After Life, by Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais has produced an amazing piece of art in the form of (for now) six 25-minutes episodes. The show is called After Life, and follows the life of Tony (Ricky), a middle-aged man that has recently lost his partner. The show documents his sorrow and the lack of meaning that he faces. What is the point of life if you cannot share it with the person you love?

After Life explores the issues of meaning, morals, and death from the point of view of humanism. In this sense, the character appears to be Ricky Gervais himself. Why should you live? Why should you be good? These topics are explored with the usual delicious sense of humour that is so particular of the British comedian.

A special mention is reserved for the supporting characters. This is what truly surprised me. They start as caricatures, as comical counterparts to Tony. But little by little, and mirroring Tony’s changes, they gain depth, they become human. It is so natural, so subtle, that is easy to miss. But this is one of the main messages: everyone has their circumstances, everyone has their problems, and as such, one can be compassionate with everybody.

I am more a fan of Ricky’s stand ups than I am of his shows (I have watched—and laughed with—the Golden Globes intros several times), but After Life is superb from beginning to end.

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Saying things in El Pais

Today there is an article in El Pais—in Spanish—where I say some things about the governor of the Bank of England. Mostly I say that he has done great, in particular in terms of managing the increased powers of the institution and his political neutrality. I also mention two of the possible problems that the Bank of England (and central banks in general) might face in the near future: pressures from democratic institutions (with potentially losing some independence) and issues in managing economies in secular stagnation.

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So you’ve been publicly shamed, by Jon Ronson

My first intention was to start this post by mentioning the Danny Baker affair, and linking it to the book I wanted to talk about: So you’ve been publicly shamed, by Jon Ronson. While the situation is not exactly the same as some of the cases commented in the book, the public outrage element is there. Therefore, I wanted to say something along the lines of: it is a good moment to talk about this book, since just two days ago we had an episode of public shaming… Yet the reason why I think this book is great and reveals some issues brought up by social media especially is the fact that I could start the post this way almost any day of the year. There is nothing special this week—there is always another case of online shaming.

Jon Ronson follows the cases of some people that have been publicly shamed, usually through social media, and wonders what happened to them. Jon Ronson is well known for some of his previous books, such as The men who stared at goats and The psychopath test. He has a very particular style—which I would not know how to describe, but I like it. And this book has improved my understanding of something I have become more and more interested in the past months: human nature.

I will just mention a couple of episodes that the book explores. One of them is the case of Justine Sacco, who, while in Heathrow airport on her way to South Africa, she tweeted the following: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!“. When she landed, she was trending topic in Twitter, someone took a picture of her in the airport, was denied the stay in some of the hotels she had booked, and lost her job. Thousands of people tweeted against her.

I have had arguments about this tweet, although the counterparty will remain anonymous. There seems to be honest outrage at it. One could take it as she making fun of the fact that AIDS affects African people relatively more. But one can also take it as making fun of how some white people live in a bubble and think this type of things cannot happen to them. I tend to believe the latter.

But the question is: should that matter? I think so, but I am not sure it does for many people. Some seemed to mildly defend her, such as Andrew Wallenstein: “repugnant as her joke was, there is a difference between outright hate speech and even the most ill-advised attempt at humour…” The charge of hate speech seem to come logically from the charge that the joke was racist.

Sam Biddle, a journalist and one of the first to retweet the joke (to shame her), explains it: “Her destruction was justified, because Justine was a racist, and because attacking her was punching up.” This element is key: I am doing good by destroying this person, because this person is evil. The assumption that Justine was racist did not need to be challenged. The tweet was racist, and hence she must be.

Another of the cases that I found most interesting, especially because I remember it, is the case of Alex and Hank (not their real names). They were in a tech developers conference. It seems they made a joke that could be seen as sexual while a female developer was presenting. The crowd was big so the joke stayed among the two of them… almost. A third one, Adria Richards, heard it. She was so taken back by it—she explains that she felt “in danger“—that she turned around, took a picture of the guys, and tweeted about it. The next day Hank was fired.

How she views her actions is crucial. “There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry… Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.” There is a sense of epic, a sense of good versus evil, that is difficult to overstate. When asked how she felt about the fact that he was fired, she says “Not too bad… he’s a white male“.

Hank lost his job. When this happened, he issued a public statement, apologising for the joke and for how he made Adria felt. He also said that “as a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids...” What happened then is that the mob took it with Adria. Not the same people, of course. It came from places like 4chan. And the website of Adria’s employer was attacked by hackers. And Adria was fired.

A parenthesis here. There is something to be studied about the type of shaming, comments and threads that people get depending on their gender. Rape threads were immediate to Justine and Adria. Mercedes Haefer, a 4chan denizen, explains it as follows: “4chan aim to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape… In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they are fired they lose masculinity points… (Adria) robbed that man of his employment, She degraded his masculinity. And so the community responded by degrading her femininity.”

When Adria saw the statement that Hank had posted, she asked to remove any reference to her. As she puts it: “no one would have known he got fired until he complained… maybe he secretly seeded the hate groups. Right?” This does not seem to be the case. But the need to link what happened to her to the evil person that she denounced is understandable.

At the time of writing the book, she did not have a job, while he did. This fact would validate many “Adria supporters” beliefs: at the end, he—a white man—is fine, while she—a jewish woman—is not. Yet if one overcomes the group classifications and think about them as individuals—a father of three who lost the job for a stupid private joke, and a woman who seems to acquire part of her identity by policing private comments—it is not difficult to see why that is the case.

I used to be quite neutral on public shaming. I would not participate in them, but I did not think much of it. Since reading this book, which I highly recommend, I am convinced they are almost always morally wrong, and they come straight from tribal feelings that we should all try to mitigate. They are there, there is no question about it—I barely could sleep last Tuesday—but we should try to keep them in check.

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Why I am not writing, and why it is a mistake

It has been a while since my last post. I have wanted to publish more regularly but it somehow escapes my will. For instance, I have read several books—So you’ve been publicly shamed (Jon Ronson), Letters to a young contrarian (Christopher Hitchens), and The caged virgin (Ayaan Hirsi Ali)—and I have yet to write proper posts about them. I am almost certain I have identified the main reason—other than lack of time: I have a lot more to read, and I fast-think (system 1) that reading is a better use of my time. I think this is wrong—or that if I slow-think (system 2) I would arrive to a different answer. Here are the two main reasons I get when I slow-think:

Reason 1: writing (or, in general, discussing) about what you just read helps structure and solidify your thoughts, sometimes providing new insights that you had not thought about.

Reason 2 (and probably the most clear contrast between systems): I find reading far easier than writing, and hence I do need to practice writing much more if I want to get any better—which, needless to say, I want.

So all these fancy references to Daniel Kahneman are just to say that I will try to have a post a week from now on. We’ll see if system 2 can impose its will—although if history is any indication, I am all in for system 1.

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On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder

Post-truth is pre-fascism (Timothy Snyder)

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (Wendell Phillips)

Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale and, in 2017, he published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The timing of the publication is not random: it was a clear reaction to the Trump presidency and the rise of populist movements reaching political power around the world. More than lessons, I would say they are principles to follow that should make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to rule.

Every lesson is backed by historical events (lessons) that occurred usually in previous tyrannic regimes, mainly in Nazi Germany or Communist USSR. I found some of them particularly compelling. He cites Vaclav Havel and his essay The Power of the Powerless. In communist Czechoslovakia, the regime could survive in the late seventies not because of massive support among the population, but because of an inadequate equilibrium. He uses the example of a greengrocer who has a sign that reads “Workers of the world, unite!” in his shop. The greengrocer does not endorse communism, but he wants to signal to authorities that he will not cause any problems. When many citizens behave like this, an authoritarian regime can go on. That is why his advise, in this case, is: Take responsibility for the face of the world.

While I basically agree with everything he explains, I still feel one should have written this book probably earlier. For instance, when a President started to authorise executions of American citizens without trial via drones. It is difficult not to see this as something a tyrant would do. While there were voices denouncing these facts—see this article from Glenn Greenwald—it is almost sure that had the president been a republican, the concern around this fact would have been much higher (there is a very funny video by We The Internet on this).

But as I was saying, the book is great. It highlights how important individual attitudes and behaviours are. Taking some responsibility for our actions can go a long way into preventing the rise of authoritarian regimes. It is sometimes difficult, after living in relatively peaceful and democratic societies, to keep in mind that this is not a default state. The authoritarian drive awaits in the corner; without the constant vigilance, it can slowly meddle in our day-to-day affairs.

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Universal Basic Income

Andrew Yang is a Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 election that has a key policy proposal: a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 a month for every American. I have not precisely been a supporter of this kind of measures, but Yang makes a good case and I am definitely more in favour after listening to him. To know more about him, check the podcast with Sam Harris and  the one with Joe Rogan.

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Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I was attracted by the notion of extreme ownership because of the tendency of human beings, and me in particular, of blaming bad luck when things do not go our way. I have always been wary about these thoughts. Things like “well, this is a mistake but it was done by my co-author, so it is not my fault”, or blaming administrative work (that I had to do) for the delays on my submissions. This is not to say that I made all the mistakes. This is to say that this way of thinking is not really useful, and that understanding the problems in life and then taking responsibility (taking “ownership”) to solve them seems much more effective.

In the book, Extreme Ownership, Jocko and Leif, who were part of the SEAL team in the Iraq war and spent a lot of time in Ramadi (they were leading the team of the American Sniper), explain how they apply this concept of extreme ownership to their day-to-day operations as well as their current business consulting activities. These are principles about leadership, so they can be applied to many things in life.

There are a total of 12 principles and the structure is as follows. First, either Jocko or Leif explain a situation in Ramadi where this principle was (or should have been) applied. Second, they explain the principle in plain words. They finish the chapter with a case in their consulting activities where typically a firm has a problem and this principle can be applied.

I have a problem with this type of books, however. They are way too long. For some reason, editors must hate short books (presumably because they cannot charge £15 for them) and you end up with books that are interesting but would be a delight to read if they were 150 pages long (in this sense, Sam Harris’s last books are great, especially Free Will and Waking Up: short and to the point). I like the principles, and I particularly enjoyed the business applications (typically 4-5 pages long). But their stories about the war are long, too long. They try to be as accurate as possible, and probably some people enjoy the military jargon, but unfortunately not me. The leadership ideas are good but sometimes are lost in the long war stories that are often just tangentially related to the principle being discussed.

What are these principles? Just to name a few, obviously extreme ownership, or the understanding that it is your responsibility as a leader whether or not the project succeeds or fails. Another principle I found interesting is the leading up and down the chain of command, which prevents people from blaming the leadership in many situations. In their case, they complained about the vast amount of paperwork that they had to do to get each mission approved. This is a recurrent complain in many places. But they argue that this is because they are not providing useful information to their superiors, and acted to change that—in other words, they lead up the chain of command.

The last one that they mention is discipline equals freedom. This might sound Orwellian, but it is not. By being disciplined, which is nothing more than acquiring habits that make your life better, one gets more time to enjoy it. Eating healthy, exercising, meditating… it might take discipline but it allows you to life a better life.

All in all it is an interesting book that give great insides, in particular for those that are interested in leading, although they can be applied to many situations in life. Jocko, by the way, has a podcast where he discusses leadership: Jocko Podcast.

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