Wednesday, 2 July 2014

What Kind of Books Should I Read? Novels, crime, horror or serious stuff?

More than 2,5 million new books are published yearly in the world. Then there is tons of reprints and old books. Google estimated in 2010 that there are 130 million books in the world.  There is much to choose from. 
What kind of books should we read?
First let us define what is a book. The Oxford Dictionary definition is “A written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” In the digital age, e-book should also qualify. A magazine is not a book but a magazine. 
Then, the criteria of evaluating the book – this is the answer to the question “Why do I read?” 
There can be different motivations for reading a book: to learn new things, get a certified education and improve one’s financial and social standing, to learn to speak a new language, to travel somewhere, to cook a new dish, to show off one’s knowledge, to develop spiritually – infinite reasons for reading. Underlying all these motivations is one common desire, and that is to acquire new bits and pieces of knowledge, impressions, feelings, ideas, sensations or pleasure.
If it helps anyone, here are the kinds of books I seek to read:
  • Books that give me new ideas – often the new inputs build on previous knowledge, skills and ideas and sometimes they contain the so called unknown unknowns as Donald Rumsfeld called them. Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom was such a one for me.

  • Books by authors I don’t like or disagree with – if we never read or listen to people we disagree with, we exclude a whole bunch of talented people just because we dislike them. This is the surest way to remain in a very narrow bandwidth of consciousness. If we can read people we dislike, we expand our intellectual horizons immensely. 
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up", Esquire Magazine (February 1936). Reading Karl Marx on the TheFirst Indian War of Independence 1857-1859  or Njall Ferguson’s Empire were such bountiful challenges for me. 

  • Books that challenge mentally, intellectually, knowledge-wise or emotionally - This is the adventurous way of mental/intellectual/spiritual detox. Along with books in the earlier group, these books might require re-evaluation of concepts, unlearning things learnt earlier and reformulate ideas. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel was such a book for me.

  • Books that support me on my development path – not only does such a book enrich the existing corpus of knowledge, concepts and ideas but also they create a positive loop of encouragement. As we climb to new heights, we need to stop and take in the new scenery unfolding before us and gratefully acknowledge the gift of learning. It is an ennobling feeling to be able to appreciate differences without judging and register one’s inner development. Poetry, fun, travel books and DIY stuff are all wonderfully helpful often.

  • Books that “fall” into my hands – this is life nudging us in directions that would help us. A book in a shop window beckons us, a volume accidentally falls as we move clumsily or a friend mentions having read one, these are all signs. Njall Ferguson’s Empire literally fell into my hands in a bookshop. Reading it was a stormy relationship with the book and I threw in down many a times, but there were many learning points and insights that I gained.


Benefits of Reading a Book
There are many benefits of reading.
If we imagine our brain as a muscle, exercising the brain improves its function and the effects are noticeable in our lives, and also in other people’s lives. Very few people really live totally isolated lives and we all have some degree of interaction with others, the quality of which improves if brain functions are improved. But of course, we also need to grow in our hearts as well.
  • Reading regularly reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease 2 ½ times. 
  • People who read are more likely to vote, be culturally active and socially involved as this research finding shows.
  • Reading reduces stress as this research has evidence.
  • Reading makes people sexy as this research shows. 
  • Reading helps with advancing your career as research claims.

Reading before going to sleep is an excellent habit. Remembering to get away from the computer (also smartphones and iPads) at least one hour before going to sleep is a good habit, which improves sleep quality dramatically.
Photo source:

Here's a nice quiz about should you read in bed or not. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Is Strict Border Control the right Solution to Social Policy Problems?

Too many immigrants of the wrong kind - This is a typical reaction of some people explaining why many things in their societies don’t work well. Is this even remotely true?



In many countries, especially the affluent ones, governments base many social and economic policies on the assumption that efficient and strict immigration controls are vital for the success of social policy. Ironically, rather often, older immigrants in affluent countries tend to be of this opinion even more than the conservative politicians who rule people often by fear mongering. 

The implicit logic of many immigrants is that “once we have come in, the doors should be closed shut for undeserving immigrants”. 

The "undeserving" kind of immigrant may even be people from the exact same ethnic background, group or clan but they sincerely believe that a wide gulf of qualitative suitability differentiates them from the newcomers.



This same logic of strict immigration control is applied also to the matter of poverty eradication; fight against hunger, malnutrition and holoendemic diseases; reducing illiteracy, gender inequality and other common issues plaguing the human race in different parts of the globe. There the strict immigration control logic is applied to mean regulating the number of people entering the planet Earth by birth. Another name for this solution is selective population control.

In USA the Obama administration has already deported more than 2 million people. 

The main groups of people getting deported from USA are:
  • Convicted criminals 55%
  • Immigration fugitives 3%
  • Other removable aliens 4% (Did some hard core fan of MIB invent that term?) 



Who Says Immigration is Bad?

Immigration has immense flash potential and is very potent as a political weapon. Many people and politicians blame too many things on immigrants because they are the others. Blaming the others for our shortcomings has a very long history. Remember the biblical story of the forbidden fruit, Adam blaming Eve, Eve blaming the serpent.


In a December 2011 poll on immigration in the UK, we learnt: 
  • 69% in UK thought immigration affects negatively (32% in Poland, 37% in Sweden, 56% in Italy thought the same)
  • 71% in UK think there are too many immigrants in the country (29% Poles, 46% Swedes and 67% Italians agree)

Attitudes towards immigrants depend on whom you ask (the social class of the respondents).
  • 67% to 26% of UK working-class people would ban all immigration while 49% to 46% of middle class in UK would not do so.


What if There Is No Immigration Control?

Absolute mayhem – warn the powers that be, will result from relaxed immigration control. As UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher said in 1978 “..people are rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”


This attitude is strictly fear-based. The assumption is that they do not value our traditions, systems, institutions and infrastructure and will ruin everything by outright exploitation. Many people in many net immigration countries feel that their old way of life has changed and thus the country has gone to the dogs. Who do they blame? Immigrants of course! This is a very subjective feeling, rather uncomfortably reminiscent of old people sighing that “everything was better before”. Accepting that societies evolve in any case, whether people immigrate or emigrate, and that we need to evolve too is too much for many of us.

We do not know of any functioning society, country or nation state being overrun by unarmed civil immigrants arriving in small numbers in peacetime and destroyed. However, throughout history we have numerous examples of invasions and occupations and post-war scenarios where the indigenous populations have been exterminated by the invaders. Here are some examples of “swamping” á la Thatcher:
  • Anglo-Saxon invaders in 5th century AD used ethnic cleansing to wipe out between 50-100% of the indigenous population and segregated themselves from the native Celtic Britons, restricting intermarriages. Effects can be detected even today. In 2002, BBC reported “English and Welsh are races apart”.  
  • The Native Americans, the First Nation in Canada, the Australian Aboriginals, the Karen people in Burma and the Pygmies (killed and eaten by both sides in the recent Congo Civil War 1998-2003) still live to tell their stories of genocide, extermination and persecution

On the other hand, in the Schengen countries, free mobility among the 26 member states have not caused mayhem through increased immigration. Contrary to massive fear mongering, neither have the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta taken over the Pizzerias or taxi business in France or Finland nor the Clerkenwell crime syndicate or the Adams family of UK have caused sleepless nights for the police or the people in Norway, Germany or Lithuania.



Who Bears the Ill Effects of Immigration?

It is some of the immigrants and not the host country that bear most of the ill effects of immigration, such as being forced to do the jobs locals don’t do, at much lower salaries and working under bad conditions, and often becoming victims of human trafficking or staying stuck in low-income, low education, low-skill, high crime rate poverty traps. 

Increase in crime rates and social anxiety in the host countries are often directly linked to immigrants as in the case of Sweden, where they are four times more likely to be investigated for violent crimes. 

One counter-argument to liberal immigration is that immigrants just save all their money and then send it home. This deprives the host economy of their spending locally. But many locals also don't spend all their money and save a lot.


But how do we know that, in a globalizing world, the local crime rate would not have changed without those particular immigrants perpetrating those crimes? How do we know that the Swedes would not have been becoming more “criminal” again (as in the past) without immigrants “teaching” them how to? “Viking” Sweden was pretty violent earlier without “immigrants”. In the “nice” welfare state, only in 1975, did Sweden stop force sterilising mothers “deemed unfit”.


So, is it safe to argue that immigration is not bad for the host country and open borders create immense positive contributions and just make a merrier world? This argument, unqualified, can get us into very muddy waters.

In UK, people evaluated the positive contribution of immigrants as follows:  
  • 68% say that food and restaurants have improved – 8% thought otherwise
  • 47% say that entrepreneurial and start-up climate has improved due to immigration – 11% thought they have deteriorated
  • 32% believe that art and literature have gained while 6% see the opposite
  • 36% feel that immigrants have enriched film and music, while 7% feel the opposite

Does "Quality" of Immigrants or Quantity of Immigration Give an Indication of Benefits to the Host Society?


Now, are these “benefits” generated even with modest amounts of immigration or do they require a large critical mass of immigration? Could the correct answer be a mythical British rail explanation (right kind of snow – John Naughtie interview 1991) – quality of immigrants? 

This line of reasoning can get very dangerous as it leads to selective immigration and massive discrimination. Who gets to choose, using what criteria and who sets the criteria. Does this kind of eugenic practice mean good-bye to human rights? Yes, rather too often but not always. In almost all societies, restaurants can choose their customers, but are not accused of trampling human rights.


If not quality of immigration, what about quantity? Would a large enough population burning with a desire to share be enough to generate cultural transmission? The times since Ellis Island have changed. There are too many incipient factors to formulate a simple formula for a society having the “right” kind of immigrants in “right” numbers allowed into a host country so that they begin to create valuable contributions to the host country.

If we were to go by magnitude alone, why has Somali cuisine not spread, in spite of fairly large Somali populations in many countries, but Moroccan or Turkish cuisine has? Why isn't Marmite popular in places where English has become the dominant language? Is there some connection to the uniqueness or differentiating taste of the cuisine before it can spread around? Is a cuisine a cultural “meme” with its own complex logic of spreading around without any connection to immigration volumes?

Does increase of immigration volumes produce directly commensurate added value to the host society beyond an initial surge from tiny numbers?

Only five immigrants from a particular group, growing to ten might cross a start-up threshold and bring novel contributions to the surrounding host society but we cannot say that by increasing the number of immigrants from 1 million to 2 million we would double the positive effects, could we?



Emigration Can Sometimes be Disastrous for the Country the Émigrés leave

Emigration, people going away to other countries, can sometimes be devastating for the country they leave. Brain Drain and loss of income are very real losses to a society. John O’Donovan, the Irish historian explains how in Ireland after WWII, the entire economy was critically dependant on money sent home by the Irish emigrants. The situation is similar to how nowadays remittances by émigrés make up: 
  • 52% of the GDP in Tajikistan
  • 30% in Haiti
  • 25% in Lesotho and 
  • 24% in Nepal. 
Some people argue that if the émigrés didn't leave, they would be investing their earnings in their own country and help it's economy grow. The counter argument is that they left because they found no opportunities and further if those people didn’t leave, they might not have made any money and might have become frustrated instead and become burdens instead.
                                                                                     
Does it mean that the richer countries where these émigrés work and send money home get poorer due to these remittances? No. Social interaction and evolution of societies, cultures and civilization is not a zero-sum game, as the fear mongers would have us believe. Let’s consider Nepal’s case.  About 67% of Nepal’s imports are from India and there is a deficit in the trade balance. The remittances help Nepal pay for these imports and rectify trade deficits. If those Nepalis working in India were forced to stay back in Nepal, they would earn much less or nothing and there would be less money for anything.


Now, the money flowing back into India keeps some parts of the wheels of the Indian economy running and preserves jobs there. This is net gain for the sending country, India and also a win-win situation for both countries.

Photo source:

So strict border controls, without a proper understanding of how freer immigration often contributes to win-win situations for the host and the sending country, may create lose-lose situations and just appease some people’s paranoia only.

Where are the strictest border security controls in the world? They are between:

  • USA and Mexico (about 400 people die each year and 365 000 are detained while trying to cross illegally)
  • North and South Korea (about 3000 people manage to defect to South Korea yearly)