The Meaning of Life

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.  😀😄😁

Anyone Can Be William Wallace

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~500 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Five – Passage Two

“I’ve done more with less,” Van says delicately.  “Besides, I think we’ve got the right stuff here.”

She moves to the front of the lounge and pours herself a new mug of coffee.  For the life of me, I cannot imagine where this is possibly going.  Not to toot my own horn too much, but I consider myself a man of considerable imagination.  (Fan fiction, after all, is one of my strong suits.  North American Top 100, right here. ✊)  But even my own wide-ranging imaginative wonder is having some difficulty surmising how all this is going to come together.

“Generally speaking,” Van starts, “a population is vulnerable to authoritarian rule only under very specific conditions.  The easiest way to think about this is in terms of what the population in question needs.

“If the target population is destitute and living in abject famine, a totalitarian ruler will initially be able win over the people simply with food, fresh water, safety, and shelter.  In this first phase, no one cares about human rights, free speech, or democracy.”

“Sure,” Katherine nods.  “That totally makes sense.  You can’t eat human rights.  And democracy will not feed neither you nor your starving family.”

“The ability to really dig in and endure a long-running war of attrition is paramount too,” Van adds as she waves a beignet covered in powdered sugar around, picking it off the breakfast spread that’s on the folding table.  “Anyone can suffer or even die valiantly for the cause in the heat of the moment, going out in a blaze of glory that’s forever immortalized in memory and song.”  Van scrunches up her face for a moment, trying to remember something.  “Basically, that bad anti-Semitic man in that one Scottish movie.”

It takes me a minute.  “Wait, you mean Mel Gibson?  William Wallace from Braveheart?”

Alan snaps his fingers.  “That’s it!”  He gives a nod of approval, to no one in particular.  “You Americans do make really great movies though.  I’ll give you that.”

Coleman makes a face.  I can’t tell exactly what’s perplexed him.  (Probably, all of it.)  Also, he still has the thousand-yard stare of a young man on Cloud 9, after a hard night of one too many mojitos.

“Yeah, anyone can be William Wallace,” says Van shrugging.  “You just suffer excruciating pain for maybe ten minutes while your intestines are being pulled out, yell something memorable, die, and then you’ll be subsequently be made a martyr immortalized for time immemorial.  Easy-peasy.”

“Uh,” Coleman mumbles, “I don’t… that’s not so easy, actually…”  Poor kid.

“The point,” continues Van starting in on a second powdered beignet, “is that ‘flash-in-the-pan courage’ is nothing.  Every wanna-be Che Guevara’s got that in him.  What’s an infinitely heavier lift is asking a man to watch his small children starve and die slowly from starvation and malnutrition for weeks and months on end.  That’s the kinda sacrifice that most are unable to make.  That takes real conviction.  A conviction that precious few possess.”

I hold up my hands.  “Whoa.  Hold up.  Stop the Crazy Express.  I didn’t sign up for no ‘Operation-Starve-the-Children’ here.  That’s a big, fat red line for me.  Next idea.”

Jinshui Technology Park

“Incredible,” I say. “This is unbelievable.” Besides me, Erin just smiles. “That was my reaction the first time I saw this place too,” she says. “The first time really does take your breath away.”

Once you set foot inside the twenty-story tall stone walls of Jinshui Technology Park, you’ll see gleaming forty-story sky scrapers built of shining glass and steel. Eight gleaming cylindrical office towers made entirely of glass, shoot upwards into the sky. Between them are carefully manicured lawns and koi ponds. Longer-slung office buildings also fill the adjoining space– it is a palatial office park, modern and futuristic, a world apart from the staid, soulless corporate office complexes that I’d grown accustomed to seeing back in the States.

“Wait,” I say puzzled, “how is it that we didn’t see these giant office towers from afar coming in?”

“Ah,” says Erin, “it’s active camouflage. It helps the Chinese conceal places like Jinshui from the prying eyes of American and European satellites up in space,” she says pointing upwards. “You know if word ever got out about just how much the west doesn’t know about China, there’d be outright panic, right?”

“I see,” I say nodding. I look alongside the inner walls of the office park and see that Erin is right. Giant holographic projectors are painting a façade of thin air to anyone who looks at the compound from the outside.

“That’s why the outer walls are built the way they are,” says Erin, “and looks like they date back to the days of Julius Caesar or Genghis Kahn. From the outside, this entire thing just looks like another historical artifact of antiquity.”

“You know over a millennia separate Caesar and Kahn, right?” I say giving Erin some side-eye. “Jesus, you kids these days.”

Erin rolls her eyes. “Whatever, old man. Same difference, same difference. C’mon, let’s go get some grub. I’m super-famished.”

Now that we’ve actually arrived, it occurs to me that I don’t actually know what I’m supposed to be doing here. I check my phone that Charlotte had given me but I have no new notifications. All I’d received earlier was a round-trip bus ticket and my return leg wasn’t until tomorrow.

Also, I am hungry. It’s just about five o’clock so I nod to Erin. “Sure, let’s get something to eat.”

The bus has come to a stop in a giant parking lot and passengers are already filtering out. I see most of the people who rode in are young, in their twenties and thirties– and aside from Erin and myself, everyone else is ethnically Chinese.

Write a Novel

In the course of one’s life, I believe that everyone should write an original novel.  Not fan fiction and not a novella or short story, but a wholly unique full-length novel entirely of your own imagination and creation.  If you consider a standard-issue novel to be 70,000-80,000 words, writing 400 words a day will yield a full-length, bonafide novel in 175-200 days, or basically about six months.  Six months and you could have the next Da Vinci Code on your hands!

Now, to be fair, not all of us are going to be writing Stephen King or Dan Brown bestsellers.  But that’s not the point.  I encourage everyone to write a longform work of fiction because doing so is valuable and healthy training for your mind.  Specifically, it disciplines you to keep to a daily habit that exercises your mental faculties.  In composing a long-form fiction story that runs hundreds of pages, you need to be able to stay focused and logically connect every day’s events in your story in a sensible and competent way to the events that will happen tomorrow.  This may sound trivial and banal but it’s honestly a skill.  When I first began writing, I found I had a tendency of lurching and careening all over the map.  I’d write neat standalone vignettes or scenes but they’d be entirely isolated and not connect to a greater overarching story.  It really took focus on my end to calm down and not only “write the fun parts.”  As a storyteller, you’re responsible for the whole shebang.

Additionally, you need to learn to give your characters distinct voices and personalities which is a proxy of you also developing a well-honed sense of empathy in your own mind.  After all, all of the voices in a novel ultimately originate from one source:  You.  You are responsible for writing a believable hero and villain.  You need to always stay vigilant that everyone’s perspectives and motivations stay consistent and believable.

Finally, writing long-form fiction will also train you in the way of pacing a story.  Events in a story always need to be moving; the reader needs a reason to stay engaged.  Keeping a reader hooked and on the wagon for hundreds of pages is no easy task.  I’m certainly no expert but I follow one single axiom to guide my writing:  Is this something that I would personally read and enjoy?  In every day’s installment, I try to always include a passage, sequence, or turn of phrase that I personally chuckle at.  Generally, I hope what amuses me will also amuse others.  But honestly, I have no idea.

Next month, November, is the annual National Novel Writing Month and so I strongly suggest you start writing.  The world may or may not be eagerly awaiting your Next Great American Novel but if you commit and follow through with the endeavor, you will personally get a lot out of it.  I guarantee it.

Building a Town

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.

Intergalactic Expansion & Empire Building

Intergalactic expansion and empire building has been on my mind recently.  Over the weekend, I just finished reading Providence by Max Barry, the Australian author who also wrote one of my other favorite books that I read ages ago, Syrup.  A quick aside– on a very short list, Barry is definitely one of my favorite authors.  I consider him an “ideas guy”– sometimes his storytelling goes sideways, especially in his third acts, but Barry’s ideas in Jennifer Government, Lexicon, and Providence are all superb and set him apart.  At his best, he’s right up there with Robert Charles Wilson. (Spin by RCW is fantastic, by the way.  RCW’s other books, though, I’ve never liked enough to even finish.  But Spin is a legit tour de force.)

Anyway, reading Providence got me thinking: If humanity were to ever get off earth and escape our solar system to another one within our galaxy, it’d most likely be because we’d depleted all our earthy resources, right? Essentially, the human species had reached a point where we were consuming more than earth could replenish. (Which, I should note, given rapidly declining birth rates in all advanced, industrialized countries, is most definitely not a foregone conclusion.) But if it did happen, which resulted in humans flinging themselves across the far reaches of the cosmos, would that mean that humans –in aggregate as a species– are simply kind of like bacteria? We simply don’t want to die. So we’re going to try catapulting ourselves to somewhere else far-flung, reproduce and exploit all of the natural resources there, and then repeat the entire process all over again?

(A long-running trope in science-fiction, by the way, is that the wealthy and powerful flee earth one day leaving only the most impoverished and destitute here on whatever hollowed husk remains. It’s intriguing to ponder but I honestly don’t see the cookie crumbling that way. Space travel is just too risky and expensive. The rich people, my general take, will need to somehow figure out how to enjoy their end of days here on earth, which I argue is a good thing.)

Non-sequitur– Nation States! Max Barry developed this online game! Originally, as a PR stunt to promote Jennifer Government back in 2002 during his book launch. But then Nation States became its own bonafide hit! Barry is truly a brother from another mother. I’ve been contemplating this exact same idea for years now but Barry beat me by at least a decade! Social systems, government styles, political science, and group dynamics— that’s the good stuff.

PS. I also heap upon Mr. Barry my infinite gratitude for disabusing me of any romantic/naive notions I may have once harbored for running a massive online project like Nation States. I think I’m infinitely more enamored with the technical challenge of building a project like NS rather than actually dealing with the legion of randos that’d eventually/inevitably follow. I suspect Mr. Barry was too.

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