Book Review – Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

For the last few weeks I’ve been suffering from the onset of my SAD, so I’ve been getting less done than I prefer, and that includes reading. This means that I had the option this week of not doing a review this week, or doing a review on something I read previously, and doing a piece on a work of fiction seems better to me than to do nothing, which would only further harm my expectancy.

So, HPMOR! People seem to either hate it or love it; nobody’s told me about having a middle of the road opinion. Personally, I fall into the ‘love’ camp – I’ve read it almost as many times as Worm; I tend to read and reread my favorites, trying to patch bits that I appreciate and approve of into my soul.

Now, don’t mistake me – Harry makes a number of unforced errors, he’s intensely arrogant, and he is, at core, an inexperienced child, no matter that he has a vast library of literature to draw on. Still, his persistence, his loyalty, and his absolute opposition to death are valuable to me.

Every time I read it, and the times that I’ve read it aloud to others to express my values, the patronus speech has driven me to tears; I hope that I can learn to write in a way that conveys that kind of passion. I think, honestly, that I owe that passage a great deal for my ignition over the last few years. Previously, I was abstractly anti-death, I thought that it was something that needed to go and would, eventually, be resolved. Repeated rereadings have changed this position from one of abstract support into a burning need – mors delenda est!

Prior to reading HPMOR, I was generally against fanfiction. “Why,” I wondered, “can’t these authors have original characters? Even filing off the serial numbers and making some minor changes would be better than directly copying the originals.” HPMOR forced an update on this position, and let me enjoy a much more complex and rich Potterverse, one that includes such works as Harry Potter and the Wastelands of Time and A Black Comedy, which to not have enjoyed would have been a loss.

HPMOR brought a lot of new blood into the rationality community, and if you have the right shape of mind, you, too, will love it. You can also learn a fair amount about rationality from it, which required a tricky balancing act on Eliezer’s part.

“I’m learning and enjoying it? What is this sorcery?”

The fandom, presumably.

HPMOR is worth your time to read, and reread, if you’re that sort of person. Grab a copy and delight in it today!

Book review – The Talent Code

Following Deep Work I was hungry for something that would help me make the most of the time I spent trying to get better. I didn’t have this thought foremost in my mind when I scrolled through my priority reads folder, but… lucky, remember?

So I pulled The Talent Code from my stack and set to it. It turned out to be another one of those books I get hooked on, and I read most of it over the weekend. The prose flows, and the ideas are interesting. Daniel Coyle takes us on a tour of several “chicken-wire Harvards”, places in the world where “talent”, defined as, “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size,” spring up with the profusion of dandelions.

So, what is talent made of?

If you read my review on Deep Work, you won’t be surprised when I say, “myelin”. Neurons fire together and wire together, and this sets the basic circuit diagram, but it’s not the whole picture. As you practice, ideally focusing on exactly the skill you’re trying to build, ogliodendrocytes wrap the axons in the circuit in myelin, reducing the signal leakage, and tuning the circuit to fire faster or slower, as needed, adjusting it to work in an exact pattern of sequence and timing.

How do you build up your myelin? Practicing at the edge of your ability, and in such a way that you get fast feedback. The example held up as a central one early on is of a girl learning to play a clarinet piece, doing so in a somewhat halting fashion, trying a little, stopping to consider what wasn’t right, and then trying again. What looks from the outside to be fractured and useless is in fact high level practice – so much so that Daniel says the video could be called, “The Girl Who Did a Month’s Worth of Practice in Six Minutes”.

Struggle and difficulty are the key to becoming great. Brazilian soccer is the example here – Brazilians often have limited space in which to practice, and a version of the game that takes this into account known as “football in the room” with a smaller, heavier ball, is held up as the secret to great soccer. Football in the room, or ‘futsal’, puts much more pressure on the players to maintain ball control, to think quickly, to deal with tough situations, and it shows when they get out on the larger field with the lighter ball.

The myth of the genius performer, brilliant from the start, is dissolved as well. The Brontë sisters come up here – for a long time, they were considered to be inexplicable prodigies, springing up with expertise as if given by the gods. Instead, they spent their childhoods cooperatively writing, starting with nearly direct copies of the magazine articles and books around them. Over time, their skill grew, and they eventually became the great authors we celebrate to this day.

A particularly interesting example is the artists of the Renaissance. A small place and a brief time produced many of the greatest artistic works of human history. Why? Practice. Vast, vast amounts of practice, optimized under the guild system. Children were apprenticed to masters, who taught them their craft from the bottom up with endless practice. The great artists of the time spent their youth mixing paints, preparing canvases, and sharpening chisels, surrounded by inspiring works and other experts. Directly from the mouth of one who lived it –

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery,” Michelangelo later said, “it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

The Talent Code is an excellent examination of where talent comes from, what it’s made of, and how to get some of your own. It delves deeply into how to grow your talent, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who cares to become great.

Book Review – The Age of Overwhelm

The Age of Overwhelm was not the book I was anticipating. I have a folder into which I put books I place a high value on having read, which I sometimes read books from – setting myself up to regularly review a new book has helped with this somewhat, but there is some backlog, at this point.

I pulled Age of Overwhelm up expecting a book on how our modern age has us constantly (checks her email to see what the new message light is for) breaking our attention to focus on something else demanding we pay our attention to it – facebook messages, discord pings, email. Instead, the book is largely about emotional overwhelm – that state when everything is just too damn much, and you either find some escape, or melt down.

Certainly Age of Overwhelm does an excellent job characterizing the issue – we are provided with example after example of people in overwhelming situations, from the increasing hospitalization of suicidal teenagers, to activists who watch their causes become ever worse as they try to make them better, or even hold steady. One particularly striking example is given from the life of someone dedicated to preventing gun violence. Her son observed a Breaking News feed about a mass shooting, and reported to her, “Mommy, you failed at your job.”

Far less space seems to be given to how to meliorate these issues. We are again shown ways to become overwhelmed, and there are moments where solutions are discussed – taking space, getting exposure to nature, being less attached – but the book focuses so much more heavily on overwhelm and being overwhelmed, that these seem like more of an afterthought than the primary subject matter.

It’s rare to find a self-help book that spends more page space on why you need the help, than on the help. For the first third of the book, I didn’t recall seeing any help – so much so that I decided to actively look for it. While there are sentences and paragraphs describing ways to be less whelmed, on the whole it seems more like a study of the state of affairs, than a text aimed at improving things.

Perhaps the author found the subject matter a bit overwhelming herself – certainly there is a great deal of pain in the world that Laura van Dernoot Lipsky brings us to look at. Having read it, I find myself questioning if it is necessary for us to live in this way.

I’ve always been a strong extropian accelerationist – I think the sooner we get to fully-automated luxury gay space communism, the better. I’m not as convinced we need to be breaking ourselves along the way. Those who’ve known me through my recent personal changes may find this somewhat surprising – I often challenge myself to get more done in a day.

I also try to spend part of every day playing the violin. I game, still, somewhat irregularly – I was until recently active in a D&D campaign. I have a Fallout – A Tale of Two Wastelands save no more than weeks old. While I’ve taken the motto of Boxer to heart (“I will work harder!”) and find myself chanting along with Watsky about the moral of the story (“Work! Work! Work! Work! Work!”) I recognize, on some level, the need to play, to goof off, to relax. To get your chill on.

Age of Overwhelm makes a strong case that, as a society, we’ve lost sight of this vital human need. “We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe.” I think we lose sight of this at our peril, and Age of Overwhelm makes an excellent case that we are imperiled indeed.

Book Review – Interdependent Capitalism

This week, I felt compelled to review Interdependent Capitalism, a book I received as part of a workshop on perverse incentives. Once I cracked the cover, I spent the next few hours reading until I hit the other cover. Most nonfiction doesn’t hit me quite that hard, so Interdependent Capitalism stands out as something of an outlier to me, and I’m glad I have this platform to broadcast it on.

Interdependent Capitalism opens with a discussion of the meaning of a korean term, “gohyang”, which translates to the english term, “hometown”, “a place where one was born or grew up”. For the Yun family (three of whom worked on this book) gohyang speaks to more than just a familiar place where one spent one’s childhood. It is compared to a sacred sanctuary, a centralization of family, and the classic metaphor of home – a place “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” as Frost put it.

Much of the book revolves around the idea of the “kin village”, the sort of environment most of our ancestors lived their lives in, where everybody knew everybody, was more or less related to everybody, and someone from ten miles away was an exotic stranger, and what happens when this is no longer the case. The primary thesis of the book is that, in leaving these environments and going forth into the world, we’ve left a place where everybody had a reason to care for you, and their inclusive fitness would suffer to some degree by cheating you. We live instead in nuclear families, among other nuclear families, all competing to get ahead of our low-relatedness surrounding neighbors.

As relative strangers, we improve our fitness by putting our interests first, and those of our neighbors last, if we bother to list them at all. In other words, our biological evolution hasn’t kept pace with our cultural evolution, and we suffer for it again and again when we expect our neighbors to act like our kin, and they don’t. Mechanisms that had your aunts and uncles serving as your heroes betray you when celebrities become our heroes, and hawk a new diet book that does nothing but enrich them.

Part one contains a story of how, starting from our ancestral family villages, we got to the point of our current, largely atomized state. They coin the term, “kin skin in the game” to refer to investment in social systems due to genetic proximity. From eusociality to incest taboos, different pieces of behavior come under the microscope to show the benefits of working together – when one’s close relatives are the beneficiaries.

However, as genetic lines diverge, separated by distance and outbreeding, the incentive to cheat (at least with those outside the group unit, once the village and now the nuclear family) only increases. With a greater ability to abandon existing relationships for new ones, and a decrease in genetic alignment in one’s society, they claim three phenomena emerge:
First, an increase in “self-dealing” – a term they define to mean a particular kind of defection – not outright theft or robbery, but a kind of dereliction of duty – the public servant who accepts a bribe, or the CEO who invests company cash in a cousin’s business on non-market terms, is self-dealing, as is the employee who books more expensive flights on the company travel card, to accumulate more frequent flier miles.
Second, increased counterparty risk.
And third, decreased win-win transactions based on vested interests.

All of these benefit the atomized individual / nuclear family more than they do the tightly related group, but they also disadvantage those on the losing side of each phenomena, and on the whole, the gains are not commensurate with the losses – especially for the average person, as the least scrupulous and most grasping seek to enrich themselves in win-lose transactions that, while they reduce the total available winnings for everyone, pay off for them specifically at a higher rate.

In part two, the focus is on the race to the bottom line, how systems that aren’t based around inclusive genetic fitness favor those forces who can Goodhart the hardest – making the tastiest food with ingredients that happen to be radically unhealthy, or who can make their packaged subprime mortgages pay the highest returns – on paper, at least, without considering default rates. As they put it, “the system will eventually select for fake news about fake heroes endorsing fake foods.”

From information to olive oil, baseball teams to mortgage lending, our modern systems fail to properly connect the losses from the damages done by self-dealing, to those who do the dealing, often until the institutions they fed on parasitically collapse under the obviousness of their finally deranged behaviors, social trust is further eroded, and a few people who participated are elected as sacrificial lambs to appease the baying mob.

From these ashes, a new race arises – the race to the middle, the race to Goodhart “good enough”: not so bad as to be obviously damaging, but optimized to stay just ahead of that clear tipping point when the need to clean house becomes obvious. Instead they limp on, year after year, failing to either properly serve society, or be so clearly terrible that they need to be disposed of.

One consequence of the movement of institutions to self-dealing is, I think, particularly pernicious. Vampirelike, the self-dealing institution leaves the individual sucked dry, and then to turn to self-dealing themselves, since, after all, “You’ve got to look out for number one. Nobody else is.” This is illustrated through the lens of psychology. I think a telling point is made when they compare the size of floorspace in your average bookstore dedicated to self-help as compared with the floorspace of the help-others section.

What help-others section?


The individual is made champion, held up to be the hero, while those others are the bad guys, the responsible ones. The system abstracts the harm done to others out of our sight, and out of our minds. We build stories about bad guys and good guys even as we line the pockets of the bad guys to drive our cars and eat our meals, ignoring the cost paid in atmospheric pollution and the suffering of farm animals.

So what can we do about this spiral of mediocrity, backstabbing, and suffering?

This is the focus of part three, rewriting the social contract and using existing forces to feed the system to the system, using its own forces and incentives against it. The authors envision a world where compersion is as well known as schadenfreude (and here’s hoping the song about compersion is as catchy as its counterpart.) and more available to the average person. A world of “they statements” made “I statements” for turning depressing situations into personal responsibilities – while their example is of cleaning highways, personally I think of a change I went through, from “Someone needs to save the world” to “I need to do something about the world needing saving.”

As calls to action go, the authors push to “restart at year zero” seems well-supported and thought out, although short on easy to apply, instant win actions. But this is in some ways their primary point – the system is not going to package and advertise the end of the system to you. Instead we are issued mass produced Guy Fawkes masks and told the correct places to protest for maximum visibility and minimal actual change. While the Yuns gesture at some points of intervention, it’s clear that they don’t have all the answers – that all the answers won’t be found if we wait for someone else to find them for us.

It’s time, instead, that we go out and look – and as we go, compliment the person searching next to you for the offered helping hand. Social trust can’t be rebuilt without society, and if you look closely enough, society is built of you and me.

Book Review – The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

If I had known this book was written by a former lover of Ayn Rand, would I have still read it?

Chances are pretty good. I’ve tried to hold to an ideal that I picked up from Stranger in a Strange Land for a long time. Specifically – “Successful city political bosses held open court all through the twentieth century, leaving wide their office doors and listening to any gandy dancer or bindlestiff who came in. “

While I’ve never aspired to political office, the principle of information acquisition being beneficial holds across professions, I think – even if one is, as I, an autodidactic wanderer of no fixed employment. Perhaps even especially then – I think it is a reasonable belief that any adult human (and many younger ones), especially those with backstories that significantly differ from yours, know at least one thing that is:
a) Something that you do not know.
b) Something that it would be useful for you to know.

This does not always mean that said information is necessarily accessible to you – for example, someone who would look at my backstory and refuse to communicate with me is not going to share their useful information with me, clearly. At least not without a great deal of work.

Still, this does mean that if someone tries to communicate with you, there’s a decent amount of expected value to be had from hearing people out. There are counterexamples to be made to this general statement, but I think it makes more sense to take, “listen to people, for they have data” over, “do not listen to people, because they have nothing to teach me” as an axiom, and rule out some people in specific cases, as merited.

In any case, I did read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, authored by Nathaniel Branden. Not only did I read it, I quoted it repeatedly in a discord I am in, and at least one quote from it ended up in my random quote library, the ones that display on each page here. Pillars contains many useful ideas, enough that I would have no trouble filling my usual review length with nothing but quotes, and still have some left over.

It’s laid out in three parts, covering (in Nathaniel’s view of) the basic principles of self-esteem, internal sources of self-esteem, and external influences. The chapters within each relate well to their third, and contain, in my view, thorough coverage of the areas they claim. Each contains some number of “stems” – sentence starters intended to be completed by the reader as an exercise in self-knowledge. Writing full sentences from these stems about myself was enlightening, and not nearly always in a way that fed my pride. Bringing light to the dark corners of ones psyche is neither pleasant work, nor uplifting, in and of itself.

Instead, it is in some ways like the housecleaning I helped with in New Brighton – there is an immense amount of shit, in the unexamined mind, and it’s lousy to have to deal with, but once it’s all gone you can actually make something decent out of the place. Until you do, though, you’ll be living in all that filth, unaware, because the constant exposure has dulled your sense of smell.

I don’t think I’ve managed to clear out nearly everything yet, but I’m making progress, and Pillars helped me on my way. I suspect some of the stems relating to consciousness and addiction helped me break a couple of ugly habits I’ve held to for a long time, and reminded me that I want to live consciously, that there are things in this world that I care about, and that I can’t save anyone if I’m off in the corner giggling to myself and waiting for someone to rescue me.

The one direct quote I am going to leave you with from the book is rather representative of the whole – not exactly pleasant to contemplate, but if you care, or think you want to care, about the state of the world, you’d do well to think on it well and deeply:

Some years ago, in my group therapy room, we hung on the wall a number of sayings that I often found useful in the course of my work. A client made me a gift of several of these sayings done in needlepoint, each with its own frame. One of these was “It isn’t what they think; it’s what you know.” Another was “No one is coming.”
One day a group member with a sense of humor challenged me about “No one is coming.”
“Nathaniel, it’s not true,” he said. “You came.”
“Correct,” I admitted, “but I came to say that no one is coming.”

No one is coming, and we have to save ourselves. If you want to do so, you could do worse than to read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.

Book Review – Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ

As I mentioned in an earlier review, my wonderful partners have pointed out that I have some less than wonderful processes that can be invoked. As part of my reading blitz, I picked up Emotional Intelligence, and read it slowly overtime on my phone. I say slowly in part because these days I do most of my reading directly on my laptop, and in part because it’s a hefty tome, clocking in at over 800 pages.

Was it worth working my way through all of those? I think yes.

The book starts off with a pleasant anecdote about a smiling bus driver who pumped his vehicle full of warm cheer, then quickly contrasts it with items from the news ranging from destruction of properties to the destruction of multiple lives. As a means to draw your attention to the importance of emotional intelligence, it’s rather effective. Daniel Goleman knows how to pick gut-punching examples, and it doesn’t stop in the prefatory material.

Part one, The Emotional Brain, opens with the same sort of whiplash – a tale of parental self sacrifice for their child, and a tale of parental error that led to the death of their child. It then delves into the bodily effect and utility of emotions, discussing how system one (though he doesn’t call it that) serves our ends, or rather, did in the ancestral environment. A recurring theme through the book is how modern society has made our reactions too fast and powerful, to our frequent sorrow.

Part two, The Nature of Emotional Intelligence, delves into ways to be really dumb while being quite intelligent. Pure logic, memory, and reasoning ability, do not cover all the bases of intelligence, despite the common conception. Emotional intelligence, which is recognizing, understanding, and being able to handle, the emotions of yourself or others, has a stronger effect on life outcomes. Daniel covers several different studies that demonstrate these effects, longitudinal studies with large sample groups. He then delves into what emotional intelligence really means, how we can recognize it in ourselves and others, and how empathy functions, in people for whom it is functional, and in those who it does not, due to various conditions.

In part three, Emotional Intelligence Applied, we dig into what EQ looks like in relationships, and what the lack thereof is like. Personal, professional, and medical are the areas delved into, and the last particularly interested me. I had a few discussions with Martina on the future of medicine, opining that there would come a day when most of the heavy lifting would be done by automated systems. She contended that she didn’t want a machine to tell her she had something wrong with her, she wanted a person. I retorted that there would in fact be people who specialized in this, and being selected for communication ability and empathy, would serve the purpose far better than people selected for the ability to grind books for twelve years. In fact, the research tends to support that, given adequate diagnostic and treatment generation technology, this would actually be an improvement to the outcomes of our medical systems.

The rest of the book (two more sections) leans heavily on the value and desirability of teaching emotional intelligence to the young, and it makes a strong case for it. We’re not serving ourselves by pushing our children to be straw vulcans, Spocks with no understanding of how to name, understand, and cope with the emotions that we and others generate in response to reality. I feel good about recommending Emotional Intelligence, long as it is, to any reader who wants a better understanding of their system one, and how to get along with it for fun, profit, and a longer, healthier, more successful life.

Book Review – The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, a work by Kelly McGonigal, does exactly what it says on the tin. Laid out in ten chapters structured after the ten-week course, “The Science of Willpower”, that she led at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, the text is informed by research and refined by real world tests of the material by people in actual rather than lab conditions – always a bonus for research on people, who’ll happily act one way when a research subject, and totally differently at home.

Each chapter takes up a particular facet of willpower, from the broad overview in chapter one, to chapter three’s explanation of the muscle model of willpower, to chapter five’s tearing down of the ‘pleasure’ center of the brain (Spoiler: It’s not really pleasure, it’s promise-of-pleasure. Biology is weird.) willpower is seen from many different angles, giving an excellent view of the big picture in digestible chunks.

Some of the information from studies I had been previously aware of, but it’s good to have it all compiled in one place, and much of it had clearer / more extensive explanations than my prior understanding. Some of it, like chapter 4’s explanation of willpower hypocrisy, was entirely novel to me. It makes intuitive sense that feeling like we’ve done a good and difficult thing enables us to convince ourselves that we deserve a treat or break from our discipline, but it’s also frustrating that biology should work that way. Still, the awareness I’ve gained of the phenomena from Professor McGonigal’s book seems likely to better enable me to stay on track.

That the brain has numerous tricks built in, to keep us from resisting temptations that were harmful to resist in the ancestral environment is not news, but the number and insidiousness of them was surprising to me. That contemplating being virtuous tomorrow will enable the aforementioned license to sin, for example, was both novel, and depressing. We really are built for an environment of scarcity, where resisting the urge to grab it with both hands was the wrong move, and this is doing us no favor in the modern world.

Lest I convince you all is doom and gloom, worry not, dear reader. Each chapter describes a facet of willpower, and how to use it to your advantage. Delaying your gratification, thinking about why you’re engaging in this feat of mind over mind, reorienting your “I won’t” efforts (spend the next thirty seconds not thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear) to be “I will” efforts, even forgiving yourself rather than treating yourself to a heaping plate full of guilt, can all lead you to be the sort of person whose iron will is the envy of her friends.

Well-written, thoroughly researched, and humorous and serious in just the right measures, The Willpower Instinct is a book you’ll want to exercise your will to start, and might find yourself having to do the same to put it down. I expect I’ll be rereading it soon, because I charged through it in days, and I want to take a more leisurely trek through, trying each technique and giving them some time to show their stuff. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who ever wants to perform actions by choice, rather than on autopilot. Unless you’re already a scientist in this field, you’re sure to learn something, and I suspect you’ll find what you learn quite useful as you walk your path in this temptation-dripping world we’ve built from the ancestral environment brought up in chapter one.

Book Review – Can’t Hurt Me

Have you ever wanted to know how to run on two broken legs?

I can’t say that I meant to learn how to, but David explains how he did it, with duct tape, tube socks, and an attitude. Much of the book covers his (superhuman?) exploits in this and similar extreme circumstances. Losing 100 pounds and remedying a lack of proper education? Running 101 miles without training? I’m not saying David’s a parahuman in hiding, but I’m not convinced he isn’t, either. This book will carry you through the life of a man who is, quite frankly, hard as the diamond core of Jupiter.

David attributes his ability in these, and other arenas, as more the product of a state of mind, a denial of defeat, an abjuration of abandonment, a gross gesture towards giving in. It certainly seems to have worked for him in achieving his goals, and he breaks it down into ten challenges, one following each of the first ten chapters, intended to make you, if not the beyond belief bodily breaker that he is (at one point in his first Hell Week, he was running from the nose and mouth with blood, kept getting pulled off the ‘evolution’ (a term for exercises in BUD/S training), only to get back up and back into place: “Oh shit, Goggins is back on the log. I repeat, Goggins is back on the log!”) then at the least, stronger than you were walking into it.

From his youth of abuse, disappointment, and being the outsider, to breaking world records for pullups, David really doesn’t seem to know the meaning of, “Enough”. As you walk with him through the house of pain, both forced and by choice, that his life has been, there is a rising sense of a need to do better, be stronger, more resilient. Perhaps it was just me, but it certainly seemed to come across as a friendly challenge – “I’ve gone through this and I’m still here. Come on, is your stopping point your real stopping point, or just a matter of convenience?”

David has a lot to say about your real stopping points. A few times, he actually does hit a limit, but it’s clear from how he approaches these situations, that he really did give it his all, and not his ‘all’. At least, I don’t think you pee blood from hitting a point where you allow yourself to give up. Maybe I’ve just given up too early in my exercise routines to do so, but on the whole, I’m actually pretty okay with not being quite that hard.

I started reading this book because I have been told, and observed, that I often give up too easily, and I hope I’ve gathered some of his gears without necessarily making myself someone who will beat my body to within an inch of death’s door. It’s hard to know where to draw the lines, given how very far from where most humans do David demonstrates is possible. I think I’ve gained from it; certainly I am stronger than I was. I started running, and unlike my last attempt (“Run at least one minute per day”) I find myself going further and further before I am compelled to stop. I have also challenged cold showers, turning them from a frightening punishment-type experience, to my new normal. Certainly I shower faster in my daily cold shower than I did in the warm, but it’s more a matter of not wasting time enjoying the water, then a need to get out as soon as possible.

In this book, David explains something he calls the 40% rule – that we tend to have only reached 40% of our total limit, when we feel we’ve hit our limit. He suggests this is controlled by a brain area he calls the governor, after the part found in many car engines that limits their top speed. I’m not sure how accurate his numbers are here, but I definitely think he’s onto something with the idea of having a limiter, something that tells us, “You’re too tired, you’ve done enough, this is too much” well before we would start taking real damage. It makes sense to have something like that, so we don’t break ourselves in everyday life, but at the same time, when you need to run from a tiger, well, you have deeper reserves than you thought.

Certainly I’ve found that I can do more than I ever believed possible, mere months ago, when achieving twenty hours of work in a week was a struggle to me. Now I well exceed that, with my main limiter seeming to be my distractability, a problem I’ve struggle with all my life to one degree or another. A very low degree, apparently, when reading fiction or playing video games (at least until the Hell Year broke my hedonism trap, but that’s a story for a later blog post). I was being governed, and it was possible to see my way past it, but Can’t Hurt Me gave me an explicit model of what was going on, one I suspect I will use again and again before accepting, “You’ve done enough, it’s too hard” or other stopping point phrases.

Personally, I think in some ways David goes too far in his pursuit of shattered limits, over shattered limbs, through a hole in his heart, and past pneumonia. I suspect there’s some survivor bias here, in that other people who have run his peculiar mental setup, often die, and don’t report back that it’s a bad idea. Read it with this in mind, seriously consider how hard pushing for whatever goal you pursue is worth putting yourself through, but also, learn not to accept your first, “This is too much, I’m done.” There’s a balance to be struck, and Can’t Hurt Me brought me closer to what I think is the correct balance, while also showing me just how far the point of balance things can be taken.

I recommend reading it if you’ve decided you have something to protect, but please do remember that you can’t protect from a hospital bed or the grave. Get stronger, but try not to go too far, wherever you decide too far is, for you.

Book Review – The Motivation Hacker

In The Motivation Hacker, Nick Winter provides a guide to being able to get things done, through self-modification. From the foreword, it’s clear that he’s a motivated individual – in it, he provides a list of all of the things he did alongside writing this book in three months, and it’s a fairly impressive list. Does it deliver?

I believe so. I gained a lot from having read this, powering up hard and becoming a far more active and dynamic version of myself. Prior to reading it and applying the suggestions within, I struggled to achieve twenty hours of worthwhile work done in a week. I would often find myself struggling on Sunday to hit this really quite low total. I fell in love with his mention of his lapsed protagonist license, and the idea of doing everything I wanted to, time in a day being the only limiting factor. I was ready for a change, and for the person who wants change, The Motivation Hacker will make you far better equipped.

My experience support’s Nick’s contention that with a large load of motivation, what used to be dragging yourself out of bed and through your day becomes leaping out of bed to challenge the day and take what you want from it. One of the central ideas here is to load and overload yourself on motivation. You could motivate yourself enough to get something done, and be sort of sad and stressed while you push yourself through, or you can pile it high and charge that task, tackling it with intensity and joy. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly find living this way more fun than what I was doing previously.

Getting into the meat of the matter, Nick explains the motivation equation: Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay). What are these pieces?

Expectancy is confidence of success. If you try something, do you believe you will succeed, or fail? If you expect to fail, there’s not much drive to start. If you’ve been a ‘loser’ all your life (I was, at the outset of this, by my standards both now and then) doing anything is going to feel like a chore that you will not want to face.

Value is, straightforwardly, the expected payoff of the task in question. If it’s valuable to you, you’ll be more motivated to do it. This isn’t limited to financial rewards or accolades; doing something you expect to enjoy doing has a higher motivation behind it, and thus, actually does feel more enjoyable in the moment.

Impulsiveness is your likelihood of being distracted. Will you work for five minutes, and then check your email, and your newsgroups, and maybe read a little reddit? That’s impulsiveness, a quality that everyone has, and that those of us with ADHD get an extra helping of.

Delay is the temporal distance between you and the reward. Taking up a task that will pay off five years from now is much, much harder than one that will pay off in five minutes. Humans engage in hyperbolic discounting, and this can drain your motivation quite quickly, leaving you looking around for something else, anything else, to be doing.

The conjunction of the latter two reminds me of a quote from Order of the Stick, a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons oriented webcomic I’ve been following for years: “Hard work and persistence may pay off in the long run, but laziness always pays off right now.” It’s fairly true, assuming you get nothing from the work; a true assumption for the undermotivated, but not one that’s compulsorily true.

Adjust any of these variables, and your motivation shifts accordingly. Adjust all of these values, and turn yourself into a superhuman dynamo of activity (maybe). Nick contrasts a PhD student comparing her options between working on her dissertation (low Expectancy, 2/5ths of such students don’t get a doctorate, low Value, given her beliefs about the jobs available to her, and the tedium of writing conference papers. High Impulsiveness, being surrounded by interesting people and things to do, and high Delay, given the years between her and that piece of paper) and working on a web game she hacked up one weekend (High Expectancy, since she knows she can keep improving it, high Value, since working on the project is fun, and her players reward her with praise. Low Impulsiveness, since many people are asking her to work on it, and low Delay, because with every improvement, the change can be rolled out immediately.)

From here, Nick delves into techniques. Chapter 3 starts with success spirals, an Expectancy hack of starting to achieve one goal, known to be within reach, every day. By completing this goal every day, you build your belief that you can achieve your goals, and with this experience, your Expectancy rises.

Nick lays out his first success spiral, and notes that he probably started too ambitiously. I followed in his shoes, tracking nine goals rather than one for a month; I felt like I really needed that Expectancy boost, and as I’ve described elsewhere, I do better with an extreme, than with a median goal in mind.

The next technique he delves into is precommitment. One common form of precommitment is to publicly announce your goal to people whose opinion you value. To do so changes the act of smoking a cigarette from a choice between nicotine now and health years from now, to the choice between having that cigarette, and not having to admit to someone you respect that you haven’t followed through on your plan to quit. The stronger the precommitment, the more it can drag your Impulsiveness down, and the more boost it will give to your Expectancy; knowing you really don’t want to break that commitment means you’ll have a stronger belief that you can follow through.

A specific version Nick recommends is to “burn your ships”. Instead of leaving alternative choices around to challenge your will regularly and boost your Impulsiveness, get rid of them. Want to lose weight and eat healthy? Don’t buy any more cupcakes, and get rid of the ones you have. Want to do more work and spend less time on social media? I did this one personally, by clearing almost half of my subscribed subreddits, turning off never-ending reddit, and further by installing an extension called Friction, that puts a load time in front of any site on a specified list. Watching those fifteen seconds count away has redirected me away from wasting time dozens of times so far, and I expect it to keep working.

This review is already fairly long and detailed, and I don’t want to take the enjoyment of reading the book yourself from you. Engagingly written, humorous, packed with solid advice and examples of how he used every bit of it, The Motivation Hacker is a good use of time for anyone who’s not already a fusion-powered hero, charging through every obstacle in their way. I gained a ton from it, and I can’t say enough good things about it without sounding like a religious convert. Read it for yourself, and make your own judgement. I doubt you’ll regret it.

Book Review – Ego is the Enemy

Over the course of several conversations, it became clear to me, in large part by it being explicitly pointed out to me that I was displaying anger, and lashing out and hurting people who, in my right mind, I would walk barefoot over a mile of broken glass for. When I calmed down, I saw that they were right. I had a flaw in my thought, and it needed to be fixed.

To be sure, at the time of writing this, anger is more easily reached – I’m in the middle of breaking a couple of chemical dependencies. They were useful crutches at an earlier stage of my life, but I’ve come to a point where they were holding me back. So I quit THC and nicotine within a few days of each other, a decision that, while the correct one, has made me a bit edgy. That said, chemistry is not an excuse and I wasn’t going to just take that as a stopping point.

I did what I usually do when I know there’s something I need to fix and I don’t know how to – searched the internet for lists of good books on the subject. Once I have a decent stack of recommendations, I can work through several of them, putting aside the ones that don’t seem to be helping.

From the large pile I gathered, I pulled Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy. I was, as I’ve said, in a combative space, and this suited me.

I can frequently be heard referring to myself as lucky, usually in a tongue-in-cheek sense, but it’s moments like this one that make me wonder, sometimes…

Ego is the Enemy digs into the difference between the people who succeed briefly, then flame out, or never succeed at all, and those who stride forward, one foot in front of the other and their eyes on the goal. Holiday brings a wry humor to the task of reminding us that we are all, in the end, human. Drawing from exemplars of both the restrained and those who refused any restraint, each of his points is well supported and illustrated in a way that brings clarity of vision to the issue of ego.

In many ways, the diseases of the modern industrialized world are those of surfeit – too much sugar, too many calories, too much instant gratification and superstimuli. This excess is exacerbated by the fact that it is optimized for being form over substance. Prepacked foods are sugar and carbohydrates and fat. Porn comes in an instant, in a bewildering variety that your ancestors never had access to. In many ways, our civilization has a similar issue with self-esteem(link to review of pillars). At least for my generation, almost any achievement earned a gold star, trophies were given for showing up, and the adults chased us (this has gotten worse, I hear) trying to protect us from any failure. As a result, many of my peers (and me! I did not select this book at random!) grew up with a six hundred pound ego, suffering diabetic neuropathy and, like Fat Bastard, crying out, “I’m damn sexy!”

Ego is the enemy is the bread, water, and vitamin diet my ego needed. There is a mental sting one feels when a good point has been landed, one we know is accurate, and that we have no way of pushing aside. Ryan Holiday delivers that sting again and again, and if you’ve come to put your ego through fat camp, it’s just the suffering you want. Delicious!

The book is composed of fairly short chapters, each focused around one particular aspect. Talk, talk, talk. To be or to do? Become a student. Simple ideas that he puts flesh to with clear historic examples, ones that demand recognition. To be or to do? for example, focuses largely on John Boyd, a career serviceman who flew over Korea and became, in time, the lead instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. He touched the minds of many, shaped modern military thought directly and indirectly, and is almost totally unknown.

He would advise those he thought had promise to consider which path they wanted to follow in their lives. The version of this speech known to history is too good not to quote, so here you go:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

John Boyd

If you, like many of John Boyd’s disciples, want to do something rather than be someone, I’d strongly recommend you grab a copy of Ego is the enemy, and read it with a will.