Change has been on my mind a lot more than usual lately. Not surprisingly considering this year has brought drastic changes to how we live. And then there has been an awful lot of talk about how we must change even more in response to the changes that have already occurred. Even though it sounds scary and hard, I tend to think of change as generally a good thing irrespective of whether it is forced on us or we seek it, as it can bring opportunities to learn and grow. However, in June when the protests over the killing of George Floyd broke out in many parts of the world, while many got excited that it would bring about big positive changes in the US justice system and the rest of society, I was highly skeptical.
Recline in bed, pick up a cookery book, read a few pages and viola!, you will sleep like a baby! Really? I kid you not! This has been my go-to sleeping pill this past couple of months. It has been so effective that I can no longer keep it to myself. Judging by the way this year is going I feel I must share it for the benefit of humanity.
I was reminiscing about the “good old” days when I could pop into a museum whenever I wanted. I would pop into the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, whenever I had a few minutes to spare in between running errands or appointments. I particularly liked portraits. I was always struck by how the people in those paintings, taking away their attire, look just like the people around me today. I would leave the Gallery thinking that we are exactly the same people as we’ve always been, and that our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years (as a friend loves to remind me). I ask myself, how can I expect our behavior to be different? Isn’t this why history always repeats itself? Isn’t this why we should pay more attention to history? We are all inundated with theories about what caused the current pandemic and what the future holds, so to make sense of it all I turn to history.
I find the discussion about how the government will pay for the bail-out and how it would be distributed puzzling. It is generally expected and accepted that the bail-out will be financed by governments borrowing through the issuance of bonds. Why can’t the government just print more money to finance the bail-out? It’s not like it is tied to gold or anything (we abandoned that in 1971). But why is taking on more debt the better solution? The reality is that regardless of whether more money is printed or more debt is taken on, “the key fact is that debt and money are two sides, not of the same coin, but of the same bank note.” And they are both created out of thin air, by bankers and central bankers with a few keyboard strokes. Bearing in mind current global circumstances it seems unfair to me that profits (interest) will be made from money created out of thin air for years to come. There is so much uncertainty–we don’t know when and if there will be a vaccine or when and if things can go back to “normal”. Why add the extra pressure of paying off huge amounts of debt?
After three weeks or so in lockdown, (can’t say for certain how long, I haven’t kept count), I don’t have any big insights into what is going on right now or what the future will bring. Neither have I invented anything that will revolutionize or save the world. I’ve just tried to maintain a ‘normal’ routine as much as possible. I’ve had to swap walking straight into a supermarket and buying whatever I want with queuing up for 30 minutes to get in and then buying whatever is available. Daily drop-in to the pool or gym have been replaced by pilates classes on YouTube and working-out in the park. I pop round to see friends via FaceTime and Signal. Instead of making eye contact with and even striking up conversations with passersby (I’ve met some of my closest friends and favorite people this way), I cross the road to maintain 2m of space. It’s been frustrating but these feelings are dispersed by the beauty I see everywhere. Thank you mother spring!
I travel every day to different parts of the world, sometimes to four countries in one day. What?!? Isn’t there a lockdown? How can I still be traveling? How irresponsible of me, I hear you scream! Relax! I haven’t been near an airport in over a month, or a train or subway station in three weeks! I can’t remember the last time I took a bus. I last drove a car in December of last year. So how have I been traveling to all these places?
So if we can’t trust the media, governments, or international organizations like the WHO to give us facts, who can we trust? It seems that facts, never mind the source, don’t really matter to us homo sapiens. According to Peter Ditto, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, when it comes to facts we practice what he calls “motivated skepticism”—we believe facts that are aligned with our pre-established beliefs. “People think they think like scientists but they really think like attorneys do”, that is, “they harness a set of facts to support a particular conclusion they prefer”.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate some things that AI has done for me: I used to have to talk to strangers to ask for directions when lost, now I don’t have to thanks to Google Maps; I buy more items than I need thanks to Amazon’s friendly recommendations. I also have a long list of things I would LOVE AI to do for me, for example, power a washing machine that not only washes my clothes, but folds them and puts them away too; To do ALL my paperwork for me; make trains in London actually run on time; Oh and sort through the maze (and haze) that is my head, pick out words to write the masterpieces I dream of writing. How long do I have to wait? When will AI do away with all human jobs so I can enjoy a life of leisure, living on universal basic income given to me by my government?
I had a question about the history of human civilization. Rather than turn to the rabbit hole that is Google, I thought I’d consult the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that I had read before. After scrolling through the list of contents I decided to start from chapter one. Reading through the first chapter, it stunned me how I had no recollection whatsoever of what I was reading. The knowledge on those pages was certainly worth remembering. Who wouldn’t want to remember the three important revolutions that shaped the course of history, and that the cognitive revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago? There and then, I had an epiphany, this is why you should re-read books–to remember the useful lessons from them!
It is easy to be discouraged by events that occupy news headlines, but there is a place I can always find hope, reading about research and the latest discoveries in science. I was reminded recently that we solved acid rain which was a considerable source of doom and gloom in the 80s. So it is hopeful to say that we shall too solve (at the very least reduce the damage) climate change. Another source of my optimism stems from my job, which brings me into contact with scientists and engineers who dedicate their lives to thinking about and solving problems, like climate change. Here is a couple of recent findings that add to my optimism: