How Humans Play


From Natural Athletics comes a wonderfully descriptive post from Rafe Kelley regarding a recent training day of “parkour” or “natural movement” (a la MovNat or Methode Naturelle), which I think is simply human play. Sit back, read a snippet, and if you want it in full, go to Rafe’s site:

The weather is beautiful, so we decide to make the trip down to Larrabee State Park, an amazing area of beautiful old forests and a rocky beach with formations of Chuckanut sandstone carved into fantastic shapes for climbing by wind and rain. …

[So] we simply go, running along fallen logs, vaulting rails along the trail. Then, deeper into the woods, running downslope, leaping up and over a fallen tree and taking a large gap across a creek–too much fun; had to do it twice, taking the even bigger thirteen foot or so gap on the way back, this one over a waterfall. Downslope again, slipping sliding to the lower creek bed, two step tic tac off a fallen log across the stream and continue on upslope, which ends with a chest high rock–vault on top, keep running. Upslope again, boulders strewn across, pull on them to gain leverage, a vault here, a jump there, finish the slope, wait for Dane to catch up. More slope ahead, dirt trail, fallen logs, boulders; perfect.

Time for a race, a no holds barred race, inspired by Teghead–a traceur from the UK. We’re off, both go for the pull on the arms, hands in the face, spinning–Dane’s getting in front, I dive for his leg, pull him around, clinched up almost falling down slope, I have to avoid the log, break, he’s spinning–shove–I am in the clear, put that rock between him and me, almost there–aha, top of the slope. So fun, but so tiring.

We catch our breath, looking out down the beach. There is a point sticking out 800 yards away as a crow flies, maybe a mile overland, rocky beach the whole way. Is our training only for sprints I ask myself? This what I have needed to do, a real run. “Lets go here to there,” I say, “No stops.” We’re off, moving smooth at first, scrambling over the rocks, hugging faces, ocean inches away. Quick traverses, spinning around obstacles, up and through holes in the rock, vaulting up to boulders, balancing on driftwood, a quarter of the way…Tired. Dane passes me, he isn’t slowing down. Quads burning, no more power moves, I’m struggling just to run. Watching my feet, gotta keep running, but have to stay safe, every foot placement has to be secure, 100% focus. Dane is out of sight. I round the bend; he is climbing the last face, the last cove is between me and him, just small rocks and then the end. I want to slow to a walk so bad–doesn’t matter, have to finish–watching every foot placement, every foot placement, slippery rocks in the stream, can they be trusted, jump, jump, I guess so. We are almost done, roots hanging from the slope, traverse and ascend, I pull myself over the final lip. There’s Dane looking out at the water. I lay down. He wins this round.

We’re moving on, tide going out. Sandy beach now. We find some rocks–big rocks–the biggest one we can move. It looks like a shark head, maybe some 200 pounds. Full squat, bear hug, lift and carry. Dane’s turn; it doesn’t come off the ground–a point for me. We find some rocks, throw them, press them, carry them. Dane finds a big one, clean and press. Damn, that looks heavy. My turn. I press, get stuck in the middle, can’t finish; bring it back down, split jerk, full overhead, unstable, bail out from under it.

Onwards, almost to the end. We come to a big sloped wall. Amazing horizontal wall run; my feet slip when I try to hug it too close. Next time, even though I know this, am telling myself ‘Lean out, lean out.’ It’s damn scary, but it works. Every foot placement is solid and I’m running. High drop to the ledge after the wall run is awesome. Dane is climbing. Climb up 70 feet off the ground. We look out. So beautiful: San Juan island in the west, tip of the snow-capped Cascades in the south. Finally, we make it to Clayton Beach for big kongs over a massive rock into the sand to finish the day, climb up the last rock and watch the sunset.

I’ll be sore for a week.

Thanks, Rafe! Inspiring.

Dr. Mary Newport, Coconut Oil, Ketones, and Dementia

Originally emailed to family, I want to share this here, as well.

[H]ere’s a pdf file that talks about Dr. Mary Newport’s experimentation with coconut oil and her dementia/alzheimer’s suffering husband and the improvements she’s seen as an apparent result of this experimentation (File size ~700KB).

The gist is that coconut oil has a shorter length saturated fat that gets converted by the liver into ketone bodies. Ketones are used by our bodies for energy and our brains and heart both apparently like ketones a lot. The tie-in to dementia is that it may be the case that dementia is being caused by our brains losing the ability to burn glucose (the metabolic unit created from carbohydrates) for energy; therefore, over time our brain cells start starving and dying. In these cases, ketones subvert the busted glucose metabolic pathway and get the nerve cells the energy they require.

Obviously, it’s hard to say for sure based on her anecdotal research alone if this is a true ‘cure’ or preventative measure for Alzheimer’s, but really, given there is no particularly effective cure or treatment for the disease, giving a couple tablespoons of coconut oil a day to someone suffering from dementia is easy to do and worth a shot. Spread the word.

H/T Seth.

Natto: Another fermented food I probably should be eating

How appetizing is this? Creative Commons License photo credit: jasja dekker

Prior to Seth Roberts mentioning it on his blog (here), I had never heard of the Japanese dish called “Natto,” which is a fermented soybean product. Apparently, it contains a great deal of Vitamin K2, is anti-bad-bacterial, and effectively lyses human thrombus. If you’re like me, that last bit probably made no sense to you, so below are some definitions until I paste liberally from an interview on Natto held with a Japanese expert on the food, Professor Hiroyuki Sumi, who has been nicknamed “Dr. Natto.”

  • Nattō – “A high protein food consisting of sticky, fermented whole soybeans cooked in Bacillus natto.”
  • lyse – “To dissolve or destroy.”
  • thrombus – “A clot within the cardiovascular system. It may occlude (block) the vessel or may be attached to the wall of the vessel without blocking the blood flow.”
  • fibrinolytic – “Fibrinolysis is the process wherein a fibrin clot, the product of coagulation, is broken down.”

The K2 angle on Natto is particularly fascinating, particularly in light of how expensive it is to supplement K2 via products like butter oil. I’ve been wondering in reading more into fermentation from sources like Seth Roberts when I would see a tie-in to Vitamin K2, which is produced by our own gut bacteria as noted below.

In an experiment conducted out of sheer curiosity, I found that natto contained a strong enzyme that lyses thrombus.

I am Japanese and regularly eat natto, so one day I took some natto to my laboratory. That was in 1980. I usually prepared thrombus in a laboratory dish and measured its strength by adding urokinase to it, but that day, I added natto instead. I found that natto contained a strong fibrinolytic enzyme, judging from the large area lysed. After coming back to Japan, I repeated various experiments, and first presented the results of my research in 1986. NHK and various newspapers reported my discovery of the enzyme named ’nattokinase ’,and before I knew it, I had become Dr. Natto. Originally, I was interested in fermentation. After I graduated from the Department of Fermentation Technology at Yamanashi University, I entered the Department of Medicine because I wanted to continue my study of enzymes further. In the field of fermentation, Japanese technology is the most advanced in the world. I think this is the field in which we achieve our most original results.

I studied more than 200 foods from all over the world, but none surpassed natto in terms of fibrinolytic activity.

――What are the functions of nattokinase and Vitamin K2, which are contained in natto?

Dr. Sumi: It is said that natto became a popular food in the Edo period, and that the voice of natto sellers was constantly heard in the city of Edo.Regarding the effects of natto,there are many anecdotes concerning its efficacy for stomachache, and flu, and for helping women give a birth. This is because natto has a high nutritive value and is easy for the body to absorb. In addition, natto has an antibacterial effect. In the old days, food poisoning was very common, and people used natto in order to prevent cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

Natto is highly antibacterial, and also contains di-picolinic acid, which suppresses O-157.

In a food dictionary of the Edo period, it is written that natto neutralizes poisons and stimulates the appetite.Neutralize poisons refers to an antibacterial effect. Recently, it has been found that natto contains di-picolinic acid, which suppresses O-157, and that natto has an antibiotic effect. Natto suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria while encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus. The best-known component of natto is nattokinase, an enzyme that lyses thrombus. Recently, the Japanese diet has come to resemble the American one, and consequently, the incidence of thrombosis in Japan has increased. The incidence of thrombosis in the heart and brain is higher than that of cancer, if myocardial infarction and cerebral infarction are included in the total. Natto has attracted attention as a food that helps to prevent senile dementia, which is one type of thrombosis, because nattokinase lyses thrombus for a very long time when eaten directly instead of taken by injection.

Vitamin K2 in natto is essential for preventing osteoporosis.

Natto contains another useful component, named Vitamin K2. It is said that 60% of women over the age of 60 suffer from osteoporosis, which Vitamin K2 helps to prevent. In order to maintain healthy bones, a number of studies suggest that it is important to obtain Calcium and Vitamin D from milk. Recently, however, it was found that a protein named osteocalcin acts as a kind of glue that helps to incorporate Calcium into the bones, and that Vitamin K2 is necessary in order to produce this protein. Furthermore, according to the results of recent epidemiological research, the amount of Vitamin K2 in the body of people who suffer from osteoporosis is decreasing compared with that of healthy people.

Obtaining sufficient Vitamin K2 is not a problem for healthy people, because they have a colon bacillus that is constantly producing Vitamin K2 in the alimentary canal. However, when people become older, or take medicine containing antibiotics, this bacillus weakens and produces less Vitamin K2. It is becoming clear that Vitamin K2 produced by this bacterium is closely connected with the prevention of osteoporosis, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare has approved Vitamin K2 as a medicine for osteoporosis. Unlike natto, yeast, a lactobacillus, and Koji do not contain Vitamin K2 that comes from a bacterium. Bacillus natto is a unique bacterium throughout the world, and moreover people can ingest it in the raw. Therefore, natto is receiving considerable attention as the only food that contains Vitamin K2 from a bacterium.

Vitamin K2 has the chemical name menaquinone 7. At present, Vitamin K1, or menaquinone 4, is synthesized for use in the medicines approved by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. When the components of blood are analyzed, one vitamin that is found more often in healthy people than in osteoporotic people is menaquinone 7. A lack of menaquinone 7 causes osteoporosis. Because Bacillus natto produces menaquinone 7, eating natto helps to prevent osteoporosis. It is important to obtain the fundamental components of bones by consuming milk and Shiitake mushrooms, but Vitamin K2 is also necessary. Menaquinone 7 has only recently appeared in the analysis data of the Science and Technology agency, and samples are not on sale yet.

It is possible to obtain enough vitamin K2 from one packet (100 g) of natto.

One hundred grams of natto contains approximately 1,000μg of menaquinone 7. A normal person is supposed to consume 1μg per 1 kg of body weight each day, which means that a person of 60 kg should consume 60μg of menaquinone 7. Therefore, 10 g of natto supplies enough menaquinone for one day. If the colon bacillus is weakened, a packet of natto supplies a sufficient amount of menaquinone 7.

As a result of attempts to make natto more palatable, the amount of its effective components decreased.

Extremely undeveloped natto has been increasing as a result of attempts to make natto more palatable, especially for people in the Kansai area in Japan. Such natto has a weaker odor and is less sticky. When the US authorities occupied Japan in 1945, they prohibited the sale of natto because they thought that cholera and typhoid were often caused by such a rotten food. Since then, about three types of purely cultured bacillus have been used to make natto. As a result, natto became tastier and safer, but on the other hand, the amount of the anti-bacterial material, Vitamin K2, and nattokinase decreased. Comparing a 1936 report on the components of natto and its activity with current data, it is found that the anti-bacterial component has dramatically decreased.

James Hogan’s Four Principles for Effective Dieting

James Hogan recently posted his “four principles for effective dieting,” which were developed from his personal experience with dieting. It’s a great read on what has worked for James (and as he says, this is a nine-year trend in the making). Comparing notes to my own experiences (Better Health via IF and Low-Carb), I see a lot of overlap. In particular, regular measuring, incremental change, and intermittent fasting (which somewhat translates into Johnson’s Up-Day Down Day) all worked well for me. Of all of those things, I think fasting is the best way to improve your habits because it so starkly breaks rank with existing eating habits.

I also really liked how Hogan articulates targeting the “Healthy Stretch.” I liken this to falling into the dieting “zone.”

Anyway, it’s worth the read in full, so I’m just going to excerpt James’ the four top-level principles:

  • Manage your motivation — “So, the most important thing you can do while losing weight is to successfully manage your motivation.”
  • Use data — “Measuring and using data helps us in two ways. It helps us understand the consequences of our actions more accurately than we’d otherwise be able to. It’s also motivating.”
  • Try different approaches — “Try different approaches. Observe which pieces work (and keep them) and which don’t work (and discard them). Don’t become disheartened if an approach fails …”
  • The alternate-day diet — “The structure of the diet is that you eat a very low number of calories some days (20-50% of the amount required to maintain your weight — your “break even” amount), and a higher number of calories on alternate days. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might target closer to 20% on the “down days,” and if you’re trying to maintain your weight, you might target closer to 50%.”

Finally, I like noting that I know James through Patri through the Seasteading Institute. I suppose I know Patri from having read David Friedman’s blog originally and stumbling into Patri’s works on the old Catallarchy site. What’s fun about these somewhat unpredictable connections is that my old childhood (and adult friend – he was a groomsman of mine) friend Andy happened to be the primary creator/writer for Johnson of the UDDD. The internet: making the world a smaller place a day at a time.

Geoffrey West on Scaling Laws in Biology and Other Complex Systems…406426776765294

Randomly came across this video of a lecture given at Google by Geoffrey West on how biological “laws” scale. For example, flow through capillaries and metabolic rate scale from small to large organisms. What is mind-boggling is how metabolic rate scales “over 27 orders of magnitude.” The video is almost an hour long and is pretty dense, but the first 20 minutes or so explain the metabolic scaling, which is incredible. The last ten minutes apply the idea to social organizations (starting around 47 minutes in). Apparently, human organizations actually scale at 1.05 (versus 3/4).

The big takeaways for me: simply, for complex systems to work, they must scale. On a more complicated level, evolution is a blind process of trial and error that nonetheless created fantastically scalable, complex, decentralized systems that aren’t given to catastrophic failures. Therefore, it’s reasonable to postulate that, as opposed to using central, pointed, monopolistic planning (Think: few iterations) to design systems that scale without catastrophic loss, perhaps we should default to decentralized, immensely iterative trial and error as our basis for system design. The former is unnatural, the latter organic. The former is monarchistic, the latter anarchistic. The latter provably works whereas the former has failed over and over and over again.

Geoffrey West’s takeaway: “One, that inevitably [for biological systems] the bigger you are, the slower the pace of life—your heart rate decreases, your life span is longer and so on. In social organizations the bigger you are, cities in particular, the faster life is.”

Final note, I’m reminded of Gilbert’s super-replicator idea in Stumbling on Happiness.

The abstract on the video:

Life is very likely the most complex phenomenon in the Universe manifesting an extraordinary diversity of form and function over an enormous range. Yet, many of its most fundamental and complex attributes scale with size in a surprisingly simple fashion. For example, metabolic rate (the power required to sustain the system) scales as approximately the 3/4-power of mass over 27 orders of magnitude from molecular levels up to the largest multicellular organisms. Similarly, time-scales, such as lifespans and growth-rates, increase with exponents which are typically simple powers of 1/4. It will be shown how these universal quarter-power scaling laws follow from fundamental generic principles embedded in the dynamics and geometry of underlying networks, leading to a general quantitative theory that captures essential features of many diverse biological systems. Examples will include animal and plant vascular systems, growth, cancer, aging and mortality, sleep, DNA nucleotide substitution rates. These ideas will be extended to discuss social organisations such as cities and firms: to what extent, if at all, can we think of these as very large organisms and therefore as an extension of biology? Analogues to metabolic rate and behavioral times in cities scale counter to their behaviour in biology. Driven by innovation and the creation of wealth this has dramatic implications for their growth, development, sustainability and pace of life which, left unchecked, potentially sow the seeds for their collapse.

Seth Godin: “The internet has allowed an enormous amount of fake networking to take place.”…socialgood.html

(Originally tweeted here and here – Not on twitter? Join and Follow me!)

Just watched a brief two minute Q&A from Seth Godin, marketing guru. Godin answers a question from an audience member about social networking and small business. His response indicts social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter as potentially “fake networking.” And it’s hard to dispute his simple argument: if you have 5,000 facebook friends or 20,000 twitter followers, does it really matter if none of these people will go to bat for you when you really need them to? Networking has (traditionally) implied that a relationship translates into real action.

Godin is asking an important question: where does the rubber meet the road on social networking? It’s hard to say. The same criticism is levied by David Wong in his piece on 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable. Sure you’ve got a bunch of internet “friends,” but if all they are doing is sending you wall posts on your birthday and are otherwise nowhere to be found in your life, does it really matter?

I’ll save the flipside to this argument for another time. Here’s two quotes from the clip from Seth Godin:

Networking is always important when its real and it’s always a useless distraction when it’s fake. …

The internet has allowed an enormous amount of fake networking to take place.

Ok I have one more thought I want to share: my facebook/twitter policy: I keep my facebook profile somewhat elite and restricted to friends in realspace or internet-friends with whom I’ve had extensive interactions. With twitter, on the other hand, anything goes. I think social networking on twitter, as “fake” or cheap as it may be, still can serve a purpose. More on this later.

Also see my brief explanation of the difference between Facebook and Twitter.

The Anti-Authority Authority [A Doctor’s Disclaimer]

I’ve begun reading Robert “Bob” Sears’ The Vaccine Book. Despite what you might be thinking, the impetus to begin learning more about baby (and child) vaccine’s actually came from my wife. I’m not always obsessed with needing for info!

Having just started the book (Just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness), I was immediately struck by a paragraph in the Preface which not only plays the skeptic to doctors generally, but also disclaims the authority of the writer. It’s this anti-authority slant, where someone who is perceived as an authority casts doubt on himself and other perceived experts, that I find so important*. In the field of medicine, where the egos of doctors are bigger than the size XL scrubs they so frequently don, this sort of disclaimer strikes me as particularly unusual, but nice to see!

Some people feel that vaccine books aren’t necessary; after all, why not just ask your doctor if vaccines are abolutely necessary and safe and leave it at that? It takes all of one minute, then you’re done. no research or effort on your part is needed. Here’s the problem with that approach. Doctors, myself included, learn a blot about diseases in medical school, but we learn very little about vaccines, other than the fact that hte FDA and pharmaceutical companies do extensive research on vaccines to make sure they are safe and effective. We don’t review the research ourselves. We never learn what goes into making vaccines or how their safety is studied. We trust and take it for granted that the proper researchers are doing their jobs. So, when patients want a little more information about shots, all we can really say as doctors is that the diseases are bad and the shots are good. But we don’t know enough to answer all of your detailed questions about vaccines. …

Even though vaccines are important, you as a parent are still entitled to know what you are giving your child. you have a responsibility (and a desire) to make informed health care decisions for your family.

*Notably, a real slick charlatan knows the importance of this disclaimer, too, so it’s by no means an “all clear” indicator that the disclaiming expert actually knows anything.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Finished reading Stumbling on Happiness (SoH) by Daniel Gilbert last night, which weighs at about 240 pages and is an easy and informative discussion of the human mind, how we perceive the past and future, and our own ineptitude at understanding what makes us happy. It’s explicitly not a self-help book or a guide to finding happiness. SoH is more an expose on how our minds work to deal with reality, remember the past, and predict the future.

In short, we’re not very good at doing any of the above and Gilbert does a pretty excellent job at explaining why.

While reading SoH, I marked various pages that I found particularly insightful. I’m sharing those bits and pieces below, as transcribed from the book.

Note: This “review” is a bit long because I’m recording some of the core concepts of SoH for future reference (If I don’t do this, I’ll probably forget them!).

On the importance of control with regard to human well-being (Chapter 1, Prospection and Control):

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the futrue even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

[Regarding why we want control,] There are two answers to this question, one of which is surprisingly right and the other of which is surprisingly wrong.

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective … is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed …

… Research suggests that if [we] lose [our] ability to control things at any point between [our] entrance [into the world] and exit, [we] become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. …

Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable.

We want—and we should want—to control the direction of our [lives] because some futures are better than others … This idea is so obvious that it barely seems worth mentioning, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Indeed, I am going to spend the rest of this book mentioning it because it will probably take more than a few mentions to convince you that what looks like an obvious idea is, in fact, the surprisingly wrong answer to our question. We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

In other words, the futures we expect to have given we do X or Y are never the same way as we expect them to be when we imagine them now.

On our brains doing the “filling-in” trick and imagining thing we could not know (Chapter 4, Onward). This reminds me of jumping to conclusions or the logical fallacy of the “hasty generalization,” though both fail to capture what our minds are doing, which is using a great deal of spackling to fill in holes.

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. …

Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went … We see things that aren’t really there and we remember things that didn’t really happen, and while these may sound like symptoms of mercury poisoning, they are actually critical ingredients in the recipe for a seamlessly smooth and blessedly normal reality. … Even though we are aware … of the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

And on how the brain leaves things out (Chapter 5, Absence in the Present), Gilbert cites Francis Bacon:

Nearly four centuries ago, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious:

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.

I’ll circle back to this later, but this is strikingly similar to our abilities to justify action over inaction, which Gilbert addresses later in the book.

Gilbert further illustrates how our brains leave out important details in discussing siamese twins and blind people who are unquestionably happy. Those of us without such disabilities have a hard time appreciating how individuals stricken with a dehabilitating problem could be just as, if not more happy than us. That is because our brains leave out important details. Regarding blind people, Gilbert writes (Chapter 5, Absence in the Future):

[W]hen sighted people imagine being blind, they seem to forget that blindness is not a full-time job. Blind people can’t see, but they do most of the things that sighted people do—they go on picnics, pay their taxes, listen to music, get stuck in traffic—and thus they are just as happy as ighted people are. They can’t do everything sighted people can do, sighted people can’t do everything that they can do, and thus blind and sighted lives are not identical. But whatever a blind person’s life is like, it is about much more than blindness. And yet, when sighted people imagine being blind, they fail to imagine all other things that such a life might be about, hence they mispredict how satisfying such a life can be.

Later in Chapter 5 Gilbert makes the astute analogy between how when we see off in the distance of space, our brains understand that we are unable to make out many details of the far-off objects, like the hairs on buffalo far off in the horizon; however, when we see off in the distance of time (either remembering the past or imagining the future), we fail to appreciate the many details our temporal perception may leave out (On the Event Horizon):

But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that the details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them.

One interesting part of the book describes how we use our brain hardware to imagine. This means that when we imagine a song or a picture in our heads, we trigger the parts of the brain that deal with visual or audio stimuli. This works reasonably well, but it is difficult for our brains to multi-task the hardware, which means that when we are feeling a certain way, that feeling impacts our imagining of something else – like the past or future. Gilbert writes (Chapter 6, Onward):

Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. … We think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transencd the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism …

Gilbert goes on to discuss the balance our minds strike between the real and the illusory, and that this balance is achieved by the competing forces of what motivates us (the illusory) and what keeps us grounded (the real). He writes in Chapter 8, Cooking with Facts:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Rather than thinking people as hopelessly Panglossian, then, we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness.

The idea of our minds as having an immune system over otherwise cold-hard depressing truths is particularly apt. How often are we able to find the silver-lining on the darkest, most depressing of clouds? Indeed, this is almost certainly an evolved trait that forces us to press onward despite real, painful realities.

Two of the best ideas that Gilbert illustrates in SoH demonstrate the implications of having a psychological immune system. For one, the present of this mental immune system incites us to prefer action over inaction (Chapter 9, Looking Forward to Looking Backward):

But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did

But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. … The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice,we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

The second point is that despite how we seem to believe we want as much choice and freedom as possible, our psychological immune system is so effective at its job that we are often better off without choice because the restrictions imposed by unchangeable decisions elicit compensatory justification by our minds, which enables us to make peace and appreciate our somewhat restricted positions (The Inescapability Trigger):

The costs and benefits of freedom are clear—but alas, they are not equally clear: We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.

Somewhat related to Bacon’s observation that we tend to ignore the absences is the reality that unusual experiences stand out in our minds, tricking us into thinking they are the norm, when we are forgetting that the norm is the usual. Said better by Gilbert in Chapter 10, The Least Likely of Times:

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

In SoH Gilbert explains the idea of super-replicators, an idea explaining why certain genes are transmitted successfully, and applies this idea to belief systems. The super-replicator idea is simply that “any ( gene | idea ) that promotes its own “means of transmission” will be represented in increasing proportions in the population over time.” The idea of the super-replicator immediately elicits thoughts of the spreading of religion (and hark remembrances of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash):

If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. … [T]here are several such properties that increase a beleif’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy.

I’d substitute usefulness or efficacy for accuracy, but the point is well made. There are ideas, both good and bad, that propagate and self-replicate. Gilbert goes into details on some of these ideas, perhaps the most prominent being the belief that money == happiness. The entire notion of self-replicating ideas is a great meta idea that, though related to how we perceive the world, could probably be expanded and written on in its own book.

At the end of SoH, Daniel Gilbert suggests a solution to help deal with our innately handicapped ability to perceive the future (and know what will make us happy). It’s pretty simple: observe others who are experiencing what you either will experience or want to experience. Watch how they feel because more often than not, the way they feel given a set of circumstances is likely to be how you would feel under the same. Gilbert calls this using surrogates, and it makes a lot of sense in theory though I can imagine it being incredibly difficult to put into practice. This is because we overestimate our own uniqueness in relation to other human beings when. As noted earlier, we are blind to how a blind man could be as happy as we are because we only see their blindness as a unique difference rather than seeing the gross majority of similarities.

All in all, some great insights are elicited in Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I have to recommend it!

Mr. Taleb Goes to Washington…goes-washington

Marion Maneker of The Big Money (part of Slate) has a nice article on Nassim Nicholas Taleb that discusses Taleb’s recent attendance at the Wall Street Journal’s “Future of Finance” conference in Washington D.C. The article describes righteous indignation at the ongoing and deepening financial calamity and what he suggests might be a more robust financial system. It’s a good read it is entirety, though below I’m saving down the major takeaways.

Taleb recently expounded upon the charlatan theme (and their positive advice) on his personal “blog.” Also, note Taleb’s closing words and see if you aren’t reminded of Jon Stewart’s big point in his recent interview with Jim Cramer.

… Taleb’s anger at the economic establishment [3] that drove us over this cliff—and populates the Journal’s conference—makes him a representative figure of ordinary people. Like most Americans, Taleb is seething with rage about the financial establishment’s role in bringing the about credit crash. “Nobody saw the crisis coming,” he says. “Bernanke, all these guys, I want them out. They proved incompetent, they crashed the plane.”

Unlike us … Taleb is comfortable with the theory and practice that undergirds the whole system of options, derivatives, and risk management that has spun so recklessly out of control. That talent mixed with his righteous anger makes him a rare bird: an Everyman who can do the equations. …

In normal times, the conferencariat are an arrogant bunch. This is something [Alan Murray of the WSJ] knows well from his travels on the conference circuit, which begins each year with the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Davos is usually filled with people who have all the answers,” Murray says. “What was so striking about Davos this year was all these people, for once, didn’t have all the answers. No one could tell you with certainty what was happening or what needed to be done.”

No one but Nassim Taleb. Before Davos, Murray read The Black Swan. At the conference, the newspaperman and the trader had many conversations over the course of four days. Murray came to the conclusion that Taleb was the iconic figure of Davos in 2009. “In my mind, he had the perfect message for the moment.” …

[As for the Future of Finance conference, Taleb] left after dinner the first night. While the 130-person conference debated the government’s new regulations that George Soros described as merely “tinkering” with the system, Taleb has a clear-eyed plan.

First, he says, we have to unmask the charlatans of risk like Myron Scholes. To Taleb, Scholes is the Great Oz in this Emerald City because his work on options and derivatives allowed the whole of the financial system to adopt poorly understood products-like the ones that brought AIG down-that hide risk. To Taleb, Scholes’ academic work, which enabled the widespread use of complex derivatives, was like “giving children dynamite.”

“This guy should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku,” Taleb says. “His funds have blown up twice [6]. He shouldn’t be allowed in Washington to lecture anyone on risk.”

With complex derivatives unmasked and, in Taleb’s vision of the future, outlawed, the next step is to create a more robust version of capitalism. Taleb calls it Capitalism 2.0. Robustness begins with a dismantling of debt. Leverage was the gas that inflated the financial system until it was too big, too fragile, and too volatile.

Over the past 20 years, the financial system has grown ever more complex. Building on a greater computing capacity and communication speed—”Bank runs now take place at the speed of BlackBerry”—Taleb recognizes that the financial system now possesses an efficiency that creates volatility. That cannot and will not go away.

We cannot have both debt leverage and a hyper-efficient system—the volatility is just too great. What Taleb explains—which no one else does—is that efficiency is already a form of leverage. A highly efficient system removes slack and magnifies small changes. Think of the efficient system as a high-performance aircraft. Each minute of steering input creates a rapid and violent shift of course, speed, or altitude. The system itself is souped up even before you add the debt. Once you do, the pilot is equally jacked up and twitchy, creating an explosive combination. Now imagine that fighter jet trying to fly in a 1,000-plane formation, and you get an idea of the world financial system in the 21st century.

We can’t erase the technology that created the planes, so we’ll have to make sure we fly sober, maybe even with an onboard computer that dampens the controls. That means getting rid of the debt. It’s that simple.

A deleveraged financial system is a stable one, especially if we increase the redundancy within the system. That’s an idea Taleb has taken from biology. But in finance, redundancy means two things: not having players in the game who are “too big to fail” and not allowing anyone—from the individual to the institution—to play with too much money. Redundancy means have cash on the side, not risking it all, and not becoming dependent upon financial assets for your economic well-being.

Nassim Taleb on Experts and Negative Advice

Nassim Taleb’s latest from Opacity #113 titled Negative Advice; Why We Need Religion makes the brief case that human beings are “suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do).” Below is the entirety of his post, take a read (Emphasis mine):

At the core of the expert problem is that people are suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do), (tell them how to get rich, become thin in 42 days, be transformed into a better lover in ten steps, reach happiness, make new influential friends), particularly when the charlatan is invested with some institutional authority & the typical garb of the expert (say, tenured professorship). This is why my advice against measuring small probabilities fell on deaf ears: I was telling them to avoid Value-at-Risk and the incomputable rare event and they wanted ANOTHER measure, the idiots, as if there was one. Yet I keep seeing from the history of religions that survival and stability of belief systems correlates with the amount of negative advice and interdicts — the ten commandments are almost all negative; the same with Islam. Do we need religions for the stickiness of the interdicts?

Telling people NOT to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last 60 years. Druin Burch, in the recently published Taking the Medicine

The harmful effect of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of EVERY medical intervention developed since the war. (…) Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer”

It is easy to read Taleb’s argument as meaning that negative advice is both more routinely followed and better than positive advice. However, this is clearly not the case as there are countless examples of bad negative advice. For example, look at the “Don’t eat fat” mantra that developed over the past few decades. This is negative advice that I believe Taleb has personally acknowledged as poor (Taleb is a friend of Art De Vany’s and an adherent on some level to the low-carb evolutionary nutrition/fitness theory). The low-fat or lipid hypothesis that has been the driving force behind public health policy over the past few decades may ultimately be proven to have caused the premature deaths of millions of human beings (via cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, etc.). Clearly, not all negative advice is good to follow.

However, negative advice or bright-line rules seem to take hold more strongly than positive advice. Christianity and Islam are the two most dominant religions of the world. Both contain prescriptive, bright-line rules. In the case of Christianity the prominence of rules is particularly ironic: Jesus openly argued for the destruction or irrelevance of the law (The bright-line rules of Judaism at the time). Regardless, the dominating sects of both Islam and Christianity appear to have more negative advice (What not to eat, drink, do) than positive advice (Love your neighbor), and the negative advice tends to be much more concrete: “Do not commit adultery” is much more cut-and-dry than “Love everyone.” It’s the time-tested success of hard-line, negative-advice-based religions that lends the most support for Nassim Taleb’s argument.

Agreeing somewhat with Taleb’s theory, I think it is too limited in scope, and should be expanded and clarified. Simply put: human beings are sucker’s for bright-line rules be they positive or negative; adherence to and success of these bright-line rules is dependent upon their prescriptive strength. Based on conclusions drawn from observing health and religion idealogies, it seems that negative advice promotes the greatest adherence and zealotry, both of which lead to idealogical success**.

That it is human nature to want others to tell us what to do seems hard to deny. Why are we this way?

I just finished reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (SoH), which discusses how we perceive things and how that affects our happiness. One argument Gilbert makes is that it is human nature to prefer action over inaction. This is because it is easier to justify our action-based decisions after the fact because they have clearcut consequences whereas inaction does not, making inaction difficult to imagine and thereby difficult to justify. I would add to this that I believe it is human nature to put greater faith in our ability to control outcomes; therefore, we act out of the misguided belief that our action can elicit the responses we want.

Regardless of the source of our preference for action, I believe it’s from this bias that springs the need for bright-line positive advice. For proof of concept, look no further than the pervasive mentality that, “We must do something to mitigate the economic crisis!” Charlatans and politicians fully exploit the bias of action over inaction to propagate their own prerogatives.

On the other hand, there is a second contention in SoH that seems an extension of the preference for action over inaction, which is that the elimination of choice can trigger our psychological immune systems. Once triggered, these systems work to make us happy or content with a more restricted existence. Imagine this: having bought the farm, you’re quick to articulate the benefits of the purchase and figure out a way to love the cows. In keeping with this understanding, we can readily explain the human preference for ideologies that drastically reduce choice via negative, bright-line rules.

Thus, here we have two psychological explanations for why humans crave bright-line rules, both positive and negative.

I’d imagine Taleb would agree: life is incredibly more complex and uncertain than our bright-line rules, either positive or negative, allow. We should be aware of our tendency towards dogmatic over-simplifications and be wary of overly prescriptive, bright-line advice.

* It’s always interesting how Jesus is written to have claimed he came to free man from the law. Yet Christianity, via any number of particular denominations like Catholicism or Protestantism all adhere to stringent rules and edicts.

** I can’t help but wonder if its just easier to prescribe negative advice than positive advice even though both are likely to instill dogmatic behaviors.

Further reading

Page 6 of 27« First...«45678»1020...Last »