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.
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 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.
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?
THE OPPOSITE OF CALMING
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.
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…
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.
“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.
RESPONDING 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.
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.
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:
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.
To live is to die, as many before me have observed. Yet, due to humanity’s pronounced metacognitive abilities, we have both the ability and the desire to speculate, to question this most essential and inevitable dichotomies of existence, to wonder about a life divorced from death (the reverse being a logical impossibility), to ponder the concept of immortality through the vehicle of narrative.
I suspect I’m not the only person who counts TV Tropes as a valuable reference tool. It lists “immortality” as a “Super Trope” and says of it:
“Eternal life is ingrained in the collective human consciousness, having been present in literature and myths for as long as they’ve been around. Literally. The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character’s search for a way to live forever.”
It then goes on to list some sub-tropes that relate to immortality:
– “Purpose-driven immortality” which involves “someone who is immortal to complete a purpose” that once fulfilled, results in the character’s dissolution.
– Tropes of “incomplete immortality”, such as Age Without Youth, Came Back Wrong and The Undead.
– “Retroactive immortality”, meaning a “character can die, but won’t stay dead.”
– “Biological immortality” which means a character is “immune to the ravages of time, although usually still mortal to physical injury.”
Of the last, the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth are an example. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel says to Frodo:
“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
The Elves, as a species, fought the “long defeat”, encountering death only in one of two ways: either through combat or via an overwhelming grief.
Now, that phrase, “the long defeat”, is curious. It signals a somewhat melancholy response to the curse of immortality. But changing its final word reveals a link between mortality and immortality, a thread that ties together the mortal beings we are and know and the immortal characters of narrative that we create and love to spend time with.
Invisible Planets is a collection of short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi. One of the stories, The Viper Blanket, contains the following passage:
“I held Marketta’s hand when she died. It was a warm hand, even after she stopped breathing and closed her eyes, and her grip did not have enough strength left for me to know the difference between life and death.
“Remember to pray,” she said, just before the final sleep. It was good that she went like that, sleeping, even though I couldn’t say goodbye. But we had been saying our goodbyes for many months already, so maybe they didn’t have to be said aloud.”
Not the “long defeat”, but the “long goodbye”. That is what Rajaniemi’s character had been saying to Marketta, and that is what the entirety of existence—both mortal and immortal—amounts to. Every act committed as part of a relationship stands a chance of being the last; every place we go is also a place we must eventually leave; every instant we experience is also an instant that must suffer dissolution. In isolation, every moment of a life is a goodbye; collectively, life is a prolonged farewell to what is and once was.
Yet it is not all gloom. What we see depends on how we look. The long goodbye is also a long hello. One moment’s departure is another moment’s arrival. Every inch of a person’s soul you get to know doesn’t just fade and become part of an intertwined past, it also becomes a prophecy of collaborative exploration in the future.
Immortality is a long defeat; mortality a decidedly quicker one. But both offer, at the same time, countless opportunities to savour what has been and immerse ourselves in what has yet to pass.
I’ve been lucky enough to work and have many conversations with John Romkey, someone who knows what it means to be online and who understands the risks and advantages of such a position. Amongst the many things I have learnt from him, there is one that, lately, I’ve been coming back to: the different types of cyber-attacks an individual or an organisation may have to weather. The 2×2 below lists four possible types:
Type 1 (ambient, intelligent) attacks could be scripts written to continuously target specific individuals or organisations, or a small subset of a population and their devices. For example, a bot that scours the web for potential botnet army recruits (read: vulnerable IoT devices). Type 2 (active, intelligent) attacks typically manifest as real-time, co-ordinated action against a specific entity. For example, when Anonymous or some other group goes after an individual or org with the aim of humiliation or dissipation of political power. Type 3 (ambient, dumb) attacks that are amateur and simplistic attempts at large scale action. If you run a WordPress site and see that someone (or something) has tried one thousand times to login to your account, chances are it’s a bot trying to brute-force its way in by trying every conceivable password. Type 4 (active, dumb) attacks are what you get when some teen sees an exploit or methodology on the net and tries to emulate it on a random person.
My understanding of these things is, admittedly, shallow and not exactly subtle. But I think it’s worth making preliminary excavations towards the roots of these ideas so that you’re not caught completely off-guard by unforeseen events. However, this matrix of online attacks (and the common defences deployed against them) has another use.
HOW TO GET RICH
A while ago, Naval Ravikant—entrepreneur, investor, and startup sage—compiled a thread entitled, How to Get Rich (without getting lucky). In the thread he talked about the “permissionless leverage” that code and media creates. He said:
“Fortunes require leverage. Business leverage comes from capital, people, and products with no marginal cost of replication (code and media).
Capital means money. To raise money, apply your specific knowledge, with accountability, and show resulting good judgment.
Labor means people working for you. It’s the oldest and most fought-over form of leverage. Labor leverage will impress your parents, but don’t waste your life chasing it.
Capital and labor are permissioned leverage. Everyone is chasing capital, but someone has to give it to you. Everyone is trying to lead, but someone has to follow you.
Code and media are permissionless leverage. They’re the leverage behind the newly rich. You can create software and media that works for you while you sleep.
An army of robots is freely available – it’s just packed in data centers for heat and space efficiency. Use it.
If you can’t code, write books and blogs, record videos and podcasts.”
Where does the creation and circulation of “permissionless leverage” fit into the matrix above? Let’s switch the emphasis from a malicious actor attacking a person or entity with desirable assets (like wealth or specific intellectual property) to an individual playing offence to enhance his or her interests. What are his options for creating wealth? Again, there are four:
Type 1 manoeuvres (ambient, intelligent) involve one of two things. First, the creation of code and media, Naval’s “permissionless leverage”. Or, second, the creation of low-touch automated systems that generate value and capture it. In the latter case think of a lifestyle entrepreneur setting up a dropshipping business that requires minimal oversight each week, and only moderate intervention every month or two. Or think of a fullstack freelancer who creates a system that pulls leads to an info-product, sells it, upsells after the fact, and catapults the converted lead into a community of individuals united by a mutual interest.
Type 2 manoeuvres (active, intelligent) are one-offs, as opposed to recurring. The cultivation of relationships with people whose skillset you admire; forays into complex topics and domains; the negotiation of contracts and options; that sort of thing.
Type 3 manoeuvres (ambient, dumb) are recurring and easy to set up. For example, creating an automated email sequence for subscribers to a newsletter, or certain IFTTT formulas. They can also be particularly ineffective—think spam, brazen popups, auto-follows and obviously-scripted cold emails.
Type 4 manoeuvres (active, dumb) are mostly in the class of “showing up”. For example—and this is kind of cynical—I’ve been witness to people’s ability to gain influence in an organisation just by being in the right place all the time. Via presence, not contribution. Think of Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings. It is not his ability, insight, or power which gets him his stature, but his determined proximity to those things. Power via association, if you will. A remix of this is showing up for a friend. Not offering insightful observations or delivering wise counsel; just being there.
MULTIPLE INCOME STREAMS
I used to read more about personal finance and financial independence (PF-FI as I dub it in my commons) than I do now, but one of the consistent themes I came across is that those who are wealthy—millionaires, for example—become so because they have multiple income streams. They get paid a salary, and they accrue speaking fees, and they get book royalties, and they collect share dividends, and they sit on a board of directors.
But with the above matrix in mind, I now see multiple income streams as a distribution amongst the four possible offensive manoeuvre types. But I don’t want to just say, “Spread your efforts amongst them”, and leave at it that. I want to look a bit closer,
EVALUATING THE TYPES
In my reckoning, there are five ways to evaluate the value of the four types of manoeuvres…
– Ease of creation (investment required to get it going).
– Ease of maintenance (a.k.a. high touch or low touch).
– Short-term ROI.
– Long-term ROI.
– Risk (chance of irreversible negative consequences).
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I want to write a comprehensive introduction to the fundamentals of cryptocurrencies. Such a guide would be classed as media, as permissionless leverage, so I am seeking to create something that is ambient and intelligent. Such a guide would not be easy to create: it would require a deep knowledge of fiat monetary systems and a fingertip feel of the cryptocurrency ecosystem and its technical foundations, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge. But once created, it would require little maintenance. In terms of ROI, over the short-term it would be neglible (unless I had a previously established platform to release it to, that is), but over the long-term it could create relationships that have significant future value. It could lead to my gaining a seat at the table when new cryptocurrencies are evaluated—it could lead to a lot of things, actually. And how risky is it? Not very. I lose the time, attention, energy and money invested to create, publish and push it, but that’s about it. The downsides of such a project are pretty bounded.
Which leads to my final method of evaluation. There are four types of personal offensive manoeuvres, and there are five ways to go about evaluating them. But, their relative value is also modified by whether you are a Have or a Have-Not. I don’t mean this in the Marxist sense. My distinction is simpler than that. Haves have time, attention and energy to spare; Have-Nots, uh, don’t. The distinction between Have and Have-Not can be made in terms of monetary power, but I feel that is a bit crude. I prefer to focus on intangible assets.
An example. A Have-Not—someone with next to no time, attention, energy or money to spend—may stand to benefit immensely from the creation of permissionless leverage; but his status as a Have-Not makes the pursuit of that strategy unfeasible. So perhaps he would benefit more from an active-dumb approach that will pay off down the line?
The edifice of the framework above has cracks. The cultivation of a relationship with a maven is something I classify as an intelligent-active manoeuvre, but once it is cemented it becomes ambient—friends look out for friends, and professional acquaintances look out for opportunities to give those around them a leg up. After a while, it gives credit without requiring debits. Alongside that, keep in mind that “intelligent” and “dumb” are not synonymous with “effective” and “ineffective”. Recall that, in John Robb’s terms, complex systems are vulnerable to primitive attacks. Want to precipitate the collapse of an economy? A few determined individuals with several kilos of explosives can cause billions of dollars of disruption if their aim is true. The same goes for personal offensive manoeuvres. Sophisticated systems that generate immense value and capture a slice of it are great, but they’re not always feasible and/or necessary.