Quarantine Diaries (Part 2)

Another week rolls by in Quarantine.

(Monday 4/06): Big Kitchen cleanout

My sister and I did a massive kitchen cleanout today. Now, this was a big deal for us — I can count the number of times we cleaned certain cabinets over my lifetime on a single hand. We have this one shelf that sat above the kitchen counter, which, if it would ever receive a name, would be “Gloria’s Miscellaneous shit”. Rummaging head-first through the chaotic mess was like exploring a dusty time capsule. I exhumed expired tea canisters from 2012, a packet of soybean flour from when I was still in high school, palm sugar from that one time I tried to make a sticky rice dessert, among other things. We ended up repurposing the shelf space to house our 20-year old collection of mismatched tableware sets (which all used to sit in the dishwasher, an appliance we never actually used to wash any dishes). The shelf was disorderly, but it had so much character and sentimental value to me that I whimpered every time I threw something into the trash. I felt like I was on an episode of Marie Kondo’s show and I was that one person who starts weeping when she lets go of a wilted piece of clothing picked up from her closet floor.

(Tuesday 4/07): Chanko Nabe

Chef Gloria makes Chanko nabe, roasted asparagus, and seared salmon for dinner! Chanko Nabe is a Japanese stew also referred to as “sumo stew”. I first found out about it while watching a Munchies episode on Youtube, featuring world sumo champion Byamba, who seems to have eaten nothing but Chanko Nabe over his entire sumo career. I’ve made it twice now, I can attest that I wouldn’t really mind eating Chanko Nabe forever either. It’s so good.

(Wednesday 4/08): ‘Anarchy in the age of coronavirus’, and a big think about what should motivate us in choosing a career

My Political Economy class was invited to sit in on a special guest lecture by economist David Friedman (yes, this David Friedman) about anarchy in the age of Coronavirus. I told my friend about it and we figured out a hacky way to watch the recording together while calling over FaceTime.

Friedman has written extensively about libertarian theory and anarcho-capitalism. His talk was an interesting exploration into whether privatization of certain aspects of the coronavirus response could produce better outcomes for society than the current chaotic mess involving our incompetent government.

Essentially, he pointed out the incompetencies and incoherence of our government in its efforts to contain the virus and suggested that maybe if private entities were incentivized to innovate and adapt to this new pandemic era (by developing better labeling and testing methods for promoting commerce, for example), the disciplining power of the invisible hand would do the trick.

The coronavirus topic is new, but his fundamental argument for anarchism is a very old one: much as we’d like to believe that our government leaders have public-spirited intentions, they’re influenced by selfish motives like everyone else. Thus, when politicians make sweeping policy decisions on behalf of the public, there’s no good way to trust that it’s the socially optimal route: more likely, it’s the one that actually just gives him/her the most private benefit.

There’s good empirical evidence that this occurs, but his matter-of-fact statement that people always prioritize what’s best for themselves made me hesitant and kind of disgusted. Surely, all the people who do humanitarian work, science, healthcare and the like make a lot of personal sacrifices to improve society. Heck, look at all of the front line healthcare workers fighting coronavirus right now!

Now, part of me would normally believe that there are people out there who are fiercely passionate about improving the world, and who therefore take up certain professions because they want to make society better (by fighting crime, bringing down social inequalities, pushing the boundaries of science and whatnot). I myself have been seduced more than once by these ideals, and in my choice to pursue higher education, I do have them at the back of my mind. In recent months though, as I was interviewing for research assistant positions at various research labs, I had the fortune of chatting to a lot of academics, many of whom gave me really valuable, sobering advice. Psychologist Mahzarin Banaji researches implicit biases and is credited for developing the implicit association test (IAT), which has made her a celebrity in her field and in many circles of law and social justice. In my interview with her, she remarked that this fame she garnered has attracted a lot of starry-eyed applicants to her lab, all of whom express their passions about tackling social justice issues with psychology. She told me that she looks upon all of these applicants with great suspicion; from her view, choosing to go into psychology research mainly for the impact factor and not for the genuine drive to understand human behavior (a drive that would be strong enough to endure the vicissitudes of actual research) is a big red flag. The takeaway: making a positive societal contribution is really, really hard. The meaningfulness of one’s work alone won’t sustain a long career if the person doesn’t find something personally rewarding about it, monetarily or otherwise. Disillusionment comes pretty quickly to those who run on the fuel of idealism and nothing else.

Going back to David Friedman’s remarks about people’s natural self-interestedness, I update my first gut-reaction a little. I don’t believe that everybody is constantly trying to maximize how much money they own at whatever the social costs, but this doesn’t mean that the people who are successful doing so-called humanitarian work don’t do so out of self-interest.

(Thursday 4/09): Doodle doodle

I resurrected my old drawing tablet and challenged myself to do some digital painting! In middle school, I was super into digital art. It was enough for me to get a fancy drawing tablet so that I could make doodles on it after school and post my masterpieces on Deviantart. However, my drawing habit petered out throughout high school, and it’s been years since I’ve attempted my last painting. Rusty? Yes. Did I still have fun? OH yes

(Friday 4/10): Audiobooks!

Today is Good Friday! I’m not religious, so today wasn’t much different for my family than any other regular day. But one good thing was all the free time I had to throw into a full out audiobook binge. I finished Misbehaving by Richard Thaler, another great book about behavioral economics told from the mouth of one of the field’s most prominent figures. I know the field’s genesis story pretty well now, and it reads almost like a superhero fiction. It started from a tiny band of iconoclastic psychologists and economists in the 1970s, who’ve dedicated their careers to challenging old school rational choice theory, birthing this new discipline about predictable human irrationalities. Behavioral economics and behavioral science have since become a much more mainstream topic today. I can’t help but wonder, though, how thrilling it must have been to be a behavioral economist during those early days. I picture a lot of frustrated old economists, waving their fists and slinging highbrow insults.

I started a new book today with a much darker tone: The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon. The book’s about the personal, cultural, and scientific aspects of Depression, an illness that’s frighteningly common these days, but remains an uncomfortable topic of discussion. Andrew Solomon’s writing is incredibly vivid — he’s able to use language and metaphor to conjure up the most complex feelings, and in describing his own depression, some of the most terrifying ones. This book is really heavy. I’m not sure if I recommend reading it during this weekend of pastel colors, chocolates, and Easter bunnies, though.

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student || gloriawfeng.com