Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living With Risks & Uncertianty

We all live in constant fear of risks and uncertainty. The sole purpose of all our entire lives seems to be to remove those risks and uncertainty.

Well, risks cannot be entirely banished, as the recent unfortunate aviation incident demonstrates so clearly. However low the risk, so long as the risk exists, it will happen one day. To the general population, there may be, for example, one unfortunate person in a million. But to that one person, the probability is either zero or one - whether it will happen or not. The laws of probability is good for insurance companies or companies that profit from selling protection from risks. But probability has no meaning for a particular individual.

As individuals, we deal with uncertainty. Most of the time, either we know or we do not know - we do not have foreknowledge. If we know the future, there are many things which we will no do now - like eating and drinking excessively and working too hard. And there are quite a few things too that we will do - like making lots of money.

All our lives, the things we do are our responses to uncertainty. The native farmer prays to the god of heaven for rain, and the god of soil for fertility. The poor urban dwelling prays for good business, even if he or she is selling cakes for breakfast. Poor families produce many children as insurance against infant mortality and having sufficient food to eat everyday with more people scrounging to feed the parents. Resourceful poor parents work and save to send their children to good schools in the hope of better incomes in future. At work, employees play politics in order to secure their careers and to be at the top of the pack. Boys and girls, regardless of their looks, work hard to beautify themselves in order to be attractive so as to secure companionship or economies of scale.

Midlife crisis, which seems to hit those who are successful, arises when there is no more financial uncertainty. When people are financially independent, what do they do, apart from playing the stock market pretending to maximise their return on investment in a game of roulette and many theories are formed. Midlife crisis happens when all the things we have been taught and learned when we were young become useless information because they are not useful to us anymore. Now that I have enough money, what do I do next?

Those who find a second career survives. Those who do not die a lonely death.

Of all the things we are taught in life, there is one thing we are not taught - how to die. Maybe because death is not an uncertainty, death ceases to be a problem. Death ends all problems for the person who dies.

But if we are going to make the best of our lives - before we die, we must have death constantly in our mind, so that we do not forget that we may be dead in the next moment. This frame of mind, although seemingly sick, is a very healthy response to the problem of death. While death may be certain for every mortal, the time of death is still uncertain. Every moment is potentially the last moment, and hence we must live the moment as if it is the last moment. There is a growing movement on how to live the now. Our own simple reflection should be able to tell us how we should live.

Taking the world as a whole, uncertainty has been banished by knowledge and the result of knowledge is clarity - not cleverness. But human beings do not know everything, so there is still be scope for learning - until, I suppose, when our own minds become clear. We have also globally solved the  problem of wealth by printing money, now made easier by electronically generated numbers. We now live in a virtually secure environment, doing very little and playing with on-off lights or electrical pulses. The current flotation of the world with excessive cash is rearranging the wealth of societies and nations - those with money are happy, those with no money simply die. As the world becomes more conducive for procreation, as a result of success in healthcare which keep infants and the very old alive for a long long time. The greatest uncertainty in all these advancement is the natural environment without which humans cannot survive. The natural environment is the ultimate means of savings for human kind - if the survival of human beings is a concern. If not, we know that the cosmos will continue to evolve, and the age of humans will soon be gone - in universal time. Human beings are here on earth for the moment.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Living With Others

Having defined exactly what and who we are as individuals, how do we live with other individuals?

Most, if not all, individuals interact with others because they each have something in common with the others.

In the family, it is this idea of blood being the common and members of a family are compelled to take care of each other. In traditional societies, the extended family is the welfare state and the challenge of each family against another family is to see whose family will last the greatest number of generations. (There are also those who are quite happy to annihilate theirs right within the current generation because to them life is suffering and not worth keeping.) That is why some families leave behind commercial and political empires on earth.

In society in general, there is a tendency to pursue a uniform way of life. Traditionally, these have been dictated by folk festivities which surrounded the agrarian economy, as there is a season and time for work and a time for play. Eventually, these get supplanted by religious commands which tries to replace communal or tribal authorities. The struggle for power between the political and religious continues until today. So long as religious power overwhelms political power, there is a tendency for one religion to try to dominate the rest. If political power is in control, the tendency is for one race to dominate the others.

There is also a battle between political power and economic power. Political is often derived through the exploitation of economic power, as businessmen back politicians. Economic power can be pursued with economic power, as businessmen gain political power and re-configure the economy according to his or her advantage.

Against this confusing array of conflicts in human societies, Plato suggested the Philosopher-King or the Benevolent Dictator - one authority who knows what to do in the interests of all individuals and for society as a whole. For this to be plausible, there must be a common elements in all that is otherwise very messy among human colours.

Of course, the common element in all societies of human beings are human beings - and their right to exist on this earth. It is this protection of human lives and the assistance given to the poor and incapacitated that has influenced our thinking on how to live together with each other and with others. We may be look different, eat different, talk different, but we should be able to recognise ourselves as fellow human beings.

It is only when human societies are not properly organised and when some unfortunate ones who are left out of the mainstream that some troubles might start - such as stealing to feed oneself and one's family. The challenge is simply to find things for people to do to feed themselves and to keep themselves occupied, apart from being occupied by non-action as would be through meditation.

But the greatest wisdom could be that there is a place on earth for each and everyone and somehow one should be able to live, the degree of comfort or pleasure may be determined purely by our own expectations of ourselves. Living in confidence is probably an important first step for living well with others, so that one is always prepared to share with one's neighbours which can only be easy when one has no worries about tomorrow.

To be able to live happily in the here and now is critical for living well with others, no matter who they may be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Living With Ourselves

Since we can't get away from ourselves - except through mind-altering substances or madness - I suppose we just have to learn to with with individual selves.

It is tempting to attribute all cleverness to ourselves and faults to others. It is the wisdom of all religious teachings to attribute all cleverness to others and faults to ourselves. By blaming others, there is nothing much you can do to change things, unless you are really madness and decide to decimate everyone else - this has been done many times before in recent history. By taking faults to be our own, we have to learn to cultivate ourselves so that we are at one with society and the rest of nature. Learning to cultivate ourselves is called the art of living.

The Taoist masters will tell you that the most versatile way of living is the natural course way, which is the way of the water which flows smoothly through all obstacles and in the end be at one with the mighty ocean. It is certainly true that human life is nothing but a series of downhill steps as far as the physical aspects of all creatures are concerned. We, of course, would like to think ourselves to be constant and undying and live forever, which gives us this idea, from all pagans, of the spirit and, from the ancient Greek, the idea of soul. It is this undying part of ourselves which we are trying to cultivate despite the frailty of the body.

The undying part, we will discover, consists of several layers. First, we have ideas - thoughts that we get from our parents, families, friends, teachers, and the media, and not excluding politicians and religious preachers. In our formative years, these ideas are important, as they help us to live with others in society by sharing common values and common expectations. These ideas are important also because they drive the modern prosperity, with new inventions and new ways of making use of the materials that we find around us, by remoulding and reshaping them into objects which we can fall in love with. In modern management teaching, these ideas are called creative ideas and by "thinking out of the box" we get more and more of different lines of thinking - and hurray, the world we live in is full of concepts and things, just like a supermarket. We can shout with joy, or we can live in despair as to how to choose in order to focus on what is good.

Second, we will discover that in a world without ideas and concepts, we have the mind - this vast expanse of the interior of ourselves which we can dwell in forever in peace and quiet, so long as we do not allow thoughts to arise and interfere with the calmness and clarity. While the most common way of achieving this state of mind is said to be through meditation - which is true - but it is not entirely by itself only. The way to a clear and calm mind is through wisdom - and understanding or what is and what is not, to be able to discern reality from fiction created by our forebears and ourselves, and to not run away from the certainty of our eventual demise.

Wisdom is achieved by reading and observation, which together is customarily called education. Education is to learn from those who have learned before us, by Mencius's definition. Therefore, we read to have conversation with dead poets and thinkers and wise men and women. We reflect in quiet solitude in order to realise their true meaning. We observe whether their sayings are true in reality.

Having had wisdom, the next step is to act wisely, meaning in accordance with our understanding of things as they are. Of course, everybody acts whether we consider he or she to be wise, for he or she may think himself or herself so, as others will think of us as being crazy. But the beauty of this is that everybody get to live the life that he or she thinks fit, so long as he or she does not prevent others from doing so as well. This is the great mantra of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the individual - which was a revolt from the control of whole societies in the past by religious elders and now by political despots.

Putting aside the world for the time being, the ultimate challenge for each one of us is to discover ourselves (i.e., our own truths) and then live accordingly. Simple, and it is.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part IV)

Our own standard of living is the product of our own doing - be it high or low according to some comparison with the past or with others today - and it is really up to us to achieve that standard.

At the most basic level, our standard of living is based on our own ability to acquire what we need or what we want - farm or hunt for food, weapons, housing, transportation, amusement, spiritual pursuits (usually to remove some form of uncertainty). We do it our own way, with the benefit of teachings from wise old men in the communities of long ago or recent past, with what we usually term as "our way of life" or our "culture."

These traditional cultures are very dear to most of us because they give us a sense of identify of ourselves and of our community. The purpose again is to remove uncertainty as to behaviour or acceptance, so that we can sleep sound together without fear of being harmed in the middle of the night.

The advancement of knowledge and technology in the last few hundred years have opened up a whole new world of standards, whereby we are able to create things that we all want to use or play with. The march of knowledge and technology is incessant - but whether it is always for the better is a subject for discussion.

Even with the availability of knowledge and technology at our disposal, whether we are able to enjoy them or not depends on our ability to absorb them and make use of them. For those who cannot do technology, they can still access it if they can do good in their area of specialisation and earn the means to acquire it. This indirect route of acquisition of knowledge and technology is by far the most efficient and hence prevalent today.

But there are societies today which are unable to enjoy the frontiers of technology because of their inability to absorb and to apply. We know societies which have spent a mass amount of cash to build sophisticated equipment which are left to rot because they are not being maintained properly or simply left unutilised. It is this waste of technology that is probably most pitiful especially when the drudgery of living can so much reduced with the aid of some simple machines.

The standard of living is therefore nothing but the state of our minds, as all inventions are the product of the imaginations of human beings. The world is so much richer for its multitude of gadgets and fiction.

It is inevitable that those who have an overdose of technology would yearn for the simpler life of the "past" which can always be found in some remote interiors or islands. But probably only for a respite. This is where "cultural" tourism comes in.

We decide how we want to live - except for those who are held in confinement against their will.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part III)

When politicians make the statement that they will improve the standard of living of the rural areas to that of the cities, the emphasis is on the word "improve". So, it will be a progressive process of efforts over many years to try to improve the livelihood, and that can go on forever as the cities also progress.

Equality is an ideal concept which we all try to pursue for society but which in practice is very difficult. No two persons can really be equal, as equal as they may be as twins. But it is possible to have equality at major points that those points can be established beforehand.

In the rural-urban divide, the key points will be livelihood (or opportunities for), public services (such as education, healthcare, water, electricity, roads), connectivity (such as airports, seaports, telecommunications), others such as public housing and public transport. It is doubtful whether the rural areas will get highrise buildings where land is plentiful and the people unused to unnatural heights. Nor do you get heavily regulated roads as in the inner cities.

It is in taking into consideration the whole situation together that one can make any sense of how to compare the rural with the urban or the islands with the mainland. It is a political ploy to pick one or two factors for emphasis as an expression of dissatisfaction or incompleteness.

I suppose at the end of the day, the ultimate objective must be to ensure that every member of our society, if we are to be proud of the society in which we live, enjoys a decent standard of living, no matter how poor. The key elements must be general cleanliness, health and education so that the individual is able to make the most for himself or herself instead of being a burden on the rest of society. This is where we must look back at the simpler and more rudimentary lives of our youth or of the past to appreciate that prosperity does not necessarily consist of an endless accumulation of material junk at home or elsewhere. It can just be a life simply lived in peace and quiet.

But we cannot stop human beings from being themselves, as they try to obtain assurances and reassurances from themselves or others that they will be alright in the future, that the future is going to be alright for them. If the society is small, there could be communal co-operation as in rural communities. In large urban settings where neighbours do not know each other, then all frustrations must be directed at useless public figures who can only make promises, whilst intelligent persons like the complainants themselves feel helpless. The level of comfort is different in the rural and urban areas. Some people call it stress, others call it drive.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part II)

It may be said that generally the standard of living today is better than the standard of living in the past (however back we may want to go) especially in terms of material advancement, except for the poor for whom the earth does not seem to belong to them.

What I mean is that, if we are to reflect, what we are enjoying or could enjoy today is much better than what our parents or grandparents did enjoy or could have enjoyed in their times - in general of course. If we think that the smartphone is anywhere superior to the land-line or the post, then the statement is true. If we think of the benefits of clusters in towns compared with solitary isolation in remote villages, then the statement is true.

There will be those who argue that the world has gone wrong and going back to the simple life of days gone by is the best thing to do for mankind, and they will disagree with the statement. There will be families who used to have great fortunes and are now reduced to poverty, then they may be also disagree. But in general, I think it is fair to say that life today is much much better than before.

The point is that, regardless or where you are today, be it Washington or a far flung island on the South Seas, regardless of the size of your wallet or the number of vacant real estate that you have managed to amass around the world, as you sit quietly in your own home, you must surely feel that you are lucky to be alive today and have the opportunity to enjoy what the world today has to offer. I have often said that life is like a buffet lunch - you can choose what you want to consume.

The prosperity of the world today is the variety of goods and services that are in the market for anyone of us to consume or try to consume (like that Leica Monochrom whom most of us cannot really afford).  We may not in the end consume them, but to have that opportunity is a god-send.

As the markets grow and the world shrinks, it is really up to each of us to what we want to do in order to enjoy ourselves while we are alive in this world. There could be other worlds, but we do not know for sure - though we can imagine for sure. The certainty is now, and now is real.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Standard Of Living

The standard of living is different from the cost of living.

As a rule of thumb, they are inversely related: the higher the cost of living, the lower is the standard - all other things being equal, especially the level of income.

The problem is this: the higher the income, the higher are the prices. There are many factors involved. The quality of the goods and services consumed are generally higher, because you get to pay more for it. The place you eat is air-conditioned, the waitresses are pretty and well-costumed, the table cloth is nicer looking, the plates are gold-rimmed. If in general, you get what you pay for, higher prices would therefore means higher quality and hence a higher standard of the things you consume. That is, you have that level of income to pay for it.

But higher income also means that you really do have to work so much harder for it. You may get the same wage rate per hour but if you work very long hours, and you have a bit of profit share thrown in, then you could have a very income at the end of the year - compared to your friends who are having a good fun in the village socialising all day long.

The pursuit of wealth is a human flaw driven by a sense of uncertainty of the future, as if wealth can bring reassurance that our future is good when we suffer (work hard) to acquire it, eschewing all normal commual relationships, except those that deal with money. There is certainly a cost in the pursuit of high income, and it is often in human values, wholesomeness of being, peace of mind, calmness of nerves, and, if I may add, health as in gums and teeth and lungs and liver.

The world of high income is an artificial world, in the sense that it is a world that is disconnected with the natural reality - deliberately. It is a Matrix created where the pumping in of money, in whatever form, is meant to stimulate the residents inside, and they all run here and there full of activities and anxiety, and that high level of activity, to economists, is measured as GDP. The money pumped which then flooded everybody and everywhere is income. The valuation of piles of bricks and mortar is the value of real estate.

But in far flung places like Sarawak or Saipan, where man-made structures are few and far in between, man lives with nature in a spiritual connection in that there is fear and hence respect for the unknown, where human restraint and humbleness is the proper behaviour in life, each living on the barest minimal of materials which sustaining himself in high spirits, there is that sense of oneness with nature, a sense of being alive. The money income is low, the rate of consumption is low, but the rate of saving of the natural environment is huge, through abstinence.

The World Bank tries to measure the standard of living through the instrument of PPP - Purchasing Power Parity - by adjusting money with prices and other things (since a house is a house is a house, now matter how much it costs). There are debates.

For me, it is futile business to try to compare judgements and values. The highest standard of living lies in your preferred way of life, if you are already pursuing it. All other ways of life is therefore sub-optimal, and your goal is to go from sub-optimal to optimal.

My favourite quip is that most of us live only half a life - only the good life. But life is both good and bad which we should both if we want to live a full life. That's why artists live on the fringe and swing between jubilation and depression.