Life’s great pleasures

“I know you’re not married, but if you were, can you imagine paying somebody to screw your wife?”

“No…” I said slowly, unsure what he was getting at. But before I could relax my eyebrows, he answered for me, “Of course not,” pausing before making his point, “It’d be the same thing as paying someone to walk your dog, why would you? It’s one of life’s great pleasures.”

Should I blame it on the fumes, I wondered?

We were hanging in a yoga studio out after working late installing a new floor. The new flooring was interlocking blue foam squares, which arrived bound together in stacks of fifteen.

After unstacking the squares and interlocking them like puzzle pieces, the off-gassing of petro chemical fumes was in high gear. The place smelled like a flip flop factory, a sickening sweet new car smell times twenty.

Then he started in about his college wrestling days as being one of his life’s great pleasures. Maybe he was breathing too many fumes because next he began trying to crush me into the new mat with wrestling moves. Kinda disrespectful, fighting in a yoga place right?

People don’t really care I guess. I remember seeing a church converted to a restaurant. And the restaurant was called “Christians.” That struck me as disrespectful somehow. But maybe it’s just no different than what cell phones and bottled water did to pay phones and drinking fountains.

 

The mystery skull

I saw an exhibit of Irving Penn’s photos covering several subjects, one part featured pictures of animal skulls.

For most of skulls, I could  match the animal it belonged to. But the coolest looking skull stumped me. It’s here on the right.

I thought maybe it was from an extinct cave bear. It wasn’t. It was the skull of a spotted hyena.

How could such a gnarly looking skull be inside of a spotted hyena’s head?

I know they have an incredibly powerful bite and they’re good scavengers and hunters.

The skull was sleek and compact compared to the other skulls Penn photographed. The teen seemed to fit so neatly together, even the really broad one one the side.

Looking at those teeth it’s hard to image surviving a bite from them. I doubt any live animal survives if a hyena gets a good bite in place. And as a scavenger, a hyena can probably make off quickly with a nice meal.

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. There’s an elegant looking skull inside an animal that looks a bit awkward on the outside.

Assholery

Whatever differences you might have had with President Obama, one thing you couldn’t say about him was that he was an asshole. The same thing goes for the presidents before him.

Now we have President Trump who many,even in his own party, feel is an asshole. Not too presidential unfortunately.

Here’s my shortened version of an interview with a Stanford psychologist about his book on dealing with assholes. It seems timely.

An asshole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt.

An asshole needs someone in their life to tell them they’re being an asshole.

There’s a distinction between temporary and certified assholes. Anyone, under certain conditions, can be a temporary asshole.  It’s more complicated than saying a certified asshole is someone who doesn’t care about other people. Certifiable assholes actually want to make you feel hurt and upset, and take pleasure in that.

Assuming you’re not the CEO and can’t simply fire an asshole, you have to do two things in terms of strategy.

First, you’ve got to build your case and a coalition. A important distinction is that some people are clueless assholes and don’t realize they’re jerks, but maybe they mean well. In that situation, you can have backstage conversations, gently informing them that they’ve crossed a line.

But if it’s one of those Machiavellian assholes who’s treating you badly because they believe that’s how to get ahead,  then you’ve got to get out of there if you can.

Say you have an asshole boss, there’s a power asymmetry, so it’s not as simple as telling him he’s an asshole. What’s your advice?

First, can you quit or transfer? If you’re stuck under a asshole, that means you’re suffering and you should get out – it’s that simple.

The second question is, if you must endure, are you going to fight or are you just going to take it? If you’re going to fight, you need a plan and a posse, you need to collect your evidence, and then you have to take your chances.

Try to have as little contact as possible with assholes.

One of the simplest, but admittedly hardest, things is learning not to give a shit – which takes the wind out of an asshole’s sails. When an asshole’s being nasty to you, ignore him.

Think about how a year from now he won’t be in your life, but he’ll still be the asshole he always was.

What if you’ve got an asshole as a peer or a colleague? Your chances of getting rid of them are higher because you have more power.

I’m in academia, which means there’re lots of assholes we can’t fire. But we can absolutely freeze them out. Don’t  invite them to events or gatherings. We can shun them politely and smile at them as necessary, but other than that we just ignore them. That’s how we deal with assholes.

But there’re some situations in which you may have to be an asshole to survive because you’ve got no choice but to push back against them. This isn’t ideal, but if that’s what you have to do, then that’s what you do.

If somebody has a history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they’ll understand is a display of force. The best way to protect yourself is firing back with everything you’ve got.

Some people deserve and need to be treated badly. Sometimes you have to speak in the only language they understand, and that means  getting your hands dirty.

We know that assholes have a corrosive effect on the people around them. There’re studies demonstrating that people working for assholes for many years end up being more depressed, more anxious, and less healthy. So there’s compelling evidence that assholes are terrible humans doing harm to other people.

What else is there to say? If you’re an asshole, you’re a failure as a human because you promote unnecessary suffering.

Keep It Simple

The fundamental tenets of training haven’t changed much in decades.

When planning your workouts, keep these general principles in mind:

If intensity is high, volume is low.

Volume never increases more than 10 percent per week or more than three weeks in a row.

Weekly intensity is measured by the number of hard workouts, from none to three.

Follow hard days with easy days, not rest.

At least one day per week, and one week per five-week cycle, is devoted to recovery.

—“To Each His Zone,” May 1993 Outside Magazine

Hunter-gather life

Jared Diamond called the adoption of agriculture “the worst mistake in human history,” a claim that is, among historians of the era, not very controversial.

Here’re some takeaway ideas from a New Yorker article making a case against civilization.

Most modern people are generally living in a cage of accumulation and coping with a constant low-grade stress.

Before farming, we couldn’t accumulate much more than we could carry and we likely had mainly brief episodes of coping with intense stress.

The fossil record shows that life for early agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers.

So why did our ancestors switch from the hunter-gatherers’ complex web of food to the concentrated cultivation of single crops? We don’t know, but two things are clear.

The bones of early farmers show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Plus living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases crossing the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities.

The other conclusion is that there’s a crucial, direct link between  cultivating grains and state formation.

Grains encouraged the formation of states. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit or sweet potato states.

What’s so special about grains? Grains, unlike other crops, are easy to tax. Some crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava) grow underground and so can be hidden from the tax collector. And other crops ripen at different intervals, or yield harvests throughout a growing season.

Only grains are visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.’  So grain became the main food starch, the unit of taxation in kind, and the basis for an agrarian calendar.

The ability to tax and to extract a surplus from grains led to the formation of the state, and creating complex societies with hierarchies, division of labor, specialist jobs (soldier, priest, servant, administrator), and an élite presiding over them.

Because states required huge amounts of manual work to irrigate the crops, they needed forms of forced labor, including slavery.  The easiest way to find slaves was capturing them, so the states had a drive to wage war. Some of the earliest images in human history are of slaves being marched along in neck shackles.

War, slavery, and rule by elites were made easier by numerical record keeping – writing. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club. For 500 years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used only for bookkeeping. Early tablets consist of lists, and the subjects are, in order of frequency, barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, and slaves.

If most of us weren’t miserable most of the time as hunter-gatherers, the arrival of civilization is a more ambiguous event. The question of what life was like for a hunter-gatherer is important for assessing human history.

It turns out that hunting and gathering can be a good way to live.

A 1966 study found that, on average, it took Bushmen only about 17 hours a week to find enough food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was 2,300 a day, close to the recommended amount. In 1966, a comparable week in the United States involved 40 hours of work and 36 of domestic labor. Bushmen don’t accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop, exhibiting confidence that their environment will provide for their needs.

In one column of the ledger, we would have the development of a complex material culture permitting the glories of modern science and medicine and the accumulated wonders of art. In the other column, we would have the less good stuff, such as plague, war, slavery, social stratification, and rule by mercilessly appropriating elites.

Robin Hanson’s take on civilization include these thoughts.

Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and more threatening neighboring groups. There was more support in the farmer’s world for spouses and material goods as property. Farmer law relied less on general discussion within the group.

More reliable food meant redistribution amongst the group was less important. Farmers worked more and had less time for play. Together, these tended to reduce the scope of previous hunter-gatherer group dynamics, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when we became richer we could afford to revert to more natural-feeling hunter-gatherer ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace hierarchies are required to generate industry-level wealth.

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways. Older hunter-gatherer ways have been slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution.

The accessorizing spectrum

I remember Lilly Tomlin saying, “it’s our ability to accessorize that separates us from the lower life forms.”

The other day I saw the first two pics on a “seen on the street” blog called the “Satorialist.” The (I’m guessing unintentional) juxtaposition of these two looks made each one stand out more.

Both people are accessorized, one is after a traditional look of feminine beauty, while the other is striving more towards self-expression and mixing cultures.

The other three pics are from around the web representing different takes feminine beauty and accessorizing from only using body paint, to a small bikini and fake boobs, to a formal full length evening gown.

I’m not trying to leave out men entirely, it’s just easier to focus more on the spectrum of accessorizing used by women. It’s in general a richer and broader palette.

Other animals differentiate themselves but not by accessorizing and without regard to evolutionary pressures. Humans do it for fun and often times without being concerned about attracting a mating partner, although at the extreme end some people are attractive because they’re different.

Any “look” is a message, even the choice to not have a “look.” A person’s look is a signal to other people. Once the look transgresses the traditional the signal can be and is interpreted unpredictably.

The human animal is endlessly fascinating if you leave yourself open to appreciate the spectrum of human expression we use when accessorizing.

 

 

Katy Bowman

A friend stopped by our house last night. She wanted to introduce her new baby.

Before having a baby she was a free spirit untethered by a regular job or home. She even camped out in the jungle here in Mexico for a bit between house sitting gigs. Not the life for most, but she seemed to like it.

We started talking about carrying her baby around. I told her about Katy Bowman who only carries her kids. Everywhere. Even traveling around Europe she and her husband carried their small kids or had them walk.

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist, author, and mom with a couple of kids. I thought my friend might like her because of the way Katy lives her life.

Katy says most of us are basically sedentary when we aren’t in the gym or on the road, no matter how ‘fit’ we think we are because at a cellular level, hours of sitting leave our cells starved for movement. Just like bad eating habits stave our bodies of nutrients.

Katy thinks structured exercise is the movement equivalent of nutritional supplements. If you just run for exercise it’s like eating just one type of food at every meal. A healthy diet calls for a wide range of foods. In the same way, our bodies require a constant variety of movements throughout the day.

One of Katy’s solutions was removing all the chairs and sofas from her house ensuring regular getting up and down movements plus changing positions often while seating on the floor.

I’ll check in on our friend after a while to see if she can implement any of Katy’s ideas.

How women can have better sex

There’re some big trends indicating the general direction we’re headed in as a society. The internet of things, self driving vehicles, and advanced versions of CRISPR are just the tip of the iceberg headed our way.

Some people are predicting that high unemployment will accompany the rise of robots and artificial intelligence.

Behind almost every inconvenience there’s a new business or political opportunity waiting that could develop into the next big thing. Food for thought that’s being discussed is providing a universal basic income (UBI).

A UBI will allow people to buy things and manage their own affairs, possibly reducing the bureaucracies now in place to manage public assistance. It’s also human nature for people to want more money and move into work and entrepreneurship.

But there’s another possible unintended benefit from a UBI – better sex for women. Apparently under communism, despite its failings, one unforeseen benefit was that women reported having had better sex. Checkout this NYT article.

Here’s why I imagine that a UBI might lead to better sex for women (and probably for many men too because the women will be having sex most of the time with men). Eastern bloc women were encouraged to join the labor force and became financially untethered from men, enjoying a degree of self-sufficiency few Western women had. The Eastern bloc women didn’t have to marry, or have sex, for money. And so if everyone received a UBI women might enjoy the same degree of being untethered from men financially.

You are not what you earn and you don’t need lots of money, but you do need enough (and be able to deal with it). That’s where a UBI comes in.

A person’s income is commonly assumed to be the source of information about character, intelligence, maybe even someone’s worth in human terms. The more money we make, the more we deserve to exist. Some of this won’t go away with a UBI but it might upend something about our sense of the world and our place in it.

“The task is not so much to see what no one has seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.” –Schrödinger

Are aliens just hibernating?

Are we alone in the universe, or are we not alone in the universe? Someone once pointed out that a yes in either case is terrifying. Below, I’ve abridged an article called “A New Theory on Why We Haven’t Found Aliens Yet.” Basically it’s because they might be sleeping.

Right now, there’re some big trends in artificial intelligence, robotics, and medical tech indicating the general direction we’re going.

There’re people who think ultimately we’ll become more integrated, physically, with the digital world around us.Maybe, older civilizations have already done it. It’s really just food for thought at this point.

Probability tells us extraterrestrial intelligence should be out there, so why haven’t we found a single sign of it yet?

It could be that we’re simply alone in the universe or that there is some great filter preventing intelligent life from progressing beyond a certain stage. Maybe alien life is out there, but we are too primitive to communicate with it. Or we’re inside some cosmic zoo, observed but left alone.

Now, three researchers have another potential answer. Aliens do exist but they’re just sleeping.

Maybe the universe is too hot right now for advanced, digital civilizations to make the most efficient use of their resources. Their solution: Sleep and wait for the universe to cool down.

Sophisticated life may have elected to leave biology behind and live digitally to enhance their intellectual capacities or to inhabit harsher environments in the universe with ease.

Once you’re living digitally, it’s important to process information efficiently because each computation cost is tightly coupled with temperature. The colder it gets, the lower the cost is.

Surely any aliens could cool down their systems manually, just as we do with computers. It’s possible for a civilization to cool down parts of itself, but that, too, requires work. So it wouldn’t make sense for a civilization looking to maximize its computational capacity to waste energy on that process.

Humans may find the universe to be a pretty frigid place, but digital minds may find it far too hot. It’s likely that artificial life would be in a protected sleep mode today, ready to wake up in a colder future.

Over the next trillions of years, as the universe continues to expand and the formation of new stars slows, the temperature will drop to practically zero, allowing digital life to get tremendously more done. Tremendous isn’t an understatement, either. By employing such a strategy, they could achieve up to 1030  times more than if done today (that’s a 1 with 30 zeroes after it).

Just because the aliens are sleeping doesn’t mean we can’t find signs of them. A sleeping civilization has to preserve resources for the future. Processes that threaten these resources, then, should be conspicuously absent. This includes galaxies colliding, galactic winds, and stars converting into black holes, which can push resources beyond the reach of the sleeping civilization or change their resources into less-useful forms. We could look for those missing phenomena.

But one of the researchers says, “I personally think the likeliest reason we’re not seeing aliens isn’t that they’re sleeping,” he feels it’s more likely that “they don’t exist, or they’re very far away.”

Another researcher thinks, “Any assumption is extremely speculative.” Yet, he said, the theory has a place because it’s important to cover as much ground as possible. A wide set of hypotheses tested one by one—falsifying them, pruning them—gets closer to the truth. So, there’s a modest likelihood their sleeping aliens idea might be part of the answer.

It’s important to keep exploring solutions, trying to understand what might be out there and how this might explain our past and guide our future.

The hungry hummingbird

What would happen if we scaled up a hummingbird to human size? This is one thought, “A 2013 University of Toronto study concluded that if hummingbirds were the size of an average human, they’d need to drink more than one 12-ounce can of soda for every minute they’re hovering, because they burn sugar so fast.”