Let your work speak for you

I think it’s troubling that in the midst of a conversation, a person can somehow solidify their ideas as a viewpoint. That the idea can harden and we view that person through the lens of that particular idea. They wander through ideas and hit upon a snag of an idea and for whatever reason, start defending a position or attacking another position or just inhabiting that position temporarily. But we don’t let them off. We see them as that. Of course, it’s because we bring our bias to ideas and interactions, but it’s also because we bring our humanity into it. It’s not like a person has much time to sit alone in a room contemplating what their philosophy is, or even have time to reflect, in the moment, on how traumatic or meaningful moments in their lives shape them and their ideas. Let alone, shaping the philosophy that accompanies the beliefs they harbor deep within. But we fix people in their positions, and define them by that.

Even now, in this blog post, I write as if I happened upon a set of ideas that make sense to me, solidified. But the truth is, tomorrow or next year, my thoughts on this or any issue will have morphed sometimes incomprehensibly. They’d even be possibly unrecognizable to my current self. I cannot write or speak to all times.

And yet, we do know of certain works or arts or designs that are “timeless” in a sense. They speak beyond their time into the minds of today, and we assume they will continue to hold that kind of sway on the minds of the future. A Porsche. Shakespeare’s plays. The Eames chair. These are works that people spent years creating and they stood the test of time.

I’m starting to feel this way about how I would approach my existence as a whole. Isn’t it awesome that we know the Eames chair and yet 90 percent of people who know about the Eames chair have no idea who Charles and Ray Eames are? That their personal lives have no bearing on the appreciation of the object itself? We don’t need to know the life story of this American married couple to enjoy the chair.

In 2018, we increasingly live in a time where this is not allowed nor possible. Celebrity has been democratized. Everyone may not be famous, but everyone now has a way to feel famous, in some manner. It’s Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, et al. Everyone is a small celebrity (with a path to medium-sized celebrity). It’s the decline of privacy. And not privacy in the sense that “oh, this or that company has access to my data” but rather the privacy of our lives. The attitude that I have to (aka want to aka dopamine) share my photos, thoughts, and words is the complete opposite of an attitude where my work speaks for itself.

And maybe it’s nostalgia, but I miss this. Maybe I’m being old fashioned, but I don’t think so. There are a handful of people today who live their lives completely privately and yet still produce work that is enjoyed by millions of people.

This brings me back to the first paragraph. This idea of a solidified viewpoint in the midst of conversation. If one’s work can speak to one’s essence, than what does that say about fleeting conversations, texts, social media, and all that cyber decoration on character? For me, I think it means beating back a slow retreat from all of that jazz. If I’m serious about my writing, this blog and my published works should speak to the ideas and thoughts that I most care about, and I would hope tell people who I am long after I’m dead.

The problem is, of course, writing something that’s actually worth reading, since most of what I write is shit.

I love Supervillains

I love supervillains because they make stories interesting. If you have a shitty supervillain, you’re bound to have a shitty story with a hero that doesn’t amount to much. It’s the Joker that made Batman so great. It’s Thanos that made the Avengers so compelling. It’s Q that made Pickard so deep.

Lately, I find myself relating to villains in an odd way. Of course, the hero is the person that we all want to win, because of the values and humanity that we all hold dear. But villains, especially well written ones, fascinate me because they have a vision of the world that they want to exact. They are ambitious about making the world a better place and have provocative principles about how things could be.

For example, I recently went to see the Lion King musical with my family, and I was struck, upon a second viewing how the story played out. Mustafa, the monarch, is killed by his ambitious brother, who wants to assert a new society. Simba, after embracing a devil-may-care philosophy with his friends, Timon and Pumba, eventually returns to reassert the previous world order and monarchy. Scar’s project, although selfish and destructive, is an attempt at something new and ambitious.

This pattern is quite common across most of the supervillains that you will see. They challenge a status quo and the hero comes in to return things back to the way they were or should be. It’s classic Joseph Campbell stuff.

But what you have to admire about the supervillains is that they are attempting to change the world in the first place. Indeed, as a new friend of mine mentioned, the super villain is principled. By contrast, it’s not that the hero is principle-less, but that in order to be interesting, they must grapple with their own moral dilemma to decide what is right. The hero discovers what is right. The villain, on other hand, is blinded by what they think is right. They are thus driven, by any means necessary, to assert that on the world, at any cost.

This is what I really love about villains though, they have an idea or guiding principle that they attempt to assert on the world. It’s the villains that have grappled with the philosophical questions. It’s Hollywood that assigns a judgment call and dramatizes it. Those poor villains, they get a bad rap! Victims of Hollywood’s fake news. After all, history is written by the victors and in the movies, the victors are always the “good guys”. The superheroes are the writers of all these superhero movies. Supervillains would write different stories.

What would a Buddhist politics look like?

In my previous post about my objections to Buddhist philosophy, my newly minted PhD friend Danny pointed it out to me that my question wasn’t refined enough. And that there was much to potentially dig into. Instead of objecting to potential Buddhist impotence as far as political philosophy is concerned, I should rather direct my enquiry towards what could a Buddhist political philosophy look like. But embarking on this query is likely a multi-year endeavor that asks me to not only dig deeper into my understanding of Buddhist philosophy and its more political moments in history, it also asks me to understand the intricacies of politics.

So, here are the questions I’ll be ruminating on:

Given disarming concepts in Buddhist philosophy like emptiness, not-self, and impermanence, what kind of political system would come out of this? Especially since these are counter to fundamental ideas in the capitalist world view.

Ideas of agency, how are they different? Do Buddhist consider agency in the same way a Abrhamaic follower does and a capitalist does? How is it different and how do they create legal systems differently as a result.

What do successful Buddhist political entities look like in history? From Akbar, who converted to Buddhism after experiencing a life of bloodshed, to Emperor Wu of Liang, who promoted Buddhism in China, and the founding of Japanese society on explicit Buddhist principles molded with Confucian ones, there are plenty of examples of Buddhist politics in the past. What light do they shed on modern politics, especially when modern Buddhism encounters modern ideas.

How does the monastic order, its rules, systems, and especially intents, translate into modern secular society. Can a society be built on similar principles? More importantly, what is the Buddhist approach to leadership? Especially given that masters are respected, ideally, for the level and quality of their realization. Is this at all different from the Platonic philosopher king?

What role does meditation play in building a political system? Does it prioritize meditation as a prerequisite to rule? Or a key part of diplomatic and policy decisions? How does it thus view other governments without this priority?

These are just a few of the questions I’m curious about as I explore this large area. There are certainly books pertaining to Buddhist ethics, economics, and even politics, but I believe there hasn’t been a concerted effort in the books that I’ve seen, as study of Buddhist thought by Westerners is still nascent.

I hate that it’s difficult to make close friends in your 30’s

This year I turn 34. It’s almost ten years past the age of 25, the alleged age in which scientific studies tell us that we lose friends and are unable to make new friends.

In my experience, talking to and observing friends and acquaintances and testing out making new friends, I find that the study checks out. It really is hard to maintain adult friendships and to create new intimate ones.

There are few things I hate in this world, and this is one thing I hate. I hate that it’s so hard to make new close friends. I rail against it. And I try my best to beat back against the inevitable oceanic waves of peoples’ busyness, their incumbent social circles, and the work they already have to do to maintain their current relationships. I want the new interesting people I meet to become close friends.

Not to disparage our 20’s but I do think that the 20’s are a time when we are in a specific place in our development. Our careers are just taking shape. Our senses of what we like in life and in people are just gaining steam. University ending, first jobs testing out, first independent travels to other cities and countries, etc. In my 30’s, I feel a stronger sense of who I am, more reflection into where I’m going, the people I like, and inevitably less time. My rationale is, if I know myself so well, if I am a more solid person, than don’t I want to seek out people and connect with more people intimately on that basis? And connect to people older and in a similar place to where I am?

It boggles my mind that more people don’t feel this way. After all, although I get a lot out of coffee chats and dinners with interesting people, my most rewarding conversations are the ongoing ones that I have with close friends, where we mull over ideas and themes over the course of months instead of minutes and between their ups and downs of life instead of between our sips and tips at a coffe table. These are the conversations that seep into my being and change the way I actually think about life and the world. How challenging can ideas and feelings really be when they are experienced in sound bytes? What I want are close relationships that threaten, challenge, and comfort me in deeper and deeper ways. Knowing about a person doesn’t add much value to either person, but developing a lasting growing friendship is priceless.

The irony here in 2018 is that it’s now so easy to click a button and get a new Facebook friend, but it’s comparatively that much harder to make a close friend.

So then the question is how to do that? Ultimately, it does boil down to methodology. Maybe it’s doing walks instead of coffee, or exercising together instead of dinners. Maybe it is asking more challenging questions like these instead of what do you do and where are you from. But I do think it also boils down to one’s own willingness and persistence, actively keeping up with people that you want to hang out with and pursuing them until there’s experiences and break throughs that make the relationship something you are both invested in and cultivating. It’s a hard ask in this bustling and busy world, but I think it’s worth it. We have to lobby against our own programming.

Can Buddhist philosophy give birth to a modern political theory?

As a student of Buddhist philosophy and practice for the last 15 years, I like to think that I have a relatively firm grasp on the topic. In that 15 years, I got to spend years in intensive study but I also had space to wander away and back into the Buddhist world, giving me a unique perspective. For that reason, I don’t describe myself as a Buddhist outright, but I do admire or respect Buddhist practices. I think Buddhist ideas around awakening are particularly compelling and the mediation systems that Buddhism contains are its greatest gift to humanity, something not found in any other scientific or religious system.

Having said all that, I do have what I believe to be serious criticisms of Buddhism. One I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is its inability to create a modern political philosophy, and for that reason cannot be a powerful political actor unlike the Judeo-Christian religions. Because Buddhism blames the individual for their own misery, it has a hard time looking outwards at what problems lie in institutions and larger society. It is handicapped in offering systemic criticisms and novel approaches to society.

So let’s get into what I mean by this.

Fundamental to the 4 noble truths is the idea that one can overcome the inherent suffering of life by living well and doing personal practices that change one’s mind permanently. The seed here is that life and the architecture around life causes suffering and the solution is to change oneself. It’s a powerful model. But it therefore does not have a sophisticated view of the architecture of life, namely the organizations and institutions that create its circumstances. The main cause and effect is laid on shoulders of the individual. It is up to you to remove your suffering and it not anyone else’s problem. This is why, rather than attempting to augment the society’s and worlds it encounters, historically Buddhism tends to retreat to its own private societies. Like monastic life and the lay life that encircles it.

In other words, the fundamental DNA of Buddhism is unable to propose a new society, but merely to propose a way to retreat from it (and the group of people that support that retreat).

You could argue that there are examples of Buddhism actually having a significant impact on a society. In the case of India, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and enacted major reforms to his empire. With Japan, the first constitution it ever had contained plenty of Buddhist ideas. With China, it was many times a state religion that dominated the lives of the majority of citizens. But with Ashoka, the structure of the society did not change. In Japan, Buddhism merely became the soul of a Confucian structure. And in China, ultimately Buddhism became either sidelined or subservient to larger neo-Confucian trends, despite being a state religion and leaving a deep imprint on its intellectual development. To round this off, in India, the origin place of Buddhism, it ultimately got reabsorbed by Hinduism, effectively nulling its original criticism of its original tenets, ultimately ineffective at tearing down the very framework it was born to disrupt.

With the case of Christianity, in stark contrast, its proselytizing nature has wreaked havoc on institutions and societies, creating major political institutions like the Catholic church and movements like the Crusades and the Inquisition. This eventually leads down the path to the inevitable separation of church and state, a response to the pervasive political threat of the church, and the eventual birth of secularism as counterpoint. Islam almost anticipates this, creating a philosophy that requires a weaving between state and religion. Both these major religions start from a position where the world is flawed and there is evil in the world, and it is upon those true believers to carry the torch in this world to bring more people to the side of light. Sin is my fault, but it is also the fault of the devil and the world full of temptations. The world must therefore be changed.

I think these things, in essence, are things that Buddhism could learn from. Despite Buddhism having massive appeal to the sciences and secularism, it really has nothing to contribute to politics and economics.

But maybe this isn’t Buddhism’s problem really. After all, its gift to humanity is the systematic approach to the mind via meditative practices, an expressly internal endeavor. It did not spend the last several millennia exploring external endeavors. That’s why it has nothing significant to add to our political world.

My question is, will something unique come out of a genuine encounter between Buddhism and modern economic and political theory? It would require quite a mind to do so since the fundamental assumption in how our society operates (especially reflected in the legal system) is that a person is fully accountable for their actions, after a certain age and mental state. In Buddhism, there is certainly a similar assumption, in that a person has agency to change themselves, but it also picks apart even the idea of a self. How do you build a societal infrastructure based on the lack of a self? It’s a tall order.

Finding your home in the maelstrom

A few days ago, I wrote about the power of unfinished thoughts, and I thought I’d elaborate on this idea. In that article, I talked about why it’s powerful to entertain such ideas, because eventually they lead somewhere fascinating.

But what kind of mind does it take to be at that edge? It’s hard to say. The edge of certain ideas is not a safe place. There is a certain apprehension and if I’m being honest, there is anxiety.

Let’s think about one case. When a team is faced with a problem to solve, prior to solving the problem, there is an open space where a brainstorm ensues. For some people, that brainstorm is alien. Even culturally, some people cannot stand that open space, it intimidates their minds or freezes them in their tracks like deers in headlights. For these types of people, they require a closed space to make progress, a space where they are fully aware of the limitations and rules, and can only build with the sand you give them to play with. Ultimately, they don’t allow themselves to have an imagination.

If the above sense is a framework that you buy into, then I think it’s worth considering my central idea: that it takes a subtle bravery and comfortableness to exist in an unknown space. You have to be willing to entertain mostly dumb and crazy thoughts. And you have to be able to allow them to see the light of scrutiny and risk looking like a fool in the process. The bravery is whether or not you are okay with it, whether or not you find your home in it.

I don’t think this practice comes naturally. This is something that is trained over years of work or upbringing. And the paradox is that it is hard to measure whether or not a person is “good” at this. You could be comfortable with chaos but still come up with shit ideas. Vice versa, you could hate the hazy space but still manage brilliant ideas. It depends on the personality and culture, but I find the people who are most interesting are the ones that are able to inhabit that space, indeed, they seek it out, and wade through and into great conversations.

The sheer power of unfinished thoughts

I think one of the most difficult things, as far as thinking goes, is giving oneself the license to think one’s most powerful and impactful thoughts. We tend towards obsessing too much over what everybody else is thinking and understanding that thinking than striking out on our own, unfettered by the limitations of our fellow beings.

This is why I love unfinished thoughts or half-assed thoughts. There is a certain power in letting oneself go and swimming through ideas rather than attempting to piece them together. I think it’s at the edge of one’s own thoughts and logical frameworks that we get a chance to surf on ideas. And at this edge, at the tip of those waves, ideas look messy, stupid and certainly unrefined. And this is where I want to broadcast my thoughts and ideas, sometimes, because there is a space here to be wrong or innovative or stupid. A comedian has to try a million jokes before he finds a few hundred that he can turn into a Netflix Special.

That Netflix Special is a distillation of a comedian’s best jokes after a long period of trial and error. Some jokes are seeds, which eventually become full on trees, a full 5-minute bit. Other jokes are dead on arrival, never able to see the light of day again. This is part and parcel of the journey of a comedian.

The same is true for thinkers. Great thinking teeters precariously at the edge. It seems weird, it seems offbeat. Sometimes it even comes off as offensive. Indeed, sometimes it isn’t taken seriously for decades or centuries. And there are times when these half-baked ideas are only the beginning of great thoughts, lighting a candle that goes out before it casts any shadows. And once in awhile, you have that wild thought that strikes out and grasps the heart of a matter by the balls. And all that surfing, turned out to be worth it.

The case for science non-fiction

The thing I love about science fiction is that it is a great storehouse for ideas spanning physics to philosophy. Because it is customarily about the future, especially the very far future, it pushes the reader to think about what caricatures and elements of society will change in the long term, and what kind of outsized impacts they will have on we, as humans. Of course, science fiction itself is a caricature, it takes potentials and then it follows them to their logical conclusions.

That’s why Black Mirror has so much power. It takes things that we know so well in our evolving technological life and then allows them to be expressed completely. You can watch everything you did today? What if you could watch everything everyone experienced for years past? What if you could rank people? What would that mean if we stretched that out to an entire society that could rank you? This is the Black Mirror formula, and hit or miss, it provides a powerful narrative and a number of caricatures that become a mirror for us to look at ourselves today. So if you’re reading the Left Hand of Darkness, 1984, Brave New World or watching Star Trek, Interstellar, or Dr. Who, the reality is these novels and films actually point at what is happening currently in the society.

But ultimately, I think science fiction becomes impotent if it wants to change society.

Science fiction is impotent because it is entertainment, and entertainment does not enter the center of the discourse as much as it would like, rather it is a reflection of ongoing discourse. It turns what we are processing in the zeitgeist of the society into a tangible and narrative form. In other words, entertainment becomes a manifestation of the society’s subconscious. For example, 3 Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which recently won a litany of awards, puts the concerns and manifestations of the #metoo movement into a relatable story. But the movie didn’t inspire the movement. After all, that isn’t really the job of art. Indeed, science fiction is a place for reflection, not change.

For that reason, I’d like to propose that we need a new genre, I like to think of it as Science Non-Fiction, but it can be called whatever. The main impetus here being that there needs to be a genre of writing that is a call to action based along similar philosophical and literary lines as science fiction. Where science fiction is a reflector, science non-fiction can be an actor. With science fiction, it asks the reader to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained and enter a hypothetical world for humans.

Science non-fiction therefore does the opposite, it asks the reader to consider the current human world and imagine its potential future in earnest. No doubt this genre already exists in the writings of futurists. Michio Kaku is one such person who is well known for applying scientific discoveries to understanding the future of humanity. But I think now is no greater time than any to reconsider this as a mainstream approach to how we view society, media, and even our individual actions as humans. We need to consider it as a serious genre of literature. We need a methodology of projecting ourselves into the very far future based on our current knowledge and technology and a forum to discuss those ideas.

Footnote: Within the science fiction community, there is that oft-repeated idea that scientists like Stephen Hawking and tech founders like Elon Musk look to science fiction for inspiration. We can be sure that the reverse is true, that science fiction writers take their inspiration from scientists. After all, many science fiction writers, from Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke were friends with scientists. Even Fred Hoyle, the writer, was actually a celebrated astronomer. But are we sure that science fiction actually inspires science? No doubt, science fiction offers warnings as well as hopeful futures, but let’s be honest science and technology follow science and technology. They exist in ecosystems of their own design and science fiction has the privilege of reflecting that. But it doesn’t actually inspire science fiction. It’s only incidentally so.



Turning premises into stories

Aspiring to be a science fiction writer coming from a background as a tech journalist is daunting for me. With tech news, you follow your nose into startup methodologies, product interfaces, and the latest trend of what everyone is talking about. The stories tend to write themselves because all it takes is a press release or an interview for the punchline to become readily apparent. Although it’s very difficult to become a Pullitzer-prize winning journalist, which requires an investigative eye and a true panache for the craft of writing, just doing journalism is not nearly as hard as crafting stories out of thin air.

But the trouble for me has never been the lack of ideas and premises. Indeed, little and big conversations play a strong part in randomly inspiring new ideas and worlds that I love to think about. Language is also something that I love to play with. I used to write poetry and essays during the university years and that has poured out into a love of language. The twists and turns of words continue to weave around my head.

The difficulty has been writing and imagining characters that speak to me, as if from an unknown universe that really does exist. Characters don’t yet call to me. They don’t talk to me as if they were real. And they don’t know my name. They feel rather like objects I need to chisel at slowly over time. That tells me I essentially don’t know what makes a character tick.

But I would like them to. I find myself flipping through pages of notes and drawings of worlds, fantasies, and menageries of ideas. I find myself staring at blank pages. I find myself looking into the abyss. But characters do not crawl out of these crevasses. And I think this is my greatest fault as a writer. It would be my greatest regret to wake up at 80, and having not written a story that spoke out to me and made me feel confident that a reader would come along and be captured and compelled by that character.

The irony is characters are filled with struggle and here I am struggling to write them. I am my own most boring character. And I beat on into the night.

Why I love the reMarkable tablet

Several of my friends recently asked me about why I liked the reMarkable tablet. At over US$600 it’s worth taking a step back and checking if you really want to put your money into that kinda device. Especially since any ol’ Chromebook costs a third of that.

So let’s do a quick breakdown of tablet prices before we get into the nitty gritty.

Remember that the very popular Kindle Paperwhite costs $120, the much better (imho) Kindle Voyage costs almost $200, and the funny looking Kindle Oasis costs $350. The plus is the obvious connection to the bookstore that is Amazon.

For iPads, the cost goes from $399 for an iPad Mini (I own one and I love it) to a Wifi and Cellular 12.9 inch iPad Pro for $1,279. And there are plenty of arguments that the app ecosystem and operating system are best in class. I tend to agree. iOS is superior in my book, especially as concerns tablets.

So that’s the range of pricing from $120 to $1,279. Obviously, the range of features is incomparable. iPad has exponentially more features, apps, and abilities than Kindle. But reMarkable sits in between the two of the ranges in terms of price and features. Let’s get into the features then.

The ultimate reason why I got the Kindle and now the reMarkable is because I spend all day looking at my phone and my laptop. And as you should know, the blue light emitted from those screens isn’t good for your sleep or your eyes in general.After awhile, staring at a normal Apple-made screen just strains my eyes. With the phone, it’s worse, since it’s so much closer to my face. No matter how many f.lux-like apps I download to prevent that, the strain still happens. Normal screens just have no “true black”, there’s always light being emitted directly into my face. So when I don’t have to, I’d rather look at real paper or e-ink, reMarkable is the kind of device I’ve been waiting years for: essentially, a larger e-ink device where I can read PDF’s and articles on.

For the above need, it’s perfect. I load my PDF’s, found ebooks, and slides into the reMarkable app, and I peruse them like I’d read paper documents. It saves on the paper. And since it’s e-ink, the battery life can last for weeks with minimal usage. Of course, it’s black and white, but I don’t mind that since the gradients are very clear.

In terms of size, the reMarkable is also ideal. It’s very light (much lighter than the iPad Mini even) so it holds very easily in one hand. The screen is perfect for reading PDF’s and larger ebooks. I’ve even read comic books on it. So even without the feature of writing, I already prefer it to the Kindle, which is too small to read PDF’s and articles, and sometimes straining to read a book.

The big bonus on all of this is that reMarkable’s writing utility is excellent. I’d even argue that it’s the best of any tablet on earth. The main reason is that it’s extremely fast (almost instant) and the feeling of writing is very natural, like a pencil or pen on actual paper. You can take notes on blank sheets, templates, and your PDF’s and ebooks. The result is I no longer use a normal paper notebook. I carry my laptop and my reMarkable tablet around for work and meetings. Most of the time, no laptop.

Now, we have to note that the device is a first generation. It’s therefore not an all-rounder. It doesn’t have text recognition like Evernote, so it can’t transcribe your handwriting to text a computer can read. And it can’t view a host of other file formats. But my sense is that they’ll eventually get there in the next generations and software updates. That is, assuming more people by the tablet to support them. I have an obvious bias to want more people to buy it so that support continues.

Overall, I think the price tag makes it worth it if you have the kinds of needs I have like reading PDF’s, reading slides, taking notes, drawing diagrams, and reading ebooks. That’s why I think Amazon should really consider acquiring reMarkable’s team and technology to revamp and expand their Kindle user base. It makes so much sense. The technology is great and aligned with what they already have.

If you’re worried about the lack of certain features, you can wait for the next generation, but since they shipped out all their pre-order tablets in December 2017, I bet the next one won’t come until 2019. So until then, happy writing on normal old paper and reading on your tiny Kindle.