This website is now dedicated to pages about cycling, hiking, and anything else I decide to write about.
The blog part of it has moved to http://firstworldproblems.blog
This website is now dedicated to pages about cycling, hiking, and anything else I decide to write about.
The blog part of it has moved to http://firstworldproblems.blog
We were watching Netflix a few days ago, and we couldn’t find the movie we wanted to see. But apart from that movie, there were so many choices of movie or TV series. It was overwhelming.
Add in Amazon and all the other streaming sources and it gets ridiculous. Tanya and I have a really hard time choosing what to watch if presented with an almost infinite choice. Often we’ll just retreat to the comfort of a book.
In the old days there were just a few TV channels to watch, and programs had fixed schedules. So if we wanted to watch, say, Lovejoy, we sat in front of the TV at the appointed time—or we missed it. I enjoyed TV a lot more in those days. Predictability and limited choices.
Now there are many choices, and much better visual quality, but the experience is no better. Back then we knew only what we had and we enjoyed it. Watching TV is little more than entertainment, an escape from reality—unless we watch the News shows 🙂 —and modern TV is no better than old TV for escapism. It’s arguably worse because we no longer have the added benefit of being able to discuss what we watched with friends at work the next day.
For some reason—money comes to my mind—we are constantly told that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is more choice.
But my brain is not well-designed to handle choice. What I want is predictability and the security this brings. My brain doesn’t really like choices and having to make decisions.
I don’t really want a 401K where I choose among investment options. I want the predictability and security of a pension with a known payment every month. Too late for that now though.
I don’t want a choice among a hundred different medical plans with different options, different copays, different deductibles. I just want to be able to go to the doctor and be fixed, as people do in all other industrialized countries.
I don’t want to be paralyzed by the choice of a hundred toothpastes and toothbrushes. I really am no more satisfied having chosen X than Y.
So why do we have so much choice? The politically correct answer is so that there is more competition and thus lower prices. But this answer only works up to a point.
There is no real competition in toothpaste, there’s just pointless choice. There’s no competition in medical care because we can’t read reviews and we can’t switch at will. There’s less and less competition in cellphone networks, airlines, health insurance because providing choice is not a good business model—every big company would rather be a monopoly because that’s where the money is—and so companies with deep pockets persuade governments to allow consolidation of their industry. And I don’t want choice of risks in retirement planning; I just want a predictable income stream on which I can base my plans.
But no one asks We, the People, what We want. Medicare and Social Security are incredibly popular programs, yet we are not asked if we’d like their simplicity and predictability to be available for all healthcare and all retirement payments. Instead, we are offered choices based on the political beliefs of politicians and the profit-making desires of the companies that fund them.
More choice, less satisfaction. Sigh. 😕
There are many things I’ve convinced myself I should be doing. I should ride my bike, lift weights, learn French, learn web software development, write, create art, cook, spend time with Tanya, spend time with friends.
But why should I do all these things? Because I’m not working and have the time. My puritan streak says I should make use of my time, be productive, create, get things done. Otherwise I might as well be working.
Intellectually I know this is madness. No one cares what I accomplish1. My parents might have cared but they are long gone. And anyway, one day I’ll be dead too, as will all those who remember me.
I exaggerate; I do ride my bike sometimes. The simple solution would be to ride my bike all the time because that doesn’t take willpower and it doesn’t stress the brain.
But I get bored doing the same rides all the time, and anyway, I’d only injure myself.
So, with all these things I could be doing, why the whirlwind of inactivity? An Inability to Prioritize, and Perfectionism.
An Inability to Prioritize. There’s not enough time to do everything, and to do only some things means not doing other things. And I can’t decide which things to not do. That’s the problem with life: you can’t do it all which means you have to let go of some things.
You have to prioritize.
It seems I’m not very good at that, probably because I’m not very good at choosing the things I won’t do.
I’ll start something, get something partly done, then think I should be spending time on something else, and quit the current thing unfinished. Then I lose the context, lose the ideas that were in my mind, and when I come back to it, it either takes a while to get back into it, or the ideas were sufficiently subtle that they have gone. And that assumes I even come back to it.
What makes it worse is that some things I could be doing are big, daunting, open-ended, never-ending things: Learn French, Write a Book. What makes it worse still is that I question if I really do want to do those things, or if they are just things that I think I should do – for some deep, distant psychological reason. How do such things even fit into a prioritization scheme?
Perfectionism. For writing and art, I want the output to be good – I don’t actually expect perfection. But I don’t want to waste time on something that won’t be good. Unfortunately it’s easier to do nothing than to be good.
It’s also hard to put in the time to make something good when there are so many other things waiting to be done.
Sometimes starting is the hardest thing. Once I’m doing an activity it’s often easy to get lost in it. It’s just starting that’s hard because it means not doing all the other things I might be doing. Or sometimes it seems that it will be difficult – learning French for example – but once in it my brain starts to enjoy the activity. So just start. Tell yourself it will just be for 5 minutes. If you want to quit after 5 minutes, quit. But there’s a good chance that you’ll continue.
Schedule time for each of the tasks you need to do. Schedule the start time and the duration. Start on time, set a countdown timer, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. Or don’t stop if you want to continue.
Assuming a task is not open ended, once started, finish it. If it is open ended, break it into smaller chunks that can be finished after starting. This means letting go of all the other possible things I might be doing, but at least it gets something done, and that feels good. I’ll feel satisfaction, and I won’t have something hanging over me.
Even big, never-ending tasks like Learn French can be split into smaller tasks, like Do Lesson 5. This allows you to always have a prioritized list of tasks.
Raymond Chandler had a very simple method to help him write. He set aside time, but he didn’t have to use that time to write. However, he couldn’t do anything else either. It was either write or do nothing.
“He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing. …. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. B. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”
This is the Buddhist approach I suppose – let go of craving, of attachments. If I don’t care how well something turns out, it’s easier to get it done. It’s never that simple of course because I want things to have some level of competence and elegance, but the bar height can be lowered a bit.
But It goes beyond the level of competence, because it also means not caring about whether I even start or do the thing. Do some web development? Why bother? Life is much easier when I stop caring.
Sometimes you need to completely eliminate things from that overwhelming, hanging-over-you list. Things that you think you should do, but don’t want to do and have no good reason to do. Warren Buffett had a scheme where you list the top 25 things you want to do, then circle the top 5. The other 20 become your Avoid-At-All-Costs list.
Sometimes small tasks just build up: get new light bulbs, sell something on Ebay, clean the floor, do the laundry, and so on. It gives me satisfaction to spend a day just taking care of small tasks with no thought to the bigger, more “important” things I might otherwise be doing.
This blog post is an example of two of the above Answers: Stop Caring, and Finish Things. I decided not to try and make it perfect, just adequate, and to have fun doing it. And I’m finishing it, even though there are other things I think I should be doing. This way it will be done and not hanging over me.
I wrote it for me, to help me learn and internalize some techniques so I can have, if not a whirlwind of activity, at least a breeze of activity.
Starting in December, everything will be different 🙂
Mark Manson’s wonderful article about the pain you are willing to suffer.
Another great Mark Manson article about wanting less.
So what is Uber? Europe’s top court is trying to figure that out so European countries can decide how to regulate the company. Uber claims it’s an app, “an intermediary providing a technology service in exchange for a fee”. Taxi drivers claim it’s a transport company.
At stake is whether Uber will have to “adhere to the same laws and norms as staid rivals on employment, health and safety, taxes and pricing.”
Apparently the decision will also affect other companies in the “sharing economy”, such as Airbnb and Booking.com.
I have no idea how things will work out or who will be presenting evidence to the court, but if they asked me, I would say that Uber is one type of animal and Airbnb and Booking are a different species altogether.
When I use Uber, I say, “Let’s get an Uber”. I don’t think, “Let’s use the Uber app to get a car driven by an independent contractor.” The prices are all pre-defined and it doesn’t matter which individual car comes and picks me up. The details of the specific car are irrelevant; I just get the car that is closest to me.
Whereas with Airbnb and Booking I use their app to find places in the area I’m interested in visiting. I study the facts: location, size, amenities, price, and so on, and make a decision based on how important the different factors are to me.
In other words, I use Airbnb and Booking as technology intermediaries to present me with several very different independent options, and I make a choice. Then I use Airbnb or Booking to coordinate booking, payment, and cancelation policies with these independent hotels or people.
But I don’t use Uber that way. I use Uber exactly as I would a taxi company. Sent me the nearest car and transport me from A to B.
So I hope that the top European court will read this blog and take my views into account. If you know anyone on the court, please send them a link to this post. 🙂
After my last post about the Earth and Sun, I thought I’d post something I’d previously written about the scale of the Universe. As I said, this stuff fascinates me and boggles my mind. I love the feeling of utter incomprehension 🙂
Imagine a football field. It’s the beginning of the season, so the grass is looking beautiful. It’s been recently cut and you can see the alternating stripes going one way then the other. The smell of the grass is wonderful. Imagine walking barefoot from one end of the field to the other, feeling that wonderful sensation of soft grass under your feet. How many blades of grass do you think there are on that field? Lots. In fact, in a typical field there are about 250,000,000 blades of grass, a quarter of a billion. I want an area with 200,000,000,000 blades of grass, and for that we need to put together 800 football fields. Now, 800 football fields is going to take a long time to walk along, so let’s put them side to side rather than end to end, and let’s imagine walking across them all.
After a while we are in the middle of the 347th field. Let’s stop here for a moment. I want you to take out a small jar of yellow paint that you are carrying, bend down, and paint just one blade of grass yellow. After you have done that, continue walking across the remaining 453 football fields. Okay, what was the point of that?”
What we have just done is look at the number of stars in our galaxy—about 200,000,000,000—and we’ve painted one blade of grass corresponding to our sun. There’s nothing special about 347 though—I just wanted you to have walked a long way, and still have a long way to walk. And this is only a fraction of the universe.
If we want to look at our sun relative to all the stars in our universe, imagine grass covering the entire surface of the Earth—land, lakes, seas and oceans—and remember that more than two thirds of the surface of the Earth is water. All of America is covered with grass, as is Europe and all of Africa, all of Asia. The Atlantic Ocean is covered, as is the Pacific Ocean. The whole surface of the Earth is covered with grass. Each blade of grass represents one star, and again, our sun is one blade of grass painted yellow.
Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, said it well when he wrote, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
[Update: Since my original writing about the football fields and grass covered planets, scientists have revised the galaxy count, and now believe there are over 2 trillion – 2,000,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Which would mean grass completely covering 20 Earth size planets, and our Sun a single blade of grass on one of those 20 planets.]
Scientists now estimate that the Universe contains more than two trillion galaxies.
The book where I originally wrote the stuff above.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave us the answer to “what is 6 times 7”. Oh, wait, it was a different question.
The Sun has been doing this for over 4 billion years, and will continue doing so for another 4 billion years.
And if this wasn’t enough, consider how far away the Earth is from the Sun. I know, you can’t. We don’t have a frame of reference. So let’s create one.
Take a basketball if you have one. If not, take a plastic gallon milk container. Place it on the ground. Now take a peppercorn. Walk 31 yards away – that’s 31 decent-sized steps. Place the peppercorn on the ground.
That’s roughly the relative size and distance of the Earth from the Sun. Stand back and marvel at how much energy the Sun must be putting out to heat the Earth at that sort of distance.
Of course, the Sun is not blasting all the energy directly at the Earth. It’s putting out energy in all directions. So the heat and light the Earth receives is also going to all points in a sphere the size of the Earth-Sun distance.
As you can see, the peppercorn is almost invisible at 31 yards. It would take over 2 billion peppercorns to cover a sphere 31 yards from your basketball or milk container. In other words, the Sun is putting out enough heat and light to heat over 2 billion Earths at once.
This is so mind-boggling that I can’t begin to relate to it.
And the mind-bogglingness is compounded by the fact that there are about 300,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy and about 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe.
How can one even begin to get a grasp on that? I can’t think of anything that creates a greater sense of awe in me.
Here’s a fantastic demonstration of the relative size and distance of our Solar System and its planets. Click on the picture and scroll left and right. Prepare to feel awe. If you want to see the full page version, click here.
The distance from the sun to the earth is about 93,000,000 miles. The surface area of the sphere around the Sun at the distance of the Earth is: 4 * pi * (distance from Earth to Sun)2. Computing this gives 4 * 3.14 * 93,000,000 * 93,000,000 square miles = approximately 108,631,440,000,000,000 square miles.
The surface area of the disk that would be the Earth if you were looking at it from the sun is: pi * (radius of Earth)2 which is about 3.14 * 4,000 * 4,000, or 50,240,000 square miles.
How many Earth sizes fit into the surface of this sphere around the Sun? The answer is 108,631,440,000,000,000 / 50,240,000 = 2,152,250,000. In other words, the Sun is giving out enough light and energy to heat and illuminate over 2 billion Earths.
It’s also time for a change. Much as I like the cycling around here, it gets boring to keep repeating the same few rides.
It’s a sad fact about human experience that we adapt to things that once gave us great pleasure.
Hedonic adaptation: The new job that once excited us becomes boring and we want another job. The new car we drooled over becomes just another car and we are excited about the next, better, car.
The woman we enjoyed so much becomes less exciting and we want to experience the thrill of pursuit again – whoops, strike that.
Hedonic adaptation is evolution’s way of keeping us striving, keeping us alive and competing for the best genes to mate with. But it’s not so good for our state of mind.
Tanya and I could have done the Buddhist thing and learned how to let go of craving but that’s tough. Easier is to just leave town, get on the road, seek out new towns and new bike rides, cycle the less traveled (by us) roads.
The stumbling block, the one that caused us to previously cancel all our summer plans, was that my shins still hurt. But I felt hope when I heard the words of my physical therapist. He told me that he thinks my shins are no longer injured, but are in a highly reactive state called Central Sensitization – “a persistent, or regulated, state of reactivity subsequently comes to maintain pain even after the initial injury might have healed.”
I decided to believe him since that I like the possibilities his answer gives. I started riding again after 5 months of no cycling or hiking. I rode the flats for about 3 weeks, then rode 7 miles up Mt Lemmon. My shins still hurt, but no differently than they did a few months ago.
So we decided to go on the road again. Not only will it be stimulating to be in different places, see old friends, do bike rides we’ve never done before, but the anticipation is fun and the preparation absorbs us. Hedonic adaptation be damned.
Life is good.
Over time I will be updating a page about our cycling travels.
An explanation of Central Sensitization.
Here’s a wonderful, witty talk about pain by Lorimer Moseley.
American politicians love to throw about the words “American Exceptionalism” and to use them as a weapon against other politicians who dare to claim that perhaps America can learn from other countries.
Which is sad.
It’s always sad to see the government of the people, by the people, for the people (1) refusing to do things that benefit the people. I’m referring to something that I’ve wondered about every tax season.
It’s always struck me as strange that for most people, the government already has all the information we need to fill in our tax returns. Most working American’s get a W2 at the end of the year and they copy data from the W2 onto their tax return. About half of Americans have a single bank account, and they copy data from that 1099 onto their tax return.
In other words they copy information that has already been filed with the government onto another form that they will file with the government. How crazy is that?
Let’s complicate things a bit. If people have multiple bank accounts they will get multiple 1099s. If they have a normal house mortgage, then will copy the interest from a 1098 form onto their tax form.
For many varieties of investment account they will get a 1099-INT or 1099-DIV, which have already been filed with the government. This just gives them more information to copy from one form to another and then file with the government.
For a least 50% of Americans there is no need to file a tax return. The government already has all the information it needs for those people. It could simply send a tax bill if we have underpaid, or a check if we have overpaid.
But we are exceptional, so we can’t copy what other countries do; we have nothing to learn from them. We have to do things in exceptional ways. Except that our way is exceptionally stupid.
As Derek Thompson says, “Letting the government do its citizens’ taxes is cheap, efficient, and accurate. Naturally, the United States won’t do it.”
But we can hope. As Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”
(1) From Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But you probably already knew that 🙂
(2) Okay, now you really have to read Derek Thompson’s wonderful article that inspired this post: The 10-Second Tax Return.
So it seems an appropriate time to finish writing this article, which I started a while back then put aside.
In the last few months I’ve been reading a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Artificial Super-Intelligence (ASI), and robots, and how computers and robots will destroy jobs, and how we will all be able to spend our time being creative. It’s all very fascinating. And scary.
The pessimistic camp worries about the future of people in a world of ASI. Some people argue that we can control AIs to care about humans, but many others are dubious. There will always be someone who wants to push the limits, bypass the safeguards, make a more competitive product, show what they can do.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, “As the old proverb goes, most of the damage is done by people who wish to feel themselves important. Many ambitious people find it far less scary to think about destroying the world than to think about never amounting to much of anything at all. All the people I have met who think they are going to win eternal fame through their AI projects have been like this.”
And there will always be militaries that want a more powerful and dangerous AI weapon and will do whatever they can to get it before other countries can.
I’m in the pessimistic camp.
I love to ponder this possibility, not because I believe I’ll live forever, but to think about the consequences.
So the first question is what happens to work if the machines take over and we live forever? Will people need to work in order to get money, or will society provide a Basic Income to everyone? Forever? (2)
If the past is any predictor of the future, the middle segment of society will be squeezed. Perhaps a few well-paid creative jobs will remain, and a lot of minimally-paid jobs. Perhaps this means that in an age of immortality many people will have to work forever at multiple minimum wage jobs in order to survive. What a dreadful thought.
But another possibility is that ASIs will simply eliminate all jobs. After all, a Super Intelligence will probably be able to do any intellectual job better than us, and devise ways to automate all manual jobs.
So ASI’s will probably make most, if not all, human work unnecessary. They will take over medicine, law, engineering. They will create robots which take over construction, plumbing, electrical work. And if we think that we will remain more creative than an ASI we are probably deluding ourselves.
But one of the things that keeps people sane is work. It provides meaning and purpose, even if we resent it and get bored by it.
As a student I worked on a construction site that was creating an oil pipeline on the Welsh coast. We worked 12/7 and everyone grumbled about the work but everyone showed up. Then some of the machinery broke. We still had to turn up (and get paid) because it might be fixed at any moment, but for 4 days we did nothing. This was when many people stopped showing up, even though this meant no pay. The boredom was worse than the work. By losing pay, people were paying to relieve their boredom.
So what happens if no one needs to work at all? If we are immortal? If we live forever?
Optimists say we’ll be free to create: to indulge in all those creative activities we would do if it weren’t for the fact that we exhaust ourselves working. I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t think most people are particularly creative. And even if they were I’d be scared: creative destruction seems to be a lot easier and more fun than creative construction.
So, mass boredom? Mass travel? Bingeing on new immersive realities created by ASIs? Watching mortal combat of criminals and lions in Coliseums? A drug drip? Sex robots? Being permanently hooked into an Ecstasy Machine?
But The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands. There’s the possibility that people will simply start making trouble. They may want the adrenaline rush of danger. They may be driven by a need for status. They may be attracted to violent religions that promise meaning and an end to boredom. Whatever the particulars, there’s a good chance that the world could become a more violent place.
And how will society respond to people who threaten a life that would otherwise go on forever? What dire penalties would we impose? Would we go to war with other countries or religions that are threatening our citizens – and thus kill others who would otherwise live forever?
Knowing whatever they know about evolution, I doubt an ASI would consider us as more special than other life forms. So perhaps the ASIs would simply tire of our tiresome behavior and decide that humans are more trouble than they are worth.
There’s so much focus these days on the possible terrible consequences of Global Warming. But the possible terrible consequences of ASIs and the loss of jobs strike me as being a lot worse. Yet we pay almost no attention to them.
(1) I’m bored because I can’t exercise. I can’t exercise because I can’t seem to get my legs better. I had an MRI and a bone scan in Mumbai and both showed that my legs seem to be okay. But even the small amount of walking around town and sight-seeing seems to keep my legs in a state of pain and suffering. So the topic of what happens when AI puts us out of work is particularly interesting to me now. And I wasn’t bored while writing this blog post 🙂
(2) If machines can do everything why would one even need money? Maybe to buy status? Or to pay people who own resources (which would probably result in a feudal world where status and resources were inherited)?
Tim Urban’s AI article, part 1: The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence.
Tim Urban’s AI article, part 2: The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction.
The Wikipedia page about Basic Income.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat. A book by someone who is very concerned about our future when we get ASI. Here’s a review of the book.
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Here’s a review of the book.
Well, as they say, 5 years will pass, and at the end of it you’ll either be able to play the piano or speak French, or you won’t. But the time will pass either way. You’ve got to spend the time somehow.
Similarly, you’ve got to spend the time somewhere.
Tanya and I like to travel, but we don’t do a lot of “tourist stuff”. After a trip friends will ask if we went to Museum A, or saw the incredible Ruins of B. Or they will tell us about the 297 mosques they visited so they could see all the varieties of decorative patterns.
It’s easy to feel some guilt or shame when we admit that we didn’t go to Museum A or see the Ruins of B or look at any mosques.
So I remind myself that we are just living according to one of my philosophies of life: “You’ve Got To Be Somewhere.”
What that means is we are living ordinary life, just in different places, in different Somewheres. We are not on a 2 week vacation where we want to do or see as much as possible before heading back to work.
It’s not that we have an aversion to going to A or seeing B or looking at mosques, and if a place appeals to us we’ll go. But we don’t try to maximize our experiences(1). We are just living our ordinary lives, passing time, and choosing to do it in different Somewheres.
(1) We are generally satisficers. If we’ve gone somewhere for a specific purpose then we (or at least I) will act like a maximizer. For example when we visited St. Jean de Maurienne we went there specifically to ride all the big mountain passes made famous by the Tour de France and wanted to maximize that experience.
Article about Maximizers and Satisficers (possible paywall)
Article about Maximizers and Satisficers
Earl Nightingale quote about time passing.