Dream Girl: Part 1

Kenji Saito woke up with his wife in his arms.
He gave her an extra large hug, patted her on the head then walked over to the kitchen to prepare his breakfast before work. As the kettle boiled he poured in the flavoring package, and the desiccated vegetables onto his ramen. If only she could cook Kenji thought, maybe in a few years it will be possible. Sitting down on his desk he gave a yearnful longing look at her as she greeted him with a tilted smiling face one finger adorably pressed against her cheek.

I love you he said

She responded in kind doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss

I love you he said

She responded in kind doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss

I love you he said

She responded in kind doing a little dance and blowing him a kiss

A tear formed in his eye, as he rubbed the gleaming gold band around his finger. He knew, he knew she would never hurt him, could never hurt  him, she was exactly who he thought she was, she would keep him company for the rest of his life, she could only improve. No pain, there would be no pain.
He asked her to sing him a song, his favorite one, watching the holographic girl sing and dance while he slurped down his noodles he told himself how lucky he was.
Goodbye my love he said tenderly, kissing her stuffed avatar on the head before heading back out into the cold harsh world.

Kenji wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t, he knew what people thought of his relationship, he still remembers how his mother had screamed at him, how his father would have felt had he been alive. He was well aware that there could never be any physical dimension to the relationship, well without very significant advances in robotics anyway. But for him all that mattered was that he had someone who he could always rely on to not judge, to not ignore, to smile when she saw him, he didn’t need anything else. He was once asked if he would like her to be transformed into a real girl, why couldn’t people understand. 2D girls were just better, he had to do what was best for himself ultimately. Younger guys got it, they expressed their support for his union, they know what it is like, others simply can’t understand, and their minds are too rigid to allow them to. Kenji just needed to do what was best for him.

His whole life he had been a gray spec on a gray wall. Rendered that which is beyond even what is invisible, that which is deemed of no importance, no use. He would see how people would look at each other, a furtive glance acknowledging the existence of the other, thinking in their arrogance that this is some human universal. But Kenji saw it, saw that no one had a glance to spare for those people cleaning the streets, emptying garbage cans, those sad elders sitting alone on a  park benches, those who were poor with some discretion so as not to inconvenience normal society with overly pathetic or frightening demeanors, and of course those who like Kenji just seemed painfully dull, even at a distance.

Kenji didn’t acknowledge their existence either of course, but he had an excuse, looking into someone’s eyes made him feel as if he was about to fall off the edge of some great pit.

He arrived at work, he hated being outside his apartment, but unlike all those lucky NEETs he didn’t have anyone to fund a full on Hikikomori lifestyle so he bit the bullet five days a week, trying his best to hide behind the three squat walls of his cubicle. The media treats young men locking themselves away in their rooms, playing video games, and watching anime all day like it is some kind of horrible crisis. What is the crisis, that people were finally realizing the truth? Realizing they are better off alone, better off being able to control their lives, their environments. Realizing that they don’t owe anyone anything. That society is just one big lie that only serves those who hold its reigns.

Why do we need people, we don’t need people, I just need her.

Why is he better off for being forced out of his cozy little home to a cramped cubicle under the buzz of florescent lights? He has a picture of her on his desk at least, it was from their honeymoon. Picking it up he looked at it.

I bet she misses me

“How’s your wife doing?”

Ashi had got the drop on him, the blood rushed out of Kenji’s face as he awkwardly pretended he had been merely dusting the photo, or maybe it should look like he was just cleaning his desk?

“Err umm I was just moving this picture to look for a pen I lost, she is well, we are very happy”

“I am sure you are” She said with a smile, a smile of condescending malice, the kind of smile that everyone knows when they see and yet, and yet the smiler smiling their mocking smile                                             will act as if they are innocent, if confronted shocked even that you would read ill will.  The anger, the helplessness of obvious truths made mute by the sheer weight of all the worlds collected unwritten rules that tipped the balance so that the Kenji’s of the world were destined to lose before a game even started.

“Anyway” she continued, her tone dripping with venom, a knife blade with a sticker on in that says “I assure you, if you think you are being stabbed you are mistaken” “I don’t want to interrupt your “personal time” at work, but I really must remind you that the NHK report is due by the end of the week, and this time you will make sure that do it properly yes?

“Yeah well last time it wasn’t my fault it was.. “

“Great I’m glad” She said cutting him off with another jagged smile.

She didn’t have to have come to him, she could have just emailed, but she took great pleasure in sneaking up behind him, making sure he knew that at work he was never safe, never in control.

Ashi was his superior now, but they had started at the same time, he had tried to talk to her, a little at first anyway. But a girl like her can smell it on him, can within an instant know he exists on the very bottom of the pyramid, his sole purpose to be crushed in order to elevate those on more lofty perches. She had never openly said anything, directly said anything anyway, but her tongue towards him had undoubtedly left its barbs under his skin more than once. At work he was vulnerable, exposed.

Defenseless

He usually ate at the office cafeteria alone, today was no exception.  Hunched over his food as if he were an injured dog afraid of having another meal snatched away. Reading manga on his phone it made it easier to pass the time. Halfway there Kenji, halfway there.

On the way home he stopped by 7 11 to pick up his go to dinner, the clerk knew him well, same katsudon and rice bowl as always. Stepping out once again he found himself still a normal unremarkable thirty year old man, still in regular Tokyo. So many animes have this exact setup, well this is the place where he is supposed to be transported to another world, with some fantastic power that will allow him to tap into his heroic potential. What kind of power would he have? He just knew as soon as he had power he wouldn’t use it to oppress but to protect, he was a secret hero, he just needed the chance. Only those on the bottom would understand suffering enough to be able to be real heroes.

But it was fine, he had real love, pure love, incorruptible love, all he wanted from her was comfort and to see her smile, and she only wanted to make him happy. It is more real than real love, if real love could even exist in such selfish creatures as humans. No before this, the modern age, love was surely a fiction, just another act, just another veil hiding human ugliness.  It was not in the real world that he had ever seen any evidence of the so called beautiful human traits. His father now past had been strict and humorless, the relationship between his parents was that of two companies that had a merger in order to work on a mutual project, just obligation, just business. Instead of loving him for what he was they could only look on in disappointment as their investment received lower returns than the investments of those mergers around them. He hadn’t seen anyone go out of their way to be kind, to be loyal, all just veils for people to use each other.

But in the 2D world, the animated world, it was different. There was love, there was kindness, there was loyalty, there were those who would endure any hardship just to help those they care about.  There were girls who would do anything for the one they love, girls who were pretty, sweet, talented, cute. Girls who could really love you, not for your looks, not for your bank account, but for the hidden gold inside your heart. Those ideas in that world were so much more real than anything that is the result of actual humans interacting.

His love wasn’t artificial, it is the rest of the so called love in the world that is.

A memory flashed

His coworkers three confident close cruel men. They had suddenly after his marriage seemed nicer to him, supportive of him. Maybe they did understand, maybe they just wished they had his courage to openly commit to their 2D dream girls. He would tell himself often that he didn’t need anyone’s approval, the sweetest lies are those we tell ourselves.  So he had talked with them, they asked if they could come by maybe have a few drinks and meet the wife. Clearly they were jealous.

They came, seemingly nice at first, Kenji didn’t have much experience interacting with others. Were they secretly mocking him? After a few drinks it started, they asked to make him have her perform, they then made lewd comments and gestures, but she didn’t understand them she was too pure. He would be upset for her, he told them in his sternest voice to leave.

They held him down and took turns saying I love you to her.

She responded in kind doing a little dance and blowing each of them a kiss

They laughed, laughed like a bunch of hyenas, though they were beasts far crueler. Man’s intelligence instead of making him truly wiser simply sharpened his fangs. Finally he screamed, screamed like a wild animal, thrashed like fish introduced to land. They decided they had their fun with him and left, laughing and joking all the way.

He rushed to her his face red covered in tears and snot, but when he looked at her, all he felt was revulsion for his weakness and stupidity. The purity he had felt was violated, corrupted, emptiness filled him  leaving room for nothing else.

 

He called in sick for a week, he lay on the floor, he didn’t eat, he merely cried.

If this were fiction he would get revenge on them, someone would help him, the world would ultimately be fair. But this isn’t fiction, the weak get no justice against the strong, there are no magical forces bending towards goodness, reality is amoral, authorless and structureless. Bad men can profit, innocent children die, no one need approve. That which happens just happens . All there is, is just chaos, selfishness, and entropic decay.

It didn’t happen, he thought as he submerged the memory beneath the waters of his conscious with all of his might.

Putting on a happy face he greeted his bride, plastic bag in hand. She sweetly greeted him in one of the four or so ways she was programmed to. He asked her to sing for him as he dug into his rice bowl.

The story it is based on can be found here

Meditation Full Interview

Wendy: Would you please briefly introduce yourself?

Rush: So I am Mr. Rush. I teach AP Economics and Advanced Economics. I have really wide set of interests, and I try to cultivate new interests all the time. Oh, and, if you don’t know who I am, I’m the guy who walks around with a cane.

Wendy: In Advanced Economics class, you talked about human consciousness and how meditation can help change the default mode network.

Rush: So there’s actually a lot lot lot of stuff there. You know, meditation is a thing that sounds kind of hippyish. It is kind of hippyish in a way, but it’s way, way more than just that. There’s actually a lot of research that’s been done on people who meditate a lot versus people who don’t meditate. A lot of the findings were introduced, I’d say quite nicely in a book called Why Buddhism is True, so for anyone who’s really, really interested in this, I really suggest them to check it out. It’s written by an evolutionary psychologist at Princeton, and it’s not talking why reincarnation and that kind of stuff is true. What it’s talking about is why a lot of the kind of fundamental tenants of Buddhism seem true from the perspective of what we now know about how the brain works, that kind of stuff. So one of the things talked about is the default mode network.

The default mode network is the thing that activates anytime your mind is not on the specific task. So you’re not trying to add or subtract. You’re, you know, not watching TV intently. You’re not doing anything like that. You’re just kind of doing nothing. And what happens then?  We can actually see from self-reporting and also from brain imaging that about fifty percent of that ends up being taken up by people thinking about things like, what’s my relative position? How did somebody harm me? Why is that thing that I did today that was wrong? Why was it not wrong? Why do I have such a good explanation for that thing that I did today and everything like that? So really it’s about this sort of social rank, social position stuff.

And that is really important for humans. You know, we are a social species. Any human by themselves is basically worthless. Okay? But the problem is, especially in the modern world, that doesn’t work so well, because a lot of our interactions are not face-to-face. We’re not actually always around other people and all kinds of different things can be happening with which we worry about. And there’s some pretty good evidence that all of these sorts of things are actually leading to people to being anxious people, to being depressed people, to not being able to really live their life as well as it could be.

One thing that’s really, really interesting is you can look at this literally on brain scans, fMRIs.  If you have somebody who meditates a lot, that kind of default state is a totally different thing. And if you ask them their thoughts on that kind of stuff they’re gonna have a lot less “me” “my” sort of thoughts. They’re gonna have a lot less thoughts about their relative position in that kind of stuff. You could call it a calmer mind. What Robert Wright, the author of that book, says is a more truthful way of looking at the world.
Wendy: Can you talk about how, maybe more specifically, through your observation, meditation can help current students?  What advice you can give to them?

Rush: Well, I think a lot of students tend to be really stressed. And I’ve noticed how, in a way, it’s really good to be pro-social, but I know in my classes, I ask students like hey, who here likes computer science? You know, because I talk about computer science. I talk about all kinds of different stuff in my course.  So maybe one kid will enthusiastically raise his hand because, man, computer science is his favorite thing in the world, and he looks around he’ll find nobody else raises their hand and puts his hand back down and look really afraid and embarrassed when nobody’s gonna really care. Right? People don’t actually care that much. People don’t actually think that much you know. Take the stuff you post in moments. You know you need to realize that the amount of effort and thought you put into looking other people’s Moments posts are exactly the same amount of effort and thought that people are putting into your Moments posts. Right?  But I see this happen actually a lot where people are getting this sort of hyperized thing that I think sort of fed by social media where it certainly can’t be helpful for them to be able to think, you know, clearly and directly.

And I think if you’re approaching things from a clearer, calmer mind, you’re actually going to be able to get a lot more done. And you’re also going to be able to just not worry about things as much. Right? And you’ll be more honest to yourself. And I think you’ll lead a better life. And honestly, I think meditation is a really important tool for separating yourself from some of your thoughts.

To get into that a little bit further, that has to be a whole lecture about split brain experiments and that kind of stuff.  If you want to, I can get into that, but I don’t know how far you’re going to go in this article. [link?] Yeah. I think that it’s something that could be really helpful for basically anyone. There’s really no use case where I think that somebody would completely waste their time trying to start meditating or trying to start living a more mindful life.

Okay. Remember we spent a lot of time talking about that in the advanced class. Especially in the first semester when you guys were thinking about colleges and stuff. And I really focused on just the general idea of mindfulness, because meditation isn’t just about the act of meditation itself. It’s also about learning to see things more presently and to actually really experience them and think about your experiences rather than just mindlessly doing things one after another without a great thought as to what any of the things were.

Actually, a really great example of this was they found one of the most effective ways of getting people to stop smoking or to smoke significantly less was to just think about cigarettes. Like, they were just told, “think about a cigarette when you smoke it. Every time you smoke a cigarette, smoke it. Don’t just put in your mouth and light it up. Like actually think, how does it taste? How does it feel? Focus on all little details. And once you focus in all the little details, a lot of that, you know, kind of chemical dependency, a lot of that compulsion loses its power.

 

Wendy: Oh, I remember years ago, I was reading a book about how I can stop my bad habits and it just told me to just keep a notebook in the pocket. Every time I do it (for me is maybe biting my nails), I just take out the paper and draw a line and then I can see how many lines I’ve drawn.

Rush: I mean that can definitely help you be more mindful of it. Like, you know what I would say is you know this sort of mindfulness approaches on chewing your nails is, you know, when you catch yourself chewing your nails, think about it. Think why am I chewing my nails? What am I getting out of chewing my nails? How does it actually feel like? And then a lot of the times what it will do is when we start to really analyze our feelings when we’re doing a compulsive behavior or say you’re playing a phone game and you find yourself thinking “oh god” or you’re in a Youtube rabbit hole. You in your head just start being mindful about the experience and go, okay, what am I getting out of this? How am I feeling right now? And a lot of times, as soon as you start investigating something, if it’s sort of hollow, it’ll feel very hollow, and it’ll lose a lot of its power over you.

 

Wendy: So how would you suggest people to do the meditation or say stay mindful? Because in my own experience before,  I tried to force myself to do twenty minutes a day, but sometimes I just have more urgent thing that I have to do. Or I’m just really way too tired especially during my junior or near the beginning of senior years. So I don’t know if doing it regularly is a good idea, then how do you think people can keep doing it? Or maybe you don’t have to do it on a daily basis, but you do it when you’re angry or feel irrational?

Rush: So actually,  I would like to preface that by talking about if somebody’s just for starting off to meditate, they’re probably going to run into a lot of issues that I’d to probably bring up first, if you don’t mind, rather than like, okay, you know, I’m having trouble meditating twenty minutes everyday, everyone does. Hey, unless that’s your job meditating twenty minutes every day. It is hard to make time in your life. And for myself, as I have said, I sort of micro-meditate throughout the day. (大概一半了)

Or, I just try to take what I learned from when I used to do a lot more meditation, much more seriously,  and those changes to my brain and stuff.  so one of the main things that’s gonna happen is, ok, you’re gonna start trying to meditate. And the first thing that’s gonna happen to you is a couple deep breaths in, you’re gonna get a random thought pop in your head, and then you’re gonna try to chase that random thought away. And by choosing at random sort of way you’re chasing out with more thoughts, and then you can try to chase out the more thoughts with more thoughts, you can try to chase it with more thoughts with more thoughts and more thoughts and then it’s gonna feel like totally hopeless. Right? You’re gonna feel like, ah, I wasn’t able to keep my mind clear. I wasn’t able to keep my mind calm.

And so while you’re meditating and a thought comes up, once again, it’s just, you know, I was talking about mindfulness with smoking. You’re mindful of what that thought was. You’re like, why did this thought pop into my mind? Why this thought? You try to feel with the feeling behind that thought. You try to feel the reason behind why that thought was. As you start to understand that thought that pops in your head, it just kind of fades away. And as you keep doing that and keep doing that and keep doing that, you know, it takes time, but you’ll notice that your brain gets quieter and quieter and quieter, and then when you’re left alone your brain isn’t racing around thinking about all of the relative status ruminations that aren’t necessarily going to really help you.

But yeah, it’s hard. I would say that you need to probably do it, quite a few times for a little bit. So you need to at least get that first feeling, that first experience of meditation, where you get kind of like that. It’s really hard to describe because there aren’t words for it, but there’s just a certain feeling that you’ll get, like it’s a certain feeling of oneness with the world, you know, sorta like ego dissolution, where you don’t feel that strong of a sense of self and there’s just such a relaxation to that.

And I think it is important to try to get there, and so then you know what the carrot at the end of the stick is, I think that’s always good. Because if you never get to the carrot at the end of the stick, it’s really hard to motivate yourself to keep going. And I would say if you’re a kind of really schedule-oriented person, and you’re good at keeping that kind of stuff, [which I know you’re not. And you’re my student. I know you’re not], then try to keep schedules of how you do it.  If not, try to be honest with yourself about when you really have time, because we always tell ourselves we don’t have time, we don’t have time, we don’t have time and it’s nonsense. Right? We always have the time for the things you really want to do. Okay? So if you say I didn’t have time to meditate, you gotta realize that’s an excuse. You had the time to meditate. Instead, you watched Youku; instead, you chatted with your friends; instead, you played a phone game; instead, you did something else …And it’s fine! It’s not saying that you have to do this thing. You’re doing it for your own personal advancement. But be honest with yourself. Don’t make too many excuses and try to look for good opportunities when it would just be a good chance to do it is what I would say.

 

Wendy: So personally, when did you start meditating? What made you decide to start?

Rush: So I started getting into eastern philosophy when I was in middle school, probably just because I liked to always be different.

And I remember I read the Dao De Jing (道德经) when I was in middle school, and I wrote a couple of papers about it that my English teacher could not super get. But it was my first kind of doing that, and then I feel like reading the Dao De Jing and really thinking about it, that’s sort of a form of meditation because you have this contradiction and then you’re trying, in your head, resolve the contradiction. And so I was originally brought into, from the Dao De Jing, I was brought into Zen Buddhism, and I read a bunch of books on that. And of course, a big part of Zen practice is meditation. A lot of the books that I read back then, though they were very much about form, I now am a lot less about form. Because I use to follow a very very strict meditational form. But over time I realized, I think in a way it’s really useful because you’re kind of putting yourself in an uncomfortable position, and that helps you disassociate yourself from your body because you have to. Otherwise, you can’t stay in that position for very long.

But, I’ve become much more agnostic about a lot of these sorts of features of this stuff. So I got into it through, you know, mostly Zen Buddhism. And then, later on, I started reading other sorts of things. And, you know, now most of the stuff I’ve read has been largely secular things. I’ve gone a pretty long time where I sort of stopped meditating. And when I got back into it, I could really just tell the difference, which is just for me, it’s just how calm my mind is.

And so most of the time I have nothing, nothing goes through my mind. Most of the time I don’t really think thoughts. So if somebody asked me a question, I’m not thinking through thoughts. I just kind of respond with the black box in my brain. You have to realize that you’re mostly that black box. And so now, especially when I don’t meditate, I can just feel that I’m disturbed, I can feel I’m thinking way too much. and I just don’t feel peaceful.

 

Wendy: Is there any particular example of how meditation helped you with emotion control like controlling your anger?

Rush: How about I just tell you some of the different ways meditations really helped. And also the research shows not just me, you know, I’m an anecdote, but the data also supports this. So one is I think it helps you be more of an observer and less of a judger, and that actually really helped me to understand other people a lot better. Because instead of thinking from your own kind of selfish, narrow perspective about stuff, you can just observe things from a more detached and therefore more logical perspective, and you don’t get as many feelings of snap judgment. You observe something, you kind of just think through it, and I think that really helped me not get carried away with the kind of emotional contamination that happens especially in the world of a social media. I’m not saying I have completely. You know, certainly, there have been some political things that have happened lately that truly tested my ability to remain calm.

So that’s one I said, another one is just really the calmness of the mind. It’s like once you get that feeling of not constantly worrying about where you are, without constantly thinking about how you can get more, how you can do this more, how you can do that more. Once you have that feeling of just how wonderful that peace is, there’s really nothing else. There’s no material thing that anyone could ever give you that comes anywhere close to being as good as just the feeling of just being you, not worrying about all of those little things. And also, when you spend all day thinking, worrying about your social position, most of the thoughts aren’t useful. Anyway. You know what I mean? And actually being able to distance yourself a lot from those thoughts, I think it is a really useful way of handling them rather than just going off of your thing. So that’s another thing. That’s just really. Another thing that’s gonna do though, is it’s going to make you start acting like a better person.

So if you do something, it makes you feel bad, and you’re gonna in your head, all of a sudden, you have thoughts in your head, these thoughts about some specific things. They’re just all like, oh it’s OKAY that I did this, really, it’s OKAY that I’m doing this, it’s okay that I did this, it’s okay that I did this because this has this reason. Okay? I have a good reason, a good justification.  And if you know the literature on consciousness, basically you have to realize that a big job of your human consciousness and the reason why you’re thinking in words even though you don’t really need to think in words is because it’s about convincing other people that you’re right, convincing other people that you’re good, which is a lot of times you deceiving yourself. So here you are with this quiet mind, and then all of a sudden there’s a flood of you trying to convince yourself that everything is okay. You’re doing everything right. It’s always fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. Then you just think about everything and be like, no, I’m not doing the right thing. That’s not a good excuse. I know in my head I’m just preparing an excuse in case I get caught doing this thing. But I much prefer to going back to having a quiet mind, so I’ll just do the right thing.

So I think that’s another way that it’s really useful. And yeah, it also just helps with a general focus and concentration. So, I know at a young age I was diagnosed with ADHD. I probably still have it because that’s how brains work and stuff. And I know, for instance, that I do have inefficient dopamine receptors. So I know that I’m the type of person, but you know, through meditation and mindfulness, I have been able to be much much more productive and to be able to stay focused on doing things for much longer periods of time.

And also it used to be the case that if I didn’t have something to do, that instant I’d be bored. The instant I had nothing to do, I would, you know, you just reach in your pocket for your phone or you’re just doing something, right? Because you gotta do something. But once you spend a lot of time in your own head like that, you can be pretty comfortable just doing nothing, because you can always just go in. I just experience things rather than just always feeling like you need to try to consume more and more and more stuff.

So that’s another thing I’d say.

Country vs People

Would people in Germany today be better off if the Nazis won?
Would people in Japan be better off if Imperial Japan had won?
In both cases I think it very unlikely.
It is an easy mental shorthand to think of what a country “wants” by the actions of their government, or what is good for the country as being what the will of the current government is. But it is important to keep the people seperate from the country, of course the government has a large part to play in the lives of the people, but the desires of the elite in control are not the same thing as what makes life for the average citizen good, and certainly not the will of all of the people in a country.
国家是国家人还是人
What people anywhere need to flourish is safety and freedom, there are cultural differences, group differences, differences of all kinds, but in the end we are so much more the same than we are different.

A Happy Ending for Gordon

Weeks had passed. Gordon’s self loathing from his failure in the river was a crushing weight that visibly sank his shoulders. He had started consuming more and more, trying but failing to sleep more and more, just wishing for the days to pass. Drinking from a standing pool Gordon looked at himself, looked into his own eyes, the self loathing made him recoil but he forced himself to stare at the bear like creature gazing back at him. He headed back through the glade, back for the river. This time he stayed in the water longer, this time he almost caught a fish. But eventually, despite the screaming in his head to tough it out born from the hard won knowledge of the horrors of quitting, he did not persevere, he had failed again. But the next morning when he awoke surrounded by snack wrappers and bottles he thought to himself, I might not be good at being a bear, but I am better at being a bear than I was the day before. With renewed vigor he once again trekked to the river, and he did so almost every day until he became proficient at catching fish, and hardened against the cold. In the glade he caught a deer, in the forest he ate from bushes. He still slipped from the path occasionally, raiding the humans and drinking their fiery water. But he did not fill himself with loathing when he did so anymore, he knew nothing good lay down that path. Instead, Gordon focused on being a little better, a little more of a bear every day, tolerating his mistakes without justifying or excusing them. He would no longer let himself be miserable, or at least stay that way. Gordon was a bear and it was early April, mating season would be soon.

On Bears and the Perils of Modern Life

Economics is a powerful tool, but it does possess its blind spots. We assume that the choices people make are rational ones, and to a large degree this is likely true. But I fear that the modern world often lays before us an easy path, a path that our instincts compel us to follow and yet if we heed their call, we will find ourselves living an empty existence. The following is the tale of an anthropomorphized bear named Gordon that encapsulates the treachery of following the easy path. A similar situation has been observed in nature with baboon colonies near eco tourism resorts, the baboons breaking apart their social structures maladaptivly clinging to the easy nourishment found in bounty of human refuse.

Gordon awoke in his cave, hangover piecing his skull. He shuddered as he became filled with self loathing. Instinctively he reaches his paw to the bottles laying next to him to numb the aching chasm, but finds them woefully empty. Licking at an empty bottle he is forced into an uncomfortable clarity, at this point all he is empty, living each day as pointless as the last. He thinks back to his childhood as a young bear. Hunting, fishing for salmon, foraging for berries with his mother, playing with his brother. Those difficult times, those happy times.
Life had changed ever since the humans had built a campsite near him. He had discovered at first by accident what a simple thing it was, walking into an occupied campsite, watching as the humans fled before him, leaving behind their camping provisions. No chase, no frigid water, no gnawing at bushes, just food. He ate until sated reveling in the ease of acquiring the bounty before him. It was later that he would discover the fiery water they so often brought with them. That was the beginning of the end he reflected, that is what had transformed him from a noble beast into what he was now, alive, fat, miserable.
He reflected, he knew. He vowed, he vowed he would go back on the path, the path bears should follow. Rising from his cave to drink from a nearby stream he planned it all out, he would no longer take from the humans, he would once again hunt, once again fish, once again forage. As he thought this, he plucked up his massive shoulders and headed to a nearby river that he recalled from his youth. It had been a long time since he had walked this far, he could feel his limited endurance, but determined he pressed on. There were voices he heard, in the strange high pitch tone of man. He disregarded them and walked on, his legs growing ever more tired supporting his girth. “I must press on!” Gordon the bear vowed to himself.
A vow which started to decrease and decrease in volume, as it was drowned out by all of the justifications that began to flood his mind. It was okay he told himself, just once more, tomorrow would be another day. He turned around and headed for the voices.
He woke up, this time instead of childhood he thought of Guindalin.
She was a female, she was his mate, they had gotten along, but who would want what he had become? His heart surged, beating uncontrollably, he tried his best to suppress it, managing to do so only for a few scant minutes at a time. Today is his day to reform, he can’t give in, he lay there like that for an hour or two and then Gordon the bear could bear it no more.
Reaching for the bottles next to him he found there were a few left from yesterdays raid, he bit their tops off, desperately consuming them. It is okay he said, tomorrow will be a another day.
Another morning another drunken haze, what is the point of this life? To follow the easy path was spiritual suicide. Today is the day, Gordon steeled his resolve. He headed for the stream again. This time, undeterred by the voices coming from the forest. He arrived at the glade on the way to the fishing spot, it was just as beautiful just as pristine as ever, but was it always so hot, where there always so many flies and mosquitoes? Pausing he listened for deer, remembering they were once prevalent there, but his dulled senses picked up nothing. He carried onward to the river and waded in, he did it, he made it, he was going to be a real bear once again. The water robbed him of his warmth more rapidly than he remembered, the fish moved faster than he remembered, his paws responded slower than he remembered. He decided to take a break from the cold water, just a break. He heard those familiar voices in the distance.
Tomorrow is another day.
continued here

How to be a Happy Sisyphus

This story is old enough that I finally feel comfortable enough sharing it.

Sometimes it feels like I am cursed. I have a disease known as Ehlers Danlos III which affects connective tissue, making it weaker. It isn’t all downsides as my extremely elastic nature has likely saved me from broken bones on more than one occasion, from crashing my bike several times going over 30 miles an hour, to being hit by a bus etc. Something like that happens, usually a few things will be thrown out of joint, I pop them back into place and walk (well limp) home. So why wouldn’t everyone have this quasi super power? Well the flip side of so much flexibility, is that this condition, is to put it mildly, extremely painful with many dislocations and sublexations every day. Normal things like standing can cause me so much pain that I can become drenched in sweat. When I stand, I picture my knees as two ropes slowly tearing strand by strand under the load.
I tried everything to deal with it, and everything to hide it. I have obviously become more open with it over time especially after I needed to start walking with a cane (which I no longer need! But that is a subject for another post concerning scientism) and outgrew some of my youthful pride. I started using knee brace at one point, which failed so catastrophically in class one day that they forced my knee out of socket while I was trying to explain international trade, which didn’t go particularly well for my composure.

So I stopped using them, only to find that the problem had gotten much worse. I remember to this day I was feigning my way through a conversation while walking to the dining hall in so much pain I thought I might faint. With almost every step separating my lower leg from my upper leg only for me to strategically put my foot down to force it back so I wouldn’t topple over.  I remember this because lots of people with the condition end up on heavy doses of opioids, on disability, in wheelchairs, at that moment I vowed to myself that wasn’t going to be me. I vowed I would embrace any pain that would make me better, and I did. In particular I found biking to be a great way to both strengthen my knees and improve my mood by randomly exploring Beijing and the areas around it. I put a lot of love and care into that bike, it had an internal gear hub so you can change gears even when stopped, important for me because trying to start at a high gear really damages my knees. Walking was still not easy, I certainly couldn’t run, and taking the subway was far too painful, I came to see my bike kind of like a wheelchair.

Things were getting better, and after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi I decided to treat myself to a tour of Japan including even a reservation at the place itself.
Then I started going blind. I had very good vision, but suddenly everything became blurry beyond measure where I could barely make out text or recognize faces. At the same time I was always hungry, always thirsty, and yet I lost thirty pounds in a month, my hair was falling out. I tried to stay in denial for as long as possible, I just started figuring out how to solve one problem certainly I didn’t need to develop a new one. But I did, my immune system at 26 had decided to declare war on my pancreas, and by god it won. Googling type 1 diabetes the first paper I came across discussed the lifespan decrease, which was… significant. I had to get used to giving myself constant injections, to constantly pricking my finger, to almost losing consciousness when I made an overestimate. My girlfriend at the time broke up with me for strictly eugenic reasons. I cancelled my trip, I didn’t want to be too adventurous when I was just learning to use my body whose transmission I had suddenly found changed from an automatic to a manual. Historically I have been very prone to depression, and it certainly didn’t help matters, I started to feel like Sisyphus when it looks like the bolder is about to reach its point of stability, it instead falls.

At some point I forced myself out of it, deciding to instead do a bike sushi tour of Beijing. That winter break I rode for many hundreds of miles, and befriended the head sushi chef at the place that turned out to be my favorite of the ten or so I tried.

There I did it, that bolder is just about…

And then on one fateful trip to the grocery store my bike was stolen and it rolled right back down.
I had put so much work into it, even changed out the ball bearings in the wheels. After a few days when I realized the chance of its recovery was about zero, I went to the store where I bought it, they no longer sold internal gear hub bikes though… No one did, I checked, and I checked, and I checked. After about another month of wallowing in misery, both of my conditions were deteriorating. Eventually I broke down and bought a cheap $40 bike to take me to and from work, but it couldn’t exactly take me around the city at any reasonable speed. I tried normal bikes, but every unexpected stop or slowdown tore up my knees, not exactly a great thing in a city of 22 million.

My teaching assistant at the time, a caring girl called all over Beijing looking for a place that sold bikes with internal gear hubs. She finally found one! I had purchased the hub assembly earlier from the internet so all I needed was someone who could work with them.

What preceded was what I vividly recall as one of the worst days of my life.
I took some time off to leave work early that Friday, their website said it is located in Sanlitun, just about the busiest place in Beijing, especially on a Friday. I get there and… nothing no store. I called them in my less than perfect Chinese and found out that the previous week they moved 12 km south and didn’t update any of their information yet.
Getting a taxi those days could be really hard as the price of taxis was set too low. So I stood there holding my box with the hub in it trying my best to get a taxi for over thirty minutes. All this time a motorized rickshaw driver was hassling me, I kept telling him it was too far, he kept insisting otherwise. Exhausted from pain I called them and had them give him the directions, he says he knows where it is and quotes me about 15 dollars. Da Peng was his name, chain smoking Da Peng making off color comments about women, well I wasn’t paying him for the company.
He changed the price to 25 shortly after we started going, rickshaw drivers are not prized for their honesty so I half way expected it and simply acquiesced.

He had no idea where it was. Checking my app I saw he wasn’t even going in the right direction, pointing to the actual location he in shock told me, that is too far! Sigh. I negotiated with him to at least take me to a nearby subway station… which he couldn’t manage either. In frustration I just told him to stop, having made no appreciable advance towards my destination. He wanted to add my wechat (Chinese social media platform) which I grudgingly did, he then pressured me for all the money, even though he didn’t really make any of the trip, and so once again I grudgingly acquiesced, I am not one to fight. A general policy of mine is not to fight over surplus, if someone exploits me I find it cheaper to just let them and stop dealing with them in the future. Though I admit this particular instance still kinda bugs me, I never did accept his repeated friend requests, I think some people must be truly atrocious at reading a situation, I really do.
Eventually hours after my original departure I am finally in a taxi heading to the location, it would be worth it once I had a new bike. But as fate would have it, they had no idea how to work with the internal gear hub I brought, and only would work with a $5000 dollar model, attached with a $5000 bike for… $10000. Now I really wanted a new bike, with an internal gear hub, but my old bike was $130 and it got stolen… After about an hour discussion, I realized there was no way to convince myself to spend that much. I thanked them, picked up my box and found a taxi to take me to my favorite bar (now closed) which was on the way home, a bar I had discovered on a random bike ride during that winter break. I had a drink and talked with the bartender who was at that point a good friend of mine, but realized I had forgotten my insulin and blood sugar tester at home. So I left after one drink, outside the rain was pouring. Trying to get a taxi in Beijing when it was raining was like chasing after wild rabbits, just because you see them doesn’t mean you can catch them.

I was soaked, I had been cheated, I had spent so much money and got nowhere, it was hopeless, and all the standing put me in excruciating pain. There I stood in the middle of a thunderstorm without an umbrella holding onto my box. I reflected on how unfair life was waiting for a taxi that would never come. After 30 minutes I realized it was late, no taxi would come, and I should make it to the subway before it closes, maybe on the accursed day I will at least get a seat.

I walk into the station, it is practically empty, I spot an ice cream machine, one of those automated deals where you can watch it prepare a cone for you. I hadn’t tasted ice cream since diagnosis, I missed ice cream, they had rum raisin, I hadn’t had that flavor in years. I shouldn’t, I don’t have my insulin, for all I know the stress and pain has already made me a treat for sweet toothed vampires, but you know what? Screw it, just screw everything. I bought the ice cream and walked to the platform. There wallowing in my misery I saw a couple, the man was obviously blind, he was holding a trash bag, the woman was digging through the trash for recyclables, at 10:30 at night. My self pity immediately changed from feeling like a righteous response against an unjust world to overly indulgent petulance. I looked at the still unopened ice cream in my hand and thought, when was the last time they got to taste ice cream? I walked over and awkwardly gave it to them, she took a bite and visually sank into the flavor, then gave her husband a bite and I watched as his hardened continence transformed into a mask of youthful joy that only such simple pleasures as rum raisin can provide. I thought to myself, how much happier was it for me to give them the ice cream than I would have been after angrily consuming it for a minute and then subsequently basting in blood sugar for the hour ride home. Then I thought some more, I opened up my wallet to see what was left, about 300 yuan (45 dollars), I hand it to them, at first the lady gives a meek protest but then gladly accepts the money. The last train had arrived, and hey I got a seat. I sat and thought about things, I had gone from being at my most miserable, to in a state that was almost serene. Was there any use of that money that would have made me, in the very selfish and narrow meaning of that word happier or better off? No.

The next day I decided to be more positive and once again thought about how I can be less miserable. Though my cheap bike couldn’t go fast I could try to explore the local area some more: I always went right or left at the subway line, but never straight, that is something to try, going straight. So I went straight and I passed by this little hole in the wall(literally) bike shop, just for fun I thought I would check it out. Turns out, the guy who ran it was deeply passionate about bikes, building custom bikes, and yes as unbelievable as it sounds, internal gear hubs. I commissioned two bikes from him and they are still the bikes I use today. To think what I needed had always been a scarce two miles away. So there, a happy ending. A weirdly almost scripted sounding happy ending. Well if we leave it exactly there anyway, but it is a lesson and a story that forms one of the core stories I tell myself to keep me moving forward, not that I don’t stumble still, it is natural to stumble but I always manage to pick myself up(so far).

Realize that we all suffer, realize we suffer unequally, realize life is unfair, but realize that there are those whose lives you would be horrified to switch with, that go about life, contently as they can, making the most of what they can. Don’t wallow in your own misery, even if it seems deserved, it doesn’t even help you, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to move your focus away from yourself, to others, to the world around you, to see what you can do to help. When bad things happen to me and I notice I have been focusing too much on my own narrow interests, I try to remember the story, snap myself out and open up rather than close down. I have found helping others to be the only sustainable way to improve my mood and outlook.

I still remember the line I had from my elementary school production of Shakespeare which seems apt (I still remember because hammed it up so hard while delivering the lines)

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
For in this wide and global theatre
Surely there is a tale more woeful than thee

(While double checking I found that this is actually a bastardization of the original quote, but I like the bastardization better so tough)

What is a Moral Requirement?

You are walking home, in your pocket is the new iPhone XIII plus which cost you $2000, but it will be so worth it when everyone sees how cool you are. I mean the new phone is a bit big, and it is stuck in your pocket currently, but just wait until you get a pair of iPants! You are staying with a relative who lives in a rural area and on your way you come across a child drowning, you are a good swimmer and you could save them, but you can’t get your iPhone out of your pocket and you don’t have enough time to take your pants off to save the child. Would you save the child knowing it would destroy your shiny new phone? How would you feel about others facing the same situation who refuses to save the child?

For that same money you can actually save a child right now as philosopher Peter Singer is quick to point out, so in reality everyday of your life you are making this decision over and over and over. If you are morally obligated to save the child drowning, why would you not be obligated save the child you will never meet in some far flung country? You can try to create all the justifications you want, but at the end of the day, it is hard to say that a life is anything other than a life, be they right in front of you or thousands of miles away. Singer’s answer is that since it is a moral obligation to save the drowning child, you must also save the children far away if you want to live a moral life.

I agree that the moral logic of the one case must be the same as the moral logic of the other, but my answer is that in neither case are you obligated to save the child. His case is that intuitively you must save the child in front of you, and logically far away children are an extension of this intuition. If you take the logic of moral obligation to its logical conclusions there isn’t a single human existing who would not be immoral. Plugging my income into his website thelifeyoucansave (a great website BTW) I am told I should donate only about 1,200 dollars a year, though of course it is relatively easy for me to save and donate significantly more than that. So how then would the $1,200 fulfill my moral obligation? Following the logic, I am obligated instead to give as much as possible, indeed I should also try to earn as much as possible to give. Imagine we take it a step further and say I am morally culpable for the deaths that I could have prevented, in that case by choosing to be a teacher instead of working in finance I am likely responsible for more deaths than a serial killer who likely has a much lower earning potential and so the difference between the lives I am responsible for are greater, even though he actually killed someone and I probably save a few.

Most people are not even weak forms of effective altruists, but do their lives make the world a better or worse place? If the typical person living their typical life has worth and makes the world better, why would it be immoral?

I think the solution lies in this;  each person is worth one person and them going about living their lives is morally neutral, unless they take some position of obligation for others, they are not obligated towards the welfare of others. However, with this logic since each person matters, how you affect other people also matters, not because of you, but because of them. We can see someone who saves millions of people and to a degree they matter more, not because they matter more, but because the people they help do. So certainly a life where you help others is morally better, and one where you hurt others is morally worse.

The difference between the two cases though is real, but it is one of moral judgment, not morality.  It is perfectly normal to ignore the suffering of those we do not see, but ignoring suffering that we do see is a good indicator that we are callous and cold. As in the previous essay I argued that moral judgments primarily exist to judge others utility equation in order to assess how they will behave with regards to yourself (functionally this is how it works, obviously you are not thinking hey that guy is nice to his dog, if we had children he would likely treat them well, you think aww that guy is nice to his dog and feel a little more attracted). A person not saving a child in front of them gives you information that they are likely less compassionate and cooperative, a person not giving away all their money is perfectly normal so doesn’t tell us anything about the person. Imagine a world where every day you went to work or school you and everyone else passed by dozens of children you knew could be saved for $2000 dollars, how quickly would you and those around you become numb to it?

So it is good to do good for others, and better to do more good than less, but I think it is a mistake to make it a moral imperative as Singer does. But many things in the world are logarithmic, with quality on the Y axis and price on the X axis, simply avoiding money traps and being more conscious of how you spend money it is easy to save more and of those savings you can do some serious good. Imagine a video game with a quest that allows you to protect thousands of people from a deadly disease, in real life that is a quest most of us privileged enough to be born into affluent nations can complete.

I don’t think we should try to convince  people out of guilt or obligation. Tying things to negative emotions I don’t believe is even likely to lead to the most people, giving the most the most effectively. Giving should be a positive thing if it is to be sustained. Instead I want to focus on empathy, and the benefits to the giver themselves, which will be the topic of my next post.