Category Archives: Thinkers

Snake oil enchantress

Yesterday I was wandering around Barcelona getting lost accidentally on purpose, and I walked past a store filled with little jars. As soon as I passed it, I got a whiff of all the good smelling things inside, so I backed up and went in. Immediately this woman approached me. She was pretty but not striking, but she was jubilant in her demeanor. To her, I was the only person in the room, possibly the only person she cared about in life. A similar approach executed in a different scenario would be terrifying. If someone came up to me like that while I was at the gym or something, I would be super creeped out. I suppose there’s a fine line between being creepy and completely mesmerizing, but she was on the safe side. She asked me if I wanted to try some. I didn’t even know what it was, but yes.

Turns out she was selling a variety of different sea salts. She led me over to a circular sink with foot pump levers in the middle of the room, never once breaking the lazer-like focus of attention on me. She picked up the jar and waved a scoop of the oily mixture under my nose. It probably wasn’t the smell, but something about the way she offered it to me that made the serotonin release in my neck, the way it does when you get a back rub, or do hot yoga, or are in the womb. She scooped out a clump of each different scent of salt and presented it to me in that way until I was basically putty in her hands. Then she took me through the actual tutorial of scrubbing my hands until they were baby soft.

So I wound up buying like €30 worth of patchouli lavender vanilla-scented bath items. And you know what?

I just took a shower and I smell like fucking heaven. But that women could have been selling snake oil, and I’m sure she has and would. I probably would have been able to tell the difference, but maybe I wouldn’t have. It made me realize what a valuable human skill this economic seduction is, especially in areas where the economy is in the gutter.

It also reminded me that I am a horrible salesperson. If something doesn’t have a purpose, and the transfer of its possession from one human being to another wouldn’t result in a substantial net positive effect, I have no desire to spend my time convincing someone else they should acquire the thing. There is already too much worthless crap taking up space in the world. If I know of something you should want in theory, that I am able to provide to you, I will recommend or offer it to you. If you can’t see it’s appeal, its quality, its substance, even after a short explanation — you’re clearly not worthy of the thing being offered, and I will move on.

So here we are, in a world where less and less people focus on making things of quality and more and more people focus on improving their ability to sell crap. Then more and more consumers emerge not being able to tell the difference between what is crap and what is quality, reinforcing the value of crap and prizing the ability to sell crap as the most worthwhile skill of all. We’re tending towards a society where there’s no point in playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma because we’ve already lost. Default or deal with it.

But building a life (or a company) on snake oil is risky, because when the bubble bursts and the illusion dissolves, it will all be worthless. Things of substance, and people of substance will be resilient to environmental turbulence, but the phonies will be screwed. So I’m going to keep doing what I do, and trying my best to resist the charms of enticing salespeople. Or maybe I’ll give in long enough to convince them to work for me so they can fool the people who are used to buying snake oil into buying something of substance.

The most perfect reflection on being single

Tonight I took a break from packing to read something that’s been open in a browser tab for days. Personally recommended for me by my friend and fellow Motherboard contributor Kelly Bourdet, the n+1 tab kept tempting my focus away from packing for a year on the road, planning the LadyBits launch party (which was AMAZING <3), and fielding the hundreds of responses that have poured in since I launched LadyBits on Medium (getting to each and every one of you, I promise!!). Five days later, I finally allowed myself to pause and consume “What Do You Desire?” by Emily Witt.

As enticing as the subject matter — which details a woman’s journey through the armory — was the fact that it was picked for me. I love hunting through stories for the detail that makes a piece of writing subtly and especially relevant to my interests. At first I assumed Kelly had sent it because the gentleman who Kelley had asked to be on her Internet Week panel alongside me was a pornstar. But when the author switched gears from fly-on-the-wall description to introspection, I was left feeling like the author was speaking out of my own experiences, and articulating them much more clearly than I could:

I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival. So, back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter.

What even to call these relationships? Most of my friends had slept with one another and I had slept with many friends, too. Sometimes years separated sexual encounters. Things thought buried in the past would cycle around again, this time with less anxiety and greater clarity, in a fluid manner that occasionally imploded in horrible displays of pain or temporary insanity, but which for the most part functioned smoothly. We were souls flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, circling around, awaiting the messiah.

After a decade or so of living this way, with occasional suspensions for relationships that would first revive my belief in romantic love and its attendant structures of domesticity, and then once again fail and extinguish them, I started finding it difficult to revere the couple as the fundamental unit of society. I became a little ornery about it, to be honest: that couples paid lower taxes together, that they could afford better apartments, that there were so few structures of support to ease the raising of a child as a single person, that the divorced experience a sense of failure, that failed marriages are accompanied by so much logistical stress on top of the emotional difficulties. All this because we privilege a certain idea of love. The thought of the natural progression of couples, growing more and more insular, buying nicer and nicer furniture, shutting down the world, accruing things, relaxing into habit, scared me. As I grew older, I found it difficult to distinguish romantic love from other kinds of connections: the platonic love for the friends I did not want to have sex with, the euphoric chemical urges toward people I had sex with but did not love. Why was love between couples more exceptional? Because it attached itself to material objects, and to children? Because it ordered civilization? I probably would not have a baby without love, and buying a home seemed impossible for all kinds of reasons, but I could have sex. I had a body.

The entire piece is worth reading and losing yourself in. She goes on to seek the answers to her questions in all kinds of detail. Things I’ll probably seek to find in different ways about myself when I leave New York. Like the author, I’m tired of the cycles. This time, the past must stay buried. I’m ready for new encounters and new loves.

Thanks, Kelly =)


Why people are the way they are

I think this is the single most fascinating topic. Sometimes you can spend an entire lifetime researching why someone is the way he/she is, but you can never fully know the answer. True friends are infinite quests.

I get drawn in to a lot of weird situations because when I first meet someone and they come across as mean or cold, instead of not interacting with them, I make it my quest to figure out why they’re acting like that. I can never resist a think wall. Ironically, most of the time, these countenances are a subconscious manifestation of a fear that people don’t want to talk with them, or won’t like them if they do. Sometimes these people are the best, the rare earth gems invisible to amateurs but treasures to the true people connoisseurs. It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface and peak at what’s underneath — a single contextualized question will usually do it. There are plenty of duds, but there’s nothing like seeing that sparkle and embarking on a psychological journey to the center of a person’s being.

Even connoisseurs can be fooled though, as the world is full of con artists. You usually don’t have to look too hard for them, they conveniently pop up near you by a seeming stroke of luck and look pretty close to the real thing. They do such a good job convincing you that you stop digging. You trust them. Then one day, you observe a crack in the varnish, so you peel back another layer and discover they are not who they have been pretending to be. They’ve been playing the part of, a genuine person, a true friend, but deep down they’re a fabrication. Funny how the appearance of these cracks often coincides with the other person getting something they’d been desperately wanting, something you helped them obtain.

It’s kind of like how in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is enchanted by Dr. Elsa Schneider, but she turns out to be a con artist Nazi who was really just using Indy to find the Holy Grail. These discoveries hurt, but whatever, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later. People who use other people as stepping stones to get what they want generally seal their own fates.

Ok, I’ve taken this metaphor far enough. The moral of the story is that even though the fakes can be disheartening, the real gems make it worth the dig.

Thinking about writing

They say those who can’t do teach, so when a writer writes about writing, you know something is awry. At this moment in time, I am generally happy: I’m healthy, I have great friends who have gone out of their way to do incredibly sweet things for me ever since I announced I’m leaving New York, and I just spent a lovely evening coordinating a fundraiser for the Museum of Math at Science House and was able to come home and put the money I earned in my parrot fund. However, there is a cloud that has been looming over me for the past month — the deadline cloud.

While I was an editor at Wired, I gave my freelancers deadlines all the time. Miraculously, I picked amazing writers who turned in quality work on time with only a few exceptions. But actually being on deadline is pretty new to me. I wrote articles at Wired, but they were never on deadline because it was understood that my writing was basically free time work that came secondary to my editing responsibilities. Nobody was going to ask that I put their request for me to write above my own job, so the things that I’ve had published at Wired were all kind of random passion projects.

Now though, I do have deadlines. Deadlines given to me by editors I respect just as much as my freelancers respected me. I’m not complaining about the fact that I have deadlines. I love deadlines. I love them because writing is fun and all but publishing is the really rewarding part. I mean, I write on this blog and sometimes it’s good and makes sense, but I’m mostly writing to think here. That’s probably the core of why I’m a writer, because writing helps me think. All my life I’ve been getting into these confusing situations and I can’t make sense of them until I write them down.

Which is the whole stupid conundrum I’m having lately. Writing helps me think, but when I think too much about writing, I can’t write.

I never understood why print magazines let their writers take so long to write feature articles. I figured the writers had to be milking the system — jerking off, playing games on their computers or something while they were supposed to be working. But now I get it. When someone gives you a topic and tells you to write the best thing that you possibly can in an hour, that’s easy. You just do it, and it’s done in an hour. But when someone gives you a 2,000 word goal and wants you to write something epic and evergreen what will withstand the scrutiny of millions of misogynist commenters and reddit trolls, that requires a lot of thinking. I mean, is there ever really enough thinking to prepare one for that?

I’m sorry I doubted you, feature writers! It’s true, writing feature articles takes a long time. I just wrote this essay about cholera in Haiti, finally, after thinking about it for a whole year. A year. And when I actually sat down to write it, it took a day. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t on the page for a year, so it took a year to write. That’s what most of writing is for me: thinking.

Often times when I’m working on a story, I’ll tell people about different parts of it first. Friends, strangers, doesn’t matter. They’ll ask “what are you working on?” and I’ll say “a story about so-and-so,” and they’ll say “oh, what about it?” and I use that prompt as my test bed. I’ll tell them about it one way, and if it makes sense than I remember the explanatory process I used and incorporate it into the narrative thread that exists only in my head. I weave these threads in my head constantly. There are thousands of them, all tangled up with each other, waiting for the moment I find the end and tug it out of my head onto the page so it can exist there forever. When I finally find an end, it just comes out like a spool unraveling. It’s just a matter of looking for it, and getting it, and sometimes it takes a really long time.

Sometimes though, things stop me from looking. It’s an irrational fear. A fear that maybe the thread that exists in my head isn’t worthy of paper or even internet space. Like my new boyfriend David Foster Wallace once said, people who worship intellectualism are always worried about being found out for being some kind of fraud. But then most of the writers I respect say they constantly worry about being found out and this is how they know they’re good journalists. They say that if they every stopped worrying about that, they would then know that they’d lost it and should quit the profession immediately.

I think that good editors know this, because they have all gone through it, which is why they’re considerate with writers going through it. But how does one learn how to stop thinking about writing and just fucking write? How do I put aside all the little things that are easier and more immediate and less about fulfilling of my own professional desires, and work that thread into something awesome without thinking about it until I go insane with deadline-pushing guilt?

Le sigh. I guess the key is to stop thinking about writing, and blogging about writing, and just write. In the time it took me to write this blog post, I could have written most of the other thing I needed to write. At least now I feel a little more clear on what I have to write. I will hammer it out! Sorry for being so meta.

The rest of my life

Today someone remarked that I never write or talk about my future, I only document the past or analyze the present. It’s true. Fantasizing about the future only leads to disappointment when things don’t go according to plan, and the past and present can be disappointing enough. I got out of the habit of fantasizing about the future once I realized what brainwashing Disney was up to, and the only future scenarios I imagine are worst case ones out of practicality (ie: if we don’t fix X problem, Y horrible thing will happen). The person who made the initial observation told me that stance was unnecessarily negative, and said “if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know how to get there?” So I agreed to indulge her and detail how I imagine the rest of my life will play out in my fantasy future. For Ellyn:

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Farewell, cyber warrior

Aaron Swartz, Coder and Activist, Dead at 26

We often say, upon the passing of a friend or loved one, that the world is a poorer place for the loss. But with the untimely death of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, this isn’t just a sentiment; it’s literally true. Worthy, important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.

Aaron Swartz committed suicide Friday in New York. He was 26 years old.

From a statement from Aaron’s parents:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.


How to Quit

…Then a friend put an arm around me. I found my way to some edge, thin as a thread, where the panic turned into laughter.

This is the diamond in the mind, this ability. A lot of people know about it, but I didn’t know about it.

From then on when panic crept in I could just push over the thread-thin edge to the other side, feeling the way to joy.

Joy is the knowledge that the thread is there.

A thread runs through the middle of your life, and if you find it, the second half can be comedy instead.

A place can make you want to die and then you can turn it over into the sweetest thing. You can do this yourself, if you have found the diamond in your mind.

Addiction is sometimes the attempt to raise the dead by returning to the scene. If you can’t yet abandon the dead, at least you can practice abandonment, and will perhaps in that way be on your way to finding the world.

-Excerpt from How to Quit, by Kristin Dombeck, n+1

I’m still learning how to find that thread. I saw it once, but I don’t know where I was when I saw it and I don’t know how to get back there from the place where I’ll be when I need to find it again.