Book Review – Can’t Hurt Me

Have you ever wanted to know how to run on two broken legs?

I can’t say that I meant to learn how to, but David explains how he did it, with duct tape, tube socks, and an attitude. Much of the book covers his (superhuman?) exploits in this and similar extreme circumstances. Losing 100 pounds and remedying a lack of proper education? Running 101 miles without training? I’m not saying David’s a parahuman in hiding, but I’m not convinced he isn’t, either. This book will carry you through the life of a man who is, quite frankly, hard as the diamond core of Jupiter.

David attributes his ability in these, and other arenas, as more the product of a state of mind, a denial of defeat, an abjuration of abandonment, a gross gesture towards giving in. It certainly seems to have worked for him in achieving his goals, and he breaks it down into ten challenges, one following each of the first ten chapters, intended to make you, if not the beyond belief bodily breaker that he is (at one point in his first Hell Week, he was running from the nose and mouth with blood, kept getting pulled off the ‘evolution’ (a term for exercises in BUD/S training), only to get back up and back into place: “Oh shit, Goggins is back on the log. I repeat, Goggins is back on the log!”) then at the least, stronger than you were walking into it.

From his youth of abuse, disappointment, and being the outsider, to breaking world records for pullups, David really doesn’t seem to know the meaning of, “Enough”. As you walk with him through the house of pain, both forced and by choice, that his life has been, there is a rising sense of a need to do better, be stronger, more resilient. Perhaps it was just me, but it certainly seemed to come across as a friendly challenge – “I’ve gone through this and I’m still here. Come on, is your stopping point your real stopping point, or just a matter of convenience?”

David has a lot to say about your real stopping points. A few times, he actually does hit a limit, but it’s clear from how he approaches these situations, that he really did give it his all, and not his ‘all’. At least, I don’t think you pee blood from hitting a point where you allow yourself to give up. Maybe I’ve just given up too early in my exercise routines to do so, but on the whole, I’m actually pretty okay with not being quite that hard.

I started reading this book because I have been told, and observed, that I often give up too easily, and I hope I’ve gathered some of his gears without necessarily making myself someone who will beat my body to within an inch of death’s door. It’s hard to know where to draw the lines, given how very far from where most humans do David demonstrates is possible. I think I’ve gained from it; certainly I am stronger than I was. I started running, and unlike my last attempt (“Run at least one minute per day”) I find myself going further and further before I am compelled to stop. I have also challenged cold showers, turning them from a frightening punishment-type experience, to my new normal. Certainly I shower faster in my daily cold shower than I did in the warm, but it’s more a matter of not wasting time enjoying the water, then a need to get out as soon as possible.

In this book, David explains something he calls the 40% rule – that we tend to have only reached 40% of our total limit, when we feel we’ve hit our limit. He suggests this is controlled by a brain area he calls the governor, after the part found in many car engines that limits their top speed. I’m not sure how accurate his numbers are here, but I definitely think he’s onto something with the idea of having a limiter, something that tells us, “You’re too tired, you’ve done enough, this is too much” well before we would start taking real damage. It makes sense to have something like that, so we don’t break ourselves in everyday life, but at the same time, when you need to run from a tiger, well, you have deeper reserves than you thought.

Certainly I’ve found that I can do more than I ever believed possible, mere months ago, when achieving twenty hours of work in a week was a struggle to me. Now I well exceed that, with my main limiter seeming to be my distractability, a problem I’ve struggle with all my life to one degree or another. A very low degree, apparently, when reading fiction or playing video games (at least until the Hell Year broke my hedonism trap, but that’s a story for a later blog post). I was being governed, and it was possible to see my way past it, but Can’t Hurt Me gave me an explicit model of what was going on, one I suspect I will use again and again before accepting, “You’ve done enough, it’s too hard” or other stopping point phrases.

Personally, I think in some ways David goes too far in his pursuit of shattered limits, over shattered limbs, through a hole in his heart, and past pneumonia. I suspect there’s some survivor bias here, in that other people who have run his peculiar mental setup, often die, and don’t report back that it’s a bad idea. Read it with this in mind, seriously consider how hard pushing for whatever goal you pursue is worth putting yourself through, but also, learn not to accept your first, “This is too much, I’m done.” There’s a balance to be struck, and Can’t Hurt Me brought me closer to what I think is the correct balance, while also showing me just how far the point of balance things can be taken.

I recommend reading it if you’ve decided you have something to protect, but please do remember that you can’t protect from a hospital bed or the grave. Get stronger, but try not to go too far, wherever you decide too far is, for you.

On Being Trans

I thought for a while about what I wanted to ramble about this week, and I figured, hey, why not drop the proverbial cherry bomb in the proverbial outhouse? This is probably not the wisest selection criteria I could have used, but hey, being trans is in fact fairly central to my life, and I’m going to talk about it sooner or later. It makes up too much of my life, and the lives of many of my friends. We’re unusually highly represented in my community, at about three times the baseline rate.

So first, a quick overview:
For anyone who’s reading this and doesn’t know, transgender people are people who don’t feel comfortable / identify with the sex we were assigned at birth. This usually goes further than the traditional idea of “tomboys” – trans people generally want to or do modify our bodies to be closer to those we want / need. Tomboys are much more frequent in the population, to the best of my knowledge; they are generally AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) people who are interested in “boy things” in their youth. At least in my society, this is less, though not free of, stigma, as one grows older – adult women, at this place and time in history, can have whatever hobbies and interests they want (Sort of. Better than it was. We have a long way to go yet). AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) people don’t have a traditional role like this; there’s a spoken word clip at the beginning of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl” that points pretty squarely at, at least, an interpretation of the cause of this.

Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.

Is this true? Probably not entirely as stated, but it’s pretty clear in most human societies that a female-bodied person who wants to act in a masculine fashion, it might not be accepted, but it’s at least understandable. Men get to do stuff, women get to clean stuff. And have babies. And be talked down to, considered less competent, assumed to be of a lower work level (One gendered book I saw for children once said, “Boys are pilots. Girls are stewardesses.”) and just, generally, treated as second-class citizens. I don’t think I need to delve truly deeply into this, although if there’s a strong response that I should have, I might get into it more in a later ramble.

So wanting some of that sweet, sweet male privilege is understandable, and to some degree acceptable, with large local variance. But to be male-bodied, and not be all-in on masculinity? Well, not only are you breaking categories, you’re doing it in a way that does not make sense. Try growing up AMAB and not caring about sports, cars, or violence. It’s a solid ticket to being an outcast, and in lots of cases, abuse, both mental and physical.

For myself, I can only speak to the M2F side of being trans; I never wanted to be a man, and while I can imagine my situation in the inverse abstractly, I can’t move myself into that picture. Sure, I like being able to do what I want, but honestly? Men don’t even seem to really have that. Be the breadwinner. Be strong. Don’t be seen to have strong emotions, aside from anger. Don’t ever, ever, break masculinity. When I was apparently male, there were expectations on me, and while I was particularly antipathic due to my own tendencies, I’d probably have been rebellious just because of the number of expectations laid on me, for having a Y-chromosome. I’ve never taken well to expectations I didn’t agree to, and I found these ones particularly foolish, when I was subject to them.

On the other hand, privilege… I could walk down the streets without being catcalled (Which has happened once since my transition. Not sure if I live in civilized places, or I don’t pass well enough to be interesting for that) and be out at night alone without worrying much if the guy behind me had ill intent for me. I was assumed to be competent technically, and that to study STEM subjects was a perfectly natural thing for me to do.

On the whole, none of this was worth it to me. It wasn’t that I hated having these things, but the baggage they came with sucked. I had to pretend to be a man for it. Swagger, know about sportsball, don’t visibly feel things, those were bad. More simply, every time I heard, {he, his, masculine flavored statement(“Oh, you’re so handsome!“)} they were like a knife in my heart. The shape of the hole in society I was expected to fill was an Iron Maiden, and eventually I rejected it.

It’s not that I was confused about my gender identity. I resolved the central question of that for myself in the mid-90’s, when an MUD named Holy Mission asked me, “Do you want to be male, or female?” (And notice the ‘normal’ ordering of that question. Woman is the ‘or’ choice. Male is the default in our society – people are male until proven otherwise, there’s a lot of medical research that needs to be redone because women weren’t part of the test cases and it works differently, with our hormonal balance. Consider the rare case where the trope is inverted, in *Turn the Page*, “Is it woman? Is it man?” is explicitly about using this to assault someone’s identity.) it was like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, a vast amount of my discontent had a focus, and I had a much more complete idea of who I was. It took me more than a decade to act on that awareness, due to a number of circumstances. Deciding to transition, and then acting on it, are hard choices to make.

David Foster Wallace said something that is fairly close to my experience, here:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

It wasn’t that I wanted to face all of the shit our world gives women, nor the extra helping I could expect for being a gender-nonconforming AMAB, but not doing so, facing other day of being, “him”‘d, and “sir”‘d, and having to pretend to be something I wasn’t, was just outright more painful than not. I don’t know that not transitioning would have killed me, but it certainly felt like the next time I got deadnamed, I was going to play in traffic, because that pain seemed more manageable. At the least, briefer.

(For the record I’ve largely resolved my issues with wanting to cease. I want to live for a billion years, minimum, these days.)

So I just… went for it. Put on a strappy top and some pants from my girlfriend, and went to the grocery store. Pushed forward on it, or at least, maintained a fence on how far I was willing to back down, and tried to keep rolling that edge forward. It was scary, but not compared to what I’d been feeling.

Now, to the central idea I had in mind, that led me to pour all of this out: Being trans kind of sucks. Not, having transitioned. That was necessary and good (“It’s easy, there’s a trick to it, you do it or you die.” – Neil Gaiman) and I don’t regret it. But if I could just wave a wand and have a cisfeminine body, I certainly would. I do not love my testosterone scars, in my bones, my skull, or my voice, and I see no compelling reason to keep them if I didn’t have to. Being trans is not a choice I would ever have made, given actual options.

That said, I’m here now, and it hasn’t been the worst of all possible journeys. I’ve made some amazing friends, and had life experiences I never would have had, without it. I’ve seen gender from both sides, and I still have some perspective that differs from both, because a part of me has and will always be outside the two primary clusters that human gender largely orbits. I would not benefit from changing my history to be cisfeminine from the outset of life (much as many timeslices have wished for that in pain) and on the whole, I value the perspective I’ve gained.

But trans lives are hard, we give up a lot just to feel okay in our bodies, and if you, dear reader, are someone who thinks that we need to be shamed / punished / scared out of it, shame on you. My brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings don’t deserve your hate, disgust, or “help” in the form of trying to change who we are. We’re just humans, trying to get by, with kind of a sucky deal (Not the worst, not the best, but I’m not convinced from the inside that any given condition will be “worst”. Martina found immense joy in a life that from the outside, I would have hated.)

If our existence bothers you, just look away. You’ll be choosing the side of the powerful (“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. -Desmond Tutu), but omission is at least slightly better than commission here. Stop making it harder on us. We’re not out to get you, or perverts, or after a cheap thrill. We’re just trying to live our lives, as much as anyone else, and isn’t this world hard enough on thinking, feeling meat, without us beating each other up?

Join me this time next week, when I share my thoughts on people actively campaigning against us!

Meeting Martina

We left off my biographical posts with my brother and I sleeping in a stairwell. Not the best situation, in winter in Massachusetts. Frankly, it was downright miserable. We spent a few days sneaking into various dining commons to stay fed, but it wasn’t remotely sustainable.

Here is another place where memory diverges. I recall seeing Martina in the university craft center, and going in to talk with her, because she looked interesting. She maintained that a mutual friend of ours, Tam, pointed me in her direction. By the time I got around to asking Tam, he honestly could not recall. It’s not the most vital point to be sure about, but it did have an outsized effect on my life, and it saddens me to be unsure of the truth of the matter.

Regardless, I went into the craft center, Martina and I spoke, and the end result was that I acquired a job and a room for my brother and I. Being a personal care assistant, and particularly a live-in, requires a certain sort of person. You need to be capable of handling the needs of the job (Depending on the needs of the person, these can be quite personal. I refuse to draw a clearer picture.) and able to be surprised with shifts out of nowhere.
The live-in deal, you see, is this: in exchange for free rent, you trade away your right of refusal. If a shift isn’t going to be covered, and nobody else wants it, you have to take it. This can work anywhere from tolerably to terribly, depending on how the rest of the situation stands.

Here are some reasons I had to cover a shift:
Co-worker didn’t feel like coming in
Co-worker totaled their car
Co-worker went on break and never came back (This was a fun one, Martina was panicking over this person’s well-being, they were off playing video games)
Co-worker did something else egregious, got fired, and there we were (both on the day in question and until we found a replacement)
Co-worker had MRSA (“Can I come in anyway? I’m medicated!” Martina: “Not with my compromised immune system.”)

A number of my friends of the time ended up cycling through Martina’s employ. Some moved on, others…
At one point she went on a trip, taking the mail room key with her, and leaving all of our checks in a locked mailbox, which left some of us in an awkward position: A car had been impounded, the fee for it was rising by the day, and the price was already painful for the person in question. I watched them pick the lock, because it seemed like the least bad of the options. She fired them. I remember arguing with her on the phone about this being a bad idea and unevenly implemented, as I had at least been present and not stopped events. I was not fired, but I was covering shifts.

Another thing about being her live-in was that I went on a lot of trips with her. Martina got around; it was actually pretty impressive how much she travelled, and lots of other people didn’t want to make a multi-day commitment. The most intense trips were ADAPT actions. ADAPT originated as Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transport, focused on getting wheelchair accessible lifts on buses. In 1990, due in no small part to their activism, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, and they updated their acronym to Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today. Now, they focus on getting PCA services to be an option as compared to nursing homes, the assumptive default. (Nursing homes are awful. Inadequate Equilibria [] has an excellent explanation of why without ever touching them as an example.) ADAPT has a tendency to surround a relevant building, lock it down as much as possible, and chant until someone comes and talks to them.

This, it turns out, works.

Every action I’ve been to, that day’s activity ended when someone from the system admitted that these were people, and deserved to be heard. I remember quite vividly being present when we held an entire government building, including the parking garage, chanting, “Just like a nursing home YOU CAN’T GET OUT!”. I’ve helped block intersections, I’ve chanted at government offices, I’ve stood in potholes on the street to guide the march line away from them, and I’ve helped distribute the in-action meals (McDonald’s) that kept people going.

They’ve marched across states, remained stalwart and resolute through rain, snow, apathy, and opposition, and generally kicked ass for 42 years. I’ve watched crowds of them calmly wait while being told that they would be arrested if they did not disperse, and held the line. I’ve seen hundreds of them arrested, and I’ve cheered when they came back to the hotel in small groups after being released. I’m proud to have taken part in their story.

That said, ADAPT actions are rough on PCAs. Six days of getting up early and going to bed late and being on the march and doing your normal duties plus helping out plus marching, it’s a lot! Harder than any work experience I’ve had, save the Hell Year. Lots of people were not up to taking it on, and so with Martina I went. I wish, in hindsight, that I’d stepped up for more. Taking part was good for me, and I think the knowledge that my work supported someone who was part of this group and shifting the world to be a little brighter is a lot of how I worked for Martina as much as I did over the fifteen years since we met.

This has run on perhaps a little longer, and a bit more rambling than I intended, but ADAPT was a huge part of who Martina was, and no explanation of her could be complete without it. They’re some of the most alive people I’ve ever met, and more people should know about them. I hope this moves at least one person to consider volunteering for an action, or at least looking into the organization, the causes for their cause, and update their views about what the ‘right’ thing to do for people with disabilities is.

Join me next autobiographical section, wherein I move hundreds of miles, meet possibly the most psychologically broken person I’ve ever known, and study home repair in a home that had previously been repaired with cereal boxes!

Book Review – The Motivation Hacker

In The Motivation Hacker, Nick Winter provides a guide to being able to get things done, through self-modification. From the foreword, it’s clear that he’s a motivated individual – in it, he provides a list of all of the things he did alongside writing this book in three months, and it’s a fairly impressive list. Does it deliver?

I believe so. I gained a lot from having read this, powering up hard and becoming a far more active and dynamic version of myself. Prior to reading it and applying the suggestions within, I struggled to achieve twenty hours of worthwhile work done in a week. I would often find myself struggling on Sunday to hit this really quite low total. I fell in love with his mention of his lapsed protagonist license, and the idea of doing everything I wanted to, time in a day being the only limiting factor. I was ready for a change, and for the person who wants change, The Motivation Hacker will make you far better equipped.

My experience support’s Nick’s contention that with a large load of motivation, what used to be dragging yourself out of bed and through your day becomes leaping out of bed to challenge the day and take what you want from it. One of the central ideas here is to load and overload yourself on motivation. You could motivate yourself enough to get something done, and be sort of sad and stressed while you push yourself through, or you can pile it high and charge that task, tackling it with intensity and joy. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly find living this way more fun than what I was doing previously.

Getting into the meat of the matter, Nick explains the motivation equation: Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay). What are these pieces?

Expectancy is confidence of success. If you try something, do you believe you will succeed, or fail? If you expect to fail, there’s not much drive to start. If you’ve been a ‘loser’ all your life (I was, at the outset of this, by my standards both now and then) doing anything is going to feel like a chore that you will not want to face.

Value is, straightforwardly, the expected payoff of the task in question. If it’s valuable to you, you’ll be more motivated to do it. This isn’t limited to financial rewards or accolades; doing something you expect to enjoy doing has a higher motivation behind it, and thus, actually does feel more enjoyable in the moment.

Impulsiveness is your likelihood of being distracted. Will you work for five minutes, and then check your email, and your newsgroups, and maybe read a little reddit? That’s impulsiveness, a quality that everyone has, and that those of us with ADHD get an extra helping of.

Delay is the temporal distance between you and the reward. Taking up a task that will pay off five years from now is much, much harder than one that will pay off in five minutes. Humans engage in hyperbolic discounting, and this can drain your motivation quite quickly, leaving you looking around for something else, anything else, to be doing.

The conjunction of the latter two reminds me of a quote from Order of the Stick, a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons oriented webcomic I’ve been following for years: “Hard work and persistence may pay off in the long run, but laziness always pays off right now.” It’s fairly true, assuming you get nothing from the work; a true assumption for the undermotivated, but not one that’s compulsorily true.

Adjust any of these variables, and your motivation shifts accordingly. Adjust all of these values, and turn yourself into a superhuman dynamo of activity (maybe). Nick contrasts a PhD student comparing her options between working on her dissertation (low Expectancy, 2/5ths of such students don’t get a doctorate, low Value, given her beliefs about the jobs available to her, and the tedium of writing conference papers. High Impulsiveness, being surrounded by interesting people and things to do, and high Delay, given the years between her and that piece of paper) and working on a web game she hacked up one weekend (High Expectancy, since she knows she can keep improving it, high Value, since working on the project is fun, and her players reward her with praise. Low Impulsiveness, since many people are asking her to work on it, and low Delay, because with every improvement, the change can be rolled out immediately.)

From here, Nick delves into techniques. Chapter 3 starts with success spirals, an Expectancy hack of starting to achieve one goal, known to be within reach, every day. By completing this goal every day, you build your belief that you can achieve your goals, and with this experience, your Expectancy rises.

Nick lays out his first success spiral, and notes that he probably started too ambitiously. I followed in his shoes, tracking nine goals rather than one for a month; I felt like I really needed that Expectancy boost, and as I’ve described elsewhere, I do better with an extreme, than with a median goal in mind.

The next technique he delves into is precommitment. One common form of precommitment is to publicly announce your goal to people whose opinion you value. To do so changes the act of smoking a cigarette from a choice between nicotine now and health years from now, to the choice between having that cigarette, and not having to admit to someone you respect that you haven’t followed through on your plan to quit. The stronger the precommitment, the more it can drag your Impulsiveness down, and the more boost it will give to your Expectancy; knowing you really don’t want to break that commitment means you’ll have a stronger belief that you can follow through.

A specific version Nick recommends is to “burn your ships”. Instead of leaving alternative choices around to challenge your will regularly and boost your Impulsiveness, get rid of them. Want to lose weight and eat healthy? Don’t buy any more cupcakes, and get rid of the ones you have. Want to do more work and spend less time on social media? I did this one personally, by clearing almost half of my subscribed subreddits, turning off never-ending reddit, and further by installing an extension called Friction, that puts a load time in front of any site on a specified list. Watching those fifteen seconds count away has redirected me away from wasting time dozens of times so far, and I expect it to keep working.

This review is already fairly long and detailed, and I don’t want to take the enjoyment of reading the book yourself from you. Engagingly written, humorous, packed with solid advice and examples of how he used every bit of it, The Motivation Hacker is a good use of time for anyone who’s not already a fusion-powered hero, charging through every obstacle in their way. I gained a ton from it, and I can’t say enough good things about it without sounding like a religious convert. Read it for yourself, and make your own judgement. I doubt you’ll regret it.

On Names

In the days before the Enlightenment, there was a concept common across human tribes, although it was not always implemented identically everywhere: Names have power. This often cashed out in a belief that knowing the True Name of being would allow you control of that being. This is not Actually True, but it does give some idea how humans think about these things.

That said, names do have power, and secret names have power. Just ask any trans person, what the feeling of being called by their deadname vs chosen name is like.

Beyond that, labels affect thinking, names are labels, and the effects are subtle and gross. In an interesting update to the study I meant to find for this post, the authors draw out the causes of nominative employment discrimination a bit further – while there appears to be less of a bias for traditionally nonwhite names, there is a meaningful one for names that convey low socioeconomic standing. If your name says your parents were poor, you’re going to have to work harder to get those interviews, at which point you can demonstrate your sterling qualities.

But you’re walking uphill to do so, and every little bit of difficulty adds on. Our lives are like the trajectories of spaceborne objects that way – small changes early on can cause huge shifts later, and many small adjustments, especially those that happen at optimal times can wildly alter paths.

Names are a fundamental part of first impressions, often going to work before we ever meet the person, priming that first impression. The example of this I have in my mind I heard some time ago – would John F. Kennedy have been president, with a different name? Rufus J. Kennedy, perhaps not. Melvin F. Kennedy? Seems unlikely to me. Not just because of how these names would have fallen on the ears of the voting public – I don’t think Rufus or Melvin would have ended up in a place to have their name heard in that context. Emotional Intelligence (review to come) talks about the effects of having social graces early, or not, and how this sets a pattern that can shape one’s entire life.

And yet, most people take their name for granted. As a society we tend to assume that first names, at least, almost never change. I think this kind of rigidity has left us collectively worse off. Being trans has given me a different perspective on this than most have, since changing my name was necessary; I spent years flinching inside every time someone wanted my attention.

Therefore, I did so, applying with the courts, posting in a local paper, and waiting weeks to see if I would be allowed to redub myself. Afterwards, I had years to think about the matter, and to wear many names in a variety of virtual environments. Even names that were just words, grouped together, tended to shape my behavior a bit – I acted differently as Tribalvirtue, as Runinterror, and as Perax. Tribal tended to lean more towards kindnesses for people on my side. Runinterror looked for opportunities to attack the enemy, especially ones that imposed that kind of sick, helpless dread. Perax mostly minded her own business, while being ready to help or harm anyone, as their actions dictated.

More recently, when I moved to Berkeley, I went by my legal name for a few weeks, but I noted two things – most people I knew, knew me by the name I’d carried since Wildstar (Ratheka), and I felt more comfortable with that as my designation. I updated to introducing myself as Ratheka, talked to the people I’d introduced myself to as Robyn, and got them to update, and have generally leaned into being the person I feel that name belongs to. It was part of an intentional effort to reshape my view of myself, and thus how I interacted with the world, and it with me. I’d picked up some memes regarding heroism common to my community, and I wanted every interaction to give me a little nudge towards being the hero I wanted to be.

Thus far, it’s gone pretty well. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have grown stronger and become the person I have under another name, but it doesn’t feel that way. If nothing else, I’m certainly unique. I’ve benefitted from changing my handle, and I don’t think the world would be better off had I not.

Where do I think we should go from here? I’m not sure where I picked up all of the pieces of this model, as it’s been a long time, but my current thinking is that parents should give their children a name that is not expected to last into adulthood. As the individual grows and begins to decide who they are and want to be, they should be free to redesignate themselves, and we should have legal and societal affordances for this. Additionally, I think that adults should also have this freedom – we are not the same people we were ten years ago, but a name set in stone is at least an anchor to the way things were – not impossible to overcome, but certainly harder, and often the difficulty is shaped by the anchor, and the ocean floor it is set in.

I’m not saying nominative determinism is real, but it’s more real than many things humans believe in.

Attleboro and Hadley

This post was uncomfortable to approach, but necessary. I am posting it to share the complete story, but it will not make me look good. I fell short of the standards I hold to now, but those times are part of why I built these standards. Hard times build strong standards; the Hell Year post will support this.

At the end of my last biographical post, I had just left college, unsure of what my future would be, but certain I wanted it to have more gaming and less work. Having no money and no plan, I followed the default path of my generation: I leaned on my mother for housing and upkeep. Mom is a wonderful woman in several ways, but infinitely accommodating she is not. She pushed, hard, for me to get a job, and after a fair amount of pavement pounding, I found employment at a foundry, working ZA-12, a zinc-aluminum alloy that is used in many cast-metal applications. It was, as work goes, okay. I got to look at beautiful molten metal, there were interesting tools and I got bounced around to a variety of tasks, which is a great way to get more out of ADHD employees, and there was some affordance for goofing around.

Still as the new-situation shininess wore off, I found myself less and less satisfied. I’d like to say that I had some sort of principled stand, or that I knew I was meant for greater things… but nah. In reality, I disliked the commute (Biking a few miles in cold rain can be a miserable experience), I disliked spending so much time away from the things I wanted to be doing, like gaming (At the time both video and tabletop) and really, just… taking direction. I wasn’t really into the whole provide value to continue surviving deal. I was a free spirit!

I ghosted that job. I think I might even have left my last paycheck, I just didn’t have the drive to go back for it. Instead I went to Connecticut for a weekend, to LARP, with the brother I mentioned in the last post in this series. Arriving a day early for a small-time LARP can be exciting, because the night is dark, and full of animal noises. We did manage to get a fire going, and we stayed up the night, feeding it. In the morning, the owner of the LARP showed up, and was fairly surprised to see us there. We NPC’d for the weekend, playing characters both generic and unique.

After that… well, I wasn’t really sure where to go, and it turned out my brother was in similar straits, although I do not now recall his exact situation. I do recall that we both wanted to get back to the Pioneer Valley, and I found a way to do so – we would be housemates with a member of the fraternity I had joined.

Across the state to South Hadley went we, laden with our possessions and a certainty that the world was on our side. It even seemed to be true, for a while. We got work at a McDonald’s for a few months, before being fired on Thanksgiving for not coming in. Given we were getting around via bus, I didn’t really see this as fair, but honestly I was sick enough of the job by then that I swore off fast food work, an oath I have managed to keep. Minimum wage was not worth being burned, or the fine coating of oil we returned home wearing after every shift.

Now, here’s where things get a little complex, and disputed. I’m sure neither my brother nor I had more than a couple of months of rent in hand at that point. For years he and I maintained that our housemate drank the rent money. I’ve believed it for a long time – the man certainly had a problem (and I hope wherever you are, things have gotten better for you) with alcohol, and he could have, but I don’t trust myself not to have recast that part of my history to put myself in a better light. Certainly my dedication to Truth was less solid, in those days.

In the end, the result was the same: No jobs, no place to live. My brother and I took refuge in a stairwell in a garage on the Umass campus. It turns out that (some) people can sleep across concrete stairs. I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

This is as far as I meant to take you today. Tune in next time, when Ratheka gets a profession!

The Unilateralist’s Curse

Every once in a while, I read something that makes my stomach drop, my blood run cold, and gives me a strong desire to scream. Nick Bostrom struck all of these notes in me, with The Unilateralist’s Curse. In this paper, Nick provides a proof that with as the number of agents who are each capable of taking an action that affects all of the others rises, the likelihood of someone taking the action approaches certainty, regardless of whether the results of that action are objectively or collectively desirable.

Furthermore, the most likely actor for a given situation is the one who is most optimistic and least well informed. Scared yet? You should be. While Nick points in a few solutionlike directions, he acknowledges that at this point the solutions laid out are imperfect, situationally limited, and require buy-in from all parties; tricky to get among the sort of people who are likely to act unilaterally, especially if they don’t know about the curse.

How insidious is this? Well, as I was reading it and getting skin crawls from yet another reason for things to go horribly wrong, I thought to myself, “Well, I’d better get out ahead of the curve on FAI and – OH GOD DAMMIT I’M DOING IT!”

If you care about things, if you want the world to get better, and you wish everyone would just listen to you for like five minutes, so that we can get things done, you’re vulnerable too. The apathetic and uninvolved need not concern themselves, but if you feel heroic responsibility and the need to *act*, this is quite likely to come up in your life at least once.

I’m not telling you not to act on your own – there are times when the consensus is wrong, and you have to do something if you want to stop something that should not be. That having been said, if you find yourself thinking, “Why is no one doing the obvious thing? I had better, because clearly they’re incompetent!” I urge you to think again, to look more deeply into the facts, and then to consider again. Why are no other actors acting? Do they know something you don’t?

If you think you, or someone you know, might be subject to the Unilaterist’s Curse, urge caution, urge a deep inspection of the facts, and if they do support you… Then act. We can’t stop the world burning if we’re all too afraid to pick up a fire extinguisher, but for the sake of that which is valuable, be certifiably correct. Not just sure, or certain, or however you have the feeling of being right tagged in your mind. Feeling right is not being right, and as the most likely actor is also the most misinformed one… If you find yourself at that point, you have to at least consider that it’s you.

Best of skill out there. Try not to burn the commons in order to save the commons.

Book Review – Ego is the Enemy

Over the course of several conversations, it became clear to me, in large part by it being explicitly pointed out to me that I was displaying anger, and lashing out and hurting people who, in my right mind, I would walk barefoot over a mile of broken glass for. When I calmed down, I saw that they were right. I had a flaw in my thought, and it needed to be fixed.

To be sure, at the time of writing this, anger is more easily reached – I’m in the middle of breaking a couple of chemical dependencies. They were useful crutches at an earlier stage of my life, but I’ve come to a point where they were holding me back. So I quit THC and nicotine within a few days of each other, a decision that, while the correct one, has made me a bit edgy. That said, chemistry is not an excuse and I wasn’t going to just take that as a stopping point.

I did what I usually do when I know there’s something I need to fix and I don’t know how to – searched the internet for lists of good books on the subject. Once I have a decent stack of recommendations, I can work through several of them, putting aside the ones that don’t seem to be helping.

From the large pile I gathered, I pulled Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy. I was, as I’ve said, in a combative space, and this suited me.

I can frequently be heard referring to myself as lucky, usually in a tongue-in-cheek sense, but it’s moments like this one that make me wonder, sometimes…

Ego is the Enemy digs into the difference between the people who succeed briefly, then flame out, or never succeed at all, and those who stride forward, one foot in front of the other and their eyes on the goal. Holiday brings a wry humor to the task of reminding us that we are all, in the end, human. Drawing from exemplars of both the restrained and those who refused any restraint, each of his points is well supported and illustrated in a way that brings clarity of vision to the issue of ego.

In many ways, the diseases of the modern industrialized world are those of surfeit – too much sugar, too many calories, too much instant gratification and superstimuli. This excess is exacerbated by the fact that it is optimized for being form over substance. Prepacked foods are sugar and carbohydrates and fat. Porn comes in an instant, in a bewildering variety that your ancestors never had access to. In many ways, our civilization has a similar issue with self-esteem(link to review of pillars). At least for my generation, almost any achievement earned a gold star, trophies were given for showing up, and the adults chased us (this has gotten worse, I hear) trying to protect us from any failure. As a result, many of my peers (and me! I did not select this book at random!) grew up with a six hundred pound ego, suffering diabetic neuropathy and, like Fat Bastard, crying out, “I’m damn sexy!”

Ego is the enemy is the bread, water, and vitamin diet my ego needed. There is a mental sting one feels when a good point has been landed, one we know is accurate, and that we have no way of pushing aside. Ryan Holiday delivers that sting again and again, and if you’ve come to put your ego through fat camp, it’s just the suffering you want. Delicious!

The book is composed of fairly short chapters, each focused around one particular aspect. Talk, talk, talk. To be or to do? Become a student. Simple ideas that he puts flesh to with clear historic examples, ones that demand recognition. To be or to do? for example, focuses largely on John Boyd, a career serviceman who flew over Korea and became, in time, the lead instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. He touched the minds of many, shaped modern military thought directly and indirectly, and is almost totally unknown.

He would advise those he thought had promise to consider which path they wanted to follow in their lives. The version of this speech known to history is too good not to quote, so here you go:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

John Boyd

If you, like many of John Boyd’s disciples, want to do something rather than be someone, I’d strongly recommend you grab a copy of Ego is the enemy, and read it with a will.

College One

Sitting down to seriously plan this blog, I knew that one thing I really wanted to cover was my life experience: Who I am, and how I got here. I decided that while my childhood might be of interest to some, it was painful enough for me not to want to revisit it. The key points that will be relevant as the story goes are: I had basically no high school education, I somehow ended up with a diploma (with no backing) anyway, and I came out of the end of it with acceptance to UMass Amherst.

By Frigg, I loved Amherst. The whole Pioneer Valley touched something deep inside of me. I remember the first time I travelled through it, and immediately, I knew: This is home. The architecture appealed, from the rather quaint Jones Library, to the WEB Du Bois library, shedding bricks and sinking under the weight of storing books instead of, as planned, administrators. (At least, so local whispernet ran. I am unsure of the veracity of these claims.)

I took housing on the 2 in 20 floor, an initiative to bring together a number of people from the set LGBT. I enjoyed it, made some friends, and had a roommate who was incredibly patient with my poorly socialized and strange self. I was routinely out at all hours, sometimes not returning for days, or in company almost as strange as I. One such experience was when my (sworn) brother and a mutual acquaintance came by around 2 am, tripping for the first time and in need of a sitter.

I haven’t reflected on that night in… years. Looking back, I can see myself exercising the first seeds of a sense of responsibility toward others. It’s not that I wanted to go without sleep, following a pair of people who were having a better time that I was envious of. I considered what I knew of tripping, and that people are safer with sitters. Given that, it almost felt like there was no decision to make. Going with them was my downhill, and I fluidly flowed along. Watching the dawn from one of the Southwest Towers made it pretty worthwhile.

This was also the time I got “back” into chemistry. I’d tried nicotine and THC in my younger days, and found I liked them. As a legal adult, I could do what I wanted! I wanted nicotine and THC, and oh my did I get them. I started smoking hand-rolled cigarettes (Bali Shag Blue, if you please. None of this Bugler crap.) and weed regularly, and hey, I was having a good time. I was Living Life For Real. The philosophy I had at the time was the ancestral, vague and hazy version of one I ran for most of my adult life: Human happiness is the good. To increase the amount of human happiness is therefore good. If I make myself happy, I am serving good. Maybe not optimally, but I was then only a sprout of the person I am today.

I also wanted adventure, and I had several. I took most opportunities that sounded interesting – I went out to New Hampshire, spending some time there at a group house. I spent a while in Pennsylvania, meeting and getting to know Theddie and Kierstal, who became quite important to me. I also woke up to 9-11 in the home of a friend who worked in NYC. It was not a nice way to wake.

Shockingly, all of this was terrible for my grades. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned classes here, and the simple reason why is that I barely remember attending any. I know I was a CS major, I recall having some serious trouble with Java (perhaps because I NEVER WENT TO LECTURES?) and I’m fairly sure I attended the philosophy class that gave me an important life insight during this time.

We were discussing ethical systems, and I recall expounding my belief that, “The Rules apply to everybody, equally, or they are not rules, they are a club with which you beat people who are not in the club.” See the current American legal system and outcomes graphed over wealth / income for an ugly and close to home example of the latter half of that sentence.

From this, it seemed to me to naturally follow that if your ethical system led somewhere you were uncomfortable with, you had a few choices. You could reexamine the premises that had brought you to that point, and the reasoning you’d followed, to see if you’d erred along the way. You could decide that the entire framework was flawed/broken/wrong, and look for another. Finally, you could recognize that you knew what you were ‘supposed’ to be doing, and if you know what you should be doing then you’d better damn well do it, or admit to yourself you aren’t as good of a person as you’d thought. This remains true for me still, and is the axis on which I have turned a few times. The cloudy, gestalt version drove me to throw shoes on and chase a couple of people around campus and make sure they didn’t try to fly. The explicit version has me pouring all the hours I can into doing that which seems to me currently to be most fruitful to raise p(FAI).

Well, attending a few classes, even if you bring interesting ideas and write good papers, when you do, is inadequate to hold an academic career. I got put on academic probation, then suspension, and I departed campus, unsure of where to. This is as far as I’d planned to take this post. Thanks for reading through, and please do share your thoughts in the comments.