Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What Aging Is

Ah, okay. I get it now. I see what Aging is.

Back when people got old in their 60s and were largely immobile and drooling by age 70, it made sense to start falling apart circa age 55. We were gradually shown that things were winding down. It was a kindness; a gentle pivot to denouement.

Like the music on Final Jeopardy, or the orchestra swelling during an Oscar acceptance speech, we were told to start wrapping things up. Nothing extreme! Vision gets blurry, hearing gets scratchy, everything hurts a little, and recovery becomes a slog. Body parts become more like inanimate objects - less able to self-repair, they carry the cumulative damage of every minor indignity.

Having offered due notice, god (or whatever) avoids liability. It's not like you didn't have ample fair warning!

But in an era when most of us expect to live past our mid 80s, these middle-age warning shots no longer serve their intended purpose. Instead, they augur an entirely gratuitous headwind; a snide reminder that the impending three decades will be spent battling obsolete artifacts of diminishment.

I'm not bitter. I accept. It sure beats the alternative! But I hadn’t realized how pointless these challenges are, given current lifespans. The timer incessantly rings, but dinner's nowhere near cooked!

There's no choice but to embrace these vestigial alarms. That's the only way to play it.

Buying Apple Again

I bought Apple stock at $192, down 17% from its high. I expect to make a painless 17%+ profit, so long as I'm patient enough - and have a strong enough stomach to watch it dive even lower first (if it does, and I expect it will, I'll keep buying more).

Here's the con currently at work: Apple, as an immense corporation, doesn't handle production and stocking like a normal company does. It uses very sophisticated and counterintuitive methods (this is Tim Cook's seldom-mentioned genius expertise, btw) that don't necessarily appear rational when viewed in some arbitrarily thin slice. Tim Cook has publicly noted this several times, and all Apple analysts and journalists understand this, yet the newsfeed at Yahoo Finance reveals a very large number of crappy news sources repeating "disappointing" stats for iPhone supplies/stocking, many of them using scary language. Like Russian social media bots, it's starting to contaminate mainstream channels, as well.

Even if the reports are correct - even if the new iPhones are less than the expected breakout hit - it hardly justifies a 17% downturn. So analysts and journalists who know these stats are deceiving, and know this sell-off is already irrational, and who've witnessed this same con a number of times before, are, for various reasons, piling on and exacerbating it. The big reason, as always, is money. There's profit to be made on a plunge, and while I'm nowhere near savvy enough (much less quick enough) to benefit from the downturn, I, by sheer virtue of brutish patience and contrarianism, can definitely benefit from the inevitable recovery. I've done so many times (I pretty much live on recoveries from Apple downturns), though it's lonely. There aren't many people buying at times like this.

With any other company, this would be a much riskier strategy. Many stocks suffer seemingly irrational dips, sometimes substantial, but Apple is a unique case where you can count on the dips being spring-loaded. The stock price may sink but it won't keep plunging all the way down to irrelevance. I noted last year that Apple's cash hoard alone (not counting their talent, their sterling brand value, and their diversified product line) acts as a safety net:
The risk is that it won't recover next time - that the most successful company in the history of the world, sitting on a cash pile of $250 billion, will shrivel up and die because of some fleeting issue.

I just don't see that as a real risk. That cash hoard alone - which doesn't even do anything! - dwarfs the total market value of all but seven other corporations. Apple could throw their entire mega-successful business in the garbage and buy Starbucks, Boeing, and Goldman Sachs. If customers update their iPads more slowly than expected, or a phone antenna doesn't work properly, or a new product line undersells expectations, that's just not going to cause a death spiral. I'm not saying they'll be dominant forever...but the downside of buying at Apple's inevitable 30% bullish downturns strikes me as minimal.
That cash hoard is currently at $238 billion, fwiw.

This time, I'm slightly more sober. Apple is highly dependent on the Chinese market, and we are in the midst of a trade war. One might try to anticipate the likelihood of splashback on Apple, but I'm nowhere near informed enough to predict the PRC's actions. This risk (not even mentioned, btw, in the current bear campaign against Apple) means I can no longer say that Apple has a near-certain safety net as an investment.

Last time I bought Apple stock in a downturn, the risk of the company falling apart and my losing everything was near-zero. Now, it’s non-zero. But still very very low.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

I Am a Sultan

I hate to sound like some crusty old 20th century dude, but do you have any idea how sublimely easeful our lives are here in the future?

I'm headed to Barcelona this week. I will travel for less than the cost 25 years ago: $319 round trip, thanks to (one of several newfangled travel tools that have transformed my notion of travel).

I need to bring this humungous inflatable rose gold flamingo pool toy for a 12 year old friend in Barcelona who totally deserves it:
It ships in a 6 pound box, but c'est la flamingo. After ordering, I realized Amazon wouldn't deliver till the day I fly out. There'd be a 50-50 chance it'd arrive after I left for the airport.

So here's what I did. I canceled the order (which Amazon gave me zero hassle over). And I ordered the same item on Amazon EspaƱa for the same price. To my shock, they let me use my American Amazon account and American credit card, they charged me in US dollars, and they will leave my package at a 24 hr Amazon drop box two blocks from where I'm staying in Barcelona. It will be there waiting for me when I arrive. I won't need to shlep it with me. It will all happen way more easily, just as rapidly, and no more expensively than if I'd brought it on the damn plane. That's insane.

Every aspect of this story is unbelievable. To buy something from a European retailer with an American credit card, alone, is a miracle. To do so with no local mailing address is ridiculous. And to have the retailer provide me with my own personal pick-up location so utterly convenient to me is inconceivable. The entire transaction took me less than a minute, and the sheer comfort of all this is something I frankly don't deserve. I am so, so rich. I'm like a sultan. A sultan for sixty bucks (and a jet-setting one for $380, flamingo included).

How Martin Shkreli Will Get Treated in Prison

Surprisingly interesting article (albeit lightly outdated) on how Martin Shkreli might fare in prison. Includes some inside prison stuff I'd not previously known about. It's written by Seth Ferranti, an ex-con former drug kingpin who's managed to develop a career as a writer, publisher, and producer (some of that's covered in this early article, the rest can be gleaned from - enjoy the rabbit hole - his web site).

Ferranti is making hay with “the man in the cell” journalism for Vice. The index starts here, and includes pieces such as "What Inmates Are Saying About the Brutal Prison Hit on Whitey Bulger", "How Men in Prison Reacted to Brett Kavanaugh's Confirmation", Former Inmates Told Us How They Beat Drug Tests While Behind Bars, and "All the Terrible Things You See and Learn as a Guard in a Private Prison".

Needless to say, Martin Shkreli has a prison blog.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Putting Right

In 1973, at the age of 11, I was watching a well-done TV movie called "Poor Devil", starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a demon, Jack Klugman as a woebegone salesman, Christopher Lee as Lucifer, and Adam West as Klugman's sleazy boss. Halfway through, my parents made me turn off the television and go to bed.

I understood the need for adequate sleep, and I certainly understood parental prerogative. But it felt deeply wrong that I, a sensitive devotee of filmed entertainment, could be torn away in mid-movie. This wasn't just some binge of Gilligan's Islandesque slothy TV hypnosis. This was an actual movie. My parents, however, couldn't fathom the distinction and were unreceptive to on-the-merits arguments.

I never forgot. I watched for Poor Devil reruns for years, but it never appeared, nor was the movie ever released on any media platform. Finally, today, 45 years later, I found it on You Tube (I can't imagine where the uploader got the content from; VCRs weren't mass market until 1975) and will finally watch that mofo to the very end tonight. Check frickin' mate.

So, yeah, I did watch it last night. It wasn't great. I grew drowsier and drowsier, and when I'd reached about the same point I'd cut out at in 1973, I headed to bed, figuring a good night sleep was more important than some crappy movie.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Filtering the Zombie Army

Most people do nothing. If they sign on, they won't show. If they pledge money, they won't pay. If you hire them, they'll sit in their cubicle and sip coffee.

You know how most soldiers never actually shoot at people? How as few as 30% perform all the kills? I've decided that this isn't a saving grace of humanistic morality. It's just another example of how most people do nothing.

I'm not saying they're lazy. I'm not saying they're liars or deadbeats. Just that they do nothing. Most people do nothing. I think of them as the Zombie Army.

It used to drive me crazy, until I recognized that loads of people buy gym memberships and never go to the gym. They buy French language tapes, and never play them. They truly want to do these things, and believe they will! So it's not a matter of contemptuous irresponsibility; it's just an inability to steer their own ship. That's why most people do nothing. Shoot, I myself have a plethora of books I haven't read, CDs I haven't listened to, and DVDs I never watched. I have literally 18,000 to-do items sitting in queue. I'm in this army too, I suppose.

I justify my frozen queues by the knowledge that I sometimes do something. And those somethings have added up over the long run. But everyone has a list of compiled somethings, even the coffee-sippers and non-shooters. Every zombie can offer up an accounting of actions and achievements upon request. It's confusing. It makes my head hurt.

But the practical upshot - the thing you can count on - is this: the thing you want them to do is the thing they won't do. Even if they'd like to. Even if they really meant it when they claimed to be spunkily "all in". Most will do nothing.

I've developed a technique to cope with this. I call it the Zombie Filter. Whenever I find myself poised to sink hope and trust in a person, I give them a trivial task, knowing non-doers will reveal themselves by not doing.

If I need to hire someone, I'll pay scant heed to their resume - the list of accomplishments every zombie is able to produce. But I'll offer them a solid page of vitally important reading material, and I will embed an instruction, ala "Send me an email with the phrase 'Rice Chex' in the body". A very low percentage will notice the direction and actually do it (and, of them, most will do it wrong; they'll make 'Rice Chex' the subject title and send a blank email, or they'll send an email explaining that they're following instructions, but they'll omit 'Rice Chex' entirely). Zombies filtered!

New people I meet often ask for tips, particularly food. They'll ask me to follow up via email, and while I used to take their contact info, and fire off emails, as promised, I found that the vast majority never so much as read the email. So now I give people my contact info, and ask them to contact me and remind me to give them the info. The requirement of doing something is a deal killer. It's like zombie judo; using their torpor to my advantage.

If you don't filter the zombies, you will curse yourself to endless recurring frustration. The zombie army will wear you down. They will annihilate you and they will absorb you, turning you into a black hole for everyone else's hopes and trust.

Compounding the problem, even non-zombies infantilize in the presence of energetic competence. A long time ago I would throw birthday banquets in far-flung eateries. At my last one, once I'd wrangled a big crowd out of town and into the venue, seated them, ordered their food, explained the cuisine, and sparked conversations, I walked a platter of yum yums from guest to guest. I absolutely couldn't get them to reach for the tongs. No one budged. They just sat, staring helplessly, like weebles. Finally, I exploded. "Do I need to chew your food and regurgitate it down your damned throats, too?" There were no more banquets.

The Wall-E scenario is no longer futuristic. We have arrived.

Waking Up

You have a dream in which you try to "wake up". In the dream, you struggle to reach this incomprehensible state you've heard about but never experienced. You try potions and mantras, you visit wise men and wander the landscape in search of inspiration. Your beard grows very long, and your eyes blaze with the intensity of the search. You are a holy man, surely right on the cusp of awakedness!

What if someone suddenly entered your bedroom, rubbed your shoulder and whispered your name? Would you cock open an eye, realize what had happened, and jump out of bed with an exultant smile, dancing in celebration and hollering about how you've finally done it? Would you feel superior after this triumph? Would you forever claim a lofty attainment?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Introducing Delicious Upma

One of my favorite dishes in any cuisine is pongal. In my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere", which explains how to navigate every cuisine, we explain this Tamil dish thus:
Many cultures cook soupy rice dishes, but only pongal adds cashews, curry leaves, cumin, black mustard seeds, and saffron - and those things turn out to be key! Available sweet (sakarai) or spicy (ven); we're big on spicy ven pongal pretty much the linchpin of Tamil cooking. It's yet another Breakfast Paradox dish (like Chinese dumplings - natives eat it only for breakfast, while outsiders crave it for lunch and dinner).
I did not know that there's a version made with wheat. Very couscousish! Behold upma, from the increasingly spurned* Dosa Hutt (4563 Bowne St, Flushing), next to the Indian temple:
Their rava masala dosa is still great (and definitely the dosa to get):
* - I ate at Dosa Hutt before it was widely known, I ate there when it was a foodie destination, and I still eat there now when everyone believes they know a better place (often the Canteen inside the temple itself). I have a reputation for being restless, but I'm also very very loyal, and I'll give up my Dosa Hutt dosai why you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Fearful Flip-Outs versus Vigilant Intelligent Concern

Just to balance out my posting about Pittsburgh, where I said:
This is not The Age-Old. It's different now. I believe it's a last gasp of an old problem (though last gasps can be horrendous, and represent a long tail as they gradually fade out)...

Sensitized by our relative safety and comfort, micro evil seems macro. A few pathetic dipshits with tiki torches in Charlottesville feel like a grand resurgence of the Third Reich, just because it's so startlingive outrage)...

Yes, a dipshit can run you over with their car or shoot up a church, mosque, or synagogue, and it's awful, but this is not what a civilizational resurgence of violence and hatred looks like...
It may seem contradictory that I also wrote the following a year ago about the potential for a sudden mushrooming bonfire of anti-Semitism:
The infectious smoldering of economic populism, of xenophobia, of white supremacy, and of vitriol at "coastal elites", media, "Wall Street types", etc., is not being pushed forward, I don't believe, primarily by anti-Semitic people (though plenty of rabid anti-Semites are, of course, conveniently enjoying that tide). However, The Jewish Problem is like super-dry, crackly, hyper-flammable kindling, lurking adjacently to it all, just out of frame.

Bring the intensity levels up just 20 or 30%, and anti-semitism will flash in a chain reaction so suddenly and so brightly that your retinas will scorch. It will arc, like lightning, through people who are not particularly anti-Semitic; who never quite connected their anger and bitterness to this particular scapegoat; who have Jewish friends and are generally decent people.

Millions lack clear awareness of the Nazi-ish mindset into which they've been gradually stirred. There's one essential chunk missing. Add it, and there will be a widespread, galvanizing sensation of fullness, momentum, and inevitability.
So I do not have my head in the sand. I am fully aware of the potential. But potential is not present reality. By gifting dipshit evil with the full weight of our fear and panic - by imagining systematic Nazi barbarism in the actions of an idiotic driver emboldened by a chuckleheaded president whose authoritative impulses amount to toxic trolling rather than a diabolical march to the extinction of democracy and the completion of The Final Solution - we vastly overreact and we also elevate the idiots.

Everything arousing pain and fear is not The Worst Thing Ever. By making everything an "eleven", we offer would-be propagators of twos and threes and fours corroboration of their imagined fearsomeness. Our easy apocalyptic rage parses to the lunatic fringe as applause, and feeds their narrative. Meanwhile, we make ourselves needlessly miserable in a time of unmatched tolerance, safety, comfort, and prosperity.

A viral movement has been afoot, preceding Trump, to make us view every imperfection in those heady blessings as the leading edge of Ultimate Horror. We are frought Princesses interminably scanning for diminishing mattress peas, and that unceasing dread has driven some of us mad. Those who deem themselves The Resistance must study how deranged fear was what stoked the Right's madness to begin with. Per FDR, fear is the very thing to be resisted. What can ruin us - the only thing that can ruin us! - is madness, overreaction and the unimaginable stupidity humans display when riled into anger and terror.

It's extraordinarily hard for the opposition to recognize that the ball's actually in our court. It's up to us to decide whether to flip out in fury and terror, or to reconcile from solidity and strength. As ever, we can respond to extremism with reciprocal extremism or with enlightened moderation.

Unfortunately, the present crop of humans - with its unique wealth, health, comfort, interconnection, and security - is uniquely prone to terror. We may not fully register what we have, but we sure as hell fear its loss. We may not acknowledge our wealth, but we typify the “more to lose” anxieties of the wealthy. Hence our hair trigger.

I remember the 70s and 80s when Nazis (actual imposingly scary rednecks, in real numbers, not a small gaggle of douchey kids bearing citronella torches) marched and bona fide Klansmen attained elected office, and the rest of us for the most part were content to mock them and roll our eyes. Not blinded by fear and rage, we saw more clearly. Today's societal landscape is much cleaner and nicer, which makes the residual scum stand out dramatically and magnifies our indignation at imperfections in our heady blessings. By the time we're down to our very last Nazi (some geezer raving and saluting from his electric scooter), we'll all be so unhinged by his presence that we'll jump in the ocean and drown en masse like lemmings.

Does any of this make Pittsburgh in any way acceptable? Do I not mourn the dead? Am I not tautly vigilant going forward? In a sane society I wouldn't feel compelled to reaffirm such obviousness. But for the record I agree with every flinty word of the always-eloquent former Republican operative Steve Schmidt (who, a few short years ago, would have been maxi-scorned by the Left for his role in that most extreme of evils, the 2008 McCain campaign). Don't miss the following video; it's great.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

Once again I'm getting back into shape on trombone after a lengthy pause. This is the sixth or seventh time since leaving Chowhound (the first, repairing a ten year gap, was a massive undertaking). Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja vu.

The problem is that in the old days, I'd play ten hours per day - gigs, rehearsals, jam sessions, private study. So I was perpetually ready. Now, I'm perpetually unready, i.e. perpetually striving to restore myself to some semblance of what I once considered good form. One of the central themes of this Slog is the ultra fine line between artistic commitment and obsession. If people knew the excesses that go into producing inspiring results, they'd be less inspired and more disgusted. Beethoven composed in a diaper. That's really all you need to know.

I'm no longer awed by the diaper thing, and I've danced till I've dropped in the red shoes...and I've also not gone to such lengths. I've bounced my whole life between rediscovering the benefits of investing ungodly care....and wondering why my results aren't so great. Even at this late date, I still must constantly be reminded that mere superhuman effort is for pikers.

As a trombonist, I exist in an awkward state of ambivalence, wanting to be a musician but unable to sustain the absolute single-mindedness that made me the player I once was. I'm always aspiring to a comeback; always dragging the boulder up the hill, only to watch it inexorably slide back down.

But there are benefits to finding oneself in a constant state of overhaul: you learn how it all works, and are gifted with recipes for the secret sauces. An example:

It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of metal like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There's a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our ambitions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill.

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