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:
Talking with a friend about his plans for the holiday season, he shared with me that other than resting, his other major task was to do some ‘emotional admin’. By emotional admin he means reflecting on achievements and disappointments of the year, and setting goals for the upcoming year. A common practice, this time of the year, evident by the plethora of headlines broadcasting: ‘best… of 2019’, ‘worst… of 2019’, ‘top New Year’s resolutions ideas’, ‘how to make and stick to your New Year’s resolutions’ and ‘declarations for 2020’. I stopped paying heed to this practice many years ago, just as in my teens I abstained from Christmas celebrations (Yep! I’m Bah Humbug. But I still accept presents). I realised that resolutions are ephemeral, forgotten by Valentine’s Day–the elliptical machines in the gym fully occupied the whole of January, come February are free again.
This doesn’t mean to say that I don’t reflect or set goals. I do, but it doesn’t happen in December or January. Besides, I’ve found that when you achieve goals can’t always be fixed to a calendar year as there are so many factors at play, and mostly out of my control (myself included). So I approach the beginning and end of the year the same way I do every other day of the year, thankful and striving.