Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Time, Pt. 1

This is a first of a series on time, apparently. Time is great. Time is.

If you ask most people what their time is worth, they’ll think it’s an absurd question. Obviously, you can’t put a value on their time. Who do you think you are? Just like most progressive and morally upright human beings will say that a human life is also priceless. Yet we all act as if the reverse of this is true. We sell our time to our companies, jobs, and “the market” every day. We sign the job offer (that we are lucky enough to get), to serve the company, till death or dissatisfaction do us part, to have and to hold etc. (But in the fine print, there’s this sketchy thing called “at-will” employment. Which basically means the company doesn’t need a solid reason to fire you. Or if they do just so happen to have a reason, they’re not obligated to tell you. “Don’t take it personal. It’s just business. You understand, don’t you??” As if firing could be anything but a personal affair!) Life consists of time, so if we sell our time, we sell our life. Our life has a price, because we act like it does.

There is a fine economic irony which shows that sometimes our jobs cause ennui, a sort of physical and intellectual restlessness. How absurd. People get restless when they are bored, when they aren’t actually engaged even though they’re busy. It turns out you can be bored and busy when you know you aren’t really doing anything worthwhile anyway — or doing something that you literally could not care less about. And yet, you do care about it, because you are hired to care. Salaries for many jobs almost function as bribes. As in, many job positions would simply never be filled if they weren’t prestigious or didn’t pay so well. But isn’t bribery a form of corruption?


“Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” – Paul Graham


What is a job but auctioning off your time to the highest bidder, or at least the most aggressive or persuasive bidder? Of course, people who do what they enjoy have avoided this bidding war; for them, the perks of the job are the job.


But my biggest realization about time has been this: the weekend is an social construct. As in, there is nothing special about Saturday or Sunday. The fact that we chose them as weekend days is totally artificial. Tuesday is Saturday, and Sunday is Wednesday — according to the universe. It’s just another day. The 5 day week/2day weekend is just the contract we’ve all signed to conform to this hullabaloo called “society”. This has bugged me because many people are literally “living for the weekend”. The existence of TGIF is problematic in itself. It’s good to ask yourself, Are you saying TGIF because it’s been an especially stressful week or if you say it every single week because you don’t like your job? And then people have to work to “earn” vacation time. IMHO, this is a lack of trust on the company’s part to trust their employees to use vacation time responsibly and maturely and not abuse it. It’s almost as if they hired kids and not adults. Sure, some discretion on the part of the employee is valid, but you shouldn’t have to work 52 weeks in America to get 2.5 weeks of vacation.


There is a reason people ask “What do you do?” when they first meet you. Because, deep down, they are asking, “What are you willing to sell your time for?” They want to know what you are guaranteed to do every weekday, besides sleeping and eating. From a holistic point of view, we are not our jobs. We are much more, lovers, friends, thinkers, artists. But strictly speaking, we are. We spend 8-12 hours every day with the people we work with and what our job actually entails. EIGHT HOURS. Surely, something this time-consuming cannot be relegated as a “means to an end”. Time is one of the few nonrenewable natural resources.

Our whole lives are organized around the concept of ‘work’ and the time and energy we give to it. Our whole lives.

(I know there are plenty of people who have to work jobs they despise for very practical and pressing reasons.)


“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ― Heraclitus, Fragments

“They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold; and I deem them mad because they think my days have a price” – Kahlil Gibran

Here is a piece from The Gay Science by Nietzsche that sets a very high standard for work worth doing.

“Work and boredom. — Looking for work in order to be paid; in civilized countries today almost all men are at one in doing that. For all of them work is a means and not an end in itself. Hence they are not very refined in their choice of work, if only it pays well. But there are, if only rarely, men who would rather perish than work without any pleasure in their work. They are choosy, hard to satisfy, and do not care for ample rewards. Artists and contemplative men of all kinds belong to this rare breed, but so do even those men of leisure who spend their lives hunting, traveling, or in love affairs and adventures. All of these desire work and misery if only it is associated with pleasure, and the hardest, most difficult work if necessary. Otherwise, their idleness is resolute, even if it spells impoverishment, dishonor, and danger to life and limb. They do not fear boredom as much as work without pleasure…”

Check out what these three have to say on The choice of a Profession:

Paul Graham
William Deresiewicz
Robert Louis Stevenson
Henry David Thoreau


Filed under Philosophy

A bit on Ignorance

I’m fascinated by ignorance for several reasons:

1. Few people completely understand it because few spend actual time acknowledging their ignorance, understanding why it’s there, and what it actually means. Can I identify something if I don’t understand it? Is ignorance a bad thing? If so, why? Everyone takes it as a given that ignorance is something that must be extinguished at all costs. The ability to discern why certain things are worth knowing and others aren’t is underrated. Discretion is the better part of knowledge as well as valor.

2. Many conversations rarely enter into the realm of actual knowledge, much less wisdom. I’m of the opinion that when we talk, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about, especially when we are talking about ourselves. There are many ways in which we lie to ourselves, to reify the self-image we deem most palatable, and to reinforce the image of the world that makes us look most congenial and intelligent. If you look into the world, and don’t like what you see, why blame the world? The world is a mirror — also, a mirage.

3. Everyone thinks they know what ignorance is for any given topic, and they’ve defined it such that their definition doesn’t describe them. What if there are different types of ignorance? It’s quite remarkable that we can be scared to death of a state of mind as natural as ignorance. If you don’t know something, you just don’t know — it’s OK. Feynman knew that it was inevitable, and almost glorious, to live and NOT know — this was part of his genius.

4. Ignorance is not the culprit, our attitude toward it is. We despise others for their ignorance about certain things[1], for example: American whites being ignorant about black history (conveniently forgetting that many Americans *in general* are ignorant about such), men being ignorant about feminist history (same argument as above). Generally, conversations along the lines of race, sex, or class discrimination tend to disparage and denigrate those who are ignorant, crying, “Oh my god, how could you NOT know about all this discrimination inherent in the system! You’re so ignorant! You’re such a bad person and so self-absorbed!” The rage comes to a boiling point and the person with “privilege” is made to feel as if they are despicable scum who walks around with rose-colored glasses. And yet we are all products of the same society, although we see it through different lens. I imagine if this rage was handled more delicately and respectfully when faced with the blinding glare of someone’s ignorance, conversations about social justice could actually be productive — instead of revolting and polarizing. More often though, people seek to educate and remedy the ignorance of others, instead of understanding the perspective of the other person and honestly asking themselves if they do not sleep in the same bed of ignorance.


Here are a few of my vignettes on ignorance and knowledge:

* Those who know much, realizing knowledge is gained from personal experience, advise little. Those who know little, assuming experience rises from knowledge, advise much. Beware of penguins that advise you how to fly.

* The most common type of ignorance is not knowing the many masks ignorance cowers behind. And yet, given enough wine and enough time, can we not figure them all out? — or, at the very least, die laughing at ourselves in the process?

* Everything is difficult when you don’t understand it – and only when you do understand, is its difficulty most completely realized.

* (Below presupposes knowledge of The Fall in Genesis. I highly, HIGHLY encourage you to read it again, here.)

Taking pride in what we know, the main barrier to further knowledge, is our original sin. This is the real reason God was upset with the couple’s fall in the Garden. The serpent enticed Eve with the “knowledge of good and evil” — it was clearly an offer she couldn’t refuse. After the couple admits they know they’re naked, God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” – interpreted – “Who gave you knowledge – and why are you proud of it? Who would do such a thing?”

Today, nothing has changed; behind every conversation and argument is “What do you know?” or “What do you want to know, and why don’t you know it yet?”: both of these can be summarized as “Where does your pride lie?” It is fashionable for an educated person to talk of “love of learning” as the most admirable trait in the world.[2] And yet, is this rarely love of knowledge, but rather, love of pride in knowledge – and pride always goes before a fall.[3] For the more proud we are of learning and accomplishments, the less we are able to question it.

* Everyone asks to find out what they don’t know – but shouldn’t we ask to refine what we already do know? I need other people’s interpretations to counter and refine yours. [It is smart to ask questions about what I think I know — in conjunction with what I know I don’t know.]

And finally,

These are the lyrics to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. It’s a great critique of our views on ignorance and knowledge, and how both fit in our pursuit of happiness.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage?

[1] Yet, we are rarely this hard on ourselves for being ignorant.

[2] They are so desperate to know. They panic and wither without their certainty and credentials.

[3] Proverbs 16:18

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Filed under Philosophy

The Shutdown: Blame Republicans but Watch the Democrats

I wrote an email to my political mailing list on August 21, 2011 entitled “Does the White House have Power?”  At that time, many mainstream Democrats insisted that Barack Obama was an innocent victim of an intransigent Congress, that he ardently supported progressive priorities like a public health care option and higher taxes on wealthy Americans but had little leverage to make those ideas a reality.

Glenn Greenwald thoroughly debunked that claim on several occasions, as my email at that time documented.  I revisit this issue now because the current government shutdown is yet another proof point that the White House has power.  Both the Democratic Party as a whole and Barack Obama specifically exercise that power when they care about policy outcomes.

House Democrats just initiated a procedural motion called a discharge petition to try and end the shutdown without compromising on Obamacare.  The strategy pursued by the White House and Democratic congresspeople during the current Obamacare debate has been not to appease, but to message, over and over again, that fringe Republicans are to blame for the shutdown – Republican demands are unreasonable and unpopular.  Though many journalists predictably pretend that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame for the shutdown, the majority of Americans recognize the Republicans are at fault.  Obama’s appropriate response to the current Republican demands illustrates that he at the very least could have taken similar action during the original health care debate in the first few years of his presidency and during the “fiscal cliff” debate at the end of 2012.  Instead, as Paul Krugman wrote at the beginning of this year, “he gave every indication of being more or less desperate to cut a deal.”

If Republicans had followed through on their threats in those debates, there would have been some suffering, no doubt.  But there’s suffering because of the current shutdown, and while it’s regrettable, we sometimes may have to stomach short-term loss for long-term gain.  In the current debate, the Democrats are suggesting implementation of Obamacare, a plan originally conceived by Congressional Republicans and the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s and loved by the insurance industry, is worth this short-term suffering.  And it may be – my dad, who helps lower-income people gain access to health care, likes to remind me that Obamacare should improve the lives of millions of people, which is no small matter.  If that’s your mindset, though, you probably should have supported the Republican plan in the 1990s and you should also probably give George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress some credit for Medicare Part D, which, like the Affordable Care Act, expanded coverage to people who didn’t previously have it while enriching private industry.

Whatever your thoughts about Obamacare, make no mistake about this fact: the White House has power.  Obamacare in its current form is exactly what Obama and the Democrats desired.  By their own admission, the Obama Administration didn’t want a single-payer health care plan that would benefit more Americans to become a reality.  Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Obama worked hard to keep the public option out of the Affordable Care Act.  He pressured progressives like Dennis Kucinich to adopt a more conservative bill while journalists insisted, when Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman were holding up a better bill, that Obama was powerless to influence congresspeople.  In addition, Obama never really wanted higher taxes on the wealthy or prosecutions of white-collar criminals who torpedoed the economy; he’s extremely cozy with moneyed interests.  If he actually believed in the progressive ideals to which he pays lip service, we would have seen a lot more of his current messaging a long time ago.

As Greenwald wrote in the summer of 2011, “[t]he critique of Obama isn’t that he tries but fails to achieve certain progressive outcomes and his omnipotence should ensure success.  Nobody believes he’s omnipotent.  The critique is that he doesn’t try, doesn’t use the weapons at his disposal: the ones he wields when he actually cares about something (such as the ones he uses to ensure ongoing war funding — or, even more convincing, see the first indented paragraph here).”  None of the Democrats’ or Obama’s behavior diminishes the Republicans’ responsibility for the shutdown.  But I hope watching the shutdown saga unfold is instructive for people who over the past five years have repeatedly excused the Democratic Party’s poor policy outcomes as the products of a weak office.

Update: The deal the Democrats eventually got provides further evidence that Obama could have done much, much more during the early years of his presidency.


Filed under US Political System