Monday, 28 September 2015

The Fear of Failing Alone

From Wikipedia:

Fear of missing out or FoMO is "a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent". This social angst is characterized by "a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing". FoMO is also defined as a fear of regret, which may lead to a compulsive concern that one might miss an opportunity for social interaction, a novel experience, profitable investment or other satisfying event.

While you are likely familiar with the FoMO and have probably experienced it firsthand, resulting in your following fashion trends, going to popular clubs/festivals and jumping on the latest investment bandwagon, you may be less acquainted with FoMO’s ugly cousin, FoFA (The Fear of Failing Alone).

Where FoMO is characterised by the belief that everyone else is onto a good thing which must be replicated immediately lest one be left behind, FoFA has a much more cynical bent, for it begins with the belief that you actually know better than others.

In a pessimistic inversion of FoMO, FoFA focuses on failure as the base case of outcomes.  Whereas a person experiencing FoMO is likely to think to themselves “I want a piece of this success and don’t want to be left behind”, someone with the FoFA instead thinks “I think the herd is wrong, but in the event that I was going to fail, would I rather fail with the herd, or alone?”  Naturally, someone with the FoFA is steered away from their natural instincts by the gravity of the herd, whereas someone with FoMO actively seeks to join the herd.

A great example of FoFA is the Asch Conformity Experiment whereby around one-third of respondents to a very simple question about the lengths of lines on a page were made to respond incorrectly when the rest of the group were secretly instructed to give the incorrect response (as opposed to 1% incorrect response rate when the rest of the group were instructed to give the obviously correct response).  It is this internal conflict surely felt by some participants that characterises FoFA.

The logic is, if you join the herd and fail, at least most other people will fail too.  You will be comparatively no worse off than your neighbour, and it is hard to blame any particular person for the group’s failure (except maybe ‘the government’ or ‘the system’).  But if you were to fail alone, while others became comparatively better off, you would feel like it was your own purposeful fault, and not the mere laziness of inaction.

Now perhaps you are the kind of individual who doesn’t mind failing alone, a person who doesn’t mind risking missing out on something which most other people are a part of.  This can be both a blessing and a curse, as in general there is a reason why herd mentality is so prevalent: most of the time following the crowd is the right thing to do.

During ‘business as usual’ periods of stability, following the herd is not a bad game plan.  Sticking to the beaten path has the advantages of benefiting from the errors of those who have come before you, and typically enjoying a relatively hassle-free experience as the infrastructure has developed around the standardised process with the inherent benefits of scale. 

But you don’t want to fool yourself into believing that the herd always knows what’s best.  If you can withstand rather high levels of social pain, going against the herd in a selective manner can pay off in a really big way. 

There is unlikely to be much untouched ground in the herd.  Opportunities for advancement are largely forsaken in a trade-off for limited opportunities for individual failure.  It is a mass of mediocrity, whereby not much risk is taken and thus not much is either gained or lost, comparatively.  Outside of the herd with limited competition, you can lose and be damned, or win and win big.

It is for this reason The Spear at least tries to be somewhat contrarian in his thinking.  He figures if he can selectively go against the grain whilst trying to keep with the herd in most circumstances, he can possibly produce an asymmetric payoff profile for life in general.  Or to put it another way, The Spear likes to try and create his own luck.

The aim should be to set up camp in that limited ground whereby the potential benefits of drifting from the herd outweigh the nagging fear of failing alone.  Just don’t set up in the same paddock as The Spear!

Monday, 21 September 2015

Fashion & Try-Hards

As he sat on the metro on a Saturday night, The Spear couldn’t help but notice that once again, his attire had indeed become ‘dated’.  The once dorky had become popular, leaving The Spear, with his clothes still several fashion cycles away from becoming ‘retro’, in a veritable sphere of anachronistic fashion shame.  The profusion of shirts with their top buttons done up (sans tie), boat-shoes and chinos, signalled that the fashion cycle had well and truly moved on.

Almost by definition, someone’s place in the social hierarchy can be judged by the ‘hipness’ of their attire.  The Spear has often thought that it is the popularity of the person which imbues the ‘coolness’ to the fashion, with new trends trickling their way down through the classes like popular baby names.  Alas, by the time The Spear adopts a particular fashion, it is usually already going out of style (although to be fair, he doesn’t try very hard, typically buying clothes out of necessity or receiving them as gifts).

Which brings The Spear to his most loathed of fashion classes: the Try-Hards.

So far as The Spear is concerned, being a Try Hard is even worse than being out of fashion: it’s just sad.  They spend all that money and take such care with their branding and grooming, but at the end of the day, the boost in status they crave is fleeting, if not illusory.  Theirs is a façade of popularity, undone by the insecurity on display by paying too much attention to getting the look ‘just right’ (for if the look is off, how then will they ever be accepted?).  It is symptomatic of a lack of character.  At least the out-of-fashion are typically just antisocials being true to their obliviousness to humanity in general.

That said, nobody enjoys being a target.  Antisocials need to buy clothes too, and when they do, it will generally be from some generic rack somewhat resembling the ‘in’ fashion of the day, as opposed to being determinedly anti-fashion.  Even among the explicitly antisocial fashions such as alternative/goth, The Spear is sure there is generally a desire to fit in with the anti-fashion ‘look’ (don’t tell them, but anti-fashion is just another fashion).

So the moral of the story is, if you are not concerned about fashion, then you are either an incredibly popular trend-setter, or a late trend follower by default.  Whereas on the other hand, if you find yourself quite concerned with fashion, you are either in the industry of creating and pushing new fashions, or else quite possibly a try-hard. 

The real question is, do you have that look ‘just right’?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Idiot Tax

After saying that he rarely bought luxury goods and was all about value, The Spear was recently paraphrased as saying that he ‘disapproves’ of luxury stores.  When he got thinking about it a bit more, The Spear came to the conclusion that this impression was incorrect.  Although he would not personally frequent one, The Spear far from disapproves of luxury stores as they play a vital role in modern society: the imposition of ‘the idiot tax’.

Up there with gambling, the lottery, pyramid schemes and other quite obvious scams, high-end brand-name retail could be thought of as yet another avenue of separating a fool and their money.  Although you will end up with a status symbol, and may even derive pleasure from owning ‘the best’ or an object of beauty, when it comes down to it, are most luxury purchases simply a sign that one has too much money?

Surely, the base needs of those purchasing these high-end items are being met (although perhaps not sustainably).  Either that, or the consumer has some serious psychological problems whereby they place the purchase of luxury goods above their own physical well-being, in some crazy inversion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  With this in mind, could luxury items be thought of as an efficient way of redeploying the idle funds of the wealthy, to those who may perhaps put it to better use?

While luxury goods may be a symbol of inequality, to disapprove of them would be to confuse the cause with the effect.  As opposed to ‘trickle-down’ Reagonomic tax-cuts for the wealthy, which may result in furthering inequality, idiot tax style luxury goods are more-so an automatic stabiliser, helping to prevent the accumulation of too much wealth by individuals.  If you can’t legislate higher taxes on the rich, you may as well take their money for trinkets.

Bring on the Madison Avenue sales - let The Spear hear those cash registers go KA-CHING!  It’s the beautiful sound of sales tax to his ears, and the employment of a retail sector.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Extreme Examples

The Spear thought he would share a little learning trick that he has used for many years, but which he only formally identified the other day.

Perhaps it has something to do with his chosen fields of study, but The Spear regularly has to identify in which direction a slight change of a certain variable will move an overall result.  Now rote learners may try to remember these types of things off by heart, make some form of acronym or create a rhyme-based-rule to remember in what direction the result will move.  The Spear has used all of these methods before, but his preferred method, where possible, is to take the example to extremes.

Take the Monty Hall Problem for example:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

The correct answer is actually YES, you have a higher probability of winning the car if you change your choice after being shown the first goat.  Despite the seemingly complex nature of the problem, the answer becomes much easier to see once the example is taken to extremes.

If, instead of three doors, there were actually a MILLION doors, the question would read more like this:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of a million doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens all of the other doors except door number 284,667, all of which contain goats. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 284,667?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

It is now quite clear that you are better off switching doors.  Door number 284,667 seems quite special to you now, as it seems far more likely that it, being the sole door left by the host, is a better bet than your randomly (and dare I say half-arsed) choice of door number 1.  The same principles apply to the three door scenario, it is just harder to see the shift in probabilities due to the limited size of the problem.

The Spear finds that many applied-mathematical problems he encounters are made much simpler to understand by extreme examples.  The relationship doesn’t always have to be linear, so long as it is constant in direction (although care must be taken as some relationships can change drastically under extreme scenarios, such as hot water changing into steam).

Basically, by exaggerating the delta of one variable, you are often able to clarify the fundamental nature of the relationship between the variables, rather than trying to memorise esoteric up/down relationships.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Red Flags and Rudeness

One of the best pieces of free advice The Spear ever received was something along the lines of “If you don’t like the look of a person / a group of people, cross to the other side of the street.”  Now, perhaps this advice is largely irrelevant for those with a more wholesome or small-town lifestyle, but for those in a big city who go out late at night, this is a truly invaluable piece of advice, right up there with “if you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it” (source unknown).

Big cities expose their populace to a higher sample of the overall breadth of the human condition on a daily basis.  And while this may sound fairly innocuous, another way of putting it is you are more likely to come into the vicinity of crazies and unpredictable personalities.  Thus, it becomes necessary to judge people in a matter of seconds if one is to try and avoid proverbial two-legged wrecking balls.

Akin to a police officer using a broken taillight as an indicator of more sinister criminality, The Spear will tend to actively avoid people who he automatically detects display some combination of the following (one sign by itself often isn’t enough):

1.       They are wearing physically imposing or gang-affiliated clothing
2.       They are covered in intimidating tattoos, especially on their faces, neck or hands
3.       The clothing is in tatters or is very dirty
4.       Their clothing is being worn inappropriately (laces undone, pants too low, sidewards cap etc)
5.       They possess a physically intimidating posture/gait
6.       They are twitching / moving jerkily
7.       They have a strong body odour or smell overly of tobacco
8.       Their facial expression is worrisome
9.       They have unkempt facial hair / grooming
10.   They are staring at strangers for far too long
11.   They are yelling, swearing loudly or raving
12.   They are in a large, boisterous group
13.   They look like they are on ‘roids
14.   They are actively harassing passers-by
15.   They have something in their hand that could be used as a weapon

This screening is done largely subconsciously, with an overall ‘red flag’ being raised by The Spear’s brain within a second or two. 

While he is sure the red flags have made him avoid some otherwise nice people, when it comes to risk management, the best method is elimination.  By eliminating the interaction before it has a chance to take place, The Spear can avoid taking more drastic measures later.

Alas, while a two-legged wrecking ball can be easy to spot, there are people out there who for the most part appear normal, but who will completely destroy your life if you can’t see the warning signs.  Those real ‘white collar psychos’, so to speak, are very good as flying under the red flag radar, such as some serial killers and sexual molesters.  The only red flag you might have with these monsters is that gut-feel, when something just doesn’t feel right, probably because you are being asked to enter a situation whereby you know you will be vulnerable, but there is pressure to oblige out of politeness or the ‘rules’ (just like that scene out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when Daniel Craig is lured into the torture chamber).

While judging people so quickly and potentially leaving others in a bind may feel rude, when it comes to your own health and safety, you are the one with the most to lose.  There are often less risky alternatives to whatever is being proposed (such as crossing to the other side of the street rather than walking past a group of dickheads, or declining that lift from a stranger and calling someone you know), and your safety is worth a little rudeness!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Half Baked Blogs

Believe it or not, some of The Spear’s blog ideas - for one reason or another - never make it to Spearbook as fully formed blogs.  Usually the idea is too weak or The Spear just can’t be arsed (although sometimes a dormant idea can be resurrected years later).  But what The Spear hopes is that maybe, just maybe, by combining enough crappy ideas, together they shall give birth to a fully formed blog of their own (this blog).

Below is a list of titles and rough descriptions of unfinished blogs.  Hopefully this can give readers a better insight into the creative process, and possibly allow for the uncovering of reader demand for any particular one.

1.       Top Down Memories – it is easier to recall specific details from the filing cabinet of your memory if you start the process of recall in a top down fashion from big ideas to minutia.
2.       The Highlight Moment – what makes a passage or a phrase ‘highlight’ or quotation-worthy.
3.       The Disneyland Fallacy – adults, like children, believe there is a place where everything will be alright, with fun on demand.
4.       Mortgage Envy – an internet advertisement seems to imply that a mortgage is seen as differently to other ‘debt’, and is indeed on the top of the list of desirables.
5.       Competitive Sensitivity – just  a rant about the race to be the most offended.
6.       Desperate Times – top 10 money saving tips from The Spear
7.       A lesson in productivity –the real small-scale productivity improvements The Spear actually saw when he was doing some manual labour over the period of a few hours.
8.       Teleportation – A short story about a guard at a government controlled military deterrent teleportation facility with twist ending being the government actually uses magicians as it’s cheaper.
9.       Limited Vision – Our eyes only seeing the wavelengths emitted most strongly from our sun as an allegory about professionals having tunnel vision ‘when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail’
10.   Little Stupid Moments – The Spear sees some horseplay and likes it.
11.   The butterfly effect – another futile look into causality.
12.   Pressure cooker of capability - Don’t really know what you are capable of doing most of the time unless you are forced to do so by some external pressure such as university deadlines, war, literally being forced at gunpoint, crisis.
13.   Partner Perfect - a person’s choice of partner is very much a reflection of their own self-worth.
14.   Born Guilty – the tendency to feel and act guilty/wrong even when you know you are right, like at airport security.
15.   Ice buckets madness – why everyone felt inclined to ice bucket challenge.
16.   Punitive Stimulus – riding public transport etc is necessary to encourage people to want for something better.
17.   Over-Sharing – people over sharing every moment of lives especially eating.  What is appealing (like a meal when you are hungry) is very much not a universal feeling.
18.   Wishful thinking – another anti-idealist rant
19.   Captive audience – there is real power in having a literally captive audience
20.   Grey sock sympathy – The Spear felt sorry for a kid and gave him his favourite toy simply because the kid had grey socks.  People are not rational.
21.   Personal Trainer Breaks Promise of ‘One More Time’
22.   Competitive Forces – another anti-union rant
23.   Hell is other people – rant about selfishness and lack of shame
24.   Diminishing Returns – on the Japanification of the world economy
25.   Infinite Time – What could one achieve if one had limited resources but literally infinite time
26.   Granted Growth – another anti-green rant
27.   Attack of the clones – there are people out there eerily similar to yourself
28.   Shark Aversion – why it is natural be to scared of sharks. Don’t go where you don’t belong.
29.   On the racist aussie image
30.   Keeping the Faith – on insecurity loops and depression
31.   Natural pressure cookers which can accelerate some experiences
32.   Switched at Birth – A short story about simulating the outcome of your life if you could trade places at birth with any figure from the past
33.   A Bill of Rights in Australia must have everyone given a non-derogatory nickname.
34.   On Déjà Vu – observing the fundamental nature of time for a split second?
35.   Dacking – on the psychological damage of being dacked.
36.   Chicken Exposure – on people taking risks with old chicken that The Spear wouldn’t dream of, making The Spear re-evaluate his risk tolerance settings.
37.   Alcoholic content of beverage to determine future of relationship / person’s existence.
38.   The Cool Pill – a pill which makes you cool.
39.   Lance Armstrong - means and ends.
40.   Area man has “no fucking idea” what is going on in Formula 1
41.   Crash Landing – short story about a plane crashing, what is going through the guy’s head, him preparing his last tweet / status update.
42.   The utter pointless life of a jelly fish. ‘Environmentalists launch mission to rescue beached jellyfish’
43.   Free speech rant
44.   The double edged sword of Routine
45.   Grey areas – poem about the shades of grey between right and wrong
46.   Interview with a minister – satirical interview
47.   Above The Law – short story about a lottery held by government in financial crisis allowing the winner/s to be above the law, and its implications.
48.   Blackouts
49.   Swearing
50.   A world without debt
51.   Restaurants should have a ‘random’ dinner guest option
52.   Friend Criteria
53.   Problems which can be solved by ‘chucking some cones around it’
54.   Party-bot 2000
55.   “What flavour – orange or red?”
56.   Draft emails/letters vs actual emails/letters
57.   Short story about guy who pretends to be dead on facebook just to see how everyone would react – kind of like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral.
58.   The impact The Simpsons has had on The Spear’s generation.
59.   The difference between experience and ability.
60.   Short story - Historical figure Big Brother / Survivor.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

More Essential Reading

Alas, one blog just wasn’t going to cut it.

·         E.H. Gombrich – A Little History of the World (1936)
This book, written by Gombrich in an intense six weeks, is a great introduction to world history for younger readers or for those who have never picked up a history book under their own free will.  An easy-reading narrative of the major happenings across the globe to provide wider perspective and context.

·         Ian Jones - Joshua, The Man They Called Jesus (2000)
Providing a factual, non-dogmatic study of the man ‘Jesus’, Jones has done an in-depth research of all four Gospels as well as Acts and very often quotes from The Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel that is still not accepted as authentic.  Refreshingly clarifying for those who may have been raised in a Christian environment, it tries to explain the life and times of a man who has arguably had the greatest influence on our society and beliefs.

·         Niall Ferguson - Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003)
A lively account of the largest empire ever known, Ferguson explains how the British came to rule, how they fell, what they have given the modern world and lessons for the ‘empire’ of the USA.  Certainly helps to explain the significance of ‘the motherland’ on current society.

·         Kwasi Kwarteng – War and Gold (2014)
For those who think that the answer to all of life’s ills is as easy as printing more money.  Kwarteng provides an historical perspective on the development of currency and the varying level of successes that governments have had in balancing the printing of money with keeping its value over time.  Great for understanding the foundations of our current monetary system.

·         Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (2004)
De Botton searches the annals of Western history and thought, from St. Augustine to Anthony Robbins, to help modern readers cope with our status obsessed world.

·         Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan (2008)
Exploring the nature of probability, chance and predictability, Taleb will have you second-guessing the infallible Mandarins of our times.  The book will leave you with a healthy dollop of scepticism regarding our obsession with forecasting with precision, in a world largely shaped by unpredictable events.

·         Friedrich von Hayek – The Road to Serfdom (1944)
A classic work in political philosophy, history and economics, it is an arresting call to all well-intentioned planners and socialists, that they know not what they do, and that they should learn from the German, Italian and Russian experiments of the twentieth century.  Written at a time when democracies around the world were under the lure of the socialist dream, it shows how the good intentions of centralised planning tend to end with horrific outcomes (whilst recognising that governments are still needed).

·         Marcus Chown – We need to Talk About Kelvin: What Everyday Things Tell Us About The Universe (2010)
A hugely accessible exploration of quantum theory, relativity, cosmology, biology and chemistry, taking our everyday experiences, Chown quickly and painlessly explains the ultimate truths of reality (well some of them at least).

·         Marcus Aurelius – Meditations (0167)
Taking  the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs, the Meditations provide stoic reflections from one of the most powerful men who ever lived, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius . While the book can feel repetitive at times, you don’t necessarily have to read the whole thing from cover to cover, and can pick it up and start reading anywhere.  It proves that no matter how high a rank one may attain, we humans are all tested by the pangs of life, so it is advisable to come to terms with the human condition.