Category Archives: Quora

Batman vs. Charles Dickens

Quora posted my answer to the Huffington Post! The version below has a longer ending than the Huffington/Quora because I feel more free to ramble on my own site (perhaps you’re surprised to discover I show restraint when writing on other sites, or at all. Here’s a way for you to contrast the difference between me writing haphazardly and even more haphazardly). This answer is rife with spoilers of Dickens, Dark Knight, and the meaning of life, so if you don’t want to be initiated into the mysteries of the universe, resist the urge to read on:

What Do You Think of Christopher Nolan Using A Tale of Two Cities for Inspiration for the Script to The Dark Knight Rises?

I didn’t notice Nolan was using A Tale of Two Cities until the Act 5 (or 7?…) burial scene where Gordon quotes directly from it, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done,” at which point the incongruous stuff such as the scenes of blue collar people tearing fur coats off trophy wives suddenly had an explanation. Those scenes otherwise make zero sense to me: how are the middle class citizens of Gotham suddenly villains staging executions and mock trials?

Anyway, after realizing Nolan was drawing from Dickens, upon closer examination the parallels are pretty tight, right down to the twist ending of A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge turns out to be the daughter of that murdered family paralleling Nolan’s reveal of that billionaire lady turning out to be the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. I guess even though Nolan tries to beat you over the head with it, you can’t be heavy handed enough these days, especially with old stuff like Dickens.

Aside from the big reveal in both works turning out to be that the orphaned girl grows up to be the mastermind killer seeking to avenge her family through mass murder, other parallels include:
1. Secret backstory: Batman, billionaire woman, Catwoman vs. Dickens’ Darnay, the DeFarges, the prisoner doctor dad.
2. Secret societies: Legion of shadows and conspiracy among the commoners such as the cement truck people vs. Dickens’ Jacques peasants conspiracy that began the French revolution.
3. “Recalled to life” and inventing a new name from prison: the child, Bane, and Batman escaping from the prison and Catwoman wanting a new identity vs Dickens’ doctor and Darnay each separately escaping the Bastille.
4. Twin or mirror identities in which one dies for the other: Batman and Wayne faking deaths vs Darnay and that drunk guy switching places in the final scene.
5. Faithful, bachelor servant: Alfred vs. Lorry.
6. Incompetent, oblivious leaders or the leaders being lecherous scumbags: that rich guy Catwoman seduces and uses as her cover or the mayor at his football game vs. the monsigniere.
7. Using the rich’s own weapons against them: using Wayne’s armory against Gotham vs imprisoning the rich in the Bastille.
8. The courtroom mock trial scene.
9. Hero returning to save the commoners who cry out for his help: Batman becomes Batman again and somehow goes from the Asiatic prison to Gotham because he can’t stand the sufferings of his citizens on TV. Similarly, Darnay returns to Paris because his old servant writes him pleading for help against injustice.
10. Misunderstood nobleman hero: Wayne and Darnay, both donate their entire fortunes to the poor before the works even begin (Wayne turns out to have invested everything in his nuclear energy project and Darnay forsakes his entire estate and changes his name, hoping the commoners will appreciate taking over his lands).
11. Baleful, brutish servant who executes mastermind mistress’s bidding: Bane and Madame Defarge’s husband.

Both Nolan and Dickens are firmly in the top 1%. Like Nolan, Dickens was a wildly successful celebrity writer in his times, widely acknowledged as a genius. However, Dickens was born into poverty, so while A Tale of Two Cities is strongly critical of the chaos and popular uprising, he was passionately empathetic with the poor and also condemned their abuse and the decadence of the rich. The donation of Wayne Manor to orphan boys would probably be something Dickens would admire.

The chaos and violence against the rich is something criticized in both Dickens and The Dark Knight Rises- even Catwoman repents and decides that maybe it wasn’t what she wanted after all. A Tale of Two Cities struck me as being about karma and breaking the cycle of evil: Madame Defarge allows vengeance to consume her life so that she’s indifferent between good and evil. As long as you allow this to happen, you’re doomed no matter what your original victimization was because despite coming from a family victimized by the rich, Defarge is clearly the villain in Dickens’ book who ends up pitilessly killing many innocent people. In contrast to Madame Defarge, Darnay tries to break the cycle of careless decadence by forsaking his lands and title. After assuming a new name and occupation, he achieves happiness and love. Darnay’s twin/mirror, the drunk dude whose name I forget, also breaks his cycle of wastrel drunkenness by taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, finally redeeming himself and gaining a tragic yet noble sort of dignity and heroism.

Like A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of ideas about rebirth. The billionaire lady is stuck in the past and loses all likeability- I don’t understand her obsession with her weird quest to redeem her dad to the point that she commits a mass murder-suicide. Alfred is continuously bugging Wayne to finally break out from the past which he ends up successfully doing, which I guess is supposed to be a positive ending. Catwoman is also all about breaking from her past and also finally succeeds, which is supposed to be a victorious note in the movie.

Thematically Nolan and Dickens are both saying that even if stuff sucked a lot in the past (like Mom dying in prison and everyone getting the plague and having to climb out of the pit you were born in with a weird, deformed, masked dude as your only friend), you have to somehow get over it! Life is unfair and it sucks! But there can be heroes (ranging from vigilante billionaires/ French noblemen to petty thieves/ drunken lawyers ) who are self sacrificing enough to try to rescue the community from the injustice they’ve been suffering under for ages. And instead of chaotically turning against said heroes and vilifying them for sticking their necks out, the community should be noble and self sacrificing in turn, the way those policemen finally got out of their homes and senselessly/ admirably rushed into a mob of criminals shooting machine guns… And unlike how Madame Defarge convinced the French Revolutionaries to guillotine Darnay anyway despite first acquitting him- don’t do that.

Even if you got dumped by Maggie Gyllenhaal, or had your family murdered by rich men, or had your family and childhood crush murdered by criminal men, or were forced into a life of crime, or the woman you love will never love you back even though you explicitly told her you LOVED her (she can’t love you bc you’re Batman/ an alcoholic/ not as cool as some blue-eyed, blond politician), or you were wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille or some horrible pit for 17 years, if you don’t get over it, change, and move on with life, you’ll become a joyless jerk who even the aged family servant finds unbearable and escapes from. Despite initially seeming cool, principled, and focused while you’re menacingly and impassively knitting the names of your enemies into shrouds, eventually everyone will decide you’re actually a relentless psycho that they’re scared to hang out with, chalking up the regrettable night they spent with you to meaningless rainy, dark, mansion sex and living happily ever after with the ex-thief turned do-gooder.

Sure, you killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of wealth. But after everything your enemies are happy and you end up dead! (Spoiler: Madame Defarge gets shot by a maid. (Other spoiler: Gotham is actually Pittsburgh by the sea! Wow! Go Steelers!)) So even if you have a really good reason and suffered a lot unjustly due to people who don’t deserve the love or money they’re swimming in, don’t turn evil. Instead, be awesome and help others because there are always impoverished orphans who are way worse off. Orphans like Oliver Twist or Josh Gordan-Levitt remind you life is not all about you, and your suffering, and your revengenda. And if you do become really powerful one day, don’t act like those jerks who hurt you. Even though they suck and annoyingly always seem to avoid punishment, just let it go, work on using science or getting rich so you can solve the energy crisis (hopefully in a less obviously WMD way to the extent that Morgan Freeman put a timer on the thing), and enjoy life by falling in love, vacationing in Florence, becoming the celebrity author of David Copperfield whose works inspire blockbusters by celebrity writer-directors like Nolan, etc.

It’s a positive message saying everyone should have some compassion and that any individual can be a hero as long as there’s love. I think the message came out more naturally in A Tale of Two Cities than in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s there in both.

How I Motivate Myself

1) Thinking about myself as having an identical twin except she’s really productive and my master. The imaginary twin sees me watching True Blood and goes, “What are you doing? This is why you’re inferior to me and I’m in charge of you. Go finish your work! Maybe afterwards you can watch 30 Rock for 30 minutes. I’ve been doing air squats and kettle bell swings while you’ve been sitting there.”

2) Thinking about the person I want to be and working towards becoming more like that person. For example, I’d like being wise to be part of my identity. But I do stupid things all the time. Quandary! Can I read books or talk to smarter people to try to close the gap between my goal identity and my actual identity? How do I figure out a plan that makes me more like the wise person I want to be?

3) Thinking about myself as one instance out of many (potentially infinite) instances of me existing in parallel universes and wanting to compete with the other Nancy’s, in particular wanting to outperform Superposition Nancy. How embarrassing would it be to meet these other Nancy’s one day in a Jet Li-type “The One” situation and be way weaker and thus immediately annihilated?

4) Thinking about how glad I am not to have been born in the 9th century or in Sudan, or even 50 years ago. It’s a miracle I exist at all since my Chinese parents never touched (ever). Basically despite being born to a poor graduate student and a teacher, I feel born into privilege: everything my ancestors did for millennia led to… creating me! I’m basically the result of centuries of breeding. “With great power comes great responsibility,” etc.

Reading back over what I just wrote, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about thinking in this way, so maybe I’m crazy. Whatever, this all reminds me of the guy in Fight Club, except we appear to have (hopefully) skipped the psychotic break, etc.

Quora: How do I get my life back on track?

Quora: Vegetarianism?

Having a non-mainstream diet means being more deliberate about your food. My perspective is that I like the taste of meat and want to continue eating it, but find it morally indefensible.

In the places I’ve lived, many people don’t eat much meat so no one asks me about it, but sometimes people make fun of it. I think it’s easier for me as a girl to not eat meat and not get heat about it, but some people might view it as a holier-than-thou attitude and get offended by it, plus there’s somewhat of a negative connotation about vegetarians being wimpy and annoying, bleeding-heart bozos. Some of my male vegetarian friends avoid conflict by saying they don’t eat meat due to health reasons.

Being vegetarian means you think more carefully about everything you’re eating. When you do whatever everyone around you does without thinking about it, when questioned it can be easy to automatically rationalize whatever you and everyone else is doing as correct, otherwise why would everyone do it? Growing up in a Chinese household with a lot of meat, that’s how I felt about vegetarianism until I read DFW’s essay for Gourmet Magazine “Consider the Lobster.”

Aside: Most Chinese people eat a ton of meat. Chinese people will eat anything. If China doesn’t care about human rights, how are Chinese people supposed to even imagine the concept of animal cruelty? For example, I was telling my cousin about my beloved cat, how sweet this cat was, how much I missed her. My cousin said, “Oh, I used to have a great cat! Let me tell you a funny story.” This story began with how my uncle was mad the cat was on the bed, so he picked up the cat by the leg and threw it across the room, thereby breaking its leg. Thus for the following months this cat was confined to the bathroom, where its only occupation was the observing of people using the toilet, so that afterwards it also used the toilet as well! Ever after, this delightful, intelligent cat would comically race into the bathroom in the morning whenever it saw anyone heading in and start using the toilet first. The person wouldn’t be able to shoo the cat off since it would immediately start pooing, so everyone would have to wait till the cat was done before being able to go to the bathroom in the morning. No one thought this story was anything but pure comedy, and the preface about the cat’s broken leg was not shocking to anyone: a cat thrown across the room by the leg had the emotional equivalent of “I was going to the store one day when-.” (This story also illustrates how Chinese people often find poo and other bodily functions funny and will not hesitate to tell poo stories, especially to good friends and family.) So yeah it can be weird being a Chinese vegetarian.

Animals are inferior to humans. We control their lives and their environments, but I would hope that if aliens from outer space came to Earth they would show mercy to the inferior humans, which to them would be like animals ripe for enslavement, breeding, eating, labor, etc. Do unto others, right?

When I first started thinking about it, I was reluctant to conclude that eating meat was not The Right Thing To do. After all, I’m a good person, and I eat meat, therefore eating meat should be Good. Plus it’s so delicious! DFW’s essay caught me off guard and snuck in behind my cognitive dissonance.

To animals, we humans are like all-powerful gods. Before honestly and openly questioning whether I should eat animals or not, I was like an indifferent and uncaring god. After thinking about it, I decided if I continued to eat meat after being unable to defend the position, I would then move into evil, cruel god zone, and I didn’t want to do that- I want to a be a benevolent, compassionate god. My argument isn’t based on logic or rhetoric, it’s based on compassion, empathy, and the hope that karma will cause aliens to spare my sweet, delicious brains.

It’s not a question of whether the life of an animal is worth as much as the life of a human- clearly it is not. No one typically needs to eat animals to survive- I only eat them because I like the taste. So the real question is if an animal’s life is worth as much as the enjoyment or entertainment a human gets from eating the animal. If you think you will get more utility out of eating the meat than the cost of the animal’s suffering and whatever costs there might be to the environment, then from a utilitarian perspective, eat it.

This is subjective and each individual’s decision. Sometimes, the dish really is that delicious! Sometimes my mom would insist on cooking me chicken soup when I was sick, and if I didn’t eat it she would weepingly smile, bravely trying to hide her obviously broken heart. If my mom cooked a dead baby, I’d probably have to eat it, so sometimes you have to choose the animal’s suffering and death over the suffering of another human being.

It’s not that easy to think about doing something differently from the default behavior I grew up with- far easier to just be on autopilot and do whatever my family and friends do. But as someone who cares about utilitarianism, I feel good whenever I choose not to eat meat even when part of me wants to. I feel like I’m being slightly self sacrificing, even though it doesn’t cost me much and is probably on average benefiting my body and wallet.

What’s it like to be a vegetarian?

Quora: What is it like to be a humanities major at MIT?

Most MIT humanities majors have the humanities major as their secondary degree. If you’re only interested in humanities, I don’t know why you’d go to MIT, and neither will the other students. Other people will probably think you’re not hardcore enough to hack it in a “real” major, and if you are truly interested in only a humanities field then the MIT education is a suboptimal way of achieving expertise in that field because you’ll be spending a lot of time on hard math and science classes that wouldn’t really contribute to your goal. I also question the value of a degree in writing, especially a BS which is what I got (MIT only gives BS’s). You need degrees for hard sciences to pursue many of the goals involved in those fields but MIT people who get degrees in the humanities, unless they’re going into academia, basically do it just because they can. An MIT Bachelors of Science in Writing is meaningless and “ironic” on its own and doesn’t qualify me for anything.

After attending my first session of an MIT writing class, I seriously considered transferring. After the students apathetically struggled to interpret the most basic reading, I was concerned half my brain would starve to death in such an environment and seriously considered leaving. Then I emailed Alan Lightman, a physicist and writing professor, who told me that science was for young people whereas writing often improved with age, so why not study both if I liked both? He asked to read my work, was really supportive, and recommended I avoid the intro classes. For discussion driven humanities classes, the interest and talent of the other students are vital to having a good class experience, and I found this was only true in classes such as small workshops that most students wouldn’t take to simply fulfill a HASS requirement.

After my initial doubt, studying writing at MIT was awesome.
1) As the only writing major of my year, I got lots of attention. I won grants and writing prizes because there wasn’t that much competition. All the professors opened their doors to me and were eager to read my stuff and help me write better.
2) Great faculty. MIT has a lot of money for a world class faculty, even in the humanities departments. Junot Diaz was my main writing teacher, and he ended up winning a Pulitzer.
3) In comparison to the class I took at Harvard, MIT students are in general less well-rounded and well-read, so the discussions will take a pretty different path at MIT than at Harvard. Although Harvard kids know more about literature etc (so I guess are better educated in these areas), I think MIT kids are more direct in their feedback.

What is it like to be a humanities/social science major at MIT?