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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.”



What is a real life superhero?

Jordan 2018-04-03

I.

I’m going to give you a list of names and you tell me who the odd one out is: Jessica Jones, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, and Donald Trump.

Did you get it?

Exactly. It’s Steve Rogers, because you don’t recognize his name, you only know him as Captain America.

II.

America loves Marvel movies. I didn’t need to include those 4 links, either, to prove my point, because you love them too. And of course you do. And of course I do too. Because they were literally made for us.

Compare the Marvel cinematic universe to DC – hold on, let’s not just let it slip by that the phrase “Marvel cinematic universe” has suddenly entered our lives, and let’s certainly not start abbreviating it MCU because that would imply something about our amygdalae – okay. DC superheroes tend to be all-powerful with a single weakness. Superman has kryptonite. Batman has the fact that he refuses to kill the Joker. Wonder Woman has commoditized feminism and unavoidable fetishization. Marvel superheroes on the other hand tend to be mostly flawed with a single redeeming power: Tony Stark is an alcoholic with a giant brain, Peter Parker is a nerdy kid with, as far as I understand it, tiny little hairs on his fingers that act like spider legs, and Jessica Jones is an emotionally distant and impulsive recoveree but at least she gets to be portrayed by Kristen Ritter.

With my Psych 101 abilities (I never took Psych 101) it seems obvious enough to reason that we prefer the flawed characters because they remind us more of ourselves. It’s a lot easier to relate to Peter Parker and his problems: socially awkward wisecrack is too sweaty to ask out his crush, than it is to relate to Superman’s: alien who can do literally anything does just that. Therefore, you might say that superhero movies empower us because they are depictions of people just like us except with powers.

III.

In Psych 102 you would have realized your mistake. Because in fact, if you were in the MCU you wouldn’t be one of the Avengers, and you wouldn’t even be one of the Defenders, (who I’m sure you’ll find are just everyday people trying to solve everyday problems and not being famous, making them way more relatable, get it?) because Marvel made sure to include in their universe one last group known as the Crowd. The Crowd of people watching the news at the bar. The Crowd of people cleaning up the debris under Avengers Tower. The Crowd of people huddled in the corner while the Hulk throws a tank at a larger tank. And the Crowd of people turning their backs on Spiderman like he’s Spiderman The Musical all because they trust the Daily Bugle and they’re secretly always looking for a masked menace to blame for their problems.

IV.

Marvel movies aren’t depictions of people with powers, they’re depictions of people with power. The power to change policy, the power to save the world, and the power to be so influential in doing it that the world begins to show their reflections and exactly how powerful and influential they are by making action figures and recognizing them on the street as “that powered chick.”

And because of that, they’re also an excuse to not have power. Because if only you had super strength or spider hair you would have affected the world today, definitely. Because the difference between you and the people with power is that something happened to them and gave them power.

No that’s not passive voice, and yes this is bad writing. 

Notice the lack of agency in superhero origin stories. Jessica Jones and Captain America were experimented on. Peter Parker was bitten, Matt Murdock was trained, Tony Stark was kidnapped, Thor was born with it, and Bruce Banner was exposed to radiation. You know what they call someone who seeks out power in the MCU?

A supervillain.

V.

Power is the ability to do work over time. Work is the conversion between potential and kinetic energy, i.e. the process of affecting change. I know it’s hard but do the math (if you understand the concepts it’s basically all plug and chug anyway).

Donald Trump is a bad person because you disagree with his policies. But the thing that makes you hate him is that combined with the fact that he has the power to enact those policies. So you strip him of his agency by insisting that he was born with it, or he’s just a Russian puppet, or a DNC puppet. Fine, maybe that stuff’s true, but do you think you heard about it because it’s true, or because that’s the story the market knew would appeal to you? To help answer this question, consider all the other true facts you don’t know because the market knew they wouldn’t appeal to you.

Here’s a man who has been running for president since 1987; you can’t say he hasn’t been trying because the record sees him trying for 30 years. You are part of the real life Crowd and Donald Trump is a real life superhero. You have the power to make jokes about his shitty tweets and spaghetti squash hair and he has the power to actually change things. And that makes you furious.

And your fury makes you watch more Marvel movies.

Because if you had power you wouldn’t spend your time dicking around on twitter. You’d be out there saving the world.

If you only had the power.



Advice for my future self

Jordan 2018-03-25

Produce more and consume less. Some likely areas of reducing consumption that I can think of right now: reddit, netflix, porn. Some areas I’m not worried about: reading books blogs and articles, listening to podcasts and music, going to see anything live. Some likely areas of improving production: write more honestly – actual honesty, not just the kind I purport to have as an excuse for not changing – perform music more boldly, consider arts and crafts since you always liked them as a kid.

People typically write advice for their past selves. Stuff they wish they had known. The implication is that they’re so much better now, and you can tell because here’s all the things they used to not do. But just because you see it doesn’t mean that its gone. You can’t just say “I used to be so self-centered, I thought I was so important and I would get famous and change the world. I thought I was the main character in a story. But now I’ve got more realistic goals like improving my immediate community and working on myself.” Well you can, but I won’t believe you. (Why does it matter if I believe you? Because you’re supposed to be future me according to the conceit of this post. If you’re not, then please stop reading, this is very personal.) I won’t believe you because it seems like you still think you’re the main character, you’ve just changed the story to a more boring one to avoid the cognitive dissonance resulting from you still currently having done nothing of note.

“I wish I had told my teenage self how little his high school problems mattered.” Obviously they don’t matter to you now but that’s because you’re not in high school anymore. Taxes? Probably won’t matter once I’m finally dead. That’s when real life starts. Right? Wrong. My bullshit meter is suggesting that you don’t actually want to give your own teenage self this advice, you just want to tell it to some current teenagers. And I know this to be true because when you were in high school you said the same goddamn thing about middle school problems. Mathematical induction, idiot.

“Don’t worry about what other people think about you. The older I get the less I give a fuck.” Wow do you want a goddamn medal? I can order one that says “#1 in not caring.” Remind me again why it’s so important not to care about people’s judgement? Because you don’t want to be weighed down by their criticism? Sounds like something that someone with a strong sense of self who is impervious to others’ opinions would do. Throw out that radar dish cap’n, my internal compass says the enemy is to the north.

So, given that any advice I would give my past self would imply that I think I’ve improved at something, and the same is true of any advice that my future self might want to give current me, and heaven forbid I imply anything of the sort, I think it’s basically only ever appropriate to give your future self advice. How will you know what advice your future self will need? Assume you haven’t changed, because you probably haven’t. Giving your future self advice doesn’t make any sense, since anything you could come up with now you could still come up with in the future. Maybe, but coming up with advice for your past self makes even less sense and has much higher paradox potential if you’re not careful and your grandpa sure looks a lot like… no way!

One last thing I’ll say about sending advice into the future – it’s already here. The me that addressed future me at the beginning of this post is already addressing past me. If I scroll up and reread the first paragraph I’ll already be the intended reader. Haha, you say, of course I intended to read this in a few years, right? What’s the point of giving advice to yourself 30 minutes from now? And since you’re obviously missing the point, let me answer that question with another question: why wait?



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