Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Tourists as Inverse Role Models, or the Benefits of Optionality
The benefits of tourism in New York City (or any city) are not only financial. Tourists are anti-beacons: wherever they flock, residents like me immediately know where not to go. When I travel to other cities I use this heuristic in my favor, which is why I gravitate towards the corners of a city where tourists are nowhere and stimulating cafes are everywhere (perfect environments for thinking and writing).
I’ve noticed that my fellow New Yorkers agree with me in the first regard. The term “New Yorkers” does not necessarily denote someone who is from New York but someone who exists in New York not as a tourist. So we bond not over our origins but mutual annoyances: the insanity of Times Square, photographers in Grand Central Station, and slow walkers. At the same time, I’ve witnessed New Yorkers travel abroad and become the very tourists they scorn. They don’t realize that it shouldn’t matter if you are a visitor or a local: it is always better to go where tourists are not.
I’ve noticed another inconsistency. A New Yorker will complain about the day-to-day trenches of adult life and then, to escape the predictability, plan a vacation down to the minute. It’s nauseating. If I could predict how my day would exactly transpire, part of me would feel dead. My mom, the best tourist I’ve ever met, maintained a rule of thumb to avoid this: “let’s get lost” was her mantra.
Charles MacKay’s 1841 opus Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds comes to mind here. I’ve only read excerpts, but enough to see how brilliantly MacKay captures our sheepish tendencies: If someone stops and looks up, passersby will look up; if someone donates money to a homeless person, witnesses are motivated to do the same; once one person crosses the street, the herd follows. MacKay would have enjoyed observing locals and tourists in New York – if he could tell them apart.
If touristification, as Nassim Taleb defines it, is the systematic removal of uncertainty and randomness, then the “let’s get lost” mantra is an attempt to incorporate a certain dose of uncertainty and randomness into life. It turns out that this has some merit in the workplace. Fast Company is sub-par and repetitive, but I’ve read a few good articles about how businesses are designing their offices so employees cross paths (literally) more often. Pixar is the paragon here. It’s said that Steve Jobs insisted that the entire headquarters only have two bathrooms, thus forcing the designers to mingle with the producers, the directors to mingle with the writers, etc. I recently traveled to the opulent headquarters of a large business here in New York. The people bored me to tears but the office was impressive. When I arrived, I took an elevator up a number of floors only to walk down several flights of stairs. I later learned that the elevators stopped at every other floor. This apparently forced employees to walk long distances and through different departments. Again, the mind benefits from a bit of randomness and uncertainty (although this particular company has never been revered for their creativity).
Science, too, benefits from a degree of haphazardness. Alexander Fleming was once investigating something he knew (the properties of staphylococci) when he discovered something else (penicillin) thanks to his untidy tendencies around the laboratory. Similarly, Viagra was originally designed to be a hypertension drug. Many years ago, as a student, I spent three weeks in the Golan Heights excavating a Roman Temple from the Hellenistic period. The site was overseen by a friend – a classics professor at Macalester College – who explained that a fierce brush fire uncovered the ruins. So while we glorify the scientific method, it’s critical to remember that without serendipity, discovery would grind to a halt.
Mother Nature seems to have endowed the mind with an underlying appreciation for the potential benefits of the unknown. I’ve watched enough sport contests to know that a high degree of uncertainty is correlated with the largest payoffs. There are few things in life more pleasurable than last minute heroics with like-minded fans, which is why watching Landon Donovan score a goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup released the most potent dose of euphoria I’ve ever experienced. I imagine that poker players receive a similar pleasure when a favorable hand returns a large pile of poker chips as anticipated, but not known for sure. A random bump-in with a friend in a foreign airport is a rare joy in life. The seeds of most marriages (choice-marriages) are usually unintentionally planted – anyone who has been to a wedding more than once is familiar with this narrative. I’m currently listening to Pandora, the online radio streaming service. Not knowing what’s coming next (but knowing that you’ll probably like it) is the enjoyable part. Even our taste buds “know” about the benefits of the unknown: eating something unexpectedly good is much better than eating something you expect to be good.
Note how these examples are in opposition to modernity, where predictability and certainty are virtues. There are benefits, of course, to knowing how the future will unfold, but our insatiable quest for complete control produces a number of irrationalities. Consider placebo buttons, which David McRaney brought to my attention. Computers have effectively eliminated the “push to cross” buttons at cross walks. Years ago, a few cities were going to remove these devices, but to save money officials simply kept them. No one complained. The “close door” buttons in elevators are also placebos and thermostats are only capable of moving the temperature a few degrees in either direction – a few buildings contain noise generators to reinforce the illusion that employees are actually changing the temperature. We enjoy the idea that we control our surroundings, even if that idea is a fantasy.
The sooner you stop trying to control the world the better, and I can assure you that this is not as fatalistic as it sounds. Let’s return to tourists. There are two ways to explore a city. The first is to schedule things, plan things, and sign up for those heinous tours that make humans look like cattle. The problem here is once you have an itinerary you can be late for things, or even miss them. Worse, you cannot revise your plans, or your destination. The second approach is embodied by the “flâneur”, an idea the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about. For Baudelaire, the flâneur is the opposite of a tourist. He is a stroller and a wanderer – a connoisseur of the street. If he wants to go somewhere, he does. Free from a schedule, he can only catch trains and never miss them. (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a term for this: “pivoting.”)
The advantage the flâneur has over the tourist is optionality. That is, in life, it’s always better to have a few options than to set one fixed course (to a certain degree). Just ask bar hoppers and college students: they embrace a live in the moment attitude, which means they welcome the randomness a typical night may deliver while an uptight scheduler is crushed when things inevitably do not follow “the plan.” In other words, if you have optionality, you crave variability and unpredictability – you know planning is futile, so you look forward to the unexpected.
I end with a quote from Seneca the Younger
The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind. There is nothing more wretched than worry over the outcome of future events; as to the amount or the nature of that which remains, our troubled minds are set aflutter with unaccountable fear.
Image via Wikipedia Creative Commons
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.