Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

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.
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

When Notre Dame burns, new converts are gained.  §

Today’s burning of Notre Dame reveals just how profoundly we have dispensed with our imagination of—and vocabulary for—the numinous.

To read and hear much of the coverage, one would think that these “experts” and “public figures” feel nothing that I do about it. And maybe they don’t.

“…a historic building…” one said.
“…an important landmark…” another said.
“…obviously a religious building…” said another, stupidly.

Soulless automatons that have been programmed to reject the concept of the soul cannot possibly comment on the affliction of the soul of our civilization, or on the pain felt by millions of souls at watching it.

Philistines, all of them, everywhere. That’s what it was in academics, too. Everywhere.

“Of course, it’ll be rebuilt again—and better and more beautiful than ever, because now it will be made with modern materials and modern techniques,” I’ve read several times tonight.

© Jorge Láscar / 2014

I’ve also read several variations on, “It’s a building. Buildings come. Buildings go. That’s what happens. And let’s face it, it was an old building, obsolete and precious.”

Someone even said that Disney built better and more interesting things.

— § —

I have been on the fence for a long time, back and forth on the question of religion.

I’m not on the fence any longer. You can think what you will of religion. What cannot, however, be denied, is that only religion appears able to grasp—much less to preserve and to convey—the idea that there is more to life than a prosaic plod through economics and the intricate structures we’ve erected to venerate economics.

Birth happens. Death happens. Things matter, and not merely because they matter to me. Or to you.

All of this—the cars and the grades and the textiles and the plastic packaging and the wages and the elections and the battles for justice—all of this is so much pointless noise.

Everyone ends and will end in same way: in a final, eternal confrontation with the numinous.

If only religion is able to substantively reflect on or acknowledge this fact, then religion is where I must go.

In real life, you don’t always come up smelling like roses.  §

It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything.

In general, I haven’t been posting a lot in recent months. There’s a reason for this. As time passes, I realize that these days I often hesitate to post if things aren’t going well.

There are always things in life that you can’t really talk about—that just aren’t things you can expect people to make conversation with. We live in a culture in which, despite all claims to the contrary, it’s not socially acceptable to traffic in sob stories.

People only say in the abstract that they’d like others to reach out to them, to talk about problems and sadnesses. In practice, as we all know, but no one can say, it borders on rude to say anything other than “Well, thanks!” in answer to the question “How are you?”

— § —

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I’m well. It’s been a trying few months, to say the least, and I can’t honestly say that things seem to be getting better.

I can’t honestly say that there are too many areas of life in which I don’t feel fairly backed into a corner.

I’m not keeping up. I’m certainly not getting ahead. I don’t entirely feel up to the job, and I’m not entirely certain I’m durable enough to do it, all things said and done.

I’m not optimistic about the future and I’m not sure what I am hoping for. That’s a dangerous position to be in.

— § —

The worst situation in life is the one in which you’re just barely hanging on.

Because when that’s the case, obviously things are not adaptive. Yet in the absence of actual failure or catastrophe, it’s hard to justify significant change—to yourself, much less to others—so you aren’t likely to do anything differently.

Yet at the same time, it’s clear once you’ve been hanging on for a while that you’re also not going to make any ground.

You’re not going to win, and you’re not going to change anything. Bad news. At least in the face of catastrophe you have no choice but to change.

“Hanging on” is a state of affairs that can go on indefinitely. For me, it’s been a good twenty years.

— § —

I need changes, but I don’t know how to make them.

I need a simpler life, but every time I try to achieve one, it seems to get more complicated.

I’m worried that I don’t see a lot of green ahead. I’m perpetually worried about what’s to come.

Still hanging on.

Responsibility and consequences are better learned about early in life.  §

I haven’t been posting much in recent months.

Things have been hard. Much stress, much fatigue. Much worry. Much guilt.

There are good moments and bad moments. Recently, there have been a lot of bad moments. I suppose I’m having a good moment, which is why I am posting. In the bad moments, I am coming to realize, I no longer post. Because my bad moments aren’t angry now like they were when I was 23. They’re just bad.

— § —

I’ve never been one to enjoy hand-to-hand combat with life.

I like hand-to-hand combat with little problems. Practical problems. Computer code. Car engines. Watch movements.

But life? Death? Familial relationships? I don’t like doing hand-to-hand combat with these things. Some people thrive on it. I don’t. I don’t like making decisions upon which the entire world seems to depend. I don’t like having the responsibility.

Over the years, I’ve learned to cope with it, but it’s not something that I’ve yet grown into. I hope that someday I do. I often recently think that if I’d had more training with responsibility as a young person—if my parents had believed in giving allowances so that kids could budget, or allowed me to play team sports, or if I’d joined the Marines or become a police officer—I’d be in a very different place in life.

But that’s not what happened. My entire childhood and youth were about being protected from taking responsibility for things. In my twenties, nobody would give me a serious job. Typical at the entry level, but it meant that nothing in particular hung on what I did.

I became an academic for twenty years. Academics is that place where you make pronouncements on all of the world’s Most Serious Topics[TM] but do so in such a way and with such a small audience that there are no consequences for any of it. Anything you do or say or think is entirely irrelevant to anyone but yourself and the people in the room with you.

It’s a way to feel important without being of any importance. A scam of a sort, if in some ways a noble one.

— § —

Now, I’m an ex-husband. A father. A critical supporter of two households. The owner of multiple pets, one of whom is very old and dying. I’m director at a startup. I routinely communicate with large audiences, and with wealthy, important individuals.

I guess this is the natural course of things, but now at nearly 43 it feels as though everything I do matters. Not just matters a little bit, but matters a lot. Everything that I do has consequences.

Lives and fortunes depend on me and the decisions that I make and the things that I do.

And it’s all new to me. I’m encountering this importance and this sense of responsibility for the first time now, in middle age. I don’t feel prepared. I wish I’d been better trained for it. I wish I’d been hardened and disciplined for it.

I used to laugh at military folk. Now I envy them. I envy the fact that they were taught to stiffen their upper lip and to make perfect hospital corners and to wake up at 4:00 am on-the-dot and to run for twenty miles at a pop, rain or shine, even when lungs are burning and legs are going to give out. I envy the fact that they were told, over and over again, that the lives of others would depend on them.

They’ve spent years having to think about all of this stuff, to learn how to do what needs to be done not just when life is smooth, but when what needs to be done is impossible.

I feel like an amateur. And I’m not emotionally ready. Nonetheless, here I am.

— § —

Navigating a marriage and a family to an end while trying to preserve the emotional health of loving children. Trying to survive financial armageddon and reach some sort of equilibrium—still not yet found. Trying to make good decisions, launch good initiatives, lead good teams, and help companies to survive so that co-workers have jobs to feed their families. Helping innocent souls to find their way toward a peaceful end, even when infirm and suffering.

These are the major components of my life over the last four years. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, and I’m still not, but here I am living through it. Making decisions. Sometimes the right ones. Sometimes the wrong ones. Sometimes I just can’t tell.

I’m tired of mattering so much.

— § —

My emotional constitution is such that when the going gets tough, I go on autopilot. Not because my autopilot is better necessarily, but because otherwise I will be unable to cope. I’ll retreat. And when you matter, there’s no retreat.

You’ve got to try your best to do what needs to be done. Turn off your feelings so that you don’t let everything you’re holding come crashing down. And take your lumps and keep on moving when you make bad decisions. There’s no time for guilt or regret now. That will have to wait until later.

When, exactly? Later adulthood? I’m already 42. Retirement? Death?

— § —

All of this sounds very petty. Let’s be honest, it is. Generations ago, 17- and 18-year-olds flew halfway around the world and stood under the open skies of hell in trenches, eating bugs and effluence in storms of bullets, bombs, and body parts as their closest friends were torn apart beside them.

Then, they came all the way back and found ways to lead lives, live, love, and die. What have I done? Nothing. I have no grounds for complaint.

— § —

So here I sit nursing a dying dog. Trying to figure out how to think about my ex-wife’s urging that we try things again and how I ought to weigh the too-broad range of potential benefits and consequences for everyone involved. Wondering how I’m going to ever retire, or even catch up to my finances.

Wondering how it all would have been different if instead of doing everything I did—college, graduate school, marriage, kids, divorce, pets, bills, etc.—I’d joined the Marines.

— § —

Do I have anything of substance to say?

Yes. Something of substance, and shocking, too. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone, really, apart from two very old friends.

For about a year now, I’ve been toying with the idea of becoming Catholic. At the very least, I have deep regrets about my treatments of—and interactions with—religious folk in years past.

Anyone that has known me for any period of time will be shocked by this admission. I’m shocked myself. I’d never have figured myself to be a believer, and I’m still not sure that I am or ever will be.

But as I get older, I realize more and more that it’s not really about belief at all. It’s more about what’s right and proper and best, as I am beginning to realize is often the case in adult life—in real life. In the lives of the people who have some measure of stewardship for the world.

No, it’s not really about feelings or belief at all. Nothing important is.

Call me late to understanding in things that matter.

The problem with contemporary America is the self.  §

Self. We have been living in the age of the self since the 1970s. More passing years? More self.

Now the advice people all give us self-advice. For self-care. Self-forgiveness. Self-love. Self-acceptance. We are meant to build the self. Curate the self. Express the self. Promote the self. Self, self, self.

There is another word for this. That word is “narcissism.”

No, just no.

You should not “care” for yourself or “forgive” yourself or “love” yourself or “accept” yourself or any of these things. That does not mean that you should refuse to care for yourself or refuse to forgive yourself or refuse to accept yourself, either.

It’s not about whether or not you are positive or negative about yourself. It’s about the fact that people are thinking about “selves” in the first place.

The disease isn’t refusing to forgive yourself or refusing to love yourself or refusing to accept yourself. The disease is in considering these things in the first place—in all this damned thinking about and justice-seeking for the “self.”

That’s the narcissism.

Forgive or hold a grudge, love or hate, if you’re doing these things with regard to the self, it is still all about you. Hating yourself is just another way of loving yourself and vice-versa.

Caring, forgiving, loving—these are things that a well-adjusted person does for others, not for themselves.

You take responsibility for yourself. That is all.

You care about others.
You forgive others.
You love others.
You sacrifice for others.
You believe in others.

If you are doing these things for yourself, then you are not helping the world.

This bizarre belief that the best thing that you can do for the world is to do something nice for yourself—that the best way to do right by others is to let yourself off the hook…

It’s all a rationalization. A selfish rationalization by a selfish society in which each person doesn’t want anything to accrue to anyone other than themselves. A society in which every person is asking not “Who is here and what do they need?” But rather “I am here, and I have needs—so how can I have them met?”

This is why everyone is so fucking miserable.

Because they are living in the center of the very defintion of loneliness. They are alone. They are alone atop their shining hill in the halls of justice-for-the-self.

Q: But how can you live if you don’t care for yourself, and other similar objections?

A: The greatest tragedy in an individual’s life—and the greatest loss of meaning—is precisely the loss of the chance to die for the cause—to be stuck with oneself and nothing larger, rather than to lose oneself for one’s commitments to others.

The Huawei charges are AIDS medications.  §

We’ve seen this movie before.

Customers in the United States will pay more—a lot more—for inferior quantity and quality. Why? Because elites are working hard to shore up their own monopolies through regulatory capture. Which is what the Huawei stuff is all about. It’s infuriating. And I’m about to start snapping up all the Huawei gear I can get while the getting is still good.

Oh, but you don’t want to be spied on?

Stop looking at Huawei, son. You know who’s spying on you?

Intel, Cisco, and the U.S. feds. We know this. We’ve known it for years. The exploits and serious question marks are public and on record, and they have been for a long time. And they don’t belong to Huawei or the Chinese government, as anyone in the security industry can tell you. It’s the American firms that are spying on everyone, domestic and foreign alike—not the Asian firms.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…”

There is a non-trivial chance (some might even say likelihood) that Huawei is being penalized because they *won’t* backdoor for the NSA and U.S. feds, i.e. FEDGOV wants Huawei out because it’s providing actual security to customers—and won’t compromise that for the U.S. authorities.

How to fix your HP or Tandberg LTO1/LTO2/LTO3/LTO4/etc. drive’s tape path leader.  §

My tech posts have always generated the most traffic over the years, so here’s another one for you tech heads. Sorry, no pictures.

I have a love-hate relationship with tape storage over the years. Mostly hate. QIC, 4mm, 8mm, AIT, DLT, LTO, I’ve tried them all. They are all crap. The drives rarely last longer than a year or two and the tapes even less than that.

But with that said, offline, semi-archival storage is offline, semi-archival storage. I’ve also had terrible luck with hard drives, and they lose data just sitting on a shelf. If they ever spin up again after sitting on a shelf.

So… I have tapes.

I’ve recently switch from DLT to LTO4. And of course, one of the first things that happened to me was that I accidentally powered down with a tape in the drive.

“Oh shit,” I said to myself, “I hope the firmware can cope.”

Like an idiot, I powered back on, without taking the suggested steps:

  • Disassemble my tower

  • Decable, unscrew, and remove the drive

  • Stand it on its side and do the arduous and very time-consuming manual eject procedure that HP outlines on YouTube and that takes hours of mind-numbing wrist work

So what happened when I powered back on?

  • The drive got confused

  • It snapped the tape

  • Of course the tape load leader was now in the wind-up spool, meaning that the drive was dead with piles of tape inside it, and the tape was dead, too

  • All of reality was borked

So, lesson one for LTO:

(1) Never power back on if you accidentally power off with a tape in the drive. You may kill your drive. You will definitely destroy a tape. The firmware cannot cope.

Now, let me help you to fix the problem. With some narration.

Fixing a Lost Tape Leader

If your drive has snapped a tape, the pick-up leader that grabs the pin in LTO tapes to wind them into the drive now can’t be recovered, Normally, it’s wound back out and grabbed near the end of the eject procedure, so that when you insert a new tape, it can grab the new tape and wind it into the drive, etc.

But now your leader is sitting on the inner spool, and if you hold the door open when you power on the drive, you can see it just spinning and spinning for a bit, before you get the Yellow Light of Death indicating that you’re supposed to send the drive in for a $1,500 service.

Side note: That’s crap. So is the $4,000 sticker price of an LTO drive. Just wait until you get inside. These things are made of the same metal casing as a $12 DVD-ROM drive, plus one circuit board, plus a bit of tinfoil and plastic. They’re designed to fail so that those hefty enterprise service contracts can generate a ton of revenue.

Don’t fuck with that. Do this instead. Again, sorry, no pictures, but if you’re mechanically inclined, this should be enough to get the light bulb on and get you there.

  1. Take your drive out of whatever it’s mounted in.

  2. Get some torx screwdrivers and pop the top of the drive case right off. Cut through those warranty stickers. Fuck ’em.

  3. Get a magnifying glass or head-mounted optics and carefully disconnect all the cables and any screws from the top circuit board(s) so that you can get it (or them) off of the drive. You want access to the inner spool.

  4. Do the manual eject procedure enough to get the tape cartridge out of the drive and out of the way.

  5. Now take some time gently getting the miles and miles of LTO tape off of the inner spool. Don’t get an Xacto knife and slice through it or you’ll slice through the leader (more on this later though).

  6. When all the tape is out, and you’re just looking at the leader flopping helplessly in the breeze, notice that the plastic end of the leader has two posts on it, one at the top and one at the bottom.

  7. Notice also that near the rear of the drive there is a crevice into which this can slide, with the posts fitting into grooves. This is the tape path. Insert it into the tape path, making sure that if fully extended through the path, the tape will not be twisted.

  8. It will look like there’s no way to get it in there beyond just the entrance. There is. Gravity will help you. This is a low friction operation, the tape leader is not stiff, and the latch unit at the end of the leader is heavy. Just tilt the drive around to get the leader to slide through the path.

  9. You will get stuck halfway and it won’t move any more. You’ll be tempted to disassemble the path housing or to try to poke in there with a needle or something to pull it all along. Don’t. There is nothing fancy that has to be done, just some grunt work.

  10. Flip the drive over. Find the manual eject bolt, the one that you twist to manually eject tapes. Get your nut driver and start turning. Only this time, you’re not ejecting—turn the other way. You’re inserting again, even though there’s no tape in the drive now. Twist until fully inserted (or until what would be fully inserted if there was actually a tape there).

  11. Try to move the tape leader through the tape path again with gravity. Voila! With the mechanics in the “tape inserted” position, the tape path is now magically clear. A bit more tilting and the end of the leader should fall right through to the front of the drive.

  12. Now wind the manual eject mechanism again to move the “imaginary” tape all the way back out once more, to the ejected position.

  13. You should now be able to see where the leader latch is supposed to sit—right next to the corner of a tape, latched into a couple of little springs. If you can’t use your imagination, partially insert an LTO cartridge and notice where the opening is. Your leader mounts near there. Look at its edges and look for a latching socket that they might fit into.

  14. Slide the latch into place. It will click. You will be amazed, looking at this crap machinery, that this pile of shit costs businesses $4,000 (and will even feel a bit taken for spending $200 on eBay).

  15. Give the leader a couple quick tugs by winding the inner spool. It should go taut now and not budge once taut, fully latched into place.

  16. Reassemble the drive and power up. No more Yellow Light of Death. Congratulations, your LTO drive has been repaired—and you didn’t have to spend $1,500 on a ten-minute repair that requires no special tools.

What’s that? You have objections? Let me see if I can guess what they are:

  • Q: Don’t I need a clean room for this?
    A: Take another look into your drive through the door. Do you see how much dust and debris is in there? Did you say a shit ton, yet your drive has been working anyway? Give that man a cigar. Guess what? You send it off to HP, they’re going to charge you $1,500 and some dude is going to be doing it on a dirty workbench that has had Mountain Dew spilled on it 14 times this year already.

  • Q: Won’t I hurt the alignment or some other Fragile Thing?
    A: Don’t dick around with the tape heads and you’ll be fine.

  • Q: But my leader snapped! What do I do? (Told you I’d come back to that.)
    A: Just get an Xacto knife and some Gorilla Tape and fix it right back up with a splice. Notice how thin and crap everything is inside these drives. These are not precision instruments. They’re built like the utter junk they are. Do what you have to to kludge a fix and carry on.

Seriously, if you paid $4,000 for one of these, you’re an idiot.

And if you were planning on paying $1,500 to repair one, or even $200 to pick up a replacement on eBay, now I’ve just saved you the trouble. Because this is what goes wrong on DLT drives and ten times as much on LTO drives. Leader problems. Over and over and over and over and over again.

So now you know how to fix them.

And never, ever power down your LTO drive with a tape in it, unless you get your kicks putting leaders back into place over and over again as you blow through tapes, ripping them to shreds.

Gently catching the temporary by the wings, holding, then letting go.  §

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything here that I liked. Frankly it’s been a while since I wrote anything anywhere that I liked.

It’s also been a long time since the last time I did any design work around here. When I started blogging, I did a redesign every year. Just to play around with colors and lines. The blue and gray in place right now is the second go-around for the blog that had felt the most like “home” to me over the years. I made it in 2006 in Graymatter, back when Graymatter was a thing. I resurrected it post-divorce in WordPress.

I don’t know why I say any of that. It’s neither here nor there.

— § —

I am typing this listening to the much-shared recording of the Aramaic Our Father sung for the Pope in Georgia. I don’t know why. I’m not Orthodox. I’m not Catholic.

When I started playing it, YouTube first ran an ad for Wix for five seconds.

It made me want to punch a hole in my screen.

— § —

Things I now wish I could be that I would have scoffed at as a younger man:

  • Police Detective
  • Firefighter
  • Marine
  • Medical Doctor
  • Attorney

Sometimes now I sit and wonder whether there’s still a way for me to dream about being things, and to pursue those dreams as if they might someday be made to come true.

© Aron Hsiao / 2019

But life is short, time is running out, and I am getting tired.

— § —

The windows on the house are dirty, but I never clean them.

I don’t clean them because then I would be able to see out through them with fidelity. I’d see things clearly, and the glass would be transparent. I’d see the world and the trees—but nothing else.

But dirty windows do something different; something bigger than passing light through them.

They reveal truths that are otherwise ephemeral, traveling in waves light but held prisoner by some property of the universe that I only vaguely understand. The one that hides the most important truths, always.

I don’t wash them because right now, at this particular time of day, when the sun streaming in through the window is bright but not blinding due to the angle of the sunset, the trees appear on dirty windows not as trees, but as the essences of trees. Not every branch and needle; not every detail in the clinical manifestation that we’re so accustomed to in a modernity in which we’ve attributed entirely too much importance to fidelity.

No, on dirty windows when the sun is just right, you can see in them the spirits of trees, touched by something ineffable, glowing, mixed with presence, imbued with a deeper authority than fidelity can bring or will ever know.

Clean windows have panes, but dirty windows have souls. To clean them is murder.

— § —

This problem of cleaning points to a sad and intractable paradox at the center of human life: that we are both material beings in a thermodynamic universe and conceptual beings that dwell in the deep, sticky middle of a subtle phenomenological implausibility that is not any less evident.

These two things are at odds with one another.

Thermodynamics is a kind of cosmic, metaphysical theft. It is an arrow that leads only toward one thing: death and emptiness. So, we marshal energy here and there, ordering and building and cleaning everything at hand, making a little human world for ourselves where we can attempt to disown physics. Nesting.

We are compelled to do this by the problem of meaning, which demands that we have order in our souls and in our memories. But to expend this energy is to participate in and hasten the thermodynamic fate to which our material selves are condemned.

To clean is to destroy being. But also—to fail to clean is to destroy being. Being itself must be tenuously suspended in a studied balance between the two that must always be actively maintained.

© Aron Hsiao / 2003

It is this sort of thing—the fact that our very existence lies at the peculiar tension point between overwhelming and intersecting ontological regimes—and that it is so very, very delicate, a matter of balance and care and attention that hovers forever at the edge of disappearance, pregnant and taut—that continues to bring me back to theological questions these days.

— § —

I spent much time early in life expressing things, and this carried with it a kind of momentum.

Momentum is wonderful, and I need it very much. But momentum in sufficient quantities can also blur what passes beside you so that you can’t be sure what you have seen or when is the right moment to turn right or left. And it’s rather hypnotic in its way, a kind of truth of its own.

To finally lose momentum and wake up, standing in the middle of the desert, looking around yourself north, south, east, and west, with “the lone and level sands” stretching away everywhere around you… There is a kind of magnificent riddle in that.

The sphinx need not be a rock. You can hear his questions coming from the sun up above you in those moments, and from the sand under your feet as well.

— § —

I said to someone last night, “pretty much all of us are wrong about pretty much everything.”

I stand by that.

My name is Aron, and apparently I am insane.  §

Well, the American Psychological Association has gone and done it.

They have taken the step that pundits have been using as a “next thing you know, they’ll…” by declaring all non-feminie men to be suffering from a mental disorder. That disorder is called “masculine ideology” or, in other places in the document, “traditional masculinity.”

What are its symptoms?

They include stoicism, strength, desiring not to be feminine, adventurousness, competitiveness, and the drive for achievement. Oh, and violence (because obviously all of these things are budding forms of it) and homophobia (because naturally anyone who isn’t interested in being feminine feels that way because they are homophobic, and not because, you know, they’re a man or anything as retrograde as that).

Welps, that does it for me. Lock me up and drug me, I guess.

Oh, and remind me never to visit a therapist.

So many certainties, so little justification.  §

Things that are all said to be true:

  • Masculinity is toxic

  • It's bigoted to talk about 'male' and 'female' or 'man' and 'woman' because it's a fluid spectrum, everyone in the gray area, and masculinity doesn't make a man, nor does femininity make a woman

  • It is right for gender-dysphoric people born male to pursue femininity, which is what it takes to be a woman, and for gender-dysphoric people born female to pursue masculinity, which is what it takes to be a man

  • It's bigoted to talk about 'male' and 'female' or 'man' and 'woman' because it's a fluid spectrum, everyone in the gray area, and masculinity doesn't make a man, nor does femininity make a woman

  • People born girls who identify as male and achieve masculinity are, without question, both heroic and men

  • Masculinity is toxic

Point being: this is a soup of contradictions. It only makes sense if the underlying truth is:

  • People must be affirmed and validated, no matter what

This is a very, very bad position to take.

In fact, we should all exercise our best judgment to affirm and validate people that we judge to be right, and to provide no affirmation or validation for people that we judge to be wrong.

"But judgment is bad!" comes the rejoinder.

To which I can only say, in sarcasm, that obviously then the moral thing is to eliminate all judges from society and stop teaching our kids to exercise judgment of any kind as they grow up.

The terrifying thing is how many people would agree, quite earnestly, with these suggestions.

— § —

Side note after watching the college football national championship game:

I am grateful to Clemson for what they accomplished tonight. Specifically? They did something unexpected. They willed it, people said it was impossible, and they did it.

This is not me saying that "anything is possible." Clearly, it isn't.

But the realm of certainties has unjustifiably expanded in recent years. The world today is beset by a complete lack of intellectual humility. There is an epistemic overconfidence running through late modernity, and in particular the information age, that is destroying our society from the inside out.

There is an unstated belief, held far and wide, that in our time it is both easy to predict the future and a simple matter to know truth from falsehood, right from wrong.

On every side, the activists sneer at anyone who suggests, even for a moment, that life is complicated, that unexpected things happen, that the realm of certainties in life is very small, and that the list of what is "obvious" is a short one. The sneering on all sides has now reached the level of an overwhelming roar, all being certain that they have the answers, today and tomorrow, and that only a fool would deny it.

That the future is an open book and the present is crystal-clear has become such an article of faith that those who might otherwise try to do something new, to write actual pages in the book of history—simply don't.

So thank you to Clemson for doing the unthinkable, the bigoted, the stupid, the disallowed—and demonstrating that everyone doesn't already know everything about everything. That people can be wrong. That will counts for something. That human natality and uncertainty are actually alive and well.

And for a night—suck it, certain people, all of you, across all human endeavors. You are a disease. You know everything, sure. Until you don't.

Goodbye 2018.  §

I always write a post for the end of the year. And I have always been working on it for several weeks by the time it goes live.

Not intensive work, really, but slow, now-and-then work. Adding things as I think of them. Reflecting on things. Coming to internal conclusions about how I feel and what has mattered in the year that has passed.

This year I haven’t done that. I’ve only thought about starting it maybe twice over the last month, and each time the thought came and the thought went shortly thereafter with nothing done, no steps taken.

So here we are… It’s time for a year-end post and I’m typing one out, and purely by accident. I didn’t set out to write one, but merely to force myself to actually write something. Only once I got started did I realize once again that the end of the year is here and I ought to say something about it.

— § —

This year has not gone according to plan.

I switched jobs. Twice. Where I ended up is great. But that, combined with the ongoing complexity of divorced life and the financial stress that all of this brings, have led me to feeling just a bit at end-of-rope.

And when I’m at end-of-rope, I fall back into my own most deeply ingrained tendencies.

The most important of these is the tendency to be completely overtaken by my own momentum—or lack thereof. By my own inertia.

Without a conscious effort, I am an entirely interia-bound person. Whatever I am doing, I will keep doing it. Whatever I am not doing, I’ll keep not doing it. Even if I want to change, on both counts.

Whatever is the last thing I did is also the next thing I’ll do.

Now I realize that everyone struggles with “habit” and the question of how to break bad ones and form good ones. But I’ve never met anyone who manages as much of their life purely through habit as I do.

I am conscious for two things in life, and two things only: novel tasks at work and time spent with the kids. Everything else, and I literally mean everything else, is on autopilot.

This means that if I have a sticky autopilot function, and it’s stuck in bad positions, I do not do well. It’s been an issue for me since I was a teenager, and it’s still a big issue, as this year demonstrates.

I don’t think my ex-wife ever understood the degree to which I just plain do things automatically, without thinking. Whatever is happening, if it doesn’t kill me or cause severe pain, well—it’ll keep happening. Down to the smallest details of my life.

I’ll wear the same shirt and pair of jeans a hundred days in a row. I’ll launder them every three days or so. I’ll tell myself that I need to wear different clothes. It’s not like I don’t have any. Then I won’t. I’ll tell myself that it’s silly to launder just one pair of jeans and one shirt together, that I ought to wear more laundry and do bigger loads. No matter, it doesn’t happen. I’ll run out of detergent and know it. But I won’t buy more, because I don’t buy detergent. I just don’t. It’s not a habit. So when the next day three rolls around, I’ll go downstairs and make laundry motions and even get out the scoop and scoop in empty air and note in passing (and it barely registers) that I just got a whole scoop of empty air and am laundring my clothes with maybe two granules of powder. And by a minute later, it’s off my radar again until three days later still. Maybe after eight or nine months, I’ll finally remember to buy detergent, but only if I’m already at the store for something else and happen to remember it.

I’ll tell myself that I need to make a list of things that I need, in passing, and then I’ll go on doing whatever it is that I was already doing and not make a list because I don’t make lists. Not out of principle or anything. It’s just not what I do. And telling myself that I need to do it does not physically make me into someone who does it.

It’s just been that kind of year.

Turn up the stress, and I attend to the big problems, and all the little things go on autopilot.

I suppose another way to say this is that I live one of the most perpetually distracted lives of anyone I’ve ever met. I am a high-horsepower distraction machine. I see my kids and I see my job. I am entirely blind to everything else.

That’s how my year was.

I even have a habit of reflecting just before bed on how terrible this is and how my life is slipping right through my fingers and I need to take bold steps to change it because I am living the same day, week, month, and year over and over again and soon I will run out.

Then, I lay down and go to sleep without realizing that that’s what I’ve done. Because habit.

It’s as though my conscious, reflective brain is completely disconnected from my will, much less my body. My ex-wife commented on this often as well. She was right; something in my brain doesn’t believe that the world exists.

All that exists are the thoughts, if I can even be bothered to have them. And if I have them, my mind presumes that it’s been attended to and moves on.

— § —

There is another way of describing this, probably a more useful way.

I just don’t give a shit.

I don’t give a shit about anything but work and kids.

Because to be on autopilot like this and not really suffer, the deeper truth is that everything you actually care about is getting seen to. Because if it wasn’t, you’d be in pain for having let things that you care about fail or slide. You’d have regrets.

To be fully distracted all the time yet not in pain is a another way of saying, “I may tell myself that I care about all the shit I’m doing and ought to stop or not doing but ought to start, but in fact I don’t care about these things at all, which is why I’m never caught out when they do or don’t happen.”

Everything that’s critical, everything that really matters, gets done. Everything else is on autopilot.

From that perspective, it almost sounds healthy. I can hear a therapist being tremendously reassuring and saying, “Well then, all of the things that really matter actually have been taken care of, haven’t they? What you’re doing is called prioritizing, and we all do it.”

But that would be a lie, at least in a way.

— § —

If what I’m doing is prioritizing, then I’m automatically prioritizing today ahead of tomorrow, always.

I’m not sacrificing for the future, preparing for the future, planning for the future, or even aware of the future. I don’t mean Future like when I’m going to be a movie star, I mean future like the fact that there is no toilet paper in the house because I couldn’t come to consciousness and plan ahead enough to actually get any before the last batch ran out.

When will I get it?

The next time someone needs it, we’ll have to make a sudden trip to Walgreen’s to buy some. These sorts of sudden trips are also a habit, the way that I do things.

This kind of “prioiritizing” is not okay, because it means that I am completely unprepared for tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year, much less, say, retirement.

I am living by relying entirely on the just-in-time nature of modern urban life. Whatever I need I can have now, so there is no need to prepare. There is, in fact, no need to think. Anything that becomes a problem can be dealt with when it becomes a problem and not before.

Now, there is a kernel of wisdom in that attitude; a lot of people have the opposite problem, worrying incessantly about everything and being hypervigilant about the million little things they’re doing or not doing every moment of every day.

But in my case, I need the opposite. I am a man standing in a battle zone without a weapon, without camouflage, and without armor of any kind. When and only when bullets start flying past my head will I worry about it.

Thing is, I know that at some point they will start flying past my head, so I should at least take cover right now. But I don’t. Because until one almost hits me, it’s just not on my radar. I’m busy thinking about other things.

It’s a risky way to live, and it bothers me.

— § —

But I don’t give a shit. I want to say that I can’t give a shit.

Because the thing is, I want to give a shit. I want to care about things rather badly. And yet I don’t. Only about those two things. Work and kids. Work and kids.

Has always been thus.

— § —

So, to recap what I’ve said so far in TL;DR terms, 2018 may as well have never happened, in a way. I did nothing new. I stopped doing nothing old. The end of 2018 looks exactly the same in most ways as the beginning of 2018 in terms of “my life” in any way that matters.

And with that out in the open, I’m left with the problem of reconciling everything I’ve just said and the cause to which I attributed all of it (stress about job changes and so on).

It’s a circular problem, if you think about it. All the stress of changes caused me to be unable to change anything? And the net result is that absolutely nothing changed this year, thanks to the effects of so many changes?

It makes absolutely no sense.

What’s really going on here?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll figure it out in 2019.

— § —

Things that are more than likely coming in the year ahead for me:

  • Health care crises, thanks to a convoluted health plan situation

  • More navigating the stressful relationship between me and ex

  • Death of my more-than-twelve-year-old dog, who has cancer

— § —

The stressful relationship between self and ex thing probably deserves some discussion, particularly since it’s possible she’ll read this.

It’s not that things are bad between us. They are, in fact, remarkably good all things considered.

It’s just that we’re so different. Our minds work in diametrically opposed ways. Looking at things now, it’s a complete mystery to me how we ever managed to marry and procreate.

Just about every single thing that she says or does comes as a complete shock to me. Not a bad shock in itself, necessarily, but as something-I-wasn’t-prepared-for. Something that interrupts my autopilot system, and for that reason, tends to send me into confusion from which I struggle to emerge.

I’m sure she doesn’t realize it. She barely realized it when we were married, and never understood it at all, and so now, three years on and with separate lives, I’m sure she doesn’t realize what a complicating factor little innocuous and completely innocent things can be.

One of the things I’ve realized as a divorced man is that I should never be in a relationship again. Or at least not until I solve the autopilot problem on my own. Because when I’m relying on autopilot and something little causes autopilot to disengage prematurely, my entire day goes out of whack.

And when someone hasn’t planned ahead, when they’re living entirely moment-to-moment in that battlefield of life without any defenses, a day out of whack is a significant problem from which it can be difficult to recover.

In other words, I can’t afford relationships. Cognitively. Emotionally. Not until I figure out how to cope with unexpected inputs.

— § —

Interesting question here.

How is it possible for a person like me to exist? My single biggest strength in work life and in just about every other serious endeavor has always been that I can think on my feet and do what needs to be done better than almost everyone else.

I am amazing in a serious crisis. When a building is burning down or a neighborhood is being evacuated, that’s when I come into my own and people lean on me for support because I’m so agile and adaptable and capable.

So how is it possible that I can’t freaking go to the other side of the room and wear a different shirt just once, because I’m so stuck in distraction, or that a text message with a funny joke that I wasn’t expecting to receive can derail my afternoon?


  • I am using so many of my faculties for whatever important task is immediately at hand that I have nothing else left for life—and this is why I’ve been visibly above average in terms of success in some areas but also visibly below average in ters of others (i.e. the trade-offs theory)

  • High stress kicks off something biological—adrenaline? cortisol?—that causes me to focus on the thing causing the stress, and to ignore all of the other things (i.e. the involuntary trade-offs theory)

  • I am actually dysfunctional most of the time, but high arousal—again, adrenaline, cortisol, whatever—actually turns my brain on for the duration of a task, and when the task is over and the chemical factors disappear, my brain shuts off again (i.e. the developed-tolerance-to-stress theory)

  • There is actually a set of criteria at work that I’m not aware of, and I’m not aware of them because I am keeping them—and the logic behind them—from myself for some reason (i.e. the repressed-rationales-for-choices-plus-avoidance theory)

I’m not sure what the truth is. And there are probably half a dozen other theories that I haven’t thought of that could also apply. I’d like to say that I’ll think about these more and try to figure out what’s what, but I won’t.

Because… wait for it… that’s not what I do.

— § —

Things that I wish I could say were coming for me in the year ahead:

  • Finding and joining a community of some kind (religious, even?)

  • Starting my own company

  • Developing a newfound sense of discipline and attention to “little things” in life

  • More money and financial security

— § —

What do I remember most from the year?

Possibly going to Lagoon (a local amusement park) with my kids a couple of times in the summer.

And being required to erase all of the work that I’d done for the previous five years when my company was acquired, and then to sign my name indicating that it had all been destroyed and none of it existed any longer.

Apart from these things, I swear I’m not sure I can remember or name a single other thing that happened this year just now. It’s all been mostly the same day over and over and over again, I think.

— § —

Things that I absolutely do not care about in the coming year:

  • Dating

  • Home repair

  • Financial planning

  • Getting organized

I wish I could say that I did care, but I can’t honestly say that.

I just can’t.

How can I get myself to care?

I think that’s really the operative thing for 2019.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s my year-end summary. 2018 was the year in which it really, really started to bug me that I don’t care about anything but kids, work, and the next 1.5 minutes of my life.

Like, it bugs me enough to make me angry late at night when I lay down and finally think about it.

So maybe the project ahead for 2019 is to try to figure out how to give a shit about things. To learn—as it were—to actually care.

— § —

Related question.

How do you change your understanding of who you are? Of your own identity?

I mean, that sentence that begins with “I am someone who…”

Also on dock for 2019: figure out this related sovereignty problem.

Because if you are not sovereign over yourself, then you are powerless to affect anything else.

And yet changing understandings of self is a remarkably difficult thing to do, at least if you’re me.

Statement to self: “I am someone who…”

Reponse to self: “No you’re not. That’s a lie. You know very well that you’re actually someone who…”

This is a problem of will. Will should be enough to effect changes in self-identity, should it not? And yet… it’s not.

What do you do when you don’t believe yourself? And is this different or similar to not believing in yourself?

And yet I’m someone that has always believed in myself. Maybe just about the wrong things?

Is this a granularity problem as well?

— § —

Hello, 2019.

Gutenberg sucks.  §

In my professional life, I have spent a lot of time in WordPress. I know HTML, CSS, and PHP close to inside and out, and I know Javascript well enough to be quite literate and capable if I have StackExchange in front of me.

For those who just want the meat: Gutenberg breaks WordPress. Not “official” WordPress, but WordPress as we have all known it and any code that has been written in the past.

For now, you can still disable Gutenberg, but the roadmap is to EOL the “classic” stuff by 2022.

So, basically—it’s time to give up on WordPress. Back to Drupal with me? Possibly.

And I suggest that small developers or small team developers everywhere move on. WordPress is dead. No, not yet, but given the security history of WordPress and the necessity of staying current with core, you don’t want to wait until official EOL for classic. Tell your clients and your boss now that anything you have built is EOL soon, will stop being maintained by you sometime before 2022, and you will be moving on.

Then, use the time between now and 2022 to develop a remediation strategy, build new skills, and move on.

December 2018 is the month that WordPress died.

Things about work, in the abstract.  §

Anything productive is beyond imagination. What I mean by that is that the more you think about doing it, the less you’ll do it. To get the most work possible done, have not a single thought in your mind about work at all.

— § —

The awareness of mortality is a barrier to success. Once you know that there will someday be an end, every win may be the last win—and you begin to fear making attempts, lest the last win turn out to be, in fact, the last win.

— § —

Corollary to an axiom: Nothing about work is memorable. Hence, nothing about work is remembered. This seems counterintuitive until you try to remember almost anything from jobs you held just a year (much less a decade) ago. The most memorable things about work are driving to and from.

— § —

Variation on a theme: Motivation to be productive comes almost entirely from the awareness of mortality. So it is that the pending arrival of the end is also the greatest driver of success. The secret is to only ever have one success—a very large one—somewhere just before the end of your life.

— § —

Shocking conclusion: The way to hack this is not pretty to think about and mustn’t ever be attempted. And yet many have tried.

— § —

Reflection as coda: They have all failed, in large part because what happens in the hack is that one (every single one, self and other) wonders whether perhaps there was another one in the can, now wasted.

— § —

Bonus item: You will never remember any of the moments at which you said to yourself, “I wonder what I’ll think in the future, and where I’ll be, as I look back on this moment.” Those moments are invariably the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

* Image(s) to be added later.

Information and anti-information. (These are not opposites.)  §

It’s very, very early in the morning. It’s 2:40 am, to be exact, and I have been trying to avoid making a blog post since about 1:00 am. But it’s becoming clear that I won’t go back to bed until I do, so I’ve finally conceded and I am now typing.

— § —

Everything meaningful in life in the present is routinely submerged beneath a torrential flood of logistics and meta-logistics. Getting things done is a thing. No regard for what it is that is getting done, or how to exercise judgment about what belongs on the list of things to get done.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

I am convinced that we are doing the wrong things.

The information revolution, which once, many years ago, romanced me as it did many others, has delivered primarily enhancements in logistics, which themselves open the eyes to further enhancements in logistics that may be provided by reintensification of the logic of the same revolution.

— § —

Start at Google. Type something. Click something. Tap something. Open an app. Use it.

Follow your nose for an hour. Or two hours. Become lost in the network, lost in your device. Go down the rabbit holes. Learn and learn some more. Consume the data and feel the insight and power that it apparently provides. Then, when you’re finally sated, slide back in your chair and reflect.

What did you gain?

The networks are entirely full of actionable information. Information about doing and getting things done. Logistically powerful information.

Once, the concept of “insight” had nearly theological implications.

Now, insight is not a concept at all; it is a resource, like uranium or gasoline, and you burn it in order to propel yourself more quickly down the road.

— § —

© Aron Hsiao / 2001

In 1991, we all vaguely thought that someday we’d stare at these screens and be surrounded by a universe of meaning. It would be a course on the history of Western literature—on steroids. It would be the Gutenberg Bible—on steroids. It would be the Tao Te Ching—on steroids. It would be Western literature, the Gutenberg Bible, the Tao Te Ching, and the works of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dante, and Henry Miller, somehow all revealed to us and to one another in ways that shocked meaning into dizzying new heights of intensity.

It would be meditation and library flânerie, on steroids, with compelling, baffling photographs to accompany them, streetcars leading to enlightenment—on steroids.

It is easy to forget this.

What the network has led us to collectively develop, as an emergent epiphenomenon of our self-directed activity, are:

  • The bus schedule—on steroids.

  • The parts catalog—on steroids.

  • The congressional record—on steroids.

  • The instruction manual—on steroids.

  • The Merck manual—on steroids.

  • The high school gossip note—on steroids.

  • The grocery store checkout tabloid—on steroids.

The inevitable conclusions to be drawn from all of this are that (1) our culture is a misdirected one, more orthogonal to meaningful things every day, (2) that we are not very interesting, and (3) on a similar but different note, we are working increasingly hard every day to repress our imaginations.

© Aron Hsiao / 2003

The information society is machine for hobbling culture, repressing imaginations, promoting charlatans, and organizing commonplace behaviors, whose only virtues were once that they were at least subject to the variation that results from—and gives evidence of—the individual soul, in ever more mechanistic and totalitarian ways.

— § —

The information society has been a failure.

Doubly so by virtue of the way that its dazzling efficiency and proliferation prevents us from noticing precisely what it places before our eyes—bus schedules, parts catalogs, congressional records, instruction manuals, medical manuals, high school gossip, and tabloids—and from from missing (and, indeed, forgetting about the very existence of) all the things that it doesn’t.

— § —

It is time to flee the digital library of logistics and return to the analog library of literature.

I like to imagine (committing sin as I do so in today’s world) that our souls are still there waiting for us—but it’s unclear for how much longer this will be the case. It seems only a matter of time before they are washed away, along with the old printed stacks, by the continuing deluge of antiseptic innovation and the apparatchiks that row their canoes pedantically in its flows.

Only in the very early morning, when you can’t quite see “facts” any longer, can you see the horrible truths of things.

When the present becomes invisible, you know you’re in trouble.  §

It's a Sunday afternoon in early November. It's chilly out, and the ground is covered in leaves. I have started a fire in the fireplace for no good reason. It's gray and a bit dim and getting on in hours and I am sitting here typing.

I don't want anything.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

There is nothing that I want to go out and get. There is nothing that I want to get done before the end of the day. There is nothing that I wish I could afford. There is nothing that I'd like to achieve over the next year, or over the next five years.

This does not indicate that there's nothing that I need to do, or that there's nothing that I need to buy, or that there's nothing that I need to save up for or achieve.

Rather, it's an indication of a kind of middle-aged, mid-life-crisis-style apathy.

— § —

I got up too early, given the fact that today is Daylight Savings day and I had the semi-annual "extra hour" to sleep in.

I can't sleep in these days. I can't ever sleep more than five hours at a time. I wake up. It doesn't matter how tired I am; five hours is my limit.

So I got up.

I got up and I took a pile of laundry to the laundromat and spent money to clean it because quite frankly I know that if I couldn't get it all done in one pop, I wouldn't maintain the discipline needed throughout the day to nurse along a series of loads. It just wouldn't get done.

So, I went to the laundromat. I put $6.50 into the six-load machine and then rather than sitting around to wait, I got into my car and drove around for twenty or thirty minutes. I came back, put everything into two dryer machines and then drove around again for an hour.

Where did I drive? Nowhere. Nowhere in general and nowhere in particular. Everywhere. In circles.

— § —

I was the kid that used to grab any full-color catalog that arrived in the mail and disappear with it.

There wasn't an Internet to distribute ads, much less smartphones and tablets to carry from afar directly into your hands. Television commercials were only relevant to kids for a few hours a day; the rest of the programming on television was for adults, and the ads matched. Soap, brokerages, Chevrolets. Who cares?

But catalogs—catalogs were hundreds of pages of full-color photographs and in-depth descriptions of things to want. And want I did.

I don't know how many months or years of aggregate time I spent wanting things, but it was a lot. I wanted things. Many things. I rarely got them, but I certainly wanted them, and it was joyful.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

Hours and hours spent dreaming wistfully of things I'd probably never have, and of how wonderful it would be to see them sitting in front of me—to touch them and use them and own them.

I don't remember when I stopped doing this. In a strange parallel to broader trends in our culture and society, it was probably as I got involved in computing and networks early on, in the mid-'80s as a pre-teen.

My dreams shifted toward knowledge that I could gain and skills that I could learn and code that I could write.

The catalogs disappeared, both from my own life, and—I believe in short order—from society as a whole.

— § —

I don't know why I lit the fire in the fireplace or why I'm sitting here typing for the first time in weeks except that I don't really have any idea what else to do.

I'm clearly not going to get to any of the many things—dishes, carpets, home repair, car maintenance, general tidying, yard work, painting, budgeting, planning, "work" work in advance of Monday, and so on—that I ought to be doing.

How do I know? Because at a subconscious level I have to admit that I have decided that I am damned well not going to do them. Period.

If you wake up and spend an hour or two nagging yourself to do things and you simply don't do them, but instead dawdle and read messages on football message boards focused on teams you don't even follow, you know that you're refusing to do what needs to be done.

Then all that's left is the only slightly more interesting question of what you're going to do instead.

In this case, it amounted to go do laundry at the laundromat, then come home, light a fire, and sit down at a tablet to type.

— § —

Long after there were no more catalogs, there was The Future.

As in: college, graduate school, career, marriage, family, lifestyle, fashion, identity, vacations, activities, and so on.

There were years of preparing for tests—the SAT, the ACT, later on the GRE and of course exams in classes themselves—and trying to climb the career ladder. Better wages. A better title. A new location. Another degree. More stature. More status. More contacts in the network. More book manuscripts to submit. More items in the portfolio and achievements on the resume.

That was exciting, and it was long-term; each goal took years of careful preparation, planning, hard work, and discipline to accomplish.

I also can't remember when this tapered off—it may have been around the time of my divorce—but it did.

— § —

A fire brings a kind of cheery warmth to a room that is completely agreeable in every way. The same goes for large, sleepy dogs. I feel far less chilly sitting here in a big, empty house on a fall afternoon with a fire in the fireplace and two sleeping dogs near me than I otherwise would.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

Cool white light is streaming in through the sliding glass doors. I can see the lawn from here, and it's finally green as the season winds down, with fall yellows and oranges scattered here and there.

The room is tidy and the "wood" floors and soft gray wall lend a cozy touch, too. It's pleasant enough. It's all pleasant enough.

Still, none of this is either an achievement or a fulfillment or the result of any particular desire. Here I sit and there the fire burns, and there lie the dogs, and here I sit just because and on a whim and for no reason greater than that.

And the list of things that I should be doing? I frankly just don't give a shit. That's probably bad, but if you don't, you don't.

— § —

Time is faster now. Far faster.

The kids' last year's Christmas things are still entirely "new" to me, I still find myself recalling with shock that they are here and caring for them as if they'd just arrived.

And yet it's Christmas already in the stores again, and will be everywhere else within a few short days.

I still think about evenings in terms of reading stories to my children and about weekends in terms of trips to the Zoo and games in the park.

But the kids aren't interested any longer; they're ready to move on and individuate, working hard on being cool and imagining their own goals and wish-I-hads, showing signs already of tween hormones and telling their parents to walk a few paces behind them because parents aren't so amazingly cool.

Everything was just yesterday. The print catalogs. High school. College. Grad school. Buying the first car. Writing the first book. Making the first cross-country move. My childhood. My kids' childhoods.

It was all just yesterday, and the older I get, the more recent it all seems to be. And yet apart from what "seems" to be the case, time continues to race forward; in the official count it all recedes farther and farther into the past at a rate that I can't fathom.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

The disconnect between the official record and what seems to be has grown so wide that I begin to suspect that the officials of reality are cheating somewhere in their offices, taking bribes from imps of the perverse that are themselves lacking anything better to do than to irritate regular folk like me as we live our lives.

— § —

All those years and all those years ago I was a dreamer.

Always dreaming about something, always thinking about the future, always trying to make something real, a part of my reality, whether gadgets and trinkets and toys or degrees and publications and jobs.

I wanted and I wanted badly and I worked as a result.

Then, I wanted things for my kids, and I wanted them to be able to want things as well. But now… Now I don't want anything.

Quite frankly, it feels terrible. And dull. And sad. And pointless. I have reached that stage in my life at which I want only one thing: to want again, and to understand at a visceral level again just what it is to want.

Until that gets fixed, I'll be stuck here in front of the fire doing nothing in particular, lazing around like the dogs, wondering what to do with myself and watching the months disappear into the assortment of impressions and myths that litter the ground everywhere without really being noticeable most of the time.

I can’t spend money properly and it’s driving me crazy.  §

I am terrible at spending. Time or money, it doesn’t matter which. I suck at it. Absolutely suck.

By this I don’t mean that I don’t spend a lot of it—time or money. I do, on both counts. Too much, in fact. The problem is that I don’t really make it work for me, or know how to make it work for me.

What I mean is that I don’t have the first clue how to invest my time or money wisely, even after all these years.

— § —

I did not grow up in a wealthy household.

Now we weren’t poor, exactly. The bills were paid. We had a car, and we had a television, and we had heat, and nobody ever really went hungry or wanted for anything. But that was accomplished, in general, through an ethos of not-spending, not through an ethos of wise-spending.

© Aron Hsiao / 2007

As is the case in many households that belong to a particular class, the in the household that I grew up in, there were two rules:

  1. Spending money is always bad. Money spent is lost, gone forever. The most important thing you can do with money is hang onto it at all costs. Never, ever, ever spend unless your balls are in a vise and a gun is to your head, because money is rare and precious and a lifeline and spent money ain’t never coming back.

  2. Time is free, and has no value. Time is the opposite of money, in fact. Money is rare and precious and never coming back, but time is everywhere, laying around in regrettable piles. So don’t spend money, ever, but do instead spend time, because it’s free. Whenever you’re tempted to spend money, or it seems as though you need to spend money, be smart and get around this need by spending time instead.

We can call this approach to time and money the lower-middle-class-and-below understanding of time and money. To people in these classes, the old adage that “time is money” has a much more nuanced meaning. It doesn’t mean that time and money are fully commensurable and exchangeable, but rather merely that money is invariably and formally limited, so it’s a smart idea to always try to spend time first, in order to save money.

So, background out of the way, back to my problem.

— § —

First facet of this problem is that I have no idea how to spend money in a profitable way. It’s embedded in my soul that nothing is ever “worth the money.” What is therefore not embedded in my soul is a list of anything that might actually be “worth the money,” much less any tools for identifying such things.

Now I do understand intellectually by now that there are good ways to spend. My understanding goes something like: You can be like Tim Ferriss or Penelope Trunk and hire an assistant. You can be like a white-collar salaried employee and buy training. You can be like a company are purchase services that provide leverage to your labor—that multiply your efforts and work in ways that produce a return—that is, a surplus of value relative to what you’ve spent.

But… Having grown up without any examples of this ever actually happening, I can’t locate or evaluate these kinds of possibilities to save my life. What services are the right services? When is the right time to hire? At what level? What could I earn by spending wisely? How would I even measure that?

Most of them time when I try to “spend wisely” or “invest in myself,” I get it catastrophically wrong. Because I did not grow up seeing this happen, ever, and I have no idea what criteria ought to be in play, what sorts of spending opportunities are likely to be good investments and so on. I don’t see where I ought to spend, and where I do spend, I oughtn’t have because the return isn’t there. I’m an easy mark. Hence, for example, massive student loan debt (yes, count me amongst the members of the lower classes that couldn’t make this calculation well).

Just as badly, I have a tendency to overspend whenever I do crack the wallet open. Because if spending is inherently bad, but I’m going to spend anyway, then I may as well make the most of it—sort of like the idea that if you’re going to fly to Paris from Utah, you’d be an idiot not to also make London and Berlin a part of your trip. After all, you’re going all that way, and you don’t know when you’ll be back again.

So—where other people can be frugal and buy the base model of something that they need, I’m always tempted to buy the luxury model. Why? Because I’m not supposed to spend anyway. And I don’t want to have to spend on this particular thing again. And I’m breaking a rule, committing a violation, “wasting” money already. Why take the massive, massive risk of spending something, then only spend on the subpar edition of the product?

If you’re going to have heartburn for buying a blender or a roll of paper towels, you’d better buy the best blender or the best paper towels, particularly if you have the money in your account.

Now I know intellectually that this is not a good way to spend. But I also don’t have a lot of framework or infrastructure in my head for doing it in other ways with any skill. I’m trying to learn it, but it’s slow to come, and I’m making a lot of mistakes, even by middle age. A lot of mistakes.

— § —

Now for the second facet of the problem—the time dimension, which is the converse of the money dimension. I have no idea when not to spend time, but to spend money instead.

Because the whole premise is exactly backward as far as my deep, what-I-learned-in-kindergarten psyche is concerned. Spend money instead of time? No, no, no, no, you never, ever do that! Capiche? It’s the other way around! Not money instead of time; time instead of money! That’s what time is for—so that you don’t have to spend money!

Far more often that I’d like to admit, I discover only at the end of a day or a weekend that I’ve invested many or even dozens of hours slowly fixing something that I could have instead spent $20 or $30 to fix. Yes, my time is far more valuable than that. I know this intellectually.

But even when I do spot these things before wasting the entire weekend, bringing myself to spend $30 on something that I could fix myself in three or four hours drives me crazy. I could fix it myself! Spend money? Sputter! Sputter! I mean… I could fix it myself!

And so here comes the overspending problem again. If I do break down and say, “okay, I’ll go to the store and replace this $30 item because my time is too valuable to spend the entire afternoon fixing this $30 item,” I end up walking out not with the $30 version as a replacement, but with the $200 version as a replacement, for reasons already stated.


— § —

To make this set of self-defeating problems worse, I have struggled with this in the workplace, too. In fact, it often comes up in the self-performance-evaluations that I write, and that more senior management sign off on. I don’t know how many times now over the years I’ve written some variant of the same thing.

Under “Areas for Improvement” is where it invariably comes up:

  • “Better identify and act on opportunities to spend wisely on products, services, or opportunities that can multiply our efforts, provide an advantageous ROI, and support our strategic and tactical goals.”

  • “Learn to recognize more effectively cases in which it will be more cost-effective to hire or purchase outside help or services rather than try to accomplish a task using in-house labor.”

But dammit if after all this time I still struggle. Does it ever occur to me to hire a consultant or a freelancer to do a task? No, I have to admit that even years after my first management role, 99 percent of the time someone else has to suggest it, and my first impulse is always to recoil in horror. Spend money? Oh God no! Especially not the company’s money, OMG, OMG, OMG!

And I routinely get spotted doing tasks that I should not have been doing at my salary level, and that it would have been ten times cheaper to have a freelancer do. I don’t even notice until someone calls me out on it. “Wait, you’ve been working on that for two days? Holy shit, why? Stop it! Hire someone on Fiverr. For God’s sake!”

Because of course, somewhere deep in my imagination or soul, time is still free. Time is still, after all these years, free—and money is not. Especially when it’s not even my money.

— § —

I hate this in particular at times like this, like tonight.

© Aron Hsiao / 2009

Because I am sitting here knowing that there are a million areas in life in which I just plain old need help, and could have it, and it could make my life better and in fact enhance my ability to earn. I’m sure there are a million services that I can pay in a million creative ways to facilitate this, yet I feel:

  • Complete revulsion at the thought of actually spending money on intangible things that I could damn well do myself, like “services.”

  • Completely out of my depth in the ability to identify what would be a “wise” spend and what would be a “stupid” spend from amongst these services.

  • Compulsively tempted to say, “Well if I’m going to spend on ‘services,’ hell, I’ll just hire a personal assistant and be done with it; may as well go the whole nine yards if I’m going to spend money.”

The first is of course incorrect and myopic.

The second is regrettable and I can only hope that sometime down the road, after a lifetime of work, I’ll be able to evaluate spending properly.

The third is an example of how I end up spending more than I can afford on luxuries that I don’t need because I quite simply lack economic intelligence at a visceral level.

— § —

Not sure why I post this. It’s embarrassing, and it’s also possibly myopic and oversharing.

But it’s true that it’s been a while since I posted, it’s true that there are times recently (like tonight) when I’m really struggling to make sense of a lot of things, and it’s also true that I don’t see people delving into these kinds of class-based tendencies very often.

People just act like smart people “spend smart” and dumb people “spend dumb.” Well I’ve got a high IQ and a Ph.D. and I struggle mightily not to “spend dumb,” and in fact don’t really know how to “spend smart,” even after years of trying to learn. It’s like I missed that day in class entirely.

Call it the anti-Tim-Ferriss secret: “How you can avoid spending $20 on an Ikea table by cutting down the one and only mature tree in your backyard, using all of your kids’ Elmer’s glue, all of the staples and thumbtacks in the house, and combining these with 50-100 hours of your time—to finish it all into an amateurish, low-quality piece of furniture that—amazingly—costs you ‘nothing.’ (And other money-saving secrets of the working class!)”