#6 Finite School, Infinite Work

Plus, a review of Cixin Liu's, the Wandering Earth

Welcome readers old and new. This is one of Thomas Hollands’ notes in his search for ideas which are surprisingly general, or generally surprising. The first issue explains the project, and you can find all past issues here.

Two moderately-sized pieces today. Both explore ideas which fall between the cracks.

The first is underrated: it’s about a fundamental mindset shift that I believe everyone who leaves academia for the corporate world undergoes. The second touches ideas from a foreign culture: it’s an exploration of the themes in Cixin Liu’s short story, The Wandering Earth, which in my view is the best thing he’s written.

Off we go.

Finite School, Infinite Work

School is like Mortal Kombat, Work is like Skyrim.

Coming up through school, most of our goals are finite.

In class, we do our homework, and study hard for the final exam. In sports, we train hard for the big competition at the end of term. These finite games are like optimisation problems. I have a certain set of constraints I need to meet, and I have a certain amount of time, energy, and other activities in my schedule to meet them. I know I need to get a 7 in maths to get into my top choice university, I can measure that I’m currently at a 5, and I have three weeks to study maths along with my other subjects.

The art of acing the exam, or performing best at a sports tournament is the art of identifying leverage — what are the highest opportunity things I can do with my finite energy, such that when it is all gone, I have satisfied all my goals as best as I can.

If you are super nerdy (like me), you could do this quantitatively. Assign a positive value for achieving each goal - the magnitude depends on how valuable the goal is to you. Then, program in your time and energy constraints. You could create a goal phase space, and analytically determine the local maximum — which is the peak of the space where you obtain the highest value — where you achieve the most goals.

These goals are finite — you meet them and they are done. When exams are over, you have summer holidays, filled with weeks of downtime. This finitude is one of the reasons why students have trouble adjusting to the "real" world of employment and self motivation.

After school most people go to work in a company, which is a different kettle of fish. The finite games of school are replaced by infinite ones. There is always more work to do. If you demonstrate yourself capable to your boss, you can “take on more bandwidth” — increase your workload.

There are rarely any fixed goals. Instead, your performance at work depends on your superiors’ perception of your performance. It doesn't matter how much you actually get done so much as how much you seem to be getting done. Because goals change all the time, there is nothing to optimise for. Instead, the infinite game of work is more like a game of survival. You cannot allocate your time and energy budgets to maximise an objective function, because no such function exists. But you can allocate time and energy to guarantee workplace “survival”, in this case, minimum viable performance.

You might approach this as follows:

Look at a basket of your peers, and determine which of their actions, if carried out together, are looked upon favourably by your superiors. Then, you can optimise over these actions, because you can work out how to perform these actions with as little time and energy as possible. With the rest of your time and energy, there are always more personally useful things you can do at work, like meeting interesting people, improving your skills, or tasks unrelated to work (like writing this newsletter).

I used to do this when I worked in a hotel all the time. I’d identify how to do all my work as quickly as possible, then spend the rest of the time chatting to guests, eating sausage sandwiches in the kitchen, or reading Game of Thrones.

Taken another way, school and work are like video games.

The school game is like a sports or combat video game. There are a set of events, usually of increasing difficulty, which you need to win, one after the next.

The work game is like an adventure video game. There is always a main quest or two — your responsibilities at any moment in time. But there are many side quests, which can give you extra powers or shortcuts to achieving your main objectives. Some of them will be useless but many won’t. They might teach you skills, which like in-game power-ups, could turn out useful later on. The more time you give yourself to explore these off-roads, the more in-roads you’ll make in your career.

If you vibe with this, Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse is worth reading.

The Wandering Earth — Some Themes

Cixin Liu is one of the most gifted sci-fi authors around, and he's Chinese. If you're interested in how the world works these alone are two incredible reasons to follow his work. His 3 body trilogy is already well known in the West, but his short story The Wandering Earth resonated with me more.

Below I have summarised it's synopsis and themes — skip the first section to avoid the spoilers!

It’s also a Netflix series in Chinese. I haven’t seen it but if Chinese is your thing, It’ll probably be worth your time on themes and costume alone.

The Wandering Earth | Netflix Official Site

NUCLEAR POWERED space suits!


All is not well at the centre of the solar system. Astrophysicists have discovered that the sun is no longer evolving as a main sequence star. Instead of a couple of billion years of stability, the interior of the sun will erupt in only four hundred years, turning it into a red giant, whose expanded diameter will engulf Earth in a giant solar firestorm. To secure the future of humanity, a totalitarian world government have built massive engines into Earth’s crust. Powered by fusion, they will propel the earth away from the sun, before arriving at the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, after 2,500 years. For two thousand years humanity will travel through deep space — living deep underground aboard a Wandering Earth.


Hard science and “how things work"

Like all Liu books, much emphasis is placed on the ability of humanity to innovate when the going gets tough. Liu describes the practical applications of these innovations with great detail. The cooling and heating suits necessary for walking on the surface are powered by nuclear batteries. The massive engines, “God’s blowtorches”, which propel Earth away from its sun are powered by heavy-element fusion of rock — the citizens of Liu’s novella break up entire mountains to fuel their journey across the cosmos.

One thing I especially liked about the Wandering Earth is the care Liu takes to describe how the Earth will change as a result of its travel. He describes how, when lost in a perpetual night, the oceans will freeze over. How, when the rotation of the earth is finally halted, the sun will descend into a final, inexorable, multi-decade sunset. How, when the earth enters the Kuiper belt, it is bombarded with meteors, which cause tsunamis hundreds of metres high.

His writing is concrete and well-grounded in physical science. It really does give the reader an appreciation for the kinds of new knowledge and scientific development it would take to overcome such a catastrophe. And it emphasises the primacy of human thought: the only way out of the situation is to use science to solve our problems.

Survival and human culture

In The Wandering Earth, survival is at the forefront of every human mind, in a way more salient than ever before. Instead of worrying about food, water and shelter, all of humanity is fixated on the Helium content of the sun and its distance to the earth.

This constant focus drastically changes human culture. Things which previously seemed important, like sex, relationships, and family honour are not understandable to contemporary humans in The Wandering Earth. The narrator’s father elopes with his primary school teacher for two months, and his mother barely bats an eye. These primal urges need to be sated, and as long as they do not interfere with the survival of humanity they are not important.

Reflexivity between scientific models and their social consequences

Another common theme in Liu’s writing is the breakdown and remoulding of civil society as a result of astronomical phenomena. The incredible things that happen in his novels have predictable, understandable physical consequences, but due to public misunderstanding of science, they lead to social uncertainty, and often, disaster.

In The Wandering Earth, Earth must orbit the sun 15 times, using it as a gravity slingshot to accelerate out of the solar system. Every time Earth reaches aphelion, the farthest part of its orbit from the sun, there is celebration: If the sun erupts into a Red Giant, Earth will not be engulfed in solar flame. Every time Earth reaches perihelion, there is mass panic, and conspiracies that the sun will supernova, destroying everything.

After the Earth leaves the solar system, there is widespread belief that the sun was actually fine the whole time, and humanity could’ve stayed in the solar system. They spent hundreds of years and millions of lives leaving — for nothing. This belief leads to total social collapse, and a worldwide civil war, culminating in the deaths of almost all of the coalition government (including the astrophysicists who said the solar system will become inhospitable). After the war ends, the sun undergoes a helium burst, and to their horror, the remaining humans learn the scientists were right all along.

Authoritarian government as a response to existential threat

Pervading all of Liu’s writing is the idea that people self-organise into autocracy in response to an existential threat. People readily give up their hard-won freedoms in the face of serious adversity, because above all else they want life to be predictable and understandable. You can’t help but infer the influence of the Chinese government on his writing here.

In The Wandering Earth, once humanity learns of the future fate of the sun, they self-organise into a totalitarian coalition world government. This government is centrally-planned, and dictates people’s jobs, their education, where they will live, and whether they can procreate. It even solves moral problems — when one of the underground cities is breached by a flood of magma, there is a clear evacuation protocol. Younger people, then able bodied people, and finally the elderly can evacuate in an orderly sequence. There is an underlying belief that central planning can coordinate to solve moral problems — even all trolley problems. In clear cases of adversity, moral right and wrong are also clear.

If you’ve read the 3-body trilogy I want to hear your thoughts. Personally, I thought books 1 and 2 were outstanding, and book 3 was terrible (and too long). But what do you think?

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