Time, Socrates and Taleb

N.N. Taleb has to be one of my favourite thinkers of our time. He has taken uncertainty – the root of all evil to so many people – and mathematically explained why it’s not such a bad things at all. In fact, in certain circumstances, we can benefit from uncertainty by being what he calls antifragile. WordPress just underlined this word in red, which is disappointing. It’s a concept that should spread widely.

He sometimes posts one liners on Facebook that then generate a lot of discussion. His most recent:

“The tragedy of our time is the monoculture of ideas: all ‘thinkers’ are forced to believe the same bullshit.”

Not that I am trying to meta-prove him wrong, but I disagree. It’s not the tragedy of our time. It has almost certainly always been that way. Ever since I first heard Socrates talking about youth, I’ve been highly sceptical of any remarks that proclaim that our time is somehow unique. Arguably one of the most powerful minds of all times said:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

It’s quite fascinating really. You’d swear he was talking about the kids now – with their latest iPads. However, he said this sometime during 5th century BC.

It would be too sweeping a statement to say that nothing ever changes, but it’s fair to say that human nature remains fairly constant – which is what Taleb’s comment is addressing. I don’t think that that’s a pedantic reason to disagree with him. I think we’re so prone to see ourselves as unique and special that we forget to learn from history.

UPDATE: So I left a brief comment to this effect on Taleb’s post; my first time to do so. And then – he replied! He replied to only 2 comments of over a hundred (the other one exposed him as a Russian spy), so I feel a bit like the sensei at the top of the mountain talked back. His comment was: Globalisation. That’s an interesting take on it. On top of globalisation, there is also the internet – so the monoculture gets even stronger. I guess there is an interesting point arising out of this discussion: our propensity for herd mentality is made even worse by the internet. 

It’s difficult to meaningfully stand out when the way to get heard is through the network effect.

human nature doesn't change

The dangers of laser-like focus

Passion and focus are spoken about all the time. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or it’s not right for you.” All the heroes of our time – mostly in tech – are known for their relentless focus on their passion. It probably culminates in the now near-mythological figure that is Steve Jobs.

the dangers of focus

I am highly distractible, but when it came to something I consider important – I’ve always been the kind of person who locks on – and that’s it. A certain degree of fanaticism was involved in many of the projects I pursued. When I was a medical student, the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of medicine. When I did HIIT, I really did it – stars in my eyes and all. Even this – I said I would blog every day.

In my experience, it’s a double edged sword. Focus is always avoiding the completeness of the present moment. We trade awareness for a hope of a better future. It’s still puzzling to me how one can be purely mindful and make plans, but our culture certainly tells us to make lots of them – and don’t forget the assorted to-do lists to go with it.

Even forgetting about mindfulness, focus is dangerous: focus on the wrong thing – and it’s a real problem. I’ve obsessed about the things that most girls obsess about: boys, weight, nice things. I am in my 20s, so it’s quite forgivable. Still, having the kind of personality that locks onto things, it’s tough to get out of a focus-rut once you are in it. It’s not OCD, but the word tormenting seems appropriate. My only medicine for this has been mindfulness – or a rude awakening from the real world. I much prefer the former.

For those of us who are super-focused, or those reading all of this advice to be laser-focused and wishing that they could be like that, remember that it comes at a price.

being really focused

The importance of self-awareness

I often think of The Great Gatsby. While everything in it has been said before, it seems like a particularly easy-to-understand piece on human nature – not least because it seems to be reflective of what our society looks like almost 100 years on. Gatsby was great because he was motivated by love and incredibly focused and resourceful in his quest. There were also many reasons why he wasn’t great: he lied about his origin, he lied about his name, he was a criminal, he had no problem seducing a married woman with a child… Most of all he got carried away from reality. He didn’t see Daisy for who she really was even though it should have been obvious. He suffered from infatuation, limerence and obsession.

why self awareness is important

There’s an interesting dichotomy that arises from obsession. On the one hand, it is a way to get motivated like nothing else. I was recently listening to an interview with Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber, who talked about how he chose his idea. He said he was in love with the idea of Uber. He also said that after you fall in love with your idea the hard part is to adjust it to the world so that it is exactly the best it can be. It seemed that all great entrepreneurs develop their businesses for some kind of personal reason. Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was something he would have wanted to use for himself. He seems fascinated with how people have huge areas of the cortex dedicated to deciphering the meaning of facial expressions, seemingly minor detail. The kind of motivation that’s required to spend every waking hour you’re not doing coursework in one of the top universities working on social websites means intense interest. Whether it is obsession or not, it’s close to it. Our culture seems to value obsession. In fact, the word has connotations of real dedication and martyrdom. There are gyms called Crossfit Obsession. A “normal” person couldn’t have the level of dedication that these entrepreneurs have, or a particular variety within the men and women of Crossfit – we’ve all met them. A healthcare professional would surely class them as having traits of OCPD, or find a way in which their activity is a form of escapism.

However, all great entrepreneurs are sufficiently in touch with reality so as to know how to adapt. This brings me to the second part – obsession needs to be balanced with reality. For anyone who knows the feeling, they know that this is much easier said than done. When one tries to reflect on reality, it is easy to slip into denial. Alternatively, it can be easy to see the flaws, decide that you obsession is silly and give up on it. It is much harder to see the flaws and incorporate this information meaningfully into your quest.

This idea of either idealising or damning your quest first came to me when I was dealing with patients who had emotionally unstable personality disorder as a doctor. People with EUPD tend to undergo something called splitting: something/someone is either perfect, or they aren’t worth thinking about at all. In fact, this is characteristic of many personality disorders. For example, people with narcissistic traits are very quick to decide that someone’s opinion is worthless if they don’t like something about this person.


How is it that some people are able to benefit from the momentum of obsession, but not dragged down by the unhelpful ignoring or reality or give up on their idea at the first sign of imperfection?

Are these great entrepreneurs necessarily all free from toxic personality traits? Not at all. It must be possible, however, to be sufficiently self-aware so as to let those parts of your personality that you need the most at a given moment to fully express themselves. After all, all these personality traits that we regard as vulnerable – and put them down as traits of personality disorders – evolved for a reason. They made sense in a context. They are only called abnormal because they stopped being adaptive when the environment changed, but the person who developed them lacks the self-awareness required to acknowledge that they are using legacy software – never mind adjust again. So it’s not like there’s just one personality type, not one strategy that will carry you through, but like Darwin said – it is the most adaptable that makes it through. Adaptability is completely a function of self-awareness.

So, how could we hook up with some of that self-awareness? My hypothesis is, as always, by paying attention to it. It is surprising how commonly people are unable to describe how they feel. How do you feel right now? Is it easy for you to answer? In normal life – and in psychiatry – I’ve met pretty high functioning people who are unable to answer that question. Really and truly, they look at you like you are an alien, look away and after about 10 seconds they say, I don’t really know. It’s obviously a spectrum and it’s not uncommon. Some of these people will try and assess how they should feel, making cognitive judgements about their circumstances. It’s called alexithymia. I think this is the first step. Ask the question – how does it feel? Putting words on it is a good place to start. Tackling physical sensations first could be an even better idea. When you notice that you are hungry – how does it feel? Is there a pain in your abdomen? Where? What kind of pain? Is it a cramp or a dull ache? Is there some nausea that comes with it? Does your abdomen feel warm or cold? Essentially, it is a form of mindfulness. With some practice it will be easier to put words on your feelings, or your inner state. It’s not a case of needing to soul-search. It’s not cognitive, it’s all about feelings. Whether we like it or not, emotions play a decisive role in our behaviour – they give rise to our behaviour, that’s what the word means. I think that mindfulness has the potential to increase self-awareness like no other instrument at our disposal. Mindfulness is known to increase empathy. Self-awareness is no less important. People who lack empathy are probably lacking insight into their own feelings to begin with. It may even make sense to think of self-awareness as a form of inner empathy.

If there was one thing that I think would advance someone’s personal development by leaps and bounds – it would be self-awareness. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t the strongest, the tallest, the smartest – or whatever, but if you able to be sufficiently self-aware so as to surround yourself with the right people – you can compensate for those weaknesses – and focus on your strengths.

Technology and human interaction

Some worry, even fear, that technology may surpass human interaction. This is exactly what I would call a Promethean fear: the fear that a new technology will somehow lead to our demise or change human nature. Human nature seems robust. Things like running water, central heating – even money and fame – only expose and amplify what was there to begin with. There’s no significant change in human nature during any person’s lifetime. We live like the royalty of a thousand years ago, but still believe that we don’t have enough. We still crave the same things: love, meaning, safety, exploration and growth. When I see a guy sitting across from a girl in Starbucks looking at his phone – that’s boredom that has become socially acceptable whereas it wasn’t quite as “normal” before. It is the fundamentals of their relationship exposed – and it is obvious that something isn’t right. In days gone by it would have been a yawn – or simply staring into space. Now this is emptiness filled up with the instant gratification of likes and shares on social media and the lovely cats on YouTube. The ancient Egyptians would be proud.

It’s not that things don’t change. They change gradually. Human nature appears to remain fairly constant. What if technology gets a sprinkle of human nature when it comes to artificial intelligence. When machines can properly learn and execute without our approval – that can get scary. We may fall in love with AI – the way that was shown in the film Her. Something interesting happened today when I went running. Naturally enough, I procrastinated right up to the point of when it became dark as I was finishing my run. I went to turn on the flashlight on my iPhone only to realise that the latest update has changed the layout of the place that the flashlight button is normally in. It took some fiddling, but I found it. For about three minutes I was let down and disappointed by Apple – stranded in the dark. I was afraid that I’d step on something. In a way, that’s kind of the fear of AI: they will sabotage us by taking control. It’s happening already, in 2016. I never asked for my phone to move the flashlight button. Have my interactions changed? I don’t think so. In the 1990s, parents were terrified of adding phone lines into their kids rooms – because that would finish them. Video games. TV. Radio – before that. Nothing has really changed the fundamental needs we have. Do people actually spend less time in the pub? I think they do. However, they are spending more time at festivals – taking snaps of their tents and dirty boots – and surely to God, they are interacting with other people.

What did people do before the radio? Before this so called technology? After all, we are still using electromagnetic waves to communicate, so the radio is a closer relative of modern technology than it might initially appear. They read books and newspapers. Is it really that different that reading something online? For sure, there’s no instant feedback, but you are still finding out what people did miles and years away from where you are. I think that reading a book by Seneca or Tolstoy is a human interaction. It is deep, meaningful – it is life changing. Sometimes it is like getting advice from a grandfather you never had. To further emphasise that point, I remember having a brief imaginary love affair with Prince Andrei from War and Peace. Am I that different from the poor chap in Her? I have a bit more insight, that’s all. Human nature will drive us to find answers in whatever place is available – nature, books or social media. We seek and find human interaction no more and no less than we did before.

I honestly can’t be sure what the world was like before the printing press. I guess people were just bored more. I guess they craved each other’s company more. I am not sure that they had that luxury as going back even 200 years ago putting food on the table was a real struggle. Is it possible that people interacted more in the past? Possibly. However, if that is the case – that ship has sailed a long time ago.

If anything I would argue that my mother in her 50s has the opportunity to be connected to her classmates that she hadn’t seen in 30 years – an option she would never have had had she been born 30 years earlier. Technology gives us opportunities to be social or to hide from human interaction. The choice is down to human nature – the nature of any given human. It is tempting to blame technology. We all know that it’s not the development of advanced weapons that leads nations to be more aggressive. It’s not the development of social networks that causes people to give terrible anonymous comments. It’s the other way around. The problem is that blaming technology is just another way to hide from our own choices.

technology and human interaction

The industrial revolution of our time

Something exciting is going to happen to the transport industry within our lifetime. Driverless cars and drones are coming. There will be multiple lanes of drone traffic above our heads – Futurama style. Anyone who knows how to invest in air – leave a comment. Looking back at previous industrial revolutions is always a good idea to extract a few lessons. I doubt that we are looking at Highland Clearances ahead. The tragedies of previous industrial revolutions are down to a lack of options. The world is globalised and it is easier than ever to re-skill given the low cost of acquiring information. So you have a choice to either do something else or move.

industrial revolution of our time

While there’s all this panic in the US saying that technology is killing jobs, in reality it is creating jobs at a level that parallels it. The numbers back up this assertion. There’s this Promethean fear that technology will lead to our demise – countered by the utopian notion that someday no one will have to work and everything will be done by robots. It has been talked about a lot, notably Adam Smith mentioned it in his essays. The latter isn’t going to happen – or it would have happened already. We live in a world where the average person in the rich world has a more comfortable lifestyle than many an emperor of times gone by.  The hunger for more is deeply entrenched in the DNA of a critical mass of people – who will always seek to compete with others. This way nobody can sit idly without their bite at the resource allocation cherry we call our economy. While it is scary to consider what AI may do to us if it gets super concentrated, I don’t think this will happen within the next 50 years – making it too hard to make assertions about it. I guess our domestic animals still haven’t taken over, so maybe we will find a way to tame the AI as well.

While technology has made things more efficient, it has consistently needed people. When machines comes in, activity increases – rather than staying the same. The internet has led us to use our phones more, not less – just differently. Higher tech equipment in factories led to more production, not less – and it is different to what it was before. Computers have led to more professional services, not fewer – again, they changed their nature to a certain degree. This kind of transition always means jobs. Different jobs, in different places. It is plausible that the entire truck/taxi driving population will go into moderately skilled jobs to do with drone production and control. It may not all be in your home town like it was before, but it ain’t disappearing. The politicos talking about it is probably down to appealing to the people who fear for their jobs.

An interesting essay arguing the opposite point of view is up on Aeon by Prof James Livingston. He makes an interesting argument that a huge number of Americans just about make it over the poverty line through working full time – and many don’t even achieve that. He says that a job in Walmart comes with food stamps as a benefit. Great line. Unfortunately, he doesn’t balance his argument by mentioning income tax. I am not sure of the intricacies of the US income tax system. In Europe, above a certain income level – basically enough to live on for one person who has to rent a place – tax quickly rises to over 50%. Apparently, it is even higher in the US. So if there wasn’t such crazy tax, a job in Walmart probably wouldn’t come with food stamps. Now, I am not sure which is the lesser of the two evils, but the fact that work doesn’t pay is a consequence of the tax system too.

The rise and fall of social media

It seems that Twitter isn’t feeling so well. Last week, The Financial Times spoke about Twitter’s revenue – dwarfed by that of Facebook – and a few courting attempts by Salesforce et al that ultimately didn’t result in an offer. Gary V described the lack of engagement that he gets on Twitter – and an explosion of attention on Snapchat. Finally, Justin Kan who spoke at an event in the Computer Museum in Mountain View today put up a little tombstone for Twitter – anticipating a death in 2017. What is the death going to look like? Why is this happening? Of note, I saw all of these pieces (FT, Gary and Justin) as videos – on Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat). Hmm…


Twitter isn’t growing, but it sure is useful, even for people who joined late. A huge portion of traffic to my various websites comes from Twitter. It would never occur to me to advertise of Twitter. I think the reason people don’t like it is that it is full of bots and censorship. Gab.ai is evolving to take care of the censorship part. I wonder if it will fall on deaf ears if it is built to resemble Twitter and come out in 2017. Justin Kan suggested that it is down to the fact the Twitter didn’t have a “second act”: Facebook went from profiles to newsfeed, Snapchat added video, whereas Twitter didn’t. I am not sure I can 100% relate to that logic: I think the problem may even be that Twitter went in too many directions and didn’t really stand for any one single thing. Facebook can probably be accused of a lot of this kind of thing too. So yeah, I think it is down to the inauthenticity – the bots and the spam that is so prevalent on Twitter. You cannot go anywhere without getting followed by 10 social media marketing experts.

It is like a biological system. A new species evolves – with a new DNA. It takes time for the viruses to evolve to hack into that DNA – the viruses being the likes of bots and other spammy entities (including marketers!). There are fewer of them on Facebook – due to the nature of Facebook, and I think that’s why it has done better. Twitter has a particularly vulnerable DNA.

Millennials and generation Z have a special place in their hearts for authenticity. We don’t seem to respond as well to traditional advertising – or anything that spams our attention, anything that we didn’t seek out ourselves – and thus we *perceive* it as being manipulative. Of course, all it means is that we prefer to be manipulated in more elegant ways.

I think that in the last 10 years we’ve come really yearn for authenticity. Instead of accepting interruptions with TV ads, we’ve come to realise that we can curate our own content. From that point, advertising that interrupts and pushes things has become unacceptable and rude.

Let’s take 2 extremes. Snapchat seems more authentic compared to a TV ad. Why? There is a perception that if something is snapped live – it is less likely to be contrived and edited. It is different every time – and we all love variety. Let’s compare it to Instagram. It is more informational – a video says 1000^2 words. IG stories are catching up, but they seem to be an auxiliary feature. Having said all this, Snapchat’s revenue is still pretty small compared to the established behemoths. There will come a day when we are mourning Snapchat too. Snapchat has a vulnerable DNA, but it is far more niche than Twitter and hence has a more loyal crowd that are likely to stick with it. Perhaps people have a natural affinity for video – especially if we can get it in VR – that will happen in the next 10 years I assume. Snapchat is the new TV. For how long? It went books-radio-TV-blogging-YouTube-social. I hope the next step is something other than being plugged into the matrix. Promethean fears aside, the productivity of receiving information is constrained not just by the delivery method, but by our means of receiving it. **Elon Musk spoke about how he hopes to be able to expand the bandwidth of the human ability to perceive information.** Like, that’s genuine Matrix territory. Video seems to be winning in the social media game because how efficient it is as delivering information (entertainment, whatever it might be). VR is the natural upgrade from that. Justin Kan says that the big break in VR is going to be a computer game. They already exist of course. They aren’t as much fun as they should be because they constantly break immersion.

Matt Mullenweg, who developed WordPress at a time when there were already multiple blogging platforms, is a hero of the early naughties that is mentioned less often than Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, but may well end up a bigger deal. He says that VR is at stage of the hype cycle where the expectations are way out of proportion. The next few years of VR are going to be boring. My intuition is that we will see VR go mainstream, I mean Facebook-of-2007 kind of mainstream no earlier than 2020. Perhaps, VR is going to grow B2B rather than B2C at first.