ALS Topic 5 - Plan, take a risk, or just let it flow?

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 2 April 2018 ( )

Note: The questions below are not supposed to suggest biased answers. You really can adopt any point of view your can suggest evidence for. Do be prepared for others suggesting counter-evidence! Note: clearly not all of these questions can be properly covered in a meetup, but they give us a conscious choice about what to talk about while making the background context clearer. It is up to the people who come on the day to choose what aspects they would like to deal with.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Focus questions -

1. When do you plan, when do you take a risk (calculated or otherwise), and when do you just let it flow from day to day? Do these choices cause a conflict with others? Beware: what you believe you should do, and what you really do might be two different things.

2. Courses for business and entrepreneurship often praise 'risk taking' as a necessary ingredient of innovation and growth. Ironically, most of the students in these courses are extremely risk adverse : they want 'secure' jobs. What kind of risks do you take? Has your risk taking changed over your lifespan? How do you calculate risks? What do you do when you take a risk but lose? Try to think of real life examples.

3. "Seize the day" (carpe diem - Horace 23BC) is ancient advice, maybe dividing personality types. One of Aesop's fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, captures one half of the dilemma beautifully ( ). The ant scolds the grasshopper for being lazy in summer, then having nothing to eat when winter comes. Somerset Maugham turns this fable on its head with his own version of The Ant and the Grasshopper - a lazy fellow who gets through life on luck and borrowing from friends, then winds up better off than all the hard workers ( ). Who is right? Aesop or Somerset Maugham? Why?

4. 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' becomes an arrow of ice in the heart of many kids (I'm still deciding myself). Does everyone need to plan some kind of career? (Have a look at this plea for '"multipotentialites" in a TED Talk video at

5. An earlier meetup discussed 'social engineering' where external parties attempt to imprint some kind of structured behaviour on your mind. At the other extreme, libertarians believe that everyone can be entirely autonomous and efficiently self-directed. Who is right, or what is the balance?

6. One of the original explanations of Chaos Theory used the example of a marble running down the corrugation of a roof (James Gleick). The path of the marble is unpredictable within the boundary of the corrugation, unless its velocity throws it out of the corrugation altogether. The corrugation boundary sets the 'degrees of freedom' for the marble. Similarly, no two heartbeats are the same, short of fibrillation. Different individuals (schools, societies ...) need different boundaries on their degrees of freedom to function effectively (because of differences in psychology and intelligence and resources). Without boundaries, many cease to function well at all. How do you set your own boundaries? How do you enforce the boundaries?

7. Most professions and structured activities involve a) a set of procedures, and b) a storyline to justify the procedures. The storyline often does not have to be coherent or true to be useful, so long as it is accepted. Religions and ideologies emphasize the storyline, but their effectiveness stems from the procedures they promote. Religious procedures (to take one example) all set boundaries on degrees of behavioural freedom (e.g. meeting patterns, moral boundaries, prohibitions on this or that etc), with a kind of freedom & security inside the boundaries. Many people find such religious boundaries useful or essential to organize their lives. For example, because Islam is a highly structured religion (or at least some sects are) and many prisoners crave structure, prisons have a high rate of conversion to Islam. Others will find those boundaries too constricting. The boundary conflicts will always be with us. How do we find a compromise that works best for everyone?

8. The "Five Year Plan" announcements of early Russian Soviet governments became a kind of standing joke for fantasy. The "Great Leap Forward" plan of Mao-era China led to tens of millions of deaths from unnecessary starvation. Yet we also become frustrated with governments which live from day to day by popularity polls of voters, and appear to have no credible long-term plan for service & development (Australia anyone?). How can national plans provide real guidance without suffocating initiative?

9. Another metaphor from Chaos Theory* has been that of an 'attractor'. For example, a stick stuck into the bed of a stream of water will alter the current patterns which flow around it. The stick is an 'attractor'. Each culture has a number of dominant attractors. Chinese cultures, for example, tend to view wealth acquisition as a dominant attractor, so that much other activity revolves around it. This has consequences in a world where cultures compete on the basis of economics (as opposed to religion, or social equality or whatever). There are other cultures where, say, social generosity is the dominant attractor, or competent performance, or honesty ... and so on. What are the dominant attractors in Australian culture? How do these attractors influence public and private plans?

10. This meetup began a few years ago as a simple discussion group with a simple topic each time. Quite a few people came at first. I hoped they would learn a bit about the topic before they came. They hardly ever did. Like any other group in a pub their conversation wandered here and there, re-telling favourite opinions. People usually went away with the same opinions they arrived with. I wanted them to learn something (that's my personality type and profession), so I put "attractors" into the discussion current, internet links, essays, and eventually focus questions like the ones above. Some people are uncomfortable with this and don't come. In a meetup (and in a democracy) most people want the illusion of 100% degrees of freedom to ramble. The only purpose then is social relaxation - they are "grasshoppers", at best hoping for a lucky break, a lottery win, a rich inheritance. They are right, from their point of view. But I'm a born "ant" when it comes to ideas (not money) trying to make an "ant university" in a pub (and now also writing a book about the experiment). Is there any hope? Who do you think might be attracted to a meetup which has not just a topic, but a plan (focus questions) aiming to help participants learn something new?



  • Gerd Gigerenzer (2015) - "Risk Savvy: How to make good decisions" [book or ebook] @ . Highly recommended reading. It also includes some scary information showing what doctors around the world don't know about statistics, such as meaningless statements like "If you eat X you will have a 15% increased risk of cancer .."

  • The people who seem worth knowing, the experiences which seem important, the books and films which seem iinteresting, the risks which seem worth taking ... all depend not only upon our personalities, but also the time in life's journey where we meet new things. For example, this writer's feelings: "‘What’s the point of a risk-free life?’ – Deborah Levy on starting again at 50" in The Guardian @

  • In life as in war, tactical victories are useless without the right strategic framework. In the case of whole countries, for example, the United States of America: not the only failed society, but definitely a failed society on a downward trajectory. Wars of any kind - hot, cold, bullets, trade - are not going to make America great again. The problem in the American case is American ideology located inside American heads ("exceptionalism", a.k.a. vanity), ignorance, propaganda, poor education, poor governance, poor administration, and a perverted judicial system :

  • Within 30 years - a very short time - Australia's population is expected to increase by 30%. That is equal to 2 cities the size of greater Sydney & Melbourne. Infrastructure in these big cities is already failing. Therefore there has to be drastic infrastructure planning and implementation starting now. Whatever its other advantages, Australia's political system makes this kind of action planning extremely difficult, and is already costing us many billions through failed past planning. What is your solution? See "Infrastructure Australia urges inland rail line from Brisbane to Melbourne. Planning body [also] says high-speed rail should be a ‘high-priority initiative’ for Australia" -

  • China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a trillion-dollar program of ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways, connecting the country with Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. At least on the face of it, this grand plan makes a striking contrast with the American empire's history of wars to divide and destroy any commercial challenge. Whether the net outcome differs greatly remains to be seen. The BRI is surging ahead, bankrolled by Chinese loans and driven by Chinese engineers. The amount of planning required is phenomenal and will be a generational project. See: "From the Caucasus to the Balkans, China’s Silk Roads are rising - With its focus on Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as fulfilling a strategy of challenging the West that can be traced back to Mao", Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, November 2017 @ 

    The Chinese political system gives an advantage to this kind of physical engineering, but Chinese politics cannot handle the challenge of free international cyberspace communication - the Internet (even though internally China has the world's largest number of internet subscribers - who are heavily censored). How do you think the contradiction between planning for the free movement of goods and people can be reconciled with planning to restrict the free exchange of information and ideas?

  • Planning can take many forms, but it is always a mental activity. That mental activity can lead to physical development - in an individual, or a society. Usually, the mental discipline and commitment to persist with something different is the hardest part. This Spiegel article about development in Ethiopia is a vivid example: "Ethiopia's Plans to Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide" @

  • Religions at their core involve both choices and the avoidance of choices. They offer life planning within a framework, and many crave that. Religions also reveal much about how human brains work. This is a huge topic in itself, but if you are inclined to wander in this direction, a whimsical essay I wrote on the theme a while ago might be interesting: Thor May (2014) "Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems? – exploring an allegory" @


Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


Plan, take a risk, or just let it flow? (c) Thor May 2018 return to Discussion