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The Expert Life
Faith in improvisation vs outsourcing for cheat codes.
A jack of all trades
Is master of none
But oftentimes better
Than a master of one.
Once upon a time I lost a job by telling one of the many of several people assigned to interview me that I wasn’t particularly interested in learning more. This was a job related to IT in which I had been a practitioner for over two decades. I was highly disappointed that my mastery had not been appreciated, however in retrospect I was glad to have not gotten the position. The reasons are twofold, at least by my current reckoning. In the first place, I stuck it out where I was having reaffirmed my original purpose in doing anything and everything to assist in our acquisition. Secondly, I realized that I’m never done learning more, I just didn’t want to learn what they expected me to. Besides, I was already an expert.
That company faced the same sort of problems all consulting companies face, which is having attained a certain selection of experts, they courted clients who were deficient in said areas. That means the old geezers were constantly being dragged down the rabbit holes of their youth. Oh, yeah. It was at Nissan where I was pulled into the project when they realized that there was no middleware for the second tier of the databases that were customer-facing. Survivor stories. Of course if you don’t have an MBA in finance or the charisma of a primetime actor, or a 15% share in the company, they will expect you to put on your kneepads and provide a solution. In the industry it’s called ‘hands-on’. In the rest of the world it’s called ‘improvisation’. This is principally because, to paraphrase the great writer, well-run companies are pretty much the same while fucked companies suffer an infinite variety of hellish predicaments. Practically speaking, each has 1001 excuses for running shitty practices with warped tools.
In our lives, at the times we seek to improve them, there is an ever present temptation to outsource the discipline we believe we need. As we look from our sullen corners into the apparent brightness of other lives it’s hard to believe that improvisation has any place in the world of success. We tend to believe, since we are surprised every day at what we simply do not know, that the truth is out there merely occluded from view. We believe that there are cheat codes to life but we just can’t afford them. If those greedy arseholes would only give up the secrets, we could all be happy. And of course the one kind of advice we really want is not advice at all, but power and money. After all, these are the two commodities nobody gives away without a fight. We tend to forget about time which is really the only great equalizer in all of human experience apart from death. Therefore we focus on power and money. The more clever of us (and don’t we all think we are?) will seek out new expertise whether directly from our own self-educating discipline or through the various links we have to those we think are experts. To be hooked up with those with the answers, ahh that’s the path to nirvana. Unless.
This morning, I finally finished over the course of a week, the 3.75 hour podcast between Sam Harris and a gent from Berkeley by the name of Matt Walker. It is appropriately named The Kingdom of Sleep, and in its course reveals and debunks more about that thing we do at night (more or less) than a lifetime of self-knowledge. If you think you know how to sleep, these two might very well set you straight on that.
Two moments stand out for me in their implications. The first was that I speculated that the primary differentiator between Sapiens and Neanderthals had to do with oxygen uptake. One of the original questions of the podcast asked why would humans and other animals bother to sleep at all? I think my instant answer was right, but they never went down that path. Sleep is necessary because of the amount of energy we spend awake. Moving around and hunting for food is a caloric and thermodynamic expense that is unsustainable. On the spectrum between the quick and the dead, those who are quicker are better hunters and therefore deadlier. As I always used to say to vegans who mumbled about animal cruelty, at least the animals can try to escape. Plants can’t run away. Fishing isn’t always catching. Hunting isn’t always finding. Farming, on the other hand… well. Ask why capitalists are fat, and the answer is because they buy up the land; a habit invented by agriculture. So there’s a big fat conundrum for those with a fetish for indigenous hunter gatherers. They were gluten free because they chased down the meats. My speculation was that Neanderthals had not only a bit smaller brains, but that they didn’t process oxygen enough to be more clumsy and slow than their Sapiens cousins. Maybe a hemoglobin thing.
Throughout the talk, Dr. Walker went out of his way to be as mild a scourge as possible. I find that to be admirable, sorta. On the other hand, who has the time, money and inclination to listen to PhD’s on their daily morning walks? Jerkfaces like me. Why? Because we want to improve the quality of our lives and we believe, just like IT organizations who outsource the debugging of their spaghetti factories that if we heed the advice of experts, we can find a brighter day. Besides, we don’t have the power or the money to do it ourselves. In this class of self-improvers, we have gotten a little bit out of control looking towards ‘the science’ and heeding ‘the experts’ to improve ourselves just that marginal arcsecond towards our truest star. Like Sam Harris, we may come to believe that sleep just gets in the way. That is, like Sam Harris we bump into an expert who tells us how many ways we have been sleeping wrong. When they blow our minds with arguments and artifacts of experimental proof, we are once again humbled. Not for the purpose of merely being humble, but for that old egotistic question. “What the hell was I thinking all of this time? How could I have been so stupid?” Matt Walker realizes he has made people overthink sleep and he feels a little sheepish as all properly humble experts do. Rightly, he doesn’t want us to stress out over thinking too much about our crooked patterns of restfulness. That itself has a name, orthosomnia: the failure to sleep because you lie in bed awake thinking about how you are not sleeping.
<obligatory-seriousness> En passant, this is something of a review of the horrid excuse in self-congratulation that is the latest Hollywood star-filled excess called Don’t Look Up. It is a self-obsessed film about stupidity that falls far short of what it ever could be. One could call it dark humor if it were more consistently funny, even funny in a corny way like Spaceballs. I don’t know, maybe Aaron Sorkin took some ecstasy and carried on too long at a party in Bel Air and prophetically said “They don’t make movies like Network any more.” Something young cute and ironic wearing a SMOD t-shirt caught his eye while he swore he’d never make the Wag The Dog this generation needs to see. Honestly, was ready to watch that movie where Morgan Freeman was President, but really all anybody needs to do is compare the entirety of Don’t Look Up to the following 5 minutes.
I am growing to hate movies that have no regard for the evolved thinking of people around the globe or throughout history. </obligatory-seriousness>
It takes some doing to accept both failure and the comfort of peace. It requires something beyond a healthy skepticism in expertise. It requires faith, but not necessarily faith in God or the rules of the Universe, because both are beyond our ability to grasp and apply in a finite amount of time, money and power. It requires the faith that actual experts have in having improvised their way out of rabbit holes. That’s on us.
When we are honest about the complexity of life, and what billions of years of evolution gift us by uncountable trials and errors, we should come to understand that something persists no matter what. Out of every prophesy that the End is Near (Witcher, S2E4) an end comes to the prophet, but not to humanity. We have to admit that experts are our new prophets because none of them have all of the data that is absolutely relevant to you and I. That poses an interesting question that goes back to my profession of IT and the podcast.
I take off my Apple watch at night. Yesterday after a 20 mile bike ride in the rain, I dropped my iPhone 11 Pro Max having hit some ruts in Del Amo Boulevard. It made that sickening clattering sound we know so well. So for about 8 hours I was without my own state of the art device which I replaced with their new ultimate machine. I now have a ridiculous terabyte in my pocket, and still nothing in Apple Health knows jack about my hemoglobin. Nothing on the planet is wired to my bloodstream to measure anything other than blood sugar levels. Not Vitamin D, not COVID antibodies not testosterone or any of thousands of chemical substances or electrical impulses we know to exist. All physical health is abstracted from relatively few human samples and we really don’t know how to interpolate them to our specific cases with all of our unique strengths and weaknesses. It is not surprising that some of us have politicized ‘comorbidities’. Hell, the spell-checker on my browser doesn’t even recognize the word. If Apple figures out blood sugar without pricking in their next watch, I won’t take it off at night. That concerns me.
I expect, and all of us jerkfaces expect, that personal medicine is coming and that the right combination of new expertise will give us longer and healthier lives, fix our diets and tailor advice crunched by billion gigaflop neural networks with our own genes as the only bias. I’m putting money on it that we’ll finance that enterprise of miracles whether or not it pans out. We are at pains to have everything patiently explained to us, not only of our possible benefits but our probable suffering. The consulting business is unlikely to go out of business. Before we get there, we will endure suffering of a different type. Ortho-something. The promise of getting it right accompanied by the pain of messing up the same thing from overthinking it.
Avoiding all of this, I think will be a question of autonomy. That’s the way out, I think. I will use what I wrote last as the example, thinking of the music recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They let a little dirt into the studio and improvised their way. They only and slowly mastered themselves and that small little patch of patch cables. They jacked their way around the same melody until something clicked and the engineer let the tape machine run until the magic happened. There was a lot of faith involved in that.
As much as I defend rationality, I am aware that the state of the art will be what it will be, and to capture it at the limit and go beyond is the calling of the few willing to absorb the history of a field of endeavor and push beyond. What they can tell us today or on demand is not necessarily what we need to know. We will run ourselves into walls trying to fix in ourselves what is only just understood by pioneers. Yeah I’ll buy this incredible iPhone which is appreciably better looking, faster and more capacious than the one it replaces. But yesterday there was a massive volcano explosion and nobody knows what’s next. I’m glad to not worry myself into an early grave about not having an expert opinion about a million things. I can be happy about the faith I have in dealing with mystery, and so the discovery will be my own. Living outside the boundaries of expert advice? Yeah, oftentimes that’s better.