Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Unique Perspective on Depression

Nothing I've read on the subject of depression or grieving has ever rung true for me. Depression isn't a lack of energy (though the sufferer seems, to external observers, to lack it), and it doesn't feel like sadness. It's a whole other thing. And I believe I have a fresh way to articulate it.

The core mental process is very simple, even though outcomes may be complex: the mind obsessively locks into endless rumination.

There are great benefits to the ability to invest attention in repetition. A composer, for example, faces impasses where he's unsure of the best next note. The time-tested method is to loop back for another running start at the impasse, hoping something new/fresh/useful pops up. If not, repeat. Again and again and again and again! That's the underpinning of creativity: the capacity for deeply immersed mental repetition.

Most people are incapable of it. Uncreative people marvel at those able to create beauty. They assume it simply "comes to them". Which is both true and indeed "comes to them" (no creative person believes they own their epiphanies), but nothing about it is simple. Creative people give inspiration ample opportunity to arrive. Myriad match strikes may draw a flicker. You ceaselessly roll the impasse around in your mind, attention locked like a vise. Eventually, ingeniousness arrives. Eureka! And you move on to the next impasse.

Creative people don't ignite ingenious flickers more easily. They're just more committed to the process. They tolerate the tedious looping, because it's their nature to thirst for the treasure at the end of the infinite loop.

Obsessive rumination is a great boon to humanity; it's responsible for all our beauty, all our insights. It's also the worst of human curses when rumination locks onto something unanswerable, e.g. Why are humans so cruel? Why does my life seem to lack meaning? Why did my friend/child/parent die?

You may ruminate and ruminate, but there's no answering. No flame to be kindled, no ingenious solution, no treasure at the end of the loop. Just a misuse of rumination for a "problem" you well know to be insolvable. It's the creative mind's version of angrily shaking one's fist at heaven and crying "Why must it be thus?"; an endless re-steeping in the drama of a fait accompli; a neurotic looping of outraged despair. Outrage and despair are natural (and useful) human emotions. The looping, however, is another thing.

In its healthier applications, repetitive rumination works best when it's all-consuming. The outer world dims as all resources obsessively feed the rumination. We literally create a new internal world, and nourish it with our attention. Everyday creation (with a lower-case 'c') is much like Creation (with an upper-case 'c'). For a new reality to be born, one loses touch with the outside world - the old reality - for a while. Observers figure you lack energy, but your internal furnace roars. The disconnection is a sacrifice creative people periodically make (Beethoven worked in a diaper). It's worth it for the eventual beauty, insight, or "eureka!". The deeper your lock, the deeper your result.

However, when rumination is tenaciously applied to unsolvable issues, you're taken out of the world without reward or result. The lights go out but nobody's home. One endlessly sucks a lozenge of horror in response to some inescapable reality. That's depression. And a given bout of depression or grieving only ends when one tires of the empty, fruitless repetition. The obsessive reconsideration of unviable options simply gets boring.

The strategy of taking myriad running starts at an impasse, hoping for a breakthrough, has created all our art and science, but it is a failed approach for emotional impasses. That's the misapplication of a useful tool; a self-inflicted torture of horrific immersion for no good purpose.

Creative people aren't prone to depression because the creative life is difficult. Creative people get depressed from misuse of the unique faculties of creative minds.

Previous writings about depression here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Flight Deal

I'm all messed up from a web site called The Flight Deal. I've always waited for something like this; their staff of crazed maniacs rake through air fares, finding unadvertised specials and erroneous fares. If you jump on them quickly, you can go far for pennies.

I've booked Laguardia to Dallas for $80. Round-trip. Including fees and tax. That was before I lost my mind and booked a trip to Bogota, a city I have no interest in visiting, for $240 (again, round-trip, including fees/tax; plus, on this one, I get $100 off the fare from a credit card bonus offer, lowering my total to a demented $140).

Who wouldn't go to Bogota and back for $140 in the dead of icy January? The dollar is super-strong there. An airport cab into town costs about 25¢. Dinners run like $5. You can find great hotels well under $50/night. And the flight down lets me overnight in Miami (chicken!). So I'm off for Bogota!

To use the site, hit the "Flight Deals" menu, select your home city, bookmark the following page, and check it daily (fares change quickly).

The Flight Deal also offers a slew of savvy service articles on topics like "How To Avoid International Data Roaming Charges" (buy a MiFi; I never heard of MiFis before this, but they seem awesome; see my comment beneath that article for updated research), "What is a Stopover and How to Take Advantage", and "No Foreign Exchange Fee Credit Cards That Can Save You A Lot of Money!". They're titled to sound like linkbait, but they're great.

Everything on the site is smart. There's human intelligence at work, not just some soulless algorithm, and if you're the least bit impulsive (and, like me, can work from anywhere), you'll want to avoid it like the plague. Lest you wind up in Bogota.

One tip: they instruct you to use heavy-duty software to find flights. It's not necessary. You can find most of them via Kayak or Google Flights. Once you do, book tickets via The Flight Deal's affiliate links (to ensure they get support). In fact, use those links for all bookings any time; this is a great service we need to see prosper.

This popped up five minutes after I wrote the above: $196 NYC to Palm Springs, CA and back on Jet Blue. Including fees/tax.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Trump, Escalation, and a Taoist View of Political Extremism

So I've been sitting here listening to Donald Trump say more vile things about Hispanic people. His latest truthy newsflash is that there've recently been a couple of high-profile rapes allegedly perpetrated by our 12 million Mexican immigrants. See? He told you they were mostly rapists! Meanwhile, I wonder what atrocities were committed by our 536 billionaires over the same period, and what their deportation threshold ought to be.

My compulsion is to groan "what an asshole." I know a very large number of Hispanic immigrants, and never met one who didn't exemplify the hard-working, honest, family-oriented values America always proudly claims for itself but (like much else in American life) has long outsourced to its immigrants.

The Africans, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans, the Asians, and now the Hispanics represent an unbroken chain demonstrating the best American values (while also serving as the perennial backbone of the nation's commerce). And as the baton's been passed from group to group, the majority's never failed to shit upon every one of them*. When we "crown thy good with brotherhood", it inevitably involves a hard-swung baseball bat to the skull.

* - Africans to an entirely distinct degree, no doubt.

People who say nasty things about immigrants always seem to be those who are out of touch with real live immigrants; they traffic in cartoon caricatures (much as Libertarians tend to be sheltered types who don't know actual poor people). There's undoubtedly a lot of plain old ugly prejudice here, plus metric tons of pandering demagoguery on Trump's end (he's also been going on about how awesome the bible is). But I once observed that "just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem." I feel less inclined these days to dismiss assholes out of hand as aberrations from Planet Asshole. I suppose I'm getting more Taoist; one extreme always leads to another. It's helpful to cultivate a reflex to cast one's focus on what preceded; immoderate reciprocal pendulum swings are the way of human society, and they never come from nowhere.

I am as pro-immigrant and pro-Hispanic as I imagine it's possible to be. And yet the Left's way of framing immigration often infuriates me. But, alas, I can't discuss it. Now that Trump's spewed his filth, it would feel wrong for me to say "Yes, he's an asshole, but..." That's a trope that's never tolerated by the left. He's a Bad Man saying Bad Things, period. Full stop. One may proceed no further.

The Right does the same. Remember after the 9/11 attacks, how people were trying to fathom the mindset, and some even dared speculate about political causes? They were shouted down and vilified. No. The terrorists were Bad, period. Full stop. One may proceed no further.

Yet we live in a cause/effect world; everything comes from something. Stupid angry people always have a kernel of a point, even when that kernel is almost totally obscured and corrupted. Our national divide is stoked by policing on both sides against soul-searching. Bad People Saying Bad Things are beyond the pale. We must bombastically and utterly shout them down. Never pause to consider!

And I understand this! What, after all, would be my reaction to someone who'd start a discussion with "Y'know, Hitler actually had a few decent ideas..."? There's an undeniable visceral sense that we must summarily reject that which is beyond the pale, not engage with it. No amount of careful repudiation can excuse whatever's about to be spoken. The person is marked as someone not worth listening to.

I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum. If I did, I'd tell you how I think the Left's immoderate stance preceded the Right's escalation to Crazyville. But there's just way too much ugliness, prejudice and general cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs tied up in it for me to repudiate all that before spelunking out anything thoughtful. I don't want to get any of that on me! So I'll take the lazy route and join the chorus yelling at Trump and the nativist belligerent meatheads he's so skillfully pandering to. What an asshole...

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Circle of Human Folly

If I could tweak just one line of code in the human operating system, it would be the one which instills the bizarre conviction that recognition of stupidity makes one superior.

Human folly is a given. The recognition of this spurs a period of disillusionment we all must undergo, i.e. adolescence. But the perfectly obvious next realization - that none of us is exempt - escapes even the brightest among us, fueling pedantism, racism, sexism, and most other -isms, and even makes us lousy investors.

The failure to follow up recognition of human folly with a humbling jolt of self-awareness fuels a vicious circle of folly. The entire mechanism can be clearly seen by observing that most people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Zero Interest For 15 Months

Notes Andrew Tobias:
Chase generally gets good JD Power ratings as a decent credit card provider to deal with . . . and currently offers a card with 0% interest for the first 15 months and no transfer fee if, within 60 days, you use the card to pay off your balances on other cards. (Normally, the catch in those 0% offers you see all the time is a 3% transfer fee.) It’s all described here, and worth a look if you, or someone you love, needs help paying off high-interest credit card balances.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Note to a Dying Friend

I heard you're not doing so well, and I wanted to offer a pep talk.

In your lifetime, you've had times where your body didn't work well, or your mind wasn't its sharpest. Your mind and your body have constantly changed. But over all those 90+ years, one thing never changed: it's always been the exact same guy looking out of your eyes. The same silent presence.

The world has been in constant change, and your mind and body have constantly changed. But that presence - the silence peering out of your eyes - has never wavered for as long as you can remember.

That's you. You are the silent thing that never changes. You never change; everything just changes around you.

That silent hum will, as always, continue, steadily. It's solid. It's the only solid thing! It was never born and will never die. Your mind and your body, which have always changed and transformed, will continue to do so. Fuck 'em.

I'd suggest you not get overly wrapped up in drama. You are not the drama. Changes are observed by you; they don't happen to you. You are the untouchable silence; the humming presence. You are the good stuff.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Political Prayer

Please join me in praying for a Trump vs Sanders election.

Two guys actually speaking their minds, instead of controlled robots spouting canned mush! It'd feel like salve, even though I disagree with both their politics, and think Trump's an ass. The dueling outer boroughs accents would just be icing on the cake.

If I get the chance, I'll vote for the newest candidate to enter the field, Lawrence Lessig (here's his statement). I think he's right that the issue of money in politics precedes all other problems (for example, climate change will never be addressed unless we ease the chokehold of billionaires on politics).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Frickin' Chuck Schumer

I'm angry that Chuck Schumer went the wrong way in choosing to oppose the Iran deal (that said, if the deal gets killed, and we're forced to choose between a nuclear Iran and an Iran invasion, I'll be apoplectic with him).

I'm even angrier that his week spent supposedly studying the agreement turned out to be a week of holding his finger up to the political winds (i.e. watching how his state's many Jews fall out on the issue).

And I'm absolutely furious that this Harvard grad, with personal access to John Kerry and the other negotiators, was unable to properly inform himself about the deal.

As for the deal itself, the Daily Show nailed it by showing video of Netanyahu warning that the deal means Iran might be in a position to build nuclear weapons "within 10 or 15 years", and contrasting it with video from 2012 where he warned that, a year hence, it'd be "only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched Uranium for the first bomb". No one paying attention needed the show's video archive savants to highlight this fundamental irrationality, but it says everything you need to know.

And, to tie it all together, I doubt it's coincidence that frickin' Chuck Schumer announced his long-awaited decision the day after Stewart retired.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Epilogue

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All installments in reverse chronological order

Several people have described my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" tale as a classic case of "Founder's Syndrome" inability to let go, manifested by endless peevish frustration with "the idiots who took over my company".

Perhaps it's true. But I don't think so. As I stressed repeatedly in the series, I completely expected the new owners to do as they liked. I expected the operation to change. I expected the promises made to me not to be kept, and my suggestions to be disregarded even though they'd hired me on, ostensibly to run things. Above all, I expected changes in the name of profitability, with insensitive regard for the quality of the resource (though I have warned, all along, that the quality of the resource is crucial to its profitability; there are lots of places to randomly squawk about restaurants, but Chowhound's value - the lure for its traffic and the basis for its wide public recognition - has always been in the startling expertise of its contributors).

I've also heard, over the years, from a number of entrepreneurs, both massive and modest, who've described this series as a painfully accurate depiction of what we go through. Of course, this may just represent confirmation bias from like-minded whiney control freaks - my fellow sufferers of Founder's Syndrome!

So which is it? Is it that founders maintain a rigid, narrow-minded view of what's best for their creations, or that things tend to go south once founders sell out?

I think the answer can be found in the distinction I've often returned to, between creative and non-creative people. Founders are creative types able to make something from nothing. Corporations are vehicles for relentless management of Something. Ideally, the two would constitute a symbiotic yin/yang, and, indeed, the standard course is for the former to launch and the latter to acquire (it's very rare for founders to remain in charge as their companies mature; Zuckerberg's a mutant).

As I wrote a few installments back:
The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it.
Both sides screw up when they encroach too far on the other's territory. I am absolutely a poster child for the woes of a creative founder hitting a wall after sticking around too long. With some funding, I might have instituted the revenue scheme on my own early on. But I lacked the funds and the time, and that's on me (though, in my defense, I was perennially being drowned by relentless scaling). I should have been talking to investors (learning to polish my shoes, to carefully modulate my voice, and to project gravitas), when I was mostly freaking out about the latest spammer, or getting the newsletters out on time. But, as I've explained, there's a point where you're so locked into daily overhead that the marginal time to push ahead disappears.

I make a terrible pudpud, and CNET made a terrible creative founder. I stuck around too long and, paradoxically, they jumped in too early. The operation suffered from my poor pudpud skills as well as from CNET's poor creative skills.

The pass-off was the problem. If my boss - who mistakenly fancied himself as highly creative - was a few notches less cocky, realizing his limitations, as I understood my own - he'd have left the creativity to the creative and motivated founder he'd hired, and supported with the tools, skills, and funds I lacked. And I'd have gladly passed the result on to him to manage. And he'd have done a fine job with it, as would have CBS. Sure, it would have degraded, but it wouldn't have rankled me. Again: I went in expecting degradation! I had no illusions.

Instead, bad creativity was injected, and corporations, which are not vehicles for deep vision, have flailed in their attempts to undo and redo. And since that's my skill set, it's been awfully tough for me to watch from the sidelines.

A prescient version of this entire arc was posted by a blogger named John Wilson, shortly after Chowhound was sold. Noticing my sole public gasp of exasperation, he wrote:
Oh, the joys of becoming an employee in a big company.


1. Talent starts innovative business

2. Big company buys talent & their company

3. Big company "B listers" sit on top of talent, using their experience of never having had to build value from scratch to direct the new division activities

4. Big company can't figure out why it hasn't continued to see the success achieved by the business it acquired, in the period since purchase and decides even tighter control of new division is required

5. Acquired talent leaves in disgust [taking most of their riches] and lives on yacht for a while

6. go to 1.

Yup. Only no yacht for me (2005 was not a time when tech founders were being paid yacht money), but I have definitely moved on to new projects. Watch this space!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 25

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All installments in reverse chronological order

Note that a previous installment posted just before this one did. Read it here.

A tale this tortured and tumultuous probably deserves a proper dismount - a contemplative final assessment of The Things I've Learned. However, this entire Slog fits that bill. Since launching it in 2008, not long after I left CNET, I've covered a wide range of topics - creativity, corporations, human behavior, marketing, fame, demoralization and resilience, and much more - which were slow-cooking as I gradually unpacked this disorienting experience. As bits of insight have congealed, I've shared them here. It's telling that almost nothing on this Slog could have been written by me prior to 1997. My 1996 self browses the more than 1400 postings and wonders, "Who is that guy?".

This origin story has, for seven years, weaved through my attempts to catalog the evolving psychic fruits of that very same story. This Slog is the result of having been made stronger by that which nearly killed me. The good, the bad, and the ugly are three avatars of the same teacher, and while some life lessons may flay you, the trick - always in this world - is to open oneself up, fully, come what may. To steer into skids. As I wrote in that last link,
If you can train yourself to respond to adversity and setback with an open, loose attitude, redirecting attention forward rather than obsessively locking attention on previous injury, life transforms miraculously. Just from that one tiny adjustment.
I can't say my equanimity has been perfect. Perhaps that's why the resultant insight has been slow-cooked, rather than swiftly served. But this much is for sure: throughout events both harrowing and triumphant, as I've been places I'd have preferred not to visit and learned things I'd rather not have learned, and as my forbearance was rewarded with small hors d'oeuvres of wisdom, the entire experience leaving me a stranger to my former self, I have, paradoxically, felt like exactly the same guy through every moment of all this.

The same humming awareness has peered out from my eyes through it all - since earliest childhood, really - blithely unaffected. Everything that happens, it turns out, happens around you, not to you. If this seems an odd note to end on, I can assure you it's not. It is, after all, customary for grand sagas to conclude with a return home.

Read the next installment (Epilogue)

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