The Old Believers

Our first guest contributor! Welcome, Hershal, to the wonderful world of armchair pseudo-intellectual speculation, loosely held together by pithy titles and out-of-nowhere rhetorical questions! Isn’t it great?

I see you did some research on procrastination – I did as well. This week, I spent countless hours on the internet perusing various flavours of instant gratification instead of focusing on other, more pressing, matters (like this post). Completely unlike any other week, I swear. Here’s one article I stumbled upon. It’s a facinating read about a Russian family, the Lykovs, of ‘Old Believers’ that fled from the atheist Bolshevik purges of Christianity in the 1930s. The Lykovs escaped into the Russian Taiga, a harsh wilderness that’s cold and barren in the winter, and full of dark clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. Amazingly, the family of four (growing to six, after two more children were born in the wilderness) managed to live on their own with no human contact until 1978, completely unaware of World War II, space travel, or nuclear weapons. When the father was shown a cellophane container by a party of geologists who made first contact, he exclaimed ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’.

I bring this up to highlight two points. First, a meta one. Procrastination does sometimes lead to bits and pieces of wonderful new knowledge like the fascinating story of Old Believers. How much do I retain during a typical procrastination-induced binge? I don’t know, probably not much. But I do enjoy breaking up the monotonous routine that often seems like the way you’re supposed to live your life. Plan out your schedule, do everything the schedule says, and be a good little robot. Procrastination is the antithesis to the schedule, it’s a way for me to be anti-programming (to use Rachit’s phrase he coined during our life and death segment). Are you ok with never knowing about the Lykovs, in exchange for a few hours of more peaceful sleep? I’m not. But maybe I’m that rat that’s checking for new knowledge constantly, instead of scheduling a one hour binge session once a week? The ‘b’ word may or may not be applicable here.

Second, the Lykovs could not have procrastinated much. How could they? Their lives, and the lives of their entire family were at stake. Procrastination is a product of a societal safety net, something that does not exist in the harsh Siberian wilderness. From an evolutionary perspective, procrastination doesn’t make much sense. We procrastinators should have died out ages ago. Where are all the lions surfing the safari-equivalent of Reddit? They’re dead. As humans, we procrastinate because we can, but when push comes to shove, we get shit done. In some ways this thought is a relieving one: we are programmed by millions of years of evolution to survive, to live until we can reproduce. I’m sure everyone’s heard the advice that’s given to entrepreneurs, artists, and other people looking to start a long, intimidating journey: just put yourself out there, and commit yourself fully. Just do it, as Nike has been saying for decades. Sure, it’s trite, but it makes sense. Fear is the ultimate motivator, it triggers a response that has been hardwired into our brain: get shit done.

I have a few more thoughts I’d love to share, but in the interest of space, I’ll end it here and leave you with my one of my favourite comics of all time:


~ V

NFC Podcast #10 – Anti-Programming

The 10th NeverFromConcentrate podcast where we talk about the Potato Paradox, Dean Potter, and the myth of Sisyphus.

Standard Interview Questions

What are my conditions for wanting to die? Trivial. I get asked this in job interviews all the time. I’ll paraphrase one example:


Interviewer: Ok, Mr. Peretroukhin, you’ve passed all of our coding puzzles. Great job! I have one last question for you, if you don’t mind. What kind of mental or physical trauma would you be willing to face before you’d ask a friend to fatally poison you to end your suffering?

Me: Easy. If I ever lose 12 chess games in a row to players rated below me.

Interviewer: Jesus. You’re twisted. What kind of sick person comes of up with that kind of torture?

End scene.

I’m only half joking. I’d want to die when my mental faculties no longer allow me to fully experience the world as I have before (when everything I do is an inaccuracy, a mistake or even a blunder; when I leave all of the pieces of my life hanging without a second thought). I don’t think I would consider ending my own life for anything related to my physical well-being (as long as my mental health is unaffected and I have at least two senses remaining). Losing control of limbs would of course be devastating. I can’t imagine the anxiety and anguish that comes with having to rely on support workers for the most basic necessities. It’s something I’d never want to experience, but I don’t see them as show-stoppers. If I have my mind in tact, and enough external sensing left to experience the outside world, then I’ll keep on chugging along.

There’s so much of the world that you can taste, smell, see, hear, and touch. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind the smell of a campfire, the sound of a crescendoing movie score, the sight of the milky way on a dark summer night, the feel of bare skin on skin, or the taste of a perfectly crisp, cheesy slice of pizza. As long as I have more of the world to take in (in whatever physical form I’m in), I will want to be there.

A few question to think about for our podcast next week:

1) In certain forms of ‘reduced’ mental states, I may be completely lucid and consciously decide to reverse my decision. However, it’s clear that I am no longer of the same mental acuity. What do you do then? Does my present self get to overrule my future self?
2) What if you lost all of your senses? Would you want to exist as only a mind, with no external link to the world?
3) And finally, I’ll throw the question right back at you, Mr. Chakerwarti, what are your conditions?

I can’t finish off this topic without mentioning one of my favourite novels of all time: Flowers for Algernon for Daniel Keyes. I won’t spoil any of the plot for you, sufficed to say that the book deals with the role of intelligence in our lives, and how it interacts with ‘happiness’. You should absolutely give it a read sometime.


Socrates the Point Guard

That simple, eh? I think you’re assuming too much agreement here, and I’ve come up with a scenario to test your ethical stance. But first, lest you scold me for throwing the ball back into your court so quickly, let’s talk a bit about play making.

I know that I commited a grave sin with my introduction to the topic. After our first few exchanges on NeverFromConcentrate, we agreed that we’d try to refrain from ending our letters to each other by posing a list of questions (which is exactly what I did in my last post). We agreed that if we did that, we’d be shying away from the spotlight, too afraid to take a stance ourselves. We’d be point guards making unnecessary passes to guys in tight coverage, when there could be an open lane to the basket if we were only brave enough to put our heads down, put our arm up, and drive.

Driving is good. We shouldn’t be afraid to run right at 7-foot-tall, 250 pound philosophical topics and do everything we can to get to the basket on every possesion. But sometimes, driving isn’t the right choice. Sometimes it’s useful to pass the ball back and forth and find the open man, to pick apart the question, and to refrain from giving any answers ourselves. Sometimes we need to work on our passing, so we don’t play hero-ball in every post. Of course, we shouldn’t pass the ball too much though, because then much like Socrates, we’d spend our entire lives coming up with annoyingly poignant questions and have the good basketball fans of Athens come after us (because goddammit at some point, you have to shoot the damn ball!).

Alright, enough basketball metaphors – I’m going to tackle your question directly. Here’s the scenario:

1. I have a serious but not completely terminal illness. It’s causing me severe pain and has left me immobile. Doctors say that there is about a 50% chance that the pain can be controlled and mitigated with an experimental surgery that may let me live indefinitely (albeit with constant pain, and reduced mobility).

2. You know for a fact that my immediate family and significant other want me to agree to the surgery and do everything I can to prolong my life.

3. You also know that my significant other is pregnant, however she has not told me yet.

4. I have weighed my options and do not want to continue living. I am asking you to kill me (through some untraceable poison) and make it seem like I passed away of natural causes.

What do you do?

Ball’s in your court.



One of the legends in the climbing community, Dean Potter, died base jumping in Yosemite National Park on May 16th. His death affected me on some profound level. On one hand I felt remorse: he was one of the brightest lights in the climbing community and I grew up watching some of his incredible stunts.

On the other hand, I felt his death was strangely inspiring – a fitting culmination of his incredible journey. Potter’s life was spent pioneering new ways to explore remote terrain, climb it, and fall back down to do it again. In an almost literal interpretation of The Myth of Sisyphus, Potter found meaning in pushing a boulder up a mountain, watching it fall back down, and repeating the whole thing over and over again. One by one, he found ways to remove safety ropes, to be free of all the training wheels, right up until his death. He fought against all of the limitations that the world places on us, socially and physically. In the end, the world got the better of him, just like everyone else. But he died doing what he wanted to do; he died free.

I think of Dean and all of the other extreme athletes (Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner, to name some of my favourites) when I think of the assisted-suicide and euthanasia debates. To me there is no debate at all. We all hold our own mortality in our own hands. Whether you risk your life climbing massive vertical walls, jumping out of airplanes, or just walking down the street on your way to get a Grande Blonde, it is your life to risk. The absurdity of the human condition is up to every individual to interpret, and everyone should have the option of ending it all when they see fit.

Of course, this is all very idyllic. I’m a romantic Rachit; guilty as charged. Maybe the most interesting debates in euthanasia arise when the will of the individual is not so clear. What happens if the person is in a coma or is in some other manner unable to communicate? Who gets to decide what happens? How do you balance the minute, but ever-present, sliver of hope for improvement with the drain on the medical system that can use the resources to help other people? Would you kill me if I asked you to, even though the pain I feel may only be temporary?

Pulpy, pulpy questions.


NFC Podcast #9 – Sad Horses

The ninth Never From Concentrate podcast where we talk about horses, artists and what it means to feel happy.

Some Notes:

The Axiom

You’re right, it’s easy to romanticize this particular idea so it’s good we have some research to back up our claims. The actual depressive episode itself is not very conducive to creative outbursts; that seems straightforward to understand. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that creativity has to come from ‘elated’ moods that follow. Many artists use the feelings of sorrow and longing as the outline of their work, exploring and projecting their emotions onto their metaphorical canvas. Their mood certainly doesn’t have to be one of elation – though perhaps more ’stable’ than one of manic-depression. Further, the word ‘creativity’ here would be useful to define. One person’s creative work is another’s drudgery. My intuition is that for many people who deal with intense unsettling feelings, the work that results does not feel terribly ‘creative,’ though the end product may be original. The feelings of Toska do not inspire the creativity, they are the creativity. It’s only a matter of channeling the complex, multi-layered emotions into some medium other people can consume. “Let it all out,” if you will.

To address your last, more direct, point, I want to clarify something. You paraphrase my question to you as, feeling Toska sporadically, and intensely, and often, worth giving up your own definition of happiness?

I think you are jumping to conclusions here. I don’t think you have to give up any feelings of happiness at all – just spice them up with some freshly ground Toska. A ‘fulfilling’ life, a life that you would be willing to repeat, shouldn’t be prescribed as one that is unequivocally happy. In a sense, I am directly opposing what many Buddhists, Hindus, and Epicureans seek – a life of pure nirvana, free from pain. Is this what we really want? To just feel happy and content all the time?

I think pain, both emotional and physical, is the spice of life. Without it, our lives may be perfectly nutritious, and satisfying – but ultimately, dull. To quote the captain of the spaceship Axiom, from the film Wall-E: ‘I don’t want to survive, I want to live.’



Bon Iver is one of my favourite bands. They’ve released two fantastic albums, but have been on an extended break since 2012. I was listening to the most recent recording of Justin Vernon (Bon Iver’s lead singer) and Sean Carey (the drummer) on YouTube, when I stumbled onto this comment:

I know this is awful, but I’m kind of hoping his girl breaks his heart and his band breaks up. What would Van Gogh have been if he hadn’t been so damned depressed? I think Justin just moved on from Bon Iver because his life moved on. I doubt he’ll ever be back in that place where his music is all he has. As a man, I wish him all the best. As an artist, I hope he’s starving.
– Queen Rexy

The last sentence stood out for its gravitas. As an artist, I hope he’s starving. She doesn’t just recognize that artists starve, she hopes he starves. Sure, the starving artist is a well-worn cliche – everybody knows it’s difficult to make a living producing art. But does starving really serve a purpose? I think it does, and I think we don’t give starving enough credit.

Starving for what, exactly? It’s difficult to write music when you haven’t eaten. We don’t want the artist to literally starve. What artists need is to long: to long for times past, to long for love lost, and to long to be a better artist. In art, it pays to be unhappy.

In Russian, there’s a word that describes this state of mind a little more aptly: toska (pronounced tah-ska, with the stress on the second syllable). Vladimir Nabokov says this about it:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Some of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, artists and (ironically enough) comedians have been in one of the states of toska at some point in their lives. From Nietzsche, to Van Gogh, to Robin Williams, some of the world’s best art has been produced by the deeply distressed.

Ok, so many artists produce their best work when their life is in turmoil. So what? Well, I think this is an important point in the context of mental health.

With the advent of positive psychology, and an increased societal focus on how we can live fulfilling lives, I want to highlight this point: a fulfilling life does not have to be an unequivocally happy one. The state of longing and toska can be an incredible tool for creating powerful pieces of emotive expression. Perhaps toska can also be a drug, a constant state of darkness that is unsustainable for a lifetime if left unchecked. We must be able to recognize and disconnect from it when we feel it overwhelms us. As a temporary state of mind, however, I think it is perfectly natural, healthy, and inspiring.

For those of us whose lives are (for better or for worse) benign, and for the most part satisfactory – we may need to access toska through sheer imagination. Maybe Justin can try that, so Bon Iver can make a brilliant third album without his life falling apart.


NFC Podcast #8: Originality and Blue Collars

The 8th NFC Podcast. In this one we talk about what it means to be original, Robin Thicke, and blue collar workers.

North Korea’s Wes Anderson


You couldn’t get some better pictures of your chicken scratch? Throw an Instagram filter on them at least, or maybe spill some alcohol to add a real authentic grunge. I could barely read the entire thing, but I commend you for pushing the boundary of what a two person science, art, sports and philosophy blog can get away with. You took a known medium and altered it just slightly to make it interesting (maybe we can make it a bit more legible next time). This is the part of the originality spectrum where the majority of our favourite artists operate. They take a known medium, and give it a dash of original flavour. For every Wes Anderson, there are 10 David Fincher’s and Christopher Nolan’s who lack a completely novel style but make up for it with a few distinctive flairs and an overall solid understanding of their medium.

As a society, we understand and appreciate this style of art: take what we know and make it a bit better or present it in a way we haven’t seen before. Case in point: Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. But if you ask yourself, in 50 years, whose movies will we be more likely to see studied in film school, Anderson’s or Nolan’s, you’d probably bet on Anderson. Being completely original doesn’t necessarily bring in the most dough, but it leaves a legacy: your own permanent stain on the cultural zeitgeist that is hard to wash out.

This is true in art, and I think it’s also true in science and academia. Academia is the only industry I know of that actually pays for novelty first and foremost. As a researcher, your job is to produce novel insights and conjectures that broaden the state-of-the-art. This novelty is not unbounded however – there are accepted research fields where the majority of researchers spend their times and where the majority of grant money is to be found.

As a researcher, much like as an artist, you have to ask yourself: how original do I want to be? Pushing the envelope may cost you research funding in the short term, but your work may turn out to be more important to the field in the long term. This is the originality spectrum, and it comes with the same dreaded ‘b’ word as all the other spectrums we’ve talked about. How original do you want to be? The answer clearly depends on the culture and society in which you operate.

Kim Jon-un may like basketball, but I doubt he’s too big of a Wes Anderson fan.