Finding Work with Purpose

I’ve been hanging out with a lot of poker players lately, especially because one of my best friends in the poker world just moved to San Francisco and has been engaging in a ridiculous APD (activities per day). In some of our discussions, and ones that I’ve had with other poker players over the years, a recurring trend keeps appearing – a lot of people really want to have some sort of work with purpose, but they don’t really know where to start. I hear this all the time: “If I had something I was really passionate about, I would do it, but I don’t really have anything I feel that way about.” The purpose of this blog is to discuss what a massive pile of steaming bullshit that sentence is. Forgive the mental image.

But before we dive into why that line of thinking doesn’t hold water, we can discuss poker for a second to provide a perfectly exaggerated metaphor for the problem at large. Poker operates squarely in the entertainment industry. Think about it. A mix of wealthy degenerates (and some people with real problems) are paying a significant amount of money to be entertained in a highly particular way. When a whale wants a game, they want it now, and that means you are actually on call, waiting around for the whale to stumble toward you, and then you collect your fee for entertaining him (in the form of your theoretic winrate).

In some form or another you work for this guy to scratch his degenerate itch. It’s tough.

Now, entertainment alone does have value, but it’s among the least relatively valuable forms of work. A couple things make me say this: first, it’s an incredibly abundant form of value. In 2017, working in the entertainment industry is like selling ice cream on a street filled with ice cream stores. We have netflix, smart phones, ten new movies per week, fifty new shows, and (for my favorite types of people) books to read. Oh, that doesn’t mention games (like the game of thrones board game which you should never play), toys, and all other forms of entertainment. Us humans love our entertainment, but it’s hard to feel like you’re really doing anything of value in such a crowded house. Second, it’s among the least valuable forms of value. When people are having a hard time, leisure time is the first to go, and poker is pretty far up the list of leisure activities that aren’t really very important.

One quick note that could be the subject of a long future piece – entertainment is not the same as art, though much of entertainment is made in the pursuit of art. Art does have significant value and is highly unique. And, it’s no surprise to me that the artists and musicians I know tend to describe themselves as being more fulfilled than the poker players I know.

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probably not art

Okay, let’s get back to purpose. The idea that you will somehow stumble upon some thing and find yourself filled with purpose is madness. Most poker players I know got hooked into the game when they discovered its beautiful complexity and powerful mental and emotional challenges, and the money came as a consequence of that interest and passion. However, nobody starts playing poker with a passion for poker. You might feel some excitement or nervousness before your first-ever game, but you’re hardly thinking, “This game will give me a source of purpose and guide me through life for the next ten years.” No, instead you tried something (playing the game) and then you discovered purpose (“hey, this is pretty cool”).

And this is the grand point. We somehow believe that it goes:

Step 1. Find Purpose

Step 2. Take Action

Whereas in reality it goes:

Step 1. Take Action

Step 2. Find Purpose

At this moment in my life, I run operations for a marketing company I co-founded with two of my best childhood friends. I never in my wildest dreams would’ve thought I’d find purpose doing work like this, but things give you back what you put into them. Suddenly everyone – my partners, team-members, employees, clients, contractors – began sharing interdependent responsibilities and I have my own portion of that responsibility. Suddenly, the purpose is multifaceted: Can we make it grow? Can we make our friends’ lives better? Can we spin it up into something even greater and bigger than it is now?

For me, a lot of purpose comes from the idea of construction. One of my favorite Burning Man moments this year was when we finally finished building our camp. After a full day of loading trucks, 12 straight hours driving to the playa, immediately spending a full workday without sleeping, followed by two more full workdays, we finally sat down on chairs underneath our shade structure with a cold drink and looked around us. I felt thoroughly satisfied and purpose-filled. So, for me, it’s more of a “start building now, see where it goes” type of thing.

I think many (all?) of my friends have parts of their lives they’d really like to change, but the idea and the feeling is really big. Sometimes these ideas (where will I find purpose? Does any of it matter? Is this relationship good for me? Better or worse for me?) inflate in their vagueness and opacity like giant menacing shadows and intimidate us until we huddle quietly in our job-holes or relationship-holes, waiting for the perfect moment to find change, to feel driven and purposeful, except the perfect moment literally never comes, and so nothing changes.

No, we remain the rested boulders on the hillside, waiting for someone to push us, for the clear signal from the universe to get off our asses and do things differently. But when will it come? Maybe tomorrow?

I am starting to feel energy being exerted and a desire to organize. I feel the start of some cooperative desire between some current and former members of the poker community, and I think we can find some activity of value that might in turn instill us with that sense of purpose. I can’t say exactly what it is, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now and think it might be starting to take shape.

Are you feeling like you lack purpose or fulfillment? Are you smart and willing to work hard? If you are, send me a note, and let’s talk. I have ideas.

 

Empathy Points

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately.Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 10.20.31 PM

And, I’ve noticed that some people are significantly better at being empathic than others. I’ve also noticed that my own capacity for empathy has changed really dramatically over time, and I think I can try to draw a few conclusions.

First, I’d like to argue that, in general, empathy is good and creates positive effects. It causes us to be more understanding of others, to seek compromises and win-win solutions, to listen more and better, to be less reactionary and more conscientious with our choices, to live more sustainably, to give more time and money to service and charity, and to support a greater sense of community and togetherness.

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In other words, this

And yet, empathy is really, really hard. To help me understand it better, I invented a system in my head that I call Empathy Points. They can also be imagined like hearts from the Legend of Zelda.

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This is almost exactly what my life is like

When you’re a toddler, you have zero empathy points. You literally cannot understand that other people have feelings and that they might be affected by the things you do (I see this whenever my 3-year old niece trucks my 1-year old niece like she’s a Madden character). But, over time your capacity for empathy begins to increase (partially through good parenting and partially through the natural development of your brain). Your empathy meter goes from zero points to 10 points.

This is a common scene when Evie and Ida hangout

Then, you start to read fiction, and you find yourself sharing a brain with another *person*, and you discover that putting in this type of work actually increases your resting Empathy Point total. Eventually, you’ve achieved enough empathy to internalize phrases like “violence isn’t the answer” and “be a good listener”. Finally, you mature to your peak empathy points capacity, and without work that’s where you’ll stay for the rest of your life.

Today, it is understood that reading improves empathy and meditation increase compassion. In short, simply trying to improve your brain yields positive effects. But one thing that I think people lack is an understanding of why developing your empathy point meter is important. Most of us feel like we are plenty empathetic in our daily lives because we’re all nice, lovely people who never do anything mean.

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We are all perfect humans who never do anything wrong

But, our empathy meter doesn’t stay full all the time. I’ve noticed that when I’m suffering my capacity for empathy plummets. Imagine that you’ve just walked in the door with some groceries, and your roommate/spouse/child says “Hey, can you help me with this?” and you are putting away your groceries and you’re a little annoyed but you say, “give me just a second, I’ll be right there,” and then a few moments later you stub your toe on a tableleg and a split moment after you hear, “Hey, are you gonna come help me with this?” to which you respond “JUST A FUCKING MINUTE!” Somehow, between the stress and the groceries and the toe, the empathy meter dried up. You’re out of empathy points. Game over.

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haha, I am mature

In fact, I find that there is a direct relationship between suffering and empathy, and that the reason why it’s important to increase our total empathy points is so that we can handle difficult situations with more kindness and grace. This manifests itself in two ways – the first is simply having a greater total amount of empathy points to lose before you lose the game (e.g. the Dalai Lama might have a million empathy points, and he doesn’t become a dick when he stubs his toe, whereas I might have a hundred empathy points and just be happy that I’m not too hangry). The second is that a well trained mind can diminish the loss of empathy points when confronted with suffering. For example, when I was young, I was heartbroken, and it caused me to lose empathy for basically everyone around me – I didn’t listen to the girl, or to my friends, I became selfish. But now when I feel down, even though I feel my empathy points slipping away nonetheless, they leave more slowly, I have more to begin with, and I’m faster to replenish them.

Which brings me to the point that I’ll end on. Several times over the past year, people asked me what to do when they were feeling sad (a distinct form of suffering). I recommended that they read, exercise, and watch the occasional movie, and not to spend time dating or trying to meet new people. While exercise is pretty great for fixing your body’s chemical balance, reading and watching movies actually helps build empathy, restoring the sensation of love and centeredness that you really need if you want to be happy (and especially if you want to be happy with someone else).

Maybe the greatest ability is just to be aware of your own empathy meter. Are you doing work to improve it? When you are suffering, how quickly does it disappear? How quickly can you replenish it? These are valuable things to meditate on and incorporate. If you know any good tricks to help, I’d love to know them myself.

Thanks for reading –

Andrew

On the Feeling of Being Used

Everyone knows the feeling – you’ve extended an effort to do something nice for someone else, and that person takes what you’ve given without giving anything back. “I feel used” is an expression used from angsty teens to mature adults to describe this hollow, sunken sensation. And, it can often exist in the caverns of our darkest fears – what if this person doesn’t care about me, is lying to me, detests me? This, of course, can spiral onward to a self-indulgent loathing, “Oh maybe I shouldn’t have sent that text, or maybe I should just stop doing nice things for him/her, or maybe I was too needy before, maybe I should just text him/her to clarify, oh shit that’s even needier.” And on and on and on.

Now, I think it’s important to first recognize that the feeling of “usedness” comes from our ego-driven attachment to a concept. If I make dinner, I become attached to the “mine-ness” quality of the dinner. So, when my roommate shuffles up next to me to steal a couple bites, I lose the illusion of that dinner’s “mine-ness” and it hurts, it leaves a hole that my roommate doesn’t immediately replace. When I share a beautiful evening with a friend or lover, and then they don’t call me the next day, the illusion that that previous evening would represent all future evenings is similarly shattered. Was it all just a game to them? Does anything have any meaning?

This ignores a few key things, though. First, it ignores all of the times when my roommates have cooked me food, or all the times when didn’t call someone back because I became pre-occupied in other life activities. Secondly, it assumes that all people reciprocate a loving action with an equally representative action. Maybe my roommate invites me the next day to watch a movie with him, and that’s his way of reciprocating the relationship. Or maybe a lover communicates their affection in a completely different, unexpected way.

Of course, these rational thoughts get blinked out of existence in the presence of the visceral and immediate usediness that we feel in the moment. But, instead of trying to assume people are not using us and taking advantage of our kindness (even though it is probably a life best-practice to assume people have good intentions), I’d like to do an experiment.

Let’s assume that everyone, even our closest friends, our lovers, strangers, everyone is trying to use us. Let’s also assume (and this is key, otherwise this whole exercise becomes a nightmare) that all of these people are not sociopaths – they have real needs they are using us to fulfill, even if they have no intention of fulfilling any of our needs. Then, let’s try to reach a mindset where all of that is totally and completely OK.

If someone breaks into your car and steals your sweater, it’s almost certain that they needed it more than you did. If somebody begs you for food (whether a homeless person or a lazy roommate) they probably need it as much or more than you do. In fact, most of those things to which we hold so tightly we probably don’t need, we just want, and even then we just think we want them. In short, it’s important that we focus on being compassionate for the people who take advantage of us (whether in reality or in our own insecure fantasies) – they were addressing a need, healing some pain, and it’s within our power to be strong enough to not succumb to anger and instead to empathize with the person who felt the need to harm others to get something they want.

As I’ve written before, perhaps my favorite book is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In the book, The Idiot is constantly abused by everyone – his family, friends, lovers, strangers. But, instead of becoming angry, he remains every bit as peaceful, kind, generous, and loving as he was before. For this, they call him The Idiot. However, Dostoevsky’s name for him (how he’s referred by the Narrator) is “The Prince”. There is something princely about being free from one’s attachments, suspicions, and remaining kind to people even when they’re unkind to you.

One argument I’ve heard against this philosophy I refer to as the “pitcher of water” argument. It says that each person has a pitcher of water (e.g. generosity, love, kindness, etc.) and when each person takes from that pitcher and fills up their glass, eventually the pitcher becomes empty and the person needs to receive some love back before they can keep being positive and friendly. While this made sense to me when I was younger, now I think it’s total bullshit. We shouldn’t give love in order to love back, we should give it because its an awesome thing to give and it doesn’t cost us anything. If you say ten nice things to people and nobody says one back, you shouldn’t swallow the eleventh. Yes, I understand that when we feel suffering (physical or emotional) our capacity for empathy decreases, but this is a function of both our mental control and our initial capacity for empathy. If you’re significantly more empathetic than most, it will take you a lot of suffering before you reach average empathy, which is pretty rad. If you have a lot of mental control, you can tolerate even more without losing your kindness or compassion. Building and maintaining empathy is probably the concept on which I meditate most often (other than maybe which Rick and Morty episode is the best, or my magical sleeptime river meditation, ask me about it sometime).

I know this blog isn’t as fun as some of my others, and I’m sorry for that. Here’s a clip of Tiny Rick to make up for it:

So really, I’d stress two key points:

  1. Most likely, you’re not being used, it’s all in your head, and people will get you back with nice things on the other side
  2. Even if they don’t, be happy – you’re helping someone satisfy a need and it doesn’t cost you much.

I know it’s not easy, but keep those emotions front-of-mind and you’ll conquer them.

 

A Second Homage to Black Rock City

Last year, I went to Burning Man for the first time and had my life upended. Not only did I discover many of the things I felt had been missing in my life – community and art and openness – I fell hopelessly and utterly in love with someone incredible and wrote many subsequent blogs about polyamory and love tacos. I’d been a member of a large camp, of which my group of friends had made up a small part. Our group decided to create our own camp for the 2017 burn, and as someone with both the vested interest and technical skills to manifest such a thing, a lot of the planning and organization fell to me.

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one of many possible outcomes I was afraid of

In some form or another, our camp, the Interstellar Business Cafe, was born. A group of us embarked on the journey to buy all of the things, transport them out to the desert in a twelve-hour overnight truck drive, unpack, build, and deploy them all, shade ourselves from the sun, and create a home for the following week. My hands were torn and sore, my legs tired, my back sunburned. But, in spite of any odds, our camp was indeed built without major catastrophe and the stage was set for burning man to do with us whatever it wished. I was filled with thoughts in the buildup: how would it compare to last year? Would my life change again?

Now that I am home and it is over, I notice that I am not as overwhelmed in the afterglow as I was a year ago, but I remain just as depressed and sad to return to the default world (this is a sensation I expect to dissipate over the next few days). But, many things are the same. It remains impossible to describe the feeling of grandeur and amazement when first biking out onto the playa at night. Hallucinogens remain awesome. The emotional intensity of relationships remains elevated and pulses at a fevered pitch throughout.

On my last morning in the desert, I sat in the desert watching the sun poke its head over the horizon, splaying rosegold light over the sand as the last remnants of the festival milled about in the distance. I felt like my life was hanging on a pivotal moment, tiptoeing and dangling over the abyss of an uncertain future. The air was brisk and I was nestled inside an enormous and ridiculous brown faux fur coat. I felt a gnawing certainty that, once I left this place, the illusion it carried would again vanish into nothingness, that everyone else but me would forget about what had happened and the way we had felt.

After last year, I knew what would happen – we’d leave, turn on our phones and computers, settle into our jobs and our classes and our moderately-but-not-ultimately satisfying relationships, shoot the occasional idle, fanciful thoughts at the life we had been living in that time, viewing those moments as irretrievable and whimsical but nothing to be carried seriously. In this afterburn environment, I sometimes feel like I’m the only one for whom those moments are not short-lived and transient (of course, this is the same way a heartbroken child assumes he is the first to experience such a feeling, as I’m sure many people feel the same).

8b6f253a32c05943896551ee3835f913630d2ee739426ab801026bfdeb930298

I’ve often felt that, in the modern world, it’s really hard to create the types of bonding experiences that bring people together with intensity and passion. I think this piece is missing from much of the dating world – it’s hard to find some unifying event or community to tie and bind you together. There’s no crucible to be held over the fire. For me, burning man became that crucible last year, and remained the crucible again this year. Thawing and burning away the frost that exists on the superficial levels of our loves, friendships, and work and heating up the primal core of what it means to be a human being.

So, I find myself still dangling over the edge of an unknown future over which I have no control. It might lead toward love and family, or independence and adventure, or both, or neither. I feel the call of the real world pulling me back from that brink, my phone buzzes with work emails and casual social invitations, but I’m not quite done staring into that moment. I’m sure that in a few days I’ll turn my back to that unknown and resume a daily life with its small joys and annoyances, its work and its play. But for now it’s quite meditative to exist in this space.

I do believe that something better does exist, even if it is elusive. I believe it’s revealed to us in the form of art. I believe it doesn’t live at Black Rock City, but that it lives inside of all people, we just have to lose our fear and choose to live more openly and confidently.

This is getting long, but it seems like a good spot for a digression, so bear with me. At Dartmouth, my existence was more-or-less that of a normal college student. There were classes and relationships and friendships, sex and love and confusion and angst. Then, on the last night before graduation, there was this sudden communal epiphany – tomorrow, after we graduate, most of us will never see each other again. There are no negative consequences to living honestly and freely. Nobody can hurt us anymore. The result was among the most fun and beautiful nights of my life – all of these people I had come to love finally being free. There was more authenticity and intimacy in that night at Dartmouth than in the previous four years combined. I rediscovered this feeling at the playa last year, and it existed again this year. The freedom I had yearned for was a place within my own mind.

Why can’t we live like that all the time? Not in the desert coating ourselves with dust, but free to be honest about what we really want, free to be vulnerable without being defensive, free to actually say and do whatever the thing is?

Anyway, this has gone on for quite long enough, but please don’t misinterpret these words to imagine that I’m depressed. I mean, of course I am depressed – being bathed in love and sunshine while Dani cooks you delicious food all day is decidedly superior to working and dating – but it’s not serious. The world spins, and it seems with each turn I feel a small step closer to art, love, and freedom.

I’d like to just quickly thank the people who rock and helped make this thing a reality, really the entire camp, but especially Nick & Alexis, Alan & Dani, the build crew, and of course p who helped me get back into this whole living thing again.

Now who wants to do a big cabin trip once the snow comes?

 

A few pictures from the journey:

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usually shouting in arabic

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weeping ol’bear finds out he’s having a daughter

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The Interstellar team

Team Robots vs Team Fascists

Those who know me know I spend far too much time speculating on the future, but to me the act of prediction is a thought experience filled with excitement and mystery. Not only does prediction lead to good financial rewards (i.e. if you saw the future of bitcoin in 2011 you are an incredibly rich person today), but it also can help open our minds and adjust our behaviors (e.g. if you lived in 1948 you might have realized that the future would be one of racial equality and might be more likely to embrace it now).

Plus, people are notoriously bad at predicting the future. We draw a ton from anecdotal experiences, limited in sample size and relevance. We assume that the rate of change is constant within our lives because exponential thinking is tricky. Moore’s law is difficult for us to grasp, especially given that both societal and technological change seem to happen in jumps (yada yada yada CELL PHONES yada yada INTERNET yada ya SMART PHONES). Those ‘yada’ periods feel like nothing too exciting is happening, but the major jumps we all remember for their influence in our lives.

s-curve-graph

To exemplify this, I recall that when I was in elementary school, I had memorized the home phone landline numbers of my closest friends. If I wanted to see them, I would call their houses and ask their moms where they were. Now, I have a supercomputer that lives in my pocket and can contact them in a multitude of ways (though this is a subject for another blog, let’s list them here: call, email, FaceTime, iMessage, whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, gchat, snapchat, WeChat for my Chinese friends, Signal, Slack, Skype, kik, twitter message, holy shit this is a market problem). The tech gap between 1997 and 2017 is enormous, and if it grew equally much by 2037 life would be radically and unrecognizably different.

But it won’t.

No, the tech gap between 1997 and 2017 is likely to be much smaller than the tech gap between 2017 and 2037. In other words, the world will be significantly more unrecognizable in twenty years that it was twenty years ago today. Some realistic expectations:

Major US cities will be filled with electric self-driving vehicles. Work to build a centralized and optimistic traffic grid algorithm will have already begun. Commute times will be dramatically less and the cost of transportation will plummet.

Food and gas prices will also drop as transportation costs diminish.

VR tech will let you take vacations with your friends from the comfort of your own house. There will also be a lot of sex.

Wireless internet will be universal, secure, and free, everywhere.

There will be between 0-1 human-operated check-out stands at the grocery store.

Drones will deliver goods at a very low cost. They will also be a source of fear, as terror-related drone incidents will increase.

In this most likely of futures, everything is faster, cheaper, easier. It’s the destiny of capitalism – when walking was hard, we invented better legs (wheels). When wheeling was too hard, we invented airplanes that soar. The curve of capitalism surges towards maximum efficiency on a parabolic curve, and eventually it reaches an asymptote. When it reaches the asymptote, though, we reach maximum efficiency and there is nowhere else to go. Everything is cheap and abundant, but machines can do literally everything. This is the future.

I was asked recently if I was a transhumanist. My initial thought was, “how could anyone not be?” We have pacemakers to regulate our hearts, prosthesis to help amputees compete in track and field, cochlear implants that restore hearing, IUDs that let us have sex without the consequence. We’ve already fused technology with our bodies to make our lives longer and better, and we’ve done it using technology that will seem primitive in a short time. When technology exists to limit Alzheimer’s and memory loss, to enhance our visual and audio abilities, to make our lives even longer and even better, we’ll adopt that too. For people who are afraid of change (most people), this will seem terrifying, but for all people it will just be too advantageous to pass up. And, like all pieces of technology, everyone will eventually get on board and get with the program.

Nike-Runner-Sarah

That “get on board” process is pretty tricky too. Allow me to introduce you to the Luddites. In 1811, a group of English weavers were frustrated – they felt that the introduction of new weaving technology, and the efforts of their employers to skirt labor rules to maximize use of these machines, directly threatened their jobs. They were correct in this sentiment. So, they set about smashing as many machines as they could find in a violent, five-year-long public uprising. They lost and the machine of capitalism rolled onward, using this excess capital earned to create new industries – “weaving loom repair-person”, for example, or “inventory manager”, or other increasingly white-collar opportunities.

CPH089_Luddites

Now, let me introduce you to the fascists. After WWI, and especially during the Great Depression, there was massive, incomprehensible unemployment. If you have grandparents who lived through it, please ask them about the conditions. Without work, lots of men felt both a lack of identity and a lack of security. Centralized, autocratic leadership rallied them around a mix of racial identity politics, economic consolidation of power, and militarism. These common people, frustrated by their lack of identity and their lack of resources, were angry and violently blamed their situation on the most convenient scapegoats. They became the fascists. Their leaders were Benito Mussolini, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and Adolf Hitler. They came reasonably close to subjugating and enslaving the entire world.

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The height of fascism in Europe – you can basically count Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden as part of it too

Now, back to modern times – the machines are again coming for the jobs, and this time they’ll be replacing all of the middle class jobs. The minimum wage jobs are too expensive to replace with robots (people are cheaper). The high-end jobs are (probably) too complicated to be replaced. But the middle jobs, the white collar jobs, the jobs that rely on difficult-but-not-too-difficult skills like driving or manufacturing or crunching numbers, these are the jobs that are about to be swallowed.

As I’ve written in the past, I believe the election of Donald Trump is the first salvo in a Luddite conflict between a disenfranchised and identity-stripped middle class against a capitalist system designed to replace them with efficient machines as quickly as possible. The Luddite armies exist on both the left and the right, as both communist and fascist, both just different ways of controlling the means of production and finding an identity in a jobless environment. The fascists tend to win out over the communists, though, due to their willingness to be brutal and because racism is a powerful and ingrained motivational force.

So yes, I believe that the current climate is a pre-fascistic one, which is why I made my Fascism Bingo! board which I am happy to say has not seen any squares get checked off so far (though a few are medium-close).

That all is pretty depressing, Andrew. Is there any good news?

Of course! The good news is that the robots are not just working on how to replace all our economic viability – they’re also working on ways to help us feel happy, connected, friendly, and content. They’re helping to make sure food and healthcare are available to everyone. Their goal is nothing short of a perfect, jobless, abundant, automated utopia, where all people have all things and can just focus on learning and eating and drinking and fucking and traveling and sleeping. This would be an “identity-less” existence that I think most people would eventually come around to. But, somehow, it will be harder for people to accept than you’d think.

So, we end up in a world with a team of fascists rushing to destroy or control the wheels of the capitalist machine, and another team of robots rushing to reach the asymptotic end of capitalism in which human beings can just exist and not need to work.

I’m on Team Robots. Not a surprise.

I also think Team Fascists are faster and more coordinated. The best way to slow them down is to think about identity – when a person works a job, they have a few things: a community that supports them (e.g. their employer and fellow employees), something to do with their time (rather than protest on the streets), and a direct monetary identifier of their economic value (you’re worth $28 per hour, yay!). We need to think seriously about what people will do with their free time, who they will be able to talk to about their identity problems, where they will get money in the short term if their job is swallowed – who can they turn to for help? Because if good, rational, forward-thinking people are not available or present or reliable, the fascists will be there, and they will be there quickly.

This is why I want to focus on the idea of community. How can we better prepare our society for joblessness? For identity loss? How can we coordinate all that free time and alleviate all of that anxiety? What do people really want from their communities?

Would love to hear your comments, and thanks for reading this really long piece.

Andrew

 

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The World’s Best Breakup Song

I’ve got some clumsy little movers working right now, knocking over the shelves but clearing some space. This song is perfect though.

Imperfect Information

To me, it seems like human beings are preprogrammed to be obsessed with control. This makes sense from the “survive and procreate” point of view that engineered us over a few million years – the more elements of your existence that you can keep secured, the less risk and danger. And, when the desired outcomes were simple (e.g. don’t die), many factors could be controlled – living by a river meant reliable access to food and water, living with big groups meant reliable protection from predators or competitors, having members of the opposite sex around meant reliable access to sex. It makes sense that we have a strong inclination to “get our shit together”, “grow up”, “be mature” and generally control as many parts of our life as we can – we were trained to view these things as important for our own survival.

From what I can see, much of the “standard” course of human life is largely about the removal of uncertainty. If you have a babbling brook that suits your purposes just fine, is it worth it to go chasing waterfalls? What if you don’t find one? Or if, when you leave your brook behind, someone else claims it? What if the place you find on the other side isn’t nearly as good as what you already had? What if what if?

It’s hard for a non-poker-player to understand quite how much a poker player has to cope with uncertainty. As the desired outcome becomes increasingly abstract, and as randomness is increasingly introduced, it can become pretty maddening to try and hold onto control.

Here’s an example: we start with an assumption that our opponent has a better hand than us 10% of the time, and therefore we should call his bet. Then, we proceed to call his bet 10 straight times, and each time he has a better hand than us. Well, perhaps we have been unlucky, or “range cold”, and our call has still been great. Or, perhaps our assumption in the first place was completely wrong and our opponent has a better than us 90% of the time instead of 10%, and so we should never call. Or, perhaps there’s gradation – maybe it’s a 50%/50%. Even a great poker player can find themselves awash in self-doubt when everything they do seems to be wrong. Unfortunately, with imperfect information, you never get to know exactly what’s going on.

While probability and randomness might seem to be the underlying cause of this, they’re really just the bells and whistles, the accoutrement that makes the circus go ’round. The real source of the uncertainty lies inherent to the fact that you can’t read your opponent’s mind. And, to me, this is one of the most important lessons poker has ever taught me.

It doesn’t matter how well you know someone, your history, what you say to each other or do for each other, you can never really know what’s going on in their head, their heart, their feelings in that or any moment in time. This doesn’t mean we can’t make educated guesses or rely on people – of course we can. But, understanding the fundamental separation between you and absolute knowledge is critical to accepting your lack of control and, more bluntly, your lot in life. Not only is it OK to not know what someone is thinking, it’s okay to not always have to try to know either.

Last weekend, I attended a science conference on psychedelic drugs. To engage more deeply with the content, a friend and I began reading Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception“, an essay on the great writer’s experience with Mescaline. The concept that stuck out to me was, to paraphrase, a “valve of knowledge.” In my mind, I imagine it like a watercooler. The jug of the cooler is the entire knowledge of everything in the Universe – God, the Dharma-body, transcendence, whatever you want to call it. At the bottom, by the spout, we get a small stream of that consciousness by which we scurry about trying to make decisions, control our destinies, and live our lives. Huxley argues that psychedelic drugs help widen the spout, giving access (however brief and limited) to a bigger rush of the infinite cosmic wisdom.

confederacy-of-dunces

is it just me or has Ignatius J. Reilly ruined the word “valve” forever

Along these lines, at the conference I heard a fascinating hypothesis called the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis”, which seeks to explain the sudden growth in early human brain sizes in the transition between pre-human primates to homosapiens. The basic idea is that a bunch of foraging primates accidentally started eating a shitton of psilocybin mushrooms, tripping face, opening the valve, widening the tap, developing abstract concepts like language and religion, and starting the upswing toward human-level consciousness. But, to even consider this (really cool and somehow totally plausible-feeling) hypothesis, you need to accept that there is an entire world of existent knowledge beyond what a person has the ability to perceive, and that acceptance by itself can be massive psychological challenge.

Take, for example, the concept behind Outkast’s Hey Ya. It starts with the narrator explaining that he knows his girl loves him and would never betray him. But then, the moment of doubt creeps into his mind. How well do I really know her? What really goes on inside of her mind?

Or, take Donnie Darko and the idea of dying alone. Namely, that everyone does it.

To me, this forms a good meditation. There are things I really greatly desire to know – inner thoughts and feelings of people I care about, consequences of different courses of action in my life. Sometimes, the “not-knowing” exacerbates insecurities. Sometimes, “not-knowing” allows my own fears or desires to fill in the gaps, leading to the dreaded “only hearing what you want to hear” or “always seeing monsters under the bed” (poker players will recognize both of these as naturally as starcrossed or jealous lovers do). But, not-knowing is okay, even if it’s hard.

I’m not entirely sure any of this writing makes sense, and it’s somewhat late and I’m quite tired, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my own back-and-forth with the concept of uncertainty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the below meme: 4578361_700b

I’ve been thinking about why I allow myself to live in my comfort zone (I can control it?) and how clearly I prefer living outside of it. So why don’t I just risk it? Why don’t I just allow the world of uncertainty to knock me around like a ship on the ocean? Why do I care so much about knowing everything?

I was about to launch into another longwinded and probably fruitless paragraph, but I think I will end this for now and pick it up on another day. Let me know what you think, if any of this made sense.

On Capitalism and United Airlines

In the wake of the United Airlines video, and due to a coincidental clustering of interactions with socialists, I’ve been discussing and thinking about capitalism a lot lately. Socialists have decried the attack as the epitome of a capitalist system, and they have a pretty clear logical argument:

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The airline believed it could make more money by forcibly removing David Dao than it could by simply offering a better price to switch flights (or rent a car to drive their crew to their next airport instead of flying them). The airline was indifferent to the suffering of Mr. Dao and only considered their bottom line. And the state police aided them in this effort. (Let’s ignore for the moment that the airline was completely idiotic in their evaluation of their options, and in refusing to give up a few hundred extra dollars they lost a billion instead.)

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a graph of United stock price. guess when the video came out

Through this blog, I will be referencing Steve Bannon’s interview from Buzzfeed (yes, that Steve Bannon), particularly in reference to his two intelligent critiques of modern Capitalism, both of which are in display in the United incident. Bannon decries two forms of capitalism. He says:

But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing.

One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.

This type of oligarchic, militaristic capitalism is of fundamental concern to any American. The truth is that, after a series of mergers and consolidations, United Airlines does not exist in an entirely competitive environment. And, the very wealthy people at the top therefore have a smaller incentive to avoid aggressive, defensive behaviors (like beating someone and throwing them off a plane). Then, when the oligarchic corporation needs a blunt instrument to protect its interests, the state is more than happy to intervene on its behalf. Because, you see, when the corporation provides significant capital to the state, the corporation’s interest is the state’s interest. So, if United (de facto) pays the salary of the police offers who beat Mr. Dao, they’re all working together on the same team to protect United’s bottom line. That’s crony capitalism.

Bannon’s other strand of capitalism-gone-wrong:

The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States.

However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom.”

In Bannon’s view, the other disturbing trend in capitalism is one of amorality (he would say atheism, but let’s not be dramatic). A capitalist with a soul might weigh the moral or ethical consequences of assaulting a doctor on his way home to see patients in exchange for the amount of money saved, while an Ayn Randian capitalist might view that ethical scale weak, ill-founded, and contrary to the core fundamental of capitalism itself – the airline has freedom to remove anyone it wants from its planes, end of story.

The United video is indeed a microcosm of these two forms of corruption, one political and one moral. And, as far as capitalism goes, neither is new to the world (this is a fact that Bannon omits in his interview, probably for dramatic effect, reminiscing fondly of past times and somehow ignoring the gilded-y parts of the Gilded Age). But, it may be reasonably observed that modern American capitalism is becoming increasingly cronyistic, especially as Citizen’s United floods the system with secret cash-for-favors. I’m not so sure that we’re becoming less moralistic, though – I think Steve is probably just conflating being morally driven with being religious, which seems like a false dichotomy. We are definitely getting less religious, but we’re probably getting nicer and more tolerant of one another in the process, not less. But I digress.

In light of this critique, and the obvious dangers of state-sponsored (or sponsoring?) oligarchic capitalism or amoral, money-hungry capitalist, you might think that I’d be a socialist, or a “some men just want to watch the world burn” populist like Bannon, but you’d be wrong.

I scoured this for hours trying to find the right Jack Handey video but couldn’t find it, but here’s the quote:

If you saw two guys named Hambone and Flippy, which one would you think liked dolphins the most? I’d say Flippy, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong, though. It’s Hambone.

Nope, in spite of all of that, I remain firmly a capitalist, with one really, really big caveat. But we’ll get to that at the end of this already-too-long missive.

Let’s start off with a few facts:

  • Taxes are coercive. You do not have a choice about paying them. If you do not pay them, men with guns will put you behind bars. Taxes are the diametric opposite of economic freedom.
  • Capitalism is the default state of human civilization. Since Day 1, if you were the caveman who knocked the most skulls (a valuable economic ability), you got to eat. You provided value (the skull knocking) and you were rewarded for that value (food, women, etc.)
  • Capitalism does NOT preclude community service. When you have economic freedom, you can give your money to charity. Many people (like Mr. Dan) do significant charity works because they want to. Some people (like many of the world’s billionaires” really go hard in da’ paint.

c9YIlv3thug life

  • In a capitalist system (non-monopolistic), a company must yield value to society, or it will perish. Therefore, the vast, vast majority of companies are inherently good, because if they weren’t, they’d die. (For the sake of argument, imagine living in the year 1875 and trying to get from Philadelphia to San Francisco. A man arrives and guarantees that he can take you there in 6 hours, soaring through the skies, but that he also might punch you in the face. You would accept immediately – the value being provided is so great that you wouldn’t even care, you’d take all the punches he can throw. In a sense, if there weren’t competitive airlines that hold each other accountable, we might say that occasionally getting beaten and dragged might be an okay exchange for the gift of flight. But again I digress).

There are clear times when the interests of a company are narrow and come at odds with the greater the interests of the society. The environment is the most obvious example of this – a chemical company might have a desire to make useful plastics for you. This provides value for you when storing foods in your fridge (thanks chemical company!). But, if they pollute all the lands and we can’t grow any more foods, we can’t use any more Tupperware. Since the company isn’t perceptive enough to understand that and change their behavior, the government has to intervene and regulate. Cool, that makes sense.

When these regulations are successful, we begin to view the power of governmental action (often confused with collective action) as something to be wielded for the common good. If we have a central, publicly-oriented group that can make rules that protect the environment, why can’t they also tax the wealthy and use that money to provide health insurance to all? And feed the hungry? Right the wrongs?

And so the government begins to levy taxes, grow its power and authority, gain influence in new industries. Corporations suddenly have a big interest in influencing this newfound governmental power, so they feed their handpicked representatives and senators cash, over or under the table. And, we are back to Crony Capitalism, now often thought of in lockstep with the Clinton-Obama “New Democrats” – increase government power as a function of the corporate-state complex.

On the one hand, there is an instinct to proceed down this path, to go further. Many of my further-left friends might say something like, “the Democrats lose because they don’t go far enough! We need Single Payer, expanded Medicare and Medicaid, free college tuition for all” and so on. And, oft-unspoken but acknowledged, this means higher taxes and more centralization of power (though admittedly a transfer from the military budget would probably do a lot to help out with this). And, finally, we arrive at the critical problem with socialism: on a long-enough timeline, socialism is incompatible with democracy. You gather all the power in one place, then you hold elections. Sooner or later you’re going to elect someone who doesn’t want to give up that power, and then you end up in the same place as every socialist or communist country ever has – one guy who usually sucks running the place into the ground. Usually a whole bunch of people die too.

So, my preference would be to reverse course – clearly identify the places where government has a role (the environment), argue over the places where it’s unclear (health care, education), use government to combat injustice and systemic inequality, but in general try to take as much power out of government hands. Because, when you put all the power in the government’s hands, it either ends up in a big company’s hands (hi United) or in a bad government’s hands (hi Donald).

So that’s why I’m a capitalist.

Ah yes, my caveat: capitalism only works because there is scarcity. If it was equally cheap, convenient, and efficient to fly a different airline, you would never fly the one that makes blood come out of your face. And, capitalism itself strives to reduce that scarcity by making goods and services more efficiently provided and therefore cheaper and more accessible. Eventually, we’re going to robot our way out of scarcity, out of capitalism, and into some sort of jobless Utopia/Dystopia coinflip. It really seems like even odds at this point.

Anyway, thanks for reading this long and text-heavy blog. Let me know what you think!

Andrew