Optionality & Alpha

“When you hold an option and the world moves with you, you enjoy the benefits; when the world moves against you, you are shielded from the bad outcome since you are not obligated to do anything. Optionality is the state of enjoying possibilities without being on the hook to do anything…

…In contrast, the closing of doors and possibilities signals the loss of optionality. This language doesn’t only apply to career planning: Don’t be surprised to hear someone in finance talk about marriage as the death of optionality.

This emphasis on creating optionality can backfire in surprising ways. Instead of enabling young people to take on risks and make choices, acquiring options becomes habitual. You can never create enough option value—and the longer you spend acquiring options, the harder it is to stop…

…The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not way stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you.

By emphasizing optionality, these students ignore the most important life lesson from finance: the pursuit of alpha. Alpha is the macho finance shorthand for an exemplary life. It is the excess return earned beyond the return required given risks assumed.

-Mihir A. Desai, “The Trouble with Optionality.” The Harvard Crimson. May 25, 2017

Alpha just means your returns over a benchmark. I found this editorial interesting and a little weird. If you are going to pursue outsized returns, then you also need to find a way to manage your downside risk. It’s great if you leave an Ivy League school and start a business like Microsoft or Google. But, this kind of alpha is exception, which is why people talk about it. Its no different than the lottery ticket. It is much easier to start a company and take risks when you know you can get your basic needs met from some kind of unrelated income. But, there is this tension. If you are getting your basic needs met, why are you starting a company for? Somewhere in that answer is the meaning of life.

Military Mind & What Matters

Weird episode of the day. I walk most places. I walk to the grocery store. It’s just over 2 miles from where I live. Because it is a ways, I bring my military sea bag, so I can carry all the groceries back home.

I’m walking away from the grocery store, and someone behind me starts yelling, “I can’t take it anymore. Give me a gun. It’s so hot. I hate it. I’m going to shoot myself in the head.” I’m used to cities. So, i tend to ignore weird outbursts, even if I’m currently in a small town of less than 100,000. But, a couple of thoughts did occur to me.

  1. I wonder if the military-style sea bag served as a visual trigger. He seemed to be suggesting that he’d enlist or something.
  2. If it is the heat, it was only like 90F. If your worst problem is that it’s hot at that level, you’re probably doing alright. Besides, buck-up. You only have to wait a month or two and things will change.
  3. It reminded me of one of the military trainings I went through where they were fond of saying, “Mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
  4. Was this some kind of performative effort? Are we so preoccupied with making a spectacle of ourselves that we declare that we are going to kill ourselves, over the heat, to get attention?

I don’t know what to make of it, on reflection. I discount that any of it is real, out of hand. Even if it were real, I’m not the person to help someone in that kind of crisis. But, I do worry that my whole environment is crying wolf all the time, and I’ve become desensitized to real cries of pain. However, I’m positive this one wasn’t one. But, what if the next one is and I no longer can even entertain the possibility it’s real?

Identity: Obscurity, Anonymity & Fuckwadary

The history of The Residents is shrouded in obscurity and aptly covered elsewhere (we recommend Ian Shirley’s definitive text and Don Hardy’s Theory of Obscurity as starting points). We should also point out that there will be no discussion here speculating on the band’s identities. Who they may be is irrelevant to the sweeping vision of their art and music.

The Residents have continuously operated under what they dubbed “the theory of obscurity.” Under this idea, they could work on their art without worrying about anything getting in the way. Per Shirley:

[the theory of obscurity] laid down the mantra that The Residents would conceal their identities so that people could focus on the music, art, and visual presentation they created.

-David Buck, “Resident Memories:
How a San Francisco art collective carved a unique path through the creative combination of art and technology.” Tedium.co. August 20, 2021.

I was going to add this history of The Residents as another entry about them in this blog. I’m not a huge fan of their music, but I love the idea of The Residents. The theory of obscurity really gets at the idea of how our creativity is hemmed in by the identities we create for ourselves, and it is good to find ways to transcend them. This, in turn, reminded me of a talk that Christopher “moot” Poole, the creator of 4chan gave years ago.

I like Poole’s ideas about identity. The fact it is multifaceted is clearly true. People do need a certain degree of freedom from their identity in order to explore interests and potentially evolve into someone else. It’s easy to imagine the different experiences of say, a Frank Zappa or Tom Waits, compared to The Residents. At one level, even the title “musician” would preclude trying to create a video game, or even be a part of one. David Bowie and Omikron: The Nomad Soul shows how difficult this kind of exploration can be.

But, on another level, it’s also clear that some of the comments haven’t aged well. I don’t pretend to know what is going on in 4chan these days, but the general drift seems to be away from anti-establishment to alt-right. And, it raises the critique of Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or the idea that a normal person who is anonymous and in front of an audience will turn into a total fuckwad. What happens when you have a community of fuckwads? Or, a significant subset of a community of fuckwads that are some subset of bots, trolls and so forth that currently call Twitter home?

And what is the relationship between being different and being a fuckwad? I don’t really know the answer to that. I think we need to develop the capability to be different, and in order to be different, it helps to see other people being different. But. we live in a cultural environment of homogeneity and appropriation. There’s a world of difference out there, but most of us are being different, just like everyone else. The easy route to difference is to cast yourself in opposition to the mainstream. It’s looking to the “alt”, whether that is music, politics or something else.

And, I guess what I personally want to embody, or find ways of bringing out in myself, is not by defining myself in opposition, but by trying to reduce the ways I define myself at all, like that Paul Graham essay about keeping your identity small. I think the way to do that is to just follow our interests, for as far as we can. Like the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, so few of us develop a distinct voice or worldview because we are constantly being influenced by new things that are being surfaced to our attention, whether that’s 5G or the latest event in the outrage cycle. The only way we can develop into someone different is to unplug from that world, that way of thinking, and decide to try on a different point of view, and once we find a point of view that works for us, to keep at it.

In the beginning, mountains are mountains. Then, mountains become something else. In the end, mountains are mountains again. But, it’s never about the mountains. It’s about the person experiencing them.

cafebedouin.org: 2019 Year in Review and Looking Ahead to 2020

In 2019, I posted 931 entries, all post views were up to +14,000 views by +9,000 visitors to cafebedouin.org, roughly three times the level of last year. Most of the views are concentrated either on the main page or the most popular posts:

My favorite posts of the year:

In 2019, I went for a twice a day posting schedule that expanded to three times a day mid-year as I incorporated a review of my photo archive. Frankly, this is a brutal posting schedule. I could probably do twice a day comfortably, but I think I’m going to focus a bit more on quality and only commit to doing a single post a day and maybe do something original once a week in the coming year.

I still would like to move to a format where half the posts are in a Foucault hupomnemata-style, i.e., “to capture the already-said, to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.” And I think some of the sources I have mentioned last year are still worth exploring:

  • I have been collecting rules and maxims for life over the last 1.5 years or so, and there are now over 400 of them. I could do a year just using these as writing prompts.
  • I still haven’t included very much material from the commonplace book I kept for years before starting cafebedouin.org. Adding in material from it with some reflection now that it has been several years might be interesting.
  • Open-ended stream-of-consciousness writing. However, it probably won’t be much fun to read. I beg your pardon.

Offline, I did Postcard Friday, on more of a monthly basis this year. And I think this was both good and something to do more of, perhaps with tie-in to the blog. Still thinking through how this might work, so maybe something for next year?

In short, expect some changes and fewer posts in the coming year.

The 5:1 Relationship Ratio

The post today on The Attachment Theory of Relationships reminded me of a good piece of advice I’d read in John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, described in short in this article on The Gottman Institute website:

“The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. There is a very specific ratio that makes love last.

That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.”

Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science.” The Gottman Institute. October 4, 2017.

Intuitively, this seems like it probably applies to every relationship we have. If you are not getting five times more positivity than negativity from someone in your life, maybe it’s time to reconsider the relationship?

Biohacking Bullshit

I’m seeing more articles about “biohacking” by rich dudes. One subset seems to be looking for immortality, or at the very least to extend their lives or mitigate the effects of ageing.

It strikes me as the archetypical problem of a beautiful woman trying to keep their looks as they get older. All of us go through it, this diminishment. I suppose it’s even harder when you were exceptionally beautiful, athletic, perhaps even smart, and you start to lose it, or even have to acknowledge that you could lose it, as part of the ageing process.

Something about this makes me sad, that pretending life or a particular attribute doesn’t end in some ways robs us of the perspective of transience, a perspective that endows every life with value because it is of a time and unique.

There’s another subset that in looking to optimize their lives. Tools for Titans by Timothy Ferriss is an excellent example of this tendency. It reminds me of a Donald Knuth quote:

“[P]remature optimization is the root of all evil.”

We don’t know enough to optimize human life. We can get some broad strokes, such as it is a good idea to exercise and eat a lot of vegetables. But, getting down deeper? How many minutes of exercise or cups of broccoli? We simply don’t know enough.

No matter the motivation, experiments like taking hundreds of supplements, injecting stem cells into joints, anti-ageing blood transfusions, etc., strikes me as an excellent way to have bad unintended consequences that shorten lives rather than lengthen them.

cafebedouin.org: 2018 Year in Review and Looking Ahead to 2019

“In 2018, I would also like to get back to more original content. I’m thinking it would be good to post something original once a week, but spread it across different forms: poetry, essays, drawing, photography and so forth. Maybe also do more brief commentary of 250 words or less, sketches of story ideas or fragments, aphorisms, book reviews and the like. The goal still being to post something everyday, something that seems weird or interesting, just with some more originals.”

cafebedouin.org: 2017 Year in Review and Looking Ahead to 2018

I posted something every day in 2018. The top five posts were:

  1. Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor: Summary
  2. OpenBSD: Configuring mutt & gpg/gpg2
  3. Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux
  4. Hamonshu: A Japanese Book of Wave and Ripple Designs (1903) – The Public Domain Review
  5. OpenBSD & The Command Line

As of a few hours ago, cafebedouin.org had 3,314 views, 2,097 visitors, 522 likes and 36 comments in 2018. It seems like a lot for a little idiosyncratic personal blog that I never imagined anyone reading.

My favorite posts of the year were:

I think I did more original content in 2018 over 2017. Still, I’d like to do more.

So, I’m going to go with a twice a day posting schedule for 2019. In the mornings, it’ll continue as before with links to articles and websites with quotes and maybe some commentary. I often schedule these posts a week or more in advance. I’ll also keep Sunday reserved for music (or visual media) I’ve been listening to recently or find interesting for one reason or another.

In the evenings, the posts will be a Foucault-style hupomnemata, i.e., “to capture the already-said, to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self.”

I once read of the process of the French essayist, Alain, who set out two pieces of paper, kept a quote or topic in mind, and then wrote until the pages were filled. He did not edit, and the results—such as his book, Alain on Happiness—explore ideas with immediacy and occasional brilliance. Of course, this approach can also be repetitive, but the repetition can help bring out different facets of an idea.

I’m no Alain. But, then again, Alain wasn’t Alain at first either. Maybe Foucault is right that the writing process itself can be transformative.

So, mornings are for exploration of the new. Evenings are for synthesis, bringing the unknown into the known. This is the initial idea, at any rate.

Possible fodder for evening posts:

  • I have been collecting rules and maxims for life over the last six months or so, and I was thinking of doing a once a week series with that focus.
  • I still haven’t included any material from the commonplace book I kept for years before starting cafebedouin.org. Adding in material from it with some reflection now that it has been several years might be interesting.
  • It might also be worth doing open-ended stream-of-consciousness writing. However, it probably won’t be much fun to read. I beg your pardon.

The main goal is to keep evening posts short, immediate, and to keep the editing filter in check and see what materializes.

Also, I’m also thinking of trying to do some watercolor in the coming year. It might work as part of the Postcard Friday I mentioned in my year in review as a possibility for 2019. Adding a photo of my attempts might also make it as an evening post.

In short, expect some changes and more posts in the coming year.