Saturday, September 22, 2018

Why Do We Type LOL When We're Not Laughing Out Loud?

Thirteen years ago a friend and I devised a surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food (and other things) on a scale of one to ten. I continue to be amazed at how useful and effective it is. But there's one problem: "8" devaluation.

Here's how the system distinguishes 8s:

The problems began when I first found myself 8-ing without any actual vocal expression of pleasure. Over time, it's gotten worse and worse, to the point where now anything merely good strikes me as 8-ish. And "good" should be 7.

There's no such problem with 9. Either rational thought breaks down or it doesn't. But "Mmmm!" is a mental concept as well as a sound, and if you divorce the two, the concept becomes awfully slack. "Store-bought cookies! Mmmm! Of course, I don't literally mean 'Mmmm!' I'm not making that sound! But I'm typing 'Mmmm' just to express my general affection for cookies!"

Once 'Mmmm!' becomes more conceptual than literal, 8 starts devaluing until it covers anything decent.

This is surely the exact same process that makes us type 'LOL' even though we're not laughing out loud. Once the concept untethers from the physical act, devaluation begins. At this point bona fide LOLs likely account for less than 5% of all LOL reportage. There is peril here (LOL!).
I tried to come up with more examples of this phenomenon, and struck upon a connection that's slightly half-baked. (but, really, what's new? Half-bakedness is pretty much the Slog's entire brand). See what you think:

You know how people in long-term relationships eventually start giving each other those utterly loveless perfunctory kisses? They're more gestural symbols of kisses then real kisses. Tepidly theatrical "Mwahh!" kisses never appear early in a relationship. It's where things devolve once love becomes more of an abstraction rather than an actual thing.
The first time an early girlfriend kissed me like that, I told her that if she ever again kissed me symbolically, the relationship would be over. I was pretty uncompromising back then, but it's not like I didn't have a point.
When "laughing out loud" is framed in a purely abstract way - as something I would do (or might do), even if I don't actually do do - then anything even vaguely amusing starts to fit that bill. Same for "Mmmm". And same for kissing. This is what happens when the actual dissolves into the conceptual, losing its gist and power.

So I sit stone-faced, munching a merely decent cookie while joylessly reporting "Mmmm!". Or I barely crack a grin at a minor attempt at wit while reporting uproarious laughter. Or I cursorily peck at someone with a tightly puckered mouth as a report of loving affection.

Does it work? Do all three examples stem from the same function? I think so...but am not sure!

Friday, September 21, 2018

A Centrist Appeal for Sanity

Extremists on both the Left and the Right, I make this futile appeal to your perpetually deaf ears:

Criticism of your tactics for solving a problem does not signal approval of the problem, nor alliance with the problem-causers.

If I could break into some central control room somewhere and make one single alteration to the human psyche, I'd rekindle this obvious and mundane logical connection, which seems to have gone completely dead for practically everyone.

To the Left: One can question the tactics of Black Lives Matter without being a racist who wants to see black people terrorized. And one can question the assumptions of #MeToo without excusing violence against women. To the Right: One can support a woman's freedom to choose without deeming embryos worthless, disposable scraps of tissue (more here). And one can support gun control without wanting to deny guns to people for whom hunting and vigorous defense of property and family is culturally important.

To those of you so deep in the Duality of it all that you've lost your minds, try to hang on to the seemingly obvious truth that everyone refusing to adopt your mantle, buy your doctrine and unquestioningly join your team is not a monster, and not your enemy!

Benjamin Witte is a legal commentator and editor of the Lawfare Blog. He's a national treasure who's done as much as any American this side of Robert Mueller to track and thwart the excesses of this administration. A few weeks ago, Witte was mass-harrassed by a furious mob for daring to oppose a line of attack that he considered unjust. Intellectual integrity being unfashionable these days, many thousands of his previous allies and supporters decided that this could only mean his mask had fallen, revealing Witte as hellbent on enslaving women's bodies (never mind that the next SCOTUS nominee will be just as opposed to Roe vs Wade, or that Witte's positions have no power to affect the Senate's vote).

If you're not delving into social media and real life conversations, you may have found my last few few political postings overheated. They weren't. Left extremism right now is every bit as deranged and dangerous as right extremism. The true cancer isn't one ideology or the other, but extremism, period. And extremism on one side always begets reciprocal extremism on the other. 

Please at least consider moderation. In times of turmoil, it takes some discipline and contrarianism to favor rationality over emotion, but it's worth it. In the face of awfulness like Trump, we can choose the slightly more disciplined option of pressing for a return to moderation, rather than indulge the compulsion to careen to a reciprocal extreme; to monster-ize ourselves in response to the monster.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Snark Fallacy

If you want to understand the world, recognize this extremely common cognitive error, which I'll call The Snark Fallacy:

"Spotting other people's flaws proves my superiority."

Another version: "Catching you being stupid makes me smart."

If you watch for it, it's everywhere. It underlies every judgmental person, and humans are incredibly judgmental. It's the mental tic that gives rise to The Dunning Kruger Effect. And it's strange that this mistake is so widespread, given such clear evidence to the contrary. Consider:

1. Every slightly bright 14 year old is a leading expert on flaw spotting. Yet scant few are genuinely superior.

2. The most intelligent and accomplished people (if they're emotionally healthy) tend to be non-superior and non-judgmental. They spot your stupidity, yes, but they spot their own, too....and realize that we're all mixed bags.

Read "A Confederacy of Dunces"!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"You'll Miss Trump One Day"

I'm in love with this hilariously funny and deeply insightful short Windsor Mann piece for The Week: "You'll miss Trump one day" that elegantly makes a few of the points I've been grasping at here all week.

It's never been so easy to make fun of a president. All you have to do is quote him. "It's tremendously big and tremendously wet," Trump said last week, referring to Hurricane Florence. On Twitter, you can correct his grammar and call him a racist. If you're a grammar Nazi who hates Nazis, this is a busy and wonderful time for you.

Trump's presidency has been a tragedy for America and an ego boost for Americans. If you're an average human being, you are superior to the president — mentally, morally, and many other -lys. ...

Sanctimony, I've discovered, is intoxicating. I don't want to give it up. This may be our only chance to exhibit moral superiority without doing anything to earn it. Simply by opposing Trump's lying, venality, and subservience to Vladimir Putin, I stand for what Superman stands for — truth, justice, and the American way. I'm just like Superman: a fake hero.


Scolding bad people makes us feel better about ourselves. In his essay "On the Pleasure of Hating," William Hazlitt wrote, "There is no surfeiting on gall: Nothing keeps so well as a decoction of spleen. We grow tired of every thing but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects." We hate other people as a way to love ourselves.

In the 1990s, William Bennett warned about the death of outrage. We are witnessing its resurgence. I'm not talking about faux outrage, the kind that ensues after a celebrity says something insensitive. I'm talking about real outrage, the kind that ensues after a husband betrays his wife or after a president betrays his country, both of which Trump has done.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Hungarian Cheesecake, Redux

Remember that Hungarian cheesecake I found in dowdy Floral Park, Long Island?

Here's a reminder (NSFW):

Friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani did some research, and found that this is indeed A Thing, known as túrós lepény. Here are some Google images, which don't have all that much resemblance (originally, it was a savory and bready item). This one seems to come closest:

I think my guess was correct...that this is likely a telephone game situation where a Hungarian owner handed the recipe to his head baker, and it was passed down a bunch more times over the years, inevitably morphing over time. Just as cultures grows deeper/richer with cross-pollination (yet another reason to embrace immigrants), foods often benefit from the telephone game treatment - if (and only if) all parties in the chain are quality oriented.

In this case, I think they were.

Another Way Smart Phones Mess Up Your Writing

It's commonly observed that writing has decayed into a trashy thicket of abbreviations, truncations, and emojis in the age of thumb typing. But I just noticed that writing can also be distorted in the opposite direction, thanks to dictation.

In reaction to this tweet about a NY Times story about Michael Bloomberg considering a run as a moderate Democrat...

...I shot the following text message to a friend:

I wouldn't normally type out "Republicans" or "Democrats". The long-form versions of these terms - in the context of an informal text message - lend a formality I hadn't really intended. Writing precision, I just realized, is a two-edged sword.

In other news, Gary Kasparov, one of my heros, has gone to the dark side (read the whole thread). This is emblematic of the shift I wrote about in yesterday's posting (though this particular end of it isn't specifically about dehumanization). This is a very bad and extraordinarily viral mindset, and it will make the post-Trump world extremely unpleasant for at least a generation, likely more.

But do check out this brilliant reply from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an interesting and mega-smart guy (he's the fellow who coined the term "Black Swan" to describe unpredictable major disruptions). Taleb is, alas, an old school thunderingly arrogant intellectual of the Gore Vidal mold, for whom everyone is an uncomprehending simpleton. But unlike Vidal, he's usually right. I highly recommend his Twitter feed, even if you and I only understand 30% of it (if you thought my cognitive lozenges were dense, his are like neutron stars).

To counter Kasparov, consider my moderate perspective (from this posting), which - I can't believe I'm typing this - I know reads sharply out of step with current norms in its distaste for the cleansing glory of angry mobs:
What if we let racists live and work among us, in peace? What if we tolerate their free use of language as part of that same glorious rainbow? And what if we club them over the head with the full weight of the legal system if they ever ever act on it by discriminating - i.e. doing actual harm? What if you can be a racist, think like a racist, talk like a racist, but we prevent you from acting on it? Conveniently, we have a legal system, with lots of preexisting legislation, to handle exactly that.
A Facebook friend once posted this screed:
Reminder: Presumption of innocence is a special legal principle not a general philosophical one. There is no compelling or practical reason to suspend your normal human judgment in the course of your regular life. You can read the news and judge it to be factual without having to have it proved in court.
My comment was: "Angry mobs, unconstrain yourselves."

If you lean Left and feel a visceral attraction to the righteousness of angry cleansing mobs, despite intellectual and moral hesitations, I'd suggest you explore that ambivalence. Doing so earnestly will shed light on - and cultivate empathy for - the plight of the current Right. We're all infected with the same bug, though it takes two forms. Consider joining me in the center, advocating moderation and reconciliation even amid tribal consensus and emotional turbulence. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Throwing Anita Hill Under the Bus to Oppose Kavanaugh

If I were Anita Hill, I'd be furious with the Democrats for this Kavanaugh attack.

Update: his accuser just decloaked. I withdraw the above observation - there's now weight - though I still need to process this.


Do you find this at least faintly amusing?

You monster.

I'm not kidding. You've just revealed your ability to desensitize to another person's misfortune. For the time being, it's reasonably tolerable to do so in reaction to random viral videos. But that same degree of desensitization in certain realms could outrage mobs, get you fired from your job, and have your life (and your family's lives) entirely ruined.

Don't you dare ever post even something as mild as "Ha!" in response to such a video. Don't ever go on the public record as enjoying Road Runner or The Marx Brothers, both of which will surely soon be taboo - a shameful relic of our barbaric past. Can you believe people used to laugh at other people's misfortune???

While I sound acidly critical, I'm actually slightly ambivalent. I crave Utopia as much as the next guy, but I defy you to envision a human utopia that would tolerate a snorting guffaw. We claim to yearn to do away with bullies and violence and intolerance and "negative emotions", but that's an empty precept not one of us embodies - or, truly, even wants to embody. As I once wrote:
We want monsters and stress and drama and loss and violence, along with laughs and love and bliss. We have an innately abusive relationship with the universe, and, as with every abusive relationship, we subconsciously choose this dynamic 'cuz the making-up part is so, so good.

This world is exactly what you asked for: a huge, collaborative story ripe with exciting joy and sorrow, and it perpetually churns for our entertainment. If it were all cookies and pixie-dust, we'd be bored out of our skulls, and build even more chilling video games, movies and rollercoasters
It's trendy to excoriate desensitization and intolerance with every screechy bone in one's body. A sanctimonious wave of neo-Sovietism relishes identifying and punishing transgressors. A certain crowd is so deluded by their pious precepts that they imagine themselves to exist on higher moral ground...even as they channel the exact same dehumanization (ever seen "Dexter"?).

I don't know where we're going as a society in the long run. While I can feign seamless sensitivity as well as anyone, honestly, I don't think I'd enjoy utopia, nor would any of you. I must reserve my right to guffaw. But one thing's for certain: it's easy to sit in one's cell of snark, surfing the cyber realms and thundering piously at those failing to embody the precepts one flouts, and feeding off the staunch mob momentum that's become the extreme left's surrogate nationalism. Mark my words (I first predicted this just after the 2016 election): the Trump backlash will be worse than Trump. Soviet or fascist, either route leads to tyranny.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal....ahhh, screw it.

If this Slog had an order of magnitude more readers, I'd be fucked for having posted this, much less this. As with Trumpian fascism, the neo-Soviet current I'm describing is no longer latent; it's fully in play. So be careful out there. 

What? You’re already measuring your words much more carefully these days? You do understand, don’t you, that this shows we’re already in the thick of it?

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Big Con

Early in my musical career, I was hired to take part in a concert titled "A Tribute to Duke". I soon understood the con. We'd ply our standard jazzy shtick, but we'd do so over some Duke Ellington compositions, which would make more people come and pay more money because Duke Ellington's more famous than we were. They wouldn't be getting Duke himself, as he was dead, and they wouldn't get the sound or feeling of Duke, because, to repeat, we'd be plying our standard jazzy shtick. But there'd be a big shiny "Duke Ellington" sticker stuck over it, and, voila, money would be made.

Did the audience recognize the con? Did they object to the bait-and-switch, and demand refunds? No, because we were good players and they heard just enough Ellington-ish compositional flourishes to check the box (it's not like their jazz scholarship ran super deep). It was an excuse for them to get out of their houses, and an excuse for me to cover my rent that month. Win-win!

Over the following decades, I noticed this same "shiny sticker" con in every realm of life.

"There's a beer festival happening? Wow, I like beer! So that's for me!" I'd eagerly plunk down $50 to trudge around some tent with a tiny, sticky sample glass, waiting in long lines amid obnoxious pukey drunks for trickles of ale I might just as easily - and much more comfortably and inexpensively - enjoy in some bar, or even my living room. But, hey, it's a festival! And it's beer! And I categorize that way!

Has anyone ever noticed that parties always, always suck? You can't possibly talk to 30 or 200 people. At best, you'll talk to 4 or 5. So why not just take those 4 or 5 to dinner? You don't need that shitty guacamole dip, you don't need that shitty music. Have you ever in your life uttered the words "Wow, great party!"? Yet amnesia returns, and we're lured in again and again just because the word is alluring. "Party!"

It's a celebratory upbeat word, and we live in an abstract imaginary world of words (I call it "Worldworld"), so we unconsciously fear that if we're not able to demonstrably cross-reference ourselves with celebratory upbeat terms, that makes us dreary downers. Uh-oh...bad words!

Nearly all the big shiny hyped up things - even in realms I happen to like - are inevitably less comfortable, less enjoyable, more expensive versions of things that can be normally enjoyed in normal settings. I learned it early (we didn't play any better than usual at "A Tribute to Duke", and the big sterile auditorium was a far worse listening environment than an intimate smokey nightclub). But it took many years for me to settle down into a pervasive faith in Nano-Aesthetics, the core tenet of my religion.

I came to recognize that we generally fake ourselves out by imagining that some big exciting gold label experience awaits us around the next corner. I guess the notion that this, right now, is as good as it gets is unbearable for people who conceive themselves as starring in a movie full of heroic sweep and drama.

And just as we mess things up by projecting drama in our lives, we also mess up by projecting our lives into drama. I once wrote (specifically in reference to "Westworld") that when TV and movies are built around some hidden mythology, the big reveal is never mind-blowing.
Mythologies are wonderful things to bounce characters off of, to see how interesting characters respond to interesting circumstances. But if you make the puzzle the focus, you create impossible expectations...because TRINTG ("The reveal is never that great").

Human narrative is not as mythic as we'd like to imagine. We're clever livestock. The ways in which we creatively grind against the banal contours of our worldly dramatic narratives can be beautiful and surprising. That's our saving grace; our transcendence. But the contours themselves - including juicy conspiracies and mysteries - are non-awesome. That's what makes our desperately hopeful overuse of the word "awesome" so adorable.
The party and the beer festival will disappoint. "Tribute to Duke" has nothing to do with Duke, and The Reveal Is Never That Great. We're mere clever livestock but the creative grind against banal contours is gorgeously uplifting. That grind is small and quiet, and you must discover examples of it yourself. If anyone tries to turn a given instance into an Experience - sticking a shiny sticker on it - the result will always be crappified.

Developing immunity to the "shiny label" con lies at the core of the Chowhound credo: Unsung greatness is everywhere - it hangs low on the trees! - so resist being guilelessly pulled by hype toward fakery (also: notice that the fakery isn't pleasing you! don't just keep coming back again and again because the words are alluring!). Instead, proactively push outward to find genuine treasure, which is always quietly undersold and deceptively ordinary-seeming.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

AAPL Tenacity

I sold off the last of my Apple stock in August at slightly over $200. The price is now approaching $230. So I left 15% on the table, and maybe more if it goes higher. I'm feeling like an idiot. I'm questioning my methods.

I felt the same when I bought shares at $130 and watched it drop to $92 (I did buy more at $95, though). It's emotionally grueling. You question yourself. My grandfather used to say that you can eat or you can sleep, but not both.

I keep reminding myself: buying low and selling high only works if you're not foolish enough to imagine you can buy at the very bottom and sell at the very top. The market operates on greed. Those few of us who are patient and non-greedy have a superpower. If it were easy, everyone could do it.

Going forward, the plan remains the same. As I said last time,
Once it's dropped 15-20% (manipulated via the usual familiar media/analyst scare tactics over some trivial setback), I'll start buying again. Rinse and repeat.
I have a professional investor friend who bought Apple at $40 (pre-split) and has held it forever. She doesn't want to pay taxes. I told her that it would be easier to avoid paying taxes by locking the money in a vault and forgetting about it. Voila, problem solved.

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