Friday, September 28, 2012

On My Mind: Where's the Justice?

In my last post I talked about the perversion of demanding a reward. I did X, therefore I deserve Y. For example, I'm a nice guy, where is the girl I'm owed?

This post will look at the other side of the coin.

There are some things that, in theory, should be easy to get mad about. Holocaust? Extremely tragic and justifiably we should be angry about it. Rape? A violation of a person and should be dealt with accordingly. Serial Killers with no remorse? Probably not the healthiest thing to have in our populace. Jerk embezzles millions of dollars of your money? I'd be pretty pissed.

And really, that's all a good thing.

There was an article about a particular atheist (hat tip Skye). He was visiting a Buddhist Retreat. Overall the stay was bearable, but at one point someone finds out he's a Jew. The next question is "Do you think it’s time for the Jews to work to change the karma that caused the Holocaust?" As a result the author was a little pissed. One of my friends commented thusly:
Complete inner peace comes at a cost. In many ways it is the act of shedding one's humanity and accepting a larger perspective in which the struggles and problems of humanity are trivial. As a result you feel disconnected from reality and become desensitized to the world around you. You may be at peace within, but the world outside still burns.

One of humanity's defining features is the ability to feel strong emotional responses to things. Whether it is the anger at a terrible deed or the jubilation from a joyous occasion, emotion is a powerful reminder of the preciousness of life. But emotions are a double edged sword that can both cause and cure suffering. Anger without restraint can drive otherwise rational and non-violent people to respond to terrible acts with more terrible acts.

I like to think that true enlightenment lies between these two extremes, in embracing emotion and letting it move you to action without allowing it to control you.
That second paragraph is what I mean. To feel emotions. To feel passionately about a subject. That is a good thing. To desire good in the world, to want the best of others, that is a good thing. We should be able to feel emotions. We should be angry about things like this:

But sometimes we hold back a little. After all, in our western culture it's the enlightened level-headed philosophers who are the greatest right? We should be poised. We should rationally work through these problems. Letting emotions and gut instincts rule us means we devolve into savages and follow our poor misconstrued judgement. And yes, that is good.

Just don't think it's OK to withdraw and hide in a shell and make it all rational. Living in a world of pain and feeling nothing sounds good, but what about a world of love and not feeling it either. Being unable to feel hate sounds like a great idea, but what about when that hate is deserved and is what can drive you to action? Sure we can talk about being motivated by love only and how noble it is, but they are two sides of the same coin (Dark Side of Force anyone?). Feeling emotional responses means loving something and being angry when that something is taken away.

There is of course a darker side to this. I believe that while we should love and feel vehemently about justice we should also raise up mercy. A rigid worldview that only desires justice is like the unbending Inspector Javert of Les Miserables. Giving everyone their due means punishing those who slip. It means continuing the cycles of poverty. It means you have to have perfect knowledge to give out perfect justice. But we can't. We instead have to work on hunches and bits of information fed to us. And I feel there are many times when mercy should triumph.

Sadly, there are some people who bringing harsh reprimands is the only way to get them to pay attention. It is the only thing they respond to initially. We can talk about an ideal world of love and compassion, but sometimes anger and pressure can be an effective tool to snap someone out of their hole. On a few occasions I've received blunt treatment from a friend. It hurt a lot. But it also forced me to re-evaluate things in a new light. It prompted growth now that my focus was tuned into the problem. Anger can provide focus and can be an effective tool. Hopefully we resort to it as a method of last resort, but to ignore it completely robs us of efficiency.

I think it is OK to get angry. I think being angry shows we feel. It shows that we care. It is something that can kick us into high gear to do something about it. Yes it can be perverted, and no we shouldn't randomly lash out when hurt and angry. But I feel like righteous anger is a thing. And it is OK to rave and shout sometimes. Because it's a response you only have when you care deeply about something.

And caring matters.

On My Mind: Where's my Dinner?

This is something I've been pondering a bit.
In a memorable scene from the 1998 film Pleasantville (in which two 1998 teen-agers are transported into the black-and-white world of a 1950s TV show), the father of the TV-perfect Parker family returns from work and says the magic words “Honey, I’m home!”, expecting them to conjure up a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table.
This time, though, it doesn’t work. No wife, no kids, no food. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. After searching the house, he wanders out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning Universe: “Where’s my dinner?”
The Distress of the Privileged (via Ariana and Maddy)

This particular scene was used to illustrate why people who are well off can often feel threatened as society changes around them. They feel like victims of change. They aren't evil, they did what they thought was right and society thought was right. But society changed, and suddenly they're the bad guy. But all they want is dinner! Read the whole thing. It's excellent, I can relate to parts of it and some day I should do a post on it.

But for today I'm going to hijack this theme and talk about something slightly different.

For a decent chunk of my life I believed suffering was good. I believed that being the underdog was a suitable place for me. I thought that with enough suffering, with enough doing good, I would be rewarded down the road.

There were plenty of reasonable reasons for this belief. It was always the good tormented kid in the story who got the golden dragon. It was the kind and abused maiden who got a Fairy Godmother and went to the ball and found a prince. I was taught good deeds in secret were worth more than works in public, the former bringing its own eventual rewards. I was trained to bear trials because in the end things got better. Our society lauds the person who does great things but shuns the attention. We revere the humble and the patient and those willing to press through trials.

I'm not saying any of this is bad. We love rooting for underdogs. We should give hope to the downtrodden. We should reward the humble and those who go through trials.

The problem is the perversion.

The problem is when people do all this and start to ask where's my dinner?

One classic example of dinner is getting the girl. did an excellent article on why modern men are trained to hate women. It's a bit of a male apologist rant, and certainly paints a caricature of males as sex-crazed dolts, but much of it rings true. Of note for this topic is reason #5: men are trained that they will be rewarded with a woman:
We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered. When the Karate Kid wins the tournament, his prize is a trophy and Elisabeth Shue. Neo saves the world and is awarded Trinity. Marty McFly gets his dream girl, John McClane gets his ex-wife back, Keanu "Speed" Reeves gets Sandra Bullock, Shia LaBeouf gets Megan Fox in Transformers, Iron Man gets Pepper Potts, the hero in Avatar gets the hottest Na'vi, Shrek gets Fiona, Bill Murray gets Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters, Frodo gets Sam, WALL-E gets EVE ... and so on.
<...>So it's very frustrating, and I mean frustrating to the point of violence, when we don't get what we're owed. A contract has been broken. These women, by exercising their own choices, are denying it to us. It's why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won't win him sex.
See what I mean?

This is also tucked within another excellent article (which you should read, hat tip to Liana) on why many nerds don't like the Big Bang Theory TV series. Here's the interesting lines:
We don’t root for Leonard and Penny to get together because we think they’re a good match. We feel sorry for Leonard, we think Penny’s out of his league and we root for the underdog.
Again, reinforcing the concept that the underdog should be rewarded. It is their due. If I can garner enough sympathy maybe they'll cheer for me to get Penny too.

This isn't limited to getting the girl/guy. If I work hard enough eventually my skills will grow and I will be rewarded with a better job. If I strive long enough my inner talent will shine through. If I work out enough or learn the right lines people will like me. After I suffer enough I deserve happiness and comfort. This conversion of acquisition of self-value into automatic rewards is a permeating force.

After reading through some of these articles I found myself getting kinda freaked out. I was falling into this trap myself. I would intentionally flog myself, put myself down, grind my nose into the dust and not care because by golly I would get my reward in the future. If I do just the right things the universe's natural karma or whatnot would shower me with rewards. Work hard, get a great job. Play possum now in social settings, bring out a zinger at the right moment and get the girl. Fill mind with information, one day just unload and crush your opponent intellectually. Don't worry about losing face now, the universe will grant you power and fame for your efforts.

I would be asking where's my dinner.

Granted, there have been many times I intentionally don't do something because I fear I am playing into this problem. If I've told you about my experience with the Fear of Man, you know that for a while I was debating speaking publicly about what had occurred because I thought I might be playing into this issue. But there are other times where I sit with righteous indignation awaiting my reward for the suffering I had endured.

I am also not saying you shouldn't do hard work nor suffer and expect no benefit. I had to take music lessons for much of my youth, and I am pretty horrible at playing instruments. I didn't exactly wow anyone. I didn't do them because I derived pleasure from it. Mostly I was told I had to do it. Yet I am grateful my parents pushed me through all of that work for the skills I acquired. Math was often hard, puzzling, and in 99% of my life isn't a benefit. But there are those 1% moments when I use what I know to see beyond what everyone sees. Things in my mind just click a little differently because of the "useless" knowledge I acquired. Some of my favorites times in my life were when the deadlines were looming and I had to turn up the effort to hardcore only-work-eat-and-sleep levels. I felt accomplished. I did amazing things. You can do amazing things when you put your mind to it. You can have awesome feats if you're willing to get a little grimy, get your nose rubbed in the dirt, and suck it up. Suffering can be used for good. Suffering can and is rewarded.

So, what to do?

I know what not to do. Don't take suffering as a down payment for reward in the future. Sometimes bad stuff just happens for no reason than this is a messed up world. But on the other hand, don't do nothing either. I have been paralyzed and missed several opportunities to do something because I thought my intentions were tainted by this issue. Even if they were, I could have touched more lives and done more good if I had stepped out with a bit of faith and gumption. And each time I have stepped forward things have worked out  with lives made just a bit better for it.

Perhaps the best way is to live in the present. Don't look back and dwell on all your suffering and think that privileges you to something. This is a huge problem today with people feeling slighted and exacting revenge or claiming moral superiority due to their scars. Don't look forward and fear this as a corrupting force. That only serves to debilitate you and cause you to stumble. Simply step out with a bit of courage. Attempt things with pure intent. And find the reward in the actions themselves. The rest is dessert. You already have your dinner. Now shut up and eat it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why I Don't Like to Talk About Politics

Ugh. Stupid 24/7 News Cycles. One day it's candidate A did something stupid. The next candidate B isn't looking so good in the polls. Then gaffes from the staff come out. Then there's a Joe Biden sighting with ice cream.

Frankly, I don't like talking about politics. It boils down to a few reasons.

First, usually when a discussion erupts there are at least two people who are more passionate and well-informed than me, so I just let them do all the talking.

Also, I think I'm weird. I have on many occasions switched positions after hearing some strong interesting evidence I didn't know about before. This is apparently rare since I never seem to see other people doing the same. More often than not the "winning" group claims victory and sweeps all opposing points away as poppycock while the "losing" group licks their wounds, return to their echo chamber of choice, and research how to win next time (again sweeping away all opposing points as poppycock). So, these things tend to be futile.

Finally, I'm super weird. I subscribe to both Instapundit (a right-wing blogosphere commentary and aggregator) and Mother Jones (one of the most left-wing publications around). I literally will see a piece of news break and both sides react completely differently. What is weird is that if you only listen to one side they sound completely reasonable. I went on a binge of just reading Mother Jones and found myself slowly starting to agree with everything they wrote. Previously I only knew about Instapundit and was becoming a hardcore Conservative. The net result is that now I can stand and see the merits and faults of both sides. I try to rationally understand and take seriously both positions. That makes things awkward.

To my liberal friends, I am a conservative. I will bring in points from the Right to counter their rhetoric. Especially when it starts getting pretentious with phrases like "How can anyone believe..." As it turns out, there are people out there who do believe that, and feel they arrived at said conclusion based on factual logical thought and evidence. Some may be ignorant of facts, but others have some legitimate bones to pick.

To my conservative friends, I am a liberal. I will drop-kick someone when they try to parrot an oversimplified talking point. No, liberals are not an evil conspiracy bent on making sure the working class is dependent on them. No that statistic is taken way out of context and doesn't account for the other underlying problems.

This odd position adds tension to relationships, often ends with the fiery avalanche of facts and figures I didn't know about, and generally isn't beneficial to most conversations.

In short, I tend to end up as that other guy. The one who either doesn't speak up or seems to always not be on your side. So unless a serious error arises and one side is doing all the talking, I'll let others do the fighting. Besides, it's hard to talk when your mouth is full of popcorn. And popcorn is delicious.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stereotypes and Surprises

On a few occasions people have commented that they "didn't expect that" from me.

From my standard introductions, I fit the bill of a classic Asian nerd. I'm medium-to-short height, medium build, short black hair, wear glasses, young looking, not especially ripped (read: weakling), I work at Intel, I have an advanced college degree, I play games, and know quite a bit about lots of things. Sounds like the perfect classical Asian nerd. Knowing this, it should follow that I also know about the latest tech, tend to have the newest gadgets, can be counted on to do quick mental math, always texting, am handy with computers, play an instrument, have conservative values, tend to be socially reserved, don't do any sports, stay at home a lot, know my native language, not understand social norms, always eat rice, scored a perfect score on the SAT, play DDR, and put forth a smile no matter what. Sure some of those are true, but not all of them.

At first glance, I easily fall into a stereotype. I know many of my friends fall into similar stereotypes. You've got ripped jocks. You have delicate beautiful girls. You have quiet giants. You have charismatic business men. From a glance, you can categorize most people and get quite a lot right. After all, stereotypes have an element of truth to them. Plus, once they realize they fit in a stereotypical grouping, we naturally tend to gravitate towards fulfilling those expectations. If you already go to the gym and are complimented on how strong you are, you realize that is a unique and valuable feature and continue to get stronger by going to the gym and living that lifestyle. If you are known as the pretty girl you tend to reinforce that notion and add to that valuable commodity through style, make-up, and careful diets. (This is why you should compliment kids on their hard work and not on innate ability. The former develops their desire to keep trying harder challenges and pushing their limits. The latter causes them to seek simple tests and maintain a high score.)

But that doesn't mean the stereotype encompasses everything. We used to have a saying that in Mudd West were the destructive explosive people, South was the quiet people, North were the Beer pong players, and East was where the nerds of the nerds went. I happened to live in East, and after telling this anecdote to the tour groups I'd shrug and say so. Considering I am a rather well-adjusted geek who had just led them on a tour through half of the campus, I hoped some would realize not all nerds and geeks are stuck in their parent's bedrooms and unable to socialize.

Similarly, sometimes I can surprise people who only think of the stereotyped Asian nerd. For example, I have been told I'm quite competent at dancing (I still think I'm crap). This doesn't fit in the classic socially awkward stereotype they have in their mind. Or when I pick up on certain subtle social cues. And those times when I just put it on the line and act completely silly and outrageous. Or surprise people on something I know about the styles and mannerisms of women. These all seem abnormal to people who only know me as an Asian nerd.

Yet we all use stereotypes to categorize others. Even without meeting people we make snap judgements based on how they look and carry themselves. Oh, that girl has a short spiky hair style, she must be a firecracker. Probably lots of fun but you might get tired out if you pursue her and can't keep up the energy level. That guy is wearing a sports jersey. Probably follows the teams, knows lots of facts, might drink lots of beer and probably plays a sport if he's ripped. If not, maybe he's a frat boy. That carries its own load of benefits and stigmas. Oh that guy is wearing skinny jeans and has some tattoos. Gotta be a hipster listening to his hipster music and silently judging us all ironically. Snap decisions just from a glance and we think we know all about them. And once we get hard labels it gets worse as our biases start to leak out. That person identifies Republican? Must be closed off in their own little world of delusions and hates gays. Also, evil incarnate, delusional, ill-informed, or a combination of the above.

And this isn't restricted to personality types and moral value systems. Perfect example is age. At first glance some might think I'm as young as 16. But others have guessed I'm as old as 30 based on my behavior. Or based on someones car what their driving style is. Or their income bracket. Apparently, since I have a Masters degree, I make over $100,000 annually.

Personally, I try to surprise people. Let them think what they want. If they want to know the truth, they'll ask me or find out if they hang around enough (sidenote: ask me a straight question and I will give an honest answer). And perhaps eventually they'll realize I'm not what they expect and start to see me as a unique individual. Someone who can pull a 180 and surprise people. Someone who isn't what he seems at first glance. I like to think I have a few surprises still.

So why then do I feel it is OK to place labels and stereotypes on others?

Try meeting people and seeing them for who they are. Your gut profiling might get you a few traits right, but be prepared to be surprised by the rest.

Friday, September 7, 2012

About Me: Managing Expectations

I'm pretty sure people are lying about me.

You know. Those stories about how I'm an excellent cook. Or how I'm an amazing listener AND talker. Or my epic skills at dancing. Or my dazzling musical abilities. Or my ability to know random relevant facts and act as the local walking encyclopedia.

Pretty sure those are all lies.

OK, OK, there are some kernels of truth in them. I am at least a competent chef (cut things, boil water, combine!). I can shut-up and listen intently when you want to talk and will carry a conversation if no one else will. I at least know the basics of dancing (hold hands out, walk in circle right?). I have played musical instruments. And did you know... ah heck with it.

What I mean is that I am very careful about managing people's expectations of me. I'd rather have someone have a low opinion of me and be pleasantly surprised at my competence.

There are many possible reasons for this. One might say it is to ensure truth and accuracy. I don't want people to incorrectly think too highly of me if I'm not sufficiently awesome. Or perhaps it is part of my strategy to outwardly show weakness and inwardly carry strength. Blame Asian culture for that one and an infatuation with subterfuge (that's a whole blog post in itself). Or maybe it is because I overly value surprise and dislike being let down. So why get other people's opinions of me up and set myself up to disappoint them? Could be due to how I've seen boasters get ripped to shreds and felt personal injury from believing in them; and I don't want others to make that mistake with me.

Perhaps the root of all of this is I'm a risk-adverse coward who can't take the heat and constantly sets himself up for failure and shuns the limelight out of some masochistic belief that greatness and rewards go to those who are intentionally humble but that means gaming the system which is bad and I'm a bad person and -

This application of managing other people's expectations also trickles into my expectations of myself. I would rather be pleasantly surprised at my own competence than be brutally crushed. This is why I typically avoid playing games on ranked ladders. Sure I know roughly where my skills are, but there's a certain comfort in being an enigma without a strict score stuck next to my name everywhere I go. I'd rather grind my low-level skills and suddenly burst through the next level than constantly strain and fail to reach something just out of my grasp. I'm more oriented towards the journey and not in setting goalposts. (Sidenote: developing good fundamentals in something is a good thing. Just perhaps overemphasized by my practices)

I believe to a certain extent we all try to manage our expectations, both from others and of ourselves. We'd like to be well-thought of by others. We all want that special guy or girl to think highly of us. We'd rather stand high on the social ladder than be thought of as incompetent whiny silly people that are dismissed and discarded. And ideally we should have realistic hopes and expectations of our own abilities. It would be quite foolish for you to think you could fly unaided. But accurately knowing if you can make a jump or run a certain distance is useful knowledge. Knowing when you've over-committed to a project is beneficial.

And all of this is based on past events. The feedback loop of guess, check, and evaluate helps us to revise our expectations. I know from past experience that I can't run a mile faster than 7 minutes. Since I'm more out of shape now than I was then, I don't expect to be able to even break 8 minutes. But we also try to tweak them consciously. Intentionally say certain things. Intentionally act certain ways. Intentionally getting your hopes up or becoming extremely wary and cynical. These are all alterations of your expectations or signalling to others to change their expectations of you.

That isn't to say management of expectations is a bad thing. Be careful to not fall into a naturalist fallacy and assume we shouldn't try to manage expectations. Keeping things in line is a useful skill. Making sure your expectations are realistic is healthy and helps keep you locked into reality. Intentional management can benefit you greatly. It is why you start with your best foot forward in relationships and job interviews. You shouldn't think too lowly of yourself, and you should be wary when you start to worship someone else as an infallible deity instead of the human they are.

But try for a little bit not micro-managing expectations. Let things balloon when they're good and deflate when they're bad. Don't care quite so much what others think and rely on your actions to speak louder than the rumors. It just might raise your own expectations of yourself, without you resorting to ice cream.