Business idea: The Anti-Telemarketer

Not sure how the telemarketing scene is evolving elsewhere but in my city, I’m receiving about 2-3 telemarketing calls a day.  More than half are scams.  It’s getting annoying.

So I thought I’d come up with a solution.

Not long ago, Google debuted its Duplex AI.  This AI assistant is capable of navigating phone calls.  It’s pretty darn amazing.  If you’ve yet to see it, here’s a link:

 

So it looks like Google’s new AI assistant is going to be capable of a whole host of tasks, perhaps even handling telemarketers.  Here’s what I’m envisioning:

When your phone rings and you see a number you don’t recognize, feel free to let your AI assistant answer the call for you.  If it turns out to be a legitimate call and someone you’d like to speak with, your AI should be able to navigate that conversation quickly and effectively.  Perhaps your phone would ring a second time with the AI alerting you with who the caller is and what they’re looking for.  If, however, it wasn’t someone you wanted to talk to, the AI assistant would know how to navigate those calls as well.

For all the calls that you don’t want to answer, let’s put them in 3 categories.  First would be legitimate calls that you just don’t want to answer for whatever reason.  Maybe you’re hanging out on a beach with your friends over the weekend and your boss is calling… probably about those TPS reports.  Your AI assistant can let your boss know that you’re currently unavailable, take a message, and say that you’ll return that message at your earliest convenience.  Or maybe it’s a call that you’d like to take but you’re in the middle of something important.  Whatever the case may be, the AI should be able to navigate these conversations well enough to pass along a message.

The second category would be legitimate telemarketers.  We’re talking about legitimate businesses reaching out for cold sales or surveys.  For these, perhaps your AI assistant would know which businesses you have accounts with to better understand which promotions you might actually be interested in.  Rather than you having to go through the whole phone call to find out what the actual pitch is, your assistant could navigate that conversation and turn it into a brief text message for you.  For everything else, the assistant could quickly and politely say that you’re not interested, and request that you be taken off their call list.

The third category, and the one that inspired this idea, is the scam-based telemarketers.  Fuck those guys.  This week alone I’ve received:

  • Calls from places like Burundi, Somolia, Samoa, Seychelles, and Kalamazoo.  As I understand it, the calls hang-up before you can answer.  When you call back, you’re charged for your time on that call.
  • Calls from China telling me that I’m in big trouble relating to real estate purchases and government corruption.
  • Calls telling me that I’ve been busted for tax evasion and I need to reach out to my local tax office immediately.

Each is a robo-call, meaning that their process of generating leads is full automated and requires very few resources on their part.  My approach has been to pick up the calls and to hang up as soon as I recognize what it is.  But it’s not much of a solution as the calls keep arriving.  They might even be increasing in volume.  So how exactly do you fight back?

This idea is inspired by a TED Talk I saw a while back.  The speaker was being solicited by an email scammer.  Something to the effect of the Nigerian princess scam but it had to do with gold bullion, if I remember correctly.  The speaker, like most of us, was able to pick up on the scam rather quickly.  But rather than ignore, he thought he’d engage with the person on the other end for some fun. The email chain became rather entertaining as the speaker was able to get the scammer to use some questionable ‘code words’ in their communications.  At the end of the day, the speaker did this because he knew that for every minute this scammer spent targeting him, was a minute he wouldn’t be able to spend targeting someone else.  I appreciate his efforts as I’ve attempted the same thing… but there has to be a better way.  Enter Google Duplex.

Imagine that tax-scam robo-call running into your AI assistant:

Robo-call: “The reason behind this call is to notify you that we have registered a criminal case against your name concerning a tax evasion and tax fraud in the federal court house.  So if you want any further information about this case, please press 1.   If we don’t receive a call from your side, please be prepared to face the legal consequences, as the issue of tax is extremely serious and time-sensitive. So have a blessed time. ”

AI: “1”

Scammer: “(In a thick Indian accent) Hi my name is Nicky Johnson, how may I help you today?”

AI: “Hi, I received a call today about owing some taxes and I’d like to pay them before I get in trouble”

Scammer: “Thank you for calling.  This is a very urgent matter and we need to resolve it quickly before you’re forced to pay any penalties.”

AI: “Thank you so much for letting me know.  What do we do next?”

Scammer: “Can I start with your name and social security number?”

AI: “which name?”

Scammer: “Your first and last name, and your social security number”

AI: “OK.  Sure, but which one?”

Scammer: “What is your first name?”

AI: “Hue”

Scammer: “And your last name”

AI: “Jazz”

Scammer: “Thank you Mr. Hue Jazz.  Now may I have your social security number?”

AI: “Which one?”

Scammer: “Your social security number, sir.  It’s 9 digits and on all your tax filings”

AI: “Oh, OK”

Scammer: “Do you have it sir?”

AI: “Have what?”

Scammer: “Your social security number”

AI: “I don’t know what that is”

Scammer: “Never mind sir, we can proceed without it.”

AI: “What?”

Scammer: “We need to receive payment as soon as possible to avoid putting a lien on your assets.  I can walk you through that now.”

AI: “OK”

Scammer: “To make a payment, you’ll have to go to our website.  Do you have a computer in front of you?”

AI: “Yes”

Scammer: “The website is http://www.-”

AI: “Is that an upper-case WWW or a lower case www?”

Scammer: “It doesn’t matter, both will work”

AI: “OK.  Do I need internet for this to work?  I don’t think this computer has internet.”

Scammer: “Yes you will need internet.  Do you have a computer that has internet?”

AI: “Yes, but I’ll have to start it up.  You don’t mind waiting do you?”

Scammer: “No, that is OK.”

AI: Thanks, it’ll just take a few minutes”

(few minutes passes)

Scammer: “Is your computer ready”

AI: “Not yet.”

(few more minutes passes)

Scammer: “Ready now?”

AI: “Almost.”

(few more minutes passes)

Scammer: “Sir, your computer should be ready by now.  Are you sure it’s working?”

AI: “Not sure.  The screen is still black.  Can you help me fix my computer?

 

I’m not a very vengeful person, but something about this just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.  The reality is that you could customize your AI to give a variety of answers and drag the conversation out in all sorts of entertaining directions.  The best part though, is that for every minute they’re engaging with your AI, they’re not scamming someone else.  If enough people took this approach, it would shift the balance of power.  I can’t imagine people would be all too keen to put the resources into a scam-based call center knowing that 99% of their leads were AI assistants just messing with them.

While it would be fun to call this the ultimate solution to telemarketing and over-the-phone scams, it’s not.  This would be a brilliant solution to the current mode of telemarketing and over-the-phone scams but the situation would evolve.  The most natural evolution I can think of is the scammers and telemarketers switching over to a Google Duplex-esque robo-call.  But if it’s your Google Duplex AI Assistant that is answering the calls… it becomes AI VS. AI.  I’d take a front row seat to that…

The Companion Experience (Part 1)

Last week, I was talking to someone about prostitution.  She was almost a bit reluctant to tell me that she had considered it in the past.  I think she realized pretty quick that I wasn’t going to pass any judgement so she elaborated a bit.  She said something to the effect of “I really like getting to know new people, I really like sex, I feel like it’s something I could probably do.”  I suspect that she wasn’t being entirely serious, but serious enough to explore the idea.  I appreciate that open-mindedness.  She’s someone who I have a great deal of respect for.. and I love it when people unlearn social norms and explore what’s possible.

Prostitution was fairly common where I grew up.  Waiting for the bus in the mornings, you’d usually see a half dozen on any given day.  It wasn’t pretty.  The vast majority of these women were in rough shape and I think it’s safe to say that most were at a desperate time in their life.. perhaps trying to feed an addiction they wish they didn’t have.  Every once in a while one would talk to you but it was usually somewhere between incoherent and unnerving so you learned to ignore them.  For the most part, they looked like zombies that had found their way into a drag queen’s wardrobe.

When I got to university, I remember this girl telling me that she saw her first prostitute.  She had spent most of her life in a small town, so for her, it was like seeing an elusive animal in the wild.  It provided an interesting moment of reflection for me.  For most of my early 20s, I don’t think I held a very strong opinion on prostitution.   I knew I had no interested in paying for sex as a matter of pride, but I really had no motivation to condemn the practice.  I wasn’t down with extortion or putting people in harms way, but they didn’t exactly seem like the same thing.

As I got older, it became easier and easier for me to see that prostitution wasn’t inherently good or bad, and that much of the stigma we had around it was a reflection of how the business of prostitution existed in the present day.  Which begs the question, what would this industry look like if it was approached intelligently?

Years ago, I watched the Firefly series… or rather the one season which probably should’ve been a series.  While there were all kinds of cool ideas and concepts explored on that show, I found their approach to prostitution to be especially enlightening.  Early in the season, the character Inara Serra is introduced.  She ends up renting a shuttle from the Firefly crew and basically hangs out with them as she conducts her business about the galaxy.  Inara is a Companion, a licensed, high-society courtesan, and member of the ‘Guild’.  Or in plain English, she’s a high-end, unionized prostitute in a place where prostitution is legal and regulated.  Her approach to companionship absolutely expanded my mind on this topic.  Here are a few quotes from her character for context:

 

A companion chooses her own clients, that’s guild law. But physical appearance doesn’t matter so terribly, you look for a compatibility of spirit.

On Sihnon, we started training at twelve, years of discipline and preparation before the physical act of pleasure was even mentioned. Control was the first lesson, and the last.”

“Your father isn’t right, Fess.  It’s not embarrassing to be a virgin.  It’s simply one state of being.  As far as bringing me here, companions choose the people they are to be with very carefully.  For example, if your father had asked me to come here for him, I wouldn’t have.”

 

Inara Serra paints this picture of companionship rather than prostitution… and I can’t help but think it’s rather genius.  It’s less about sex, and more about filling that void that people try to fill with sex.  There’s a social, physical, and emotional connectedness that our bodies and minds require to be balanced and healthy, and this is about providing that service.  I’m trying to think of similar professions… it’s like the touch of a masseuse, with the listening skills of a therapist, and the wisdom of a spiritual guide.  Genius.

So if that’s what it would mean for the clients, what would it mean for companions?  In my lifetime, I’ve met several women (and probably a few men) who would’ve loved to do something like this.  It’s in times like these that we must remind ourselves that not all of us are wired for monogamy.  Not all of us care for a traditional relationship.  And not all of us have hang-ups around sex.  Some of us are wired for polyamory.  Some of us would prefer to challenge the status quo of what a relationship could be.  And some of us are so confident in our sexuality, that we are guided by our love of sex, rather than our fear of it.  In the present world, these individuals struggle to conform to traditional relationships. or adhere to social norms which were never in their nature.  What would these individuals do with their time if society allowed them to find their best selves?  By no means am I saying that they would all become companions, but I can’t help but think that a few would be very well suited to the role.

Years ago, I had done the math.  If sex was the goal, it was cheaper to hire an escort than it was to wine and dine your way into someone’s bed.  And if sex was your only goal, you wouldn’t have to worry about the aftermath of having stumbled into a almost-relationship.  Hmm.. maybe I should look into it.  So I did.  I started cruising through the different listing sites for my city and analyzing the profiles of these women.   The marketing practices being used there seemed rather telling.  It was like every third profile said something along the lines of “these pictures are actually me!”, suggesting a fair bit of false advertising.  Something that was a bit of a deal breaker for me was that faces were rarely shown.  Plenty of boudoir pictures, but the first place my eyes go on a woman are her eyes and smile.

Eventually, I found a couple profiles that I found quite interesting.  The first was a woman who had her masters and was working on her PhD.  Her profile described someone who was looking to live life to its fullest.  She was a fan of new experiences which seemed to include food, travel, and people.  She seemed like a highly sexual creature who thoroughly enjoyed what she did.  Her profile made it seem like she had curated a roster of high-end clients who appreciated her ability to be a classy date at formal functions, while being able to help you relax and unwind afterwards.  What stood out to me the most was that she took pride in being able to hold a real conversation… I was genuinely interested in meeting this woman and seeing what she was all about.  But there was a part of me that was a little intimidated by what I would be getting myself into.. so I passed.

Not long afterwards, I saw another profile that caught my attention.  She was from my neck of the woods, very cute, and was just starting out.  Her profile said something to the effect of just getting into it and seeing what it’s all about.  I thought jackpot, we can figure this one out together!  The profile said to text her, so I did.  She was bright and bubbly at first, so I told her this is all pretty new to me and I’m a little uneasy about it.  I said that her being new to this was the biggest reason why I texted.  I think she said something to the effect of it’s all good.  Then I suggested going on a date.  I think in my head, the plan was to pay the cost of her time for an evening.. take her out for dinner.. and if we were both feeling it, to go for it.  I think in that industry, as soon as the guy suggests taking you out on a date, it’s a giant red flag.  That conversation died in a hurry and it was the last time I really explored that option.

I’ve arrived at a point now where sex doesn’t interest me unless there’s a connection beyond the physical.  A few years ago, I brought home a girl who had a couple sponsors via Seeking Arrangements.  Blonde, fake tits, gym rat, mini-skrt.. the whole 9 yards.  I actually tried to pretend to be asleep because of how uncomfortable I was with the situation.  Maybe I ended up going through the motions because I thought it would be the least awkward end to the night.  I’d say there’s a very good chance I never do that again.

And this is how I’ve arrived at the companion experience.  I would wager that (at least subconsciously) most who pay for sex, are looking for more than just sex.  I’d also wager that most who are motivated to get into that line of work, (at least subconsciously) would like to provide more than just sex.  Sex is only one element of companionship, and we need to do a better job of honoring the full experience.  If we did, I think we shine a new light on what it means to be human.

Right now, prostitution seems to operate within a category of stigmas.  There are those who sell their bodies for lack of alternative sources of income.  There are those who are forced into the profession.  There are those who start out well-intentioned, but fall victim to their environment.  There are those who have made a career out of it, but who have a strained relationship with friends and family because of it.  And there are those who have truly made it in the industry, with a giant question mark as to what happens when their physical beauty fades.  I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone I cared about.  There has to be a better approach to one of history’s oldest professions.  It needs to not be about power, control, sex or money.  It needs to be about human connectedness.

When I imagine what a week with Inara Serra would be like, I’m imagining a deeply spiritual and balancing experience.  In the show, they start off with a tea ceremony where the companion and client are given an opportunity to connect with one another.  It’s almost like a coffee date where you’re given a chance to get a feel for the other person.  From there, I think it would depend on the context of why you sought out a companion.  For me, I would want to spend time getting to know one another.  I would want to find an intellectual and emotional connection before we explored the physical connection.  As an expert in such connections, I would trust the companion to suggest some activities to fill our time.  When the time was right, I’d also let her take the lead on what the physical element of this would look like.  Who knows, she might pick up on my vibes and instigate something playful in nature.  Or maybe she’ll pick up on my stress levelsand suggest something more relaxing.  Or maybe she’ll suggest something completely non-sexual because she can read my body and knows that’s what I really need.  With all the decisions I’m responsible for in my personal life, it would be nice to arrive somewhere, where I know I’m going to be taken care of by someone who truly knows how to rebalance another human being.  If there was a service like this, I’d probably be a repeat customer.  And therein lies the next level to this..

In the show, it was understood that when a client found a companion they really liked, they would call on the regular.  Not like once a week regular, but once a year or once every couple years kinda regular – almost like a vacation to a favorite destination.  So that would mean that these clients are perpetually single right?  Or they don’t tell their significant others right?  Or they’re in open relationships right?  Or maybe not?

I suppose in a perfect world, your significant other would be your companion.  But our world is imperfect.  In our world, we can struggle to be everything our partner needs.  But we’re encouraged to accept that if it’s not being provided, we don’t need it.  We’re encouraged to settle for what our partners are able to provide.  Some can be accepting of that and live a happy life.  Others find ways to fill those needs, at the expense of the relationship.  And others still, will go through life without those needs filled at all.  I can’t help but think that if we were able get past this all.. we could separate the two.

Imagine being in a healthy, long-term relationship where a weekend with a companion wasn’t seen as infidelity.. but rather an exercise in self-care.  If the role of a companion was to be an expert in human connection and an expert in bringing your body back to a point of equilibrium.. I wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Read a Book Under A Tree Today

First time for everything right?

I’m now being pillaged by my allergies so perhaps it was a questionable decision.. but this is more about the mind-state that took me there.

Back in my mid-20s, I moved away for work.  It was supposed to be this big step up in my career, while bailing out the company from an unfortunate position.  Within 3 months of arriving in a new town, my dad died, my girlfriend broke up with me, I tore my shoulder, and the company turned its back on me.  That was rough.  It was the first time I realized how fundamental these parts of my life were to me.

This past weekend, I spent a couple hours on the beach with a friend.  First time I had done that in years.  Little silly when you consider there’s about 15 beaches within 30 minutes of here.  My friend asked me if I wanted to know about my spirit animal.  Neither of us took that stuff very seriously, but sure, why not.  Apparently I’m a snow-goose.  I suppose that’s better than a #cobrachicken.  The description was rather interesting.  Some things were rather accurate while some things weren’t.  But the parts which weren’t accurate were reflective of a younger me.  Perplexing how such accurate assumptions can be made of me with no input beyond my birthday.. as if nature nor nurture played a role.  The one that stood out that day was how I won’t look to bring someone into my life until I have things sorted out.

In January of last year, I got tossed out by a investment banking career I had committed my life to.  A month after that, I wrecked my left arm.  A month after that, I broke up with the girl I was dating.  A month after that, I moved back home.  I had some things to sort out.

Fast-forward a year… things are starting to come together.

While not without its challenges, I’m in on the ground floor of a business with tremendous potential.  We’re on the verge of closing our capital raise and once this happens, we can actually afford to pay ourselves a real income.  While a little banged up here and there, I’m still in good enough health to play sports 5 days a week.  Rumor is I’ll get a long-overdue belt promotion at BJJ this weekend.  While not perfect, I’m at a great place with my family.  My grandfather died a few weeks ago and my mom has been going through the motions.  Being there for her has been good for my soul.  While I still see only see my boys a couple days a week at basketball, there are other friendships in my life that have evolved into something I deeply appreciate.  Things are starting to come together.

I suspect that others who take a structured approach to their lives have created similar pillars.  For me, it seems to be friends, family, finance, and fitness… you know, if you wanna stick with the ‘Fs’.  That’s my foundation.. what it takes for me to be a balanced, happy individual.  While that foundation isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be, I’m confident I’m headed in the right direction.  And maybe that’s why I’ve been looking to see if there’s room for someone else.

What comes next is going to be a mind-game of 4D chess as I’m about to write about the only two people in my life who know about and read this blog.  But then again, how do I commit to writing honestly about what’s in my head without writing about this?

A few months ago, a good friend of mine asked if I wanted to go to a self-help seminar.  I was a bit reluctant, but ended up going.  He did the same with another friend.  She and I just happened to meet at the seminar.  There may have been chemistry.  Didn’t matter though, she was already dating someone and they made us promise not to date each other for at least a month after the class.  My buddy who introduced us said not to worry… seems like he saw more of the situation than either of us did.

She was a yoga teacher, and was doing privates for my buddy.  I told him I had been wanting to get into yoga for a while now as part of my shoulder rehab and some injury prevention.  So he extended an invite.  And now we had a chance to hang out for a bit.  And a bit more, and a bit more.  Same chemistry, except it just kept getting more obvious.. for me anyways.

I knew she wasn’t in a good place with the guy she was dating because she would tell us.  I did my best not to pry, but you could tell that figuring this out was important to her.  From what I could understand, he was nice, good looking, a little spiritual… and then it kinda fell off.  It seemed like she was looking for more but wasn’t quite sure what that meant, or if it was justified.  My buddy and I did our best to give advice without leading her in any particular direction… suggesting that it came down to her being honest with herself and her being honest with him.. and being okay with where that took things.  Even so, there were a few times where I had to cut myself off.  Even if I thought I knew what was going on.  Even if I thought I knew what she should be doing, it was more important that I give her the support and space to find her own way through this.

She and my buddy were over last week for dinner and once again, endless conversation, exploring all kinds of cool ideas.  There was a point where she and I were sitting beside each other at my table and you know when your leg accidentally rests against someone else’s and you adjust so that you’re not touching anymore?  Well we didn’t adjust.  It was barely noticeable.. to the point where I question if she even noticed at all.  But that.. plus a few more looks being exchanged.. plus everything else that had been building up.. prompted a different end to that evening.  It got late, it was time to to call it a night, and they took off.  And then my phone rang… it was her.

She asked, “Are you hinting at something?”

I replied, “…. maybe…. what do you think I’m hinting at?”

I was willing to be honest, just wanted to be more sure of what she was asking.

She replied, “Just yes or no, are you hinting at something?”

She was looking for honest and direct communication and I couldn’t have respected that more.  I responded “Yes.  Yes… but respectfully.”

I won’t pretend that I remember the rest of the conversation word for word but I can say that it went well.  Things were optimistic.  We were appreciative of what was happening while trying to be responsible about everything else that was happening around us.  We couldn’t help but see where we were complementary towards one another and it had us both excited about what might be here.  But we reminded ourselves that she was still with someone else, and she needed to figure that out before anything could start between us.  She thanked me for helping her maintain that integrity.  Said something to the effect of let me go figure this out.

I had mentioned the situation to a friend and being the protective individual she was, she was a little skeptical of this person who seemed to be jumping from one relationship to the next.  Truth is.. it doesn’t really phase me.  There are a lot of people out there who will tell you what you should or shouldn’t do in a relationship, but rarely is this advice given after someone’s really taken the time to understand the individuals involved and the dynamic between them.  The way I look at it is that this situation is unique to her and I, and it’s on us to understand it for what it is and what it isn’t, and take the steps that are right for us.

During our yoga session last Sunday, she mentioned that she was headed out of town on Friday.  I remember her mentioning something about that before but had assumed it was something to the effect of a 2 week vacation.  Nope, she was headed to Costa Rica for 5 weeks for a yoga course.  Well then… isn’t that just serendipitous.  As much fun as it might be to jump into this head first, I do really like the idea of her getting a chance to clear her head.  5 weeks of beaches and yoga, far away from me.. can’t help but think that’s a blessing in disguise.  I recognize the risk in her getting swept off her feet by some hunky Costa Rican yoga instructor.  Or maybe she comes back and wants to give the other guy another chance.  Or maybe she comes back and realizes that she doesn’t wanna date at all.  Whatever that decision is, as long as she arrives at it with a clear mind, she’ll have my support.

But yah.. I’m still kinda hoping that when she gets back, we get a chance to see what’s up.

And… this all has me in a really good place.  So I read a book under a tree today.

A Social Crypto

I’ve often wondered what would be the catalyst for the next major recession.  As cryptocurrencies went mainstream, it occurred to me that one way in which we could shift wealth would be through the adoption of a new currency.  How amusing would it be for the 99% to develop a currency to use among themselves, while the top 1% ended up with monopoly money.  As fun as that sounds, it’s not quite that easy.  But something about this crypto.. maybe there’s something here.

Bare with me on this… what if we introduced a cryptocurrency with a built-in distribution algorithm?

Fundamentally, the first things we’d have to decide on is a fundamental stance on how we should distribute resources.  My vote would be for a simple mandate that more resources should be awarded to those who contribute more.  If we can all agree on this (which should be rather easy), then we would just have to decide on how exactly that distribution would play out.  A while back, a Harvard professor asked what people thought was an fair distribution of wealth among Americans.  The top 20% looked to occupy about 35% of the country’s wealthy while the bottom 20% occupied about 10% of the country’s wealth.  The middle 60% occupied about 55%.  Sure, why not.

Or maybe there’s a way to tie the bottom 20% to cost of living?  If you were constantly tracking accurate statistics on cost of living, you could always make sure that the bottom 20% was a certain margin above the cost of living, ensuring that those at the lowest run of society were always afforded an opportunity to get ahead.  From there, perhaps you could let the currency do as it may.

Either way, the idea here is that through poor governance, we’ve found ways to systematically shift wealth from the many to the few.  Beyond the ethics of it, this actually creates a great deal of economic hardship.  Whether it’s going to school, starting a family, buying your own house, or starting a business, it all costs money.  Once upon a time, you could comfortably provide for a family on a single middle-class income.  Where I live, the cost of a middle-class lifestyle is about $300,000 a year.  So people maybe don’t go to school.  People maybe don’t start a family.  People maybe don’t start a business.  And maybe we all take a step backwards.

I can’t help but think that the pursuit of power is a human instinct.  If so, the pursuit of power will always be an element within governance.  If true, government will always be susceptible to corruption because as we all remember, power corrupts.  So if government can’t be trusted to maintain a fair distribution of wealth, how do you address this?  You build it right into the currency.

So how do you go about getting people to adopt a currency like this?  Imagine being the person who brings 10 million dollars to the currency, only to end up with 5 million because half was redistributed to all the people who signed up with way less?  What would keep you from signing up with a single dollar, keeping the rest of your assets elsewhere as you accumulated ‘equality’.  As soon as I thought I was on to a genius idea, I realized this was a rather daunting hurdle.  But not an unsolvable one.

There’s something here… but I’m not quite there.

Compelled Patriotism

There have been times where I’ve felt more patriotic than others, but generally speaking, I find it a little strange.

The times where I identified as a patriot, were times where I felt good about how my country was impacting others, and felt aligned with the values my country had displayed.  That doesn’t happen so much these days.  These days, it’s difficult to understand what a patriot really is and whether anyone should want to be one.

The NFL looks to have passed a new anthem policy.  From what I understand, if you’re on the field, you have to stand for the national anthem.  The president’s remarks were something to the effect of, ‘if you don’t want to stand, maybe you shouldn’t be play.  Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.  If you’re not proud of the country, you shouldn’t be here.’  I’ve often said that Trump was going to be one of the best things to happen to this country.  Not because he leads or inspires, but because he’s forcing us to ask questions which weren’t being asked.

What if you’re not proud of the country?

Google defines a patriot as a person who vigorously supports their country and is ready to defend it against enemies or detractors.  Seems pretty straight forward.  So where’s the nuance?  I suppose it would be in how you define supporting your country, and who you determine to be the enemies or detractors.

Some people support their country by displaying the country’s branding as often as possible.  Maybe I should’ve said flag or colors instead of branding, but which is more accurate?  Some people support their country and defend it against enemies by joining the military and fighting overseas.  But how did you know who our enemies were?  Some people defend the country against detractors by protecting the commander and chief.  But what do you think the commander and chief should be protected from?  It seems as though patriotism has more to do with manipulation than it does with national pride.

I’ve struggled with the concept of pride recently,  When to have it, why to have it, and when it’s too much.  I grew up around ‘Azn Pride’.. it was kinda like white pride but Asian.  More often than not, it was about screen names and gamer tags but from time to time, it meant more than that.  It reminded people not be ashamed of where they were from or what they looked like, and gave them a sense of confidence and community among their peers.  But there were also times where Azn Pride was about showing dominance over other groups.  But what are you really proud of at that point?

Personally, I don’t think you can have patriotism without nationalism and nationalism never seems to work well out for anyone.  Nationalism really is a game of us versus them on a global scale.  Not only did we not have a say in where these lines on the map were drawn, we have no choice as to which side of the line we’re born to.  Yet these lines are enforced vigorously.  We are told that the people inside those lines are our brothers and sisters, and that the people outside those lines are potential threats.  And yet our country was built upon those who came from outside the lines.  And is under attack from those who were born here.

Perhaps patriotism is inherently flawed.  Right now, it encourages us to protect our enemies and betray our communities.  We’re told that we’re not patriotic when we don’t follow the direction of our president.  When the values of our people, country, and president are no longer aligned, who deserves our loyalty?  If patriotism is defined by a loyalty to a country, is that better understood as the people of that country, or those who are running it?  People in government demanding loyalty  sounds awfully undemocratic.  In a democratic country, where democracy literally means government for the people by the people.. the answer seems rather obvious.

So what does democratic patriotism look like?  Maybe it’s not necessarily an oxymoron.  I think it looks like a celebration of the people.  It’s a celebration of our diversity rather than a celebration of the red, white and blue.  It’s building monuments to the people who are making the world a better place today rather than arguing over old civil war statues.  It’s marching together for no more wars, and it’s marching together for no more police violence.  It’s not just about celebrating our accomplishments, but about acknowledging our darker moments in arriving here.  And you’re damn right that it’s about being able to take a knee during the national anthem to show your support for those the country has failed.

So what does patriotism look like when the lines between us and them disappear?

 

 

What it Means to be Good Looking

For most of my childhood, the only person who told me I was handsome was my mom. She would tell me that I would be such a heart breaker.  Then I ventured out into the real world and found no such validation.  Occasionally a girl would have a crush on me, but it was never one of the pretty or popular girls.  As far as my friends were concerned, all they knew was that I had a big nose.  I really had no idea of knowing whether I was good looking or not.  I wanted to be… few things were more obvious than the advantages of being good looking.

After high school, I was more focused on building myself up than what I looked like.  I was confident that women were more attracted to character than looks… how else do you explain Jay Z and Beyonce?  So I focused on building character.. integrity.. honesty.. honor.. intelligence.. humor, etc.  I proceeded to date 3 of the most eligible women at my university.  One of them was non-superficial that she could’ve dated a burn victim.  Another thought I was really good looking, but her ex was… rather plain, so not a great measure.  The third was really into the body-builder physique (of which I was not), and that led to some lackluster physical chemistry.  Coming out of university, I knew I had the ability to date beautiful women… but still no clue if I was good looking.

A few years after university, I dated a girl who seemed to be grateful and appreciative of everything in her life.  Even her most significant accomplishments, she would dismiss as good fortune.  It was foreign to me as I’ve always been one to celebrate work ethic.  She was extremely grateful for her looks, and said that I should be too.  I told her that I had given up on trying to understand whether or not I was good looking.  She told me that was ridiculous, and that to deny that I was good looking was to be oblivious of the privilege it afforded to me.  Perhaps she had a point.  Instead of exploring that point, I told her it just wasn’t something I thought about very much and I was pretty happy with the results.  It was the first time someone told me I was basically an asshole if I didn’t think I was good looking.  Well then…

Over the last couple months, I’ve probably been called handsome or good looking more than any other period in my entire life.  As someone who was trying to get back into the dating scene, one would hope those compliments would be coming from interested women.  Wishful thinking.  Almost every one of those comments came from older men in my professional life.  Something to the effect of, “you’re a young, good looking guy, the world is your oyster”.  There was an older Asian guy at my local tech summit who probably told me about 10 times in one conversation that I’m handsome, have a great smile, and should be doing business development for Intel.  He made sure to spell Intel for me.. Pretty sure he was several drinks in.

While it’s easy enough to laugh off, maybe there’s something worth observing here.  Am I good looking?  I’d say that depends on who you ask.  I’ve been told by friends overseas that if you were to drop me in a place like Japan, China or Korea, I’d be like catnip.  Put me in a place like California or New York and probably much less so.  So there are cultural factors at play.  I know facial symmetry makes for bonus points…  A full head of hair…  Good genetics… but  what about personal preferences?  When I was young, I spent a lot of time crushing on girls who just weren’t into me.  There seem to be elements of attraction which are general, while others can be highly individual.

So beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  Seems like an easy out.  But maybe there’s yet another level to this.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but eyes of the beholders tend to follow similar algorithms.  I think it starts with good genetics.  When you mix genetics from diverse gene pools, you end up with great looking kids.  When you let a brother and sister get it on, there’s a 50/50 chance you end up with a cyclops.  We have instincts that pick up on good genetics and we perceive that as physical attraction.  In reality, we’re just instinctively trying to diversify our gene pool.

Good health is perhaps second on that list.  We seem to be in an interesting time where people who are unhealthy and overweight want to be perceived as attractive in the same way that someone healthy is.  In reality, we’re physically attracted to good health and there are different ways we pick up on that.  Are you fit?  Do you have good skin?  Good teeth? Is your hair falling out?  Something I’ve found interesting is that whether it’s a 5’0″ gymnast or a 6’3″ power lifter, I’ve always found a healthy woman to be attractive.

So based on these parameters am I good looking?  Probably.

My genetic background is Scottish, Irish, Jewish, and Austrian.  Not the most diverse gene pool, but certainly not kissing-cousins.    My face is largely symmetrical from what I can see.  I have a full head of hair and mostly straight teeth.  While I take liberties with my health and fitness from time to time, I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life.  If I had to guess, I would say that I am above average looking.

Great.  Now what?

My concern before was that if I figured out that I was good looking, I’d let it go to my head.  I liked being oblivious to it because it kept my focus on what I thought was more important.  Now that I’m conceding, what changes?  … Nothing…?

 

I think that at this point, it’s unlikely to go to my head.  I’m appreciative for where it’s helped me, indifferent to where it didn’t, and hope that this baby face ages gracefully.  I’m also understanding and accepting where it may have created unearned advantages for me.  While it may have helped in my dating life, it probably wasn’t as big of a factor as some may believe.  Where I think it’s actually helped me the most is in my professional life.  Just about every person that’s hired me or considered me for a role has referred to me as good looking.  I think that early on, I just saw these compliments as innocuous or inconsequential.  Why does being good looking have anything to do with my performance in the work environment?  I know I look good in a suit.. maybe they were just saying something nice.  But I don’t think it’s that simple.  I think that things like facial symmetry, good skin, good hair, and good teeth make a difference in the willingness of strangers to trust you.  Match that with being presentable and well-spoken, and you’re able to earn trust faster than others.  In the world of business, that’s a very real advantage.

Are there any disadvantages?

I often see a duality around privilege, and good looks seem to follow that pattern.  While I’m grateful for my looks, I’m more grateful for that uncertainty while growing up.  It encouraged me to put my efforts and focus elsewhere, and not everyone is so lucky.  Think about the prettiest girl in your high school.  Was she more likely to be headed to university on a full scholarship or date the captain of the football team?  Was she more likely to get recruited out of school to the field of her choice or more likely to be working as a bartender?  Does she stand a better chance of accomplishing things on her own, or being accessory to someone else’s accomplishments?  From a certain perspective, being good looking provides an easier path than most.  But since when is easy a good thing?

A duality.. and a reality of our world.  At the end of the day, physical attraction has a rather functional purpose: visual markers of good genetic and good health that help you find a mate.  But I can’t help but see the tail wagging the dog a bit.  Rather than understanding how physical attraction plays out among several other factors like personality, resources, intelligence, and group-membership, we talk about it like it’s magic.  We often treat it like something that can’t be explained, and that even if it could, it shouldn’t.  That it would take the romance out of things.  I disagree.  I find the truth to be more romantic than any lie.

I think there’s a fair bit of magic in having an honest understanding of what we’re seeing and why we enjoy it.

 

 

The Religion of Self-Help

A few weeks ago, I attended my first self-help seminar.  I resisted the invite but a good friend insisted that if I went in with an open-mind, I was bound to learn something.  I told him that with an open-mind, you’re bound to learn something no matter where you are.  He said there was a money-back guarantee.  He said that if nothing else, he was very interested to see how someone like me to would behave in an environment like that.  I agreed.

I went to PSI Seminars: Basic which was a 3 day seminar with about 70 other people at a middle-tier hotel in the burbs.  The group was diverse but seemed to be weighted more towards newer immigrants and the middle-class.  I also noticed that while many came in with a healthy dose of skepticism, they also came looking for help in facing their own personal challenges.

The curriculum introduced several valuable concepts like game theory, personality science, and why it helps to stray from your comfort zone.  It also included classics like the law of attraction and self-love.  The 3 days were largely a mix of lectures, group exercises, and personal exercises.  There was a lot of clapping.

When I wrapped up the weekend, I asked for my money back.  It just wasn’t for me.  I think that when you ask for your money back, they follow up to try and figure out why.  They sent my group’s ‘micro-leader’, a 20-something nice kid who I got along well with.  In our conversation, he asked me what I learned at the seminar.  I told him that I learned many things, but perhaps most significant, I learned a great deal about religion.  I don’t think that’s the answer he was expecting.

I grew up without religion.  Both my parents went to church when they were young but they had fallen out of it by the time they had children of their own.  My earliest understanding of religion was that it was unnecessary.  It was easy to see that you could be a good person without religion, and that you could be a bad person with religion.  I also knew that many religious teachings hadn’t aged well, leaving their supporters with out-dated values.  More than anything, it seemed like religion was holding back the natural progression of morality.

As I got older, I became more spiritual and started focusing more on the intangibles of the universe which connect us all.  On that journey, I started noticing that much of what I was discovering for myself already existed in religious texts.  These epiphanies of mine weren’t new ideas, they were ancient ideas.  They were ideas that resonated so strongly with their audience, that people built entire organizations around these ideas.  This was the root of religion.  Things started to make more sense.  Where I once resisted religion, I was now in a place where I could understand it.

When I was younger, I came up with an idea: The Church of Good.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever typed that out because I just saw the play on words.  Anyways… the church of good was simply a church without religion.  This would be a place where people would come to hear the inspiring stories of what real people have done to make the world a better place.  It would be a place where we could learn the ideas and practices which would help us be better to one another.  It would also be a place were people could find community among others who were motivated to be good people.  It was supposed to be the best of religion without the worst.

That idea has sat in the back of my mind for over a decade now.  For most of that time, I saw religion as toxic.  But then I kept meeting people whom I admired in many ways, who also happened to be religious.  How could I admire someone who lived their life according to something which I considered to be toxic?  There was a disconnect.  The people I admired were good, decent people.  They generous when they didn’t have much, they were kind to those who weren’t kind to them, and they seemed to be more motivated by a collective good than by personal gain.   Most of them looked at the organized side of religion as a formality, traditions within their tribe.  For many of them, it was the least interesting part.  What they all seemed to have in common though, was an appreciation for the greater good and and enjoying being part of a community that prioritized it.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why religion had such popularity and staying power in the face of such obvious flaws.  Why couldn’t people see that they were being lied to?  And manipulated?  And often, for the sake of those who clearly weren’t operating in the spirit of the teachings.  But then it clicked, they were learning things at church that they weren’t learning anywhere else – Important things.

When I was fired from the bank, I was forced to leave a career I had put my everything into.  My world came crashing down and I experienced suffering.  That experience offered me lessons about myself and my journey that would’ve been very challenging to grasp otherwise.  I became a much stronger and more capable person because of it.  The last time something happened like that, it was my dad who died.  I noticed a pattern: that my greatest moments of growth followed my greatest moments of suffering.  With that understanding, my perspective on suffering changed.  Suffering was no longer to be feared or avoided, but understood, appreciated, and embraced.  I mentioned this to a friend and he told me that this was a classic Buddhist teaching.  Well then.

If we were to look at all the lessons learned from all the religions, I suspect we would find patterns of morality and purpose.  I’m not saying that everything we’d find is something which should be taught today.   What I am saying that we would find a pattern of people trying to understand how to be better to one another and a pattern of people trying to understand their place within the universe.  I can’t help but think that this is the true value of religion… an opportunity to learn about the more philosophical side of the human experience.. A deeper understanding of who you are and your place in the universe.

I knew all this going into the PSI Seminar.  I had even made some connections between religion and self-help before going in.  Experiencing it first hand was something else.

I would imagine that for those who weren’t raised to be religious, turning to religion is an exercise in finding answers.  I think self-help serves that same purpose.  The people in that room were not there because everything was going well, they were in search of a better way.  But many still arrived skeptical, perhaps like you would on your first day of church.

The facilitator (who happened to be a former church minister), took the stage with all the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker (or preacher).  And after some icebreakers, he started getting into some very real teachings.  People learned.  There were ‘a-ha!’ moments.  People were making breakthroughs.  Trust was being earned.

There were various exercises where you were encouraged to build deep connections with those around you.  Almost all were strangers who you didn’t know 48 hours ago.  It was a valuable reminder that we’re more similar than we are different.  It also reminded us that connecting with one another is a rather natural experience when we don’t let our personal baggage get in the way.  A sense of community was being built.

A few rituals were introduced.  Things like a big ‘good morning!’ response, jumping up and down yelling ‘I’m excited’, or the awkward soul-train dance party.  Part of how I picked up on it was observing the volunteers.  These were individuals who had done the course previously, and were coming back to observe.  They were on-point with all the rituals.  Culture was being established.

On the third day, PSI showed how they approached the business side of self-help.  The 3 day seminar cost about $800.  People who have taken the seminar are then heavily encouraged to have their friends take it.  The general message seems to be, ‘look at how great it was for you and everyone else here, don’t you want this for your friends?’  The PSI: Basic seems to operate as a feeder for their second seminar, referred to as The Ranch.  The Ranch is a 7 day retreat (to a ranch), and about 10x the cost of the basic.  When they made the pitch for the ranch, they also made the pitch for the course after it.  Then they offered to bundle the two together for a discounted price (about  $9,000).  They said “If you think that’s a lot of money and you’re not sure, just sign up for it.  If you make the commitment, you’ll find the money.”  Then they said this deal is only available for the next 20 minutes.

You’re doing what now?

After two and a half days of learning, and appreciating, and building community… where did this come from?  At least the church focused on the collection plate.  I couldn’t sit there and do nothing.  So I piped up and asked if this was the kind of financial decision that people should probably think about for more than 20 minutes.  The facilitator agreed.

During that 20 minutes, the facilitator came back up to me and offered a different answer to my question.  I reminded him that regardless of what answer he wanted to provide, he knows that these are classic pressure-sales tactics.  He conceded.  I asked him why he went along with it.  He said that whether it was the church or PSI, there were always practices that he didn’t agree with.  That sounds about right.

When I was doing the follow-up interview with our micro-leader, I asked him what he thought about these tactics.  He said lots of other people do the same thing.  I told him he was right, that you see it everywhere from MLMs, to time-shares, to religious cults.  I asked why he wasn’t more interested in holding them accountable.  He spoke about all the good that PSI does for people.  That being manipulated into a self-help program that turns out to be really good for you isn’t really that bad.  I asked him if the end justified the means.  He said no, not really.

But he found his religion.. his tribe.. where he wants to search for answers.. and I wasn’t going to change his mind.