The Trouble With Politicians

I do not care much for politics. But just because we find a subject distasteful does not mean that we should shut it out of our lives completely. My ignorance of politics is mostly deliberate as I feel that the time spent studying it would be put to better use elsewhere. I nevertheless concede that the question of who we choose to run our country is one that deserves our attention – in spite of the facility demonstrated by politicians for overestimating their ability to influence the course of the economy.

If I were called upon to summarise my dislike of politics, I would assert that politicians are far more concerned with the manipulation of information and people for their own ends than they are with improving the lives of their constituents. I see much greater merit in ideas for promoting and supporting continuous improvement in individuals than adding new layers of complexity to the tax system and operating central planning over the banking system.

When asking myself about the nature of politics, my instinctive response is that it is concerned with the acquisition, maintenance and application of power in the sphere of governing the state. We all know that power and corruption are frequent bedfellows. The desire to acquire power and the manner in which it is gained and used depend on the motives of the individual.

The power seeker can either have a goal of making the state a more just, productive, safe and fulfilling place for its citizens to inhabit – or they can pursue the attainment of personal wealth, social connections and prestige. These two objectives are incompatible with each other because the former requires a long term investment of time, effort and integrity while the latter involves a short term, superficial approach.

Rather than labelling politicians with over-simplistic party labels, perhaps we should assess them based on the extent to which they care about feathering their own nests rather than making the world a better place for us to live in. Politicians and bankers seem to adopt an unbalanced, one-sided stance in this respect, creating far more value for themselves than for others. The very people we need to be able to trust the most always seem to betray us.

We can generally determine what motivates people by observing how they behave. Many politicians routinely employ rhetoric with the purpose of enhancing their own image while discrediting their opponents. Mud slinging is a hallmark of their profession.

How do you feel about placing the important business of running the country in the hands of people who are given to arrogance and self-aggrandisement? Great store is placed (especially by the media) on the speeches made by political leaders. But their orations invariably seek to create an effect rather than containing anything of substance. What does “We will make our country strong once again” actually mean? Where is the value in this froth?

Politicians are often little more than mutant salesmen (and saleswomen) who have highly developed skills in sophistry. They project passion but lack sincerity. The Knot Garden believes that these are not the sort of people we need at the helm.

An Ordinary Day

With verdure clad the fields appear delightful to the ravish’d sense; by flowers sweet and gay enhanced is the charming sight

Here fragrant herbs their odors shed; here shoots the healing plant

With copious fruit the expanded boughs are hung. In leafy arches twine the shady grove; o’er lofty hills majestic forests wave

From Haydn’s oratorio The Creation

On the face of it, last Saturday was an ordinary day. Nothing Spectacular happened. I played some music on YouTube in the morning while writing, took a walk in the afternoon, ate a pie in our local pub in the evening and then watched television before turning in for the night. Each of these little episodes was, in its own way however, a special event that made me feel most fortunate – privileged even.

The music video was of a live performance of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, performed by Musica Saeculorum. Although I am a non-worshiper, I am moved to the point of tears by this exquisitely crafted composition, constructed by one of the greatest composers in history – teacher to the incomparable Beethoven – more than two hundred years ago. The arias and duets trigger waves of emotion that sweep through me like those invoked by Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas. And, thanks to the technological innovations of our modern world, we are able to enjoy such inspiring and moving performances at any time we choose.

The walk, with Setsu, took us through a hidden valley – an Arcadian retreat – and along a disused canal that runs through Siccaridge Wood Nature Reserve. This is a wonderful, secluded place at any time, where one can truly feel close to nature. But at the time of our visit the woodland floor had grown a luminous carpet of pastel blue. As is always the case in a bluebell wood, the colour intensified as we looked further away, the viewing angle changing.

The pie was a world famous 2-in-1, exclusive to the Weighbridge Inn, which sits a couple of miles from where we live, midway between Minchinhampton and Nailsworth. The pub is notable for its intimate feel and its admirable policy of not playing music,  the pie for its consistently high quality, maintained over decades. The concept is simple – a deep oval dish filled with equal quantities of steak and kidney and cauliflower cheese, topped with a crumbly pastry. Weight watchers beware! The components are satisfyingly complementary and the execution flawless. The organic grass fed beef is succulent, the gravy rich and flavoursome. A simple but worthy meal for a special occasion such as a bank holiday weekend.

The television programme, a Norwegian drama, was engaging and well made and the viewing experience was enhanced by the consumption of a bottle of good wine. Even the trip to Waitrose earlier in the evening to buy the wine was an excursion that, far from being mundane, elicited from me a feeling of gratitude. And the opportunity to end the day in the company of my wife, enjoying a few glasses of St-Véran while engrossed in a dark Scandie tale, is something I no longer take for granted.

A brief application of The Knot Garden’s Fundamental Framework shows that the four key elements of creativity, health, wealth and relationships all found expression in my “ordinary” day through music, writing, companionship, recreation, exercise, good food and wine. These are things that really matter.

The important message from this ordinary but special Saturday is that we should feel profoundly grateful for the opportunity to enjoy lifes’s simple pleasures. I consider myself to be fortunate beyond words.

Ask Your Body

My colleague, a hard core carnivore from Brazil, felt the need to reassure me that he had not become a vegan in spite of surviving for several days, against all the odds, on gallons of luminous green juice, meat free salads and other chlorophyl rich meals. Forensic testing failed to reveal any traces of animal protein in his diet, authenticating his remarkable display of self control. What had motivated my colleague? It transpired that he had been influenced by a documentary about the horrors of the meat production industry.

In contrast to earlier times, when apparently nobody cared about the health or ethical consequences of what they ate, the media bombard us with advice from so-called experts about what we should eat, delivered in the form of books, television programmes and commercials, websites and newspaper articles. Nutrition has become a behemoth of an industry, driven far more by commercial forces than sound science. It continues to be one of the most popular topics of conversation in the workplace, the pub and at home.

Those who express guilty pleasure when shovelling down sugar rich cakes covered in deadly icing or filled with choux creme apparently embrace the new “principles” of nutrition. At the same time they often struggle to apply them, complaining that healthy eating is virtuous but boring and lies beyond the formidable barrier of temptation. “I’m so bad” they say, half believing it.

Having been fascinated with human anatomy and physiology from the age of eight and taking a keen interest in nutrition in later years, I find that I am shifting emphasis from the science of nutrition to the experience of eating. This has come about not through any rejection of the validity of scientific method, which I wholeheartedly support, but from realising that the physiology of nutrition is a field of infinite complexity, especially when viewed in the context of the diversity of individuals. Instead of trying to maintain a complicated system of nutrition, prone to change with every new research study, I have simplified my approach to a set of four basic guiding principles grouped around a single philosophical tenet.

Here are my gastronomic guidelines. Eat high quality, natural food that has undergone the least processing and contains the fewest additives. Include small amounts of organically raised meat and fish on special occasions, having given earnest consideration to animal welfare and the sustainability of marine life. Consume plenty of brightly coloured vegetables and fruit, with a fair proportion eaten raw. Supplement your food with moderate amounts of natural fats like butter, organic coconut oil, and cold pressed virgin olive and rapeseed oils. As a central principle, take your time over the preparation and consumption of meals, sharing the occasion with family and friends.

When deciding what to eat and in what quantity, throw the calorie calculator in the bin, ignore the self-professed experts and listen, very carefully, to your body. The Knot Garden tells us that eating should always be a guilt-free pleasure and that meals are best enjoyed with others as a celebration of life. Approach your dinner with a feeling of gratitude. And, above all, ask your body about the type of food you should eat. It is the only true expert on nutrition.

High Quality Income

Looking back over the decades, which have slipped by as inexorably as grains of sand obeying the call of gravity, I am dismayed that I have neglected for so long the importance of earning a high quality income. I believe that working in a job often falls well short of the mark in this respect. The security of so-called permanent employment has become a myth in the modern age.

In recent years I have directed more focus onto this critical theme and do so now with a far greater sense of urgency. As our perception of the diminishing supply of time intensifies, we value it ever more highly, as we would any precious commodity.

How can we assess the quality of an income that we are earning? Given the special significance of the number to The Knot Garden, it is not by coincidence that I have selected four criteria for this purpose. These are cost, reliability, scalability and self-fulfilment. As with any activity, we can also apply The Knot Garden’s fundamental framework in order to determine its relevance to the four universal values.

If you work for someone else, whether directly or as a contractor, you may be incurring a high cost in exchange for the remuneration you receive. This cost is exacted as a time commitment that is typically both large and inflexible, giving some credence to the term “wage slave”. Security, which along with money is meant to be a reward for one’s sacrifice, is often illusory. When the Credit Meltdown reached its crisis point in 2008, I was working for a major bank in New York. Ironically, after rescuing one its newly bankrupted competitors, the bank was obliged to lay off thousands of its own staff as those of the stricken entity were welcomed, cuckoo-like, into the nest.

When we compute the time cost of being an employee, we need to include travelling time, overtime and the need to provide out-of-hours support that can, at least in the IT world, result in rude sleep interruptions. I have attended my fair share of emergency conference calls at two-thirty in the morning following the failure of some “critical” system. It is hardly surprising that people sometimes look upon paid employment as a sort of prison sentence.

Job security is not something that an employer offers but rather it is a function of the skills and experience that we have acquired. These alone determine our value in the marketplace. This has nothing to do with employment status. We do not look down our noses at cleaners and roadsweepers, whose personal qualities may make them better human beings than many so-called “successful” individuals. But it is beyond dispute that their value in the marketplace is lower than that of a brain surgeon, a top corporate lawyer or the conductor of a famous orchestra. The latter are able to earn a more secure income.

Scalability is usually more viable when we work in our own business, although this depends on the nature of the services that we provide. It is not so important for the few people whose actual income is already high compared with their target income. For the rest of us it is a significant factor.

Finally comes self-fulfilment, which is also related to time – or opportunity – cost. This is where we need to apply The Knot Garden’s framework so that we can determine the extent to which our income generating activities are moving us towards the balance we seek between health, wealth, relationships and creativity.

 

The Number Four

The number four is avoided by Far Eastern tetraphobes because it sounds like the word for death in the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages. If I were superstitious, I would more likely consider this number to be lucky, invoking the one-in-ten-thousand four leafed clover as a symbol of good fortune.

The Knot Garden, which embodies a foursquare view of the world that is reflected in its physical manifestation, believes that all worthwhile human activities can be categorised using a four cornered construct representing health, wealth, relationships and creativity. This device helps us to achieve purpose and balance in our lives.

The number four plays a unique role in the man-made world, finding universal expression in the design of buildings and many important types of artefact found in our domestic and business lives, from furniture to books and works of art. The geometry of our lives is dominated by the rectangle – a fascinating phenomenon that we will explore on another occasion.

In architecture we find that rectangles offer stability and structural strength, especially in the vertical plane where gravity is a force to be reckoned with. Rectangles are also practical for arranging rooms in groups and are aesthetically pleasing, especially (some would say) where they incorporate the Golden Ratio phi, approximating to 1.618, often associated with Fibonacci’s intriguing numerical series.

The effectiveness of structures containing four right angles that enhance our viewing experience in the physical world – in the form of windows, picture frames and electronic screens – can be extended to more abstract domains. I tend to adopt a four cornered framework for organising my ideas and representing conceptual models, sometimes building in extra levels to form a hierarchy.

This application of the number four to cognitive exercises is far from accidental. Firstly, it is easy for us to visualise a geometric form that has such ubiquitous and powerful expression in our daily lives. Secondly, squares convey a sense of stability and order, facilitating well organised thought processes. And thirdly there are practical reasons, including inherent limitations on the working memory when handling multiple thoughts, ideas or pieces of information. I feel comfortable working in my head with four items at a time, whereas a limit of three is not enough and five is too many.

Once established, the fundamental importance of the number four in our thought processes becomes self-fulfilling. It is convenient to always use the same number – and hence geometric shape – for composing our mental view of the world. This has now become habitual for me to the point where I always look, at least as a starting point, for four methods, categories, measures or concepts.

The Knot Garden believes that the number four has a special place in human life because it represents solidity, integrity, durability and balance. After all, it is the number on which the alpha double helix of DNA, the foundation of life itself, is based.

The Worst Thing Since Sliced Bread

Everyone is familiar with the expression “the best thing since sliced bread”, used to convey the idea that something or someone is excellent. Generally it indicates approval, although when used to describe an individual’s view of themselves it expresses a sense of arrogance and narcissism. The phrase apparently originated after the electric slicing machine, invented by Otto Frederic Rohwedder in Iowa in 1928, was used to produce pre-sliced loaves such as Wonder Bread.

Apart from finding the form of words unattractive, I have a bit of a problem with this somewhat over-used colloquialism. While I am in favour of convenience when it saves us valuable time, I do not feel the same way if it results in reduced quality. The Internet, that greatest of modern technical inventions, delivers convenience without necessarily sacrificing quality. By contrast, pre-sliced bread – at least in its most common ready packaged form – seems always to be a poor product.

I have tried buying sliced bread from supermarkets and corner shops from time to time but have always been disappointed. Apart from the preservatives and other chemicals used during its production, the texture of the bread is unappealing. And, for a food product that has little flavour, texture is everything. Pre-sliced white bread often resembles blotting paper and is better suited to loft insulation than gastronomy. Wholemeal loaves, promoted as healthier, are little better. Even the addition of whole seeds and grains fails to redeem them.

The other day I bought a white loaf from the dairy shop across the road. They always put aside the one with the darkest crust for us. It comes from the only baker in the area that makes this simple food product to the standard we seek. The girl made a little mistake by offering me a ready sliced version of the loaf, which I politely declined.

The ritual of slicing a good loaf is an important part of the communal activity of eating with family and friends. It emphasises the idea that the bread has been made with care so that its journey to the plate must not be rushed. Time should be taken for appreciation of the bread and for our good fortune in having it. I use a beautifully made Shun bread knife. With its Damascus steel blade, Pakka Wood handle and nicely scalloped edge, it is a pleasure to use.

Having paid almost two pounds for my freshly baked loaf, I was surprised to discover that one can buy a loaf of mass-produced sliced white bread from a well known supermarket for just thirty six pence – a saving of more than eighty percent! It contains more ingredients and saves a few minutes of our time. But I would never buy one in spite of its superior convenience, shelf-life and cost saving. I just cannot get any enjoyment from eating such a poor excuse for bread. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The Knot Garden believes that “the best thing since sliced bread” idiom is best used ironically. Perhaps we should, when pondering the erosion of valuable domestic traditions in the modern world, employ instead the expression “the worst thing since sliced bread”.

The Integrity of Money

It was perhaps not by coincidence that the United Kingdom launched its new pound coin, heralded as the most secure in the world, one day before the prime minister set in motion the wheels for withdrawing Britain from the European Community. Although I have yet to handle a real one, the coin looks good aesthetically, bringing to mind the old threepenny bits that were substituted for silver coins in the Christmas pudding when I was young. And the technological innovation should be applauded for combatting counterfeiting.

Flawed examples of the new coin are allegedly changing hands for between £200 and £250, which would be a similar value to the one pound in weight of silver coins from which the pound coin’s name was derived more than twelve hundred years ago. For the same price you can buy a pure gold sovereign from the Royal Mint, a coin that – unlike the (unintentionally) fake new pound coins – is classified as legal tender.

The timing of the introduction of the new coin seems ironic given the calamitous road that the governments and central banks of the “developed” countries have chosen to navigate, paved with debt, minuscule interest rates and excessive money printing. After all, of what use will the coin’s impressive security features be if severe currency debasement causes world financial systems to collapse and sterling to lose most of its value?

It is not hard to see the attraction of fiat money, in both its electronic form and as circulating notes and coinage. The very properties that make gold and silver so effective as a stable store of value make them much less well suited to making transactions. Fiat money has convenience, both for individuals and (as we saw last week) for central bankers and politicians. But ultimately it is the integrity of money that matters. And, impressed as I am by the design of the new coin, its distinctive shape and technical innovations will not help to prevent a loss of integrity in the currency.

At times of economic and financial risk, such as we are facing at present, I prefer to put my faith in gold and silver rather than becoming over-reliant on bank money. The precious metals possess a unique combination of qualities that promote integrity when they are used as the basis of currencies. They are relatively scarce and their supply can only be expanded at a slow rate, reducing the likelihood of inflation. They are among the most inert elements and this gives them impressive stability, adding to their sense of timelessness. And of course they are lustrous, malleable and beguiling to almost all who behold them – including, no doubt, the wives and daughters of the central bankers and politicians.

Gold and silver, in common with many of the other chemical elements, are thought to have been formed by nucleosynthesis and thus pre-date the creation of the Solar System. Paper and electronic forms of money are inventions of the modern world, designed to facilitate manipulation. The Knot Garden believes that whatever form money takes, it will only truly have integrity if it is fully backed by precious metals. Apparently J P Morgan agreed with this view, having pronounced in 1912 that “Money is gold, and nothing else”. He added “I think manipulation is always bad”. So it is.

As Good as Gold

Where does money come from? I am not talking about the ways in which we earn an income but rather of how new money comes into being. Does it grow on trees? Is it made by computers? Can we dig it out of the ground?

According to a video posted on the Bank of England website, central banks create new money electronically and use it to buy financial assets such as treasury bonds from banks and institutional investors. They describe this procedure, euphemistically known as quantitative easing (a smoke and mirrors expression if ever I heard one), as unconventional. The Knot Garden prefers irresponsible.

This method of managing a country’s monetary base, which has parallels in the ancient practice of coin clipping, might be compared with the behaviour of an individual who takes out a loan and then prints counterfeit banknotes to repay it. The perpetrator would be convicted of a serious fraud and thrown into jail.

Governments have granted themselves the legal right to create money out of thin air using a sort of electronic alchemy. Ben Bernanke notoriously proclaimed in his infamous 2002 speech addressing the spectre of deflation that “The US government has a technology, called a printing press, that allows it to produce as many dollars as it wants at essentially no cost”. This assertion reeks of arrogance and complacency and presents a dangerously unbalanced proposition.

By pursuing a philosophy of creatio ex nihilo, politicians and central bankers appear to be assuming the role of gods. We mere mortals, looking on in horror, would rather invoke the counter principle of ex nihilo, nihilo fit.

If you increase the supply of something in the absence of a commensurate increase in demand, its price usually falls. You would expect this principle to apply to the value of money but, in the occult sphere of central banking, it does not seem to work in the usual way. According to the OECD website, the widely used M3 measure of money supply has been expanding in the G7 countries at a high – and accelerating – rate for the last couple of decades. The increase has been particularly marked since the credit crisis reached a climax in 2002, as central banks have turned to quantitative easing with a vengeance. And yet so far inflation has proven remarkably stubborn to provoke. Eventually, however, the piper will insist on being paid.

New money is made in the modern world using computers and thus the printing press, used for centuries to produce bank notes, is gradually becoming a metaphor. There is, however, another form of money, important historically but now considered a relic. It is of little relevance to today’s economy and is universally reviled by central bankers. The monetary role of precious metals has diminished to the sole function of acting as a store of value for a small number of individuals. However, gold and silver may have the potential to form the basis of fully fledged currencies once again.

Last week I opened a GoldMoney account, purchasing a little over an ounce of gold. Unlike conventional arrangements for holding precious metals with banks, which operate the scam of fractional reserves, GoldMoney deposits are backed by the full amount of metal, which can be withdrawn for physical delivery at any time. Customers can make electronic transfers of precious metals to other holders of GoldMoney accounts. They can also purchase goods and services using a prepaid GoldMoney card, although this requires conversion of precious metal into the relevant fiat currency.

While we do not yet have a true gold or silver-based currency, The Knot Garden believes that we are heading in the right direction. Such a currency, offering stability, security and practicality, would truly be a cause for celebration. Except, of course, for the central bankers and politicians.

The Apprentice

I have a great job. I work as a temp in a clothes shop. You must be wondering exactly what I do there. Am I a sales assistant? A security guard perhaps? Nothing quite so glamorous I’m afraid. I am an administrator. Of what does not matter. Admin is admin – full stop. But I like my colleagues. We all get on well together and generally have a good time.

In spite of the attractions of my current position, I am looking at throwing it all in and doing something completely different. That’s right, I’ve decided to make a career change. Not right now, but in a couple of years. And, true to form, I have chosen two vocations for which I am poorly qualified.

What precisely are these forms of employment? Let’s just say for now that one of them is purely creative while the other is considered by most people to be a form of gambling – a view that has some validity.

Why am I doing this at my time of life? Well, the two fields of endeavour meet a number of criteria that have particular relevance to The Knot Garden. They satisfy the principle of self-reliance. Thanks to the Internet, they take place on level playing fields, at least to a certain extent. They require minimal investments of capital. And they both offer tremendous scope for self-fulfilment.

There is a very significant downside to both occupations (I would hesitate to call them professions). They present formidable learning challenges and therefore attaining a level of mastery takes many years  – if it is ever achieved. Fortunately they both lend themselves to self-training. Input from others, the genuine experts in their fields, is nevertheless indispensable, whether in the form of mentorship or by examining their work. Formal courses and certificates, on the other hand, are not necessary. In these domains, the letters that come with a university degree might be more of a hindrance than a help.

So there you have it. I am simultaneously undertaking two apprenticeships. In case you think this is all just pie in the sky, I can tell you that I have already invested thousands of hours of effort in both of them. I have been working on one of them for five years and the other for seventeen. That is an average of eleven years and I still have some way to go. Contrast this with the apprentices in the famous television programmes (which I do not watch), who race through their apprenticeships in a matter of weeks. Clearly I do not have their personal qualities and so need somewhat more time. And I thought I was a fast learner?

As my friends are well aware, I tend to do everything backwards, and this time is no different. I am contemplating not one, but two new vocations at the wrong end of my life. I have chosen extremely demanding occupations that most people would not even consider as sensible ways of earning a living.

What makes me believe that I will succeed, against the odds? That is an easy question to answer. The two activities have become so fundamentally important to me that I cannot envisage a future without them. And what are they? One is writing and the other is options trading.

Omnibus Aut Nihil

Several years ago I pondered the idea of adopting as a personal motto “Omnibus aut nihil”, imagining it emblazoned on a coat of arms divided into black and white quadrants. It was just a piece of fanciful nonsense but it had its roots in something concrete.

I have often embraced an “all or nothing” mindset in the belief that it reinforces positive personal qualities such as intensity, commitment and integrity. I still apply this mentality from time to time but, recognising the dangers it carries with it, I do so far more selectively than before.

The trouble with “all or nothing” when used indiscriminately is that it can paralyse your mind, blocking rational thought and preventing you from performing productive work – or enjoying yourself. It is a destroyer of value, sabotaging your self-esteem and wasting precious resources.

In its more extreme forms, the “all or nothing” view of the world, oddly described by psychologists as dichotomous thinking or splitting, is associated with types of abnormal behaviour like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. Certain politicians come to mind.

It is easy to think of everyday examples of “all or nothing” in action as a destructive force. And history is littered with examples of dictators or other abusers of power, driven by greed, their judgement distorted by an intransigent view of whatever “all” they are pursuing and by delusions of their own importance.

At the same time, we can find situations in which “all or nothing” is not only appropriate but actually necessary. Let us say that you are an options trader and require ten criteria to be met before entering a trade. One day, your outlook tinged by complacency after a winning run, you break your own rules, entering a trade with only eight of the ten factors in its favour. Not only do you lose your shirt but you cannot include the trade in your measurement program because it does not conform to the standard. So your metrics are screwed up too. Ironically, the “all or nothing” approach that should have kept you out of the trade was used instead for trade management, preventing you from exiting with a much smaller loss.

Consider also the case of a lady called Lucy who decides to design her own house. She hires an architect, Felix, who tries to persuade her to change her design. After all, what does a marine biologist know about architecture? However, Felix does not reckon with Lucy’s obdurate streak. She digs her heels in because she has a shining vision, developed over many years,  of her new house. Felix eventually resigns and Lucy continues on her own, calling on professional help only when strictly necessary. Lucy balances her “all or nothing” approach to the design with a resourceful mindset for getting the project done. The house is completed as Lucy had envisaged it and her family are delighted. The integrity of the building has been preserved.

I wonder where my own “all or nothing” ethos came from? Perhaps I was influenced by the highly principled, uncompromising architect Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s brilliant novel The Fountainhead – surely one of the best examples in literature of a positive “all or nothing” character.

I now believe that “all or nothing” should only be invoked when your principles or integrity are under threat. The Knot Garden emphasises balance, understanding that the key lies in maintaining a constructive tension between the apparently contradictory mindsets of “all or nothing” and “pragmatic and resourceful”.