Twofish's Blog

September 29, 2007

Caveat Emptor

Filed under: academia, Career, china, ghosts, gifted children, mental health, new york city — twofish @ 11:42 am

One of the things that I’ve learned is that history doesn’t end, and problems don’t end.  You get what you want, and that resolves some problems, but the world changes, and you end up with new problems.  They might be better problems.  But unlike a movie or a novel where you reach the end, there is end to history.

One new problem that I’ve found is that I’m now in a position that I’ve giving advice to people, mostly about careers and strategy.  That worries me a lot because anything that I say is going to be incomplete, and I hope it is not incomplete in a way that will get people into trouble or which is misleading.  People thing in terms of “scripts” and “stories.”  There’s the “American dream” script, the “model student” script, the “patriotic overseas Chinese” script, and what I’m often asked to do is to basically help people conform their lives and efforts to a script.  Recently, it’s usually the “successful person in business” script.  What worries me is that a script is an incomplete description of a human being.

What I found is that sometimes you get a better idea of reality by asking the right question. If you ask enough questions and design an experiment well, you get answers. If enough people ask the right questions, you can make a huge amount of progress.

And sometimes the right question is something completely obvious?  Why do I write some much?  Why do I have such a strong urge to help people in their careers?  I think I have a vague understanding of my motives, and it’s a story I don’t want to tell you, and in some ways I can’t tell you.  But it’s something that doesn’t quite fit into the “successful person in business” script or in the “classic immigrant story” script.  Behind my motives, there is a lot of things that most people would consider “negative.”  There is fear, pain, anger, hate, shame, sadness, and guilt.  There are shadows all around me.  When you have lots of bright lights in the big city, shadows are difficult to avoid.

Let me talk about a recurring nightmare that I often have…..

There is a brick floating in mid-air.

That is frightening to me.  Brick don’t float in mid-air, they fall to the ground.  Maybe, one day I will see a brick floating in mid-air, and if that happens, then there is something very, very wrong.  That’s why I care a lot of about physics, math, economics, and law.  They provide certainty or at least the illusion of certainty.  If I see something, it should explainable by the laws of conservation of mass and energy, or it should be consistent with the Peano axioms of natural numbers, or it should be explainable via judicial precedent and constitutional law.  But what it doesn’t.  What if I see a brick floating in mid-air without any explanation.  They I know something is very wrong with the world, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling.  If a brick floats in mid-air, and the laws of physics no longer hold, then what keeps me from falling into the center of the earth.  If I’m in a situation where there is no constitutional, legal  or economic framework, then what keeps “them” from doing nasty, unspeakable things to me.

I want to know that I’m sane, and that the world around me is sane.  That’s why it is important that 2+2 keep adding up to be 4, because if it ends up adding to be something else, then I’m not safe any more, and much of my life has been to deal with the horrible reality that things are not as safe and secure as I would like them to be.  And if they world starts going crazy, at least I want to know how crazy it is.  Maybe when I add 2+2 I don’t get 4.  Do I get 3.99999, 1, -2, or is the answer that I get when I add 2+2, magenta elephant or something that else that is not even a number.

The annoying thing is that the world being as confusing as it is, that I often don’t get 4 when I add 2 and 2.  Sometimes I get 3.999, sometimes I get nothing.  Sometimes I get -3.   Maybe I added wrong.  Maybe there is something I’m ignoring.  I don’t know.  But I find those moments very frightening and disturbing, because when I add two numbers and they don’t come out exactly right, I get the glimpse of that brick floating in mid-air.  And my strange insecurities and frustrations about numbers, gets me to the social embodiment of numbers….. Money…..

Money is a funny thing in that I found that people who seem to care a lot about money, really care about something else.  I care a lot about money.  For me, money is a sign that I am sane and that the world is sane.  In business there are so many things that can go wrong, and it is a constant struggle against chaos.  Being able to make money is hard, and making a profit demonstrates that in some way, you are connected to the rest of the world, and that you aren’t in your own little reality disconnected from the reality in the rest of the world.  Having money and making money allows me to convince myself that I am sane.

I say this because one day I might end up labeled as a “business success” and that happens, your story gets repeated, and like all stories, it is incomplete.  Descriptions of reality are always incomplete, but they can be incomplete without being misleading.  Just be aware that there are shadows following me.  I don’t want to tell you what they are, and pretty much everyone who finds out wishes that they didn’t know.  Just be aware that they are there…….

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December 25, 2006

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December 20, 2006

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December 15, 2006

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December 10, 2006

How 1970’s sitcoms ruined me – Mediations on International diplomacy

Filed under: media, mental health, personal, wikipedia — twofish @ 2:36 am

One of the useful things about trying to write a 2006-style sitcom is that it made me realize how
1970’s sitcoms and television shows gave me a distorted view of how the world works. If you look at the typical comedy and drama of the 1970’s, they have a very simple narrative structure. Problem. Conflict. Problem solved. End credits.

What I’ve learned is that life is not like that. The real big conflicts in life are not things that can be “resolved” in any meaningful sense, life is not like a television episode. Conflicts last for decades, even centuries, they mutate, they evolve, they become irrelevant. Sometimes they get out of control. But the narrative structure of the 1970’s sitcom where everything gets resolved when the credits roll. That doesn’t happen.

The problem is with the expectation of resolution is that it puts unrealistic pressures on the parties involved. You’ve seen the damage this has done with the Israeli-Palestinian talks, and in the Iraq War. The model in which there has been no resolution and everything has works out well is the PRC-Taiwan situation. That situation is not going to get “resolved” in any meaningful sense for decades, but that’s alright. Some arrangements can be made that keep people from killing each other.

Now if you take this notion that disputes often can’t be resolved only managed, and my notion that the affairs of nations can be understood by looking at the affairs of individuals, and vice versa, this view has implications for how I handle the situation with the fairy princess. When I was young, I made the mistake that this conflict between us could be resolved like the end of the 1970’s sitcom. I wrote a letter which I thought would end things. A treaty of sorts. The trouble is that it didn’t end things, and it can’t end things. The two of us are actors in a grand historical saga involving events that started centuries before either of us were born and will last centuries after we both die. As long as history goes on, it’s unlikely that the conflict between us will be “resolved” in any meaningful sense. It is not a concidence that the year I wrote the letter to her that I thought would fix things was the same year as the fall of the Soviet Union when people like Frances Fukiyama argued that history had ended.

I had this idea that at some point in the future that she and I would have lunch and that would fix things forever. However, this won’t work. The trouble is that what I’d like to communicate to her simply cannot be absorbed in one lunch. Feelings are complex. It takes a very long time (sometimes a lifetime) to comprehend what someone thinks about you. And like the interactions between nations, even the mechanics of meeting carry with it subtle (or not so subtle) implications. I couldn’t eat dinner with this woman right now, for many of the same reasons that Hu Jintao and Chen Shui-Bian couldn’t have dinner with each other without everything around them falling apart. I can’t send her an e-mail and she can’t send me an e-mail for exactly the same reasons that Bush and Kim Jong-Il can’t exchange e-mail.

And thinking that one e-mail or one meeting could “resolve” things between the fairy princess and I is as absurd as thinking that one meeting could resolve the Korean nuclear standoff or the PRC-Taiwan situation. It can’t. And assuming that it can puts intolerable pressures on me.

So I have to step back and think whether or not there is a better way of communicating with the fairy princess than trying to come up with a perfect letter, and we can take a page from international relations. When Bush wants to say something to Kim Jong-Il and vice versa, they issue a public statement, and they look for private intermediaries that can carry messages back and forth, and they should expect no conflict resolution just conflict management. I’m doing this with my blog. This is my equivalent of the State Department press briefing or the Korean Central News Agency. There are all sorts of subtle and sometimes hidden messages in these articles, just like press briefings between nations have subtle and hidden messages.

It might seem odd that I’m using the lessons of international diplomacy to resolve what might seem like petty personal issues. But I’ve lived a life where the affairs of nations are deeply interrelated with personal affairs. I am a child of the Chinese Civil War. I would not exist if certain key political leaders made certain key decisions (i.e. Truman’s decision to send the 7th fleet into the Taiwan straits). One of the core principles of my life is that the grand and the personal, the great and the small. They are all related if you can find the common key.

The key issue between the fairy princess and I is the same as the one between nations. How do you communicate complex subtle messages, and reach understandings that manage conflict, when the risks of getting it wrong are enormous. Innocent people may suffer and die, if you get the communications wrong.

This will take decades to manage. It won’t get done in 30 minutes, and to capture the full flavor of what is to be communicated will take hundreds of pages some with subtle allusions and baffling hidden messages.

In the past few days, I’ve been reading a lot of the papers of Benedict Kingsbury, who is the head of the International Law department at New York University. I came upon him after a bit of searching, and his papers seem to represent precisely the view of international law and human relations that I don’t merely dislike, but which I actively hate. They are very erudite, very learned, but in those papers, I don’t see any people. I don’t see any passion. I see a bit of condescension. In his world, people don’t bleed. They don’t hurt. They don’t fall in love. They don’t get angry. They don’t argue. And I think it is this world view that causes problems, because a world view that denies that people have feelings and emotions is dangerous in a world in which people actually do.

Look around you, look at the news, look at your life, look in your heart, and see if the clockwork, rational view of the world that he represents fits with with what you see. and what you feel If it does, fine, maybe I’m wrong about the way that the world works. But if it doesn’t, then maybe I do have something useful to say to you and to the rest of the world. And if I do have something that you can use, all I want is for you to listen. Nothing else. That’s all I want. That’s all I’ve always wanted. To be listened to, and taken seriously.

Look at me. They don’t take me seriously, because I act irrationally. I have feelings. I have problems. I cry. I bleed. Because of that, they see me as a statistic, not as an equal. And they have that attitude toward anyone that feels and bleeds.  Because I react emotionally, I cannot be trusted.  But just read what I’ve written, and make a decision on your own the degree to which you can trust me.

The problem with the world view of rationality conquering all is that it is an incomplete and incorrect description of the human experience, and the people who subscribe to it don’t see that it is incomplete and incorrect, and bad thing end up happening, and bad things are happening.

Just look around you.

Anyway I wrote this to point out that these issues are not going to be resolved by one post. I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to understand and deal with what is going on. I’ll be spending a lot of time going through Professor Kingsbury’s writings and those of people like him. He is part of the Committee that runs the world, the legacy of British colonialism and Cecil Rhodes. They think that they’ve sanitized the system, and got rid of the nastier bits of racialism and imperialism, and they have, but there is still something there that is unhealthy, and they don’t see it.

I saw it. I wanted to tell them. But those folks that denied my application. Unlike wikipedia.

And that’s why I’m angry, and I don’t think that I’m the only one….

I think I’d make a great Platonic philosopher-king, but I’ve ended up a Confucian scholar-bureaucrat. I wanted to be a philosopher-king, part of me still does. But to become a philosopher-king, you have to be chosen by the other philosopher-kings, and if you aren’t chosen, they won’t invite you to their discussions, and parties, and will treat you with humilating condecension.

But to become a Confucian scholar-bureaucrat, you aren’t chosen, you chose yourself. There are books and guides, and descriptions of what you must do. It has something to offer for every human being that lives and breathes, and like wikipedia, the door is always open, and anyone can edit.

You philosopher-kings can go to hell. Unfortunately, you are taking the rest of the world with you.

December 9, 2006

Protected: It’s not about her, it’s about me

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December 8, 2006

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December 7, 2006

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