December 21, 2021
I’d never join a country club.
Golf seems like an expensive waste of time, the food isn’t that great, and I’m not trying to network with any of the people there. On top of that, the country club in the town where I grew up has a six-figure initiation fee and still doesn’t accept women as members. Hard pass.
But I will spend thousands of dollars on a cartoon image of a monkey that I could download for free. What gives?
If I owned these apes I wouldn't need to credit this image (via The New Yorker)
A Killer Bundle
“Gentlemen, there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”
– Jim Barksdale
I am a native of the digital realm. I spend 12 hours per day on my laptop – working, coding, writing, hanging out on Twitter, Slack, Discord.
For those of us already living in the Metaverse, NFTs combine several distinct value propositions:
A display of wealth. Premium NFTs are the digital equivalent of driving a Ferrari or wearing a Rolex. If you spend the majority of the day online, you can make an impudent show of your NFTs far more often than your luxury physical goods.
An elite social network. With a CryptoPunk or a Bored Ape as your Twitter avatar, you gain prestige and legitimacy in the crypto world. This unlocks a network of people who otherwise may not interact with you. Contrast this with private art collection – as far as I know, there is no Discord for people who own original Picassos.
A signal of good taste. Picking the right NFT project to back early on gives you tastemaker status. You liked it before it got cool.
A limited collectible. Baseball and Pokémon cards are just printed pieces of paper. Yet people pay thousands of dollars for them. Similarly, Supreme makes a fairly basic T-shirt. But people wait overnight in line for the next drop. NFTs induce the same behavior.
The excitement of roulette. Much like trading options on meme stocks, there is the chance that your your investment will 10-100x in value in a short period of time. This gives NFT collectors the anticipation of art appreciation, on steroids.
In other words, NFTs are one of the best bundles ever created. They vastly expand the traditional bundle of art collection, while layering on the dopamine rushes of social exclusivity and a good wager.
And that’s just on the demand side. On the supply side, NFTs are a no-brainer. An additional revenue stream for creators? A cut of secondary sales? Giddy up.
But This Is Stupid
Yes, it is. So is traditional art. Art is just a delusion we’ve agreed to share.
Is this rabbit worth $91 million?
Matt Levine criticizes NFTs for having almost no consumption value outside of participating in a bubble. Sure. But if that is your bear case, you need to extend that to all markets in 2021. The days of me buying a stock because I think the present value of its future dividends are higher than its current share price are long gone. Reflexivity reigns.
As Byrne Hobart writes,
The strongest bull case for NFTs is that the bear case is boring: you can right-click and “save as” to get access to any NFT’d image you want, and yet people pay for the social status of being able to claim they’re the true owner. This is, of course, quite silly, but it’s obviously silly and people still pay for NFTs. A bear case the bulls are perfectly aware of is no bear case at all.
So what is the true bear case of NFTs? I’m not sure. But people are engaging with NFTs with a fanaticism that rivals a soccer hooligan’s support of his club or the devotion of the Hells Angels to Harley-Davidson.
I won’t bet against that fervor.
December 13, 2021
Consider how you spend your time. Place each activity into one of two buckets:
Bucket A consists of all of the time you spend online. E.g.,
- Video games
- Peloton classes
Bucket B consists of the time you spend offline. E.g.,
- Face-to-face interactions with friends and family
- Playing a musical instrument
- IRL workouts and sports
- Manual labor
If you’re reading this blog, I’m willing to bet that the entirety of your job and the vast majority of your waking hours fall into Bucket A. Further, with a supercomputer in your pocket sending you dozens of push notifications per hour, you are always online.
Portrait of a Very Online Person
The Metaverse is here – and you already live in it.
A Brief History of the Internet
Much like coffee or feminism, the internet has come in three waves.
Web 1.0 was open, decentralized, and optimistic. People created their own digital worlds to share weird blogs, artwork, code, whatever. But you had to be highly technical to be a creator Web 1.0. And for the most part, creators captured little or none of the value they added.
Web 2.0 solved the openness problem: anyone can create a Facebook page or a Gmail account. And for all of the criticisms, this is incredibly powerful – with minimal budget you can start a company by deploying a site on AWS, marketing on Instagram, and processing payments with Stripe. However, the drawback is that the system is now closed. We operate in walled gardens that are paid for by advertisements.
Web 3.0 aims to be the best of both worlds. Its stated vision is to empower creators and participants by monetizing the protocols themselves, rather than monetizing via advertising in the application layer of the stack.
But is this vision for the internet achievable?
Read Snow Crash. The cyberpunk world Neal Stephenson constructed is cool, no doubt. But it is also a cautionary tale.
Governments have collapsed, leaving society in a state of anarcho-capitalism. Liberty, justice, law and order…these are all principles that are alive and well, they’re just for sale to the highest bidder. You get only what you can pay for, whether in the base reality burbcaves or in the Metaverse.
This is the vision for the Metaverse that Zuckerberg et al. are pitching.
I work in crypto. It’s fucking awesome. We’re building a whole new financial infrastructure, a whole new reality. There is so much potential in the internet – we’ve barely scratched the surface.
But if we’re not careful, Web 3.0 can easily become the worst of Web 1.0 combined with the worst of Web 2.0. A world that is cool if you can pay to play, buy leaves most people on the outside looking in. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, $100 in gas fees to buy a NFT on OpenSea are not negligible.
We have the challenge and responsibility to build a Metaverse that is great for all people – not only for Meta (née Facebook), the crypto projects funded by A16Z, or the people with the bankroll to trade NFTs full-time.
This is the opportunity. And if we don’t get it right?
We may see a decline of the internet that mirrors the decline of America writ large – a place where justice, property rights, and morality are determined by wealth and power, rather than by shared fundamental principles. The Disney World-ification of the web, where the internet becomes “an online theme park where everything costs a ticket.”
October 17, 2021
I’ve tried to learn a new language half a dozen times. I start a daily practice in Duolingo, buy a textbook online, listen to podcasts, and watch TV only in my target language. A few weeks later, I haven’t kept up with my routine and have learned next to nothing. What gives?
Conversely, the one time that I became fluent in a foreign language was when I studied abroad for a semester in Argentina. For the first few weeks, I was constantly frustrated. I was speaking only in Spanish in both my classes and in my homestay, so I wasn’t able to express the complexity of my thoughts. I felt like my brain was melting – each day I was exhausted from the cognitive load. But about a month in, something clicked. While I was still nowhere near the level of a native speaker, I found that I could communicate at a high level and succeed in college classes taught in Spanish.
Tango in Buenos Aires
True learning took immersion – throwing myself into the deep end of the pool and finding out if I would sink or swim.
Moderation is Overrated
This concept extends beyond language learning to many – perhaps all – areas of life. Paradoxically, when trying to establish a new habit, I’ve found that success comes when I am extreme, as opposed to moderate. Why might this be?
Firstly, it decreases cognitive load. It’s hard to “cut back on drinking”. What does that mean? Is another beer tonight acceptable if you don’t have any drinks tomorrow? You end up having to think hard about each and every situation.
It’s much easier to just have a rule: “I don’t drink.” Why aren’t you drinking tonight? “I don’t drink.” Is another beer acceptable? “No, I don’t drink.”
By establishing a rule up front, you remove all of the gray areas and challenges that you’re likely to encounter as you try to build a new habit.
Or say that you’re trying to exercise more. Just signing up for the gym and trying to fit it into your schedule isn’t going to cut it. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you’ll need to remove something from your life to make time to train. You need to schedule your workouts: mark them on the calendar and commit to being a person that always goes to LA Fitness at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then, you’re on autopilot; you don’t need to think about training.
Secondly, with extremism comes stakes. Being extreme necessarily means taking a public stance that you’ll do something and creates a real cost to not succeeding. If you’re building your startup on nights and weekends, you’re not going to have much time to spend with your friends. You’ll be far more motivated knowing all of the fun that you’re missing out on. Contrast this with the wantrepreneur who goes out with their friends and talks about starting a business, but never “has the time” to actually put in the work.
In the previous example regarding exercise, you might have a friend meet you at the gym to train with you. This external accountability creates the higher stakes necessary for success. It’s harder to let down a friend than it is to cheat yourself.
Thirdly, the high level of intensity creates an activation energy that leads to habit formation. Activation energy is the minimum amount of energy required to start a chemical reaction. Interestingly, a lesser amount of energy is required to maintain the reaction. This concept extends to habit formation in our daily lives: it’s hard to get going, but things become much easier once in maintenance mode.
Putting It Together
I recently signed up to participate in a marathon. This presented a small problem, since I haven’t run more than two miles since I was in high school. As previously mentioned, I have the ideal physique for lucha libre.
So I hired a coach to give me a training regimen. This decreases the cognitive load – all I have to do is show up and complete the workouts. There are also stakes present. I need to log my sleep, diet, and training for my coach. Knowing that another person’s eyes will be on these numbers causes me to make better decisions when it comes to my health. And because I signed up for the marathon in a group, I know that I’ll be letting other people down if I’m not able to compete.
Ultimately, all of this gives me the activation energy required to establish a positive habit. I’m spiraling upwards – because I’m paying for coaching, I want to make the most of my money and train hard. To train hard, I need to be fresh for workouts. To be fresh for workouts, I need to clean up my diet and sleep hygiene.
One final consideration – outlier results come from outlier behavior. It is impossible to do it all; being extreme is part of the cost of greatness.
Building a successful company requires a rare intensity and work ethic. At TRM Labs, our cofounders are maniacally focused on building a best-in-class product and company. I saw the same thing when I was working at DoorDash – the CEO set a culture of working long hours, obsessing over the small details necessary to build the best customer experience, and holding employees to an incredibly high standard.
Similarly, pushing the bounds of athletic performance necessitates outlier behavior. One of my best friends is training with the USA National Bobsled Team. He’s perhaps the most naturally athletic person I’ve ever met. He also has a degree in Computer Science and could be working for a FAANG company. But in order to pursue the Olympic dream, he put his career on hold. He is away from his fiancée for most of the year, living in a dorm room in Lake Placid and training.
The societal default is mediocrity. To break away from mediocrity, you have to be extreme – to do what others refuse to do. If you’re not willing to be extreme in the pursuit of excellence, that’s completely fine. Often the sacrifices aren’t worth it. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you can have a two sigma outcome without two sigma behavior.
October 6, 2021
A year ago, I was ready for a change at work. A re-organization at my old company meant that I was spending about 6 hours per day in meetings, which drained me. In the wake of COVID, it was high time to heed my own advice:
Now is a great time to get a new job. With the labor market now untethered from your geographic locale, you can enjoy your current lifestyle while locking in the salary of a much higher cost-of-living city. The key is to do this soon – before companies start adjusting salaries for the cost of living where a given employee is located.
I drew up a list of what I’d like to accomplish in my next role:
- Have a large impact; solve important, complicated problems.
- Grow my technical skill set; spend time on heads-down execution, rather than in meetings and on process updates.
- Learn from incredibly smart coworkers. Specifically, learn how to scale a company from the seed stage (~$0 ARR) to $10M+ ARR and beyond, with the end goal of launching my own company 2-5 years down the line.
Let’s Talk Tactics
If I were to look for a job in the blockchain space today, I’d learn Solidity, launch a few dApps of my own, and join crypto project Discord servers as a way to dip my toes into the industry.
But last year I didn’t limit my job search to the crypto space. At the time, I didn’t even realize I could work in the crypto space! So here are a few tactics I used to find companies and jobs in the tech industry more broadly:
Ignore public job postings. Well, don’t actually ignore them. But they should be viewed as an indication that the company is hiring, rather than a comprehensive list of the roles it actually needs. Many early-stage companies find smart people and then write a job description for them, rather than publicly posting a job description for every open role. Similarly, you should view job requirements (particularly regarding work experience) as a mere suggestion. With 5 years of work experience, I could regularly get interviews for roles that “required” 7+ years.
Warm intros. I reached out to folks in my personal network for personal introductions to companies. Your university’s fellow alumni as well as first- and second-degree connections on LinkedIn are often happy to help.
Cold emails to founders. When the company is Series A or smaller (< ~25 people), the founders can be surprisingly responsive. To send a good cold email, you should:
- Find the right person. This is a decision-maker (i.e., someone who can actually hire you) in your area. At a company of this size, this will likely be the CTO for engineers and the CEO for everyone else.
- Keep it short. The person you’re emailing is busy. They don’t need your life story; a five-sentence email will suffice.
- Do your homework. Say something unique that draws you to the company. If you could send this email to several different companies, it’s not differentiated enough.
- Focus on the value that you’ll add. 90% of people who send these emails focus on themselves: their past experience, how much they’d learn at the company, etc. You want to highlight why the company needs you. In what ways are you uniquely qualified to help the company?
Early-stage startup boards. I found companies that were hiring on AngelList. Many startups don’t actively check their AngelList profiles, so it’s best to reach out directly once you find companies you’re interested in. Similarly, Work at a Startup, Y Combinator’s job board, is a great resource.
Through Work at a Startup, I ran across TRM Labs. On a whim, I shot off a note saying I’d be interested in a Data Science role. Here’s the exact message that I sent TRM to get an interview:
Hey TRM Labs team! Reaching out because I’ve spent the past couple of years immersed in healthcare data – I’m drawn to working on a smaller team and getting closer to my academic roots in finance. Would love to chat!
Enter TRM Labs
Let’s take a step back. What is TRM Labs?
We are a blockchain intelligence company. We analyze blockchain data to help financial institutions and government entities detect financial crime and fight fraud in cryptocurrency transactions.
Our mission is to build a safer financial system for billions of people. We believe that:
- Crypto is poised for explosive growth.
- Risk management infrastructure is essential for that growth to occur.
I had played around with crypto on and off since 2013, but never thought that I could make it my career. So I was happy to hear that TRM attracts a motley crew:
- Brilliant data scientists and engineers – with or without a crypto background. We work with huge, complex datasets, and our data is the lifeblood of our product.
- Former law enforcement agents who specialize in investigating financial crimes.
- Folks in the financial compliance space.
- Cryptocurrency enthusiasts who have been in working on decentralized projects for years.
- Anyone who is humble, smart, and driven, who wants to solve big problems and build the future of finance.
But when I reached out, I didn’t know any of this. At the time, all that I knew was that TRM was a small startup with some good investors (YC, PayPal, Initialized Capital, etc.) operating in the crypto space.
My process started with a standard 30 minute phone screen with our CEO, Esteban. He gave me an overview of TRM, dug into my background, and asked what types of problems I’d like to solve in my next role.
From there, he sent me an “AoR” (Areas of Responsibility) document. This was a list of all of the potential workflows that were open areas of need at TRM. I indicated my level of ability and interest for each workflow, then got on a follow-up call with Esteban to discuss. I respected how thoughtful Esteban was about building not only a great product, but a great company, as well as his emphasis on finding a good role for me, given my skills and interests.
We mutually agreed that TRM would be a potential fit, so I was given a take-home challenge involving SQL, writing, and project planning/project management. This was extremely open-ended. I then had a 3-hour virtual onsite to discuss the results of my take-home challenge, as well as some additional technical and cultural interviews.
It was tough to get a read on my performance during the virtual onsite. I think that this is a function of not being in the same room as others and being able to read non-verbal cues. Frankly, I thought that I had bombed the Python portion of the interview. I don’t have a degree in CS – I’m self-taught technically and don’t code well under pressure.
Being on the other side of interviews now, I realize that at TRM we intentionally hire for strengths, as opposed to lack of weaknesses. So the other facets of the interview may have made up for my relative weak performance on the Python portion. (E.g., I was able to send across some writing samples from this very blog.)
My final-round interview was on a Friday. Esteban called me and gave a verbal offer first thing on Monday morning. I was impressed by the quick turnaround; as a candidate, this made me a lot more excited about the company and the role. I also appreciated that they offered an Amazon gift card as a token of appreciation for completing the take-home challenge. These take-home challenges can be a substantial time investment for candidates, so the fact that TRM recognized this exemplified that this is a company that cares about its people.
After getting an offer from TRM, I had some follow-up questions to ensure that the company and role would be a good fit for me. I knew that joining as one of the first 15 employees of a seed-stage, remote startup meant that culture would be extremely important.
Esteban lined up some follow-up casual one-on-one meetings with various team members for me so that I could get a sense of what working at TRM would look like. He also got on the phone with me for about an hour to discuss all of the questions that I had.
Beyond that, two things in particular pushed me over the edge:
- The cocktail party test. If you were at a cocktail party, how excited would you be to discuss your current job? In my former role, if I was looking to get out of a conversation, I’d say that I was working for an “insurance company”, and if I wanted to continue the conversation, I’d say that I worked at a “healthcare startup”. With a job at TRM, I could tell people that I worked in crypto at a blockchain analytics company. That’s something that I’d be excited to talk about!
Backchannel references. I reached out on LinkedIn to a few former employees of TRM, to chat about their experience at the company and why they left. I thought this would give me a more honest assessment of the company, compared to the point of view of current employees who were actively trying to recruit me. One of the people I reached out to was effusive in his praise of TRM. I’ll quote him directly:
WOW this is an excellent strategy that I’m going to do for all my next jobs (reaching out to former employees). So, in short, TRM is a one in a million startup. The biggest names in crypto and fintech as clients, an incredible CEO, and a world class technical team. The primary reason I left was because I got an opportunity to more or less found a startup with a really good friend of mine that I’ve known for years. Even on my way out, everyone in the company wished me well and even got me a going away gift.
At that point, my decision was made. I negotiated my offer with Esteban and signed on to start working at TRM two weeks later.
One Year Later
Almost a year into my time at TRM, I can say that this was a great decision for me.
The crypto space is extremely exciting right now, and TRM is capitalizing on the trend of institutional adoption of crypto. We ship new product features extremely quickly and are growing our customer base.
I joined DoorDash as employee ~200 in 2016. The explosive growth that we’re experiencing at TRM is reminiscent of my time at DoorDash. Over the past year, we’ve gone from a dozen to over 40 employees. By this time next year, we’ll have over 100. Each new hire raises the bar for us as a company. In general, I rarely walk away from a conversation thinking “Wow, that person is really smart.” That happens to me regularly at TRM. I know that I need to bring my A-game every day at work.
We have employees all over the world and have embraced the remote work model. Long-term, we’ll likely have some offices in hub cities, with the opportunity to work from the office or remotely, depending on employee preference. We’ll also conduct off-sites a few times per year to get together in person and collaborate.
Because of this remote culture, we place a large emphasis on written communication. We document our thoughts and processes, and challenge each others’ thinking asynchronously, meaning I spend on average just 5 hours per week in meetings.
This remote environment has also given me a great deal of flexibility, given TRM is an early-stage startup. I largely set my own calendar and have been able to do things like go to the gym in the middle of the day. That’s not to say that we don’t work hard – the other side of the coin is that I’ve been on calls at 3 a.m. when we need to push out a new feature or report for our customers.
My day-to-day consists of varied tasks, as you’d expect at a startup. Some examples:
- Analyzing illicit activity in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, then delivering the results of this analysis to regulatory agencies.
- Building internal tools that help scale the work of Blockchain Intelligence Analysts and the Machine Learning team.
- Defining the methodology for calculating the exposure to a given counterparty on UTXO blockchains.
- Standing up or modifying an Airflow pipeline.
- Meeting with clients; implementing custom reports for them based on datasets and on-chain data.
- Extracting insights from our data to inform our product strategy.
- Jumping into a sales meeting to highlight TRM’s analytic capabilities.
- Designing a Data Science interview process to grow our team.
- Writing this blog post.
I’ve encountered a ton of autonomy at TRM. There is more than enough work to go around, so it is up to you to prioritize your work to make the maximum impact. We are a flat organization that places a lot of emphasis on being a “humble master of your craft”. We ship surprisingly quickly, communicate openly, and take full ownership of outcomes – whether a presentation to a regulatory agency or a last-minute client request.
I started this post by saying that one of my goals was to find a role where I could learn how to scale a company, before starting my own. I think I’ve found a great place to do that. I’m optimistic that TRM will be the last job that I ever have – but there’s a lot of work to do here first.
Interested in solving hard problems with us to make the financial system safer? Join us!
September 22, 2021
If cars were invented today, they would be illegal.
We give 16-year-olds minimal training, then entrust them with the control of a 3,000 lb. weapon for the rest of their lives. You can be an awful driver, but even if you get into an accident, your license will rarely be taken away.
Over 100 people per day die in car crashes in the U.S. This is the leading cause of death for people aged 1-54. Each year, an additional 4.4 million people are injured badly enough to need medical attention, costing over $380 million in direct medical costs.
You are 750 times likelier to die in a car accident than on a commercial airline flight. Similarly, buses and trains are far safer than driving a car.
If cars had not been invented, and we had designed 20th century cities around people, rather than the automobile, we’d have a robust public transportation network that would all but eliminate the need for cars, at least in cities and suburbs (see Japan). Even today, an auto-piloted Tesla is 9x safer than a human driver in a normal car. We should arguably drive cars the same way that pilots fly airplanes – with a bit of manual intervention when necessary, but otherwise letting a computer do the work.
So why do we still allow driving?
Defaults Define Us
Status quo bias is one of the most pernicious insensibilities that permeates our collective consciousness. In short, we have an emotional preference for the current state of affairs.
It is nearly impossible to contest the societal inertia around what already exists. But if you examine some of our cultural practices from first principles, they begin to appear more and more nonsensical. Some pertinent examples:
Alcohol. Drinking is quite literally poisoning yourself. It is completely socially acceptable to have a few drinks after work, but this widespread usage leads to widespread abuse. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs out there: it has high potential for addiction and long-term adverse health effects.
Circumcision. We (rightfully) view female circumcision as barbaric. Even our language surrounding the practice – female genital mutilation – suggests this. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to males?
Libraries. The government buys books, then lends them out for free to the public. If you proposed this idea today you’d be laughed out of the room and then sued to death by publishing companies.
Football. Football is a brutal sport. I made my best friends playing football, gained confidence, learned countless life lessons…but I still wouldn’t let my future children play the game because of the risk of brain injury. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a former teammate where we wondered if there have been long-term negative cognitive effects. And I stopped playing at 19 – I can’t imagine the cumulative effects of years playing in the NFL. How many suicides from former football players are we willing to tolerate?
Cheerleading. We sexualize pubescent girls by having them dance on the sidelines of high school sports games. In the most charitable interpretation, this is a bit…odd. See also: beauty pageants.
Cigarettes. This is an interesting example, because the Overton window has shifted – we were able to overcome the societal inertia, and smoking is now a marginalized activity. This proves that overcoming status quo bias is difficult, but possible.
Organized religion. Most people practice the religion they were born into: religious conversion rates are low, suggesting that the social switching costs from the religion of one’s birth are high. Many religious practices, while culturally significant, are not exactly logical.
Factory farming. The amount of suffering that we impose on sentient beings will make us seem barbaric in 200 years. I don’t have a strong rational defense of eating meat, much less factory farming.
The U.S. Constitution. Our Constitution and the Founding Fathers are revered with religious zeal. The United States has the oldest continually operative written constitution in the world. But shouldn’t it have been updated more often in the past 234 years? We wouldn’t want our doctors using the oldest extant medical textbook, or our aerospace engineers using the oldest viable technology to build rockets.
Kant Betray Us
In confronting status quo bias, utilitarianism thrives compared to deontology. Utilitarianism claims that creating more happiness is just as good as preventing suffering.
Consider the trolley problem. A runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks. Tied to the tracks in front of it are five people. If the trolley continues, it will undoubtedly run them over and kill them.
But wait! You’re standing next to a lever. If you pull the lever, you can divert the trolley to a different track, where only one person is tied to the tracks. What do you do?
If you do nothing, five people die. But if you pull the lever, one person dies. Utilitarians would pull the lever – the suffering of one person is less than the suffering of five. But deontologists would not, because they have an ethical duty to not kill people.
But not making a choice is itself a choice! Choosing inaction by default, rather than reason – tacitly endorsing the current state of affairs – demonstrates an incoherently fatalistic worldview.
Societally, we are faced with the trolley problem every day. And because we don’t make the difficult ethical decision to pull the lever, we default to the status quo and do nothing. Ex post facto, we all pat ourselves on the back for being good deontologists, while through our inaction we increase the amount of suffering in the world.
But what about Chesterton’s Fence? There must be some benefit for doing things the way that we do them.
I’m not so sure. Societal forces build up incrementally over time, as individual actors respond to the incentives present in their current circumstances. See Moloch.
Or, as Scott Alexander recently put it in a post regarding the effects of missing school in the wake of COVID:
Eliezer Yudkowsky tells a parable about a society where people hit themselves on the head with a baseball bat eight hours a day for some reason. Maybe they believe it drives out demons or something. Then they learn that it does not, in fact, drive out demons. But everyone has great reasons why they need to keep doing it.
“It’s a great way to increase your pain tolerance so that the little things in life don’t bother you as much.”
“It builds character!”
“Every hour you’re hitting yourself on the head with a bat is an hour you’re not out on the street, doing drugs and committing crime.”
“It increases the demand for bats, which stimulates the lumber industry, which means we’ll have surplus lumber available in case of a disaster.”
“It improves strength and hand-eye coordination.”
“It may not literally drive out demons, but it’s a powerful social reminder of our shared commitment for demons to be driven out.”
“It’s one of the few things that everyone, rich or poor, black or white, man or woman, all do together, which means it crosses boundaries and builds a shared identity.”
“It binds us to our forefathers, who hit their own heads with bats eight hours a day.”
“If we stopped forcing everyone to do it, better-informed rich people would probably be the first to abandon the practice. And then they would have fewer concussions than poor people, which would promote inequality.”
“It creates jobs for bat-makers, bat-sellers, and the overseers who watch us to make sure we bang for a full eight hours.”
“Sometimes people collapse of exhaustion after only six hours, and that’s the first sign that they have a serious disease, and then they’re able to get diagnosed and treated. If we didn’t make them bang bats into their heads for eight hours, it would take much longer to catch their condition.”
None of these are false per se. Banging a bat against your head for eight hours a day does have lots of advantages. They’re just not advantages that would cause us to want to take up the practice if we weren’t already used to it.
With any of the examples above, I can build arguments that rationalize the behavior. Alcohol leads to social mingling that we wouldn’t have otherwise, football teaches teamwork, we need to circumcise our sons so that they aren’t embarrassed in the locker room. But that doesn’t mean that these we should engage in these activities. We should constantly be re-examining our assumptions from first principles.
For example, we are far too risk-averse when it comes to testing medicines. The Moderna COVID vaccine was ready in February 2020. It took another 10 months for it to get FDA emergency use authorization. This is just the most conspicuous example of a problem endemic in life sciences.
Extend this to any technological improvement that can prevent human suffering. Nick Bostrom tells The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant:
There was once a dragon that terrorized the planet. It was so powerful that humans could not hope to defeat it. So humanity reached a state of dreadful detente – they would send 10,000 human beings to be eaten by the dragon each day. This went on for as long as anyone could remember, so that a mythology arose around it:
Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.
Over time, the dragon’s appetite grew and grew. Entire industries and professions sprung up around the dragon: dragonologists to study it, operations experts focused on feeding it most efficiently, finance professionals to set the dragon-administration budget. The dragon became an accepted fact of life; bureaucrats focused on managing the existence of it, rather than slaying it.
A group of scientists who studied the dragon argued that he could be defeated. It would take time, money, and a lot of hard work, but it could be done. At first, the people wrote them off as crazies. Everyone knew that the dragon was simply a fact of life to be accepted. In fact, it was being eaten by the dragon that gave life meaning – to be human meant living a finite life to the fullest, before ending up in the belly of the beast.
In the end, despite this philosophical reprehension, the dragon was defeated. But not before he caused immeasurable suffering.
This parable is used as an argument for allocating resources to life-extending technologies. But beyond that, we continue to feed large and small dragons each day: all of the suffering that we allow simply because that’s the way things are.
Each day that we don’t act, we continue to feed these dragons. Time is of the essence.