The Daily Paragraph

I grew up in a city of cars, with a 2 hour walk to the closest train station. I learned to drive at 18, bought my first car at 20, and drove most days of the week for years. Yet, I'm much happier without a car. In hindsight, car culture feels like a jail that I didn't realize I was born into.

Luckily, all it takes to leave is a one-way flight.

In my adopted city, I don’t need to own a car. I can walk to one of three different train stations within 10 minutes, hop on the train, and be where I want to be – usually – in about 30 minutes. There's always the option to take a taxi, but they're often no faster than the train. And if I really feel like driving, maybe to get out to the distant mountains, there are more car rental shops within walking distance than there are train stations.

Which is not to say that nobody owns a car within this city. Many people do. They're incredibly useful tools. The thing is, at least where I live, they’re optional. You can choose to live without one, and many people actually do. Because in a city designed for people, life can actually be better that way.

Have you ever marveled at the absurdity of putting dinosaurs who’ve never used a computer in charge of a nation’s cyber security? Seriously, these fuckers look like they’d have trouble securing a fax machine, let alone a country’s cyberspace.

But wait a minute… cyber? We haven’t used that term for decades, plural. The next thing you know, we’ll have a minister for the information superhighway.

This whole thing really isn’t funny though. You know, the thing where a couple weeks ago, hackers got damn close to messing with the chemicals in a major city’s water supply.

It sounds like a Black Mirror episode, but it’s not. It’s real, it’s a disaster waiting to happen, and I have no idea what to do about it other than to make bad jokes and start prepping for the fall of civilization.

Or maybe I should invest in bottled water companies. After all, today’s (near) catastrophe is tomorrow’s opportunity!

They say that if your taxi driver is talking about how you gotta buy in to the stock market, it's probably time to get out of the stock market.

So let me tell you a little story. One day last week, I met six different people, and each and every one decided to talk with me about the stock market. Including the bartender. None of the six had ever talked about it with me before.

This means that it's time to get into the stock market, right?

Locked down in Tokyo

Tokyo. A city with tens of millions of people. And yet, nobody has the patience for strangers.

If you ask me though? It's a good thing. I certainly don't want hundreds of passersby each day trying to practice English with me. Besides, in Tokyo there are the accepted ways to meet new people; bars, events, work. Within the desert of human interaction, there are social oases.

But with COVID? Those oases have all dried up. Bars close at 8pm. Events don't open at all. Work happens in your shoebox apartment. Now you can never even leave your office.

I imagine a real desert would be kinder. At least out there, you wouldn't be confronted with the existence of others, so close but so far, each time you need to leave the house for food. Each time you decide to brave the pollen-smothered sun.

It's funny. Japan has the distinction that despite being in the middle of a raging pandemic, despite the rapidly aging population, it recorded a large drop in its mortality rate last year.

Yet, the suicide rate has gone up, especially amongst the youth. Which begs the question.

Is it really an achievement that less people are dying, if more people want to?

Despite COVID, or maybe because of it, the rich are getting richer. In fact, according to recent data, U.S. billionaires alone have seen a wealth increase of $1.3 trillion over the last year.

This makes me wonder. Are the rich getting richer in absolute terms? Or just comparative ones?

To put it another way, is the value of their assets growing? Or is the value of currency – a dollar, a yen, or a euro – shrinking?

Is the value of the world’s stocks, housing and bitcoin growing? Or is the value of your food, wages and rent decreasing?

Is the value of the economy as a whole and the companies within it rapidly expanding during a decade-defining global pandemic? Or… is something else happening?

Are the wealthy really getting wealthier? Or are they just becoming far, far more powerful?

Wealth and Power

Last week, I went for a walk past Hama Rikyu Gardens. And just in case you've never heard of Hama Rikyu Gardens before, let me give you a little intro. To start with, it's a garden (duh). It's located on a 250,216 m² artificial island, first constructed for the imperial family in the 1600s. It was built with hands and god-damn shovels. And it got me thinking.

Who in today's world could convince enough people to work for enough hours to quarry that sand and stone by hand, cart it to the coast by hand, build a huge artificial island by hand, and then build a beautiful park as the cherry on top? Like, literally. There are cherry blossom trees on it.

Xi Jinping probably could. Putin probably could too – look, the workers don't have to be happy about it. I figure Bezos could if he suddenly decided he'd rather have a hand-made garden island instead of one of the world's largest companies. Hell, Musk probably could too, all it’d take is convincing a bunch of wealthy chumps that funding his garden island would somehow save the planet.

But President Biden? Probably not. Your wealthy uncle? It's unlikely. Internet celebrities? Tell 'em they're dreaming.

It's funny. 4 billion of us own a magical glass window to all the information the world has ever known, and a billion of us own a vehicle that can tirelessly take us wherever we need to go. If you’re reading this, then you probably have more wealth than history's greatest kings could ever have dreamed of. But power? It’s something else entirely, and it's as rare today as it ever has been.

Puppies Are Shit

Imagine that I were to say to you that "puppies are shit"; they ate my lego when I was a kid. Obviously, I'm not telling you that all puppies are shit – just the ones that ate my lego. But I am telling you that I think that puppies are shit – after all, that's exactly what I said. I could have said instead that they're cute little balls of cuddles that sometimes do shitty things like eating my lego. But I didn't. I said that they're shit. They're lego-destroying monsters. Still, some of them I assume are good puppies.

But imagine now that you're talking with a man. Like a puppy, this man belongs to a group with its fair share of assholes. Still, when you tell your friend that "men are shit", you're not saying that all men are shit, and it's only fair to expect him to understand that. It's only fair to expect him to be calm, rational, and reasonable as you tell him that men are shit.

Seriously. If he were a truly rational man, then instead of being angry at you for lumping him in with a bunch of dickheads, he'd sit there, listen, and try to understand. He'd direct the anger he feels at the assholes who wronged you; the wankers who gave men like him a bad name in the first place.

And indeed, if I were truly a rational man, then if someone were to tell me that "men are shit", I would probably say "I know, and I'm sorry". Math says that with 4 billion of us, we certainly have our fair share of assholes. Hell, I'm probably one of them.

But what I'm not is a truly rational man. None of us are. We're human like the rest of you. So please stop telling us that men are shit. It doesn't help. It just hurts.

A recent episode of Last Week Tonight had a quote about COVID-19 which really jumped out at me:

One estimate for the cost of global prevention runs between $22 and $31 billion dollars a year but… the cost of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone is estimated to be over $16 trillion.

So to put it mildly, it's fucking worth it.

Wow. The cost of COVID-19 is roughly 1000 times greater than the cost of prevention? That's absurd. But even so, it’s not the part that stood out to me on my first watch through. I can't do mental math that fast, not while watching that brooding mountain (snap off my toes, you big, unwashed buffalo).

No, the bit that stood out to me is the "it's fucking worth it". Because it's missing an important qualifier.

Who is it worth it for?

Sure, when looking at the $16 trillion cost to the U.S. as whole, then almost any price of prevention would be worth it. But the thing is, throughout this pandemic, the rich have actually become richer. Far richer. In fact, according to The Guardian, the wealth of ten billionaires alone has increased by 400 billion dollars during this pandemic. 

And what's more, it's the billionaires that control the government's purse strings. Because according to this recent study, "business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

If it actually made sense for those in power to deal with COVID, then they would.

But for the super wealthy? Today’s global catastrophes are tomorrow’s global opportunities. And nobody becomes that wealthy by letting good opportunity go to waste.

Language has a funny way of dragging the past kicking and screaming into the present. Which is an odd thing to say, really, because time drags everything with it, willing or unwilling. But… have you ever noticed how some words fade into uncouthness, while still demanding use in surprisingly common situations?

Like, have you ever caught yourself saying the word “supermarket”, and wondered how on earth this anachronism of a word managed to ride the English language unchallenged into the 21st century? I mean, imagine how the word would sound with an extra space. “I’m just heading down to the super market to pick up some milk”. It sounds like you’re in some kind of 70s sci-fi horror film.

Today, while I was waiting for the train, someone walked behind me right as the train arrived, right as I was standing at the edge of the platform. The thought crossed my mind, all it would take for this person to kill me would be a small nudge. An accidental slip. And yet, they didn’t do it. Why?

Why is it that in a world where strangers can push you in front of trains, drive into you with cars, drop things on you from bridges and buildings, and ruin your day in an assortment of other ways, why is it that they don’t?

When I was growing up, I was taught that humans are evil at their heart. I was taught that we’re rotten at our core — that’s what The Bible says, you know.

But you know what? The Bible is fucking wrong. Humans are — as a rule — kind, caring, and beautiful. And anyone who thinks otherwise can go ask someone at a train station why they’re not pushing passersby in front of trains.