Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive. But researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise.
In one of my earliest memories, I’m drawing. I don’t remember what the picture is supposed to be, but I remember the mistake. My marker slips, an unintentional line appears and my lip trembles. The picture has long since disappeared. But that feeling of deep frustration, even shame, stays with me.
More often than I’d like to admit, something seemingly inconsequential will cause the same feeling to rear its head again. Something as small as accidentally squashing the panettone I was bringing my boyfriend’s family for Christmas can tumble around in my mind for several days, accompanied by occasional voices like “How stupid!” and “You should have known better”.
Falling short of a bigger goal, even when I know achieving it would be near-impossible, can temporarily flatten me. When an agent told me that she knew I was going to write a book someday but that the particular idea I’d pitched her didn’t suit the market, I felt deflated in a gut-punching way that went beyond disappointment. The negative drowned out the positive. “You’re never going to write a book,” my internal voice said. “You’re not good enough.” That voice didn’t care that this directly contradicted what the agent actually said.
That’s the thing about perfectionism. It takes no prisoners. If I’ve struggled with perfectionism, I’m far from alone. The tendency starts young – and it’s becoming more common. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s recent meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016, the first study to compare perfectionism across generations, found significant increases among more recent undergraduates in the US, UK and Canada. In other words, the average college student last year was much more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s.
“As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists,” says Katie Rasmussen, who researches child development and perfectionism at West Virginia University. “We’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.”
The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.
‘My life has been nothing but a failure,’ perfectionist Claude Monet once said. He often destroyed paintings in a temper – including 15 meant to open an exhibition.
Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.
But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.
“It’s something that cuts across everything, in terms of psychological problems,” says Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow at the Curtin University in Perth who specialises in perfectionism, eating disorders and anxiety. “There aren’t that many other things that do that.
“There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer.”
Culturally, we often see perfectionism as a positive. Even saying you have perfectionistic tendencies can come off as a coy compliment to yourself; it’s practically a stock answer to the “What’s your worst trait?” question in job interviews. (Past employers, now you know! I wasn’t just being cute).
This is where perfectionism gets complicated – and controversial. Some researchers say there is adaptive, or ‘healthy’ perfectionism (characterised by having high standards, motivation and discipline) versus a maladaptive, or ‘unhealthy’ version (when your best never seems good enough and not meeting goals frustrates you).
In one study of more than 1,000 Chinese students, researchers found that gifted students were more perfectionistic in the adaptive ways. (Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, were more likely to be non-gifted). And while research shows that maladaptive attributes like beating yourself up for mistakes or feeling like you can’t live up to parental expectations make you more vulnerable to depression, some other studies have shown that ‘adaptive’ aspects like striving for achievement have no effect at all or may even protect you.
Buenos Aires is a city that brilliantly combines the old and the new, the nostalgic and the contemporary, all against a backdrop of stunning architecture, modern culture and amazing cuisine. Becoming a true porteno (resident of Buenos Aires) does not mean having to tango or milonga like a local, but it does mean embracing the true spirit of this fascinating, cosmopolitan, sexy capital, and never having dinner before 10 pm.
Buenos Aires’ European architecture and heritage attract many tourists and expats, but it is also a truly Latin city, with all the passion and problems that implies. After the economic crash of 2001, it became an attractive, affordable, A-list city for Americans and Europeans looking to make their dollars and euros go farther. Now after a two-year period of furious growth, the economy may be slowing slightly, but is still on pace for a 9% expansion in 2011.
Fear not: the Malbecs and steaks are still affordable, and the fashion and nightlife scene remain one of the best in South America, or anywhere in the world. And if its food and fun are better enjoyed with the favourable exchange rate, its culture is recession-proof. The glorious architecture here ranges from Modernist masterpieces to Art Nouveau and Art Deco showpieces, and the various barrios (neighbourhoods) — from the markets and streetlife of San Telmo to the historical and cultural landmarks of Recoleta — have their own special flavour.
Where do you want to live?
Buenos Aires has 48 separate barrios along the Rio de la Plata. The most popular locations are in the east near the river and close to the centre, such as Retiro, Barrio Norte, Puerto Madero and Recoleta. Barrio Norte, which includes parts of Recoleta, Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Retiro, is attractive to families. Recoleta, because of its central location and attractions like the Recoleta Cemetery, is one of the more expensive downtown neighbourhoods. Puerto Madero has great restaurants, nightlife and shopping.
People are now also looking at moving into industrial neighbourhoods like Barracas in the southeast, where factories have been turned into expensive urban lofts. Young expats from Spain and Italy, large numbers of whom have emigrated to Buenos Aires because of their countries’ current economic crises, are living in the barrios of Belgrano, San Telmo, Palermo Soho and Hollywood.
Outside the city there are many estancias (countryside ranches) for city dwellers to live the gaucho (cowboy) life, or just enjoy country life in the pampas, the grasslands outside Buenos Aires. San Carlos de Bariloche, the gateway to Patagonia and just a short flight away, is where portenos go to ski in winter or hike and trek in summer. Other summer getaways include the exclusive and cool beach town of Jose Ignacio, or glamourous Punta del Este in neighbouring Uruguay.
Flights from Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires to New York take 11 hours, and it is eight and a half hours to fly to Miami. Within South America, there are frequent flights to Brazil and Colombia.
Property in Argentina is bought in cash, usually in US dollars. There are no mortgages, although a few property developers offer some financing. Property prices have gone up 15%since last year, but they have not yet reached the pre-crash levels of a decade ago.
In posh Recoleta properties sell for between $350 and $550 per square foot, while in Palermo they cost about $280 to $370 per square foot — compared to $1,215 per square foot in Manhattan. Barracas properties cost about half of what they do in Palermo. Most expat buyers are from the US and Europe, with some Russian, Colombian and Chilean buyers moving in as well.
The recent currency controls put in place by the government have made it harder for Argentines to procure American dollars to buy property, but foreign buyers should find no problems. Expats who move here have to wade through a lot of bureaucracy and red tape (such as transaction fees and obtaining tax ID numbers), but the welcoming nature of the residents and the possibilities to be had in this exuberant city are well worth it.
It is often said that the brain is the most important erogenous zone. It’s often said, too, that there’s nothing sexier than a sense of humour. I’m not sure whether either of these assertions has been scientifically proven but, if they have, it could explain why Fifty Shades Freed is about as arousing as staring at a mildewed patch of wallpaper.
This is the third film to be adapted from EL James’ trilogy of zillion-selling “mommy porn” S&M bonkbusters, and its protagonists are two attractive young lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, so it should be a turn-on, if nothing else. And yet Fifty Shades Freed is so unarousing that it could be used as therapy in a sex addiction clinic. The complete lack of intelligence and fun has got to be a factor.
The film opens with Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) getting married to Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), Seattle’s most eligible bachelor. Their high-society wedding is dispensed with in a montage. Then their luxury honeymoon in France is dispensed with in a montage. And then, well, everything else drifts by with so little structure or intrigue that it might as well be a montage, too. Ana and her friends buy dresses; Christian buys a house. Ana drives a car; Christian drives a jet ski.
On and on this product placement-heavy conspicuous consumption goes, but there’s hardly any personality to it, and even less plot. Would it be cruel at this stage to mention that the screenwriter, Niall Leonard, also happens to be James’ own husband? Maybe. But, to be fair, his scripting is no more perfunctory than James Foley’s directing. Between them, they seem to have been aiming for the will-sapping vapidity of a Kardashian reality TV show overseen by Tommy “The Room” Wiseau.
Still, Fifty Shades Freed isn’t wholly without incident. Every now and then, Ana goes to her office in a publishing firm, thus establishing that she is the only senior fiction editor in America who doesn’t have a single manuscript or proof copy at home. And every now and then she and Christian bicker about having children – the kind of work-life disagreement which would barely fill the Charlotte storyline in an episode of Sex and the City.
And sometimes – oh so rarely – the film-makers remember that Ana is being stalked by her cartoonishly psychotic former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), at which point the stupidity ramps up, but not the excitement. Hyde’s hazily motivated attacks on Ana are quashed with laughable ease: Christian’s collection of riding crops would be more likely to do her an injury. But it’s still impossible to understand why Jack is treated so nonchalantly by the authorities. Halfway through the film, he tries to abduct Ana from the Greys’ swanky flat.
After her bodyguards have dealt with him – which they do, without breaking a sweat – a police detective reassures her: “Don’t worry about Hyde, we’ve got enough to hold him.” And, somehow, he says it with a straight face. Enough to hold him?! The guy’s just broken into the home of Christian Grey – the wealthiest, most influential man in the city! And he’s held a foot-long knife to Christian Grey’s new bride! Of course you’ve got enough to hold him! You’ve probably got enough to send him straight to the electric chair! But apparently not. A few minutes later, Hyde is granted bail and walks free – and nobody tells Christian. That’s how head-slappingly idiotic Fifty Shades Freed is.
You could argue that none of this vacuousness matters, and that the film exists for its sex scenes. But these tend to be brief, discreet, waist-up interludes. Christian, it seems, is growing out of the whips and chains which obsessed him when the series began. He may be obnoxiously controlling in regards to every other aspect of Ana’s life, but he can’t be bothered with bondage. At their most daring, the newlyweds have sex in a car (a parked car, mind you – safety first), and they have sex on a kitchen table in their Aspen holiday home, during which Christian frets that they might wake up their fellow guests.
And while these tame couplings could, in theory, have been titillating, the film’s pervasive joylessness acts as a cold shower. The ever-frowning Dornan has to take the blame. As usual, Johnson brings some much-needed flirtiness and recognisable human emotion to Ana, but Dornan always sounds as if he’s got a blocked nose, and always looks as if he would rather be at tomorrow’s board meeting. In one scene, Christian is so grumpy with Ana that he gives her a “not-tonight-I’ve-got-a-headache” brush-off, and that’s the only moment when Dornan’s performance has any conviction.
As feeble as it is in almost every respect, Fifty Shades Freed might perhaps have been watchable if Christian had been played by Bridget Jones-era Hugh Grant or by Wall Street-era Michael Douglas – or, for that matter, by any actor with confidence and swagger and a devilish twinkle. Instead, we’re stuck with a leading man who seems to be having a miserable time. Everyone in the audience will have a miserable time, too.
Here’s a quick conundrum for you. Your evil arch-enemy is crossing a canyon on a thin, wobbly metal ladder which has been laid across the gap. How do you stop him reaching the other side? Do you…
(a) shake the ladder, thus ensuring that he plunges to his well-deserved doom? Or do you …
(b) leap onto the ladder yourself, thus ensuring that you’re just as likely to plummet to your doom as he is?
If you answered (a), then congratulations, you are officially cleverer than Lara Croft, the dim-witted and generally inept heroine of Tomb Raider.
When the character made her video-game debut in 1996, she was marketed as a cyber sex symbol. The media focused on her rugby ball-shaped breasts, and a waist so minuscule she could have worn a wristwatch around it. But the game’s designers liked to point out that Lara’s IQ was even more stellar than her physical attributes, and by the time Angelina Jolie played her in two films, in 2001 and 2003, they could just about get away with calling her a feminist role model.
Fourteen years on, you might assume that she would be even more capable, and the casting of Alicia Vikander, a multi-lingual Oscar-winning Swedish actress, was certainly encouraging. But, despite the fact that people keep saying how amazingly gifted Lara is, she is so useless that you end up wondering if they are being sarcastic.
We first see her in an East London gym, where she loses a kick-boxing match. She then goes on a bike race around the city, a race she concludes by crashing into a police car. And when her adventures eventually get underway, she is less like James Bond than Inspector Clouseau. In Hong Kong, she wanders around a harbour, bleating, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” She is saved from three muggers by a shotgun-toting sailor (Daniel Wu), and he immediately cracks a code that had baffled her. Some role model.
I appreciate that the Lara in this film is still a trainee tomb raider, so she has an excuse for not being the hyper-confident bad-ass played by Jolie. I also understand that this depiction is true to the game that relaunched the series in 2013. But it isn’t much fun to watch her obeying other people’s instructions, relying on other people to rescue her, and responding to danger with screams and yelps rather than snappy one-liners. Are there really so many proficient big-screen action heroines out there that we now need one who is rubbish at everything?
What’s worse is that Lara’s incompetence is her only distinctive characteristic. Actually, that’s not true. Vikander is absurdly gorgeous, so if you want to watch a muscular young beauty running around in a sweat-soaked camisole, you’ll get your money’s worth from Tomb Raider. But her personality is no more developed than that of Pac-Man or Sonic the Hedgehog.
It was Lara’s father (Dominic West) who trained her in archery and puzzle-solving as a girl, and it is her father’s occult research that inspires her as a woman, but apart from her devotion to daddy’s memory (never mind that he spent most of her childhood disappearing on mysterious expeditions), she doesn’t seem to have any interests or relationships. In the opening London scenes, there is a man in a restaurant kitchen who fancies her, and a woman in the gym who chats to her. Neither of them is ever seen again.
The rest of the film is just as undistinguished as its heroine. Leafing through The Bumper Book of Mystical McGuffins, the screenwriters have stuffed their script with references to “The Devil’s Sea” and “The Chasm of Souls” – which is what you have to do when other screenwriters have already claimed the Egyptian pyramids and the Ark of the Covenant – but the story is drab and predictable. And, yes, it’s all about Lara’s absent father. He vanished seven years earlier after he went in search of an ancient Japanese Empress’s tomb. The Empress, according to legend, had the power to kill anyone she touched, so her own generals buried her on an uncharted island. Now a sinister organisation calling itself The Order of Trinity wants to dig her up and harness her magic, which is why Lara’s dad tried to reach her first.
As well as being worryingly close to the plot of last year’s Tom Cruise debacle, The Mummy, this scenario doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. If, after all, the Empress’s generals could defeat her 2000 years ago, how much use could her powers possibly be in an age of nerve agents and nuclear weapons? The Order of Trinity might have been better off investing in internet start-ups instead.
Still, this bog-standard premise is sufficient to send Lara to a remote, jungly island, where she is captured by a bog-standard villain (Walton Goggins). And this just-about-good-enough quality runs through the film. None of the digitally-assisted stunts will make you gasp, none of the dialogue will make you laugh, none of the twists will shock you, and none of the elaborate subterranean traps will seem as fiendish as they did when Indiana Jones faced them decades ago.
The London scenes deserve credit for their contemporary, untouristy vision of the city, with glass office blocks around the corner from graffitied alleys. But once Lara washes up on the Empress’s island, the cinematographer sticks to a palette of dingy greys, greens and browns, as if he wasn’t sure whether Tomb Raider was meant to be a blockbuster or a camouflage jacket. Vikander’s earnest performance gives Lara more life and emotion than the screenplay does, but the only truly exciting thing about the film is its director’s name, Roar Uthaug.
Unlike Jolie’s Tomb Raider outings, though, this one is not an incomprehensible mess. Nor is it as terrible as Assassin’s Creed, the recent video-game adaptation starring Vikander’s husband, Michael Fassbender. It’s an efficient franchise-starter and a passable Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off. It’s competent. And while that’s not saying much, it’s more than can be said for its heroine.
Born: October 3, 1988 in Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden
Birth Name: Alicia Amanda Vikander
Height: 5′ 5½” (1,66 m)
Alicia Vikander is a Swedish actress, dancer and producer. She was born and raised in Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden, to Maria Fahl-Vikander, an actress of stage and screen, and Svante Vikander, a psychiatrist. She is of Swedish and one quarter Finnish descent. Alicia began acting as a child in minor stage productions at The Göteborg Opera, and trained as a ballet dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm, and the School of American Ballet in New York.
She began her professional acting career by appearing in Swedish short films and television series, and first gained recognition in Northern Europe for her role as Josefin Björn-Tegebrandt in the TV drama Andra Avenyn (2007). Vikander made her feature film debut in Pure (2009), for which she won the Guldbagge Award for Best Actress.
She attracted widespread recognition in 2012 for portraying Princess Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya in Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Anna Karenina (2012), and Queen Caroline Mathilde in the acclaimed Danish film Yasak Ask (2012), receiving a BAFTA Rising Star Award nomination for her breakthrough. She went on to star in the 2013 Swedish drama film Hotell (2013)and appeared in the Julian Assange biopic Wikileaks (2013) that same year.
In 2014 and 2015, Vikander achieved global recognition and acclaim for her roles as activist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth (2014), an AI in Ex Machina (2014), for which she was nominated for the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress, and painter Gerda Wegener in Danimarkali Kiz (2015), for which she received the Academy Award and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Although more than a million tourists flock to its beaches, boutique hotels, trendy restaurants and clubs each summer, Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) never seems to lose its cool. More than any other Turkish seaside getaway, it has an enigmatic elegance that pervades it, from the town’s crowning castle and glittering marina to its flower-filled cafes and white-plastered backstreets. Even in the most hectic days of high summer, you can still find little corners of serenity in the town.
Urban planners have sought to preserve Bodrum’s essential Aegean character, which was influenced by the Cretans who moved here during the population exchange of the 1920s. Today, laws restrict buildings’ heights, and the whitewashed houses with bright-blue trim evoke a lost era. The evocative castle and the ancient ruins around town also help keep Bodrum a discerning step above the rest.
Sights in Bodrum
There are splendid views from the battlements of Bodrum’s magnificent castle, built by the Knights Hospitaller in the early 15th century and dedicated to St Peter. Today it houses the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (Sualtı Arkeoloji Müzesi), arguably the most important museum of its type in the world and a veritable lesson in how to bring ancient exhibits to life. Items are creatively displayed and well lit, and information panels, maps, models, drawings, murals, dioramas and videos all help to animate them.
Based on Rhodes, the Knights Hospitaller built the castle during Tamerlane’s Mongol invasion of Anatolia in 1402, which weakened the Ottomans and gave the order an opportunity to establish a foothold here. They used marble and stones from Mausolus’ famed Mausoleum, which had collapsed in an earthquake, and changed the city’s name from Halicarnassus to Petronium, recalling St Peter. By 1437 they had finished building, although they added new defensive features (moats, walls, cisterns etc) right up until 1522, when Süleyman the Magnificent captured Rhodes. The Knights were forced to cede the castle, and the victorious Muslim sultan promptly turned the chapel into a mosque, complete with new minaret. For centuries, the castle was never tested, but French shelling in WWI toppled the minaret (re-erected in 1997).
Spread around the castle, the attractively lit and informative museum has reconstructions and multimedia displays to complement the antiquities, and takes about two hours to see. It gets very busy and claustrophobic in the museum’s small rooms, so try to arrive early. Look to the ground for green/red mosaic arrows indicating a short/long tour route. You’ll see peacocks strolling, strutting and calling to prospective mates throughout the castle grounds.
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum was the greatest achievement of Carian King Mausolus (r 376–353 BC), who moved his capital from Mylasa (today’s Milas) to Halicarnassus. The only ancient elements to survive are the pre-Mausolean stairways and tomb chambers, the narrow entry to Mausolus’ tomb chamber and a huge green stone that blocked it, the Mausolean drainage system, precinct wall bits and some large fluted marble column drums.
Before his death, the king planned his own tomb, to be designed by Pytheos, the architect of Priene’s Temple of Athena. When he died, his wife (and sister), Artemisia, oversaw the completion of the enormous, white-marble colonnaded tomb topped by a 24-step pyramid and a quadriga, a four-horse chariot carrying Mausolus. In the late 15th century the Knights Hospitaller found the Mausoleum in ruins, perhaps destroyed by an earthquake, and between 1494 and 1522, almost all of it was reused as building blocks for the castle or burned for the lime content to strengthen the walls. Luckily, the more impressive ancient friezes were incorporated into the castle walls, while original statues of Mausolus and Artemisia were sent to the British Museum.
The site has relaxing gardens, with excavations to the west and a covered arcade to the east – the latter contains a copy of the famous frieze now in the British Museum. Four original fragments displayed were discovered more recently. Models, drawings and documents indicate the grand dimensions of the original Mausoleum. A scale model of Mausolus’ Halicarnassus is also on display.
Bodrum Maritime Museum
This small but well-formed museum spread over two floors examines Bodrum’s maritime past through finely crafted scale models of boats and an excellent video on traditional ‘Bodrum-type’ boat building. Much is made of Bodrum’s role as a sponge-diving centre and local writer Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı – the much-loved ’Fisherman of Halicarnassus’.
Conchologists of whatever hue will be in seventh heaven here. A private collection of some 6000 shells representing one third of all mollusc families is on shimmering display upstairs.
The restored Ottoman shipyard stands just above the marina. In 1770 Russia destroyed the entire Ottoman fleet at Çeşme; rebuilding it took place in boatyards such as this one. It was fortified against pirate attacks in the 18th and 19th centuries with a watchtower; today it occasionally hosts art exhibitions. Old tombstones, dating from the period when the Latin alphabet was replacing Arabic-based eski yazı (old-style writing) are kept above. Excellent views.
These are the restored remains of the only surviving gate from what were originally 7km-long walls probably built by King Mausolus in the 4th century BC. In front of the twin-towered gate are the remains of a moat in which many of Alexander the Great’s soldiers drowned in 334 BC.
On the main road to Turgutreis, ancient Halicarnassus’ theatre was built in the hillside rock in the 4th century BC to seat 5000 spectators but that capacity was increased to 13,000 for gladiatorial contests in the 3rd century AD. It hosts concerts and other events in summer.
Are you real? What about me?. We might live in a computer program, but it may not matter.
These used to be questions that only philosophers worried about. Scientists just got on with figuring out how the world is, and why. But some of the current best guesses about how the world is seem to leave the question hanging over science too.
Several physicists, cosmologists and technologists are now happy to entertain the idea that we are all living inside a gigantic computer simulation, experiencing a Matrix-style virtual world that we mistakenly think is real.
Our instincts rebel, of course. It all feels too real to be a simulation. The weight of the cup in my hand, the rich aroma of the coffee it contains, the sounds all around me – how can such richness of experience be faked?
But then consider the extraordinary progress in computer and information technologies over the past few decades. Computers have given us games of uncanny realism – with autonomous characters responding to our choices – as well as virtual-reality simulators of tremendous persuasive power.
It is enough to make you paranoid. The Matrix formulated the narrative with unprecedented clarity. In that story, humans are locked by a malignant power into a virtual world that they accept unquestioningly as “real”. But the science-fiction nightmare of being trapped in a universe manufactured within our minds can be traced back further, for instance to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
Over all these dystopian visions, there loom two questions. How would we know? And would it matter anyway? The idea that we live in a simulation has some high-profile advocates.
In June 2016, technology entrepreneur Elon Musk asserted that the odds are “a billion to one” against us living in “base reality”. Similarly, Google’s machine-intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil has suggested that “maybe our whole universe is a science experiment of some junior high-school student in another universe”.
What’s more, some physicists are willing to entertain the possibility. In April 2016, several of them debated the issue at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, US.
None of these people are proposing that we are physical beings held in some gloopy vat and wired up to believe in the world around us, as in The Matrix.
Instead, there are at least two other ways that the Universe around us might not be the real one. Cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US has suggested that our entire Universe might be real yet still a kind of lab experiment. The idea is that our Universe was created by some super-intelligence, much as biologists breed colonies of micro-organisms.
There is nothing in principle that rules out the possibility of manufacturing a universe in an artificial Big Bang, filled with real matter and energy, says Guth.
Nor would it destroy the universe in which it was made. The new universe would create its own bubble of space-time, separate from that in which it was hatched. This bubble would quickly pinch off from the parent universe and lose contact with it.
This scenario does not then really change anything. Our Universe might have been born in some super-beings’ equivalent of a test tube, but it is just as physically “real” as if it had been born “naturally”.
However, there is a second scenario. It is this one that has garnered all the attention, because it seems to undermine our very concept of reality.
Musk and other like-minded folk are suggesting that we are entirely simulated beings. We could be nothing more than strings of information manipulated in some gigantic computer, like the characters in a video game.
Even our brains are simulated, and are responding to simulated sensory inputs. In this view, there is no Matrix to “escape from”. This is where we live, and is our only chance of “living” at all.
But why believe in such a baroque possibility? The argument is quite simple: we already make simulations, and with better technology it should be possible to create the ultimate one, with conscious agents that experience it as totally lifelike.
We carry out computer simulations not just in games but in research. Scientists try to simulate aspects of the world at levels ranging from the subatomic to entire societies or galaxies, even whole universes.
For example, computer simulations of animals may tell us how they develop complex behaviours like flocking and swarming. Other simulations help us understand how planets, stars and galaxies form.
We can also simulate human societies using rather simple “agents” that make choices according to certain rules. These give us insights into how cooperation appears, how cities evolve, how road traffic and economies function, and much else.
These simulations are getting ever more complex as computer power expands. Already, some simulations of human behaviour try to build in rough descriptions of cognition. Researchers envisage a time, not far away, when these agents’ decision-making will not come from simple “if…then…” rules. Instead, they will give the agents simplified models of the brain and see how they respond.
Who is to say that before long we will not be able to create computational agents – virtual beings – that show signs of consciousness? Advances in understanding and mapping the brain, as well as the vast computational resources promised by quantum computing, make this more likely by the day.
If we ever reach that stage, we will be running huge numbers of simulations. They will vastly outnumber the one “real” world around us. Is it not likely, then, that some other intelligence elsewhere in the Universe has already reached that point? If so, it makes sense for any conscious beings like ourselves to assume that we are actually in such a simulation, and not in the one world from which the virtual realities are run. The probability is just so much greater.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford in the UK has broken down this scenario into three possibilities. As he puts it, either:
(1) Intelligent civilisations never get to the stage where they can make such simulations, perhaps because they wipe themselves out first; or
(2) They get to that point, but then choose for some reason not to conduct such simulations; or
(3) We are overwhelmingly likely to be in such a simulation.
The question is which of these options seems most probable.
Astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot has argued that there is no compelling reason to believe (1) or (2).
Sure, humanity is causing itself plenty of problems at the moment, what with climate change, nuclear weapons and a looming mass extinction. But these problems need not be terminal.
What’s more, there is nothing to suggest that truly detailed simulations, in which the agents experience themselves as real and free, are impossible in principle. Smoot adds that, given how widespread we now know other planets to be (with another Earth-like one right on our cosmic doorstep), it would be the height of arrogance to assume that we are the most advanced intelligence in the entire Universe.
What about option (2)? Conceivably, we might desist from making such simulations for ethical reasons. Perhaps it would seem improper to create simulated beings that believe they exist and have autonomy.
But that too seems unlikely, Smoot says. After all, one key reason we conduct simulations today is to find out more about the real world. This can help us make the world better and save lives. So there are sound ethical reasons for doing it.
That seems to leave us with option (3): we are probably in a simulation. But this is all just supposition. Could we find any evidence?
Many researchers believe that depends on how good the simulation is. The best way would be to search for flaws in the program, just like the glitches that betray the artificial nature of the “ordinary world” in The Matrix. For instance, we might discover inconsistencies in the laws of physics.
Alternatively, the late artificial-intelligence maven Marvin Minsky has suggested that there might be giveaway errors due to “rounding off” approximations in the computation. For example, whenever an event has several possible outcomes, their probabilities should add up to 1. If we found that they did not, that would suggest something was amiss.
With its cobblestone paving and Georgian façades, tranquil Hill Street is a haven in Edinburgh’s busy New Town. Compared to the Scottish capital’s looming castle or eerie closes, it doesn’t seem like a street with a secret.
Walk slowly, though, and you might notice something odd. Written in gold gilt above a door framed by two baby-blue columns are the words, “The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No 1”. Further up the wall, carved into the sandstone, is a six-pointed star detailed with what seem – at least to non-initiates – like strange symbols and numbers.
Located at number 19 Hill Street, Mary’s Chapel isn’t a place of worship. It’s a Masonic lodge. And, with its records dating back to 1599, it’s the oldest proven Masonic lodge still in existence anywhere in the world.
That might come as a surprise to some people. Ask most enthusiasts when modern Freemasonry began, and they’d point to a much later date: 1717, the year of the foundation of what would become known as the Grand Lodge of England. But in many ways, Freemasonry as we know it today is as Scottish as haggis or Harris tweed.
From the Middle Ages, associations of stonemasons existed in both England and Scotland. It was in Scotland, though, that the first evidence appears of associations – or lodges – being regularly used. By the late 1500s, there were at least 13 established lodges across Scotland, from Edinburgh to Perth. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 16th Century that those medieval guilds gained an institutional structure – the point which many consider to be the birth of modern Freemasonry.
Take, for example, the earliest meeting records, usually considered to be the best evidence of a lodge having any real organisation. The oldest minutes in the world, which date to January 1599, is from Lodge Aitchison’s Haven in East Lothian, Scotland, which closed in 1852. Just six months later, in July 1599, the lodge of Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh started to keep minutes, too. As far as we can tell, there are no administrative records from England dating from this time.
“This is, really, when things begin,” said Robert Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and author of the book Cracking the Freemason’s Code. “[Lodges] were a fixed feature of the country. And what is more, we now know it was a national network. So Edinburgh began it, if you like.”
I met Cooper in his office: a wood-panelled, book-stuffed room in the Grand Lodge of Scotland at 96 George Street, Edinburgh – just around the corner from Mary’s Chapel. Here and there were cardboard boxes, the kind you’d use for a move, each heaped full with dusty books and records. Since its founding in 1736, this lodge has received the records and minutes of every other official Scottish Masonic lodge in existence. It is also meant to have received every record of membership, possibly upwards of four million names in total.
That makes the sheer number of documents to wade through daunting. But it’s also fruitful, like when the Grand Lodge got wind of the Aitchison’s Haven minutes, which were going for auction in London in the late 1970s. Another came more recently when Cooper found the 115-year-old membership roll book of a Scottish Masonic lodge in Nagasaki, Japan.
“There’s an old saying that wherever Scots went in numbers, the first thing they did was build a kirk [church], then they would build a bank, then they would build a pub. And the fourth thing was always a lodge,” Cooper said, chuckling.
That internationalism was on full display in the Grand Lodge of Scotland’s museum, which is open to the public. It was full of flotsam and jetsam from around the world: a green pennant embroidered with the “District Grand Lodge of Scottish Freemasonry in North China”; some 30 Masonic “jewels” – or, to non-Masons, medals – from Czechoslovakia alone.
Of course, conspiracy theorists find that kind of reach foreboding. Some say Freemasonry is a cult with links to the Illuminati. Others believe it to be a global network that’s had a secret hand in everything from the design of the US dollar bill to the French Revolution. Like most other historians, Cooper shakes his head at this.
“If we’re a secret society, how do you know about us?” he asked. “This is a public building; we’ve got a website, a Facebook page, Twitter. We even advertise things in the press. But we’re still a ‘secret society’ running the world! A real secret society is the Mafia, the Chinese triads. They are real secret societies. They don’t have a public library. They don’t have a museum you can wander into.”
Some of the mythology about Freemasonry stems from the mystery of its early origins. One fantastical theory goes back to the Knights Templar; after being crushed by King Philip of France in 1307, the story goes, some fled to Argyll in western Scotland, and remade themselves as a new organisation called the Freemasons. (Find out more in our recent story about the Knights Templar).
Others – including Freemasons themselves – trace their lineage back to none other than King Solomon, whose temple, it’s said, was built with a secret knowledge that was transferred from one generation of stonemason to the next.
A more likely story is that Freemasonry’s early origins stem from medieval associations of tradesmen, similar to guilds. “All of these organisations were based on trades,” said Cooper. “At one time, it would have been, ‘Oh, you’re a Freemason – I’m a Free Gardener, he’s a Free Carpenter, he’s a Free Potter’.”
For all of the tradesmen, having some sort of organisation was a way not only to make contacts, but also to pass on tricks of the trade – and to keep outsiders out.
But there was a significant difference between the tradesmen. Those who fished or gardened, for example, would usually stay put, working in the same community day in, day out.
Not so with stonemasons. Particularly with the rush to build more and more massive, intricate churches throughout Britain in the Middle Ages, they would be called to specific – often huge – projects, often far from home. They might labour there for months, even years. Thrown into that kind of situation, where you depended on strangers to have the same skills and to get along, how could you be sure everyone knew the trade and could be trusted? By forming an organisation. How could you prove that you were a member of that organisation when you turned up? By creating a code known by insiders only – like a handshake.
Even if lodges existed earlier, though, the effort to organise the Freemason movement dates back to the late 1500s. A man named William Schaw was the Master of Works for King James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England), which meant he oversaw the construction and maintenance of the monarch’s castles, palaces and other properties. In other words, he oversaw Britain’s stonemasons. And, while they already had traditions, Schaw decided that they needed a more formalised structure – one with by-laws covering everything from how apprenticeships worked to the promise that they would “live charitably together as becomes sworn brethren”.
Scotland’s true Masonic history, it turns out, is more hidden than the church that Dan Brown made famous. It’s just hidden in plain sight: in the Grand Lodge and museum that opens its doors to visitors; in the archivist eager for more people to look at the organisation’s historical records; and in the lodges themselves, tucked into corners and alleyways throughout Edinburgh and Scotland’s other cities.
Their doors may often be closed to non-members, but their addresses, and existence, are anything but secret.
Think you’d hand in your notice if you suddenly struck it rich? You’d be surprised.
When Keith, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, worked at a technology company that went public, he became rich overnight. He was sure he’d never need to work again.
His pay-out from the initial public offering was well into the “tens of millions” of dollars, he says, a life-changing amount. It gave him the type of financial security that most of us can only dream of.
He stayed on at first, but soon stopped working. He spent a year travelling and spending money on “frivolous things” but found it difficult to enjoy his life, he says.
Like most people, Keith (who asked that his last name and identifying details not be used due to the personal nature of his story) had long believed he worked simply to make money. He was wrong. And so even with savings that would last a lifetime, Keith started another job search.
“I just felt unhappy at the lack of structure and not knowing what my purpose in life was. My skills were deteriorating and I was finding it difficult to interact with other people intellectually,” says Keith, now in his mid-thirties. “There’s a higher reason why we all go to work.”
Now, he’s back at work — and significantly happier than he was not working. You’d think striking it suddenly rich would be the ultimate ticket to freedom. Without money worries, the world would be your oyster. Perhaps you’d champion a worthy cause, or indulge a sporting passion, but work? Surely not. However, remaining gainfully employed after sudden wealth is more common than you’d think.
After all, there are numerous high-profile billionaires who haven’t called it quits despite possessing the luxury to retire, including some of the world’s top chief executives, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
But it turns out, the suddenly rich who aren’t running companies are also loathe to quit, even though they have plenty of money. That could be, in part, because the link between salary and job satisfaction is very weak.
According to a meta-analysis by University of Florida business school professor Timothy Judge and other researchers, there’s less than a 2% overlap between the two factors. In the long run, we derive job satisfaction from non-monetary sources, which include positive peer relationships, the ability to work on meaningful projects and even leadership opportunities.
But, most of us take our jobs and the nonmaterial things they bring us for granted. We don’t realise that, though, until we’re faced with a situation of extreme wealth, says Jamie Traeger-Muney, an Israel-based therapist and founder of the Wealth Legacy Group who works with clients all over the world.
About 98% of her patients continue working in some way after they are financially secure, she adds. For some, it’s about a sense of purpose; for others it’s a way to keep a much-needed routine.
“Money is a much smaller driver of happiness and fulfilment from work than we anticipate,” she says. “There’s a difference between what they fantasise about and what actually feels meaningful, motivating and fulfilling.”
There’s another, more egotistical reason why some of us can’t stand not being in the game: status. Imagine the embarrassment of being so highly-accomplished, so associated with your work successes and then, as time passes, you can’t answer the question of “What do you do?” so easily, says Brooke Harrington professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
Going back to work — or never quitting — helps maintain an identity that’s derived from our professional achievements, especially if that identity has long been tied to our work, says Harrington.
“We lose status when we’re not employed in a job that can help others place us in the social hierarchy, and help us place ourselves [in the hierarchy],” she says. In short, it’s hard to know where you fit in when you’re not at least on the ladder.
As a serial entrepreneur, Karen Gordon, the founder of an employee engagement firm that she launched more than a decade after starting a telecommunications firm, decided that starting something new — and staying at work — was more important than spending her profits over the years.
“People enjoy accomplishment and enjoy [being] able to be competitive — and to win,” says Gordon, who is based in Austin, Texas in the US. She also craved the daily challenges that come with working as team, she adds.