide the best triggers. Coming up with them requires creativity which becomes a habit.


The mind is ruthlessly efficient at cleaning out stuff that is 'unimportant'. If you have changed jobs a few times, you may berate yourself when you realise you can't remember the name of an ex-colleague you used to spend lots of time with. The reason time is so useful at healing even the most traumatic of situations is that slowly we create other triggers and eventually the trauma disappears from our thoughts. That is good. Less good is when things that do matter get 'spring-cleaned' because you aren't paying attention to them. Despite the belief that we were going to be working 3 hour weeks by now, most of the people I know are incredibly busy. Once work and immediate family responsibilities are addressed, even if there is some time left - there often isn't any energy left, and there aren't any triggers. People can go months and years without seeing or talking to people that really matter to them. It isn't because these people are unimportant - they just aren't in focus. Slowly there are fewer and fewer triggers that bring them to mind. I wrote about the idea of checklists in 'Order vs Spice'. It feels weird though having a checklist of when last you engaged with people that matter, or did things that matter to you. It is a little too structured.

An alternative way may be to take a hint from the memory kings. They suggest learning lists of things to create triggers. For example, you may learn a list of all the albums of a musician you like. You may learn a list of artists. A list of vegetables. Whatever. The point is that if you recognise something, the mind doesn't ignore it. It automatically goes to the connections. Think of when you learn a 'new' word, and then coincidentally starting hearing it really often. Instead of a checklist, you may try to link the important people in your life to situations or things you know you are going to encounter. In fact, by using the memory tricks, many of these mentalists don't bother with checklists anymore because they are so fixed in their heads. They are constantly looking for triggers and so they live life more consciously.

One of the challenges with being busy, particularly if it is routine that is repeated, is once you know what you are doing autopilot can takeover. If there is one thing that makes time fly, it is not being present.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Global Citizen

Where we are born is one of the single biggest contributors to our well being. The geographic lottery decides who gets to be born into a wealthy, liberal, democracy with lots of welfare support should things go wrong. Last night I became a dual citizen of South Africa and the United Kingdom. The ceremony for 48 new British citizens was like a United Nations convention. There were people from all over the world - Ghana, Mauritius, India, China, Bulgaria, Russia, The United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc. (I lost count but there were not that many clumps from one place). Countries that welcome immigrants should feel proud. Currently I couldn't repeat the process I have gone through over the last 6 years because the rules have changed. There is a backlash of popular sentiment against the flow of people. This is presumably natural given difficult economic times. It is also something we should fight against. It is pretty random why we should feel empathy for those who happen to live close to us, and forget about those who live far away. 

Imagine a world where you didn't need passports? The yogi who brought the Yoga I practice to the West also thought borders were over rated. Swami Vishndevananda learnt to fly a plane and in 1971 flew into Belfast along with Peter Sellers, 'bombing' the troubled city with flowers. He also flew into other war ridden areas like the Suez Canal, Pakistan, India, and across the Berlin wall. He had a handmade passport declaring himself a universal citizen. I don't quite have his charm, so have had to take a slightly longer route to expanding my ability to live, work and travel more freely.


I moved to London because I was keen to get some experience in a big global city. The main reason it was London was because my niece was about to be born, and I hadn't lived close to my big brother in years. Being on a South African passport meant I still had to go through quite a lot of admin every time I wanted to do some travelling. I couldn't just pull out my colouring pencils like Swami Vishnu. I have been lucky in that work brought me back to South Africa often and social media means I still have access to the same people. In some ways, it feels like just a different city in the same country. I only visited Cape Town once in the first 18 years of my life, having grown up in Durban, and I was two years old. Like a New Yorker who didn't visit San Francisco. 

By working in a global city, you don't leave home. You get to mix with people from all over the world. You get to break down the global lottery of who you meet and what ideas you interact with. In my Utopia, there would be a few global cities with very accepting immigration policies allowing people from all over to come together. With a free flow to and from their homes, those ideas would filter out. I am very aware of how lucky I am to have been allowed that opportunity. I wish it was more freely available.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Holy Objects

To understand why people want to keep objects holy, you can't start with whether or not the holiness is 'true'. In 'The Righteous Mind' Jonathan Haidt looks at the different moral foundations or frames that cultures use,  and tries to understand the impasse between good people. Interestingly, it is often liberal minded people who get angrier and are less accepting of conservative people. This was counter intuitive for me since my understanding of a liberal environment is one of tolerance. I still find it frustrating how angry/bitter some very caring, creative people are. I know it is because they get passionately upset about injustices they see. The anger typically breaks down any chance of changing someone's mind though. Haidt is encouraging people to put the non-polite conversations back on the table. We have been great at breaking down racism, sexism, homophobia, classism etc. It doesn't help if we introduce other tribes that we define ourselves by in order to provide a home for our desire to find someone to target our hatred at.

In 'A Sense of Authenticity', I looked at our ability to tell if someone was parroting something or if it was a part of them. Paul Bloom discusses how important the truth of a story is to us. We feel like somehow a shirt worn by a celebrity is worth more than an identical, but brand new, shirt. When the bubble is burst, the value evaporates. No matter how much pleasure you have got from something, discovering it is a fake will destroy your ability to go forward. Fake when it comes to stories or faith based belief is a little pointless though. There is, by definition, no demonstrable proof for faith. It is personal.

Even those who don't believe in a supernatural power can have holy objects. Objects that remind them of something. Perhaps it is a Kindle. I  love some books. When I finish them, the old book may sit on my bookshelf and I may not read it again for years. When I look at it, I feel pleasure. With a Kindle, the same object gets more and more love each time I read another awesome book. We have other objects we love. Rings. Watches. Stubs from a concert. Momentos that remind us of significant occasions. We look after these objects. They are holy. They are the things we would grab if there was a fire. Those stories can be ruined, and the memories elicited changed. We look after the objects in order to protect them.

Respecting someone's holy objects in public isn't case of deciding whether it is true for you. It is like not starting a phone conversation in a cinema. It is like not loudly swearing like a trooper on a public bus. It is like pausing to wait for someone to take a photo before walking between them and their smiling buddy. Basically, it is just playing nice. It is not illegal to not be nice, but we do have various four letter words to describe those who aren't.

All this falls apart though when your story starts messing with other people. I still think the terrorists are losing. They have to resort to remarkable. Seth Godin talks about how to spread ideas through having stuff that people will talk about.  Terrorists seem to get his message. The thing is, ideas don't spread unless people spread them. As Jon Stewart points out when he was #JeSuisConfused about France's response to an anti-semitic comedian not even a week after millions marched for Free Speech - the best way to respond is to not buy tickets! If you take the bait and reply with angry messages, you are spreading the messages. That is what trolls are on the internet. They get people angry and cause a commotion. Don't waste money prosecuting and jailing them. Don't waste time feeding them. Trolls die when we ignore them.

 

The Enigma of Comrades Marathon (by Richard Thomason)

Guest Post: Richard Thomason

After discovering that Craig was Iron Man and the positive response to his guest post, he suggested I speak to another of the Avengers. Richard was a few years ahead of me at school, so we knew of each other rather than knew each other well. He had come across the blog through mutual friends and we had connected, and so lucky for us, he was keen. If you too know someone who you think has an interesting story to tell, connected in some way to happiness, well being, vitality, learning or any of the good stuff life has to offer, encourage them to send me a post too, or point me in their direction to help.

The wheels on the bus go round and round
Richard (far left) and John (second from right)

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The Enigma of the Comrades Marathon
by Richard Thomason


What is it that brings some 23,000 runners together every year to run a gruelling 90km ultramarathon? I suspect every person that lines up has a different reason. For me it has a magical appeal that is really difficult to explain to others. Perhaps it is the fact that I grew up on the route and used to wake up at 5am every race day to watch the televised start, followed by a trip up to the roadside to show our support. Perhaps it is the race's 90-year history? Perhaps it is the fact that I watched my Dad give up cigarettes and then conquer this event five times? Maybe his last run in race number 9304 and my first run in number 9303 made it that much more special for me? Perhaps it is the fact that it allows so many ordinary people to do something extraordinary?


I started out on this Comrades journey in 1997 at the age of 20 and ran 10 races in succession. It was in 2003, while running for Benoni Northerns Athletic Club that I met club mate Gerard Visser (GV), #4338. Now a veteran of 25 runs, he maintained that achieving a silver medal (or 2 Rand coin) wasn't too difficult. His words "It's a donkey's race" and "You only have to run 5 minutes a kay" got me thinking. I never believed I could run this race in under 7hrs30min. I was a 3:18 marathoner at that time. However, as we got deeper into the season and the miles and quality sessions racked up, more and more people asked if I was going to give it a go. Eventually I decided that it was now or never. So it was, at 26 years old, I crossed the line at Kingsmead Stadium in 7hrs28mins15s, with 1min45s to spare. By 2006, after achieving my permanent number, I was ready for a good break. So for 5 years I sat and watched the race on the TV, and every single one of those years I wished I was there. One year my wife said: "If you want to run it again then do it." That was it and after doing some fairly basic training I managed to run 7hrs47min in 2012.

My Comrades mentor GV had also said that the 'Up' silver (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) is the hardest thing he has done in his life. This too, got me thinking. Was my 2003 race a one hit wonder? Was it my youth and ignorance at 26 years of age? Was it the altitude I had trained at back then? Finish times certainly do not correlate very well with distance trained (see graph below). Last year I did everything I considered right in my build-up and managed to run 5 minutes slower than in the 2012 down run! I sat down at the finish, closed my eyes for a brief second and said to my wife that I am finished with this race. I had put everything into last year's race: mentally and physically, and I was spent. One of my running mates immediately piped up that 2015 would be the 90th running of the race and we are all going to run together to get 'up' silvers. A few days later, after the stiffness had left my legs, I began wondering where I could tweak my training slightly to get stronger and fitter. How could I eat differently? What if I stretched more, added a spin class, cut my mileage slightly but added another quality session or did some strength work. The recipe is never a cut and paste. Everyone is made differently and has unique work commitments. We peak differently and recover at varying rates. Some thrive on mega mileage and some don't. This to me is the lure of Comrades Marathon. This year, barring illness or injury, you will see me in B-batch in Durban chasing the 'up' silver, as a dark horse.

Some interesting outliers. 
(One year - 2004 - is missing when I lost data due to a hard drive crash) 


Left: Before the final turn into the stadium during last year's race: not the happiest runner.

Right: One of my favourite pictures - GV and I battling it out near Pot & Kettle in 2003. GV also ran his PB that year (7:18.44) and has 6 silvers.

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In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at trevorjohnblack@gmail.com