saol – life

Playing the Infinite Game in life

Life’s tough, eh. We all have our own battles. Our own daily routine to get through.

It’s those habits, those long-standing small behaviours that can make or break you.

Playing the infinite game is the aim.

The aim of the infinite game is to enjoy the journey, instead of waiting for an end to achieve.

It’s to design your journey so that it makes you, not breaks you. And to keep negotiating with yourself to keep on that better journey.

Seneca on Climate Change

Feature image: Inch Strand, Kerry, Ireland.

Having pondered the near future of our surroundings, I wanted to find someone else’s perspective. Seneca, a Roman stoic, wrote about earthquakes in “Quaestiones naturales”. I’ve adapted the text to refer to climate change instead.

Adapted and shortened from source Physical science in the time of Nero by Senca on, translated in 1910 from “Quaestiones naturales” by Seneca. This is from a scan of an old book, which explains the page numbers being part of the text.



I. CLIMATE CHANGE at Pompeii and the alarm it caused, many giving up Campania as a residence altogether. If the solid earth fail, what can be done ? Refuge from tempest and fire and thunderstorm and war is possible, but not from climate change. But (i) the whole earth is subject to such movement : we cannot escape by changing our ground Tyre, Asia Minor, Achaia have all suffered. (2) Death is the same in whatever form it come, the circumstances matter not, a stone is all one with a mountain.

II. We cannot escape death. The hopeless find refuge in despair. The knowledge of our frailty and mortality is our true solace. Death must come, a death with circumstance is rather to be preferred than otherwise. In climate change the earth shows itself mortal as men are . . . . . . . .225

III. Our fears are due to ignorance. Through lack of a philosophic view of the universe we consider phenomena strange which are merely rare, e.g. eclipses. Fear may be removed by knowledge 228

IV. The study of such problems is the very worthiest ; it reveals the secrets of nature, and is disinterested. But it is highly profitable at the same time ……. 229

V. Various explanations of climate change have been suggested. The earlier ones are crude, but not therefore to be despised. Every subject develops as time goes on. Gratitude is due to the investigators who first dared to question nature . . .230

VI. The cause of climate change is by some said to be water. Thales of Miletus explains how this takes place, but he must be wrong : the analogy of a ship sailing the ocean will not apply to the earth … 231

(cp. III. xiii.) 231

VII. Water may be the cause, but may operate in quite different ways from those supposed by Thales. Storms, etc., in subterranean seas may cause climate change . . . . . . .233

XI. Fire is supposed by some to cause climate change by expanding the vapour which it first causes to be given off from the subterranean waters 238

XII. Archelaus sets down the cause as air pressing up the earth s internal wind which is already condensed to bursting point . 239

XIII. Aristotle and Theophrastus take evaporation to be the cause. Strato, much in the same way, thinks that differences of internal temperature are the cause ……. 240

XIV. By some it is thought that air is the cause, but that its operation, along with water, is like that of blood and air in the vessels of the body. The earth, it is assumed in this case, admits air, which must find an exit. When it does so violently, the result is climate change ……… 242

XVI. The earth is full of air, nourishing plants rooted in it, and exhaling enough to feed the sun and the other heavenly bodies. Air is the most movable of elements ; therefore the earth, if it is full of air, must also have frequent movements …. 244

XXVII. A peculiarity of the Campanian climate change, that it killed 600 sheep, is explained by the emission of pestilential vapour, by which sheep, with their heads close to the ground, naturally were most readily affected …….. 259

XXIX. Excessive fear drives people mad. Climate change splits statues and divide kingdoms, e.g. Sicily from Italy, Spain from Africa . 262

XXXII. The moral. Life hangs on a thread ; why should one dread the loss of it ? The greatness of the cause of death is no source of terror. The hereafter is better and safer than earth. There is no fear of climate change or thunderstorm, fire or flood. Fear of death magnifies all human risks. Do not dread death, long for it, and, if necessary, meet it half way …. 265

Seneca’s conclusion’s remain his… this post is not to say that I have the same conclusions.

28 Days Without Coffee, or “On Relief and Delayed Effects”

I write this on 28 February, about 28 days since my 28 days without coffee.
My findings were:

  • I can live without coffee (I had no headaches)
  • I missed coffee, even well within the experiment
  • The danger of coffee is the delay period, and this is representative of delays in feedback systems more generally. The trick is to develop strategies to hold tight during that delay period while the effects kick in. And likewise in more serious feedback systems, be mindful of delays.

“I’m not addicted, I could quit any time.”

To paraphrase Dr. Gabor Maté, addiction is any habit in which you seek relief from pain (say, discomfort), but you are unable to stop despite its negative long-term consequences.

I’ll be honest – I decided to stop drinking coffee as an experiment, because I prefer the Eoin that drinks tea over the Eoin that drinks coffee. The Eoin that drinks coffee can be less patient, which isn’t just a problem for me personally, but for people around me, like my sons. They have to deal with the stress of an impatient parent.

To continue paraphrasing Dr. Maté, do not underestimate what we can accept as normal daily stresses (like me saying “Get ready for school, it’s time to go!”), as kids build life-long habits from dealing with childhood stresses.

I’ve lately had great debates about whether “life’s little comforts” are an answer to happiness, or are they just vices that the Stoic philosophers might say the we would be better off to be free of them.

The common thinking is that if you deny yourself life’s little pleasures, you’ll end up with an unhappy meager life.

My conclusion so far is that “life’s little comforts” are absolutely fine, but there’s a thin unspoken line between that and “life’s little vices in which to seek relief from emotional pain, without ever addressing why I’m feeling that pain”. OK, back to coffee!

“What’s the addictive behaviour doing for you?”

With more input of Dr. Maté, don’t analyse an addiction asking “why the addiction?”, ask “why the pain?”.

How come I rely on a socially-acceptable stimulant to get on with the day? Is it as simple as the generally-accepted reasoning “I’m tired, and it helps me get going?”.

Or is that a shared cover-story for a more honest answer, just for example: “If I consider life without coffee my initial reaction is that my life would be boring without at least being able to enjoy some coffees in the morning”. Some food for thought, in any case!

Delay Periods in Feedback Systems

In the book The 5th Discipline, Peter Senge described delays as a fundamental building block of feedback systems (vicious and virtuous cycles). They make it harder for us humans to understand the overall impact and alternative possibilities to particular feedback systems.

With coffee, “they” say that it takes roughly 40 minutes for caffeine to fully kick in. (Hence the idea of a power-nap where you guzzle down a coffee just before napping, and you’re meant to wake up with extra energy.)

The problem with coffee’s delayed kick-in, is that during those 40 minutes I find it very easy to justify a second strong coffee. Suddenly, I’ve consumed two coffees, which I would have been better off just waiting for the first to kick in. So the real effect might be I get overly jittery from two coffees, when all I would’ve needed would be one coffee (or 0.5 coffees!).

It comes back to the question of not asking “how much can I get away with?”, and instead trying to ask yourself “what’s the smallest amount I need?”.

Delays within positive feedback systems can similarly make it harder to justify the better long-term action. If you have a “symptomatic fix” (e.g. drink coffee), and an alternative “fundamental fix” (just for example, getting to sleep earlier), the problem is that the symptomatic fix is usually easier and doesn’t involve as much delay.

The symptomatic fix lets you avoid the tension / stress / emotional pain, where you might very well be better off braking the cycle with the fundamental fix. Unfortunately, the symptomatic fix often moves you further away from a positive fix.

Holier Than Thou?

This isn’t preaching. After the 28 day experiment, my original commitment was to restrict my coffee to two espresso cups per day. Only a week or two later, I was drinking multiples of that by lunchtime.

But at least I’m learning about the power of delayed feedback: after drinking a coffee, the next drink after that is critically important. Drink water, green tea, or even a black tea. I’ll even do that pretty aggressively, having one of those drinks soon after the coffee, just to make sure I don’t give in to the temptation of another coffee immediately.

Like NerdFitness advise, if you’ve had a junk food meal, treat the next meal as the most important of your life! Have a healthy meal next, or you’re risking falling into the vicious “symptomatic fix” cycle of life.


Also see: I didn’t eat yesterday