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Predicting the Future

Some people are better at predicting the future than others. I don't really mean being able to make money on the stockmarket or the horses, I mean more being able to know which forces are significant and which things aren't, what will last and what is emphemeral. Humans value the spooky ability to make super precise predictions- precisely because it is rare; we're much better at more general predictions...maybe because time isn't quite what we think it is.

Nicholas Eliot, the MI6 spy who was befriended by Kim Philby and remained a staunch defender even when the evidence mounted up (finally he saw the light and it was his confrontation with Philby in Beirut that made the traitor flee) was, later in life, remarkably prescient about such things as the breakup of the USSR, the growth of Chinese power and the way America would intervene in the world. He couldn't see a bald faced liar in front of him but he could see into the future. So the skills needed must include a lack of emotional bondage to the subject, yet at the same time, considerable interest and knowledge about it. The problem is, when we get interested in something we get emotionally caught up with it. Bias is inevitable. But if our decisions have real world conseuquences then we learn to build in a certain 'bias-offset'. We assemble over time an intricate web of checks and balances in order to be able to glimpse the future of somethng we are interested in.

It is said that 90% of investors rely on something very simple- the future will largely resemble the present and the recent past. Every now and then this gets whacked in the face by something completely unexpected, but in many areas it holds true. When I predict my household expenses for the year i can be pretty accurate. So one skill is having a feel for the natural volatility of something. What are the constants in human history and what is something of the moment? 

Being attracted to things of value from the past, attuned to the interests and inclinations of those who came perhaps a long time before us may not help you make the future, but it might help you predict what will last.



teaching yourself

Have you taught yourself anything? It's a good analogy for the aquisition of wisdom. Some people wrongly believe that you can learn anything from a book and a bit of practise. You can't. Martial arts is one example of something that needs a teacher. There are I am sure many others. But some things you can learn on your own. You may start by reading a bit. Maybe by simply copying what you see. Then when you are stuck, asking others can supply a breakthrough (much easier with the internet). Mostly you find out that learning requires effort rather than instruction. The effort is the thing. Even if you do the wrong thing for a while it actually builds up a kind of pressure that makes doing the right thing (when you realise it) easier.

And in the end you have to teach yourself. You have to build your own sense of what's needed and what isn't. You have to be able to trust, and know when not to. But at the same time you have to be able to not shut out real help. It's rather difficult (who said it would be easy?) you have to know when you are right and when you may be off course. For that you need to be able to be comfortable with doubt. I am sure that the common religious injunction to 'be able to live with doubt' is a degeneration or version of this. Learning to accept the ambiguous and unclear world of doubt without clinging to false certainties. To be able to navigate the confused waters of self-doubt is good training. Wait around and things will be clearer- either through a teacher's help or your own burgeoning perception. It will be different from false certainty which is always a tad agressive towards others, towards any kind of challenge. It isn't complacent; it has an unembattled lightness to it.



whose reality are we talking about here?

One of my favourite stories is about the wiseman who discovered the people of the town were drinking water that was slowly making them mad. Naturally they thought HE was mad so he repaired to the hills above the town where he had his own uninfected water supply. He used to watch the people living in their imaginary world, thinking they were really doing things but actually just gesturing and pontificating in a mad way. But the wiseman also felt a kinship for these people, a love for them, a desire for human company. In the end he left his lonely hillside spot and drank the town's water too...

A sidelong glance at politics, at the 'they' world, tells you how mad things are out there. People doing bullshit jobs and trying to convince themselves otherwise, internet addiction and the folly of thinking the TV News is the Real World, all compound the feeling that we are drinking that infected water ourselves. So what could the wiseman have done?

Formed a gang, a group of buddies, likeminded folk, fellow truth seekers...In order to create a different reality you need a group. That can be just two people. Remember back at school where a whole secret language and series of references could be shared with a good friend? And then, as you get older you turn increasingly to the TV and the Newspapers for your references. Suddenly Real Life is out there not in here.

But what reality do the gang subscribe to? Obviously they are engaged in seeing what is really going on- for example observing attention seeking politicians who have little power to effect the changes they talk about. But beyond calling out such behaviour - seeing the madness- there is the choice of just how subjective you make your group's reality. To clarify, when I was travelling in Canada through Indian Reserves we found that people laid far more emphasis on the symbolic nature of certain events. Like everyone- including us- they believed that thoughts and attitudes could affect events. Not all events, but some. The hard part is knowing how deep or light this telepathic control over reality is. Some people spend all their time fighting it- which is odd, because if the world really was an objective universe running on Newton's Laws it wouldn't be the world of modern physics- which is VERY strange indeed, allowing for action at a distance and other crazy stuff. So people who espouse this old style newtonian 'objectivism' are actually aware deep down something isn't quite right in how they see the world, so they encourage others to join them in their folly just so they won't feel alone. Sound familiar doesn't it?

On the other hand, the conspiracy theorist is just providing an alternative reality that mimics objective reality, retells these world events in a more interesting way (where YOU are the hero as you have seen through the governments evil plans). My line of thinking here is different (sadly I don't believe there are many real conspiracies, just a lot of people hoping someone is flying the plane when no one is). I am interested in finding just how far you can stray from the conventional model of 'reality' without becoming utterly isolated. I remember one couple who were both designers in Brooklyn who lived in a converted bank built in 1913. They thought that WW1 ended everything they thought that was interesting and beautiful, so their whole world was built around using things made before 1913- even their car was a 1910 model T Ford. The thing was, it made them really original and successful designers. By changing their reality they actually gained.

One of the dogmas of 'objective' reality (I mean here the commonly held views which are referenced in TV, ads and the News and everyday conversation) is that the future will be 'futuristic'. Driverless cars and all that crap. But what we are really seeing is that people are mining the past for good stuff that works and then using modern technology to either make it even better, or simply more usable. One example is the Primitive Technology Youtube channel, where a great income is being made re-enacting stone age skills to a high level.

But how subjective is your reworking things of value from the past? I think the thing is to just observe. When you are building your own reality see what comes to hand, what coincidences seem to aid you, who appears just when you need them. Monitor these events dispassionately. Then use them. Everyone who has travelled outside the UK knows an adventure can build if you let it...


In conversation with Tahir Shah

I have long been a fan of bestselling author Tahir Shah's work and have wanted for a while to feature something about him in this blog. He spends a great deal of time travelling so I was lucky to be able to corner him and get these intriguing answers to my questions.




You come from a line of writers, so has there always been pressure on you to write?


Last week in the British Library, I managed to track down my grandfather’s first book. It was called Eastern Moonbeams, and was published 101 years ago in Edinburgh – the year after he had arrived in Britain. For decades, and indeed for centuries before that, members of my family had written books, treatises, poetry, and almost everything else you could imagine. So, YES!, there’s certainly always been pressure. Most of the time it was unstated – lying there quietly as a potential solution for any problem or woe. At other times, it was hailed as the right or only path to be taken.


I remember when I was about six years old, walking hand in hand through the woods at our home with my father. We lived at Langton House in Kent… the very same house in which Robert Baden-Powell had lived as a child. He had played in the same woods, too. I’ve heard it said that it was there he first got the idea of the Boy Scouts. Anyway, I digress. As I was saying, I was walking through the woods with my father. His name was Idries Shah. A celebrated author, he was a big act to follow. He looked down at me as we walked.

‘When are you going to write your first book?’ he asked.

He was joking, of course. But, at the same time he was utterly serious. Having said that, it was my older sister, Saira, who was expected to be the great writer. She has my father’s way of seeing the world – his high-octane genius for reading situations. While she was singled out and groomed for a life in literature, I was left to my own devices. The way I see it, I was hugely fortunate as a result.



If you weren’t groomed to be an author, what were you expected to be?


Throughout my childhood, I would find my parents discussing me, usually with pained expressions, as though wondering where I would best fit in. Looking back is so easy – far too easy – like observing a valley in the bright light of summer. At the time, though, the valley was filled with mist. You could make out rocks and the river from time to time – but you could never see more than isolated details.


I was severely dyslexic – profoundly so. No one ever thought of getting me tested, and they just concluded that I was a halfwit. A kind-hearted halfwit, but a halfwit all the same. So the obvious idea for them was to encourage me to be a diplomat. They believed that the realm of diplomats would take care of me. For that reason, I was advised to study International Relations at university, and was encouraged to travel, to learn about the world. My grandfather, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, had been a roving diplomat of his own invention, as well as a celebrated author. The thinking was that I could live a life like him. It was a career which would have made use of my ability from a young age to charm people through conversation, and to be utterly engaged.



Tell me about how dyslexia has affected you.


Only in my thirties did I realise that I was dyslexic. I have never been formally tested, but there’s no need. It’s in every cell of my body. It is me and I am it. I suppose it’s a good thing my father never knew I was dyslexic. He may have regarded it as a disease, rather than what it is… a treasure to be savoured. You see, dyslexia wires your brain differently. You go through life assuming that everyone is wired up like you. Then, one morning, you are hit by a revelation – you’re different. And, as we all know, the people in life who have done amazing things have all been different. So, thank heavens for dyslexia: not only for making me see and think differently, but for giving me another astounding capacity – IMAGINATION. A lesser yin to the yang of dyslexia is the ability to imagine in a wild rumpus of a way. Dyslexics zone out because they get reprimanded when they zone in. As a result they conjure fantastical storyscapes. When I find parents shaking their heads in gloom that their children’s inability to spell or perform like all the cookie cutter kids in class, I clap my hands in delight. No cookie cutter child ever did anything to change the world. A few years ago I arranged to have all my backlist of books typeset in Open Dyslexic Font, which allows people like me to read a lot faster. I’m a slow reader, but a fast writer. But, with Open Dyslexic, I find my reading speeds up.



I once heard that you resorted to an ingenious method to get published when you were starting out – what was it?


Even though my father was a well-known writer, and I had quotes from people like Doris Lessing and the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, I couldn’t get my first book published. It was a travel book called Beyond the Devil’s Teeth. I was very proud of it, and used to carry the manuscript around in a plastic bag, holding up wads of pages whenever I had an audience. Then, one morning, I found myself thinking about something my father had told me when I was very young. He had said that the only way to succeed in life was to tackle a problem in a way that was zigzag and indirect. I never quite knew what he had meant. But, that morning on which I remembered the advice, I got thinking. My problem was that I couldn’t get an agent, which meant I couldn’t get a publisher. And, that meant I couldn’t get my book into print. I was completely broke at the time.


It was the early 90s, and I was living on rice cooked up with a canned tomato. I didn’t like it much, but had come to understand that my body would tick over if fed on tomato-rice. I borrowed £30 from my twin sister, Safia, and had fifty sheets of very expensive letter paper printed – the letter heading of William Watkins, chief editor at the Worldwide Media Agency. Seeing myself as a fisherman who had resorted to new and unusual bait, I sent letters with samples of the book to a clutch of leading publishes. Days passed. No one called back. My stomach groaned and growled, because I had cut down rations of tomato-rice in order to fund the publishing wheeze. One morning a few days later, I was lying under my duvet, sulking, when the phone rang. Listlessly, I clambered up, and went over.

‘Mr. Watkins, please,’ said a female no-nonsense voice. ‘Is he there?’

I flinched.


‘Mr. William Watkins of Worldwide Media… the agent for the brilliant new writer, Tahir Shah. Do I have the right number?’

I did a double-take, smiled inside and out, and replied as smooth as silk:

            ‘Of course, madam, bear with me and I shall put you through.’

            Covering the phone with my hand, I made clicking sounds and a couple of grunts. Eventually, William Watkins’ booming baritone took the call. A meeting was set up for the dazzling new author, Tahir Shah. My book was published, and there began my career.



Your life could be described with the word ‘unconventional’. Do you see that as a good thing or a negative one?


Let me answer like this: Nothing in life, and I mean NOTHING, is quite so wretched to me as convention. When I see people imitating others through long and celebrated careers in their chosen profession, I’m almost physically sick. It’s not that they are doing inferior work. No, no… I am sure some of them have honed a blade that needed honing. But, to me, it means they are shirking from the responsibility of our species – to be original. I am fanatical about originality, and the idea that within us all there lives the ability to create in an utterly novel way. This is a massively important to me.


Who are our heroes? They are Newton, Einstein, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Hawking, and all the others who broke the mould. So, why do we get reminded day and night by school teachers, the media, and all the others, that we have to be like all the rest? I like to think I am an enthusiastic person, and in no part of my life am I more enthusiastic than with my children, Ariane and Timur. They now go to the school where my sisters and I went – Bryanston School, in Dorset. Bryanston’s a magical place. It is a privilege for them to go there, and to learn within the mind-set of that school. But, having said that, I find myself cringing with the way the system (I refer to the educational architecture rather than the school), expects the emerging generation to be facsimiles of what has come before. I see parents across England, and beyond, living through their children. They hot-house them, egging them on to become miniature versions of themselves. I tell Ariane and Timur that I am totally unfazed with how well they do in exams. What matters to me is that they are happy, balanced, kind, productive, and unstressed with burdens heaped on the shoulders of youth. Ground prepared too much with soil and compost does not allow the seeds to break through.


As I have described, I was hopeless at school because of my dyslexia. I couldn’t do the work. So I zoned out. And, because of that, my imagination zoned in. I have lived my own life, doing things that inspire and interest me in a deep down way. I’ve never followed a conventional path and have always strived to take a zigzag route rather than a straight one. Some people have castigated me, but I don’t care.


Three decades have passed since I left Bryanston. It’s a school which has produced a number of high profile people. The other day someone sent me a link online – to a site called Ranker, which grades everything from toothpaste, to politicians, to schools. I checked the link wondering what it had to do with me. To my surprise, it ranked the very most successful people who went to Bryanston. There are 13 of them. I’m ranked at number 5 – with the Nobel Laureate Frederick Sanger at number six, and my own high-achieving sister, Saira, in the spot behind him.




Renan and Truth

Truth sometimes has a big T and sometimes a small t. As Ernest Renan pointed out, logic deals with the small t. Logic, by definition, does not deal with nuances. And since Truth always resides in nuances logic is no use in the search for Truth. Nuances are the connections that join us to the whole, that which is greater than our little old selves. 


sticky genes and the baby's bathwater

You might reasonably ask that in the fifteen years since the human genome has been fully sequenced and other great genetic leaps forward have been made that the oat problem could have been solved. The humble oat, beloved of all porridgemen and not a few others, can grow in some fairly poor and unpleasant conditions. You can grow oats on a windblown Orkney isle and eat your porridge just fine. Just not that much porridge. Tough oats have a low yield. There are othr places, the fair south, where oats grow lush and resplendent, but they need good weather and a bit of coddling. Now the obvious thing is to add the gene for hardiness with the gene for yield. But try as hard as they can at Hovis and other places where more oats mean more groats, they simply haven't managed to do it. These are what are called 'sticky genes' low yield sticks to hardiness and high yield sticks to fragility and that's that. 

An intuitive grasp of entropy suggests this is right and proper. If we could keep growing bigger and lusher plants in worse and worse places we'd have a nightmare feedback loop with the world engulfed in triffid like luxuriance. So it isn't that surprising. But it does provide a salutary example of how some things just go together and won't be separated.

Think about the people you know who have some infuriating habits. But they're also great people. If only they could change a bit. Think about so called masculine and feminine virtues- wouldn't it be great if they could be combined? 

And then there are issues- it would be nice if we could have freedom of speech without hate speech, meritocracy without a braindrain of the disadvantaged, scale savings without organisational bureaucracy.

Like babies and bathwater. They look very different but it takes real effort to not throw out one with the other. It has always struck me how in recent times almost all important issues divide the public 50/50. It's astonishing how many public votes are only a few points either side of the middle. Reason: because both are right! When you have to decide by a vote there are usually equally good reasons for each side, which means we have a baby with its bathwater and you just can't separate them.

Sticky genes- they just go together. Live with it. Work around it. Accept you can't have everything in the exact manner which you just might want it...



A man can only be as wise as his setting. This is why the great teachers put so much effort into set and setting. They know that we are only channels for the wisdom that is actually out there not in here. By controlling setting they channel more. The ignorant heap praise upon them and even worship them. But they have simply been doing an exemplary job of channelling what is available to them. Instead of focussing on 'getting more knowledge', think about the kind of setting that would require you to be more wise, and act more wisely.