Pricing Follows Power

In San Francisco, most people spend much more on housing than food. Does this mean that housing brings much greater value to people’s lives? No. If I were forced to choose between housing without food and adequate food without housing, I’d rather have enough food and take my chances as an unsheltered homeless person. In reality, I might decide that temporarily lacking food but keeping my housing would be better for my social status and prospects of improving my situation (the stigma of being homeless makes it harder to improve one’s socio-economic standing). But if I believed the situation would last over three months, I would choose food.

Why is housing drastically more expensive than food? Simple – people who control housing have more power to increase prices than people who control food.

Housing is much more than physical shelter. Climate-appropriate tents are cheap and provide sufficient shelter for survival. If physical shelter is all that is needed, that’s the solution. Sometimes, that IS the solution; many people in San Francisco lived in tents after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Another part of ‘housing’ is the social consensus that someone may reside in a particular spot. Away from others, social consensus does not matter; wherever there are others, social consensus is necessary. Otherwise, it’s dangerous to live there. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the social consensus was that (some) people may live in tents. Now, there is a general social consensus that someone can pitch a tent on private property with the owner’s permission (but what is private property?) or in the safe sleeping villages (though some neighbors object). Otherwise, someone living in a tent pitched in San Francisco, lacking the protection of social consensus, is at much higher risk of being assaulted, robbed, or being forced to move. Continue reading

The Bizarre Impacts of TV Commercials

My mother was in her 20s the first time she saw a TV commercial.

At first, they baffled her. At some dramatic moment, the TV… abruptly started talking about a frivolous consumer product. What a bizarre way to tell stories.

Having watched lots of television growing up (I watched far more television as a child than as a teenager or adult), I took it for granted that commercials broke up shows.

In some DVDs of shows originally made for broadcast TV, it’s obvious where the commercial breaks were written into the script. If I’m watching such DVDs with my dad, he’ll say something like, “Commercial time – not!” They are artifacts of commercial breaks woven so deeply into the show’s fabric that, even when they are in a new context without commercial breaks, they shape the viewers’ experience.

The term ‘soap opera’ comes from the commercials aimed at homemakers. The genre’s name has outlived the original marketing to prospective soap buyers (though I suppose soap operas still come with the occasional ad for soap).

At least the old broadcast TV shows accommodated commercial breaks in the script so they did not feel random (indeed, viewers can feel them even when there are no commercials). Not so with YouTube.

The method I used to suppress YouTube ads finally broke (I’m surprised YouTube let it work for so long; a loophole which allows people to watchYouTube ad-free without payment does not serve their interests). Now that I’m taking part in a Mandarin listening challenge, guess where I can get lots of interesting Mandarin-language audio content for free? YouTube, that’s right. Right now I’m watching The Story of Yanxi Palace, the first multi-episode TV show I’ve started watching since I lost the ability to suppress YouTube ads. The ads usually come at some interval of 5 minutes, sometimes in an inappropriate moment. The lack of smooth-commercial-break-transitions and the jarringly-out-of context ads help me appreciate how my mother felt the first time she saw a TV commercial. (YouTuve algorithms are bad at choosing ads for someone watching a Chinese palace intrigue drama in the United States).

If I were watching these TV shows in an ad-free format, I would not notice scripted-in commercial breaks because they don’t exist. In this sense, these TV shows are more flexible; they adapt well to ad-free viewing.

Lately many people have been talking about the relationship between ads, content, and algorithms on YouTube. This is merely the latest chapter in the history of advertising interacting with TV content. That, in turn, is part of the greater saga of storytellers’ economic supporters shaping the stories which are told.

Emma Goldman’s Courage

Living My Life by Emma Goldman is one of the most vivid books I’ve read in the past half year.

Emma Goldman, one of the world’s most famous anarchists, believed ‘free speech’ in the United States was a joke because the government often suppressed her own speech. Many times local police shut down her public lectures, and the government sometimes prevented her from publishing her writing by seizing all copies distributed through the mail and even raiding her office and confiscating her manuscripts. Right-wing vigilantes in San Diego (which the police ‘mysteriously’ could not control) threatened her with violence and forced her to flee to Los Angeles – though she returned to San Diego years later to prove that the vigilantes could not silence her. Even when offered police protection, she refused it unless coerced because, as an anarchist, she was anti-police. She was imprisoned for two years because of her public opposition to the United States entering World War I.

World War I was a revelation to her because many anarchists she looked up to – including her idol Peter Kropotkin – supported the war. She herself refused to side with either the Allies or the Central Powers, claiming that war hurt the ordinary masses of all countries involved. She saw many allegedly like-minded people support the war. On the other hand, some socialists and other non-anarchist leftists who she previously regarded as flaky came out against the war, despite economic, legal, and reputational risk. Continue reading

Testing My Resolution to Quit Books Which Grip Me Not: The Lying Life of Adults

Recently, my resolution to quit the books which fail to engage was tested again.

I dropped The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante about 40% of the way through. Facing this was hard.

I was so pumped up. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is one of my favorite works of fiction I read in the past decade. Naturally, my expectations for her latest novel were high. I did not even apply my first hundred pages/first third cutoff. Continue reading

Ninth Blog Anniversary Post

For so many years I’ve been astonished at how long I’ve kept this blog active that, this year, I’m no longer astonished. I’m saving my astonishment for the 10th anniversary next year.

What has gobsmacked me is that ten years ago to the day, I first arrived in Taiwan. It still feels like yesterday. How did ten years pass so fast?

If ten years pass so quickly, my life has little time remaining. Unless some extraordinary advances in increasing human life spans happen soon, my remaining life expectancy is measured in decades at best. Fast-moving decades.

The one major change I’m making to celebrate this anniversary is banishing the ads. I finally got so sick of the WordPress ads (is it just me, or did they get more annoying every year?) that I finally upgraded to a paid plan.

Recently I’ve been studying self-editing and applying what I’m learning to new blog posts (and sometimes going back to old blog posts to practice my editing skills, I’m fortunate to have so much material for practice).

My recent foray into self-editing reminds me of the early years of this blog when I held myself to a 500 word maximum. I learned a lot about self-editing by imposing that limit, but not as much as I’m learning now by intentionally studying the techniques.

Thank you, all of you who read this blog, whether you’ve been a frequent reader for years or only now stumbled on this humble little blog.

How Far Has My Ancient Greek Come, and Where Is It Going?

In September 2019, for the first time in a decade, I plunged into Ancient Greek. (I can hardly believe I spent a whole decade away.) Though I never spelled out my goal, it’s obvious in hindsight; not being able to pick up a book and simply read in Ancient Greek irritated me. I wanted to read Ancient Greek with the same ease as I can read modern Chinese.

A year and a few months later, I still can’t read Ancient Greek as well as I read Chinese. By now I know my Ancient Greek will never rise to that level (despite studying Ancient Greek years before I started learning Chinese). The reasons are twofold.

First, I can’t create an equally rich environment for Ancient Greek as I have for Chinese. By ‘learning environment’ I don’t mean moving to a place where Ancient Greek is spoken as an everyday language (though that can count). I mean having many ways to experience the language: chatting with people, listening to radio programs in Ancient Greek, watching movies, that kind of thing. Even the variety of reading material available in Ancient Greek is infinitesimal compared to what’s available in Chinese. Continue reading