Thursday 28 August 2014

Survive your camp. New book about concentration camp survival skills now available

‘To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, 19th century

I read many books to learn lessons to help me better deal with difficult life situations. I came across a reference to Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist, survived for three years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He applied what he learned from his camp experiences to logotherapy, the theory of psychotherapy that he developed.
     One can survive a difficult situation by having a meaning in life, a great love, or a noble, stoical acceptance of one’s suffering.
     I read many of Frankl’s books, especially Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that describes his experience. I used his experience as a guide for dealing with my difficulties. I surmised that skills learned and used to help someone survive the greatest, most evil calamity that man has committed against man must be powerful skills.
     So I started to write this book and read about other concentration camp experiences. I extracted lessons that can be applied to our own lesser difficulties in life. Our difficulties do not approach the horror of the Nazi death camps.
    Nothing else that man has ever done to his fellow man approaches the organized, systematic horror of the Nazi death camps. Only one inmate in 28 sent to these camps survived. Their main purpose was racial extermination.
     The Nazis established several camps for the sole purpose of extermination – most notably Treblinka, Sobibor, Chełmno and Bełżec. There were very few survivors of these camps, which is why they are less well known than the bigger workcamps.
     Only two Jewish prisoners survived Bełżec, in which around 500,000 died. Only three survived Chełmno. There were revolts in Treblinka and Sobibor and some escapees survived to tell their tale. Extermination was carried out on a similar scale at the multi-purpose camps of Auschwitz and Majanek.
     The Soviet Gulags, to which I also refer, were bad but not in the same league. Many were imprisoned for surprisingly minor reasons such as escaping from a German POW camp or referring to Stalin as ‘Old Man Whiskers’ in private communication to a friend.
     30% of those imprisoned in gulags perished. This was an inevitable result of carelessness and indifference. Inmates died because they were underfed and overworked in Siberian winters. There was not a policy of deliberate extermination as there was in Nazi camps.
     Auschwitz, in Poland, earned its notoriety because more people died there than in any other camp – over one million. It was the main destination for Jews transported from occupied countries as part of the Final Solution in the latter years of the war. By then the Germans were losing the war and most other extermination camps had been closed.
     Upon arrival there was the first selection. Children, old people and those judged unfit to work went straight to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
     During those latter years of the war, healthy adults were sent to workcamps to help the failing war effort. Frankl was transported to a subcamp of Dachau near Munich. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, other authors I refer to below, were both sent to Auschwitz-Monowitz. This workcamp, also known as Auschwitz III or Buna, provided labor for building of a synthetic rubber factory.
     Wiesel also survived the notorious death march and transportation ahead of the Russian advance to Buchenwald in Germany. His father died shortly after arriving in Buchenwald.
     Some uneasy facts that I came across in my research present surviving a concentration camp in a darker light than that presented by Frankl. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived for a year in Auschwitz, wrote extensively on his experience in If This Is a Man.
     In his follow-up book The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, Levi makes the point that the privileged prisoners were a minority in the camps but represent a majority of the survivors.
     Privileged prisoners, or Prominenten in German, helped run the camps. They included specialist workers such as doctors, and cooks, and supervisors to help run the camp — camp wardens and foremen, known as Kapos. They received better treatment than the ordinary prisoners.
     Many of the survivors felt guilty about surviving when so many ‘better’ people died. They might have done something that they felt was not the right thing in order to survive a bit longer.
     This is another reason that the death camps were so evil. Not only did they kill so many people, but they also scarred many survivors with feelings of guilt. The Nazis wanted those imprisoned, especially the Jews, to be degraded.
     I now realize that doing whatever it takes to survive is a key message of this book. To survive you need not just a noble attitude, your life work or someone to love, and resilience. You may also need to make compromises. You may have to do things that you would not do in better circumstances.
     This book contains lessons to help you survive a difficult situation until a better day. When that day comes you can fully enjoy life again. Do not feel guilty about doing what it takes to survive your difficult situation.

     Now available in print and ebook from, (print and ebook) and amazon Europe. Follow links to read more excerpts.

Thursday 21 August 2014

A ‘random’ breath test revealed Laplace’s demon

One morning recently I was stopped for a random alcohol breath test on the way home. While I was blowing into the breathalyzer a van pulling a trailer that I had finally had the opportunity to overtake a minute or so earlier was waved past. I was soon on my way again after registering zero and within minutes was driving behind the van and trailer again.
     The incident inspired me to think about fate and random events. If I had not had the opportunity to overtake the van a minute earlier its driver would have been subjected to the ‘random’ breath test. I would have been waved past and on my way.
     But none of this was random. Everything that happened on my journey home was the direct result of actions taken by me and others. And these actions were caused by previous actions going all the way back to the big bang. Nothing that happens is truly random. Everything is the inevitable result of previous actions.
     I left for home at a certain time. I missed a turn and went a slightly longer route. I came to be driving behind a van that left his departure point at a time determined by whatever was going on in the driver’s life. The checkpoint was set up for that place and time in advance. If you had total knowledge you could have predicted the events exactly as they occurred.
     But no one knows everything. That is why we have the concepts of ‘randomness’ and ‘probability’ to try and estimate unknowns. For instance there was nothing random about the checkpoint being where it was that morning or me being on that road or the other driver being on that road. An all knowing being would have known all that and would have predicted me being stopped and breathalyzed.
     Everything that happens is the direct result of events that have happened before.
     The event that morning was of little consequence. I had not been drinking so just drove on delayed by a few minutes. The van turned onto a different road shortly afterwards so I did not even have to overtake it again.
     But I did gain a deeper insight into the stoical concept that the course of events is set and cannot be changed. Now that you are aware of this inevitability, paradoxically, it allows you more control over adverse events and perhaps to ameliorate any bad effect on you.
     And your new awareness of the need to examine likely scenarios is an inevitable consequence of actions taken by you and others. This was entirely predictable to someone with the knowledge that you would read this and other similar material.
     You ask if you can ever have total knowledge of everything going on?  And if not how is this insight of use? You do know part of it – you know what is going on in your own mind and near you. Instead of living within your body take ‘a view from above’. Imagine you are not in your own body but looking down on yourself from the ceiling. See your actions and how you interact with others. Observe yourself as you would observe others. How do you appear to third parties? Are you popular? Do they think you are clever?
     Look at others from a similar vantage. What are they thinking? What are they doing? Now as a result of what you can see, predict the next few events in your life. The things you do yourself should be entirely predictable if you have planned your day. You will probably notice that the actions of others as they relate to you are also somewhat predictable.
     Obviously, you cannot know as much as an all seeing observer. Actions of some people you do not know may influence events. You did not expect the telephone survey to occupy 15 minutes of your time delaying your day. But if you had total knowledge of that person’s calling schedule the call to you was entirely predictable. But how often does this kind of outside interference affect our lives?
     This prediction of future events is known as predestination or determinism and is a well-known concept in religion and philosophy. Predestination is a core belief of Calvinism. Depending on the will of God some are chosen and some are damned and their actions follow.
     Determinism is independent of the influence of God or existence or not of an afterlife. It is a well-known concept in Eastern religions such as Buddhism as well as in Western Philosophy. The concept of all-knowing observer was presented in the early 19th century by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. He wrote a treatise on causal or scientific determinism and the all-knowing observer is now referred to as Laplace’s demon or Laplace’s superman. If someone, the demon, knows the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe, their past and future values for any given time can be calculated from the laws of classical mechanics. With this knowledge the demon can predict everything that happens in the universe.
     To do this would require an immense computer and knowledge. Many have ‘proven’ that is not possible. However, absence of proof in this case is not proof of absence. Just because our current state of knowledge cannot construct such a computer does not mean it is not possible at some time in the future.

     To begin with don’t think so big. Take 5 minutes each morning to predict the events of your day. You won’t be able to predict the actions of all external actors that affect you. However, if you are honest the prediction of your entire day will be surprisingly close to reality.

Monday 4 August 2014

Gift Value Ratio

Seneca wrote many books on the importance of gift giving. But what is the perfect gift? It should ideally be something needed by the receiver. And how much should it cost you?
     Many people do not like giving money as a gift. It seems slightly thoughtless. It is immediately apparent how much they value the other person. It shows no effort of thought. But I think this is unfair. There are few gifts more useful to the receiver or valued more highly than money – unless, perhaps, the receiver is so wealthy that he has no need of more.
     If you give cash as a gift the cost of the gift to you, the giver, and the value of its benefit to the receiver are the same. The value of the gift can be presented as a ratio – (value of gift to receiver)/(cost of gift). For cash this ratio will be 1. A gift that costs $20 to you is $20 benefit to the receiver.
     Let’s compare this value to other gifts. Sometimes people give gift vouchers for a store or chain of stores. In most cases these cost the same as their face value – a $20 voucher in a store costs $20. It also may cost you a little more if you had to go to the store specially to buy it. But how much is it worth to the receiver? If the receiver shops in the store regularly and spends much there it has the same value as cash, so gift value ratio is 1. But if the person never or seldom shops in the store, it is worth considerably less than 1. The receiver would have to make a special trip to the store and may end up buying something there that they would prefer to buy elsewhere for less. There is also a good chance that the voucher will never be used, or might expire, or the store might go out of business making the gift value ratio 0. The number of unused gifted store vouchers is considerable.
     Perhaps you can get a voucher with a gift value ratio greater than 1. If you pay less for the voucher than face value and it is for a store where the receiver often shops, the value is greater than 1 making it a high value gift. I am surprised that people do not demand a discount for vouchers. In many cases they expire unused. The receiver has to use them in that shop and may add to the voucher value with other money. They are a good business for the shop and I am surprised more shops do not discount them. 
     It is difficult to buy a gift and meet or exceed the gift ratio of 1. In many cases the person will not value the gift as much as it costs. If is it not something that the person would like to buy with their own money, it is not valuable gift. You would be better off giving cash. Or ask them what they want. You may prefer to give a surprise but the receiver would prefer to receive something they want.
     There are some cases where you can get a gift with a value higher than 1 and this is where thought comes in. If you travel often you may be able to buy gifts at duty free or in other countries cheaper than the receiver can buy them at home. You could buy smoking materials, food, drink, perfumes etc at a good price. If you know the brand will be to the liking of the receiver these gifts have a value greater than 1.
     Or perhaps you are a great shopper who finds bargains. You might finds something you know would be a great gift for someone at a good price. This shows that you are thinking about the person.
     A gift does not have to cost you money. Perhaps give the gift of time. If you can do a difficult task for a friend who is temporarily incapacitated, or mind their dog when they go on holiday or carry out a similar helpful task, this can cost you very little depending on how you value your time and be of considerable benefit to the receiver. Gifts such as this may have a value ratio well in excess of 1.
     So what do you give as a gift? Cash is always good. If you can think of something of greater value, so much the better. But resist the temptation to buy just anything. Be sure that the gift will be of greater value to the recipient than it costs you. If not cash is a more thoughtful gift.