Brent Pottenger on “Self-Experimentation with Story Systems”

Brent Pottenger, author of the healthcare epistemocrat blog, asks:

How should we invest our intellectual and spiritual energy and capacity?

His answer lies within the confines of tradition. Take a look at his m=1 Story Systems example. I’ve been experimenting in an n=1 fashion for quite a while now, but the idea of an m=1 personal mythology—or my-thology—is somewhat new to me. Recently I’ve been thinking about my “personal mythology” more seriously, although I suspect I’ve done this unconsciously for all my life: created a narrative from my past with which to derive purpose and meaning.

The philosophy department director at my university is an ordained Soto Zen priest. Continue reading “Brent Pottenger on “Self-Experimentation with Story Systems””

Case Study: Two Leaders, One Strategy, Centuries Apart

The Colloseum, Rome, Italy

The Colloseum in Rome, Italy. (Photo: jonrawlinson on flickr)

Gods, epic myths, heroes, and damsels in distress. The history of ancient times fascinates me.

Below is one of my favorite stories from Greek history. The story of Xenophon’s mission to return 10,000 Greek mercenaries to their homeland.

And for entertainment’s sake—and to display a fantastic parallel in strategy—I compare Xenophon’s tactics with those of the infamous abolitionist, John Brown.

Enjoy!


Xenophon was not a mercenary. He was a philosopher with a need for adventure. In the spring of 401 B.C., a friend invited him to join Cyrus’ army on a mission to quiet a few rebellious cities within the Persian Empire. Some 10,000 Greek soldiers had signed up for the expedition, and Xenophon decided to join them as a historian. Perhaps he could write a book about the march afterwards.

After traveling deep into Persia, Cyrus told the army his true purpose: to march on Babylon, dethrone his brother Ataxerxes, and take the crown. Continue reading “Case Study: Two Leaders, One Strategy, Centuries Apart”

Christianity and Alcohol

“—Christianity, alcohol, the two great means of corruption.”
The Portable Nietzsche, page 652

“Every kind of faith is itself an expression of self-abnegation, of self-alienation.”
The Portable Nietzsche, page 639

The analogy of Christianity to alcohol is interesting to me. The chemistry of alcohol: ethanol is a carbohydrate, the metabolism of which leads to the inhibition of the enzyme phosphofructokinase (slowing and directing cell metabolism to store instead of burn fat) and is converted to triglycerides in the liver (storing more fat); ethanol binds to the GABA-A receptor which increases effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (effectively slowing nervous system reactions), and of course increases liver cirrhosis. (A bit oversimplified, and disregarding the hormetic effect of alcohol, but the point remains.)

The chemistry of Christianity: faith rests on convictions, convictions inhibit the believer from independence so that he “cannot posit himself as an end” and in fact requires someone else—a priest or deity—to posit any end at all, and so he becomes a means to others’ end—a slave—in which case his freedom and sense of self continually deteriorate. Just like alcohol, this pathway dulls the senses and robs men of the vivid sense of life that accompanies self-overcoming or self-actualization.

I’m not sure how much Nietzsche knew about biochemistry, but in any case he has here a deeply accurate analogy.

Entrepreneurship Risk

From Summation by Auren Hoffman:

Entrepreneurs tend to be street-smarter than strategy consultants. Entrepreneurs are more practical, more focused on the bottom line, and more attuned to real-world contingencies.

A typical strategy consultant job interview might go something like this:

“I toss a coin. Heads you win $10,000. Tails you lose $6,000. Do you play this game? Why?”

And a typical strategy consultant answer would go something like this:

50% chance I win, 50% chance I lose. So my decision calculation goes something like:

Winnings: (0.5) * $10,000 = $5,000

Loses: (0.5) * $6,000 = $3,000

My net value of this game is $2,000

Therefore, even if I am very risk averse, I’ll still play this game, because I can afford to lose $6K when the payoff is so much higher.

A typical entrepreneur would look at this game totally differently and would ask a series of questions:

1. How do I know the coin is fair? Maybe tails is much more likely to come up. Can I test the coin by flipping it 500 times to see if it is consistent? Do I really want to waste my time performing and recording 500 coin tosses?

2. How do taxes affect my wins and losses? Is Uncle Sam going to take a huge chunk of my winnings but not recognize my losses? Can I only apply my losses to gambling gains? How are state and city taxes affected?

3. Do I have to pay in cash if I lose and do I get cash if I win? If that is the case, are we going to show up at the location with all the money? Will I be secure? Can I pay by credit card to get frequent flyer miles?

4. How can I be sure I will collect from you? Are we going to hold the money in a third-party escrow? How much will that cost?

Auren Hoffman, Summation

It’s interesting to note that Nassim Taleb gives a similar example of the coin toss scenario when discussing the thought processes of The Nerd and the street-smart common-sensical Epistemocrat.

Here, however, Auren Hoffman is describing the typical entrepreneur. I’m sure Taleb (and most entrepreneurs) would agree that, despite the typical risk associated with entrepreneurship, creating your own business and liberating your finances—that is, putting your wealth in your own hands—changes the nature of the question so that you have ultimate control over the amount of risk that you choose to take on. Otherwise, your entire stream of income would be dependent on the decisions of the establishment that hired you.

Picture entrepreneurship like a pyramid, a large base and a fine point on the top; the large base represents multiple opportunities for streams of income. A typical job, however, would look like an inverted pyramid, in which you only have one source of income—the point of the pyramid. If that one source fails, the entire pyramid would collapse on you.

Arguments in Evaluative Language—Essentially Contestable

Is it cruel to kill cattle in slaughterhouses where live cattle can smell the blood of the dead? Or to spank children in order to teach them how to behave? The point is not that we couldn’t argue our way to one position or the other on these questions; it’s only to say that when we disagree, it won’t always be because one of us just doesn’t understand the value that’s at stake. It’s because applying value terms to new cases requires judgment and discretion. Indeed, it’s often part of our understanding of these terms that their applications are meant to be argued about. They are, to use another piece of philosopher’s jargon, essentially contestable. For many concepts, as W.B. Gallie wrote in introducing the term, “proper use inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper use on the part of users.” Evaluative language, I’ve been insisting, aims to shape not just our acts but our thoughts and our feelings. When we describe past acts with words like “courageous” and “cowardly,” “cruel” and “kind,” we are shaping what people think and feel about what was done—and shaping our understanding of our moral language as well. Because that language is open-textured and essentially contestable, even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about.

From Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, page 59

In this quote, Appiah illustrates the essential bottom-up structure of language. Taleb touches on this when he gives the example of Esperanto. Continue reading “Arguments in Evaluative Language—Essentially Contestable”

Neil Tyson and the Argument From Ignorance

The frailty of the human mind: just another reason to remain skeptical.

I recently found this video of Neil Tyson explaining the fallacious appeal to ignorance.

As Tyson explains with his unique humor, the appeal to ignorance pervades all of human nature. The appeal to ignorance, also called the argument from ignorance or argumentum ad ignorantiam, often entails a subtle detail that can completely change the conclusion of an argument: the fact that you often cannot explain what you see.

Eyewitness testimony is the lowest form of evidence in science and logic. Despite the many abilities of the human mind, it still falls for the simplest of tricks. In fact, the most often reported UFOs turn out to be the planet Venus. Real science recognizes such human error and accounts for it by requiring empirical evidence in support of any claim.

This fallacy takes two forms:

  1. There is no evidence against p, therefore, p.
  2. There is no evidence for p, therefore, not-p.

The former is most often found in UFO sightings, ghost sightings, and supporting arguments of intelligent design. This is such a simple fallacy, yet it pervades every corner of our life. I’m often amazed at the conclusions people come to when they should actually draw no conclusions at all. This appeal to ignorance even affects how we think others perceive us.

In any case, I’d be impressed if you could catch every time an appeal to ignorance is made, even in your own life. It seems like we draw conclusions from thin air so many times per day that we rarely have a real foundation for what we believe.

Facebook & Video Games: An Introduction to the Narrative Fallacy


“I am a god. Level ten all alone!”

My brother’s face glowed blue from the television as he completed another level in the Call of Duty minigame. The fact that most people sleep at 3 a.m. didn’t phase his concentration as he simultaneously killed zombies and trashed talked his friends. His confidence rose as he continued to level up.

Social video games have exploded in recent years, and scientists have been trying to understand how they affect our brains. A review of the literature seems to reveal that the pattern recognition and resource management required to play most games will exercise a gamer’s cognitive functioning. In teenagers, active participation in social networks helps in the formation of a unique identity.

Does this justify playing video games? The short answer is no, for two primary reasons: the narrative fallacy and the nerd effect.

Continue reading “Facebook & Video Games: An Introduction to the Narrative Fallacy”

Fluid Strategy

credit: Josh Liba on flickr(

Photo: Josh Liba on flickr)

I was with some friends breakdancing the other night.

At one point, a more experienced dancer was showing me what I was doing wrong in my six step. She is considerably shorter than me, and pointed this out by suggesting that I bend my knees to condense myself and better control my center of gravity, and to work in a fluid circle and not take each step linearly.

Watching her demonstrate, I couldn’t help but think of strategy. One particularly established strategical framework is one in which the center is controlled while the outside is fluid and chaotic. By “established” I mean it hails from the days of Ancient warfare with generals like Brasidas and Xenophon.

To understand the breakdancing example, you really must see a six-step, but the idea can translate to anything. Think of a tree, with its strong trunk and loose leaves. Or water rapids, fluid as a whole while individual waves are chaotic and unpredictable.

Now apply this to your own life. Your personality becomes one fluid and controlled projection, while your actions may be outrageous and over-the-top; as long as a sense of awareness and endgame is constantly present, you needn’t worry about looking out-of-place or awkward. Or throughout the course of a seduction: randomly mix hints of attraction with coyness, while always retaining a cool air of detachment so as not to seem needy or dependent, two of the most unattractive qualities in existence.

The flexibility and ubiquity of this strategy never ceases to amaze me. It can even be adapted to debating and directing conversations or presentations. It can certainly be applied to everything from storytelling to dancing to martial arts. I believe this to be the single most important strategy I have ever come across.