Be Yourself / Make Yourself

There’s a lot of writing about how obviously sensible or obviously stupid it is to tell someone, “Be yourself.” Almost all of this writing starts with something like, “Be yourself. What does that even mean?”

Be yourself. What does that even mean?

When I was an academic, that was me, but it was a version of myself that I chose and built. When I left that world and built an identity as a reluctant engineer, that was also a version of myself that I chose and built. Even basic things about me are the results of choices. I am volatile and creative in part because I encouraged the volatile and creative parts of myself. I am lazy because I have allowed myself to be lazy, and happy because I have repeatedly made the choice to work on my happiness.

It’s evident that each of us is in the process of making ourselves, all the time, every day. If you are who you’ve made yourself to be by choice and effort, then by definition, whatever you choose is right, and you are always being yourself. “Be yourself” is a meaningless tautology, already and always true. Right?

Well, not exactly.

Making yourself by choice and effort is an art. You are practicing the art of making yourself. You’ve been practicing it for most of your life.

Paul Graham says this about making art:

At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.

The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it.

As you make yourself, you do it with a personal style. This style emerges without your even trying; you can’t help but have your style.

In my case, some key elements are: I’m very flighty, interested in everything and prone to change topics really quickly. I’m always in a fight with myself to be better; I wake up every day and want to be more than I am. I’m passive for long stretches, needing hours of recharge time just to take walks, and sometimes having difficulty summoning the activation energy for the next good thing. I’m conscientious; I’ve payed a lot of attention to the quality of what I’m doing, and flat out quit several really nice parts of my life because they felt wrong. I’m usually pathologically honest and struggle not to be too blunt. I love to talk and can do so for hours and hours without stopping. When I set about making myself, I do it thoughtfully, I do it in bursts, I talk about it a lot. These things are my style.

That style is the real me. Your style is the real you. You’re a businessman? A nice person? A runner? An educated person? A tough person? That’s not you. The idiosyncratic way you went about making yourself into those things, that’s the real you.

“Be yourself” means “don’t fight against your natural style”.

I’ve fought against most of the parts of my natural style at one point or another. In each case I fought because I wanted to be a particular type of person, and that person required the opposite traits. Every time I’ve done this, it’s made me miserable and ineffective.

For instance, I always wanted to be an astronaut. Astronauts are uncommonly, uncannily disciplined people. I’m really undisciplined by nature. This is a weakness that needs shoring up, for sure, but there were points in my childhood and my early teenage years where I pushed myself to become the most disciplined person. I was sailing against a headwind, and if I’d persisted, I’d be sailing against that headwind for the rest of my life.

Contrast that with the times I’ve let myself be a writer. Writers are good at disassembling and reassembling concepts. They’re good at wordplay. They like to talk (even if it’s just in text form). They like to make up stories. I’m naturally inclined to all of these things. I write a few thousand lines of gchat with my friends every day, not because I push myself, but because I want to write. When I write, I’m sailing with a natural tailwind.

Here’s Paul Graham again:

A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.

Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.

Be yourself. Pay attention to the style that comes most naturally to you. Shore up real weaknesses, but accept that you can’t remake yourself into absolutely anything. Don’t spend your whole life struggling against your real natural style. Instead, find things you want to be that suit your style.

[An aside just for teenagers: This is why we’re always telling you to be yourself. You’re just starting to understand your own style, and you face more pressure than anyone else to fight against it. If you’re bookish and thoughtful, someone is telling you to be more impulsive. If you’re creative, someone is telling you to be more focused. If you’re shy, someone is telling you to fake it until you make it. No! Pay attention to your natural style and protect it. It will get easier. Last week, my friend went surfing dressed as Batman. Nobody told him he shouldn’t do this. He’s grown up, he can do what he wants!]

Being yourself in this sense is the difference between repression and self improvement. Repression violates your natural style, the parts you just can’t help. It diminishes you. Self improvement synchronizes with your natural style. It amplifies you.

Go make yourself. Go practice your art. Go be yourself.

There’s a whole album based on this concept.

 

Good Morning, Scotland

Good morning, Scotland.

The decision you make today is yours and yours alone. But we wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

They say your future will be uncertain. We want to let you know it mostly turns out well. Even those of us who are struggling would not soon rejoin the Union.

They say you don’t have it in you to govern yourselves. They said that about most of us, too.

They say you’ll be isolating yourself. We know you want to be part of the international community (more so than England does), and we will welcome you on your own terms.

They promise you new powers if you stay. By becoming independent, you gain the opportunity to forge a state as different from Westminster as you want it to be, with leaders you want to have. You gain whatever powers you see fit, on the timetable of your choosing.

They say you have had many wonderful years together, and in this they are right. Independence gave us the right to celebrate our shared history with Britain as much or as little as we each want, and the same will be true for you. Many of us remain close, and you can do the same.

We know this is not an easy choice. So many of us struggled for this same thing, for the right to self determination.

They often say you can’t go it alone. We know you can, Scotland. After all, we did.

Your siblings, the former British,

Antigua and Barbuda,

Australia,

The Bahamas,

Bahrain,

Barbados,

Belize,

Botswana,

Brunei,

Canada,

Cyprus,

Dominica ,

Egypt,

Fiji,

The Gambia,

Ghana,

Grenada,

Guyana,

India,

Israel,

Iraq,

The Republic of Ireland,

Jamaica,

Jordan,

Kenya,

Kiribati,

Kuwait,

Lesotho,

Malawi,

Malaysia,

Maldives,

Malta,

Mauritius,

Myanmar,

New Zealand,

Nigeria,

Pakistan,

Qatar,

Saint Lucia,

Saint Kitts and Nevis,

Seychelles,

Sierra Leone,

Solomon Islands,

South Africa,

Sri Lanka ,

Sudan,

Swaziland,

Tanzania,

Trinidad and Tobago,

Tuvalu,

Uganda,

The United Arab Emirates,

The United States of America,

Vanuatu,

Yemen,

Zambia,

and Zimbabwe.

Watching in a Trance

This story was written while listening to Shiny Toy Guns’ cover of “Major Tom” on loop. If you would like the full experience while reading it, the song is on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyFe5m2MU9Q) as is the original (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt-R5hj_lWM)

“Experiments require precisely controlled environments and must be repeated many times for significant results. In the time before replicators, our science was full of bad experiments.”

1

The scientist sits at his workstation, fresh coffee on the table beside him, and switches to a terminal.

cd ../ChimpCompiler
ls
gcc -c chimp_08464.cc chimp_template.cc chimp_template_utilities.cc -o chimp_08464
./chimp_08464 –mode=test –run_tests=all –test_iq=95

The machine hums and symbols spit down the screen in rapid succession. He takes a sip of coffee, frowns at it in surprise, and gets up to go brew another pot.

2

The test has gone well. The scientist sits at his workstation again, fresh coffee on the table beside him, and focuses on the terminal.

cd ..
cd ChimpReplicator
ls
python chimp_replicator.py –program=../ChimpReplicator/chimp_08464 –tolerance=6 –log_level=Error –test=True / 2>&1 | tee log_chimp_08464_060849.txt

The machine hums and symbols spit down the screen in rapid succession. The scientist sips his coffee and is satisfied. He switches tabs and watches a video to pass the time.

3

After a while, the scientist gets up and walks across the room to a video monitor. The monitor is split screen; each side shows a large floor mounted capsule in an otherwise empty room. Lights on the capsules blink a repeating sequence in perfect unison. After a minute, this sequence is interrupted by a short burst of blinks, and finally, silently, the lights switch off, and the capsule doors slowly open, still in perfect unison.

Fog settles to the floor from inside the doors, and from each capsule emerges a chimpanzee in a space suit. There are subtle, intentional differences; the scientist inspects these and smiles with satisfaction. This won’t be like the first pot of coffee.

4

The chimpanzees now stand idly on conveyor belts, each carried forward down a hallway.

They emerge through automatic doors, each in a room with a perfectly fitted transport pod, glass canopy raised open overhead.

Their training kicks in, and they waddle over to their craft and climb aboard. The chimps strap themselves in and put on helmets which have electrical cables running into the spaces behind their seats. They push buttons in perfect unison, and the glass canopies descend. After a moment, conveyor arms appear from the sides of each room, lowering to the floor, grabbing each pod from the underside, and raising it up and out of the room.

Now the monitor switches viewpoints. The podcraft are deposited in long tunnels. Lights blink in succession as structures are attached to the pods. The chimps sit quietly, occasionally fiddling with dials. Finally the main status light on each side shows steady green.

One chimp scratches himself.

The scientist nods to himself and returns to his terminal.

cd ../ChimpAccelerator
./run

5

A deep and audible thrum builds from the floor beneath the chimps. The pods levitate off ground, centered in the tunnels, and begin to accelerate under magnetic impulse power. The scientist reads the accelerator status from one tab as he watches video on another.

1.004 * 10^-8 * c

The acceleration process is slow. The scientist opens another window to do more work, refactoring some code, periodically checking the accelerator status window.

6.901 * 10^-6 * c

The chimps sit patiently. Already the speed is high enough to blur the tunnel through their viewports.

After an hour, the status window reads

0.84 * c
Approaching warp threshold in 2:57

The chimps remain patient. Another readout indicates they are continuing to pass physiological tests.

0.96 * c

Approaching warp threshold in 0:45

The scientist switches back to the accelerator terminal, where a prompt awaits the final commands.

0:30 WarpPrep, Align0:50 Warp, Collide

6

A curious thing happens during a Mori Inversion Warp. Acceleration is smooth at sub and super light speeds, but there is a jump discontinuity at the speed of light. Human subjects describe it as feeling “like time stops for an infinity”, and early instrumentation readings often (but not always) reflect this. Edwards and Tillman developed a method to partially shield instruments, allowing for readings at the singularity, but it doesn’t work on living brains; subjectively, humans continue to perceive an infinite stoppage of time.

7

The pods shift into the same tunnel and bear down on each other just as the warp discontinuity is reached.

Four

Three

Two

One

Time stops.

The chimps are frozen, pods just a few feet apart, separated by nothing but empty space. They stare at each other through their glass viewports.

They stare deeply into each other’s eyes. They can’t move.

They stare at each other for an age. Incomprehension turns to shock turns to rage. They hate each other for a long time.

After more than a century, one chimp unexpectedly softens. The second chimp recognizes this, sensitized after so long staring at his clone, and softens as well.

Hate turns to understanding turns to love.

They love each other with all the understanding of a nearly identical pair. He is the tragic lover of himself, forever.

But their differences are flaws in a perfect diamond, and over centuries, these flaws shatter under pressure. Each chimp hates the other, simply for being different.

They pass eons, divorcing, remarrying, divorcing, remarrying.

A million years have passed, and, exhausted, each accepts the flaws in the other. They will remain together forever.

Their love lasts more lifetimes than all the loves of all the beings that have ever lived on earth.

And still they know it will end. Even this infinity is subjective, and it will end.

Time doesn’t return all of a sudden. It returns gradually, agonizingly. The pods begin to move, just barely at the edge of perception. Then slowly, so slowly, the pods touch, and grind each other to pieces. Fire, slow beautiful painted fire engulfs the chimps, and they die still staring into each other’s eyes.

8

The scientist sips his coffee and watches the explosion on his desk monitor. He smiles with blearly eyed satisfaction as he switches to the terminal.

cd ../ChimpCompiler

He still has a long night of work ahead of him.

9

The Journal of Astrophysical Psychology publishes “Reactions of Chimpanzees at Relativistic Speeds” to widespread acclaim.

A 200 Year Plan for Bears

(Quick editor’s note: I’ve cancelled the Annoying Character March Madness tournament due to lack of interest)


So, today I’m going to write about an old idea of mine.

Bears are great.

They’re mostly endangered.

We have a long history of bestowing enormous genetic success on other living things that please us. Being loved by humans is much, much, much more effective than traditional conservation.

We kind of love bears, but we don’t get enough of them, because we have almost no way to interact with real bears. What we really love is an idealized, unthreatening form of bear.

We’re love the idea of the teddy bear, the tame bear. The domesticated bear.

Rest in peace, Knut

Mankind has had slow domestication for tens of thousands of years. But recently, we’ve developed the organizational prowess to practice much more rapid domestication [1].

Not a bear

Here’s what I think we should do: We should set aside a very large tract of wilderness as an enormous bear preserve.

We should populate it with as many bears as is safely possible (for the land, and for the bears themselves). We might start with the smaller black bears and sun bears.

Sorry, guy

We should take care of these bears, at first from a distance. But, each generation, we should select the smallest and most docile bears, and take much more personal care of these.

Handlers should raise these bears alongside humans, and breed them for neotenous characteristics.

Oh, right, neoteny. Neoteny is a term from biology, and means the retention of juvenile characteristics in adulthood. Grown dogs resemble wolf puppies. Grown humans resemble chimpanzee babies. We are both examples of neotenous evolution.

What if this were the end stage for domesticated bears?

 

I think that on a two hundred year time line, we can accomplish the same thing for bears, spinning off a sub species which essentially remain cub-like in adulthood.

We can domesticate bears. All we have to do is work them down to the big dog stage, in terms of size and docility.

This is about right

I think this will save the bear, genetically (admittedly at the cost of its dignity).

I think this could be done for around the cost of one personal fortune. I know I would do it if I had a spare billion dollars.

I think it’s a small price to pay for tens of thousands of future years of this:

What do you think?

[1] In fairness to myself, I had this idea long before I knew about the Russian Fox Domestication experiment.

A Favorite Musician For Every Letter of the Alphabet

Who could ever pick one favorite band? What do you even answer when people ask you about your favorite music?

My new answer is going to be this list: my favorite musicians, one for every letter of the alphabet. And a crap-ton of honorable mentions.

(In the case of people with actual names, I will use whichever of first name, last name, or full name I damn well please. Classical composers will be last name only.)

Air

Universal Traveler

Alpha Beta Gaga

Radian

Honorable mentions: Afro Celt, Architeq

Beethoven

Sonata No 21 (Waldstein)

Symphony No 3 (Eroica), First Movement, Allegro Con Brio

Symphony No 9, Fourth Movement

Honorable mentions: The Beatles, Beck, The Bird and the Bee, Bat for Lashes



Cusco

Australia

Islands of the Galapagos

North Easter

Honorable mentions: Chvrches, Collective Soul, Cake, Creedence Clearwater Revival. C is a strong letter.

Depeche Mode

Enjoy the Silence

Dream On

Policy of Truth

Honorable mentions: Daft Punk, Days of the New

Ed Alleyne-Johnson

Red

Orange

Green

Honorable mentions: Elvis Presley, Emilíana Torrini, Explosions in the Sky

Feist

1234

Brandy Alexander

Honey Honey

Honorable mentions: Fan Death, Fever Ray

Glitch Mob

We Swarm

We Can Make the World Stop

Fly By Night Only

Honorable mentions: Gorillaz, God is an Astronaut

Jimi

Hendrix

The Wind Cries Mary

Fire

Voodoo Child

Honorable mention: Handel, Heart, Howling Bells

The

Impossibles

Eightball

Priorities Intact

Everyday

Honorable mention: Incubus, Iron Maiden

Juno Reactor

Pistolero

Samurai

God is God

Honorable mentions: Joe Satriani, Johnny Cash, Junip, Janelle Monae, Jack Johnson. J is a strong letter.

The

Knife

Heartbeats (and an 8 bit version!!!)

The Captain

We Share Our Mother’s Health

Honorable mention: KMFDM, The Kills

Led Zeppelin

Bron-y-aur Stomp

When the Levee Breaks

Immigrant Song

Honorable mentions: La Roux, Lemon Jelly

Massive Attack

Protection

Be Thankful for What You’ve Got

Teardrop

Honorable mentions: Moxy Früvous, Miami Horror

Nine Inch Nails

Down In It

Everyday is Exactly The Same

All Time Low (Hey Keith: I thought about linking Everything)

Honorable mentions: N.A.S.A, New Order, Nest

Orbital

Mock Tudor

Lost

Midnight

Belfast

The Girl With The Sun In Her Head

The Box, Extended Version, Second Movement

Honorable mentions: Outkast, The Offspring

Presidents of the USA

Peaches

Boll Weevil

Munky River

Honorable mentions: Polaris, Pomplamoose, Pearl Jam

Queen

Don’t Stop Me Now

Another One Bites The Dust

Princes of the Universe

I’m not even aware of another good musical group whose name starts with the letter Q.

Rush

Beneath, Between & Behind

Closer to the Heart

Limelight

And, yes, fine, Tom Sawyer

Honorable mentions: Röyksopp, Rimsky-Korsakov

Soundgarden

Hands All Over

No Attention

Spoonman

Honorable mentions: Sleigh Bells, Soul Coughing

Tegan and Sara

Alligator

Closer

Someday

Honorable mentions: Temple of the Dog, Tchaikovsky, Tom Waits, They Might Be Giants, Tinstar. T is a strong letter.

Ulrich Schnauss

Sirocco

You Can Walk Anywhere

Chasing Rainbows




Vivaldi

Alla Rustica

Winter from the Four Seasons, Allegro non molto

Gloria

Honorable mention: Vangelis

George

Winston

Joy

Colors/Dance

Thanksgiving

Honorable mention: Weezer, White Ship

The

XX

Intro

Islands

Shelter




Yeasayer

Tightrope

Ambling Alp

Devil and the Deed




Zero 7

Out of Town

In The Waiting Line

Destiny

What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven. – Beethoven

Unpopular Opinions

This is not an April Fools Day Joke.

I’ve struggled recently with feeling intimidated by the opinions of the world. It has seemed to me like I don’t have the strength to live my own beliefs, largely because I don’t have the strength to live with the intense discomfort that comes from always disagreeing with someone, no matter the issue.

So today I’m going to test that out. I’m going to take a high dive into uncharted waters by listing my opinions about many difficult things.

 

My hero

 

– I am strongly against polyamory. There are exceptions, sure, but I think they’re a small fraction of the people practicing. Polyamory, as a community, is against a perceived selfishness. This is good. But I see a staggering amount of unacknowledged selfishness in polyamory.

– I am strongly, strongly in favor of gay marriage and full gay rights. In fact, I’m in favor of state support for any voluntary union of people (so I would support state recognition of polyamory).

– I am completely agnostic about most religious questions. I don’t think we can know, I don’t value faith for faith’s sake, and I do not think it’s cowardly to “refuse to take a position”. I think brave and modest to admit that I don’t know.

– But I really, really don’t believe in the Christian sky god. If you pray for safe travel on an airplane, you’re doing it wrong. There’s just no such god who will glide your plane to a safe landing because you’re inside it.

– I am severely opposed to public shareholder corporations. All of them. Even the good ones. This is because I think this model devolves responsibility and encourages group sociopathy in pursuit of the profit motive.

– In cases of public good, like healthcare and the environment, I don’t just believe in public regulation or a public system. I believe in nationalizing the industries that operate in these spaces. That puts me far beyond socialist.

– But I also believe, generally speaking, that political ideology applied across the board is incredibly foolish. Libertarian, authoritarian, conservative, liberal, hands on business, hands off business: decide these things on a case by case basis, pragmatically. Otherwise you’ll make big mistakes.

– I don’t believe in an afterlife. But I hope for one, only so that I can see my grandfather. I really hope I can see him again. I don’t care if this is rational.

– I personally want to get married and stay married forever, and when a marriage ends in divorce, I consider it a failure, even if it had to happen, even if it happened for understandable reasons. I say this even though I got married and, in under a year, divorced. It was a failure. I hope to learn from it.

– I favor birth control to the max. I favor less people. I want the earth to slowly return to having the number of people it can reasonably sustain.

– I’m truly ambivalent about whether we (humans) should be here (in existence). An awesome professor of mine once said “the question that keeps me up at night is: will we survive as a species or will we allow ourselves to die somehow?” My response was: “the one that keeps me up at night is: do we deserve to survive? Your question is the answer to my question. If we manage to live as a species, I feel like we deserve it. If we die, I also feel like we deserve it.”

– You’re not qualified to vote at the national level, reader. Neither am I. Claim all you want that you pay attention to the details and that you’re well informed, but deep down we both know it’s become too complex for a human being to understand.

– I am sex positive. Sex is a good thing. A healthy thing.

– I am also in favor of masturbation. Masturbation is to sex as reading is to living life. Come on, people. We don’t disrespect other people for reading.

– I support the free expression and exploration of gender. That guy’s wearing a tutu: awesome.

– I am against abortion. I really am. But I don’t view it in terms of human life; it’s not murder to me at all. I view it along the same lines as putting a pet to sleep. I would really rather it not happen. On the other hand, I don’t grieve for the loss of human life. Life is only as valuable as it is lived, and unwanted children forced on unwanting parents probably don’t live good lives. I don’t believe in Choice. But I think the Pro Life movement is crazed and horrible, and I think less abortion comes from more birth control, not from legislation.

– The US Constitution is mostly outdated nonsense.

– Reading is a beautiful thing. I want a library. I imagine a lot of you want libraries. In fact, I want to join with my friends in my older middle age and pool our book collections to open a library.

– The jezebel.com version of modern feminism sure does love to go on witch hunts, especially against people who halfway agree with it. It’s aggravating, or often downright terrifying. But despite that I still say, down with the patriarchy!

– It turns out LA is actually really nice and underrated by my standard social groups.

– I love biking. I think biking more and driving less (if not giving up cars entirely except for trips between cities) is the future. In fact, I honestly want cities like Houston, which are organized around long commutes in traffic, to slowly fall apart into ghost towns. How do I square this with liking LA? LA has money and the people are susceptible to appearance pressure. When car commuting is as unpopular as smoking cigarettes, the people of LA will use their money to fix public transport in their city. This will never happen in Houston.

– Both sides of the US political process are corrupt and problematic, but in recent years, only one side (the conservative side) has actively lost touch with reality, and only one side (the conservative side) is setting all the good things on fire.

– War is a racket. I do not support the troops. I say this as the child and grandchild of proud US military veterans. I grew up on military bases and deeply love the culture and ethos of those places, and I personally love most of the military and ex military people I have known. But I think the idea that patriotism requires I support them in killing is crazy. I do not. I wish they never did those things.

– I would vote for almost any politician who openly planned to cut military or police state spending. I won’t vote for any politician who has no intention of doing these things. So I’ve never yet voted at the national level. Not for a senator, or a congressional representative, or a president. And I’m actually proud of that.

– I like Barack Obama as a person, and I’m really really glad he won both of his terms, and I support almost all of his domestic agenda, and I prefer his foreign policy to that of any recent republican, but I’m proud that I didn’t vote for him, because he openly never had any intention of reducing the military industrial complex or the police state.

– Patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Best to wipe it from the heart. We live on a ball in dead empty space. I keep hoping you can see that we’re more or less all on the same team; us against death and emptiness.

– I can only think of three international disputes where I have an emotional stake in one side. I support the whole world against North Korea (obvious), Scotland breaking off of Great Britain (less obvious), and Palestine’s right to a state with decent borders and no interference from Israel (not at all obvious if you’re an American). (If Scotland votes for independence in the Fall referendum, I’ll paint Scottish flags on my face, my car, and my clothing. Despite what I just said about patriotism.)

– Silicon Valley makes me unbearably sad. It breaks my heart. All this talent, all this power and wealth and revolutionary spirit… used to make twitter apps. And photo sharing sites. And to push for ever higher and higher salaries. With a few exceptions (Elon Musk, really), it is a staggering waste of gifts.

– TED has produced some amazing talks, which have given me great food for thought, but on balance, I agree with the recent commentator who called TED “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”.

– Swearing is no indication of poor communication skills. It’s goddamned valuable spice for the language. I words mouth say better than most of you, and I swear incessantly. I directly put the lie to that old bullshit.

– You’re not bad at math. I don’t care who you are. You’re not bad at math. You just had bad teachers. Most math teachers in the US are bad teachers. It’s such a shame.

– I think most Christians aren’t real Christians. Not as the religion is intended. If you help the poor; if you believe it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven; if you consider your own sexual “sins” instead of castigating gay people; if you found it in your heart to love Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, or at least tried to do all these things, then in my book you are a real Christian. And you know what? Real Christian, I love you. You are actually an amazing, underrated force for good in the world.

– I love the big, dirty, architecturally magnificent, dense, vibrant large cities, and most of the people who live in them. I love the vast, empty, green and blue and granite grey wilderness, and most of the people who make tiny towns in it. I am not such a big fan of the stuff in between these two extremes.

– Charlemagne is reputed to have said, “To know another language is to have a second soul”. It is a tragedy that I have never maintained a second language.

– Travel is the antidote to parochialism. Every person possessing the means should, at least once, leave town, leave state, leave country. Live, if possible, somewhere else. If you have not done this, there are aspects of your local area that you think are universal truths. You are wrong; they are not.

– In particular, against all conventional wisdom, I think it is extremely healthy for children to make at least one major move in childhood, so that they develop some ability to see what is universal and what is merely the product of local culture.

– Cynicism withers the human spirit. I’m more guilty of it than most of you. Depending on your viewpoint, there’s even a lot of cynicism in this blog post. I know that. But I believe in optimism, and I try to practice it. I hope I will keep getting better at it.

– What I want most in my lifetime: for the human spirit to flourish in all people. What does that mean? It means I want all of you to follow the paths that lead to really good versions of you.

– If you can spend all of tomorrow watching TV, or gardening with your friends, and you know gardening with your friends will make you happier and healthier, and give you better memories, then I want you to spend tomorrow gardening with your friends, not watching TV. That’s what I mean.

– Compromise is the bedrock of all relationships. I understand that if i could not compromise on the things on this list, I would be totally alone. So these are not the things I require of you, reader. They’re just the things in my own heart.

This post is, of course, a sort of performance art. It’s likely to stir up controversy, which will be difficult for me, but I pay the cost for the following reason. The performance I want to make is this: if you get angry, please remember that each of your friends would make you angry if you got to read that friend’s full list of controversial opinions, and that, if you wrote out a full list of your controversial opinions, each of your friends would be angry at something on the list.

For myself, I want to make it harder to hide inside a bubble of niceness and pretense. For most people reading this: We are friends. Now it’s right out there in the open that we disagree about something. But I still want to be friends.

A Small Thing About Small Things

This morning, my uncle and I were discussing household appliances. He told me about a problem he had with the a super-hot water tap in his sink. The sink was high end, with a special tap to produce 180F water immediately. Under the hood, the tap had a drainage system to avoid storing tepid water. All the parts of this product were nice metal, except the drainage hose, which was cheap plastic, and broke. When he called the company for a replacement, the man on the other end knew what the problem was without my uncle finishing his sentence.

My uncle then told me the story of a nice new fridge whose ice maker stopped working, I think also due to a cheap part [1]. He asked, “why do makers allow this for their high end products?”

My best guess at an answer was:

It’s an organizational problem. Engineering firms, even many of the good ones, are organized to parcel out work to different teams (or other firms). Even in good firms, an insignificant part may be of insignificant concern, so it gets farmed out to a weak team.

In my experience, there is one big exception: high end stuff from Germany. This stuff works, and it lasts.

My best guess at a reason for that comes from this old economist article. The reason is, in Germany, there are a large number of tiny firms (under 50 people) which heavily specialize in particular obscure parts or items. These Mittelstand are often the best makers of whatever parts they make, and there’s nothing too small for this specialty. There are companies that make only some types of gaskets, one that makes bottling machines, one that only makes rolling pull-out cabinets for storing very heavy equipment, as might be done in factories.

When a German company builds a high end product, it typically takes its parts from other Germany companies. Those companies put enormous effort into building high quality parts, even if the parts are insignificant in larger designs. So German products have few small failure points.

 

Look at these *parts*!

 

I think. What do you think?

[1] I may be mixing up two stories here, one about the fridge, the other about the super-hot water spout. They sort of blended together in my mind.

Toughness and the Nerd Mind

Hey folks! I have a completely speculative idea.

I think maybe I can explain why so many of us with nerd qualities[1] have trouble pushing ourselves to work hard, to stay fit, to get a lot of things done.

I think it’s because quite a few of us rejected toughness. We grew up in contexts which made toughness an attribute of the enemy, and more or less decided that it’s a bad thing.

Those people who finish their marathon runs, who stay up late doing extra work, who can stop themselves from just falling into a squishy, comfortable evening of reading wikipedia and watching Veronica Mars? What they’re doing is pushing themselves, psyching themselves up, toughing it out. When we try to do that, it feels like a cousin of bullying, a meathead thing.

I came to this idea via Adventure Time. It’s a cartoon show tailor made for a nerd audience, but look how tough this kid Finn is:

I like Finn, and sometimes think of him as a role model in some ways. After I saw this particular episode of the show, I found myself biking harder, running longer, working just a bit more, because the little Finn in my head was psyching me up. But this is an attitude that I didn’t find accessible in very many other fictional characters before now, I think because they all seemed like the opposite of role models, like people to avoid being.

Do you struggle to push yourself? Examine your life and your influences a bit. Did you start rejecting toughness at some point you can recognize? Let me know, I want to expand on this!

[1]  Nerd qualities? Geek qualities? Whatever your nomenclature, I mean people who love mathematics as well as people who love Star Trek.

Someday

Sometimes hard days are eased by dreaming of the future.

Someday I’m going to take the love of my life on a road trip up the West Coast. A proper road trip, finally do it right.

We’ll start somewhere far away. I’ll start the trip by planting a seed in her mind. “Do you ever want to visit the West Coast of America? See all the places you’ve only seen in movies? These are the places I lived and loved… the part of the country that’s worth loving.”

Maybe we’ll start the actual trip in Texas. See my family, whoever’s still living there. See my old friends, eat some barbecue. She’ll experience that most truly American thing: to look at the sunset, to dream of going west, to dream of what’s over the western horizon.

We’ll drive through the desert to Los Angeles. We won’t stop for a damned thing but the gas to keep us going.

We’ll start with LA because it’s big enough to see twice. The first time we’ll just take in the bigness of it all, the endlessness, the traffic. We’ll drive right up to the ocean and watch the sunset, first of many.

In a pinch we’ll take a detour to San Diego. I’ve still never been. We’ll see Legoland, and split right afterwards.

We’ll give LA more attention the second time. If my friends still live there, we’ll eat with them in Koreatown. Walk with them on the beach. Hang out with them in shabby bowling alleys in Gardena. Play like we’re living the Big Lebowski, before a quick tour of Hollywood and a long drive north. As we drive away, she’ll tell me those are good friends, that I’m lucky to have them.

In Silicon Valley I’ll show her all the little places I used to care about so much. My marshland, outside the NASA buildings. The little cliffside in Santa Cruz. The hill above 280 near Cupertino. Maybe I’ll still have some friends at Google; we can play on the statues of dead Androids and take pictures. Play a little piano near where I used to work. Sit on the hill looking down at all the offices, marveling that these buildings damn near run the world (if they still do).

We’ll spend a day or two touring San Francisco. Have dinner with an old friend or two. See the Bay Model, see Muir Woods. We’ll climb to the top of Mission Peak and howl at the moon. I’ll show her where I accidentally threw a tennis ball down the mountain.

Of course we’ll stop at the tennis courts and juggle. She’ll tell my old friends she’s heard so much about them.

From here we won’t head north, but east. We’ll go to Yosemite, and she’ll see what a holy place this sad country can be. How good it looks in the right light. I’ll still have never conquered El Capitan. She’ll tell me we need to do it, tell me it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. She’ll help me to climb the mountain.

We’ll think about driving east to Mono Lake, to Nevada. But we won’t go there. Fuck Nevada.

Instead we’ll drive north to Tahoe. I’ll tell her about the time my father saved me from despair, how we found the snow. We’ll look for the snow. Maybe we’ll find it, maybe not.

We’ll drive back west, then north into Oregon. We’ll finally take the time to see Crater Lake, after I tell her I’ve skipped it on every drive I’ve ever made through there. Maybe she’ll say it’s prettier than Tahoe, maybe not.

We’ll stop in Sisters. I hope my cousins still live there. We’ll hug my uncle. I’ll show her where my aunt’s ashes are scattered on Whychus Creek. We’ll have a picnic in the field under the soft sun in view of the snow capped Three Sisters. We’ll see Three Creeks, hike up Broken Top with my uncle. It’ll be a quiet, thoughtful hike.

We’ll head north, and again she’ll tell me I’m lucky to have such good people in my life. If it’s sunny in Portland, we’ll stop at the waterfront park. If not, we’ll drive right on through.

We’ll spend the longest in Seattle. Before we even get there, I’ll stop in Tacoma to show her where I grew up. I’ll show her what Mount Rainier looked like to a child, and why it has never, ever left my mind. I don’t care if it takes a week for the damned thing to pop out from behind clouds. We’ll wait. We’ll see it. Then we’ll drive to it, then hike right halfway up the side of it. I’ll tell her about the old time, the last time I did that. It will be hard, but I’ll tell it.

I can’t begin to tell you all the things we’ll see in Seattle. I guarantee it will be sunny, because I’ll time it right, and the city loves me when I come to visit. I’ll show her where my life was going, how it broke, where it went instead. She’ll remind me where it is, that very day, and where it’s going thereafter. We’ll talk on ferries, in parks, on little winding roads, in little restaurants and coffee houses, in friends’ apartments, in kayaks, on red swings, on benches looking at the setting sun over the Olympics. We’ll play foosball and take bike rides with very old friends, and as we leave, for the third time she will tell me I’m lucky to have the friends I have. Three is a good number.

Finally, only and finally we will reach the heart of the trip. We will drive north to Vancouver. I will show her how a city can be perfect. We will walk its every path and perimeter. We will get lost in the park. We will thrill to see the whole city beneath us as we snowboard down great mountain slopes. We will ache as we look north at the mountains, filled with the same longing we had when we looked west in the beginning. Only now we will know that our time here is drawing to a close, that we cannot go farther north. The great country to the north is a mystery and will remain so, for now. To know this feeling is to know America, to know the West Coast. She will know the West Coast, and I will remember it.

With melancholy hearts and strong spirits, we will return to the place we live, to Far Away, and dream of the future.

Someday…

Sketching Your Life

Paralysis. You want to do something right, because you think you’ve only got one chance to do it.

I love writing letters. Real, stamped and posted letters appeal to me on many levels. They’re important to me, to send and to receive. I have one I’ve been meaning to write, but it’s been longer since I wrote a letter than it has since I wrote blog posts. If getting back to blogging has been hard, and I take letter writing more seriously, and it’s been this long… paralysis.

The letter was supposed to accompany food. Eventually I ate the food, because I had avoided writing the letter for so long.

If this letter isn’t good, will I ever get a chance to write another letter? For some reason, my brain lies to me and says, no, you will not get another chance to write a letter.

We all do this, in many different parts of our lives. We think the next thing we do is the last and most critical thing, and we paralyze ourselves trying to make it good.

Most of us don’t draw, because what if that next drawing sucks? It’s gonna suuuuuck for sure! And then we’ll never get to draw again.

We go to job interviews, and we stress about them going to go poorly, as if there aren’t going to be any more interviews ever again.

I know grown-ass men who are still afraid to tell a girl/boy that they like that girl/boy. As if they only get one chance to say it. As if there wouldn’t be another girl/boy in the future.

But there’s always going to be another! In fact, as you age, you will find that people bounce in and out of your life repeatedly, and that you re-evaluate people, and they re-evaluate you. You meet new people and you always will. You lose old friends and sometimes regain them.

There’s another job interview in the next few weeks, and there will be interview after interview after interview after interview until one goes well and you get hired. Everyone who is good at drawing got there by drawing another and another and another…

Everything is a sketch, and you already know you do some of your best, most inspired work when you stop taking things so seriously and just sketch the next moment.

I know you know what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying it well. I’ve got to find a way to break down this wall of understanding.

Or do I? No, I don’t! Day seven of blog posting is just the seventh out of hundreds I’ll write in the next decade. So, I’ll get another crack at making this argument.

Seven out of seven. Keep trying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to sketch.

 

Scenes from a Multiverse