Prophecies, stoicism, colonoscopies, general AI, and other lessons from my first few weeks as a dog owner.
I recently came into possession of a dog. My loveable ball of energy is a 10-week old Cavachon pup named Harry. I wasn't allowed near anything with fur for most of my childhood due to severe asthma, but have always loved dogs. The quest for Harry really started in 2014, during a short stint in Shanghai.
I'd been yearning to see the Middle Kingdom after two grueling years studying Mandarin at school. The class was pretty fun, and we had great teachers, but exams were hard. I almost cried before one oral exam. In the end, my oral scores were near-perfect. I dropped three marks across two exams. It was good enough to be offered a teaching assistant role at a Chinese university if I was interested in taking a gap year. My Dad said no at the time but after a few aimless years at university, the desire was stronger than ever. I applied for an intern role online and interviewed over skype before booking my first solo plane ticket.
I settled in pretty fast. In the first month, I worked half days in the morning and took four hours of language school every afternoon. I made friends with interns from other companies and even started going to a small 'underground' church. Church was the best part of my week, hosted in the lofty apartment of an exceedingly kind couple who put out a full spread of food every Sunday. I owe a great deal to them and still visit Shanghai every two years as a result. My adopted Chinese parents made sure I was well fed - they hooked me up with a VPN, books, and much-needed career advice. I spent a lot of time in that apartment, with their kids, and with their dog.
I'd never spent so much time with a dog, and probably loved her more than she loved me. But since returning to the UK I knew that one day I'd want one of my own.
Harry is the first pet I have ever owned. The car ride to pick him up gave me the same queasy feeling I had the night before a big sports game. Looking back, we were likely both very anxious to be embarking on this new adventure together.
My first discovery was that playing with other people's dogs for five minutes is not the same as owning a dog. After a few sleepless nights, hours of play, and weeks of companionship, here are a few of my thoughts:
No time like the present
In ancient Greece, before going to war kings would consult the Pythia—oracles of Delphi. The prophecies offered were often so ambiguous that they might be right in every circumstance, yet Greeks took their words with omniscient authority.
When Croesus, king of Lydia, asked the oracle if he should attack Persia, he was told: “If you cross the river, you will destroy a great empire.” Croesus interpreted this as a good omen and went ahead with the invasion. Unfortunately, the great empire destroyed was his own.
The truth is no soothsayer can predict the best time to take on a new challenge.
Assuming you pass the baseline mental, emotional and financial prerequisites, there is no perfect moment to embark on a journey of learning and adaptation. The best you can do is prepare yourself to be plastic. Learn how to learn. Recognise patterns and adapt.
Opportunities for growth open you up to the possibilities of failure. Consider what failure means in the context of this venture. How much punishment might you be willing to suffer? Consider the reward. What do you have to gain? Is that treasure worth the pound of flesh the task may command?
A few friends asked why I decided now was the best time to get a dog. The truth is I had no idea. I just realized there would never be a better time to learn all I needed to know. The best I could do was to prepare—everything else would come from failure and adaptation.
When taking on new challenges, hedge against the expected. Create malleable systems. Set the stage so that foreseeable mishaps occur within a controlled environment.
The unknown isn't an adversary, it is a crucible.
The eye of the beholder
Events are neutral until you attribute value to them.
A vase falls off the table and smashes on the floor. Disaster. Especially if that was a family heirloom gifted to you by your grandmother. But if it was that cheap, tacky trinket you had been begging your partner to take to Goodwill since you moved in together, that was a blessing from the Gods and a reward for your patience.
The first 24 hours with my cute new puppy were filled with poop. In my hands, on my clothes, in IKEA, in my friend's car, on the carpet, on the light stand, on the hardwood... and that was all before 10 pm.
If Harry saw a square patch of unmarked ground and a two-second window when my head was turned, he seized the moment, often dropping a second bomb while I was on my knees attending to the first. He had more back-to-back hits than Drake on Views. The onslaught was incessant and seemed to me, wholly unnecessary. At first, I felt frustrated and defeated. Is this what I signed up for?
My first dog-rearing lesson was one in empathy. I'm sure Harry wasn't trying to punish me, or assert his dominance by bringing me to my knees as often as possible. So why was he letting rip with complete disregard for my nose, furniture or stamina? likely because it seemed right to him.
To parse a quote from Epictetus I shared in a recent newsletter, the stoic framework for understanding the actions of others is that in all our actions we choose one of the following narratives:
- this is right,
- this was my best option,
- this is how everyone does it, or
- this is how I've always done it.
I couldn't ask Harry exactly why he was leaving smelly packages all over my home, but I'd assume it was along the lines of the above. Perhaps he was anxious and stressed in a new environment - it was his best option. Perhaps he was just doing what came naturally - doing what seemed right. At 8 weeks old, he was barely at an age he could start being trained with a pad - he was just doing what he had always done. In all these circumstances, he was simply ignorant of a better way. It would take patience and cooperation from both of us to find an amicable solution.
Everyone acts in the way that seems right to them—or they at least fall short of their own ideals due to immaturity and incompetence.
The frog in the pot
There's a common fable you'll see adapted everywhere from economics to politics. It's the story of the frog in the pot. The premise is that if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out - but in lukewarm water slowly brought to boil, the frog will be oblivious to danger and be cooked to death.
While it's a great metaphor for the human capacity to underestimate gradual change until we wake up in boiling water, it is simply untrue. The truth is that if you boil a frog quickly it will die, and if you turn the heat up slowly it will escape as soon as it becomes uncomfortable.
However, there is another cognitive phenomenon worth paying attention to: the peak-end effect.
Popularised by the research of Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson, the peak-end effect is a form of cognitive bias impacting how we recall certain events. Due to memory bias and recency bias, we are most likely to recall the most intense moment of stimuli during an event, and the final moment. These two points form a snapshot that characterizes our recollection of the experience.
A fun example from Nir Eyal is that when we remember the best rollercoaster ride we've been on, our memory snapshot is entirely composed of the best moments of the ride, with zero regards for the hours we may have spent queuing beforehand.
A better example comes from a study where colonoscopy patients were divided into two randomized groups. One group underwent a typical procedure but for the other, the scope was left in their bum for an additional three minutes, prolonging their discomfort. When asked to retrospectively evaluate their experience, the group who underwent the prolonged procedure actually rated it as less uncomfortable than those facing the shorter, more standard one. The prolonged moment of discomfort meant that a 'peak' was less definable. This has no bearing on the pain experienced at the time, but only how it was remembered.
In retrospect, periods of discomfort can fade into the rearview mirror. If we can manage the pain, we can manage our memory of it. It comes down to the lens through which we interpret events, the significance we ascribe to them, and our actions to modify our experience both in the most intense moments and at the end. This framework can be applied to any tasks that seem arduous.
I didn't fully appreciate the warning that puppies cry loudly until Harry's first night at home. The widely accepted wisdom is that you are not supposed to go to the dog when it cries as that will only reinforce bad habits. You have to stand outside the door like a psychopath and wait for it to give up before you run in with treats and bundles of affection.
It's one thing to read this advice on a blog or hear it from seasoned pet-owners, and another completely at 2 am when the dog is screaming at the top of its lungs and you're sitting on the edge of your bed hoping your neighbors don't report you to the local authorities.
If the yelling wasn't enough, puppies can't hold their bladders for more than a few hours so you need to set regular alarms throughout the night to let it out. It has been a good many moons since my sleepless nights in Corporate Law, and despite that training, I was painfully ill-equipped for a week without sleep.
Despite the prolonged discomfort, I felt relief knowing each trial would be punctuated by ameliorating moments of joy, love, and companionship.
The intelligence risk
A little intelligence goes a long way.
I gave my best shot at puppy-proofing an area of my living room, bequeathing Harry a princely estate with toys, a large crate, and private access to the garden. In New York, such an allotment might sell for $40k. For Harry, it simply wasn't enough. Despite having half the room to call his own, every morning I came down to find Harry sitting proudly on the wrong side of my crudely erected cardboard barriers. I had to open the door carefully to avoid stepping on his latest artwork—another defiant pastiche of poop smeared across the floor; a frivolous homage to Iris Scott, the finger painting master.
Harry had been trained to go toilet on a pad and did so faithfully, but as soon as he couldn't see the pad he would forget it existed. Once he'd found a path to freedom he considered it his constitutional right to poop anywhere.
After relocating Harry's handiwork to the dustbin, I would set about reconfiguring the barriers to adequately contain him. Despite my best efforts, Harry would continually find new ways to thwart me - sometimes breaking out multiple times in a day. I'd put him down for five minutes and return to discover an escape act that would make Houdini jealous. He was Frank Abagnale. I was Carl Hanratty.
Eventually, I recalled a useful interpretation of Occam's razor. Also known as the law of parsimony, Occam's razor is the problem-solving principle that "entities should not be multiplied without necessity". This is often (poorly) paraphrased as "the simplest explanation is usually the best one", but it's an interpretation that served me well. Due to the sheer size of Harry's land, I was being forced to use a multitude of boxes, each with different proportions, intermingled with my existing furniture to enclose him. By reducing the size of his space I could significantly reduce his options for escape.
During this time I had set up a nanny cam to watch him whenever I was away. Suddenly I realized the problem wasn't simply that Harry was outsmarting me, it was that he was growing simultaneously, and his learning compounded with his increased capabilities. Suddenly, through the camera, I could see him scaling obstacles he previously wasn't capable of, and applying learnings from previous experiments in new circumstances.
One of his final escapes perplexed me for days before I finally caught him in the act. In obstructing a previous route I had moved the TV stand a few centimetres to the left to wedge in another box. In doing so I had inadvertently left a gap between the stand and the wall, only visible from under the curtain. Once I left the room Harry would crawl under the curtain, through this gap, behind the TV stand, and then traversed two more walls going behind the fridge, squeezing through a crevice in my armchair before finally emerging through a gap in my bookshelf and into my half of the living room.
I couldn't help but be impressed. I gave him some treats and plugged the gap. Despite my awe, it also made me think of how Harry's exploits might pale in comparison to general AI, and how sufficiently evolved intelligence could likewise thwart our safeguards and expectations.
Sam Harris frequently explores this potential with fellow big brains in his podcast and books. I do my best to keep up with a childlike curiosity. A conversation with Steve Jurvetson yielded this nugget:
“Many of you probably harbour a doubt that minds can be platform independent. There is an assumption working in the background that there may be something magical about computers made of meat... Many people are common sense dualists. They think there is a ghost in the machine. There is something magical that’s giving us, if not intelligence per se, at the very least consciousness. I think those two break apart. I think it is conceivable that we could build superintelligent machines that are not conscious and that is the worst case scenario ethically.”
Harry is intelligent, but also conscious—there is such a thing as what it is like to be Harry. He has needs and motivations which largely align with my own. We can work in parallel and support each other. There is a possible future where forms of intelligence have no conscience, only code. If they can learn fast enough to promote their own development, they might quickly outstrip any hope of containment.
Other thoughts from me included—how often do we overestimate our competence? How often does our incompetence stop us from comprehending what true competence looks like? How often do we underestimate (and overestimate) the competence of others?
Before I discovered the secret to Harry's final trick I had been convinced that he had learned to jump over some of the boxes, and had consequently devoted considerable energy to solving the wrong problem, allowing the existing one to proliferate. It took a little first-principles thinking to realign with the real issue and adapt accordingly.
I'll expand on some of these themes another time, including a delightful story of how farting fish almost started a war.
Read on for this week’s recommendations >>
Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:
- Making Sense by Sam Harris - impulsively bought. This book was essentially just conversations from Sam’s podcast, but each one was densely packed. I found myself frequently pausing to take notes and do additional research based on every passing comment.
- Crushing It by Gary Vaynerchuk - read. Gary V can often strike as a polarising personality, but when it comes to social media he’s very often right.
- Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner - impulsively bought. I got my first paperback copy of this a decade ago in some kind of yard sale and had only read brief sections until this year. I’ve since bought the three sequels to the original. It’s that good. Stephen also has two awesome podcasts.
Things I’m loving
Films and shows:
- Let’s Be Cops - This has really bad rotten tomatoes ratings written by critics who have no idea what they’re talking about. I watched this with no idea what it was about and found it hilarious.
- Life - I was extremely hesitant about this space drama just based on the number of A-list actors they crammed into the billing. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Great watch.
- Nutmeg - In the last 10 years I’ve tried about 8-10 different investment platforms but Nutmeg has the best mix of super simple plug-and-play operation, with great returns (so far). You can use this link to get 6 months without fees :)
- Audible - 41 books this year and counting. The number of books I can get through on Audible is scary. I love being able to read while cooking, walking, doing DIY, and exercising. It’s an irreplaceable tool I’ll consistently recommend. Audible is currently running an awesome deal and you can get 3 months for 99p.