Choice is bad

choice1

I’m not the first to say so (for example see here) but for many years I’ve been telling Mrs Relevant that there’s far too much choice in the world.

I know, it sounds counterintuitive – but (as an example) think about the last time you bought a car. Even if you narrowed it down to a particular make and model, think about what colour you should purchase. Or the trim level. Or the engine size. Some manufacturers event have variants of the same size engine (for example a more powerful but less economical variant of the same 1.6 engine). Even if you’ve made it this far, should you buy the optional extras such as the parking sensors? They may even ask you what size alloy wheels you want. 16″? 17″? Does it really matter? You betcha – larger wheels have more expensive tyres but can give better road-holding. Oh, decisions, decisions…

But let’s face it, retail decisions are nothing compared to the ‘life’ decisions that we face. In the glorious past (and here I’m thinking of the halcyon days of the late 70’s and early 80’s) people would buy a house and send their kids to the local school. If you were lucky you’d move to a ‘posh’ part of the town where (inevitably) the schools were nicer, but the key point is that there was no choice in schools. Nowadays parents are given choice – choice to decide which school to send their little Johnny or Jane to. Oh the pressures of ranking 5 schools in order of preference, and sending that out to the local council! How can a parent truly decide which school will be best for their child? I’m sure they can narrow it down to a top 2 or 3, but can they really be sure that their #1 choice will be the best one they could have made?

I like to think that (in general) the world is populated with people who want to ‘do the right thing’ and that the only real problem is that those people simply are not sure what the right thing is. In other words, we want to make the right choice, but often the physical act of choosing is too tiring/difficult that we end up in a mess. I’m sure I’m not the only person whose nadir is the thought of having an occupation (for example a soldier) who is constantly ordered to do things (without any free choice). However, in some ways that lifestyle is attractive. No decisions to make, no tired brain – I imagine that it frees up a lot of ‘weight’ hanging on the mind.

Before the recession, recent (the previous 20 years or so) politics in Britain was dominated by the idea that giving the population more choice was good. The idea that a state-controlled life (such as the much-derided communist systems) was a good thing sounded absurd. However, I personally think that people’s happiness is not increased (directly) by increased choice – instead, there is a much more complex relationship.

  • People living in the Soviet era may have had less freedom and choice, but I suspect that their day-to-date happiness was governed much more by their love-life, what they were hoping to have for tea that evening, and how well their local football team was doing.

We (in Britain particularly) have created a society where life is an endless series of choices, and we worry that we are making the best choices for our loved ones. All I’m saying is that (looking back) it was a delight to live in earlier ‘simpler’ times. Back then we had very little choice, so there was no pressure to make the right choice.

Anyway, before I go, I just want to lighten the mood by suggesting that if you want a quick laugh then click here.

  • It made me chuckle anyway 🙂
Advertisements

Reasons to be cheerful, part four

HappyAh, the great Ian Dury. Apparently he was a difficult (perhaps even occasionally unkind?) man to live with, but what a bunch of records he left us all with. For that, let us all give thanks.

Right up there with the best is his ‘Reasons to be cheerful, part 3“.

Inside, he lists lots of nice things in the world. Oh, and if you want some more cheering up from him then I’d recommend his (even better) other song “I believe”.

Well I’m in the mood to tell the world a few of my reasons to be cheerful. I’ll refrain from the obvious (myself and my family seem to be alive and well) and just go with a few frivolous reasons instead:

  • Danny Baker – just check out his podcasts for yourself if you’re unsure
  • Joni Mitchell – well, at least until the mid-70’s. After this, I just can’t get into her albums quite as much. Sorry for saying that Joni – you really are amazing but I can’t help preferring your older stuff 😉

P1060685

  • The bird feeding table that my family bought me for Father’s Day last week – We saw our first little birds use it over the weekend, and it was joyous to watch I can tell you!
  • Kids say the funniest things – Last week, Mrs Relevant took a bunch of 5 and 6-year old school children to visit a Synagogue for the first time. They were shown all round the building, and shown all the special areas/symbols/etc. During the visit, they were each given some special Jewish bread to taste (and those with allergies were given biscuits instead). At the end of the visit, Mrs Relevant asked them all if they had any questions. Child #1 “Is there any more bread?”. Jewish host: “Sorry, you have eaten it all up”. Child #2 “Are there any biscuits?”. Jewish host: “Sorry, they are all gone now”. Mrs Relevant: “OK children, does anyone else have any questions?”. Child #3’s hand shoots up. Mrs Relevant: “Anyone have any questions that are *not* food related?”. Child #3’s hand goes down. Ah children, gotta love ’em.

Three_Amigos

  • The Three Amigos – OK, so it’s not perfect. It’s not the funniest film ever made. But oh my word there are some great gags in it.

Who can forget the immortal lines such as:

Farley, farley, farley, farley, farley, hafurrrrrrrrrr!”

or “Sew, very old one! Sew like the wind!” ?

No? Don’t tickle your fancy? Well I can only suggest you go watch the film. It puts me in a happy place anyway…

  • Fabulous cultural differences – I am blessed to be surrounded (at work) by people from all nations, and we often take time to laugh at each other’s cultural differences. This morning my Polish colleague sent my German colleague and myself this link to a YouTube video. It’s quite clean, but you will need sound to get the joke. I was literally crying with laughter…
  • More to follow – as soon as I can think of them…

There certainly seems to be a certain amount of uncertainty…

2.Heisenburg

To quote the great Rowan Atkinson:

  • There certainly seems to be a certain amount of uncertainty about, of that we can be quite… sure”.

Indeed. Surely the most famous example in Physics is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (HUP). In a nutshell, he states that the more accurately we know about one aspect of something (for example its mass) the less accurately we’ll know something else about it (for example its speed). Plenty of people laud this Quantum Mechanics rule of his because it ‘leaves room for God’. In other words, however clever Man may become, he’ll never know everything about anything. Instead, he will only ever be able to know something about everything. God can still perform his magic ‘miracles’ because there’s a bit of room left in the Universe for Him to ‘play dice’.

However, there’s another example of uncertainty that I like. One of the many things that stayed in my mind since I first read about it (many years ago) was the following. There are several theories on when/how/if the universe will end. We all know that we started off with ‘The Big Bang’. If there’s enough mass in the universe (or the universe is expanding slowly enough), then we’ll all attract each other enough to pull the expanding universe back again to a little ball once more. That’s known as ‘The Big Crunch’. If there is not enough mass (or the speed is too great) then the Universe will continue expanding forever. In other words, there’s a ‘tipping point’.

  • So which will it be? Expanding forever or Le Crunch?

All we need to do is measure how much mass there is in the Universe, and measure the speed that the Universe is expanding. Great, let’s do it. OK, I have the results now. Hmmm, quick calculation and…

  • …hold on. My estimate for mass and speed is pretty accurate, but there’s a small margin of error. Well, would you believe it? The ‘tipping point’ is inside our margin of error!

That’s a bit of a coincidence eh? The tipping point is exactly inside the small margin of error that exists in our answer. What are the chances of that eh? Goes to show that this God bloke likes a mystery. He’s let us know where we came from (Big Bang) but made sure that we’ve no idea what’s going on now (HUP) or what’ll happen in the future (Big Crunch or heat death via ever expanding universe).

What’s that I hear? You want to know what Roger’s view is on all of this? Well I’ve always rather liked the idea of the Big Bounce, where the Big Crunch is followed by another Big Bang, Crunch and so on (ad infinitum). No idea if that’s currently popular with physicists, and (frankly) I don’t care. It sounds nice to me, so that’s what I’m going for. Prove me wrong…

Coincidence? Extraordinary more like…

2b_G

Whenever I hear the word ‘coincidence’ in my head, it’s being spoken by Stephen Moore as he reads the audiobook for Douglas Adam’s “Life, The Universe, and Everything”. Specifically, the pitiful creature Agrajag is remonstrating with our hapless hero Arthur Dent in a cave. Arthur’s defence is to keep claiming that it’s all just one big coincidence. No idea what I’m talking about? Well I urge you to read his 5-book trilogy.

During my formative years, I trained as a Physicist. One of the things you learn is that there are a lot of ‘constants’ in life – G (gravitational constant) is one of them, but there are a lot of others (the speed of light is perhaps the most famous I’d say, but Planck’s constant is well up there in many a Physics lecture). In one of my most memorable lectures (which sadly were few and far between – I tended to come in late and hide in the back with my mate Martin writing doodles on each other’s notes) I remember the lecturer explaining the following.

Lots of these constants are linked together. Here’s a (rather too pink) example:

2.constants2

I won’t both you with all the numbers, but let’s just tell you one. The speed of light (c) is 299792458 m/s. In other words, it’s more or less 300 million units. If you have a look at the above equation, then it’s clear that if you adjusted the speed of light, then the answer would still be the same so long as you reduced either Planck or Rydberg constants, or you increased the Gravitational constant.

  • Easy eh? Just make up a number, and then adjust the other numbers to fit. Simples.

Actually, not quite simples. It turns out that the Universe is unbelievably well balanced. If you changed one of those constants even slightly (and adjusted the others correspondingly in order to balance) you’d find that the universe just wouldn’t work. Well it would work, but not in a way that would allow any intelligent life to evolve. You would imagine that (with the values changed, let’s say gravity halved) we’d all be walking around on slightly larger planets with slightly smaller heads looking at a slightly pinker sun but (overall) not much difference eh?

Wrong. We wouldn’t be walking at all. There’d be no (intelligent) life at all. Depending on the changes, we’d all be crushed under too much pressure or boiled alive with too much heat to evolve into anything like humans.

  • No, it turns out that for intelligent life to exist, those values have to be almost precisely what they actually are.

“Wow, that’s interesting” I hear you say. You are thinking to yourselves that whoever (“God”) created the Universe deliberately chose the values so that humans could evolve. Great, that just about proves God exists right? Well, actually no – this is simply my favourite example of the anthropic principle. It is just a terrific example of coincidences.

But don’t worry, there’s still a nice space left for God to fit in. You can read all about that in my next post.

Britain’s debt mountain

debt_mountain2

Are you a blue pill or a red pill kind of person? To paraphrase Morpheus, I shall give you two choices:

  • You take the blue pill – this blog post ends. You have a happy day without a care in the world.
  • You take the red pill – you stay reading this blog post. I show you some sites that I stumbled on this year, and you see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is other people’s views – nothing more.

So what will it be? The blue pill I hear? So you want a trouble-free day? I don’t blame you! Sure, just click here.

  • Oh, hold on. What was that? You want the red pill? OK, but it’ll be a rollercoaster ride I can assure you! First of all, click here. It will show a video. Alternatively, if you prefer to read the text instead then no problem – just click here instead.

Worried now? I have to admit I was. For the past 10 or so years I’ve been telling Mrs Relevant the same things that are expressed in that video. However (until I watched it) I thought I was the only person who thought that way. Now that I know that other clever people thought the same way as me, I was worried.

  • Fortunately, there is a fix 🙂

All you have to do is click here. Ah, that’s much better – a strong and lucid argument (from a very clever blogger) as to why I’ve been wrong to be overtly worried for the past 10 years. I must mention this to Mrs Relevant…

Euro crisis – Vive La Différence!

1euros

My previous post talked about the Euro crisis from the point of mankind’s inability to say “Stop – hold on a minute – I have made a mistake” and perform a U-turn on policy.

  • What crazy person thought that a single currency shared between multiple completely different countries was ever going to work?

Again I refer to one of the terrific BBC Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ talks that I heard a while ago. You can read the whole transcript here. In it, David Cannadine carefully explains the history of monetary unions (there have been a surprisingly large number of shared currencies in the past), all of which have ended in failure. As an example, he states that:

“…the most immediate predecessor to the EMU was the 19th Century Latin Monetary Union, which attempted to unify several European currencies at a time when most circulating coins were still made of gold or silver.. …It came into being in August 1866 … So irresponsible and unacceptable did Greece’s behaviour become that it was formally expelled from the Latin Monetary Union in 1908… …the result was that the LMU effectively came to an end in 1914, although it lingered on as a legal entity until its formal dissolution in 1927“.

One of the few joys that Roger has in his (frankly tedious) job is that he has the pleasure of talking to people from all over Europe (and indeed the world) every day. He delights in the differences of culture, attitude, accent, lifestyle and humour of his colleagues and customers from all over the world. Europe is home to probably the most diverse set of cultures (compared to its geographical size) in the world. We approach things differently, be it fashion, food, work and (crucially) our economies/monetary systems. One system that works for Germany is never going to work for Greece (and vice versa). They are not too far apart in distance, but a world apart in how they approach budgeting/spending/taxes etc.

  • Roger has long said that the only way that a fixed exchange rate system could possibly work is if it only contained countries with extremely similar attitudes/economies.

Perhaps a common currency would have worked if only Germany and France had joined. More likely it could have worked if 2 or 3 Scandinavian countries were its only members. The three Benelux members have a shared identity, so perhaps those three could have worked together. However it is impossible that Europe could ever be thought of as uniform and unified enough to have supported a single Euro amongst all those nations.

Even the most pro-European must admit now that the Euro is a ticking time bomb – it is not a matter of if it fails, but simply a matter of when.

1bomb

Euro crisis – time to stop being in denial

1dominos

One of the best things that Britain has to offer the world is the BBC. Amongst its many gems is Radio 4 which I have loved since a surprisingly-young child. I mean, who can deny a love of the poetry of the shipping forecast, or of the passionate discussions in Gardener’s Question Time? For me, for the past few years my favourite has been A Point Of View. I urge everyone to give it a go by looking at their past archives.

One of the episodes that has stayed with me since I listened to it (almost 2 years ago) is one of John Gray’s on the subject of the Euro entitled “Greece and the meaning of folly”. You can read a transcript of it here.

In a nutshell, he argues that throughout history human nature meant that we tend to ignore the blindingly obvious if it goes against what we ‘want’ to be true. In other words, we metaphorically stick our fingers in our ears and try to remain oblivious of the evidence that is all around us that what we believe in is incorrect – instead we make decisions based on what we prefer to be true (not what actually is correct in reality).

  • We all make mistakes – don’t make things worse by denying things afterwards.

In this specific case, a number of politicians got together and thought that it would be a good idea to have a common currency despite the facts that (a) the idea has been tried several times before and it has never worked (b) the many member countries were hugely diverse and could never possibly need exactly the same fiscal policy as each other. Instead if admitting that they are wrong (and making the tough-but-necessary step of leaving the Euro) they carry on down the same path (bailout after bailout) to prop up something that clearly is going to fail sooner or later.

All they are doing is repeating the mistake that got us into the debt crisis in the first place – only caring about the short term. They need to face the truth and move on.

  • The pain that the politicians would feel if they had the courage to say “I was wrong, we should never have started The Euro, so let us now dismantle it” is nothing compared to the pain that millions of people (especially an entire generation of youngsters) in many European countries are currently going through.

I feel so incredibly sorry for much of Europe’s youth, especially in Spain and Greece. They face a future where the ‘best years of their lives’ are going to be spent in near-poverty and terrible uncertainty. Their future has been ruined by the short-term views of the generation before them – or (to be more precise) the adults (mainly politicians, but also to a lesser degree the voters) of the last 20 years (during the time they were growing up as children).