Tag Archives: Advice

Informal Qualitative Personal Psychometrics

Two of my co-workers took an energy management class recently. I happened to join them the other day when they went to meet with some of their former classmates. It was a lunch meeting, so I had my usual salad. The people at the table who had not seen this before were aghast that I was eating what amounted to kale, spinach, lettuce, and carrots with no dressing whatsoever.

Without time to think of a better answer, I said “dressing is superfluous.” A little later I brought up the conversation again. I said I had considered a while ago what it was that made me reluctant to eat salad. The inconvenience of fast-decaying greens made it difficult in my house, but at my work the high quality salad bar resolved that issue. As I mentioned in last week’s post, eating in and of itself is a calming activity for me. Salad greens and carrots, I learned, were not outright unpleasant to eat so much as just boring. Therefore with an interesting main dish, a large salad is a perfectly acceptable side. I do not trust salad dressing as a regular part of my meals. In general, it’s a highly processed vector of salt, sugar, and other mysterious chemicals to wreck an otherwise healthful salad. The fat in dressing is supposed to be helpful for properly digesting salad nutrients. My mother is a public health researcher, and after a very long conversation that I had to repeatedly bring back on track when she reacted with horror to every hypothetical food I suggested as an example of the non-salad parts of my meals, I managed to get her to agree that if I am eating something fatty elsewhere in the meal there is no need for additional fat directly on the salad.

When I said this, one of my co-workers immediately identified it. “Psychometrics,” he pronounced. “You are using psychometrics.” I found this characterization amusing. I would normally refer to this as introspection, but it may also be reasonable to think if it as a sort of informal, qualitative, personal psychometrics, or IQPP. Just kidding. I’m going to refer to it as introspection.

One of the first IQPP introspection-based lifestyle improvements I’ve made surrounding food in particular has been to recognize the pace at which I cease to enjoy a food. I have long been aware that my second bite of ice cream is not as good as my first, and that by the time I get to the bottom of a large soda I am either hardly noticing the flavor anymore or actively feeling sick. Selling food in small quantities is not something that capitalism encourages. The economy of scale and simple matters of supply and demand mean that the more food companies can get you to eat, the more money they’ll make, even with extremely steep bulk discounts. At my work, I have an unlimited supply of free lemonade and every week we have our aluminum cylinder of peanut M&Ms refilled. It lasts about two days on average. This resolves the issue of purchase volume as I am free to commit myself to no more than one M&M at a time. All that remains is self-control. By focusing my attention on the diminishing pleasure achieved by each additional peanut M&M, I have resolved the age old paradox, “you can’t eat just one.” I also use the roughly quarter-cup plastic container given for these snacks when I feel like I want some lemonade. A sporadic single peanut M&M and a quarter cup of lemonade now and then maximize my pleasure-to-sugar ratio when I might otherwise be distracted by temptation or feel sick from overindulgence.

With Halloween nearly two weeks past now, we’re still receiving bags of candy in our break rooms. After helping myself to four pieces of candy, I decided it was time to stop. This did not relieve me of temptation, though. Introspection to the rescue! Shortly after picking up a full-size bag of sour skittles, I analyzed my response to it. Without even opening the bag, I was already enjoying the experience. The crinkling of the gaudily colored packaging paper and the feel of the rough sour crystal-coated skittles inside served as the lead-in to the eventual experience of eating this snack. I decided to try treating it as the entire experience, and walked back to the break room to put down the bag of skittles.

Another treat from my childhood, Nerds, is a small, tangy candy that comes by the hundred in colorful little cardboard boxes. Lifting one of these boxes in my break room, I felt and heard the candies jostling and bouncing around. This was part of the experience, no doubt like the skittles carefully designed to keep people coming back and filling up on more sugar. Again, I was able to make it the whole experience. Every single time I saw that particular box of Nerds I picked it up and tilted it, remembering the joy I had received from others like it as a small child while suffering none of the consequences of adding so much sugar to my diet.

Do any of my readers have healthy eating strategies? Share in the comments.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nuclear Throne

I remember a long time ago, maybe a couple years, my mother became inspired by the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. She handed each member of our family a piece of dark chocolate. Our job was to be mindful of this chocolate. We were to savor and enjoy it and let no sensation achieved through its consumption go to waste. In this way we would take the first step in a very long journey towards enlightenment and personal fulfillment.

“How preposterous to start with something so easy,” I thought, looking down at my empty plate and licking the chocolate from my lips. “Certainly it will mean nothing if I can properly enjoy a piece of chocolate.”

The moral of this story is that some people are really bad at mindfulness. Me, at least. My mind wanders and is seldom at the same place as my current situation. Although it would be hard to say conclusively that it has not helped at all, over a decade of sitting in the silent group worship of the Quaker tradition has not fixed this for me. In Quaker meetings I became expert at wandering my mind rather than at stilling it. I learned the value of contemplation, but not mindfulness.

What if there were a practice that could enforce mindfulness? If my brain is not completely on the task at hand, it knows, and it gives me a gentle reminder.

Enter Nuclear Throne.

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People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Nuclear Throne is a “Roguelike” game. That means its levels are procedurally generated, that it is easy to die, and that when you die you start over from the beginning. A very general term for a game like this in layman’s terms is “hard.” I can invest ten intense minutes into getting to the third level only to find out the painful way that snipers explode violently when you hit them with an irradiated shovel.

In the heat of the moment, though, each lesson is easy to forget. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve fired a rocket-launching shotgun much too close to a volatile car, attempted to raise my crystal shield to defend against a crystal shield-smashing crowbar, or got too excited with my toxic triple-machinegun and ended up eaten alive by rats as I wandered through the sewers in a desperate search for ammo.

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Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Although “gentle” might not be right word, Nuclear Throne is not shy about letting me know when I have allowed my mind to leave the present moment. Incineration by gem-powered gatling laser beam is paradoxically centering.

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My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Or rather, it is centering if I make it so. My instinct brought on by this type of game is haste. When I have to start over again from the beginning it is such a dreadful feeling that I want to sprint to get back to where I left off, but that is the path to ruin. This is where I have to remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching – “there is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.” I must take each moment in the game as its own. If I worry about progress once had and lost I will lose what I have now. So, too, if I worry about what I could lose. Each barrage of bullets is its own, each yeti-hurtled car and exploding canister of lethal miasma. To win the game I must let go of winning. I must, temporarily, let go of the outside world. There are a great many places in life where I have succeeded while my mind was elsewhere. However, with regards to the Nuclear Throne, I must ascend mindfully, or I shall not ascend at all.

Cover image credit: http://www.vlambeer.com/press/sheet.php?p=Nuclear_Throne#images

Sam’s Guide to Relationships

A relationship is a bed of roses.  They look delightful from the outside, but once you get in one you find yourself endlessly pricked by thorns (prickles).  Fortunately, you, dear reader, have this guide.

The first rule of relationships is communication.  A good relationship is founded on clarity, not assumptions.  If something bothers you, you should let your partner know.  This goes the other way, too.  If your partner says that nothing is wrong, congratulations!  Your relationship is perfect! Think of yourself as a lawyer when you and your darling divide chores.  If her chore is dishes and she is out for a week, she cannot be mad if she comes home to week-old dishes.  This was her failure to communicate, and this lesson will be good for both of you.

You and your sweetheart, and I cannot emphasize this enough, cannot both be the best.  If your darling calls you the best, do not simply accept it, as you are implicitly telling her you do not love her by not telling her that she is wrong because she is the best, making it impossible that you could be the best.  If she responds similarly, that in fact it is you who, by being the best, prevents her from being the best, this is good.  It is a sign she respects you.  You must respond appropriately, telling her that once again she has become confused, and that her confusion stems from a misunderstanding around the notion that you are the best.  Explain to her that she is the best, and she can be the best because you are not the best, for if you were the best, she could not be the best, but she is the best.  The length and heat of this conversation is a useful barometer for relationship health.

Finally, this is a Spearow.

Spearows are the garbage bird pokemon. They are everywhere, they do not evolve into powerful forms, and unlike other common pokemon such as Pidgey, Weedle, Caterpie, and Rattata, they cost too much to evolve to be useful for power-leveling.  Once you get to higher levels and they start to break out of your pokeballs, you will spend more pokeballs catching them than the 100 experience and stardust is worth.  Do your relationship a favor.  When you are walking along a moonlit beach with your sweetheart, and your phone buzzes indicating a pokemon is nearby, check if it’s a Spearow.  If so, just put your phone down. Your relationship means more than a worthless Spearow.

Sam’s guide to money

This is a guide for managing money. If you don’t have money, don’t despair! Put this guide down and find a way to get some money.  If you do have money, you’re in the right place!  This simple guide will help you to get the most out of your legitimately earned cash.

In the distant past, the ancient philosopher Benjamin Franklin discovered a secret that has helped people with money to make good use of it ever since.  Sitting beneath a fig tree, Benjamin Franklin had an amazing enlightenment.  “My word, a penny saved is a penny earned!” he shouted, startling a flock of bald eagles and marking the tree as a holy site thenceforth.

At that time, Benjamin Franklin’s teachings were only theoretical. As it was difficult to calculate the precise amount of money that one was saving at any given time, one could not empirically validate his claims until much later.  Now, however, the technology for measuring saved money is so common that many stores will provide it to you as a free service with your purchase!

If you are shopping at one of these stores, you can learn how much money you have saved by simply looking at your receipt.  Consider that one penny saved is equal to one penny earned, and a quick rule of thumb you can use is to convert the dollar amount you saved into pennies, then with the 1 to 1 ratio calculate how much you’ve earned and finally convert pennies back into dollars! The larger this number is, the more money you have earned!

As most receipts can tell you, simply shopping at any store is often enough to earn money.  However, to get the best return on money earned to money spent, one should seek sales.  As many of you probably know, tomorrow is the fourth of July.  In America, this is a holiday during which we celebrate our own nation’s Brexit from Europe.  We refer to this day as “The Fourth of July,” and in celebration we launch great artistic works of fire into the air in states where it is permitted by law, and launch great sales to customers in all states.  Benjamin Franklin’s wisdom is not lost on Americans, and so you will find many people driving to earn as much money as they can on the 4th of July by saving as much money as they can by making as many steeply discounted purchases as they can. The best shoppers are not distracted by the notion of whether something is useful in their lives. The reduction in price is all that matters when earning by saving.

Keep your eyes open in the stores on July 4. If you pay close attention, you will notice that the people who buy the most deals are the wealthiest, thereby proving Benjamin Franklin’s ancient wisdom correct.  You will know they are the wealthiest because they are the ones with the money to buy the most deals.  This bears out the old American saying by the Roman philosopher Plautus, “Ya gotta spend money to make money.” Armed with your new knowledge tomorrow, it’s time to get out there and celebrate our country by getting filthy stinking rich.  When you’re rolling in your piles of $100 bills in your beachside mansion, take a moment to look at the picture.  Do you recognize that man?  It is good to give your respects. A simple “Thanks, Ben,” will do.

Sam’s guide to writing: Practice

The key to writing is to practice on a regular basis. A human being can become an expert in almost anything with 10,000 hours of practice. This is not a guide to math, but that’s approximately one hour a day for 10,000 days. If you need something to write about, consider keeping a blog of events that have happened to you or that people close to you have shared in private. If you and your friends are boring, take it as a challenge! See if you can present your mundane existences in a way that makes them seem passably like they might be worth living. If you are concerned that other people may make fun of you for your blog, a recent twist on the blog phenomenon has people writing blogs only for themselves to read. These “privablogs” as I call them are often written on paper in books. I tried keeping one until I filled up all the pages, and then I was forced to stop. This seems to be a limitation of the privablog format.

If you find you have the opposite problem, and instead of making fun of you people simply ignore your blog, consider Facebook. Facebook is a good place to practice writing because at all times all of your friends are always looking at all of your posts. If at any moment you are not receiving a like from a given friend on a given post, you can be statistically certain that that friend does not like that post or does not like you. Although simple, this feedback can be very helpful for a young writer honing his craft. Just remember that if people don’t like your posts, don’t give up. Just keep posting until people like you. For targeted feedback, consider asking politely, “why didn’t you like my post?”

When you are ready, it is also good form to give back to the community. Rather than just not liking a Facebook post in order to show that it needs work, consider leaving a comment. Good examples of opportunities to comment include helping someone understand how properly to spell something that they may have been confused about how to spell before and helping to correct mistaken political beliefs. Like Facebook posts, these comments are an art that must be practiced. If you find that people hate your posts as indicated by a lack of likes, just keep commenting until you find success.

Whether your chosen medium is the blog, the privablog, or Facebook, finding success as a writer is the result of hundreds of thousands of minutes of practice. Make sure to find these minutes wherever you can. Write while you eat your breakfast, wait at a red light, or become bored in a conversation. Think of the Marquis de Sade, who wrote in his own feces on the wall of his dungeon cell after the church tore out his tongue. That is the level of dedication that writing requires. Think of life as a dungeon wall, and of every moment as an opportunity to put down the contents of your mind using the feces of your creativity. Now get out there and write!

The Problem with Magicians

This is a post about the novel The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A forewarning, because I generally don’t expect my audience ever to read or otherwise experience the literature and other media that I describe, I try to give a full experience of what I’m trying to get across rather than hide what are traditionally referred to as “spoilers.” As such, if you do plan on reading The Magicians, you should consider not reading this post. If you’re not sure, there are plenty of other non-spoiler reviews on the web, I’m sure. You’ve been warned.

I liked The Magicians. It was compelling, it successfully added grit and dirtiness to the fantasy genre, although after A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s difficult to really think of anything with fewer than Game of Throne’s fifty-four character deaths as terribly dark. As much as Quentin, the main character, complained in his oddly fourth-wall-breaking dialogue about how dark his story is compared to Fillory and Further, a fictional equivalent of the Tales of Narnia, it still feels like a happy-go-lucky fun ride compared to what I’m used to. Nevertheless, in keeping with fantasy tropes it successfully took me to a different state of existence and allowed me to vicariously enjoy something I could never experience in my own mundane world. Plus there was a character named Alice, a hardworking, humble, responsible romantic lead who seemed so much like my Alice I broke my usual pattern of aloof disdain for everyone and everything that an author wants me to care about and allowed myself to actually get involved with her and the perennially self-absorbed and irresponsible protagonist Quentin’s romance.

Let me tell you one big issue with The Magicians. It’s an issue that links to something George R. R. Martin said in an interview, “Too much magic is like too much salt in the stew, then all you can taste is the salt.” Parts of The Magicians wowed me as a reader with a fascinating, detailed but not too detailed treatment of the incredible magic power that Quentin and his friends amass, culminating in an enthralling description of an on-foot race across Antarctica. Quentin had enough magic to run to the south pole in several days, but little enough that he was emaciated and barely lucid by the time he got there. When he tried to fly to the Moon he screwed it up and ended up heavily sunburned by the intense radiation of deep space. That’s fun stuff. But then when he’s in the magical land of Fillory, he’s taking ships places. There’s a magical elk he’s trying to catch and when it jumps onto the ocean, he doesn’t just fly after it and grab it, he has to actually go back and get a fully crewed ship. It makes for a much better story except that that story is no longer an option when the character would not believably take that path. One of Quentin’s compatriots describes trying to climb a fantastical building using very real-world methods, and it’s fun until you realize that he’s mysteriously forgotten that he, too, knows how to fly. Pay real attention to any plot of any Superman film and you will see the same pattern. To be honest, I was really expecting an interesting philosophical ending with the all-powerful wizards trying to decide what to do now that the laws of the universe were theirs to command. There was a little foreshadowing that seemed to suggest that might happen, but it never quite did. Instead, Grossman left moderately-sized plotholes rather than give up on having the best of both worlds – all powerful wizards and challenges that are only interesting if the people trying to best them aren’t all-powerful wizards.

This is why it’s challenging to write a good story about magic users. A common solution is to keep the magic on the outside. Give it to a side character with unclear motives like Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Merlin and keep it ill-defined. Harry Potter has magic, but he never learns any spells that make his challenges ridiculously easy. He has a small set that he mostly relies on like “lumos” and “expelliarmus” to give the sense of exciting magic without causing too much trouble in making plots that make any sense. Dumbledore does things that might mess up the plot if Harry could do them, so Harry doesn’t know how to do them, and we don’t see enough of Dumbledore’s challenges to really argue that he should have been able to get around them using his enormous powers. George R. R. Martin’s solution, as we mentioned before, is to keep magic extremely scarce. This is really the easy solution in a sense, so long as you’ve got a strong non-magical interest like an alternate imagining of the war of the roses. A tiny bit of magic is just the right amount of spice to make a medieval fiction into a gripping fantasy novel. Just be careful how you add it and not to add too much.

After writing all that, I read a few other reviews of The Magicians. It turns out there are some strong opinions about this story. A lot of fantasy readers complain about Quentin’s unlikability. It’s true, he is unlikable, and it’s true that it gets grating listening to him whine all the time and watching him repeatedly wreck his amazing life. However, I think it’s an important point that even magic doesn’t solve all of life’s problems if you can’t get a handle on what the problems in your life are in the first place. One of the negative reviews suggests that Quentin needs counseling, and I agree. It seems like with just a little psychiatric help, this story could be about a brilliant wizard who gets past his problems and manages to make things work with the love of his life instead of getting her killed in an ill-advised adventure.

In the defense of this book’s critics, I think that it overcorrects for the naïveté in conventional fantasy. Rather than portray a real world with all its flaws and beauty, it focuses heavily on the flaws, making for a read that most people seem to agree comes off as cynical. Alice is my favorite character not only because she shares a name and many qualities with my girlfriend, but because these are good qualities. She’s a genuinely compelling character, unlike her whiny protagonist boyfriend. She has her own neuroses, but instead of just being ruled by them she fights them and wins, and then she starts working on Quentin’s neuroses and it seems almost like she’ll break through until she ends up dead.

When Alice is gone there’s nobody else to replace her. After Alice there seems to be no voice left for values higher than consuming enormous amounts of alcohol and other drugs, flaunting obscene wealth and engaging rampant casual sex. Even In the 0.01% most wealthy and privileged people in the world, which the book readily admits Quentin and all his friends represent, it seems like there should be a little more genuine aspiration than what died with Alice. Personally, I love a book that can make me feel like I’m in a harsh, real world that itself doesn’t care about its inhabitants, but then I want to see, like we see in the real world, moments of beauty where the inhabitants, maybe just some of them, decide they do give a crap, and, maybe for just a moment, they remind us why life is worth living.

Cover image credit: scififx.com

The Purpose of Life

Has anyone ever told you the “purpose” of something? The purpose of a fork is to allow us to pick up our food without dirtying our fingers. The purpose of food is to be eaten, don’t play with it. The purpose of sex is to have children. The purpose of a woman is to have children. Nobody knows the purpose of life.

If you’re offended by some of those statements or are still wondering about the last quandary, let me help you out. There is no such thing as an absolute purpose. A fork has many uses, including but not limited to propping up a window, poking open the cover of a new yogurt container, or prying open a tupperware that has sealed shut. Women are people who get to define their own purpose. Man or woman, the purpose of your life is what you decide it is.

If anyone tells you not to use something for other than its purpose, ask them why. If they can’t tell you why, they’re not worth listening to. The same goes for someone telling you what your purpose or the purpose of someone else is. If they give you a reason that doesn’t make sense, explore it more deeply. Keep asking questions until it makes sense. Rely on your own understanding, don’t listen to anyone who says your understanding is not enough.

If your purpose appears to be to serve an all-powerful being with inscrutable goals and priorities, consider asking that being to prove that it exists. If it can’t or chooses not to, you’re free to do what you want.  If it does prove that it exists, well, you should probably do what it says.

If your purpose is to serve a nation, ask what about that nation makes it worth serving? If your nation tells you that it’s not safe to tell you what it’s doing, ask why. If it tells you it’s not safe to tell you why, keep asking. You can serve your nation best by making sure it sticks to the values that it claims to hold. If it doesn’t, is it really your nation?

If your purpose is to serve humanity, by all means serve humanity. Whatever particular cause or organization you choose to be part of to advance humanity’s cause, apply the same scrutiny as when serving a nation.

Critical thinking is what makes you human. Once you give up your skepticism, you give up part of your humanity. Your purpose is no longer your own, it belongs to the entity you refuse to question.  You’re giving up your freedom to define your life. If someone tells you that your purpose exists without you choosing it, it’s not true. You choose.

Cover image repurposed from: kalanlp.com