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 know 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.

next level

Humans have a tendency to believe that the most fundamental forces of nature can be mastered, and with some good reason: light, darkness, cold, heat, gravity – these forces have all been vanquished by human ingenuity.

Evolution is a different proposition altogether, a systemic outcome rather than a manageable phenomenon. Nevertheless, humans are likely to master even evolution through biological tinkering. Biotechnology is still in its relative infancy, but for generations now we have been keeping people alive who would certainly have been “selected out” in prior eras. This may seem like an effort to forestall evolution, but it is really a precursor to accelerating it. And whether through natural selection or human innovation, the systemic outcome will be as it has always been in nature: the portion of the species that evolves will survive and thrive, the remainder, if they survive at all, will subsist at best in a hardscrabble existence.

We are likely to witness at least the beginnings of a split in our species during the lifetimes of some people living today. One could argue that it’s already happened for most practical purposes …

Let’s remember what high school biology class taught us about genus and species. Humans are Homo sapiensHomo is the genus and sapiens is the species. “Genus” is a grouping of life forms that is even closer than the higher order grouping named “family” – but “species” is the closest grouping of all, defined by the fact that members of the same species can reliably breed and produce fertile offspring.

It’s a biological truth that all humans on the planet are the same species, but as a practical matter, inequalities of wealth and privilege have created classes of humans that will almost never interbreed with others. The richest man in America is as unlikely to produce offspring with a pauper in Calcutta as he is to breed with a sheep in New Zealand. We can regard this as a social issue that has nothing to do with biology … until we consider how humans are likely to evolve. Because humans will control evolution through science, societal barriers will become indistinguishable from biological rules with regard to evolution.

Evolution occurs when environmental conditions create an opportunity – or requirement – for species with differentiating features to thrive. Our environmental conditions today are so daunting that even discussing them can seem unhinged. Apocalyptic speculation has probably been around for as long as there has been any kind of storytelling, but today there’s more reason than ever to give credence to wild-eyed prognostications of planetary destruction. Nuclear war or terrorism, climate change, superbugs and biohazards, runaway artificial intelligence – all are real phenomena, and any of them could end human life as well as many many other species.

At the very least, some of these existential risks will result in an environment that gives great opportunity – or requirement – for humans with enhanced capabilities. Skin capable of absorbing greater levels of ultraviolet light, lungs that easily filter polluted air, even gills that pull oxygen from rising seas; these are all features that should be within the realm of evolution – but humanity need not wait for the plodding pace of natural selection, we can instead achieve these powers and more through advanced biotechnologies.

These ideas are only somewhat fantastical today, and more mundane but still impactful features are already within reach: height, strength, intelligence, coloring. And wealth, which of course isn’t a biological trait, is passed down just as effectively as if it were, and is just as crucial to survival in the coming environment. Only the wealthy will be behind the sea walls that keep out the rising oceans; only the superrich will be spirited to underground fortresses at the first sign of apocalypse. We are going to evolve through science and money, and some of us already are, living a life so far beyond the norm of human existence that it begins to look like evolution.

Only those with access to technology – which is the same as saying only those with access to wealth – will be able to evolve to the next species of the human genus. Homo sapiens is going to split. The humans with wealth and therefore access will make themselves into their own new species, Homo technus. The rest will be left behind, for technus won’t interbreed with sapiens, or if they do, they’ll apply technology to their mates to bring them into the new species.

This vision may seem like a dystopia, but being left behind only matters if you believe that what’s ahead is better than what’s past. Many people will react to the idea of having gills, for example, as disgusting and unnatural, and would rather cling to a notion of humanity that is unevolved from the one they’ve always known. Rather than view that opinion as regressive, we could regard it as calm, deliberate, and confident. We could regard it as a rational choice for happiness.

There’s just one small problem. Our genus has a demonstrated tendency to trend towards a sole surviving species. Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, and others in our historical family are all gone from the earth, with sapiens as the sole survivor. Perhaps that happened as a peaceful matter of natural selection, but we don’t really know. It’s possible that Homo sapiens simply had the best adaptive qualities for the prehistorical environments, and the other species all died away peacefully. It seems a little more likely, given the repeated patterns in the historical record, that our ancestors survived because they were the most genocidal, directly wiping out the competition for resources. If this trait continues through to Homo technus, it doesn’t bode well for the sapiens left behind.

the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party

Your emotions are real, but they are not reality.

Snake cake

These days, reality seems to be a matter of opinion, or perhaps mere assertion. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon; it’s a divergence of the modern world from evolutionary biology that has been progressing for many generations, with increasingly stark effects.

Your body does not, cannot, and should not give you a truly faithful representation of the world. The world is too full for you to take in everything. Even if you were standing alone on an empty savannah, with no other living creature in sight, you would be overwhelmed by sensory overload if you could really take in everything around you: the infinite cocktail of light and shapes, sounds and scents, the feel of the particles in the air and the ground beneath your feet. You are like an ant in the ocean of all that surrounds you. To compensate, your five senses evolved to filter information down to a set that your brain can process into a different set of data that your body can act on. What you can sense is smaller than what exists, and what you perceive is different from what you can sense.

But even this finely processed data is a confusing panoply of input. Somehow, you have to figure out what to do about your perceptions. The most primal tools you have in making these decisions are your emotions.

Your emotions evolved so that you are urged to act in a matter that best suits your survival and the propagation of your genetic heritage. You might like to believe that you are not such a simple machine, but you surely are or you wouldn’t be here. Had you and all of your ancestors not experienced emotions related to hunger, you would not have survived to this point.

Now the world is a vastly different place than it has been throughout nearly all of our evolutionary history, and we are well into a time where our emotions easily lead us to wrong decisions. But it’s not so simple to determine when we are being served poorly by our emotions, because despite the mismatch between prehistoric evolution and our modern world, our emotions can be: always wrong, wrong but right, or really complicated. I can explain this more clearly with three scenarios named “the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.”

The Cake

Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly on the hunt for food, and food was not always easily accessible. On the rare occasion when they stumbled upon some luscious morsel of fat, or some delicate repository of sugar, it was to their evolutionary advantage to immediately devour that treasure.

Today of course, our industrial food supply surrounds us with tempting confections of fat and sugar, combined in manners that are exquisitely tuned to trigger our desire to eat. When you see a piece of cake, you may have an emotion that compels you to immediately cram as much of it into your mouth as quickly as possible.

This emotion, however, is always wrong. Unless you are in an unfortunate state of deprivation, it is not true that this is a rare piece of cake that is critical to your survival and a boon to your odds of producing progeny. The truth is exactly opposite: incessant indulgence of this instinct to eat cake will lead to your premature death and very probably to a reduction in your mating prospects.

So this is the simplest example of second-guessing your emotions: In the past, this emotion was always right, and today it is always wrong.

The Snake

Imagine you are walking through the forest, enjoying a lovely day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a deadly snake at your foot, poised to bite and fill your body with poison. You jump away from the threat even faster than you perceive it.

Your heart pounding in your chest, the fear coursing electric in your body, you look down at the ground and see that what you thought was a snake was really just a stick.

The next day on another idyllic walk, nearly the exact same thing happens: the sudden appearance of a snake, a shocked leap out of harm’s way, and then the sheepish realization that there’s no real threat. Maybe this time it’s a lizard. Or it is a snake, but it’s just not a deadly one.

And this happens over and over again, and you never learn your lesson, you just keep jumping like a fool. Until one day, you look down and it really is a deadly snake. You pick up a rock and you bash its head in.

This emotion, this often irrational fear, survives today. You may not walk in the woods that often, but maybe you park your car in a dark parking lot, and when you hurry to your car late at night, you grip your keys tightly, interlaced in your fingers to defend yourself from the attack that never comes. Maybe you walk down a dark street in a neighborhood of ill repute, and you nervously cross the street when you see strangers approaching on your side.

Are you paranoid, are you making unkind assumptions? Yes. Do you need this emotion to survive? Absolutely, yes. The genetic lines of people who completely lacked this emotion are gone now, as they were all killed by deadly snakes.

So in this case, the emotion is almost always wrong, but nevertheless you must honor it in your actions for the unacceptable consequences of the one time that it is right.

The Cocktail Party

At a festive gathering of a few dozen people, you are talking to a person that you have never met before that evening. The conversation is pleasant enough, but in an unguarded moment you make an errant comment that you suddenly realize might have offended this person. You are about to clarify your words, but just at that moment you are interrupted by a friend who appears at your shoulder, and when you turn back to your previous conversation partner, she has disappeared into the swirls and eddies of the party.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But then why does it keep you up at night? You replay the scene in your head and pick over every detail, wondering if you offended this perfectly pleasant person, agonizing over how the words came out and what you should have said differently. The emotions of social mortification can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. What gave them such power, and should we still honor that power today?

In pre-historic times, people lived in very small groups, and for many millennia your largest social context might only be the size of a small village. Almost every person that you met would be someone you would interact with many times over the course of your lifetime. If you had an awkward social interaction with someone, you would want to repair this social tear, and you will quickly have many chances to do so. Reconciliation would be important not only for your relationship with this person, but so that you would not gain a reputation in the village for being unsociable. Such a reputation is an evolutionary death sentence, as effectively all of the people you meet in your lifetime would become unwilling to to procreate with you.

Today the situation is very different, but not entirely different. You will certainly never meet all of the people in your reasonably reachable geographic vicinity. However, a great many of us, perhaps even the great majority of us, continue to live in small social circles. Consider the example of an entrepreneur in San Francisco attending a cocktail party filled with the most connected investors in the Bay Area. An egregious party foul here could effectively end the entrepreneur’s ability to continue working, a consequence as extreme as any village faux pas on the prehistoric savannah. The same concerns might apply to certain types of gatherings for a writer in New York, a union laborer in Pittsburgh, or a rug dealer in Morocco. Or even a social media addict posting to her favorite group on Facebook.

But the context is really difficult to assess. Are the investors at this party really that connected? Does that merchants’ association in Morocco really enforce its unwritten rules? Is that Facebook activity really going to spread anywhere outside the group? And who is really in this group anyway? The modern world has made this assessment extremely complicated.

So the cocktail party is an example where the emotion used to be nearly always right, and today whether to honor that emotion in your actions involves a complex assessment of reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is the set of information that allows you to make rational decisions that further your best interests. There are many, many things that get in the way of your clear perception of reality, and foremost among them are your emotions. Emotions have not evolved to accord with the reality of the modern world. For the most part, you cannot change the emergence of your emotions, as they remain encoded to respond to stimuli of many thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a prisoner of your emotions. You can allow them to occur while nevertheless choosing to act in accord with reality. However, you must continue to honor the emotions that have beneficial effects in the modern context. To make choices among those emotions wisely, you should keep in mind the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.

2nd chances

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Second Amendment is unique among the Bill of Rights for appearing to protect an object you hold in your hand rather than an idea you hold in your head. The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech and religion, the Third protects a person’s dominion in their own home, the Fourth through Eighth protect criminal and civil procedural rights, the Ninth and Tenth limit the scope of the Constitution – these are all concepts, not things. Is the Second Amendment really about protecting an object, rather than an idea? If it’s the latter, then what is the idea?

Imagine if the First Amendment read something like, “Congress shall make no law infringing on the right of the people to keep and operate a printing press.” The sentiment would be clear: a free press is vital to a properly functioning democracy, the spread of information and debate is a bulwark against government tyranny. And of course, a printing press is necessary to print newspapers, so it would make sense to protect this physical object, as one of the most important instruments of our freedoms. This version of the First Amendment would have worked just fine for the first two hundred years of the nation.

And then it would become ridiculously outdated with the rise of digital information and the dominance of the Internet as the means through which speech is disseminated among the masses. Perhaps there would be a strong subculture of holdouts who would insist on the totemic power of the physical printing press, absolutely convinced that this thing was the idea of the First Amendment itself. They would fight furiously for the right to own and collect their printing presses, and the National Printing Press Association would fight every minor infringement, insisting that it was perfectly normal and supremely American for a person to own dozens upon dozens of presses, each with gigantic capacity, capable of printing millions of newspapers per day, in a world where no one reads newspapers anymore.

But those holdouts could not be considered seriously engaged in the project of upholding the freedoms established in the Bill of Rights. It would be obvious that those people had lost all sight of the purpose of protecting the citizenry from the tyranny of the government.

You could criticize the holdouts as bitter people, clinging to their printing presses in the face of a changing society that confuses their simple minds. But that would be a poor engagement with their legitimately held underlying concerns. A complete engagement would ask what the First Amendment is really about, and whether the physical printing press can still be considered an important object in the concepts behind the First Amendment.

The analogy is exceedingly obvious at this point. In the Second Amendment debate, we have a contingent of Americans who are certain that their guns are the object that must be protected, and another contingent who insists that private gun ownership is a public menace and must be limited, or eliminated entirely. In the ferocious argument between these factions, there is almost no serious discussion about the true concepts underlying the words of the Amendment.

What discussion there is barely gets beyond the surface, a trivial debate about the term “a well-regulated militia.” Gun control advocates seize upon the phrase to insist that use of guns in a militia context is the core of the right, rather than individual gun ownership. Whether or not that is true is completely irrelevant, when compared to the true purpose of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment, like all of the rest of the Bill of Rights, is about limiting governmental power. It is about ensuring that governmental tyranny will ultimately have to contend with the will of the people. The other amendments protect intellectual liberty, procedural rights, legal limits – these are important weapons in the arsenal of freedom. But another important weapon is the actual weapons. The Second Amendment is intended to preserve the threat of armed revolt against tyranny.

Thomas Jefferson believed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” These thoughts led directly to the Second Amendment, which protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. This idea is what is intended to be protected, not the physical objects of guns, whether or not in the context of a militia. But guns are now as obsolete for rebellion as the printing press is for freedom of the press.

The problem is that the disparity of destructive power between the weaponry of the government and the weaponry that people can own has become too great. Even if all citizens were armed with fully automatic assault rifles, this arsenal would pale in comparison to the firepower available to state and local police forces, never mind the world-ending power of the national armed forces. Private gun ownership might be a problem in many ways, but it is not at all a problem for the government’s power over the people.

And it would be nonsensical to try to balance this out by escalating the firepower in the hands of the citizens, for example by arming every citizen with their own nuclear weapons. The Second Amendment wasn’t meant as a pact of mutually assured destruction. Jefferson said “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” – meaning that the limitation is created by an insurrection that can be forcibly put down by the government, not that the government should fear world destruction. When patriots take a cause seriously enough to put their lives on the line, the government might have to put them down violently as well, but the bloodshed on both sides forces all to consider the sensible limits of governmental power.

So “a little rebellion” based on guns is a laughably ineffective tool in today’s society. Government power is no longer truly threatened by private gun ownership, and hasn’t been for about a century. The Second Amendment worked well enough for the first hundred and forty years or so, but we have been in a different world since the end of the Great War. Still, it would be myopic to declare that the Second Amendment should now be considered obsolete. The idea is not obsolete, merely the objects specified in support of the idea.

The Second Amendment protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. Even though guns are obsolete for the protection of this idea, no serious discussion of the Second Amendment can propose their elimination without also proposing the armaments that should replace them.

It should be obvious by now that the weapons that matter are no longer ballistic, they are digital. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be online. The government does not fear guns. The government fears anonymity, connection and encryption (ordered this way not for importance, but just for the ACE acronym):

  • Anonymity – the right to interact with government without revealing your identity
  • Connection – the right to digital access to governmental resources
  • Encryption – the right to unbreakable encoding of messages

These are the armaments that matter in terms of a little rebellion now and then – their power far exceeds the combined firepower of private gun ownership. Second Amendment reform should be pushing in this direction:

A digital Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to remain Anonymous to the government, Connect online to all governmental information, and use and possess tools for unbreakable Encryption, shall not be infringed.

Gun control advocates and their opponents are equally subject to the charge of dereliction of patriotism, when they focus on guns rather than reforming the Second Amendment so that it can rejoin the rest of the Bill of Rights as a truly effective protector of our freedoms.

death of a tech salesman

We sought a special person to sell product for our company. It’s not easy to find someone who’s great at selling a highly technical product to smart engineers, who usually understand their own problems much better than the people selling to them. It takes unusual resilience, affability, humility and persistence.

We were lucky to find Bijan Dhanani. He had made a name for himself in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, working at several local startups, and becoming widely known and loved for his community projects and musical talents. Coming to Silicon Valley was a dream come true for him, and he fit right into our little band of colleagues on our startup adventure. In his first few weeks, he learned our product like a pro, already displaying the knowledge and charm required for success. At the end of his fourth week, he died, just 30 years old.

There are no lessons in his death. It was the hottest day on record in San Francisco. He had just moved into his new apartment in Mission Dolores. In my mind’s eye, I see him moving the last piece of furniture into place, surveying his new space with a deep sense of satisfaction, thinking about his new situation with sunny optimism, excited about the future ahead. And then he lay down to rest, never to get up again.

This is my nineteenth year working in tech in Silicon Valley. There are no new stories, this isn’t the first time that a young colleague of limitless potential has passed too early from this earth. The universe is not short of reminders that life is precious, time is limited, you must hold your loved ones close while you can.

There are no new lessons, only reminders. The important lessons are so basic, so few, so oft repeated, that no one can fail to hear them. Value your time. Optimize for love and friendship, live with gratitude and compassion. It seems so simple, but if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get the worst, most stark reminder of just how hard it can be. Memento mori.

the jungle

Upton Sinclair was a novelist, but the impact of his work was more akin to today’s investigative journalism. He went undercover to expose the harsh labor and unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry, he exposed the sensationalist “fake news” of his day, he pilloried Wall Street as well as the coal, oil and auto companies that drove the American economy. Industrialists hated him; the mainstream press only begrudgingly acknowledged his accomplishments. President Theodore Roosevelt called him “a crackpot,” and said further, “He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”

I doubt Sinclair cared at all what the President thought, and he probably did have less concern for truthful details than he had for the larger cause of social justice. We should be glad for that. Today we still enjoy the fruits of Sinclair’s relentless fervor and incendiary writing: food safety standards, journalistic ethics, and heightened scrutiny of the giants of business on matters of fair and safe labor practices.

I regard Sarah Lacy as the Upton Sinclair of the tech industry, especially with regard to fair treatment of women in Silicon Valley workplaces. She has been a consistent and powerful advocate of social justice, and her impassioned writing has contributed to highly visible changes in highly visible businesses. She might occasionally trample on a smaller truth in pursuit of a larger justice – and if she can be anywhere near as successful as Sinclair in bringing about social change, I don’t really blame her. But nevertheless, we hold our idols to higher standards than our enemies.

Pando recently published an article about a VC firm, with one partner who had recently resigned due to highly credible allegations of sexual misconduct, one about-to-join partner deciding not to join after all, and the remaining partner dealing with the fallout. Since the firm stridently denied the initial claims of the victims, this remaining partner continues to receive Sarah’s scrutiny. In criticizing the firm’s promotion of “baller bro culture,” Pando published pictures of this remaining partner at parties with women.

This is where she lost me, a bit. These are just pictures of a guy at a party, he does not appear to be doing anything inappropriate. The women in the pictures are not doing anything inappropriate. How is this “baller bro culture”? I felt bad for the women, as it seemed that publication of the pictures was a sort of “party-shaming” implying that these women could have no possible role other than objectification. It seems oddly Puritan and retrograde in a way that doesn’t fit Sarah’s other writing.

But I get her point. If it turns out that these pictures were used in promotion of the VC firm’s activities, then they are illustrative of a “baller” image that the firm wanted to convey. Even if these particular pictures were never used that way, Sarah claims to have enough off-the-record information to be sure that the firm consciously promoted such an image, and I believe her. And more importantly, I believe the women who have come forward to claim that they were victimized by the VC firm. So at the end of the day, we are aligned on the larger cause, even though I am very sure that Sarah has done an injustice to the innocent women in the pictures she used. (She’s taken one of the pictures down, but not because she admits she was wrong, but because the copyright owner objected to its use.)

So I wondered, how can I help the larger cause? If I knew of any investors or company managers that abuse their positions for sexual advantage, I’d speak of it openly. But I don’t, so I asked myself whether I knew of anyone who was promoting a “baller bro image” that supports an environment that disadvantages women …

And here’s where I got stuck. I know one investor who frequently posts images of himself in glamorous locations, often with attractive women (and attractive men, to be fair). I know him pretty well, in fact. Everybody knows this guy, I’m sure Sarah knows him too. And everyone knows he’s a good, honest and fundamentally decent human. He’s known so well and spends so much time around attractive people, with such a sparkling reputation, that it’s basically impossible he could have done anything inappropriate without everyone finding out. Is he baller? Hellz yeah, he baller. Does that mean he uses a “baller bro culture” to promote his business and take advantage of women? I don’t think so …

I feel very confident that he’s never taken advantage of the inherently unfair investor power dynamic to pursue sex. But now we have to consider the question of whether his distribution of the images of innocent fun supports an overall culture in tech that’s bad for women. Again, I don’t think so – but I also don’t think I’m the best judge of this question. So let’s say for the moment that yes, these images contribute to an overall culture that objectifies women. What then? Do I reach out to this guy and insist that he stop posting pictures of his fabulous life? That seems oddly Puritan and retrograde.

WWSD? (What Would Sarah Do?)

I don’t know. Despite how unfairly she treated women in those other pictures, I have a hard time believing she’d engage in a crusade against this kind of aspirational Insta-journaling. I don’t think I can ask her, as she regards my concerns as absurd. So I’m left with few options … other than that impotent cry into the ether known as blogging, aka the last resort of a scoundrel.

the right stuff

I’ve been reading post-election analysis all day. It’s exhausting, infuriating, debilitating … and necessary. When an outcome is wildly off expectations, it’s important to understand what really happened, otherwise you could expend a lot of effort “fixing” the wrong things. There sure are a lot of people who are confident that they know what happened, I’ve been reading them all day. Then I suddenly realized that these are precisely the same people who turned out to be so spectacularly wrong in predicting the outcome. Hey, maybe I should pay attention to people who were right all along …

There were some early, correct predictions, by a prescient pollster (March 2016), a hack blogger (May 2016), a partisan policy expert (August 2016), and a politics professor (Sept 2016), but two sources stand out for their entertaining writing and strong post-election advice.

Michael Moore predicted a Trump victory in July. He precisely identified the four critical “Rust Belt” states that were vulnerable to a Republican flip. Everything he said in his analysis turned out to be exactly correct. So we should probably take his post-election advice pretty seriously, you should read it on his page but I’ll paraphrase here:

  1. Reform the Democratic Party nomination process.
  2. Ignore the media sources that got stuck on their false narrative before the election.
  3. Get active in telling Democratic Congresspeople to obstruct the Republican administration.
  4. Get over your surprise and stop treating Trump like a joke.
  5. Remember that the popular vote went to Clinton. The populace wants liberal policies.

Solid advice, pretty straightforward. The tone overall is combative and spirited; I’m a little unhappy about how it implies we need 4 more years of complete legislative gridlock, but I suppose that’s the fight we must sign up for if we fear that Trump will try to fulfill his campaign promises.

But … why would we assume that? Trump never fulfills promises that aren’t to his advantage, why would he start now? This is the perspective of the other guy who got it right in a really interesting way, Scott Adams. Famous as the creator of Dilbert, he’s become an oddly narcissistic but really entertaining blogger. He predicted a Trump victory in August 2015, by far the earliest correct prediction. He says that President Trump will preside over the most direct democracy in the history of our republic. In Adams’ view, campaign promises mean nothing to Trump. He says what he says to get what he wants. He got elected by one set of people, now he’ll govern another set of people. He’ll say whatever is needed to placate the largest set of those people that he can, regardless of whether they elected him, and that generally that set will lead to kind outcomes. Trump is a con man, which actually makes him a safe choice for President, because he has no intention of hurting his real-estate interests around the world, or his self-centered media business.

Reading Adams is going to be infuriating for many, but the practical advice there is actually pretty similar to Moore’s: be active with your neighbors and representatives, especially on social media; ignore the pundits who were wrong all along; remember that the majority of the country wants good outcomes for as many people as possible. I kind of want to slap him upside the head, but I can’t say he’s wrong.