All posts by Stocker Cary

How to be a stoic

The stoic philosopher  Senaca said, “Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Elif Batuman wrote “How to be a Stoic” for The New Yorker last year. Here’s a shortened version of it:

Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in present-day Turkey. The first line of his manual of ethical advice, “Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we’ll live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”

Most of the pain in my life came not from any actual privations or insults but, rather, from the shame of thinking they could’ve been avoided. Wasn’t it my fault that meaning continued to elude me or that my love life was a shambles? When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.

Epictetus also won me over with his tone. If you want to become a Stoic, he said, you’ll suffer losses and humiliations and yet every setback is an advantage, an opportunity for learning and glory. This is a very powerful trick.

Epictetus’ advice about not getting angry at slaves is this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”

Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. Now cognitive-behavioral therapy is based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.”

If you want a good place to start checking out Stoic philosophy try Ryan Holidays’ book “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.” It’s a daily bite sized nugget from various Stoics accompanied by a short discussion of the quote. In a nutshell, use your own judgment about what’s good and ignoring what’s beyond your control.

 

 

Improving the simple

Improving on something that’s already simple and widely used is impressive because most people take the things in their lives for granted.

What about the lowly keyring? Every time you want to add or remove a key from a substantial keyring you risk damaging a fingernail and futzing with the split in the ring always seems to take more time than it should.

It looks like the Tang Ring keyring has improved the keyring. One disadvantage of living in Mexico is not being able to get certain things that are available in the US. It’s not a big deal but next time I’m in the US I’ll get some of these to try out.

Who gets to complain?

There’re lots of Americans  unhappy with what President Trump is doing.

If you take a look at this infographic, it’s easy to see the portions of Americans that voted as well as the portion that couldn’t be bothered to vote.

So if you’re complaining about Trump and you don’t fall into either the blue or red group, please stop.

 

Refining your Google search

Sometimes searching for answers can frustrating on the internet. Here’s Kevin Kelly’s advice for what to do when your Google or YouTube search isn’t yielding much:

I simply add the suffix “solutions” to the query. The terms “problem X + solutions” is more likely to yield sources that have answers, not just the same problem I have. 

Silos and stockpiling

 

An article in the New Yorker described how some wealthy Wall Street and Silicon Valley folks are preparing for big catastrophes by buying luxury condos in decommissioned US missile silos, or creating large stockpiles of food and other necessities.

If there is a complete collapse of civilization, I don’t think they’ll last very long hunkered down. Stronger, tougher people will find them and take what they need from them.

Consider the highly trained US soldiers who’ve been discharged into the general population or the many highly skilled hunters and outdoors people. Do you think those types are going out without a fight?

One of the wealthy interviewees said the super rich will be better off spending to make our society stronger not trying to create a stronghold for themselves.

Anyway, if there’s a calamity, knowing about hedge funds won’t be as useful as just having a down jacket and a positive attitude.

What’s the best way to survive a rocky ride? Start with how you perceive the world. Like a hummingbird’s beating wings, your brain is constantly putting out 300 to 1000 words every minute. Feelings (anger, shame, delight) appear almost instantly. Left alone they don’t last very long. But when you invent negative narratives around events, feelings can go for a very long time.

You can feel impulses, think, and experience situations without becoming hampered by mental narratives about how things should or shouldn’t  be. Navy SEALs deal with stressful situations and work to keep the chatter in their heads positive by shifting how they frame  situations.

They view setbacks like this: View bad things are temporary, tell yourself, “That happens occasionally, it’s no big deal.” Understand that bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal, by reminding yourself, “When the weather’s better that won’t be a problem.” And realize it’s not your fault and say, “I’m good at this but today was just an unlucky day.”

They use goal setting too. When your mind says, “I need X to be happy,” SEALs are taught to set goals properly by setting goals for very short chunks of time, like making it to lunch, then dinner. But it’s enough to keep them going when their body is screaming for them to quit.

And what happened when they achieve those goals? They set new ones. The focus is on always improving because nothing motivates you better than seeing progress. The first time I ran in a marathon, instead of thinking about needing to cover 26 miles, I’d pick someone just ahead of me to catch, then pick another runner a little bit ahead as that person slowed. It worked really well.

Don’t wait until you’re in a grave situation to implement using positive framing and small goal setting. Practice during low stress situations so they become habits. Make positive deals with yourself all the time.

In the military they say, “Train like you fight,” not, “O.K., when it’s for real then we’ll really ramp up.”  Because that’s not what happens. You need to train as hard and as realistically as possible. Otherwise, you won’t rise to the occasion, you’ll likely sink to the lowest level of your training.

Good luck in that missile silo!

Gary Taubes on Joe Rogan

Gary Taubes is a science journalist with a new book, “The Case Against Sugar” (I’ve read both of his earlier books, both are well researched and compelling).

The first one is called “Good Calories, Bad Calories” presents the role of insulin as the culprit of diseases of civilization such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. It’s very thorough and verges on being almost like a text book.

His next book was a more accessible version of the first book. And this third book seems to be along the same line.

Taubes recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast. During their two hour plus chat they covered most of the information the Taubes has uncovered about the role of refined carbohydrates in disease. It’s eye-opening stuff.

If you listen to this entertaining interview, you’ll get most of what you’d get from reading the book(s). Joe asks the questions you’d likely ask and bores down on the big ideas. Some of the information is getting traction and for a better understanding of what’s going on with what we eat give this interview between Gary Taubes and Joe Rogan a listen.

The special snowflake

Everyone believes they’re special. Everybody.

But nobody escapes physics and probability. This Friday’s posting is a short excerpt from a NYT interview with Peter Thiel. It wasn’t an interview about being special, but this funny little nugget was in there about his pal Elon Musk thinking he was exempt from what could happen.

 

Then there was the time they were driving in Mr. Musk’s McLaren F1 car, “the fastest car in the world.” It hit an embankment, achieved liftoff, made a 360-degree horizontal turn, crashed and was destroyed.

“It was a miracle neither of us were hurt,” Mr. Thiel says. “I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which is not advisable. Elon’s first comment was, ‘Wow, Peter, that was really intense.’ And then it was: ‘You know, I had read all these stories about people who made money and bought sports cars and crashed them. But I knew it would never happen to me, so I didn’t get any insurance.’ And then we hitchhiked the rest of the way to the meeting.”

Charlie Munger’s insights

Here’re some strong opinions that have worked well for Charlie Munger who’s the less well known partner of Warren Buffett. The filters and concepts he and Buffett use for investing have produced incredible returns. I’ve shortened some and combined some for clarity:

Often just a few actions that produce most of what we are trying to achieve.

The big thing to do is: avoid being wrong. A lot of success comes from knowing what you really want to avoid. Avoid what might cause the opposite of what you want to achieve because a single, big mistake could wipe out a long string of successes.

Hire people genetically able to recognize and avoid serious risks, including those never before encountered. Look for three things: intelligence, energy, and character. If they don’t have the last one, the first two will kill you.

If a buyer doesn’t care about whose product or service he uses, industry economics are certain to be unexciting, or even disastrous. Take candy bars for example, customers buy by brand name, not by asking for a “two-ounce candy bar”. But it doesn’t work with sugar: people don’t ask for “a coffee with cream and C&H Sugar”.

Look at stocks as part-ownership of a business, and at market fluctuations as your friend to profit from folly rather than participating in it.

Why should we want to play a competitive game in a field where we have no advantage – maybe a disadvantage – instead of playing in a field where we have a clear advantage?

Temperament is also important. Independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior is vital to long-term success.

Use “negative” rules – tell people what they can’t do.

If you want to ruin your civilization, pass laws people can easily cheat. It’s much better to let life be hard – than to create systems that are easy to cheat.

With the Navy Model there’s no excuse. If your ship goes aground, your career is over. It doesn’t matter whether it was your fault or not. It’s a rule for the good of all, all effects considered. Civilization works better with some of these no-fault rules. Considering the net benefit, I don’t care if one captain has some unfairness in his life.

Say no to anything that has a strong chance of killing you.

I walk away from anything I don’t understand or can’t quantify or doesn’t work. I only deal with people I trust.

Extraordinary discipline does not eliminate losses; it does prevent foolish losses. We can say no in 10 seconds to 90%+ of all things, simply because we have these filters.

Evaluate new business ideas using four criteria as filters:
* Can I understand it?
* Does it look like it has some kind of sustainable competitive advantage?
* Is the management composed of able and honest people?
* Is the price right?

A checklist must include each critical item necessary for “safety” and avoiding “accidents” so we don’t need to rely on memory for items to be checked. If there are very important items that aren’t on your checklist, you can crash.

A few major opportunities, clearly recognizable as such, will usually come to one who continuously searches and waits, with a curious mind. There’re often just a few actions that produce most of what we are trying to achieve. We make fewer and better decisions. The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

It’s usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than to resolve the difficult. A good business throws up one easy decision after another, whereas a bad one gives you horrible choices, decisions that are extremely hard to make.

Nobody keeps a record of their erroneous prophecies since they are infinite and everyday. We pay no attention to times when nothing happens. We shouldn’t find significance in amazing past events. Mysteries are not necessarily miracles.

You only have to get rich once. Added money has no utility whatsoever. We never risk something we have and need for something we don’t need.

After years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, we haven’t learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we’ve learned is to avoid them. We’ve concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles we could step over. We haven’t acquired the ability to clear seven-footers.

People go broke because they can’t stop, rethink and say, “I can afford to write this one off and live to fight again. I don’t have to pursue this thing as an obsession.” You must learn how to handle mistakes and new facts that change the odds.

What you won at an auction was really just the right to pay more for something than everyone else thought it was worth.

Nobody can forecast interest or currency rates, the GDP, turning points in the economy, the stock market, etc.

Adding $20k to the payroll should be evaluated as a $3M decision, over lifetime, factoring in raises, benefits, and other expenses.

Don’t underestimate the influence of randomness in bad or good outcomes.

The OTC “pill”

Here’s this Friday’s pick. It’s an article from The Outline about how odd it is that something as safe, easy, and effective as the birth control pill can’t simply be bought without a prescription. This is my condensed version:

Many countries, including China and India, sell birth control over-the-counter. The US and many European countries require a prescription.

Doctors have been arguing since the late 1960s that it could be sold safely without a prescription, and the The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists officially endorsed doing so in 2012. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family also agree that it is safe for over-the-counter use.

It doesn’t, after all, have a lot in common with many prescription medications: It’s not habit-forming, pretty much everyone takes the same dose, it’s preventative so nothing needs to be diagnosed to begin taking it, and it rarely interferes with other medications.

The precautions for the medication are pretty run of the mill, and overall, it’s much less dangerous than many other medicines that are currently available over-the-counter. The birth control pill is linked to very few deaths. In other words: There’s pretty much no reason we need a prescription for the pill, other than the fact that that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Bike lanes and dispensaries

An elderly friend visiting Mexico from Colorado told me that whenever he goes to a party now people from all walks of life seem to use cannabis responsibly and without concern.

Were people not smoking pot, at least in public,  before Colorado’s legalization? Did they think it was bad because it was illegal, or maybe it was illegal because it was bad? Maybe they didn’t want to lie about doing something illegal or engage in the blackmarket to buy pot. Whatever the reasons, apparently more people smoke pot than owned up to it before it became legal.

Consider this, in the 1960’s Copenhagen was as car centric as any other city. Decisions were made a few decades ago to create a vast network of safe, segregated bike lanes criss-crossing the city encouraging people to use their bicycles. Looking at Copenhagen today, you’ll see a constant flow of healthy happy people heading from A to B by bicycle.

If we build safe, reliable and connected infrastructure more cyclists will appear. Likewise, if we enact laws creating a safe and legal situation for adults to use cannabis, more people will likely use cannabis responsibly.