Antifragility, information and noise

The last post was intended as an aside, but I think that it actually deserves a lot more. If you’ve ever started to delve into something more as your interest increases, you will understand the meaning of the old Venetian saying that the further you sail from the shore, the deeper the sea becomes; the more data you take in, the less you know what is going on. It is very easy to drown in the data which is available on the internet, in the newspapers, in the library. Newspapers and other news media are among the worst offenders: the need to provide information can skew the information actually received, creating mainly noise, rather than the sound you want to be receiving. The need to provide anecdotes and, often, sensationalism, makes for more sales, but also so much information, which when you lose yourself in it, you lose a sense of perspective. (If you’re reading this in the UK, take your average fuming Daily Mail reader; if in South Africa, The Daily Sun will provide you with all the evidence you need of this!)

If you get deeper into primal living, or vegan diets, or HIIT workouts, or barefoot running, or whatever it happens to be, you will soon be overwhelmed by the information which hits you. One school says one thing, backed up by books and papers of evidence, the other says the exact opposite, backed up by an equal amount of literature. It’s exhausting.

But I want to show you that there are different ways of approaching this very daunting place: it lies in antifragility, and this way of thinking can provide you with the framework you need.

The basic tenet is that detecting (anti)fragility is much easier than prediction and understanding the dynamics of events and complex systems. If your goal is to improve your physical well-being, you can research and find every kind of diet ever devised. You can find fitness regimes to keep you busy all day, every day for the rest of your life. It’s all there, a lot of it supported by very convincing arguments. Read a vegan book and you might come out the other side thinking of the evils of meat farming. Read a paleo book and you might come out thinking that the vegans are building themselves up for a big crash. If, however, you consider your body in the light of its antifragile nature, it is not long before you see that if the framework and the structure is right, then things become much easier. It is the quickest way to perceive the sound, and filter out the noise. You can almost consider it like a high-tech receiver device to pick up messages coming from long distances, which other receivers cannot pick up because of the background noise.

To recap, antifragility is a new term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things which are the opposite of fragile, i.e. things which actually benefit from a certain degree of harm. Generally speaking, all complex systems can come under this category, unlike simple systems, like a washing machine or a drier which can be switched on and off. Your cat relaxing on top of the washing machine is however a complex, biological thing, and when it is subjected to certain types of stressors, it can actually benefit.

And your body is exactly the same. The complex biological nature is not something that any self-respecting scientist would claim to fully understand: the interactions of every cell, and the repercussions from one cell, to a group of cells, to an organ and to the rest of the body are often too varied and complex to say that there is anybody who fully understands how things work. The more detailed you get, the less you seem to know. But, if you understand and listen intuitively to the antifragile nature of your body, you can act appropriately.

If, for example, you choose to follow part of “primal” living and fast at random periods, depriving your body from food for about 24 to 36 hours, your body is initially relieved of the need to produce hormone spikes to deal with the influx of foods, but then undergoes periods of stress which start your body’s system firing on overdrive. Ignoring the biological reason for this (because this will provide too much information), try not eating from midday one day to midday the next. It’s difficult, but persevere, and make sure that you make up for the time not eating by feasting to balance the fasting (balance being the operative word!) I find that around about hour 14 I begin to feel a tingling sensation in my head, but from that point onwards, no shot of coffee has given me the same buzz and energy. The paleo crowd will tell you that this is part of our biological hard-wiring, and I’m inclined to agree. If you’ve ever been exposed to wild animals hunting, or have watched a wildlife documentary, you will likely recall David Attenborough’s soothing tones telling you about how, in its hunger-fed desperation, a cheetah/leopard/lion/other predator is at its fiercest, because its body tells it that it either eats or dies. Obviously you’re not going to die if you fast for 24 hours, but the body will react in the same way. Added to this, and also by-passing the biological reasons for now, you might find that you feel a lot fresher, lighter and almost detoxed after a fast. And your first meal after will taste like it’s been salted with angels’ tears and fried in the butter of holy cows.

On a side note, it’s interesting to think that in the West it has only been in the last two generations that the vast majority people have not gone hungry for periods on some kind of basis, and that this overabundance actually leads to a situation where people are mentally forcing themselves to fast!

Perhaps it is worth considering the similarities between fasting with food, and fasting with information. See what happens; you may well find that you have a much better grasp on things than when you’re swimming in the nitty gritty!

The same way of thinking applies to exercise as well. There is increasing evidence (all you need to know to begin your own experiments, really) that short but intense periods of exercise are far more effective in increasing your fitness, building muscle and burning fat than previously thought. Conventional thinking has always explained the narrative that hours of medium- or slow-paced cardio on a bike, treadmill or whatever is the way to burn fat, but that is being revolutionized – and antifragility is at the heart of it. Previous posts already explained the effects of short bursts of non-fatal stress on the body as opposed to chronic, drawn-out, daily stress (recap: the adrenaline from surviving a leopard ambush will actually benefit your body if you have ample recovery, as opposed to the small stress you experience on a daily basis, which never really abates, such as traffic jams, weekly reports etc.) and the same applies to exercise. Moderate exercise builds up stress hormones without proper release, whereas very intensive exercise over a short period makes your body into a lean, muscle-building, fat-burning furnace. And you don’t even need to take in the information to know why this is the case, but rather trust the principles of antifragility which dictate that the complex system which is your body will react well to this intense stress, but not so well to the slow build-up. And I must stress again: give it a go and see if you notice a difference!

So how do you go about approaching things to make them antifragile? The essence is that you have to have more upside to downside, by removing the fragility. We can use what is rather neatly called a barbell strategy, a barbell being what weightlifters use, made up of a central bar and weights on either side. If, for example, you are seeking to invest your hard-earned cash, use the barbell strategy to put 90% of your savings into conservative funds which have a very close to 0 chance of ruining you. But use the remaining 10% to invest aggressively. If you win, you can win big, but your loss is maximized at 10%. If you put your weight in the middle of the barbell, however, with moderate risk and moderate gains, you are far more fragile, that is to say that you are exposed to bigger losses, but smaller gains. As Oscar Wilde intuitively and wittily understood, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

When you understand how this works, you can apply it to so many things, particularly for our purposes: your physical fitness. It is being shown time and time again that short, intensive exercise – with regular weight training – supplemented with plenty of effortless long walks provides you with the barbell. On the other hand, spending hours in moderate exercise is making you physically fragile, vulnerable to injuries and illness. You can apply it to other things as well: it is good to expose children to a little bit of risk, but not a lot, so that they can learn from mistakes and avoid more serious injury. Constant protection, in the middle of the barbell, sets them up for serious harm, whether from germs or something more tangible. If you expose your body to huge amounts of adrenaline and stress from, say, bungee jumping or bridge swinging, followed up by plenty relaxation, you do your body a great service, making it more alert generally. Put yourself in a bubble, however, and you will find yourself stagnate. Moderation will kill you.

So to round things off, when you begin to drown in data, approach whatever the system is with the understanding of antifragility and then, both metaphorically and literally, step up to the barbell.

For an added element to this post, please try describing to me complex situations you find yourself in, and try to apply antifragility to it. Let me know what happens, and if your approach changed in any way!

An Aside: Knowledge and Wisdom

I recently read a quote, the author of which I cannot remember, but it went something like this: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad.” With that in mind, in the last few weeks I have been reading a lot and acquiring a lot of knowledge, but it is only now that a modicum of wisdom has begun to show itself.

Taking off from the previous post, I started getting deeper into the food supply and the effects of different ways of eating on it. The vegans take the high ground on this one (and on everything else), saying that farming animals, particularly cattle, is hugely damaging to the environment, far more so than even, say, air travel. They say, correctly as far as I can tell, that the areas taken up by food for the animals is so inefficient in terms of the water use and the other potential uses of that land (the most common example is the Amazon rainforest being chopped down to make space for delicious Brazilian cattle).

Although they may be correct in this regard (but that depends on who you ask), I also read of so many cases of how a vegan diet can in fact be terrible for your body, depending on your individual body of course. Many people can thrive off of it, but not everybody, the most famous example (because she wrote a book about it) being Lierre Keith, author of “The Vegetarian Myth”. I once met a guy in his early 40’s who told me that his parents, as vegetarians, had brought him up in the same way from a very young age. Up until his 30’s he said he had very low energy levels until somebody suggested that he started to eat meat. When starting to eat meat, like a biblical miracle, his energy levels began to soar, he started to hit the gym, he was even promoted at work. He told me it had something to do with his blood type, suggesting that, again, what works for one, does not work for another. So although veganism might have an environmental point, I do find their militant writings about how nobody should eat meat very frustrating and close-minded. What I would rather see is a different way of supplying such meat, as a way of accepting that no size fits all.

So is it possible to change the system of food supply to cater for widespread consumption based on the “primal” way of living? Can everybody on the planet possibly make 1/3 of their diet comprise of meat, fish and chicken? With a kind of painful inevitability, some say sure, some say definitely not. If everybody wants 100% organic, free-range etc. beef grown as locally as possible, this is going to require a lot of grassland close to big cities, and a huge number of cattle roaming across these seas of green. I am neither a farmer nor a city planner, but this seems unlikely.

This was the stage in my own reading that I reached information overload, and brings me to the point I want to make. You can have a huge amount of information and knowledge at your disposal, which is very useful if you can call on it at will, but everybody with an internet connection also has it at their disposal. And the fact is that the internet is a very loud place, with everybody talking at the same time. One of the reasons I started writing here was that I want to save people the time it has taken me to wade through the very thick waters of information (no, I haven’t had a lot of work recently, thanks for asking). What it boils down to is not the knowledge that you gain, but your approach to the knowledge: this is where the ideas of antifragility really come into their own, especially with what we’re talking about here.

What I have encountered in particular when talking about these things with people is that a lot of people will ask about credentials before they believe what you say: are you a scientist? Are you a doctor? No? So how do you know? Well, first of all a good scientist will always be the first to admit that he doesn’t know. All the knowledge that you can possibly acquire over decades of research and study lead to the same conclusion: there is far too much information, too many ins and outs to possibly comprehend the whole story. Every story I have ever read about a scientific breakthrough always ends with the same words, “but further research is required”. I am not saying to disregard the foundations of our entire scientific knowledge, only that you must always be open-minded, and fully aware that what we know, or think we know, changes very rapidly. It is therefore important for you to have a framework within which all the information that is fired at you can move within and adapt to everything that has come before. This is what I would call wisdom.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with a few rules of thumb when looking at the issues in this blog, that is to say with fitness, diet, lifestyle and, later, what that looks like on a much bigger scale:

  1. There are no set rules
  2. Listen to what your body tells you
  3. Know that nobody knows everything, even doctors and scientists
  4. Be open-minded, flexible and adaptable
  5. Try new things
  6. You are not a machine, so don’t treat your body like one
  7. What works for one, does not necessarily work for another

With that in mind, I strongly recommend that you try new things, and read the other posts here!

Post VII: The Evolution Issue

This post follows on from the last, but is something of an aside delving more into the ideas of living based on evolutionary biology, and as The Dude puts it so succinctly, “new sh*t has come to light”. I want to make you privy to this new sh*t. The key point that I want to put across is the way to look at human evolution and how it affects our health and fitness today. The last post tried to balance out two different schools of thought which claim that humans evolved to either run long distances, or to walk, sprint and lift. Or all of that. The importance of this post is to show that evolution works in such a way that it favours traits which help a species to reproduce. And that there is the bottom line. Every living thing lives to reproduce and the traits which they develop are what at that particular period was the most efficient way of acquiring the energy to reproduce.

With that in mind, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans began to switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based in small, sparse populations, to farming and the enormous changes this brought to culture and civilization as we know it. It is the contention of this blog that human diets since the birth of farming and agriculture are worse than they were when humans lived as hunter-gatherers, but that with the knowledge we now have about evolution, the biological and health effects of the food we eat and the physical effects of particular exercises, we can adapt to essentially have the best of both worlds. We can eat as healthily and be as active as hunter-gatherers, but still enjoy the benefits which farming and subsequently civilization and modernity has brought us. Sounds great right?

Most people are familiar with the story of Genesis in the Bible: the Garden of Eden, inhabited by Adam and Eve. The archetypal humans lived in paradise until committing the original sin by consuming the forbidden fruit, following which man was condemned to “toil the fields” the rest of his days. There is increasing belief that this story is derived from perceptions that standards of living fell dramatically after humans began to farm instead of hunt and gather their food, that humans shifted from a place where they could simply pluck at fruits whenever they pleased to having to toil for every calorie of energy they consume. The hours of work which farmers put in (before mechanization) are certainly more than the hours hunter-gatherers need to get the energy they need on a daily basis. So why did people change?

Geological records show that the receding ice age of the epoch, although ultimately heating the planet, was by no means a smooth transition. Decades of heat were followed by decades of cold, leading to intense fluctuations and rapid changes in ecology. At some point, it must have been beneficial for people in South West Asia (modern day Syria, Lebanon and Turkey) to develop agriculture to provide them with enough energy to reproduce, rather than hunt and gather their food, which was not providing enough energy. The benefits of farming at the time became quickly apparent: a lot of energy could be gathered from the grains planted in the earth, and the surplus energy allowed the Neolithic farmers to reproduce more, which allowed their children to work the fields, and continue to produce more energy to increase the population. The surpluses which the farmers could create freed up labour to work on other things, and civilization began to grow on the basis of farming.

But these advances came at a cost. Although the increase in energy led to increases in population and, initially, increases in height, intense farming led to malnutrition, more incidences of disease and cavities in teeth, with significant reductions in height after a few generations. The very monotonous diet coupled with consumption of the less nutritious grains which the farmers grew was the cause of this malnutrition. Although they consumed more calories than hunter-gatherers, the quality of the food was lower and less diverse. The increased amount of starch led to dental cavities, less diverse vitamins and minerals led to increased disease and less protein consumption led to smaller, weaker people.

In our time we have passed through the agricultural revolution as well as the industrial revolution which have led to huge increases in population and the amount of food required to feed it, as well as the technologies we use to create more, and larger food (compare the size of the strawberries in the supermarket to wild strawberries, or supermarket apples compared to crab apples). The current problem is that the food that is used to feed people on an industrial scale is often made industrially, to the detriment of quality as vitamins and minerals are extracted from the soil over and over again. Grains and starches are easily the cheapest and most efficient way of feeding people, but although they provide energy, they provide little in the way of vitamins and minerals. They fill the belly, but they cannot provide you with the nutrition you need. If most of your energy comes from grains, you are likely malnourished, in spite of what the wholegrain cereal packets say!

So if our eating culture is based on relatively new developments in evolution (10,000 years is a drop in the ocean in evolutionary terms) but a very long time in terms of human memory, we have an issue. The vast majority of people look to grains like grain, rice, oats and the like as the basis of meals, the bulk to fill out a plate, and many will consider replacing the beige with the colourful veg as something too expensive, and perhaps time-consuming. But I do think that people intuitively understand that it is not so satisfying: for example, oats have been a staple food in Scotland for centuries because they can grow in difficult conditions, can take a good lashing from the rain and the wind, and can be stored over the winter. In Dr Samuel Johnson’s first English dictionary released in the 18th century, however, the definition of oats was “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Although he seemed to have become bored while writing his first dictionary and in need of humour, his definition seems to belie something intuitive, that the body knows that meals high in starch are lacking in nutrition, and are in fact better fed to support other animals besides humans (although I would dispute the health benefits for horses as well!) I challenge you to try and change the focus of the meals you make, to shift it from being mainly brown-coloured and based on grains to something very colourful with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and some meat which has been produced locally and organically. For example, this morning my breakfast consisted of two chicken drumsticks, tripe (a Zulu dish called usu; I’m staying in South Africa at the moment), spinach, carrots and green beans. My lunch was grilled fish with lemon which took up half of the plate, the other half being cabbage, pepper, cucumber, lettuce, parsley and onion. My dinner will likely consist of beef in a tomato sauce made with garlic and onions, and sweet potato. As snacks I have eaten a couple of handfuls of raw unsalted cashew nuts, two tangerines and half a melon. I am very far from being hungry! I strongly believe that eating in this way provides the body with a great deal more than standard ways of eating, based on starchy carbohydrates. A great deal more information is provided in publications like the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, or New Evolution Fitness by Art de Vany, and it is not the purpose of this blog to parrot this information. It is already out there and easily accessible.

This post is to show the mismatch between how we eat and how we are designed to eat through millions of years of evolution. Farming has brought many wonderful things (I would not be sitting drinking coffee and writing on a laptop without it), but it has also brought negative consequences for our bodies. We have reached a stage where we are aware of the medical consequences of the way we eat, and it must be changed. This will come from how we produce our food: if the focus of an average diet shifts away from grains, this will radically change the look of your average farm. The next post will therefore look more into the issue of farming, agriculture, the environment and the resonance of individual choices.

Post VI: Are we built for sprinting and lifting or for running long distances? Primal and running

The answer to that question is actually quite simple: both, really. Look at your local gym or the athletics championships to see that people are built differently, and more suited for different things. Having said that, I fall on the sprinting and lifting side of things, but not until after years of falling on the other side. So what I want to set out here is two ideas which are based on very similar principles, but which diverge on pretty crucial points, albeit using similar ways of thinking (i.e. antifragility). These are the school that humans are “born to run”, and indeed run long distances, as opposed to the primal living school which advocate short, intense workouts building strength and sprinting, supplemented with low-intensity activity like walking hiking, stand-up paddling and the like.

Let me explain why I moved from one to the other, what they mean, and what might be best for you. From about the age of 20, I started to take a keen interest in ultra-distance running, and even more so after my first marathon in 2009. The running was supplemented with hours of swimming and cycling, taking me to a total of between 13 and 20 hours of endurance sports a week, depending on studies and weather. I was very happy with this arrangement, found my lung capacity to be very high, I enjoyed the endorphin high I got after a run which really pushed me, and especially if I could get out into the wild, and run up mountains. Hill running was a particular fetish of mine, and I was lucky to be living Scotland to sustain it. When I saw my endurance abilities go from strength to strength, the only thing that I seemed to lack was sprinting ability, but this didn’t phase me much, since I didn’t much care for playing high-intensity sports or anything which needed me to be able to run fast.

I began to notice a few things change over the years, however, and a big change came when I damaged the ligaments in my knee and I was unable to run for 6 months. Or walk properly for 6 weeks. The doctor prescribed an oil to put on my knee, the effects of which were purely part of the placebo effect, but after 6 months I started to dip my toe back into running waters. I was more or less successful, getting up a good average 10 km time and so on, but the knee issue soon returned. This time around I was out of running for 3 months, until I stumbled upon a book at Colorado Airport called Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. It describes how people have evolved in a very particular way to run long distances, and how anatomically well-designed we are for this. He suggests, following studies, that hunter-gatherers in human history would have stalked prey down over very long distances at a gentle running pace, slowly exhausting the animal over several hours, since humans are better adapted for this kind of hunting than direct conflict involving strength (humans are pretty hopeless in this department compared with most other animals we seek to eat – just look at our soft skin, or compare your strength to that of an elk!) Without weapons and tools for hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, the slow, animal-exhausting hunt was the preferred method of getting meat. Although this seemed outlandish, a South African researcher living with a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Botswana Kalahari observed this same behaviour.

Convinced by this evolutionary theory, I read on in McDougal’s book to discover the evolution of the foot and how our ancestors would have been barefoot or nearly barefoot for hundreds of thousands of years before Nike brought along the cushioned sole in the 1970s, which, it is argued, is the cause of bad running form and the subsequent injuries which so many runners complain about. With this determined in my mind, I removed my shoes and in the cold Scottish autumn I set out into a nearby grassy field. Besides the stone-strewn path down to the field, this was a big revelation, a real eureka moment for me. One week I was plodding agonizingly along a tarmac road, the next I was whipping through a lush grassy (wet and cold) field without even a trace of pain. More so walking back from the field with feet safely numbed for the stones. I hastily leapt into telling everybody what I had discovered, and started making my own “barefoot” sandals, since I couldn’t afford Vibram’s infamous Five Fingers. I initially started with the inner tube of a tire, cut it to the shape of my foot, punched some holes in it, and used some unnecessarily complicated lacing to tie them to my foot. They were really dreadful. In comes a make of sandal which a guy in Colorado had developed, made to measure, simple lacing and guaranteed for thousands of miles. These were excellent and I strongly recommend them: Xero shoes is the company if you want to check them out.

My love for running was truly rekindled, especially when everyone was asking about and looking askance at my unusual footwear. I was now living in Cape Town, South Africa and would run with these shoes up local peaks (although I never dared Table Mountain in them!) This continued for many months until I began to realise something else which I now associate with long-distance sports: I was low on energy generally and I would get sick often (common colds took me down regularly, especially when living in Scotland). Besides the sore knee, this is what brought me to the primal school.

Primal or evolutionary fitness uses very similar trains of thought to the “born to run” school, but takes different conclusions. For those in the “born to run” camp, hunter-gatherers would have been running often, exhausting their prey thanks to the evolutionary advantages which humans developed over other animals. Despite one modern hunter-gatherer tribe being observed to hunt like this, this is one tribe and not definitive proof. The anatomical proof is also suggestive of good abilities to run long distances, but again it is not definitive, and doesn’t exclude other ways of living. On the other hand, nor do the theories put forward by the primal school, such as authors like Mark Sisson and Art de Vany provide definitive information on exactly how our ancestors would have lived. Primal living suggests that humans are born to move in a certain way, and evolved to do so over hundreds of thousands of years, namely walking, sprinting, lifting heavy things, throwing, climbing and swimming. Low-intensity jogs may well have been part of it, but the argument goes that this kind of exercise would drain a hunter of energy, and if he was to encounter a threat, like a giant cat with big pointy teeth and paws the size of his face, he would not have quite as much energy to sprint away than if he had been walking. Think of how exhausted you feel after a long run. Do you think you would be able to get up and sprint afterwards? Such activities would leave your ancestors very vulnerable and exposed. For me, this makes more logical sense, and corresponds more with modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles which have been studied (such as in the rainforests of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, although of course there is not a lot of room to run there anyway!). The fossil evidence also suggests that humans were stronger before the advent of agriculture (by way of the marks left on bones formed by strong muscles and the tendons with which they were attached). How many long-distance runners do you know with big bulging muscles? Not very many, I dare say.

It is for these reasons that it seems to make more sense that, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are born to walk, sprint, lift and climb. Low-intensity running may well have formed a part of life, but not the bulk of it, as those in the “born to run” camp suggest. Added to this, from my own personal experience, since I have taken up the primal living philosophy I feel a great deal more energetic, I am and look more athletic, my skin is healthier and the tartar build up on my teeth seems to vanish every day. For me, this is enough convincing, but I encourage everybody to experiment. If your running consists of a few kilometres around the blog every week, you’re unlikely to suffer any ill effects, besides boredom. But if you are convinced that you can do better from 10 minutes of sprinting every week, give it a try, and let me know. You will be pleasantly surprised. If you are running much longer and harder, I suggest taking a look into changing things. The runner’s high is an addictive thing, and not something you want to forego easily, but you can bet a 30 minute sprint session will get your blood pumping, will try your body more and bring much bigger elation at the end. I don’t want to bring an end to endurance sports, but I do want people to experiment, note progress and get back to me!

Post V: Your body is comfortably volatile!

Volatility has very negative connotations. If you look at the business pages on a given day, you will find talk about volatile markets somewhere, which cause problems somewhere else. It’s currently to be found in China. But as was discussed in the last post, natural complex systems are volatile, and this needs to be accepted. A good place to start is your own body. When you begin to consider the nature of yourself, this will be amplified to other things. If you understand volatility, you will apply it to your own body, which will affect the way you eat and live, the way you source your food, the way you consider your career, and the way you frame your lifestyle. It’s very exciting and something I want to share with you, particularly through ideas of primal living.

Post II looked at the basics of primal living, the idea of embracing our evolution and moving and eating as we are designed to do, and as we do best. This involves lifting heavy things, exercising intensively and sprinting, all at random; your diet should be based around fruits and vegetables, and meat and fish. The focus of the meals you eat should revolve around this, shifting away from “base foods” like pasta, rice and bread, which are nutritionally weak, and often used simply to fill bellies. This will be the subject of a future post. Part of the essence of the primal philosophy is to move away from rigid control: eating three square meals a day is not necessarily the best for your body, even if it fits well with your working hours; going to the gym for exactly an hour a day may seem like progress, but your body will react much better to random, intense workouts, specifically not involving jogging on the treadmill.

Modern living seems intent on organising lives, taking away the edge. On my Samsung phone, for example, there is an app for healthy living. It is very clever, and tracks my steps (I have no idea how it does this, and does creep me out a bit, making me feel as if there’s a Google satellite taking a very keen interest in my location) and I can enter all kinds of things like how much coffee I consume, my calorie intake, weight, UV exposure, blood glucose, sleep, heart rate, stress and on and on and on. These can certainly be useful things to know, but when you begin to regiment your life in such a way, you begin to hack away at what your body really excels at: it takes volatility on the chin and reacts in the best way possible to it. If, for example, you take your app and record your food and calories consumption to balance out the calories expended, eating three square meals a day and running off any excess, your body will not react in the way you want it to. You might lose a bit of weight, but the regimentation will stifle your body’s natural reactions, and will also stifle your enjoyment of life! Sticking to such regimes is not only boring for your mind, but you will find that your body will be much better off when it is subjected to swings in consumption and expenditure. As I write this, I have not eaten for 18 hours, and I will not eat for at least another 6, maybe more. But when I do eat, I know what I’m going to have: an enormous salad bowl filled with lettuce, onions, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, ham, cheese, tuna, egg, carrot, beetroots, palm hearts and herbs. When that has been digested, I’m going to have a steak with lots of fat around the edges, topped with two eggs fried in butter, and with a side of aubergine and courgette, also fried in butter, and some boiled cabbage. The amount I eat today will be more than satisfactory, although my stomach is growling now (not helped by writing about the delights it is to expect later!) The extreme swing which my body is being subjected to is being shown again and again to provide health benefits. Check out these links to see what you can see: Once again, it is the body benefitting from stress.

There is increasing science behind it, but from my personal experience, every time I try this fasting, I enjoy the buzz which my body creates at around about hour 18 without food (that is to say, right now). The energy which my body is giving off is better than a caffeine boost, and my mind is pinging ideas in every direction. When I finally do get food, I know I will feel sleepy afterwards, but this is the same as was discussed in a previous post: if your body is put under stress, it will benefit from this stress, so long as it is given sufficient rest.

I advocate such randomness in life, which modern thinking often tries to get around: three square meals a day, 5 hours a week at the gym, 8 hours a day at work, 5 days a week. The immediate comparison is with a machine, like the factory lines which produce the material things we enjoy. Current thinking all too often applies what works with machinery to people and the systems they are a part of, rather than treating them as the complex, non-machines they are. Bodybuilders or rugby players are often called “machines”, as a term of endearment. But machines do not like to be subject to volatility, because they deteriorate thanks to their fragile nature. Humans and complex systems thrive under volatility and need to be subjected to such. Think of your body this way and you will begin to see results in terms of your physical energy, your body shape and your mental health. Using primal and evolutionary biology as your framework, embrace the fact that you are not in control and act according to the ups and downs of your body, tune in and react!

When we understand that our own bodies are antifragile, that they benefit from stress, and we accept that we need volatility to excel, then we can easily transfer this to other complex systems, particularly when you think about the effects your decisions will have on a broader scale: the food supply, business, economics, the legal system. It is all related, and this blog seeks to join the dots.

Post IV: Volatility and Intervention

The last 3 posts have set out how this blog is going to look and explaining some ideas which are perhaps alien to a lot of people. What I want to be able to show is that individual lifestyle choices can go a very long way on a large-scale, but that what people do and how they approach problems is not reflected on national levels, the level of the complex system. I want to demonstrate the natural volatility and randomness of all complex systems, from the micro level of human biology and fitness to large-scale systems like the economy, the law, food and energy supplies, and how they are all inter-related. To do this, it is important to discuss more about the topic of volatility and intervention, and more specifically when to intervene, and when to accept things are out of your control.

Modern living is full of examples of often stifling intervention. By trying to smooth out the jagged edges of the world, and to remove unknowns, volatility and stressors, the antifragile (see previous post) nature of complex systems is repressed, only to reappear in much bigger, often catastrophic guises. This kind of action is often based on an unwavering belief that humans can control what is around them, a very naive belief indeed. Complex systems, even man-made ones, are too complex, too varied to possibly fully understand. Pieces can be put together, but they way in which they interact as a whole system is impossible for one mind to grasp. Think of any kind of financial investment you might make: you can make educated guesses, but ultimately nobody knows whether these investments will pay off, and nobody knows whether a boom or a bust is coming.

Or think of the complications when treating ailments in your body. The Hippocratic Oath imparts some wisdom on the situation: “primum non nocere”, first, do no harm. For a very long time in human history, doctors have been very bad at treating people, and through practices such as blood-letting have often killed more people through their interventions than they would have saved. The beginning of institutionalised hospitals, although well-intentioned and ultimately very useful to us today, marked sky-rocketing deaths from “hospital fever”. The healers were causing the harm. It is only in recent history that this has been accepted, but the good news is that it has been! The continuing issue in medicine is that of agency. Think of the number crunchers at big pharmaceutical companies with no direct relationship with the person in need of the medicine, but with a direct relationship with the company’s profits. The concern is not with the health of the patient, but his or her job is on the line when it comes to selling pills, possibly to the detriment of the patient, causing more harm than benefit through their intervention.

Take also economic intervention. The huge complexities of the system ensure that it cannot be predicted or controlled, but people try nonetheless. It is volatile, and thrives from this volatility, but economists try again and again to break off the jagged edges, smooth it down, like a polished stone. The depression which began in 2007, the effects of which are still being felt 8 years later, was in my opinion caused by the interventionist economic policies of the likes of Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown, who promised to end the volatile cycle of boom and bust, or, to put it in the language of this blog, they denied the antifragility of complex systems, and did more harm than good with their intervention. Just as it is necessary for small forest fires to occur from time to time to burn out the most flammable material in order to avoid a much more catastrophic fire in the future, complex systems require smaller units to fail for the whole to succeed (and hopefully learn from the mistakes to success next time!) Volatility is a natural and necessary element to dispose of the more fragile parts of the system for the whole to succeed. But let me make something very clear here and say that I do not support a ruthless “winner-takes-all” or “dog-eat-dog” world where those who do not succeed economically are doomed to failure to be scooped up by stronger competitors. There need to be social safety nets to make sure that those who fall victim to natural volatility have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve upon them. Support is necessary for the very reason that these systems are so volatile: humans are at the mercy of things we cannot possibly comprehend, and we need to take actions to give us support and ways out when things do not go as planned. The point I am making here, however, is that if you try to suppress this inherent volatility, all you do is make way for something much worse.

So we can see that intervention can cause problems when it is applied to volatile, complex, antifragile systems. Our culture is to try to take things under control to, as mentioned in the last paragraph, ensure that the volatile nature of things does not affect us. And to say that intervention is bad can bring a lot of misunderstandings. It can be taken as simply doing nothing as chaos reigns, sitting back and doing whatever is coming to you. This does not sit well with human nature, nor is it the point I am trying to make. My point is that humans cannot control these systems by trying to end volatility, but we can prepare properly by accepting their nature. Intervention to change this nature is very naive, but intervention to work with this volatility, to ensure that either you benefit from it or are supported when you fail as a result of it, is the aim. It applies to many things, from the economy, the legal system, the food supply, the energy supply, and your own body. The next post will go back to this with more on primal living.

Blog Post III: An Introduction to Antifragility

This part of the blog will introduce an idea which is not so well known, but will ultimately be the main thread to tie the ideas of this blog together. Antifragility is a concept which many people (especially grandmothers) grasp intuitively, but until Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book by the same name, there has been no word for it. It is the antithesis of fragility, a word used to describe something which deteriorates as a result of harm. Ask yourself this: when you post a package which breaks easily, you will want to attach a label saying “fragile” onto it, so what label would you put on a package which will actually benefit from being mishandled, and thrown about? It’s not  simply “robust”, since even robust things don’t actually benefit from harm, nor is it “resilient” for the same reason. A new word has been coined to describe something which benefits from harm – antifragile – and there are many systems to which it applies.

First off, let’s tie it in with primal living, the subject of the last introductory post. I mentioned that it is more important to have brief, intense exercise than to go for quantity, drudging along concrete paths for hours. The recent popularity of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and Crossfit reflect this. It is well established that exercise places stress on the body, and that the body reacts to this stress. Not only does it react, however, but it overreacts, it overcompensates, and as a result provides you with bigger muscles, better able to answer the same and more stress the next time, provided you take adequate rest. So the stress – the harm – is actually beneficial to the body. When you lift weights, you literally tear your muscle fibres (ouch) but they return stronger. Another simplified, but well-known, example of this is vaccination. You put the immune system under stress, and it overreacts so that next time it will be able to deal with even more.

Another example provided by Taleb (and I paraphrase him) is being placed under acute stress, followed by sufficient recovery time. Say you are sitting in your living room, watching television, and suddenly a lion leaps through the door. Your body will send out a lot of signals putting you under a lot of stress, your fight or flight response pinging throughout your body. Assuming you survive this incident (preferably with photographic, triumphant evidence) and then are given time to relax with some beer or some soothing tea, your body will benefit from the immense stress, even after the buzz of the adrenaline has worn off. The hormones coursing through your body benefit it. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, yes? On the other hand, moderate stress does not make you stronger, but it will kill you. The daily stress of modern living, whether it is being stuck in traffic, filling out monthly business reports, tax forms etc., these provide stresses, but not of the fight or flight variety. You cannot run away from you tax returns or punch your boss. This moderation in stress, caused by a smoothing out of our social systems provokes the release of harmful reactions, but without the necessary recovery time, which ultimately slowly kills you. “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess”, as Oscar Wilde puts it.

Compared to our primal ancestors, modern life stifles the fight or flight response in our bodies, smoothing out our days in the name of comfort and stability, but slowly wearing us out. There’s no suggestion here that all 7 billion humans should return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and face threats to life and limb on a near daily basis in order to provoke their antifragile nature. That would be silly. But we can adapt: welcome the volatile, accept randomness and put yourself in situations where you are more in step with your intuitive reactions. Travelling is one such way to put yourself in unusual, often inexplicable situations, but you might find that you can find the same by taking a walk around your local area! This will be the subject of a later post: “Does modern life stifle human nature?”

So we can see that antifragility and primal living are closely connected in this regard, but antifragility goes further, and provides the link between the subjects of primal living and social structure, food and energy supplies, legal frameworks, jurisprudence and many other seemingly disparate topics which should be considered together more often than they are.

How can we differentiate between was is antifragile and what is not? We have seen that antifragile things benefit from harm (to a certain extent), and we have seen that this applies to organic things (like you), but not to non-organic things (like a fridge). But we can take it further, as Taleb points out, to differentiate between the complex (antifragile) and the non-complex (fragile). A machine is non-complex, since it can be switched on and off; a natural system like the human body, or the legal system, or the energy supply, is complex. There is no on-off switch. So antifragile, complex systems extend to essentially anything you care to mention which cannot be controlled. The trouble is that attitudes are all too often to treat the economy, law, and even individual human bodies as if they were mechanical and easily controlled. I saw an advert for a Crossfit gym the other day saying “Other gyms own machines…We make them”. You are not a machine! You are so much more complex than that. If you use a machine, it will slowly deteriorate; if you use your body, it will slowly improve. A machine is fragile, but complex systems are antifragile and benefit from randomness, volatility and harm. In order to benefit from the inherently antifragile nature of complex systems, they need to be accepted for what they are, and treated accordingly.

When politicians, bankers, economists and other members of similar branches seek to control the complex, to iron out the wrinkles and to suppress volatility and randomness in order to ensure stability, all they achieve is to ensure a bigger blow out in the future. In order to succeed, the antifragile needs volatility and randomness, and to deprive these systems of such is to set yourself up for bigger problems. This will be discussed in further blog posts about dealing with volatility and randomness in big complex systems.

This I hope explains the main foundations of antifragility and how it applies to this blog! There will be many branches of discussion stemming from this, which will include:

  • Give me volatility, not stability
  • Embracing lack of control, and the zen attitude
  • Travel and volatility
  • Don’t control, let it go
  • “Well that was totally random”

Post II: The basics of primal living

Primal living

This part of the discussion is based largely on the works of authors Mark Sisson and Art de Vany, the first of whom penned “The Primal Blueprint”, and the latter “The New Evolution Diet”.

Both books were written based on experience in personal training, as a professional athlete, and, in the case of de Vany, academic work studying statistical anomalies. They are also based fundamentally in evolutionary biology. Their main premise is that humans have evolved in a very particular way over the past 2 million years to eat certain things and perform certain movements. It has only been in the last 10,000 years with the beginning of agriculture that human life has significantly changed (even more so in the last 70 years!), which is a period too small for genetic evolution to take place and for humans to evolve to accommodate our new lifestyles. As a result, people are now subject to a multitude of diseases unknown before the changes in diet and lifestyle, and the books are packed full of ideas and scientific studies to replicate the way our ancestors would have eaten and moved, but adapted to modernity. You can find links to their respective blogs here: ;

The basic tenets, as far as I summarise them, are as follows: eat organic, whole foods, sourced locally; eliminate grains and sugar from your diet; compose your daily food intake as roughly 1/3 fresh fruit and vegetables, 1/3 cooked vegetables and 1/3 meat, fish and poultry; exercise briefly with intensity and randomness; supplement these brief and intense workouts with low-level cardio like walking, light swimming, stand-up paddling, or whatever it happens to be. Avoid cardio burnout from endurance sports. This framework is based on how hunter-gatherers would have lived before humans developed agriculture, but developed to modernity: have intense workouts to replicate a hunter’s sprinting, lunging, jumping and carrying in the gym. Grains are eliminated because they would not have made up part of a hunter-gatherer’s diet, and were only introduced as the (primary) source of calories 10,000 years ago. Their low nutritional value and position as a replacement for nutrient-rich vegetables has harmed human health.

Part of this blog will look to whether or not a lot of the assertions made about primal lifestyles are based on scientific act, or whether a lot of it is simply supposed, and whether this would actually have an effect on the ideas put forward by Sisson, de Vany and others.

Another large part will be to do with why I personally started looking into this and what it means to me, the effects it has had.

I also want to discuss, on the one hand, the reasons for switching to agriculture in the first place: there is good reason to believe it was due to intense environmental pressure at the time, but it also brought with it incredible advances. If environmental pressure was the reason for such a momentous shift 10,000 years ago, what could upcoming environmental change have in store in the near future? On the other hand, does the developed agricultural system actually provide for lifestyles proposed by those supporting “primal” living? Grains are after all much cheaper, and fill bellies. This touches on the enormous subject of wealth distribution and whether or not there is enough space in the world to accommodate this number of people and to feed them.

So these are the essentials of “primal” living for this blog. There is of course a great deal more, and I would like from time to time to dive into a lot of the individual topics, but this is the framework required to make the link between it, antifragility, and changing social structures. Some other subjects which are likely to come up in this blog related to this:

  • The realities of hunter-gatherers: is the basis for such thinking based on fact, or supposition and guesswork? Does it matter if the details are not exactly correct?
  • Frameworks and flexibility
  • Does modern life stifle human nature?

The Contents and Purpose of this Blog

“Primal” living, Zen, Economic & Social Resilience, the Law and Antifragility

The scope of this blog is intended to start off small, but grow to encompass a large number of subjects which are currently considered by themselves, but will be shown to be related and mutually interchangeable. It will be based on the philosophies connecting the recent ideas regarding “primal” living based on health and fitness books which look towards evolutionary biology as a way of revolutionising the way people in modern societies live, the philosophies of Zen Buddhism which so often support the ideas of primal living, and movements for social and economic change, in particular when it comes to energy and food supplies, and the law which allows for this to happen.

For me, the connections and inter-relatedness of the broad ideas espoused by each area are very close, and the connections are the result of my own physical and mental meanderings of the previous 4 years. Firstly, they can be used alongside one another to add clarity to the ideas of one area and make them more accessible to a broader range of people, but also some of the goals aimed for in one specific area require reform in another, or the ideas set out in one apply analogously to another. If, for example, the ideas put forward in the books by Mark Sisson and Arthur de Vany (“The Primal Blueprint” and “The New Evolution Diet”, respectively) were to be adopted by the majority of the population, I would initially be very pleased. The health benefits in the short- and long-term seem game-changing from my perspective, based on personal experience. But there is a pretty big caveat: there is not enough whole, organic, fresh and non-factory produced food available to sustain this for everyone. For this to happen requires a full-scale shift in how we produce our food, away from the production-lines and the chemicals. Is it possible to have all our beef pasture-raised and grass-fed and still sustain a “primal” diet for everybody? The same goes for fishing, and the production of abundant, organic vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil without fiddling with genes to get a higher yield. The way the food industry works can be shocking for those used to simply seeing the packed-and-ready products on supermarket shelves, but do people ultimately prefer that, with its simplicity and speed, as compared with getting down and dirty with every meal you take?

These are some of the most fundamental issues regarding “primal” living and the food supply, but where does Zen fit in? Some of the most fundamental parts of Zen are associated with “falling back” into nature, rather than striving for the divine, to cross the metaphorical bridge to a god, or to “achieve” enlightenment: it’s already here. The notion of falling back into what is already here, and which is already perfect, chimes harmoniously with “primal” living and Mark Sisson’s encouragements in “The Primal Connection”: awareness, responsibility, not worrying. You can even add to this the philosophy that there are no rights and wrongs, but only the “blueprint” or framework.

The other main part of the discussions in these posts will be taking “primal” living, zen and “antifragility” (a new term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb) up a level to look into the repercussions they will have from the micro level of individuals to the macro level of cities, nation states and even globally. What effect will it have on social and economic structures, and especially the legal framework which allows it to happen? The way forward for me is a resource-based, sharing economy, which is naturally antifragile, governed from the bottom up.

This blog (and hopefully forum) wants to take these issues and many others to discover new ideas, lifestyles, philosophical frameworks and broad change. The first posts will deal with the basics of the ideas it is based on (particularly “primal” living and “antifragility”) before going on to explain their application. The intention is to start a discussion and connect these different related areas.

A rough outline of the topics and chronology of the posts is as follows:

  • What is primal living and what can we learn from evolutionary biology?
  • What is antifragility?
  • Primal living: just for the elite?
  • Primal living as a blueprint and Zen “falling back”