Book Review – Deep Work

Deep Work is very nearly the book I thought I was picking up last week. This book makes the case that our modern, distraction-soaked environment has immense costs in terms of sundering our ability to do meaningful work. Deep work is the second of Cal Newport’s books I’ve read, and both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You were good enough that I’m going to delve further into his list at some point. Cal writes good books.

In the first section of the book Cal makes the baseline case: most of us are being trained by unfettered and unfiltered internet access into doing shallow, rote type work, that has little real value aside from making us seem “busy”. He makes a good case for it – [support from the text, comparison w/jung and other deep workers]

Given these points, it’s actually kind of surprising we’ve bought into the online-all-the-time, concentration sundering world we’ve built. Certainly the internet has many virtues and allows us to do many things that we couldn’t have before, but it is a bit strange that we’ve accepted the “internet is always good” philosophy. I’m not leaving myself out of this, either – I’ve been a big promoter of the idea that being more connected is always better.

I’ve been convinced otherwise. I’ve started putting my instant messengers on “Away” for periods of time while I work on things. I ignore new email announcements. I’ll be starting some of the other techniques in the book soon as well.

Carl Jung, Woody Allen, and Bill Gates are held up as exemplars of deep work. Jung had a retreat he would go to, with a retreat-within-a-retreat in the form of an office to which no one was allowed:

“In my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.”

Woody Allen rejected computers for a typewriter, and wrote and directed 44 films in 44 years, taking 23 Academy Award nominations with his Olympia SM3. Bill Gates, for his part, regularly took “Think Weeks” during which he disconnected to read and think. Similarly, he pounded out BASIC for the Altair in eight weeks, often falling asleep at the keyboard in the middle of a line of code for an hour or two, then waking up and continuing from there.

Cal brings forth example after example of the value of deep work – Nate Silver’s prediction expertise, David Hansson’s Ruby on Rails, John Doerr’s venture capital success. These are the sorts of things that don’t come of writing emails and sitting in meetings all day, but from focusing, hard, on that which actually matters.

There are three prominent ways to win in the economy that pervades our current lives:

  1. Be a highly skilled worker.
  2. Be a superstar, famous widely enough to have people coming to you.
  3. Be a member of the ownership class.
    As wealth is a bit hard to come by, Cal identifies two core abilities available to anyone, in a way that wealth is not – the ability to quickly master hard things, and the ability to produce at an elite level, both quality and speed-wise. Deep work, he contends, is the path to these abilities. Anyone can take the time to focus, free of distraction, and begin to raise their skill level. Talent is dispensed with – while we love the idea of the prodigy who finds it easy to perform wondrous feats, greatness is said to come from deliberate practice and tight focus.

Why does deliberate practice work? Myelination. Deliberate practice involves exercising one neural circuit, again and again, in isolation from others. This causes the cells to wire together more tightly, and causes oligodendrocytes to wrap those neurons in myelin, causing that circuit to fire more quickly and cleanly.

Deep work also causes you to be able to produce at an elite level – here we discuss Adam Grant, a full professor at the Wharton School of Business. Grant produces papers at a rapid rate, and of high quality – in 2012 he wrote seven, all published in major journals. He does this by focusing, hard, on what he’s doing at any given time. In the fall, he teaches, getting all of his obligations in that realm cleared at once, and well enough to be the highest rated teacher at Wharton. In the spring and summer, he researches, with his teaching obligations completed and not distracting him.

There is also a chapter of part one dedicated to meaning – deep work is experienced as being more meaningful than shallow. What your life is, is made up of what you pay attention to, as supported by Winifred Gallagher’s experience with having cancer as detailed in her book, Rapt. When she received her diagnosis, she decided to focus on her life, that which she chose, rather than the forced actions induced by her cancer. Despite exhausting and terrible medical treatment, her life was often “quite pleasant”.

What you focus on is what your experience is made of, and deep work has a sense of gravity and importance lacking in sending a series of emails. Focusing, therefore, on deep work, will lead your life to be composed of meaning and worth – a claim supported by my experiences of late. I’ve certainly found my life feels more meaningful having dedicated myself to growth in difficult areas.

The bulk of the book lies in part two, in which are outlined four rules to become an expert in deep work:

First, Work Deeply. Focus yourself on the meaningful work by eliminating distractions, rather than requiring yourself to resist temptation again and again. Decide on a strategy of deep work (monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, or journalistic) and follow it. Have set times to check your email, set your instant messenger to ‘Away’, ritualize your work periods, make grand gestures (the example of JK Rowling renting a hotel room to work in away from distractions is given here), and work with a partner, if possible, so you can both drive each other forward.

Secondly, Embrace Boredom. We are used to, in moments of boredom, being able to summon immediate entertainment, a habit that weakens our ability to focus for long periods. Instant gratification is the enemy of deep work. The ability to concentrate is trained, not innate, and by distracting ourselves continuously we train the opposite – to be as focused as a pinball, being driven from amusement to amusement with no lasting impact.

Third, Quit Social Media. Social media is optimized to keep us clicking, scrolling, upvoting and liking. It’s designed to addict us, and it justifies this addiction by providing some small value – so much so that to observe that one is not on Facebook will bring on a deluge of reasons why people use the service, sounding much like they are trying to convince themselves – at least, that’s how I read the comments Cal received when he so observed in an article. They sound very much like justifications I was making a few years ago for my media use, and I was definitely trying to convince myself.

Finally, Drain the Shallows. To drain the shallows, limit the amount of your working time you spend on shallow work. Batch clearing your email inbox, and when you do respond to emails, do so in as much detail as possible, rather than in a series of short messages that invite an extended back and forth conversation. Schedule your day every morning, and if events force you to change your schedule, reschedule it. Quantify the depth of the activities you engage in, and lean towards the deeper ones. Request or set a shallow work budget, and stick to it.

As I’ve said, I quite enjoyed Deep Work, and I think I got a lot of value from it – enough that I’ll likely be referring back to it again and again quite a bit in the coming month. If you want to do something, Deep Work is a book you’ll want to add to your ‘read’ list – it’s full of useful tools and research, and well worth the time investment to read it.

On “One Piece”

Sorry for a short, kinda fluff-y ramble this week. I’m working on a longer and more interesting post, partnered with a partner, but it’s not going to be done in time to post, so I’m writing this up instead.

“Anime was a mistake.”

It’s a troll, fictional quote, but a lot of people agree with it, and you can fairly easily get even more people to agree if you bring up One Piece. With an incredibly long backlog and lack of certain kinds of depth, one can be forgiven for thinking that One Piece was a mistake, one that’s acquired far more money and fandom than it deserves. I won’t try to argue that it’s deep and thought provoking, or that it doesn’t require an inordinate amount of time to be an active fan of.

What I will argue, and this hill I will die on, is that One Piece is great. Not everything has to be the Rifters trilogy, or Madoka Magica, or Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s okay for something to just be fun, to be about enjoying yourself and having a good time and setting down your cares for a while without worrying that a character will be [REDACTED] and then killed.

Really, it is.

I think there’s a certain tendency to dismiss things that don’t confront serious themes like this constantly as, “kid stuff”, and you can take it that way, but what’s wrong with kid stuff? When did we decide that to be an adult meant having to give up simple pleasures? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Madoka Magica, but it’s okay to not always be thinking about self-annihilating sacrifice in your entertainment time. It’s even good for you, in ways that I’ll tie back here in upcoming pieces.

Aside from that, One Piece does have valuable lessons. Important ones, that it’s easy to lose sight of, being an adult, especially a grim and serious one.

Quick diversion – /r/egg_irl. It’s a subreddit of memes involving people denying being trans, trying to shove it off and be something else or claim they can just bury it and they’ll be fine or whatever. I was browsing it the other day and thinking about some people I know who think that it’s a negative influence, spreading the trans viral meme to people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.

I don’t know enough about the etiology of being trans to say they’re wrong in all cases, although I didn’t catch it from anything like this. I realized my gender was broken, and then I went researching and found out about transness. I think for at least some people /r/egg_irl and other ways people become aware of being trans and what it’s like are great!

Why?

Because it’s helpful to get it rammed into your skull from several angles that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT”. I spent a few hours one evening talking to a close friend, about her feelings about things, and encouraging her to really look instead of pushing her desires aside, at the end of which she acknowledged that she was in fact trans, and started acting on it. She’s much happier now, to the best of my knowledge.

Why am I talking about a trans meme subreddit in a post on One Piece?

I watched ~ 600 episodes of One Piece during the Lost Decade and it kept ramming into my thick skull that, “HEY STUPID THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT YOURSELF YOU REALLY NEED TO LOOK AT” and eventually I did.

The thing that really got through to me was Nico Robin’s pre-timeskip arc. There’s a scene that I find really powerful, with the Straw Hats on one side of a gorge talking to Robin on the other. Luffy demands that if Robin is going to choose to die, that she *tell him so*, in a way he’ll believe. Confronted with evidence that there are people in the world who care about her, enough to go to war with the world, people who want her to exist, she cries out words the World Government has declared taboo for her – “I WANT TO LIVE!

I fell to thinking about how I’d love a place on the Going Merry / Thousand Sunny, to have friends like that, to have a dream to be pursuing. To have comrades and a quest. When I looked, really looked, in the way I later urged my friend to, there was a well of pain and void deep enough that it hurts now to reflect on.

I wanted to have people that I would lay down my life for, without a regret.

I wanted to have something that I wanted so badly that it wouldn’t matter if I died pursuing it, because it was what I wanted.

I wanted these things so badly that running that memory brought me to the edge of tears again now.

So dismiss One Piece because the characters aren’t rent with agony one way and another over every decision they make.

Deride it because it’s happy and colorful and silly, if you must.

But don’t you dare say it has no redeeming value. It taught me that I did want a community, that I did want a dream. This realization pushed me into joining Wildstar again and eventually saved my life. It led me to be standing where I am now, in Berkeley, with comrades brave and true, and it led me to hold the dream that I can matter, that I can help save the world. Value, and to spare.

Colorado Dreamin’ (wait…)

When I left off last week, I had just quit the only job I’ve held longer than a year at a time, broken a decade long silence with my mother, and given my cat and Martina’s to someone who could take them in. I packed what I owned and UPSed it, and got on a plane.

This was all pretty scary, and going to Colorado was as well; with the noted bug with long-term employment, and my stellar educational history (for those of you who haven’t been keeping score at home, I have neither a high school nor college diploma) I was pretty worried about picking up work, but while I wasn’t sure of my future, I knew my past couldn’t continue, and one of my valuable qualities, I think, is being able to recognize that, and then to start walking.

So I walked onto a plane, and went further from “home” (The Pioneer Valley) than I’ve ever been, into the home shared by, as I mentioned, my guild leader: Dread Mistress Verana Bloodrose, Our Lady of Fluids and Flowers, Savior of Patio Furniture, First of Her Name, and Gray (no titles) who kindly offered me space without immediately demanding rent – I paid rent while I had money left, and when I ran out, they went so far as to buy me food and other desirables.

At the time I was an officer of The Final Frontier, and the main tank in our raiding. I spent ~ ten hours a week being out in front and getting pounded on for the common good, and a lot of the remaining hours ingame either talking, giving advice, or doing stuff to advance the guild.

So I spent the rest of October and November recovering from sleep deprivation and the stress I’d been under, and starting to apply to jobs. In December Blood got a job offer from a company known then as Vantiv, later to be bought out by WorldPay, and I think they just go bought out again by some other player in the space. I applied to them using her as a reference / referral, and was hired myself to a training started in February.

Aside from the commute it was in many ways the best job I’d held. I was making more hourly than I ever had, and I had paid leave. PCAs can’t even get paid for all of the hours we were actually doing things, so you can imagine how novel being paid not to be there was.

As to the commute, I rode with Blood while we were both in training, and after that I biked – 8 miles each way, and while Colorado is gorgeous, it is not flat. But I had the Animas River trail to follow most of the way – I often saw deer, and once I had the experience of being scared silly by seeing a bear cub (Where’s the mother where’s the mother where’s the mother PEDAL HARDER). I saw meteors in the predawn starscape, and I saw a mountain burning at one point. There was even a certain amount of pride to take in being able to ride 16 miles a day – I’ve now biked a distance equivalent of coast to coast in less than a year.

For six weeks, I trained in how to handle incoming calls – where to send the ones that weren’t for me in technical support, and the many ways credit card readers and reporting can go awry and what do to about it. I remained gung-ho about my employment through this time.

in the following months, there was a slow decline in my work satisfaction. People I enjoyed working with departed, and I found as the novelty wore off , it honestly wasn’t a very good job. with the local cost of living, the pay was actually fairly poor, and when confronted on this, management took the stance that to live in Durango was a privilege and it was unreasonable to expect to be well-paid, too. I learned that having a business, even a reasonably successful one, was no guarantee of intelligence or civility, and that I, as technical support, would often bear the brunt of people’s frustration at being confronted with technology they didn’t understand, and distrusted.

What I didn’t realize until later is that another factor, one that I think was the heaviest, is that the work I was doing didn’t really improve anything. It mattered little in any real sense if I were there or not – the wheels of commerce would grind on regardless; I wasn’t actually improving the world.

Around midsummer, I started looking for other outlets. Gaming wasn’t satisfying, and neither was my work, any longer. I had been lightly following the rationality community for some time – I often had some bit of the Sequences as the comment seen by hovering over my name on the instant messenger at work, when I wasn’t quoting CGP Grey. I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality more times than I’ve read Worm, and I think that says a lot – I really love Worm. I decided to get actually connected, and I joined the discord linked to from Slate Star Codex, which I think is a source of some truly excellent posts.

From there, I made friends, which led, in a fairly reasonable series of steps, to joining (a synthetic syncretic religion|a cult) – Origin. With the aim of destroying all evil in the universe, we were not thinking small, at least. Origin was an attempt to build a self-reinforcing, self-extending memeplex that would grow to be embraced by the world at large.

While it failed in that goal, it did evoke some changes in me. I started reducing my meat consumption, and I started to think I had a place in the efforts to save the world – not a leading role, but for quite some time I had considered myself a sergeant or lieutenant in the the world – someone whose role was to assist, to help another or others to achieve the goals they set.

I started spending less time gaming – clearing a night to make Origin meetings, and thinking about the state of the world more when previously I had chatted in guild and public channels. I started thinking of the world as something I had to do something about, and not just something that happened to me.

My lack of focus on the game had costs – anothe player, who did nothing but tank, was better than me and wanted my role, and I didn’t have enough focus to fight her, but I also didn’t want to be supplanted. Painfully, though, I had to admit that I couldn’t outtank her, if she chose to, and I stepped down.

Other changes – Gray decided he wanted to move on from Durango, and Blood wanted to move on from Vantiv. He went across the state, and she went across the country to be with her partner in California. I found a place with some other co-workers, smaller but closer to work and cheaper. I started looking at ways to advance inside the company, but it felt hollow to pursue more money, and I did little about it.

One morning in October I woke up in agony. My right piriformis muscle had cramped, and my right leg was a construct of broken glass and molten lead connected to nerves. This was not a condition I could ride into work in, and I ended up spending more than a week out, spent mostly lying on the floor in agony and waiting for the muscle relaxants to work. To this day part of my right leg is numb from the damage done.

This almost seemed to be an inflection point. All of the joy had gone out of working, and it was just a pure drag. I was grinding for money that was barely paying the bills and that I’ve never really had the same kind of draw to that most people seem to, and it just wasn’t enough. I wanted Out.

I had a conversation with Mark (previously mentioned in The Hell Year) about this, and he told me that he could give me a live-in position with him. At the time, it seemed like PCA was the only job I was going to be able to hold in any lasting way, so I jumped for it. I put in my two weeks notice, I informed my landlord that I’d be going, and then I started trying to plan the trip. I asked Mark for dates to plan around, and got back empty assurances – things world work out, he was just a little busy.

Finally, while I was visiting my parents, I gave him an ultimatum – that if I didn’t hear back in the next two days, I’d need to figure something else out.

Ne never responded, and I was left with no job, a very temporary living space, and no plan. However, it might have occurred to you, reading this narrative, that I am lucky. I had not long before started a new relationship with my current primary, and he had an answer for me:

Go to California.

Go to Berkeley, find the community there, and get connected up.

He would pay my way, and I would do worthwhile things.

This was the start of the most recent, most interesting, and all around best segment of my life thus far, and I’ll start detailing the first subsection next week.

Book Review – The Age of Overwhelm

The Age of Overwhelm was not the book I was anticipating. I have a folder into which I put books I place a high value on having read, which I sometimes read books from – setting myself up to regularly review a new book has helped with this somewhat, but there is some backlog, at this point.

I pulled Age of Overwhelm up expecting a book on how our modern age has us constantly (checks her email to see what the new message light is for) breaking our attention to focus on something else demanding we pay our attention to it – facebook messages, discord pings, email. Instead, the book is largely about emotional overwhelm – that state when everything is just too damn much, and you either find some escape, or melt down.

Certainly Age of Overwhelm does an excellent job characterizing the issue – we are provided with example after example of people in overwhelming situations, from the increasing hospitalization of suicidal teenagers, to activists who watch their causes become ever worse as they try to make them better, or even hold steady. One particularly striking example is given from the life of someone dedicated to preventing gun violence. Her son observed a Breaking News feed about a mass shooting, and reported to her, “Mommy, you failed at your job.”

Far less space seems to be given to how to meliorate these issues. We are again shown ways to become overwhelmed, and there are moments where solutions are discussed – taking space, getting exposure to nature, being less attached – but the book focuses so much more heavily on overwhelm and being overwhelmed, that these seem like more of an afterthought than the primary subject matter.

It’s rare to find a self-help book that spends more page space on why you need the help, than on the help. For the first third of the book, I didn’t recall seeing any help – so much so that I decided to actively look for it. While there are sentences and paragraphs describing ways to be less whelmed, on the whole it seems more like a study of the state of affairs, than a text aimed at improving things.

Perhaps the author found the subject matter a bit overwhelming herself – certainly there is a great deal of pain in the world that Laura van Dernoot Lipsky brings us to look at. Having read it, I find myself questioning if it is necessary for us to live in this way.

I’ve always been a strong extropian accelerationist – I think the sooner we get to fully-automated luxury gay space communism, the better. I’m not as convinced we need to be breaking ourselves along the way. Those who’ve known me through my recent personal changes may find this somewhat surprising – I often challenge myself to get more done in a day.

I also try to spend part of every day playing the violin. I game, still, somewhat irregularly – I was until recently active in a D&D campaign. I have a Fallout – A Tale of Two Wastelands save no more than weeks old. While I’ve taken the motto of Boxer to heart (“I will work harder!”) and find myself chanting along with Watsky about the moral of the story (“Work! Work! Work! Work! Work!”) I recognize, on some level, the need to play, to goof off, to relax. To get your chill on.

Age of Overwhelm makes a strong case that, as a society, we’ve lost sight of this vital human need. “We are game-playing, fun-having creatures, we are the otters of the universe.” I think we lose sight of this at our peril, and Age of Overwhelm makes an excellent case that we are imperiled indeed.

On Dreams and Dreaming

There was a time I didn’t dream.

I say “a time”, but in fact, for the majority of my life I did not dream, in either the general or metaphorical sense.

I was a heavy user of marijuana, and a heavy user of caffeine, and that certainly accounts for the poor sleep quality that led to a lack of dreams at night. Once I quit thc, caffeine, stimulants, and other psychoactives, I’ve dreamed every night since.

Dreams of the night are odd. I’ve read that they’re for memory consolidation, for working out issues that the day brings, and for improving skills. I keep dreaming about being a cape, a superpowered human. I’m not sure what to take from this. It’s certainly true that I want to save the world, but it’s not as though I can expect to fly, or fight other capes to do so. Likewise, I am unlikely to be a bender, and manifest fire or throw rocks to that end. I’m not sure what the point of any of this is except to grind ever deeper, “Be a hero. Be a hero. Be a hero.”

The dream (ambitions) sense is a bit harder to explain. Hard to explain isn’t really the correct way to say that, unless I include the sense in which it is difficult for me to type these words, in preparation to putting them out for the world to see; the explanation is quite simple: cowardice. I had no ambitions, because to have ambitions was to invite a great deal of work into my life to achieve them, and to invite the risk of failure. To allow the possibility of putting in the work, and not achieving my dreams regardless.

Certainly, any time we form an ambition, this is a possibility. Some things are limited as to how many people can do them – there can be only one first human on the moon, or Mars. There are only so many slots open on the Lakers. There’s only one President at a time.

Others are talent or other ability limited – there are few blind great painters, few (unacquired) deaf composers, almost no paralyzed jugglers. How many teenagers have acquired a guitar, dreams of being the next Hendrix in their minds, only to learn that their ambition exceeds by far their native talent.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about this lately, and worrying that I don’t have the talent to achieve my dreams. If you don’t know, I want to do meaningful work on the alignment problem – I want to help making artificial intelligence that wants the same kind of outcomes that humans want, as opposed to filling the universe with paperclips or tiny molecular smiley-faces or orgasmium or something. It’s not easy work, and I’m coming to it at a disadvantage – it’s not like dropping out of college twice puts you in a great place for this. Staring at math books and feeling stupid, I wonder if I’m mad to have taken up this ambition.

There are times I am vexed that the world is in such a state that I feel called to save it. I derive a lot of pain from thinking about the state of things. It’s not that…

As I’ve said, I’m grateful that, if such a time is going to have happened in the universe, I’m here, to do something about it. I think were I born into the Culture I would go through life kind of dissatisfied. I want to matter, I just don’t know if I can get there.

On the whole, regardless of the pain, I’m glad I learned to dream. It hurts not to know if I can measure up, or worse, the days I think I know that I can’t, but the grey times, with no dreams by day or night, I think they were worse. Waiting for time to pass, so that something interesting happened out in the world to hear about, or a new book I could read came, those times were so much less than now, having something to work for, a dream to chase. The pain if I can’t?

Hurts.

But it’s still better than the sucking void of the grey days.

If you’re afraid to have dreams, because of the fear of missing, and plunging into that pain, my advice is to risk it. Put yourself where the pain is a possibility, because to hide from it is so much worse.

The Hell Year

Time for some rough memories. The worst time I’ve had in my adult life: The Hell Year.

As I mentioned last time, we got evicted from the apartment in Salem, and I was able to keep my computer, my cat, and the clothes I was wearing. Everything else, my furniture, my clothes, all of the other things one acquires living a life, ended up in the hallway of the apartment complex. The day had been spent shuttling Martina’s things to the hotel room we were going to be staying in. I got to go in the last trip, with Martina’s other assistant hurrying me along, trying to pick what was most worthwhile of my belongings.

The next day I went back to the apartment complex, to find that all of my stuff was gone. When I inquired after it in the office, I was told it had been put in a storage facility where it would be safe for some time. After a time, paying for it would stop being the responsibility of the complex, and fall to Martina. Satisfied that it was at least safe for the moment, I returned to the hotel where we were staying.

This did leave me without clothes, which is in fact something of a problem. I walked over to the nearby mall and bought a few things from Target’s discount rack; a few dresses, some tights. Over that whole time period I was frustrated and hurt again and again as I was gendered male regardless of wearing obviously female-coded clothing. It was far from my only frustration.

Roughly ten days into our stay, I was awakened to be informed that we needed to move. Martina had only booked the room for so long, and they weren’t open to extending our stay. Instead, we moved to another hotel, after packing up kit, cats, and mobility equipment.

That was one of the major patterns of that year – Martina wasn’t taking care of, or even really paying attention to things, and so we frequently had to move hotels on very short notice, because our reservation was up and they needed the room for someone else’s reservation, and they didn’t have any other space. So we’d end up hurriedly packing our stuff and chasing down the cats and putting them in carriers for hours – it was kind of like being evicted all over again. And again. And again.

We moved roughly 40 times that year, often on less than a day’s notice (to me, at least), often with no idea of where we were going to go next – Martina wasn’t looking ahead, at all, so we spent several days in the lobbies of hotels with two boxes of crying cat, and an increasingly frustrated Rath. Martina only had one other assistant besides me, so it was often even more complicated as we tried to work out who was going to drive the van (rented) to get our stuff to wherever we were going next. She ended up calling in a number of favors to get someone to come move stuff.

Speaking of favors, she was also calling in favors to get rooms paid for. She couldn’t afford to rent hotel rooms for long, and nor could her parents / family. At several points she came to me for money – while the live-in job was supposed to include housing, if she couldn’t afford housing, we would be out on the street, both of us and the cats, as she frequently noted. I ended up putting my money up several times that year to keep a roof over our heads, eventually putting her tens of thousands of dollars in debt to me, but contemplating being homeless again, and losing our cats in the street, was too horrifying for me to resist.

The other way she took advantage of me during this time – as I’ve mentioned, as the live-in, I took over any shift that wasn’t covered. Her other assistant was working weekdays, from 9 am to 7 in the evening, with all of the rest of the time being my responsibility. I was on the clock for 120 hours every week; technically 60 hours was what I was paid for, but I was in fact responsible for all of the time. PCA hour provision is in fact kind of terrible.

I’m unusually capable of dealing with sleep deprivation; I can do an all-nighter and barely notice. I mention this to give you some idea of how badly off I was during that year – since I largely slept by days, moving suddenly cut into my sleep time, as did having to resolve other problems as I was frequently called to do, and of course I couldn’t sleep reliably when I was on shift. By the end of the Hell Year, I was sleeping through the phone ringing continuously for an hour, there were times when I answered the phone, listened, interacted, and then went back to sleep.

Somewhere in this time she brought in another friend of hers – Mark. While he had been in a bad situation (In a third floor apartment in a building with no elevator, with a problematic roommate) our situation was not really enough better to justify bringing him and his cat from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, to be a part of our regular move-panics and payment-panics. Nevertheless, there he was in a series of hotel rooms that seemed even smaller. He, too, got sucked into paying for space until he was broke.

I was pushed to my limits emotionally, fiscally, and physically. Eventually Mark and I confronted Martina, because it was too much, and we couldn’t continue anymore. We went to her and demanded to know what was going on in her head, because this wasn’t a situation that could be allowed to continue. I refused to be put off until I got a real answer, and we finally managed to get one from her – she was waiting for one of two outcomes: Either things would get so bad that someone would have to rescue her, or she would die.

I don’t know if it was an attempt to see if anyone actually cared, or if she just couldn’t stand to be responsible for her life anymore. I did know that I couldn’t be carried along with it anymore. After we spent a while trying to explain what was wrong with this pattern to her and failing, I finally set an ultimatum: The next time the day came when we had to move without warning or plan, or the next time she turned to me to pay for rooms, was going to be the end. I’d offer her my last timesheet to sign, and we’d part ways.

Less than two weeks later, we came to the end. The Incident at the Red Roof Inn. We had to move again, and while it was better telegraphed, when we got to the hotel, they were insisting that they didn’t have a reservation, nor did they have a card on file. She turned to me to ask me to put my card down, insisting that it would only be for a day, and her friend would put his card on file the next day.

This was a game we had played before, and I learned from experience. As the person we’d gotten to drive us knew the friend in question, we were able to call him and ask if he intended to cover the room. Shockingly, he had no idea about this – he had planned to come and help Martina with a GoFundMe the following day, and had no intention of paying for hotel rooms.

That was the end of things; I had drawn a line in the sand, and I had to keep to it. I filled out a timesheet, got her signature, faxed it in, took one room with Mark and all of our cats, and we left her there in the lobby. As I told her, I wasn’t going to leave her cat to be homeless and disappear into the streets and die to a car because she couldn’t get her shit together.

Eventually, we relented to the extent of letting her stay with us for one night, and to say goodbye to her cat, after which she would need to find her own way. None of that day was easy; having to break off our relationship, having to take her cat from her because it was the responsible thing for him, and then having to continue making the decision that things were over, because she kept trying to talk me around, was excruciating.

Nevertheless, we did manage to get her to leave the next day. She went to the lobby and spent the day hanging around and trying to get someone to put her up. Eventually the hotel called the police, who ended up bringing in the fire department, who ended up bringing in paramedics, who eventually came to get me. I explained the situation, and they took her off to a hospital somewhere.

I had been making long term sort-of plans to move to Colorado. Some friends of mine, the leader and an officer of my Wildstar guild had offered me space, and I had intended to build up a reserve and fly out there. Instead, I ended up spending most of what I had to have the hotel room for Mark and I for a week. I spent the time finding someone to take in the cats, and reaching out to my mother.

About ten years before, early in the lost decade, I had attended my grandfather’s funeral. While I was there, mom had a lot of trouble with my name and gender, and said something about the hormones making me oversensitive when I said something about it, which had led me to decide to end contact; I was already in a lot of pain and having my mother repeatedly jab me in a sensitive place was too much.

However, parents have a way of being there when you really need them. She covered my trip to Colorado and mailing the rest of my stuff, and a week later, I was on my way to Durango. Thus ended the Hell Year.

Book Review – Interdependent Capitalism

This week, I felt compelled to review Interdependent Capitalism, a book I received as part of a workshop on perverse incentives. Once I cracked the cover, I spent the next few hours reading until I hit the other cover. Most nonfiction doesn’t hit me quite that hard, so Interdependent Capitalism stands out as something of an outlier to me, and I’m glad I have this platform to broadcast it on.

Interdependent Capitalism opens with a discussion of the meaning of a korean term, “gohyang”, which translates to the english term, “hometown”, “a place where one was born or grew up”. For the Yun family (three of whom worked on this book) gohyang speaks to more than just a familiar place where one spent one’s childhood. It is compared to a sacred sanctuary, a centralization of family, and the classic metaphor of home – a place “where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” as Frost put it.

Much of the book revolves around the idea of the “kin village”, the sort of environment most of our ancestors lived their lives in, where everybody knew everybody, was more or less related to everybody, and someone from ten miles away was an exotic stranger, and what happens when this is no longer the case. The primary thesis of the book is that, in leaving these environments and going forth into the world, we’ve left a place where everybody had a reason to care for you, and their inclusive fitness would suffer to some degree by cheating you. We live instead in nuclear families, among other nuclear families, all competing to get ahead of our low-relatedness surrounding neighbors.

As relative strangers, we improve our fitness by putting our interests first, and those of our neighbors last, if we bother to list them at all. In other words, our biological evolution hasn’t kept pace with our cultural evolution, and we suffer for it again and again when we expect our neighbors to act like our kin, and they don’t. Mechanisms that had your aunts and uncles serving as your heroes betray you when celebrities become our heroes, and hawk a new diet book that does nothing but enrich them.

Part one contains a story of how, starting from our ancestral family villages, we got to the point of our current, largely atomized state. They coin the term, “kin skin in the game” to refer to investment in social systems due to genetic proximity. From eusociality to incest taboos, different pieces of behavior come under the microscope to show the benefits of working together – when one’s close relatives are the beneficiaries.

However, as genetic lines diverge, separated by distance and outbreeding, the incentive to cheat (at least with those outside the group unit, once the village and now the nuclear family) only increases. With a greater ability to abandon existing relationships for new ones, and a decrease in genetic alignment in one’s society, they claim three phenomena emerge:
First, an increase in “self-dealing” – a term they define to mean a particular kind of defection – not outright theft or robbery, but a kind of dereliction of duty – the public servant who accepts a bribe, or the CEO who invests company cash in a cousin’s business on non-market terms, is self-dealing, as is the employee who books more expensive flights on the company travel card, to accumulate more frequent flier miles.
Second, increased counterparty risk.
And third, decreased win-win transactions based on vested interests.

All of these benefit the atomized individual / nuclear family more than they do the tightly related group, but they also disadvantage those on the losing side of each phenomena, and on the whole, the gains are not commensurate with the losses – especially for the average person, as the least scrupulous and most grasping seek to enrich themselves in win-lose transactions that, while they reduce the total available winnings for everyone, pay off for them specifically at a higher rate.

In part two, the focus is on the race to the bottom line, how systems that aren’t based around inclusive genetic fitness favor those forces who can Goodhart the hardest – making the tastiest food with ingredients that happen to be radically unhealthy, or who can make their packaged subprime mortgages pay the highest returns – on paper, at least, without considering default rates. As they put it, “the system will eventually select for fake news about fake heroes endorsing fake foods.”

From information to olive oil, baseball teams to mortgage lending, our modern systems fail to properly connect the losses from the damages done by self-dealing, to those who do the dealing, often until the institutions they fed on parasitically collapse under the obviousness of their finally deranged behaviors, social trust is further eroded, and a few people who participated are elected as sacrificial lambs to appease the baying mob.

From these ashes, a new race arises – the race to the middle, the race to Goodhart “good enough”: not so bad as to be obviously damaging, but optimized to stay just ahead of that clear tipping point when the need to clean house becomes obvious. Instead they limp on, year after year, failing to either properly serve society, or be so clearly terrible that they need to be disposed of.

One consequence of the movement of institutions to self-dealing is, I think, particularly pernicious. Vampirelike, the self-dealing institution leaves the individual sucked dry, and then to turn to self-dealing themselves, since, after all, “You’ve got to look out for number one. Nobody else is.” This is illustrated through the lens of psychology. I think a telling point is made when they compare the size of floorspace in your average bookstore dedicated to self-help as compared with the floorspace of the help-others section.

What help-others section?

Exactly.

The individual is made champion, held up to be the hero, while those others are the bad guys, the responsible ones. The system abstracts the harm done to others out of our sight, and out of our minds. We build stories about bad guys and good guys even as we line the pockets of the bad guys to drive our cars and eat our meals, ignoring the cost paid in atmospheric pollution and the suffering of farm animals.

So what can we do about this spiral of mediocrity, backstabbing, and suffering?

This is the focus of part three, rewriting the social contract and using existing forces to feed the system to the system, using its own forces and incentives against it. The authors envision a world where compersion is as well known as schadenfreude (and here’s hoping the song about compersion is as catchy as its counterpart.) and more available to the average person. A world of “they statements” made “I statements” for turning depressing situations into personal responsibilities – while their example is of cleaning highways, personally I think of a change I went through, from “Someone needs to save the world” to “I need to do something about the world needing saving.”

As calls to action go, the authors push to “restart at year zero” seems well-supported and thought out, although short on easy to apply, instant win actions. But this is in some ways their primary point – the system is not going to package and advertise the end of the system to you. Instead we are issued mass produced Guy Fawkes masks and told the correct places to protest for maximum visibility and minimal actual change. While the Yuns gesture at some points of intervention, it’s clear that they don’t have all the answers – that all the answers won’t be found if we wait for someone else to find them for us.

It’s time, instead, that we go out and look – and as we go, compliment the person searching next to you for the offered helping hand. Social trust can’t be rebuilt without society, and if you look closely enough, society is built of you and me.

On Grief

I’ve never broken a bone.

I remember talking to my mom about doing so, when I was a kid. She told me it was a very painful experience. One that would certainly make me cry.

I can’t say for sure, although these days I’ve gotten pretty good at managing physical sensations.

Crying in pain, though? That still happens.

Not physical pain; emotional. Specifically, grief.

I was washing some dishes and thinking about Martina, who I’ve mentioned here before, in Meeting Martina, and again in The Lost Decade. I’ll talk about our last year together, before we parted ways, next week.

I wish I could link her to these. I’m sure she’d love to see me writing, and posting it publically. She’d really love to hear about what I’m up to. How I found purpose, and what I’m doing with it.

But I can’t.

Spoiler alert for a few autobio pasts ahead: She died. Last November.

I didn’t hear about it until December, long enough that by the time I did, her funeral was over, and whatever happened to her cat, Richard, was out of my control, and impossible to find out. She asked me to take care of that cat so many times, if something happened to her, and every time, I assured her that I would.

I don’t know what happened to him. If someone took him in, nobody knew about it on facebook. I keep thinking about that. She was intense about promises made to the dead, and I failed in that duty.

That’s not the part that hurts the most, though. I’ve largely learned to deal with guilt.

No, it’s just the awareness; my friend is gone. I spent more hours in her presence than any person I’m not related to, or was dating. I went with her to ADAPT marches, I kept her alive during a several day power outage by having planned ahead and having a thermal emergency blanket, she kept me from being homeless multiple times. We talked of things shallow, and intensely personal, and for the latter half of our association, she swore up and down that I was psychic, because enough time spent talking to her let me predict the shape of a thing that she’d never said, and wouldn’t have, except that I could see it.

There’s a hole, in my map of the world. When I look at it, I start crying. I remember telling her that I was planning to transition (“You don’t tell people things like that when they’re eating!”). I remember waiting in a pharmacy with her to get an emergency supply of her allergy meds, as her throat slowly closed, and seriously considering jumping the counter and assaulting the pharmacist because he was taking too long. I can remember several nights of various horrible health issues, going to hospitals, and the time the ambulance left without me.

People tell me grief fades, with time. I don’t know if I’m unusual, in that I still hurt this deeply. I want to be clear, though. While I’ve spent the last ~2 hours crying about her, it’s not just her. If I look at the hole where my grandfather was, there’s grief there, too. He’s been gone ten years, but if I don’t dissociate, the pain’s still there, just waiting to catch my eye. Hey there, remember Bob? He’s still gone! (He told me to call him Bob instead of Grandpa, in case any pretty girls heard. His nickname was Happy Bob; always with a smile and a joke, he was.)

I can look another direction, and there’s a hole where my father used to be. We weren’t even that close; my parents had separated when he died, and when they were together, we didn’t get along; I suspect he’d picked up some subtle tell of my being trans, and it bothered him, and so he tried to make a man of me. Still, I can contemplate losing him, and start crying as hard as I did as his funeral. (Suicide. Fun fact: I learned about this in a meeting with therapists, caseworkers, program staff, and my mom. They’d distributed an information packet to everyone, you see, and I had the lightning reading speed trait then. Reading was way more interesting than a meeting, right up until, “[Deadname]’s father committed suicide a few years ago. [Deadname] is not currently aware of this.” I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Mom, so if she reads this post, that’ll be an interesting bit. Certainly I don’t blame her for this; wasn’t her printout.)

So maybe I’m different from other people, when it comes to grief, but I don’t think I really am. Neuromachinery is pretty solidly conserved across the species, to the best of my knowledge. I think what happens to most is that they feel the pain, and it hurts (so goddamn bad) and little by little, they build up a reflex to dissociate from it, automatically. Day by day, it gets a little stronger, a little more automatic, until one day they look at the hole, and can’t really feel the pain at all. This hypothesis explains my observations, and why I differ in this area – I’ve spent the last year learning not to dissociate. At one point last year I could barely feel anything. Didn’t recognize when I felt anger, (I remember being angry on Martina’s behalf, at a Greyhound ticket agent who charged both of us four times for our tickets) didn’t really feel happy anymore, and love was fading away, which was when I realized I had a problem – my feelings for my partners were moving out of my reach.

With help from various friends, to whom I am deeply grateful, I recovered. I learned to feel my feelings, and the mental move that stops dissociation from happening. I treasure my feelings now, delightful and painful alike, and I don’t want dissociation to come back in and steal them away.

But fuck, grief hurts.

The Lost Decade

Okay, technically, it was more like eight years, but that’s most of a decade, and it’s way more poetic in my backstory than, “The Lost Octade”, don’t you think?

I’d lost my apartment, my partner, half of my cats, my hope for a future, and gone back to living with / working for Martina. The work was tolerable most of the time, but it was still crushing to me to think of it as the only work I was suited to. There is a phrase that has stuck with me, over the years. Most of the time I don’t think it’s something that applies to me, because I don’t believe in strict purposes of lives, as assigned by some higher being making us dance to a set tune. Still, there are times that I wonder…

“Have you considered that the purpose of your life may be to serve as a warning to others?”

It’s a painful thought! During the lost decade, I spent a lot of effort trying to convince myself, that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t going to matter. And I did matter, a little. I will leave aside false modesty and say that I was the best PCA Martina had, who I met. I was regularly called on to resolve issues that her other assistants couldn’t, or to teach, or to figure out some sort of hack to fix something, improve something, or make something possible. I was directly responsible for saving her life a few times, and she left me with a number of her secrets, over the course of our association.

For most of that time we lived in Belchertown, she and I, and Richard and Velcro, our cats. She had her room, and I mine across the hall, well within shouting range. I spent most of my time in there, playing games and reading the internet. That was life, for roughly seven years. Gaming, working, semi-regular trips to the grocery store, and irregular work trips (during which I largely stayed in our hotel room, reading the internet and playing games.)

Adding to my discontent during this time was that, at the end of my time with UMass, i had lost my insurance. My insurance had been fueling my transition, and without it, I stopped having hormones, stopped having a therapist, and ended up squarely in a place that I had been desperate to avoid when I started transitioning: stuck in an indeterminately gendered place, and worse, slowly tilting more towards masculine.

Life sucked, and I started waiting for death.

Not just waiting, in fact, but encouraging it. I had had dental problems before, as I have a phobia of dentistry. I had to get a tooth pulled after it grew a hole large enough to fit a BB into. I gave up brushing my teeth nearly entirely, and also started downing massive quantities of soda. I ate terribly, I smoked cigarettes, and I waited. And waited. And waited.

Clearly, I didn’t die.

Eventually other changes took place. Martina got hired for a job at an independent living center, helping people get out of nursing homes and into situations where they would have homes, and assistants. The job was in Salem, so we had to move, as a four hour commute is not one that can realistically be made. It’s difficult to get housing, if you’re dependent on a wheelchair, so for some time we instead stayed at an Extended Stay America hotel, packed into one room with the two of us, the cats, three wheelchairs, a Hoyer lift, and our belongings in boxes. The room was too small a space for all of this, but it was what we had. I tolerated it as I had most other things in my situation – it was temporary, because surely I had to die soon, right?

We spent all of winter in that hotel, through a blizzard (the second I’ve seen in my life) and well into the spring. During one of the truly cold periods, the hotel had a pipe burst. While this didn’t appear to directly affect my life, there was mold growing and releasing spores, a problem not for me, but Martina, who had a compromised immune system (suppressed to keep her allergy to plastics from killing her) and an inability to cough because of poor muscle tone and control.

At least I had a new MMO to play over the hotel wifi – I was hugely into Wildstar, an action combat based game with, I will admit, some issues. It was designed around the old-school hardcore model, perhaps slightly too much so (although I enjoyed it) and the difficulty level made many people give up and quit the game, which put strain on guilds trying to get into raiding, because as much player churn as there was made it extremely hard to get 40 people through the attunement to run the first raid.

This process broke three guilds that I was in, and three was too many for me. I have tended to go hard into my MMOs, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. I usually end up an officer in guilds that I join, because I am comparatively sane, get to know the game well, and was on almost all the time. I was therefore involved in the discussions around how to deal with the roster boss, and loss of good players and officers, and finally, the closing out of three groups of people I’d invested massive amounts of time and effort into.

Die Trying was my last, and when it went, sick at heart, I quit as well. I couldn’t deal with building up another group of people, making friends and having shared experiences, to watch it all fade away again, so I quit. This marked something of an inflection point for me, when I started spending more time consuming text and less gaming. Tech sites, futurism, Reddit, I was fairly equal-opportunity. Anything to disconnect my mind from the flesh it was imprisoned in.

Somewhere around this time Martina finally found an apartment, and we moved into it. I had a room again, space of my own, and I settled in to wait in relative comfort. I spent a decent amount of money on a desk and chair, and continued to live at my computer.

Martina, meanwhile, was having problems of her own. As I mentioned, she’d picked up some garbage in her lungs from the conditions at the hotel, which impaired her oxygenation, which impaired her cognition. Combined with her fixed mindset regarding use of computers, through the summer and into the fall her work position became increasingly precarious. While I found a way to help her cough and get it out, the damage had been done, and in the end she was put on leave from her job. She took it quite hard, falling into a deep depression, and while we scraped along for another few months in that apartment, it wasn’t long before we were evicted for nonpayment of the rent she could no longer afford. She and I and the cats went to another hotel, with a tiny bit of our stuff. Most of my belongings, at least, ended up in the hall of the apartment, from which the management put it into storage, and I was left with my computer and the clothes on my back, largely.

This was the start of the Hell Year, next week’s post.

Book Review – The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

If I had known this book was written by a former lover of Ayn Rand, would I have still read it?

Chances are pretty good. I’ve tried to hold to an ideal that I picked up from Stranger in a Strange Land for a long time. Specifically – “Successful city political bosses held open court all through the twentieth century, leaving wide their office doors and listening to any gandy dancer or bindlestiff who came in. “

While I’ve never aspired to political office, the principle of information acquisition being beneficial holds across professions, I think – even if one is, as I, an autodidactic wanderer of no fixed employment. Perhaps even especially then – I think it is a reasonable belief that any adult human (and many younger ones), especially those with backstories that significantly differ from yours, know at least one thing that is:
a) Something that you do not know.
b) Something that it would be useful for you to know.

This does not always mean that said information is necessarily accessible to you – for example, someone who would look at my backstory and refuse to communicate with me is not going to share their useful information with me, clearly. At least not without a great deal of work.

Still, this does mean that if someone tries to communicate with you, there’s a decent amount of expected value to be had from hearing people out. There are counterexamples to be made to this general statement, but I think it makes more sense to take, “listen to people, for they have data” over, “do not listen to people, because they have nothing to teach me” as an axiom, and rule out some people in specific cases, as merited.

In any case, I did read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, authored by Nathaniel Branden. Not only did I read it, I quoted it repeatedly in a discord I am in, and at least one quote from it ended up in my random quote library, the ones that display on each page here. Pillars contains many useful ideas, enough that I would have no trouble filling my usual review length with nothing but quotes, and still have some left over.

It’s laid out in three parts, covering (in Nathaniel’s view of) the basic principles of self-esteem, internal sources of self-esteem, and external influences. The chapters within each relate well to their third, and contain, in my view, thorough coverage of the areas they claim. Each contains some number of “stems” – sentence starters intended to be completed by the reader as an exercise in self-knowledge. Writing full sentences from these stems about myself was enlightening, and not nearly always in a way that fed my pride. Bringing light to the dark corners of ones psyche is neither pleasant work, nor uplifting, in and of itself.

Instead, it is in some ways like the housecleaning I helped with in New Brighton – there is an immense amount of shit, in the unexamined mind, and it’s lousy to have to deal with, but once it’s all gone you can actually make something decent out of the place. Until you do, though, you’ll be living in all that filth, unaware, because the constant exposure has dulled your sense of smell.

I don’t think I’ve managed to clear out nearly everything yet, but I’m making progress, and Pillars helped me on my way. I suspect some of the stems relating to consciousness and addiction helped me break a couple of ugly habits I’ve held to for a long time, and reminded me that I want to live consciously, that there are things in this world that I care about, and that I can’t save anyone if I’m off in the corner giggling to myself and waiting for someone to rescue me.

The one direct quote I am going to leave you with from the book is rather representative of the whole – not exactly pleasant to contemplate, but if you care, or think you want to care, about the state of the world, you’d do well to think on it well and deeply:

Some years ago, in my group therapy room, we hung on the wall a number of sayings that I often found useful in the course of my work. A client made me a gift of several of these sayings done in needlepoint, each with its own frame. One of these was “It isn’t what they think; it’s what you know.” Another was “No one is coming.”
One day a group member with a sense of humor challenged me about “No one is coming.”
“Nathaniel, it’s not true,” he said. “You came.”
“Correct,” I admitted, “but I came to say that no one is coming.”

No one is coming, and we have to save ourselves. If you want to do so, you could do worse than to read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.