May 28, 2019
Attractiveness, Discimination, and Rage

Invisibilia recently had an episode that tackled what to me is a really bold subject: can you control the types of people to whom you are attracted? And should you?

By types of people I'm not talking about character traits, I'm talking about race and ethnicity. Most of us agree that we shouldn't show racial preference in things like hiring decisions, housing discrimination, things of that nature, and where we are made aware of our bias, we should try to address them. But does that apply to physical attraction? I for one have tended to make an exception for attraction, mostly because I assumed that it's biological and can't be helped. If Asians tend to be attracted to other Asians, that didn't seem to me to be discriminatory, and even if it was, I wasn't sure if it could be changed; I'm not sure how much control you have over what you find physically attractive. In the past, I haven't been that bothered by white guys who had clear preferences for Asian women. Even if I ridiculed it as being an Asian fetish, and even if it felt a little weird, I assumed it's just how they were and couldn't be helped, so what's the point of being bothered?

But is that true? That it can't be helped? Or is having romantic preferences for particular races discriminatory?

The issue of cross-ethnic preference is a particularly fraught issue, and it's even more fraught for Asian-Americans, and possibly most for Asian-American men. The episode focuses on that a lot, talking about a few issues that surprised me. One, it makes the claim that the emasculation of Asian males in the U.S. has its roots in government policy. It's hard to prove that Asian-American males are seen as non-masculine, but there's some statistical evidence - studies have shown that on dating sites, Asian-American males (and African-American females) get the fewest responses. In how Asian males are portrayed in entertainment, this just feels true; they're largely treated as non-sexual, and Asian penis size jokes continue to be a thing (the episode includes clips of Louis C.K. making said jokes, and I still remember Jason Whitlock making fun of Jeremy Lin).

As mentioned, the episode makes the claim that this stereotype is rooted in government policy. It notes how in 1875, the U.S. banned single Chinese women from entering the country, framing them as prostitutes. This set the stage for the "fantasy of the hypersexual, immoral Asian woman". When the U.S. fought wars in Asia, giving white soldiers access to Asian women, the U.S. passed the War Brides Act (in 1945) allowing soldiers to bring Asian wives to the U.S. In general, Asian female femininity was embraced as policy, even if it began with a fantasy view.

In contrast, U.S. policy tended to de-emphasize the masculinity of Asian men. At first they were manual laborers, "villainized in newspapers as sexual predators". But later government policy limited what the work they were allowed to take on, forcing them to do "so-called women's work - washing clothes and laundries, cooks, house boys, domestic servants." They were "legislated to become emasculated," and that perception continues today.

That's a bold claim, but I find it very interesting. I won't lie, growing up, I felt less masculine because I was Asian. And I honestly did not think it was cultural, I thought it was an inherent quality of Asian males. But that can't be true, right? It must be culturally influenced. Asian males in Asia must be seen as masculine. If they are seen as less so in America, there must be some reason for it. That government policy shaped this cultural perception isn't such a crazy idea.

What also surprised me in the episode is when it discussed a toxic subculture of Asian-American men who feel incredible rage at being seen as sexually unattractive. They have a name: men's rights Asians. And they dish out violent misogyny online, especially towards Asian women who date outside their race (and especially those who date white guys). They argue that they're bringing down Asian men by not sleeping with them.

That stuns me. I get feeling not attractive - I shared that feeling for most of my youth. But responding in rage? As if sexual attraction was some sort of right? That's weird to me.

What's also odd is that this seems to be a widespread thing. I've written before about Wesley Yang's The Souls Of Yellow Folk. I did not mention a really uncomfortable and persistent undertone I felt when reading the book, which I would describe as a low-simmering rage at the fact that Asian males are seen as sexually unattractive in American society. It's most felt in an essay about the Virginia Tech shooter, where he argues that part of Cho's rage stemmed from his repeated rejections by white women. Cho was mentally ill and an extreme outlier. But what's disturbing is that Yang seems to struggle against resonating with that same underlying feeling of rejection, though not to the same level. It gives the feeling, as do men's rights Asians, that sexual unattractiveness leading to a sense of rage is not uncommon.

And it's not limited to Asian-American males - the same effect seems to happen to many sexually unattractive men in America, of all races. Invisibilia had another bold episode where it discussed incels, a term I'd never heard of before. They're "involuntary celibates". And like men's rights Asians, they occupy a vile corner of the Internet, spewing misogyny and rage basically because they don't get the sexual attention from women that they apparently feel they're entitled to.

These groups disturb me and I find it shocking that they exist. They also make me wonder how much misogyny in the U.S. is driven by feelings of sexual unattractiveness. And I also don't get what seems to be basic assumption they make - that they are entitled to sex and angry that they aren't getting it. Why is this an entitlement? Is it that our society is so hyper-sexualized that it feels like a right? To me, it's just such a strange outlook to have, the strangest of the entitlement feelings of this generation.

In any case, it's an interesting, complicated, and slightly dangerous subject. Pretty brave I think for Invisibilia to tackle it.

12:22 AM
May 11
My Take On Facebook

I get asked from time to time what I think about what's going on with Facebook, primarily my response to what seems like an endless series of blunders and errors as reported by the media. Facebook changed my life, so while I like to think I'm fairly objective, I can't assume that I'm free from bias. But for those who care, here's my biased take. In broad strokes: 1/ Facebook has made (and probably will continue to make) legitimate mistakes 2/ their mistakes, however, have been wildly blown out of proportion and misrepresented by the media 3/ they really should be more closely regulated by the government, maybe even broken up.

Last point first. You may have read Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes' New York Times opinion piece where he advocates breaking up Facebook. This may surprise you, but I think it's an idea that's worthy of some consideration. I share more of Hughes' general concerns about giant corporations than his specific criticisms of Facebook; philosophically, like him I've come to believe that anti-trust enforcement should extend beyond only caring about effects on consumer prices, that the domination of large companies and the resulting lack of competition has negative economic and societal effects, even if they have no (or even positive) effects on consumer prices. (Vox has a good piece on this subject, as does The Economist). I think the breakup of any massive company is at least worth consideration, including Facebook, but definitely not limited to it. Definitely including Amazon and Google.

Being in the startup world I can tell you first hand that the massive companies are changing startup culture. As you may or may not know, there's a continuing decline in the creation of new businesses - as this New York Times article notes, in the last year for which they had data (2015), only 74% as many businesses were started as were formed in 2006. And the share of younger companies — less than one year old — in the United States has declined by almost half over the last generation. The article speculates why - the biggest corporations make it easy to eliminate or consume competitors and stifles entrepreneurship. It used to be that most startups wanted to go public. As former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos recently noted, "Silicon Valley used to be a place where the dinosaurs of the past were eaten by the faster, smarter competitors." Now it seems that most startups want to be acquired. The impact of huge companies on competition is real.

That said, I'm not sure that breaking up Facebook is realistically possible, and more importantly, I doubt it would address the issues most people care about (Stamos talks a little more about it in that Twitter thread, and I largely agree), so even if it's worth considering, I'm not sure what the point would be.

What would help is greater government oversight. If I were to guess (and I've never talked to anyone from Facebook about this so it's a purely personal conjecture), I think Facebook would welcome government oversight, because it shifts the burden of outrage off of them. While I was Facebook we, as a matter of course, removed any content in Germany that espoused neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic views, because we were required to by German law. No one complained to Facebook about censorship, because it was the law. If the U.S. Government had similar content laws, I don't think Facebook would complain about ceding control; I think they'd be glad that some of the burden of moderation would be off of them. As it is, people constantly complain about Facebook both over- and under-censoring, because they have to make the decisions themselves.

The problem is, the government will never do that because drafting rules that make everyone happy is impossible. It's easier for the government to just criticize Facebook without actually presenting a solution. Media coverage of Facebook has been unfair in this exact way also. Almost every criticism of Facebook doesn't actually specifically say what Facebook should do. They just criticize and say Facebook should do better. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that they don't actually know what Facebook should do. Or if they thought about it more deeply, they would realize there's no easy solution.

For example, The Ringer's Victor Luckerson covers tech, and he has literally never written a single non-negative article about Facebook. Furthermore, his articles all share a common theme - pointed criticism, with no specific solutions.

Another common problem of media coverage of Facebook is that it focuses on hysteria without actually bothering to quantify the problem. This recent TED Talk that blames Facebook for Brexit is a prime example. All its evidence for Facebook's influence is purely anecdotal. To be fair, it notes that it's impossible to get the actual data from Facebook to quantify it, but that doesn't stop the talk from making sweeping conclusions. It compares the effect of Facebook ads with the 19th century practice in Britain of literally buying votes with money, which is obviously absurd. But most importantly, again, as with almost all criticisms, it presents no actual solutions. Read it carefully. What's it saying to do? It says Zuck and Sheryl shouldn't want this (this I assume meaning Facebook allowing election influence). It says society shouldn't allow it. And so... what? Don't allow misinformation? How? Don't allow fake ads? Facebook already instituted that. What is the talk asking for other than to shame Facebook?

This may also surprise you, but you among ex-Facebookers, the New York Times has the reputation for having the worst Facebook coverage. Worst not in terms of being critical, but in being bad journalism. It's so bad that, and I know this sounds crazy, but it makes some sympathetic to Trump's calling the Times "Fake News". It's that bad - someone appears to have a personal vendetta against Facebook. It's not that their coverage strictly inaccurate - although it sometimes is. This story criticizing the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's involvement in education found a girl with epilepsy and literally made up the "fact" that her school's involvement with CZI's software set off her seizures. Online, the story now has a retraction that's still not accurate - the girl had no involvement with the program whatever. If you take that into account, her inclusion in the Times story is incoherent, it's literally invented. The only motivation seems to be to slam Zuckerberg, but they thew a good program - Summit Prep - under the bus in the process. You can read Summit and the districts' response, but the story is "misleading and in several places, factually inaccurate." That's par for the course in how the Times covers Facebook.

In general, its coverage is consistently speculative in a way that puts everything in the worst possible light. This piece on the 10-Year Challenge thing that went around recently is probably the worst example - there is almost no reporting whatsoever, it's a pure speculation piece the that challenge was somehow being used by Facebook to improve its facial recognition technology and uses that to invoke privacy fears. Based on nothing. You know it's absurd because every time rival tech CEOs were asked about it, they dismissed it, accurately noting that if Facebook wanted face data to recognize they almost certainly had it already. Which I suppose is not much comfort if you have privacy concerns, but it does show the ridiculousness of the New York Times piece.

This piece on Facebook privacy is another example. It's not that anything is strictly wrong in the article, it's just that it's consistently misrepresented and lacks context. I'll give one example from the article (but it's really the entire thing) - it notes that "Facebook also allowed Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada to read, write and delete users’ private messages, and to see all participants on a thread." Sounds evil and devious. In truth, these are the standard permissions needed to integrate with a messaging system. The very day that this story ran, if you tried to install any Gmail add-on, it popped up a box asking for permissions to "read, write, and delete" your private Gmail messages. (The language has since slightly changed, although the functionality is the same.) Was the story strictly wrong about what Facebook allowed its integration partners to do? No. But it ignored that it required explicit user agreement, that it hadn't been used in years, and that every messaging platform that integrates with third-party services for direct communication has the exact same permissions. There's no outrage about Gmail's privacy violations. There's no context for understanding it at all, just the worst possible interpretation. That's typical of all of the Times' coverage of Facebook. Not wrong, but wildly misleading.

There is good coverage out there. This Wired story about the last 15 months at Facebook is excellent reporting. It's appropriately critical of Facebook, but it's balanced. The problem with balanced reporting though is that it doesn't induce the same level of outrage, fear, uncertainty and doubt, though, so it's not as enticing. For example, the Wired story points out an inconvenient truth: for all the outrage about Cambridge Analytica, it simply didn't work. The data was not predictive of users at all. That fact seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Michael Lewis makes the same point in more detail in a recent podcast and in doing so indirectly criticizes the New York Times - he notes that most newspapers used to have an independent ombudsman or public editor who held the paper accountable for what they wrote. Like most papers, the Times have eliminated that position, but it means less accountability for what gets written.

Other good coverage includes this Radiolab story on content moderation at Facebook. It accurately presents the fundamental problem Facebook faces - no matter what line you draw, different groups will complain both that it's too lenient and too strict. There should be no nudity? Facebook did that, then breastfeeding moms protested the Facebook offices (I remember when they came). Ban "hateful" attacks? As shown in the Radiolab story, radical feminists complain, saying such language is justified for the institutionally oppressed. The reason Facebook was so slow to react to false political ads is because conservatives were in arms about Facebook's liberal bias. It is literally impossible to draw a satisfying line.

I realize my gripes of media coverage sounds a little bit like childish. When I say media coverage doesn't contextualize anything or note how other companies' data breaches / privacy violations / personal data harvesting are far worse than what Facebook does, it sounds like "everyone else is doing it too", which is not an appealing defense. And Facebook's success makes it a legitimate subject of criticism, even if others are doing it, that's fair enough. But it's still annoying - I still wish these criticisms were contextualized just a little bit more. Like, it kills me when celebs announce they're quitting Facebook and sticking with Twitter. I assure you, whatever Facebook's legitimate shortcomings, like with Russian influence or the dissemination of fake news, Twitter is *far* worse. They get a pass simply because they're not as influential as Facebook, not because they do better. And I get it, that's how it works when you're on top, which is fine.

Anyway, that's my take. Facebook probably is a little too powerful. But don't believe everything you read about it. Especially from the New York Times.

9:52 PM
February 17
The Souls Of Yellow Folk

I just read this collection of essays by Wesley Yang called "The Souls Of Yellow Folk" that's incredibly thought provoking but so confusingly scattered that I don't know how to talk about it but I want to try.

What's most fascinating is his thesis: Asian-American men as a group have a particular understanding and resentment in society that no other group has. As a minority, they understand the pain and resentment of other minorities. At the same time, because they don't share in many of the historical subjugations of other minority groups, their grievances are the least likely to receive (or deserve) public recognition. So they experience the frustration of being a minority but receive the least amount of attention for it.

Simultaneously, they understand the contemporary resentments of white men also; the criticisms against white masculinity extend somewhat to Asian-American men as well. But while Asian-American men are accepted, they aren't truly included in important ways when it comes to societal power that white men largely hold. The Asian-American man is both a minority and male, and as Yang puts it, he experiences the frustration of both and is denied the entitlements of either.

I'm not sure how much I agree with that thesis, but it's an idea I'd never thought about before, and the essays that deal with it (the book is terribly named - only a fraction of the book actually deals with his thesis) made me think a ton. Maybe none more than an essay entitled "Is It OK to Be White?"

There are so many layers to that question. On a superficial level, the answer to the question is, of course, yes - it's OK to be white, it's a ridiculous question to even ask. But would it be acceptable to publicly post posters saying "It's OK To Be White" around town? Or on a school campus? The answer is no, right? Because when posted publicly like that, it's not just an assertion of something obvious, it comes across as a response to something unspoken, that it's in small part dismissing or belittling the minority experience, in the same way that "All Lives Matter" isn't just a true slogan spoken in a vacuum, it's a response that in part dismisses the significance and pain of "Black Lives Matter." The context for the essay was that some trolls on 4chan did exactly that, organized a mass posting of "It's OK To Be White" posters, to provoke a predictable response (though not as strong as they might have hoped) that they wanted to use to use as fuel for the right, that it's absurd that something that is, without qualification, true, could be considered racist. It is though, right? Racist? Not because of its content, but because of its context. And in context, answering the question "Is It OK To Be White?" is surprisingly fraught. It is OK, but you can't say that in a certain way.

Then Yang explores a level below that, one I think is the most interesting. To start, he believes that we live in an age of resentment politics, and I completely agree. Minority groups are resentful of their poor treatment throughout history. But those in power, largely white males, are now resentful in return. The interesting thing is that Yang (again coming from the viewpoint that Asian-American males can uniquely identify with all sides) seems to understand the white resentment, and it's actually kind of compelling.

What do white males have to be resentful about? Part of it is that the language of minority resentment has shifted. I'll just quote him: "In recent years, we've seen the rhetoric of social-justice activism change. Where once the targets of those concerns to fight injustice were 'racism' and 'sexism,' today the targets are 'whiteness' and 'masculinity'.... there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women." Yang quotes various sources, including Ta-Nahesi Coates and some feminist writers, and he's right - they really do use this language, and it's more widespread than I had understood. So it's not just racism and sexism that's attacked. Their language says that whiteness and masculinity itself is bad.

That's problematic on many levels. It's easy to see how that language can fuel resentment, when a group is criticized not for what it does, but for who they are. Yang speculates that it may have had a counterproductive effect, specifically in helping the rise of Trump. It's old news that white resentment helped fuel Trump's election. But Yang is the first person I've read to connect the dots in this way, that otherwise moderate whites might feel resentful because they feel under attack for being white, not for being racist. And that actual white supremacists feel wrongly emboldened because see a large mass of resentful whites and see them as being actual racists to the same extremity as themselves.

Along similar lines, Yang points out, with specific examples, how the language around white supremacy has shifted. It used to mean things like slavery, genocide, colonialism and segregation. Most people still think of it in these terms, and the societal consensus against it is based on that understanding. But academia and the media have constantly expanded the notion of what's white supremacy. He publishes a list of things that reflect white supremacy distributed by one antiracism nonprofit. Some at the top of the list are clearly over the line, things like hate crimes, swastikas, racial slurs. There are some more questionable but still plausible ones further down the list like Confederate flags, mass incarceration, and housing discrimination. But then the list includes things like "assuming that intentions are good enough", "color blindness", and "virtuous victim narrative." These are not necessarily good, but calling them white supremacy?

The problem in doing that, as Yang points out, is not in the goals of the list themselves, which are worthy, but that instead of engaging in debate and persuasion to convince, it's using disciplinary power to delegitimize, stigmatize, and shame people with contrary views. And if you so broadly expand the notion of "white supremacy", it waters it down so that it actually loses its power.

Yang argues that we should be more careful in our language. Going back to criticizing racism and sexism, not whiteness and masculinity. And using more proportionality and nuance in describing different harms related to race. He thinks it would defuse some of the tension around this discussion. While I don't agree with all of what he writes, I do think he's spot on with this.

Maybe the most confusing part of the book is that his thesis is so intriguing but he does not much with it - his most insightful advice is around the discussion of white privilege. He doesn't say much about the Asian-American experience at all, other than express the frustration of it. Asian-Americans have not been subject to anywhere near the level of subjugation and harm that other minority groups have. And yet, we have been harmed, and we continue to be kept from those in power. I don't know how to talk about that.

10:33 PM
December 20, 2018
Thoughts on Survivor, gender bias

This season of Survivor was absolutely fascinating, primarily because the players have become so knowledgeable (and skilled) at the game. In prior seasons, you always had players making strange or not well thought out decisions, but this season, even if you disagreed with a player's actual decision, you could respect that nearly every player was thinking through the considerations properly. And they're absolutely cutthroat, willing to turn on their closest allies (correctly!) at any moment. I generally dislike all the twists and advantages the show has introduced through the years - I feel like they mistake unpredictability for drama - and that this season was great is despite the twists, not because of it. I feel like the players are so good now that the show should return to the original format, no advantages or hidden immunity idols, no switching tribes. Given a game with really set rules, I think the strategy would dominate.

Anyway, one aspect I found especially fascinating was how aware the players are about the meta aspects of the game. I found it amazing that Gabby brought up in the final tribal council the issue of gender bias in Survivor. Specifically, females are statistically less likely to find a hidden immunity idol. More incredibly, Angelica knew the exact numbers behind that stat. I can't believe they know the game that well.

That stat is really thought provoking, incidentally. Before this season, 73 idols have been found by men, but only 17 by women, and in the last 4 seasons, only one has been found by a woman. There's been a surprising amount of discussion about this online and I'm convinced that it's a sign of gender bias. Not in the idols themselves, it's not that finding idols are easier for men, but how it comes across when you actively look for it. As in the workplace, if men are aggressive (here in searching for the idol), they come across as assertive, but if women do, they come across as antisocial or domineering. They're aware of that, and how it comes across to the jury, so implicitly women are less motivated to look for them. I'm not positive if that's the cause, but the imbalance is so striking, it's weird, and a true disadvantage for women on the show.

I have always thought Jeff Probst displayed gender bias also. Years ago I saw a supercut on Youtube of when Jeff gets excited on the show, and it's always some sort of physical feat, which is obviously biased towards males, the Colby types. The show always draws its cast from different types, with the implicit message that there are different ways to play and win the game. But Probst himself has always favored the physical type of game.

I used to like Survivor because I thought it displayed something about the human condition. It's a total artificial environment, but within that, you would see real human issues come up. That was almost completely absent this game because the players were so good. There was no real loyalty nor any real hard feelings, everyone was hyper-aware about the game. But that made me appreciate the pure game aspect this season. The human element is gone though. I guess you can't have both.

10:50 PM
October 16
Is Privacy A Christian Value?

I liked this Christianity Today story on privacy a lot. It raises a question I've asked myself for a long time - are we sure that privacy is a Christian value?

When I went on a mission trip to East Asia in 1998, I remember being bothered when some of my team members would say how the people there are so brainwashed. It's not that it was untrue - it's kind of crazy to me that there's a society where all media and information is controlled by the state and there's no place to find out what's accurate. There were rumors about some events happening at the campus we were at and there was no news or any other source where we could find out if these rumors were true or not. That's nuts. So yes, they are in a sense brainwashed, but what bothered me was the unsaid assumption that in contrast, we American Christians were not brainwashed at all. That's completely untrue. The more I travel around the world the more I realize how tainted American Christianity is with non-Christian values. These values aren't necessarily anti-Christian, it's just that they're more American than truly Christian. The emphasis on personal liberty and decision-making is probably the biggest of these.

I've long thought that privacy is another one of these values. American Christians seems to place a high value on privacy. In my mind, that value stems more from particular American ideas about liberty than Christianity. Does the Bible ever extol privacy? Propriety for sure. But privacy? The best I can think of is Matthew 6, which urges us to keep our good deeds private, our giving to the needy, our prayers, our fasting. That's not the kind privacy American Christians seem to value. On the contrary, the Bible seems to consistently value opening up, confessing our sins, letting our light shine. It speaks of a day when everything that is hidden and secret will be made light (Luke 8:17). Scripture seems to value the opposite of privacy. I jive with that, and because of that in my life I have tended to value openness far more than privacy. I've probably overshared at times. But that has always felt more in line with Scripture to me.

The Christianity Today piece helped me clarify my thinking. It affirms what I think, that in general, we should value openness and revealing ourselves over maintaining privacy. But it doesn't mean we should be completely open with everyone. It observes that the feeling of having our privacy violated is a useful indicator. We only feel our privacy is violated when information about us is unexpectedly revealed to someone with whom we have the wrong relationship for that information. If we receive a bad medical diagnosis, we are not likely to be bothered if our sibling shares that information with our parent, but may be if that same information is shared with a coworker we do not know well. The relationship matters. So the article challenges us not to share with everyone, but to make sure that we are in relationships such that we feel open to share what could be private. That feels right to me.

I consistently struggle with how much to share online. I would actually like to share a lot more that's personal - I kind of hate how superficial Facebook and Instagram and whatever is. It gives no sense of how I'm really doing. But blasting personal stuff online often feels like it would lack propriety. In the end I'm resigned that even with these supposed social tools to keep in touch, only a few people around me will really know how I'm doing.

9:58 PM
October 11
Christianity Today on the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Trump

The latest Christianity Today has an interesting article that dives deep into the 81% of white evangelical voters who voted for Trump (that for some reason I can't find online). It's based on polling done by the Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College and LifeWay research and is meant to debunk the idea that white evangelicals are all in for Trumpism. It partly does that, but honestly, it leaves me a little more disturbed also.

Some takeaways:

- The 81% doesn't reflect enthusiasm for Trump. The Pew Research Center found that 45% were mainly voting against Clinton, only 30% were voting for Trump himself.

- Only half of evangelicals said they were voting for a candidate. Many vote for an issue, platform, or party.

- The 81% was not primarily about abortion or the Supreme Court. When asked the single most important factor in their vote, the top 4 for evangelicals were the economy (17%), healthcare (11%), immigration (10%) and national security (9%). These were the same top four when evangelicals were asked to list any of the factors that influenced their vote - it's the economy (62%), healthcare (55%), national security (51%) and immigration (49%).

- It appears that a majority of evangelicals were taking the long view, looking at the long-term conservatives goals that could be achieved through a Trump presidency over the short-term harm.

- 3 out of 4 evangelicals agree that a political leader's personal life does not need to line up with Christian teaching in order for Christians to benefit.

I think the article successfully shows that many or most evangelicals aren't enthusiastic about Trump. But man, there's a lot there that disturbs me. That the Supreme Court and abortion were not the primary drivers of their vote is one of them. Because while I personally disagree with being a one-issue voter, even on something as significant as abortion, I can at least respect someone who adopts that stance. But most evangelical Trump voters say that's not what drove their vote. And their reasons strike me as crazy. On the economy, Trump shows a lack of understanding on basic concepts (e.g. whether a strong dollar is good or bad), and he deviates from some fundamental and traditional conservative values like free trade. The same is basically true on healthcare. On national security, Trump sidles up to authoritarian anti-democratic leaders and antagonizes our allies. On immigration, Trump's stance is flatly anti-Christian. And yet, on these issues, the ones that influenced their vote most, evangelicals preferred Trump. That's crazy.

That evangelicals are also willing to overlook their political leader's personal behavior is also depressing. For one, it's a huge shift from how evangelicals used to think (and what I still believe). The article points out that it is unsurprising that non-evangelicals, when asked what characteristics describe evangelical Christians, most frequently cite: hypocritical. We now live in a world where secular liberals hold their political leaders to a higher standard of personal morality than evangelicals. That's a sad witness.

11:27 AM
September 15
Watching Forrest Gump in my 40s

Last night I watched Forrest Gump in its entirely for the first time in many years. I'd forgotten how good a movie it is. Rewatching it, I'd probably put it in my current top 20 of all time. It's a great movie. Every part holds together, there's not a single sequence that doesn't work. Like, part of why I hadn't watched it in so long is because when it's been on TV it's so easy to go in and out - virtually every piece of the movie is watchable on its own. And because the Gump character has become so iconic, I think Hanks' performance has become underrated. He's really good in it, and subtler than I remembered. I'm not sure if there's another actor that could have pulled it off.

What struck me most watching it last night though was how different the experience is watching in my 40s, vs. my teens when it first came out. I still remember watching it in 1994. I believe I watched it with Bobby Ro, Dave Park and Paul Jung at the AMC Town and Country. I was 18. I distinctly remember thinking back then, man, when I fall in love, I'm going to treat my woman like Forrest treats Jenny. Completely devoted and selfless, no matter what she does and how she is. I was positive I'd be that way.

It made me feel somewhat sad last night to remember those feelings and see how short I've come. Now that I've actually fallen in love and been married for so long, man, I'm not like that at all. If I'm honest with myself, I spend most of the time in marriage thinking about what I'm getting rather than what I need to give. I'm not selfless like Forrest at all. I was so wrong about how I would be. I realize Forrest Gump is a fairy tale, that he's not a realistic character or even someone to be emulated. But in my youth I was so sure I could be like that. And I'm so not. It made me sad.

I was challenged though, to be more selfless in my marriage. I can't be Forrest Gump but surely I could (and should) be way more selfless than I currently am. I gave Jieun a foot massage last night and attempted to make her breakfast this morning. It's a start.

4:16 PM
September 8
Facebook

I found this Radiolab piece on the difficulty of moderating content on Facebook fascinating. Facebook really faces an impossible task - people don't actually know what they want from Facebook in terms of standards. In fact, they frequently want the opposite things at the same time. No censorship (e.g. breastfeeding photos) and moderation (removing fake news and hate speech). One might think the domains to which people want them applied are distinct, but I think the Radiolab piece points out how fuzzy those lines are - some breastfeeding photos can be really disturbing for some (e.g. not involving children) and some feminist activists want the freedom to express hate speech towards white males. Neither of those groups are necessarily wrong - it just shows that enforcing consistent policies that satisfy everyone is literally impossible. Most criticisms of Facebook end up looking like this Ringer piece that criticizes what Facebook is doing without really presenting a clear alternative for what should be done. The same media that complain (with justification) that too few companies have too much power also complain when for example Twitter doesn't ban Alex Jones and Infowars immediately, the way other social media platforms did. In a more fractured social media world, the likelihood of an Infowars persisting would obviously be higher. So the criticisms are incoherent.

But the bigger takeaway for me from the Radiolab story is just how improbable Facebook is. People sometimes ask me what I think about the Facebook privacy violations and election meddling and other issues. Facebook clearly did some things wrong, much of which they've acknowledged. But it's difficult for people to understand how inconceivable these issues were when Facebook was starting up. Like, Facebook definitely had privacy issues in regards to its Platform that some apps took advantage of. But Platform came out in 2007. At that time, Facebook was still an underdog, much less popular than MySpace. There were no such thing as Pages, people weren't really reading much news on the site, it was a totally different thing. If someone had said back then, "be careful that your settings aren't used to influence a U.S. election in 9 years" it would have sounded absurd. It would have sounded like telling a small business owner, hey, make sure your policies don't influence a trade war with China. It was beyond the realm of imagination. So yes, Facebook is blameworthy, but I don't know how anyone could have predicted what it would be and be able to address the corresponding issues ahead of time. Almost all startups have similar problems, it's just that almost none of them reach a level of popularity where it becomes an issue.

Radiolab gets it right - in the old days, content moderation was just a dozen new grads in a room. It may have been their job to come up with perfect standards, but it's unreasonable to think they would have. Facebook's obviously a different company now, but people forget that many of the issues people complain about had their roots in the old days, when the site was just a few kids running the site.

To this day I am still amazed at Facebook's reach. I still remember the first time I saw a promotion for a Facebook Page in the real world (at Santana Row). I couldn't believe it. I remember when (and the company used to track this) mentions of "Facebook and MySpace" (with Facebook first) in media became more frequent than mentions of "MySpace and Facebook". Facebook has incredible reach but to people who were there in the early days, I think it feels somewhat surreal. That an outlet like Radiolab would even have a story on Facebook still blows my mind on some level. It was just so different when I joined the company.

In my opinion, and I have no inside information on this, I think this is partly why Facebook was so slow to respond to or even recognize the extent of Russian meddling on the site during the Presidential election. I think such a notion was inconceivable to Zuck. I would guess that they were slow to investigate it because such a thing happening seemed prima facie impossible.

10:12 AM
September 4
Ethnicity, Race, The Definition of "White"

Adrian's book The Minority Experience is really good and thought-provoking. It brings up some interesting points about race. For one, that there is a difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity involves things like appearance, language, customs, and religious practices that distinguish groups like Italians and Irish. In contrast, race is a categorization that's historically been used for the purpose of social power. The concept of race was created to define a "white" race that could be used to control other non-white ethnicities.

That might sound controversial on first glance but it's undoubtedly true. I remember the first time I visited the museums on Ellis Island that revealed this in stark terms. There has never been a historically consistent definition of "white". The museums display many old posters and propaganda discussing about the need to protect the white race in the U.S.... from Irish and Italians. Eventually, these ethnic groups come to be included as "white", and later posters talk again about protecting the white race, but this time from Eastern Europeans - Poles and Slavs. Who nowadays are seen as white. The definition of "white", at least in America, keeps expanding, and one gets the sense that this expansion is not out of any sort of magnanimity, but to unify ethnic groups against a newer group that's seen as more immediately threatening, usually a new wave of immigrants. The concept of "white" is incoherent. Whether or not one come up with a consistent definition of white now, one can't trace a consistent definition through history. And whatever the definition of "white" that's been used in history, it's always been used to oppose some minority group. So the concept of race has always ultimately been about power.

I do find the fact that the category of "white" keeps expanding interesting though. I've always wondered the eventual limits of this expansion. I can imagine a world where Latinos are considered white. A lot of Mexicans look white already so it's not a huge stretch to include their browner brethren. But in my mind, I always assumed that Asians could never be included as white. The facial differences are just too stark and it seemed like a bridge too far.

I read something recently though that challenged my thinking on this, and I now believe Asians will eventually come to be seen as white, just not in the way I was thinking. Basically, it will happen through intermarriage. That article by Yglesias is pretty interesting, and it points out that whether America will be a majority-minority country really depends on how one defines white. If it's defined by someone who's exclusively white (by our current standards of white), whites will no longer be the majority around 2044. But if it includes people who are partly white, whites will still comprise 68.5% of the U.S. population in 2060. If one takes an inclusive definition of white, the U.S. will be majority white indefinitely.

Given history, I think the inclusive definition is far more likely to be used, and I think that's the method by which Asians will come to be seen as white, not directly, but via intermarriage. I already have cousins that are only 1/4 Asian. I can't speak for them but I'm guessing they see themselves primarily as white. As Yglesias writes, "These days, lots of white people would say their background is Italian and English or Irish and German rather than one or the other, but they also wouldn’t see themselves as belonging to an exotic 'mixed ethnicity' category. It’s simply the case that in American society, it’s common for people to be able to trace their ancestry in more than one direction.... In the future, the same basic reality is likely to apply to people who have one grandparent from Cuba (like me!) or China just as much as it does to people with one grandparent from the Czech Republic."

So yeah, race is an incoherent concept, especially the concept of "white", but I already have blood relatives who are probably considered white, and I bet that will continue in the future.

10:03 PM
August 23
Crazy Rich Asians

Spoilers, obvi.

Wow, Crazy Rich Asians affected me way more than I anticipated - I had a flood of complicated feelings and thoughts while watching the movie. I liked it a lot, which was somewhat unexpected. It seems to have gotten a mixed reaction among my friends, but I thought it was fantastic. Entertaining and moving. I'm not even sure I can articulate why I was moved, but I was.

One thing that really affected me more than expected was the experience of seeing so many Asians onscreen. I didn't expect that. A lot of Asians talk about wanting more representation in media and I respect that but it's never felt important to me. Jieun in particular really resonates with seeing Asian faces - I think for that reason she primarily watches Korean media now. Of the Western shows we watch together, one is Fresh Off The Boat and another is Kim's Convenience. So yeah, it matters to her, but I did not think it mattered to me. Nor did I think I was missing anything even if it did matter. I watch a decent amount of Asian media - Korean / Japanese / Chinese TV and movies - so I see Asian faces in media all the time. But for some reason that has never struck me the way this movie did. Jieun thinks it's different because they were speaking English - that's probably it. My Korean is so bad I can't feel any real affinity for a Korean show. But when it's a bunch of Asians speaking English, I feel a deep sense of being represented in a way I didn't even realize I was missing. It was a surprising feeling.

That feeling of being represented is somewhat ironic because to me, it didn't feel like an Asian-American movie at all. The location being in Singapore was really appropriate - it felt like an English-speaking Asians movie. And I loved that. I've read some criticisms about how the movie glossed over the differences between Asians from different areas and there's some merit to that, but to me, that it even acknowledged that there are different types of Asians, or the fact that there are many types of English-speaking Asians who have no connection to America whatsoever was refreshing.

But since virtually none of the characters are Asian-American, I'm still not sure what it is that I resonated with. I think part of it is, and again, I didn't realize I was missing it until I saw it, but it was satisfying to see Asians in positions you don't typically see in media. I've never been one of those people who were super bothered by the portrayal of Asians in Western media as either awkward nerds or martial artists. The nerd thing because honestly, I am an awkward nerd - I totally match that stereotype, so I've never felt underrepresented in media; all those nerd types felt fairly representative of me. The martial artist thing because I've been watching a bunch of old movies lately and I've realized that in the grand scheme of things, that stereotype actually represents progress.

But man, I realized I do need to see more varied representation, not because I'm a different type myself, but because it makes my own experience of being Asian fuller.

I've written about this before, but the first time I went to Korea, I was shocked that the gas station attendants were Korean. That seems stupid, I know. But in my day, the Koreans who emigrated to America were mostly of a certain type, and largely professionals. Dominated by engineers in the Bay Area, doctors in Houston. There were some others, of course, and I'm sure in places like L.A. where there are many more Koreans there's more variety, but because of the dominant type around me, I subconsciously pigeonholed Koreans as only being a certain type of professional. It took actually going to Korea for me to grasp that every role that exists in America, from the President to street beggars, exist in Korea and are filled by Korean people. It was honestly mind-blowing. But it's a reflection that if you only see a certain type in your group, you subconsciously come to think that that type is all your group is.

Breaking through typical stereotypes is refreshing not because I personally am different, but it makes my own sense of being Asian feel different. In particular, I found myself being surprisingly affected by the portrayal of Asians in power. You never see that in Western media. Asian males in particular tend to be subtly impotent and emasculated. Showing this world where Asians are in power, and in fact look down somewhat on white Westerners, surprisingly affected me. More the power thing, less the racism thing. This may sound crazy, but it made me feel different being an Asian.

I think this was a big reason why Linsanity resonated so much with Asian-America, why it was so meaningful to see what felt like one of our own succeed in sports. His success didn't directly affect me at all, it didn't change my own chances of making the NBA. But it did expand the notion of what an Asian-American could do, and that itself was enough to change my own feeling of being Asian-American. Seeing powerful Asians in the movie evoked those same types of feelings in me.

But this is also complicated because even while showing powerful Asians, the movie still emasculated Asian men in little ways. All the strong characters are female, and you know, good for them. But, and Scott wrote about this, the movie directly contrasts Rachel Chu with Michael Teo. Both are involved with the rich family, and Rachel is revealed to be a warrior, but Michael is a coward. Both Rachel and Nick's fathers are non-existent in the movie. There's a family matriarch, no patriarch. All the actual power moves are carried out by women. And you know, I'm all for female power. But the male characters almost all ended up being absent, jerks, weirdos, or eye-candy. Oliver was by far the most positive fleshed-out male character, and while I totally loved him (because his is an Asian type that totally exists but you never see in media), overall it was kind of an unsettling feeling. I suppose seeing Asian men sexualized could be considered progress, but it would have nice to have seen more.

I'm quibbling though. Like I said, I really liked the movie. I cried involuntarily at 3 parts - when Rachel's mom shows up, during the mahjong game, and the proposal. Not sure why except, man, family brings out complicated emotions.

I still can't figure out why I resonated with it though. Dave has argued in the past that Asians-Americans are so disparate that there's no real concept of Asian-American. And this movie is not even that, it portrays Asian-Asians, and crazy rich ones at that, with whom I have even less affinity. The characters' experience could not be any further from my own. And yet. Could it be that simply seeing an English-speaking Asian face is enough to trigger connection and identity? Is it that psychologically shallow? I think it might be.

The theater was packed for a 1:30 show on a Thursday. I was surprised.

Thanks, MoviePass! Still hanging on!

10:26 PM
August 22
Godliness, why we love Jesus

I had a deeply thought-provoking and moving conversation with my mom a couple weeks ago that I'm still thinking about. She gave me permission to share it.

It started off talking about the meaning of "godliness". I'd never thought about it too deeply, but I suppose in my mind godliness was defined by devotion to God. That's probably the dictionary definition. My mom had a different take. To her, being godly means reflecting the characteristics of God. There are pastors out there, devoted and devout ones, who are nonetheless known for being legalistic and judgmental. To my mom, they're not godly, because they don't reflect the character of the God she knows. It's bold, and an interesting twist on godliness, and I think it's useful.

This is important to my mom. She has taught a Bible reading class at church, and at the beginning of the class, she says that her goal for everyone in the class is for them to know why they love Jesus. We frequently sing songs at church about how we love Jesus. But when asked, many people can't articulate exactly why they do. To her, that's a goal of reading the Bible.

She talked about the story of the woman at the well as an example of this. Jesus' interaction with her is incredible. He reaches out to her. She doesn't even realize that she's in need, much less know what she needs. But he knows. And he brings it to her. And talks to her about things like worshiping in spirit and truth. How could someone like her even know what these concepts mean? But Jesus knows what she needs. And it's not just with her. In all his interactions with every woman he encounters, Jesus is infinitely patient and infinitely kind. That's the kind of God my mom would follow.

True godliness is important to my mom because she wants people to know the real Jesus. She knows why she loves Jesus. I hope we all do too.

8:49 PM
August 12
I Am Not Korean

I don't know what it is, but there's something about my demeanor that makes people think I'm not Korean. It's happened too many times to be a coincidence. Most recently, we were in a Korean restaurant in Houston - me, Jieun, my sister and Peter, all of our kids, and my great-aunt. We were all speaking to each other in English. The waitress comes to take our order, speaking to each adult in Korean. But when she gets to me, she addresses me - and only me - in English. It was really weird. But again, not unprecedented. There's something about me that makes Koreans instinctively not interact with me as a Korean, even when I'm surrounded by other Koreans.

I wish I knew what it was. It can't be just the language thing, because the adults were all speaking to each other in English. Jieun thinks there's a postural aspect to Korean culture, a subtle way you hold your body and conduct your mannerisms, that I don't have and it's this posture (or lack of it) that makes me look non-Korean. I think there's something to that. Whatever it is, it happens all the time.

12:17 PM
July 27
St. Augustine on Evil

Book VII of St. Augustine's Confessions is incredible. It's astounding to me how much he thinks like a modern man - in particularly, how his thought process in his search for truth follows exactly how I would have proceeded were I a nonbeliever, but with greater intelligence and honesty.

His thought progression when discussing his search for the origin of evil was particularly interesting to me. No one reads this anyway, so I'll outline it just for my benefit.

  • Where did evil come from?
  • Or does it not exist at all? But if it doesn't exist, why do we fear it? If our fear itself is meaningless, then that fear itself is evil, because it tortures us for no reason. Either the evil we fear exists, or our fear itself is the evil. So where does evil come from?
  • Was something bad in the material God used in creation, so that it was not turned good? But why?
  • Did he lack power to convert it so that no evil remained? But how, if he's omnipotent?
  • Why we he choose to use it instead of destroying it completely?
  • Or did it exist against his will?
  • Things prone to destruction are good:
    • If they were supremely good they would be indestructible.
    • If they were not good at all there would be nothing in them that could be destroyed.
    • Destruction is obviously harmful, but can only do harm by diminishing the good.
    • So either destruction harms nothing, which is impossible, or all things that suffer harm are being deprived of some of their good.
    • They can't lose all their good - if they did they wouldn't exist. If they did exist without any good, they could no longer be subject to destruction, and that would make them indestructible, which makes no sense, that they would be better for having lost everything good in them.
    • So anything that exists is good.
  • Evil then is not a substance, otherwise it would be good. Since if it were a substance, it must either be indestructible, and thus supremely good, or destructible, and nothing can be destructible unless it is good.
  • Nothing is evil in what God has created. Parts may seem evil because they don't fit other parts, but in the parts they fit, they are good there. Far be it for us to say it should not be this way, when we can't see how it all fits together.

He seems to be talking about nature here, and it makes sense to me. Even nonbelievers see this in nature - I recently saw a video of a pod of orca whales working (successfully) to separate a gray whale calf from its mother as it crossed an area near Monterey Bay. The video is disturbing, and one's gut reaction is to see it as wrong, but the producers note that this is nature at work and all fits into a larger system. When we can't see the larger picture, it's hard to see how incidents like this are good. It takes being able to see everything to see how it fits together.

In the end, I don't think Augustine's explanation for the existence of evil, that it's simply a corruption of good, is a slam dunk - I find the process behind it more interesting than his conclusions. Many people today act as if ancient peoples were simply unthinking and never considered questions like these. But if you read them you realize they thought more carefully and deeply about these issues than virtually anyone does today.

5:31 PM
July 25
Derek Webb's Fingers Crossed

Derek Webb's Fingers Crossed came out a year ago. I feel like writing about it because I think it's the most disturbed I've ever felt after listening to an album and I'm still processing why.

If you didn't already know, in 2014 Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken announced that they were divorcing. He explained a couple years ago that the proximate cause of the divorce was an affair he had. Fingers Crossed is the first album he released since the divorce.

It's an utterly painful listen. He describes the album as being about two divorces. One: the breakup of his marriage, and the album chronicles his emotions in raw, excruciating detail. Two: his apparent divorce from God, or the church, or both, about which he's also painfully honest. I respect honesty in music. I love it, really. But the honesty in Fingers Crossed hit me differently. Something about it made me feel dark and disturbed. I read as many reviews as I could find online because I needed to see what other people thought about it. I also searched for interviews with Webb just to figure out what he might be thinking.

There's a subculture that really praised the album. It's a subculture I didn't really know about before, and I don't know how to characterize it except as fallen Christians. For example, Derek Webb had a long interview with the Inglorious Pasterds. They appear to be a few guys who left the church, "deconstructed faith," and are reassembling it, but without organized religion (and with profanity). BadChristian is another - they describe themselves as "the largest post-Christian community in the universe." Exvangelical is another. All of these guys (and more) have podcasts. It's weird to me. Not the leaving of Evangelical Christianity, which I understand, and happens all the time. But it's strange to me to define yourself in terms of what you left, what you once were and not what you currently are. I'd think you'd want to just move on to whatever's next. I would imagine that most people find something else to identify with, be it another belief system, a cause, a hobby or passion. Continuing to define your identify as post-Christian is strange to me, but apparently there are a lot of people out there like that.

Anyway, I listened to these interviews and they were effusive of Fingers Crossed for being so honest. And that disturbed me, for the same reason the album did. The album is undeniably honest. The songs talk at length about he betrayed his wife and how it ruined his life. How he currently finds solace in alcohol. How he wishes he could turn back his relationship but he can't. How he's saying goodbye to faith. All real stuff. And it takes a certain amount of courage to share that.

But to me, it's the wrong kind of honesty. Or rather, it's incomplete honesty. I think to me, true honesty is being real about both who you are and who you want to be. If you only have the latter, it comes across as inauthentic, because none of us live up to what we aspire to. Being real about your weaknesses is a big part of honesty. But if you only have that, the being true about who you are but no sense of who you want to be, it's just wallowing, and to me, there's nothing noble or admirable about that.

That to me is Fingers Crossed - wallowing. It's not self-pity, exactly. He blames himself completely for being in the place he's at. But it's so self-absorbed with no sense of wanting anything more. I find it sad. What's even worse to me is that it even mocks a sense of Christian hope. One of his songs is called "The Spirit Bears The Curse" and it's intentionally structured and sung like a worship song, until it gets to the end refrain where he reveals that "spirit" is a play on words and the song is really an ode to alcohol. That's intentionally spiteful, even structurally dishonest, and there's nothing noble about that.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an example to me of real honesty. It forces people to own up to their shortcomings (from the very beginning: "I'm X and I'm an alcoholic") but for a purpose, to move towards who they want to be, while recognizing that they are likely to fail many times on the way. That's honesty. Or David in the Bible. When he went through his own affair that could have (and partly did) ruin his life, in Psalm 51 he's honest about his shortcomings but he doesn't just wallow in it, he expresses a desire for more, for forgiveness and restoration. That's real honesty, the kind I admire.

What's sad to me is that's the kind of honesty Derek Webb used to have. He's always had a kind of abrasive edge to him, a kind of harsh honesty. But it was always coupled with pushing both himself and the church to something more. I liked that. That he's gone from that to the wallowing type of confession he does now makes me sad. Yes, it's kind of courageous to be that open about his emotional state right now. But listening to the album depressed me. And what I found disturbing is that there was a large group that extolled it for being truly honest. It's not truly honest. It's just sad.

10:14 PM
July 24
"A system which was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable"

Last quotation from Strength To Love that struck me. He's talking about slavery and segregation, and how people let it go on for so long, and he writes: "Men convinced themselves that a system which was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable."

Man. There's so much truth in that statement. I can't speak to the past, though I have a strong suspicion that he's right, but I feel like I see this everywhere today. By total providence / luck, I ended up in life at a workplace filled with wealthy people and living in a neighborhood also filled with wealthy people. It would be ungrateful to complain about it, and I'm not, but I still feel uncomfortable around it, and spend a lot of time observing, not feeling like everyone else. And one thing I have noticed is that there's an undercurrent among rich people of moral superiority. It's not (usually) overt. But there's just this vibe that their wealth validates their life decisions, that it demonstrates that they made better choices than other people, that they must have been "right".

I recently read the new Tiger Woods' biography and it's fairly disturbing (he barely seems human). One story involves his personal lawyer for some time (whom Tiger, as he frequently does, completely cut out of his life suddenly and without comment). This lawyer engaged in some questionable dealings while Tiger was still an amateur. As a reader, it seems pretty clear that what he did was wrong. But he insists even now that he did nothing wrong. If anything, the problem was with the rules, not with him.

I see this with certain rich people. They feel morally justified by their wealth and power such that if they are challenged as being wrong, they'd sooner question the rules than reconsider their own behavior. You'd think it would be different for engineers, because the outcomes for our peers who are just as intelligent and hard-working vary wildly. It should be obvious that it's almost all luck and has nothing to do with us. But it's not the case.

8:47 PM

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