The reclamation project

Hidden in the overwhelmingly cluttered aspect of London are infrequent slices of negative space. Places which have emptiness as one of their primary features. There are tiny gardens, parks, terraces and balconies—these are mostly for the use of residents. There are also “official” negative spaces. Places like Horse Guards Parade, St James’ Park and Trafalgar Square. Places that are considered to be historically and/or culturally significant and so are classed as inviolable. They are used to full capacity only infrequently (usually for national or international events) and cannot be built upon or fundamentally altered. In between these two, between the residential and the sacred negative spaces, there is another category: negative spaces for the high-status individual.

When walking down Oxford Street and Regent Street one sees the typical international luxury brands that make a point of having a storefront on the world’s premium real estate. But down the adjoining side-streets there are also marbled hotel lobbies and commercial buildings accessible only by those with the right pass, an appointment, or a lot of money. I was in London before Christmas and I walked down these streets, past glass-fronted atrium after glass-fronted atrium. I looked into them and saw nothing. That is, they were deliberately bare.

I assumed that the space these companies were preserving was meant to act as a reprieve, an antidote to the masses scuttling outside the confines of the building. A soothing ointment for a client’s ordeal-ridden interaction with everyday busyness. I stand by that assumption. But these spaces, taken alongside residential and sacred negative spaces, also provoked a question: if negative space is recognised as so important by so many different parts of society and culture, why do we continue to let it slip away from us?


I have a pet hypothesis and it goes something like this: Great Thoughts require Great Space. The best way to understand why this is (or could be) is to bring in another ‘s’—“status”. Consider:

the great thought barrier

Low-status people—here labelled “have-nots”—have an abundance of negative space. The unemployed and the retired, especially so, but the working class also. Sure, they are subject to regular demands on space and time, like jobs, families, friends, etc., but that is mostly self-generated and self-sustained. An imagined community, like a country, a subculture, or an academic discipline, is not demanding everything from them. That changes when they graduate from being a have-not to being a have-a-little.

The “have-a-littles” are in no-man’s-land. They are subject to the same regular demands as the have-nots, but they also start to feel the demands of imagined communities. They have accumulated agency, but not enough to buy complete autonomy, and so they are the busiest of the lot. They have more status than the powerless but they are still at the beck-and-call of the powerful. This is where the path ends for most. Only a few make it out of have-a-little-land into the ranks of the “haves”.

The “haves” have an unusual amount of agency, and so purchase autonomy. They outsource both the regular demands of existence like cooking and child-rearing, but also institute hard-limits on the proportion of their life they devote to their imagined communities.

Now, the have-nots and the haves have the most negative space in their lives, albeit for different reasons. And, historically, it is from this dual-pool that many Great Thoughts have arisen. If we go back to antiquity it’s notable that many of the greatest thinkers were numbered among the nobility and leisured classes. Or, alternatively, they were slaves, former slaves, or people of otherwise menial status.


The previous hypothesis is speculative and based on anecdotal data—the impressions I’ve formed from reading a bit of this and that. But what I think is less speculative than “Great Thoughts requires Great Space” is that there is a shift in the curve. It’s moving upwards. Consider a revised version of the above graph.

the great thought barrier 2

Negative space is being corroded across every aspect of western society. The have-a-littles never had much in the first place, but the haves and the have-nots? The haves are, more than ever, being consumed by a global consciousness. Someone who starts a company and sells it no longer retires—not indefinitely anyway. They just choose another type of busyness, usually one with the potential to have either a more global impact (investing in biotech or energy research, for example) or a more focused local impact (funding education for specific towns or cities, for example). No matter how they accomplished it, “making it” is quickly followed by social pressure to contribute to the effort to make it better for everyone else.

The have-nots are seeing their negative space diminished in another way. First, via advertising. Banksy/Sean Tejaratchi wrote:

“People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

On a similar note, Scott Galloway has said that “advertising is a tax on the poor”. Hop on a tube-train or a bus. What is plastered on the interior. Ads. Watch regular TV or read a newspaper. Ads. Of course, a person can go ad-free, but it’s gonna cost ‘em.

Add to the omnipresence of advertising in the lives of the have-nots the obliteration of the friction required to access and consume media. Podcasts, audiobooks, radio, streaming services—these are the never-ending accompaniments to people’s lives. What is the result? An existence characterised by the absence of negative space.


In The Architecture of Community Leon Krier talks about city growth and planning. One of the key ideas in the book is this: a city should have a certain fractality to it. Instead of explicit zoning a city should contain quarters, each of which houses residential, commercial, governmental and industrial elements. A city shouldn’t be a great landmass split into pieces and assigned a function, he argues.

Krier is a proponent of human-scale urbanism, which is perhaps best understood by a reference to a classic Christmas movie. As Peter Bajurny says:

“The real hero of Home Alone is the commuter railroad era urbanism that allows Kevin to meet his needs (grocery store, pharmacy, park, church) within walking distance”.

The Architecture of Community contains many intriguing and important ideas, especially as we make the move into an age where the structure of our online communities is becoming an increasingly societal concern. The book also contains some elegant and simple sketches that accentuate Krier’s thinking. One of which is this:

city expansion

It’s used to highlight the difference in different urban growth strategies. Look at the skylines in the diagram above, though. There are essentially three: full, empty, and varied.

skyline 1

Now combine that with a person’s day-to-day activities.

skylines 2

A life completely devoid of activity is, for most, not a life. But a life made up only of activity isn’t a life either. We need the variation. We need action alongside reflection, motion with stillness, to do and to be. But modernity is pushing us towards a life cluttered with doings, with busyness, no matter what part of the socioeconomic scale we occupy.


Governments recognise that negative space is associated with sacredness and significance. Corporations understand that space without explicit purpose is a signal to high status consumer groups. Shouldn’t we, as individuals, recognise the importance of negative space and act to reclaim it?

If you agree that we need to take back some negative space, then the next question on your lips might be, “How?” The answer is tied to the concept of time.

I’ve said that the varied approach is best, that what we need is a mixture of negative and positive space, a blend of action and reflection. But over what timescale?

skyline 3

Do we spent decades doing and then retire to a life of being? Do we allocate negative and positive space the same way we allocate holiday during a working year, giving ourselves an arbitrary number of weeks per annum as negative space? Do we go smaller and say that two weekends every month are devoted to negative space? Perhaps every Sunday is now sacred, a day devoted to nothing but itself? Or do we modulate the negative-positive space ratio over twenty-four hours? There are advocates and arguments for each of the above. My personal favourite is the last: daily.

Our bodies, for the most part, synchronise on a twenty-four hour clock. I believe our behaviour should do the same. There’s a reason why it’s easier to do something every day than it is to do it three times a week. We’re daily creatures. The same is likely to apply for the reclamation of negative space.


I have a rather funny relationship with meditation and mindfulness. It’s been a bigger or smaller part of my life for several years. But one thing that got me interested in it was reading all the testimonials about the transformative effects of a daily meditation practice. I’ve experienced similar effects, if not to the same profound degree. So I would argue that taking up meditation, AM and PM, is the simplest way to reclaim some negative space in a life.

There are others though, and they don’t have to involve folding a foot atop the opposite thigh and chanting mantras that re-align the universe. When I think through the things that I do regularly and ask myself, “How often do I do only one thing?”, the answer is, “Not often.” When I do the washing up, I’ll have some music on. When I eat breakfast or lunch alone, I’ll watch some TV or read a blog. When I do a movement session I’ll chuck on a special playlist.

What if I didn’t do that? What if I made an effort to do one thing? To wash up with no distractions. To eat food with no audiovisual stimulation. To not turn on the TV when I get home. To leave the radio turned off when I drive. To not disconnect from the world while on the train or bus. To leave the headphones out and listen to real life going on around me. What I’ve found, and what you too might find, is that whilst doing the above I start to think.

If you reduce the mind’s operation and model it as input-process-output, it’s possible to say that modernity is emphasising input and output at the expense of processing.

input processing output

I want to do the opposite. I want to dial back input, take more care with output, and give myself more time and space to process. Would you like to do the same?

Getting to intimate

There were a few, but the most powerful moment in Derren Brown’s Sacrifice was this one. Synopsis: Phil, the Average Joe construction worker with a prejudice against immigrants, is being persuaded by Derren Brown to make a sacrifice for the sake of a stranger. After Derren Brown reveals Phil’s genetic heritage—itself a mish-mash from around the world—Phil is put face to face with a stranger and told to hold eye contact with him for four minutes. Phil attempts it, and watching him fall apart during the effort is heart-wrenching. It is almost as if you can see his assumptions and his beliefs, things which he has used to bear so much weight for so long, crumple.

The ability of intense and sustained eye contact to generate empathy is, as Derren Brown says in the prelude to the above moment, based on psychological research. That of Arthur Aron. Specifically, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. But why is it so powerful?

In Impro, Keith Johnstone says that:

“People will travel a long way to visit a ‘view’. The essential element of a good view is distance, and preferably with nothing human in the immediate foreground. When we stand on a hill and look across miles of emptiness at the mountains, we are experiencing the pleasure of having our space flow out unhindered. As people come in sight of a view, it’s normal for their posture to improve and for them to breathe better. You can see people remarking on the freshness of the air, and taking deep breaths, although it’s the same air as it was just below the brow of the hill.”

Intense and sustained eye contact is the opposite of standing upon a hill and gazing out over a magnificent vista. When someone is sat a foot away from us our “space” is most definitely hindered, and not in the same way as it is when we take a busy train or navigate down a crowded street. Johnstone continues:

“Approach distances are related to space. If I approach someone on open moorland I have to raise an arm and shout ‘excuse me’ as soon as I’m within shouting distance. In a crowded street I can actually brush against people without having to interact.”

The difference is related to motion—or its absence—and to the dissipation of focus. In a crowded street, our “space” is impeded, but there are brief intermissions that make up its continual opening and closing. When we sit down opposite another person and hold eye contact, with no table to separate us, with no coffee cup or dinner plate or activity to act as a barrier to connection, and no reason to turn aside and orient ourselves in a different direction, our “space” has no option but to be utterly absorbed by the person opposite. To flow into them.

three spaces 2

This leaves me with another question, though. Unhindered, intense, sustained eye contact generates empathy for a stranger. But I suspect it also generates greater intimacy when undertaken with someone we already know well. And it is this last I want to focus on. I want to know: are there any other shortcuts to intimacy?


Perhaps, but a few things must be handled first.

For true empathy and intimacy to come about there must be a flattening. A transition to a non-hierarchical relationship. This means that each person is appreciated on the level of being not on the level of acts (read more about this in The Courage to Be Disliked). The continuation of a hierarchical relationship negates the possibility of empathy and intimacy. Consider that in such a situation one person has to be higher and one person has to be lower. The person looking down considers themselves superior to the person looking up, and vice versa. In such a scenario, differences, fear and desire are what dominate. And that’s not exactly conducive to intimacy.

Next, there must be a devaluation of words. Traditional relationships—ones that occur in meatspace, not cyberspace—are mostly non-verbal, and the currency they accumulate and reckon their worth in is non-verbal, too. Think of the person who is closest to you. Now think of a stressful or traumatic time which that person helped you endure. When you picture it, do you recall what that person said to you? The exact words they used to coax you around or through the episode? I suspect you don’t, and I certainly don’t when I undertake the same exercise. But I do recall the fact that they were there for me—their presence is the thing that mattered then and matters now.

Now, with a flattened relationship and an understanding of the value of non-words, we can begin to accumulate intimacy. And the way that is done is via the tails of existence, via the good, the bad, and the weird.

With the passage of time comes good, bad and weird experiences. Typically, these experiences are spread out so that they are intermittent. But if we are seeking greater intimacy then they must be clustered closer together. Only a psychopath would willingly create bad experiences in order to gain more intimacy, so that’s off the table as a shortcut. Which leaves the good and the weird. But keep in mind that good and weird experiences can be absolute or relative.

An absolute good experience is defined by its scarcity—winning a world championship is an absolute good because so few people can ever experience it. Similarly, an absolute weird experience is so because of its novelty. The first person to successfully fly over the Atlantic got a taste of the absolute weird. So, sure, strive for absolute goodness and weirdness that is experienced with another, but know that they are not a safe bet and take a lot of time, effort, preparation and luck.

A surer bet is the pursuit of relative good and weird. Relative good and weird revolve around personal reference points and, ultimately, perception. For example, many people have been skydiving. I haven’t. But if I was to go with the woman I love, one, it would shift the benchmarks on my future “good” and “weird” experiences, second, it would shift the benchmarks on her future “good” and “weird” experiences, and third, the shift would be experienced together and so result in a greater intimacy between us.


The above is mostly academic. There are not many people who go out of their way to promote the growth of intimacy in their relationship and attempt to find shortcuts to reach it—although they do exist. So here’s another way to look at the accumulation of intimacy in a relationship.

A couple of years ago, after reading a lot of self-improvement books and blogs, I performed a distillation. I’d been reading about learning and mastery and competence and I had ended up with a tangled mess of models, theories and frameworks. I wanted something simpler. I came up with this:

Mastery = Time x Attention x Love / Ego

“Time” is self-explanatory; “attention” represents the quality of perception and analysis hefted upon a skill or ability; “love” is harder to define—ask every poet, ever—so I’ll leave it to your imagination; “ego” is equivalent to self-importance, or the degree of priority given to the preservation of a favourable self-image.

What I liked—and still like—about this formulation is its fluidity. For example, mastery is attainable in a short amount of time providing the quality of attention and love is maximised and ego is minimised. Conversely, mastery will take a long time to achieve if ego is of titanic proportions—no matter the time, attention and love lavished upon a skill or discipline, ego will negate it.

The same can be said for intimacy. Achieving it takes time, achieving it takes attention, achieving it takes love, and its achievement is hindered by ego.

A new kind of overclocking

Mathematicians exist on a higher plane of abstraction than us normies, and thus seem positively odd. But in the same way that Pareto’s 80/20 principle can be applied to itself to yield an even more bizarre distribution of incomes, we can attempt to identify the most eccentric mathematician amongst a field of people renowned for their eccentricities. That most eccentric person could easily be said to be Paul Erdos.

Erdos was prolific (he collaborated with over five hundred people, and he had a hand in the writing of roughly 1500 mathematical papers) and he was also severely non-normal. Examples abound in Paul Hoffman’s The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (highly recommended) and in this Time feature: having no actual home, depending on friends to manage his voluminous correspondence and keep his fees from lectures, cutting a grapefruit with a blunt knife, initiating odd physical contests and failing miserably in them, incentivising the solving of mathematical problems via the promise of cash prizes, working with multiple people at the same time around the same table but on completely different theoretical problems, running into walls, developing his own vocabulary, shaking his hands dry instead of using towels or paper, and regularly taking amphetamines. Concerning the drug use, Wikipedia says:

“His colleague Alfréd Rényi said, “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”, and Erdős drank copious quantities (this quotation is often attributed incorrectly to Erdős, but Erdős himself ascribed it to Rényi). After 1971 he also took amphetamines, despite the concern of his friends, one of whom (Ron Graham) bet him $500 that he could not stop taking the drug for a month. Erdős won the bet, but complained that during his abstinence, mathematics had been set back by a month: “Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper.” After he won the bet, he promptly resumed his amphetamine use.”

Prodigious minds using drugs to accumulate insight and advance their understanding isn’t a new thing. A while back Naval Ravikant tweeted that “A future society may support overclocking brilliant young scientists with mental performance enhancing drugs to get more scientific breakthroughs.” But the hundreds of replies were quick to point out that this was already a practice of the past and the present—John Backus cited Voltaire’s forty cups of coffee a day and Freud’s cocaine habit and devilscompiler pointed to the use and utility of LSD and psychedelics. I myself have felt the benefits of the tactical use of caffeine—a black coffee whilst reading and another as I begin to write is standard fare for a reason…

Yet, recently, I have been wondering about “overclocking the mind”. Not so much its merit—that is clearly apparent, though probably better suited to the realm of outer truth than inner truth, as I argue in Near-Deathness—but more about its different kinds. For example, I’ve heard it said that the peak of a physicist’s intellectual capacity occurs somewhere between thirty and forty years old. I suspect that that is held to be the case because it has to do with computational capacity—the brain reaches its zenith during that window and can engage in the most intense of computational tasks. But there is more to overclocking than the ability to compute. Caffeine and cocaine will heighten the velocity of the mind’s operations; LSD and other psychedelics, as well as sensory deprivation, will distort the diversity of its perceptions. Are there more ways to overclock, outside of the willful distortion of the velocity of the mind and the diversity of its perceptions? I think so, and my candidate for a third kind of overclocking is longevity.

Consider the information concerning life expectancy over time. In the paleolithic era, it was lucky to make it to forty years old. In the modern world, not making it to forty is a tragedy. Making it to fifty or sixty is practically a given in the developed world. And in the future? According to current estimates, a large number of my generation (I’m twenty-seven) will live over a century. This isn’t because of any radical biological changes. It’s due to advances in general standards of living and technological leaps in our ability to prevent and repair the wear and tear of everyday life. How does this contribute to overclocking?

A large number of people living to over a hundred with the capacities of their minds intact will have unprecedented consequences. Take the idea of the differing meaningfulness of an instant—the fact that every person interprets each moment in unique ways according to the nature, nurture and torture they’ve been subjected two. Add to that the fact that now more than ever, we have tools that put a large amount of information about the world and its mechanisms in readily accessible places. The result? Increasing longevity and increasing technological capacity will compound and combine to yield unimaginable understanding and insight.

Imagine if an Einstein or a Feynman lived to be a century old whilst retaining the power of their mind. Further, imagine that they had the technological aids we have today. How far up the never-ending pyramid of understanding would they ascend? How far up it will we ascend in the future?

Overclocking the mind is a component of the past, and the present, and it will be a component of the future. But up till now, overclocking has been confined to its velocity and its perception, and has been a strictly individual affair. But as society advances and the general standard of living rises, the overclocking of the mind—via longevity—will be a collective concern. It will affect us all.

To feel, to swim

When it comes to reading, I have a process. Once I’ve selected a book—always of the dead-tree kind—I begin reading it, with pen in hand. As I go, I make infrequent marginalia, highlight interesting parts, and fold corners (top corner fold represents a notable passage or idea, bottom corner fold represents an idea or author to be researched in the future). When I finish the book, I note the date on the final page and record my immediate observations, impressions, and questions—a practice I picked up from Montaigne. Then it goes into a finished pile, to await incorporation into my commons, which is a digital archive of .txt files that I type up when I review a book.

the stack
Midway through processing.

The above process has friction deliberately built in, the biggest source of it being that it takes a long time to type up the passages I end up thinking are noteworthy. So I avoid it, usually with the result that I have a lot of books to review and capture notes on. Normally, it stays within manageable bounds and I can clear the backlog relatively quickly. Not this time. Between the 9th June and the 27th October of this year I read thirty-four books, and by the end of October I had taken notes on none of them. The full list, in order of consumption (because I don’t shine enough light on what I’m currently reading and enjoying):

Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien
Volume Three of The Complete Works of Primo Levi
Hitler; A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock
Pyramids by Terry Pratchett
Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett
The Architecture of Community by Leon Krier
The Interface Envelope by James Ash
Eric by Terry Pratchett
Philosophical Remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Girard Reader
The Mediterranean in the Ancient World by Fernand Braudel
Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman
In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Beyond Economics and Ecology by Ivan Illich
The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Energy; A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil
Invisible Planets by Hannu Rajaniemi
Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
At The Mind’s Limits by Jean Amery
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua
The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot
Disruptive Play by Shepherd Siegel
The Courage to Be Disliked by Fumitake Koga
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by Rene Girard.

Because I couldn’t bear the thought of declaring book-bankruptcy and not taking notes on these texts, I got serious about the problem. After finishing Girard’s Things Hidden, I gave myself a rule: I can’t start another book until I’ve got through the backlog. Whilst that rule was in effect, I contented myself with a re-read of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet and then a re-read of Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, both of which I was already familiar with and didn’t need to take notes on. (I’ve got to have something to read…)

But the ordeal is over. I’m happy to say that, over the last weekend, I cleared the last of them. And this, in turn, granted me an unprecedented opportunity: I got to start multiple new books, all at the same time. It’s an understatement to say that I was unreasonably excited at the prospect. (For the interested, I decided to start six books: The King James version of The Bible, Minding Mind by Thomas Cleary, The Quest by Daniel Yergin, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder.) But this opportunity also provoked pause. In choosing what to read next, I was forced to examine a deeper question: Why do I read in the first place? In fact, why does anyone read? I came up with four answers.

First, and most obviously, people read for entertainment. For pleasure and to pass the time. Second, people read to get smarter. To accumulate insight and grow their expertise. Third, people use reading as means to collect a variety of lenses and perspectives—to see differently and in a more interesting manner. Those three answers to the question of, “Why read?”, are straightforward. The fourth was less intuitive and came as a bit of surprise to me. People read to become better humans.

The order in which I’ve listed the answers to the question above is significant; it is how they came to me as I answered the question in my notebook, and it mirrors the evolution in my own reasons for reading so voraciously.

My father reads a lot. Mostly fiction, mostly thrillers. So when I was growing up I did the same. He’d finish a book and then I’d read it—alongside things like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, of course. Naval Ravikant once said, “Read what you love, until you love to read.” That is what happened in my youth.

Then, in my late-teens and early-twenties, I stumbled upon Ryan Holiday’s idea of reading to lead and Nassim Taleb’s notion of self-education via an antifragile and insatiable curiosity. As a consequence, I began to read more about history and philosophy and science. Reading was still entertaining to me, but it became more about getting smarter, about making myself more valuable.

A few years after that I transitioned and began to take writing, as a vocation, seriously. At this point I realised that to write requires a vast diversity of viewpoints—to put out something different it’s necessary to take in many different things. So, reading, which had gone from being primarily about entertainment to being about accumulating smarts, became about the ingestion of diverse fragments. I switched to thinking of reading as a modular activity, one in which I cut up various books in search of building blocks with which I could go on to create weird and unique structures and stories.

The above still holds—reading is still immensely fun, it still makes me smarter (I think), and through it I still find weird and wonderful ideas to analyse and synthesise. But when I had the opportunity to choose new books, to think about reading and why I do it, I found those things were in the background. Still present, but not at the fore. When I asked myself the question I couldn’t help but think of figures like Primo Levi and Jean Amery, people who were touched by atrocity but who managed to retain their humanity. They didn’t just, as Nietzsche did, look into the abyss and find that it stared right back—they were thrown headfirst into its suffocating embrace and forced to feel its putrid breath as it drew them into its maw.

In the current space and time I occupy, I can’t reasonably expect—nor do I wish to—experience such things as they went through. But I do want to learn about them and understand them. Doing so is not particularly entertaining—reading about someone’s torture is itself a trial to anyone with any empathic ability. Neither does reading about someone’s agony and suffering make me smarter or more able in any conventional domain—it won’t help net me a contract or understand the laws of the universe. And the descriptions of and the meditations on their difficulties are not overly-extravagant or excessively weird, in and of themselves. Their uniqueness is due to their difference in intensity, not their difference in kind—we all suffer to some degree, after all. So why do I want to read such things? Because, as cited above, reading such accounts will, I believe, help me to be kinder, to be more thoughtful, to be more generous, to be more courageous, to be more humane. To think more, yes, but more importantly to feel more.

The pause that allowed me to consider the “why” of reading also gave me the space the to re-consider the “how”, as well. As mentioned above, I have a fairly structured process for reading, but that structure has as its foundation the idea of “being a demanding reader”. I first came across this idea via Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, where he extolled the virtues of being a demanding reader. There’s more information here and here, but the crux of it is that “Reading is all about asking the right questions in the right order and seeking answers.” I agree with that, but less now than I used to.

In the introduction to Zero Zero Zero, a book about the global trade of cocaine, Roberto Saviano denies the virtues of objectivity that the typical non-fiction book about such a subject usually aims at. He says:

“There are those who ask that art no longer be art. Those who insist that it be truer than the truth. More realistic than reality. As though it were a gigantic and, in the end, useless pantograph. My choice moves in the opposite direction. My aim is to threaten the power that threatens, recounting and unmasking it with as much force as it wields. What sense does it make to recount a Mafia murder if you don’t recount it from the perspective of someone nauseated from the acrid odor that emanates from those who died while digesting a meal they ate a few hours earlier? What sense does it make to only recount documents and not sensations as well? What sense does it make not to recount that existent universal truth even if it is not documented or cannot be measured?
Whoever writes nonfiction novels, deep down, recounts himself and the world through his words, through those lives and those deaths. He recounts that which is not visible, but is nevertheless there: sensations, emotions, and conjectures, even without definite proof. The news cannot do this, but it is literature’s duty. Adding reality to the novel and removing coldness from news reporting are the only possible methods for bringing “sensitive” subjects to the attention of the reader.”

Of course, Saviano is talking from the perspective of a writer, making the point that it is a writer’s duty to recall a moment with the twin powers of heat and cold. But the same is, I think, true for the reader.

To be a demanding reader is to be objective, to question, to challenge, to prod, to poke and to protest. It is to ascend to the same level as the author—himself positioned as an authority on his subject—and to initiate a dialogue as an equal, and to frame the dialogue in the context of everything you, the reader, and he, the author, knows about the content and its surrounding stories and ideas. But that is not the only way to read.

One could compress “being a demanding reader” into single word—“detachment”. This word signals a separation, a position above the fray, observation without involvement. Its opposite is “immersion”. Think about learning a language—it’s one thing for me to take French lessons on Duolingo in the comfort of my home. It’s another to embark on a three-week solo bicycle tour through the provinces. Both aide my learning of the language, but the latter far more than the former.

This was the re-evaluation I made when considering the “how” of writing. I thought that perhaps I would benefit more from deliberate immersion than distance and detachment—the latter being what I have striven for for so long. Perhaps I should give each book and each author the benefit of the doubt when they posit their argument, instead of relentlessly challenging them? Perhaps I should bestow upon them an aura of good intentions and allow them to take me by the hand and lead me where they will? Risky, maybe. But also of great potential value.

In Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins talks about the absurdity of expat communities in under-developed countries—how the inhabitants try to create their own little piece of home in a little piece of a foreign country. Typically, the homestead is sectioned off from its surroundings with high fences and armed guards, and as a consequence the high-flying execs that live there are out of touch with local and regional culture—which is bad news when they’re trying to build relationships and stock up on political capital. Perkins then goes on to recount some of his own forays into the communities his colleagues took such stringent measures to avoid. By allowing himself to be drawn into and absorbed by locals and local customs, he sees what others will never get the opportunity to. He sees how citizens of less developed countries actually feel about the Western powers; he sees the responses that certain imagery and ideas evoke; he sees the difference between the information his colleagues and employers are fed via their local contacts and what is truly the case.

By abandoning detachment and seeking immersion, Perkins accrued advantages his colleagues could not. I have no ambitions to be an economic hitman, but in my life I wish to see and feel and experience all that I can. So I will follow Saviano’s advice and Perkins’ example whilst reading. I won’t relinquish detachment, but I will de-emphasise it in favour of immersion. I will still take rest on the river’s bank to contemplate its shape and movement, but I will also endeavour to spend more time swimming with, against and across its currents.

Oxygen, not coffee

Sun Tzu said that “Morning energy is keen, midday energy slumps, evening energy recedes”. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey outlines the quirk-full and often-mystic routines of famous creatives, scientists and thinkers—a lot of them describe the featured individual’s primary activity as taking place before the morning is over, and sometimes before the sun has even risen. Many productivity goo-roos advocate soft waldenponding in the mornings to minimise distraction and maximise focus and output.

All this ain’t new. Since ancient times we’ve known that the beginning of a day is the epitome of opportunity. Soon after awaking we are at our most alert, our most perceptive, our most creative, our most engaged. Why is that? Simple: circadian rhythm. We dance to the beat of an in-built, twenty-four hour timepiece that determines the functioning and sequencing of a vast number of physiological and psychological functions. It’s why we can sleep for eight hours and not wake up in a puddle of urine; it’s why our mental alertness and body temperature declines in the evening; it’s why we feel the need to sleep longer in the winter than the summer.

Our circadian rhythm is important. It is one of the primary determinants of what our mind and body does at different times during the day and night. But it is does not always have the final say. We can and do override its signals. Artificial lighting and heating; alarm clocks and other tech; medicines and drugs. All distort (or complement) our natural biological rhythms.

I have a personal interest in this. I work shifts. My sleep pattern and biological rhythms are all over the place and I’ve experienced the consequences of taking their distortion too far. Thanks to that, I have a pretty good sense of where the precipice between abyss and solid ground lies—life would be hell if I didn’t. I also have a few aides that I regularly call upon. I utilise black-out curtains, I take ZMA, I have processes for transitioning in and out of night hours, I have morning and evening routines, and I drink coffee. Bitter, dark, gorgeous, intoxicating coffee.

Coffee, and the caffeine it contains, wakes me from a stupor. It sharpens my senses. It starts the swirl of thought. To me, and to many others, it is synonymous with waking up and becoming human once again. There’s no mystique surrounding its function, though. Caffeine is nothing more than a central nervous stimulant. Which is the cause of much of my recent dismay—perhaps it’s not a good thing to rely upon? Perhaps the distortions it makes to my natural biological rhythms are, over the long term, harmful? Perhaps I should lessen how much I consume? Perhaps I should not consume it at all? And in the total absence of coffee and caffeine, what can I lean on to catapult myself into a higher state of wakefulness?

The answer is all around me, in the very air I breathe. Oxygen.


Years ago, I spent a few summers working at festivals, often doing ungodly hours—eight PM till eight AM was a good one. And after such a shift, I’d retire to my tent. A tent in the middle of a field, in the middle of a festival with tens of thousands of people, in the warmest months of the year. I’d go to sleep in the cool of morning and wake up a few hours later dripping in sweat and unable to breathe. In such a scenario, I’d peel off my sleeping bag, open my tent’s inner flap in a vain attempt to circulate some air, and lie back down, usually on my side so I had the maximum amount of skin not in contact with the ground. Then I’d look at my watch and groan—hours until I had to work again. Hours I knew I had to use to get some sleep.

It was hard. Until I learnt a trick.


The nervous system controls what state your body is in. Cleaved down the middle, you’re in either fight-or-flight mode or rest-and-digest mode. The former is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, a diversion of resources to the brain and to the muscles and organs required for intense physical activity, a quickening of inhalation and exhalation and a release of chemicals and hormones like adrenalin. The latter is associated with decreased heart rate and blood pressure, the sending of resources to the digestive system and restive organs, a slowed and steadied pattern of respiration, and the release of chemicals and hormones which promote rest, recovery and peace of mind. But here’s the thing: the arrow of causation goes both ways.

The nervous system initiates physiological and psychological functions, but the reverse is true, too. Feynmann’s observation that “you are the easiest person to fool” is more than a comment on epistemology—it’s the key to life without coffee. See, the trick I had learnt during my festival days was to fool myself, to fall asleep effortlessly by manipulating my pattern of breathing.

First, I would lie still and mentally search for and isolate an area of tension (the neck and shoulders are hotspots for me). Second, I’d slow my breathing, taking long, deep breaths in and out. Third, I would focus on deflating those areas as I exhaled, imagining myself dissolving and sinking into the very ground I was lying upon. The next moment it would be morning.

Such a trick has come in handy. I’ve used it to fall asleep in a bus shelter, on trains, on coaches, on planes, lying in odd positions in uncomfortable places, and—to my partner’s chagrin—less than five minutes after getting into bed. But falling asleep seems like the opposite of what I want to achieve, though. I’m seeking an alternative to caffeine that preserves the integrity of my biological rhythms but still offers the same neurological spike. But if I can manipulate my breathing to calm myself, can I not also manipulate my breathing to arouse myself?


Wim Hof is known as “the Iceman” for his ability to withstand and function amidst extremes of temperature. He’s ran a marathon in subzero conditions and in the heat of a desert. He’s been injected with an illness and consciously compelled his immune system to rise up and defend against it. He’s remained immersed in freezing water for hours. How? By an aeons more advanced variant of my fall-asleep-quick trick—he uses the mind to control the body. Like some spiritual monk from a fantasy trilogy, he displays conscious control of normally subconscious processes. Can I do the same when I need a pick-me-up? Theoretically, sure. If I can dampen nervous system activity with the breath I can definitely heighten it. So here’s the plan.

I have a few weeks over the holidays where I don’t have to work. That’s my window. As soon as I enter that window, I’m going cold turkey. No coffee. Instead, I’ll rely on oxygen, on breathing, on little and large lungfuls of air, to stimulate me. And to make it easier, I’ll have a specific breath-set that I fall back upon. This is, technically, a part of the Wim Hof method that I found online—a program that eases a person into Wim Hof’s teachings and incorporates cold exposure and exercise alongside breath manipulation—but it’ll work just as well on its own. First, I’ll get comfortable—I have a meditation mat and I’ll either sit in seiza or in the Burmese position. No lotuses around here. Then I’ll breathe as follows:

1) Thirty to forty quick, sharp and strong inhales and exhales.
2) A long and deep inhalation which is then held for ten to fifteen seconds.
3) A long and slow exhalation, which after completion is held for ten to fifteen seconds.
4) Repeat a total of three or four times.

In quickhand: Power-Inhale-Exhale.

That’ll be my alternative. That’ll be the thing that banishes grogginess and promotes awareness. That’ll be the thing which will allow me to survive a life without coffee.


Solutions to the problem of life

I know. I have a tendency to write and think about relatively bleak subject matter. So I want to change tack today and begin with something light and frothy, a simple if-this-then-that statement. Here it is: If it is true that, as the Buddha says, life is suffering, then having a child is one of the most inhumane things a person can do.

Logically, that statement seems to be consistent. But in reality, do I agree with it? The latter half, perhaps; the former, definitely. Life is suffering—it looks something like this for most people…

life graph

A few peaks and troughs sandwiched between a sometimes painful but mostly bearable monotony. The presence of suffering (acute and chronic) is, for me, not really the problem—it’s what to do about it. But I think I’m converging on an answer.


Bryan Kam, in a helpful review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, says:

“Peterson claims that “What you aim at determines what you see,” and this is true. He argues that not only goals but also tools become extensions to the self, and lenses through which one views the world (his views on tools are, as far as I can tell, straight from Heidegger). Yet he came to his own search for meaning first by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, and later by a thorough investigation into the suffering in the Soviet Gulags and the Nazi concentration camps, later throwing a few school shootings into the mix (he has a preoccupation with Columbine). It is not that these topics should be excluded from one’s knowledge; education on these topics is certainly critical to preventing their occurrence in the future, and it is almost a moral obligation to learn about them. However this is hardly the place to start a search for meaning, much less to form one’s worldview or to find a set of rules by which to live one’s life. He tries to ground his philosophy in the reduction of suffering, and he is right that suffering teaches important lessons. Most of the world religions made this point two and a half thousand years ago. But his emphasis on suffering shows a rather fatalistic lack of hope for its amelioration. Buddhism’s first claim, as Peterson points out, is that life is suffering, but he totally ignores the fact that the three remaining Noble Truths are about how to understand suffering and how to end it. Peterson seems to stop at “Life is suffering, so let’s maybe try not to increase it,” which is not a particularly helpful position.”

Upon reading that, I saw myself. See, for the past few months, I’ve fixated on the first of the “Noble Truths” and neglected to continue on. Which is silly, because, as Bryan Kam says, the full set of Noble Truths are a playbook for dealing with suffering, a potential solution to the problem of life. They state that, first, life is suffering, second, that suffering comes from desire and aversion, third, that the cessation of suffering comes with the relinquishing of desire and fear, and fourth, that there is a definite path that all can walk to end suffering, should they so choose.

That’s all well and good, and if you wish to learn more about the Truths and the path laid out by them, there are countless tomes that discuss its ins-and-outs. That’s not what I wish to do here. I want to take another look at the responses to suffering.


My understanding of the response to suffering is dependent on four concepts.

First, the idea of difference-in-kind versus difference-in-degree. We cannot change life into something which is completely void of suffering. We can only modulate the degree of suffering for ourselves and others.

Second, consider this table from Venkatesh Rao’s Unflattening Hobbes.


Don’t worry about the contents, just note the groups down the axis: individual, pack, troop, tribe, and imagined community.

Third, immediacy of returns. Suffering can be alleviated immediately, in the present, or it can be mitigated in the future, further down the line, often at the expense of suffering in the present.

Fourth, there is a difference between the floor and the ceiling of suffering. The floor of suffering is the absolute worst case scenario—people without basic human needs like shelter, food, water and security, for example. The ceiling of suffering is the absolute best case—the state of life of those who have every advantage. Between the two is the average suffering the average human is subjected to.

These four concepts, taken together, lay out a few possible options for responding to the suffering inherent in life. I could choose to focus my actions on alleviating suffering for myself as an individual in the present. I could choose to focus my efforts on alleviating suffering for society as a whole sometime in the future by contributing to research efforts on green energy production. I could concentrate on alleviating suffering for my family by developing skills and building a career. I could commit myself to the effort to bring utilities that are considered an indisputable right in the West to the citizens of the world’s poorest countries. These are just a few of the options available.

Whatever you or I choose, know this: the reality of suffering is irrefutable—it makes up most of life and it is not going away anytime soon. But it doesn’t have to be a cause for despair; it can be a catalyst for action. Select the size of the group you want to affect, select the immediacy of expected returns, think about whether it raises the floor or the ceiling and if that is what you want to focus on, and get to work.

Outer mirrors inner

In the first of the Lord of the Rings film, Lady Galadriel says to Frodo that, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Similarly, Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Now, consider these two quotes and compare them to the following from Energy: A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil:

“A key thing to note is that kinetic energy depends on the square of the object’s velocity: doubling the speed imparts four times more energy, tripling it nine times more – and hence at high speed, even small objects can become very dangerous. Tornado winds, in excess of 80 metres per second (nearly 290km/h) can drive featherweight pieces of straw into tree trunks; tiny space debris (a lost bolt) travelling at 8,000m/s could pierce the pressurised suit of a space-walking astronaut, and (although the risk has turned out to be very small indeed) a space vehicle can be damaged by a micrometeoroid travelling at 60,000m/s.”

Why are the above presented together? Well.

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a lecture describing “the two cultures”, the splitting of intellectual activity into camps of the sciences and the humanities. He proposed that the split was harmful for progress in both arenas. Some agreed, some disagreed, and many debated the concept. I don’t care much about that disagreement, though. What I care about is that the humanities and the sciences appear to mirror one another. The inner truths of the former are reflected in the outer truths of the latter.

Smil implies that, in terms of capacity to cause damage, size is irrelevant if velocity is sufficiently extreme; Mead said that a few can change the world for the many. This is just one example of the convergence of the outer laws of the universe and the inner condition of humanity. Are there others? Yes.

Here’s one. The four laws of thermodynamics can be stated as follows:

– Zeroth law: If two thermodynamic systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third one, then they are in thermal equilibrium with no one.
– First law: Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.
– Second law: The entropy of any isolated system always increases.
– Third law: The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.

I’d be lying if I said I understood the above entirely. But I do understand the following from Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo. In a section called “Death by Entropy” he writes:

“Narrative-rational decision makers are mortal agents who have a fixed capacity for absorbing open-world information and battling entropy, before they succumb. They exhibit entropic aging. They climb the Freytag staircase and die. This idea of mortality of course, is philosophical rather than literal. I like to refer to this philosophy as thermodynamic theology.

You do not need to understand the laws of thermodynamics at a technical level to appreciate the core tenets of thermodynamic theology. For our needs, this irreverent (and surprisingly accurate) folk version of the laws is actually more appropriate. The three laws of thermodynamics are:

1. You cannot win.
2. You cannot break even.
3. You cannot quit the game.

Some add a zeroth law: you must play the game. There is no point in lamenting, like Kurt Vonnegut, “I didn’t ask to be born.” The calculative-rational rule of thumb offered by Stephen Covey, “win-win or no deal”, does not apply to life. You cannot opt out except through suicide.

Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman proposed a fourth law that can be stated as the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.

The physical laws of thermodynamics have a theological equivalent; outer mirrors inner.

Another: Isaac Newton’s Third Law of classical mechanics states that for “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Does that not sound like the concept of “karma”? Another: an example of the principle of least action is that, in the words of Fermat, “light travels between two given points along the path of shortest time.” Humans, as well as light, also have a tendency to traverse two points using the shortest and easiest possible route. Another: the law of gravity is inexorable, and thus our bodies have evolved a capacity to function whilst directly opposing it. Is it not also true that we form ourselves in the negatives of our deepest fears? Those who most fear imprisonment are those who most energetically pursue independence. Those who most fear isolation and aloneness are those who exert the most effort to belong.

There are many, many more connections between laws of the physical universe and the condition of humanity that can be made. I won’t provide any more. But I will make this observation: progress in the outer realm can be unlocked in the inner realm, and vice versa.

For example, I’m no physicist. I’m mostly interested in practical philosophy, in the reality of the human condition and what we can do with it and about it. But perhaps I can gain more insight by an exploration of physics or chemistry or biology? Similarly, if I were a researcher in the hard sciences, perhaps I could unlock the next few steps along my path by absenting myself from my discipline and considering the nature of religion and belief?

I’ve talked before about the virtues of walking many paths at once. B.H. Liddell Hart said, in his biography of William Sherman:

“To the irresistibility of this progress Sherman’s flexibility contributed as much as his variability of direction. Moving on a wide and irregular front—with four, five or six columns, each covered by a cloud of foragers—if one was blocked, others would be pushing on.”

The same can be applied to the sciences and the humanities:

two cultures progress

There are immutable laws concerning the universe, just as there are immutable laws concerning human nature. The two are connected and we can use that link to leapfrog our way towards a greater understanding of our inner and outer world.