“Only the disciplined ones in life are free”

Eliud Kipchoge

An amazing new world marathon record has just been set:

Somewhere around mile 7 of my race along the Schuylkill River, I found myself marveling at what the great Kenyan distance runner [Eliud Kipchoge], almost unquestionably the greatest marathoner ever, had just pulled off. He hadn’t just set a new marathon record; he’d shattered the old one by a minute and 18 seconds, running the fast Berlin course in 2:01:39.

Consider what that means: The 33-year-old Kipchoge, who is 5 foot 6 and weighs 115 pounds, had run 26 straight, blazingly fast, 4-minute and 38-second miles. I’ve always said of world-class marathon times like this that if I didn’t know it could be done, I wouldn’t believe it was possible to run that fast for that long.”

And the limits of human capacity have been stretched a bit further. Kipchoge also seems to have gleaned some nuggets of wisdom from his years of pounding the polyurethane:

He is also marathon running’s “philosopher king,” according to Cacciola, distinguishing himself as much with his motivational speaking as he does out on the course. “Kipchoge is the type of person,” writes Cacciola, “who says stuff like: ‘Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.’ And: ‘It’s not about the legs; it’s about the heart and the mind.’ And: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.’”

Survival of the laziest

Science says that laziness, or as I prefer to call it, economy of effort, could be a fantastic survival strategy:

A new large-data study of fossil and extant bivalves and gastropods in the Atlantic Ocean suggests laziness might be a fruitful strategy for survival of individuals, species and even communities of species. The results have just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B by a research team based at the University of Kansas.

Looking at a period of roughly 5 million years from the mid-Pliocene to the present, the researchers analyzed 299 species’ metabolic rates—or, the amount of energy the organisms need to live their daily lives—and found higher metabolic rates were a reliable predictor of extinction likelihood.

“We wondered, ‘Could you look at the probability of extinction of a species based on energy uptake by an organism?'” said Luke Strotz, postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum and lead author of the paper. “We found a difference for mollusk species that have gone extinct over the past 5 million years and ones that are still around today. Those that have gone extinct tend to have higher metabolic rates than those that are still living. Those that have lower energy maintenance requirements seem more likely to survive than those organisms with higher metabolic rates.”

I’m not sure whether this is related, but many of us have had the experience of working with high-energy, high-stress people who scurry around in a whirlwind of activity and give every indication of being extremely busy, and yet are strangely unproductive (and sometimes actively destructive) within the organization. Do they have elevated metabolic rates and if so, are they less “fit” to survive?

“Maybe in the long term the best evolutionary strategy for animals is to be lassitudinous and sluggish—the lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” Lieberman said. “Instead of ‘survival of the fittest,’ maybe a better metaphor for the history of life is ‘survival of the laziest’ or at least ‘survival of the sluggish.'”

The most successful leaders often have a laconic, hands-off management style, and it’s astounding what a truly great leader can accomplish by just hiring the right people, saying a few words and then heading out for a round of golf. The less perceptive might see this approach as leisurely or even “lazy,” but it’s actually just extremely efficient.

I close with an anecdote from historian Paul Johnson about a 1946 encounter with Winston Churchill:

He gave me one of his giant matches he used for lighting cigars. I was emboldened by that into saying, “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” and he said without hesitating: “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” And he then got into his limo.

Peter Thiel interview

Interesting interview with Peter Thiel in a Swiss magazine:

At the moment, Silicon Valley still looks all-powerful.

The big question is: Will the future of the computer age be decentralized or centralized? Back in the 60s, you had this Star Trek idea of an IBM computer running a planet for thousands of years, where people were happy but unfree. Today, again we are thinking that it is going to be centralized: Big companies, big governments, surveillance states like China. When we started Paypal in 1999, it was exactly the opposite: This vision of a libertarian, anarchistic internet. History tells me that the pendulum has swung back and forth. So, today I would bet on decentralization and on more privacy. I don’t think we are at the end of history and it’s just going to end in the world surveillance state. […]

You label yourself a “contrarian”. How did you become one? How does one become a contrarian?

It is a label that has been given to me, not one that I give normally to myself. I don’t think a contrarian per se is the right thing to be. A pure contrarian just attaches a minus sign to whatever the crowd thinks. I don’t think it should be as simple as that. What I think is important for people is to try to think very hard for oneself. But yes, I do deeply mistrust all these kinds of almost hypnotic mass and crowd phenomena and I think they happen to a disturbing degree.

Why do they happen in a supposedly enlightened society?

The advanced technological civilization of the early 21st century is a complicated world where it is not possible for anybody to think through everything for themselves. You cannot be a polymath in quite the way people were in the 18th century enlightenments. You cannot be like Goethe. So there is some need to listen to experts, to defer to other people. And then, there is always the danger of that going too far and people not thinking critically. This happens in spades in Silicon Valley. There is certainly something about it that made it very prone to the dotcom bubble in the nineties or to the cleantech bubble in the last decade.

Creatures of habit

Cool study showing that my predilection for spending time in the same set of venues over and over again may not be as far removed from the mainstream of human experience as some critics of my lifestyle would have it:

At any given time, people regularly return to a maximum of 25 places.

This is the finding of a scientific study that reveals entirely new aspects of human behaviour.

The study, titled ‘Evidence for a conserved quantity in human mobility’ is published in Nature Human Behaviour is based on analyses of 40,000 people’s mobile traces collected in four different datasets. […]

“We first analysed the traces of about 1000 university students. The dataset showed that the students returned to a limited number of places, even though the places changed over time. I expected to see a difference in the behaviour of students and a wide section of the population. But that was not the case. The result was the same when we scaled up the project to 40,000 people of different habits and gender from all over the world. It was not expected in advance. It came as a surprise,” says Dr Alessandretti.

As people start frequenting a new place, one of their existing haunts gets dropped from the list.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness. We want to explore new places but also want to exploit old ones that we like. Think of a restaurant or a gym. In doing so we adopt and abandon places all the time. We found that this dynamics yields an unexpected result: We visit a constant, fixed number of places—and it’s not due to lack of time. We found evidence that this may be connected to other limits to our life, such as the number of active social interactions we can maintain in our life, but more research is in order to clarify this point,” says Dr Baronchelli.

Here’s how they define a “place”: “For the purposes of these studies, a familiar location is any you return to at least twice in a given week for 10 minutes or more at a time.” By this definition, although I don’t have an exact count, my number is significantly less than 25 and probably somewhere between 15 and 20.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness”… Actually, if you had to boil all of human life down to eight words, that would be a pretty good summary.

A cure for alienation

http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/anthropology/new-strand-european-hunter-gatherer-ancestry-03440.html

I would estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of modern jobs are mostly or entirely pointless. This is obviously a problem for the people doing those jobs, who must be aware on some level that the net effect of their labors is, in terms of the welfare of humanity, a big zero (if not negative). But no discussion of this Treadmill of Pointlessness would be complete without considering the exact opposite: namely, the hunter-gather lifestyle.

Animistic thinkers are at home in the world. Children and hunter-gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course – but they have a relationship with the world: they are not alienated. Animists are watched over, controlled, protected, and also punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world. […]

By contrast, since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos – planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ – it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

Alienation is hardly new. The problem isn’t the Information Age. It isn’t even the Industrial Revolution. It’s agriculture. The invention of farming and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

In all seriousness, the cure for modern alienation may be some sort of a return to a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Is there a way to do this without also returning to Paleolithic population levels and standards of health care? Perhaps when all the “jobs” are automated out of existence, human society will naturally revert to its pre-modern, tribal shape, but with better technology; call it the Paleolithic 2.0.

We will live as our ancestors did, squatting around fires in animal skins, while our crops are harvested by robots and our iPhones are made in huge, unmanned subterranean factories.

Pointless jobs

A savage deconstruction of the treadmill of pointlessness that constitutes “work” for a large percentage of people:

Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.

Some would argue that lots of media, entertainment, academic and government jobs could be added to that list. Uncharitably, one might even throw in the entire advertising, marketing and PR industries.

What if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are actually aware of it? Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one believes does not need to be performed, is simply a waste of time or resources, or even makes the world worse? […]

What is a bullshit job?

The defining feature is this: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there’s a good reason for them to be doing it. They may not be able to admit this to their co-workers – often, there are very good reasons not to do so – but they are convinced the job is pointless nonetheless.

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless; typically, there has to be some degree of pretence and fraud involved as well. The employee must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason their job exists, even if, privately, they find such claims ridiculous.

The element of pretense and fraud is a key point. The habitual dishonesty required to maintain the illusion that a pointless job actually serves a purpose may be the most psychologically destructive aspect of the Treadmill of Pointlessness.

An earlier piece by the same author is even more incisive:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. […]

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

Exactly. But how do we rein in the “administrative sector” without destroying the modern economy and throwing many tens of millions of people out of work?

Odds of the Apocalypse: 37%

Only somewhat more likely than your house getting flooded

A hydrologist walks us through the cold mathematics of revolution and chaos:

While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math. […]

Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage. [I.e. 26%]

It’s noticeably bigger.

And here’s a factoid that should give you pause for thought:

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there have been 465 sovereign nations which no longer exist, and that doesn’t even count colonies, secessionist states, or annexed countries. Even if we presume that half of these nation-state transitions were peaceful, which is probably a vast over-estimation, that’s still an average of one violent state transition every 2.43 years.

Maybe the Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood celebrities and politicians who are secretly building apocalypse bunkers have rational reasons for doing so and are not completely nuts.

LinkedIn chronicles

This made me chuckle:

I wake up every morning at 4 AM and go for a 10 mile run followed by an hour lifting weights.

I try my best to read the local newspaper and at least 1/4 of a book before I leave for work at 8.

I have completely cut out meats, veggies, and fruits from my diet because I don’t want to damage anything on earth. I eat 100% Soylent.

During my lunch break I build houses for the homeless and then hire them at my job as a public service.

I answer no less than 300 emails an hour… all personalized.

Before I leave work I remind my friends that LinkedIn isn’t a dating site in case they forget.

After work I instruct hot/cold yoga in a room-temperature room… right before I head off to provide my spiritual advice to local religious leaders.

I am currently writing my 10th book.

I also created the Fidget Spinner.

I am the most interesting person on LinkedIn.

The good life. In fact, the best life that one can aspire to. Right?

Freelance writing doesn’t pay

In case you had any doubts about that:

Here is an update with further evidence suggesting that making a viable living as a professional freelance journalist and writer is an untenable, Sisyphean delusion:

I was sitting at my desk yesterday morning, my pal, Lamont, content snoozing at my feet, absorbed in final editing of a long term investigative reporting project, the latest of many that I have been self-financing awaiting a positive response from a flurry of funding proposals sent that, once again, have been met with enthusiasm but no available funding, rejection, or silence.

I love being a journalist. It isn’t what I do, but, more accurately, who I am.

I was interrupted by three loud, harsh, rapid-fire knocks on the front door to my rented apartment. Immediately, I recognized the signature notification of the hostile adversarial arrival of armed agents with the authority and power of the State.

I was not unsurprised.

My rent was delinquent, and despite numerous, persistent, and increasingly bordering on desperate efforts to acquire funding or institutional support for my work as a freelance investigative journalist to compensate for even the minimal costs of living expenses–the modern equivalent of food, shelter, and protection from the elements–these efforts have not been successful.

Comedy ensues, although it probably didn’t seem very funny at the time.

This guy interviewed Pol Pot, so I assume he has some talent, maybe a lot of talent. Let this be a lesson that most people who think they can hack it as a freelance writer/journalist… can’t. The math just doesn’t work.