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Travel and verbing

Jordan 2018-06-17

On the Amtrack train from Ann Arbor to Chicago I feel around in my backpack for my notebook  because I decided I want to write something poetic. When I find it, I unlatch the tray table and scribble the words “Michigan summer,” two nouns, surface level description, because I’m not naturally that poetic and if I get stuck criticizing myself then I’ll never get anywhere.

There’s a different kind of warmth in Michigan, a tired and welcoming warmth that permeates through my chest. I write the words “accepts welcomes reminds warmth worth” and blink at the green and dark green trees blurring by outside, silhouetted against the yellowish white sky. The sun is exposed even through the opaque purple clouds.

Verbs condense descriptions. I’m not the first person to think of this; my high school English teacher wasn’t either. Verbs give a sense of context, and using the right verb helps frame an observation without wasting words.

My process for discovering poetic verbs:

  1. Find a comparison
  2. Verb the comparison
  3. Remove the extra bits

The melted cheese on my breakfast egg hash reminds me of plastic in its consistency – that’s the comparison. To verb the comparison I note that one specific trait of plastic is the way it bends and warps without breaking – the melted cheese on my breakfast hash bends like a pungent plastic. Remove the extra: “the melted cheese on my breakfast hash bends and warps as I pull it apart with my fork.”

The branches of the trees we pass by look like fingers on a hand. Upturned palms. “The trees upturn their branches.”

The hot air outside is like a persistent noise. “The air conditioning in every building mutes the heat but tastes like mouthwash.”

“The scattered clouds above me look like blended pea soup left around the rim of a bowl.”

Hey, they can’t all be ringers.

I reunite with old friends whom I forgot have had lives without me and hug them a little longer than I used to. We pass by a station and the train whistles again and again. I imagine it gasps like an organ in an old church eeking out a lame pentatonic chord.

We arrive in Chicago an hour behind schedule and I first survey the inside of Chicago’s Amtrack station as we pass stone pillars and traverse multiple floors on thinly weaved escalators. It feels regal compared to the San Francisco Caltrain station. My eyelids are wilting and I squeeze out a last spurt from my water bottle. We take a Lyft to Kevin’s apartment and soon we’re asleep in the living room, the hourly train leaving us undisturbed, in our exhausted states.



Newton’s 3rd Law is a corollary of the Golden Rule

Jordan 2018-06-06

I.

The Golden Rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated. If you would find an act hurtful when done to you, don’t do it to someone else. If you would appreciate something, make an extra effort to do it for others. This works very well between like-minded people: I can guess that Jill will appreciate effort I put into spending time with her because that’s how I feel when people put effort into spending time with me. It also works in communities of people with shared norms: I know that people normally enjoy receiving a gift from a friend, so I can guess that Dave will be happy if I get him a gift.

One corollary of this is that if I have a weird quirk that I know to be abnormal, then I should defer to my community’s norms when making predictions about others. If I really love Saharan plants, and my entire life people have pointed out how odd that is, I shouldn’t think to get Dave a Saharan cactus just because it would make me happy if he were me. In other words, don’t apply the Golden Rule to the specific reduced statement “I would love to receive a cactus as a gift,” apply it to the unreduced statement “I would love to receive a gift that fits my interests.” Reflect that statement so it’s about Dave, then use what you know about Dave to try and reduce “a gift that reflects Dave’s interests” into something specific.

A similar corollary is that if I am especially averse to something, and I know this to be abnormally strong compared to my community’s norms, then I should expect others to defer to the norm when making predictions about me. If I’m weirdly sensitive to tardiness, I shouldn’t apply the Golden Rule to the specific reduced statement “when people are tardy it hurts me a lot,” I should apply it to the unreduced statement “when people do something I especially dislike it hurts me a lot.” I can reflect that statement so it’s about others, and then use what I know about them to try and reduce “something others especially dislike” into something specific.

II.

If I get Dave a Saharan cactus but Dave only likes flowers from South America, he shouldn’t assume that I don’t care about him. The Golden Rule is common knowledge, but it’s corollaries are not. If our community normally considers gift giving to be appreciated, then by getting Dave a gift at all, I’m putting myself in the green. Dave can still wonder why I got him the wrong gift, and he can still explain the corollary so that next time I’ll know better and I’ll get him some Chilean orchids. But it’s only a violation of the corollary.

On the other hand, if Ryan kicks me in the shins, I can go ahead and treat him like he means me harm and he broke the Golden Rule. Nobody likes being kicked in the shins, and I don’t believe him when he says “so what? I don’t mind being kicked in the shins. See, here, kick me in the shins, I don’t care,” because truly nobody at all likes being kicked in the shins.

If Dave is willing to accept that there are people like me who are so different from him that they don’t like South American flowers, why shouldn’t I accept that there are people like Ryan who are so different from me that they don’t mind shin kicking? There’s an answer here involving societal norms – that it’s not about how different we are from each other, it’s about how different we are from the norm and how likely it is that Ryan could grow up without realizing his weird quirk compared to how likely it is that I could. But even after you give these norms their weight, at the end of the day the question is just whether or not you trust someone to have your interests at heart. You can investigate whether or not they are deserving of that – make your preferences known, ask them to change for you – and make your decision slowly. Some friends will change and others won’t.

III.

The Golden Rule is common knowledge, but it’s corollaries are not. So if Jill oversleeps and misses our brunch date, who has the responsibility to do what? Am I in the wrong for being too sensitive? Or is Jill in the wrong for not being caring enough? The norm isn’t necessarily halfway in between our two weird quirks, so how do we figure out who needs to change for whom?

Well, I appreciate it when people forgive my mistakes, so I can guess that Jill will appreciate it if I forgive her for oversleeping and missing our date. This is the Golden Rule, not a corollary, so it is required behavior. Everybody appreciates forgiveness.

And Jill appreciates it when people put effort into spending time with her, so she can guess that I appreciate it when people put effort into spending time with me by trying not to oversleep. Again, this is the Golden Rule, not a corollary, so it is required behavior. Everybody appreciates quality time.

But Jill is also quirkily lax about tardiness; she wants her friends to spend quality time with her, but she honestly doesn’t mind when a friend is late, and that’s why she tends to end up being late herself. This is a failure to apply the corollary: Jill has a weird quirk which makes her especially tolerant of lateness, so she should defer to her community’s norms about not being late when making predictions about me. I can wonder to myself why she was late, and I can explain the corollary so that the next time she’ll be on time, but I can’t treat her like she doesn’t care about me, because the fact that she even made plans to spend time with me at all puts her in the green.

And I’m also weirdly sensitive to tardiness; I try to never be tardy when meeting with friends, so I tend to expect the same from my friends and take it personally when they miss my expectations. This is also a failure to apply the corollary; I should accept that Jill might defer to our community’s norms about about lateness not being unforgivably intolerable. Jill might wonder why I seemed so hurt, and she might explain the corollary to me so that if she happens to be late again I won’t be as offended, but she can’t treat me like I shouldn’t feel hurt, because the fact that she was tardy at all puts her in the red here.

If you treat the Golden Rule as a requirement and the corollaries as optional but appreciated, then nobody’s needs take precedence because they’re not actually in conflict. My needs exert a force on Jill’s behavior just as hers exert a force on mine. It’s Newton’s third law, our weird quirks exert equal and opposite forces on each other.



Two tales of the city

Jordan 2018-05-10

I.

Long ago, before Google and Facebook, before block-chain and the iPhone, before 5000% GDP growth and VC funding, long ago there was a town called San Francisco, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian preacher and animal lover (who apparently was also known for preaching to animals from time to time).

Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and ecology, and peace. And the city had always done its best to live up to that namesake. Artists flocked to the city to be part of the beat generation and the Summer of Love, and counterculture movements which focused on earthiness and liberalism were born here. Anyone who was weird could find a way of belonging, and a way of giving back, and so the city began to become known for its unconventional practicality.

And then came the techies, in waves, attracted by the nice weather, weird art, and the promise that here their weirdness could lead to success rather than ostracism. But as workers from lucrative industries flooded in to the area with money to spend, the price of housing went up, leading to large numbers of people losing their homes, overcrowding, and the gentrification of poor areas. The environmentalist culture was slowly displaced by one of industry and consumerism. Tech companies are like self-propagating viruses, attracting engineers from all over the country, churning them into higher profits, and using those profits to attract more engineers, all at the expense of the original city. Artists and musicians could no longer afford to live in the city they had created, and moved to cheaper areas like Oakland. Tech had chosen San Francisco as its home, but ended up swallowing everything that made it special.

Today, in the wake of the social media boom (the second wave of techies), new grads with top-quartile incomes move to San Francisco, if only because it’s where the companies are hiring. The city itself is mostly devoid of art, largely gentrified, and has more homeless people than ever before. It is a bastion of capitalism; a real life example for the economics books, where the business of making money out-competed the business of making art.

II.

Long ago, before Microsoft and Elon Musk, before social activism and OWS, before the personal computer and the internet, long ago there was a town called San Francisco, named after Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian preacher, and the inventor of altruism.

The story of San Francisco started with the Gold Rush, when indigenous peoples were forced off of their land by gold-seekers. The immigrant population burgeoned by 20000% while the native Californian population declined by 90%. The California Indian Wars continued for the next 30 years, and the genocide of American Indians was supported by new laws established by the newly created State of California. Tens of billions of dollars worth of gold was unearthed over the span of 6 years. But the most money was made by merchants selling things to prospectors; mostly prospecting equipment, but also Levi’s jeans, retail, and boarding homes, in fact, the large majority of prospectors earned very little money, thus setting the tone of the next 200 years of the city’s story.

Today the city’s overpopulation problem, combined with the eternal promise of striking gold, has led to an extreme homelessness problem, with an estimated count of 7,500 homeless people (and only 4,000 beds in shelters). The landowning class does everything they can to halt the construction of more housing, and are happy to continue raising rents as high as the new gold-seekers are willing to pay. (But what say do the gold-seekers have in the matter; San Francisco is where the gold is!) The other economic classes are not happy about this, least of all the displaced middle class, who have suffered wrongful evictions and lengthened commute traffic, as techies take their private company shuttles to work instead of patronizing and supporting public transportation. But then again, who are they to claim to be the true owners of this city, which once belonged to the native Californians, this city, which has always been the city of gold rushes, displacement, and opportunists?

III.

Let’s get some things straight.

The dot-com boom was the real gold rush. In the 1990s the city became the epicenter of new Internet companies, riding on industry growth caused by the new ubiquity of the personal computer. Those people were 25 in 1995 and today they’re 50. Is that what you pictured? Or maybe you instead find yourself mostly enraged by the 20 somethings waiting in line to get boba, and you’re not quite sure why except that you know techies are the worst.

Why does SF have so many homeless people? According to SF Chronicle In the mid-1980s federal housing programs were cut and mental hospitals were closed, resulting in a huge spike in the homeless population which has continued to this day. You mean the homeless people on the street aren’t just people who were displaced by yuppies?

Tech companies and their founders are surprisingly socially responsible. Google has pledged 1 billion dollars for the next 5 years to charity. Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to donate 99% of his Facebook shares to charity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has basically eliminated polio. Elon Musk made electric cars cool. These tech billionaires have done more good than almost anyone else will ever do, but it turns out that click bait sites can make more money writing viral articles which antagonize them. Maybe the cool kids who picked on the weirdo nerds were on to something. You don’t think I should be painting a picture of rich tech people as the bullied underdog? You’re suspicious that they’re not because they have all this money and power? Do they pattern match more to super-villains than super heroes? Well that’s what doing good looks like; amassing money or power and then using it on important and good things.



On high school

Jordan 2018-04-14

Content warning: use of homophobic slurs.

User Proyas writes, on DC’s school system:

Student misbehavior was atrocious. For example, out of the students who showed up to class, it was common for some to walk into the classroom late, again without any explanation and often behaving disruptively. As a rule, whenever a student did that, he was obligated to sign his name on a clipboard for the teacher’s attendance records (there was no punishment for tardiness–late students merely had to write their names down). Some late students would chronically resist doing this, either ignoring him and just going to their desks or yelling curses at him. My friend described an incident where one student–who was physically bigger than he was–yelled out he was a “FAGGOT” when asked to sign the clipboard, provoking laughs from all the other students, before sitting down without signing it. After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. Other examples of misbehavior included near-constant talking among the students during lessons and fooling around with cell phones.

Teachers received almost no support from the school administration. Had sane rules been followed at this high school, students would have been immediately sent to the office for formal punishment for these sorts of offenses I’ve described. However, under such a policy, the office would have been overwhelmed with misbehaving students and probably some of their enraged parents, so the administration solved the problem by forbidding teachers from sending students to the office for anything other than physical violence in the classroom. My friend had no ability to formally punish the student who liked to call him “FAGGOT” other than to use stern verbal warnings.

That feeling of impotence you get after reading this, combined with the fact that the teacher is actually objectively much more well off than the student is/will likely turn out to be, is a hint. Let’s look at this from the point of view of the student.

To succeed in school, first you need the ability to navigate a system, and second you need to choose to exercise that ability. As is the case with any setup like this, the way you behave depends on what rewards the system is likely to yield for you. If you’re high-achieving and your life is structured in a way that makes it low effort to exercise your ability (e.g. you have two parents and they are able to take you to and from school and help with homework, you don’t need to work a job, you can focus on learning and social status) then you’re likely to end up in the positive spiral in which your achievements beget enough praise and promise of a bright future to fuel your future achievements, and you need only so much as fart on a pencil to do well in school. (I’m exaggerating but I won’t say by how much!) If you’re middling it’s a bit of a crapshoot, and your outcomes will probably depend on specific things like how strict your parents are, what your friends do on Fridays, and how fast you can do arithmetic and type on a keyboard. And you’ll probably end up with some distrust in the system, but unless you’re also especially motivated, no desire to break out.

If you’re under-achieving, and you’re being raised by a single parent, or have to drop off a younger sibling at school before being 20 minutes late to your first class every day, or have to work nights, or can’t get academic help and frankly don’t see the point because all it does is make you feel like shit… well then the system tends to become your enemy – and why shouldn’t it; it’s got no rewards for you, it’s never once praised you, all it does is repeatedly tell you you’re not good enough and you’re not allowed to leave. So you do what everyone being slowly flattened under the weight an invisible hand would do – you start punching up. (Paper covers rock but my fist in your ass!) This is as ineffective as it is natural but you might find that it comes with some perks, particularly with regards to social status.

See, from what I remember about high school, teachers are not the top of the social hierarchy (shocking, I know, your dream wasn’t to take a teacher to prom, and if it was then you probably weren’t at the top of the hierarchy anyway, even if he was totally hot and sorta fatherly in a Catholic sorta way). In fact, teachers aren’t even in the hierarchy. You don’t measure your status against them at all. They might as well be desks. To students, they represent a part of the system, and while high-achieving and middling students see that it’s worthwhile to get along with their teachers, the under-achiever correctly determines that for him, it’s not.

We see this same dynamic between the indoctrinated youth and celebrities. “I’m not into celebrities,” you say, but subcultures have celebrities too. (Your favorite band, blogger, writer, author, activist, or CEO, and if you have none of these then congratulations your life is devoid of all consumption, where do you grow all the food you eat, and what’s with that weird portrait of the Burger King making out with Ronald McDonald?) We punch up at celebrities like they’re gods because we don’t think we will ever effect them, because, once again and all together, we probably won’t.

If you read the story above from the point of view of the teacher, then your goal was to do the job of educating the youth for not enough money, and the student was part of the game, a little space invader shooting lasers at you. You felt impotent because you realized there was nothing you could do to help him, or at least stop him from calling you a fag. You started to see him as part of the system holding you down. Teachers bravely aspire to change the world, but they can’t do that when students like this kid defy their authority and distract from their lessons. So we make the mistake of thinking that the student’s behavior is a status play against the teacher. But as we’ve just learned, in reality, it’s just a status play against the other students. The kid gets to show how cool and fearless he is by standing up to a teacher (a god) and he wins social status because there’s nothing the teacher can do about it within this setup. But actually, the teacher can leave for a nicer school district and let that kid grow up into the bad habits he’s already forming, and that’s what his real power is.

Here’s my version of what the teacher could have done:

After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. So this is what my friend did. One day in class he went around the room to every single student and one by one he had them each call him a faggot. And then he said, “is anyone curious about why I had you do that?” A few heads nodded. “Terry over here learned through trial and error that calling me names was an easy way to gain social status, since there’s no action I can take against him. But what he doesn’t realize, because he’s not as smart as me, is that he only gains social status insofar as he is perceived as being more fearless than other students. So if everyone has the ability to call me a faggot, and you all indeed do, then what power does Terry actually have?”

“Now you’re thinking, isn’t this going to cause Terry to just escalate even further? I don’t think so, not since I’ve called it out like this, because that would be proving my point, and there’s nothing more damning for social status than admitting to overtly seeking social status.”

“But why point it out like this? Do I really think this is going to change Terry’s mind about the right way to behave in school? I’m not sure. But here’s what I do know. I could leave this classroom tomorrow, find a job in Seattle and never have to think about him or his low-rent future ever again. But I became a teacher because I wanted to improve the lives of kids like Terry and I’m not going to let some idiot ruin it.”

In fact, it doesn’t really matter whether or not this changes Terry’s mind. What matters is that it changes the other students’ minds about Terry. Because now Terry has lost the branding of “the fearless one who calls out the teacher” and received the new branding of “the loser who the teacher saw right through, gee isn’t Language Arts important.”



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