Power in Gulliver’s Travels

No, not the Jack Black movie.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is actually a fantastic blend of adventure fantasy and social satire. It’s probably the type of book I’ll pick up later in life once I’ve seen more of the world and think it’s twice as funny/good as I do now.

In a nutshell, Gulliver’s Travels describes the journeys of Lemuel Gulliver, the most unfortunate man in the world. Over the span of 16 years, he is shipwrecked, forgotten onshore of a mysterious island, and marooned twice. After each catastrophe, he finds himself in an unknown land filled with strange inhabitants. He learns their language, adopts their customs, and reports on how their society differs from his own.

The discussion below is a suggestive summary of key parts with my analysis at the end. There are spoilers, so leave if you want to keep the surprises for yourself.


Gulliver is first shipwrecked in Lilliput, an island where everything is in miniature. Its human inhabitants are six inches tall, and their surroundings are scaled accordingly. Lilliputian cows can fit in our pockets, and their greatest metropolis is smaller than a football field.

Gulliver is an average-sized human, but a giant in their land. He is more than ten times as tall as a Lilliputian and has prodigious strength by this accord. The Emperor of Lilliput feeds and cloths Gulliver out of his own expense, and then compels him into public service. As part of this deal, Gulliver has to capture the navy of a rival empire of miniature humans, called the Blefuscans, and deliver it to Lilliputian ports. The Blesfuscans were preparing a violent invasion of Lilliput, so Gulliver justifies capturing their fleet as an act of self-defense for his adopted home.

The Emperor is overjoyed when the fleet is delivered. He confers the highest honors on Gulliver and entreats him to capture more Blefuscan vessels and even aid in a violent counter-invasion. Gulliver flatly refuses. He is content to defend Lilliput but will play no role in subjugating innocent people. The majority of the Lilliputian royal court backs this decision, but the Emperor is incensed. This begins Gulliver’s political downfall. His enemies take advantage of his disfavor with the Emperor and conspire to blind Gulliver in his sleep or kill him. Upon hearing of their plans, Gulliver flees to Blefuscu and eventually escapes to England.

Contrast this to what happens in Brobdingnag. There, Gulliver is to the Brobdingnagians what the Lilliputians were to Gulliver. The people there are more than 50 feet tall, and their buildings and animals are also scaled appropriately. Everything is incredibly dangerous to a person of Gulliver’s size, so he must be on constant guard against being crushed by a careless Brobodingnagian or carried away by a crow.

Accordingly, Gulliver is a novelty. He is exhibited as a living curiosity and toured across the country before being purchased by the queen and finding residence in her court. There, he is universally loved, but not respected, by the Brobdingnagians. They see Gulliver as a coward because he is afraid of (to them) meager heights and household flies (which are as large as birds to him). When he attempts to give the King a brief account of England, he is laughed at and stroked condescendingly for trying to make grand the history of “little people.” Nonetheless, all his needs are met by royal servants and the nobles are entertained by his company.

Comparing Gulliver’s experiences in both nations, it appears power and affection are inversely related. When he has the capacity to single-handedly defeat armies in Lilliput, Gulliver is asked to behave immorally. If he declines, he loses favor with the Emperor. If he accepts, he is seen as monstrous by the more humane members of the Lilliputian court. Gulliver loses status no matter his course of action. His power causes others to put him under conflicting obligations that are impossible to simultaneously fulfill. The result is he loses popularity and is forced to flee.

Notice Gulliver has no such worries in Brobdingnag. He’s the size of a Brobdingnagian mouse and is incapable of doing anything useful. The King, Queen, and nobles expect nothing of him except to be small and pleasant, which is easily accomplished. His obligations there are few. They are less likely to be contradictory, so he’s able to meet all of them without offending anybody. If he suddenly developed some power or faculty useful to the Brobdingnagians, I suspect Gulliver would be inundated with conflicting expectations to do this or that, and then inevitably run afoul of the group he chooses to ignore.

I’ve heard about people deliberately using this principle. A CFO I know asks salespeople to blame decisions that would upset customers on him. Conflict seems to arise when the customer wants something and the salesperson won’t provide it. If the salesperson is bound by an “evil” CFO, the customer has no reason to criticize them. The CFO understands that by appearing powerless, you preserve affection.

The major suggestion is universal love goes hand in hand with uselessness. The only certain way to avoid censure is to make sure nothing is asked of you, and the only way to make sure nothing is asked of you is to be incapable.

 

Oregon Links

State of Oregon changes zoning laws to help increase supply of housing. Finally, they’re doing something right after the rent control bill.

Portland protests making the news.

A Portland startup is in the business of helping cities manage their e-scooters and other forms of “micromobility.”

By scoring operators based on their performance against rigorous data benchmarks, this new service will help cities with the difficult and error-prone process of knowing which operators are meeting their compliance requirements.

I find this funny. A startup that helps cities manage startups.


 

On a personal note, I’ve realized I would like nothing better to come back to Portland in my adulthood and give back to the city. Whether this be through volunteering in the school system (Lincoln, hopefully) or getting involved in local politics, I want to have a hand in allowing it to be the place it is.

Thoughts on Slowness

There’s plenty of material out there that tells us to take our foot off the gas and apply the breaks, or at least coast. In fact, so much has been written about “taking a breath” or “reflecting” that the terms are in danger of losing their potency. We all know how mentally and physically damaging it is to be busy all of the time, but my own anecdotal evidence doesn’t support anyone taking this advice to heart among the surfeit of articles/podcasts/talks telling us chill for a second.

This is a shame because while busyness may make us better at something in some narrow sense, I think it makes us less interesting on the whole. When I am my busiest, I understand I am not a person capable of having a good conversation with anyone, not necessarily for lack of time, but mental resources. My mind is always elsewhere, and this makes me about as engaging conversationally as a distracted cat or someone desperately trying resist the effects of anesthesia.

Yet, this post is about slowness, not busyness. The two are related, for sure, but I’d like to talk about the two types of slowness I have observed.

First is a kind of phenomenal slowness. [1] This is the sort you may experience lounging by the pool on a vacation, or just after you’ve woken up to a damp foggy morning while camping. It is characterized by feeling as if the world has actually slowed down, or you are in such a state that your corner of it is moving at a suitable pace regardless of what’s happening elsewhere. You can also describe this as the feeling that accompanies relaxation, content boredom, or general downtime. Crucially, it is not the same as grogginess or exhaustion, two other states in which we may feel “slow.” Phenomenal slowness is always a welcome feeling. I imagine it’s the state monks and people that have flip phones live in.

The second type is historical slowness. Historical slowness is the fact that most important things happen very slowly relative to our own lives. These things can have global significance, such as shifting demographics, the formation of national policy, or wars. We’re still attempting to desegregate schools more than sixty years after Brown v Board of Education, and religious influences from as far back as the 19th century are able to influence current levels of literacy [2]. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even on a personal level, neither are relationships, bodies of knowledge, or skills. Friendships are created with consistent interaction over sustained periods of time. Trust is built much the same way. Likewise, we don’t skim a Wikipedia page and have any deep knowledge on a particular subject. That takes lots of reading, practice, reflection, and time.

Phenomenal slowness is a mental state and historical slowness is a concept, but I think there’s a relationship between them. Being familiar with historical slowness can make you more likely to experience its phenomenal cousin. Recognizing everything important moves slowly, even things in your own life, releases pressure on your time. If the maximum rate important things can move during a given stretch of time is low, then there is no reason to use a lot of that time for the important thing. It is futile, even irrational to expend more time. Historical slowness dictates that things only move so fast, so you’re better off doing other activities, like those that lead to phenomenal slowness. Taking a walk or a break can be the direct the result of the knowledge that the opportunity cost of your time isn’t all that high.

It’s possible you can have historical slowness without phenomenal slowness, or vice-versa, but I do think one begets the other. Overall, I think slowness in all its forms is an underrated concept, no matter how many NYTimes smarter living stories are written on how we need to chill the hell out.

[1] Phenomenal in the sense it is perceived through experience.

[2] There’s another paper I remember that studied the placement of churches in (I think) 17th century Brazil or another Latin American country and established a causal relationship between those institutions and contemporary earnings/literacy. I can’t find it at the moment, but I think it’s another good example.

12/11/18

I was walking to my dorm when I passed a girl who was bawling… From what I made out, she had taken a final today that didn’t go well, and was apologizing to her mom at the prospect of getting a B- in the class… She said she had stayed up until 6am studying, etc…

It’s not my place to judge, but I think this is a real indicator something is going wrong with college…

Unrelated, here is an excerpt from one of my favorite poems. It’s part of an ad for Tourism Melbourne that airs whenever the Australian Open is on.

Let me watch the sea-rain falling,

Smell the salt, deck-driven spray;

Let me hear the bush-birds calling

At the dawning of the day.

*

Let me see the sun-bars streaming

Down the valleys, ere the night

Fills the world with pleasant dreaming

Love and coolness and delight

“Far and Wide”

E.J. Brady

Link + Lines

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-american-meme-a-new-netflix-documentary-records-the-angst-of-social-media-influencers

Don’t watch much TV, but this one might get me. From my personal experience (knowing those with large social media followings…), attempting to be an “influencer” can be an incessant grind. Every outing is dominated by pictures and there’s a lot of stress over if a post is doing well or not.

On an unrelated note, I was thinking about something my roommate said a little bit ago. He is a transfer from the University of Denver and said he’s never seen more lines for things than he has at UCLA. There are lines to get in to lecture, lines to get into dining halls, lines for food etc…

He’s right. There’s a pair of take-out restaurants on the residential side of campus that frequently get lines of 80+ people. The average time for the line to advance one person is probably around 45 seconds, so these people are waiting (80×45)/60 = 60 minutes to get a burrito/chicken bowl when there are numerous other (more expedient) options available!

Prima facie waiting an hour for a dining hall burrito seems ridiculous (I would probably only wait that long for a chipotle burrito if I was starving) but people still get in the massive line, and the big reason why I think they do is technology. When we’re able to distract ourselves at will, we’re willing to tolerate waiting an hour to get a burrito or a free t-shirt. I believe this more and more whenever I walk past one of the lines on campus and see everyone looking down at their phones.

The point above is probably pretty obvious, but I think it’s funny because it shows how bizarre our behavior can be. Somehow, we’ve reached a point where we can tolerate incredible inefficiency or wait times in real life, but get frustrated whenever a web page takes longer than four or five seconds to load. It seems to me that as long as our distractions are quick and timely, it doesn’t matter if the rest of our life is because we can retreat into the former at our convenience.

This reminds me of one of the main ideas driving Sherry Turkle’s book, “Reclaiming Conversation.” To paraphrase, she says that now we expect less and less out of our significant others, and more from our technology. We can see this clearly in the line example. I know boredom isn’t ideal and it’s bad practice to romanticize the past, but what would students in the 80’s or 90’s have done? Maybe they would have thought about something silly, whistled a tune, or made a joke with the person beside them. Maybe they would have taken the time to relax, or perhaps they would have skipped the line altogether, realizing how valuable their time was.

12/06/18

https://danwang.co/college-girardian-terror/

Interesting application of Girard’s ideas to explain why college seems to be such an incredibly fraught place. I’ve heard the conclusion many times before (all people want is money/power/prestige) but hearing about how the similarity of all of the actors in a situation plays into it is interesting.

https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/12/05/minerva-project-draws-notice-its-practical-rigorous-curriculum?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=768e921e12-DNU_WO20181203_PREV_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-768e921e12-197603613&mc_cid=768e921e12&mc_eid=495c6bd417

Also interesting to hear that the Minerva curriculum is going well. I was skeptical of a university that has only online classes (considering how terrible I think many MOOCs are) but it seems like they got something right with the design. The fact that they students they have are exceptional could also help. I e-met a couple of them during my time in the Edsurge independent cohort and they were incredible. I personally still think a more traditional, personal education with heaps of face-to-face time with your teachers is the most valuable, but Miverva’s success could convince me otherwise.

12/5/18

I recently found a podcast with Malcolm Gladwell that I really enjoyed.

https://www.mercatus.org/events/conversations-tyler-conversation-malcolm-gladwell

I’m starting to read more of Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, and I’ve been loving it so far. It’s the perfect combination of high-powered academic mixed with your cool neighbor across the street who’s interested in a ton of things. His daily links are also guaranteed to lead you to something current and interesting, too.

The podcast I enjoy for a couple of reasons. One, it brings up so much personal information about Gladwell that I didn’t know beforehand. He’s Jamaican (I had no clue), enjoyed a brief stint as one of the fastest runners in Canada, and makes a career telling stories in part because stories weren’t told in his household growing up.

Two, you really get to hear Malcolm stumped. I’ve always thought of Gladwell as a type of hyper-eloquent super person, but there are so many times when Tyler asks him a question and he stumbles with his words for a bit before giving an answer. I read something great a little bit ago about the value of watching other people think on their feet (can’t remember exactly where though…) and this is something you can really hear in this episode. Sometimes, he sounds exactly like you and me!

First “daily”

For a period of time I was experimenting with having another page that I used as a blog because I felt like not everything deserved a pretty image. However, Squarespace will not allow me to have one blog with a “grid style” like this page and another with the “list” style you see on most other blogs. As a result, I’m going to start putting some of my less polished stuff on this page in order to keep everything together.

Here are the two “posts” I made on a plaintext webpage that I used as a blog before switching over to this format.

12/03/18

Finals week is approaching and my obligations are piling up. There are a ton of articles I want to read and I recently stumbled across a couple of blogs I wouldn’t mind exploring, but I fear I will not get to them for a while.

To remind myself of these, I’ll post the links below.

https://danwang.co/college-girardian-terror/

https://putanumonit.com/2018/11/07/mandatory-obsessions/

https://srconstantin.wordpress.com/

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/16/magazine/tech-design-economics-genes.html

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/11/19/how-podcasts-became-a-seductive-and-sometimes-slippery-mode-of-storytelling

http://jsomers.net/

http://peterlevine.ws/?p=13078

Part of me wants to abandon all my work and dive into them. The last one seems especially interesting as I’m currently working on an essay for Pique about cliché that builds off of a paper I wrote last year for a philosophy class.

Above all, I’m impressed at the number of well-written blogs I’m finding. I never would have guessed men and women in industry (putanumonit, constantin, danwang) would have enough time to give serious thought to the ideas they’re writing about. Props to them. It gives some real inspiration to people like me.

12/02/18

Because I don’t want to mess up the formatting of the homepage (thanks, squarespace) this page of the website will function more like a traditional blog being updated semi-regularly and consisting almost entirely of half-baked ideas. Anything more polished will appear on the homepage.