over easy

Although being a visionary seems fruitful, you never want to be too far ahead of the times. When you can predict the future very far ahead about something that’s very important, the more fervently you behave in accord with that prediction, the more of a lunatic you will seem. An clear example is that all of our best knowledge about cosmology indicates that the universe will end at some point in the very distant future; however, if you’d spent your whole life screaming that the world is coming to an end, you’d seem like a nutter. If you’ve only been whimpering about it in the last couple of years, you seem … almost rational? Timing is everything.

Resurrecting an old idea at the right time looks like genius. In 1993, Apple introduced a personal handheld device that would be your constant companion, storing all sorts of your useful information and contacts so that you could always carry your digital world with you. When Steve Jobs returned as CEO of Apple in 1997, he killed the project. In 2007 he introduced the iPhone and changed the world. Steve Jobs wasn’t a better visionary than John Sculley; he just had better timing.

So really what you want to be is slightly ahead of the times. What does that look like? You’d know it when you see it, and then see it again. See, you can only be sure that you’ve seen a prescient idea after you have looked at it at least twice. The first time you look at it, it looks like the work of a lunatic. The last time you look at it, it seems utterly sensible, though you may still have your doubts.

Yesterday I came across The Easiest Person To Fool, but realized that I’d come across him years ago – and at that time, I’d dismissed him as a nutter. Irv Mills may describe himself as a “collapsenik” rather than a prepper or a survivalist, the latter terms sometimes having the tinge of overzealousness to them – I don’t think that the distinction between any of those terms is important for my purposes, as the mental image for all of them is basically the same to the uninitiated. The point is, when I read Irv’s website a few years ago, he sounded a bit crazy to me. He seemed to be living an isolated life in the woods, obsessively preparing for a disaster that might never come.

But yesterday I took a closer look at his autobiographical notes. He’s just a normal guy, nothing nutty about him. He worked in the energy industry for years, developing a detailed understanding of the limits and consequences of carbon-based fuel sources. As he aged into retirement from his first career, he noticed the fragility of our financial system and the precarious consequences for his children, and he thought longer and harder about the state of the world. By 2006, he concluded that it makes sense to start preparing for the collapse of civilization. That sounds dramatic, but when he lays out his thoughts on “business as usual” and hippies and magical thinking, he comes across as a very deliberate and rational thinker. He comes across as almost trendy, actually.

Apocalyptic thinking is very much on trend now. The world seems to be on the verge of a breaking point. Climate change, structural economic instability, tech disruption, authoritarian politics, trade wars, shadow digital wars, real “hot” wars … we seem to be in a constant bath of troubles that’s about to boil the frog. Apocalypse, zombies, and dystopia are such common features of our mainstream entertainment that they’re beyond cliche now. People who once seemed like hermetic nutjobs now seem … entirely rational?

In politics, the mainstream viability of an idea exists in the “Overton window” of formally supported policies, popular behavior, and sensible choices. The range of acceptable political discussion moves with the times, ascending through various degrees of public acceptance. Here’s an example on the topic of human sexuality.

1965:

  • Policy: heterosexual marriage
  • Popular: premarital sex
  • Sensible: premarital cohabitation
  • Acceptable: contraception
  • Radical: abortion
  • Unthinkable: same-sex marriage

To be clear, the Overton window is just a description of what is currently considered sensible (and above) in mainstream political discourse; it’s not a value judgment on whether that sensibility is right or wrong. Even with that caveat, your mileage may vary depending on where you live and who you associate with. I would roughly say the window on these issues moved like this:

1975:

  • Policy: premarital sex
  • Popular: premarital cohabitation
  • Sensible: contraception
  • Acceptable: abortion
  • Radical: same-sex marriage

1995:

  • Policy: premarital cohabitation
  • Popular: contraception
  • Sensible: abortion
  • Acceptable: same-sex marriage

2015:

  • Policy: contraception
  • Popular: abortion
  • Sensible: same-sex marriage

Moving from sex back to the end times: Now, everyone should have some degree of preparation for disaster, but there’s sort of an Overton window for disaster prep as well. If you live in a stable society with no special history of natural disaster, maybe your Overton window for prepping for disasters looks like this:

  • Policy: fire alarm
  • Popular: fire extinguisher
  • Sensible: earthquake kit
  • Acceptable: power generator for a day or two
  • Radical: a year’s supply of food and water
  • Unthinkable: bomb-proof shelter

It’s possible that I’ve inadvertently joined the Tinfoil Hat Of The Month Club, but I’ve come to believe that there’s almost nothing outside of the Overton window for the collapse of civilization. At most, we could have a discussion about what’s on either side of the border between sensible and acceptable. Are you prepared to go a week without power from the grid? That’s totally sensible in most places, and it should be popular where I live in California. Have you stockpiled weapons because you’re concerned about the breakdown of civil order including the law enforcement response to that breakdown? That seems acceptable to me. Do you have a detailed escape plan covering you and your loved ones? Sensible. Growing food in a kitchen garden? Canning? Keeping backyard livestock? Popular. Put your life savings in Bitcoin? I mean … I still think that’s stupid, but it’s nevertheless totally acceptable.

You might think I’m crazy, or you might think you’ve been smelling what I’m cooking for a while now. Either way, it makes sense for you to consider the gifts of the collapseniks. After spending some time with Irv, I followed some links from his blog to Albert Bates, who charts other collapseniks, and Dave Pollard, who offers a map you can easily find yourself on and a great reading list. Go ahead and click around a bit. You might think I’m crazy, but I think that with the road we’re on, I’ll keep this going ’til the sun goes down forever.

what we talk about when we talk about electability

What does it mean for one candidate to be more “electable” than another? Some people object to even posing this question, arguing that “electability” is just a cover for maintaining the status quo, generally favoring dominant class, race, and gender patterns. In other words, by “electability” many people just mean that they want a candidate that most resembles prior successful candidates, and since the vast majority of prior successful candidates were older, white, male, and centrist – to be electable often just means to be an old white man from the political center.

But when we talk about electability, we’re not just talking about the qualities of the current candidates. We’re really talking about what happened in the last election. We want someone that’s not prone to the same dynamics that lost the last election. That’s really challenging today, because over three years after the last Presidential election, there isn’t broad agreement about what happened. The three prevailing theories are:

  1. Bigotry. This theory says that Trump supporters are fundamentally motivated by racism and sexism.
  2. Economic despair. This theory says that the hollowing out of the middle class has led to sentiment against immigration, free trade and rapid modernization.
  3. Media dysfunction. This theory says that both intended (by Russia) and unintended (by BigTech) consequences of modern media distorted the election results.

The easiest opinion to hold is “It’s a combination of all of the above!” But most people who claim to hold this opinion secretly believe that only one of the three is the truly critical reason for the result of the last election. Often this is a secret even to themselves, but the truth is revealed by your opinion on who is really the most electable candidate.

If you think Biden is the most electable candidate, then you think that bigotry was the critical factor in the last election. Biden is the old white man from the center, and despite his high approval among black voters, he also was a main proponent of harsh criminal laws that disproportionately harmed black people, so he looks safe enough to many bigots. This is the right profile to sway bigoted swing voters. You tell yourself, “He’ll win if he can just avoid shooting himself in the foot.”

If you think Bernie is the most electable, then you think that economic despair was the critical factor last time. All those poor hollowed out voters they keep interviewing in diners should love the economic message that Bernie has been consistently espousing for decades. Doesn’t hurt that Bernie is old, white, and male – but if you thought that does the trick, then you would go with Biden. You go with Bernie instead because he’s got the loudest, clearest message about fundamental economic change. You say, “He’ll win if he can just avoid being tagged as a socialist.”

If you think Warren is the most electable, then you think that media dysfunction is what really drove the last election. She’s the smartest, the most accomplished in both pre-politics career and national legislation, and a member of the largest identity group (women). This time around, the Russians will still be a factor, but if we can only police the mainstream media enough to get them to concentrate on substantive policy positions, then Warren’s policy and legislative record should win the day. “She’ll win if only she’s portrayed fairly.”

By the way, if you think Buttigieg is the most electable … keep thinking. Maybe he’s the candidate for those who really do think the last election was the outcome of a perfect balance of the three reasons. You think that bigotry won’t hurt him too much, since he’s white and male, and even though he’s gay you think the country’s sentiment has changed enough so that it’s a non-factor for bigots. You think he can navigate the discussion of economic despair by simply smooth-talking the issues without troubling his biggest donors. You think the media loves him, and will continue to treat him with kid gloves. These are delusional thoughts. The reality is that Buttigieg is vulnerable for all three of the reasons in the prior election: Bigots really are bigoted, including against gay people. Buttigieg is clearly a proponent of the economic status quo, anyone in economic despair will see right through him. And the media will turn against Buttigieg, in part because that’s just want they do, but ultimately it’s because there’s no there there. He was the mayor of a small city, with zero national exposure. That’s even less qualification for national office than a reality television star. Trump would destroy Buttigieg in a landslide.

As a reward for reading this post, let me remind you of what we talk about when we talk about love. It’s a good read, somehow both hopeful and disheartening, and strangely resonant to peruse after pondering our current politics.

from Linden to Libra

Join me, friends, in the Wayback Machine …

In 2007, Facebook sent a couple of strategists to Linden Lab to ask us about virtual currency. Of course they would ask us – at the time, we were the world’s leading experts in managing a virtual economy, heading towards a billion dollars of L$ transactions. Yes, that’s a billion real US dollars – unique among all virtual currencies at the time, we supported the exchange of L$ to real US$, so our virtual currency had real world value.

When we heard that they wanted to meet, my colleagues huddled in a room to decide how much we should tell them. We decided to emphasize the difficulties of managing a virtual currency: complexity of implementation, responsibility for users’ financial transactions, intrusive governmental inquiry and oversight, competitive dynamics with banks and payment partners. We went into the meeting and told them this story about how terrible it all was, and how they’d be better off simply issuing credits paid for with real money.

We never heard from them again, but in 2010 they launched Facebook Credits. I laughed at the thought that it seemed our little misdirection had worked – they went down a path that was entirely uninteresting and ultimately untenable, just as we’d hoped. Yeah, I know: that was kinda evil. But at the time, I was just a little evil, trying to stay ahead of bigger evils.

Why didn’t we want Facebook to work on virtual currency? Because I believed that the Linden Dollar was the greatest innovation created by the Lab. Sure, the 3D virtual world was mind-bending – all the avatars and the world building and the art and the boob physics – but for me, the virtual currency was the one element of Second Life that had the opportunity to break out of SL and into prominence in the whole wide world. Facebook had only 50 million users in 2007, and I didn’t want them to get their virtual currency right, so early in the game.

Well, it’s a dozen years later, and blockchain inspired a Facebook exec to figure it out. Facebook has launched Libra, a new cryptocurrency. It is a brilliant implementation: meticulously researched, expertly engineered, broadly partnered, poised for global domination. There’s only two problems: it’s too late, and they’re doing it wrong.

The right time for Facebook to launch a virtual currency would have been, oh, around 2007. That’s right: I’m saying you can thank me and Chris Collins for talking them out of it at the time. As I’ve written previously, a cryptocurrency can only succeed as a medium of exchange if it is a core currency of a powerful platform. Don’t even get me started on Bitcoin. What I didn’t call out in those posts is that the platform must implement currency strategy early in its growth. This is because when you are messing around with payments, you are in a field of giants – global banks and entire nations that have a vested interest in preventing your success. You have to implement your new currency while your platform is still small enough to ignore, or at least dismiss as “merely a game.” Then when you reach enormous scale, it’s too late to do anything about the economy that’s been baked in since the early days.

When a platform already has billions of people, it’s not going to fly under the radar. Facebook is already seeing immediate regulatory interest in Libra. Even with less than a million users, Second Life had to deal with aggressive regulatory interest from Congress and international bodies. I like to think that we talked our way out if it with my silver tongue, but the truth is that we were too small for sustained inquiry. Facebook is far, far, far past that point. Libra will be hounded by regulators until the cost outweighs the benefits.

The part that Libra has wrong is its reserve policy. This is getting into the weeds of managing virtual currency, but to vastly oversimplify: the reserve is a guarantee of currency redemption. If you buy Libra with real currency, you can sell it back to the Libra consortium for a relatively stable amount of real currency. Libra has launched this way in the hopes that a stable currency value will engender trust. The amusing mistake here is that only in the insular world of technocracy could someone believe that Facebook has consumer trust problems that can be cured by a stable rate of exchange on their cryptocurrency. The more serious mistake is that requiring a full reserve limits the utility of the currency.

All major world currencies are fiat currencies, which means that they can be issued at the will of the governing authority. They are not backed by gold or any other asset – though nearly all of them started out backed by a guarantee of redemption in gold. But there is a reason that all of them have moved off of the gold standard: fiat provides the maximum flexibility to manage the currency and its related economy. While it’s true that fiat currencies are more susceptible to hyperinflation, that is only a consequence of bad management. If the manager (i.e. the government, or in this case, Facebook) can be trusted to make good economic decisions, inflation is a limited risk.

Perhaps Facebook is aware of all this, and their plan is to launch with a full reserve, but later evolve into a fiat currency, after some history has demonstrated their trustworthy stewardship. After all, this is actually how all the major world currencies developed: first on the gold standard, then eventually declaring a switch to fiat currency. So if the launch with reserve is a bit of knowing subterfuge, kudos to them.

At this point, I could launch into an extended discussion about the relationship between virtual currencies and MMT. But I’ll leave that exercise for another day. In the meantime, for Linden historians who have stayed with me this long through the discussion, I’ll give you a little blast from the past: a record of posts from Linden Lab as we decided how to think about our currency, and whether to implement fiat sales of L$ into existing exchanges. Enjoy!

why warren

I’m absurdly proud of having predicted Trump as President, more than two months before the Republican convention, and six months before the general election. I know of only two earlier public predictions, by a professional pollster two months before me and a cartoonist extraordinaire more than eight months before me. Ah, but pride goeth before a fall, so let me jump off that cliff now, by making my prediction eighteen months before Election Day: Elizabeth Warren will win in a landslide. (btw, if you’re going to comment now or later on why I’m wrong, do me a favor and include the link where you called the results of the 2016 election beforehand. Oh, you have no public record of that? Then shush, you.)

The Democratic nomination will come down to Sanders or Warren. But first, let me give the two-sentence dismissal of all the other nominees:

  1. Biden: He’s the last bastion of the Democratic establishment. But the machine is crumbling, and he has too much history to overcome.
  2. Buttigieg: He’s the flavor du jour, but lacks substance. Personality can win against substance, as we’ve seen time and time again, but his personality isn’t actually strong enough.
  3. Booker: America isn’t ready for its second black President. And if it were, Booker’s “love” campaign isn’t the right tenor this cycle.
  4. Harris: A black woman president is two bridges too far for most of this country. And she’s hindered by her record as a prosecutor.
  5. O’Rourke: Beto has already flamed out. If you’re running the Kennedy playbook, you need to actually be a Kennedy.
  6. Castro, Delaney, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Klobuchar, Messam, Moulton, Ryan, Swalwell, Williamson, Yang: No. Too far behind, nothing distinctive enough for them to catch up.

Let me be clear: I don’t want any of the above to be true. I’m just saying I think it is true, and mere wishes otherwise aren’t going to win this horserace.

Sanders and Warren might seem similar. They’re both old, white, and progressive. But they have one starkly obvious difference – no, not that one is a man and the other is a woman – one is a socialist and the other is a capitalist.

Sanders is a democratic socialist, and proud of that label – and deserving of both the label and the pride. A lot of the country has come around to positions that he has been espousing for his entire professional life. Warren wouldn’t label herself this way, but she’s a democratic capitalist – she believes in market mechanisms to address many social problems, but believes the market must be firmly guided by the best interests of a democracy.

At the end of the day, as much recent fervor as there’s been for socialist policies, this country isn’t going to elect an avowed socialist as president, at least not yet. Warren’s policies and her effectiveness in getting them into the discussion will win both the media and the electorate to her side. She won’t be hindered like Hillary was by either her past or by forces she doesn’t control. The distortions of the prior Presidential election can be summarized as: sexism and Russia. Both will continue to have an effect, but that effect will be much smaller than the prior election, due to countervailing forces that have arisen in the meantime.

Once Warren wins the Democratic nomination, she’ll crush Trump in a landslide. I’ll go over the rationale for this … in about eleven months. By Super Tuesday, if this post has any legs, it’ll be worth writing the follow up. And if it’s wrong, well, pride is a sin anyway; I shall repent.

the story of the end

This week’s first-ever picture of a black hole was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, which is named after the critical boundary around the black hole. Once an object crosses the event horizon into the black hole, it will never be seen again by any observer on this side of the horizon.

The pictured black hole is fifty-five million years away, and that’s only by traveling at the speed of light. We seem to be much closer to another border beyond which there is no return, one that deserves the melodramatic name of The Apocalypse Horizon.

The world will end someday. There is no serious dispute about this fact, only a question of when. And that question seems unimportant for nearly all of us, as the end is at least several billions of years away. The Sun will expand until it engulfs the Earth, consuming whatever is left on the planet in a giant mass of red fire. No student of the universe disagrees with this, other than the few who believe that the end is even further away, with the Earth remaining just outside of the swelling Sun, surviving only to eventually collide with the Moon and then spin out to a cold death in the infinite cosmos. If that happens, it would be about a billion billion years from now. Those aren’t the only two stories: there are a few radicals who believe that instead of spinning away into the infinite, the dead husk of the Earth would eventually collapse back into the cold remnants of the dying Sun, which would take about a hundred times longer than a billion billion years.

No one can really fathom that amount of time, none of us have to worry about that end. So the fact that the world will end isn’t particularly compelling – but our lack of interest is only partially because the distant outcomes are so far beyond our capacity to envision. The disinterest is really driven by over-repetition: we’ve lived with stories of the end for about as long as we’ve had stories. There is always someone raving about the end of the world.

As a child I saw the modern ur-form of this storyteller with my own eyes, the lunatic in Times Square, disheveled in a stained trench coat and torn denim jeans, holding high a hand-lettered sign with the classic message: “THE END IS NIGH.” Even as a child I knew that he had nothing interesting to say about the end of the world. Urgency is always combined with a call to action, but the message is really about the desired action, and the story of urgency is provided only to give reason to take the action immediately. “REPENT!” The meaning and path to salvation was the story this prophet really wanted to tell; the cries of apocalypse were just a ploy to get anyone to listen.

What was the first story ever told – and why was it told? This must have been at least tens of thousands of years ago, around the time we first became capable of abstract thought. Some of those first stories must have been about food or shelter or sex. But I feel certain that on the day after the first person looked up into the sun and recalled that the sun also rose yesterday, there was some other person there to tell a story about why there would be no sun tomorrow nor any day afterwards. And that storyteller was telling the apocalyptic story to get the audience to do something. The story of the end was never really about the end, but about what the storyteller wants the audience to do now.

That is how it has been throughout all of human history, and that is why the savvy listener disregards apocalyptic tales today. The end isn’t coming unless it’s the one that’s too far away to matter. That’s the way it has always been. Anyone who tells you any different wants something from you.

But that will only be true until the day that it isn’t. The inevitable end of the Earth may be in the unreachable cosmological distance, and all of the old stories may have been diversions – but we now live in an age where humans have planetary impact of a scale that inarguably includes the ability to end all of humanity. In the simplest apocalyptic story of our times, the collective nuclear arsenal we’ve built is more than sufficient to make the planet uninhabitable. That wouldn’t be the end of all life, and the planet itself would continue on its many-billion year journey without us, but the end of humanity deserves a name, and the best one we have is Apocalypse. The term may be dramatic and it may be stained by thousands of years of misuse, but we have no better word for describing not the end of the planet, but the event that ends our time on it.

I don’t ask you to believe in any particular form of the Apocalypse. There are plentiful stories for whatever belief system you ascribe to – you can pick and choose among nuclear holocaust, environmental collapse, killer robots, infectious superbugs, or even good old fashioned Wrath of God. The point is that for the first time in human history, some of these apocalyptic stories might actually be true. And although most of the people telling you these stories probably want you to do something in reaction, unlike all previous times, the real story isn’t the desired action, but is actually the question of whether or not this particular story of the end is a true story.

All of the stories with a scientific basis have a point of no return well before the actual end, even though that point may be impossible to identify with current science. There is a point at which fissile material and nuclear technology will be so broadly available that avoiding disaster becomes improbable. There is a point at which the oceans will rise so high that areas now populated by millions will be underwater. There is a point at which the intelligence of machines will allow them to create more intelligent machines. Once those points are past, there is no going back. Those points of no return form our modern Apocalypse Horizon: the point past which we cannot prevent the end of all of our stories.

If you believe in science, you must believe that we will eventually cross the Apocalypse Horizon, and it’s possible that we have already done so. In our modern apocalyptic stories, the time between the point of no return and the storied end is about three generations. This span of parent to child to grandchild is crucial: If we are near the horizon, that means that people who are in their reproductive years today can feel confident that they and their children can live a long life before the Apocalypse occurs – but they’ll have to tell their children that their grandchildren are not likely to live out their natural lives. Or they’ll need to make up stories that are the opposite in substance but similar in purpose to the apocalyptic tales of the past: falsehoods designed to lull a doomed generation into acceptance of their unchangeable fate.

Are we the generation that lives just prior to crossing the Apocalypse Horizon? Even the possibility means that people with children in their lives might think differently than any generation before about how to discuss the future. All prior generations could simply ignore the stories of the end, as it had always been rational to do so in the past. All future generations will be past the point of no return, so will be beyond the point where choices about future generations matter. Only the generation that crosses the Apocalypse Horizon really has a decision to make about what to tell their children.

This is no entreaty to repent, I have no story of salvation to sell. This week we saw something that has never been seen before in human history, though it existed fifty-five million years ago; it is an apt time to reflect on our existence in the universe. The stories that have never been true before must now be taken seriously, for ignoring them no longer serves the truth, but furthers a lie. The Apocalypse Horizon is near enough to see, and in a sense it hardly makes any difference whether it is just in front of us or just behind us.

celebrated people

p. 96:

I keep it always full of interesting people, night and day.

When you live alone in a feudal mansion, with gardens spuming the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale gold odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate, how do you mask the inescapable stink of loneliness? What pulsating energy could pierce the hardened cocoon of disaffection to warm a heart made cold with mysterious wealth?

There’s no better distraction than the whirling carnival of people crashing a party where everyone and no one really belongs. Let the folly of others be a movie for which you’ll gladly douse your illumination in favor of sitting in the dark with your attention devoted to anyone else’s story, anyone at all so long as it isn’t you. If the others are just interesting enough, perhaps they can be elevated to a celebrity that attracts the curiosity of those who can be fulfilled by nothing more than being hopelessly curious about a celebrity. Then you can be alone with many birds of a feather, packed together in a frenzy of distance, locked in a solemn vow never to connect. It’s best that way for everyone involved.

Gatsby couldn’t be sure that Daisy would be interested in him. He hardly knew what he was himself, consisting of no substance other than blindered ambition. He had no sensical idea of what an interesting person could be, other than to accept the judgment of others conferring the crown of celebrity. So he filled his house with interesting people, celebrated people, all gathered to have the time of their lives, or at least avoid the fear of missing out.

Thanksgiving reverie: con job

Con Job

I had to hire a bodyguard for a visit with my mother. The accumulation of events that led to these cold facts is something I can only regard with dull wonder, like waking up the morning after a blizzard, marvelling at the snow that you knew would fall all night. I was in Shanghai, called to Seoul on emergency – the locales seem dramatic for this Jersey boy, but there was a certain mundanity to it all, an inevitable logic that requires a journey around the world to settle nothing at all while trying to deal with everything.

Shanghai was a disconcertingly placid adventure. I had been there almost a decade ago, a futile business trip for a company that had virtually no chance of doing business in China. At the time it was just another routine exercise in escaping my world, back in San Francisco with responsibilities falling like a hail of arrows: from my failing marriage, needy children, insurmountable challenges at work. The city was in the midst of rapid construction that burst buildings from the ground through volcanoes shaped like skyscrapers, spewing ash and heat into the turgid air.

All those violent explosions have cooled, the row of buildings now glisten like ice carvings along the Bund, following the sparkling river through the middle of the city. J and I walked intertwined in the temperate night air, exulting in the strangeness of a place not our own while centered in our growing love for each other. Our relationship is as smooth as blown glass, fresh from the furnace, still hot and malleable into forms we’ve only started to imagine. Both of us still have brittle shards of past shattered relationships embedded in our bodies, revealed at times in a sharp if minor phantom pain when we press on the wrong sore spot.

She was in Shanghai for work, I just tagged along. We were only beginning to long for an extended stay as the harmonious week rolled to an end, when I started getting the calls and messages from Seoul. My mother calls all the time; I rarely pick up. Back at home, my inaction seems more practical than neglectful, as she has no concept of time zones, and the majority of her calls are in the middle of the night, with my phone set on “do not disturb.” I’m disturbed anyway when I wake up in the morning and see her fusillade of missed calls. The fact is, even when I see her calls come in, I have no urge to pick up. I have the opposite of urge, I have revulsion and disdain, the sight of her name on my phone opening a gravity well into which my heart falls freely until the phone stops ringing.

In Shanghai, I’m awake for every call, with only an hour’s difference from Seoul. I can’t ignore them all any more than I can walk through raindrops in a thunderstorm without getting wet. When I finally answer, she says the same thing she always says, and none of the things she should say. She needs money, as usual. But now it’s not the five or ten thousand dollars she usually demands, but a cool quarter million. Still, it’s hard to tell how serious this is, as nothing she ever says has a reliable relationship to reality.

The messages from my cousin raise the level of alarm from unreliable ranting to unavoidable problem. I have thirty or so cousins in Seoul, both my parents come from large families. With the distance and language barriers, I only have a servicable connection to two, one on my mother’s side and one on my father’s. My mother’s nephew would prefer to avoid ever seeing her, he’d love to participate in the social banishment that all of my uncles and aunts have imposed upon my parents. Somehow, the signal of impropriety in my mother’s activities has risen to a buzz that he cannot ignore, and though he rarely reaches out to me, he’s sending me messages on the same Friday as my mother’s incessant calling, with the same call to action: Come to Seoul.

Seoul occupies my mental space in the same way as Mordor does for Middle Earth before the ring is cast into the fires. If I could be unbiased, I would say the city is phenomenal, teeming with culture and industry and irrepressible energy. But I’m not unbiased; I’m as biased as it’s possible to be, with every element in my personal history predisposing me to loathe my parents’ hometown. They came to the United States in the late fifties, among the first wave of Koreans to immigrate after the Korean War. My father started out studying in Virginia – he said that when he dreamed of coming to America, he knew that everything would be different but he should at least pick a location where the weather would be the same. So he drew a horizontal line on the map from Seoul, and picked Virginia because that’s where the common latitude hit the States. He didn’t account for climate variables and found himself in too warm a place, so he moved his way north until he ended up in New York, where he met my mother. They settled in New Jersey, had my sister and then me. That’s how I became a Jersey boy.

The town where I grew up was founded by Scots and Irish, but was overrun by Italians and Jews long before my parents bought their first house there. The few Asians in town were as weeds to a suburban lawn. I want to believe that growing up as an outlier didn’t incite a rebellion against my own background, but it couldn’t have helped very much. My parents clung to their homeland identity even as it isolated them; they treated their Koreanness as a rock on which they could survive above windswept seas, I saw it as flotsam that might keep them afloat for a short while, but which would become waterlogged and sink as sure as the ocean is wet. Either way, you can’t navigate without sturdy craft of your own. Still, to me the negative association with Korea didn’t come from their immigrant experience, but rather from just how much my parents hated each other. They hated each other in a very Korean way, a hate that would last until death but could never be severed before then.

My very first memory is born from their discord. I can remember being held in my father’s arms, looking up at the night sky, vast and empty and devoid of all humanity, most certainly devoid of motherhood, just as our temporary housing was. We were on a visit to Korea, I was three years old. I think we had gone as a family, but no one knew where my mother was. She’d disappeared for days, wild and wandering, doing anything to be away from a marriage that was already wrong and already a deathless bond. This is a sympathetic image of my father, stalwart and alone with his children, breathing the night air with his first and only son, realizing with a growing, grim certainty that the wife and mother of his perfect visions would never materialize.

That’s a single snapshot, one of only a few bright frames in a long movie that tells a darker story. He was stubborn, proud, egocentric, insecure – qualities that are stereotypical in Korean masculinity and ten times magnified in this immigrant who escaped the rebuilding after civil war, only to find himself in a strange land in his own private and interminable war. It’s hard to say whether circumstances would have made him a better man, but I doubt it. His reaction to my mother’s bursts outside the bounds of Korean strictures consisted of increasingly relentless cruelty, a man who decides that his woman is a dog that hasn’t been beaten enough.

And it’s hard to say whether a loving man would have had any different result with my mother. Though all of her compensating mechanisms were understandable – the disappearances, the gambling, the lying and the greed, the utter absence of any true presentation of herself – at base there was a truly disturbed personality. The absence of any positive nurture neither explains nor justifies the fundamentally broken nature of her mind. You can say that in a perfect world, they could have ended up with different people who wouldn’t have reinforced each of their worst qualities, but then that world would have been far less than perfect for the alternate victims. These are two victimizers who deserved to be each others victims.

My sister and I, however, were innocent, at least at the beginning as all children are. So as I got the parade of messages from Seoul, I called her to ask what to do. Sitting in Shanghai, with her on the other end of the phone in her little town outside of Prague, I could barely summon the energy to marvel at the explosion of locales for this one forlorn family from New Jersey. She’d ended up in Czechia as a final escape in her own long journey away from our parents. (Nobody calls it Czechia, though that’s the official name, but I like the sound better than the insistent ring of “Czech Republic,” which somehow conjures images of unfulfilled ambition for a country that’s still recovering from its eras of German and Soviet dominance.) She told me to go to Seoul, but she said she’d understand if I wouldn’t.

I didn’t want to, but I had to go. Not for any of the reasons that people who actually like their parents might state – reasons of filial obligation, duty, the sacrifice for family in return for all they have given you. No – I owed these people nothing. My reaction was simply as one who passes a wreck by the side of the road, seeing the incapacitated driver helpless though far from blameless, having been behind the wheel in a sorry state, ending the only way possible: in a crumpled heap of twisted metal. All logic would excuse the passing observer to continue on the way, as this driver put herself into this position, and when helped out of it will only get behind another wheel and end in another wreck. But if you’re the only observer that can possibly help, you’d have to be a pretty hardened soul to continue on with barely a backwards glance.

Shanghai is two and a half hours from Seoul. If I’d been in San Francisco at the time, I probably would have declined the twelve hour journey. But at two and a half hours, as the only possible good Samaritan, I would have had to do it for anybody, for a stranger, for you and certainly for your mother. So I guess I had to do it for my mother. I booked my ticket and regretted it instantly.

I’d already been gone from home for a week, ignoring fires at work and begrudgingly chalking one up in the debit column of rare favors from my ex-wife. The most I could spare was another four days. Four days to untangle my mother’s biggest web of lies yet seemed beyond hopeless, but it was all I had to spare. I called her on Sunday asking to meet the next day, soon after I landed. She said yes of course, of course she could explain everything, of course I could meet the players in this shadowy game for which she was playing with at least two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Her reaction wasn’t one of welcome delight, but of a crafty rat reacting to the arrival of a feral cat.

When I landed Monday, suddenly everyone was unavailable. My mother was busy, her colleagues or partners or associates or whatever they were, they were all nowhere to be found. Some of them had apparently never existed, I must have misunderstood her or misheard her, she said. Also, even though they didn’t exist, she now owed these phantoms only a hundred thousand dollars, having drained all available assets, deceived gullible relations, and borrowed from friends with poor judgment to pay the first one hundred fifty thousand to the spirit world. The frustrating thing about my mother’s lies is that they have no consistency from moment to moment; in a course of a single sentence she twists herself up in so many falsehoods that nothing needs to make sense. I hung up knowing I needed to find a lawyer and a bodyguard to make any progress.

The lawyer I’d already met once before, the previous summer when I’d made a different emergency trip to Seoul, in the hopes that my father’s failing health was finally reaching a merciful end. He’s had dementia for years, a broken hip, a bout or two of pneumonia, and has long since forgotten my name. In July he was back in the hospital with his lungs full of fluid again, and my sister and I flew there with optimistic black formalwear in our bags. Terribly, he survived to return home with my mother, in a luxury retirement building with round the clock nursing. His nurse was sadly indefatigable, caring to his every need even as she was clawing through her own chemotherapy at the same time. She kept him alive and my sister and I flew back with our funeral attire regretfully unused. But on the last day, we walked by a lawyer’s office and decided to stop in, to ask him to review some suspicious papers my sister had found in my parents’ apartment.

Now it’s three weeks before Thanksgiving, my favorite family holiday as an adult, probably because it’s the one we celebrated least as a kid. Back in Seoul again, against my will again, talking again with this lawyer who I would now graduate into a relationship as “my” lawyer, since this situation had every sign of continuing long enough and expensively enough to demand a relationship. I asked if he could arrange a bodyguard to meet me in the morning, and when he said yes I called my mother and told her I’d be coming to visit with a hundred thousand dollars in a duffel bag, but I would only hand it over to the people she owed, not to her. As if by magic, these phantoms returned to corporal form and were available to meet in the morning at my convenience. I had until the morning to figure out how to make it through the meeting without bringing money and without getting hurt.

I had one friend in Seoul, a Korean whose disaffection for Korean society nearly matched my own but was all the more impressive for him having endured the bulk of his adult life in the country. Rick actually used to work for me, but at some point we crossed a line where we had no choice to regard each other as people rather than colleagues. He agreed to serve as translator and driver, picking me up in the morning along with the muscle for hire who met us in my hotel lobby. We made our game plan on the way to my parents’ building near the center of the city – I would first appear unaccompanied, while they loitered in the background, so I could play nice with the phantom gentlemen and try to find out as much as I could before turning over the next card.

The building strives to rise above the block like an entry-level luxury hotel. My mother’s footsteps echo in the three-story atrium as she hustles towards me when I enter. No greeting, no warm recognition in her eyes, the look on her face is exactly the one she’d have as she walks up to a cash dispensing machine on the street. She pulls me over into a side lobby, where a grouping of chairs is occupied by two shifty middle-aged men, one a little older than me and the other probably five years younger. They’re both named Mr. Kim, as is a third of the population in Korea. They both look like they had too much to drink the night before, probably in common with half the population. My mother translates in broken English and frantic Korean, and I come to understand that she plans to move out of the building and into one owned by these men. She’s already moved my father to a nursing home an hour away, and this new place is close enough for her to visit daily as the devoted wife she somehow believes she can deceive me to perceive.

A few minutes is all it takes to understand that this is a scam. It’s no great detective work, it’s no Holmesian powers of perception – just that nothing makes sense and these two bozos are as uncomfortable as worms under a shaker of salt. I nod at Rick and the bodyguard and they amble over to our seating area, to the visible consternation of the Kims. Rick translates the stream of invective I direct towards the older Kim, and when he expresses outraged indignation, I have to make a choice. I could mollify the expectations he has as an elder in a society that demands such formality, or I can double down on my contempt like a true American. Going the latter route aligns with my boiling blood and my Jersey roots, but there’s some risk if we’re dealing with true gangsters.

I’m incapable of making a cool calculation. I can only invite Mr. Kim outside to settle his bruised feelings with our hands like men, like men of Jersey, men of Korea, men everywhere that anger substitutes for courage. He wants none of it, retreating immediately to a passive if aggrieved posture. Though not a thoughtful stratagem, my aggression was probably the fastest way to determine that these were nonviolent scamsters rather than dangerous mobsters. I’m satisfied enough to end the meeting. Over the next couple of days, I follow the money from building to building, bank to bank, pulling papers and statements from my confused and devious mother, ultimately to conclude that she’s been the constant subject of a team of scamsters for years. She was just as much an accomplice as a victim, perhaps even more so. As my father’s mental state declined, my mother’s delusional audacity increased, and the window of opportunity widened for the criminals to step through and make off with all of her savings and more.

Fortunately, my father never trusted my mother. Perhaps I can ponder the possibilities if he only had treated her as an equal from the beginning, so that they could grow and trust each other, develop as human beings rather than animals forever scarred by the wars of their youth. But we live in the world we live in, not the unreachable world of our unsatisfied dreams. He treated her like a dog and he never trusted her; she acted like a dog with rabies and deserved far less trust than she received. Unfortunately, my father’s solution as he foresaw the end was to make my sister and me responsible for managing their financial affairs. My mother had given away all of the money she could get her hands on, and now there was nothing left except the great majority of it, behind pursestrings loosely grasped in my unwilling fingers. Now it’s time to tighten my grip.

I had two days left to traverse Seoul digging for clues and spinning my own protective webbing. I made arrangements for the building she’s in to send their bills directly to me, including for the meal plan specializing in soft senior foods. I visited the nursing home on the other side of town, spent a few minutes watching my father slowly die, then arranged for their billing to come to me as well. She’ll never get another dime from my father’s accounts unless it’s for her bare survival. I set my lawyer off on a long task list to get the scammers arrested, which may or may not have any effect. I’ve become a pale shadow of my father, continuing to lock the cage he set her in on the day they married. Barely clinging to life, he’s still winning the torturous game of control in this family, a game that no one wants to play anymore but no one seems to be able to quit.

On my last night in Seoul, I found a bar with a friendly bartender and ruined his night and mine. And then I went home, having nowhere else to go.