Category Archives: Fun

What to Work on When You Don’t Need to Work

The “need to work” has to do with responsibility. As a kid, my only responsibility was not getting too sticky from all the candy I ate, and my work habits reflected this. As an adult, I’m responsible for myself and my family, but I don’t have a bunch of bloodsucking kids yet and my work habits reflect this: I don’t do any work I don’t enjoy; if something pooped its pants in my presence, leaping into work mode is the last thing I’d consider.

If I view my responsibilities as only including myself and my family, then the amount of “work I need to do” is small, especially since almost everything I want money for is either relatively cheap or really expensive. The first time I realized this, it felt great! I felt like I had arrived. I could watch movies all the time and have my “work” be shopping and exercise so that upon my high school reunion everyone dies of jealousy when they see how my hotness has only increased with time.

Ages ago when I graduated from MIT and told Junot Diaz about my uncertainty for the future, he shook his head and smiled, “You have nothing to worry about.” Since he’s super into the apocalypse and the injustice of inequality, I interpreted this as an allusion to our living in an illusory first world ivory tower, but now I think he also referred to how big my safety net is, especially considering the marketability of my degree. Working a white collar job was the default mode for me, not like North Korean prisoners for whom bathing means waiting for weather warm enough to allow standing in the rain. Working on Wall Street is beyond their greatest dreams, whereas for me it’s a backup plan. A poor person in another country takes a risk by experimenting with fertilizers, and if it doesn’t work out his family starves to death. If I take a risk that doesn’t work out, I’ll just feel embarrassed and delete some old blog entires. There’s no comparison.

I’m not sure when I realized my relative lack of responsibility was an illusion. Maybe it was from hanging out with altruistic friends or reading HPMOR that got me feeling it was a mistake and a sin to only claim responsibility for my own comfort and curiosity. Maybe it was when I saw Wall-E wherein through technology the humans have achieved a state of, “Well, I could do this forever: eat, grow fat, watch tv.” We laugh at the obese humans who can’t even stand up, but we are actually at that state now in our wonderful, first world, welfare society, incapable of starving to death no matter how much we lie around. Are we going to live like those hapless humans or are we going to exhume the Earth?

How can I go shopping and movie hopping all day if I’m responsible for my species? When I mentally tested expanding the scope of responsibility beyond my personal welfare to include my fellow man, my first reaction was to groan, “Oh no.” Because the instant you have that thought experiment, the amount of work we need to accomplish balloons up monstrously. If I’m responsible for more than myself, then the “need to work” morphs into a dauntingly huge problem with a totally different scope. Being responsible for another individual could include cooking meals for them or paying their rent, but you can’t take care of a whole species through chores or even money. To scale, we need to do bigger things, invent stuff, use our imaginations. I never cook and I’m still figuring out how to take responsibility for my family. How do I take responsibility for my species? This is the question I’ve been thinking about. What do you work on when you need to work for your species?

A while ago, I realized it’s mathematically irrational for people who can afford to take big risks to not take them, and who’s better positioned to take risks than us? Furthermore, if you claim responsibility for your whole species, it’s not just irrational to not take a risk- it’s irresponsible and morally wrong. Unambitious ambitions are false to my identity and potential: our ambitions have to match our abilities, and most people are not reaching high enough- because of fear, laziness, lack of imagination, etc, which is wrong. It’s like the Dalai Llama or someone wise was saying: if we have greater will and intelligence than flies, but we live the same as a fly lives, then the fly is more true and honest than we are. I have a duty to myself to monotonically increase in awesomeness, and I have a duty to mankind to do good in the world. From this perspective, there’s no end to the work I need to do. Which is sort of annoying and scary, but also fun and exciting! Just as we have a duty to pursue personal excellence, we have a responsibility to live up to our potential as a species. We humans could live off the land like flies, but we build structures and satellites because otherwise intelligent dolphins and alien civilizations would laugh at us.

So here’s the question that Elon Musk caused me to ask: What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing mankind? This question has led to many awesome discussions, so think about it. The only catch is that after you think about it, the follow up question is, “What are you doing to contribute to a solution?” If the answer is, “Nothing,” then we have to ask, “Why are we choosing to work on something we don’t consider important?” So watch out: a question can change everything.

Exercise

I’ve been really busy lately. The only things I do are work, meet people, and exercise.

My problem with most exercise is it’s boring. Going to the gym like a normal person is the worst- setting up the weights, doing them, waiting for machines, whatever, everything takes forever and the only way I get through it is through elaborate fantasies usually ending in someone’s death, or I’m a secret agent repeatedly clinging to the edge of a cliff or on the wing of an airplane and need to haul myself up so I for once legitimately need to do a pullup (I guess I’ve always ended up falling to my death, although I don’t think about that part), or rescuing a princess from some savage alien culture where you have to behead her father before you get to mate with her (Ok, the fantasies all involve death).

Crossfit, though boring (I hate clamping weights or counting), is at least extremely time efficient. I sometimes enjoy the workouts if they don’t involve too much weight setup (yes, I’m too lazy to set up my weights to do my exercises) or counting. Sometimes I’ll compete with someone and fantasize about having hidden all our food and needing to defeat them in the hunger games. Part of the allure of crossfit is that everyone is so ripped, so usually in my fantasies I defeat them by being faster and befriending genetically engineered beasts.

Despite feeling good after exercising, doing it can be so annoying and boring that it can be hard to stick with it. Right now the main thing I’ve been doing consistently is yoga. One reason I like yoga is that I’m good at it because I’m flexible, but it’s still challenging (I inwardly third eye snicker when the men can’t do the poses). It’s not the most efficient use of time for pure exercise but it also has a meditative component where afterwards I feel full of love. I very rarely fantasize during yoga except during some prolonged annoying poses like horse. I also get a weird pleasure from hearing yoga instructors talk about massaging your intestines and thyroid- “That uncomfortable choking sensation is so good for you!” Another reason for yoga is the nice showers (In contrast, Brazilian jiu jitsu showers are the most disgusting places I’ve ever seen).

The thing about physical activity, even sports that are really fun, or cool skills like martial arts, is that at some point in the game you basically have to just do 1000 pushups to improve, and this gets really boring. This doesn’t happen as much in the more cerebral games/skills where even if you’re practicing something as boring as typing faster you’re still generally getting a high level of mental stimulation in return. If you can’t stand doing the boring stuff and only do the fun stuff, you’ll probably never improve beyond a certain level in your sport. This is my excuse for sucking at almost all sports.

Being on a team makes boredom much more palatable. Thinking back on the years of fencing, when my thighs were so big I couldn’t wear normal jeans, I’m amazed by what people endure for the sake of the team. I am super, super lazy and yet I would wake up before dawn for those bus rides to meets. I don’t think I fantasized about murder even once during all those hours of drills!

I miss it. I miss being on a team and everyone working out together, drawn together with an irrational school pride, clawing for victory as the underdogs against the division 1 teams that recruited foreign professional fencers, mercilessly whooping the club teams that couldn’t afford nice equipment by competing with each other for how few touches we’d have scored against us, having weird rivalries with the teams that were comparable and employing complex psychological strategies.

I fenced a little after MIT but couldn’t find the motivation to do it without a team around me or a coach I really loved and knew. Our coach Jarek, who’s celebrating his 20th anniversary at MIT, was a professional sabre fencer and I still think of Jarek as my coach even though it’s been 5 years since I’ve been on the team. One thing that’s not obvious about Jarek until you get to know him more, is that he’s better than you at every sport, not just fencing. This is because he’s European- in America, anyone with actual athletic talent is not going to become a fencer.

I want to do a team sport again! The problem is I suck at sports so much it’d be really sad for anyone on my team. So I’m going to make myself really strong and when I come back I’ll surprise everyone by suddenly being not completely pathetic! That’s the meta-fantasy whenever I’m working out and fantasizing about death. In the meantime, ignore my frailty and choose me for your apocalypse survival team because of my creativity and resourcefulness, etc.

Any thoughts to offer a 24 yr old who feels that time is passing at an ever accelerating pace?

Answer by Nancy Hua:

I heard that the brain mainly records new events and your perception of time is based on the number of memories. This makes sense to me because I’m not likely to remember every time I go scuba diving but I’ll probably remember the first time. If I have no memory of last night it’ll feel like last night didn’t happen, like time skipped from yesterday to today, whereas if I stayed up all night talking with a new person it’ll feel like a really long day. This could explain the phenomena you’re describing and prescribe a solution.

When you’re a kid, everything is new, nothing has ever happened to you before (which is part of why kids are lured by strangers into cars, etc: they don’t know what’s normal). Thus your first summer at camp might feel like it’s lasted a million years- you feel yourself changing because your brain is experiencing and recording a lot of new events, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fraction of stuff that’s newly recorded in your brain is high, and you feel like time has passed slowly.

As our lives progress, the rate of learning and new experiences tends to slow. As you age and begin a career, you don’t learn new things as frequently. You’re gaining expertise and your community is not changing as much. Furthermore the probability of some event being new to your brain is lower- a monotonically increasing fraction of experiences will map to an existing memory. Because your brain doesn’t record as many new memories, time feels like it’s passing more quickly.

Maybe if you want to make time seem like it’s passing more slowly, you have to get your brain to form a lot of new connections. To do this, you can try to learn a lot of new things, go to new environments, and gain new experiences, which is going to be harder as time passes for obvious reasons, but should be getting easier as technology advances. The amount of information accessible to any person is always increasing, connections between people are always increasing, and travel frictions are constantly decreasing.

The model of getting good at one occupation and doing it repeatedly might make time seem to fly by unless you’re deliberate about it. You could deliberately choose to keep a level of failure in your work and life so that your’e always pushing yourself to become more of an expert and learning new things. Your brain will form new connections every time you go to a sufficiently different environment, so changing locations will make you feel like time is slower and that more stuff is happening to you because you’re forming new memories. Engaging with sufficiently different types of people will also stimulate you.

View Answer on Quora

Cat

In case anyone was wondering, the secret topic of this blog is This Cat!

I got this cat from an animal shelter in Chicago. I’d wanted a dog but Mom convinced me this was a bad idea until I bought my farm. Plus I was never home anyway. But there comes a time in every person’s life when one needs animal company.

Although I had been seeking a really old cat that no one else would adopt, and I think someone else would’ve adopted this cat because she’s so pretty and friendly, I chose this cat because the instant she was in my lap she pushed her face firmly into my face and then into my hand, infecting me with her weird mind control virus that now dictates all my thoughts. Like all the other cats 1 to 9 years old, this cat was labeled “1 year old kitten.”

After adopting her, I didn’t give her a name for a long time. I don’t know, I just didn’t speak to her verbally- I’m not going to talk to a dumb cat. Her food was stinky, expensive, raw, gluten free goop and I lavished her with many toys and useless, ugly cat items she ignored, like scratching posts/boards and catnip. Her favorite toys are things covered in fur. She particularly liked to lick and worry my furry, winter hat made of 1000 bunny rabbits. Because she grew bored of toys after possessing them for a while (who doesn’t?), I’d often go buy her different copies of her toys to briefly renew her interest.

This cat desperately craves human company. When I would come home, she’d be at the door waiting for me, and then follow me around the house. If I barred her from a room I was in, she’d freak out and meow, pawing at the door and pushing it with her head, getting creative about forcing her way in. Once she ripped a chunk of fur out of her head by scraping her tiny skull so hard against the door to get it ajar. A visitor remarked, “That is so annoying. No wonder she got put up for adoption.” I don’t like cat fur on the bed so I wouldn’t allow her into the bedroom, which taught her to possessively scramble into the bedroom in front of me if she sensed I was headed that way. Once she was trying to sneak into the bedroom when I was exiting to let someone into the house and I put my foot out to stop her, pinning her against the wall and knocking the air out of her. I frantically asked my visitor, “I squished my cat! Do you think she’s ok??” I’ve often worried she was in pain when she appeared to have forgotten getting the keys dropped on her eye area because her face is just impassive. Who knows what she’s feeling?

When I’d check the mail in the hallway before entering the house, I’d hear her faint, repetitive meows coming from inside. Had she been doing that constantly in my absence or does she only start up when she hears someone outside? Does she do it whenever anyone is outside or only when I’m outside? How could she possibly know it was me and not someone else? I’d hoped she’d only start when she knew it was about time for me to return home, but unless she knows how to count the days of the week, when I’d come home at earlier hours on the weekends she’d still be meowing, waiting. The thought of this poor cat mournfully meowing all day, filled with endless hope that the next step would be the step of her master entering the house at last, broke my heart. Nevertheless I left her alone for days at a time because I often visited my parents on weekends.

Finally I had to go to London for a week. I told my mom I was worried because I’d never left this cat for more than a few days, and Mom promptly said she’d come to watch this cat. “Wow, that’s a VIP cat!” my coworker said. While I was away, without asking my permission, my mom named this cat Mimi. Mimi loves to cuddle and sleep in your lap. If she hears strange sounds she jumps up and growls. What can she hope to gain by growling when she’s so small and easily mastered in a physical contest? What a cute cat! She likes to play tag and hide and seek. During tag, she leaps up into the air and gently tags you with her front paws. If she senses she won’t win the game, she lies down and rolls her tummy upwards to peer at you, “What? Were we playing something? I recall winning.”

Is it Tiger Mom of me to constantly suspect this cat of fatness? There are certain positions from which Mimi looks flabby, and when she rolls into those poses I invariably exclaim, “What a fat cat!” But most of the time when she isn’t displaying her fluffy stomach she looks very trim and healthy, a perfectly formed, sparkling, white cat. I used to have ambitions for her to learn to use the toilet like those cats on Youtube, but she did not find the videos instructional. I accepted her for what she is, a stupid cat that uses the disgusting litter box.

When I showed a picture of her to mitri and went on about how she was the greatest, most wonderful cat, the first thing he said was, “She looks like Uncle Fester.” She eventually bit and scratched mitri, as she has apparently everyone except me and my mom. “She’s even purring!” he protested. As I got him Neosporin, I said, “I don’t think purring means what you think it means. She’s probably purring to calm herself of her blood lust.” I tend to think that when she bites someone they secretly deserve it. Even if their offense is totally unclear because they just met her, they must somehow have wronged an animal somewhere in their hearts or in a past life and are getting their just desserts. What a great cat!

The next time I went to London, I asked my coworkers who wanted to watch her. Some demurred to help (“Didn’t your cat fall into the toilet?”), but Mingyuan volunteered. When Mingyuan met Mimi, the first thing that happened was that Mimi fiercely bit Mingyuan’s cautious hand. No blood, but she definitely had him.

When I got back from London, Mingyuan reported that they had gotten along famously! When I came to fetch her, this disloyal cat did not appear to know me, so I yanked her out of her pathetic hiding place and briskly stuffed her into her carrier without regard for her piteous cries (this episode turned out to be a recurring theme).

Mingyuan liked her so well he got his own cat as a result. Little did he know that Mimi is not the average cat since the cat he adopted turned out to be the exact opposite, hiding all the time. Whenever we’d discuss Mingyuan’s cat, Dilip would say wistfully, “I wish This Cat would hide more.”

The months before my mom died, I left this cat with Andrew. He said that she meowed when not allowed in his room, filling him with such guilt that when he lay in his bed he imagined he could still hear her cries, which was impossible because he’d heartlessly locked her in another room far away. When I came to collect this cat from Andrew, she coldly snubbed me, once again inspiring a businesslike stuffing into her carrier. Mimi hates her carrier and ceaselessly meows when in it. Sometimes her meow is very loud and frightening as she thrashes and twists against the carrier’s mesh, forcing me to channel Pharaoh’s stone heart.

Earlier this year, I started traveling a lot. When I realized I’d only be in my NYC apartment less than 5 months out of this year, I wanted someone to watch Mimi. Although several deserving people asked to live in my apartment and watch Mimi, I chose Jason because he always feeds me, plus he’s so freaking responsible and actually appeared eager to read the long document I write for everyone who has ever watched this cat. This document details things like how to best pet her to avoid getting bitten, which freaked Jason out and caused him to unfairly prejudice many Asian women from petting this poor, lonesome cat.

Once I accidentally cut Mimi’s claw too close to the quick and she let out one low yowl as her paw welled with a single, dark drop of blood. I felt really, really bad but didn’t know how to make it up to her so I just let her have long nails for another week. Due to laziness, I let this cat scratch all my furniture- Dilip calls it “sharpening her nails.” Because Jason did not want to attempt cutting this cat’s nails, Tony, who knew this cat’s ways from a previous visit, came all the way down from 100th street or wherever to do this task. Apparently the experience was so traumatizing with the banshee-like sounds this cat screamed, that everyone in the room subtly feared this cat forever, except Tony who dominates any animal and probably any machine.

When Mingyuan’s wife said she preferred Mimi to her own cat, we decided to try moving Mimi to Chicago to stay with them. Mimi wouldn’t like sharing her humans with a second cat, but Mingyuan’s cat is timid and would probably just let Mimi do whatever she wanted. Upon releasing her into Mingyuan’s place, Mimi crept into every nook in a cautious crouch, her tail down low compared to its customary perky lift. Mingyuan’s cat hid in the closet where she had ruined all of Mingyuan’s shirts by thoroughly coating them with fur.

A few weeks later, Mingyuan reported that everyone was quite happy. When I went to visit, Mimi ran and hid after looking at me blankly without recognition. She even hid under the bed with Mingyuan’s cat, which they said had never happened before because Mimi normally avoids the other cat. Such callous betrayal, such disregard for my pain, such intentional cruelty!

I just want this cat to be happy, despite her many betrayals and willingness to forget all about me. Is this what parents feel for their children- disdain, pride, possessiveness, and helpless hurt? Maybe from her view I’ve betrayed her many times by forcing her into her carrier and onto planes and into other people’s houses. This stupid cat. Doesn’t she know that if I thought there was a fire, the first thing I’d grab is this cat despite the many bars of gold I have lying around my house and all my diamond encrusted furniture? That’s so irrational because this cat is worth like $50 tops. How humiliating. Cat, what have you done to me!