Reflections on Having a Bad Idea

A few weeks ago, a friend came to me with a bad idea.

He wanted us to start a dietary supplement and nootropics company together. We would use dropshipping to offload most inventory and management costs, then go to a mutual friend for cheap web design, and then tap into our networks for some surprisingly good sales and endorsement opportunities.

He acknowledged that I have no formal biology background besides AP Bio and watching House. He also had no formal background. This might lead an objective observer to conclude that we were not the best qualified individuals for selling other people chemicals to put in their bodies.

But… we had both started and run businesses successfully. He had had been using supplements and nootropics on a daily basis for years, and had put an impressive amount of effort into understanding them as evidenced by his ability to rattle off chemical components and mechanisms with the slightest prompting. He also had unique access to people who could promote and sell our product.

Most importantly, the entire supplements/nootropics field was in the “Wild West” (his words). Entrepreneurs all over the world were putting out bundled nootropic supplements with names like Alpha Brain and Brain Force Plus, and so if we, in the spirit of scientific adventure, put our heads together and actually tried to run a legitimate company which used only the most scientifically verified substances, we could pass the low bar set by the current market, and then rely on marketing skills and connections to carve out our own little chunk of a two billion dollar industry.

This was a really, really bad idea.

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A Deep Dive into K-pop

KPOP Collections: Kpop Groups Collage

Prior to last month, I knew next to nothing about K-pop (Korean popular music) besides having heard a few songs in passing and the rumors of the industry’s infamous elements, most notably a string of high profile suicides over the last few years. As an American with no connection to music or South Korean culture, I wondered if I was getting an accurate picture of the industry or if I was being misled by the most lurid and morbid elements eagerly conveyed by the media.

So I decided to do a deep dive down the internet rabbit hole of K-pop to understand what it is, how it works, and what I think about it. For anything that’s not my personal opinion or that goes beyond basic historical knowledge, I’ll cite my sources, which are a mixture of news articles, academic articles, YouTube videos, and some content aggregators like Wikipedia and Statista. I welcome any corrections or criticisms on inaccurate sources or things I didn’t understand.

I’ll warn you upfront – this essay is over 30,000 words long. It is the largest post I have made on dormin.org besides my novel. Since I sympathize with anyone who doesn’t want to make such a large time investment into a subject of passing curiosity, I will present my key findings here divided between the five parts of the essay. If you’re not sure if you want to read everything, you can jump to any individual part and understand it without reading the other sections.

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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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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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The Opium War – The War On/For Drugs

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Over the previous month, I have slowly made my way through the audiobook of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt.

Prior to reading it, I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars except that they were a series of conflicts between Great Britain and China over opium that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and that they inspired much modern-day nationalism in China where they are seen as the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation.”

(Note – from now on I’ll just refer to a singular “Opium War.” There were a few of them, but the first one is the important one.)

Now that I’ve read it, I feel like I’ve only grasped the surface-level of a vast conflict containing multi-national corporate drug dealers, local mafia drug distributors, corrupt government agents, home-sick merchants, panicking diplomats, political lobbyists, a British merchant who nearly started an international war because he wanted to bang his wife, a Chinese merchant who almost defected to America, drug legalization advocates on both sides of the world, a Chinese advisor who wanted to execute anyone caught holding opium, and countless more individuals, organizations, and governments caught in a tangled international web.

And yet, despite building up at the start of the 18th century and coming to a climax in the mid-19th century, while reading this book about the Opium War, I couldn’t help but think:

This is all so familiar.

The Opium War is like a fictitious allegorical retelling of a whole bunch of very real political problems in the modern world. Namely:

  • The ongoing, intractable, unwinnable WAR ON DRUGS
  • The inherent difficulties of conducting a policy of FREE TRADE when the trading partner is a hostile, protectionist nation
  • The limits of STATE SOVEREIGNTY and MULTICULTURALISM against pressing private concerns

In this post, first I’ll do my best to recount the basic outline of the conflict as well as its most interesting trends and moments. Nearly all of my information comes from the book, with gaps filled in by Wikipedia.

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Hillbilly Elegy – The Culture of White American Poverty

Image result for appalachia people

I’ve written a couple of book summaries on here over the past few months, and this one for Hillbilly Elegy will be the most difficult. J.D. Vance’s autobiography is a sociological summary of Appalachian American culture, and by extension the culture of poverty across America, which uses his own life as a case study. The book is basically a series of linked anecdotes with only occasional introspections thrown in, so I’ll try my best to lay out Vance’s story, and integrate his claims and arguments.

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Mongol Apologia – How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World

Image result for genghis khan

In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongols, he recounts taking a class in college on Genghis Khan where he wrote a paper about some of the economic benefits of the Mongol Empire’s reign, and his Chinese professors gave him a bad grade for overlooking the tens of millions of people the nomads killed to acquire their massive empire. Carlin argued that the Mongol death toll wasn’t the point of the essay and it was unfair to grade him that way, but the teacher said it was morally inexcusable to overlook blatant genocide in this context.

I had a vaguely similar encounter in college, but in the other direction. I took a class on Mongol history taught by a professor who was famous in the field (he had spent years unsuccessfully searching for Genghis Khan’s body in Mongolia), and he used to make good-natured jokes about how one of his TAs was an unabashed Mongol fan. The TA didn’t just think the Mongols were interesting, he genuinely believed they were a force for good in the world, and when giving lectures he would go on at lengths rattling off the accomplishments and stats of the Mongol Empire, only to be occasionally interrupted by the main professor who would remind everyone that the Mongols probably killed a higher percentage of the earth’s population than any military force in history.

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. When I started it, I wondered if the publisher forced that rather click-baity title on Weatherford. After all, though it’s a well-written and entertaining account, it is a fairly straightforward historical survey of Genghis Khan’s life and legacy. The book never concisely states what the “modern world” is or how exactly Genghis Khan made it.

But now that I finished it, I think Weatherford may have chosen the title after all, because he is about as pro-Mongol as one can get. And though the book is more of a historical account than an argument for a grand historical/cultural/societal explanation for the modern world, there is a faint outline for such a thing somewhere in there.

Even though I don’t totally buy it, I’ll do my best to explain Weatherford’s argument. I’ll also try to explain how Genghis Khan was so awesome (at least in a purely amoral, achievement-based sense) and why he’s one of the most famous people in all of history.

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