The Taiwan Junket: A Story of Political Farce & Fools

Taiwan Flag

The following is a true story. It is based on notes taken from a conversation with a former state representative from a Midwestern state who I’ll refer to as John Smith. He has asked to remain anonymous.

It was the early-2000s. With 6 months left in his third term as a state representative, John Smith was a lame duck. Other legislators gave Smith sad little nods in the hallways, and the “watchers” – the lobbyists who sat in on every vote – stopped inviting him to comped dinners at fancy restaurants. Without an opening available in the state Senate, Smith knew his political career was over, at least for a while.

Smith had seen many of his colleagues come close to mental breakdowns when they finally left office. They couldn’t comprehend why strangers stopped taking their phone calls and laughing at their jokes. Their sense of identity and self-worth was tied up in their title and modicum of power over their fellow citizens. But Smith didn’t care about all that. He was a hardcore libertarian, though he wasn’t open about it. He hated the political machinations which stole money from the people to be dolled out by the aristocracy of pull. Smith never tired of mocking the self-righteous, self-important elected officials who revel in power so petty that their own constituents don’t even know what they do.

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Against Dog Ownership

Image result for dogs

I don’t know if I believe what I’ve written here. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s more like a bunch of random thoughts I can’t get out of my head. I could be convinced they’re all wrong, or that I’m not going far enough. I don’t hate dogs and I don’t hate dog owners, but part of me hates everything about dog ownership.

I grew up with a cat, but no dog. I have always liked animals, and thought dogs were particularly adorable with their playfulness and enthusiasm. But I never really understood what it meant to own a dog until just recently when I dog-sat a cockapoo for a family member.

I had seen this cockapoo a few times before and it was always just as happy and bounding as you’d expect any well-kept dog to be. When I arrived at the family member’s apartment, the dog jumped all over me and eagerly accepted my pets, even rolling over on its back to get some belly rubs. My family member told me that I’d have to feed the dog this expensive dry food with tasty treats on top, and that I’d have to walk her four times per day (which seemed excessive, but whatever), but that was about it. She was a great dog and would be easy to deal with.

The family member left the next morning and the cockapoo immediately fell into a depression. I say this as someone who is usually baffled when I hear that a dog is “anxious” or “eager” or “scared,” because honestly dogs always just look happy or sad to me. But even I could tell the cockapoo was miserable. She wouldn’t eat, she didn’t want to walk more than a block, she cried sporadically, and she slept pretty much every minute of the day I wasn’t taking her for four walks.

After two days of this, I texted my relative to ask what to do. In a massive block paragraph, she basically told me to cheer the dog up.

To which I thought – how the fuck do I do that?

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Trial of Golog

Trial of Golog is my first novel. It is not currently published.

The novel is set in a universe filled with a hierarchical society of divine entities that create and tinker with life as part of a grand project to maintain the existence of reality. The story follows two recently-created humans named “Cave” and “Sea,” who awaken separately in a seemingly deserted world. Each soon meets a glowing divine being which identifies itself as “Bright,” and informs its respective human that he/she is being put on trial by Golog, a god of seemingly infinite power. If the humans complete the trial successfully by demonstrating sufficient virtue and faith, they are promised eternal enlightenment. Cave and Sea try their best to comprehend their predicaments while navigating the trial, only to discover that other forces in the universe are attempting to interfere with the ordeal for their own ends.

The story deals with themes of creation, purpose, uncertainty, body horror, and information asymmetry. I intended for all characters to have only a partial understanding of the world they inhabit, and to be painfully aware of this fact as they strive to achieve their goals.

The first two chapters of Trial of Golog are posted here. If you’re interested in reading more, contact me by email.

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Everything You Need to Know About Napoleon Bonaparte

Image result for napoleon painting

Having finished the epic, all-encompassing biographical 33-hour audiobook, Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts, I knew I wanted to write something about it, but I wasn’t sure what. Napoleon Bonaparte had one of the most accomplished, divisive, big lives of any person in history, which reshaped the way we think about war, politics, revolution, culture, law, religion, and so much more in a mere 52 years. Any one of those elements could (and has) been isolated and made into a massive tome on its own.

So I just set out to describe and analyze all of the things I found most interesting about the man. This includes a summary of his entire life, his personality quirks, unusual events, driving beliefs, notable skills, and more. If there is an over-arching theme to be found, it’s my amazement at how an extraordinarily competent and risk-tolerant individual lived his life up to the greatest heights only to come tumbling back down to earth.

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Little Soldiers – Inside the Chinese Education System

Image result for chinese test takers

Note – Scott Alexander posted a “Review Review” of this piece on Slate Star Codex on January 22, 2020.

I’m a typical SSC reader when it comes to education. I love Scott’s graduation speech, I think Bryan Caplan is right, and I actively participate in our semi-regular tradition of talking about how much schools suck.

That’s why Lenora Chu’s Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve was pure nightmare fuel for me. It’s a non-fiction account of an ethnically-Chinese, American-born woman following her multi-racial child through the Chinese school system in Shanghai. While we complain about our soft, liberal, decadent school experiences in America or Europe, tens of millions of Chinese kids are subjected to a school structure that seems purposefully designed to make everyone as miserable as humanly possible.

Or at least that was my take-away. Lenora Chu has a kinder perspective on the system. Mostly.

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Peep Show – The Most Realistic Portrayal of Evil Ever Made

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Peep Show, a British tv series running from 2003 to 2015, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb as a pair of miserable, co-dependent roommates living in Croydon, London, is the most realistic portrayal of evil I have ever seen.

Admittedly, I’m using “evil” in an unorthodox way. Most people think of “evil” as being synonymous with “malicious” and “doing really, really bad things.” But I have a broader view of “evil.” I consider a thing to be evil if it creates bad outcomes not just out of malice, but instinct or carelessness.

By that standard, Peep Shows’s protagonists, Mark Corrigan and Jeremy “Jez” Usborne, are evil. They’re not evil in quite the way serial killers and murderous dictators are, nor in the exaggerated cartoony manner of other comedic anti-heroes like the characters on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development, or Archer. Rather, Peep Show’s characters are evil in the scariest way possible – they’re realistically evil. They embody the worst, weakest, most destructive traits that every single individual knows exists inside of them to one degree or another. They are evil incarnate.

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Birth of Two Nations – The Hundred Years War

Image result for medieval total war wallpaper

The Hundred Years War is one of those historical things I’ve always felt guilty about not knowing more about. It is the medieval conflict. Any time you picture knights in armor, castle sieges, charging heavy cavalry, longbows, squabbling royal families, you are probably subconsciously picturing something from the Hundred Years War template.

I finally got around to figuring out one of Europe’s greatest struggles through the blandly named, Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, by Desmond Seward.

Seward opens his work by stating that it is intended to be a broad overview of the Hundred Years War with a particular emphasis on portraying the English conduct during the conflict more accurately than past historical efforts. At least according to him, English historians have tended to romanticize the war as a valiant effort of early English nationhood against a vastly superior foe while overlooking or minimizing the brutal realities of English strategy which more closely resembled a Viking onslaught than typical feudal warfare (which was not known for its gentleness anyway). So make of that what you will.

My goal with this piece is to summarize the entire conflict and draw out the social, cultural, military, and political trends that I found most interesting.

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Examining 1999’s Culture Through Its Best Movies

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In college, I had this class where we were supposed to learn about 19th century upper-class British culture by analyzing hundreds of paintings commissioned and hung in wealthy British estates during that time period. Some insights are surface level, like British people loved to hunt foxes. Other potential insights were hotly debated in class, like whether the presentation of women tended towards subservience or maternalism, or both, or neither, etc.

Either way, it was surprisingly fun, and I enjoyed sort of doing it again with Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery.

The book examines dozens of 1999’s best movies, ranging from entire chapters dedicated to Blair Witch ProjectFight Club, and Sixth Sense, to brief interludes on American Pie, The Mummy, and Varsity Blues, to passing mentions of many more films. Between the stories, Raftery offers his own nuggets of speculations on the cultural, filmmaking, and business trends that caused 1999 to be such an incredible movie year.

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The New Epidemic – My Experience of Losing a Friend to Heroin

Note – This is a true story based on my own experiences and what I’ve heard from the people involved, but for privacy, all of the names have been changed.

I grew up in a “hamlet” (the administrative level below “town”) in the Northeastern US, with a population of just over 3,000. It’s not so much a community as a bunch of scattered homes in the middle of the woods barely connected by two one-lane highways and a network of mostly dirt roads. The closest thing to a “center” it has is a church, middle/elementary school, deli, and gas station on one stretch of road. I attended that school from kindergarten through 8th grade, and graduated from it 13 years ago from a class of 30 students.

So far, 2 of those 30 have died from heroin overdoses, along with one other student from two grades below me, and a dozen individuals from the adjacent school district within the same age range. All were male.

One of those two from my graduating class was Jack, my childhood best friend. He died at age 23.

His death was entirely unexpected to me, but seemingly everyone else in his life knew he had been addicted to heroin for five years. During and after the wake, funeral, and mourning period, I did my best to figure out what happened to him. From a broad sociological standpoint, Jack is a case study in how a white, middle-class teenager with good parents growing up in a fairly affluent place somehow ends up dying from a drug addiction. From a personal standpoint, I just wanted to know how this happened without me knowing about it.

The following is my attempt at putting everything together. I’m going to do my best to not just write another “sad addiction story.” I want to try to find useful take-aways from the experience that have some sort of relevance for how we do/should look at addiction, mental illness, and treatment.

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Disaster Artist – Insanity is No Shortcut to Inspiration

Image result for tommy wiseau and greg sestero

I read Disaster Artist on a whim when the movie came out. I’ve since gone through the audiobook 3.5 times and can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I expected just to hear funny anecdotes about the making of a famously awful movie and the man behind it, but I found so much more depth. In my eyes, Disaster Artist is an examination of insanity (which I am defining as “the inability to perceive reality to the degree of low or non-functionality in regular life”). The book is a pushback against a subtle cultural norm that sees crazy people as having some sort of gift or potential or insight that everyone else doesn’t.

This message hit me especially hard because I had my first real experience with a crazy person only a few months before I read Disaster Artist. I don’t want to give too many details about my personal life, but in brief:

I used to run an education business. Six months into operations, we hired an employee whose credentials seemed too good to be true. He was in his 40s, an ex-marine, an industry veteran with an incredible track record. He claimed to have countless connections which would make him invaluable to our customers. In person, he was fast-talking, enthusiastic, a little disorganized, but highly affable – a born salesman. I checked a few of his references, though not as deeply as I should have, and it all seemed fine. We quickly hired him, not wanting to let this opportunity pass.

We fired him 25 days later.

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