Impossible careers

A month ago, I had this idea that rather than squatting and deadlifting super heavy, I should learn “olympic lifts” (snatch, clean and jerk). I’d even made up my mind that I’ll ask one of the coaches at my gym to offer personal training during the summer so I can learn it.

And then, randomly, 2-3 weeks back, I decided to do some new exercises, and decided to do snatch grip overhead squat (something you need to do while you’re doing an olympic snatch). And that’s when I realised I would struggle.

I’ve mentioned here a couple of times that I have incredibly long arms. What I had not realised is that I have long enough, and a torso short enough, that it is physically impossible for me to snatch with a barbell.

Really.

So in the snatch, you need to use a wide grip and bring up the barbell, and at the same time thrust your hips forward to make sure the hips hit the barbell. The momentum of you having sharply pulled the barbell off the floor, and the hips hitting it, means that the barbell will go upwards, and you squat down and catch it overhead.

The key is that your waist needs to precisely hit the barbell when you thrust your hips forward. If the bar makes contact higher, your stomach can’t convey the same momentum that the waist can. And if the bar makes contact lower, well, let’s not get into below-the-belt stuff here.

And so your snatch grip on the barbell is determined by the width you hold it at so that the bar is exactly at your waist. You see professional weightlifters, and they usually hold the barbell well inside the ends (apparently short arms are a huge advantage in professional weight lifting). Most people in my gym also hold their snatch grip well inside the ends of the bar. Just that I can’t.

I got this photo taken at the gym today to demonstrate this:

Me trying to hold a snatch grip.

I tucked in my shirt to show where my waist is. Notice that I’m holding the bar in the widest possible position. Yet I’m unable to get the bar to my waist. So with my body proportions, if I were to try and snatch, I would be putting myself in grave danger.

The reason I’ve told such a long story here is to illustrate that your choice of profession or game or sport highly depends on who you are. If, for whatever reason, I’d decided when I was young that weightlifting is cool and I want to specialise in that, I would have NEVER made it.

A lot of times, we make the mistake of going for “cool stuff” (or worse, forcing our kids to do something that we think is cool), without realising if we are cut out to do the cool stuff -whether we will like it, enjoy it and be good at it. And sometimes, driven by “inspirational stories”, we push ourselves too hard to get the cool job or college admission or whatever, without realising we may not have the aptitude for it at all.

Now that I tried to find my snatch grip, I know better than to take personal training for snatching. Yes, I should still be able to clean – though every time I’ve tried to learn, I’ve found it to involve too much coordination between my limbs (just like swimming, something else I’ve never managed to learn though my long arms should make me good at it).

I guess I should just stick to my strengths, and just deadlift and chill.

Why WFH is unsustainable

A couple of weekends back I decided to re-read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Rather than digging into my kindle for the regular version (which I’d read in 2015), I decided to read the graphic novel instead.

I’d purchased a copy of it a few months back, and a month ago, my daughter had finished reading it (it was only after she finished reading that I realised the extent of the sex and violence in the book. anyways).

Since I was re-reading, there was nothing particularly new. It was just a refresher of everything I’d read and enjoyed back in 2015. And one of the things I read was something highly pertinent to what I’d been thinking about the preceding Friday – on gossip.

One of the key points that Harari makes in Sapiens is that what makes us sapiens sapiens is our ability to gossip. Many other animals communicate, but most of their communication is “necessary”. “Oh look, there’s a lion”, or “there is a dead elephant near the lake” types.

Homo sapiens is unique in that most of our conversation is, fundamentally speaking, rather unnecessary stuff. It is basically “gossip”. That we gossip, however, means that we evolved to have a far richer vocabulary. We communicate and bond a lot more. And we are able to create “shared fictions” that means it is far easier for us to cooperate with strangers. And that lets us do more. Then again – it all started with gossip.

This, I realised, is why I find working from home rather isolating. It’s been over a year since I got back to full time employment. There have been two waves of covid-19 after that. This has meant I’ve hardly been to office in this time. Yes, there have been spells when I’ve travelled, or spent a week at office, but they have been few and far in between.

Apart from collaboration with my team, work has been fine. However, what I realise I miss is the general “bonding” that you would come to expect when you work for a company. The problem is with remote work.

While chat (we use Google Chat; other companies use Slack or DBabble of Microsoft Teams or Discord) is good enough for most “quick communication”, the big problem is that everything you say is necessarily in writing. Yes, you can delete or modify, some messengers have disappearing messages and all that.

Yet, because you need to put everything in writing, you say less than you otherwise would. Most importantly, you think twice before you gossip. It takes a long time for pairs of people to build sufficient mutual trust to be able to gossip (and when I think of it, most of this kind of trust has developed through offline interactions). Even if I trust you, I’ll think maybe one and a half times before putting gossip in writing.

So prolonged period of remote work means work gets robbed of the core human element – gossip. And extending what Harari says in sapiens, when you gossip less, you believe in fewer shared fictions (though by definition all of you in your company believe in the fiction of the limited liability corporation). And you cooperate less.

I can’t wait to get back to office (planning in 2 weeks or so), and (hopefully) start gossiping again. It won’t be easy since so far I’ve largely been remote. However, if we can get a sustained period of office work going, we should be able to gossip and bond and be a little more human.

Metrics

Over the weekend, I wrote this on twitter:

 

Surprisingly (at the time of writing this at least), I haven’t got that much abuse for this tweet, considering how “test positivity” has been held as the gold standard in terms of tracking the pandemic by governments and commentators.

The reason why I say this is a “shit metric” is simple – it doesn’t give that much information. Let’s think about it.

For a (ratio) metric to make sense, both the numerator and the denominator need to be clearly defined, and there needs to be clear information content in the ratio. In this particular case, both the numerator and the denominator are clear – latter is the number of people who got Covid tests taken, and the former is the number of these people who returned a positive test.

So far so good. Apart from being an objective measure, test positivity ratio is  also a “ratio”, and thus normalised (unlike absolute number of positive tests).

So why do I say it doesn’t give much information? Because of the information content.

The problem with test positivity ratio is the composition of the denominator (now we’re getting into complicated territory). Essentially, there are many reasons why people get tested for Covid-19. The most obvious reason to get tested is that you are ill. Then, you might get tested when a family member is ill. You might get tested because your employer mandates random tests. You might get tested because you have to travel somewhere and the airline requires it. And so on and so forth.

Now, for each of these reasons for getting tested, we can define a sort of “prior probability of testing positive” (based on historical averages, etc). And the positivity ratio needs to be seen in relation to this prior probability. For example, in “peaceful times” (eg. Bangalore between August and November 2021), a large proportion of the tests would be “random” – people travelling or employer-mandated. And this would necessarily mean a low test positivity.

The other extreme is when the disease is spreading rapidly – few people are travelling or going physically to work. Most of the people who get tested are getting tested because they are ill. And so the test positivity ratio will be rather high.

Basically – rather than the ratio telling you how bad the covid situation is in a region, it is influenced by how bad the covid situation is. You can think of it as some sort of a Schrödinger-ian measurement.

That wasn’t an offhand comment. Because government policy is an important input into test positivity ratio. For example, take “contact tracing”, where contacts of people who have tested positive are hunted down and also tested. The prior probability of a contact of a covid patient testing positive is far higher than the prior probability of a random person testing positive.

And so, as and when the government steps up contact tracing (as it does in the early days of each new wave), test positivity ratio goes up, as more “high prior probability” people get tested. Similarly, whether other states require a negative test to travel affects positivity ratio – the more the likelihood that you need a test to travel, the more likely that “low prior probability” people will take the test, and the lower the ratio will be. Or when governments decide to “randomly test” people (puling them off the streets of whatever), the ratio will come down.

In other words – the ratio can be easily gamed by governments, apart from just being influenced by government policy.

So what do we do now? How do we know whether the Covid-19 situation is serious enough to merit clamping down on people’s liberties? If test positivity ratio is a “shit metric” what can be a better one?

In this particular case (writing this on 3rd Jan 2022), absolute number of positive cases is as bad a metric as test positivity – over the last 3 months, the number of tests conducted in Bangalore has been rather steady. Moreover, the theory so far has been that Omicron is far less deadly than earlier versions of Covid-19, and the vaccination rate is rather high in Bangalore.

While defining metrics, sometimes it is useful to go back to first principles, and think about why we need the metric in the first place and what we are trying to optimise. In this particular case, we are trying to see when it makes sense to cut down economic activity to prevent the spread of the disease.

And why do we need lockdowns? To prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed. You might remember the chaos of April-May 2021, when it was near impossible to get a hospital bed in Bangalore (even crematoriums had long queues). This is a situation we need to avoid – and the only one that merits lockdowns.

One simple measure we can use is to see how many hospital beds are actually full with covid patients, and if that might become a problem soon. Basically – if you can measure something “close to the problem”, measure it and use that as the metric. Rather than using proxies such as test positivity.

Because test positivity depends on too many factors, including government action. Because we are dealing with a new variant here, which is supposedly less severe. Because most of us have been vaccinated now, our response to getting the disease will be different. The change in situation means the old metrics don’t work.

It’s interesting that the Mumbai municipal corporation has started including bed availability in its daily reports.

Pipe jobs

Sangeet Paul Choudary, my friend from business school, became a global business guru essentially based on one idea – that businesses can either be “platforms” or “pipes”, and that a business that is a platform can add far more value than a business that is just a pipe.

If I think about it, I currently work for a company that can be best described as a pipe (rather than a platform) and I think it’s doing quite well. From that perspective, though a platform business can be more successful it’s possible to build a good pipe business as well.

All that aside – one random thought I’ve got in recent days is that – pipes and platforms don’t apply to businesses alone. Even people can be “pipes”. Rather certain peoples jobs make them pipes. In other words they are pipe jobs.

What are pipe jobs? These are jobs where the persons responsibility is to act as a pipe between two other people. The pair of people they connect can vary over time – but this is the essence of the job. Essentially the job is about acting as a bridge between two people.

The classic pipe job is the translator or interpreter – whose job is to literally ensure that two people who might otherwise find it hard to communicate can communicate.

However there are more such jobs. For example you must have come across people in your company who – irrespective of what you as them, ask someone else for the answer. And then convey that answer to you. In other words – they are a pipe through which the question and answer flows.

That said, they need not ask the same person for the answer each time. Instead they might decide based on the question who the right person to ask might be. In fact that is a classic way in which they add value – by determining which two ends to connect themselves to.

Spokespersons and envoys, of course, are again classic pipes. They lack independent authority but represent their masters/mistresses, and act as a pipe between them and the rest of the world. Unlike the corporate pipes mentioned above, theee people usually don’t add the additional value of figuring out which ends to connect.

So in a corporate context, how do you go from being a pipe to a platform ? A risk averse way is to be a connector – to determine which two ends to connect each time you are asked something. I thjnk there are several titles for this kind of role – seen a lot in software companies.

A more risky but much more rewarding way to get out of pipedom is to develop an opinion – you might still connect and represent people but over a period of time you learn and develop an opinion. So not every question needs to be forwarded to the other end of the pipe. However your years as a pipe would have helped you build credibility among the ends of the pipe. And so you can be a better pipe.

I think this theory is genetic enough – most of you who work for companies should be able to think of several roles whose jobs essentially involve being a pipe!

What have I missed out on here ?

ADHD and the Bhagavad Gita

A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon an article I had written for Huffington Post India a few years back about what it is like to live with ADHD.  Until HuffPost India shut down, if you googled my name, one of the first links that you would find was this article. Now, the public version of the article is lost for posterity.

In any case, the draft lives on in my email outbox, and I have since forwarded it to a few people. This is how I begin that article:

There is a self-referential episode in the Mahabharata where sage Vyasa tries to get Ganesha to scribe the Mahabharata. Ganesha accepts the task, but imposes the condition that if Vyasa stopped dictating, he will stop writing and the epic will remain unfinished for ever.

If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you would ideally want to work like Ganesha writing the Mahabharata – in long bursts where you are so constantly stimulated that there is no room for distraction. ADHD makes you a bad finisher, and makes you liable to abandon projects. You could be so distracted that it takes incredible effort to get back to the task. Once you are distracted, you might even forget that you were doing this task, and thus leave it unfinished. Moreover, ADHD makes it incredibly hard to do grunt-work, which is essential in finishing tasks or projects.

And earlier today, during on of my random distractions at work, I started thinking that this is not the only instance in the Mahabharata where ADHD makes an appearance. If you look at the Mahabharata in its fullest form, which includes the Bhagavad Gita (which, it appears, is a retrospective addition), ADHD makes yet another appearance.

If you distill the Bhagavad Gita to its bare essentials, the “principal component” will be this shloka:

??????????????????? ?? ????? ??????
?? ?????????????????? ?? ?????????????????? ?-??

In Roman scripts—

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

Googling threw up this translation (same site as the above quote):

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

And I was thinking about it in the context of some work recently – for those of us with ADHD, this is a truism. Because unless we hyper focus on something (and the essence of ADHD is that you can’t choose what you want to hyper focus on), we have no attachments. It is like that “Zen email”.

Assume that there is a gap between the completion of the work and the observation of the “fruits” (results) of the work. By the time the fruits of the work are known, it is highly likely that you have completely forgotten about the work itself and moved on to hyper focus on something else.

In this case, whatever is the result of the work, that you have moved on means that you have become disattached from the work that you did, and so don’t really care about the result. And that makes it easier for you to appreciate the result in a cold, rational and logical manner – if you happen to care about it at all, that is.

The only exception is if you had continued to hyperfocus on the work even after it was completed. In this kind of a situation, you become excessively attached to the work that you have done (and to an unhealthy level). And in this case you care about the flowers, fruits, seeds and subsequent plants of your work. Not a good state to be in, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often so it’s fine.

The other thing about ADHD and “moving on” is that you don’t get possessive of your past work, and you are more willing to tear down something you had built in the past (which doesn’t make sense any more) and start rebuilding it. Again, this can both be a negative (reinventing your own wheel / wasting time) and a positive (ability to improve).

Random line I just came up with – on average, people with ADHD are exactly the same as people without ADHD. Just that their distributions are different.

Chaupat Raja Cooking

While cooking my dinner this evening, I had a realisation, and not a pleasant one. I realised that the way I cook can sometimes be described as “chaupat raja” model of cooking.

The story goes that there was a town called “andher nagari” (dark town), which was ruled by a “chaupat raja”. The raja had fixed the price of all commodities at “1 taka” (not sure if it’s the same as the Bangladeshi currency).

So if you bought onions, you would pay 1 taka per onion, irrespective of the size or quality of it. If you buy a piece of rope, you would again pay 1 taka, irrespective of its length. The story, as told in my 8th Standard Hindi textbook, has a bunch of hilarious examples of the absurdities caused by this regulation.

A wall has fallen and killed a man. The chain of investigation reveals that someone sold a very large bucket for 1 taka, and the latter used that bucket as a measure for water, and thus ends up building a wall that is highly prone to collapsing.

Another story is that someone needs to be hanged, and the hangman can only prepare a loose noose because for 1 taka he ended up getting a long piece of rope that day. And so on.

Anyway, one of my wife’s criticisms about my cooking is that I sometimes “lack proportion”. Now, it doesn’t extend to everything – for my coffee, for example, I have a gram scale in the kitchen which I use to carefully measure out both the quantity of the powder and the amount of water (next in line is to buy a food thermometer so I can use water of the exact same temperature each time).

However, when cooking certain things, I use rough measures. “Throw in all the carrots in the fridge”, for example. Or “use two carrots”, not bothering about the size of the said carrots. I use “number of eggs” as measure without thinking about the size of the eggs (which varies considerably in the shops around where I live).

And that leads to chaupat raja kind of outcomes. One day, my omelette had too much onion because the onion I decided to cut that day was large. Another day, a vegetable stew I’d made turned out too sweet because there were three carrots left in the fridge and I put in all of them, though normally I would’ve only put two.

My habit of throwing in everything without measuring means that my wife has banned me from cooking several dishes for her.

In any case, what I’m trying to illustrate is that using measures in the kitchen based on numbers of something can lead to massively uncertain outcomes, and is an example of “chaupat raja economics”. What we need is better precision (even using something like “1 cup of diced carrots” is inaccurate because the amount of diced carrots a cup can hold can change based on the size of each dice. never mind “cup” is in any case an inexact measure).

Now that I’ve recognised that my style of cooking is like chaupat raja, I’ve decided I need to cooking. There is no reason that coffee is the only thing for which I should pay attention to bring in precision.

Or maybe it will just take too much effort, and the average chaupat raja outcome in the kitchen isn’t bad (the ultimate outcome for the chaupat raja was banned. The story goes that someone needs to be hanged, but it turns out that the noose is too loose (for 1 taka, the hangman got a long piece of rope that day), so the king decides to find someone whose neck fits the  noose. After much searching, someone suggests that the king’s neck is the right size for the noose and he hangs himself.

 

The Fragile Charioteer

A few days back, I was thinking of an interesting counterfactual in the Mahabharata. As most people know, the story goes that Arjuna went to battle with his charioteer Krishna, and got jitters looking at all his relatives and elders on the other side, and almost lost the will to fight.

And then Krishna recited to him the Bhagavad Gita, which inspired Arjuna to get back to battle, and with Krishna’s expert charioteering (and occasional advice), Arjuna led the Pandavas to (an ultimately pyrrhic) victory in the war.

A long time back I had introduced my blog readers to the “army of monkeys” framework. In that I had contrasted the war in Ramayana (a seemingly straightforward war fought against a foreign king who had kidnapped the hero’s wife) to the war in the Mahabharata (a more complex war fought between cousins).

Given that the Ramayana war was largely straightforward, with the only trickery being in the form of special weapons, going to war with an army of monkeys was a logical choice. Generals on both sides apart, the army of monkeys helped defeat the Lankan army, and the war (and Sita) was won.

The Mahabharata war was more complex, with lots of “mental trickery” (one of which almost led Arjuna to quit the war) and deception from both sides. While LOTS of soldiers died (the story goes that almost all the Kshatriyas in India died in the war), the war was ultimately won in the mind.

In that sense, the Pandavas’ choice of choosing a clever but non-combatant Krishna rather than his entire army (which fought on the side of the Kauravas) turned out to be prescient.

When I wrote the original post on this topic, I was a consultant, and had gotten mildly annoyed at a prospective client deciding to engage an army rather than my trickery for a problem they were facing. Now, I’m part of a company, and I’m recruiting heavily for my team, and I sometimes look at this question from the other side.

One advantage of an uncorrelated army of monkeys is that not all of them will run away together. Yes, some might run away from time to time, but you keep getting new monkeys, and on a consistent basis you have an army.

On the other hand, if you decide to go with a “clever charioteer”, you run the risk that the charioteer might choose to run away one day. And the problem with clever charioteers is that no two of them are alike, and if one runs away, he is not easy to replace (you might have to buy a new chariot to suit the new charioteer).

Maybe that’s one reason why some companies choose to hire armies of monkeys rather than charioteers?

Then again, I think it depends upon the problem at hand. If the “war” (set of business problems) to be fought is more or less straightforward, an army of monkeys is a superior choice. However, if you are defining the terrain rather than just navigating it, a clever charioteer, however short-lived he might be, might just be a superior choice.

It was this thought of fleeing charioteers that made me think of the counterfactual with which I begin this post. What do you think about this?

PS: I had thought about this post a month or two back, but it is only today that I’m actually getting down to writing it. It is strictly a coincidence that today also happens to be Sri Krishna Janmashtami.

Enjoy your chakli!

Goldilocks and Barbells

Most children learn the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks finds the bears’ home, and tries out random things there. Pretty much for everything she tries, there will be three versions (each belonging to one of the bears), with one being <too extreme>, the second being <too extreme at the other end> and the third being “just right”.

The basic message can be summarised as “extremes bad, means good”. In fact, even if you didn’t learn the story as a child (I didn’t), the message of “doing everything in moderation” gets impressed upon you from various quarters. “Don’t eat too much, don’t eat too little, eat in moderation” is possibly the most prominent example of this.

And in some way we have all internalised this messaged. That both too much and too little of everything is bad, and it’s the middle path that is the right one.

And then on the other side, a concept that has always existed but formally articulated fairly recently, is the “barbell“. First articulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb as an investment strategy, it talks about investing in a combination of extremes and eschewing the means. In Taleb’s original case, it was about an investment strategy that is a mix of low-risk bonds and high-risk (long) out-of-the-money options, that together give a low-risk winning portfolio in the long run. This ran contrary to “modern portfolio theory” that tries to get a mix of assets that maximise expected returns and minimise standard deviation (note I’m saying standard deviation and not “risk” – they’re not the same).

And this strategy applies pretty much everywhere in life. There are a lot of things where the only way you can benefit is by “being all in”. Doing things in moderation can actually be hurtful, and combinations that have a “little bit of everything” can be suboptimal to a simple superposition of extremes.

My breakfast is a barbell, for example. I either skip it completely (nearly zero calories from black coffee only), or have a big breakfast with at least two eggs. A light breakfast completely messes up my day.

My exercise is a barbell (no pun intended). I either lift heavy weights (attached to a barbell) or do nothing. Exercises with light weights make me feel miserable.

In my nearly eight month long return to corporate life, I haven’t taken many days off. My philosophy there is that if I take off, I should be able to completely take off (no “one email here”), and have done so only when it’s easy to do so.

You can think of corporate strategy and a company’s focus being a barbell.

The list goes on. The point is – life is full of barbells, or we can make the most of life by using barbell strategies. Do either this extreme or that extreme, but don’t get confused and do something in the middle.

The problem, however, is that we get brought up on goldilocks, not barbells. And think that the middle path is superior to the extremes. It isn’t always so.

Wokes and Jokes

Q: How do you know a woke is losing an argument?
A: They start talking about privilege.

No, this is not a post that seeks to make jokes about wokes. Instead, here, I seek to explore what kind of jokes wokes like, assuming there are jokes they like, that is.

A long time back, I had written here that the problem with the woke movement is that it denies people their jokes. Because jokes are inherently at the expense of someone (a person or group of people or thing), and because extreme political correctness means that making fun of a person or group of people is not polite, political correctness means a lot of jokes go out of the window.

Think of all the jokes that you enjoyed when you are in high school – it is likely that you won’t be able to put most of those jokes on social media nowadays – since it’s not kosher to make fun of the people / groups of people they make fun of.

And so, one day recently, I started thinking if wokes laugh at all – if making fun of people or groups of people is not done, how do they get their laughs? And then I realised that if you look at standup comedians, there are a bunch of them who can be broadly described as “woke” (as per today’s standards – I have NO CLUE how well this will hold up). So what gives? How can wokes have their jokes when most of our old jokes are not valid any more?

The interesting thing about the woke movement is that they largely depend on group identities. One <insert oppressed community (on whatever axis)> person gets beaten, it is seen as an act of violence against the community. Everything is spoken in group terms. The individual’s individuality doesn’t matter. Everything is analysed in group terms.

Except for the jokes.

Wokes get their jokes because they target particular people. And identification of such people is rather easy. Start with choosing a politician (or politicians) who are definitely anti-woke (Modi, Trump, Johnson, Jair, Orban – at the time of writing). And then build a social network around them, on people who hang out with them, agree with them, retweet them, get retweeted by them, and so on. All of them are worth making fun of.

If you make a joke about Modi, you are NOT making a joke about Gujaratis. If you make a joke about Trump, you are NOT making a joke about builders, or blondes. And these jokes are kosher because the target of the jokes are reviled, or are strongly associated with the reviled.

And a person’s status on whether they can be made fun of or not depends on their associations. You cross the proverbial political floor, you can suddenly gain indemnity or get exposed to being made fun of, spending upon the direction in which you’ve crossed the floor.

I’ve never really been a fan of standup comedy (I think it has a rather low “bit rate”). But this possibly explains why I find it even less tolerable nowadays – most of the jokes are political, and it gets boring after a while.

Then again, as the wokes say, everything is political.

More on status and wealth

Playing zero-sum status games is down to our animal instinct. We have evolved to play those. But the way we can be more human is to seek wealth.

Last week, an old friend from high school sent me this podcast, based on all that I’ve been writing here of late on status-seeking, wealth-seeking, and zero and positive sum games.

I haven’t listened to the full conversation, but only a small snippet (the bit that my friend asked me to listen to, from minutes 20 to 30).

Then, on Sunday night, I started re-reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. I’m in the middle of the first chapter now (one of my favourites from the first reading, and which I’ve read multiple times). This is the one about depression and serotonin. And that triggered further thoughts on status and wealth and all that.

So some pertinent observations based on these:

  • Mating is a status game. Across species, creatures desire to mate with the highest status members of the opposite sex. And you maximise your chances of that by increasing your own status.

    A high status individual (of whatever species) will have greater access to mates, and greater access to high-quality mates, and thus greater chance of propagating their genes.

    Thus, we have evolved to seek status, not wealth

  • You may argue that in human society, wealth is also an avenue for getting superior mates. However, the problem with this is that we are simply using wealth to buy status in this case. The fundamental reason your mate wants to mate with you is your status, which, in this case, you have got on account of your wealth.
  • Status seeking is zero sum, as Naval Ravikant says in that viral podcast. As the above linked podcast (which is about Rene Girard and mimetic desire) says, when we seek status, we seek to imitate people with higher status than us.

    There are two problems with this kind of approach. Firstly, by doing things that higher status people have done, we don’t necessarily get that kind of status. Especially when the things we do are things that involve power-law payoffs.

    Secondly, if everyone imitates the same kind of high status individuals, everyone ends up seeking the same thing. If you and I are seeking the same thing, we don’t trade with each other. And thus we don’t make each other better off.

    If we are seeking wealth (an unnatural thing, as explained above), rather than status, we go about it in our own ways, and that makes it easy for us to trade and all get ahead towards our respective goals.

  • The podcast talks about how people with conditions such as Asperger’s (or anything on the spectrum, or anything that reduces empathy) have inferior empathy, and that means they see less need to conform, or to imitate. And this can lead to them achieving superior outcomes since they do things their own way (I add that this can also lead to them achieving inferior outcomes – basically “vol goes up”).

    Sounds good to me 😛

  • When we imitate others too much, they become rivals to us. Whether you consciously think of them that way or not. And this can lead to misery to all parties (unless you are high-status, or wealthy, enough to not care)
  • At the beginning of Pink Floyd’s Keep Talking (Division Bell), Stephen Hawking comes on and says “for millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learnt to talk”.

    And when we learnt to talk, one of the powers of our imagination that got unleashed was the ability to trade. We figured out that by trading, we can build wealth. And by building wealth, we have an easy means of cooperation. And the ability to play positive sum games. And not having to futilely play status games all the time.

In some sense, trade, commerce and wealth are the fundamentals of what makes us human. It just happens that we’ve evolved to seek status instead, and so we keep pulling each other down.