Category Archives: Ideas

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

The giving pledge

Jeff Bezos is a clever guy with unique approaches in business. Now he’s reached out through Twitter for philanthropy ideas to address problems “here and now,” it could be a new direction for philanthropy.

Some people feel like alleviating  misery better use of their money than promoting joys – like orchestras, university programs, and the like. Both are doing good and sharing wealth with society at large.

Lots of the very wealthiest people join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime.

As part of their pledge, they write letters describing their giving philosophies. For example, George B. Kaiser, an Oklahoma oil and finance guy purportedly worth about $8 billion wrote this

“I recognized early on that my good fortune was not due to superior personal character or initiative so much as it was to dumb luck. I was blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents. So, I had the advantage of both genetics … and upbringing.”

He feels “morally bound to help those left behind by the accident of birth. Though almost all of us grew up believing in the concept of equal opportunity, most of us simultaneously carried the unspoken and inconsistent ‘dirty little secret’ that genetics drove much of accomplishment so that equality was not achievable.”

By channeling a lot of his giving to early childhood education he hopes to promote kids’ genetic endowments.

As Bezos’s wealth climbs, it’s around billion and growing, it’ll be interesting to see what impact his philanthropy has.

It doesn’t matter who gets shot

It doesn’t seem to matter who gets shot. A congressman and others were shot while practicing baseball and nothing much has come of it so far.

I guess looking back at Sandy Hook, America decided, through its inaction on gun control, that killing children was ok. So what’s the big deal if a congressman gets seriously wounded by being shot in the hip? Was the lack of response to the Sandy Hook killings the end of the debate over gun control?

Why is it so hard to implement any solutions to what is really a public health issue. Probably because the vast majority of gun owners are behaving within the law. But when a few act out (killing and injuring innocent people) it reflects badly on the majority. There must be some acceptable controls that can be put in place.

The extra cookie

I ran across this interesting metaphorical story on Kottke.org that uses a cookie to illustrate the connection between luck and privilege. I’ve shortened it a little:

In 2012, Michael Lewis gave the commencement speech at Princeton, his alma mater. Near the end of his speech, Lewis, who wrote Moneyball and The Big Short, addressed luck’s role in rationalizing success. He told the graduates, who’re already winners in so many of life’s lotteries, that they “owe a debt to the unlucky.” 

A few years ago, a psychology department staged an experiment using students. They broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams into a room, arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader and gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there.

It should’ve been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group.

Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

Industrialized communication

I don’t generally use social media because there’s just not much that’s interesting enough to make scrolling through worth the bother. But I do realize  most people like it.

What happens when you take a break from it? Here’s what a heavy user found after taking a break from social media for a week. “Not a single person noticed that I had stopped using social media. (Not enough to tell me anyway.) Perhaps if it had been two weeks? For me, this reinforced that social media is actually not a good way to “stay connected with friends”. Social media aggregates interactions between loved ones so that you get industrialized communication rather than personal connection. No one really notices if a particular person goes missing because they’re just one interchangeable node in a network.”

One-on-one communication is degraded a bit using electronics because some context and so many subtle physical cues become unavailable. Most effective communications happen best in person, then by phone, and finally via email.

When an author was asked how he was able to gather so much material for his book, he said his secret was, “The lesson I’ve learned again and again is this: when you see folks in person, they’re motivated to look for and pull out old things, and that doesn’t happen when you simply call them on the phone.”

When you can do it, personal communication trumps industrialized communication. Here’s a good talk on conversation with NPR host Celeste Headlee.

Whitehouse woes

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s the phenomenon in which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence. Looking at the situation in the Whitehouse from the outside and without all the data, President Trump looks like the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So is Trump the orange tapeworm of American politics or a victim of an enormous witch hunt?  It seems like we’re getting ready to find out.

If he is a problem, I hope the medicine required to expel him isn’t too disruptive to the system. Maybe he’ll step down to save face, which will be the least disruptive medicine.

A generational shift

How many people under 30 use a wristwatch? Not many. They grew up using a cellphone for a time piece. These snippets of info about US golf courses shutting down might be another interesting generational shift:

”Playing golf was once a celebrated pastime. But today, many of the country’s golf courses are on the brink of shutting down or have already closed. Over 800 golf courses have shuttered across the US in the past decade, and data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association has shown that millennials between the ages of 18 and 30 lack interest in playing the game.”

Do the closures reflect changing preferences for leisure activities? Since 2003, participation in golf is down 20% according to the National Golf Foundation. Plus, Nike and Adidas have stopped making golf clubs. I haven’t met many young people who play golf, most golfer I know are well past fifty.

What happens to the real estate occupied by those shuttered 800 golf courses? Maybe there’s a higher or better use for land than as golf courses. Some have donated golf course land to nature trusts and local parks, taking a tax break in return for preserving the open space. That also alleviates the fertilizers and pesticides that are needed to maintain a golf course.

The golf industry went through a building boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, driven by developers using the golf courses to help sell homes. Many shuttered courses were built on land that’s protected from redevelopment either by local zoning codes seeking to preserve open space, or by deed restrictions intended to protect homeowners who paid a premium to live near a golf course. What will they do?

I’m not for or against playing golf, but I’m curious to see how this will unfold.