The older we are, the better we were…

The quote appears in a book by Victor Niederhoffer, interestingly titled “the education of a speculator”. I spent ten minutes on Amazon doing a cross-search to remember the author’s name – I used to have a copy of the book, but it seems to have vanished. Perhaps the recession destroyed it, who knows? As soon as I found a finance book by an author called Victor, loud bells rang, and it took me a few seconds to get the rest. I’m amazed at the power of the brain to dredge up information from years ago with only a little help, and I’m amazed at the brain itself. One of these days I’ll write about that.

At a table behind me at lunch were two men in their seventies, one of whom had lived a part of his life in Africa, I would guess Angola or Mozambique. In Portugal, it’s relatively easy to find people of that generation who had a similar experience.

They were discussing with some gusto the failings of the young generation, ranging from the inability to read (said one), and count (added the other), to the lack of knowledge about geography and politics. Among the foremost causes was the usual suspect, the computer.

I suppose it is that capacity of successive generations to forget the evils of their time which allows people to pass this kind of judgement. It explains why folks always seem to think the weather was better in their youth, or how schooldays can ever be classified as “the best days of your life”. It is that dilution of collective memory that starts new wars and wins elections for the incumbent.

Portugal, and the world as whole, is a far better place now than it was fifty years ago. Much of Eastern Europe was then under oppressive regimes, with no freedom of speech or thought. Portugal was about to embark on a fifteen year colonial war, which would ultimately topple the regime. The illiteracy rate in 1900 was 79%, and in 1980 it was still 18%. In 2003 it had fallen to 7%. Most of the kids who were contemporaries of those restaurant pundits could neither read nor write, let alone count.

Yes, it’s true that kids could know more, and that videobite news leaves little room for thought, leading to an immediacy which is often unsuited to the real world. Reflection is a good thing, but lots of activities favoured by youngsters promote that. Any child who likes games needs to think of a winning strategy, whether it’s soccer, chess or the latest esoteric offering on Wii. Surely Guitar Hero is better than air guitar…

And as for chess, don’t ever elect a president who can’t play it! Sometime last year, it struck me as a cool idea that a chess game might be played by three people against each other. Like most of my “good” ideas, this was not new, but I read a comment on it stating “normal chess isn’t difficult enough for ya?” which sums it up.

The other thing older people don’t get is the value of experience which is factored in the comparisons. Donald Knuth is quoted as saying that he believes it is important to teach a range of materials, including the things that don’t work. I subscribe. Kids only find out what works after getting hit on the head with what doesn’t. That’s reflection.

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