Book Review: Level Up Your Life

Level Up Your Life is a book about self-improvement and adventure by American entrepreneur, fitness instructor, publisher, and writer Steve Kamb. The book shows people how to define goals and use a game setup of experience points and levels to accomplish those goals while avoiding various pitfalls along the way. The book is divided into six sections, each of which contains three to five chapters.

Kamb begins with a brief introduction, describing several of his most interesting adventures as well as the life he led before deciding to change his life. He talks about the online community he founded about changing one’s life to be more active and adventurous, then invites the reader to join.

The first section begins by going into greater detail about Kamb’s own experiences and backstory than did the introduction. The middle is a warning about getting stuck in the research and planning stages of an adventure without ever actually going on the adventure. The final chapter of this section is an exhortation to stop waiting and thinking you cannot live the life you want to live.

Getting started on a hero’s journey is the subject of the second section. Kamb begins by laying out the basic story arc that almost all heroic characters follow. Next, he asks the reader to describe one’s normal life and then create the superhero alter-ego that one wishes to become. The following chapter presents several common excuses that people use to justify not living a more interesting life and rebuts each of them. The sixth chapter contains advice on dealing with people who offer discouragement and resistance to one’s ambitions. Kamb ends this section by explaining how game mechanics such as experience points and leveling can be used in real life to help one learn skills and achieve goals.

In the third section, Kamb discusses how to set up one’s Game of Life. He lays out the rules that his group uses, but one can create one’s own list. The ninth chapter gives examples of character classes from role-playing games and how they might translate into real-world skill sets. The point of the chapter is to describe one’s ideal leveled-up character. The next chapter explores various quests that one could pursue in order to get from one’s current state to one’s ideal state. Kamb ends this section by sharing how he used the methods from the previous two chapters in his own quest.

The fourth section begins with more discussion of experience points and levels, then proceeds to discuss the need to self-impose both positive and negative reinforcement in order to cultivate discipline. An excellent bit of advice is given here: rewarding yourself should take the form of something that will aid in one’s quest, not something immediately pleasurable that will hinder one’s efforts going forward. In the fourteenth chapter, Kamb explains the importance of willpower. He suggests altering one’s environment to make pursuing one’s goals require less willpower and working against those goals require more. Following this, the need to create flow and momentum in one’s life is explained. The section concludes with a chapter about team-building that describes the roles of mentor, peer, trainee, and wildcard. Finding people to fill each of these roles helps make a quest more productive and interesting.

The fifth section uses the examples of four well-known fictional characters and how they overcame adversity in their stories to discuss how to prepare the body and mind for any adventure, nurture an adventurous spirit, and make necessary sacrifices in pursuit of success. The stories of Bruce Wayne, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen contain a multitude of lessons, making this the longest section of the book.

In the last section, Kamb reminds the reader that tomorrow is not guaranteed and whatever is worth doing should be started now. He encourages those who have completed their personal quests to share their stories and knowledge so that less experienced people can learn from them. The final chapter encourages those who have done great deeds to avoid resting on their laurels and move on to another adventure. The book concludes with a list of resources, acknowledgments, and a repetition of the offer to join Kamb’s online community.

Level Up Your Life is one of the better self-help books out there, and the online community is an added bonus. The greatest criticisms of the book would be that it is too much of an advertisement for the online community, and that while it is excellent for someone who is enduring life but not enjoying it, it is far less useful for someone who already uses similar methods with great success in some areas of life but is held back by failures in other areas. Even so, Kamb has created a book that is worth reading (and a website worth visiting).

Rating: 4/5

Leave Otto Warmbier In North Korea

On January 2, 2016, then-21-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier (now 22) was on a five-day guided tour in North Korea when he was arrested at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. He allegedly stole a North Korean propaganda banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel on December 30, 2015 to take back to the United States, which the North Korean government called “an act of hostility against the state.” A video was released on March 18, 2016 that purportedly shows Warmbier in the act.

Warmbier said in a statement at his trial that he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could return the banner and that $200,000 would be paid to his mother if he was detained. He said that he took the banner in effort to help his family with financial difficulties and to try to join the Z Society, an organization at the University of Virginia. But this should be viewed with skepticism, as many people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession have recanted their statements after being released.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March by North Korea’s highest court after only a one-hour trial, leading to international condemnation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the sentence: “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, in a statement. President Obama responded with new sanctions against North Korea.

Since his sentencing, veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson has been pushing for Warmbier’s release. As of late, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also taken up the cause. But there is a case to be made against this effort and in favor of leaving Warmbier to his fate. Let us explore that case.

The Case Against Rescue

First, leaving Warmbier to serve his sentence has propaganda value against North Korea. Difficult though it may be to imagine North Korea in a positive light, there are those who do so, and thus it is necessary to engage them on the propaganda front. Many people are empiricists to the extent of being anti-rational, and thus need a clear example of statist tyranny to convince them that such regimes are a moral evil. His continued captivity provides such an example. At the national level, such actions harm North Korea’s standing among other nations. As Napoleon said, “When the enemy is making a false movement, we must take good care not to interrupt him.”

Second, Warmbier’s captivity will serve as a warning to those who would follow in his footsteps. As long as he remains in a North Korean labor camp, it will be clear to all who would think of traveling to North Korea that a long state-sponsored kidnapping and enslavement may be the result. Once again, there are people who need a current ongoing example to remind them of this.

Third, North Korea has a history of using the detention of foreigners as a means of exerting pressure on its adversaries. It is therefore likely that Warmbier’s release will come at a cost. At the time of this writing, it is too early to say how President Trump will handle such situations, but President Obama has established a dangerous precedent of not only negotiating with terrorists, but doing so incompetently. The Bowe Bergdahl exchange and the Iran nuclear deal both come to mind as transactions in which America offered far too much and received far too little in return. This has established a dangerous precedent that concessions may be obtained from the American government by harming American citizens or interests abroad.

Fourth, negotiating with and providing concessions to North Korea rewards them for bad behavior. Behavior which is subsidized will occur more frequently, so a generous offer made to secure Warmbier’s release will only encourage other malevolent actors to abduct Americans in the hopes of receiving their own hefty ransom. Therefore, those who seek Warmbier’s release may actually be contributing to the victimization of other Americans in the future.

Fifth, Warmbier’s continued imprisonment will send a message that if an American travels abroad to a hostile country and gets into trouble with the regime there, neither the American people nor the American government will save such people from themselves. An essential aspect of liberty is the ability to take one’s own risks, reap one’s own rewards, and suffer one’s own consequences without external interference. Warmbier did the first of these, and now he is doing the last. No one forced Warmbier to travel to North Korea. When he was there, no one forced him to steal a propaganda banner, if that is indeed what happened. He either knew or should have known that such behavior was dangerous and could result in his current predicament.

Objections

Mainstream thinkers will likely be protesting that the North Koreans are aggressors who are holding an innocent man captive. They will accuse anyone who advocates abandoning Warmbier of victim blaming, heartlessness, and letting North Korea get away with criminal behavior. Such thinkers should learn to avoid context denial. That the North Koreans are aggressors who are holding an innocent man captive is true, but beside the point. The point is that there is nothing to be done about it which does not have worse long-term consequences than letting Warmbier remain in a North Korean labor camp. Rescuing one man by force is not worth starting a war in which many more innocent people die. Diplomatically negotiating for his release sends the wrong message to others who would capture Americans for their own advancement.

As for victim blaming, there is nothing wrong with it in cases in which the victim really is to blame; i.e. the victim did something stupid in order to become a victim. While Warmbier does not deserve the treatment he is receiving, a rational person would have had every reason to expect it, given North Korea’s history of capturing foreign visitors and using them as bargaining chips to gain concessions from their governments. Furthermore, it is always better to be heartless than to be brainless.

Finally, there is the question of whether the state should block a private effort by the Warmbier family to offer a ransom in exchange for Otto’s release. Again, the theoretical libertarian answer is no but the realpolitik answer is yes. In theory, they should be able to use any means necessary to defend against the aggressors and reclaim their family member. In a better society, they might be able to rally private defense agencies to their side to overthrow the North Korean government and liberate everyone living under it. But because they are not going to subdue the North Korean government by force and ransoming Otto will only encourage rogue states and terrorists to capture more people in the future, it is best to block such attempts.

Conclusion

As terrible as Otto Warmbier’s situation is, leaving him to it is the least of several evils, so it should be done.

Seven observations on the Rio Olympics

On August 3-21, 2016, the 2016 Summer Olympics were held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. More than 11,000 athletes from 207 National Olympic Committees took part in 28 different sports across 38 different venues. Seven observations on these events follow.

1. Governments do not care about poor people. In order to build the Olympic venues, government officials in Rio displaced thousands of poor and homeless people, including many children. When affordable housing is demolished, it raises the price of other housing due to smaller supply and a new surge of demand. Food and transportation costs have also risen. The end result is that people are priced out of their own communities by state action. While government officials have claimed that the Olympic construction was done to improve the city, the ends cannot justify the means of eminent domain and forced relocation. Additionally, much of the construction does not address the most pressing concerns of Rio’s citizens, such as connecting more neighborhoods to the sewer system.

Another problem that has increased due to the Olympics is the amount of human rights violations against Brazil’s street children, many of whom are detained arbitrarily and put into an already overcrowded prison system. The government in Rio chose not to try to help the children who eke out a homeless existence on the streets while suffering from drug addiction, but rather to merely sweep them away from the eyes of international tourists. All of this is par for the course for governments. To quote Stefan Molyneux, “The government does not care about the poor as anything other than hostages to shame and capture the guilt of the innocent and force them to hand over additional money, rights, and children to the government.”

2. The Games serve to glorify the state at the expense of the individual. While the competitions are won and lost by individuals or teams thereof, these are almost always tied to a nation-state. It is always said that athletes win medals for their countries, and the award ceremonies always feature the national anthem of the nation that sent the gold medalist athlete, along with the flags of the top three finishers in the event. This amounts not to a celebration of individual achievements, but a garish display of jingoistic nationalism. The host nation-state forces its taxpayers to fund a spectacle in which a sort of cold war is conducted by having each nation-state’s champions vie for supremacy. It would be far better to privatize the entire process so that nation-states are deprived of a propaganda tool.

3. Some activities simply cannot be made safe. Every Olympics features its share of athletes suffering injuries (10-12 percent), and the 2016 Summer Olympics were no exception. Despite all of the precautions taken, athletes who push themselves to the top level of competition in strenuous activities sometimes get injured, especially when going for a medal means exceeding what one has done in training. The only way to prevent all of the injuries would be to eliminate all of the activities, so it is better to leave the athletes to take their own risks, reap their own rewards, and suffer their own consequences.

4. It is important to pace oneself in any task. This is a lesson which is frequently displayed across various athletic events, but it bears repeating. Those who put too much effort into the beginning of a long and/or arduous task will have difficulty in finishing. Many runners exhaust themselves in leading the pack of competitors for most of a race only to lose at the end because a less tired runner who managed to hang back just behind the leader is able to muster a sprint for the finish line to overtake the pace-setter up until that point. This happened in several medium distance races in Rio.

Another example of this phenomenon occurred in men’s weightlifting for the superheavy weight class. Behdad Salimi, the gold medalist from the 2012 Summer Olympics, set a new world record in the snatch only to fail all three of his attempts at the clean and jerk, meaning that he failed to post a total and won no medal.

5. Performance-enhancing drugs will always be one step ahead of detection methods. This is unavoidable, as there is no real incentive to test for a drug before it is known to be manufactured and used. While many users get caught, and punishments are handed out (such as the banning of many Russian athletes from the 2016 Games), many more do not. There are many incentives which create this problem. As Dr. Cayce Onks, a family and sports medicine specialist at Penn State Hershey Medical Group, explains, “Anyone who gets a gold medal has the benefit of TV contracts, announcer gigs, commercials and all the money that comes with it. It’s not just the prestige and satisfaction of competing at that level and winning. Tenths of seconds can mean the difference between a medal and no medal, so whatever they can do to get that extra tenth, they want to try.” As for other incentives…

6. An interesting spectacle is more important to many people than honest competition. While the Olympics are somewhat hit-or-miss in terms of being a financial boost for the places that host them, they are always a cash cow for the television networks that air footage of them. Ratings go up for performances that push the limits of human capability, as well as for athletes who have a reputation for delivering such performances. It was Usain Bolt in the 2016 Summer Olympics, but it is always someone. The advertisers, the International Olympic Committee, the doping testing agencies, and everyone else involved are fully aware of the incentives here, and it would be exceedingly foolish to believe that they never respond to the incentive to let some athletes break doping rules.

7. Human biodiversity clearly exists. Finally, the Summer Olympics should be a quadrennially sounding death knell for the idea of blank-slate egalitarianism. That certain events are almost always won by people with ancestry in particular population groups cannot be explained solely by the sum of culture, training, government funding of sports, and other nurturing elements. Humans will adapt to their environment like any other organism, and those adaptations can give members of a particular population group an advantage in a particular activity. While these adaptations can be noticed in people who move to another place and live as the locals do, the extent of the adaptations which are present in a population group that has inhabited a place for many generations cannot be replicated in one human lifetime. These differences are not nearly large enough at present to categorize humans into different species or subspecies, but they were in the past and very well could be again in the future. While this will not affect the average person’s daily life, it will determine who has the extra performance capacity needed to win Olympic gold when other factors, such as diet, training regimen, and rest, are nearly equal.

Defending The Reservation Scalper

On Sept. 9, the Orlando Sentinel reported that a new company called DiS Dining Agent is helping people obtain reservations at restaurants in Disney World. But unlike other such services, it does this by making registrations under false names and transferring them to customers for a price, currently around $15. The company also offers to cancel its reservation and immediately notify the customer for a fee between $6 and $10 so that a customer can quickly call the restaurant to claim the newly vacant time slot. A company in San Francisco called ReservationHop also operates in this manner.

Of course, such methods have their detractors. Anna Skamarakas, a Disney Parks Mom panelist, tells the Sentinel, “It just infuriates me… They are doing something to circumnavigate the system, which isn’t fair to the rest of us who are trying to play by the rules.” Disney says that it is “aware of the site” and is “currently reviewing the situation.” Other criticisms are that reservation scalpers create artificial scarcity and needlessly raise prices. But let us consider an alternative view based on Walter Block’s defense of ticket scalpers in Defending the Undefendable. This will show why such criticisms are unfounded, as well as how reservation scalpers are actually performing a beneficial market function.

First, we should point out the inconsistency of the outrage of those who oppose reservation scalpers. The grocer also buys large amounts of finite, potentially scarce products and sells them for a profit. So does the hardware store owner, the jeweler, and so on. But no one seems to be outraged by the idea of a business selling food, tools, or jewelry in the event that supplies are low and the particular item that a customer wants is nowhere to be found. This sort of logical inconsistency cannot be rationally advanced in argument.

Second, there is the fact that the very nature of restaurant reservations makes scalping possible and profitable. Any reservation price above the market clearing price will result in empty seats, which Disney would prefer to avoid. Any price below the market clearing price will invite scalping, and trying to calculate the exact market clearing price in advance is impossible. As restaurant owners would prefer to err on the low side of the market clearing price, there tend to be more people demanding seats than there are seats available. This leads to rising prices, which correct the imbalance. The act of scalping is simply a market force acting to correct imbalances in supply and demand.

Third, the reservation scalper acts as a risk mitigator on behalf of both a restaurant’s customers and owners. If the scalper makes a reservation and fails to sell it to a customer, then the scalper loses the entire cost of the reservation and the restaurant owner loses potential secondary sales, such as alcoholic beverages and extra side dishes. (Note: there is no alcohol served inside the Magic Kingdom, but other areas of the Walt Disney World Resort do have restaurants that serve alcohol.) If the scalper makes a reservation and sells it to a customer, then the scalper makes a small profit and the restaurant gets customers who might not otherwise find a reservation. The scalper is thus strongly incentivized to connect restaurateurs with customers who want their services.

Some people will argue that scalpers are responsible for higher reservation prices and lower availability, but this is merely a result of arithmetic, and would happen with or without dedicated scalpers speculating on reservations. Suppose, for an example similar to the case at hand, that restaurant reservations are selling for an average of about $50, there are 20,000 reservations for sale every day, and 25,000 people want a reservation. To avoid distributing reservations without price rationing, which would result in reservations being made available in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, prices must rise to a level where only 20,000 people still want them. This level may be around $65 in this case. How this $15 per reservation increase is distributed is what will vary from case to case.

Finally, there is the argument that reservation scalping benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. The opposite tends to be true. For poorer people, scalping is an easy way to make a large return on a relatively small investment. For richer people, paying a scalper a higher price is the overt cost, but there is also the hidden cost of not having to spend extra time trying to make a reservation.

In conclusion, it is clear that the reservation scalpers are not only not harming anyone, but are fulfilling a market role that helps everyone involved.