Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Who is Aron Hsiao? ▼

I’ve worked in a wide variety of very public roles and written a number of books. In my “real life” I’ve had an audience varying from hundreds of thousands to millions over the years, across big media, online media, and academic media.
 
Teaching
 
Some of you may also know me from the classroom, as I’ve taught at a decent array of major universities, in topic areas from linguistics to anthropology to sociology to cultural studies and media. I am not currently teaching.
 
Companies and Brands
 
If you’re wondering if I'm the “same Aron Hsiao that...” then, in fact, I probably am. I won't mention all of the companies, brands, and publications here because many of them won’t want to be directly associated with a blog like this one.
 
On Google
 
But if you’ve searched Google for “Aron Hsiao” then you’ve found me. The writer me, the professor me, the photographer me, the technology expert me, and so on. All of those pages and pages of results are, in fact, me. I am not aware of any other Aron Hsiao that has recently (in a decade or more) ranked in the first dozen-plus pages of Google’s results.

Born February 29th, 1976
 
Ph.D. Sociology (The New School, 2014)
M.A. Social Science (Chicago, 2004)
B.A. Anthropology (Utah, 2001)
B.A. English (Utah, 2001)
 
7 Books
Thousands of articles
 
1 Life
2 Kids
5 Goldfish
2 Cats
1 Dog
 
Lived in Salt Lake City, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and now... Provo.
 
Myers-Briggs INFP/INTP

I started “blogging” for the first time in 1999 at twenty-three years old, as I was going through my first serious breakup. Without meaning to, I continued to blog on a personal basis more or less without interruption after that. Now it’s been going on seventeen years. All of that content (well, most of it) is here, in one place.
 
In professional life, I have also ended up spending a decent amount of time blogging for an income for others. Still do.
 
But after all these years, Leapdragon remains home.
 
Many have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a site like this one, and from 2007 through 2015 I kept it increasingly obscure online. I have grown tired, however, of hiding myself behind a “professional” cardboard cutout. I’m forty years old and my life, like the lives of many others, gets more complicated by the day, personally and professionally.
 
It’s time to just be me again, in public, and let the chips fall where they may. So here I am.

Politics: Mixed—Old Left + Old Right (Fuck the SJWs)
Music: Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten
Novel: 2666, Roberto Bolaño
Operating Systems: Mac OS, Linux (Android)
Aquarium Fish: Common goldfish, fully grown
Illumination Technology: Neon tubing
Rag: Counterpunch
Academic Work: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Work of Art: Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Helnwein
Art Medium: Still photography
Club/Pub: The Pub, Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago
City: New York City
Place: Antelope Island, Syracuse, Utah
Fabrication Material: Leather
Drink: Green Chartreuse
Beach: Ellwood Beach, Goleta, California
Design Language: Swiss/Modern/Bauhaus
Season: Fall

On counseling, ethics, and social normativity.  §

We have a counseling-heavy, therapeutically-oriented culture. If you’re not doing the right things, or not acting in the right ways, it’s not actually down to you, it’s caused by some shadow-you, buried deep inside a part of you that you don’t know at all. That shadow you that is totally foreign, it was made by someone else. It’s not just haunting you, it’s infesting you, causing you to struggle to do the right things.

And we tell our kids this, too.

The older I get, and the more experience I get, the more I think this is kind of… well… bunk. It’s another way of not growing up—of not having to own the things that you do—of looking for a shortcut to actually doing the right thing. It’s there largely because as a culture, we endorse that. We don’t want anything to be anyone’s fault. We want to let everyone off the hook. We don’t expect the same things from adults that we used to expect because frankly we don’t like adults. They’re strict and stodgy and boring and old and we’d rather live together in the world as a lot of troubled teens. We love drama, we love ups and downs, we love unbridled enthusiasm and also extreme sports, and we love not having to be boring or to be around boring people.

So we’ve all made a pact. It’s not our fault. It’s the adults’ fault—mostly the adults that came before us and raised us, or the other people around us that are (unlike us) responsible for their actions, presumably because they’re adults and ought to know better, unlike ourselves and our children and the people we like, who are just in need of drugs and therapy.

And we do the same thing for our kids. It’s not that Timmy’s just being bad in class and needs to sit down and shut up even if that’s no fun. It’s that he’s got a therapeutic issue that needs to be taken care of. No need for him to do the hard work of just plain learning how to behave; he can sit idly by and not suffer while doctors, therapists, school counselors and so on work on the shadow him. It’s not his responsibility, it’s ours to tame that shadow him so that his life is easier.

— § —

Look, being good is hard. It’s boring, and it sucks. And sometimes you’re in a really salty, down mood and the last thing you want to do in the whole fucking world is “be good.” Plus, you don’t get what you want. When you find $400 on the street, you don’t get to go on a shopping spree, you have to take that money that you could really, really spend really, really well and you have to give it away, even though nobody would ever know if you just spent it. When you’re really, really mad at someone, you have to just understate it as “I’m really mad at you,” which feels like a complete letdown and misrepresentation of your feelings. You don’t get to bash their head in with a brick so that they and everyone else know just how mad you are and just how wronged you are positive you have been. When you owe bills for things that you really think ought to be free, like electricity and telephone service, you have to pay them anyway, even though that designer item at the boutique store—the very last one there—is going to be sold before you can afford it as a result, and you might never, ever own it. And when you’re in public interacting with others, you don’t get to just own the spotlight to show everyone how cool you are, or act out of turn so that everyone knows that you’re actually an impulsive, exciting person and not some stodgy, boring schmo.

That’s being good. At most levels, it sucks. It’s no fun. It’s hard. You have to work at it all the time. Especially when everybody around you (say, our culture) is refusing to do it, and especially especially since the whole crowd is looking for some poor sap who’s willing to take responsibility for things, and will then lay every last god damned bad thing in the world at his or her feet. Trust me, nobody wants to do it. That includes me. I’ll admit it, I mostly don’t want to do it. I want to tell people how I really feel and I want to get mine back. But to what end? Seriously? What if there was nobody left, anywhere, that took responsibility for anything? What if everyone were always fully medically or therapeutically or experientially justified in everything? What then? Think hard.

Anyway, sometimes it gives you a headache. Sometimes you do the right thing and then go gnaw on your own shoes you’re so mad. Sometimes it makes you want to go and seppuku afterward it sucks so bad. Nobody likes being good, and it’s not easy for anyone. That’s why it has to be trained into us as children and why we need a penal system for those who just won’t do it. Because we have an inkling that without long years of socialization and positive and negative social sanctions, nobody, frankly, would ever be good.

It’s not that I am better than Timmy at not acting out because Timmy has a secret him that controls his actions and needs to be neutralized behind his back. I am better than Timmy at not acting out because when I was growing up, people told me over and over again, “Sit down, shut up, and stop acting like an ass.” And because now, having grown up, I decide, even when I really, really don’t want to, to be fucking good.

Because civility and good behavior are the crowning achievements of the human race, are what separates us from the animals, and are what have enabled us to build the society that we have.

— § —

Here’s a hint: nobody ever thinks that their own impulses are unjustified. Nobody. Nobody wakes up and thinks, “gosh, everything I feel is wrong, so it’s obvious that I shouldn’t trust myself and should always do the opposite.”

If we’re lucky, at least a few wake up and think, “despite what I think and feel, I’m going to do what is right [a.k.a. socially normative] because that’s the right [a.k.a. socially adaptive] thing to do. Which sucks, but dammit I’ll do it anyway because I’m a grown-up and my parents taught me well.”

— § —

Look, I have no doubt that there are some people that legitimately can’t control their behavior, children included. But I think the number is far, far smaller than we as a society pretend that it is right now. We mistake “hard” for “impossible.” As in, we don’t say “It’s hard for Timmy to sit still and not hit and not act out,” but instead we say, “Timmy can’t sit still and not hit and not act out, which is why he needs Ritalin, a special-needs class, and two counselors.”

Hard is just plain not the same thing as can’t.

And sometimes what I wonder is this: how consistently is Timmy told, by everyone, that his behavior is unacceptable? As in, not “Oh, Timmy dear, let’s not be loud in class, and please don’t hit, that hurts other people you know!” but rather as in, “Timmy, sit down and shut up, because your behavior right now sucks and if it doesn’t change, you’re going to live a sad life. And part of the reason you’re in school is to learn that so that you don’t have a sad life. So sit down and shut up. Now.

At the most crass level, we embrace rather than ostracize Timmy if he doesn’t shape up. And I think that’s a mistake. Straight up. Hard truths. Hate me now.

— § —

I really used to be pretty far on the hippy-dippy liberal side of things, I think. I was one of those that thought that therapy and gentleness were the answers to everything. But now I have seen enough of the world—and of bad behavior—to have serious doubts. And I am raising my own kids. I am watching them grow up.

It dawns on me just a little bit more every day that they have zero indication as to what is acceptable and what is not—what the limits are—unless I lay it on the line for them clearly, concisely, and firmly. If I tell them that their behavior isn’t their fault, they can’t help but hit each other and make a mess, and they’ll not be able to help themselves until we get it fixed, then by god, that’s what they’re gonna do. They’re gonna carry on while waiting for me to fix them. But you know what? They can stop the crap. They are perfectly capable. All I have to do is say, “Okay, stop the crap. Now.”

Sure, they moan and whine and cry. And we hate that as a culture these days. We’re terrified of it. We’re supposed to be their gentle cushion against all of life. And in so doing, if we keep it up, we will raise a generation of people that can’t behave themselves unless drugged into submission because they have never developed any other beliefs or habits.

They throw tantrums because stopping the crap just plain sucks. And it will always suck because that’s life in society. You don’t just get to do what you want when you want whenever you want. They fight against it just like I did as a kid.

And to stop the crap doesn’t come from therapy or for drug-taking. It comes from being told that over and over again that shitty behavior is shitty and unacceptable, in no uncertain terms. And from telling them when they get hit not “Oh sweet dear, are you all right? Oh let me get you an ice pack and some Twizzlers! Let’s be understanding of Timmy, he can’t control himself, he has special needs!” but rather “Sucks, don’t it? Don’t ask me to have sympathy for you. You may be crying your eyeballs out right now at the punch you took, but I saw you hit Timmy on Wednesday. So suck it up. Now you know why adults don’t go around hitting each other. Because if we did, we’d all be dead in a couple of days. Felt right when you hit him, didn’t it? Well it feels right to him right now. What do you think about that? Maybe we should all make a deal not to hit each other any more. Duhn-duhn-duhnnnnn.”

— § —

So, to recap: yes, counseling, therapy, and drugs for those that actually need it. But don’t ask me to believe we were underdiagnosing for decades. Everything I see in life tells me that we are soft and stupid now. We are trying to solve shitty behavior, amongst children and adults, by telling them that they can’t help themselves—instead of telling them, like we used to, “Keep that up and someone’s going to kick your ass soon, because it’s bad behavior, end of story. Can’t wait to see it happen!”

— § —

And lest anyone think that this is some kind of elitist post in which I speak from above with moral purity, it isn’t.

Having come from the world of academics, I saw more than one could ever hope to see of “lie-cheat-and-steal” from people that supposedly live in pure-as-snow ivory towers.

Now my degree and my work are legit. I am happy to say that I didn’t compromise there, never would have, and that my conscience is totally clean on that front. I’m proud of my work and it’s my work.

But let’s talk (to take one slice out of a big complex that is commonly referred to as the “politics” of the academy) about the patronage system that exists in academics, and that stands behind all of funding and career advancement (it has almost nothing to do with hard work or ideas, contrary to what you’ve been told). Point of fact, all of academia, so far as I can tell, is thoroughly corrupt, except perhaps at a few wide-eyed and idealistic community colleges, where there isn’t really enough in the way of cash or career capital to tempt anyone anyway.

And of course, as was the case with Timmy above, it’s all explainable. It’s all explained. It’s all to be embraced. Everyone is convinced that they are doing good by making “good” easier—by refusing to do what was obviously once, a long long time ago in those regressive times loved only by reactionaries, the right thing—by being willfully blind to the hard edge of reality. Nobody is willing to admit that they are doing wrong. In fact, there are some who don’t even realize it. Because, like Timmy, they’ve never been told. Corruption is a great word, but it’s useless against someone who has no idea what it is and has never been called on it.

Two obvious extremes exist in academia: you can be entirely the “man of integrity” and go absolutely nowhere, or you can buy entirely into the patronage system and shoot straight to the top—with lots of dollars and lots of strings pulled, and all for doing and saying the requested things like a puppet.

I benefitted from this system. It is with mixed feelings that I say that there were things done on my behalf, and dollars moved around, that I’m not comfortable with today. That were a matter of people, including myself, rationalizing and excusing and refusing to do the hard thing that was and is the right thing. From my examples above, what happens in academia is closest to the “find $400” example.

And at the same time, I did have my limits. There came a time (more than one of them), when I decided to do the right thing. The hard thing. And it did not help my career, when it so easily could have.

In a sense, those of us in the middle have it worst. In academics, this is certainly true—not tossed out on our ass for being so upstanding that we were recognized as the intolerable bubble-bursters that we were. So instead, we were allowed to stay, for years, even decades. But because we refused to go all the way—because we did sometimes do the right thing, the hard thing, we also didn’t advance.

My decision these days? Stop being in the middle. But don’t go to the “It’s all fully justified, it’s all okay, it’ can’t be helped” side of things. Instead, I’m firmly on the “shitty behavior is shitty behavior and I won’t have any part in it” side of things. Or at least I’m trying, every day, to get there. Because beyond individual happy feelings and “embracing difference” (euphemisms that often characterize the exposition I gave farther up), and beyond the “mission of the academy” (which characterizes this section), I believe in the necessity of society as such.

And for that to work, people have to learn to behave in culturally-determined, ethically-informed normative ways. Even if it sucks. Even if they can rationalize it. Even if everyone around them is willing to play the game, too. Because societies in which people stop “doing the right thing” collapse, whether slowly or rapidly.

— § —

Put another way, I want my kids to grow up in a society in which they don’t get hit, shot, or abused, and are in general inconvenienced only in predictable, collectively-agreed-upon-ways on a day-to-day basis. For that to happen, I need to train them that you don’t hit, shoot, abuse, or inconvenience others but for in predictable, collectively-agreed-upon-ways.

And I need other parents to teach the same—not that nobody’s behavior is their own damned fault and everything is to be embraced so long as it is explainable by someone, somewhere, in personal terms.

If you’re thinking that I’m naive, you’re probably right. But I can’t stomach the alternative—to teach them how to most efficiently rape and pillage like drunken pirates to get what they want out of everyone, or to teach them never to stand up for themselves, but to embrace everything that happens whether just or not.

— § —

And I realize that at the deepest level, what I am doing here is that most conservative, un-modern of things to do. I am making a transcendental argument for free will, for the natal emergence of initiative, and against determinism (which is the root of medicalization) in personal life.

I am making an argument for a soul. A free soul, that makes choices, that chooses between things that can be labeled right and wrong. Not because right and wrong are eternal, unchanging qualities that I grant a priori, but because without the transcendental component—without responsibility that can only exist under conditions of essential freedom—then it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone, does.

Without a soul, we can do what we like, because without a soul, whatever happens, couldn’t have been helped, no matter what, good or bad. There is no choice. Murderers are as innocent as babies. They are merely the product of their material, epiphenomena of the universe. As am I. As are my kids. Nothing matters, so there is no need to try.

The avoidance of nihilism requires a transcendental foundation. Period.

If I really thought the world worked that way, I’d be out of it. Yesterday.

— § —

I don’t know. I guess much of what I see in the world right now—or at the very least in our own society—makes me feel ill and frustrated.

I wish for a wold of Confucians.

Epistemic closure.  §

Five years out of NYC and academics seems a complete impossibility, almost as if it never existed, or as if those people and places are figments of my imagination. I start to believe that all of those habits of thought are gone, that that road was never there and will never be there, that it was all a kind of mirage. The company I’ve been keeping probably contributes to that.

But five minutes with another academically-minded person and suddenly it all feels real and possible again, as though I ought to start pounding the pavement now. I find myself making plans once again, wanting to crank the machinery up and get it back into gear.

File under: Naysayers vs. supporters.
Also file under: Use it or lose it.
Also file under: The company you keep.

Against cloying sweetness.  §

Kids—and people in general—want to know one thing: that it’s no big deal.

That their grades are no big deal. That the broken toy is no big deal. That death is no big deal. That life is no big deal. That the world goes on and all is well and it’s all okay, that life is life and everyone can and does handle it and the problems, they suck, but in the end they are no big deal.

This is why sick people hate being fawned over. This is why kids hate being petted and cooed at when they are crying. Because people don’t want anything to be catastrophically wrong, but when the chips are down, they need reassurances from those around them that it’s okay, it’s cool, nothing is catastrophically wrong after all, it’s just no big deal.

People go on, love goes on, life goes on. Today is the same as yesterday is the same as tomorrow, predictable and a space on which to paint your being.

That’s what people want to know. That it’s gonna be okay, and that means that it is and is gonna be normal.

Why do so few people seem to understand this?

Denial.  §

There are times in life when it can be difficult to face the choices before you. Not just to make the choices, but to face that the choices are actually the choices. If you find yourself putting off key actions or decisions, you may be in denial, rather than merely indecisive.

You don’t want to make the choice because that means having to accept what the options actually are, and if you’re not satisfied with any of them, this can be difficult to do. I know it is for me. You end up kicking the can down the road in the secret hope that while you stall, the list of choices will change.

There can be some usefulness to this strategy—at other times, it might simply be called “patience,” but it becomes maladaptive if patience begins to turn into stagnation and stasis for long periods of time. You only have one life to life, and the clock is ticking relentlessly. It’s patience if it’s a week or a month. It’s denial if it’s a year or a decade. The line is fuzzy, but as with all fuzzy things in life, at some point you have to make the call or you’ll be dead before you take another step.

Momentum is a hard-won thing, and once you’ve lost it, it can be painful to try to earn it back. Some never do.

I hope I’m not among them.

Time management and health.  §

Every now and then it dawns on me just how incredible (one might even say ridiculous) the pace of my life is. Every weekday is an all-out sprint from 6:00 am right through until about midnight.

I used to say this when I was working on my Ph.D. but now, with divorce and single parenting, it’s back to at least that level of intensity. I manage time incredibly well (which is ironic because back in my primary school days I was one of the worst time managers of all time, something teachers routinely commented on), and somehow each day slots together as a result.

The kids are taken care of, fed, and played with (and/or read to) more or less all day, the school dropoffs and pickups happen, shopping gets done, a full-time management job at a hot technology firm gets done and done well, the bills are paid, the car is maintained, and the home is kept clean and steadily improved (see my last post for reflections on the painting that we’ve been doing). Somewhere in all of that, we also manage the extracurriculars—museum visits, martial arts, library trips, play dates, bowling and mini-golf here and there, and so on.

And I also manage to keep my skills relatively current.

But it’s fair to say that there are no free moments. There is no room in my life for anything else right now. Everything is timed to the minute, and when something takes longer than expected or unplanned events occur, evasive maneuvers are required. In general, these work out pretty well, but it can lead to some nights (like tonight) working until the wee hours of the morning.

It’s a good thing that kids grow up, because I doubt I can keep this up beyond about the age of 50. I’ve been blessed with a pretty rock-solid constitution—I rarely get sick, I’m totally functional when I do, I can operate on very little sleep, my moods lean toward the irrationally stable, and I’m good under pressure. In Timex terms, it’s always been true that “I can take a licking and keep on ticking.”

But sadly, I don’t suppose that can last forever. There will come a time when I have to slow down to a “regular” life pace, like most people have—life cordoned off into work time, family time, personal time, and sleep, rather than all of them happening all the time, at once. The amount of time that is available to me when that inevitable “single-tasking only” day arrives will fall precipitously. Instead of having 48-hour days, I’ll be down to 24-hour days.

It’s a little daunting to think about.

Hell in a handbasket and Facebook nation.  §

No.

Just no.

Why don’t I get out more? Why don’t I date? Why don’t I socialize?

Because I look around me and all I see are high school students reveling in their own immaturity. Posting on Facebook about getting drunk, having pride about cutting corners at work to go home early, aw-shucksing their shortcomings, flaunting their bad decisions and acting as though they are admirable qualities.

And then they go into the eco-LGBT-tolerance-identity virtue signalling and talk about thier hobbies (invariably something off-the-wall and pointless).

No, I don’t get out because I am the stodgy old man who belongs in another time in which people recognized their failings, were embarrassed by them, held on to social normativity, kept their private lives private, aspired to serious things, and didn’t parade their virtues (whether real or supposed) in front of others looking for validation. In fact, people minimized them out of modesty and restratint.

I’ll start connecting with people just as soon as I find some people to connect with that don’t lead me to feel embarrassed on their behalves.

Basically—in twenty years when I leave Utah for some other locale with a population of actual grown-ups.

Painting, a.k.a. home improvement.  §

Painting is a kind of slippery thing.

You start out by seeing a little patch on the wall that is just worn and stained enough to be distracting. You decide that you’ll just get ahold of a paint and a brush and spend a half an hour touching that bit up.

Then before too long, you think maybe rather than just touch that bit up, you’ll maybe paint the entire wall. After all, it’s just one wall. One flat surface. You can put down some canvas cloth, get a roller as well, buy the big bucket instead of the little bucket, and really make a difference by knocking out that one, worse-than-the-rest (you tell yourself) wall.

But then, you think, “Well, if I’m going to do an entire wall, maybe I can choose a new color. After all, one wall is just about the right size for an accent color. Since you’re painting anyway, now is as good a time as any to do it with a new color. So you go and get some color chips, and you pick a new color as you have the people at the hardware store prepare your paint bucket.

Now you get the paint home, new color and all, and you set to work. And as you put it on the wall, you realize that you really like having a nice, clean wall and a pretty new color. You like it so much, in fact, that you don’t want to put the old, faded light switches and outlets and their old, faded cover plates back on the wall when you’re done. It won’t cost too much to get new ones, maybe ten bucks for the lot, maybe a little more.

So you make another trip to the hardware store and you get some new electrical supplies. New, bright white outlets and light switches, and clean and shiny plates to go along with them.

Then you notice that the old furnace intake grate is also dented and old-looking, and if you’ve gone to all the trouble to choose a new color, paint an entire wall, and replace the electricals, it would seem silly and a complete waste of effort to not replace the intake grate as well. Back to the hardware store.

Of course to prep the entire wall, protect the area, get it painted, and to re-do all of these fixtures, you’ve had to completely disassemble the room(s) along this wall, moving furniture and furnishings to the centers of rooms and/or to other rooms. And now as you start to move them back it occurs to you that it seems a shame to move dusty, nicked-up furniture back into place against the backdrop of a smooth, beautiful, new wall with new fixtures.

And while you’re wondering how you can possibly afford to refurbish or replace a growing number of furniture items, you also begin to realize that other nearby walls also have a decent amount of wear and tear on them, and that they really do stand out as old in contrast to your new wall…

And before you know it, you have not one small paint can and a single brush as you’d imagined when you embarked on this journey, but four large paint buckets in different colors, three roller handles, a pile of roller brushes, canvas and plastic dropcloths in various sizes, multiple rolls of tape, plus new tools, cans of spray paint, replacement shelving, and more—and you have multiple rooms taken apart, multiple walls in the process of being repainted in multiple colors, furniture in various states of disassembly on the driveway sitting on cardboard to protect the concrete from the spraying of new enamel that you’re giving to them, not to mention piles and piles of cleaning supplies from all the cleaning that you’ve been doing.

And as if that weren’t enough, you’re now eyeing the flooring as well and wondering what amongst your personal property you might be able to trade to whom in order to get some new flooring put down.

That’s the thing about home improvement projects, and about painting in particular. You start, and then the boundaries are fuzzy. It always seems that for just a few dollars and a few hours more, you can do more great stuff. And the more great stuff you do, the more it seems a shame to let it all come to fruition next to the same old stuff.

Before you know it, you’re halfway to a remodel that you can’t actually afford, either in dollars or hours terms.

I want to say that this is why it’s important to be disciplined and careful when you do home improvement projects, but that just sounds pompous and silly.

Telos.  §

Telos has become a bad word amongst intellectuals and elites. It is code for “oppression” and “unacceptable compromises.”

But in the absence of telos, there is only nihilism. Everything becomes pure nihilism. Even the personal liberation for which the social justice warriors endlessly (and, I might add, misguidedly) fight. Pure nihilism.

There is only one thing that can valorize human life, and that is a teleological foundation. If we have killed god, it is time to build him again, or we will have to select from amongst the same unacceptable array of oppressions and unacceptable compromises, but without any means by which to choose between them, or to enable them to seem worthwhile.

Life without telos is hell.

More introvert/extrovert reflection.  §

It’s been a while. Funny how droughts happen like that. There’s never any rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes I feel compelled to write even though I don’t have much of anything in particular to say.

On other occasions, even though I have a lot on my mind, I just don’t feel like blogging. During those times, I tend to write elsewhere instead.

And of course there are times in between, like now, when I have a few thoughts going on, and I sort of feel writing here and sort of don’t. But since it’s been a while, I will.

— § —

More on introversion and extroversion. Extroverts don’t understand introverts at all. Even when trying to understand, they tend to say things like, “Well what we need to do is get you a bunch of introvert friends and get you to some introvert parties! No need to be alone, just be with your own kind and you’ll feel great!”

They really don’t get that we actually enjoy thought, reflection, deliberation, and other things that must be done in solitude. We enjoy them an awful lot, in fact. It’s not that we don’t like other people (certainly I like people well enough), but that we don’t enjoy active social engagement with other people—even other introverts—as much as we like various forms of cognition. And it’s not that we just need other introverts nearby to suddenly be interested in joining a circle of ten chatting partygoers. It’s that those various forms of cognition are engaging enough and important enough to us that very few others are able to support us or engage with us on that level as individuals.

Any two extroverts that can say the word “hi” and crack a smile can become besties. In fact, they do, if you put them in the same box for five minutes.

This is absolutely not true of any two introverts. Any particular introvert is highly unlikely to hit it off with any one given other person, introvert or extrovert, because we require a high degree of cognitive compatibility and similarity to find the interaction pleasurable, rather than necessary social “work” to get on in the world, and that high degree of cognitive compatibility and similarity is just plain rare, given how variable human beings are.

— § —

I’d almost make claims like these:

Extroverts are embarrassed if they don’t have a large number of friends. To them, it means that they are not liked, and publicly so.

Introverts are embarrassed if they do have a large number of friends. To introverts, a large number of friends tends to suggest they have become so desperately lonely as to sacrifice their selves for any chance at superficial interactions.

When extroverts are in solitude, they tend to want to find someone, anyone to be around. They believe that everyone feels this way, and thus when they see other people in solitude, they try to find someone, anyone to visit and/or befriend them.

When introverts are in solitude, they tend to be more than happy to stay that way, and will only invite the rare forms of company that they are sure are cognitively compatible with them. They do not care at all how everyone else feels, as everyone else is everyone else, and not them.

— § —

I appreciate the impulse, but as an introvert it feels almost laugh-out-loud hilarious to her an extrovert say, “Oh, you can’t spend this much time alone, all we need to do is find you a nice introvert girl and then all will be well!”

As if anything is wrong at the moment, or just tossing two random introverts into the same box will result in anything other than both knowingly smiling at each other about the naiveté of the extroverts as they each climb back out of the box, on oppsite sides, of course, while sharing a collegial good-bye wave.

— § —

On the other hand, introverts understand extroverts pretty well. The principle is simple: they like being with people. A lot. They’re not too interested in what’s going on inside anyone’s head—at least not nearly as interested as they are in ensuring that whatever is going on inside everyone’s head come out into a shared space, as being in that shared space with others is a joy.

That’s simple enough. It’s not that introverts reject this. It’s not even that we can’t participate. We totally can. Many of us totally do, in consideration of the extroverts in our lives who can’t imagine it any other way.

But it’s equally and simply true that we just don’t derive the same pleasure from it. It’s a neutral thing—that requires some amount of effort. Given that we have to expand the same effort while reaping very little (in comparison) of the emotional reward, we’re far less likely to want to do it all the time.

Every now and then is fine, for variety and general social membership. But are we highly motivated to find general social interaction in the way that extroverts are? Certainly not. Because in the cost-benefit, it just doesn’t work for us.

Most of us are highly motivated to do some things. Just not social things, unless they are in the service of those things that do highly motivate us.

— § —

I am particularly enjoying reading the last decade of science on the biological differences at work.

Particularly interesting are the dopamine vs. acetylcholine responses of introverts and extroverts. Basically, extroverts are highly sensitive to rewards in the external environment, and see dopamine spikes with commonplace “goods” like friendly faces, money, food, sex, and so on. In short, their brains “fire” strongly when external positives are present. Introvert brains… just plain don’t do this. There is far less reward activity in the introvert brain in response to external stimuli. It just doesn’t happen. On the other hand, introvert brains see far more acetylcholine activity as the result of various kinds of cognitive activity. So our brains “fire” and we feel rewarded and ecstatic when we are thinking hard and focused—i.e. not having to process external stimuli, including those provided by other people.

Also interesting are the anatomical differences, with introverts having more tissue in the prefrontal cortex areas associated with abstract thought, high-order reasoning, and impulse restraint, and extroverts having more tissue in rear and central areas like the amygdala, which is much more associated with sensation processing and physical and emotional arousal.

This all rings true to me and seems to neatly underscore the differences.

As an introvert, there are a lot of things that extroverts often encourage me to do that just don’t seem all that fun. When the extroverts do them, they are flooding their brains with dopamine. Hence the “IT’S SO FUN OMG YOU HAVE TO TRY IT YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SAME” enthusiasm—and their disappointment whenever I take them up on it and say, “It was interesting. Facets A, B, and C of this experience were unique and I’m glad to have had the experience, though facets X, Y, and Z were somewhat lacking, I thought, and reminded me of…”

They of course take this as my conscious effort to deny a transcendentally joyous experience, which can only be read as seeking to invalidate and embarrass them. They don’t get that as an introvert, I just didn’t experience the same dopamine flood. That external stimulus just didn’t actually produce much pleasure in my brain, nor is my mind particularly “switched on” by any of it, nor would this be the case in response to the the smile that they’d produce if I did validate their experience and share in a mutual but relatively unreflective “bubbling about it” session. On the other hand, I do get a ton of pleasure from analyzing it, and would get even more if they were to engage me on that level with a well-reasoned counter-analysis or a deep and extended reflection on what it means to them, in detail, either of which is what I’m probably unconsciously seeking.

Meanwhile, on the days when I’m sitting at home reading Wikipedia articles on theoretical physics that go well beyond my understanding, and trying for hours to make sense of them, reading more and more through the labyrinthine network of essays, the extroverts come and say “OMG YOU HAVE TO STOP THIS YOU ARE GOING INSANE YOU ARE SO LONELY LET’S GET YOU A FRIEND AND GO OUT!” They don’t get that I really don’t want to leave—because at that moment a different reward pathway in my brain is firing like mad and I’m filled with a distinct sense of intense, albeit qualitatively different, pleasure. (N.B. this also explains why I am addicted to blogging, especially unreadable, highly reflective blogging in abstract concepts—it causes the reward centers of my brain to fire.)

In very crass terms, when extroverts yell the single word “FUUUUUN!” at each other, they probably get a dopamine spike. To scream the word “fun” loudly intensely together—is likely quite fun for them! But it does nothing for introverts. Instead, we get the neurotransmitter increase with low-key, extended, involved depth. Which to an extrovert is as boring as sin and does nothing to stimulate their brains. Quite the opposite, they probably feel as though they’re going to fall into a coma.

On that point, anatomically speaking, I have just plain more brain in the reasoning, high-order processing, and impulse control areas, and these operate faster in an introvert brain, so it makes sense that these would be the things that I am both most competent at and feel most comfortable habitually engaging in. Meanwhile, I have relatively less brain for translating emotional response into physical activity, and relatively less brain for moment-by-moment initiative. So I’m basically built to think hard and and resist external forms of suggestion, while extroverts are best built to feel a lot in response to external forms of suggestion and to act on those feelings very quickly and decisively to seize advantage while it’s hot, without so many resources to mull over all possible future consequences and meanings of those actions, much less to do so quickly enough that the processing is concluded before their comparatively more developed rear and central brain anatomy rapidly reacts and acts.

This all would seem to explain why so many introverts (myself included) often find extroverts to be strangely automatic thinkers (“they believe whatever they’ve been told”) with an unacceptable attachment to what we experience as rapid impulsivity, while so many extroverts find introverts to be unintelligibly abstract and long-winded and also irritatingly slow to take apparently obvious courses action. It’s “OMG why aren’t you thinking more carefully before you act?!” vs. “OMG why are you sitting here chasing your tail in your brain instead of ACTING?!”

It also explains why introverts tend to be able to conceptualize extroverts more completely than is true the other way around. We’re wired for understanding concepts and their consequences in detail, despite the temptations of external stimuli. They’re wired for responding rapidly to stimulus in pursuit of immediate advantage. We don’t really provide them with much stimulus to respond to, and they’re not particularly attuned to or rewarded by abstract systemic understanding and conceptualization. To extroverts, we seem almost literally like blank slates: completely nondescript and inert, and characterized by a general chalky haze built up of layers and layers of highly erase-worthy classroom blather with little application to the immediate situation that they perceive. And they don’t think much more about it, because, well, that would be wasting everyone’s time. And yet their brains go into dopamine overdrive at the sight of human faces in a way that they don’t for almost anything else, so they desperately want more from introverts when they engage with us, to deliver on that promise of neurobiological reward. Hence—frustration! Damned self-absorbed, all-in-their-heads introverts!

Meanwhile, our introvert brains show the same comparatively low level of dopamine response to extroverts’ human faces that they do to any one particular flower or unfamiliar cat (both of which do something big for extroverts, but rather little for introverts at the neurotransmitter level), so we engage them but struggle to care and feel bewildered that they’re so frustrated with us yet refuse to listen to our explanation—and ultimately we find it all to be pretty lacking in depth and purpose and generally a dull and regrettable form of conflict anyway, when compared to the temptation that the out-of-our-league physics entry on Wikipedia (or, say, the process of disassembling and then reassembling a machine, or the work of Proust, etc.) offers to us.

Even this post is exemplary. I can’t imagine an extrovert reading it. We present them with detailed, long-winded reflections and they don’t care. All this long-winded navel-gazing! It just doesn’t seem important. (Because they’re not getting any rush out of it, and their brains aren’t really comfortable handling it.) Meanwhile, they present us with stark external stimuli, particularly social ones, and we don’t care. It just doesn’t seem important. (Because we’re not getting any rush out of it, and our brains aren’t really comfortable handling it.)

This also tends to explain why introverts are so focused on the minutiae of the introversion/extroversion discussion, while extroverts tend to respond with “Oh, bullshit, what a bunch of bullshit blather, it’s all an excuse and self-indulgence and nobody fits labels anyway, move on. Get out there and have a life!” Both are playing according to type.

Can introverts and extroverts ever really be besties? Hard to say. Certainly it’s hard to connect at a visceral level across the gulf, and the biology seems to support that claim.

— § —

One of the most resonant problems to me is the problem of the “inner circle.” Extroverts also don’t understand that most introverts have an inner circle. These are the people that either share tons of history or tons of cognitive compatibility with any particular introvert. People in the inner circle are stimulating to us, for whatever reason—generally cognitive.

Usually there are only a handful of them in an introvert’s life. Maybe three. Maybe just two. Maybe even only one. These are the people that the introvert actually does enjoy interacting with, when the time is right.

Extroverts often try to break into an introvert’s inner circle through sheer social competence, caring, and desire. This is a fool’s errand. It cannot work. There is no way to break into the inner circle simply by attending to an introvert, no matter how much dedication is involved. It is a matter of reward pathways. When extroverts do this, they are trying to “reach” introverts through extrovert reward pathways. We don’t feel rewarded, we feel interrupted. To get into the inner circle, someone has to consistently stimulate the introvert reward pathways over long periods of time—by providing to the introvert enhanced periods of consistent, low-level focus and the promise of lots of abstract cognitive processing. In short, if you want into the inner circle, you need to be focusing on having low-key, hours-long chats about either life, the universe, and everything or other deep or specialized topics, without the (for an introvert) frustrating prospect of interruption or variability in emotional “keys.”

And if an extrovert wonders whether they are in a particular introvert’s inner circle, then it is almost certain that they are not.

Introverts have no uncertainty about these things. They understand the “inner circle” concept perfectly, and can tell immediately who’s in another introvert’s inner circle and who’s not just by observing ten uninterrupted seconds of interaction. It’s clear as day.

And why do we not “want to share ourselves” with everyone, especially with those that are trying so hard to care about us? Because we know very well, through hard experience, that there is no point in trying to share yourself or your life with those that simply cannot get it—that simply will not understand. That’s a lot of work just to end up at additional headaches and problems due to inevitable misunderstandings, for (in our case) no particular reward in the neurobiological sense. In a way, it is introverts being considerate. We know that we disappoint and even hurt most extroverts repeatedly over time just by being ourselves—neither party will enjoy it. Better to help them out by keeping them at arm’s length, especially if they’re so invested that they’re trying really hard but not having much success.

So we tend to seem like distant ciphers to the bulk of the population we’re trying to be polite with and conscientious about. Those that think in the same way that we do or that can engage in that register—we’ll share ourselves all day and all night with them, and patiently engage as they share themselves in kind. And all joyously, too.

Feelings.  §

Feelings matter. But they are secondary to obligations, commitments, and social normativity.

There is a movement afoot in our society, now almost entirely mature, to suggest that people ought to be true to themselves, and express themselves completely and honestly.

They should not.

People should discipline themselves, be true to their commitments to others, and express themselves only when doing so does not stand in violation of roles they have taken on and commitments they have made.

“Tolerance” is just another way of saying, “we all want to be let off the hook, so let’s make a society in which anyone can do anything they like, promises and obligations mean nothing, and everyone ’embraces’ this.”

It is a recipe for civilizational decline.

The older I get, the more Confucian I become. Your life is not yours, nor should it be. Your life belongs to other people, and their lives belong to you. Do right by this trust, and expect them to do right by it as well. It is essentially a Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, and right now, we are tearing the social fabric apart.

Cry in secret. Bear your “oppression” in silence. Shun “activists.” Do your job. Know your place. These are the keys to a better world for the kids to come.

Heavy Wednesdays.  §

So now it’s later.

Tiring day, and it’s not over yet. A bit earlier—say three hours ago—I had an intense need to write something about today, but with the kids asleep and the house in darkness and a quiet stream of air being driven past me by the fan, I’m not so full of need any longer.

— § —

It’s not exactly that it’s been one of those days on which “everything goes wrong.”

Nothing did, in fact, go terribly wrong. Lots of little annoyances here and there. They add up, I suppose.

More that it’s a day on which I was irreperably and unavoidably a step or two slow. Constant racing, constant putting-out-of-fires, everything done or every arrival managed “just in the nick of time.” Hanging on by the skin of my teeth stuff.

I’m not one to feel overwhelmed. I’m used to heavy multitasking and living the working and logstics parts of my life with a pretty high degree of intensity, as a trade-off for also having a certain number of peaceful moments in my life.

But there are days like today when there is no trade-off; there are no peaceful moments. Every last moment is used, every last bit of adrenaline is currency, nothing is savored, there are no breaks, and even then, I’m one slip or crisis away from blowing, underdelivering, or being just plain tardy for everything in the day to come afterward.

I don’t like that feeling of not being master of the day, not quite being on top of things or in control of the situation. Normally I feel like a time and labor management wizard. On days like today, I feel like the average frazzled, overworked parent constantly in danger of dropping something.

Do not like.

And it is tiring to live that way. No wonder so many people complain.

I am hoping that with so many little random annoyances and delays (starting with a peed bed at three o’clock in the morning) having arrived on a single day, I’m free and clear for the rest of the week and can catch up. We’ll see.

— § —

This weekend:

  • Get that damned IBR recertification finally filed
     
  • Mow lawns, front and back
     
  • Get things together and in place so that we can begin painting some walls next week
     
  • Sit down and write something by hand in the notebooks
     
  • Try to figure out where I stashed my e-dairy (non-public portion) from 1996–2001 or so
     
  • Finally actually sit down and work on a book proposal again
     
  • Follow up on the growing pile of personal life communication and follow-up that I need to do

We’ll see. I have no doubt that not all of that will happen. But some of it will, and that’s not nothing.

Not the absolute best day ever.  §

More later.

Parenthood.  §

Kid wakes up in middle of night, doesn’t tell anyone, and drinks two juice boxes. Then, kid comes to lay next to parent in middle of night. For some reason, grabs iPad from table. For some further reason, falls back asleep face down on top of it, with iPad centered directly beneath him.

Kid pees bed. Or more accurately, kid pees iPad. Generously. Everyone soon awake at 3:00 am. Mess cleaned up. In half-asleep peeland, parent misses very important point that iPad was also the parent alarm, and that the parent is in turn the kid alarm.

Everyone thus wakes up in the morning at 8:05, just a few minutes before school is to begin. Everyone races to get to school on time for sibling—just barely.

Kid and parent come breathlessly back home after dropping sibling off. Kid asks to watch a movie on parent’s iPad. Parent explains that this is not possible because kid has peed iPad, and iPad is thus not disposed to show him a movie.

Being tired for having waken up drenched in pee in the middle of the night, kid is similarly not disposed to hear excuses and explanations. Kid throws big tantrum.

Parent sits down and has tea to the soundtrack of fatigued morning tantrum, instead of to music from iPad.

Romanticism, realism.  §

I’m a romantic and a realist, but I have them backward for most peoples’ liking.

Someone comes to me in the pouring rain with a devastating problem and says, “It’s going to be all right, isn’t it?”

I say, “I don’t know. Frankly, it may not. But either way, rain is so beautiful, let’s stand here and enjoy it while we can.”

They want me to say, “Yes, oh yes, it’s going to be all right! So let’s get out of this pouring rain.”

Why eBay doesn’t embrace “caveat emptor.”  §

So after I was the Linux guy for a number of years in the ’90s, I was the eBay guy for a number of years in the ’00s and ’10s. I’ve had lots of questions and frustration over the years from sellers annoyed by what they saw to be eBay’s draconian policies toward policing sellers and their behavior.

Though I haven’t worked at eBay for many, many years now, I still work at a company and in an industry with deep eBay connections, and that fact, combined with my particular shopping and collecting habits, means that I still buy and sell on eBay quite a lot.

For any sellers that have contacted me in the last year with those same complaints about eBay’s anti-seller policies that assume all sellers to be crooks, here’s a little anecdote.

I recently ordered an inexpensive (less than $20.00) item on eBay from a seller with a reasonable feedback profile and score. There was no particular indication of anything wrong with the item in the listing, other than the fact that it was used.

Today I received it. Here are some facts about what I received:

  • It was mostly covered in black ink that did not appear in the photo
     
  • It has a growing crack at a corner seam currently about three inches in length
     
  • There was dent in the aluminum portion of the casing, distorting the item’s body
     
  • The back side of the item was caked in actual food (!) that the seller did not remove before shipment

Now, imagine receiving a purchase like this if you are not a veteran eBay buyer and seller who knows what to do about such things. You’re the average person who makes only periodic online purchases, and then only periodically from eBay, because people tell you that it’s downmarket and risky.

If this is one of your few experiences on eBay, are you ever going to shop there again? And if you (and others with similar experiences) stop shopping there, is that good for sellers?

Even if you’re a tremendously conscientious seller who would never deliver a product in that state, it’s to everyone’s benefit—buyers and sellers alike—for eBay to ensure that any and all such experiences are stamped out.

And I personally want eBay to survive for a very, very long time, if not forever. Because there are just so many things that I personally like to shop for that can’t really be bought anywhere else.

— § —

On another note, every now and then I reflect on being the “Linux guy” or the “eBay guy” and the kids of writing and public communication I did in those roles.

I have and have had lots of hard-won knowledge in other areas over the years. Computer science. Social science. Literature. I have earned four college degrees, including a Ph.D., from very good universities. I have lots of powerful, specialized knowledge and skills.

But of course nobody has ever really offered to pay me for any of that. What did pay? Knowing how to shell-script in Linux and trade successfully on eBay. Very pedestrian stuff.

I understand intellectually why this is the case, but the young, naive philosopher in me doesn’t like it, at least not as a normative proposition.

The world ought to be different. It ought to be better!

It isn’t. Peoples’ lives are very small. This is why there is such a gap between elite and non-elite. Elites are the rare breed that live in an earth-sized world, and so have all of the resources of earth available to them. Non-elites live in a world the size of a single-family dwelling, plus a few roads and a big box store. Their resources are thus necessarily very limited.