The newspaper Pravda dated 29 May 1919

Truthfulness and accuracy

At the age of thirteen, and fed up with the pestering of my younger 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 and feel some control over what is happening. After all, it didn’t really happen if it didn’t make the news, and most people believe it happened the way it is reported. 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 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 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 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 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 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. 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 autistic people as weirdos cracking riddles nobody else can. There is some truth to that. 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. Autistic people can keep working on their eccentric projects despite constant rejection. And some of their efforts may turn out to be useful.

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

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, the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

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 by More. His book inspired writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many people have more than they need but still we work hard and feel insecure about the future.

Why is that? 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 forestall this disaster, we are made to believe that buying more stuff makes us happy.2

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 us. And answers aren’t easy to come by. Alternatives to capitalism made people poor. Capitalism may have helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the dynamic of growth appears to be halting when people are going into debt to buy stuff.

Perhaps before long we 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 stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than that. Machines may do more jobs so more people might have more leisure time. That might happen because we ourselves may live inside such a virtual reality already. So in the future there may be no economy or even money but for now we may need a way to make the economy flourish without the need for growth in order to make this possible.

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.