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Epictetus on How to Live and the Ability to Choose

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The Enchiridion (“The Manual”) is a short read on stoic advice for living. Epictetus’ practical precepts might change your life.

What’s in our control and what’s not

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

What disturbs us

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others.

How to be happy

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Epictetus, like Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, believed in the fundamental ability to choose how you respond.

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

What to do when someone provokes you

Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

When you become familiar with something…

Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination.

Silence is golden

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words.

When you hear of someone speaking ill of you

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: “He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

On decision making:

Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.

On Speaking:

Attempt on every occasion to provide for nothing so much as that which is safe: for silence is safer than speaking. And omit speaking whatever is without sense and reason.

How to live free from sorrow:

If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.

Before deciding if someone is acting ill

… unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill?

The Enchiridion is well worth a read.

Eric Drexler on taking action in the face of limited knowledge

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Science pursues answers to questions, but not always the questions that engineering must ask.

The founding father of nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, who aptly described the difference between science and engineering, comments on the central differences between how science and engineering approach solutions in a world of limited knowledge.

Drexler’s explanation, found in his insightful book Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, discusses how there is a certain amount of ignorance that pervades everything. How then, should we respond? Engineers apply a margin of safety.

Drexler writes:

When faced with imprecise knowledge, a scientist will be inclined to improve it, yet an engineer will routinely accept it. Might predictions be wrong by as much as 10 percent, and for poorly understood reasons? The reasons may pose a difficult scientific puzzle, yet an engineer might see no problem at all. Add a 50 percent margin of safety, and move on.

Safety margins are standard parts of design, and imprecise knowledge is but one of many reasons.

Engineers and scientists ask different questions:

… Accuracy can only be judged with respect to a purpose and engineers often can choose to ask questions for which models give good-enough answers.

The moral of the story: Beware of mistaking the precise knowledge that scientists naturally seek for the reliable knowledge that engineers actually need.

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Nature presents puzzles that thwart human understanding.

Some of this is necessary fallibility—some things we simply cannot understand or predict. Just because we want to understand something doesn’t mean it’s within our capacity to do so.

Other problems represent limited understanding and predictability — there are things we simply cannot do yet, for a variety of reasons.

… Predicting the weather, predicting the folding of membrane proteins, predicting how particular molecules will fit together to form a crystal— all of these problems are long-standing areas of research that have achieved substantial but only partial success. In each of these cases, the unpredictable objects of study result from a spontaneous process— evolution, crystallization, atmospheric dynamics— and none has the essential features of engineering design.

What leads to system-level predictability?

— Well-understood parts with predictable local interactions, whether predictability stems from calculation or testing
— Design margins and controlled system dynamics to limit the effects of imprecision and variable conditions
— Modular organization, to facilitate calculation and testing and to insulate subsystems from one another and the external

… When judging engineering concepts, beware of assuming that familiar concerns will cause problems in systems designed to avoid them.

Seeking Unique Answers vs. Seeking Multiple Options

Expanding the range of possibilities plays opposite roles in inquiry and design.

If elephantologists have three viable hypotheses about an animal’s ancestry, at least two hypotheses must be wrong. Discovering yet another possible line of descent creates more uncertainty, not less— now three must be wrong. In science, alternatives represent ignorance.

If automobile engineers have three viable designs for a car’s suspension, all three designs will presumably work. Finding yet another design reduces overall risk and increases the likelihood that at least one of the designs will be excellent. In engineering, alternatives represent options. Not knowing which scientific hypothesis is true isn’t at all like having a choice of engineering solutions. Once again, what may seem like similar questions in science and engineering are more nearly opposite.

Knowledge of options is sometimes mistaken for ignorance of facts.

Remarkably, in engineering, even scientific uncertainty can contribute to knowledge, because uncertainty about scientific facts can suggest engineering options.

Simple, Specific Theories vs. Complex, Flexible Designs

Engineers value what scientists don’t: flexibility.

Science likewise has no use for a theory that can be adjusted to fit arbitrary data, because a theory that fits anything forbids nothing, which is to say that it makes no predictions at all. In developing designs, by contrast, engineers prize flexibility — a design that can be adjusted to fit more requirements can solve more problems. The components of the Saturn V vehicle fit together because the design of each component could be adjusted to fit its role.

In science, a theory should be easy to state and within reach of an individual’s understanding. In engineering, however, a fully detailed design might fill a truck if printed out on paper.

This is why engineers must sometimes design, analyze, and judge concepts while working with descriptions that take masses of detail for granted. A million parameters may be left unspecified, but these parameters represent adjustable engineering options, not scientific uncertainty; they represent, not a uselessly bloated and flexible theory, but a stage in a process that routinely culminates in a fully specified product.


Beware of judging designs as if they were theories in science. An esthetic that demands uniqueness and simplicity is simply misplaced.

Curiosity-Driven Investigation vs. Goal-Oriented Development

Organizational structure differs between scientific and engineering pursuits. The coordination of work isn’t interchangeable.

In science, independent exploration by groups with diverse ideas leads to discovery, while in systems engineering, independent work would lead to nothing of use, because building a tightly integrated system requires tight coordination. Small, independent teams can design simple devices, but never a higher-order system like a passenger jet.

In inquiry, investigator-led, curiosity-driven research is essential and productive. If the goal is to engineer complex products, however, even the most brilliant independent work will reliably produce no results.

The moral of the story: Beware of approaching engineering as if it were science, because this mistake has opportunity costs that reduce the value of science itself.

In closing, Drexler comments on applying the engineering perspective.

Drawing on established knowledge to expand human capabilities, by contrast, requires an intellectual discipline that, in its fullest, high-level form, differs from science in almost every respect.

Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization is worth reading in its entirety.

Evolution is Blind but We’re Not

Charles Darwin

The first thing we do is try to figure out what went wrong. When people in organizations evaluate poor outcomes, determining what went wrong and why is one of the first steps.

Once we have a cause, whether accurate or (often) not, we distribute this information around the organization with the hopes that the knowledge of why we made a mistake will prevent us from repeating that mistake.

We attempt to eliminate the mistake from happening again.

In his masterful book, Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, Gary Klein writes:

“Organizations have lots of reasons to dislike errors: they can pose severe safety risks, they disrupt coordination, they lead to waste, they reduce the chance for project success, they erode the culture, and they can result in lawsuits and bad publicity. … In your job as a manager, you find yourself spending most of your time flagging and correcting errors. You are continually checking to see if workers meet their performance standards. If you find deviations, you quickly respond to get everything back on track. It’s much easier and less frustrating to manage by reducing errors than to try to boost insights. You know how to spot errors.”

We hate errors and we make every effort not to repeat them.

Here’s an idea that I’ve been toying around with recently — we can’t repeat the same error twice, in part because things are always changing.

In his wonderful book of Fragments, Heraclitus writes:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

The river changes and so does the person.

Evolution is blind to failure.

Evolution doesn’t have intent. When the DNA copy of a species creates a variation—say a shorter beak or sweeter taste—it does so without realizing these traits might have been tried before. These traits are not purposeful; evolution is blind to previous failures and cares not whether a mutation that failed 8 years ago occurs again. This is not a conscious process. What failed to become an advantaged trait two generations ago may become one today. It may be that the environment changed, and where there was once a preference for a shorter beak, a longer one now offers an advantage, however slight.

By repeating errors, evolution adapts. This is why natural selection works. Artificial selection, on the other hand, makes us fragile because selection isn’t blind anymore.

Charles Darwin ind dif

So why do we fail. One of the reasons for failure is our own ignorance.

“We may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works,” writes Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto. “There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop.”

These things are within our grasp but we are not quite there yet. Human knowledge grows by the day. Knowledge in this case can be positive ‘what works’ and negative ‘what doesn’t work.’ For example, we can now build skyscrapers hundreds of stories; this knowledge didn’t exist 100 years ago. Thanks to computers and technology we can now model more variables, and we’re better able to predict the weather.

(In these endeavours we’re improving quickly in terms of knowledge and technology, while the environment changes slower.)

The same water doesn’t cross your foot. The world is always changing. What used to be a tailwind is now a headwind and vice versa.

Excusing Ignorance

We can excuse ignorance, when we only have limited understanding, but we cannot excuse ineptitude. Failures when the knowledge exists and we act contrary to it, become hard to forgive. This is important in the context of organizations because we tend to forgive someone who makes a ‘mistake’ for the first time but punish the person who makes the same ‘mistake’ again. This is a form of artificial selection.

So we punish a person, who, whether intentionally or not, is mimicking evolution. Yet we can never really make the ‘same mistake’ twice because the same exact conditions do not exist again. We’re not the same and neither is world. (Of course, they are only punished if the outcome is negative.)

I’m not trying to say learning from mistakes is bad, only that it is limited (and a form of artificial selection). It’s a piece to the puzzle of knowledge. But if your process for learning from mistakes doesn’t account for changing knowledge/technology and environments you have a blind spot. Things change.

Improving our ability to learn from mistakes involves more than simply determining what went wrong and trying to avoid that again in the future. We need a deeper understanding of the key variables that govern the situation (and their relation to the environment), the decision making process, and our knowledge at the time of the decision.

Sometimes it’s smart to attempt things without knowledge of previous mistakes and sometimes it’s not.

11 Simple Rules For Getting Along With Others

Getting Along With Others

These 11 simple rules, first presented by Dave Packard at HP’s second annual management conference in 1958 are timeless.

They show Dave Packard’s philosophy of work and life.

Dave Packard’s 11 Simple Rules

1. Think first of the other fellow. This is THE foundation — the first requisite — for getting along with others. And it is the one truly difficult accomplishment you must make. Gaining this, the rest will be “a breeze.”

2. Build up the other person’s sense of importance. When we make the other person seem less important, we frustrate one of his deepest urges. Allow him to feel equality or superiority, and we can easily get along with him.

3. Respect the other man’s personality rights. Respect as something sacred the other fellow’s right to be different from you. No two personalities are ever molded by precisely the same forces.

4. Give sincere appreciation. If we think someone has done a thing well, we should never hesitate to let him know it. WARNING: This does not mean promiscuous use of obvious flattery. Flattery with most intelligent people gets exactly the reaction it deserves — contempt for the egotistical “phony” who stoops to it.

5. Eliminate the negative. Criticism seldom does what its user intends, for it invariably causes resentment. The tiniest bit of disapproval can sometimes cause a resentment which will rankle — to your disadvantage — for years.

6. Avoid openly trying to reform people. Every man knows he is imperfect, but he doesn’t want someone else trying to correct his faults. If you want to improve a person, help him to embrace a higher working goal — a standard, an ideal — and he will do his own “making over” far more effectively than you can do it for him.

7. Try to understand the other person. How would you react to similar circumstances? When you begin to see the “whys” of him you can’t help but get along better with him.

8. Check first impressions. We are especially prone to dislike some people on first sight because of some vague resemblance (of which we are usually unaware) to someone else whom we have had reason to dislike. Follow Abraham Lincoln’s famous self-instruction: “I do not like that man; therefore I shall get to know him better.”

9. Take care with the little details. Watch your smile, your tone of voice, how you use your eyes, the way you greet people, the use of nicknames and remembering faces, names and dates. Little things add polish to your skill in dealing with people. Constantly, deliberately think of them until they become a natural part of your personality.

10. Develop genuine interest in people. You cannot successfully apply the foregoing suggestions unless you have a sincere desire to like, respect and be helpful to others. Conversely, you cannot build genuine interest in people until you have experienced the pleasure of working with them in an atmosphere characterized by mutual liking and respect.

11. Keep it up. That’s all — just keep it up!

Still curious? Learn more about the dynamic duo by reading — Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company.

Ancient Wisdom For Lifelong Health

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I was excited to read John Durant’s book The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health. Whether or not you’re interested in paleo, it’s full of interesting nuggets.

Especially the part where Durant explains how fasting can help fight infections.

One indication of this effect comes from the behavior of sick animals, including humans, who often lose their appetite until an illness has passed. Farm animals, pets, zoo animals, and wild animals often just stop eating altogether when facing an acute infection or a serious injury. The widespread nature of this phenomenon suggests it’s an adaptive response. Loss of appetite isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

Like attacking the supply lines of an invading army, dietary restriction weakens pathogens while the immune system mounts a counteroffensive. Tiny pathogens don’t have large nutrient reserves and rely on the host for nutrition—therefore manipulating our nutrition is a way to manipulate their nutrition.

This may help explain why religious fasting became so prominent.

The benefits of fasting transcend chronic infections. It’s one of the promising areas of cancer research, especially in response to chemo.

“Fasting alters the playing field by activating ancient starvation defences in the cell. Fasting is a signal to the body that resources are scarce. Healthy, nonmalignant cells take the hint and stop dividing as often, focusing instead on cellular repair mechanisms that conserve resources. So even as chemo damages healthy cells, they are hard at work repairing chromosomal damage. But malignant cells don’t stop dividing; they’re “cancerous” because they refuse to do anything but grow and grow.

This part on Gluten was also interesting.

In wheat, for example, gluten makes up the majority of wheat protein. Even though gluten is associated with the small percentage of people with celiac disease, it causes gut inflammation in over 80% of people. The gut is the digestive tract, which plays a central role not only in digestion, but in metabolism and immune function as well. Persistent gut inflammation can damage intestinal lining, and large molecules and bacteria can ooze out into the bloodstream—which initiates a reaction from the immune system. Autoimmune disorders occur when the body chronically attacks itself, and a wide variety—lupus, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis—are associated with a leaky, inflamed gut and wheat consumption.”

The book is broken into three parts. The first part is a brief history of humanity through five ages of existence—Animal, Paleolithic, Agricultural, Industrial, and Information. Each of these stages provides lessons for how we can be healthier today. The second part looks at how we can apply these lessons to “multiple areas of modern-day life: food, fasting, movement, bipedalism (standing, walking, running), temperature, sun, and sleep.” The book wraps up with a speculative vision of how our ancient hunter and gatherer roles can inspire us to build healthy lifestyles.

Durant started eating paleo in September of 2006 and some amazing things started to happen. After ten days

“I had much more consistent energy throughout the day. There was no more “head on the desk” after lunch. My mood improved, too. I felt more confident and optimistic. When something negative occurred in my life, I found that I was able to weather it with greater ease. The energy and mood gains in and of themselves were enough to tell me I was on the right track. … Due to the low sugar content in my diet, I stopped getting a thin filmy residue on my teeth. Industrial food started tasting way to sweet, and I came to enjoy natural flavors more. I lost the cravings for refined carbs — cookies, cupcakes, pasta, muffins, and bagels — and I found bready foods to be both salty and bland. My immune system improved dramatically.

Overall, it felt like walking up from a perpetual state of hangover. And once I knew what “good” felt like, it made “bad” feel a whole lot worse.

When it comes to a healthy diet and overall lifestyle, here are Durant’s 5 recommendations.

1. What to Eat: Mimic a Hunter-Gatherer (or Herder) Diet

Stop counting calories. Eat the right foods: meat, seafood, roots and tubers, leafy vegetables, eggs, fruit, and nuts. Experiment with full- fat fermented dairy. Aim for a diet where the bulk of calories comes from seafood and animals, but the physical bulk comes from plants. Don’t be afraid of fat, eat nose to tail, and eat a variety of plants.

2. How to Eat: Follow Ancient Culinary Traditions

Respect ancient culinary wisdom. Follow traditional recipes. Eat fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi). Eat raw foods (sashimi, ceviche, tartare). Make broths and stocks. Cook at low heat, using traditional fats and oils (coconut oil, beef tallow, butter, ghee, olive oil). Eat your colors. Eat time-honored “superfoods”: liver, eggs, seaweed, cold water fish. Enjoy real butter. Salt to taste. Drink tea.

3. What Not to Eat: Avoid Industrial Foods, Sugars, and Seeds

Avoid processed foods of the Industrial Age, including sugar (sweetened foods, table sugar, dried fruit, plus artificial sweeteners) and vegetable oils (canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil). Avoid eating large, concentrated quantities of the seed-based crops of the Agricultural Age, such as grains (wheat, corn, barley, oats) and legumes (soy, beans, peanuts). If grains are eaten, go with rice.

Beverages: Drink water as thirsty. Drink traditional beverages in moderation, if desired (tea, coffee, wine, alcohol, milk). Avoid industrial beverages (soda, energy drinks, skim milk).

4. Make It Meaningful: Experiment, Customize, Enjoy

Use these guidelines as a starting point for your own experimentation. Modify according to your own health, goals, tastes and preferences, background, and budget. Make your diet meaningful (family recipes, ethnic cuisine). Be comfortable breaking away from it to enjoy life (celebrations, unique experiences).

5. Lead a Healthy Lifestyle

Sleep as much as possible. Move and exercise regularly. Stay on your feet (stand, walk, run). Get regular, moderate sun. Try some intermittent fasting. Try some hot and cold exposure. Make it meaningful in order to make it an ongoing lifestyle.

If you’re looking for diet tips, Durant personally follows the guidelines in Perfect Health Diet by Drs. Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminent.

No, this is not another paleo diet book; It is a lifestyle book full of ancient wisdom and practical advice on everything from diet and sunscreen to barefoot running and screen time. It just might change your life.