[This is a long post (a 20 minute read) but on the up side it’s kind of gossipy and takes personal shots at some writers of famous books. And I told them about it too. **]
Ideally you’d want to be able to pick any two (I don’t care for fame really), but most of the time it really does seem as if we have to chose between integrity and monetary wealth. I once worked in the American Air Force base at Aviano in Italy, for a German company who was stuffed to the gills with the most incompetent managers I have ever had the misfortune of knowing.
And trust me, that is saying something. They were also just a tad top-heavy, what with a ratio of 2 office/managerial people employed for every actual person doing physical work on site. As it turns out, after I pointed out the many infractions and deficiencies in their utterly unbelievable series of screw-ups, they gave me a couple of hours to clear my desk. I knew this would happen and I had consulted a lawyer prior to handing in the seven page letter which pointed out all the problems. Getting summarily fired at that time was not the ideal thing for me. I was basically going through a divorce, had no real money saved up, and due to my moving around so much, no friends around me either, and the prospect of being unemployed was not fun. I barely had the money to pay a retainer to the lawyer.
There were also some very real dangers in taking court action against a company that does over five billion dollars of turnover a year and is a major player in the military industrial complex of the most powerful entity in the world: The U.S. Navy. So much so that the first comment the lawyer I hired (who comes from a prestigious and well-to-do background) made on hearing my situation essentially boiled down to: “Do you realise it’s cheaper to have you killed than have all of this information become public?” He phrased it much nicer than that so I had to ask it that way just to make sure I understood what he was saying. He confirmed that my caveman-like grasp of reality was indeed 100% accurate. It was no surprise to me, but I was impressed he picked up on it so quickly. It was the main reason I hired him really.
Despite this, I had no other realistic options. Not because I didn’t have other practical alternatives, but due to my character you see. I was in charge of the financial aspects of the project and the sums there could not even add-up to the satisfaction of a primary school kid. They would not fix the “errors” that were in place, nor let me fix them. Essentially I was a place holder. And the name Lee Harvey Oswald did come to mind. I wish I could say that I took the stand I did because it was the right thing to do (it was) and my moral sense of justice was outraged (it was). But the reality is a little more sanguine. These fuckers had essentially thought I would be their patsy when (not if) the Italian authorities eventually decided to do an audit of the finances of this firm and how it allocated contracts and so on. And this irked me. I perceived it as an attack (it was) but more tellingly, for me, an affront. They behaved as they did because they thought no one could do anything about it or stop them. Silly assholes never understood the Pizza boy theory.* And besides, a bunch of rude Germans was going to take the piss of my Venetian DNA close enough to the city from which my ancestors hail? Not fucking likely. Yes, I wish I could say it was for noble reasons I took them on. But really it was because they pissed me off.
Not to mention that one of their previous project managers on that job was actively wanted by the Italian police for kidnapping. He had locked a whole Italian workforce on site into one of the buildings and told them no one would go home until they finished. He had to leave the country in a hurry. Seriously, the place was a comedy of stupidity, incompetence and arrogance of the worst kind. Just a few highlights (and not even the most egregious points I assure you):
- One of the new managers made it his first priority to order a container full of new leather clad furniture, champagne cases and crystal drinking glasses for his office. This on a project that was about 40% over budget and more than a year behind. He’d not had a single day on site yet before placing this order.
- On first doing a walk-about on site I was impressed by the fact that some of the walls of some of the buildings we were tasked to construct had what I could only assume was some new type of bomb-proofing construction type, the walls jutting in and out about half a metre or so along their vertical rise in various places. It sort of made sense to my engineer’s brain that this would somewhat disperse the airblast of an explosion, in a larger scale version of the type of construction used for sound-proofing. I enquired about this as I had never seen it before and was informed that actually, the glaringly jutting protrusions (of a half metre mind you!) were just errors in construction. Just to be clear, imagine a wall in your home or office with sections that pop in and out over its vertical height of some half-metre. Making an error of that kind takes a special kind of dedication, not to mention a managerial overview that is just simply out of this world.
- The room for most of the plant was build of super-reinforced concrete and to exacting specifications. Sadly none of the plant would fit through the door and the room was already build. Enlarging the opening would not just be an extremely difficult operation due to the superior reinforcing, but would structurally affect the homegeneity of the construction. You’d think someone would look at what needs to go into a plant-room before building it though.
- The heat-exhaust for one of the hospital buildings had a temperature and force not unlike that of a small jet engine and this was conveniently planned to be built to throw out such excess heat at about head-height on the footpath behind the hospital that would be used by the nurses to go to and from the rec-room to their posts. Because nothing says “We take things seriously” like nurses subjected to third degree burns as part of their daily lunch-break.
- I swear these things above compared to the financial stuff make the above seem like the scientific rigour used to build the Apollo 11 space mission.
And let me not mention the way they treated people. They tried talking to me that way only once, luckily for them physically and me legally really. This was when they presented me with my notice and wanted me to sign a paper of some sort, which I refused to do. They insisted in a way that was definitely impolite. The project manager raised his voice and shouted that I would sign the paper, as if this was going to just happen due to his sheer force of will. At this point I told him that he now had a very short time to leave my office, as I had already told him to do. He could do it on his own through the door, or in a few seconds he would be going out the window. I didn’t specify that along with the imminent defenestration, his paper would remain unsigned but it might be following him a little closer than he would be comfortable with. It was kind of implied by my tonality I think. I’m subtle like that when I get a little irritated. We were only one floor up which was a pity, but I would try to see if he could at least land on the other side of the road.
His natural arrogance had not foreseen for this eventuality. He just became rooted to the spot and seemed paralysed, his mouth actually open but silent. Luckily for him, the Irish manager that was also in the room had a more refined survival instinct. While the German just went silent in sudden shock, the Irish man grabbed him by the arm and told him, “Come, come, let’s go now, let’s go.” And so they got to use the door.
Five years later they also paid up an out of court settlement to me of some €25,000.00, just so we are all clear about who was on the right side of the law. I mention this lengthy introduction because at the time when I was bitching to a friend I made there about the completely unbelievable attitude some of these people had, he made a revelatory statement:
Me: How do they sleep at night?
Paolo: Giuseppe…they sleep. They sleep normally and well. To them, their behaviour is normal. They are not you. You and me…we can think about these things. But them…people like that…
He trailed off and it was clear that to him my honest lack of understanding at how such individuals, who affected the lives of many in a negative way, cope with shaving in the morning, as this requires the use of a mirror, was really only due to my own deficiency of understanding.
It seems I still have this problem.
I have noticed for some time now a trend in the quality of information regarding some important topics that relate to essentially having a better lifestyle and enjoying your life more. It is no secret of course that this field if filled with snake-oil salesmen, but these are generally relatively easy to spot and although they are a plague on humanity, it is easy to see how unscrupulous and greedy people would take advantage of another’s weakness at a difficult time, be it relationship troubles, money troubles, a general despondency with life in the rat-race or whatever it may be.
The Math Experts — Counting Apples Instead of Eating Them
What I am talking about are actually two types of erroneous information. The first is intellectually honest but just somewhat flawed in its overall conclusions or interpretation of data. Two examples that come to mind are John Allen Paulos the author of a book called Innumeracy, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the very successful author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan whose books I mostly thoroughly enjoyed. Paulos saw many of the same things I see in scare-mongering news outlets and general “public” information of a “scientific” nature and he is an engaging writer. I would say I agreed probably with 90% of everything he said except that when it came to certain topics it was clear his own opinions influenced his mathematics. It was subtle and not so obvious to see, because Paulos is obviously a smart man, but he too is as human as the rest of us and it was a little disappointing for me to see this aspect in his work. Similarly, I have thoroughly enjoyed Taleb’s work, what is more he is very successful using his strategies and although most of his work is essentially based around the concept that no one really knows anything about financial trading, and that most of the ideas and theories about it are just so much speculation and guess-work due to flaws in reasoning, perception and biology, you have to admit that his own work seems very reasonable. I personally think he’s sort of missing the bigger picture about life in general and how to enjoy it more, but then this is really just my personal opinion to a good extent. Again, my “problem” with him is subtle (yet it does exist). But he also puts his own time and money where his mouth is, so you can’t help but see that he is intellectually honest. That is, these two authors may have a “flaw” in their thesis, and it happens to be one that I feel strongly about, but I am also relatively sure that if I were ever to have a cup of coffee with them, I would enjoy their intellect, their company and their character. Taleb in particular is an ornery contrarian with very strong opinions and this alone would make him a great person to spend time with from my point of view. I just know that I would instinctively like him. He sort of reminds me of my friend Hawar. He hated me on sight for about a year until he finally realised I am just naturally the better man. (Hi Hawar!)
The problem I have with these two types of author is that in a subtle but insidious way, their work, which is engaging, mostly correct, based on sound science and entertaining too, implies by a kind of induction that most of life is reducible to a set of formulaic behaviour and that some “control” can be exerted on aspects of life that not only cannot really be controlled, but SHOULD NOT be controlled. I kind of blame the upcoming generation of social robots sort of on them. And Taleb in particular if he’s reading this will probably be tearing out the last few hair he has before possibly hiring hit-men to ruin my life, because his whole message (secretly, because he’s a contrarian remember) seems to me to be that you should enjoy life, read widely, and have the opportunity to do well by exploiting the greed and stupidity of that very hated class of financial animal, the banker/trader. Nevertheless, hit-men and hair notwithstanding, I do think that someone who takes all Taleb has to say at face value and tries to organise his life that way, will miss out on some spectacular, interesting and ultimately GOOD life experiences. If I had to summarise it I would say these people promote an Obsessive Compulsive Culture.
Drool a bit of milkshake on your shirt-front and say how much you enjoy the sunshine because it’s hotter than the moon rays and these people might have a brain aneurysm. But at least I like them (or at least I think I would like them, I’ve not met either of these authors) as people, and I believe they are honest in their endeavours and share their work mostly as a wish also to improve mankind’s lot (I expect Taleb would argue vehemently against this).
More worrying are other authors, also widely followed whose intellectual honesty is a far murkier affair. And in fact, with a little research, one can begin to see cracks in the façade.
The Marketing Expert with a Sexy Story
The second type of author I have a problem with, and it is a larger problem and I am sorry to say it is of a more personal nature than the previous two examples. This is where the authors knowingly exaggerate, falsify or twist the information to suit their agendas. If this were the end of it, I would not bother to mention it. The world is full of greedy unscrupulous people as we all know. But these guys are smart. they are capable. They are intelligent. And I believe they could do a better job of being more honest with little impact to their financial success.
Two cases in point are Neil Strauss, author of The Game and Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work-Week and now The Four Hour Body. Both of these guys write well, engagingly and are obviously talented individuals.
Strauss is basically a journalist and ghost writer, so in a sense his personal “crime” in my mind is of a somewhat lower order. He is morally obviously not a giant, but I have no real problem with that. I object to his use of hyperbole, exaggeration, general sliminess and hype to market and sell “concepts” that are really not very valid in the real world. I object mostly if you like, to his style. I do think he is intellectually far less honest than a Taleb, but I kind of also feel this is partly due his DNA. The lies are sort of wired into his very cells.
Nevertheless, the Game as such, could be said to have had some reasonable social impact and some of that was good. In the case of desperately socially inadequate men, it gave them hope that anyone, could learn a set of skills that would make them James Bond-like in their ability to engage in sexual conquests of women. Leaving aside for a minute the morality of the methods, I for one am all for people enjoying as much sexual liberty as they wish and if people are having plentiful, healthy consensual sex then they are less likely to be mentally unstable and more likely to be happier. So I’m all for this aspect of it. The fact that for the most part, a large number of such desperate men handed over large quantities of cash to dodgy “seduction gurus” of questionable or even demonstrably lacking ability at their chosen “profession” is sad and more than a little disturbing, but perhaps ultimately not so relevant. The overall subtle implication that one can achieve the “prize” of having sex by use of a computer algorithm in social context however is disturbing to me. More disturbing even than whether some women actually get fooled by some of these emotionally stunted men into having sex with them.
For the most part women are biologically smarter than most of the “tricks” the so-called pick-up artists engage in, but aside from that, the not infrequent sight of a pair of guys wearing goggles and tuba hats in clubs and being incapable of even starting a normal conversation with any woman within twenty feet, is reassuring proof that women are, generally speaking, quite safe from such advances. Besides, I have met a few of these so-called pick-up artists, and by a very large margin, they just do not compare in their so-called “ability” with any of the normal guys who just enjoy female company and have never even heard of The Game or the so-called seduction community.
The disturbing part of the whole thing is the implication. It is not discussed or even realised by most people who comment on the “seduction community”. The implication, perpetrated by the very successful entertainment and marketing value these “products” or books, or ideas have is that being a social robot is normal. It is not. It is not a step forward, but rather a step backward. Instead of promoting an honest intimacy between people, it promotes a sort of “commercialising” of interpersonal relationships. The very reason it is dangerous is because it is so subtle. It is not a clear cut black and white thing. For example:
Let’s say you are a 30 year old virgin and going out of your mind because of it and you decide to spend some money to try and figure out how to behave near women to be interesting enough to give one of them the idea of getting naked and sweaty with you. You don’t know any different so you read a book by some pick-up guru that tells you you need to use this line, then touch the girl in a certain non-threatening way, then you need to isolate her from her friends, escalate the physical contact and so on. And let’s say that after many trials of this you actually get laid a few times. You still don’t know any better so you automatically begin to incorporate a certain “routine” in how you approach women. Now maybe as you carry on, if you become more normal you learn to socially interact with the opposite sex without such a reductionist approach and you learn to become more human and you begin to forget all that social engineering nonsense and begin to relate to people in a way that is far more fulfilling. That is the hope. But it is not the likelihood. Because once you have tried to reduce a human interaction to a set of quantifiable variables, regardless of whether it is successful at getting you what you want, you have transgressed in a very real and tragic way on the human spirit. Maybe you can manipulate someone into doing what you want, but this is never going to be the same experience as spontaneously and organically exploring life together as curious souls.
So with respect to Neil Strauss, I get it. I see why he may not be really to blame. He is a rather pathetic type of person despite his obvious external success and I can imagine the curve of his life and see why he would buy his own advertising for the most part. Not all of it mind you, I think he is smarter than that, but at least in part. But the problem remains. Apart from the fact that most pick-up artist information is just not good information to begin with, because the principles are flawed, the bigger problem is that, to borrow Rudolph Steiner’s turn of phrase, it leads us down Arhimanic principles rather than divine ones. Now I am not a religious person by any means, but there is more to the human experience than a set of reproducible set-pieces. It is why I find Richard Dawkins limited too.
With respect to Tim Ferriss, I would say his work overall has a much more positive impact in general, and this is a good thing. He too exaggerates, hypes and markets things to be better than they really are, he does this in an intelligent way however, which for me points out that he is aware of what he is doing and he is doing so by design mostly. Which makes me like him less as a person, but I am still willing to bet that I would probably like Tim to some extent or other. It’s hard to say, he is definitely very guarded about his internal processes, and much of what he does is controversial when you analyse it from an ethical point of view at a personal level. He won a mixed martial art competition by dropping his body-weight due to extreme dehydration and then re-upping it within two days to be much heavier than his opponents, meaning he could push-them out of the ring. Some would call it being intellectually dishonest, others would call it thinking out of the box. Either way, the man at least was in the ring and that counts for something. Much of his work is this way. Overall though he has inspired millions to re-think their life and given them at least a sense of hope and in some cases some good pointers towards changing that lifestyle so it better suits their needs. He also has raised a lot of money for various charities and generally done good things. I am personally indebted to him because thanks to his work I was prompted to help sponsor a school in Tibet along with him and others and it felt good. He is also undoubtedly a very intelligent and capable person and has accomplished a lot, and this too has to be respected.
It’s just that hyperbole and marketing hype and slight omission of all the facts that disturbs me. Of course you want to like him. You want to forgive him for not putting in all the details, maybe it was done with the best of intentions, maybe the guy is so hungry to become a force for good he cuts a little corner here or there and who can blame him?
But it matters. Not all of what he says is practically applicable. Although he certainly is very careful about trying to ensure he doesn’t give outright false information, what he does say is not exactly the truth either in more than one or two cases.
Outsource the parts of your life you don’t enjoy? Is it really so simple? Not quite. For a start managing the outsourcing itself can cause more problems than it’s worth. Gain 34 lbs of muscle in 4 weeks, as one of his blog posts says he did? Well again, it’s not the whole story, but it makes for good reading. And it inspires and so people buy into it. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing, but again, the common theme here too is an undercurrent of obsessive need to be able to measure, quantify, regulate, control and basically “manage” aspects of life to such an extent that the human component seems to get lost in the number-crunching.
Maybe I am wrong to focus on the individual, blame it on my instinctual, primitive nature if you like, but I do think the problem of a subtle but very effective type of dehumanisation exists with information when it is given in this way, with intellectual focus more on “success” be it fame, fortune or sexual gratification, than on just plain and simple honesty.
When someone has to ask: “Well just what IS honesty” you may be reminded of a certain President saying to a certain committee that it “…all depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is”. At which point the legislator questioning him asked if it was his testimony that the reason he had said he had no sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky was because he was not actually having sex with her at the time he was asked about it, which I thought was the only correct way to interpret Bill’s subterfuge too.
But my ultimate point is not that Tim Ferriss is an intellectually dishonest person. I think there is a good chance he may be, but he may also be blind to his own fault and honestly think that the slight tweaking he does with facts is all perfectly acceptable as long as he achieves his aims. My point is that someone of Tim’s ability really does not require any tweaking to be done. His message would still be as powerful, and also ring truer if he simply stated the facts as they were. Or maybe I am wrong, if you admitted that the fastest way to gain muscle is actually pretty well documented as being that used by Pete Sisco (static resistance training) and also admitted you actually knew of this, because you had been contacted by Pete, yet you continued to chose to ignore it and instead point at methodologies that are rather well known to not be quite what it says on the tin, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts (If you really care see Tim’s blog post here and his links and then read up on Pete Sisco as well as some of the critiques in Tim’s blog) maybe you would have less readers, less believers? Less fame?
I don’t know. That’s the part I still have a problem with, I just don’t understand how the brains of these kind of people work. It’s an intellectual curiosity on my part I agree, but maybe if I can figure it out I could also brainwash the lot of them into becoming more honest too. Once I take over the world I mean.
See? It’s not that I am a particularly nice guy or anything, but at least I tell you the truth. I mean to take over the world and improve it. By the use of mass scale brainwashing if need be and starting with the intellectually dishonest. But it’s for your own good you see? Surely you do right?
And my ultimate point is still the same. The dehumanisation of the processes of engaging in relationships (of a sexual nature in particular but of all types in general) or of finding financial well-being, or of sorting good information from bad information, or the regulating of your overall priorities in life, is not a good thing. It particularly is not a good thing for younger people to be exposed to.
The lack of real tests of the primitive kind (here’s your spear son, do not come back until you have killed a lion) means the newer generations have little or no understanding of the real lines of honour, integrity, honesty, when it comes down to life and death situations. And personally I don’t want to live in a world where the most important thing is how much money you have or how much “success” you have (or suck-cess, as I call it), or how much fame, but rather the quality of your engagements with life, with people and ultimately with your own conscience.
Many of the so-called younger entrepreneurs of Tim’s variety (though I would exclude Tim himself from this category at least to some extent) are actually wondering why they still have a sense of emptiness plaguing them even though they are thought “cool” by their peers, have money, travel a lot and possibly have many other positive life experiences.
So here’s a little hint on why. How many friends do you have that would willingly risk their life, with a very real possibility of losing it for your own? How many women (or men if you are a woman or swing that way) whom you have cared about and where involved with, would still say you are one of the most reliable people they know and count you as someone they trust, regardless of whether your interaction lasted a decade or a day? How many people that you know are you willing to trade your life for?
Because without this level of depth in your relationships, in your life in general, you can have as much status as you like but you will still not have that void filled. Don’t get me wrong, some people are just not designed to be that intense and that is perfectly fine too. If it sincerely makes you happy to have a good social status, the big car, the quasi-fame, the bling, or whatever it is that’s fine too by the way. I have met people like that and I have nothing against them. I wish them well. But it’s unlikely they will occupy any space in my mind.
PS: In keeping with intellectual honesty, I have actually messaged Tim’s assistant to let him know of this blog post and give him a chance to respond. I still am not sure of whether I would like him or not, and probably the only way I’d easily find out is by getting in a gym with him and having a go at some free-for all sparring with him for a little while. Not in the sense of wanting to hurt him, or be hurt, as the case may be, but because it’s an easy and fast way for me to determine someone’s character at a relatively deep level. If Tim (or his assistant) bother to reply I will be sure to give him air-time here, but I’m not holding my breath. My readership is insignificant compared to his, so it would not really profit him to bring attention to this.
* The Pizza Boy Theory: My brother and I came up with this philosophical concept. Be nice to even the lowliest Pizza boy, because you just never know who he really is. This probably comes from our upbringing being a deep mixture of Old Italian sense of honour, Omerta of the noble kind (where duels were officially announced but you just didn’t discuss where the bodies were buried) and Japanese politeness (be very polite until you get pissed off, then cut everyone’s head off without warning).
So even if you are a drug-baron surrounded by bodyguards, be nice to the Pizza boy serving your food. Your being rude for no reason might just mean that before Guido and Vinnie can stop him, Pizza boy has stuck a fork right into the back of your cerebellum. He loves his mamma and he’s not going to take that kind of shitty language from your fat, rich, powerful ass.
** If you have read the whole thing, do let me know what you thought of this somewhat “gimmiky” (but honest) tag line. I am doing my research informally you see!