Category Archives: Ideas

Keep it simple

Try to keep things simple. For example, find out what you aren’t good at and don’t do that. Or, from Warren Buffett, “Rule #1: Never lose money. Rule #2: Never forget rule #1.”

It boils down to trying to see the situation clearly and not making mistakes.

Believing that people use reasoning when making important decisions sometimes leads to disappointment. Here’s situation I read somewhere:

“If you play a slot machine long enough, eventually you’ll…what?” The whole group yelled out “WIN!” Well actually, everyone’s a loser in the long run, except for the casino.

They confused the benefits of persistence with the actual odds of succeeding.

It’s the same thing for folks playing the lottery, it’s a loser’s game made for people who’re bad at math.

Try to figure out if the game is rigged, and if you’re good, or not, at playing that game.

Less Stuff

People who have a lot of stuff at home are usually surprised at how much less stuff we have in our house.

Our house’s sparseness isn’t by necessity or due to lack of money. We’re not really minimalists or cheap.

In our case, it’s the result of a system rather than the goal of being minimalists. By just optimizing our lives for happiness rather than maximum consumption we just wound up with less stuff.

There’s less to worry about, clean, or have to make room for. Having less stuff is an easier and simpler way to go through life. End of story.

Longer Douglas Coupland quotes

Earth was not built for six billion people all running around and being passionate about things. The world was built for about two million people foraging for roots and grubs.

After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of earth? What one moment for you defines what it’s like to be alive on this planet. What’s your takeaway? Fake yuppie experiences that you had to spend money on, like white water rafting or elephant rides in Thailand don’t count. I want to hear some small moment from your life that proves you’re really alive.

When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. You can immediately assume so many things: that they’re locked into jobs they hate; that they’re broke; that they spend every night watching videos; that they’re fifteen pounds overweight; that they no longer listen to new ideas. It’s profoundly depressing.

Clique Maintenance: The need of one generation to see the generation following it as deficient so as to bolster its own collective ego: Kids today do nothing. They’re so apathetic. We used to go out and protest. All they do is shop and complain.

But I guess the nice thing about driving a car is that the physical act of driving itself occupies a good chunk of brain cells that otherwise would be giving you trouble overloading your thinking. New scenery continually erases what came before; memory is lost, shuffled, relabeled and forgotten. Gum is chewed; buttons are pushed; windows are lowered and opened. A fast moving car is the only place where you’re legally allowed to not deal with your problems. It’s enforced meditation and this is good.

Short Douglas Coupland quotes

There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Figure out what it is in life you don’t do well, and then don’t do it.

You can’t get mad at weather because weather’s not about you. Apply that lesson to most other aspects of life.

Life need not be a story, but it does need to be an adventure.

Nothing very very good and nothing very very bad lasts for very very long.

Q: If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be? A: You already are an animal.

Most of us have only two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives; the rest is filler.

Healthy people are bad for capitalism.

Bleeding Ponytail: An elderly sold out baby boomer who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days.

Their god was called Gun

Maybe you’ve heard this little story about aliens visiting us. Aliens, on first observing humans, might think we serve dogs. As soon a dog poops, their attending human quickly recovers the precious gift from the dog in a special bag.

Maybe future historians, after reviewing the actions of modern Americans, might assume the American religion was built around a god called Gun. They’d see the records of mass killings using guns occurring fairly regularly, daily self sacrifices using guns, and the constant settling of disputes (usually with someone close to the shooter) with guns. Future historians would even discover there’re more pre-schoolers shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are in a typical year.

These future historians might speculate that mental illness, criminal activity, or racial issues were the root of the problem before coming to the conclusion current researchers have come to. Namely that American violence comes down to the vast number of guns in America. These findings could lead future historians to theorize that the  US culture’s predominate god is named Gun.

They’re a couple of good articles about in the NYT , here and here, about gun violence and possible solutions. Here’re a few takeaways from the articles. The bottom line is this: The only variable explaining the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

Worldwide, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when excluding the US, indicating that it couldn’t be explained by some other factor particular. And it held when controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence. 

Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population but own 42% of the world’s guns. Only in the U.S. do we lose one person every 15 minutes to gun violence.

While there’s crime in other countries, American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

While mass shootings can happen anywhere, they are only a matter of routine in the US.

In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths from accidental discharge. That same year in Japan, a country with one-third America’s population, guns were involved in only 13 deaths. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times higher than Japan’s.

The US is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the assumption that people have an inherent right to own guns. But the US has determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.

Gun safety or reducing gun violence should be framed as a public health issue using auto safety as a model with its constant efforts to make the products safer and limiting access by people who are most likely to misuse them.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95% since 1921.

States where guns are more regulated tend to have lower gun death rates.

But the problem is that lax laws too often make it easy not only for good guys to get guns, but also for bad guys to get guns. The evidence is overwhelming that overall more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries. One study found that a gun in the house was associated with an increased risk of a gun death, particularly by suicide but also by homicide.

Although it’s mass shootings that get our attention, they’re not the main cause of loss of life. Much more typical is a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife – or, most common of all, a man who kills himself.

Skeptics will say that if people want to kill themselves, there’s nothing we can do. In fact, it turns out that if you make suicide more difficult, suicide rates drop.

After tightening gun laws, firearm homicide rates dropped 40 percent in Connecticut. And after Missouri eased gun laws, gun homicide rates rose 25 percent.

Our laws have often focused more on weapons themselves (such as the assault weapons ban) rather than on access. In many places, there is more rigorous screening of people who want to adopt dogs than of people who want to purchase firearms. A car or gun is usually safe in the hands of a 45-year-old woman with no criminal record, but may be dangerous when used by a 19-year-old felon with a history of alcohol offenses or domestic violence protection orders.

Sunday’s horror at a church in Texas was 100% predictable. After each such incident, we mourn the deaths and sympathize with the victims, but we do nothing fundamental to reduce our vulnerability. The question isn’t whether we’ll restrict firearms, but where to draw the line. The real impetus for change will come because the public favors it.

Black helicopters in Finland

“Black helicopters are part of a conspiracy theory claiming special silent running “black” helicopters are used by secret agents of the New World Order… in short, any farfetched theory concerning any government or other conspiracy…” from the Urban dictionary.

About six weeks ago, my wife and I happened to chat briefly with a Finnish guy in restaurant. He lives a couple of hundred kilometers north of Helsinki, in the middle of nowhere.

We were in Estonia, a small country across the Baltic sea from Sweden. It didn’t take long for him to figure out we were Americans and he said he wanted to ask us something. He wanted to know if the 9/11 attacks in the US actually happened. We assured him it was true. And that the moon landings in the late sixties happened too.

For a guy living in the middle of nowhere from the standpoint of US culture, he was pretty up to date on conspiracy theories, ones predating “fake news.” With the internet, conspiracy theories are like a mutant pollen drifting across continents. And apparently there’re minds receptive to mutant pollen all over the world.

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.

 

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.

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.

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