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Yes, I am about to write some cheesy stuff. Prepare yourself.

Life has been good lately. It has been good to me for a while, but only recently have I felt skilled enough to internalize it, to begin to give my own answer.

I make mistakes and have setbacks every day. but I've also do a lot of right things. The memory of my friend gives me determination to move forward my own story. I complain less to myself or to anyone about trouble. I seek fewer chances to postpone or escape or hide or distract myself. I may pursue different activities and goals at times, but my life is one thing.

I wish my friend were here to see this. I wish he were here to share in the future we are all building together. Selfishly, I wanted him to see the stories I could create.

I asked myself before: how many more? How many more friends will be gone before I am ready to share the tales I have been spinning with my days? How many loved ones will never get to see what I want to bring to life?

I hear those questions again daily now, but no longer with fear. I am determined not to wait.

Today, I am neither saint, nor sage, nor warrior nor poet. I'm just a dirty traveler, still not fully used to true hardship, just barely getting started. It doesn't matter if it doesn't look like much now. It doesn't matter if outside circumstances get better or worse. I choose my ​path​ by choosing my next step in the right direction. I strive to become more skillful and to transform the ingredients of the present for the future.

I have many memories. I have many moments, many emotions that are part of me. I've passed through many intersections, dead ends. I've seen seasons and ships pass me by. But the decades do not weigh on me. There are so many with fewer years, more hair on their heads, more money in their pockets, more achievements on their biographies who are nearly corpses. When I consider it even for a moment, I have neither envy nor scorn for them. What I have: pride in my friends and family, in my path, in my determination for the future. Life is short, but that is fine. I am young, and I refuse to be any other way. The length of days and nights wax and wane, but they are laden with purpose. The road stretches far into the distance. The story is just beginning.

olimay: (Default)
I was trying to think of metaphors for society that I can use to explore different ideas about life choices. But none of the things that have come to mind are quite working.

The first image I had when I was thinking yesterday was one of a coral reef. Putting aside the idea of distinct species that mostly feed on each other, I thought it might be nice, because you have a nice contrast between different types of creatures. There are the coral polyps, which cover the main structure of the reef. You have armored crustaceans, elusive octopi, schools of fish, and sharks. I thought that might be a good parallel for different niches people can take in society.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the metaphor doesn't really work.

First, the structure of the coral reef is literally built on the hardened corpses of dead coral polyps. As much as we owe to the people who came before us, that idea is a bit too grim--I think that would be implying that people have to literally die off in order for society to advance, which is not a place I want to go.

I also thought I could put aside the idea of different species killing and feeding off each other, and just replace the predation with cooperation and exchange. That's a pretty big jump alone. What messes it up even more: the entire reef system ultimately gets most of its energy from phytoplankton. Agriculture and natural resources also power the human world, but that's sort of the wrong conceptual level. I don't want the metaphor to focus on the economic or biological flow of energy. I'm more interested in things like social norms and incentives affect individual choices and life trajectories.

Is there a good metaphor? I also thought of using a forest instead a coral reef, but I felt uneasy in similar ways. It was also less evocative than a coral reef, because having water as a medium better emphasizes a space of possibility with three dimensions.

Does the human social world resemble a natural ecosystem at all? If it does, maybe it doesn't make sense to take individual persons as analogous to individual organisms in the ecosystem. Maybe people are themselves like parts exchanged by entities on larger levels of social organization. Or maybe natural analogies for human society just doesn't work.

It makes sense that it doesn't help understanding to map a complex phenomenon onto another complex phenomenon, even if the second one seems more concrete.
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A few weekends ago, I ran into a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, "You Don't Need More Free Time" by one of the authors of a study on happiness and free time, [Time as a Network Good:
Evidence from Unemployment and the Standard Workweek][time-as-a-network-good]. The study says that it's the timing of free time, not the amount that matters. At least, that is what matters when they measure the sense of well-being among the unemployed. This matches some other findings from happiness research: spending time with people you like is a major source of happiness.

I can appreciate that last part. I've been unemployed or employed with a non-standard schedule during the past few years. I look forward to picking up Marlon from school or work, even if we aren't planning on doing anything together. In the future, until I have my own family, I look forward to still having roommates that I like. I don't like big parties, and I like having a lot of time to pursue my own interests. But living alone sounds like a breeding spot for depression.

Organizations probably want to know how the structure of the workweek affects the mood of employees. Institutions want to know how it affects the jobless, and if the jobless are happier taking welfare rather than seeking work--and this piece of research says no.

All this gets limited for me, personally, because this research doesn't measure the time dimension. To me, free time means choice. It means a chance to pursue skills. You can use the time to support and improve the lives of others. No one actually has more or less time--instead, different people have different degrees of choice about how to use the time. You can spend the time to feel happier today and maybe tomorrow, or you can invest it. And there are other investments than simply exchanging your hours and days for a wage or salary. Why the false dilemma?

It could be that we're not that great at making choices about how to spend our time. If free time is more choice, could too many choices hurt us? That is a much more complicated, interesting, and less measurable question.

But if we want to navigate life for ourselves, if we seek to find our own way off the clear, well labelled routes, we can't afford to bet against choice. Choice, and thus time is precious to us. With the right bets: time gets experience, time gets skill, time gets opportunity. We can have too much of almost anything else. Time is on our side. As much as you can, keep it healthy, keep it invested wisely, or at least keep it free.

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Today, I sat in a parked car in lot 101 for a long time today, as I waited for someone in the nearby computer lab to call in an order for fried chicken. They had definitely plowed the lot, but not perfectly clean. It looked like people had left their cars there overnight, maybe before the beginning of the blizzard on Friday. There were small groups here and there clearing snow off and scraping ice off the windshields. Other cars still had their wipers splayed up, waiting patiently for their drivers to brush them clean.

I reclined in the drivers seat and put on a podcast Zach ([livejournal.com profile] ledflyd) recommended to me a while back. They had Venkatesh Rao, who has written a bunch of interesting stuff on his blog Ribbonfarm and elsewhere, as a guest on the show. I'd listened to a few minutes a few weeks back. It was great to hear his actual voice. His writings sometimes come across as haughty--especially when I take issue with some part of how he framed things. I mentioned in our chat room that I always read Ribbonfarm in something close to the late Alan Rickman's voice. (This rendition, sadly, will never happen for real.) But on the podcast Venkat just sounded like a smart, relatable guy with an Indian accent.

Listening to the rest of the interview today, I learned about his background. He was groomed to be an elite and followed a pretty conventional career trajectory as a mechanical engineer in India: exclusive school, grad school in the U.S. But he talked about how his kind of defiance in choosing what to read set him on a different intellectual path. People in his circles had strong opinions on what a mechanical engineer ought to read. Apparently, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History was not one of those books!

I can't imagine a collegiate milieu that intellectually proscriptive about reading choices--outside of maybe weird political groups or religious cults. But maybe the present day U.S. is really that different from late-80's/early-90's Delhi IIT.

Venkat said that ignoring what was fashionable among his peers (he put off reading The Lord of the Rings for a long time) and choosing his own readings (often unappreciated things) became an important habit. It led to his ability to draw connections between seemingly distant topics and ideas, and he's been putting that in writing ever since.

As an endnote to that explanation, he said something that I found a bit affirming: while you can't really be a special unique snowflake as an individual, by reading and synthesizing a variety of different sources, you can obtain a unique voice and perspective as a writer.

This makes sense to me: the quality of a person--not only in writing, but generally in life--comes from our connections more than anything. It could be the books we've read, the experiences we've had, the people we know and interact with. It comes from how all these things interact with each other to inform our actions as well as our larger story. To throw in a bit of jargon: it's network effects that dominate, this perspective would say.

I'm not all that obsessed with being unique per se. It's more the other way around: I want to find and do well at the things that (mostly) only I can do.

What I'm beginning to see is that there are a lot of these things. And a lot of them seem very ordinary first. There are many ways that only I can really help out my brothers, or my friends, or our little community. Visiting grandparents is something lots of people do, but when I visit my grandfather, as his eldest grandchild, that's not something anyone can generically replicate for him. I'm not that special in of myself, but Hollywood would have a hard time. And it's the same the other way around.

The theme we're concerned with here is taking the specific versus taking the universal. When we talk about families and friends, I think it's important to prioritize the specific perspective. When we begin to talk about professions, it makes sense to talk a bit more generally. You can fire and replace an employee but you can't really fire your mom in anything close to a similar way. More depressingly, whether you work as a laborer or a professional, there is a good chance that someone else can do the same job you are doing. Maybe someone out there can do it even better.

Job security issues aside, we ought to take a bigger picture than work for our lives. And replaceability is a feature--if all or even more employees were really irreplaceable, firms would be crashing left and right and even more folk would be too guilty to make career transitions, because everything would explode and stuff. And most of all, on the other side of the you are replaceable coin is humans can learn. You can acquire skills through work and not just blind genetic luck. This is good.

But going back to the idea of networks--I think even if we take a relatively general view, individuals can still be pretty uniquely valuable to their part of the world. But it takes a bit more finesse than simply existing. What people can you connect? What ideas can you synthesize? What can you teach? What can you strengthen and advocate? What kinds of skills, expertise, and experiences can you draw on in order to create? Again, the power comes from the nature and the strength (this is a weighted graph) of what you are connected to--both directly and indirectly.

This way of looking at things makes sense for me because I've always looked at things from a creative point of view. What can you do? What can you make? When I watch or do something purely for enjoyment, I still assume there's a chance it will become part of me, and part of what I do and make in the future.

There are very many cynical counterarguments to this way of looking at things. Maybe a small number people are unique at a general level, but others are fairly generic in their connections. I'd say: that could be a stronger case to focus on variety and uniqueness of connections, but okay. But even more importantly, is uniqueness all that good for an individual? Maybe people are better off feeling content with having relatively generic relationships, interests, careers, so long as those things are happier. Maybe that is because it's very difficult to be both unique in your connections and happy at the same time. Or, you can be interesting but also a pretty shitty person who doesn't do good for the world.

Here's how I'd summarize most of these worries: there's more uncertainty in striving for unique connections. There's more up-front personal risk rejecting well-designed conformity. You might have to think more. You might have to lose a lot, at least at first.

To continue the discussion I am going to switch metaphors.

When you follow a pre-ordained path, you have a fairly clear way to measure success. If the only acceptable career paths are to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or investment banker, it's pretty clear if you've gotten there or not. There may be hellish, hellish waits along the way--I know this well from accounts of my friends' experiences. There are also relative levels of success--are you just the Branch Vice President, or are you VP of Risk Management for the entire regional division? But there is a map and there are roads between the named destinations. It seems reasonable to ask, "When will you arrive?" or to say, "I should be there by now." You might even be able to say, "This is how far away I am right now."

What happens when the map you were given turns out to be wrong? When the roads that were supposed to take you there are under repair, flooded, or jam-packed with traffic? What happens when the roads to take you there don't exist? Or when your destination is shrouded in legend? Or conjecture?

You must learn to navigate by other means.

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