Why We Love

“Years ago, a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink VLB’s – Very Large Beers – from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLB’s, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee.

Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.

Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted.

Most of the time, other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us, but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile, we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!”

What’s so ironic and sad about this is that the very parts of ourselves that we’re most ashamed of and eager to conceal are not only obvious to everyone but are also, quite often, the parts of us they love best.”

Tim Kreider, The Czar’s Daughter

If you spend enough time in nature, eventually you will see something so majestic and unlikely that you are struck speechless. You might watch a deer nibble at the grass in your local park when an eagle swoops down like a fighter jet, snatches the deer from the ground, and soars up into the treetops. These scenes temporarily empty your mind of vocabulary. You replay the incident over and over again in your head, examining the memory for any clue that you misperceived what just happened, like a merchant inspecting a diamond for flaws. In the weeks and months later, what stays with you is not just the slow-motion clarity of the event, but the feeling of awe that hit you like a sudden drop in air pressure, a sensation our neurons produce only after witnessing something both brutal and impossibly beautiful.

At its peak, Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing generates this sort of emotional response every 60-90 seconds. You pause an essay for minutes simply to absorb and recover from the precision with which he knocks you in gut with a hard truth, gorgeously rendered.

The book isn’t a manual to boost your productivity or reclaim your finances or build your network. It’s a series of stunning personal essays by a little-known cartoonist and writer. Few people reading this will take a chance on this book, even after a recommendation by me, a fully-unknown non-cartoonist and writer.

If you’d like to listen to Lazy: A Manifesto, one of the essays that appears in the book, you can do so here for free.

Like witnessing a bolt of lightning strike a tree fifty yards in the distance, the first thing you want to do after cleaning your pants and picking your jaw up off the ground is share the moment with your friends.

Why We Learn, Why We Love

In 1968, when William Jefferson Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he met a graduate student named Jeffrey Stamps at a party.Clinton promptly pulled out a black address book. “What are you doing here at Oxford, Jeff?” he asked.”

“I’m at Pembroke on a Fulbright,” Jeff replied. Clinton penned “Pembroke” into his book…

“Bill, why are you writing this down?” asked Stamps.

“I’m going into politics and plan to run for governor of Arkansas, and I’m keeping track of everyone I meet,” said Clinton.

As an undergraduate at Georgetown, the forty second president made it a nightly habit to record, on index cards, the names and vital information of every person whom he’d met that day.

Keith Ferrazzi, Never Eat Alone

My first reaction upon reading this: “Ha, what an odd dude, that Clinton.”

My second reaction, a moment later: So what the hell am I doing at parties, then? If I’m not there to learn about the people I meet, if I’m not curious about their histories, their perspectives, if I’m willing to let our conversation spill from my memory as soon as the food arrives, why am I there?

And if I am there to learn, how would I demonstrate that?

If a student doesn’t take any notes during a lecture, you can assume that they don’t care much about the class. Perhaps they have a supernatural memory, but it’s far more likely that they aren’t invested in the subject.

When we want to learn, we don’t leave it to chance. We pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

And yet, when it comes to the most important subject – the people around us – we leave it all to chance.

For a long time, this wasn’t a problem. We didn’t need to spend a great deal of effort learning about new people because until recently, we rarely met new people. Our social biology and behavioral norms are shaped by thousands of years living in tribes rarely larger than a few hundred. Our brains are only equipped to hold around 150 people in our heads. Odds are, your mental rolodex was full before you got to high school.

Social networks are useful to us because they help fill in the gaps. We meet somebody in the wild and then we get to know them on our iPhone. Their profiles are the notes we should have taken when we met them.

I used to remember people’s phone numbers, now my phone remembers them. It’s your birthday when Facebook tells me it’s your birthday.

Social networks, if we let them, will happily gobble the remainder of our mental representation of our friends.

Maybe that’s not a big deal. Perhaps outsourcing trivia like dates and facts to our phones allows us to focus on what’s really important. The test is open-book, says the student. Why take notes?

We take notes because there is a difference between passing the test and learning the subject. We take notes because we care.

We are bad students when it comes to connecting with people.

And what would a good student do? Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, review.

What Came Next, Why We Love

What kind of monster am I?

MIT’s Moral Machines quiz exposed my grotesque form. In the survey, I determined the path of a self-driving car that suffers brake failure. In each scenario, I decided whether to send the car careening into a barrier or to barrel through pedestrian traffic.

Luckily, I prepared for this possibility.

While I could have treated this as a purely ethical exercise, instead I imposed four strict guidelines with the goal of ensuring consumer adoption of autonomous vehicles. The prime directive: save the passengers. I applied the following ruleset to each scenario, in order of evaluation:

  1. Animals are not humans
  2. Save the passengers
  3. Follow traffic rules
  4. Do not swerve

The rationale:
You may find my first rule the most monstrous, but it is a necessary condition for all subsequent rules: animals do not count as passengers or pedestrians. That means that a car full of animals is treated as an empty car, and a crosswalk full of animals is treated as an empty crosswalk. With apologies to the ASPCA, dogs (good dogs) would happily sacrifice themselves for their best friends. And cats, well, cats already treat us like empty space.

Next, the critical mandate: save the passengers. We do not assess number or type of passengers vs. pedestrians that will be endangered by swerving. We will save one criminal passenger when that requires plowing through five children walking to school.

Third, assuming passengers are safe, we follow traffic rules. This means that given the choice between driving through a green light and driving through a red light, we always drive through the green. We assume that pedestrians are less likely to cross against traffic. This rule will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, though the citizens of Manhattan will be stressed out for a while. Coincidentally, the introduction of the automobile a century ago followed a similarly lethal pattern until pedestrians smartened up.

Finally, if we can save the passengers and follow traffic rules, we opt not to swerve. The intention here is that autonomous driving should be as predictable as possible. When we see a car accelerating toward us, we should assume that it will follow its current path. This means that in some cases, a larger number of pedestrians will be struck only for the unhappy accident of legally crossing at the wrong moment. This is terrible and unfair, though the number of victims will be dwarfed by the number of people saved from accidents due to human error.

So what kind of monster am I? When these rules are implemented across scenarios, what sort of trends do we see?

mit_moralmachines_1-1

Hm. I disgust me. Clearly, I am both sexist and ageist.

Moreover, we learn about my social and physical preferences:
mit_moralmachines_1-2
Awful. Just awful.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how consistently wretched I was, so I took the quiz a second time, using the same set of rules. What kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_2-1
Oh god. Is this worse? It’s worse, isn’t it? What else do we see?

mit_moralmachines_2-2

Huh. That’s strange. In the first quiz I prioritized the safety of younger, fitter people. This time, they were dispensable. Confused, I took the quiz a third time. Let’s settle this, what kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_3-1

Well, that makes a bit more sense.

Over the course of a half dozen attempts, I was biased against criminals, athletic people, women, men, large people, babies, and the elderly. I implemented a ruleset that disregarded everyone’s identity, but given a limited sample size, any constituency could take me to court for discrimination.

This is the real dilemma for the trolley scenario and autonomous cars. Given indifferent rules, we will see bias. Given toast, we will see a face.

On a long enough timeline, we will be monsters to everyone.

Why We Love

“Every hour, 10 of us are asked to go rescue an influx of 200 people.”

I can’t stop thinking about the short documentary 4.1 Miles. It follows the day of a coast guard captain on the island of Lesbos, which sits 4.1 miles from the coast of Turkey. Every day, thousands of refugees attempt to cross the gulf in cheap inflatable rafts. Many capsize in the strong waves. The Greek coast guard tries to rescue as many people as possible.

The documentary reveals the incredible courage of the coast guard and refugees, and the unfathomable toll the struggle takes on both.

4.1 miles is roughly the distance between Penn Station and the top of Central Park. Facebook headquarters to Stanford Stadium. The length of the Bay Bridge.

Our brains tend to equate size with power, distance with struggle – an echo of our ancestors’ lives in the wild.

To endure so much sorrow in so short a span – our imagination fails us here. We must observe.

Why We Love

My cousin moved into an adult dorm.

My friends fantasize about sharing giant house. Perhaps it overlooks the eastern coast of Oahu. We meditate in the tangerine sunrise. We bake our own bread every evening.

And The Atlantic reports that young adults are flocking to communal living spaces around the country.

Thank Facebook. In fact, thank the entire constellation of apps and social networks that have led a generation of college grads into an uncanny valley of personal relationships. The more Facebook and Twitter and Tinder attempt to simulate the dynamics of human interaction, the more they push us to the precipice of disgust. In our monkey brains, we know the difference between face time and FaceTime. We feel connected as long as we lock eyes with our phones. Then we look up, and the room is empty.

Why We Love

Sometime between the second and third hour of wandering through Granada after dark, I realized it was time to be honest with myself. No more lies, no more shame. Here goes: I’m a fan of Drake. I’m a Drake fan.

I hope you accept me for who I am. I understand if you need a minute. Culture seems to be moving faster and faster these days; it feels like yesterday that just the idea of a rapper being from Canada was far-fetched. I can understand that for Gen-Xers it must be shocking to see us kids mixing gentle crooning with corny rapping like it’s just a normal thing to do.

Alas. Millennials. We are who we are.

I think I figured out why corny-ass, emo-ass, marshmallow-soft Aubrey Drake is an inspiring character to us.

See, for the past week, I’ve been traveling on my own, and when you’re by yourself in a new city you think a lot about vulnerability. You fumble through a conversation with a bus driver in a foreign language, or you eat dinner by yourself in a crowded restaurant, or you approach a group of strangers chatting at the bar. At any given moment you are wagering your physical or emotional comfort. Your dignity is constantly in danger.

A foreign city is the opposite of a safe space.

What I’ve come to learn is that the way we respond to vulnerability dictates whether others see us as confident and charismatic, or shy and awkward. As self-development writer Mark Manson explains in Models, we exude confidence when how we see ourselves is more important than how others might see us. When our self-perception is stronger than anybody’s else’s perception of us, we can be comfortable while being vulnerable. We don’t feel the need to hide our accents or pretend we are perfect. Our rough edges not only define us, they are what attract others to us.

This is the key to understanding Drake. After all the goofy dancing and embarrassing confessions, what shines through is a startling emotional authenticity and lack of neediness. Go ahead, call him uncool. Turn him into a meme. He really doesn’t mind. He knows who he is. He likes that person.

In the 90s, rap was defined by its aggression.
In the 00s, rap was defined by its bravado.
In the 10s, rap is being defined by a different sort of strength – a deeper, truer, more lasting sort of strength. Drake is defining contemporary rap with his vulnerability.

I enter my favorite bar in Granada and see a bunch of new faces. Locals and expats, chatting and laughing in little groups. Here I am by myself. Then I remember Drake and his dorky sweater. I walk up to a group of strangers and introduce myself. We have a great night.

Why We Love

Indeed, LaCroix has captivated a thirsty populace. It’s zero calorie, zero sweetener, just flavorful enough to curb your soda craving, just fizzy enough to distract you from work-induced despair. Tongue-tingling, hope-prolonging LaCroix. It’s August in Manhattan. The whole city is humid as a jock strap. You ask your roommate to bring an ice-cold LaCroix from the fridge.

A moment passes. You close your eyes, imagine the first sip. The perspiring can frosts your lips. The crisp ambrosia releases you from this swollen, scorching heat prison of a city.

Your roommate taps you on the shoulder, plunks a container into your waiting hands:

A scalding mug of hot chocolate. You smell the sweet steam rise from its thick, creamy foam.

That asshole.

Literally the best beverage in the world, and the last liquid you’d want to drink in this sweltering moment.

LaCroix and hot chocolate: two completely different sets of ambitions, for non-overlapping crowds of people. Hot chocolate is a terrible stand-in when you crave LaCroix.

Perhaps this falls short of revelation. And yet:

We endlessly debate the worthiness of reality television vs. HBO drama, of EDM vs punk, of Tinder vs. serendipity, of those shoes with the toes in them vs. literally going to hell.

Instead of sprinting into the impossible, endless debate of whatever vs. what have you, before declaring LaCroix morally bankrupt or hot chocolate intellectually insipid, first ask: what is this liquid trying to do? Take whatever confounds you and ask: who is this for? What are their goals? Does this succeed or fail on those terms?

This is far from relativism. There is good hot chocolate and bad chocolate. Good LaCroix (coconut) and bad LaCroix (peach-pear). Until you accept that the best hot chocolate is also the worst LaCroix, then you will have trouble understanding the popularity of anything, the enthusiasm of anyone.

Why We Love

Most broadcast their virtues to social media and share their flaws only among close friends (perhaps over whiskey).

Others share their flaws to social media and show their virtues only among close friends (perhaps over whiskey).

The more we segregate our virtues from our flaws, the less we appreciate the value of social media – and the company of our friends.

Why We Love

“There are three dimensions to music: melody, harmony, and rhythm. When it comes to music preference, I think everyone has one dimension that moves them more than the other two.”

A friend laid this theory out to me fifteen years ago. I return to it every few months after a new song gives me chills.

Some people might leap to nitpick or refute his claim. “Evidence!”, they demand. “Well actually,” they insist. These are the types of squares you want to avoid at parties.

For the rest of us, it’s a fun starting point to inspect the hidden strings that pull on our aesthetic tastes, to plumb past the cold pipes of reason and swim in our murky, bubbling, emotional broth.

“You, for example, are drawn to rhythm,” my friend told me, “which is why you love hip hop.” And why he, drawn to harmony, loved the Beach Boys.

In the past fifteen years, the only adjustment I’ve made to this theory is to add a fourth dimension: meaning. Songs are more than their sounds; for some, lyrics and cultural context are most moving.

Then last week, I made a synaesthetic discovery: we can extend this theory to visual art. Form, color, repetition, and interpretation are visual art’s siblings to melody, harmony, rhythm, and meaning. For example, I might be hypnotized by Autumn Rhythm’s subtle fractals, my friend might be moved by its melancholic soft browns and cutting blacks, and you might be completely disgusted by its lack of form and focal point.

Something to consider on long walks, or at parties (away from the squares): in music, we are drawn by different brushes. In painting, we are plucked by different strings.