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.

The value of advice

They say that advice is worth what it costs – nothing.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Advice can be quite useful… if you make sure to consistently do the exact opposite of what people advise:

I am just describing my life. I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them.

I was told to focus and I never did. I was told to never procrastinate and I waited 20 years for The Black Swan and it sold 3 million copies. I was told to avoid putting fictional characters in my books and I did put in Nero Tulip and Fat Tony because I got bored otherwise. I was told to not insult the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; the more I insulted them the nicer they were to me and the more they solicited Op-Eds. I was told to avoid lifting weights for a back pain and became a weightlifter: never had a back problem since.

If I had to relive my life I would be even more stubborn and uncompromising than I have been.

(From Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s commencement address to the American University in Beirut.)

Hilarity ensues

David Brooks makes some good points in this article. But the most revealing passage by far is this moment of inadvertent comedy:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

😃😄😆 A remarkable cross-section of modern American society right there. I laughed, I cried, I canceled my Netflix subscription.

Seriously, this is the sentence immediately preceding the above:

I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.

An excellent point. But if “informal social barriers” are the problem, why is Brooks so eager to perpetuate them by whisking his friend out of a sandwich shop that is a bit more upscale than she’s used to?

Read that paragraph again:

Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches…

That sounds really awkward. A social disaster. She was reading a menu, concentrating and… her face froze up. It didn’t even move! She must have been overwhelmed by the situation. Or maybe she was just thinking for a second.

Fortunately, Brooks acted fast:

I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

Gosh, I’m glad Brooks was sensitive enough to save the day by taking his friend to an eatery more appropriate for a person of her station. We all know the lesser-educated can’t handle sandwiches with foreign names.

Of course, if Brooks had managed to shrug off his initial five seconds of slight social discomfort, he might have considered teaching his friend what the hell “soppressata” means. (Does he know?) But what would be the point of that? Be quiet and eat your prolefeed.

In conclusion:

Book overdose

I used to collect lots (hundreds) of books. Now I don’t, because they’re cumbersome and I tend to move often. E-books renders dead tree books an unnecessary luxury.

Another reason why large book collections may be a bad idea – they can kill you:

A couple in eastern China whose apartment was packed with tens of thousands of books discovered that their home library was slowly poisoning them, according to a television news report.

The couple and their child, who live in Taizhou, Jiangsu province, developed symptoms of formaldehyde poisoning at the end of last year, Jiangsu Television reports.