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Stewart Hotston

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Interruptions and the impact of inequality on our lives

I once wrote a model. Back in the days where I was paid by banks to do proper mathematics rather than the broader mandate I have now. It was what’s known as an agent based model in which you run simulations wherein agents (small algorithms) make ‘choices’ based upon a series of preferences. There are some very famous ones out there examining all sorts of issues from White Flight from mixed neighbourhoods to how crowds move through auditoriums when there’s a fire. Agent based models are extremely powerful for doing two things – allowing us to see how crowds behave and generating what we call ’emergent behaviour’ or complex outcomes arising from simple rules we can’t predict until we see them actually happening.

This isn’t a post about how clever I am or even the intricacies of agent based modelling.

It’s about interruption and how they derail our lives.

The point of the model was to look at the impact of crowd mentality on financial markets (we call it sentiment in the industry). I ran hundreds of agents and they related to one another based on what others were doing. They each had goals they were making choices to try and achieve but their performance was impacted by their own prejudices and how well those around them were doing.

Added to that I dosed the methodology with the real issue for all of us – luck. In each stage the agents were the recipients of some luck. Randomly assigned, for some it would be good luck and for others it was bad luck.

I wanted to see how people ended up making bad investment decisions because others were doing the same. I also wanted to see how one decision in the system can create a cascade of disaster without the original decision taker even knowing the impact they’d had on the world. Both were evident in clear fashion.

However, what was most interesting to me was how interruptions impacted agents trying to achieve their goals.

There were three key results from this initial model.

  1. Everyone survived a single interruption. Even the most resource constrained could survive.
  2. Two interruptions in close succession would derail (in this case bankrupt) the majority of agents.
  3. Three interruptions in close succession kills everyone.

I went back and examined why this was so. Frankly I was alarmed at how easy it was to destroy everything. Then I remembered suvivor’s bias and realised, no, this is how it is. So I also adjusted the model not to be too realistic – this allowed me to keep agents alive for longer and see just what it was which caused them to spin out.

From this I got a couple of further insights (beyond the one of everyone dies in the end).

  1. Everyone’s rational, but rationality isn’t one thing. Your rational decision might be to send your kids to school and miss your evening meals to afford that. Another person’s rationality might be to switch from high risk to low risk investments. The two agents are both making rational decisions but they can only be seen as such be viewing them int he context in which they are made. Too often classical economics assumes people only have one rationality – which is to make as much money as possible from the resources they have.
  2. Interruptions can and will entirely derail us and it’s the amount of bandwidth (read: savings, spare time, social support networks) which will indicate how quickly we’ll spin out.

Although point one above is ABSOLUTELY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING for people in power to dwell upon until they understand that just because people aren’t like them it doesn’t mean they’re fools, inferior or need more ‘education’ to make them ‘right’ or ‘fit’.

Really it’s point two which I want to talk about.

We all have trajectories in life. We move on through time from one thing to the next. We build – friendships, lives, homes, relationships and stuff like savings if we’re fortunate.

Interruptions set us back, send us in different directions (occasionally good ones). Often interruptions damage us because they stall, slow or halt our trajectories, stopping us from reaching the place we were aiming for.

Imagine wanting to buy a house. You’re educated, hard working, conscientious with your money but, because of external factors you keep getting made redundant. These interruptions will destroy the chance of reaching your goal.

Or imagine you went to university but the bank fucked you over and the university kicked you out and neither would take responsibility for something entirely out of your control. The interruption destroys the chance of reaching your goal.

Worse still, without what economists call ‘social capital’ which is short hand for savings, time, emotional space and support, we end up picking up these pieces on our own time when we would, if they hadn’t hit us, been building towards the thing we wanted.

You might say this is just the way it is, these examples showed people who bad luck. Sure, says I, but that just reveals two truths about interruptions.

  1. They happen to us whether we work hard or are good people. They take from us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Thanks for proving my point
  2. Rich people discover they are insulated from these interruptions much better than poor people.

The latter of these is crucial because it gives the lie to both the idea of social mobility and meritocracy when a society has a high degree of inequality.

Where there is low inequality, we all have a better chance of acting in such a way that those around us can recover from interruptions better, because any kind of interruption will impact us all equally. We’re motivated to create recovery programs, safety nets because it could be any of us.

Where there’s inequality, well the rich tend to believe in meritocracy and use it as a shield to be blind to their own privilege which insulates them from interruptions.

Worse still, they can end up believing they worked just as hard, if not harder than those who got interrupted and somehow it’s the fault of those who got interrupted because the same interruptions didn’t impact the rich people the same way. Inequality is insidious because it breeds attitudes that justify its presence by blaming those who have less for their own failures. It also makes it harder for those who have wealth to empathise with those for whom interruptions could be a matter of life and death.

We are lucky that illness in the UK won’t bankrupt us when we’re patients but if you want to see the real deleterious impact of inequality and interruptions, look at societies where healthcare is means based and watch how the poor, if they get sick, are utterly screwed.

Interruptions can ruin our lives. yet in equal societies they do so less because we’re properly in it together and will generate systems to help one another. In my models, where agents could share risk collectively they stayed alive longer (on average). Where they didn’t, then more people died more often and those few who survived did so not by their own skill but PURELY by chance.

When we talk about White privilege there are some powerful arguments running alongside it about White poverty. Especially in English speaking countries like the US and the UK where lassiez faire economic policies have created a de-facto underclass with no savings, little education and no prospects. Poor people should be basic allies against inequality but too often they are not just indifferent to one another, but openly antagonistic.

I think this comes from the basic fact that for all poor people, interruptions can eat you alive – taking your ability to properly examine what might to blame because you’re too busy simply trying to stay alive.

Dare I say it, if liberals want to build an anti-fascist coalition? One that sees rampant unchecked free market (an important distinction) capitalism as the sponsor of fascism it really is, recognising the dignity of those with no social capital is the first step, the second being committed and consistent work to unweave a society built increasingly on the premise of ‘what can you do for me?’ There are forms of capitalism that don’t eat us alive by the way but that’s a different conversation.

Inequality is bad folks because luck makes fools of us all.

Interview with Fiona Mcvie

I had the pleasure of being interviewed recently over at AuthorsInterviews by the lovely Fiona Mcvie. Go over and see the interview.

I’ve had the final proof read back on A People’s War – just need to agree the final changes and then it’s off to get printed and published…a little late but still in time for Christmas I hope!

S

Are you even a person?

This is going to be raw. I don’t have clever words today because I’m sat here having just stopped crying with a lump in my throat and an answer to why I’ve been feeling so unsettled since the summer. On paper I should be a happy camper – I’ve sold a trilogy (a life long dream) and have (hush now) a new job in a sector I love. I’m married and have great kids.

Except that today I witness a rally by the ‘Alt Right’ in Washington DC where they finished by shouting ‘Heil Victory’ after having extolled the virtues of white supremacy and on the same day when on CNN people weren’t shut down after asking whether Jewish people were even really people.

I sit here without a sense of what to do about a society I see dying before my eyes – one where we sensed we could become more tolerant, more accepting and even perhaps a bit more chilled out about that we disagreed with. Instead I feel like the extremes are taking the centre ground, not by reason, not with hope or grace but with hatred at their hearts and violence on their lips. It’s not about left or right – God we’re so passed that now. It’s about those who want to actively see others harmed or denigrated, who want to steal the dignity of others so they themselves feel better because they can ensure there are others whose lives are harmed.

I don’t understand why the press isn’t calling it fascism, racism and naked hatred. I don’t understand why so many people continue to think it more important to worry about their cats’ latest cuddle (and I’m not attacking you, it’s just that right now I can’t see past this massive change in the way our society works).

It seems to me that until people are rounded up for daring to protest about the government on the internet or until people who aren’t white or men who believe in the ‘god given religion of white supremacy’ are being herded into ghettos that we’ll actually wake up.

I have a faith and right now I have no idea how it might inform what I’m facing (it’s an existential crisis right now and to God I hope it never gets beyond that). There is no political party that appears to give a shit about this, no one defending our institutions when they disagree with the abuse of power, no opposition ensuring we have something more than a 1 party state in the UK. Instead, in our ignorance of how independent institutions should function we rant and

And let me be clear – this isn’t about people who voted for Brexit because some of the worst anti-semites and racists I’ve ever met are on the extreme left. This is about what the campaign for Brexit has made possible, what the hatred of immigrants in what has become the centre ground has made possible. This is about how the centre has become a place where we bully those who disagree, where we do not tolerate difference, need, weakness or  reason on ALL sides.

How did this happen? How did we become a people so far from compassion that we’d rather children starved to death in Calais than be given hope in the fifth largest economy in the world?

Oh, I’m sure there are reasons, I could write an essay on post-colonial collapse, on the impact of the financial crash, of how globalisation has been a boon but has left many people in effective serfdom. I don’t need it explaining to me.

Nor is education the whole answer. This suggestion is to miss the point, to focus on the individual rather than the society whose narrative shapes us all. When the centre ground had moved so far to the extreme that it’s ok to question whether people fleeing war are even human then no amount of education can make a position anywhere else look anything except extreme itself. I want a party or a movement to belong to whose voice will be heard when arseholes shout that Jews should be killed, when they say we should torture our enemies, when they say that women should stay in the kitchen, when they say people with my skin colour are naturally inferior and should live separately. And just to be clear, it’s not simply white people who are racist and intolerant but right now it’s WHITE supremacism that’s on the rise in my country.

I want a movement whose voice will contest the very idea of the centre ground.

Is such a movement political? Of course it’s political! Yet it’s no the Labour party nor is it the Conservatives, both of whom in their own ways (Labour with their hideous tendency to operate from the centre and the Conservatives with their horribly regressive sense that poor people need to be told how to live) feed this very problem.

Yet I don’t know if I have the energy for this fight. Which is what those who hate me hope for I guess. I don’t know if people would fight alongside me, would fund and create content, would stand up in the street or hide those who were being hunted. I don’t know my children would be safe nor whether more people than less give enough fucks to stand up for a society in which we hate fascism.

I’m open to ideas but I’ve thought about this hard and see nothing to which I want to give my commitment to. I can only believe we need something new, some resurgence of hope, of grace that is secure enough in itself to stand up to those who would think nothing of beating it bloody to shut it up. I don’t know if you want to follow me in that, I hope you do.

 

Just who is David Chalmers

No spoilers here!

In A Family War, David’s a policeman. In A People’s War he shows a different side. Helena always thought it was strange that an Oligarch wound up as a policeman, even one with as broad a remit as Chalmers.

It’s worth explaining a little about the Oligarchs. They are those whose families were rich enough or powerful enough that when longevity technologies first arrived they could secure these advantages for themselves. They were and remain the 1%. There are, at the time of Helena’s story, about 6 million Oligarchs on the planet. That sounds like quite a lot of them, but it’s not when you consider the planet’s population is closer to 9 billion. These 6 million are tracked and watched for the large part, they have what the media call Adherents, or followers in today’s parlance. Adherents are those who have latched onto specific Oligarchs for whatever special properties they perceive in them.

One of my key drives in building their society was celebrity culture, not simply saturday night television or the movies but how that plays itself out in boardrooms, academia and politics. Even there it’s not really the Trump effect, it’s more about the cult of personality, the idea that the person at the top deserves to earn a thousand times what their lowest paid staff members earn. We all acquiesce in that structure and you see this in how these people at the top are venerated, deferred to and respected as if they alone are responsible for all the good that’s done and profound decisions made. I found the work on organisations by Charles Handy invaluable in trying to figure out how large corporations would engineer this kind of social structure. When I cross referenced that to Richard Sennett and Zygmunt Bauman whose work on modernity, capitalism and the workplace is superb, I realised I wanted my corporations to be miniature dynasties whose boundaries were electronic as much as they were product driven and physical.

If you’re one of just six million among 9 billion ordinary people, something strange must have happened for you to end up as a policeman. Just saying.

Image is from the film Hot Fuzz and is not my own!

Swordfish Prep

I’m off to Swordfish today. I’m quite nervous. There are 8 of us from School of the Sword going. Three of us have won medals this year in international tournaments, including me. In theory we should place well in the different disciplines we’re representing. However, this is the largest competition in the world (it’s not officially the world championships but it’s regarded almost as such). It’s also only my 3rd competition ever. Despite feeling like I’m nearly at my best, I’m also certain that my competition craft simply isn’t at the same level as my technical skill.

Having said that, flying into Gothenburg will be awesome and there will be lots of people I know there from around the world all looking to perform well and teach each other new things. I’m particularly looking forward to some single dagger seminars.

In the run up to the event probably the single most important thing I’ve taken away from my training was something that Caroline Stewart and Phil Marshall said on diet, nutrition and making sure that we’re all functioning with as much energy as we’ll take into the first fight by the last fight. To that end I’m resolving to take proper bottles so I can have enough liquid as well as buying some sweets for popping between fights. I guess I’ve known it’s important but it was only when someone else laid it out starkly that I realised I could see my own standard dropping as the number of fights built up and this could be traced directly back to a lack of liquid and energy. I’m going old fashioned with peanut M&Ms for quick and slow release energy, I’m not quite sure I’m star trek enough for energy gels.

But hey, I’m going to try and stab other people with swords while they try to stab me in return. I’m going to have to submit to the vagaries of judging – where even the best judges are only human and the worst…still only human. I’m going to be tentatively letting my competitive side out while trying not to allow myself to get too hyped so that when I inevitably don’t conquer the universe on my first attempt I can live with myself. The journey to this point has been quite an eye opener for me – and I’m someone who thinks they’ve got a good view of what they’re like and how I’m motivated. To discover, at the age of 40, that I’m good at a sport, good enough to win medals at an elite standard, is a shock I’m still not quite over. It’s propelled me to exercise more, to keep practising, to be more disciplined and to worry about the collection of small injuries I’ve collected over the year. At the same time I find the focus I need to fight well, to pick myself up after losing a fight or even just a point, is one I’ve realised can be translated straight across to the rest of my life. I’ve said to myself ‘get up and start again, that’s how you fight successfully’ more than once about work, writing and life in general.

At the same time, such focus is exhausting and can’t be kept up for extended periods, it’s simply too intense and anti-social. By this time next week I’ll be taking, what I consider to be, a well earned rest. For now, en garde you curs, cos if you look at me like that I’ll cut ya.

Novels and new titles

It’s been a busy week. Yesterday I finished my current WIP – a contemporary thriller about a man who discovers the daughter he never knew he had has been kidnapped. He’s a selfish bad ass and decides he’s going to go teach the people who took her a lesson. It helps that he’s immortal but not as much as you’d think in today’s Denver. My initial beta readers have literally been harrassing me for each new chapter as I’ve been writing which is quite the most positive response to anything I’ve ever written. So who knows – this might be a little bit good. Still, there’s a long way to go before it’s ready for the next round of beta readers (I haven’t forgotten you!) because it needs a proper edit and a proper critique. Once that’s done I’ll be sending out people who are interested in reading an advanced draft before I start thinking about sending to agents.
At the same time I have my first collection of short stories out for editing with a superb editor for one of the great sci-fi and fantasy presses at the moment. Looking forward to getting his comments back at the end of the month. This one will be free for signing up to my newsletter (the first proper issue of which has still to come – I’m nothing if not reticent to send out emails without proper content…). No idea about covers yet but we’ll see. I’ll discuss the stories themselves in detail later but just to say about half of them exist in the world of A Family War but none of them are about Helena Woolf. The provisional title will be ‘The sky’s not blue any more’.Then, this evening, I finished applying and considering the edits I received on book 2 of the Oligarchy, which will henceforth be known as ‘A People’s War’. I’m really excited about this book – it was my second full novel and I believe my writing had developed more of what I consider to be my voice as I came to write it. It’s dense sci-fi but fully focussed on how ordinary people live through tumultuous times and how they decide what they’ll do when faced with epic choices. Plus we get to understand more about the real war, how Helena’s family is embroiled in it and what she might be able to do to change the fate of the world. The cover for this one should soon be underway by the awesome Lawrence Mann. 

All in all I’m a bit lost as to what to do next…I have a novella screaming to get out and I should really start the third and final part of the Oligarchy. For now I’m just going to have some sipping whisky and relax. 

Leaving is not racism, remaining wasn’t liberal

I voted remain. Simple as. I thought it was the right thing to do for the country and certainly on a bigger scale than that, for international stability, order and peace. If that sounds bombastic, well, in part it is. However, since the vote came in, and we all start to digest what some of us had been mentioning before the vote as now being born out I’ve noticed some other trends too. The one I want to write about here is racism.

I’m a person of mixed heritage. I’m generally unable to fit in among people with my mother’s Indian heritage (although she’s Anglo-Indian and by that I mean that she has English, French and Irish genes in there as well as Indian). Nor am I able to connect with my father’s Jewish heritage as they were all killed in a concentration camp, not to mention that missing Italian part with ancestors we can’t trace. A friend once said I could go anywhere in the world and find someone who’d hate me.

I’m hoping by writing this then, not to pull rank by saying, ‘I’m browner than you’ but from the perspective of someone who has only known one national identity – British/English and that as a person with brown skin but no other cultural background except Dr Who, Blue Peter and Dad’s Army. As someone who’s known racism and racists, whose faced it in many places around the world and who you can, I hope, accept knows of what he’s talking.

Let me start by saying that mistaking a vote for leave as a vote for racism is a tragic thing. There is an argument that says that all the racists voted for Leave. I cannot say whether that’s true despite it’s narrative appeal. However, what I’m seeing is that people are going from there to say that anyone who voted for Leave is a racist, even if only be association. This is as absurd an argument as saying that all Christians are guilty of racism by association with the KKK or Muslims by association with IS. Last week most Remainers would have called that argument out. Now I’m seeing far too many of them deploying it as an excuse for staying angry. It is as poor an excuse now as it was when they were calling it out.

I understand the grief. I understand the anger. Yet it HAS to find a home that isn’t demonising others magis fere. That isn’t any more acceptable than if the targets of the argument were actually guilty. Which they’re not. 
Here’s another thing – a lot of people are saying there’s an upsurge of racism, and they’re documenting it on Facebook etc. They may well be right but anecdote is not evidence. Even evidence of single events is not proof of a trend. I hate to break it to you but I suffered from racist comments relatively frequently before the vote and I suspect it will be the same afterwards. If you look at the evidence in the crime statistics, racism has been on the rise in this country (from a low basis criminality wise) for a little while. You can blame the media if you like but that’s simply finding another scapegoat. This IS a tolerant country, and I love it for that. It’s MUCH less racist than my experience of the US or almost any other country I’ve ever been too – not simply because our communities are not, by and large, segregated but because most people here, regardless of their colour, have absorbed that indefinable thing that we all recognise as being British. Queuing, Cricket, Football, discussion of the weather, whatever you want to call it. 

What I do worry about though is this: people who voted remain declaring that all Leavers are racist. Do you know what this does? It further alienates the two sides but it’s worse than that. It emboldens the racists because they hear those they despise giving them psychic space to express what had previously been unacceptable in polite company. They find disgruntled and offended people whose energy they can feed off. They find that those who were tolerant in one breath are neither magnanimous in defeat nor gracious towards those with whom they disagree – and they feel justified in their own hatred feeling that no one’s really all that different underneath. 

In classing an entire portion of the nation racist, you create the conditions for racism to thrive. 

Can I ask, as someone who suffers for the negative consequences of racism, that you do this instead – work with those on the Leave side to stand up together and say “the vote wasn’t about racism and we, as British people, won’t stand for racism.” I ask that you stand up to it, that you reject it consciously even when you don’t see it. There are those, a minority to be sure, who will use this discord as a space for their offensive and retrograde views. Don’t give them the dignity of confusing them with people who voted Leave for their own reasons. Leavers – please, I know it’s annoying but resist being tarred as racists (unless you are – then please leave the rest of us alone before we come for you), resist racism too. 

The vote may have been about immigration for a lot of people, but this doesn’t mean racism unless we create a space in which that’s the only way to hold this class of views. 

If you’re angry – GOOD, now put it to work. Less time on Facebook, more time getting involved in your community, in politics, in meeting the people who live next door to you. Stand up to actual racists, not people who’re stupid in your timeline. Stand up to politicians rowing back on promises by calling them out via letters, emails and in public. All that the powerful need is for the rest to say nothing for them to do as they wish. Anger is marvellous and frightening, but what will you do with it? Will you make it count or will you be another mumbling discontent looking for each scapegoats?

Getting over insecurity

Helena Woolf is out thanks to Matthew Sylvester over at Alternative Realities who believed in this enough to not only publish it but make it their first novel. Matthew worked so hard to make this happen and without him I can honestly say it’s unlikely that A Family War would have seen the light of day.

Instead, Matt’s now faced with sorting out availability in Japan! Thats what we call a quality problem.

This is kind of by-the-by. I want to talk about a feeling that’s been creeping up on me since last week, the day when the kindle version sneaked onto the web because I persuaded them to release it a little early so a friend of mine, Rebecca, could get it early.

Since that day, as people have begun buying it I’ve started to look at the text and worry that it’s no good, that what I’ve written it completely rubbish, that it’s got errors, flaws, weaknesses and basically bad writing. In short I’ve almost come to hate it. I look at stuff I’ve written since then and think ‘but that’s better’, wondering if I should have skipped straight to that instead, frightened that people will read this and hate it so much that they’ll not read anything else I’ve written ever again.

I’ve gotten a bit of a grip this morning. I’ve reread some random sections and I think it’s not too bad. It was the first novel I’d written that I thought worked (it was actually the third novel in total) both from an ideas perspective but most importantly from a character/progression aspect. It helps that there are now 3 reviews and they’re all positive – only one of which is from a family member (who has read the book btw, but you can forgive them for being biased).

Yet I can’t help sit there when I see it selling feeling like I’ve inevitably let people down, that I won’t meet their hopes or expectations. It’s a very weird feeling and, if you know me, not one I’m prone to.

Fortunately I’m also feeling totally excited about it. I’m so happy that it’s made it into the world with good formatting and a great cover. So. Now I guess I’d better get on with editing book 2, A Corporate War.

Finding my audience

My first novel has scurried into the light (the official launch is in a couple of days when the paperback can by bought but the ebook’s already available and selling beyond my wildest dreams – in other words it’s selling!)

The question for me now as an author is twofold. Firstly, is what I’ve written of any interest to people and if it might be how do I find them.

I’m pretty sure I should have thought about this earlier – but then I have always written stories that I was interested in. So now I think to myself ‘I wonder how I let people know I’ve written something that they might like’.

Partly it’s about getting reviews (or so I’m told) and partly I hope it’s that people like it. The big question is how to find those people who’ve never heard of you. I’ll let you know how I get on!

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