An Observation of Vavilov Day

Content note: this post contains discussion of starvation.

I aspire to be a person who does good things, and who is capable of doing hard things in service of that. This is a plan to test that capacity.

I haven’t been in a battle, but if you gave me the choice between dying in battle and slowly starving to death, I would immediately choose battle. Battles are scary but they are short and then they are over.

If you gave me a chance to starve to death to generate some sufficiently good outcome, like saving millions of people from starvation, I think I would do it, and I would be glad to have the opportunity. It would hurt, but only for a few weeks, and in that time I could comfort myself with the warm glow of how good this was for other people.

If you gave me a chance to save millions of people by starving, and then put food in front of me, I don’t think I could do it. I would do okay for a few days, maybe a week, but I worry that eventually hunger would incapacitate the part of my brain that allows me to make moral trade-offs at my own expense, and I would wake up to find I’d eaten half the food. I want to think I’d manage it, but if the thought experiment gods didn’t let me skip the hard part with more proactive measures, I’m not confident I could. 

During the siege of Leningrad, scientists and other staff of the Institute of Plant Study faced the above choice, and to the best of our knowledge, all of them chose hunger. 12 of them died for it, the rest merely got close (English language sources list 9 deaths, which is the number of scientists who died in service of the seed bank but not the total number of people). They couldn’t kill themselves because they were needed to protect the food from rats and starving citizens. Those survival odds are better than the certain death of my hypothetical, but they didn’t have the same certainty of impact either, so I think it balances out.

That’s heroism enough, but a fraction of what’s present in this story. Those scientists worked at an institute founded by Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet botanist who has the misfortune to be right on issues inconvenient to Joseph Stalin. Vavilov’s (correct) insistence that his theories could feed Russians and those of Stalin’s favored scientist couldn’t got him arrested, tortured, and sent to a gulag, where he eventually starved to death. 

The seeds Vavilov and his staff protected now cover 80% of the cropland of Russia. Credit for scientific revolutions is hard to apportion, but as I reckon it Valilov is responsible for, at a minimum, tens of millions people living when they would have starved or never born, and the number could be closer to a billion.

Nikolai Vavilov is my hero.

Nikolai Vavilov | Biography & Facts | Britannica

In honor of Nikolai Vavilov, I’m doing a ~36 hour calorie fast from dinner on 1/25 (the day before Vavilov died in the gulag) to breakfast on 1/27 (the end of the siege of Leningrad). Those of you who know me know this is an extremely big deal for me, I do not handle being hungry well, and 36 hours is a long time. This might be one of the hardest things I could do while still being physically possible. Moreover, I’m not going to allow myself to just lie in bed for this: I’m committing to at least one physical activity that day (default is outdoor elliptical, unless it’s raining), and attempting to work a normal schedule. I expect this to be very hard. But I need to demonstrate to myself that I can do things that are at least this hard, before I’m called on to do so for something that matters. 

If this story strikes a chord with you to the point you also want to observe Valilov + associates’ sacrifice, I’d enjoy hearing how. I have enough interest locally (bay area California) that there’s likely to be a kick-off dinner + reading the night of the 25th. It would also be traditional for a fasting holiday to end in a feast, but 1/27 is a Thursday and other people have normal jobs so not yet clear how that’s going to shake out. 

Thanks to Clara Collier for introducing me to the story of Vavilov and his institute, Anna Tchetchetkine for finding Russian-languages sources for me, and Google translate for being so good I didn’t need Anna to translate any further.

Dear Self; We Need To Talk About Social Media

Last year I discovered, much to my chagrin, that always-on internet socializing was costly for me. This was inconvenient both because I’d spent rather a lot of time singing the praises of social media and instant messaging, and because we were in the middle of a global pandemic that had made online socializing an almost physical necessity. I made the decision at the time to put off changing my social media diet, and that was correct. But now there is in-person socializing again, and I’m changing how I use social media and messaging. I wanted to talk about this process and how great it was for me, but kept being nagged by the thought that the internet was full of essays about how the internet is bad, all of which I ignored or actively fought with, so what was going to make mine so special? 

I decided to use the one thing I had that none of the other writers did: a detailed understanding of my past self. So I wrote a letter to past me, explaining how social media was costlier than she knew (even though she was right about all of the benefits), and how she could test that for herself to make a more informed decision. To help as many Elizabeths as possible, I tried to make the letter cover a wide range in time, although in practice it’s mostly focused on post-smart-phone life.

Dear Past Elizabeth,

I know you have read a lot of things calling social media bad. Your reasons for disagreeing with them are correct: social media has been an incredible gift to you, you have dodged many of the problems they’re describing, and you’re right to value it highly. You’re also right that many of the people bragging about how hard they are to communicate with are anti-socially shifting the burden of communication to other people.

But.

Social media (and always-on instant messaging, which is a different, mostly worse, problem) has some costs you’re not currently tracking. I would like to help you understand those costs, so you can make different choices on the margin that leave you happier while preserving the benefits you get from social media, not all of which you’ve even experienced yet (is it 2015 yet? Approximately every job you get from this point on will have your blog as a partial cause. After 2017 you won’t even have interviews, people will just say “I read your blog”).

To be more specific: you have indeed curated your feed such that Facebook is not making you angry on purpose. You are not ruining relationships getting in public fights. You are not even ruining your mood from seeing dumb stuff very often. Much of what you see is genuinely interesting and genuinely connective, and that’s great. The people you connect with are indeed great, and you are successfully transitioning online connections into offline. I’m not asking you to give that up, just to track the costs associated with the gains, and see what you can do on the margins to get more benefits at less cost. To that end I’m going to give you a model of why internet socializing is costly, and some tools to track those costs.

I’m not sure how far back this letter is going, so I’m going to try to address a wide range of ways you might be right now. Also, if it’s late 2019 or early 2020, you can just put this letter on a shelf for a bit. If it’s mid 2020 and you’re confused by this, congratulations on being in the better timeline.

Currently you’re calculating your costs and benefits by measuring the difference in your mood from the time you receive a notification to the time you act on it. It’s true that that change is on average positive, and sometimes exceedingly so. But it ignores the change from the moment before you received the notification to the moment after. Notifications are pretty disruptive to deep thoughts, and you pay that cost before you even notice. But momentary disruptions aren’t even the whole cost, because the knowledge that interruptions could come at every time will change your mental state. 

It’s as if you had a system that delivered electric shocks to notify you that food was newly available. You are right that you need food to live, and a system that delivers it to you is good. But electric shocks are still unpleasant, and fear of electric shocks will limit the states you will allow your brain to get into. You can’t write off the costs of electric shocks just because food is good, and because most criticisms of the system focus on the food being bad. I know you’re on board with the general principle behind this analogy, because you already believe it for open offices, and that people who find open offices costless are fooling themselves. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you that you are exactly the same, only with messaging instead of shared offices.

The easiest way to see this is to get yourself in a state where you can’t be interrupted, and observe your mood then. There is an incredibly beautiful, relaxing state I call Quiet that you are definitely not experiencing often enough. Once you have reached that state, you can observe how your mood changes as you move into a state where you can be interrupted, and again as you are interrupted. 

Noticing these changes and their signifiance requires a certain minimum level of ability to emotionally introspect. If you don’t have this yet, developing it is your highest priority- not just for concerns around social media, but for your life in general. Building emotional introspection was a very gradual process for me, so it’s hard to give you instructions. In this timeline I had guidance from specific individuals which may not be replicable, but something in the space of somatic experiencing therapy is probably helpful. Waking the Tiger and The Body Keeps the Score are the classically recommended books. They’re pretty focused on trauma, which is not actually the goal here, but oh well. Other people report success doing this with meditation, but it never seemed to work for me. 

Once you have that awareness, you want to practice getting in and out of Quiet so you can notice the changes in your feelings. I’ve included a few activities for producing Quiet, just to gesture at the concept, and a longer list at the end of this letter. 

Unless otherwise stated, a given activity needs to be the only thing you are doing, and you need to have disabled all potential interruptions, including self-inflicted interruptions like Facebook. For tasks that use electronics, this means either putting them in airplane mode or having a dedicated device that doesn’t get notifications. 

  • Put your phone on airplane mode and connect it to a bluetooth keyboard, so you can write without fear of interruption. 
    • Eventually you can buy a thing for this. It’s fine but not amazing. 
  • Learn a physical skill. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is good for absorption, and once you achieve a minimum skill level you can watch tutorials on youtube as long as you turn off every source of interruption.
    • Some of the frustration of drawing can be alleviated by getting an electronic device for drawing. I looked into this, and an iPad just is the best choice. You might want to have one of these ready to go by February 2020.
  • Read a book you’re really into (Kindle or physical). 
    • FYI, you should reread things more often. The hit rate on new books is quite low and some of your favorites are really good
  • If it’s an activity that leaves your hands open and you absolutely need something to do with your hands you can add in jigsaw puzzles, coloring, cardio exercise, or low-end cleaning work. 
    • Exercise in general is pretty good for Quiet, and you can even put on some entertainment, but it needs to be a single work you commit to, not all purpose access to your phone.

After you absorb yourself in one of these for a while (20-90 minutes), you’ll be in a very different state. Calmer, more focused, more serene. The volume on the world will be turned down. You’ll feel more yourself and less mixed with the rest of the world. Also you’ll crave Facebook like a heroin junkie. Give in to that. You just gave a weak muscle an intense workout and it’s appropriate to let it rest. As you do that, pay attention to which parts of you feel what ways. Something will be gained by using Facebook, but also something will be lost, and this is a time to learn those patterns so you can optimize your choices in the future. 

My guess is as time goes on you/I will build the muscle and spend more time in Quiet and less in noise. To be honest I haven’t gotten terribly far in that process, but it seems like the kind of thing that happens and I just can’t imagine the correct amount of online socializing for us is zero.

So far what I’ve talked about is mostly the dangers of apps that give notifications: alerts that draw your attention and thus incur a cost even if you dismiss them. You might be thinking “that doesn’t apply to social media, if I keep it closed by default and l only look when I feel like it.”. First of all, you are wrong. This is because you are not a unified agent: parts of you will want to check FB while other parts are hurt by it, and removing the option to do so will enable the FB-impaired parts to more fully relax (just like it’s easier to relax in an office with a door). But second, even if that weren’t true, social media has some inherent costs even when every individual post is incredibly valuable.

This is hard to describe and I’m mostly hoping you’ll notice it yourself once you pay attention and have something to contrast it with. But to gesture at the problem: every topic switch means booting up a new context, new thoughts, stores of existing information etc. Social media means doing this once every 4 seconds. You’ve avoided a lot of the classic pitfalls by studiously not reacting when Facebook showed you bad opinions, but by teaching it to only show you interesting things you’ve made the intellectual mosh pit aspect worse. At least Facebook gives you breathers in the form of baby photos: Twitter is non stop interesting dense things. 

Oh yeah, you’re gonna get into Twitter in 2020, and it will be the right decision. Yes, I’m very confident about 2020 in particular.

Anyways, I’m pretty sure the ideal amount of high-stimulus jumping between topics is not zero, but I’ve yet to get low enough to find the optimum. If you achieve Quiet and find yourself craving the stimulation of social media, and it feels good during and after, I think you should trust that. But I don’t think you’re capable of an informed decision on the tradeoff until you get more information.

In addition to the activities mentioned, a few tips and tricks that might make this whole process easier for you:

  • As you scale down your current process, you’ll lose the thing that makes you answer email and texts in a timely manner. Make sure to create a new habit of actually answering emails and texts at a chosen time.
  • You’re gonna worry that making yourself unreachable will make you miss messages that are genuinely urgent and important. There is a phone setting to let messages from certain people through, or any phone number that calls 2x in 15 minutes. It’s okay to use that. Your friends are not monsters, they will not abuse the privilege.
  • In general, you should be open to having more electronic devices that only do one thing: I know it seems dumb when your phone or laptop can already do the thing, but it really does change how you relate to the activity.
  • I’ve had off and on success with screen bedtime, in which I can stay up as late as I want, but I can’t look at a screen after a certain time. It provides a natural end to the day while respecting energy levels.
    • Kindles are not screens.
    • At some point you’re gonna start requiring podcasts to fall asleep, but you can preserve the spirit of screen bedtime by putting the phone in airplane mode ahead of time.
      • You’re not wrong that some horror podcasts have very soothing narrators you can fall asleep to. But somehow the only periods where I frequently wake up with nightmares are also the periods where I frequently fell asleep to horror podcasts. It’s not 1:1 causality but I do think it’s worse for us.
    • While we’re at it: the point of things you do after and just before going to bed is to help you fall asleep. Right before sleep is not the all purpose reading hour. Please pay enough attention to notice that reading deeply upsetting recent history books in bed disrupts your sleep.
  • Transitioning from noise to Quiet can be hard. You might think to skip the unpleasant transition phase by pursuing Quiet when you first wake up. I have yet to figure out how to pull this off: I’ll lie there half asleep indefinitely before getting the energy to read a book, audio will put me back to sleep. I have a sneaking suspicion that the disruptive chaotic nature of social media/messaging is also what makes it good for transitioning from half asleep to mostly awake. 
  • You are the only one who likes the Zune and the replacement will not be as conducive to unitasking. Unfortunately the realities of hardware support probably mean you can’t dodge this by stocking up ahead of time. I’m sorry, please enjoy the time you have.
  • Don’t go to Netflix or other streaming sites and look for something to entertain you. Maintain a watchlist on another site, and when you’re in the mood for a movie, figure out what kind of thing you’re in the mood for ahead of time and look for something on your list. This will prevent some serendipity, but the world is going to get much better at making things that look like they are for you but never pay off.
  • You’ll definitely enjoy work more if you turn off sources of interruptions.
  • Does that seem infeasible right now?  Does it seem like it won’t matter because your co-workers can just find you at the physical workplace you go to most days? I have such good news for you. The conconcordance between your brain and your work environment is going to get so much better. There will still be tension between “following a single train of thought to the end” and “following up on the multiple paths that train lays down”. I haven’t solved this one yet. But you have no idea how much less bullshit your work life is going to become.

To recap: I am suggesting the following plan:

  1. Try some of the activities on the Quiet list.
  2. If you don’t notice the difference between them and the intellectual mosh pit that is your day, train the ability to notice subtle mood differences, then go back to 1.
  3. Track the change in feeling between Quiet and a return to social internetting. 
  4. Do what feels good from there.

I hope this helps you become happier and more productive at a faster rate than I did,

  -Elizabeth, 2021

PS. please buy bitcoin

More Quiet activities

  • Feldenkrais (and only feldenkrais. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no tv. Sometimes you like to have close friends in the room while you do this to keep watch for monsters). Your starter resource for this is Guide To Better Movement; after that you can search on Youtube. As a bonus, feldenkrais is also on the list of things that will help you develop your ability to notice your own mood.
  • Video games work but also require a lot of executive function and that’s your ongoing bottleneck resource so I don’t strongly recommend them. Horror remains an unusually good genre for this, and your algorithm of playing the top 10% of puzzle games works pretty well.
    • Avoid anything that you need to tab out of to look stuff up, which will unfortunately hurt Subnautica, a game otherwise made just for you, significantly.
  • Diary writing.
  • Watch a single episode of a TV show without multitasking. 
    • Horror is especially good for this because the damage done by an interruption is so palpable.
    • I know this is hard because even very good movies can be just not stimulating enough. There’s no fix for that right now because your audio processing is so mediocre, but in a few years that’s gonna fix itself for no obvious reason and you’ll be listening to podcasts at 2x like it’s nothing. Once that happens you can use Video Speed Controller to speed things up. Don’t overuse this, you’ll ruin your goal of creating Quiet if you go too fast, but a 10-20% speed up is often unnoticeable.
    • Remember to either be in airplane mode or use a dedicated device that doesn’t have messaging on it.
  • Horror podcasts are also great, especially Magnus Archive if that’s around yet.
    • 20-30 minutes is the ideal length to start experiencing Quiet, which makes podcasts better than movies. Also they have a much better ratio of “time to figuring out if it is good” to “time after you know it’s good”.
    • TV horror anthologies meet the time constraint but just seem much worse on average than podcasts. More things to go wrong I guess.