De omnibus dubitandum
1 Oct 2013
Successful people often, if not always, assume that their success is the result of hard work or talent, or a combination of the two.
And they’re wrong.
Success has very little to do with hard work, nor with talent. Yes, hard work certainly helps to achieve your goals, and having a healthy dose of talent doesn’t go amiss either.
But there are literally millions of hard-working people out there, struggling every day with the challenges life throws at them and barely managing to keep their head above water.
And there are also countless people who have an amazing talent or prodigious gift for one thing or another, but who never get even a glimpse of a chance to exploit that talent to achieve what we call success.
So neither hard work nor talent can deliver success. What can?
When we look at people we judge to be successful by our modern standards – people who have accumulated wealth and power and influence, who live in luxury and want for nothing – what lessons can we learn from them?
What do all these successful people have in common? Are they all hard-working? Do they all possess a certain measure of that ephemeral quality we call ‘talent’?
No. There’s just one thing all successful people – all of them, every single one – have in common: They got lucky.
Luck comes in many forms. The most basic luck anyone can have is the luck of birth. Your birth, a purely accidental event that you have absolutely zero control over, is the single biggest factor when it comes to determining your success in life.
If you happen to be born in to a wealthy family, chances are you will inherit that wealth, and as a result society deems you to be successful. You had nothing to do with that yourself at all. It was just pure luck.
Less obvious luck of birth is being born white. Or male. Or heterosexual. (If you are all three, consider yourself an early victor in the lottery of life – you basically started life with all the cheat codes on.)
Should you have had the misfortune of having been born in a destitute African family in Somalia, or a ghetto in Los Angeles, or in the slums of Manila, your chances of achieving success are significantly diminished. You just weren’t lucky enough.
Luck doesn’t stop at birth. At many different points in your life your future is determined by random acts of chance. Everything from who you meet and befriend to where you choose to have dinner can and does impact your life in meaningful ways, and almost always those are in turn determined by a purely random sequence of events.
Whenever you hear rags-to-riches stories, so often thrown up as evidence that hard work always delivers its just rewards, keep an ear out for that one moment of luck, that one event of pure chance, that helped the protagonist escape the clutches of poverty and achieve success. It’s always there. Without that fortuitous turn of events, the protagonist would not have succeeded at all, and would still be poor and unnoticed.
Who you are and where you are in life – holding up an empty cardboard cup on the corner of the street, or chairing meetings in 30th floor board rooms – is entirely the result of luck. Hard work and talent played only a peripheral role.
And that’s without going in to the neuroscientific minefield of subconsciousness, which basically states that you – the conscious, decision-making part of you – is not really in control at all, but that you are governed by inscrutable subconscious processes of the mind that are in turn more or less deterministic and dependent on a great many internal and external factors – most of which are, too, the result of pure random chance.
So whenever you see someone successful boasting about their accomplishments, or look down on those less fortunate than them, or when you feel the urge to congratulate yourself on your own achievements, keep in mind that it is all built on a very flimsy foundation of luck.
Always remember, you cannot truly take credit for your successes nor blame others entirely for their failures. It is a probabilistic universe, devoid of meaning, where success or failure is determined by a roll of the dice.
13 Sep 2013
Whilst Tao Lin has been making a reputation for himself overseas, I’d never heard of the chap and so I approached this book with an open visor and a near-total lack of preconceived notions. It turned out to be an interesting, if unexpected, read.
The first thing that struck me about the novel was its style. Sentences go on for absurd lengths, with the comma being Lin’s preferred punctuation mark by far. At first this grated me, but then I got stuck in and found that those expansive paragraph-length sentences actually served to draw me in further, evoking a trance-like state of reading that empathises with the drugged state of the book’s narrator.
The book itself lacks a narrative as such. It’s basically a collection of disconnected events that occur to the narrator, and the book seems obviously autobiographical. Yet I suspect the format of the novel allows Lin to blend fact and fiction at his leisure. To me that sort of writing has always seemed a shortcut, an easy way to churn out books without having to put too much effort in to storylines or narrative cohesion.
And despite the trance-like style, the book lacks substance. While at times it describes the mental state of its first person narrator in depth, it somehow always steps back from declaring emotion. Not once did I ever get the sense the main character was actually feeling any type of emotion at all. He comes across as a robotic drone coasting through a rather meaningless existence fuelled by prescription drugs and short-lived friendships.
Despite all this, I found myself captivated by Tai Pei and finished it quickly. There’s so much to dislike about the book, but I found myself incapable of actually putting it away.
In the end I found it an interesting departure from my usual reading genres, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any other Tao Lin works any time soon.
13 Aug 2013
Genetically modified organisms – GMO – are a hot topic at the moment, with loads of people weighing in on the debate. Especially the anti-GMO stance receives a lot of attention, fuelling scare stories about the hazards of GMO crops and food.
However, there seems to be precious little facts in these scare stories. Fortunately there have also been a few recent articles that provide a more balanced, fact-based perspective on GMO foods:
This thoroughly researched article on Slate debunks a GMO scare story published in Elle magazine – not quite a staple of fact-based reporting – and delves deeper in to the scientific evidence about GMO foods.
Turns out there’s no evidence whatsoever suggesting that GMO food is any more dangerous than regular food:
“Since GMOs were introduced into the food supply almost 20 years ago, there has not been one documented case of any health problem in humans—not even so much as a sniffle—linked to GMOs. The American Medical Association, whose physician members would have long ago picked up on a GMO-allergy connection, definitively rejects such speculation. “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature,” it has stated. That scientific consensus has been endorsed by every major science oversight body in the world.”
But, say the GMO skeptics, what about the correlation between the growing consumption of GMO food in America and the rise in autoimmune disorders?
“The rise in such problems, including allergies, started long before GMOs were introduced. Incidences of these same conditions across U.K., Europe and in other countries where there is no consumption of GM foods match U.S. trends. To put this claim in perspective, the upward slope also tracks with the cumulative wins of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, the GDP of China, and indeed the increased consumption of organic foods over a similar period of time. In other words, the alarming connection that Shetterly alludes to in her piece is completely random.”
An article on Grist explores the issues of allergenic proteins originating from GMO foods. Turns out that in this respect GMO foods are actually safer than regular foods and are being tested much more thoroughly for new allergens:
“First, there just aren’t many new proteins in GE food (all allergens are proteins) — you are adding just a couple. It’s much riskier to introduce a new food from another country, each of which contains hundreds of new proteins, Taylor wrote, and yet we subject new foods to less safety testing. (When the first kiwis were shipped into the United States in 1962, they weren’t tested because they were an established food, but, as it turned out, they did cause allergic reactions in some people.)
Furthermore, Taylor said, the new genes in transgenic plants generally express very low amounts of protein (when a gene causes an organism to make a protein it’s called expression). Allergens generally account for more than 1 percent of the proteins in a food, while the proteins expressed by transgenic DNA are much more sparse.”
The New York Times published a balanced piece about the use of genetic modification to help oranges resist a specific type of bacteria:
“Oranges are not the only crop that might benefit from genetically engineered resistance to diseases for which standard treatments have proven elusive. And advocates of the technology say it could also help provide food for a fast-growing population on a warming planet by endowing crops with more nutrients, or the ability to thrive in drought, or to resist pests. Leading scientific organizations have concluded that shuttling DNA between species carries no intrinsic risk to human health or the environment, and that such alterations can be reliably tested.”
Many anti-GMO activists point to the evils of Monsanto and how scientific studies are funded by biotech companies and thus cannot be trusted. But there’s abundant independent research in to GMO foods (over a third of peer-reviewed studies on GMO are independently funded), and a great many independent health organisations have undertaken their own studies in to the health risks associated with GMO crops.
The results are unanimous and clear: GMO foods are perfectly safe, and probably necessary to maintain sustainable agriculture that sufficiently feeds our growing population.
While I consider myself a left-wing thinker, on this particular issue I vehemently disagree with the anti-GMO stance prevalent in the political left.
For me it’s a bit like climate change, vaccination, and evolution: there is an unassailable scientific consensus, with only a tiny minority of dissenting voices that lack any form of empirical evidence. Unfortunately in this case public opinion is eager to embrace the – very vocal – fringe lunatics.
6 Aug 2013
In just five short minutes this animation manages to include a smorgasbord of geek awesome: hackers, assassins, black ops science labs, telekinetic superhumans, and a dystopian sci-fi world.
I don’t think the internet could cope with a more purely concentrated dosage of awesome.
2 Aug 2013
I’ve been struggling to make up my mind about a number of issues that are currently hot topics in the UK.
I don’t think it’s healthy that people get locked up for making bad jokes on Twitter, or saying things that rub some politician the wrong way. Freedom of speech should include the freedom to offend.
But then, on the other hand, I think some elements of the British press have taken their free speech liberties too far and are now actively spreading lies and disinformation in the pursuit of cheap pageviews and circulation figures, without being held to account in any way. The result is a deeply misinformed public serving as the playthings of media moguls that set the tabloid agendas, and the politicians they sponsor.
On top of this, there have been many instances in recent times of this freedom being taken to extreme lengths by individuals as well. Specifically threats of rape and murder via social media sites such as Twitter.
The media’s abuse of free speech (and I truly think tabloids are abusing their right to free speech, instead of treating it with the care it deserves) is currently the purview of the Leveson inquiry and its proposed legislation.
The second type of free speech abuse is, to me, a vulgar breach of the sacred right to speak your mind. That sort of despicable behaviour should be stamped out wherever it occurs.
I welcome debate on controversial issues, and I think insults are an unavoidable part of online discourse (or any form of discourse, really). But when you start to threaten people you don’t agree with, you are simply a catastrophic loser severely lacking in intellectual acumen.
The thing I’m struggling with, though, is how we handle those sorts of threats.
Threatening to hurt another person is already illegal. The problem is that on Twitter and other sites these threats are made anonymously (making the perpetrators even more pathetic, lacking even the most basic courage).
Because they’re anonymous, the law can’t act against them. And so re-emerges the debate about making it less easy for people to be anonymous on the internet, and to allow for stricter tracking of what people do online.
And that, I believe, is not a good thing.
Transparency is not the solution. Transparency will merely succeed in shifting the balance of power to those who own the data. And we, as citizens, will not be the ones owning the data. It will be owned by corporations and governments, and I genuinely don’t trust those organisations to use it for the betterment of mankind.
If you think having your entire life laid bare to big data analysis is perfectly fine as you have nothing to hide, you haven’t been paying attention. (Also, you definitely won’t have read Orwell’s 1984.)
Yet, if we’re to effectively fight against those anonymous cowards who threaten and abuse people online, we will have to sacrifice some of our online privacy.
Is that a worthwhile trade?
Or was Benjamin Franklin right when he wrote that “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Is that sort of vile, deplorable hate speech simply the price we have to pay for our freedoms? Is it something we’ll have to accept and live with? Or should we embrace a more totalitarian state so we can stamp out these ‘unwanted elements’?
I think that, by writing this down, I’ve actually started making up my mind at last…
22 Jul 2013
News broke today that the UK government wants to force all internet service providers to block pornography by default, forcing users to ‘opt-in’ before they can visit sites that are deemed to contain pornographic content.
This utterly deranged policy has a great many problems associated with it. I’ll list a few:
First and foremost, in describing this new policy PM David Cameron commits the grave and unforgivable error of conflating porn with images of child abuse. This is probably a deliberate and highly cynical move – a common political sleight of hand known as “think of the children” – intended to position the porn-blockade as somehow being aimed against child porn.
This is of course utterly farcical. Child porn is already highly illegal and actively blocked and deleted whenever it is found. There’s no need to introduce another law or policy to fight it. On top of that, most of the sharing of child porn imagery happens in the ‘dark net’; usenet groups, private forums, peer-to-peer services, all of which are beyond the scope of ISPs to identify and block, and whose users are technologically savvy enough to make a mockery of any attempt at blocking.
Second, a nationwide blockade of porn would depend on a self-selected group of politically motivated civil servants to decide what is pornography and what is not. As we have already learned, what one person calls artful erotic imagery, another person would classify as hardcore porn. It’s hardly a clearly defined category.
As a result, a porn blockade will leave a lot of forms of art and personal expression on the wrong side of the filter.
Third, at its root this is simply an attempt to censor the internet. Censorship is anathema to free expression, and free expression is the essential foundation of an open and inclusive democratic society.
In light of the highly questionable recent conduct of the UK government and its various agencies, it’s very easy to imagine this porn blockade to be expanded to other forms of content the government finds ‘objectionable’, and to create a list of all people who have decided to opt out of the blockade for ‘intelligence gathering purposes’.
Fourth, such a blockade is easily interpreted as a method to absolve parents from their responsibility to educate their children about safe internet usage.
This is not a good thing. Parents should talk to their children about the good things and bad things to be found online, and parents can very easily install all kinds of content filters – on their computers as well as enabled via their ISPs – to prevent their children from viewing porn, if they so wish.
That is what parents should be doing (there’s literally no excuse not to), and it sure as hell is not the government’s job to step in where parenting skills fail.
Fifth, David Cameron is showing staggering amounts of hypocrisy by wanting this blunt force porn filter, but not acting against the blatantly sexist Page 3 phenomenon. This truly reveals the porn block for the mind-bogglingly cynical point-scoring move that it is.
By not acting against Page 3, Cameron shows he genuinely doesn’t care about the objectification of women and sexist attitudes in his country, and simply wants to appease The Sun so it’ll say nice things about him.
By acting in favour of the Daily Mail’s anti-porn crusade (itself an endeavour of truly epic levels of hypocrisy) Cameron shows that he is eager to pander to a misguided foaming-at-the-mouth rant from the newspaper so it’ll write in favour of him.
In short, Cameron cares only about votes. When it comes to genuinely helping fight sexist attitudes, his ‘fucks given’ meter stands firmly at zero.
This is just a sampling of reasons that make this horrifically misguided porn filter a bad move. Truly, the UK is steam-rolling towards totalitarianism where any whiffs of freedom are rooted out and everything put in service of the capitalist superstate.
14 Jun 2013
On 9 June 2013, Iain Banks died from cancer at age 59.
It’s hard to overestimate how much I love Banks’s writing. In my list of ten favourite non-fiction books, his solitary non-fiction effort is very near the top. My list of ten favourite literary fiction novels has three of his books on it. And over half my list of favourite science fiction novels of all time are Iain M. Banks books.
Even more than Hitchens, Iain Banks’ writing brought genuine joy to my life. And now he’s gone.
And I find that to be a profoundly sad thought.
Iain wasn’t done yet. He was nowhere near done. But cancer took him away, like it’s taken Hitchens, and taken family members, and taken friends.
Fuck you cancer. Fuck you very much.