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Somehow it gets passed on

I just saw two teenagers, dressed in the fashions of the day, walking along a country road. Both of them were holding stems of grass between their thumbs, their hands clasped over each other. The stem of grass is held taut and when you blow acts as a reed- making a squawking sound, or sometimes quite a sonorous note. I was taught to do this by my father and he learnt from his. These kids must have learned it from theirs, or an older relative. It cheered me immensely to see them thus engaged, grinning and making weird noises as they walked.


The Polymathic Economy

I was talking with my good friend Richard Mohun, a thinker and lecturer on business and economics, and we were talking about that good old economics chestnut, comparative advantage. Basically back in 1817 David Ricardo wanted to explain why on earth countries engaged in international trade even when they were less efficient at producing every single good than another country. He came up with the answer (it's to do with opportunity cost) and has wowed economics students every since. i can remember thinking when i studied the subject- wow- a real economics law that isn't obvious...And ever since 1817 the idea of specialising as an economy (a result of applying Ricardo's thinking) has been dominant in the minds of governments.

Except the ones we regard as renegade and even downright evil: the third reich, soviet russia, Mao's china- and maybe more acceptably, India until 1995 or so. These were countries pursuing autarky- the notion that a country should be self sufficient and not dependent on it neighbour's good will. Autarky is the macro-version of survivalism, self-suffiency and prepping for the next big disaster...

But is there something in between bending over and specialising as a country (and taking a massive hit when bigger and wealthier countries turn on you) and the lone nuttiness of pure autarky?

We think there is: the polymathic economy. In the polymathic economy we encourage as wide a variety of economic activity as possible. The idea is to enhance by cross fertilisation both creativity in the country but also perspective. I have shown elsewhere (see Micromastery, Penguin 2017) that even super specialists like Nobel prize winning scientists actively engage in arts, crafts and performing music far more than their more humble fellow academics. You need new ideas from somewhere and you need a complete break some of the time- both are supplied by a polymathic way of life. The main difference between a polymathic type and a specialist is attitude. The specialist jealously guards his patch; the polymath actively engages with other fields to steal new ideas...or even just borrow them.

The specialist economy (dumb shit like the 'knowledge economy', the 'finance economy'), encourage us to look inward and go into 'on guard' mode. Instead we need to be in explorer mode, entrepreneur mode. Real economic advantage is all about that strange thing economists are a bit cough cough embarrassed about - the psychological oomph of the people. Can't be measured, can't be pinned down- but compare Manhattan to Slough and you'll know what the difference is. To plan a polymathic economy couldn't be simpler. All key areas from manufacturing to services MUST be encouraged (which means just remove active discouragement and tariff/regulate/disrupt the hell out of cheapo crap imports in that area). Of particular interest are the arts. Nobel prize winners are many times more likely than regular scientists to actively engage in the arts. How do we encourage that? Simple. Forget grants and all that left brain nonsense. A minimum wage for a year for a creator- artist/writer/poet/musician- to qualify is easy, some evidence of work, some recommendations from existing artists. After one year an exhibition with the judgement decided on several things: quantity, quality and a long list of people who think said artist deserves her or his stipend. Mess up and you have a three year gap before you get another shot...kind of like parole. Of course, like anything, it requires judgement in its administration- but evidence shows polymaths are better at judging than specialists- not really surprising.

The main thing is, though, abandonment of the foolish notion of comparative advantage and engagement with the reality of real progress: a polymathic economy.



Zeroth Living

A young friend of mine just told me he is skint and doesn’t know what to do. He has free board and lodging from his parents but is unwilling to get a job as he is working on a film project of his own. I told him to join the zeroth community.

Zeroth living- a term I just coined- means living for zero, nada, no money, zilch. Yep. We’re not talking low budget we’re talking no-budget. You buy NOTHING. After looking at me in a non-plussed kind of way my friend started to get a big grin. “OK, I get it,” he said.

A week later he had:

Taken some old novels and replaced some other books in a communal library (an old phone box). The books replaced including a book about the art of Hornby Trains- on amazon it’s £8, he managed to get £2 for it from a second hand bookshop. Kerching! 

Persuaded a friend to let him use his high end sound gear for one month. Instant save of a thousand he needed to buy the gear.

Went on a picnic with friends in the nearby hills. Brewed up coffee on a stove. Much nicer than Costa.

Had a barbecue using wood found on the beach. You don’t need charcoal. The guests brought the food too.

The thing is, it’s catching. Once you start you see the possibilities. That's the great thing about it. When you are low budget it's all a series of glum choices (do I have one coffee or two and walk instead of taking the bus...) but when it's no budget it's now a challenge that's all about being inventive. And lucky. In Japan I fitted out an entire apartment from the gomi(Japanese word for garbage on the street). I found (with some help from pals) a CD player, a TV, a microwave and a chair (the apartment was so small it only needed one, guests took turns for the privilege of sitting). But over the years you get sluggish. You become like every other sucker- looking for money in a generalised way to solve highly specific problems.

You need a sound recorder- a specific problem. You need to make money to get it- now that’s a vague and highly general problem. Humans are designed to solve VERY specific problems. Indeed one of the mantras of the engineering business is that if you can define a problem accurately enough you’ve solved it. Yet all us poor fools are out there ‘trying to make money’- a very flabby and unhuman thing to be doing.

Zeroth living turns this on its head, it makes life specific again.

The most highly successful beggar I met had an intriguing method. He didn’t ask for a pound or even 10p. He asked for very specific amounts to satisfy very specific needs. He’d write on a sign “I need £3.32”. People would stop and ask why. “To send a parcel to a friend (true)”. Or he’d ask for a chocolate bunny and stand outside a shop selling chocolate bunnies. Once he asked for a Thesaurus when he was begging in Sydney. An outraged man shouted at him- “The fuck you need a thesaurus for – you’re fuckin’ homeless- you need money.”. He calmly replied, “Right now I need a thesaurus as I am writing something that needs more words than I know”. He had a journal which was part of his act- people who helped him got to sign it and look at it. I told you he was a clever fella. Ten minutes later the outraged man brought him a thesaurus, brand new.

Get specific.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this a bit desperate, a bit parasitic? Well, it doesn’t have to be. I just looked through the local free magazine for things that are free. A set of encyclopedias (complete edition), an Epson DX4000 printer, even a greenhouse if you can move it. We live in a world where everyone has too much stuff. To recycle it and make a little en route is doing everyone a favour. 

And the second thing is that money has changed its nature, rather subtly, over the last fifty years. Money used to be money. Now it has bifurcated into street money and property money. Since property has replaced gold as the new backing of all currencies we are slowly seeing a slide back into the feudal economies of yore where land was everything. Of course there are a few differences, but it’s the similarities that we should take note of. The vast difference between the value of a house and what an average year’s salary is should be some indication that street and property backed money are very different things. If you have property money you can convert it into street value and live like a king. In fact you ARE a king in the feudal scheme of things. But street money won’t buy you a hill of beans…

So get a bit feudal. Barter with your pals. Team up with them. Use the power of people and networks and the fact that you are only two degrees away from anyone who owns what you need to borrow. Borrow is the key. People have too much stuff and yet they don’t always want to give it away…just quite yet.

Join the zeroth community. Do it for a week just for a change. Use only the food that you have built up in your house, food you might otherwise waste. I’ve just run out of milk. Instead of buying some I’ll use that coffeemate I’ve had for a month or more. I’ll make some chappattis with that special flour I bought a while back instead of running out to get yet more supermarket bread. Want something fresh? Try a nettle soup or even risk a daring rummage in the freebie section of the supermarket. Yes I know it’s meant for people really in need but they won’t miss a tin or two. It’s only an experiment. You can replace those cans when its over. The point is to get into the spirit of ligging, zeroth living.

And you’ll be amazed at how many money making schemes come to you. Not vague ones, no complex operations, just quick ideas that use what you already have to hand, what you already know but were too befuddled to employ. It may even be as simple as sending out invoices you’d overlooked. Or trying an idea out on someone you were ‘too busy’ to ask before. But you have plenty of time now. None of it wasted in pubs and coffee shops and taking taxis and trains.

Oh yes, a bit of zeroth living never hurt anyone…


Striving and achieving as a polymathic person

Polymaths, despite the new course for a polymathic degree that has just started in London under the aegis of the remarkable Carl Gombrich (musician/scientist/linguist) are apt to get a kicking from time to time, quite often in fact. And the reason is bleedin' obvious- if you try and do lots of things you probably aren't going to be world class at all of them...or even any of them. But note! This charge is always brought by people who are not world class, high class or even low class in ANYTHING. They use the excellence of others as a reason not to be mediocre and strivin' to get better but ...nothing. Just a cog who knows best. A touchline critic, a neutered nerd ready to review but not create.

And that in the end is what we are hedging around here. The human need to create, to make things, to be a player on the beach of life. To be striving not conniving or merely surviving. In Japan it is not uncommon for people to study martial arts an hour a day five days a week- sometimes before work- for years. They don't expect to become a master, but they do get better, slowly, incrementally. But far more importantly, they glimpse the possibilities of excellence, they have fleeting experiences of masterdom, insights into the worlds of achievement above and beyond them. Peter Levi the poet wrote that he'd never met a poet who didn't think he was better than Shakespeare. Because they have glimpsed, they have seen (and judge themselves on what they have glimpsed and judge all others on their attempts to communicate it).

So I salute all polymathic people out there giving it a go at things they may be even not that good at. Things that are hard for them to do, things they may even be mocked for trying. The mockers think they are 'realistic' because they echo the values of the age 'specialise, be a cog, don't waste time, be efficient with time and money'- the values of Henry Ford (anti-semite and Hitler supporter but let's not get distracted).

Instead, dig out your own valued things and activities. Try what you like, give everything a go if you want. A poisoned dwarf of an interviewer 'challenged' me on the radio in the US by saying 'what's the point of being a bad artist, a rotten poet?' I got angry when I should have been serene- the point is you've missed the point if you even frame a question like that. You've shown you just don't get it. When writer Mark Salzman showed examples of 'bad art' he had found at garage sales to inmates of a prison in an attempt to get a cheap laugh he found them unresponsive. They pointed out the sincerity in much of it, the simplicity and courage, the heartfeltness. He felt ashamed that he had ever been caught up in the coercive commodified notion of art peddled everywhere where critics flourish in their evil smelling bowers and towers...

I am not about to say 'Do Bad Art' (well I almost was) because the words don't make much sense to me. If you are striving, if you are making, if you doing rather than criticising others then whatever you make has real value. Instead of collecting the work of others, collect your own work...or even both.

The point is NOT that you are 'good' or 'not good', the poinit is that you are on a path, learning something, being perceptive (which means not just seeing but using what you see).


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...

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