Posts Tagged With: Thoughts

Almond Milk (and Banana Pancakes)

Turns out that finding enough time for blogging during the schoolyear is a lot harder than during the summer. Who knew, right?

Anyway. The past month has been filled with a lot of personal achievements for me, but one of the most surprisingly easy was almond milk. Wait, you must be saying, what? Almond milk isn’t a personal achievement! No, but it is. For years now, I have been looking to entirely eliminate dairy from my diet, and I think, finally, I have.

A little backstory. I have been vegetarian since before I was born. Everyone in my family is vegetarian. I was raised without the option of eating meat, and I have never had the desire to take it up. People ask me if I feel angry at my parents for “depriving” me of the “choice” by raising me veggie. I’m not quite sure they understand. Growing up veggie, I tell them, didn’t deprive me of anything, except perhaps the air of self-satisfaction that comes with rebellion against the norms of one’s childhood. I think of eating meat as like getting tattooed: If an independent and informed adult decides to do it, well, that’s one thing, but parents have no business tattooing their children, or feeding them meat, before the child can decide for him- or herself.

But, of course, there is one respect in which eating meat is not like getting a tattoo: it is not a purely self-regarding action. If you’re eating meat, then there is an individual person—not a human person, perhaps, but a person nonetheless, with a conscious mind—who had to die to provide you with that meat. For me, it isn’t the eating, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the killing, and the infliction of pain that precedes it. This applies to both humans and nonhumans. If, upon my death, you were to eat my body, I would have no moral problem with that (though you might have a digestive problem with it). However, if you were to walk into my room and torture me to death, I would have a moral objection to that regardless of what happened to my body afterwards. I don’t care how hungry you might be, that would not be acceptable behavior.

The problem, though, for a vegetarian like myself, is that a whole slew of “animal product” foods, though they don’t intrinsically require cruelty and murder, are only available (to those of us living in cities, at any rate) through systems which do intrinsically require these moral atrocities. I have personally milked a cow on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, and while I doubt that I would enjoy the experience if I were a cow, I’m not sure the milking itself qualifies as cruelty. But  the milk available to me here in New York City is going to be, for the most part, coming from factory farms, from the kind of places Isaac Bashevis Singer was talking about when he wrote that “in relation to animals, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.” And I can’t stand the thought of supporting those places, however indirectly.

Eliminating dairy has been easier for me than for most, I think. I never drank milk or ate cheese in the first place; I’ve always hated them. Ice cream…well, I needed to eliminate that from my diet anyway, dairy or no. So that basically left me with yogurt (which I ate a lot when I was younger, and since then have only really eaten as a way of weaning myself off ice cream) and foods with dairy ingredients. Since I live in a residence hall without a kitchen, eating my food from the communal dining hall, this hasn’t really been an issue, but once I am living elsewhere, and cooking my own food, it could be. In particular, I was worried about the breakfast foods: cereal (a staple of mine growing up) and pancakes (which I would have eaten every single day of my childhood, had it been up to me).

At the beginning of this month, I discovered banana pancakes. Caroliena, from Polyprotic Amory, was the one who taught me how to make them. They are virtually identical to “normal” pancakes, but the butter is replaced with bananas, which holds the batter together in much the same way. It’s also healthier, tastier, and, most importantly, dairy-free.

I was surprised by how easy it was to just strike the offending ingredients from the recipe. Banana pancakes have quickly become one of my favorite foods. But even after this, it came as a shock to me when I tried eating a bowl of cereal with almond milk.

At first, I thought it didn’t taste any different. After a couple of bowls, though, I started to realize that I preferred the taste of almond milk to dairy milk. If only I had known about it a decade and a half ago! I could have been eating much tastier cereal all these years! In fact, if I had been given this milk growing up, maybe I would actually have liked drinking milk, rather than finding it repulsive. It gets better, too: whereas something like soy milk requires quite a bit of processing apparatus to create, making almond milk takes nothing more complex than a bowl of water and some form of strainer. This is the kind of thing you could make without using anything more technologically advanced than pottery! Almond milk is amazing. I am never ever ever going back. And that means, finally, I am entirely dairy-free!

Once you start looking for alternatives to what you’ve been doing all your life, it’s amazing how quickly you can find something better.

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Daily Prompt: Fifteen Credits

Today’s Daily Prompt: “Another school semester will soon begin. If you’re in school, are you looking forward to starting classes? If you’re out of school, what do you miss about it — or are you glad those days are over?”

I can’t wait for classes to start.

I’m serious. This is my final year of undergrad, and I’ve already finished the actual coursework for both my majors, so the only “serious” academic stuff I’m doing this year is thesis work. Now, granted, I’m writing two honors thesis projects, so that’s kind of a lot, but still, it’s only two classes per semester. I actually had to go searching for random irrelevant classes to put in my schedule just so that I would have enough credits to stay in university housing (which is kind of necessary for my job as a Resident Assistant).

Typically, I’m not the kind of guy who takes random classes for the hell of it, which is how I finished two majors in three years. A semester is a long time, and that is a big commitment! Yes, I know there are websites like RateMyProfesssor and all that so that you can get an idea of what you are getting into, and I know you can find folks who have taken the class before, too, but…I don’t think you can ever really know for sure what a class will be like for you until a few weeks after the semester starts. At which point, of course, it’s probably too late to drop it if you hate it, and certainly too late to get in to anything meaningfully better to replace it. As a result, I’m very selective about what I take. Or, at least, I have been so far.

This year, however, I have a new plan. Not only am I filling out my schedule with irrelevant coursework and music lessons, but I’m taking the search for random, useless classes to the next level: I want to sit in on a single session of a different random class every week this year. I have a lot of unclaimed time in my schedule right now, and while almost all of it will go towards additional thesis work, that’s not incompatible with this plan. After all, if the class isn’t interesting, I can just work on my thesis stuff to pass the time while I wait for it to end. (Having been born in Oxford, and as the son of two professors of English, I obviously can’t just leave.) But on those days when I stumble across a class that I do find interesting, it will be like a breath of fresh air, broadening my horizons in all sorts of unexpected ways.  Who knows? I may discover a previously latent passion and find myself completely transfigured by the experience.

I am so grateful that I was able to come to my top choice  university, and I have intensely loved the education I’ve had so far here. I knew what I wanted to study, and I came here ready to do precisely that. However, looking back, I think that a couple of totally random, irrelevant, and useless classes would have done me a lot of good. I have a tendency towards extremes, and while I’m very much a “big picture” kind of guy, once I get really focused on something, I do not stop. There is a danger that I will lose all sense of perspective in my quest to understand my new obsession “all the way down.” But a steady, regular dose of uncontrollable randomness is a superb antidote to fanaticism.

And, of course, I live and work with first-year college students. Even if I were heading into a dreary year of utterly predictable and entirely uninteresting coursework, it’s pretty hard to surround yourself with hundreds of incoming freshmen and not get excited about the start of term. Because if you think I’m way too happy about school starting up again…just imagine how they feel.

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Daily Prompt: Pat on the Back

Woo! I did it! Successfully completed my Blog Every Day in July challenge. Sweet!

I’m pretty excited about that, and proud of myself for getting it done, but that’s not what this post is about. Because today, the Daily Prompt is to “tell someone you’re proud of just how proud you are.” So instead of spending this post selfishly congratulating myself for actually making consistent use of my blog (finally), I want to congratulate someone else who deserves it a lot more: Caroliena Cabada from Polyprotic Amory. Caroliena created her blog around the same time I created mine: November of 2012. However, unlike me, she started posting regularly right away. After my first couple of posts around the end of November/beginning of December, I didn’t post again for another two months. And after that random post in the middle of February, I didn’t post again until…well, until I started this blog-every-day challenge, one month ago.

And guess who inspired me to blog every day? Caroliena. In fact, she didn’t just “inspire” me in some kind of nebulous, wishy-washy tangential way: she straight-up challenged me to actually use my blog, to blog every day in July alongside her. When I would hesitate, she would prod me forward, and before I knew it I was writing a post every day. She provided the impetus for me to sit down and do it. She would often give me prompts and advice and suggestions, but even when she didn’t, just seeing how successful she has been at maintaining her blog for the better part of the past year galvanized me to work harder, smarter, and more on my own. Caroliena wasn’t just helpful, she was an exemplar. From the time we created our blogs until the end of June, I wrote a grand total of three measly posts. She wrote one hundred forty-one.

Because, see, that’s the kind of person Caroliena is. Not just with WordPress; with everything. I remember staying up late talking with her about why I’m vegetarian (which will probably be the subject of quite a few of my posts in the future), back when she herself was still a carnivore. Next thing I knew, she was going vegan. Caroliena is the kind of person who really listens, better than almost anyone I know. What makes her a good listener is that she doesn’t just listen; she listens, carefully and thoughtfully, and then acts on what she learns. She really takes things to heart. Back when we both still used Facebook, I would go on and on about how fucked up that corporation’s business model is. I would disparage it nonstop. But I still used it. She was the one to delete hers first; even though I was the one who had suggested the idea, I found myself following her example, not the other way around. That’s how she rolls. And it’s been the same with WordPress: when I was considering setting up a blog, almost a year ago now, I told her about it. She had never heard of it before, but no sooner had I told her about it than she made a WordPress account of her own. She beat me to it, because she took everything I knew in theory and put it into practice.

Caroliena never ceases to amaze me. She is continually outdoing herself, and outdoing even the people she looks up to. Where she looks at someone and thinks how much she can learn from them, she herself ends up teaching them just as much as they teach her. It’s not often that you find yourself looking up to someone who also looks up to you, but I look up to Caroliena more and more every day. Everything she learns, she takes to a whole new level, to the point that even when you’re the one who started her off on something, you find yourself following her example. I envy her professors: she is the best learner anyone could ask for. I’m proud of her. And I’m so grateful to her for helping me learn to actually embody the things that we both believe in.

Well done, Caroliena. You rock. For listening, for being you, for always being ready to take it to the next level. I’m proud of you.

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Getting Up Early. Really Early.

I should get up early more often. Maybe not as early as I did today, though.

See, for me, this morning was one of those mornings when you wake up long, long before you planned to, but can’t fall back asleep. To be precise, I woke up at 2:35 in the morning. To put that in context, as though it wasn’t absurd enough already, it is not a rare occurrence for me to stay up past 2:35 AM before going to sleep in the first place. (What can I say; I’m in college.) I had gone to sleep very early last night, but by “very early,” I mean 11:30 PM or so. Now, I don’t care how many folks tell me that the Ubermann sleep cycle is actually a thing; three hours of sleep is significantly less than you need to get in a night. So that wasn’t the best thing that could have happened.

But here’s the thing: despite the fact that I hadn’t planned to wake up that early, despite the fact that I didn’t get nearly enough sleep, I’m really grateful that it worked out that way. Because I’m the kind of person who stays up late, reading or writing or working or thinking, I forget how precious those silent early morning hours can be. Something about the stillness of the sleeping city creates this sense of freedom, as though time has somehow been paused, and you’ve been given this extra little bubble of space and time in which to work on whatever it is you need to do. It’s both a relaxing feeling and a motivating one. This time-out-of-time doesn’t feel as though it really “counts” against your day, so even if you get nothing done, you aren’t losing valuable “actual” time. You’re free to be unproductive. But by the same token, because it feels like you’ve been given this secret extra time that isn’t supposed to be there, you feel inspired to make the most of it.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call myself a “morning person,” since it did take quite a lot of tea to propel me from “can’t sleep” to “actually awake,” but I feel as though I’ve rediscovered something special that was there all along. Back when I was in high school (I can’t believe I just said that), I would have to get up by 6:00 AM every morning from sophomore year on, because my school district thought it would be a genius idea to make sure that anyone who took Advanced Placement science courses either A) couldn’t participate in any kind of extracurricular activities after school or B) had to start class at 7:25 AM. These AP courses all required an additional lab period, which was only available in the hour before school started or the hour after it ended. Anyway, because I had to get up so early regardless, I found myself getting up earlier and earlier, using the time before school each morning to work on my schoolwork, or get some writing done, or just sit and read. Some of those predawn hours were among the most productive times in my life.

Since starting college, however, I’ve been spoiled by remarkably lucky class timetables, with next to nothing scheduled for any earlier than 9:00 AM. Between that and the natural temptation to stay up late, either alone or with friends, I’ve ended up going to bed later (and waking up a lot later) than I did a few years ago. I bet I probably get a healthier amount of sleep now, on the whole, but sometimes I think I might actually be more productive in the mornings than at night.

So, I’m going to test it out. For the next few weeks, I’m going to make myself go to sleep before 1:00 in the morning, and wake up before 7:00 AM. It will certainly be easier than usual to fall asleep (and stay asleep, hopefully) tonight; I’m exhausted. The waking up is the tricky part, or, at least, it will be tomorrow morning. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’ll even start blogging in the mornings, rather than at night. Who knows?

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Furniture Rearrangement Therapy

I really like rearranging my room. Not for any purpose, not because the old arrangement was flawed in some way, or even because the new arrangement is any better. Just because. I enjoy every aspect of it, from the actual act of rearranging the furniture to the end result, looking around my “new” room. I just love it. In fact, get this: I even enjoy rearranging everything, seeing how it looks in a different alignment, then putting everything back exactly the way it was before, or perhaps very slightly altered.

I imagine that sounds a little silly. Why go to the trouble of rearranging your room when there’s nothing wrong with the old arrangement? Especially if you’re just going to put everything back the way it was before at the end. Isn’t that a waste of effort? I mean, some of that furniture is heavy. And you know what, that very well might be the case for most people. But I find it calming, and at the same time incredibly psychologically and physically invigorating. When I’m feeling under the weather, either from bodily illness or from dwelling too much all the worst things, I find it both soothing and rejuvenating to rearrange my room. The more radical the rearrangement, the better, whether or not I return the room to its original configuration afterwards.

There are a whole variety of reasons why this works for me, I think, and it’s hard to pick out any one of them as more important than another. However, I’m certain that a significant contributing factor is the simple fact that it requires physical activity, which gets the good old endorphins flowing. and that’s always nice. Especially when I’m feeling less than my best because of what I’ve come to think of as “excessive Palantir-gazing,” or spending too much time reading about how totally screwed up the entire world is right now, just standing up and moving around can help overcome the hopeless, nihilistic lethargy that is an occupational hazard of knowing just how bad things are.

It’s not just the physical activity, however, or I’d feel just as great after doing a whole bunch of situps, which I certainly don’t. I think a big part of it is that I like seeing my actions actually have a tangible effect in the real world. It takes some intellectual effort to conceptualize the difference that, for example, signing a petition can make. Or voting. Or any number of other kinds of infinitesimal contributions to a greater good. And especially for someone with a skeptical frame of mind, constantly questioning everything you’re told even when you’re the one telling yourself something, there is always a persistent voice in the back of your head telling you that none of it means a damn thing. When you actually set yourself a physical, down-to-earth task, however, you reignite your sense of your own agency; even the most skeptical mind can’t deny that something has changed after you move your furniture around, even if it’s not something that makes any difference outside your own room. It symbolically reminds you that if you just get up and actually do something, you can change things.

There are other aspects to it, too. A major one is that I don’t like things to stay the same. If everything in my room has been in the same place for more than a couple weeks, I start to get antsy. I want to move everything around, or get rid of some things, or occasionally even add something new. I don’t like the feeling of being stuck in a rut, doing things the same way over and over again without ever changing it up. Even when I make a change and then decide I was better off with the original setup, I don’t regret making the change. If I weren’t constantly trying other arrangements, on what grounds could I honestly claim that this arrangement was actually the one I liked best? There’s a saying that you’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind, and even if I’m only changing my mind about something small, like where to put my recycling bin, I like to keep myself as young as possible.

Even when I end up with the same arrangement I started with, I find that it still has that feel of “newness” to it, as though I’ve just started out on some new adventure, going in a brand new direction, and anything is possible. It’s as though, even though everything is technically in the same place, there’s a whole new room where the old one used to be. It keeps me from taking everything for granted; it stops me from letting my living space just fade into a blurred backdrop in my mind. Even when the changes are subtle, I take immense pleasure in the fact that basically every time anyone comes into my room, they notice that something is different from how it was last time.

So that, folks, is furniture rearrangement therapy. It has never failed to make me feel at least somewhat better afterwards. I have no idea whether or not it works at all for anyone else, but hey, why not give it a shot?

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Happy Birthday, StarCraft 2!

Three years ago today, StarCraft 2 officially came out. Happy birthday!

For those who don’t know, StarCraft 2 is a real-time strategy (RTS) computer game. Each player commands a military force, starting from a small main base and gathering resources to spend on training units and researching technologies, which are in turn used to secure more resource-rich locations and establish bases there. You win when all opposing players have been defeated, either because you destroy all their structures or because they surrender, departing with a “gg” (for “good game”). Although as many as eight players can participate in a game, and games can be created to feature everything from even teams (4v4, 3v3, etc) to insane “outmatched” scenarios (1v7, etc) to chaotic free-for-alls (omnium contra omnes), the game is designed and balanced around the good old-fashioned 1v1 two-player combat experience. Two players enter; only one can emerge victorious.*

I love RTS games. I grew up with them; they have had an immeasurable influence on my patterns of thought, and have been invaluable in honing my strategic thinking. Ever since I first sat down in front of a computer to play Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, my first RTS game, I was completely hooked. I soon found my way to StarCraft—not StarCraft 2, mind you, not the one that was released three years ago, but StarCraft 1, the original, released in 1998. Yeah, that’s right, fifteen years ago. Back then, playing computer games was far more of a challenge than it is today. The real battle wasn’t against your human opponent, but against the programmed-in limitations of the game’s interface and the suicidal insanity of your own units’ AI. Despite the fact that you could only select twelve of your units at a time (though you could have well over 100 military units at a time in an average game), could only select one structure at a time (though you could have dozens and dozens at a time in an average game), and that sort of thing, it was an immensely fun and competitive experience. In fact, StarCraft was so competitive that it became a professional e-sport, and quickly became, effectively, the national sport of South Korea. Seriously. It was only last year that StarCraft 2 replaced StarCraft on South Korea’s televised e-sports channels. Yes, you read that correctly.

StarCraft 2 is a lot easier to play well than StarCraft was, largely because it doesn’t require at least 120 actions per minute (in other words, two clicks each second, every second of the game) just to keep your own units under control and prevent them from spazzing out. This means that the skill cap is a lot lower, but it also means that the game is more accessible to folks who aren’t particularly familiar with RTS games already. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who likes any kind of strategy games, competitive games, or just computer games in general. For that matter, I pretty much recommend it to everyone.

See, StarCraft 2, like StarCraft, isn’t just a game that you play and enjoy and then forget about. It’s a game that you get invested in, a game that you strive to be better at. I honestly feel that over the last three years, playing StarCraft 2 has made me a better student, a better writer, and a better person. I’m coming on strong with the rhetoric, I know, but hear me out. First off, anything that inspires you to strive for improvement, in any medium, has the potential to make you better at everything else. It sounds weird to say it, but learning is a skill. There are better and worse ways to learn, and you can teach yourself to be a better learner. Learning isn’t just any old skill, either; it’s the single most useful skill there is. In a way, it’s really the only skill there is. If you can teach yourself to become a good learner, then whatever else you want to learn to be, you’re halfway there already.

Playing StarCraft 2 has helped me learn how to critically evaluate my own work in any medium. It has helped me get into the habit of comparing myself to the best, and always holding myself to a higher standard, because when you play the same game you watch professional gamers play, that habit simply emerges. And it has taught me the kind of lessons you can apply to every aspect of life—that consistent and directed practice are the road to success; that the best strategy isn’t the one that has the most, but the one that does the most with the least; that flashy moves and the element of surprise might make you win more in the short term, but in the long run, nothing beats mastery of the fundamental, less exciting aspects of the game. Maintaining consistent worker and army production, spending your resources on useful things rather than accumulating a useless surplus, constantly scouting the map to maintain an awareness of your surroundings—these things aren’t as cool-looking as mastering a single early surprise attack strategy, but they will make you a better player.

So, on StarCraft 2’s third birthday, I just want to express my gratitude and appreciation for that amazing game. Happy birthday, StarCraft 2! And thank you.

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Just Jealous? Why I’m Angry about Wealth Inequality (and you should be, too)

I’m going to be upfront about this: wealth inequality, both within the USA specifically and on a global scale, is a hot-button issue for me. It’s one of the political problems I care about the most. That’s why, since I live in New York City, I actively participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests at Liberty Square right from the start, or close to it. As a full-time student, I didn’t camp out there, and I would have felt a little guilty doing so anyway, since I couldn’t commit all day every day to the protests, but I was down there quite a bit. When discussing those protests, many of the things I would hear from fellow students were variations on the theme of: “You’re just jealous.”

As they saw it, the only reason anyone would protest against the vast wealth disparities between the top 1% (and, especially, the top .01%) and the rest of us was materialistic envy. According to this theory, I was protesting because I felt entitled to the same level of wealth and power that these über-elite banking executives enjoy, and I was demanding that they simply hand this kind of economic “success” (so-called) to me. After explaining to me what my motivations were, and why that meant that protest was misguided, these generous souls would then kindly offer me some advice on “more constructive” ways to deal with my jealousy of the banksters. The recommendations typically fell into one of two categories: 1) Sit down, shut up, get back in line, find a job at a bank, work hard, save up, and get rich myself (this advice typically came from the business school students), or 2) Remind myself that I don’t really even want to be rich in the first place, and just calm down already, because what was there to be so jealous and upset about?

Now, I’m not blaming the folks who offered this advice, or saying that they were being intentionally or willfully unhelpful. Both these ideas would have been great solutions, if my classmates had been diagnosing the problem correctly. If my anger at wealth inequality really did stem from jealousy, then either one of these solutions would have worked excellently, if I had taken it to heart and lived by it. They were, in a sense, right answers. They were just answering the wrong question.

My problem with wealth inequality isn’t that super-rich folks have nicer shit than I do. Indeed, by my own aesthetic standards, their lives are mostly a lot worse than mine. For example, my actual living quarters are a lot closer to my dream home than a giant empty mansion would be. I don’t like a high level of technology in my living space (or, really, on my planet). If someone handed me a billion dollars and made me spend it all on myself, I certainly wouldn’t waste it on luxury yachts and big-screen televisions, even if I were acting out of pure selfishness. Those things just simply don’t appeal to me in the first place.

In fact, my problem with wealth inequality isn’t, strictly speaking, even with the inequality itself. That doesn’t bother me. Some people are taller than others, some people are stronger, etcetera, etcetera. My sister, for example, is taller than I am. No big deal. But here’s the crucial difference: She didn’t cut off my legs to achieve her height. She didn’t get taller by making other people shorter. In the case of wealth inequality, however, that’s precisely how it works: the elites gain surplus by depriving the masses of what we need to survive.

I’m not against wealth inequality because the rich have more than they could ever possibly want, but because the poor have less than they actually need. I’m against it because while billionaires zip around in private jets and decide the future of the world, at least one billion of their fellow human beings have never tasted clean water. I’m against it because while executives take home six-figure annual bonuses in addition to their salaries to pat themselves on the back, one in four children in America is on food stamps because their families can’t afford both food and rent. There is enough of everything to go around in this world, but because the distribution is so massively imbalanced, almost all the world’s wealth is in the hands of only a few hundred individuals. And while they feast, the world starves. It is monstrously unethical to ask the “have nots” to simply ignore the lives of the “haves,” and enjoy what they’ve got rather than feeling entitled to something more. Most of the humans living on this planet, and even millions upon millions of people in the richest countries in the world, haven’t got enough to get by. It’s not about trying to get ahead, it’s just about wanting, for once, to be allowed to break even.

Assuming that people who are angry about wealth inequality just wish they were rich is like assuming that feminists just wish they were misogynistic. It completely misses the point. I’m angry that there are rich peoplenot that I’m not one of them.

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