Knowledge Gaps – The Problem with Voting

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In a friendly conversation with a stranger at a bar, it occurred to me that there is something fundamentally flawed with the way we perceive the world and how we react to our perceptions. The man, quite talkative with a thick Eastern European accent decided to discuss political affairs and some of the happenings around the world. In one of the subjects, he displayed an unusual sense of understanding of the region in question. He couldn’t properly identify which capital cities belonged to which countries, or what exactly was happening beyond what is apparent on the face of it.

It got me thinking about how all people are likely to have a similar sense of knowledge where they have different amounts of knowledge pertaining to different subjects. The idea intrigued me because I immediately thought of the process of polling, and elections, and they are fundamentally based on the idea that every person, above a certain age, belonging to a particular nationality, is allowed an equal vote like everyone else that shares those criteria that required no skill, effort, or intelligence. This imperfection of democracy is, of course, not a novel idea.

Churchill famously remarked, “The best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter.”

There is, of course, political incorrectness involved in this idea. It implies that a certain amount of knowledge is required to make democracy something really worthwhile. It persuaded me to think of examples where either a double standard exists in our society that would overrule the political incorrectness of this idea.

Society is built upon the general principle that most high paying vocations can only be reached through passing certain criteria such as standardized tests or earning academic qualifications from a university. Job competency then is directly measured by the amount of knowledge and/or intelligence a person possesses. But if people need to be qualified in order to work, then why don’t they need to be qualified in order to vote.

In market research where companies compile data about consumer tastes and preferences, and use it to create a more suitable product, the ‘voter’ or person surveyed is not required to tick any boxes when it comes to qualifications. They just need to have a residence, access to the internet, and a general preference for things over others. It’s quite interesting to me that the process of voting has more or less the same criteria. Both forms of voting do not require any qualifications or proof of knowledge.

This seems to suggest that a presidential candidate is not elected on the basis of being competent. I say this because many people, even those who are educated, do not have the sufficient political, economical, or social knowledge to make an informed choice about who they think should lead their country. In the case of market research, the product is catered to be suitable for what most people want. The product is consumed within these groups of people, and a continual process of feedback would be taking place after that.

In the case of politics and presidential elections, the newly elected president is the product. However, in this case, the product has the ability to affect society, the economy, healthcare, and even other sovereign nations. It seems to me a little absurd that almost anyone can be part of these significant decisions.

If I hired a plumber to fix my sink, I would be sure to take note of his qualifications. I would also do the same for my mechanic, teacher, taxi driver, pilot, or anyone who is required to complete a job with any kind of competence at all. It would seem to follow that when it comes to deciding who the leader of my country is, I should want people with some kind of competency to decide.

The underlying insinuation from all of this is that the accessibility to the amount of power highlighted above is very odd. Of course, if asked about what a possible solution to this is, the immediate answer would be to test the competency of the voters in terms of political, historical, and social knowledge. Only those who have displayed adequate, relevant knowledge would be allowed to vote. In the same way a prospective drivers, job applicants, sports athletes, and police officers need to display competency in their domains, so should a prospective voter.

The fact that the situation as it is now is not like that seems to undermine the seriousness of voting and the actual impact it could have. It might indeed suggest that the process of voting is a meaningless exercise altogether.

As it was wonderfully put in the excellent 2001 movie, “Waking Life”, “You want the puppet on the right, or the puppet on the left?

The Catcalling Debate

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I saw a Youtube video about some guy and some woman debating whether or not men should catcall. I found it really fascinating that there was ‘another’ side to the debate. This all started when a short video showing a woman walking through New York City getting verbally abused by sexually charged compliments throughout her walk.

I wasn’t impressed by the finding because I thought it showed the weakness of the result rather than the strength. If she was walking through New York City for 10 hours, which is 600 minutes, and they were able to capture less than 2 minutes of catcalling, it doesn’t seem to me to be all that impressive or groundbreaking. The conditions were far from experimentally sound, and there are a lot of important details we don’t know about.

Going back to the video where there was a debate…

The guy made some embarrassing and highly unintelligent comments. My favorite was near the end when he suggested women should buy guns. That was nothing short of genius. I’m not really sure why there’s even an argument to begin with. If some women are bothered by this, then don’t do it. Even if it were true that some women do enjoy it, the fact that other women don’t and feel very uncomfortable means that men should not continue doing it.

There are even arguments about whether or not the compliments were sexually motivated. It doesn’t matter. Even if the comments had no sexual motivations whatsoever, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to do it. It is the act of harassing other human beings who feel embarrassed, threatened, and vulnerable that is the problem. The reason men catcall can come from several factors, all of which are completely irrelevant.

If I went up to a stranger and punched him in the face, me telling him that I only punched him because I was angry about my divorce and just needed to take it out on someone isn’t going to merit a kind response.

What shocked me was that a lot of men spoke up about this and defended their right to catcall. I used to think men who did these kinds of things were well aware that their actions weren’t highly esteemed by most women, but they chose to do it anyway because it was fun, and it could get them a cheap laugh. The positives outweighed the negatives, and I could understand why they would want to do it. I wouldn’t personally do it because for me, I don’t get much out of it and even if I did I’d rather not bother people for my own amusement.

Bullying is universally recognized as a serious problem, and a very few people would defend it. In fact, the only people I’d expect to hear defending bullying would be stand up comedians. The motivation is that it would shock people. It’s similar to how comedians joke about other heavy subjects like rape, death, and relationships. I think it’s entertaining when they do that, and I’m never offended by anything they say, and I think no one ever should be.

But these people are comedians, it is their job to entertain you, and they use this kind of material so that they’ll able to enhance your entertainment in some way. But in that video, that guy, although he was a comedian, wasn’t trying to entertain anyone, he was seriously presenting an argument that essentially supported bullying. I say ‘bullying’ because bothering people for your own amusement is bullying.

When you catcall, you aren’t trying to make girls happy, or boost their ego. You do it to make yourself feel better, entertained, empowered, or amused. The argument in the end of the video when he was calling for women to fight back was very ill thought out. Women don’t react because they’re terrified, because they know that if they talk back to the wrong person they can get raped or murdered. They know it’s a small chance, but they’re not willing to risk their lives over it, and I’d say that’s pretty reasonable. Women who do defend themselves should be congratulated and supported.

But to try to suggest that women who don’t respond should be more aggressive and/or ‘get a gun’ is completely ridiculous and moronic.

Inspiration, Ambition, and the Inverted U

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What inspires you? A child refusing to live ordinarily and choosing to showcase a remarkable ability to sing or dance or express themselves, an elderly person refusing to accept ageing and displaying an undying desire to maintain their youth through physically strenuous activities, a disabled person refusing to accept their handicap as a hindrance to their dreams, an underdog who worked tirelessly and sacrificed everything to become successful, an athlete who outperforms millions, a romantic story that defies all odds, a famous performer, politician, artist, author, leader, someone who overcomes discrimination and racism, a brave soldier, a loving parent who lifts a car to save her child, a genius?

We are all inspired by someone, or have the capacity to at least. We are often inspired by those who excel at a field that we take a passion in, those who have surpassed what we thought was possible, those who break all the records and touch our hearts in some way, those who are famous. I also believe that there is a lot of inspiration to be found in other, less explored, less popularized, less flashy areas in life.

There is a lot to be learned , for example, from immigrants who move to a new country where they don’t understand the language, the traditions, or the culture. They have a basic level of education, little to no savings, and yet are adamant at working tirelessly and quietly to make sure they can support their family. Because of remittances, they have no money to spend on themselves, to buy that marginally more expensive meal, or outfit. A lot of great people today have only been able to achieve their success because their parents were one of those people.

Many can also take admiration of people with a very demanding job who maintain the ability to have external interests, who find the ability to lead a well balanced life. There is a common theme between everything we find inspiring, it is the action of overcoming a large obstacle. Be it lack of financial power, lack of physical ability, fear, environment, circumstances, laziness, we all feel inspiration by someone having to overcome something.

No one feels inspired by someone who inherited money, or was sent to an excellent school. There is nothing inspiring about these people because they didn’t need to overcome anything; there’s very little romanticism and heroism in the idea of being born privileged in some way. Respect goes towards only those who had to work hard, and it is perhaps in this concept that the trade-off exists in being privileged.

When someone is privileged, they lose most of their ability to inspire others, and even, to inspire themselves. Their success can easily be attributed to favorable circumstances and thus lose the tenacity, hunger, and will to become successful. This loss of hunger will almost certainly cause them to fail. If you give a prehistoric hunter  a lifetime supply of any food he wants, would he still hunt? Would he still hone his skills and tirelessly try to improve? Of course not.

If there is no urgency, then it is extremely difficult to create motivation, albeit not impossible. This concept, explained by Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath, is coined “The inverted U”. It’s a representation of a two-dimensional graph where personal success is measured vertically, while inherited wealth is measured horizontally. In summary, poverty and excessive wealth are equally and fatal for an individual’s personal financial success. A person in poverty is handicapped for the obvious reasons of living in an unfavorable environment for proper education, lack of opportunities, lack of connections. A rich person on the other hand is well equipped with each of those things, however, suffers from severe lack of ambition and hunger.

The theory is something I personally find very intriguing and should seem counter-intuitive to most; I certainly think it is.  If the hypothesis is true, and that these extreme levels of wealth and poverty are both equally detrimental to an individual’s success, then shouldn’t that imply that we should feel inspired by someone who inherited a very large sum of money and was still able to become successful?

In other words, while it is clear that much admiration will be shown towards someone who overcame poverty to become successful, should it also be true that similar admiration should be shown towards someone who overcame extreme wealth to succeed?

There’s Time for Experience

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If there was only one feature that could describe modern technology, it would be in its masterful feat in effectively saving time. It’s amazing to think that there was a day, just over a couple of decades ago, where emails didn’t exist, where you needed to remember to get a camera whenever you wanted to take a picture, when you needed to locate a payphone to make a phone call, when you needed to carry pens and paper with you if you needed to make notes, an actual alarm clock, an actual phone book, and a countless number of other things.

The amount of convenience technology has brought to our lives is incredible. And yet, we are still looking for ways to save time, to save energy, and to find more convenience. We can now shop online for just about anything, and we can watch anything anytime we want without commercials, we can get a glimpse into other people’s lives who are thousands of miles away from us, and we can do all of that without moving an inch, without wasting a single extra second.

And yet, despite the truly amazing progress we have made in terms of efficiency, it seems that we might be missing the bigger picture. Rory Sutherland in an insightful Ted Talk discussed the importance of perspective in our lives. He was discussing how the stress of waiting for a train was solved by not making the train faster, but by putting a countdown clock.

 Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, knuckle-biting, going ‘When’s this train going to arrive?Rory Sutherland

His idea was that what irritated people wasn’t the fact that the transportation system needed improving, that trains needed to be faster, or that we can’t wait anymore for the new groundbreaking lightning fast transportation system, it was that we just needed to tweak little things to greatly enhance our everyday experiences.

I think that’s quite an significant point. Many of us are fixated on reducing the time it takes to get to our destination, often spending a considerable amount of time and effort into finding the least time consuming route possible, and to a large extent, we’re not really making ourselves any happier. If anything, we might just be making ourselves more miserable.

I was discussing with a friend of mine a few ideas of how the future might look like, how future inventions may very well make the time we spend waiting to get somewhere, waiting to buy something completely negligible. I expressed how  I was annoyed at the task of grocery shopping as it took an exceptional amount of time, and effort that could be used for something more meaningful. I started to enthusiastically discuss all the innovations that are making live grocery shopping a thing of the past. I imagined it would be truly incredible if we had so much more time to spend on things we loved doing, instead of just waiting for our stop, or walking around aimlessly in a supermarket buying things.

I was, however, promptly interrupted from my enthusiastic musings when he said, “Yeah, but what about the experience? You keep talking about how we’ll have so much more time to spend, but what are we going to spend it doing? Don’t you have moments throughout the day where you don’t really want to work or anything, or that you’re just too exhausted to really think? And wouldn’t it be refreshing to go out to supermarket and just walk around?”

He explained his point further by explaining how much of an experience mundane things can be if we look at them differently. We tend to take them for granted as time-wasting activities but there’s a kind of unique experience that they offer where we couldn’t really get elsewhere. Even travelling in a bus, or train, or waiting for them to come doesn’t have to be seen as a time wasting activity.

When I thought about it and how it applies to me, I realized a couple of things. I didn’t take too much pleasure into picking out items, that to me was still boring and time-consuming, but the second thing I realized was a little less obvious to me.

I realized that almost all of the time I spend alone with my thoughts, without interruption, happen in those mundane, time-consuming, pointless moments. When I’m doing something so boring, and requires minimum mental effort, I start to have thoughts. I think about many different things, and have the rare opportunity to do so peacefully. It’s difficult to sit in front of a laptop, and decide to put it aside and think, to be using your phone and think, to be working on something, socializing, or studying and think. Those rare moments of thought only have any room to happen when I’m just about to sleep, taking a shower, or when I’m commuting by foot, or by car, bus, train, or plane.

This is all really interesting to me because I’m often frustrated by the task of waiting. A long queue in front of me can often put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the day, and what this made me realize is that it would be great if instead of focusing my attention on counting the number of people ahead of me, and trying to figure out how much time each individual takes, and then trying to figure out how much time it would take in total before it’s my turn, it would be a far more rewarding and useful experience if I used that time to just entertain myself with my own thoughts.

Other than trying to change your perspective on the mundane experiences that you need to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to appreciate them as activities that can be enjoyable and interesting, you can purposefully use that time for thinking about absolutely anything, and it seems that such an opportunity will happen even less in the future, so it might be a good idea to try to make the most of it when you can.

The Two Tragedies in Life

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“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde

The reason I love this quote is because of how gently, poignantly, and cynically it depicts life as an inevitable tragedy. However,  a few things came to my attention when looking more closely at it. Wilde obviously did not mean this quote as an irrefutable philosophy, it was meant to be a provocative poetic expression that is both witty and informative. It does, however, raise an interesting philosophical point about the meanings we place on our goals, and that is what I’ll discuss.


The obvious deduction one would have from the quote is that Wilde is implying that achieving goals is a tragedy, because one loses his purpose, ambition, and desire. And of course, that is the ultimate tragedy. The other obvious implication is that not achieving your goal is another tragedy for you have failed at what you’ve set out to accomplish. The final deduction is that life is by definition a tragedy. No matter what you do, you will always be unhappy.

Achieving your goal and not achieving it are both equally tragic and painful. One way to get around this is not have ambition. Since ambition inhibits goal seeking, it also prevents failure. To not have a goal, however, ought to have been considered the third tragedy in life, and most people would agree that this isn’t a viable solution; albeit a much practiced one.

As Ted Danson once said as Dr. John Becker“You see… no expectations, no disappointments.”

There was an interesting observation made by a comedian. I cannot remember who it was. The idea was that in sports, sprinting for example, the third and fourth placed finishers often finish the race fractions of a second away from first, and these are people who have spent months training intensely for this race. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis on achievement, on being the very best, when what separates the very best from his competitors in many fields in life are often fractions of a unit.

In many people’s lives, a single moment of good or bad fortune could decide whether or not they are remembered as successful, whether they consider themselves as being successful. There are professionals who work their entire lives to become recognized and valued, some do eventually, some do very early, but the vast majority don’t at all. Not because they didn’t have the talent, or they didn’t work hard enough, but because the line between failure and success was that thin.

To relate this to the Oscar Wilde quote, I would add that it’s infinitely more tragic to have ambitions that are aimed at finishing first in a race. Most people who do, necessarily fail. The first part of the quote that related achievement to failure I think is very interesting. There are many people who, after having achieved what they had worked so hard for, they find themselves without a purpose, desire, or reason to live. Many professions inherently breed this kind of mentality. The most obvious is sports. Once a professional athlete is forced to retire, they often report feelings of depression.  Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” 

Of course, many professionals feel relief after retirement. Some retired workers choose to finally go on that vacation they always wanted but never had time for, to spend more time on their hobbies, but there are many others who feel there simply is no value outside of their work, outside of what they’re so good at doing. I think to avoid the first of the tragedies Wilde expresses is to do one of two things.

Either work in a profession that has no expiry date, something that you will always be able to do for the rest of your life. Or find a hobby that will always be with you, something you can always improve in, something that is not trendy, but permanent, not social but personal, and not physical but mental.

By doing so, you cannot be doomed because you don’t have to value your life according to achievement or non-achievement in one particular field that has an expiry date, only those who have trapped themselves in this philosophy are doomed to fail no matter what. If what you do is all you have, and all you ever will have, but will inevitably end one day, then so with it will your ambition, life meaning, and self-affirmation. References: http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/life-after-sport-depression-in-retired-athletes/

Manipulation – The Great Enemy?

add Decades ago, Pepsi launched an advertising campaign that had people drink Pepsi and Coke from two different cups that were label-less and had them decide which drink they preferred. The results showed that Pepsi was preferred to Coke. This prompted Coke to launch a campaign that slightly altered its age old recipe but failed miserably. A scientist, however, finally uncovered something fascinating that Coke would have liked to have known. Because of years of marketing and positive feelings such as community, Christmas, and family that people have typically associated with Coke, people would find Coke tastier than Pepsi if they knew that they were drinking Coke. Indeed, it is what the neurologist was able to uncover. This story is covered in depth in the book “Buyology”, by Martin Linstrom. The suggestion here is quite fascinating. Our perception of a product can change our taste of it. There are, of course, several other examples of this. One other instance I can recall is in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational”, where he gets college students to drink beer with vinegar in an experiment. The findings suggested that once the students were told that the beer they were drinking contained vinegar, they rated it much lower than when they tasted the same drink without knowing that vinegar was added to it. This relates to the Placebo concept, of course. What we believe can affect our senses. The problem with this concept is it’s difficult to use it to benefit oneself. It’s quite easy to use it to manipulate people, and it’s what most, if not all of what the marketing world are constantly trying to achieve. The reason why it can’t be self-beneficiary is because the attempt of trying to convince yourself something is real undermines the ability to genuinely believe it. I cannot make myself believe that eating a strawberry will cure me of my headache because I know that I don’t have any good reason to believe that strawberries cure headaches. Going back to the Coke vs Pepsi example, what this finding underscores, and quite worryingly, is that marketing is extremely effective, and companies should and will invest as much money as they can to find innovative ways of trying to manipulate people. It is, however, unreasonable to condemn corporations, as they are only responding to the incentives created by people’s responsiveness. Many people are often insulted at the thought of other human beings trying to control their minds, but isn’t that a natural part of human behavior? Whenever we lie, exaggerate, compliment, flirt, joke with other people, are we not trying to provoke some kind of response? And we do so without ever asking for their permission. When you lie to compliment someone to seem more likable, you surely must know that they never explicitly expressed their desire to like you. You are, in effect, manipulating them. There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them. The reason, I think, why the former is considered a moral abomination while the latter is not is because these companies are making quite ridiculous profits by their efficient use of mind manipulating techniques, whereas the most anyone can get out of flirting with a random stranger is a private relationship with that person. And in both cases, the exchange is bilateral. In other words, when it comes to flirting, both parties (usually) get something out of it. And when it comes to corporate advertising, you are ultimately getting a product for the trouble of letting your mind become manipulated by its subliminal or in-your-face messages. Of course, the obvious drawback is that we sometimes get tricked into buying products we don’t really want or need. But then again, don’t people end up going out on dates with people they never really wanted to go out with in the first place all the time because of a good first impression? It’s precisely the art of first impressions that marketers often spend their lifetimes trying to perfect. Trying to grab a person’s attention from the few seconds that they get to see their ads is the ultimate challenge, and whoever does it the best is the world’s greatest flirt.

Overwhelming Choices

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In a world of large scale production, mass consumerism, and high market competitiveness, the amount of choices we have keep on increasing, but our satisfaction, paradoxically, doesn’t. Typically, the more choice we have, the happier we are because we feel we have more freedom to make a decision that perfectly matches our tastes and preferences.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make about choices, and in particular, food choices. Before I discuss how we can manage choices more efficiently, according to research from the field of Behavioral Economics.

First, imagine you were reincarnated as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, and were stranded on an island. After getting over the shock of what had just happened, you begin to instinctively find ways of sustaining your health. You look for water, food, and shelter. With time, you begin to innovate new ways of creating ways of doing those things more efficiently. You might design a clever way of collecting water from leaves after rain fall, you might design and learn to use new weapons to hunt for food or develop better techniques for collecting fruits and vegetables.

You may then look for ways to protect yourself from nature, or sheltering yourself. You may find new ways of creating clothes or building a house (Or live in a cave). You’ve already prioritized what really matters, everything else is irrelevant. Self-preservation is all that matters.

Food choices are the least of your concerns. All you care about is finding anything with nutritional value that would help you survive. The only criteria that you’re using is functionality. It’s how we once lived for a very long time, and now are living in a very different world from the cavemen who we consider our ancestors. At one point, we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate.

We now care what kind of food we’re getting, if it looks fresh enough, how good it tastes, how well it’s packaged, what brand it is, and which store we’re getting it from, and how much we’re going to pay for it, whether it’s good value for money, and how long it will last, how many calories it contains, and how much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sodium, and sugar it has. Of  course, I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing in itself, and that we should go back to eating coconuts and fish, and talk to a volleyball. But too much choice is overwhelming, it’s mentally draining, frustrating, and can make us supremely inefficient.

The criteria mentioned above include only some of the things our brains need to calculate, and in reality, we couldn’t possibly calculate with any reasonable accuracy what the most ideal choice would be. Often times, we are so overwhelmed by all this data that we sometimes make no choice at all for fear of making the wrong choice. We always have that dreadful fear of thinking back a few days later, and wishing we had gotten that other one.

This problem of choice can, of course, be extended to several different areas of life, food is only one of them and I think deserves particular attention as I feel it ought to be the least complicated choice we make, but is quite the opposite.  In restaurants, menus often have 7, 8, or 9 categories of food, and every category has about 8 or 9 choices of its own. That’s a range of 49 to 81 choices on what you’re going to consume, for a very short amount of time. Sometimes,  people spend more time choosing what they want to eat than time actually eating. This isn’t because people are indecisive, it’s because there’s simply too much choice. There’s too much data to process to make a confident decision about what you want to eat.

Choosing food should not have to take so much of our time. The simple reason is opportunity cost. The amount of time and energy that we spend on simply choosing what to eat could be effectively used for something much more worthwhile and satisfying.

There are many people who are aware of this, and have devised clever ways of dealing with the problem of choice. Think of how much time you spend choosing what to wear, every single day. Imagine that time were used differently, and that energy was put into other activities. An interesting solution is one used by the president of the U.S. Obama himself has admitted to wearing only grey or blue suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Vanity Fair. “You need to routinize yourself.”

As for buying or ordering food, a smart way of dealing with all this choice chaos is simply by making choices before looking at the menu. Decide if you want meat, chicken or fish, whether you’d like it with vegetables, or without, with cheese or without etc.. Grocery shopping, Clothes shopping, Electronics shopping, or any kind of shopping work the same way.

Once you’ve identified what you want beforehand, you’ve already removed choices you would have had to make in the future. This narrows down your options, and in this case, it’s exactly what you need, that is of course, if what you need is to use your time and energy more efficiently towards other things.

References:

“The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz

http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2012/sep/17/barack-obama-secret-weapon-routine