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Wild problems: marriage, kids and unchosen obligations
Plus: starvation is ESG, simulating light, gym economics, twinhood, geniuses
In this post:
Wild problems: marriage, kids and unchosen obligations
Starvation is ESG
Simulating every particle of light
F45’s virtuous cycle makes a tough sector worse
Twinhood (or Girardian-Competition-that-Burns-with-the-Fury-of-a-Thousand-Suns)
Geniuses: von Neumann, Ulam, Feynman and Simons
1. Wild problems: marriage, kids and unchosen obligations
Russ Roberts writes about making decisions in the face of “wild problems”. Difficult problems where maybe weighing costs and benefits doesn’t work.
To illustrate, he chooses a wonderful list of pros and cons written by Darwin weighing up marriage.
Children — (if it please God) — constant companion (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one — object to be beloved & played with — better than a dog anyhow — home & someone to take care of house — charms of music & female chitchat — these things good for one’s health — forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time.
No children (no second life), no one to care for one in old age. — What is the use of working without sympathy from near & dear friends — who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives
Freedom to go where one liked — choice of society & little of it — conversation of clever men at clubs — not forced to visit relatives & to bend in every trifle — to have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — loss of time — cannot read in the evenings — fatness & idleness — anxiety & responsibility — less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one’s bread — (but then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)
Perhaps my wife won’t like London, then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool”
If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have laughed at this list: what an odd, dour man! Today it’s still funny, but I’m taken aback at something else: its prescience. I’m not being bearish on marriage. But the dirty little secret is that this list, rather than blinded by the worldview of a single man, is remarkably clear eyed. Such banalities and challenges tend to be hidden from the pre-married. Marriage is defined by the compromises and constraints of shared life and the tribulations of building a family. For being perhaps the single most important decision a person makes in their life, the heady milieu of factors considered ahead of marriage are very different to its realities (more on this later).
Russ castigates Darwin’s dour prophesy. It excludes, he says, the benefits of marriage one can only know once through the looking glass.
But then we find Darwin ends his equivocal note with: stuff it! Marriage it is:
“My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working & nothing after all. — No, no won’t do. — Imagine living all one’s day solitarily in smoky dirty London house. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire & books & music perhaps. — Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro’ St.
Marry — Mary — Marry Q.E.D.”
It seem to me Darwin hasn’t erred at all. His calculations are precisely as confused and impulsive as you’d expect. Isn’t this the exact pre-eminence of irrationality that Russ urges on us? Darwin emotionally defers to some greater good: what’s the point of all the work without a family?
Russ falls into the same trap he criticises. According to him, Darwin just hasn’t weighed the decision correctly. Darwin doesn’t understand the ineffable joys of life companionship! Or daily joys of parenthood. Just add the sweet sweet “taste of immortality” that kids bring to the scales, and maybe he’d understand…
But of course, the scales are beside the point.
Darwin tried weighing the costs and benefits, and it looked dire. But in the same meditation, he lunged into the unknown regardless. He felt the atavistic pull to bear children (he had 10). The strange, incomprehensible compulsion for a man and woman to commit themselves to one another for life.
A better framing of the issue, in my view, is by Yoram Hazony in (of all places!) his excellent book The Virtue of Nationalism1. Parenthood and marriage are essentially unchosen obligations. This is a long extract - but it’s worth the read. When I read it for the first time it knocked me off my chair.
“the responsibilities undertaken in bringing children into the world are permanent, remaining in force for the rest of our lives whether we consent to them or not. True, a husband and wife did usually agree, at one point, to bring a child into the world. But not long after this original act of consent, the difficulties involved in raising a child already bear little resemblance to anything the young lovers may have thought they were consenting to at the time. And the project of raising children only continues to throw up ever new surprises over the decades, including hardship and pain that were scarcely imagined when they first entered into it. Yet this original decision cannot be revisited, giving the parents a chance to renew their consent based on an updated assessment that weighs the benefits each child brings against the suffering endured. Just the opposite: The parents’ consent or lack thereof is irrelevant to their continuing responsibilities, and it is nothing like consent that motivates them as they persist in their efforts to raise their children to health and inheritance. What motivates them is their loyalty, which is the fact that the parents understand the child as a part of themselves—a part of themselves not only for twenty years, as certain philosophers suppose, but for the rest of their lives, forever.
Something similar can be said of the relationship between a husband and wife. It is true that they did consent to be married at a given moment. But the things they experience in their life together, including not only pleasure and joy, but also sorrow and hardship that neither ever dreamed of, are not the things that were imagined when they first wed. Nevertheless, they remain together, not because of a calculation undertaken every few months or years in which their original consent is renewed. Rather, they are sustained by mutual loyalty, which is the recognition of each that the other is a part of themselves—a part of themselves not only until their children reach adulthood, which is, after all, only the first part of the burden of a parent, but for the rest of their lives, forever.”
This is a brutal description of marriage and parenthood. It’s about as romantic as ritual slaughter: brutal yet sacred, ubiquitous yet inexplicable.
I’m delighted to read of what I take as a happy married life for Russ. For me, I look at my in-laws as the Platonic ideal for marriage to aspire to: after over 30 years of marriage they want nothing more than to spend time with one another, and remain deeply affection in public and private. But there is no doubt there is a wide range of outcomes for married couples.
There’s a great line (I forget from whom): “Marriage is for when love isn’t enough.”2
Why would you need these ancient, religious, cultural superstructures around this relationship in particular if it were easy? Why would you need these multi-pronged enforcement mechanisms and self-justifications if it were a breeze?
All three of these statement can be true at the same time:
Monogomous marriage is a social technology to distribute mates evenly and to harness men’s energies towards child rearing and pro-social needs
Marriage is a sacred and fulfilling mode of life for men
It’s impossible to know how much of #2 is cope, something we tell ourselves and each other to maintain the institution of marriage and social cohesion, as well as to justify its real costs and trade-offs
Marriage takes work: not just for the married couple but for society. How many thousands of years did it take for men to move from spreading their seed through maurading warrior bands > polygomous alpha-male wife collecting > monogomous marriage > monogomous non-cousin marriage?
Not a straight line, not without stops and starts, and far from univerally applicable today, but a remarkable story of the steady ratcheting of chains around male impulses to harness them towards productive means. It’s one reason our current experiment of declining marriages and family formations is uncomfortable: it’s a reversion to less stable times.
2. Starvation is ESG
From Michael Shellenberger:
“Sri Lanka has a near-perfect ESG score of 98—higher than Sweden (96) and the United States (51). What does having such a high ESG score mean? In short, it meant that Sri Lanka’s two million farmers were forced to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, laying waste to its critical agricultural sector.”
This now follows a long line of dystopian or absurd ESG outcomes (this is a personal favourite, but I’m biased).
The misanthropy to much environmental was obvious from the start (population control!), and was in fact foretold in, of all places, Chinese science fiction. An underrated aspect of The Three Body Problem is the villains are environmentalists who seek the alien destruction of mankind.
I don’t know if ESG is a giant world conspiracy to destroy mankind for the benefit of an alien civilisation, but between undermining US (fracking) and German (nuclear) energy, giving cover to underperforming corporates and fund managers, or starving Sri Lankans let me ask: what else would it look like?
3. Simulating every light particle
This throw away comment from Matthew Ball on the Invest Like The Best podcast blew me away:
“Nvidia's new headquarter was designed with a dynamic understanding of exactly how every light particle at every day of the year with density in every individual room would be affected. So you design for a more environmental while also a more enjoyable building based on the fact that the entire thing can be simulated in real time.”
4. F45’s virtuous cycle makes a tough sector worse
Byrne Hobart has a great recent piece on gym economics.
He doesn’t mention Aussie-born NYSE-listed CrossFit rival F45 (NYSE: FXLV). Think: circuit training in an awkwardly located room (read: low rent) with few fixed machines (read: low capex).
Churn across the gym sector is 4 - 8% per month(!). Price is ~A$10 - 20 per week.
F45 is beautiful in part because it’s expensive: A$65 per week. Because it’s expensive people tend to go more to make it worth it. Because they go more they churn less (<4%). And it’s low rent (small footprint, doesn’t need retail front) and tiny capex - just weights, no machines.
Just a beautiful cycle that captures the high value, low churn customers (that Byrne notes are implicitly subsidised by the high churn customers across the sector), on a smaller cost base.
This of course makes it harder for everyone else, sharpening the adverse selection problem across the sector by selecting out the high value, committed population of fitness junkies.
That said, it’s unclear to me what actual enduring advantage it has over look-a-likes - these things tend to be fadish, and there is nothing stopping its low-cost model from being replicated. It might be popular now, but not clear to me why it should endure over say 10 years. The sector should asymptote towards perfect competition. But then again, cereal makers:
“why are cereals so profitable—despite the fact that it looks to me like they’re competing like crazy with promotions, coupons and everything else? I don’t fully understand it. Obviously, there’s a brand identity factor in cereals that doesn’t exist in airlines. That must be the main factor that accounts for it.”
I guess brand is also why there is one single globally dominant chocolate spread, in a category you’d expect to be completely commoditised (do I need to name Nutella?). Is there a brand equivalent in gyms? There is in fitness: Nike (and others).
Oh and Byrne also notes the rise of endurance sports as status signals. In unrelated news, I was delighted to complete my first triathlon in March, coming in at 2 hrs 40min.
A personal reflection that begins with charming insights into twinhood and morphs into Twinhood-as-Girardian-Competition-that-Burns-with-the-Fury-of-a-Thousand-Suns and the narcissistic pathologies of the female condition. If this article were a person I wouldn’t know where to look.
“The bulimics coveted the willpower of the anorexics; the anorexics wished they could let loose like us.”
This sentence was truly frightening:
“A therapist would say I was looking to re-create the closeness of the twin bond and was doomed to disappointment, and yes, I behaved with A as though we shared one body. I found separating from him even for just a matter of hours physically painful.”
Good piece. I think the derangement was the point but it’s hard to tell.
6. Geniuses: von Neumann, Ulam, Feynman and Simons
Scott Alexander has a review up of The Man From The Future about maybe the smartest guy you ever lived, John von Neumann. It has a couple quotes up that wonderfully summarise two geniuses. I’ve added two more.
John von Neumann:
“By age 6, he could multiply eight-digit numbers in his head. At the same age, he spoke conversational ancient Greek; later, he would add Latin, French, German, English, and Yiddish (sometimes joked about also speaking Spanish, but he would just put "el" before English words and add -o to the end) . Rumor had it he memorized everything he ever read. A fellow mathematician once tried to test this by asking him to recite Tale Of Two Cities , and reported that “he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes”.
“Von Neumann’s friend, fellow European Jewish emigre, and fellow Manhattan Project physicist Stanislaw Ulam contracted a case of viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. His doctors told him that he should “rest his brain”, ie avoid thinking too hard. A desperate Ulam tried to distract himself by playing solitaire, but couldn’t help wondering about the probabilities of winning. Failing to solve the problem with any statistical trick then known, he was unable to prevent himself from developing what is now called the Monte Carlo method, which proved instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb and much of modern statistics.”
Richard Feynman, on figuring out trigonometry himself, from his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!:
“So I began to work out all the relations by drawing triangles, and each one I proved by myself. I also calculated the sine, cosine, and tangent of every five degrees, starting with the sine of five degrees as given, by addition and half-angle formulas that I had worked out. A few years later, when we studied trigonometry in school, I still had my notes and I saw that my demonstrations were often different from those in the book. Sometimes, for a thing where I didn't notice a simple way to do it, I went all over the place till I got it. Other times, my way was most clever--the standard demonstration in the book was much more complicated! So sometimes I had 'em heat, and sometimes it was the other way around.”
One of the funnest parts of the Feynman book is him figuring out how to navigate pretty girls, who he was pretty into. Not something Serious People write about these days.
Jim Simons and genius investor fundraising, from The Man Who Solved The Market
“Before they knew it, Simons was lighting up. Soon, fumes were choking the room. The Robert Wood Johnson representatives—still dedicated to building a culture of health—were stunned. Simons didn’t seem to notice or care. After some awkward chitchat, he looked to put out his cigarette, now down to a burning butt, but he couldn’t locate an ashtray…. Simons was in Renaissance’s swankiest conference room, though, and he couldn’t find an appropriate receptacle.
Finally, Simons spotted the frosted cake. He stood up, reached across the table, and buried his cigarette deep in the icing. As the cake sizzled, Simons walked out, the mouths of his guests agape. The Renaissance salesmen were crestfallen, convinced their lucrative sale had been squandered. The foundation’s executives recovered their poise quickly, however, eagerly signing a big check. It was going to take more than choking on cigarette smoke and a ruined vanilla cake to keep them from the new fund.”
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I will try at some point do a full review of The Virtue of Nationalism. With some criticism, it is a wonderful unified thesis on the personal and political, marrying personal virtue with geopolitics. I wish I read it a decade ago: it would have cured me of my libertarianism.
I like to repurpose this line to make another: Religion is for when God isn’t enough. This is to reflect the value in rituals and the regular acts of religion as worthy in of themselves. But that’s for another post.