Perception

What is your perception of Saudi Arabia? (assuming you have never visited)

I’m sure there are certain images or preconceived notions which naturally bubble to the forefront of your mind. Where did your perception come from? Media? Friends?

Perception of a particular culture almost never turns out to true when one finally comes in contact with that culture. It’s been true in every country where I have spent a significant amount of time.

I remember when I first moved to Vietnam, I had all kinds of images in my head: Vietnam War, communism, oppressive heat and rain, etc… All of the stereotypes one by one came crashing to the ground once I arrived in the country, started talking to the people, and started learning for myself what the Vietnamese culture was all about. (I’m not going to go into the details of how my perceptions were wrong except to note that the coldest Christmas I have ever spent was in Vietnam, huddled under the thickest quilt I have ever seen in my life, shivering cold at a level I have never experienced again.)

It happened again (losing my perception, that is) when I moved to Malaysia.

Well, this week I moved to Saudi Arabia and guess what? Yes. The walls come crashing down.

I had a lot of strange and astonished looks when I told friends and family that I was moving to Saudi Arabia, which means to me that everyone had certain images of what to expect. Here a few items I’ve experienced this past week that just felt different from what I had anticipated:

Food. What terrific western food! Now, Malaysia is a food paradise for it’s blend of various cuisines, but, honestly, they’re western food was seriously lacking. Not here, I’ve been to incredible, immaculately decorated restaurants which serve terrific western dishes whether pasta, fish, burgers, mexican or whatever. I’m sitting in these places thinking “where am I?” The answer is Saudi Arabia.

Space. Jeddah is a sprawling metropolis which alternates between sandy open lots and immaculate malls and gigantic modern complexes. I was standing in a parking lot after dinner the other night and I commented to a friend that anyone standing here could have mistaken this place for any modern plaza in North America. I again was wondering where I was. The answer was the same.

Add in the spectacular views and promenades of the “Corniche” along the Red Sea with the terrific service everywhere and the wonderful friendly smiles of the Saudi people and I’m in the position to have a lot of my perceptions blown out of the water.

And that’s a good thing.

The next time you go some place, check your perceptions at the door and arrive with the attitude of a learner. You’ll be surprised. And while your at it, whatever you think of another’s culture right now, you very well may be dreadfully wrong. And that’s a great thing to discover.

 

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Facebook Fatigue

I used to love Facebook.

But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, its become toxic.

Why can’t we be friends without discussing politics? Please, add as many cat memes as possible, but is it really the place to be discussing immigration policy?

And yet, I find myself commenting on any number of threads. I cannot not comment. Especially after I sine the inane comments, the misinformation, the outright falsehoods, and the mystifying beliefs which are not based on any facts whatsoever.

Or at least that’s from my own point of view. And everyone else has their own point of view. A billion points of view which are based and shaped by those other billion people turn out to be not so helpful after all.

And so I wonder why I continue to be a Facebook warrior. Why can’t I let people wallow in their own incompetence. I’m sure they let me wallow in mine. Why can’t I let a snide comment go? Why do I have to add to the toxic environment? Why do I insist on mindlessly scrolling through everyone else’s political comments knowing I’ll simply think they are idiots. (as they think the same as me) Why? Why? Why?

The better question is: why don’t I quit Facebook?

I do wish someone would pay me to be a truth warrior on Facebook, countering every false meme and ridiculous comments with obnoxious statements based on fact and actual research. I could spend a year on my own newsfeed countering the misinformation. Anyone want to sponsor me? $50,000 should do it. I will make you proud. I’ll produce quotes, facts, laws, research, history, and common sense to defend those who blast against the decency of truth. I’ll do it. I have a computer and I’m willing to use it.

Facebook has put me on the edge. But I’m not likely to jump anytime soon. I’ll probably keep my scrolling habits in place. Unfortunately.

Facebook fatigue is a real thing. And I live there.

 

Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiot” Article

I just came across this article today. It’s terrific on many different levels, and I was happy to see that it can be re-published by anyone if it is in its entirety and specifically mentions that it’s an excerpt from the book “Skin in the Game.” Duly noted. This article, in a way, reminds me of an educational video on China I watched a number of years ago. It showed how the Communist party was allowing free elections on the local level in some communities. The election in question pitted a honest, hard-working female incumbent mayor against her challenger, a rich garlic grower. The challenger touted two qualifications for the job: he was rich and he was a man. Well, the election was a landslide for the incumbent mayor. The real folks, the peasant farmers had common sense and knew clearly which of the two candidates was the best leader for them. During this election process, one of the Communist party brass said in an interview that the Chinese government could not allow the entire nation to choose the country’s leaders with one check mark on a piece of paper. There were two many educational and socio-economic differences. Translation: “poor people are stupid, they might vote us out of office.” Elitism at its best. Enjoy the following article.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot  by Nassim Taleb

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their image-oriented minds scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.


The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in most countries, the government’s role is between five and ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and is rarely seen outside specialized outlets, think tanks, the media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many openings for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only did he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.

Typically, the IYI get the first order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, election forecasting models, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

The IYI is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist he uses statistics without knowing how they are derived (like Steven Pinker and psycholophasters in general); when in the UK, he goes to literary festivals; he drinks red wine with steak (never white); he used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; he takes statins because his doctor told him to do so; he fails to understand ergodicity and when explained to him, he forgets about it soon later; he doesn’t use Yiddish words even when talking business; he studies grammar before speaking a language; he has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; he has never read Frederic Dard, Libanius Antiochus, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, Amianus Marcellinus, Ibn Battuta, Saadiah Gaon, or Joseph De Maistre; he has never gotten drunk with Russians; he never drank to the point when one starts breaking glasses (or, preferably, chairs); he doesn’t even know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba (which in Brooklynese is “can’t tell sh**t from shinola”); he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics.

He knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.

Not a IYI

Postscript

From the reactions to this piece, I discovered that the IYI has difficulty, when reading, in differentiating between the satirical and the literal.

PostPostcript

The IYI thinks this criticism of IYIs means “everybody is an idiot”, not realizing that their group represents, as we said, a tiny minority — but they don’t like their sense of entitlement to be challenged and although they treat the rest of humans as inferiors, they don’t like it when the waterhose is turned to the opposite direction (what the French call arroseur arrosé). (For instance, Richard Thaler, partner of the dangerous GMO advocate Übernudger Cass Sunstein, interpreted this piece as saying that “there are not many non-idiots not called Taleb”, not realizing that people like him are < 1% or even .1% of the population.)

Note: this piece can be reproduced, translated, and published by anyone under the condition that it is in its entirety and mentions that it is extracted from Skin in the Game.

The Bored Generation

I’ve become quite bored with the bored generation. Okay, that’s not exactly true. But I do wonder what will become of all of these bored kids.

Yes, they are bored. They tell me they’re bored. They get bored at all the wrong times in all the wrong ways. It’s like they need to be bored. The opposite of bored being extremely active with meaningless superhero films to pass the time.

I had one say that the movie I showed them in class this week was boring. It was “The Quiet American” – based on the Graham Greene novel set towards the end of the French Indochina War. The book is fantastic. The movie isn’t bad. Not the best in the world, but good acting, solid plot. Action, intrigue, mystery.

But a student said it was boring. I suppose I should be happy. It must mean that my lectures are so riveting that anything Hollywood produces is a long, boring step downwards.

I do, however, lament the fact that “boring” movies mean nothing to kids these days. I just watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck. Yes, it was slow moving. Most teens today would be asleep in the first five minutes, which would be a shame. It shows a wonderful view of southern life and all its ugly realities in the 1930s. Lessons galore for our generation, but most of them would be lost on this generation of instant gratification.

We all know what sells in this world. Wild stories, told in big epic computer-generated FX. Comic books come to life. Explosions and sex and in your face language and loud music. It’s an endless scroll of images, fast and furious, many and meaningless. Dialogue is short-changed, and characters are not so deep. We have become bored, shallow, inattentive to the world around us.

Good or bad, it’s where we are at as a society. I hope this generation will awake from its boredom and begin to ask critical questions of how our world has gotten to where it is. We need art, music, and stories which challenge the notion that we are the throw-away, consumer, classically illiterate society.

Here’s hoping that we all awake from our slumber.

Twenty Years Can’t Shake the American Out of Me

I’ve in Asia for most of the last 20+ years. But an incident last week made me realize that I am still very much an American.

It has to do with space. Not outer space. Personal space. I like it. Don’t encroach on me or I might act rudely.

Here’s what happened:

I was at my normal beach-side resort, doing my normal afternoon writing. There was a row of empty beach lounge chairs at one location, and I took up residence under an umbrella, punching out amazing prose on my computer. (OK, it may not have been amazing, but let me believe it to be so.)

As I mentioned, there were many open lounge chairs, lots of them, tons of them, loads of them, but one of the guests decided to sit in one of the chairs just two doors down – with only one empty lounge chair between us.

Okay, I thought. I can deal with this.

But the Indian gentleman had different ideas. He sat on one side of the chair, leaning towards me with his cell phone in his hand. I could have reached over and touched him if I wanted to. (I didn’t.) I felt encroached upon, like a little bird was sitting on my shoulder watching every move. I tried to ignore him. But he seemed to be staring (although he wasn’t.)  I went and dipped in the pool, hoping additional time would send him to another location. (It didn’t.) I felt rude and unwelcoming, but I had writing to do, and I don’t like an peeping-Tom stalking me from mere inches away. (It felt that way, anyways.)

When I came back from the pool, I slide over one seat so that there were now two lounge chairs between us. Surely this would be enough space for me.

And then he started talking on his phone. Loudly. It sounded like he was yelling at the top of his lungs. (He wasn’t.) And he talked and he talked in Tamil. I couldn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t type a word either. I tried to concentrate, but I felt the cavalry closing in on all sides, completely trapped.

I went for another dip in the pool, cooling me off, giving me space, hoping that I wouldn’t be surrounded when I returned.

I sat down again and then he did it. He turned on the music on his phone. The best of Bollywood. How can I write with Bollywood music blaring from mere three feet away? I wanted to get up and do my best moves. (I didn’t.) The beat and the sound overwhelmed all my senses.

I looked down the row of empty chairs. Lots of empty chairs. Tons of empty chairs. Look, buddy, they are all for you. So many open chairs. But he wanted to be near me.

Eventually, I gave up, picking up all of my towels and belongings and heading to a table at the outdoor restaurant.

It was at that point when I realized how American I still am. Americans love our space. We hate crowds and closeness. Many times, Asian personal space is only within a person’s mind because there’s simply too many people to have actual space which you can call your own. India has over a billion people. China 1.2 billion.

It reminds me when I heard a Vietnamese speak of their first trip to America. They were in the suburbs and went for the walk. When they came home, they said “Where are all the people?”

Indeed. You can take a walk in an American suburb in the middle of the day and hardly see a soul.

You can’t take a walk in the Vietnamese countryside in the mid day without running into twenty people working in a rice field.

I guess I still like my space. I hope that fine Indian gentleman didn’t think I was being rude the other day. I wasn’t trying to be. I was just being American.

I still can’t help it, even after all these years.

My White Face Opens Doors

I was reading earlier in the week that several people have been pondering the meaning of the word “expat” and why the definition of expat seems to include only white westerners who are living in a foreign country, while everyone else would be referred to as immigrants. As an expat myself for much of the past twenty years, it’s an interesting question and has many important features to ponder. It touches on difficult topics of race, ethnicity, colonialism, white privilege, socioeconomic status as well as many possible areas. It’s a lot to consider and nothing a short blog post will be able to do justice to.

However, I do have to acknowledge that my white face opens doors. Today I had a perfect example of this. For the past couple of hours, I’ve been buzzing around Georgetown (Penang) checking out the Chinese New Year decor. When it was time to find a restroom, I, without putting any thought into it whatsoever, walked into a hotel, through the lobby and to their bathroom near the first floor restaurant. I made no gesture towards any of the hotel’s commercial endeavors. I simply walked in, used the restroom, and walked out.

The doorman didn’t notice me. The front counter reception barely glanced my way. The other guests milling around in the lobby didn’t have any sort of shocked look on their faces. I was a six-foot three, white American in a Southeast Asian country and yet it was if I was an invisible man – completely blending into my surroundings.

I bring this up because my face, at that moment of entry, acted as my “passport” into that hotel. I conjecture that the homeless person sleeping across the street wouldn’t have been afforded such a safe passage. In fact, while the hotel has guests from a multi-cultural background, I’m confident that not just anyone of any color or dress would have been treated (or in my case – not treated at all) that way.

It’s an uncomfortable truth of living here. I enjoy certain privileges simply because I have more means than some. At the same time, I will be the first to admit that I am no better, and often times much worse, than my fellow humans. There’s nothing magical about having a white face, but yet I must admit that there is a difference. I’ve experienced it numerous times in my time in Asia.

Expats live a good life, but there is nothing I hate worse than a spoiled expat who believes that he or she deserves that good life. I’ve seen my fair share of those kind of people, unfortunately. Like the time when an expat I knew was complaining about a power outage and yelled, “I deserve electricity! I’m American!” It was cringe-worthy.

Or the snide comments about how “they do things here.” A little patronizing, perhaps?

May we all come to the place in our lives when we can look at another human being and realize that they are another human being – no different from ourselves and race and socioeconomic status means nothing.

We’re humans. We might as well act like them.