The newspaper Pravda dated 29 May 1919

Truthfulness and accuracy

When I was thirteen years old and fed up with the pestering of my sister Anne-Marie, I started a funny newspaper together with my cousin Rob. Rob and I were best friends for more than a decade. During the holidays we stayed at each others home. Rob was good at making drawings while I had a vivid imagination. We depicted ourselves as smart and good while my sister and her friends were made to appear stupid and evil. Made up stories can be a lot more interesting than real ones. The best stories are those in which imagination and reality are mixed up so that it is difficult to discern fact from fiction.

A reason to produce the newspaper may have been a desire to write and make the news. Later on I became part of the editorial team of the school newspaper Ikzwetsia. The name referred to the Dutch word for bluster as well as the official Soviet newspaper Izvestia. Ikzwetsia became a prolific and popular periodical and a bit of a problem for the school board. At the time I entertained a career as a journalist. Becoming a journalist was just one of the options I considered, and it was more entertainment than a serious consideration.

My favourite journalist was the conservative political commentator G.B.J. Hiltermann. He had a weekly radio commentary named The State of World Affairs. His special trick was summarising the most important world events of the week in a short story while making it appear as if there was a connection between them. His last commentary was aired on 22 November 1999 (22-11-99), a peculiar date.

There is another side to me. My sister was more pragmatic than I was and she had a more flexible arrangement with the truth. When it came out that Santa Claus didn’t exist, I was upset. Something I believed in turned out to be a lie. My sister, who was two years younger, just promised she would still believe in Santa Claus as long as he brought her presents. I was rigid when it came down to truth issues.

Many people believe lies if that suits them but I was not like that. This turned out to be a symptom of a social handicap. And in order to stress the frivolous nature of our newspaper, it was issued by the fictitious Bullcrap Newsagency. It was fake news labelled as fake news. Facts and fiction are different domains and should clearly be marked as such in order to avoid confusion. Anne-Marie was amazed at me keeping so strictly to the facts. “Bart never lies,” she said. This might have been an expression of admiration.

But what if the facts turn out to be stranger than anything you ever imagined? In that case you don’t need to make up stories, not even to embellish things a bit. What if it turns out that there is a connection between all events? My history suggests that I might be equipped to deal with that. And it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence either. And so I followed my calling to become a journalist, albeit belatedly, documenting events as good as possible, trying to work out the connection between them, and presenting evidence whenever that is possible. The ultimate feat of a journalist is to uncover the ultimate conspiracy and discover who is pulling the strings. And I may have done just that.

Featured image: The newspaper Pravda (Russian for The Truth) dated 29 May 1919. RIA Novosti archive. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

broken mirror

A shattered mirror

Most of our thinking happens intuitively. Intuition works fast so it is sometimes called fast thinking.1 We are not aware of this so you can barely call it thinking. Only when our intuition runs into trouble reason is called into action. Reason is called slow thinking. If you can get away with the judgements coming from your intuition there is no reason to think things through. Evolution made this happen. It is easy to understand why. Humans who took the time to consider all the options when a pride of lions was coming into their direction didn’t survive and procreate so that their genes died out.

Great chess players don’t consider all the options either. Based on past training and experience their intuition presents a few options to the conscious thinking process called reason. Billions of other options are ignored, nearly all of them not worth considering. That’s what makes a great chess player a great chess player. The brain has limited processing capabilities. Clogging it with countless useless options would downgrade its performance. That’s also why people train for their jobs.

Computers don’t have an intuition but they have become fast enough to consider so many options, including a lot of useless ones, that they are able to find better moves that chess players can’t think of because their intuition limits them. Nowadays computers beat even the best chess players. But what if intuition fails you more often than happens to most people? In that case you might consider options other people don’t think of. Others may call you crazy or insane. Indeed, most of the options you consider are not worth considering, but you don’t know that until you have found it out yourself. If that applies to you then you may be autistic. If the condition is sufficiently mild you can still lead a normal life, but you need a major amount of reasoning and experimentation to achieve just that.

Let’s explain this using an example. Yuor brian autmotaically corercts speillng erorrs. Probably you were able read the previous sentence without any effort. Otherwise you have to solve the puzzle by trying out different words to see if they make sense. In that case you might find meanings that weren’t intended. If you must figure out social rules in a similar way, for example by trying courses of action and evaluating responses of other people, you’re in for a lot of trouble. Most people make sense of the world intuitively, but if you are autistic, reality appears to you like a 10,000 pieces jig saw puzzle or a shattered mirror. You must fit the pieces together. That takes a lot of time and effort and the pieces hardly ever fit perfectly. What you get is something similar to what other people think of as reality.

Autism nevertheless survived the evolutionary rat race called survival of the fittest. How could this happen? There is a possible explanation. Who can find the answers when intuition fails everyone? These situations require trying out ideas other people don’t think of, and quite possibly ignorance with regard to social conventions to pursue these ideas. Perhaps you think of autists as weirdos cracking riddles nobody else can. There is some truth to that image. Fixing a broken mirror requires patience and determination. Some pundits have claimed that Newton and Einstein were autistic. They may have appeared to be geniuses just because they tried options other people didn’t think of. In this way they may have discovered things other people couldn’t. Autists can keep working on their eccentric projects despite the constant rejection they receive. And some of their efforts may turn out to be useful.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.

Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau

Meeting Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau

Despite his bumbling and clumsy appearance, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau was always able to solve the mystery. Guided by a few hunches and some vague clues that only made sense in his mind, he always ignored the most obvious explanation of the facts. How can a clown like him be correct all the time while the competent fail? The answer is that Jacques Clouseau is a fictional character in a story. The plot was always the same: Jacques Clouseau is right in the end.

The licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car features a reference to 11 November 1918, the end date of World War I. The war comprised of billions of actions of millions of individuals. To make it end on this date requires complete control of every thought and every move of every actor. The world we live in could be fiction. Hence, I may be right about the nature of this universe, the identity of God as well as the future direction of society and the economy, while the greatest minds on Earth can do no better than firing a shot in the dark.

It was the autumn of 1989. My life had just gone off the rails. I had been evicted from a students dormitory for not fitting in the group, which more or less came down to not getting along with a particular lady. I made her cry, or perhaps she cried to make me feel so miserable so that I would leave. And this I did. Henceforth I committed myself to leading an insignificant life so that I would disturb no-one, something even a complete failure like me should be capable to do. But perhaps I grossly underestimated the enormity of the failure as even this modest goal may well be out of reach.

I moved back to my parents’ home to gather some courage to try another dormitory. In the years that followed came the peculiar coincidences suggesting that my business with this particular lady from the dormitory had not finished yet. Some of these incidents were quite disturbing. They were to few in number to make me suspicious, but they were too curious to remain unnoticed.

Back then in the autumn of 1989 there wasn’t much to laugh for me, except for a few episodes of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau that were aired on German television. My parents lived near the German border so I could see them.

In 2008 it became clear that my business with this lady wasn’t finished yet. In the years that followed I bumbled through the investigation. That resulted in The Plan For The Future. If this plan turns out to be useful, it would be the result of an array of accidents and failures, or perhaps the plot of a story, but certainly not my genius.

Featured image: Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau [copyright info]

Illustration for the first edition of Utopia

Welcome to Utopia

Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet, a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Nowadays more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, which was the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. And we may soon have nuclear fusion providing us with unlimited energy for free. That may be the end of poverty as poverty is basically a lack of access to energy.

In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden Of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. Utopia means nowhere but the name resembles the word eutopia which means a good place. The pun may have been intended. His book inspired a lot of writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many of us have more stuff than they need. So why do we work so hard and feel insecure about the future?

The answer lies within the dynamic of capitalism. The capitalist economy must grow. It is not enough that people just work and buy the products they need. They must work harder to buy more otherwise businesses will go bankrupt, investors will lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. To forestal this disaster, we are made to believe that buying stuff makes us happy. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind2:

To make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism. Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was thus their watchword. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away, and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair.  Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.

In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal.

Capitalism brought us prosperity so most of us won’t ask questions like why are there still poor people or are there limits to our desires? It might feel like biting the hand that feeds you. Answers aren’t easy to come by either. Alternatives to capitalism weren’t successful. Perhaps capitalism helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the capitalist dynamic of growth appears to be slowly halting. People are going into debt to buy stuff so they can’t buy more in the future.

Before long we may live inside our own make-believe fairy tale virtual realities writing our own life’s stories. In that case we won’t need a lot of real stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than we desire. Machines may do most jobs in the future so most people might become unemployed. That may require a new ethic. In the future there may not be an economy or money but for the time being we may need an economy that can flourish without growth.

Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.

1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).
2. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.