Authorvalentin

Jiro Dreams of World Peace

For our new topic, I want to discuss a dichotomy that I’ve been struggling with as I think more about how to find ‘fulfilling’ work. Be warned, we will undoubtedly conclude that there is no need to gravitate towards one extreme or another, and the most sensible thing is to find the b-word. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to discuss the factors at play. So without further ado, I present to you: the highs and the lows of perspective. In short, I can summarize the whole issue with a single question: thinking about my ‘career’, should I find a high-level cause to support (like ’the environment’, ‘ethical eating’, ‘original art’, ‘autonomous driving’), or should I quit flattering myself and dedicate my time to perfecting a specialized skill that provides clear meaning (e.g. making sushi, creating quality knives, or becoming a respected film maker)?

The problems of high-level perspective are perhaps unique to us as a species. Even more specifically, they are perhaps unique now in the history of our own species. How recently have we cared about anything other than the very bottom three (Physiology, Safety and Love/Belonging) rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs? I’d argue that significant portions of the human race have not cared until extremely recently, perhaps the last 50 years. So how do billions of people find ‘fulfillment’ now that their essential needs are met? Should we ignore perspective, and seek out specific skills, or find the necessary skills that let you apply yourself towards a high-level objective?

The Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, of ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ fame, is maybe one of the most famous examples of the low-level approach: find fulfillment in making the best food in the world. Perhaps the Japanese culture as a whole is geared more towards this perspective. From sushi and king-fu masters, to ‘salary-men’ that dedicate their lives to a single company. In the west, we’re in a slightly confused middle-ground. We respect and obsess over ‘masters': from sommeliers, to barbers, to architects. Yet we also obsess over ‘shooting for the moon’ and grand ideas like environmentalism, peace, ethics, and love.

Consider the countless athletes and celebrities who spend significant time with charities. It is almost taken for granted that any ‘superstar’ (whether in sports, media or business) has their own ‘high-level’ foundation. Steve Jobs, for example, was and is criticized by many for not doing more philanthropic work. Of course there is nothing wrong with charity, but how much of this activity can be explained by our desperate need to support a high-level cause above all else? Can an artist create simply for themselves, or does the modern age make this impossible without some underlying agenda?

Should we aspire to be Jiros, or should we find our Yoko, and imagine ‘all the people living for today’?

NFC Podcast #12 – Political Korrectness

In this episode of NFC, we talk about artistic integrity, political correctness, NOT Donald Trump, and David Foster Wallace.

Insta-gentrification Filters

Political correctness as a sort of linguistic cultural gentrification is a brilliant analogy. Our generation has been obsessed with gentrifying every place we visit, and everything we do. Does this come from fear? From ignorance? From the same cognitive dissonance that allows people to enjoy beef and chicken burgers every day while simultaneously tweeting their unabashed bewilderment over the unnecessary killing of one gorilla? Maybe.

I just watched Bo Burnham’s brilliant Netflix special: ‘Make Happy’. In one of his bits, he talks about how he worries that maybe his shows won’t find an audience because they are largely about what he knows best: performing for other people. But our generation is different, we’ve grown up performing. Social media is non-stop performance art for our friends. We have been cleaning up our lives into nicely packaged square pictures since we were teens: linguistic gentrification is just a natural extension of Instagram filters.

Political correctness has clearly been around for much longer than sepia toned selfies, but are we now more susceptible to its most pernicious elements? I think so. Humans are now, more than ever, living in urban, cosmopolitan cities that require real collaboration and not just polite tolerance. Does token inclusion really lead to commonplace inclusion, or is it just the Wizard of Oz curtain that is begging to be opened? In his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde pointed out that ‘the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it.’ Are we hiding societal issues under the gentrified veil of Instagram filters and euphemistic words?

If Political Correctness has been around for a long time, exactly how is our current version different to what came before it? We are more informed and connected than any of our predecessors, but that also comes with a burden: we are acutely aware of a million perspectives. How do you build a society with a million perspectives? It seems that lately many people have turned to political correctness as the only way to stabilize a cosmopolitan population. But maybe, like Slavoj Zizek thinks, the only way to fight issues like racism, is with progressive racism. To what extent can racist jokes build bonds within a diverse society as we realize that we can laugh at our differences? Instead of hiding behind our filters, can we instead be honest about our strengths and weaknesses? Maybe we don’t need to gentrify our lives, but we need to share honest perspectives that open our eyes to the problems and solutions that exist around the world.

Look out world, the NFC boys are back in town, and we’re ungentrifying your perspectives, mannn.

Donald Trump, Slavoj Zizek, and Louis CK on Political Correctness

Political Correctness. For a long time, the concept of being politically correct seemed to me like an inconsequential formality – a courtesy that we as humans living in a cosmopolitan, inter-connected developed world simply must try our best to adhere to. But even as I write that definition down, it somehow seems condescending and pernicious – a thin veil that hides the ugly reality of our opinions. But that rebuttal seems like too much of a swing towards the other, cynical side of the spectrum. Surely words and phrases that people call ‘politically correct’ are more like euphemisms, rather than outright lies. So where on this spectrum does your opinion lie? How much political correctness can a society handle before it crumbles under its own feeble cowardice to call a spade a spade?

I’ll start off with a few observations of my own. I’ve been following the American primary race quite closely. In a recent debate, Marco Rubio responded to Donald Trump’s accusation of politicians being politically correct with the line ‘I’m not interested in being politically correct, I’m interested in being correct’. Rubio’s implication is that because Trump has made his entire campaign about electing a political outsider who is ‘not afraid to tell it like it is,’ he has completely ignored actual facts in favour of simple pandering rhetoric that demonizes the status quo. True as that may be, Trump’s strategy has worked wonders for him, and his message of ‘don’t listen to the politicians, I see it the way it is’ has resonated with many people across the U.S. So what’s wrong with ‘telling like it is’? Here’s the problem: most political issues are complicated, nuanced, and boring. What Trump does is turn political correctness on its head. He accuses other politicians of hiding the truth under the PC blanket, and then uses his anti-PC rhetoric to do the very same thing! In essence, both the Clinton’s and the Trump’s of the world project complicated issues onto bite-sized talking points. One does it with flowery, inclusive (yet fundamentally deceiving) language, and the other with exclusive, hateful speech. Which is more harmful? I don’t think it’s completely clear.

Here’s a point against political correctness. One of my favourite living philosophers, Slavoj Zizek, has a great reason why being PC can hurt society: it makes it harder to rebel. For example, imagine that you are an employee stuck in a mindless, unfulfilling job. In a PC-free culture, a boss creates no illusions that he is your boss. If you dislike them, that’s too bad for you, but at least there is a clear target against whom you can target your rebellion: ’this awful boss is making me do this mindless work!’ In a PC culture, where your boss may be much more friendly to you, you may suddenly have no one to blame for your predicament. Often, you instead end up blaming yourself. But what’s wrong with being friendly? Doesn’t that improve your work environment? Well, I see it as a local-global discrepancy. On a local scale, sure it improves your interactions day-to-day, but globally, the PC boss is actually doing you a disservice by removing a natural drain into which you can funnel your discomfort. Instead of rebelling and effecting change within the company, you instead sink into a self-loathing misery.

Of course, I am describing extremes of the spectrum. To help find the balance, I think it’s poignant to look at the most observant people in our society: comedians. Take Louis CK’s Saturday Night Live monologue from earlier last year, where he spends the season finale opener talking about the middle east, modern racism and pedophilia. He walks a tight rope (for a national broadcast) between being honest and unnecessarily pushing boundaries. During an audible groan from the audience, he quips ‘how do you think I feel? This will be my last time hosting..’ Yet, somehow, he manages to remain the quintessential Louis, making poignant, PC-free observations, without overtly offending anyone. Can we as a culture find the same type of balance?

NFC Podcast #11 – Topic will be named next week

In this NFC podcast, we have a special guest: Hershal Pandya. We talk about procrastinating, Stephen King, and soul crushing jobs.

The Old Believers

Our first guest contributor! Welcome, Hershal, to the wonderful world of armchair pseudo-intellectual speculation, loosely held together by pithy titles and out-of-nowhere rhetorical questions! Isn’t it great?

I see you did some research on procrastination – I did as well. This week, I spent countless hours on the internet perusing various flavours of instant gratification instead of focusing on other, more pressing, matters (like this post). Completely unlike any other week, I swear. Here’s one article I stumbled upon. It’s a facinating read about a Russian family, the Lykovs, of ‘Old Believers’ that fled from the atheist Bolshevik purges of Christianity in the 1930s. The Lykovs escaped into the Russian Taiga, a harsh wilderness that’s cold and barren in the winter, and full of dark clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. Amazingly, the family of four (growing to six, after two more children were born in the wilderness) managed to live on their own with no human contact until 1978, completely unaware of World War II, space travel, or nuclear weapons. When the father was shown a cellophane container by a party of geologists who made first contact, he exclaimed ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’.

I bring this up to highlight two points. First, a meta one. Procrastination does sometimes lead to bits and pieces of wonderful new knowledge like the fascinating story of Old Believers. How much do I retain during a typical procrastination-induced binge? I don’t know, probably not much. But I do enjoy breaking up the monotonous routine that often seems like the way you’re supposed to live your life. Plan out your schedule, do everything the schedule says, and be a good little robot. Procrastination is the antithesis to the schedule, it’s a way for me to be anti-programming (to use Rachit’s phrase he coined during our life and death segment). Are you ok with never knowing about the Lykovs, in exchange for a few hours of more peaceful sleep? I’m not. But maybe I’m that rat that’s checking for new knowledge constantly, instead of scheduling a one hour binge session once a week? The ‘b’ word may or may not be applicable here.

Second, the Lykovs could not have procrastinated much. How could they? Their lives, and the lives of their entire family were at stake. Procrastination is a product of a societal safety net, something that does not exist in the harsh Siberian wilderness. From an evolutionary perspective, procrastination doesn’t make much sense. We procrastinators should have died out ages ago. Where are all the lions surfing the safari-equivalent of Reddit? They’re dead. As humans, we procrastinate because we can, but when push comes to shove, we get shit done. In some ways this thought is a relieving one: we are programmed by millions of years of evolution to survive, to live until we can reproduce. I’m sure everyone’s heard the advice that’s given to entrepreneurs, artists, and other people looking to start a long, intimidating journey: just put yourself out there, and commit yourself fully. Just do it, as Nike has been saying for decades. Sure, it’s trite, but it makes sense. Fear is the ultimate motivator, it triggers a response that has been hardwired into our brain: get shit done.

I have a few more thoughts I’d love to share, but in the interest of space, I’ll end it here and leave you with my one of my favourite comics of all time:

panic

~ V

NFC Podcast #10 – Anti-Programming

The 10th NeverFromConcentrate podcast where we talk about the Potato Paradox, Dean Potter, and the myth of Sisyphus.

Standard Interview Questions

What are my conditions for wanting to die? Trivial. I get asked this in job interviews all the time. I’ll paraphrase one example:

Scene.

Interviewer: Ok, Mr. Peretroukhin, you’ve passed all of our coding puzzles. Great job! I have one last question for you, if you don’t mind. What kind of mental or physical trauma would you be willing to face before you’d ask a friend to fatally poison you to end your suffering?

Me: Easy. If I ever lose 12 chess games in a row to players rated below me.

Interviewer: Jesus. You’re twisted. What kind of sick person comes of up with that kind of torture?

End scene.

I’m only half joking. I’d want to die when my mental faculties no longer allow me to fully experience the world as I have before (when everything I do is an inaccuracy, a mistake or even a blunder; when I leave all of the pieces of my life hanging without a second thought). I don’t think I would consider ending my own life for anything related to my physical well-being (as long as my mental health is unaffected and I have at least two senses remaining). Losing control of limbs would of course be devastating. I can’t imagine the anxiety and anguish that comes with having to rely on support workers for the most basic necessities. It’s something I’d never want to experience, but I don’t see them as show-stoppers. If I have my mind in tact, and enough external sensing left to experience the outside world, then I’ll keep on chugging along.

There’s so much of the world that you can taste, smell, see, hear, and touch. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind the smell of a campfire, the sound of a crescendoing movie score, the sight of the milky way on a dark summer night, the feel of bare skin on skin, or the taste of a perfectly crisp, cheesy slice of pizza. As long as I have more of the world to take in (in whatever physical form I’m in), I will want to be there.

A few question to think about for our podcast next week:

1) In certain forms of ‘reduced’ mental states, I may be completely lucid and consciously decide to reverse my decision. However, it’s clear that I am no longer of the same mental acuity. What do you do then? Does my present self get to overrule my future self?
2) What if you lost all of your senses? Would you want to exist as only a mind, with no external link to the world?
3) And finally, I’ll throw the question right back at you, Mr. Chakerwarti, what are your conditions?

I can’t finish off this topic without mentioning one of my favourite novels of all time: Flowers for Algernon for Daniel Keyes. I won’t spoil any of the plot for you, sufficed to say that the book deals with the role of intelligence in our lives, and how it interacts with ‘happiness’. You should absolutely give it a read sometime.

V

Socrates the Point Guard

That simple, eh? I think you’re assuming too much agreement here, and I’ve come up with a scenario to test your ethical stance. But first, lest you scold me for throwing the ball back into your court so quickly, let’s talk a bit about play making.

I know that I commited a grave sin with my introduction to the topic. After our first few exchanges on NeverFromConcentrate, we agreed that we’d try to refrain from ending our letters to each other by posing a list of questions (which is exactly what I did in my last post). We agreed that if we did that, we’d be shying away from the spotlight, too afraid to take a stance ourselves. We’d be point guards making unnecessary passes to guys in tight coverage, when there could be an open lane to the basket if we were only brave enough to put our heads down, put our arm up, and drive.

Driving is good. We shouldn’t be afraid to run right at 7-foot-tall, 250 pound philosophical topics and do everything we can to get to the basket on every possesion. But sometimes, driving isn’t the right choice. Sometimes it’s useful to pass the ball back and forth and find the open man, to pick apart the question, and to refrain from giving any answers ourselves. Sometimes we need to work on our passing, so we don’t play hero-ball in every post. Of course, we shouldn’t pass the ball too much though, because then much like Socrates, we’d spend our entire lives coming up with annoyingly poignant questions and have the good basketball fans of Athens come after us (because goddammit at some point, you have to shoot the damn ball!).

Alright, enough basketball metaphors – I’m going to tackle your question directly. Here’s the scenario:

1. I have a serious but not completely terminal illness. It’s causing me severe pain and has left me immobile. Doctors say that there is about a 50% chance that the pain can be controlled and mitigated with an experimental surgery that may let me live indefinitely (albeit with constant pain, and reduced mobility).

2. You know for a fact that my immediate family and significant other want me to agree to the surgery and do everything I can to prolong my life.

3. You also know that my significant other is pregnant, however she has not told me yet.

4. I have weighed my options and do not want to continue living. I am asking you to kill me (through some untraceable poison) and make it seem like I passed away of natural causes.

What do you do?

Ball’s in your court.

V

Youth-in-Asia

One of the legends in the climbing community, Dean Potter, died base jumping in Yosemite National Park on May 16th. His death affected me on some profound level. On one hand I felt remorse: he was one of the brightest lights in the climbing community and I grew up watching some of his incredible stunts.

On the other hand, I felt his death was strangely inspiring – a fitting culmination of his incredible journey. Potter’s life was spent pioneering new ways to explore remote terrain, climb it, and fall back down to do it again. In an almost literal interpretation of The Myth of Sisyphus, Potter found meaning in pushing a boulder up a mountain, watching it fall back down, and repeating the whole thing over and over again. One by one, he found ways to remove safety ropes, to be free of all the training wheels, right up until his death. He fought against all of the limitations that the world places on us, socially and physically. In the end, the world got the better of him, just like everyone else. But he died doing what he wanted to do; he died free.

I think of Dean and all of the other extreme athletes (Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner, to name some of my favourites) when I think of the assisted-suicide and euthanasia debates. To me there is no debate at all. We all hold our own mortality in our own hands. Whether you risk your life climbing massive vertical walls, jumping out of airplanes, or just walking down the street on your way to get a Grande Blonde, it is your life to risk. The absurdity of the human condition is up to every individual to interpret, and everyone should have the option of ending it all when they see fit.

Of course, this is all very idyllic. I’m a romantic Rachit; guilty as charged. Maybe the most interesting debates in euthanasia arise when the will of the individual is not so clear. What happens if the person is in a coma or is in some other manner unable to communicate? Who gets to decide what happens? How do you balance the minute, but ever-present, sliver of hope for improvement with the drain on the medical system that can use the resources to help other people? Would you kill me if I asked you to, even though the pain I feel may only be temporary?

Pulpy, pulpy questions.

-V