Who we are is determined by how absurd our reasoning is. Part 2.

Our beliefs are not set in stone. They define who we are, and yet if we choose to change our beliefs we can do so. To be honest, our reasoning is absurd and self-contradictory. This was pointed out by Socrates. Here I want to question some of my own beliefs. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As this article started to become ridiculously long, I decided to split it. This is part 2 fo 2.

Optimists live longer

It is kind of known that when the general situation is positive, optimists live longer. Optimism has multiple effects on stress levels, and thus on heart health, immune system wellbeing, and aging. Overall optimists feel younger than their age.

The pessimists usually outperform the optimists when a real crisis happens. For example, pessimists will typically do their best to avoid harm in case of wars and pandemics. Since the end of the Cold War, for an entire generation, there have been no wars and no pandemics. Now the situation is changing again. When one of my depressed friends told me “we need more people like you”, I realized that the times changed.

The perceived level of safety now is much lower than it was five years ago. Smart active investors once again outperform optimistic trend followers. Pessimists are prepared. Some say they are overprepared and the resources could be spent better, but when the situation gets dire pessimists feel in control of the situation.

So watch for the average IQ and life expectancy. They have been rising for generations. The trend might reverse, especially in developed countries.

To nap or not to nap

Some cultures support napping, like the Spanish siesta. Other cultures support 9am-5pm work day like in Germany. Yet other cultures, like Chinese, suggest 996 schedule: from 9am to 9pm 6 days a week. Which is better?

For humans, siesta is more natural. We can sleep, or we can practice mindfulness, or maybe take some long Pomodoro break and walk around the compound. It feels more refreshing and often corresponds to better well-being. The productivity effects of this practice are inconclusive. Some researchers report lower motivation. After all, the Spanish are not universally known for their productivity.

The German 9am-5pm day is usually very productive. Having no time for nonsense, a person can rest well at home and work well at the workplace. This is especially true for people working in engineering, as they benefit from natural light and get tired relatively fast.

The 996 schedule is tough. It is extremely stressful. Family well-being and childbirth suffer. But by working longer hours, we have more chances to do something meaningful, even if by mistake.

There is a variation of 996 culture for creatives,  where the work is low intensity with long breaks, but the brain is always busy trying to solve a complex riddle. Alternatively, there is a variation of 9am-5pm culture, when we use the extra hours to work on personal projects and less official parts of the main job. But for those who choose siesta, productivity options are limited: they should commit to their main job. If and only if the main job is fulfilling, such a schedule may become superproductive.

Horizontal and vertical success


Cody Kommers

(sourced from Cody Kommers)

There are two kinds of success. One kind of success is vertical hype: a huge spike of activity followed by zero progress. Another kind of success is horizontal dribble: slow and steady rate of readers, income, or whatever measure one may use. For a short while, vertical success feels overwhelmingly positive, but then it leaves a gaping hole and uncertainty. The horizontal success is not fancy and it might be hidden from an observer.

One of the advantages of such a long-tail effect is creative output. By communicating with people from multiple generations, it is possible to get access to a wider range of ideas and thus the break-through potential is higher. In a similar way, investment spread across multiple channels over long period of time is more likely to be successful as it is less sensitive to local troubles like economic bubbles and Ponzi schemes.

In a similar way, intense work over short periods of time is more likely to generate impulsive decisions and dangerous outcomes, compared with slow and steady output.

It makes sense to consider two different aspects of each activity: risk and long-term return on investment. By both metrics, we should usually prefer horizontal success.

Imagination vs optics

I quote: When Galileo looked at the Moon through his new telescope in early 1610, he immediately grasped that the shifting patterns of light and dark were caused by the changing angle of the Sun’s rays on a rough surface. He described something akin to mountain ranges ‘ablaze with the splendor of his beams’, their sides in shadow like ‘the hollows of the Earth’; he also rendered these observations in a series of masterful drawings. Six months before, the English astronomer, a polymath Thomas Harriot had also turned the viewfinder of his telescope towards the Moon. But where Galileo saw a new world to explore, Harriot’s sketch from July 1609 suggests that he saw a dimpled cow pie. Why was Galileo’s mind so receptive to what lay before his eyes, while Harriot’s vision deserves its mere footnote in history?

Galileo was an artist, a son of a musician. Harriot was a master of geometry and math but lacked some insight. Galileo privately believed that the Lord created a geometrical masterpiece. Harriot reported what he actually found.

This entire situation is absurd. A genius and a fool may see patterns that are not there, dictated by their imagination and the understanding of nature. A normal smart and diligent person will report only what he sees. It is absurd, but the genius will be praised, the fool will be ridiculed and the normal person will be ignored – based almost entirely on luck. It is extremely hard to distinguish between a genius and a deranged individual. Many famous mathematicians and inventors actually dwelled in mental institutions for some part of their lives. And yet as a bet, without further information and hindsight justification, there is a higher chance that you are crazy than genius.

Is philosophy absurd? Only when you’re doing it right

Here I quoted a title of a referenced article. I intuitively feel that the author was right. Philosophy started from absurd. Socrates asked questions regarding common beliefs, until they started to contradict themselves. Further logical paradoxes and absurd phenomena slowly pushed forward math and sciences. It is hard to imagine something stranger than imaginary numbers, and yet they were absolutely required to address some rare aspects of cubic equations. See this video for more details.

Currently, the sciences as we know them are absurd beyond comprehension. Physics became incomprehensible with quantum physics and the general theory of relativity. I would not even try to tell about this subject to someone without proper background, as I might get ridiculed. Biology is slowly reaching a similar level of complexity. We kind of understand slow incremental evolution, only DNA changes very differently: it is spliced in huge chunks. Social studies still make sense, only because we do not really understand them very well. I am almost sure that with some better understanding, we will see absurd models outperforming everything dictated by common sense.

I claim without proof, that if what we know does not sound absurd, our knowledge is very shallow.

Is the world getting better?

Billions of people work very hard to make the world better. Is it getting better?

If we judge economically using something like GDP, the answer is positive. We produce crazy amounts of physical products and services. Even the things previous generations would never trade are being traded, adding to GDP.

When we consider pollution and psychological strain, the answer is less positive. We are actively destroying our small planet, daydreaming about doing the same thing to our entire solar system. If a species disappears from the endangered species list, probably it has gone extinct. The attempts to resurrect mammoth might be cool, but not statistically significant.

The human condition is probably getting better. Food security, modern medicine, and education may have this effect. Education potentially reduces the chances of incest, mutilation, and some barbarity. Educated people may still kill each other, only they will use industrial methods and pseudo-scientific justifications. The ability to drink clean water is something nearly unimaginable in an urban environment 400 years ago. I prefer my middle-class position today, rather than royal status any day and place in the past.

And yet all models we have show that our current “bliss” is unsustainable. We might be deeply depressed, and yet the future is worse. The rise of robots and AI is basically unstoppable, making the majority of humans if not all of us obsolete. If we try to control the situation, in the best-case scenario, all countries will look like Japan, with huge megacities and an aging population. Other scenarios are significantly worse.

The great absurdity of our activity is how futile and overall destructive our presence is. We can save whales, feed Africa, and clean India, or whatever. And still, our carbon footprint will bring us closer to some kind of disaster.

Angkor Wat

One of the most beautiful and big man-made objects is located in the middle of nowhere. A large prosperous civilization learned to control water, and that water was used in huge rice fields. The artisans ate the rise and built beautiful things. Then the climate changed, and the sophisticated water management processes could not deal with abrupt changes in water levels. People left, and only beautifully carved stones remind us of that civilization.

It might be absurd, but I feel that in a grander scale, only our art makes sense.  You are welcome to argue otherwise. I truly hope that I am wrong here…

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