I spent almost 10 years of my childhood in Russia. Russia is kind of a different planet than the United States.
In the US we have an understanding that, at least in theory, the government exists to enforce justice. We expect that when a government official is publicly caught embezzling money or abusing their power, they will be fired, prosecuted, and replaced. That’s a big part of why we have a government in the first place: safeguarding justice by prosecuting criminals.
In Russia, that sentiment would be considered laughably naïve. In Russia, the government exists to help the people at the top exert power over everyone else. That’s not a radical statement, just a statement of fact. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. President Putin routinely assassinates his rivals under paper-thin cover, rigs the elections, or just has the term limits reset. Before the current system they had Communism, and before that it was the Czars. Everyone in Russia expects the government to serve its own interests first, last, and always. No-one expects it to get better any time soon.
As a consequence of its priorities, the Russian government is corrupt from top to bottom. America has corruption here and there; in Russia if you removed all the corruption you literally wouldn’t have a government left. Paying bribes is expected as a matter of course anytime you interact with a government official. Sometimes they’ll give you a receipt so the next official knows you’ve already been had. Because access to the government is contingent on bribery, and because so many Russians are very poor, for most Russians the government might as well not exist.
That includes the police. When my parents bought an apartment in Yakutsk, on the advice of the locals, we had a steel door installed. It was a big brown slab of metal with no handle, only a little slot an inch tall and a quarter-inch wide. This fit the door’s key, which was a metal bar eight inches long with square teeth machined into the sides; if I’d ever been jumped in the street, that key would’ve been my go-to defensive weapon.
The reason we needed the steel door was because if the Russian mafia ever decided that we as Americans had enough loose cash for a good shakedown, the Russian police would have sided with the highest bidder. The mafia would’ve started beating down our door, we’d have called the police, the police would have shown up, the mafia would’ve bribed them, and unless we could outbid the mafia, the police would’ve sided with them.
Russia is a place where the police have no accountability. They wield force however they want. The populace lives in fear, because calling the police only ever makes things worse. It’s a scary place to live–bad things happen, and when they do there is no remedy.
The US is better than that…some of the time. Every time my family stepped back across the border to the US, there was this tangible sense of relief that the world was no longer out to get you. This month’s rioting has made it clear to me that America’s police forces are not as impartial as I believed.
I left Russia sixteen years ago. Since then, I’m told things are slowly getting better. Some Russians are gradually realizing that a better world might be possible. They’re starting to protest against election-rigging, which I never would have expected. People like Sergei Magnitsky are fighting corruption in Russia at enormous personal cost.
People around the world look to the United States to see what a free, honest, strong, prosperous country looks like. When people want help fighting corruption in their own country, they come to the United States (see last link). That’s why Putin has Russian intelligence working so hard to corrupt our elections and undermine our confidence in them. It’s why Putin loves it when President Trump behaves corruptly. It shows the Russian people that government accountability and impartial justice are just fairy tales that would never actually work. It persuades them that living in fear of the police is the natural order of things. It tells them that America is just as bad as Russia, and that they need a strong leader to keep the wolf at bay. At least he’s the devil they know, right?
I assert with every fiber of my being that the United States must not become like Russia. We must be scrupulously honest, both in appearance and in fact. When something like George Floyd’s murder shows that we have not been living up to our own standards, we must make any and all changes necessary to correct that, even if it requires us to reckon with painful truths or atone for the sins of our fathers. More than our own country depends on our success.
The Real Lord of the Flies: The 1954 novel about of a group of boys who are stranded on an island and descend into barbarism has impacted our perceptions of ourselves more than a thousand scientific papers to the contrary. Here’s what happened when some kids were actually put in that situation.
Flatten the Curve of Armchair Epidemiology: Practice good link-sharing hygiene, everyone!
The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them: Most informative post I’ve seen about how the coronavirus actually spreads and how to avoid being infected.
That Time I Tried to Buy an Actual Barrel of Crude Oil: Just because the price of oil is negative doesn’t mean buying some is a good idea.
Videos (🔊sound on)
Y’all i been weak af at this video for 10 minutes 🤣🤣 pic.twitter.com/dQEkjz3ir2— Kee 🥀 (@dxpevibes_) June 11, 2020
In the Age of Quarantine, different people have different forms of self-care. Mine is productivity.
Presently I’m job-searching full time. Job searching means feeling uncertain a lot. You can’t control the number of nibbles you’ll get back a particular week; what you can control is how much work you put into the job search.
But there’s a difference between being productive and feeling productive. I needed something to link the two: when I’ve done lots of work, I want to feel good about that, and I need something that will tell me whether I have or haven’t done enough today.
For a long time I’ve used Habitica as a to-do list and habit tracker. This has several big benefits: it lets you define things you want to do (once or regularly) and rewards you for doing them with level-ups, loot, and new abilities. It’s even better when you join a party. But as with most gamified systems, eventually it runs out of relevant rewards. As of this writing, my Warrior is level 80 and has achieved every interesting goal Habitica can provide. So I decided to build a system better tuned to my own needs.
There are three time horizons I care about: today, this week, and long-term; these are mapped to the left, center, and right columns.
At the start of each day I decide on my goals for that day and the point value for each goal. 1 point is something simple like brushing my teeth; submitting a job application (which usually includes a custom cover letter and possibly one or more essay questions) is usually 5 points, and a truly herculean task might be 10 points.
Under “Daily Goals” we have “Bonuses”. These are things I want to do regularly - not necessarily every day, but I don’t want to ignore them for more than a week or so. This includes things like cleaning up around the house, going for a walk, and talking to people besides my wife. Whenever I mark the “✔” column, a script inserts today’s date into a hidden column, which the “✔ days ago” column uses to calculate how long it’s been since I did that.
Near the bottom we have the “Daily combos” section. This is an important part of the game loop I’m using to train myself to get better at estimating how much I’ll be able to accomplish each day. At the end of each day I grade myself on four things:
- Did I accomplish everything I set out to do that day? If so, Effort Tracker gives me a 25% bonus on all the points I earned that day. The incentive this creates is to not aim too low - a 25% bonus on a small number is unappealing - but also not to aim too high, lest I not complete everything and lose the bonus.
- Did I achieve all my goals before dinner? It’s good for me to be able to rest with my wife in the evening. This is worth another 25% bonus.
- Did I score three different bonuses today? This is worth a flat 3 points; seeking this bonus often induces me to clean up a little or brush my teeth before bed.
- Did I score five bonuses today? These don’t have to be unique. If I did a truly heroic bout of cleaning or something, I can get a 5-point reward.
Similarly, I have weekly goals and a 20-point bonus for completing them all. At the end of the week we add up the weekly total and put it in the “Weekly totals” column, where it adds to the grand total and the point balance I use to purchase rewards.
Figuring out how to reward myself for the work I’m doing is something I’m still working on. I can spend 150 points on a $5 game microtransaction; I’ve done that a couple times and run out of things I really want.
Recently my wife suggested I might be working too hard. The problem is that I feel guilty for resting, and I worry that if I stop pushing myself I will become lazy and never amount to anything. So as a way of establishing boundaries for myself, I’ve recently ruled that above and beyond weekends, I can spend 500 points to take a day off. I can earn that in two good weeks or three bad ones. I’ll continue to monitor this and rebalance it as necessary.
That’s my system in its current state. I thought about making this into a web app, but Google Sheets is really easy to change when I decide part of the system needs to be reworked. I’ve pinned the sheet to my phone’s home screen so I don’t even need my computer turned on to update it. If anyone wants to use it I can probably make you a template.
I really agree with something Tom Francis said about how he organizes his work time as an indie game developer:
Obviously I’m amazingly lucky to have this kind of freedom over my working life. That much freedom can be dangerous: if you don’t consciously get on top of it, create systems and measure the results, you can end up throwing away a huge gift and being miserable despite it.
The traditional approach to improving your productivity is to make a New Year’s resolution, promise yourself really hard that you’re going to do better, spend lots of willpower forcing it, and then feel disappointed in yourself when the willpower runs out. I’m not a fan of that approach. I’ve played enough games in my life that I understand a little about how systems incentivize behavior. Farnam Street has an excellent introduction to the topic that opens with this great quote:
Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.
Readers, I’d like to know how quarantine is treating you. Here’s a poll, and feel free to add more detail in the comments.
What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.
Mocking the Plague
Red and Blue America Aren’t Experiencing the Same Pandemic: Political leanings are correlated with where you live, which changes how the pandemic will affect you.
Rep. Burchett set up a line for those ‘feeling overwhelmed.’ So far, he’s gotten 1,000 calls.: This is good leadership.
The apocalypse is here, and it isn’t that bad.
COVID-19 is officially a global pandemic. Local and federal governments have declared a state of emergency and asked citizens to self-quarantine. Schools and offices are getting a crash course in working remotely.
Last Saturday, my wife and I went to the grocery store and found they were out of carts. We got a cart from a nice little old lady in exchange for helping her load her groceries into her car, then went inside to discover the reason for the shortage: the checkout line went all the way to the back of the store.
The store was packed. Holly and I loaded two weeks worth of food into our cart and got in line. It took about 45 minutes to reach checkout.
Those 45 minutes set my confidence in American society higher than it’s been since 2016. Everyone was positively neighborly. We commiserated with the lady in line behind us about how long the line was. With school closed, they’re losing access to the free lunches her kids need, but someone in her neighborhood is providing lunches to fill the gap. Holly and I watched her cart so she could fetch supplies without losing her place in line. The ladies ahead of us joked about their cart piled full of beer–“do you think we have enough?” We swapped stories about previous times of trouble and shared intel about where the shortest checkout lines could be found.
The narrative we associate with global disasters is the one given to us by disaster movies. We expect that with the veil of civilization stripped away, people will show their “true natures” and turn on each other–that the ones who survive will be the most ruthless and the best armed.
Our present pandemic is showing that narrative to be false. The few cases we see where people act selfishly are covered by the news, of course, because they’re sensational, but they’re quite rare and they’re universally derided. (Language warning.)
Instead, we see people pulling together. We see Italians in self-quarantine playing impromptu concerts on their balconies:
We see neighbors taking care of each other:
Xpost from /r/COVID19positive - I posted a notice on my apartment door to warn my building that I have COVID19 symptoms. This was dropped through the mail slot. I don't even know them. So many onions in here... from r/HumansBeingBros
And we see artists processing fear into beauty:
This is a scary time for many. Our way of life has been upended, and there’s no telling when it will return to normal, or what “normal” will look like. But as Mr. Rogers put it:
Now to keep this blog from being all sugar and no spice: If you have a favorite ideology that you wish more people would adopt, this is your moment. Talk to your neighbors (especially the elderly) and see what they need (while taking appropriate precautions to avoid infecting them). People will remember this month for the rest of their lives. The moral high ground is yours for the taking!
This week on the Internet
My Semester With the Snowflakes: 52-year-old Navy SEAL enrolls in Yale with a bunch of millennials, everything goes better than expected.
75-year-old woman writes a fantastic essay about the video game her son stars in: She bought a PlayStation 4 and learned to use it so she could appreciate what he did for a living.
The Nuclear Family was a Mistake: David Brooks looks at how families have changed through time. If our families were more multigenerational, the very old and the very young would both be better off. (It would probably make quarantine more difficult, though.)