an inelegant case for rebellion

(It's been a while since I've posted anything. But now I'm back to writing regularly, which feels great.)

From John Berger's Way of Seeing:

“One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

This is my attempt to understand women; in the process, it's given me a possibly deeper understanding of "otherness".

When you are a white, heterosexual male, chances are you don't walk around feeling like you're being watched, observed, or looked at. When you look in the mirror, you see some approximation of yourself. This freedom frees the white, heterosexual male to observe the world without fearing it. Of course, there are exceptions, but this appears to be the default.

When you are a woman, or brown, or gay, there's a different dynamic at play.

You look in the mirror, and you don't just see yourself. You see something to be beholden. You are primarily an object of someone else's vision.

How does this happen? It starts the first time you walk through an airport security check and realize you're being treated differently than others. It starts when you and your friends are going out in the city and get catcalled and followed by a group of men. It starts with one cop pulling you over for a rolling stop at a stop sign, or a loved one looking at you weird for how you dress, or an epithet screamed out of the window of a passing vehicle.

So when you look in the mirror, you aren't even gazing at yourself with your own eyes. It's a bit dissociative where your gaze becomes the gaze of the person who will be looking at you.

The strange thing that happens is that, over time, you may begin to similarly objectify anyone who looks like you. When you see your own "kind", you instinctively objectify because that's what you do to yourself. It creates this weird self-limiting behavior at the scale of entire communities - blacks/browns/women all judging the hell out of each other silently and then feeling judged silently by their own. It's why we see our own "kind" giving us side-eye, but then we realize we're very unconsciously doing the same thing to them. And if we aren't careful with our sense of self, we very naturally conform or force others to conform to a narrow set of expectations.

Meanwhile, observe a random white dude walking by on the street- he has the freedom to blend into the background. He isn't regularly the object of anyone's constant eye, especially not yours, and so you can choose to see or not see him, it won't matter much to him. (Of course, this dynamic flips to some degree when the same white dude finds himself in Japan or in Zambia.)

When you're so conditioned to the feeling of being looked at, you change the way you behave, and you change the way you view yourself. This all happens so subconsciously that either you're actively fighting/overcoming it, or you're passively succumbing to it. 


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consumption habits and thinking beyond convenience

From Kevin Simler's essay Wealth: The Toxic Byproduct:

"[...] money spent on consumption is toxic — value-destroying. This is true even in our daily lives, without the literal magic window. Every time we spend money on a yacht or an iPhone or a nice jacket or even food, we're taking something of value from society and using it for our own purposes [...]

As long as someone's money is tucked away in his bank account, we're safe. But the minute it starts to leak out, via consumption, we all become that much worse off [...]

Earning money (via production) is good for others. Spending it (via consumption) is bad."

And from Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training:
"A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again."
The exchange of money, all it really is is a reinforcement mechanism. 

When you buy something, you are signaling to the seller of that service or good that you value it. If you buy it at a significantly high price or significantly high frequency, you are reinforcing the belief in the seller that he is making something valuable.

As a seller, this is great. You've provided a service or a good that other people find really useful. With enough buyers, you will continue to provide this service or good. This behavior has been reinforced by the "market" (which is really just a bunch of people sitting around swiping credit cards and writing checks/Venmo payments).

As a buyer, you have reinforced a behavior in a seller. By buying something, you have signaled to a seller or group of sellers that you wanted something enough to pay for it. 

This act of buying is very susceptible to being toxic. Why did you choose to buy that one thing instead of another thing? Are you sending the right signals to the right creators? What does eating at McDonald's instead of Chipotle signal and reinforce to the supply-side of the economics equation?

Merchants and sellers (at least those whose names aren't Steve Jobs) are simply reacting to the signals that consumers are sending them. Yes, to some degree the sellers are trying to "hack" consumption habits to profit from them via marketing and design. But it is still the consumers who have great autonomy over what they ultimately purchase. 

Implications:

Why do you buy the clothes that you buy? 
Why do you eat the food that you eat? 
Why do you refill the tank or pay for repairs on your car?
Why pay for Spotify Premium? 
Why live where you live and pay as much or as little as you do?

These are loaded questions that bring up the issue of "values."

Capitalism gets a lot of flak, but it's really just a solution for "I want that thing. You have that thing. And I really really want it. I'd kill you to have it, or I'd just steal it. But that isn't really feasible or always possible. So here we are." Capitalism makes exchange more convenient, and the exchange is of things that we individually value for some reason or another.

So there's nothing wrong with consumption if the underlying values (aka "things we want") are defensible ones. However, oftentimes the main value underpinning many of our consumption decisions is convenience.

Things can be convenient but also have other rich values associated with them. The trick is to identity what those other values are before optimizing for convenience. The main example of this I see is the McDonald's vs. Chipotle distinction. Both establishments are incredibly convenient. Chipotle differentiates itself by channeling its convenience efforts towards healthy, locally raised fast-casual (or something like that). That's dope.

Examples:

Clothes: buying at thrift shops v. buying at J Crew
Housing: living in a brownstone in a gentrifying neighborhood v. living in a high-rise
Transportation: biking to work v. driving to work
Diet: eating vegetarian v. eating whatever

Maybe all of this is painfully obvious and that I've obfuscated what was already clear. Oh well.
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how to water a plant, and the design of human groups

From Jan Gehl's Life Between Buildings:

"When outdoor areas are of poor quality, only strictly necessary activities occur.

When outdoor areas are of high quality, necessary activities take place with approximately the same frequency -- though they clearly tend to take a longer time, because the physical conditions are better. In addition, however, a wide range of optional activities will also occur because place and situation now invite people to stop, sit, eat, play, and so on.

In streets and city spaces of poor quality, only the bare minimum of activity takes place. People hurry home.

In a good environment, a completely different, broad spectrum of human activities is possible."

Question: how do you water a plant?

WikiHow tells me that it's a four-step process. 

One: pot the plant correctly. Too small, and its roots will get entangled. 
Two: obey the plant's schedule, not yours. Just because every Wednesday works for you doesn't mean that's what's best for the plant.
Three: stick your finger in the soil. Too dry or too wet means the roots might be rotting and depriving the leaves of water. 
Four: water the damn plant. 

Question: why do you water a plant?

Because if you don't, it will die.

Question: why do you keep a plant, anyways?

Scientifically, because it performs respiration, the source of energy for all living things on Earth.
Sentimentally, because it feels good to take care of something.
Aesthetically, because it looks nice around the house.
Culturally, because it makes for good conversation when you're sitting around.

Question: so ... why do you water a plant?

So that it grows and is able to perform all of the above functions.

Question: how do you water a plant?

You don't tape up the leaves and stem when they start wilting.
You don't paint the foliage green.
You don't replace the soil with just water.
You don't give it a month's worth of water once a month.
You just water the damn plant so that it can grow on its own.

Plant Metaphors
  • The organization as a plant

  • The city as a plant

  • The child as a plant

  • Technology as a plant

  • The world as a fractal series of plants watering plants watering plants, and so on.


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kansha, the japanese art of thoughtful eating

From Elizabeth Andoh's Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions:

"When I bemoaned the need to wait a full year before indulging in [certain foods] again, a Japanese friend taught me three words: hashiri, shun, and nagori.

"Hashiri are those eagerly awaited foods you finally find at market: the early spring peas, small and tender ... or autumn's first wild mushrooms that hint of the woods."

"Shun describes that magic moment when a food is at its peak of flavor and abundant. It is biting into a sugary-sweet corn, bought from a roadside stand on a blazing hot summer's day."

"Nagori is culinary regret ... buying eggplant one more time, late in autumn, knowing they can't be as tasty as the ones stewed with young ginger during the summer rains."

Ever since I first watched my first Miyazaki film (Howl's Moving Castle), I've been intrigued by the art that is core to many aspects of Japanese culture. Embedded in their food ("Jiro Dreams of Sushi"), their sport (martial arts), and their business (Toyota) is a common theme of humility, minimalism, and mastery. Maybe I'm romanticizing a culture I haven't experienced first hand yet, but it's really fascinating stuff.

Recently, I picked up Elizabeth Andoh's book on Kansha, the Japanese philosophy of consumption. At first glance, it's just a cookbook. But Andoh explains each and every recipe and cooking technique through the lens of the Kansha spirit. Consumption of all kinds must be aesthetically satisfying, wary of waste, and full of gratitude. (My consumption habits during my year in NYC violated all three of these tenets-- takeout Thai food in plastic containers).

From my basic understanding of it, Kansha appreciates tempo. There's a time and place for everything; instant gratification is frowned upon; sequence matters. And when it's time to act, you act thoughtfully and mindfully, without the automaticity that seems to be a defining characteristic of American life. 

Through the practice of thoughtfulness and timing, you unlock deeper value in whatever you do. Incidentally, you also complete whatever you're doing more effectively. I've noticed that, whenever I'm rushing to get things done, it ends up taking longer. I forget things; my execution gets sloppy.

In Kansha, Andoh describes how you can build an entire meal out of a single daikon (winter radish) -- the green tufts on top become a condiment for your steamed rice, the neck becomes a pickled side dish, and the bulbous center gets repurposed as sliced garnish to your noodles or your soup. This is the daikon meal, in praise of one vegetable, unlocking its full value.

on being wrong for the right reasons

From investor Howard Marks:

"The correctness of a decision can’t be judged from the outcome. Nevertheless, that's how people assess it. A good decision is one that’s optimal at the time it’s made, when the future is by definition unknown. Thus, correct decisions are often unsuccessful, and vice versa.” 

A few weeks ago, I wondered: Is it better to be right for the wrong reasons, or wrong for the right reasons. I've been reading a lot lately to see if there's an answer to this question. Howard Marks clearly has one -- and he bases it in part on the distinction between "first-level thinking" and "second-level thinking":

"First-level thinking says, 'It's a good company; let's buy the stock.' Second-level thinking says, 'It's a good company, but everyone thinks it's a great company, and it's not. So the stock's overrated and overpriced; let's sell."

Many smart people only get as far as first-order thinking. When there is a problem to solve, efforts spill towards the same small handful of solutions. When you possess above-average intelligence, it's easier to do fake-smart things that only appear smart than to do actually smart things (which often appear crazy or stupid).

"First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority. [...] Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted."

"[...] The bottom line is that first-level thinkers see what's on the surface, react to it simplistically, and buy or sell on the basis of their reactions."

For first-level thinkers, the competition is over who can perform marginally better. However, this leaves huge swaths of the possible solution space uncovered. First-level thinkers have a tough time distinguishingpopularity from truth.

Second-level thinking often results in solutions that counter conventional wisdom. This is because second-level thinkers try to expand the relevant solution space, then prod/poke/tinker around in this expanded space (rather than instinctively rushing to where everyone else is).

So being right for the wrong reasons is the fluke of a first-level thinker. You make the false conclusion that what you're doing is working, and you double-down on it. This is a fragile strategy. By contrast, being wrong for the right reasons is the fluke of a second-level thinker.

A few scattered examples that come to mind:

  • Housing: the difference between paying $$$$ for a small apartment in a swanky area v. paying $$ for a larger apartment in a more up-and-coming area.
  • Learning: short-term recognition v. long-term recall. Learning through rote memorization v. learning through teaching.
  • Career: forcibly linearizing the path v. riding the path nonlinearly
  • Raising a Child: authority-based parenting v. reason-based parenting. Draconian v. Virgil.
  • Leadership: charisma that induces over-reliance on one person v. mentorship that raises all boats
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the tyranny of the scrunchy-face

From investor Paul Graham:

"Keep your identity small.

[...] If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [...]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."
College is where the existence of segregation becomes normalized. Whereas before college, only the minority knew it to be true, now everyone knew it's just "how things work," without anyone really appearing to be too mad about it.

Here's a highly scientific playbook of how.

Step 1: Marginalize the Self

"Sand nigger."

I laughed. 

It was part of my tongue-in-cheek persona as the token brown dude in a crew of WASPy white kids (who were awesome guys, by the way).

My high school shtick was one of self-deprecation. I made jokes about my suspicious-looking backpack, about speaking derka-derka, about the 72 virgins in "Islamist" heaven.

The road to assimilation, acceptance, and belonging begins with self-hatred.

Step 2: Marginalize Others

Frat star asks, "Where do you live on campus?"
I respond, "Dubois."
Him: **scrunchy face** "How the hell did that end up happening?"
Me: "Yeah, weird, right?"

When I first moved to campus, I didn't think Dubois was strange. The rooms were spacious and clean; the house dean really cared about the students; the community room always had fun stuff going on.

But Dubois was "where all the Black kids lived." And I was not Black. So I got a lot of scrunchy-faced looks. Scrunchy faces made me feel nervous.

And these scrunchy-faces happened a lot. So I began pre-empting them with my own scrunchy face, to match their rose-cheeked ones.

Step 3: Segregate in Defiance (and Perpetuate the Cycle)

Friend: "Why do you only hang out with brown people?"
Me: **scrunchy face** "Why do you only hang out with white people?"

(Optional) Step 4: Watch "Dear White People"

And then deeply question steps 1-3.

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pierre qui roule

There's a small list of thinkers whom I pay especially close attention to. These people include: Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, Nassim Taleb, Paul Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar, and a few more.

Venkatesh Rao is also on this list. He recently shared via social media a great African proverb:

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

A superficial reading of this would interpret the proverb as encouraging "together" at the expense of "alone." But I don't think that's completely right.

Going alone and going fast is important when you're starting something new. People are generally skeptical and scared of anything new and untested. What if it fails? What if it's not so great? No one wants to be on the wrong side of history. Besides, there's so much other crap out there that promises to be great, but turns out to be terribly mediocre. So there's little incentive for the average bear to try a new brand of honey.

I don't think trying to build consensus on Day 1 when grappling with a big idea is a strong move. In these cases, going fast and going alone (and seeing who's willing to run to keep up) is crucial. Most ideas die during this phase. Either they sucked, or the right people weren't leading it.

Once the idea has eclipsed a certain threshold of noisemaking, value creation, and curiosity inducement, that's when it needs to transition. No longer is the idea a wild man's pipe dream -- people now recognize it as important. This is where "go far, go together" comes in. 

The transition from "fast and alone" to "far and together" seems to be where revolutionary ideas and products either make it or break it. Geoffrey Moore calls this transition a "crossing (of) the chasm." You've made it this far, but it won't lead to anything enduring if you can't successfully make this jump.

A few examples (both successful and unsuccessful):

1. Facebook/Twitter/Airbnb/Uber
2. Civil Rights Movement and Black Power
3. Protestant Reformation
4. Zionism
5. Arab Spring
6. Marriage Equality

These ideas in practice have roughly taken the following trajectory: 

a) Most people find the idea strange and creepy at first
b) Leaders refine the mission to have a more resonant core
c) Noisy and influential early adopters tell their friends about the idea
d) The movement tweaks its shape to allow for more people to join
e) The movement catches fire and grows exponentially

However, after e) is where we see many of these stories diverge. 

While a small minority of them actually sticks around for a while and succeeds, many die. 

The transformation from niche focus to mainstream adoption is always awkward and frustrating. Based on critical accounts I've read about the Civil Rights Movement, that's where these revolutions stumbled ultimately. They made it through the crucible of getting off the ground, but as the mainstream takes notice, there's a new crucible to go through:
  • Dealing with powerful, deep-pocketed people who don't want the idea to succeed.
  • Responding to cycle-determined media coverage (they'll love you, then hate you, then love you).
  • Creating space for more people to join without overly diluting.
  • Maintaining the heart and soul of the movement.
  • Letting the movement flourish in the absence of the founder.
  • Avoiding too much internal politicking and turmoil.
(Pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse.)

the value of studying for the lsat

From Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code:

"The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it's about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions."

This is a strange post, because a) studying for the LSAT made me want to choke an alpaca and b) I eventually ended up dropping out of law school.

Nonetheless, intensely studying for the LSAT (a masochist's idea of a good time) might have been one of the best things I've ever done. I actually felt my brain change shape. I've always struggled with being scatterbrained, but the rigor of the LSAT trained me to be able to organize the clutter and recognize blind spots in my thinking.

Here are the 5 things I learned from spending 4 months slaving away at preparing for this test. It'll probably be evident that these lessons apply to many other domains of life.
  1. Aim big and audacious

    I think people (myself included) get scared of aiming ridiculously high. We overvalue our current selves but undervalue our potential future selves. So what happens is that we set goals that are high, but within arms reach.

    And when things are within arms reach, we might not be hellbent enough on attaining them. Whereas if our goals are absurd, we have to re-evaluate whether we really want to achieve them, and if we do, then we get serious. If not, then that's fine-- time to find something you are willing to go pie-in-the-sky for.

  2. Long-term strategy beats short-term optimizations

    The LSAT has three sections: logic games, logical reasoning, and reading comprehension.

    The logic games section can be mastered in a few short weeks with the right suite of tactics and tricks. Many people spend way too much time working on this section.

    The logical reasoning and reading comprehension sections are a bitch. They are mentally draining and they require an intense level of focus, concentration, and skill. To master these sections, you can't just stumble into a silver-bullet tactic. You need a long-term strategy (reading science journals, retaking old sections in loud coffee shops, etc). Performance on these sections often differentiate the average test-taker from the top 20%, and the top 20% from the top 1%.

  3. Obsession with metrics/data often leads to shortcuts

    There's a saying that goes like this: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." I grew so obsessed with my score that, during early practice tests, I would flip to the back and double-check my answers. This obviously inflated my scores artificially. Bad.

  4. Hoping for a fluke is a recipe for deep disappointment

    "Well, let's see how it goes. I might have a good day today." Said no elite performer ever. There's a high degree of determinism whenever you see masters do what they do. The Jordans of the world don't rely on having a lucky day.

  5. Before simplicity, things get complicated

    During my time studying for the LSAT, I eventually hit a giant wall. For about 2 months, no matter how hard I tried to figure out what the problem was, my scores weren't improving. I kept exhaustive and detailed track of the type of questions I was struggling with, desperately trying to find a pattern somewhere in there. Things got messy, complicated, frustrating. And then it slowly started clicking and making more sense. I had to wade through immense complexity to get to simple.

This post might only be helpful to people who are studying for the LSAT soon. Whatever.

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straight shooter, the lost artform

From David Heinemeier Hansson aka DHH's talk at Stanford, Unlearn Your MBA:

"I have a funny example of how bad things can go when your brain has become all mushy with all this MBA bullshit.

This is Domino's CEO David Brandon talking a few weeks ago:

'The weakness in our value chain with the customer was really in our core product.'

...What?? What does that even mean? Well, I tried to translate that into human, and what I came up with was:

'Let's be honest, our pizza used to suck. I'm sorry. I swear the new ones will be better.'"

I don't know where all this bullshit comes from. But there's a lot of it these days. People paid way too much to simply regurgitate buzzwords and "best practices" and trends. I think it comes from a fear to really think.

Much of this type of convoluted language comes from giant corporations (that, to be honest, are probably all going to crumble and get replaced over the following century). When you're a tightly run ship, your teams don't have the patience for inefficient talk. There's shit to do! Things that need to get done! Ambitious goals in the horizon, not enough time, not enough money to dream of flying business class. More time spent arguing the specifics, less time blabbering incoherent things about "corporate strategy."

But when an organization gets bloated in any way, the incentives change. Individuals in fat companies are primarily incented to demonstrate to each other that they are smart. Why? Because the worst case scenario of anything they do is that nothing terrible happens to the company. The lights stay on. The best case is that they get a new corner office and a pat on the back. All on their way to finally retiring and getting to enjoy the finer things in life. (Side note: this dream is akin to buying a BMW because it's prestigious, driving it like hell for 200k miles, then treating it nicely for its last 100k. The BMW ends up a junker before it even hits 100k).

When buzzwords and bullshit reign supreme in a realm, you can be sure that this realm is about to (or already has) descended into deep politicking. It seems like a pretty good litmus test, actually, to read anything written by "thought leaders" in a particular industry and see the types of language being used.

You can easily figure out 1) if an entire industry suffers from bullshit, and 2) which individual companies are actually doing a great job of avoiding said bullshit.

Also, Domino's new pizza is actually pretty fucking great! Good job, David Brandon.
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the concrete of big cities

From Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building:

“Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe.”

Roman Mars produces an amazing radio show called 99% Invisible. I think there’ve only been a few episodes I haven’t been fully enthralled by.

There’s a theme that recurs (purposefully or accidentally) in his podcasts. These are stories of the human response to architecture that man has designed.

Crammed flop houses in the Bowery neighborhood of NYC.
Questions about tables and chairs (why are tables so low? why are chairs so perpendicular?).
Ugly buildings on college campuses (ironically many of which house architecture programs).

I listen to these podcasts as I walk around NYC’s East Village; I spot the hulking Lower East Side projects that Roman talks about.

Or after the episode on street width, I really do wonder: “Does the combination of narrow streets and tall buildings make me unhappy?”

Lately, 99% Invisible spurred another thought that I can’t seem to unthink. Why are our cities so concrete? What does that say about our relationship with our world?

Many of the things I see in NYC are awe-inspiring when looked at in isolation. But taken together with everything else, there seems to be a dullness, a drabness, that remains, regardless of how vibrant and noisy and lively the streets are during brunch time.

There’s so much damn concrete. It’s as if we designed our cities to escape the natural world. Trees, grass, critters, parks — these are mere amenities confined to neatly packaged squares. 

Occasionally, this makes us overtly antsy. So we go to the beach with some friends to unwind and take in the calming, intimidating beauty of the world. Then we complain about bug bites.

The concrete that surrounds us has probably developed a toxic relationship between us and the world. Instead of trying to harness nature so that we and it can coexist, we suppress it and, in its stead, try to approximate it with our toys.

Replace wood with concrete, gravel and sand with pavement.

It’s seems lazy! What if instead of concrete, we had streets dominated by trees; roads and sidewalks that crunched naturally under our feet; filtration systems that weren’t just a series of underground pipes?

I think we’d be a happier lot. Our innovations would look much different, maybe even better than what we see now.

I say all this to try to shake off my own city-induced neuroticism. I'm a (slowly) aspiring hippie. 

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