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"This song is for the person you used to be. Fuck that guy."
-- Torq Campbell of Stars, introducing Your Ex-Lover is Dead at a recent Philadelphia show

How do you become a good person if you are not already a good person? If you are not motivated to do good, what is there to motivate you to become motivated to do good? A leap of faith is required, or, more realistically, a leap of self-delusion. You tell yourself that the motivations you will hold at the end of the process will justify the path you are about to embark on. This problem, the problem of Aspiration is the subject of philosopher Agnes Callard book of the same name, which I learned about this week from her conversation with economist Tyler Cowen on his podcast. In the conversation, they couch this problem within the tradition of problems from ancient Greek philosophy (with rhyming names) that ask how any change is ever possible. Most immediately relevant is Meno’s paradox, which points out that you can’t search for an answer to something you don’t know (if you had a way of knowing whether what you were to find is the answer, you would already have the answer) or for something you know (you already have the answer). More distantly relevant, but more widely known, is Zeno’s paradox on the impossibility of motion.

There is an opposite, but intertwined, problem with aspiration: not “how is change ever possible”, but rather “how is consistency ever possible?” Every day I seek to become a better person, and go down the path I think will contribute to this goal. However, every day my idea of what makes a person good will change, and the person I was twelve years ago would not agree with me that I am going down the best possible path to becoming a good person. But what does he know?

Greg Egan’s science fiction novel Schild’s Ladder takes this idea as its main theme. The title of the novel comes from an analogy Egan draws between our individual moral evolution and the mathematical idea of parallel transport. Suppose you had a vector pointing to your idea of true north, and you wanted to keep that notion with you as you traveled over the surface of the Earth without the use of an external compass. Along every step you took, you could keep the vector pointed in the direction that is locally consistent with the direction it pointed just before. However, you will find that after a long journey, the direction you end up with is entirely path dependent, and two people who started at the same point with the same true north but took different paths, could meet back up and be in complete disagreement about its direction.

Six months ago I left academia for work in the private sector. This was after five years of physics graduate school and six years of postdoctoral research work. There were many reasons for my disillusionment with the academic path and my realization that the continued sacrifices necessary to continue pursuing it were just not worth its increasingly dubious allure. This perceived allure is the product of the academic system itself, which instills in its inductees certain notions of what sort of work is noble and worthwhile and advances the cause of truth, and what sort of work is tedious and utilitarian and merely services the baser needs of society.

This is an unfortunate paradox that underlies the institution of PhD education. It clearly imparts to its graduates skills that would be hard to acquire in any other setting, particularly skills for tackling problems like Meno’s of how to search for the unknown unknowns. These skills can be very useful in so many areas of endeavor that unfortunately a PhD education also imparts indifference toward. From the perspective of today, and perhaps even from the perspective of twelve years ago, my motivations six years ago to not explore paths outside academia more seriously seem misguided. Perhaps I would tell my 12-years-ago self to beware the motivation-distorting influence of graduate school. But these speculations seem silly. That said, I probably would warn students and mentees of this if I were to continue in academia.

I used to spend some time on this website around 6 years ago, reading and writing under a different user name. One of my favorite noders to read has always been TheDeadGuy. In a recent post, he writes about looking back at the road not taken. Some people look back and think that they were prevented from seeking to become their true selves by the pressures of conforming to the standards imposed on them by others. It’s likely true that if you were more unyielding in the face of societal expectations, you would have been able to make better progress toward your aspirational goals. However, it’s hard for me to believe that this would have taken you towards whatever idea you now have of your true self.

The roads we travel lead to unknown unknowns and by walking down them one step at a time we belie the paradoxes and come to know the unknown. But the roads not taken lead to unknowable unknowns, permanently behind the veil. As we gain moral experience, as we find new passions, as we see others cope, we adapt, we react, we learn from others. We build the true self piece by piece as an exquisite corpse. It is useful, once in a while to take a long look into the future and evaluate our aspirations, just as it is useful to look back at the roads not taken. But we should not imagine we are looking through a clear lens, but realize we are looking through the built up layers of distortion accumulated and those yet to come.

I met the new guy at work; stereotypical hipster. I already don’t like him. Hipsters invaded and destroyed everything I love.

As a kid, I never got on with the other kids. You know, “doesn’t play well with others” on the report card. I always got on with teachers and adults better. I guess I always figured that things would get better, that one day the kids would be mature like those teachers and adults.

I stopped getting beaten up, sure, but it turns out it’s generational. I still get on with the generation Xers above me; the kids my age still find ways to exclude and belittle me, even though we’re past 30 now. I cling to my gen X identity like it was my last shred of clothing, like that isn’t the least gen X thing in the world to do. Stupid millennial.

They said nerds were popular now. It’s not true. Nerds were social outcasts, we retreated into Trek and Wars and D&D and Video Games, and the good looking hipsters followed, took over those communities, drove us out. I thought I was one, until they made it clear I was no longer welcome in the communities I helped to build. They called themselves nerds, but the actual nerds? No, now we just get called “neckbeard” and “fedora” and “incel” instead.

I stopped getting beaten up, sure, but it’s all over the new media – the internet, the thing I helped to build, the place I retreated when I was young. A beautiful place, pseudonyms judged on what they had to say, and the moment they came here they plaster their faces all over it and talk to their real life friends – the ones I never had. Day in, day out, I hear about how terrible a person I am. I want the video game sites, the ones that review the games I drown myself in with nowhere else to go, to judge the games based on if they are good games instead of if they push politics the reviewer agrees with – so I am a ‘sexually harassing gator who makes rape threats’. A prominent voice who gets her pictures up on walls at the workplace literally tweets #killallmen but if I say men suffer too, it’s misogynist hate-speech. I got a job doing tech support, the only thing I was ever any good at, and I’m a “patriarchal shit-lord, driving women out of the industry”. A CEO of the internet company threatens “What are you going to do about the incels in your company?” like further segregating and driving away those with nothing to lose won’t end up in more violent rampages.

I won’t ever do anything. I’ll just take it, like I’ve taken it all my life. Sooner or later they’ll purge me from my job, and then I guess I’ll have nothing. And I guess I deserve it. The truth is, I am a shit person. Maybe I’ve always been a shit person, or maybe I’ve just heard it so many times I believe it. I honestly don’t know.
It’s not long now until the gen Xers are gone entirely, and I’ll be stuck with nothing but my own generation, the shitty generation who always hated me. I’ve seen the way they look at me when I’m called out for a job to help them, the sneer that says ‘how dare you think you have the right to be in my presence”. I made a couple of friends, to be fair, at least a couple I didn’t drive away. One never leaves his house, the other got a girlfriend and I haven’t spoken to in four months.

Hhere I am, drinking, and playing a video game to pass the time, one that subtly sneaks in every so often that insidious implication: “you are a shit person; you are not welcome here.”

I am not sure how much longer I can keep this up.

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