maxbarry.com
Mon 19
Jul
2021

99%

Max If you do one thing each day that has a 99% survival rate, you’ll likely be dead in under ten weeks. If boarding a plane had a 99% survival rate, a typical flight would end by carting off at least one passenger in a body bag, perhaps two or three. Ninety-nine sounds close enough to 100, but anything with a 99% survival rate is incomprehensibly dangerous.

Go sky-diving, and you’re over two thousand times safer than if you were doing something with a 99% survival rate. Driving, the most dangerous everyday activity, requires you to clock up almost a million miles of travel before you’re only 99% likely to survive. Even base jumping, perhaps the single most dangerous thing you can do without actively wanting to die, is twenty-five times safer than anything that carries a 99% survival rate.

Ninety-nine bananas is essentially one hundred bananas. Ninety-nine days is practically a hundred days. But 99% is often not even remotely close to 100%. It feels like similar numbers should lead to similar outcomes, but the difference in life expectancy between 99% and 100% survivable daily routines isn’t one percent: It’s ten weeks versus immortality.

It’s simple enough to calculate the probability of more than one thing happening: You just multiply the individual probabilities together. The likelihood of surviving for three days, for example, while doing one thing per day with a 99% survival rate, is 0.99 x 0.99 x 0.99 = 0.9703, or 97.03%.

But we find this deeply counter-intuitive. We prefer to think in categories, where everything can be labeled: good or bad, safe or dangerous, likely or unlikely. If we have an appointment and need to catch both a train and a bus, each of which have a 70% chance of running on time, we tend to consider both events as likely, and therefore conclude that we’ll make it. The actual likelihood that both services run on time is 0.70 x 0.70 = 0.49, or only 49%: We’ll probably be late.

We also prioritize feelings over numbers. Here’s a game: Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’ll try to guess it. If I’m wrong, I’ll give you a million dollars. If I’m right, I’ll shoot you dead. Would you like to play?*

Most people won’t play this game, because the thought of being shot dead is too scary. It’s shocking and visceral, so when you weigh up the decision, both potential outcomes balloon in your mind until they feel roughly equal, as if the odds were 50/50, rather than one being 99 times more likely than the other.

But put the same game in a mundane context — if instead of being shot, you get COVID, and instead of a million dollars, you just go to work as usual — and we tend to return to categorical thinking, where the dangerous-but-unlikely outcome is filed away as too improbable to be worth thinking about. As if close to 100% is close enough.

Between 99% and 100% lies infinity. It spans the distance between something that happens half a dozen times a year and something that hasn’t happened once in the history of the universe. With each step we take beyond 99%, we cover less distance than before: 1-in-200 gets us to 99.50%, then 1-in-300 to 99.67%, then 1-in-400 only to 99.75%. We’ve quadrupled our steps, but only covered three-quarters of the remaining distance. We can keep forging ahead forever, to 1-in-a-thousand and 1-in-a-million and beyond, and still there will be an endless ocean between us and 100%.

You have to watch out for 99%. You have to respect the territory it conceals.

* I pick 73.

Thu 15
Jul
2021

Resist lunch.

Max Sometimes I exaggerate a little because I want your attention and also to be funny. I just want to say: This is not one of those times.

Lunch is wrong. Lunch is one of the worst things there is. If I’m ranking bad things, I would go: cancer, lunch, heroin. Lunch is worse than heroin because the number of people who can’t go twenty-four hours without heroin is relatively small.

I know how this sounds. I’m well aware of the futility of going up against Big Lunch. You people have spent your lives addicted to lunch. You need lunch, at this point. You can’t imagine life without it, nor do you want to. Let me observe that these are things junkies say.

Here are the hidden dangers of lunch:

  1. It costs money

  2. It makes you tired while your body digests it

Maybe that seems fine to you. Money and tiredness: a small price to pay for lunch. That’s only your financial position and your ability to function. Honestly. Listen to yourselves.

I first tried no lunch when my writing was going well and I didn’t want to stop. I felt hungry and light-headed but also noticed that I got through the day without feeling like a useless sack of potatoes by 4pm. So I tried it more often. Sometimes I felt light-headed, and hallucinated a little, and became underweight, but none of these are problems for a writer. They help, if anything.

I know what you’re thinking: “Max, it kind of sounds like you have an eating disorder.” Well, let me tell you something. You might be right. I have actually started to doubt myself while writing this piece. Maybe it’s not actually the world that’s weird; maybe it’s me.

No. I think it’s you. Because I’m not slavish about no lunch. I actually eat lunch pretty often. Just not, you know, every single day. So I think that puts me morally in the right, because I can stop eating no lunch whenever I want. I’m not addicted to no lunch. I just use it strategically to get stuff done.

I won’t eat bread, though. Bread is the worst. Eating bread for me is like injecting fatigue into my brain stem. I can run six miles and feel full of energy, but after half a sandwich, I need a nap. I’m not sure if it’s the gluten or just that bread is packed full of evil. Either way, I’m not a fan.

I also listen to dangerously loud music because it helps me write, and I’d rather write well than hear everything at eighty. I’m not sure why I mentioned that. That’s not related to anything.

Wed 16
Jun
2021

Wellness

Max I haven’t had a cold in 18 months. I am indestructible. I could walk through a room full of germs right now and be totally fine. You might say: But Max, you’re just seeing the natural effect of everyone masking and distancing. I say: I can repel illness through sheer force of will.

Sometimes, if I feel a cold coming on, I’ll go for a run. After 30 minutes of heart-pounding, lung-bursting, sweat-filled exercise, I often feel pretty okay. Maybe this is just relative to the experience of being mid-run while having cold symptoms. But even afterward, the cold seems to back off, like I showed it who’s boss.

I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like indisputable science. And you’re right. After all, germs and whatnot are small. You can’t even see them. Whereas I can see the results of my own decision-making. For example, if I run more often, and also there’s a global pandemic that cuts seasonal flu rates by 95%, who can say whether the pandemic really made any difference? Whereas I definitely did run more often.

There’s a thing called “locus of control,” where you can be an “internal” person who believes you’re in charge of your own destiny, or an “external” person who thinks you’re the puppet of larger forces. Neither is supposed to be right; it’s just a way to categorize your personality. Me, I believe both are wrong. To me, good things are caused by my own behavior, while bad things are the fault of other people. Otherwise it’s, what, my fault that I’m not winning Olympic medals in between my movie roles? That doesn’t sound right. And all the good things in my life, those are largely because I was lucky enough to be born in a country where I don’t need to dig for water? I don’t think so. I do not want to think so.

Thu 25
Mar
2021

I May Not Get Out

Max Now I’d like to talk about the pandemic’s real victim: me.

The first part, where my city locked its citizens in their houses for 112 days, that was fine. That was my regular life. The only differences were Jen and the kids were always around and the dog was super happy. I saw other people discovering the joys of not commuting and having blocks of time to schedule for themselves, and I was glad for them.

Working from home is the best. I would last about three days in an office now. I’m so in command of my time, the slightest imposition annoys me, like having to answer the front door. I read somewhere that bonobo apes exhibit stress based on how much control they have over their own lives, and I am a bonobo who gets to decide what he does all day long. I am a content bonobo.

But now there’s this new normal. Many things are returning to face-to-face, but only where it makes sense. If an online meeting will do, then you have it online. This is terrible for me, because I only ever got to leave the house for things that don’t make sense. Book tours, for example. I fly somewhere and stand in a room and talk to a few dozen people. Then they buy a few books. On the expense versus the sales, that’s ridiculous. It was always ridiculous, but we could justify it on the basis that publicity has to start somewhere. Now, though, it’s the kind of ridiculous that gets shuffled online.

So this is a problem. I don’t know when I will see sunshine again. Help.

Thu 11
Feb
2021

Coach Max

Max I don’t want to brag, but I coach a kids’ sports team. I can’t post a picture, because, I have learned, when you coach a kids’ sports team, not all the parents want you posting pictures of their children on the internet. This is just one of the many insights I have gained, as coach of a kids’ sports team.

The kids are all girls aged under 11, and the sport is netball. You might not have heard of netball, if you live in one of those non-netball-playing nations, such as all of them except for a handful of ex-British colonies. It’s like basketball, except instead of dribbling the ball, as soon as you catch it, you have to come to a dead stop and try not to blow out your kneecap.

Netball
Imagine my netball team like this, but with players a quarter of the size, and some looking in the wrong direction.

Also the players are restricted to particular zones. This makes netball very tactical. One thing that makes it less tactical is when the players are under 11 years old. But it’s super-engrossing to a person like me, who loves closed systems where you set up a bunch of agents with instructions and let them loose and see what happens. It’s like writing novels, and programming, but with real little humans.

Another similarity I noticed between writing and coaching a kids’ sports team is that delusion is helpful. It’s best to be heavily deluded while writing, to avoid the awareness that your first draft is garbage. You need to think it’s fantastic right up until it’s time to rewrite it, so that you actually get there. Coaching kids’ sports is the same: There’s really no place for objectivity. I’m not there to tell a ten-year-old what her weaknesses are; I’m there to make her feel good about the time she made a smart pass, so she’ll want to do it again. In both cases, there is a lot of wilful blindness to incompetence while seizing on hints of gold.

It’s way more fun than I expected when I answered the netball club’s call for volunteer coaches, no experience, expertise, or prior knowledge necessary. One thing I love about sport is how it creates a tension-soaked contest that is 100% artificial, with no real-life consequences. You can watch a game of something and get happy or sad and then go right back to whatever you were doing. This works even with kids’ sports, apparently, because I care a lot about what happens on the court each Saturday morning, and it also doesn’t matter at all.

I value things like this, because I have a habit of turning my hobbies into jobs, and then a thing I was doing just for fun becomes work. Not real work. Not the kind most people do, with bosses. But it’s fun and invigorating to do something new that doesn’t overlap with anything else.

Having said that, I did build a website to generate netball rosters, since it gets complicated when you have eight or nine players and seven positions and four quarters and at the last minute Stephanie can’t play Wing Attack because she hurt her foot chasing a butterfly. It runs a mutating genetic algorithm to sift through tens of thousands of combinations and find the most efficient one. It’s free and public, so you can use it for your kids’ sports team, too.

Mon 06
Jul
2020

Narrator: They Were Not

Max From March:

But we are kind of all in it together. I have to say, of all the terrible crises to be facing, I do like how this one puts all of humanity on the same side. It’s not people against people, for once. We get to face this one as a species.

WOW is that the most naive thing I ever wrote or what. I mean, probably not; I started this blog when I was 26. But still, that is some real pie-eyed thinking. Yeah, sure, Max, people are going to forget their differences and pull together just because there’s a global health emergency. YOU IDIOT.

I don’t want to overreact, but I do wonder if this proves we’re doomed as a species. I remember sitting in university lectures on how to deceive people for money, i.e. psychology for marketing majors, and wondering where that would end, like what would happen if professional persuasion theory, which deliberately attacks our ability to perceive objective reality, continued to develop. Now I know: people refusing to wear masks in a pandemic as a political statement.

This is my real problem with satire at the moment: I can’t figure out how to make a more extreme version of current reality that’s also kind of fun. Or if not fun, then at least slightly absurd in a way that doesn’t leave you deeply terrified about the future. You don’t want an all-too-believable satire that’s incredibly depressing, is what I’m trying to say. You want a dystopia that’s thought-provoking but also lets you get a good night’s sleep.

For example, if I were writing this situation as a novel, my next step is people start boasting about being infected. As a sign they stood up for their politics, you see. Then they encourage other people to get infected, to prove themselves, and I guess then they go around deliberately trying to spread it. They reposition having the virus as a good thing. Maybe they could have a cool name.

But this is not a fun idea. No no no.

Older posts »