An implacable enemy

At the height of its power, before it was compelled by an antitrust suit brought against it by the US government to dissolve into multiple separate organisations, John D. Rockefeller’s and Henry Flagler’s Standard Oil was caricatured as “The Octopus”. Why? Because it’s influence was pervasive—it was an integrated oil corporation that spanned the globe, and more importantly, not all of its members were known. It was hard to tell who was being grasped by one of the Octopus’s tentacles and who wasn’t. Nowadays, the equivalent of the Octopus of Standard Oil is probably the “Fat Cats” of the financial industry.

For example, investigative journalist Roberto Saviano considers London to be the global centre of illicit finance. The place where dirty money is made clean:

“If I asked what is the most corrupt place on Earth, you might say it’s Afghanistan, maybe Greece, Nigeria, the south of Italy. I would say it is the UK. It’s not UK bureaucracy, police, or politics, but what is corrupt is the financial capital. Ninety per cent of the owners of capital in London have their headquarters offshore.”

Saviano elaborates:

… Saviano said that there was a hidden danger of voting to leave the European Union that was little discussed. He said if the UK left the EU, it would undermine joint attempts to fight illegal economies.

‘Leaving the EU means allowing the Qatari societies, the Mexican cartels, the Russia Mafia to gain even more power,’ he said, highlighting the fact HSBC had paid $1.9bn in fines to the US government for financial irregularities in dealing with money that had come from cartels.

He added: ‘We have proof, we have evidence. Today, the criminal economy is bigger than the legal economy. Drug trafficking eclipses the revenue of oil firms. Cocaine is a £300bn-a-year business. Criminal capitalism is capitalism without rules. Mafia and organised crime does not abide by the rule of law – and most financial companies who reside offshore are exactly the same.’

So, it’s known—but in most cases cannot be proved—that Russian oligarches, Saudi princes, and Mexican drug lords all filter their money through the mechanisms of London’s financial district. But the rabbit hole is deeper. Not only is dirty money made clean, the newly clean money is also used to soil mechanisms of governance and keep the captains of Saviano’s “capitalism without rules” out of the fetters they so truly deserve.


I recently became aware of the work of Nicholas Wilson, also known as “Mr Ethical”. It would not be unfair to say that he is engaged in a fight against a seemingly implacable enemy. Consider some of the dirt he has dug up involving one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, in regards to the pattern of their employment.


Why would HSBC entice former public officials to leave their posts and work for them? Perhaps to ensure that nobody shines too bright a light on the relationships and mechanisms that HSBC deploys to keep itself and its clients out of trouble?

It’s a distortion of Nassim Taleb’s notion of “skin in the game”—they put their skin in other’s game. By purchasing privileged insight and preferential treatment through the employment of—or, in other cases, “contact with”—former public officials, and by creating weak ties between these officials and the bank, HSBC also offers the implicit threat of, “If we go down, you do too.” Here’s an example of how this plays out.

Consider the strange case of Lisa Osofsky. She was employed to monitor HSBC’s adherence to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement relating to a billion dollar money laundering case. In October 2017 Lisa and her husband, Marc Wassermann—who also has ties to the bank—took out a multi-million pound mortgage with HSBC. in December 2017 the bank was given a “clean bill of health”. In August 2018 Lisa began work as the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, which is “a specialist prosecuting authority tackling the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption.”

I won’t go much further into this. At least not right now—there are others who do it way better than I can. Like Nicholas Wilson. Polite warning, though: once you see all this, it’s hard to stop looking. But learning about it does have me thinking about how exactly one confronts such an immense entity.


The treasure trove that is TV Tropes contains a few ways to classify villains. One is using the notion of character tiers (going from bottom tier to God tier). Another is using the sliding scale of villain threat, which goes from “local” threat (“The villain poses significant harm to a single person or small group of persons or a localised area”) to “omniversal” threat: “…these villains will not stop at a single Multiverse, but they will cross all of reality to take over or simply destroy the totality of The ‘Verse/Series Franchise (if said totality exists beyond a Multiverse), taking control over or obliterating all alternate dimensions, planes of existence, parallel universes, possible universes, timelines, alternate continuities, realities, and Multiverses within said totality.” But my favourite is Super Weight, which has a classification which goes from “Fragile Weight” and “Muggle Weight” to “Cosmic Weight” and “Author Weight”. The definition of an “Author Weight” character is as follows:

“Characters in this weight class are absolutely Omnipotent and likely Omniscient. They are capable of exerting their will on all of reality and the entire universe (or even the totality of the multiverse) or even the plot itself without exception. Destiny/Fate is their play-thing. They cannot be killed/destroyed by any means. Any limits they have are self-imposed. While this weight is almost always reserved for God, the Author, and the Game Master, characters can be written for at this level. Just don’t expect it to be a normal story. As a result, a character at this level is fairly rare.”

I’m more concerned with the low-end of the scale. What can a “muggle weight” playable character do against a “National Threat” that can “destroy a country or take it over and turn it into a Crapsack World”?

big bad inc

Not a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Russia or the Third Reich. I don’t believe there is much one can do, alone. As I’ve said before, when you’re up against the power of the state resistance isn’t futile, but it’s not far off. No, I’m more concerned with how an individual can go up against a powerful institution or entity within the confines of a democratic state—the oil industry, the military-industrial complex, an international bank.


On Twitter I follow an account called Tabletop Scenarios. They posit situations like, “The secondary keyboard installed on your mobile device has been sending keystrokes home.” Well, here’s my tabletop scenario:

“You have discovered evidence of corruption on a mass scale. An international financial institution is using its wealth to subvert international, national and regional regulations, and worse, it is dangling the carrot of lucrative future employment to officials in high places to ensure that itself and its clients remain free from public and private scrutiny.

You have followed standard protocols, made the right advances down the right avenues, and still you’ve heard nothing. What do you do to raise awareness and bring about action and change?”


Before you can thrive, you must survive. This applies to business, to sport, to academia, and most definitely to the fight against an implacable, mid-level enemy. As Sun Tzu put it two thousand years ago: “In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponent.” So how does one go about making themselves “invincible”?

The first thing to do is to create an audience. Even an audience composed of a few people is enough to change the game. Spectators compel the antagonist to act with some measure of honour and decency—more than they would if left to engage behind closed doors. And a public figure, either major, minor, or minuscule, is one who cannot simply be removed from the confines of the game or eliminated (although there are exceptions—see Jamal Khashoggi, Meng Hongwei, and the many journalists killed whilst reporting and investigating the Mexican drug cartels).

Once the seeds of an audience have been planted, the next step is to assess your attack surface, specifically how vulnerable you are in terms of economics. Here the keywords are “debt”, “downside” and “dependencies”, each of which result in a definite risk to your campaign. If the total of these three things is substantial then all your opponent has to do to put you out of the game is put the brakes on your cash flow. What campaigner will pursue the fight if his wife and children are starving and homeless? Which brings me to the next step.

Determine your redundancies and your reputational fragility. Your redundancies are, essentially, the resources that would allow you to maintain a bare minimum living standard in the absence of income. If you have no cash savings, live in London and have no friends who will let you sleep on their sofa, you are more vulnerable than someone with a few months worth of cash in the bank, a paid off mortgage in a small, remote town and a strong supportive social network. Similarly, if your income is strongly dependent upon your reputation—perhaps you’re a politician or a lawyer—then you are particularly vulnerable to the simple smear campaign, the putting about of sultry and unsubstantiated rumours and allegations. If your income is dependent upon your rep being squeaky clean, then the obvious thing for an adversary to do is throw a little dirt on the canvas. It doesn’t really matter if the accusations and insinuations are true. What matters is that they sow the seeds of doubt, the seeds that can be the difference between “You’re hired” and “We’ve decided to go with another provider for now.”

Of course, there is a defense to this last—do nothing indefensible. A smear campaign can be endured if you are secure in the knowledge of your own good and have independent means. But bear in mind, “indefensible” does not mean an act that cannot be interpreted in a dark light. It means do nothing that you wold not be willing to stand up in a public forum and defend.

The final piece to the puzzle of the defense is, quite simply, documentation. Every interaction, every shred of evidence, every question, every response—save it all in multiple places.


Build an audience; assess debt, dependencies and downside; determine redundancies and reputational fragility; do nothing indefensible; become a documentarian of your cause. That pretty much handles the aspect of defense when confronting an immense enemy. Now, let’s consider the hybrid, kinda-attack-kinda-defense strategies, of which there are two.

The first concerns the ideas of optionality, slack and serendipity. As someone building a case, you need these things. Optionality and slack—usually in the form of unallocated time, money, energy and attention—allow you to pursue and exploit opportunities that arise due to serendipity. For example, let’s say that you’ve gone public and consistently talk about your cause and share your ongoing findings online. Doing so might net you a reader who is in close proximity to your struggle, someone who knows something you’re not in a position to ever find out. Unfortunately, this person may feel uncomfortable sharing his knowledge in any other format except face-to-face. With no optionality or slack in your system, it is hard to jump on this opportunity. But with a base level of stringently unallocated resources, such opportunities will occur more and yield a higher rate of return. It becomes possible to give up a day or two in pursuit of a long shot, or follow the trail for an improbable payoff of evidence.

The second hybrid strategy concerns narratives. The aim is, essentially, to narrativise your cause or fight so that it becomes easily comprehensible to an impartial observer, and thus make it more likely that they will pledge their direct or indirect support. Telling someone, “I’m campaigning against Bank A’s legal but immoral manipulation of regulation that is designed to maintain an impermeable barrier between the public and private sector” has less effect than, “Bank A is attempting to manipulate our system of democracy for extreme profits; I’m fighting back.” The former barely registers; the latter shoots right into the brain and pegs you as an individual engaged in a noble fight against a titanic enemy.


You may not think it, but this is the hardest part of the game. It’s possible to survive for a long, long time. What is harder, and almost unheard of, is to win. But what does it even mean to “win”? Say you’re fighting a corrupt system. Is it winning to see the system itself and everyone associated with it crash and burn? Is it winning to see the system persist but the people punished? Is it winning to enhance the symmetry of the people involved—should those who reap massive profit also be liable for massive punishment? The question that needs to be asked is this: Are you trying to win the game, bring in new players, or change the rules?

With that out of the way, we can turn to offensive strategies.


The simplest offensive strategies are the mirror of those strategies your adversary uses against you. They consist of the undermining of foundations, the sowing of doubt and discord, the public examinations of damning evidence, the asking of awkward questions, the pursuit of prosecution and change using typical institutional means alongside a barrage of guerrilla marketing and individual warfare. However.

The odds are stacked in their favour. You may have right on your side, but right doesn’t always equate to might. As much as we like to deny it, self-interest and power—in the form of money and connections—run rampant over morality. Add to this the fact that, alongside might, your opponent can unleash immense complexity to slow you down. An example of this comes in the form of shell companies.

Big money leaves a trail. There’s no really inconspicuous way to move it. So the next best thing is to camouflage its motion behind a series of complex legal manoeuvres and border crossings, to make the resources required to trace it accurately and definitively so immense that following the trail to its end is just too costly. (For more on this type of tomfoolery, see James Junius’ Russian Dolls and reports about the Panama Papers.)


When I began this post, I had a vision in mind: a mini-playbook that individuals can use to take down or combat nefarious collectives. It hasn’t turned out that way, mainly because as I’ve thought about going on the attack I’ve realised that the search for and exploitation of vulnerabilities is so difficult. As I said above, the probable result of engagement with a morally questionable but definitely powerful adversary is a whole lot of pain and not a lot of change. It’s no wonder that whistleblowers run out of breath. The whole system is set to bring about the exhaustion of their resources. And a long time before that happens, exasperation sets in. A noble fight is easy, especially when audiences applaud you. But when nobody seems to care? When you slave away and see no recompense, and worse, no progress? In such a situation it’s easy to ask yourself, “Why do I bother?”

You’re fighting a system which is a consequence of human nature. Greed is in our genetic code. As soon as one system which gives it expression is stamped out, another steps in to fill the void. So it was, so it is, and so it will continue to be. Which, again, raises the question: Why bother? Why fight when you can’t win—or not indefinitely, at least? In answer, I turn to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to David Rowe’s The Proverbs of Middle-Earth, which says:

“…to act with hope and nobility however dark the future may appear. This is encapsulated when he and Gimli recount their journey with Aragorn. Having braved the Paths of the Dead, galloped through southern Gondor to Pelagir, and raced up the river in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle outside Minas Tirith, they still know that if Frodo should fail, all their efforts would be in vain. Was all their effort therefore a waste? Legolas says no, on the basis that results neither define nor denigrate virtue.

Follow what may, great deeds are not lessened in worth,’ said Legolas. ‘Great deed was the riding of the Paths of the Dead, and great it shall remain, though none be left in Gondor to sing of it in the days that are to come.’ “

This timeline may be one without Elves, Dwarves, or other magic creatures, but it is still one filled with doers of heroic deeds. Investigative journalists, campaigners, activists, whistleblowers—they fight not because their victory is likely or permanent, but because it is the right thing to do. For that, I am thankful, and by that, I am inspired. And while it may not help them pay their rent, or serve as the capstone in their prosecution case, I feel that it is worth saying to them while I have the chance, thank you.

Antidotes to depression

I’m reluctant to play the game of self-diagnosis but I’m pretty sure I don’t have bipolar disorder (which involves rapid fluctuation between periods of severe depression and periods of great energy). However. I can relate to such see-sawing between extremes. In the morning I’ll be having dark thoughts about life and death and meaning, then in the afternoon I’ll be whooping and hollering and rolling around on the floor with the puppy, laughing like a madman while she tries to lick my face off.

As I said, the intensity and duration of these swings isn’t on the scale of bipolar, but it is significant enough, and consistent enough, to have forced me to evolve a go-to response. Amongst the collection of documents that I use to manage my life I have one containing daily, weekly and monthly processes, and one of those processes is my “recalibration” protocol. It’s a self-righting mechanism for when anxiety or depression has me in its teeth and is ragging me like a chew toy. Specifically, it directs me to do one of two things:

Breathe or move.

Now, the reason I’m thinking (and writing) about this is because I saw the following from Ido Portal on his Instagram:

“I was asked by a professor of psychiatry once if I ever experienced depression. I answered ‘not to the best of my knowledge/experience’.
He replied simply: ‘of course not. You move too much….’ I tell all people I meet but especially those battling depression, loss of meaning and similar states: MORE NON-VERBAL EXPERIENCES DAILY is what the doc prescribes and movement is the best medium.”

The above got me thinking about the nature of depression and anxiety, and consequently, their respective antidotes. (An aside: depression, anxiety and other “negative” states are an integral part of existence. That they are present and experienced is not the problem. The problem is when they make up a disproportionate part of day-to-day life. A diet that relies only on one macro-nutrient and no micro-nutrients isn’t healthy; neither is a life filled only with depression and anxiety.) Ido Portal and others recommend movement as a response to a depressive state; my study of mindfulness indicates that the breathe is an equally potent defense. But why? Let’s take a look.


It’s been posited that many mental health disorders, like depression, are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. So, supposedly the solution is to correct those imbalances, either via medical treatment or lifestyle adaptation. If we imagine the body’s total chemical and hormonal system as one big soup then we can position movement as an activity that flushes and renews it.

In actuality, it ain’t that simple. The mechanisms at play are more complex than we first thought and we understand them less than we would like to. But, as anyone who’s just completed an intense bout of physical activity will tell you, movement does modify mood, and usually in a positive manner. Sometimes before a Brazilian jiu-jitsu session I feel un-energised, tired, lazy. After, I feel strong, I feel good, I feel happy. Similarly, if I’m feeling blocked when I write I can take a walk and come back to work revitalised.

This is because physical activity transforms your physical state. It impacts cortisol levels, the circulation of insulin, glucose usage, it releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters, it increases brain activity, and it takes the edge off of mind wandering and rumination—it’s hard to think about all the shit at work when you’re chucking a twenty-plus kilo kettlebell around or trying to deadlift double your bodyweight. And in regards the dark thoughts associated with depression and anxiety? Simple. It yanks your mind off of them. It lifts you out of the reinforcing loop of destructive thoughts and loss of vitality. Which is the opposite approach to mindfulness.


Movement’s antidote is concerned with distraction. Mindfulness’s antidote is concerned with acceptance. For example, one of the core practises in most forms of meditation is the act of non-judgemental noticing. It is sitting, consciously noticing the feelings that arise and refraining from judging them—either positively or negatively. Neither grasping at the type of thoughts you want to have and holding onto them, nor pushing away the thoughts you don’t want to have.

If a person does this enough, so the idea goes, then it becomes possible to separate the thoughts you have from the person you are. Or, more eloquently, to realise that You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are transient. Stay with them long enough, watch them closely, and you will see them be born, grow, fade and adapt.

How exactly does this relate to riding out depressive episodes? One way to think of it is that depressive episodes are existential threats. And like most threats, you can either bend to them or call their bluff. But here’s the rub. Depressive thoughts often aren’t the Mafiosi they seem to be. They are normal fears and typical worries hugely amplified by our own internal mechanisms. And to see that all you have to do is sit with them.

Next time you feel anxious, worried, depressed, or in any other “negative” state, stop what you’re doing. Cease everything and go sit down somewhere quiet and comfortable, preferably in a semi-active posture—meaning, sit upright and attentively, don’t slouch. Once sat, close your eyes and breathe in. And breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. As you do this your mind will wander, and that’s okay. Just bring your awareness back to the the breath.

If you do this for ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, you’ll come down from DEFCON1 back to DEFCON 5. You’ll see that the dark shadows were concealing only minutiae, not monsters.


Movement mitigates depression by destroying our focus on the negative aspects of existence. Mindfulness mitigates depression by enhancing our focus on the negative aspects of existence, thus revealing them as transient and not as omnipotent as we first thought. The simplest way to encode this into your brain and remember it forevermore is via the use of a simple diagram. Consider:

the danger zone

Chronic, low-level activity of the physical and psychological systems simultaneously is the prime breeding ground for the bacteria of depression and anxiety. In contrast, alternating between acute episodes of high activity gives such bacteria little chance of staying put. Our powers of contemplation and attention, when turned all the way up to eleven, dissolve depression and break its insidious and reinforcing cycle; the various mechanisms of our body, when fully engaged in a task requiring immense co-operation and effort, shunt all resources down the necessary channels and leave little room for rumination.

It may not work for everyone. But for me, depressive episodes require a recalibration. And to recalibrate what I need to do is move or breathe.

The decline of Western posture

My partner’s job involves hours looking down a microscope. Thus, her management is hot on ergonomic setups that enable such sustained work. The microscope, the desk, the chair, the computer monitor; all of it has to be just right.

The company I work for has a health and safety officer and an external occupational health assessor that visits regularly. So when you walk through the offices you see raised computer screens, lumbar supports, footrests and wrist-pads added onto keyboards.

When I used to do personal training I worked with the director of a non-profit who experienced regular back and neck pain. He gave the company an ultimatum: shell out several hundred quid for a decent chair or have a director who is absent from work due to chronic injury.

A friend of mine is a strength and conditioning coach. Last year, he brought a new mattress. Four figure expenditure—and, he said, the best money he’s ever spent. Bruce Sterling advised a similar strategy in a talk he gave a while back:

“Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening.

Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects.

Number one, a bed. You’re spending a third of your life in the thing. You never take it seriously. Rich people have great beds. You should go out and get the best bed you can get. Money is no object. On a per hour rental basis, beds, super important. The sheets, the pillows, pretty high up there too.

Every morning when you wake up you will thank me for this.

I know you’re resisting it. It’s like: “Why? Why am I buying a fancy bed? It’s bad for me, I’m being taken outside of my comfort zone.”

You live in the thing! Get rid of the wedding china! Get rid of the tuxedos! The exercise equipment you never use! The things you never touch! The heaps of things, the heaps of material objects in your closet and, God help you, your storage locker. Sell them all, buy a bed. Get a real bed.

Get a chair.

I shouldn’t have to tell people who work with computers to get a chair. No, they’d rather whine about their wrists blowing out, their spines blowing out. They wouldn’t come up with a chair that would cost them maybe fifteen cents an hour over the first amortizable period. The world is full of beautifully designed ergonomic chairs. Get a real damn chair!

Sell the other chairs, the fancy chairs, the couch, the over-stuffed thing, your grandmother’s chair. Get rid of your grandmother’s chair, it was never properly built to begin with.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it, if you don’t use it! If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it immediately. Sell it, buy real things you really use.

Now, you’re going to have a lot fewer things, but the actual quality of your life will skyrocket! If you have real shoes. Real underwear. Women, if you use actual cosmetics instead of shoplifting cheap cosmetics, because you’re deeply conflicted about your impulses. Go ahead, it’s on your lips, it’s on your eyelids, get real cosmetics.”

Myself? I’m currently sitting in an Ikea chair (with lumbar support), looking at a screen elevated to match my eyeline, typing on a bluetooth keyboard, opening and closing windows with a vertical mouse. I’m a sucker for ergonomics too, it seems.

But a hundred years ago, “ergonomics” wasn’t even a thing—it came about in the 1950s, I believe. Now it is central to workplace and workspace design—the entirety of our everyday life, in fact. Just how central is illustrated when you consider the average day for the average modern person:

Wake up in bed to a chirping alarm clock. Silence it. Swing legs out of the nest of warmth and onto the carpet. Head to the en-suite bathroom—do the business. Then, don slippers and a dressing gown, go out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen. Put bread in the toaster and pull out a plate from the cupboard and butter from the fridge. Butter the toast and amble, zombie like, to the dining table and take a seat. Eat. Rise and go back upstairs. Shed slippers and dressing gown. Locate outfit for work. Dress. Back downstairs. Grab keys, phone, coat and maybe a banana. Lock the door, unlock the car, and commence the drive to work. Arrive at work and step out the car. Lock it. Head indoors, up in the elevator and dump bag and coat at desk. Head off in search of coffee. Ritual morning small talk with colleagues. Back to desk. Power up computer, begin work. Coffee break. More work. Lunch time. Down in the elevator, outside and to the deli down the road. Sit on a park bench and scoff sandwich. Lunchtime is over. Back inside, up the elevator, to desk. More work. Another break. More work. Home time. Power down. Outside, into car, drive home. Unlock front door, ditch coat and bag. Head upstairs and get changed into gym gear. Back out the door, into the car and down the road. Arrive at gym, go inside and do thirty minutes on the bike and thirty minutes of half-hearted dumbbell exercises. Exercise done. Back home. Shower, slob clothes on, sit on the sofa and watch TV. Maybe a beer with the curry. Back upstairs, set the alarm clock, climb into bed. Sleep.

Question: how many times in that imaginary day did our person undertake an activity that required he go below knee level and above head height? No more than a few times, if we’re being generous. Which is the problem. Modernity is engineered to take place at a narrow and uniform level. Beds; chairs; cars; desks; computers; stairs; handles. It’s all at the most convenient of heights.

extremes and uniformity

Another take: did you know that a high percentage of injuries as people age result from falls? More anecdotally, did you know that most people, as they age, find it difficult to get down on the ground and get back up again, and they find it hard to function for a long time doing tasks involving overhead activity? It’s got something (but not much) to do with the biological degradation of various bodily tissues; it’s cultural. In the West, we have spurned both earth and sky. And as a consequence we’ve given up our postural self-reliance.


I’m a novice when it comes to vipassana, but one thing I do understand is that when the posture of the body is properly aligned we can sit for hours in a state of mental awareness with no external support. The structure of our hips, spine and upper body are enough to support such prolonged sitting. They are, after all, an efficient anatomical load-bearing structure that has evolved over millions of years. But get the average person to try and sit for an hour on the floor with no support, and what happens? Aches, pains, discomfort. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test: sit on the floor, both legs together and straightened out in front of you, for as long as possible. Illustrated:

sit test result solution

We need chairs to sustain a good posture; we need devices that keep everything at the perfect level; we need four-figure mattresses to support us while we sleep; we need high-tech shoes, tailored insoles and visits to a chiropodist to be able to walk without pain upon the artificially smooth pathways that blanket our villages, towns and cities. Isn’t that absurd? But fortunately it doesn’t have to stay that way.


We can counteract the inevitable decline of western posture by taking an Eastern approach. If you google, “traditional Japanese home”, what you will see is nearly-bare rooms outfitted with tatami mats. That’s because traditional Japanese culture is floor-based, with many customs and rituals associated heavily with the ground. For example:

– The Japanese tea ceremony.
– The practice of zazen.
– The use of futons and chabudais in everyday life.
– The art of jujitsu.

All take place on, or make strong use of, the ground. But the ground is only one part of the equation.

Consider humanity’s transition from a wild environment, to what I term a “natural” environment (one that is mostly suited to our physiological structures), to a modern environment. A wild environment contains unbounded variation in landscape and a vast range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a natural environment contains moderately bounded variations in landscape a mild range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a modern environment contains extremely bounded variations and a minimal range of capacities in order to live amongst it. Or, to phrase it more succinctly, the difference between the wild, the natural and the modern is akin to the difference between a raging river, a coastal area complete with life- and coastguards, and an indoor swimming pool.

So, in order to reverse the decline I suggest that we try to expand the range of postures we utilise in everyday life, that we get back to the wild. A typical modern life involves uniform heights and postures, by design. But we can fight back. We can make an effort to sit on the floor. We can make an effort to squat, kneel, crawl, roll and lie, all for random periods. We can incorporate passive and active hanging each day, and get back to our ape-ish heritage. We can forego an increasing dependence on ergonomics and instead invest in the effort to regain postural self-reliance.

Or consider it another way. Most will agree that the tyranny of political correctness is bad for the human mind and society’s soul. But there’s another “PC” which could be just as damaging—postural correctness, the determination of modern life to limit the breadth and depth of physiological states that we can exist in.

Black box reality

Would you be so kind as to undertake a little basic math? Take the idea of a “black box”, “a device, system or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs . . . without any knowledge of its internal workings”, and combine it with the concept of a “fractal”, a structure whose dimensions replicate upwards and downward in scale. What do you get? One answer is what Venkatesh Rao calls “the unreasonable depth of reality”:

“Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.

It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.

And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”

So, perhaps it’s not so much turtles all the way down (and up) as black boxes all the way from the quantum to the cosmic?

Now, you may be wondering what consequences this black-box-reality has for you, or me, or anyone else. Well, simply put, it affects the very essence of how we live. Enter the Father of Fractals, Benoit B. Mandelbroit:

“…consider two ways of looking at the world: as a Garden of Eden or as a black box.
The first is cause-and-effect, or deterministic. Here, every particle, leaf, and creature is in its appointed place, and, if only we had the vast knowledge of God, everything could be understood and predicted.

…How realistic is that? We cannot know everything. Physicists abandoned that pipedream during the twentieth century after quantum theory and, in a different way, after chaos theory. Instead, they learned to think of the world in the second way, as a black box. We can see what goes into the box and what comes out of it, but not what happens inside; we can only draw inferences about the odds of input A producing output Z. Seeing nature through the lens of probability theory is what mathematicians call the stochastic view.”

Seeing the world as a black box means abandoning the godly tools of cause and effect for the very human tools of trial and error. It requires the abandonment of the pursuit of omnipotence and the assumption of aggressive tinkering. Easy to say, harder to do. Especially when the human mind is primed to weave deterministic narratives from the threads of existence.

Yet, this tendency towards narrative creation is just one pitfall in the trial-and-error approach to life. The other, our inability to design sound reality experiments, is just as, if not more, harmful.

Above, Mandelbrot describes a black box which transfigures input A into output Z. Reality ain’t so simple. Typically we’re forced to interact with multiple black boxes at once, all being fed a large number of inputs at the same time and all kicking out a large number of outputs. Consider a typical social situation, a party.

At a party you have multiple people, all with their own black boxes—specifically, a brain and a mind and all the accompanying intentions, expectations, traits, desires and fears. As well as that, there is the relationships between each and every person, there is the influence of the environment the party takes place in—the music, the food, the drink, the spatial layout of the room or building, the weather—and there is the absolute total of their individual and collective history.

Look closely and a simple social gathering becomes an immense collection of black boxes processing input and producing outputs in ways that we can’t at all fathom.

To further deepen the fog of FUD just created, consider this extract which is pulled from the Wikipedia page for “design of experiments”:

“In its simplest form, an experiment aims at predicting the outcome by introducing a change of the preconditions, which is represented by one or more independent variables, also referred to as “input variables” or “predictor variables.” The change in one or more independent variables is generally hypothesized to result in a change in one or more dependent variables, also referred to as “output variables” or “response variables.” The experimental design may also identify control variables that must be held constant to prevent external factors from affecting the results. Experimental design involves not only the selection of suitable independent, dependent, and control variables, but planning the delivery of the experiment under statistically optimal conditions given the constraints of available resources.”

Does the creation of a sound experiment appear conceivable in any real-life situation? What is the use of abandoning cause-and-effect for trial-and-error if it is beyond our capacity to even create a trial from which we can accurately derive error?

The obvious retort to all this is the observation that, despite our un-knowledge, we still make it through such situations. People interact with other people all the time. We seamlessly slip from home environment to workplace to social situation, day in and day out. We make mistakes and we go on—sometimes—to correct them. We act and reflect and after enough cycles we adapt in a way that seems to work.

That I do not dispute. No, what I take issue with is the idea that we can grasp reality with anything resembling certainty. It’s understood that science, as a whole, is a process of falsification and what is considered as scientific knowledge is simply what we know to be least wrong right now. But that often fails to filter down to the level of the individual. Even the person who asserts that he knows nothing is still confident of knowing that.

This seems like epistemological nihilism. It isn’t, really. It is more a confession that my faith in humanity’s ability to know what it knows has been severely shaken in the last few years. And with our transition into a society whose complexity is in danger of surpassing the power of our individual and collective intellect, I can’t see that faith being rebuilt.

Deep fatigue

A quick search tells me that “fatigue” is a “subjective feeling of tiredness” and that, unlike “weakness”, it can be remedied by periods of rest and recovery. I’m also told that fatigue can be both physical and mental. What I am not told, however, is that there is a difference between deep and shallow fatigue.

Shallow fatigue is a linear state: its alleviation requires a stimulus equivalent to the one that created it. For example, a poor night’s sleep can impair the functioning of the central nervous system. You’ll know this if you ever meet me after I’ve worked a night shift and am attempting to reset my body clock by staying awake until the following night. It’s common for me to drop things, be unable to hold a conversation, and generally show an inability to do anything requiring fine motor control. But after a long night’s sleep I’m okay. In contrast, deep fatigue of the CNS requires more than a good night’s sleep to undo. A month of sleeplessness, chronic stress from work and home life, and terrible food will require more than a month to fully recover from. Shallow fatigue is tit-for-tat; deep fatigue must be repaid with exorbitant interest.

Now, consider fatigue of the mind. A mind in a state of shallow fatigue is one that cannot focus and perform cognitively demanding tasks. To the shallowly fatigued mind, both mundane and interesting tasks are a step too far. To remedy this state all that is required is a micro-period of rest and recovery. An afternoon off, a walk around the park with the dog, coffee with a close friend, a session at the gym, perhaps a weekend at a spa. These things offer enough respite to make basic functioning a possibility again. But a mind in a state of deep fatigue? That is a bigger problem to overcome. Imagine someone who is depressed. They see their work as banal, all their relationships are failing, and enjoyment has faded from any and all activities they do or consider engaging in. Some heavy lifting is required to lift someone from this state. Therapy, sabbaticals, a fundamental refactoring of perception.

The soul is susceptible to states of shallow and deep fatigue, too. I often ask myself, “Do the possible joys of life outweigh the inevitable pain and suffering?” Sometimes, I can’t help but answer, “No.” Other times I answer, “Yes.” The former comes about when my soul is in a state of shallow fatigue, when colour has temporarily drained from existence and despair is prevailing. Typically, I circle out of such a funk. However, if I were to always and unequivocally answer, “No”, then my soul would be in a state of deep fatigue and I’d be forced to seriously reconsider my approach to life. Perhaps I’d top myself? Or, more likely, I’d do what Bruce Sterling calls acting dead.


So, three components—body, mind and soul—and two degrees of negative states—shallow and deep fatigue. But what about the converse? If the body, mind and soul can exist in states of shallow and deep fatigue, then surely they can exist in states of shallow and deep energy? Yes, but the same distinction applies. If my mind is in a state of shallow energy, then a four-hour block of creative writing will knock me back into neutral. Exertion must be matched by recovery. But if my mind is in a state of deep energy—brought about by a year of good sleep, consistent communion with the wilderness, and lots of fornication—then a four-hour writing block won’t take the edge off of my cognitive facilities.

Let’s look at this a bit closer. Three components and four possible states yield many combinations, but I will provide only six as an example.

human taxonomy

The Empowered is in a state of deep energy across the board. His body, mind and soul are all crackling with potential. Such a person is like a live wire, emitting a force that jumps to anyone who gets too close. Such a person is also, unfortunately, a rarity. Not often across the spectrum of time has there been a person with a deeply energised body, mind and soul. The Degraded exists in a state of deep fatigue. They are in a rut they may never escape from. The prime example of this comes from the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. They existed in a system designed to shunt the body, mind and soul into a state of irrevocable fatigue. For the most part, it worked. The Zealot is someone alight with a religious energy. Such a person endures extreme physical and mental hardship because they have a Purpose. Think of the Prophets through time who were subservient to truth, of founders who run themselves into the ground in pursuit of success, of activists who destroy themselves in the name of compassion, kindness and universal human rights. The Athlete, conversely, relies upon his energised physiological state to negate the presence of mind- and soul-fatigue and The Artist does the same with his energised mind. Finally, The Mediocre excels in no area. He just persists.


Of course, the above are static conceptions. The body, mind and soul are dynamic, always becoming fatigued or being imbued with energy. But what I find most interesting about this way of perceiving the human is the ability of one extreme state to compensate for another. For example, The Zealot’s energised soul allows him to endure despite severe contraindications from the mind and body. States of deep energy in the other components do the same. Why does this matter? Well.

The old adage is that Everyone has the same twenty-four hours. Despite some significant disagreements with the notion—for example, the observation that a pro athlete with a full support staff has a radically different time-status than a single mother of three—it’s basically true. But let’s change “time” into something more generic: life capital. And let’s take the character creation process from Dungeons and Dragons as our model for the capital’s allocation.

In D&D, there are two ways to generate scores for the strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma stats. A player creating a character can roll for them, hoping for high scores across the board but also enduring the risk of successive bad rolls. Or, they can take the “standard set” of scores—15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8—and allocate them as most befits the character they are creating. In both cases, balance is the aim—chance or deliberate constraints (ideally) prevent a character from having scores of 20 across the board. A similar handicapping is present in how we allocate our own capital down the separate avenues of body, mind and soul.

Let’s say that across those three axis, each with four degrees, we are allowed six points. That discounts the possibility of becoming Empowered or Degraded (such states occur only in the most unusual of circumstances) and forces us to decide what we will and won’t optimise for. For example, do I put four points into “Soul”, two into “Mind” and accept the resulting deep-fatigue state of the “Body”? Or do I go for two points in each and exist in a pleasant state of neutral mediocrity?


The question is, I’ll admit, academic. Allocating life’s capital is too neat an exercise to map onto the messy, dirt-infested, shared student kitchen that is Reality. But what is not academic is the observation that we can assess what state each component of our life is in, and then attempt to alter or prolong it. In this light, the Body-Mind-Soul concept and the accompanying Fatigue-Energy spectrum is not so much a model as a diagnostic tool for existence.

The courageous society

I want to share two stories. The first comes from Nassim Taleb’s Skin in the Game. The second from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Enter Taleb:

“The minute one has evaluation forms, distortions occur. Recall that in The Black Swan I had to fill my evaluation form asking for the percentage of profitable days, encouraging traders to make steady money at the expense of hidden risks of Black Swans, consequential losses. Russian roulette allows you to make money five times out of six. This has bankrupted banks, as banks lose less than one in one hundred quarters, but then they lose more than they ever made. My declared approach was to try to make money infrequently. I tore the evaluation form in front of the big boss and they left me alone.”

And the story from Ordinary Men, a book about the Nazi police battalions sent into Eastern Europe to kill Jews en masse:

“Departing from Bilgoraj around 2:00 a.m., the truck convoy arrived in Jozefow just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Trapp assembled the men in a half-circle and addressed them. After explaining the battalion’s murderous assignment, he made his extraordinary offer: any of the older men who did not feel up to the task that lay before them could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments one man from Third Company, Otto-Julius Schimke, stepped forward … [Captain] Hoffman began to berate Schimke, but Trapp cut him off. After he had taken Schimke under his protection, some ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.”

Keep in mind that Trapp addressed five hundred men that morning and not even twenty opted out of mass murder. What was it that made those few able to do that? What was it that enabled Taleb to disrespect his superior and rip up an evaluation form in his face? The answer is given a few chapters later in Ordinary Men:

“The two men who explained their refusal to take part in the greatest detail both emphasised the fact that they were freer to act as they did because they had no careerist ambitions. One policeman accepted the possible disadvantages of his course of action “because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one, but rather an independent skilled craftsman and I had my business back home. . . . thus, it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.”
Lieutenant Buchmann had cited an ethical stance for his refusal; as a reserve officer and Hamburg businessman, he could not shoot defenseless women and children. But he too stressed the importance of economic independence when explaining why his situation was not analogous to that of his fellow officers. “I was somewhat older than then and moreover a reserve officer, so it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance, because I had my prosperous business back home. The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.”

Taleb was a derivatives trader at the time of the above episode; the men who opted out of mass murder had economic independence because of prosperous businesses back home. Material wealth was the foundation of both of the above moral stances. Or, phrased more informally, they had “fuck you money”.


“Fuck you money” is a phrase coined, as far as I know, by Taleb. It means possessing enough cash to be able to walk away from employment, to dispense with civility in communication with unpleasant people, to call people on their bullshit and not be afraid of the consequences. An example from “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund” by Paulette Perhach:

“Your boss tells you that you look nice in that dress, asks you to do a spin. Just to get the moment over with, you do.

Your boyfriend asks you how much you paid for it, says it makes you look chubby. You lock yourself in the bathroom until he bangs on the door so hard you think he must have hurt himself. After he falls asleep, you search Craigslist for places, and can’t believe how expensive rent’s gotten around town. You erase your Internet history and go to sleep.

A few weeks later, your boss calls a one-on-one in his office, walks up behind you, and stands too close. His breath fogs your neck. His hand crawls up your new dress. You squirm away. He says, “Sorry, I thought…”

You know what to do. You’re just shocked to find you’re not doing it. You are not telling him to fuck off. You are not storming out. All you’re doing is math. You have $159 in the bank and your car payment and your maxed out credit cards and you’ll die before you ask your dad for a loan again and it all equals one thought: I need this job.

“It’s ok,” you hear your voice saying. “Just forget it.” You scurry out of the room, survey the office half full of women, and wonder how many of them have secrets like the one you’re about to keep.”

That’s the lower end of the scale. Three or four zeroes in the bank makes it possible to move out of an apartment or endure two months unemployed while you apply to other jobs. The upper end of the scale is illustrated by John Goodman in a scene from The Gambler:

Own your home and have liquid assets: that is the position which allows you to play defense and offense. As Peter Thiel points out in Zero to One, cash is “pure optionality”. It allows you to pursue opportunities almost as quickly as they arise. But more importantly, cash is pure redundancy. It’s a backup for when the critical components of your life—work, relationships, reputation—fail. (Of course, there are limits to the virtue of cash—an apocryphal saying in finance is “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” This is also tied up with the idea of HODLing cryptocurrencies—holding on for dear life, having enough assets to outlast the volatilities of the cryptocurrency market. It takes a lot of cash to win a game of Chicken with Time.)


Wealth is one enabler of moral behaviour. Taleb ripping up an evaluation form seems minor, but it is still a refusal to compromise in the face of a usually persuasive authority—a boss. In contrast, opting out of a situation in which enormous social pressures are at play—alienation from comrades, potentially evoking the displeasure of the totalitarian Nazi state, amongst others— definitely requires moral courage. But is there not something else that enables morally courageous behaviour besides wealth?

Corporate whistleblowers go up against tremendous adversity. They lose their jobs; they are blacklisted in their industry; smear campaigns are unleashed upon them; their families and friends are threatened, either indirectly by association with a supposed pariah or directly by warnings concerning the stability of their own employment; legal proceedings are opened up which offer bankruptcy and imprisonment as prophecies of their future. And all this persists for years, not weeks or months. Some, in the face of such opposition, back down. Others acknowledge this and proceed anyway. Why? Because alongside wealth as a foundation of morally courageous behaviour stands dignity.

In 1986, Richard Feynman was asked to participate in an investigation of the Challenger disaster. He went about it with his usual rigour and tenacity, despite being ill with cancer, and found the cause: little rubber “O-rings” that degraded at ice-cold temperatures. The commission attempted to hide his findings, which Feynman sourced from discussions with engineers and technicians instead of high-level executives, but Feynman fought back: his findings were published, albeit as Appendix F of the report. What compelled him to persist? Feynman was dying, and he was a successful physicist, anyway. He didn’t need the validation or the exposure or the credit. Simply put, Feynman believed in telling the truth, no matter how unpalatable the consequences for those associated with it.


Wealth and dignity are the foundations upon which morally courageous behaviour is built (“dignity” here is a catch-all for integrity, principles, ideals etc.). Possessing both makes morally courageous behaviour a near-certainty. But what about other mixes? I refer to a 2×2:

wealth x dignity

Someone like Taleb, at this point in time, has both wealth and dignity. Thus, he can engage in Twitter brawls and speak out against corporations without fear of retribution. Someone with only wealth could engage in morally courageous behaviour—they are in a position to challenge and endure the assaults of otherwise unchallengeable authority, should they see fit. And someone without wealth but possessing dignity could also act with moral courage. Recall that of the millions who entered the concentration camps only a select few resisted, amongst them the Sonderkommandos—the inmates assigned to clear the corpses of the gassed. This is not a criticism of those who did not resist. Far from it. It was just that the Nazis were masters of human degradation and presented themselves as implacable forces of power and destruction. What person, when sleep deprived, starved, worked within an inch of death, suffering from disease and stripped of all humanity and identity, would resist the Nazi state and the SS officers who carried out its will? I wouldn’t have. But the Sonderkommandos were pushed to the furthest limit. Their very humanity, the essence of their dignity, was threatened—so they revolted.

But with no wealth and no dignity, with no resources and no higher ideals or moral scruples? Courage is an improbability.


I’m assuming that we would like our society to act courageously—to stand up to corruption, to fight exploitation and inequality, to promote universal human rights, to opt out of destructive practices, to put an end to violence, to be compassionate towards one another. But how do we go about getting that to happen? One way is to focus on dignity, to raise the baseline of education and ensure that the generations growing up now are exposed to multiple cultures and imbued with an understanding of the importance of basic human values like freedom and security. The other way is to focus on wealth.

Campaigners for basic income and the provision of fundamental amenities (like healthcare, water, electricity, shelter) across the spectrum of society cite many benefits to such a policy. Increased happiness, better working conditions, increased productivity, a reduction of inequality, empowerment of minorities and the disenfranchised, and so on. But one thing I never see advocated is the idea that basic income would enable a society to be more courageous. Imagine that, because of a universal basic income, no one has to worry about paying rent or feeding their family. Do abusive bosses last that long in such an environment? Can corporations take advantage of employees or citizens? Will ordinary people debase themselves and squander their dignity just to keep their job or preserve the reputation that their employment depends upon? I don’t think so.

No. If we want to become more courageous as a society, focusing on education and enlightenment is not a bad choice. But a better choice, at this point in time, would be to focus on wealth. The former takes decades, centuries even. The latter can happen a lot faster. And it’s not that we don’t have the resources or the technology. All we lack is the unified will.

Unmasking the self

“Know yourself” is perhaps the most famous philosophic dictum. It’s often attributed to Socrates, but it actually first appeared as one of the one-hundred and forty-seven Delphic maxims, which include such sage advice as:

Φίλοις βοήθει (Help your friends)
Σοφίαν ζήλου (Long for wisdom)
Κοινὸς γίνου (Be impartial)
Γυναικὸς ἄρχε (Rule your wife)
Ἄρρητον κρύπτε (Keep deeply the top secret)
Εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός (Be well off as a mortal)

I happen to agree that “Know yourself” is sound philosophical advice. However, most interpret it as a call to introspection, as opposed to a desirable end state. It’s understood as a process, not an outcome. Which is a problem.

Generally speaking, when you attempt to “know yourself” you are faced with a simple choice. Imagine a spectrum with 100% Reality on one end and 100% Narrative on the other. The choice is between which end you choose to move towards. If you head towards the “narrative” end of the spectrum you are selecting the route of self-help, which in my reckoning is the imposition of order upon life’s inherent chaos. It is the conscious search for meaning, for a story, for a metaphor, for a narrative to live by, and it’s possible to acquire and live by one without doing untold harm to yourself or others in the process. There’s few problems heading in this direction.

The problems occur when you head towards the other pole, when you try to introspect towards the reality of the self. It’s possible to move without harm in that direction for a little while—coming to terms with the chaos of existence is what philosophy is all about, after all. But go too far and you realise that the reality of the self is ungraspable. As Venkatesh said on

“You’ve heard about the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’.

There’s also what you could call ‘the unreasonable depth of reality’

Reality just has such mindboggling depth of mindless detail you can keep modelling to infinite weariness.

It just never ends. No matter how much artifice you impose on a piece of reality, 9/10 of it is still left, showing up as territory noise in your knowing map.

And knowing is so fragile. Poof and you’re liminally entangled in unfactored reality again.”

In fact, in your grasping for reality you mistakenly pick up a narrative. Attempts to introspect to the reality of the self actually take you further way from it—towards a narrative of the self. Take half an hour and sit with yourself. Just breathe. What do you notice? Ephemeral impulses and strange thoughts rising out of the muddy water of the mind, probably. Do this daily for a long enough period and you’ll find patterns in your thoughts, commonalities in what you reach for and what you push away. This pattern recognition gives rise to narrative creation and pretty soon you have a compelling story that imbues your actions with energy but arises from attempts to denarrate. It’s an illusion, though. You are no closer to knowing yourself. You’ve just found a convenient story.

This is not to say that you can’t know yourself. You can, but not via introspection. Boggarts, basketball players and concentration camp survivors indicate why.


If you’ve read the Harry Potter novels you’ll know what a boggart is. It’s a magical creature that, when faced by a witch or wizard, assumes the shape of that person’s deepest fear. And how does one defeat it? Confusion and humour.

In the The Prisoner of Azkaban, during a Defence Against the Dark Arts class, Lupin’s students all line up and take it in turns confronting the boggart. As it is forced to rapidly transition between shapes, it becomes vulnerable to assaults of humour. Why? The magical students are disorientating the boggart by manipulating the tempo at which it has to change its form. It’s a Wizarding World utilisation of the OODA loop. For another example, consider this video.

Stephen Curry creates a temporal disparity. In the video, he was on the three point line with a defender rushing towards him. Curry faked a shot, then faked a dribble as if he was going to move past the defender, but instead of moving closer to the basket he stayed in his original spot and drained the three. The defender realised he was caught out by the fake, then saw Curry moving towards the basket so he turned to chase him down, but Curry wasn’t there.

This is analogous to how you catch out a certain type of person; the courtier. In medieval times, and modernity, the aim of the courtier is to be all things to all people. This works, but only if the courtier can perform relationships in private. Imagine that the courtier shows contempt for the king to one person and admiration for the king to another. Such a two-faced strategy falls down when he has to interact with both those people at the same time. He will likely have to reveal his inauthenticity to one person or the other, or rely on ambiguity to guide him through the impasse. In this case, the complexity of a situation strips the mask away against the courtier’s will.

Another example. Special forces training. We’ve all heard of things like “hell week” where candidates are deliberately deprived of sleep, where their dignity is purposely stripped away, where they are exposed to isolation and humiliation. The motive behind such uncivil treatment is not, as many think, sadism or cruelty. It is pragmatism. Under extreme duress all affectation falls away. S.A.S. officers, for example, don’t care how you act when times are good. They want to see what you do when you haven’t eaten for two days and are trapped in a hostile environment and have minimal resources and are up against titanic odds and are severely fatigued. They want to see the best of you in the worst of times.

The above examples are about the revelation of character via adversity, which reveals in a way that introspection alone cannot. As Primo Levi says in The Drowned and the Saved:

“No one can know how long and what torments his soul can resist before crumpling or breaking. Every human being has reserves of strength whose measure he does not know; they may be large, small, or nonexistent, but the only means of assessing them is severe adversity. Even without invoking the extreme case of the Sonderkommandos [the inmates responsible for removing corpses from the gas chambers post annihilation], we survivors commonly find that when we talk about our experience our listeners say, “In your place, I wouldn’t have lasted a day.” This statement has no precise meaning; you are never in someone else’s place. Each individual is an object so complex that it is useless to try to predict behaviour, especially in extreme situations; we cannot even predict our own behaviour.”

We exist in a permanently masked state so all attempts to look in a mirror, no matter how precise or long the effort, are fundamentally flawed. It’s as useless as trying to dig through a concrete floor with your fingers. We can’t see past the mask we wear. But others can. Which has consequences for the concept of self-knowledge.


One of the simplest ways to test a network is with a ping command. Quite simply, you send out packets of data to a URL or IP address and the time they take to come back—minimum, maximum and average—gives you an insight into the functioning (or malfunctioning) of the network you’re testing. This is how self-knowledge works too. A device will ping a URL or IP address; we have to ping existence and other people. Restated: others observing and responding to our existence is how we accumulate self-knowledge.

Consider the strategic cliche, Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Have you ever considered the logic behind it? Well, if we do and we do so with the unachievability of introspective self-knowledge in mind, then it becomes apparent that the reason to keep your enemies close has less to do with knowing about them than with what they can teach you about yourself. What is an enemy’s objective? Inflict tremendous chaos at a rate greater than we can possibly handle, initiating our ultimate downfall. Thus, a good enemy will unwittingly plant the seeds for his own defeat—by exposing us to chaos and adversity, he allows chaos to unmask us, and by his consequent actions reveals to us what he finds, and so gives us an opportunity to leverage that gift of knowledge. A friend is less likely to do this—they shield us and unwittingly harm us, preventing us from gathering self-knowledge and continuing to obscure the things we most need to know about ourself—specifically who we are in our naked, mask-less state.

This is how we have to go about knowing ourselves. Not via hermit-like retreats into the forest or solemn contemplation in a Buddhist temple atop a mountainside. Not even by half an hour of vipassana meditation every morning—that only helps us look out into the world with clarity, not into the self. No. We must seek interaction with the adversity that existence presents to us and derive information about ourself from our relationships with others—both strangers and intimates, both allies and enemies.