Change is in the air! Last Friday, we visited Mal for New Year’s Day. For fun, we each took a little quiz and from a list of ten items, identified what our most important priorities were in life. It’ll be neat when we revisit this topic this time next year! 😄
My top three: 1) Physical Health; 2) Wealth; 3) Interesting Hobbies.
Bagel’s top three: 1) Spiritual Enlightenment; 2) Career Success; 3) Traveling the World, Physical Health, and Interesting Hobbies. (She cheated and picked three for her third priority!)
Mal’s top three: 1) Soulmate Romance; 2) Contributing to Society; 3) Spiritual Enlightenment.
Last but not least: As I do every January, here are my goals for the new year, 2021:
My Goals for 2021
Better use the environment and my “flow-states” to my advantage. Know when I’m useless and need to just veg-out. Know when I need to exercise. Know when I need to visit the café or an external environment to get stuff done. When I need to call someone or just talk to another human-being for the sake of my own sanity to share an idea that’s about to burst, tease something out, or just ward off loneliness. Don’t “force it.” As Matthew McConaughey says: “Catch the greenlights.” Go with the flow! Everything should feel easy. If it feels hard, I’m doing something wrong. .
Be more focused. Set a schedule. When working, work. When playing, play. Don’t constantly be in a “middle-state” where I’m doing something half-ass. Middles are bad! Extremes are good! Either be “on” or “off.” Be rigid and inflexible. .
Keep a physical calendar and stick it on the fridge where Bagel and I can IRL see it and have it be top-of-mind every day. Take periodic small day-trips with Bagel (and friends, hopefully!) in order to “recharge.” A change of physical scenery is important and refreshes the mind! .
Money is (almost) everything. You attract the energies you put out in the world. In the past, I’ve always condescended money and thought it lowly and material. But after losing so much money in 2020 (thanks, stock market! And my own weak nerves!), I’ve now come around to a totally new position. Yes, health and love/relationships are important. But I’ve got those now! (Knock on wood.) So now we need to set the crosshairs on the next obstacle that’s really keeping me up at night: Financial security. Not just for myself but for Bagel too, who’s now really relying on me to figure things out. In 2021, I need to find a way to make tons and tons of money. Need that Tesla Cybertruck!! 🚘🚘🚘!!
Bagel’s Goals for 2021
Introspect to heal internal wounds and traumas.
Be honest with herself.
Focus more on establishing a solid base of friends and family; create a feeling of “home”!
Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney cartoon of the cannon. Of all of the Disney princesses, Belle has always been my favorite. It bears mentioning, by the way, that when Bagel and I first met, the first movie we ever saw together in theaters was the live-action remake in Bageltopia. Ah, what a faraway land… it honestly feels like a lifetime ago. April 1, 2017 was that fateful day. Good times; good memories. 😊
Watching Mad Men recently, specifically– S05E13: “The Phantom”— B&B appears as a strong motif in the episode. On Reddit, that episode is one of the most discussed in the series (at least so far) and I thought I’d just take a minute this morning to dash off some quick thoughts.
** SPOILERS AHEAD **
There are many different ways to read Megan and Don’s relationship in E13, but everyone largely agrees that this is where Don “falls out of love” with Megan and reverts to his “Old Don” ways. I largely agree with this; but people differ on the exact timing and interpretation of how/why. And while we’ll obviously never know for certain (likely only Weiner knows, if he even knows) but the key moments: 1) Megan betrays her acting friend and asks for Don for the Butler shoes TV ad spot part for herself. 2) Don watching Megan’s screen test.3) Don walking away from Megan once she’s landed the TV advertisement spot.
In addition to this, Don obviously brings his own baggage to the table– namely, his abandonment issues. In E13, Don also meets Peggy at the movie theater (during the workday! Haha 😄) and it’s a nice moment; but they have an exchange about Don “helping people” and then “those people always eventually moving on.”
So to me, here’s how I (choose to) read E13: Full disclosure, I’m a Megan-fan so I read her generously and charitably (Bagel is notably not). While some Redditors feel like Megan’s a manipulative conniving witch from the beginning, that’s not how (I’ve chosen) to interpret her actions. I feel, if anything, she’s just immature, innocent, and growing– which means losing that innocence (compromising principles and values in the pursuit of a desired outcome). All her life, she’s dreamed about being an actress and making it big. Off-Broadway, Broadway, TV shows, the movies. Being famous. Like all of the other characters in Mad Men, she’s chasing an image. It’s just unclear if that image is a phantom or not.
(As a quick aside, by the way, the people I really hate/blame are Megan’s toxic parents. But that’s a separate discussion.)
Megan is chasing a childhood ambition, the dream that never dies. And while she’d tried and failed before (and resigned herself to being just a secretary), only after being with Don does she obtain the full arsenal to try again (money, power, connections, etc). This in itself is a huge, fascinating conversation about chasing one’s dreams (Bagel and I had a huge argument about this yesterday!) but in summary: I’m a firm believer that the most ardent among us– the people who try hardest– are those who never quit. The Hufflepuffs of the world are the ones who never say die. And this perseverance to never give up can, in a way, can be poisonous. It anchors us to a perpetual past and Hufflepuffs will exhaust every last outlet, including their principles, if it means getting what they want. Scene 1 where Megan throws away her independence (and innocence) is the place where Don “falls out of love.”
But. We pick our truths. And while Don may have lost all respect (and love) for Megan in that first scene, in the next scene, Scene 2– when he’s watching the reel– I think he chooses to believe another truth. The idea of Megan being “like the rest of them” hurts him deeply (consciously or unconsciously) so he wants to find/choose another narrative (one that’s more self-serving). So he adopts the B&B narrative: He, the great Don Draper, sees talent in his wife. And he’s going to be the one to “let her go” (before she has a chance to leave him). Valiantly, he’s going to choose to fall on his sword and “set Megan free.” He’s been around the block a few times and has likely seen a good number of beautiful women and aspiring models/actresses. (Eg. Betty.) So seeing Megan’s tape he probably realizes that Megan has some talent and is definitely gorgeous/has acting potential. During that scene when Don watches the reel is when he decides he’s going to let Megan go. Don knows (I believe) that if he gives Megan this break (like he’d done with Peggy back in S1), that she will make it. And since Megan’s no longer the pure and innocent woman that he fell in love with (she’s ambitious, like everyone else!) and while Don could crush her dreams (like he’d done with Betty; which to be fair, didn’t ultimately work out), this time around, Don’s going to set Megan free, just like the Beast had done. Hence the final, “walking-away-from-the-fairy-tale-into-the-dimly-lit-bar” sequence. And doing so, Don’s going to throw himself back into the pits of hell and his “Old Don” ways (Scene 3). Bye, bye, blissful domesticated life.
After five seasons, I’m a big fan of the theory that Man Men is largely about Don –an instinctually bad man (read: a survivor/fighter; one without honor/principles who’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive)– trying to be a good man in the only ways he knows how. But perpetually failing. Because at his core, it’s just not who he is. Man Men is honestly so great though– Can people ever trulyvoluntarilychange? Or are we simply forced to change (because of environmental circumstances/resource constraints/etc)? And does that then even count? If it’s only the external environment shaping us? (Cue free-will discussion here.) Also: What is love? What is love if setting Belle free means ensuring your own destruction? If Belle is willing to let you remain a beast the rest of your days, does she really love you? All of the Big Questions, etc. Anyway, thanks for reading! Just my two cents for the day! 😀
Anyone who’s ever been in the trenches will agree: A healthy relationship is one in which both partners really get to know each other. And to this end, watching television shows and discussing them is the ultimate cheat code, especially if they are fictional (ie. not documentaries) as they’re vehicles of communication to facilitate this interaction. When you are in school, especially in a liberal arts class, it’s easy: The professor can pose some open-ended topic (eg. “What is Justice?”) and then you and your classmates can really go to down having those 2am bull-sessions that run ’til dawn, with everyone pontificating away on their pedestals.
This mode of interaction isn’t only training critical thinking, receive-and-respond, debate skills, gauging-of-social-currency, but is also allowing you a window into the lives of others. To really know the other is to know what and how they think. Their beliefs and value systems. But there needs to be a medium for this discussion.
So why TV shows? It’s easy and something people in a relationship can jointly do together. The joint experience is important– a communal and collective feeling of togetherness. Reading is great but it’s a solitary endeavor. Watching a television show can be done snuggled together on sofas and in front of laptops. You don’t even need televisions or cable nowadays.
For example, recently Bagel and I have been watching Mad Men and that show has really brought us so much closer. When I was younger, other than the Sorkin shows, I never really watched television shows because I was always haughty and felt them lowly. Yes, sometimes I’d indulge in a Spartacus or a Strike Back, but it was always when I was eating and wanted to burn through 10 or 15 minutes (and not watch YouTube).
But back when I was younger, I was single.
To be clear, Mad Men is definitely not a show I would ever watch on my own. It’s often uncomfortable and hard-to-watch. And definitely not a solo leisure activity.
But as a couple-activity, at least for us, it’s perfect. It’s characters are richly developed and Bagel and I both find the subject matter endlessly entertaining and educational. Neither of us were there for the 1960s. But all of the period details– the mores, music, fashion, gender/race dynamics, is fascinating. Matthew Weiner really deserves a Nobel for putting that work in the world! What a genius!
By virtue of being a fictional show, we’re also able to discuss its subject matter with fellow friends as well. And what I’ve found, anecdotally at least, is that the advantage here is that, broadly speaking, the temperature of conversation is much lower when you’re discussing something fictional and imaginary as opposed to a real-life event (say, Black Lives Matter). I’ve mostly found people more generally willing to engage with different perspectives and more empathic when it’s not real people’s lives on the line. We’re talking about Don, Peter, Peggy, Joan, Roger, etc. Figments of the imagination! And that distance gives everyone some remove and breathing space to entertain and debate ideas that they normally may not in a real-world setting.
Bagel and I are currently nearing the end of Season Five where a gruesome turn in the storyline has just occurred. Obviously, I won’t ruin anything here, but that incident has sparked so much discussion for us. Cultural differences and the pernicious effects (and pressure! Omg, the unimaginable pressure) of having to constantly maintain an image as opposed to just being authentic and genuine. How something small can slowly snowball into something catastrophic. The price of deception and how it slowly chips away at the soul.
For us, Mad Men is a springboard into discussion. It raises moral conundrums and presents a properly complex world with complicated characters. Even when we disagree with specific decisions that Peggy or Joan may have made, it’s easy to see “their sides” and empathize. More largely, this is honestly, I guess, a piece today about the merits of fiction as a vehicle for building empathy and understanding. The truth is we often don’t know our values, what we truly stand for, until we’re tested. And Real Talk for a moment: In real life, we (thankfully) aren’t often tested. In quotidian life, you’re virtually never dropped into these impossible situations of monumental consequence.
And to be fair– while talk is just talk, and we don’t really know how we’ll act until we’re actually in it— watching and discussing these subjects ahead of time at least sparks the conversation so it’s somewhere on your radar. How helpful, I guess, is up to you and how honest you are with yourself. My humble suggestion is simply to not think yourself so great, smart, noble, or moral. The higher the horse, the greater distance the tumble.
Again though, even if you are uninterested in “knowing thyself,” just being able to discuss these questions and topics with your SO is so worth it. We know and understand each other when we talk with each other. And with couples, after you’ve known each other for a good chunk of time, the constant fear is that both individuals eventually drift into their own isolated orbits. Especially if both of you are professionals in different career spaces. Taking trips together certainly helps. But on those long car drives and plane flights, you still need to talk about something material and substantive. It’s easy for relationships to calcify and lose that spark. Before long, you might feel like you’re a mechanic or a logistics officer simply negotiating supply chain details (“pick up the kids at X; dinner ready by Y; what are we getting the Millers for Christmas this year?”), etc. But your SO is not your fellow mechanic! She’s your SO!
Finally, on a parting note– watching and discussing fiction shows, especially one as good as Mad Men, possesses the additional benefit of giving us a barometer to track change over time. It’s interesting to both Bagel and me how both of our opinions about Don has evolved over the five seasons so far. And it’s enormously fascinating to me to track how Bagel’s opinions of certain situations has evolved. Ideally, we’ll revisit Mad Men again in a few years to have these same discussions, but just even in the month of watching so far, I’ve found her opinions rapidly change as she’s increasingly connected the events of the show–especially the office politics element– with her own work experience. One great example: Honest to God, for four seasons, we both could not understand for the life of us what Roger actually did at Sterling Cooper. But after Lee Jr. comes to visit for that Christmas party in S4, and then in S5, we’ve both turned into the most ardent Roger fans. In Bagel’s own work experience, she’s known as least one “Roger” whom she’d constantly complained about and despised. But being able to see “the story” from Roger’s perspective has really shed new light on a whole new POV that she’d never even considered. As I’d often told her– if her “Roger” had managed to stick around at the company for so long, there must have at least some value –in some way, shape, or form– that he was delivering, even if it was invisible to her (and the rest of rank-and-file storm troopers).
Anyway, those are my two cents for the day. In other news: 2021 is here! Hooray! 🎉🎆 Very excited about the New Year– blessings and good tidings to everyone! Let’s make this next year the best one yet! 😀
Ironically, we have never been more alone, disconnected, and isolated than we currently are in today’s technologically-sophisticated world. We’ve never had more fancy toys and modern miracles at our fingertips than we have today. But all of those wonders have increasingly led to an existence that is empty and devoid of meaning and purpose.
For eons, man has wandered the ends of earth wondering about his purpose. About the meaning of life. For whatever reason, we’ve overcomplicated and over-intellectualized. Today, on this grey Tuesday, let me —The Great Wobble— put an end to all your questions. I’ve got all the answers and today’s your lucky day. I’m going to answer the most profound question in all the cosmos today to you for the very low, bottom-basement price of: Free.
Man was made –maybe by the FSM, maybe not– to be happy. This is not exactly next-level insight. If we’re not doing it for happiness, then what else is it all for? You seriously want to live a life of drudgery every day so you can be miserable tomorrow? Really?
Ah, but what exactly is happiness? Gretchen Rubin and a legion of others have attempted to answer this question. But you don’t need some fancy book, university course, or YouTube video to tell you what you already know in your bones. Hell, you don’t even need to read this article! You know what happiness is. It’s an emotion. It’s the oxytocin and dopamine firing in your brain. It’s neurochemistry; it’s endorphins! This is why runners get that so-called “runner’s high.”
Now, to be sure, you don’t need physical exercise to be happy. (Though that’s certainly a way to get it!) You could take drugs (not advised) or drink alcohol (sometimes advised, depending on the context). But specifically, you need to hit your “happy button.”
This isn’t exactly rocket surgery– everyone’s got a different happy-button. Maybe it’s playing videogames or learning something new like Elixir or functional programming. Or maybe it’s restoring classical cars or making stop-motion Claymation videos.
The meaning and purpose of life is to feel good. Emotion is at the root of everything. If you feel you’re living a life of never-ending drudgery, stuck in some loveless marriage from hell, or trapped at the workplace from hell, or burdened by a thousand obligations that you resent and despise, tied down by a million expectations set upon you by some vengeful god, ask yourself: Who exactly is putting these expectations upon you?
Maybe you’re in Sing Sing and you need to mop those grimy restroom tiles against your will, resentfully. Okay, in that case, those expectations are set upon you by some prison guard (hopefully not of the Clancy Brown variety though). Other than that though, for the rest of everyone else, chances are more that you have trapped yourself in some unimaginable prison of a thousand hells.
Should such be the case, I sincerely hope you’ll wake up one day. Really wake up. My personal take, and this’ll vary from person-to-person of course, is that you don’t want to be too free. (I consider myself mostly libertarian so that’s a weird sentiment to utter aloud, I know.) But from past experience, too much “lightness” is honestly a curse of its own.
Instead, the best setup is a Goldilocks kinda of burden-carrying. Not too light where you’ll simply float away. But not too much where you feel the soul-crushing weight of a thousand suns. Just enough “heaviness” to give you a sense of responsibility and meaning. For me, I totally encourage obtaining a Bagel. For me, she’s been just the kick in the pants that I personally needed to get my act together. But maybe that’s just me. Please lemme know in the comments though any thoughts you may have. Am curious! 😀
Inventors are a breed of people whom I have long admired. There’s something enormously empowering about moving through the world, noticing that something is lacking, and then feeling confident and capable enough to think to oneself, “Huh. I can fix this.” And then proceeding to just fix it and reify your imagination into reality.
Years ago, in a different lifetime, my company once dispatched me to some conference in some great wild yonder. I don’t remember the details at all; like, I literally don’t even remember what the whole event was even about anymore. (Such is the hazy reliance of human memory, alas.) But I do remember one single memory: That morning I was sitting in the little dining area adjoined to the lobby, enjoying the hotel’s complimentary breakfast spread and leisurely perusing the morning’s paper. It was some local rag, the kind I always enjoyed flipping through whenever I traveled. There was a certain feeling of total voyeuristic locality that I always loved. Ha! Here’s what’s going on in town!I’m one of the people! And for whatever reason, a small article caught my eye: “Local man gets fed up and builds steps at town park on his own.” The exact wording of the headline escapes me now, but the gist of the writeup was that there was this sexagenarian who always strolled the town’s park every day. And the dirt walking path in the park apparently had an easement that was quite steep not easily navigable for older folks.
Well, for years, this sexagenarian –a war vet; or at least someone who had served, if I recall right– had bugged the local municipal government to build some steps on the easement. It was steep! Dangerous for old folk, especially! Well, for years, the town did nothing. So one day, at the crack of dawn before anyone was up and about, this old geezer just takes a bunch of wooden boards, a hammer, and a bucket of nails to the park and builds his own steps!
Of course, once the town learned about it, they sent engineers to tear the whole thing down (“not to code”), which I think everyone generally expected. (Governments can do great things. But often, they’re much more adept at impeding and destroying rather than building!) But it was the principle of the matter. That old dude tried to follow all of the right procedures, saw nothing was being done, and finally just did everything himself! Yeah!
This morning, I had my own bout of two-handed-can-do-attitude as well. My stupefying, unbridled genius was restless for a fresh, new challenge. Later this evening, Mal is coming over for “artistic-foreign-movie-night.” She and Bagel wanted to watch something and while I rooted for a Vin Diesel or The Rock vehicle, I was soundly rebuffed and summarily shot down. The only wrinkle in our planned endeavor though is that Mal is Chinese and her English isn’t the greatest. So I needed to obtain Chinese subtitles for whatever we’d be watching. Well, we ended up selecting Certified Copy which is a 2010 art film by the Iranian writer and director, Abbas Kiarostami. (Not exactly Michael Bay, but alas, I was outnumbered. ☹️)
Anyway, getting to the point: Certified Copy is a French movie and features significant spoken portions in French and Italian, in addition to English. So if we were gonna make this work, Bagel and I also needed English subtitles. We basically needed dual-track subtitles for this foreign film.
Dear Reader, let me assure you: I looked everywhere. Dual-subtitled video doesn’t exist for purchase or rent anywhere!
I tried Amazon Prime, Netflix, as well as our local library. And while our library had a Criterion Collection edition of Certified Copy, there was nothing that featured dual-track subtitles. Anyway, fast-forwarding to the end, by using VLC, Google, and sheer force of will and perseverance, after spending all morning on it, I figured everything out!
Mwhahaha! Sure, maybe not quite on the level of inventing the lightbulb or the printing press. But I’d like to think I channeled some of my inner-Edison and Guttenberg this morning. They’d be proud. 😀😄😁
Home is a peculiar idea. We all of course have our own ways of defining it. Some people tie home to a specific geographic place, like their hometown. Others define the concept more as a feeling— for example, when you’re financially in a stable and worry-free place. Or when you feel socially fulfilled and secure, surrounded by close friends and family.
For me, personally, while all of those are elements are certainly true, when I reflect on my past three years living here in Wobbleville, those descriptors –if I really think hard about it– don’t capture the essence of “Home” for me. I’ve felt very much at home these past three years but financially, they have been the most precarious of my entire life. I have definitely never been financially poorer than I currently am right now, that’s for sure. And as for friends and family, well– Bagel’s here with me. So that certainly helps. But when I spent my year abroad in Bageltopia, where we first met all those years ago, that was unequivocally not home, despite the fact that she was around a lot. The weather was scorching hot and incredibly humid. Us Wobbles are not built for Bageltopian weather. It was rough.
So why have I felt so at home here in Wobbleville these past few years? Though I have been lucky to make a couple good friends here through Meetup, we really only see each other several times a year. And again, I’m super financially poor here. Maybe not quite in dire straits, but definitely on my way there if things keep degenerating at their current pace.
Yet, Wobbleville feels like home to me emotionally. First– the weather. Omg, the weather. You really don’t think this is a big deal until it is. When I step outside and the air feels cool and crisp, that makes me feel good. No bustling traffic or homeless people on every street corner. Just quiet, idyllic countryside. To be fair, Wobbleville is very similar to my own hometown in terms of geography, climate, and demographic composition. Lots of white people. Tons of churches. No litter anywhere. People are not rich here but we’re solid salt-of-the-earth people with our salt-of-the-earth ways. No snobbish urban coastal elitism here.
The other thing is the general pace of life. It’s chill and relaxed. If I want to go anywhere, I just hop in the Bagelmobile and drive there. No running to the metro station to try to catch a train. No hustling and bustling down busy, crowded sidewalks which smell like urine and marijuana. Here, the car is king. (Sorry, environment! No mass transit here!) And that total freedom to go anywhere at any time whenever I want is a big part of why I feel like this is home. I feel like my self-centered egotism is fulfilled here. Do you taste that? That’s the taste of freedom.
For me, “home” isn’t about friends or family. Or about financial security. (Though, again, those are immensely important and I’d prefer to have both than to not.) But for me, personally, home is somewhere I feel comfortable with my daily life routines. It’s somewhere that I enjoy the weather and can easily get the food I like to eat (like Jersey Mike’s!). And it’s a place where I can easily talk to my neighbors about whatever interests me and us. Interestingly, back in my college days (eons ago), I found myself often offending people left and right with my conversation and thoughts. It wasn’t even deliberate; it just happened. But now, when I reflect on it more, I think that was a consequence of them. Not me. They were people who didn’t share my values. And so conversation was incredibly tough.
(But to fair, I have certainly offended here in Wobbleville as well; the proportion of strike-outs has just been far smaller.)
Here, in Wobbleville though, I’m largely surrounded by people much less fragile who similarly share my values, especially out in the country away from the city center and younger university populations. And honestly, that’s made all the difference. Home is where you can be yourself without being socially ostracized and punished for it. Home is where you feel comfortable.
Looking back on the years, I feel life can generally be segmented into four seasons: Years 0-18, 19-40, 41-60, and 61-80. Sure, folks live past 80; but for myself, personally, my health has never been the greatest. So I think reaching anywhere even close to 70-80 would be a genuine accomplishment. Also, for most people, especially upon reaching those septuagenarian and octogenarian years, one’s overall health usually declines. Longevity of life is not quality of life. And especially towards the end, those two traits often inverse each other. So, personally, I don’t much desire to get very long in the tooth. I would much rather live a happier but shorter life, than a longer, more disease-ridden/Alzheimer-filled inglorious end that drags on into eternity. Slowly dying from a thousand cuts is painful. I know this is morbid stuff but it’s just what happens to be on my mind this beautiful Friday morning.
Once I break down life into the idea of seasons, I see I’m nearly about halfway through it. That’s an odd fact to contemplate– being halfway finished with life. Of course, this is an optimistic projection. Tragedy could befall me tomorrow. But assuming nothing extraordinarily unexpected happens, I’ve advanced about halfway through this mortal coil.
If I take stock of my progress so far, at the 50% mark, I think I’ve done alright. Of course, I wouldn’t mind having more money or more land. Having a giant McMansion with a dedicated housekeeping staff and chef would be certainly nice. So I guess on that front, I’ve come up a little short (okay, a lot short). So by that metric at least, my life is a complete failure. That’s fair. I honestly thought that by this point that I’d have acquired all of those material possessions. (Though one challenge about owning big properties, that I’ve heard my friends grumble about, is that the cost of maintenance and upkeep is honestly the killer expense. Ie. The initial cost of acquisition of a bajillion acres or whatever is actually a tiny fraction of what it costs to keep all that acreage looking nice and civilized in the long run. So that’s something nontrivial to consider.)
Anyway, aside from material possessions, the most important development by far that’s happened to date is that I met Bagel. I’ve mentioned this before but I honestly never thought an S/O was in the cards for me. Meeting Bagel had never been part of my life plan. I’d always been a lone wolf and thought that I would be forever. But luckily, I was wrong!
Looking forward, I’ve got about 50% of life left. Not sure what the future holds but right now my number one priority is to make a ton more money. So I’m working on that. Secondly, I’m also contemplating taking up woodworking. I spend most of my days inside in front of my computer moving pixels around so it’d be nice to take up a hobby that’s very physical and hands-on. I also have a few other data science projects and musings that I need to either start or finish. And finally– gotta make sure to keep in good health and not get derailed again. Life: So much left to do and so little time!
Heaven, hell, and the entire idea of an afterlife is an intriguing concept. A solid stretch of my life, when I was a child I attended Awana and church service every Sunday. I remember memorizing a ton of bible passages and getting awarded neat patches that my mom would then iron onto my Awana vest. But in addition to that (and this was a bit later when I was older) I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed with the entire concept of there existing an afterlife.
In economics, we learn that humans are generally treated as rational actors and then when faced with choices, we’ll usually behave in ways that maximize our self-benefit or whatever utility function we care most about. So either satisfying ourselves, caring for our families, fighting for our country, etc.
Where economics fails though is that it assumes the rational human cares about what happens immediately in this corporeal life. Meaning: If you go rob a bank or murder a ton of innocent people, you’ll go to jail for probably the rest of your life or face summary execution by lethal injection (or the firing squad in Singapore). And that lifelong imprisonment or threat of capital punishment is generally enough of a deterrence to prevent folks from doing bad things.
But what if you believe in an afterlife? Now the entire calculus has changed because the time horizon for the consequences of your actions have been stretched way out into the future, beyond even this corporeal life. Now, if you commit a massive crime, like flying airplanes into the towers, because there is an afterlife in which you’ll be rewarded for your behaviors, you no longer fear whatever might happen in this corporeal life. This material existence we’re currently living is incredibly transient, a mere blink of the eye in the grand scheme.
The entire concept of an afterlife really screws with economics. Or at least it should. In order for society to function, which it mostly does, peace is predicated on people generally not believing in heaven and hell actually existing. As long as we care/fear about what happens in this life, then societal peace and order will be maintained.
But if there is ever a day when God or Jesus or Mohammad or whomever descends from the heavens and shows us that divine power does exist, then civil society will basically crumble overnight. So, basically: The entire wellbeing, safety, and health of human civilization rests on human beings never en masse witnessing any miracles that affirmatively prove God’s existence. The fate of our species depends on it.
Empire-building and its days of colonial rule are long over. But the spirit of imperialism lives on. Once upon a time, the British Empire stretched far and wide, across the entire globe. Everywhere from North America to Africa to Asia, spanned the Empire. Among its many expansionary territories were the thirteen colonies in America, India on the Asian subcontinent, and a variety of outposts like Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and Barbados in the Caribbean.
Fast forward to our present day and the practice of colonizing foreign lands and enslaving the local people have largely fallen out of favor (unless your name is Vladimir Putin and we’re talking about the Crimean Peninsula). But generally, aside from a few notable exceptions, the international community now mostly frowns upon colonizing and enslaving other native lands and indigenous people by force.
So how does one satiate a country’s expansionary impulses and thirst for dominion in the absence of brute physical force? In a word: Globalization. I would argue that America has done it best (though the Swedes –with their Volvo, Spotify, and IKEA– are surprisingly not far behind); from Moscow to Johannesburg to Alexandria, if you visit virtually anywhere in the world, you will find a McDonalds and a Starbucks every few city blocks. (Sometimes, even on a the same block.) If you visit Paris or Cairo, you will find Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you go to Luxemburg, right next to Belgium’s finest chocolatier, you will find a Burger King.
It’s not just fast food establishments either. In Beijing, Tokyo, Milan, and Darwin, the top-grossing movies at your local cineplex have all been installments from Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past ten years. They may be dubbed over in Japanese or Russian or Italian, but there’s Captain America and Iron Man on the silver screen, fighting Thanos to the cheers of young Greek, Chinese, and Filipinos everywhere.
Imperialism, in the form of American culture, lives on to this very day. And it’s everywhere, all around us, all the time. There is no escape. This is the new American World Order.
One can argue that there are many positives about this arrangement. With the internet and The YouTube, the world has never been smaller. And people from all countries and cultures, even if they can’t speak the same language, can all appreciate the adventures of Shrek, the green ogre, or enjoy Tom Cruise (who’s now nearly SIXTY years old), fighting terrorists on the Seine or in the Brazilian rain forest or wherever. That’s all good and dandy.
But on the other hand, as old geezers like me are wont to do every generation, one can bemoan the current state of the world and our apparently inexorable death march, Pol Pot style, towards evermore homogeneity. Is a Burger King in Amsterdam really what we visit the Netherlands for? Is having a slice at Pizza Hut in Rome really the genuine Italian experience? Is that the sum and pinnacle accomplishment of the human species?
X, the moonshot subsidiary of Google responsible for big dreams, created an intriguing, thought-provoking video back in late 2016 describing the idea of The Selfish Ledger. In the video, the basic idea presented is simple: In the future, as The Cloud knows increasingly more about us, wouldn’t it be very easy to create a world where we are continually “nudged” towards healthy and productive behaviors? (Of course, this begs the question of who gets to determine “healthy” and “productive” but I guess… Google!) This day and age, we are continually putting more and more data representing our preferences and beliefs into the world. What YouTube videos we watch, we news articles we read, what new Spotify songs we listen to. The world is so large and overflowing with content that you’d need multiple lifetimes just to consume it all.
Enter: Google’s Selfish Ledger.
“Content discovery” is the new billion-dollar industry. Whoever can help make sense of all of the noise in the next few decades is going to become king. Right now, the entire enterprise is driven by advertising. People who are willing to pay a pretty penny are able to get their material “highlighted” and featured on main landing pages. But what if there were another way?
Switching gears, I think one very promising aspect of “The Selfish Ledger” is if Google could figure out a way to predict your mood and propensity for certain activities. If the user is wearing a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, then Google (or Apple) likely has a user’s health data and could detect when a user was sleeping poorly or irregularly. Likewise, Google also owns Google Maps, of course, so they would totally know every time you visited a hospital or doctor’s office or Walgreens to pick up prescriptions. Thus, Google could –from reading your online activity and personal health metrics– determine when you were feeling unwell and suggest more “comfort” activities for your consumption. Either “feel-good” crowd-pleasing movies through Google Play or Nyquil and other medications from Amazon. Foodwise, Google could also offer you ice cream and other delicious foods that aid in your health recovery.
I feel TSL is an inevitability that is good. Since man first walked this earth, he’s done so alone, unable to connect himself with all of the wonders that the world has to offer. Instead of seeing ourselves as individual actors on a stage, TSL asks us to view ourselves as mere hosts that are carriers of preferences, opinions, beliefs, and information.
Writing, on the other hand, satisfies a different need. If Coding is the sexy Daisy Ridley-esque supermodel that graces Vogue covers then Writing is the prim and proper one. The one who sets aside time each day for French and piano lessons.
As wonderful as coding is, at its core, it’s a methodology with a very specific aim: It’s a tool to fix a very specific problem or address a very specific need. For example, I have a movie-lover friend who watches a ton of Netflix. But he often needs subtitles in Farsi, a language that Netflix doesn’t offer. So my friend was able to write a Chrome extension that superimposes Farsi (sourced from Open Subtitles) onto his Netflix videos– all because he knows how to code! Another example: A few months ago I was looking at the rather large Google Photos collection that Bagel and I have accumulated together. I wanted a way to randomly see a photo exactly 365 days ago I’d taken (“a year ago on this day…”). Well, by looking up to the Google Photos docs and seeing how the API worked, I was able to download one of Google’s starter samples and code my pet project very quickly in a weekend! Mission accomplished!
Writing, IMHO, is not as direct. Writers write for all kinds of reasons, but personally, I write because I feel it nourishes my soul. Reading is good; and I do a lot of that too. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really enjoyed writing. Another consideration to all this is that unless you’re an artist (a painter, comic book artist, musician, song-writer, etc), chances are that most days you aren’t creating anything. At the office for your job, you may move stuff around and tell what people what to do; you may organize TPS reports, reconcile budgets, and whatever. But only when you write are you putting something to paper that previously did not independently exist. If you’re writing a story, the characters you’re creating are wholly unique and products of your own imagination.
Coding is the brash and confident one who knows who she is and what she wants. The loud Rey Palpatines of the world. Writing, though, is much more the reserved and demure model, of the Regency England strain. She’s quiet and studious, always contemplating and pondering, full of wonder but also struggling with doubt and uncertainty. The simple truth, as inconvenient as it may be, it that most of us don’t actually know who we entirely are or what we wholly believe. We may know bits and parts of ourselves, and what we think we believe (both about ourselves and about the world); but the tectonic plates are always shifting– sometimes slowly, and sometimes faster. Writing it the process that helps me sort out all of this internal movement and maintain my center.
Visions for the future are also a dime a dozen. (Visionary people, like Musk and Bezos, who can actually reify their visions are a much rarer breed of Pokémon though.) Here’s a vision for the future– one I just thought up this morning; won’t even cost you a nickel:
As I’ve previously mentioned elsewhere, I personally actually hail from a software development background. Though I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading, I’ve never formally trained in an MFA program or pursued a humanities degree. What’s been interesting as I’ve been recently diving more into reading and writing is how little of people’s writing I actually see on the internet. Sure, there is AO3 and some personal blogs that exist out there. But on almost everything I’ve seen, the updates are infrequent. I’ve stumbled over many blogs that haven’t been updated in years and appear all but sadly abandoned.
This is really strange to me.
It baffles me why a similar concept/construct doesn’t existing for writers.
My vision for the future: Every human being on earth, since the time they turn 13, keeps an online blog. The blog may be private or public but the state mandates that the person journal in the blog, every single day, writing 400 words a day. The entries would follow the format laid out in “The Alphabet Game” (each day’s entry must begin with that day’s letter).
Over time, using fancy ML and data science techniques, we could then deconstruct every human being’s “persona” based on a super-detailed analysis of their daily blog entries. Writing 400 days, every single day, is a powerful corpus. (Over 365 days, you would have 365*400=146,000 words!) By closely analyzing each person’s corpus of writing, we could discern your political opinions, religion beliefs, and entertainment preferences. We would know where you stood on social policies (eg. “Universal Basic Income”) or what you thought about certain celebrities (eg. “Ben Affleck”). We’d know you intimately at an incredibly granular level. Additionally, in some months, the state would issue challenges like: “In September, one of your entries should cover, ‘Your favorite author’.” or “In August, one of your entries should cover ‘Your favorite film director’.”
Right now, we live in a strange looking-glass world where we know so little about the politicians we elect into office or the SCOTUS Justices who take the bench. It’s turned into a truly deranged situation where, actually, the less we know about someone, the more likely s/he is able to win an election or be confirmed! Because that person becomes a kinda “blank slate” that the electorate (all of us, plebeians) can project our hopes and wishes upon. Anything known about you in 2020 becomes “baggage.”
But this is outrageously weird, right? Shouldn’t we demand to know more about these people that we’re putting into positions of great power who rule over us? Not less? If my daisy world became reality, then people who wanted to operate in the public sphere would be forced to reveal their daily journals to the public! And we’d see their experiences, memories, opinions, and beliefs in daily, ~400 word snapshots. All since their teenage years! Most importantly, we’d see their journey through life and how they became the person that they currently are. Wouldn’t that be something?
Suffice it to say, there is a tremendous attractiveness to this idea. Various religions and schools of philosophical thought have long worked synchronicities into their teachings. In Buddhism, for instance, there’s the entire idea of karma and resurrection. That whatever slings and arrows we may be bearing in our current life (or good fortune, too), are the direct consequences of our decisions and actions that we made in our previous lives. That there is indeed a method behind the madness.
Obviously, this is an unfalsifiable belief. There’s no way to prove its affirmative or negative, so there it goes, onto the dusty self right between the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot (good ol’ Bertrand– love that guy). But like religion, belief in synchronicities is a kinda salve in world that can at times otherwise be cold, cruel, and unfeeling. It comforts us to believe that a tragedy or accident was meant to happen. That the towers were meant to fall. That, for some reason, that was God’s plan. That Gramps was supposed to die of cancer or that the family dog was supposed to be hit and killed by that asshole drunk, college kid. When humans tell themselves stories that impose meaning onto the chaos, it gives us hope. Hope that a new day will dawn and that the sun will yet again, one morning, shine once more.
Parenting is one of those topics that occasionally crosses my mind. In recent years, I’ve known several friends who have made the leap and while everyone dresses it up in very beautiful language, I personally believe a more unpopular theory on why some couples become parents. It’s unromantic but I also think it’s true. Of course, certainly not true for everyone. But I do think this is true far more often than not; even if people aren’t ready to admit it: They get bored.
When people first get married, it’s romantic and sexy– the so-called “honeymoon period.” Nowadays, most couples (at least in the western world) cohabitate and live together for a good stretch of time before ever tying the knot. Thus, marriage itself, doesn’t actually change anything. You get to jointly file your taxes and get some tax breaks that way (single people are truly punished in this country, tax-wise, IMHO) and also your insurance premiums also unfortunately go way up if you’re getting coverage under a main provider. But other than those logistical, clerical changes, not much else happens. Oh, I guess: In society, for whatever reason, saying “you’re married” confers a kinda seriousness/maturity/gravity. That’s definitely a thing. Never mind that half of all marriages end in divorce in America; married people occupy at least a slightly different valence in societal dynamics when it comes to perceived maturity/respectability.
But my take is that after several years, after the initial heat and frisson dissipates, and then many couples kinda look at each other and realize that they’re bit bored. If they’re both working, they’ve likely saved a good amount of money at this point and they’re not quite sure what to do next. (I have heard –again, this is totally anecdotal– that many women feel a biological instinct/urge around the 30-year mark so that may be part of it too? I’m honestly unsure if this can be generalized.) But I postulate that many married couples look at each other at a certain point in their marriages and just kinda say, “Eh, why not?” And then try to make babies. They desire a new project to work on that’ll keep life interesting and keep them together. It’s like starting a new RPG quest that’ll knock 18 years (or more, if you make multiple babies) off the clock.
Originality has long been the last bastion of human creativity. Sure, John Henry may have died in the end and lost to the locomotive, but human beings have generally taken pride in the steadfast certainty that even when Skynet does eventually take over, at least the damn machines won’t be able to paint great art, compose orchestral masterpieces, or write works of literary genius that touch the deepest depths of the human heart and soul.
Well, no. At least, I don’t think so.
Bagel asked me yesterday why exactly I was embarking upon this crusade to input an entry a day, cycling through the alphabet as many times as necessary, in order to put everything I know, each entry 300-700 words, into WordPress. Aside from being a fun exercise that helps me practice writing daily, the other real reason is I’m trying to generate a corpus of material for Wobble2– a facsimile of all of my thoughts, positions, opinions, and beliefs.
I have a theory, entirely unproven, that given the right corpus, I could code a reasonable replica of myself, at least for a limited universe of Q&A. The dream here is to write software that could eventually synthesize answers in a way that I, Wobble Prime, would answer them. This premise is directly inspired by The Turing Test and TV shows like Westworld and Devs. If the simulation generates identical answers as the original, why is the simulation any different or “less than” the original? (Gotta love humans and our fascination with making ourselves obsolete!) So, here’s an example desired outcome: Eventually, I want to build out Wobble2 to a state where it could answer a question like, “Would Tom Hanks make a good president?”
To answer this question, Wobble2 would need to look up its entry for “Tom Hanks.” And then it would need to look up its entry for “president” (and infer that the question meant, “President of the United States”). From here, Wobble2 would need to compare all of the qualities I associate with good/bad presidents and cross-reference those traits with Tom Hanks’s characteristics. Finally, depending on the results of that comparison, Wobble2 would then render a “Yes/No” response, an emotion associated with that response (“hell yeah!” or “tepidly optimistic?” or “that’s a very bad idea.”), and some supporting body of evidence for how it got to its conclusion. I still have kinks to work out, but in my head I think it could work! This is, in a nutshell, how I’ve been spending my time these days.
For example, yesterday a friend asked me about Sam Harris. I know of Harris and have listened to his podcast before. But several years back I’d lost interest in him and had stopped listening. Every single one of his episodes –at least for a stretch that I’d listened to– had devolved into an opening ten minutes of airing grievances. Whether fairly or unfairly (most likely the latter), I’d come to think of Harris, at least as he presented himself, as “the most aggrieved man in America.” (Also, his podcast’s old name, Waking Up, always struck me as enormously condescending. So that was already one strike. His podcast’s new name, Making Sense, is marginally better but still has a whiff of superiority about it that slightly irks.)As of yesterday, my mental model of Harris had understandably gone stale. That is, I had no idea what he’s up to nowadays, what news surrounds him, etc.
Thus, when I opined on Sam Harris, I think it was responsible that I gave “my-mental-model-of-him-has-staled” qualifier. I have data on him that I can convey to you, but my impression is an old impression. And thus, just being cognizant of that actually makes me more amenable to receiving and processing new information on Harris. If more people followed these guidelines I’m laying out, I think we’d live in a much saner world. People should go about being, and sounding, much less certain. You’re more willing to receive and process new data if your cup isn’t already flowing over. The world is rapidly changing and we’re constantly revising our internal models to approximate what on earth is going on around us. In fact, coupled to this thought: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become infinitely more weary of anyone who sounds certain about anything. In fact, if we ever converse, the more certain you sound, the less I’ll probably think of you. (Also, no offense intended, but if you’re young, this especially applies to you.)
Kitsch is honestly the best. I am such a huge sucker for kitsch. It’ll get me every time. This morning, I wanted to examine it, this strange fascination of mine. Why am I so drawn to the gaudy and flamboyantly terrible? What exactly is it about poor taste that I find so undeniably attractive?
Several years ago, in the Before Times, Bagel and I visited South Dakota. Of course, we visited Mount Rushmore. Bagel enjoyed seeing how that was built and I do truly marvel at the remarkable feat of engineering that Gutzon Borglum achieved. Genuinely extraordinary, especially with the downright rudimentary tools he had at the time. (Though I suppose you can say that of every generation. One day, I’m sure future human beings will look back on our time now and wonder how on earth Musk launched (and landed) reusable rockets into and from space. It’s inevitable.)
Like I’d mentioned, my interest was much further piqued during the stops we made the following days after visiting Rushmore, at Wall Drug (Wall, South Dakota) and –my favorite!– The Corn Palace (Mitchell, South Dakota). Is it the aesthetic that pleases me? I guess, kinda? That’s certainly part of it. But I think partially why I like kitsch so much owes to the same reason I worship at the altar of Michael Bay and think the man’s the greatest film director ever. (Again, I remind everyone– Bay has not one, but two, movies in The Criterion Collection. Right up there next to Kurosawa where the man belongs!) More fundamentally though, on some level, I’m annoyed with entire hierarchy and dichotomy of “high-brow” vs “low-brow.” Like, it genuinely irritates me that some people are so snobbish and hoity-toity about art. If the entire enterprise is all subjective anyway, then how come a bunch of experts can get together and praise a Van Gough or Rembrandt to high heaven while condemning, I dunno, Penny Arcade or Mega Tokyo? It’s all subjective! Why do people get to be snooty about art and fashion at all?
Thus, I consider it my solemn duty to be a rebel and stick it to the man! I enjoy and celebrate kitsch because, in part, I am philosophically aligned with the principle. Praising kitsch is a reminder to us all that we really shouldn’t take ourselves (or anything, really) too seriously. Life’s a transient journey, lived a quarter-mile at a time. May as well enjoy the ride.
Joker was one my favorite films in 2019. My first thought after finishing the movie was I couldn’t believe that it was directed by Todd Philips, the same guy who brought you The Hangover Trilogy and Road Trip (2000). Actually, come to think of it, the first Hangover movie is actually an impressive work of staggering genius. I learned from one of the Bill Simmons Rewatchables podcasts that Philips famously chose to take a smaller advance on the movie in return for a larger cut of royalties for each subsequent unit (DVDs, streaming sales) sold on the backend. That business decision has most definitely yielded bank; Philips really hit the jackpot with that one!
Last October, I saw Joker with Talia at the theater downtown, nearly a year ago now. It’s strange to think of last year– it just feels so long ago. After we finished the movie, we walked around downtown for a bit and talked. It was super nice out with orange leaves everywhere and autumn in full ascent. Good times. Talia felt the movie irresponsible; to her it felt like Joker was celebrating anarchy. Gotham had degenerated into such disrepair that the rich (like Thomas and Martha Wayne) had everything while the poor and impoverished Author Flecks of the world were left with scraps. The system had failed and the situation on the ground increasingly ominous and portentous. Whiffs of French Revolution were in the air; no one was in the mood to eat cake.
I agreed with Talia’s read on the movie but I felt Philips was actually being responsible. By showing us, in a fictional movie, a possible timeline of where extreme wealth inequality could lead, my take was that Philips was trying to give the world’s elite and ultrarich a “shot across the bow.” (Conveniently packaged in an entertaining two-hour parcel, steeped in comicdom’s most iconic lore, even.) To me though, Joker was a warning that if the wealth gap continued to widen, a bourgeois overthrow was not out of the question and not farfetched at all.
America currently finds itself in late-stage capitalism. It’s anyone’s guess where the country goes from here but I do think this year, 2020, we’ve seen some other canaries dying in the coalmine. Between BLM, Portland, and Seattle, take your pick. Maybe this cries of the proletariat have always existed but I can’t help but feel they’re a tad louder this year. Just in 2016, we were celebrating Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton— evidence, at the time, we’d finally put racism behind us! Good lord, that feels like eons ago.
Imagination can at times be like a firehose. Once the spigot is turned, all of the ideas just come gushing out in a single, messy torrent. It’s literally a flood of disparate thought fragments that resembles The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
There are thousands of different ways that people ideate and organize their mind maps. And I’ve tried many over the years. But the approach that I use now (which I think is working?) is every time an idea strikes me, I immediately write it up in its own individual document. Then I also index the idea in a single Master Document. Over time, I can then see the Master Document begin to populate as the beast slowly crystalizes and comes into focus.
One trick I learned from watching the Michael Bay director’s commentary on the Criterion Collection edition of Armageddon is that it’s critical for the creator of a work to have some sort of mental model in his head of the story at all times. It obviously doesn’t need to be an exact blueprint, but the scaffolding needs to at least exist. My Master Document of Ideas serves as that scaffolding.
Another metaphor I use internally is likening the process to that of building a town in Sim City or Skylines. In the beginning, you’ve got nothing– just a big plot of land. But then you build your first residential house, or library, or park. And slowly, over time, you build City Hall, the museum, some restaurants, a Monument to Heroes, etc. Sometimes you might begin work on the town civics center but then lose interest halfway through, scroll to the other side of town, and begin construction on the town sports arena instead. That’s totally okay! In Phase I of writing (the “Production Phase”), I’m simply trying to properly get all of my ideas down on paper so there’s a physical record of it somewhere. During Phase I, I may not yet know how all of the ideas, characters, and settings connect, but eventually, I simply trust that there will be a road that goes from the town square to the town library which is way, way off on the west end, across the train tracks. I’ve said this elsewhere but I genuinely believe that writing long-form fiction is akin to keeping a faith. It’s simply doing the work every day and then believing/praying that everything will eventually come together in the end.
Escape Velocity is the concept in astrophysics (specifically, celestial dynamics) that refers to “the minimum speed needed for a free, non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body…” I actually often think about writing long-form fiction the same way. After a while, you work up a “speed of writing” (word count per day) and a certain momentum. But dozens of projects will plateau early, run out of steam, and then languish on the vine and die. You lose interest in the characters or the story eventually meanders and you lose it. Every so often though, once in a blue moon, a project –its ideas, story, characters, setting– will have such enthusiasm behind it and possess an undeniable energy that it’ll escape the dreaded Orbit of Failure and escape to the promised land. This is when you’ve got something.
David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and many others have commented that when they were writing well, not only were the words flowing easily, but it was also as if they themselves were not originating those very words. This may sound mystical and far-fetched but there’s genuine debate on where ideas and inspiration come from. Are we, humans, really the source? Or is there a higher source simply channeling our bodies as mere vessels? Every era has had their own name of this theory– Socrates and Aristotle called them “creative muses” and Mozart and Beethoven called them “angels.”
My personal belief is that it’s a combination of both. I think higher powers existing makes sense. However, they’re necessary but not sufficient. As I’ve mentioned before, I firmly believe that you need to meet the Universe halfway. It means putting in the hundreds of hours, but it also means taking care of your physical body and spiritual self. Eating right, finding love, maintaining hobbies, and exercising. We can only be vessels of divine inspiration and receive when we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually ready.