Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Joylessness of Mastery

You know you've truly mastered a subject when you reach the sad point where no one else appears to understand it (including those you'd previously looked up to and learned from).

Only a horrendous egotist would prefer the triumph of mastery to the joy of stepping up



Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Embarrassed Hotshot/Flattered Footnote

Well, that was odd. Last night, as I walked into a bar in the throes of "trivia night", the emcee was just calling out the first question:

"What band, famous for its hit song 'Love Shack', recorded the theme to the cartoon 'Rocko's Modern Life'?"

My brain did the weird clicking thing it does whenever it experiences cognitive dissonance, because I actually played on that recording (as well as the soundtrack for many of the Rocko's cartoons...and, for that matter, a ton of other recordings, including serving as the Sound of Obligatory Panic in Jacques Cousteau's final program).

Normally I'd just enjoy the coincidence with a demure smirk, but for some reason, perhaps due to the momentum of having just walked in the door, I strode up to the emcee (whose microphone was off at this point) and told him I'd played on the recording. "What the...! Congratulations!" he beamed, shaking my hand. And there was nothing else for me to do but slink to the bar, a bit embarrassed. I obviously couldn't, like, just tell him again.

So I sipped at my Koutska (a particularly rare and wonderful Czech pilsener), trying to retract back into my signature shlubby anonymity. But it was hard to bridge the seeming height of being the guy who walked in the bar in mid-question to announce that he was, in fact, the subject of the discussion. Cool, right? But, suddenly, I realized: it was a trivia question! Finding oneself a tangential part of the answer to a trivia question is, by its very definition, non-huge.

I'd heard earlier that day that the father of the Beach Boys was an unsuccessful musician whose sole claim to fame was having one of his compositions performed on the Lawrence Welk show. That actually didn't sound like failure to me, unless one's threshold of song-writing success is "California Girls". The public is so strange on these issues. Similarly, I don't see why JD Salinger should be considered odd for having chosen to live a private life and write for himself. If not being in the public light makes someone a whack-job, what does that say about all of us?

My perspective kept flicking back and forth, as if viewing a concave/convex optical illusion. Embarrassed hotshot...flattered footnote...embarrassed hotshot...flattered footnote (for a similar disjunction, see my weird, ambivalent Christmas Eve story).


The other strange thing: when I first recorded that soundtrack in the early 1990's, I could impress any ten year old with the credit. Now I looked around the bar, and everyone was 35. I felt like a character in Toy Story 3. Too much trippiness...fortunately beer was immediately available...

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why is ISIS So Brutal?

Continuing with my mini-series of trying to puzzle out mysteries (see yesterday's attempt to explain of the epidemic of non-fact-based argument)....

ISIS' goal isn't nihilistic. They're not trying to simply burn it all to the ground. Their eye is firmly on the prize: of establishing a caliphate to actually govern people. So then why the extreme brutality?

Strength and determination are essential for revolutionary movements. But this level of brutality is another thing entirely; it breeds dread and hatred - counterproductive if you want to earn the loyalty of eventual subjects. These guys aren't like Al Qaeda (or, at a vastly different pitch, Fidel's partisans) - in it for the conflict, with nuts/bolts governance a mere afterthought. No one denies that ISIS plans for mature governance. But their barbaric hyper-brutality seems anything but mature or responsible. It seems like an odd choice, considering their overall plan.

I've been writing about the sharp trend away from violence - a trend not readily apparent to us because the same enlightened sensitivity which makes us shun violence also heightens our shock at the violence which remains. We are thus prevented from registering - much less enjoying - the shift, with less and less violence shocking us more and more. But there's another view of that viral shift, from areas not yet infected by that virus.

Pacifism has, for time immemorial, been equated with weakness. Even forty years ago, mainstream America equated the term with hippy or Quaker weirdos, and smelled cowardice behind the high-minded philosophizing. If pacifism in the 1970s struck mainstream America as cowardly, one can only imagine how our foundational turn away from violence appears to parties in other parts of the world where sensibilities lag by centuries rather than by decades.

If you also factor in America's pitiful track record in fighting guerrilla movements, plus its dismal recent experience in the Middle East, it's clear that ISIS gains a tactical advantage from their image of extreme brutality. They've calculated, likely correctly, that we simply don't have the stomach for it, so it's in their interest to turn our stomachs as frequently and as extremely as possible. In so doing, they hope to stave off our direct intervention. It's their version of North Korea's strategy of feigned craziness (as with all long-sustained feints, burn-in's a big risk).

However, there's something to remember about American history. We dawdled over our entrance to WWII, out of isolationism rather than pacifism (a different motivator yielding a similar outcome). Germany and Japan both interpreted this as weakness. The Germans duly profited from our hesitation, slaughtering our allies and interfering with our maritime trade but always remaining beneath the point of full provocation. But, with Pearl Harbor, the Japanese stupidly woke "the sleeping dragon" (actually, burn-in - of bellicose over-confidence - was more to blame than plain old stupidity).

Can we rise to the aggressive occasion again if necessary, or will non-violence permanently repress our capacity? If our boiling point has not risen above practical reality, will ISIS ring our bell and awaken the dragon, or will they remain disciplined enough to present sufficient menace to repel us without out-and-out goading us?

I don't like the sound of my own questions. Am I turning into a hawk (as I once wrote, extremism - even of good things like non-violence - makes unwilling semi-extremists out of moderates like me)? Am I suggesting that non-violent societies will inevitably be usurped by more aggressive ones? Is it really possible that we're not becoming noble, it's simply that we're turning soft?

I don't know. And I don't know if we should send ground troops to fight ISIS. These are all complicated questions. But this much is certain: almost everything's zero-sum in human affairs, so perhaps we ought to dry our misty eyes at the magical ascendancy of non-violence and really think it all through. Because the more pacifistic you are, the smarter you've also got to be. This poster, for example, never really did much for me:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Explaining the Epidemic of Non-Fact-Based Argument

The left frequently complains that the right's incapable of fact-driven argument; they go on their guts, ignoring rational evidence and rejecting expert consensus. It's true, but, of course, the left does this, too. Vaxxers, gluten hysterics,and the taboo on gender and racial genetic differences are just a few of the more recent examples.

Needless to say, irrationality is nothing new. If it seems like the past was more rational,that's just because the voices which ring most loudly come from people like Voltaire and Hobbes, rather than bygone versions of our bloggers, petty politicians, and everyday shlubs.

But a new specific sort of irrationality is snowballing, characterized by disrespect for science (and experts of all stripes) and impatience with facts. Everyone in my family, for example, assumes, with great confidence, that they know more about medical science than any doctor. The knowledge of doctors is no match for their inner wisdom. It's not that they've made a deep study of some non-traditional medicine; it's just coming from an innate sense that they Always Know Better (AKB), period.

Again, irrationality is not new; spurning of established fact isn't new. But AKB as a worldview is, I think, unique to our time. And I have a theory about its origins.

If you travel most anywhere outside America, and someone in a shop or a restaurant makes an error of some sort, or treats you ungently, and you express exasperation with the poor service, you may very well find yourself - explicitly or not - told to go to hell. To the shock of any American, the exchange of money for goods or services does not place you in a position of unquestionable superiority. You can't speak to retail workers as if they're subservient. They don't need to make you happy. They're no more interested in coddling you than any other random stranger they might meet on the street.

This often sends American tourists into a sort of shock; an indignant sinkhole of pique. Observing this, it's hard not to conclude that American-style capitalism has extravagantly flattered the American consumer. And we've drunk the lemonade, coming to assume, with no evidence whatsoever, that we truly are that powerful, that superior, that awesome.

If you're continuously flattered with the unearned assumption that you Always Know Better, then, naturally, it sticks.

It's the ultimate "rich people problem". And this one's truly a problem.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flag Issue Ambivalence

I'm staunchly against the culture of offense which drives so much American opinion and policy these days. Having managed a very large online community, I learned that offense is 1.viral (if one person vents about what offends them, you can count on an epidemic of outrage in short order), and 2. unquenchable (once offense is expressed - and especially once it's coddled - there's no end to it; you can massage every wound, pad every sharp edge, but umbrage will continue to madly accelerate. Encouraged to ceaselessly monitor her comfort level, a princess will always detect a pea).

Trying to soothe everyone creates a dystopia. Academia is experiencing this as we speak. We just can't go that route. People living in a plurality, as we do, must restrain their offense-taking. Every minority deserves equal freedom and rights, but not the further step of insulation from offense. Pluralism is inherently frictional. We don't want to open that worm can. It bears repeating: offense is unquenchable.

That said, the confederate flag, with its clear racist association, being hoisted by governments at this late date seems nearly unbelievable. It's an extreme case, akin to the American Nazi Party marching in Skokie (home to many Holocaust survivors). On the other hand, I supported that march.

I also acknowledge that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, which certainly includes much more than the horrendous treatment of African-Americans. We didn't force the Germans to reject all German culture after the Nazi defeat; everyone deserves to celebrate their heritage, even if it means looking past dark parts - as it does for every one of us**. If we were to shun the heritage of every culture which has ever committed atrocities, we'd be a blanked-out world devoid of all culture or tradition.

That said, Germany doesn't permit the flying of the Nazi flag. Germany and German heritage are fine. Nazi heritage...not so much.

The analogy isn't perfect. And while the frictions of pluralism may be forgivable, organized hatred and its symbols feel like another thing. But is the Confederate flag truly that? America, too, has done despicable things, persecuting and killing a great many innocent people. Survivors and descendants may feel traumatized by our continued existence. Does this make the stars and stripes a symbol of hate? How virtuous must a culture be to be entitled to celebrate itself? And who decides that?

Back and forth, the matter keeps ping-ponging inside me. The only thing I'm sure of is that, like many other issues most people consider profoundly simple, it's deeply complicated. But, in any case, it certainly doesn't revolve around any one instance of horrible violent persecution.


** - Even the atrocity of slavery is a stain shared by all Americans - including African-Americans. Being American means taking on the baggage as well as the privileges. You and I may not have tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and our families may not have owned slaves, but if the country isn't us, then what, exactly, is it?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nina Conti

Here's a short video of Nina Conti, ventriloquist and actress, performing at the Apollo Theater. It's well worth the seven minutes. You've never seen anything like it:


This is obviously hilarious, but I also find it extremely touching, and I've spent a few days trying to figure out why.

I think it has to do with the childlike simplicity/purity of the narrative she's constructing, plus her absolute commitment to it...and the beauty of the participants contagiously, inexorably coming to buy into it* as well. If only human sociality could be thus.

But there's a deeper facet. What Conti's doing here could be seen as horribly fascistic. It could easily seem terrible! But her utter benevolence - and great sensitivity (it's more Conti empathically observing and accounting for the woman's micro-behavior than the woman tailoring her behavior to Conti's narrative) is deeply generous and touching. Someone in a position of profound dominance and advantage choosing sweet sensitivity and generosity reads as a pure (and rare) expression of the better angels of our nature.

The children's book "The Witch Next Door" shows the exact same thing, and it's the most touching book I know.

Finally, something about a strikingly beautiful woman and studly guy donning grotesque masks and struggling to present themselves and to connect with each other - and, thanks to the ventriloquist's angelic deus ex machina, making it work in a sweet, childlike way - strikes a chord. The widespread acceptance of the "hot guy"/"hot chick" meme as apotheosis-of-love strikes me as sad, but Conti has subverted that narrative to create a cartoon which, at a visceral level, somehow strikes at the more pure-hearted essence of how romantics like me prefer to view love. The audience's recognition of the flagrant and clumsy manipulation required to bring it about lies at the root of the power and bittersweet beauty of the piece.


* - I mentioned "the beauty of the participants contagiously, inexorably coming to buy into it". That very progression looks, quite strangely, something like the process of actually falling in love. As the participants buy into the shtick, in other words, and yield more and more to the narrative, Conti has contrived to model something truthful about actual love. (Her talent for cajoling truth must make her a hell of a film director; I'm looking forward to viewing her film, linked below!)


Links:
Nina Conti's web site
Conti's film: "Her Master's Voice"
A couple of performance videos, available at UK Amazon: "Nina Conti - Dolly Mixtures" and "Nina Conti - Live - Talk to The Hand"
A review of "Family Tree", Christopher Guest's short-lived but apparently quite good HBO series featuring Conti.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Some Things to Consider (about violence, South Carolina, and pluralism)

A friend despaired on Facebook today about the South Carolina church attack, pointing us toward Jon Stewart's serious, impassioned speech (here's a transcription) on last night's Daily Show ("We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing; al Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage we can do to ourselves on a regular basis.”)

"Jon tells the truth, but nobody listens," lamented my friend.

But things are actually nowhere near that dark. Some things to consider:

1. Loads of people are listening. 1.5 million most nights. And if it seems fresh to see a TV show break format not for a national catastrophe but for the latest in a long line of the sort of mini-tragedies we've come to sadly expect, that's not just a sign of how terrific Jon Stewart is. It's a sign of change. The fact that the sadness is increasing for us at the point where we'd expect people to be growing desensitized to it is a very good sign. Stewart did this because he, correctly, feels that it's in the tea leaves for the overwhelming majority of his audience to accept his doing this. Things are changing.

2. The change isn't just beginning. Steven Pinker argues persuasively that violence has been in sharp decline for quite some time now. And as I've argued here (and also here and here), the decline seems to have seriously accelerated of late.

3. In my view, racism and hatred aren't the problem. People should be free to hold, and even express, whatever opinions they wish; it's silly to push for toleration while failing to tolerate intolerance. The problem is violence. Remove violence from the equation, and you can scream your head off about how much you despise people like me (it's not nice for me to hear, but pluralistic societies aren't always nice, and enforcing a society where every last person is soothed creates a dystopia). Thoughts and words aren't the problem. Deeds - violent deeds - are. But, again, violent deeds are on the sharp decline.

4. There's a happy delusion at work. As violence declines, the violence that remains - even though there's less of it - affects us all more sharply, giving the impression things are getting worse. This is explained by my Law of Green M&Ms.

It's also explained by a familiar story. The coddled princess in the fairy tale requires greater and greater comfort to fall asleep, to the point where one single pea under her thick, luxurious mattress keeps her up all night, and feels like torture to her. This is how human perception works. And in the case of violence, it's a virtuous circle. As there's less of it, it bugs us more when it does appear. And that's good (though a little sad).

5. Pacifism, until very lately, was a fringe philosophy adopted mostly by hippies and Quakers. But we no longer assign a name to those who prefer peace and non-violence! Today, it seems crazy to even imagine such a term. Who, after all, prefers war and violence???

That's how much society has changed in just 20-30 years. We no longer see reason to assign a name to pacifism (which is why you hardly hear the word anymore). It's just how any reasonable person thinks.

6. None of the above will bring back the dead nice folks in that church. Or the dead nice folks in the next church or school, the next time some idiot goes nuts. But don't fail to notice that each go-round seems to hit us harder. We're not getting used to it (and getting "used to" bad stuff is one of humanity's bedrock faculties). So even when, eventually, there's much, much less violence (instead of merely much less), there will still always be an outlier willing to inflict it, and technology to enable him, and (hopefully) freedom of action to be subverted for the purpose. And, sadly, we may continue to feel worse and worse about it each time. Things may continue to improve, in other words, yet we may always fail to bask in the improvement. Violence will always exist (to some degree), and it will always hurt. Which is as it should be.


I suggested, above, that there will always be an outlier willing to inflict violence. But have you noticed that, these days, inflictors seem to always be lone perpetrators, despised by the rest of us, deludedly feeling part of a group which inevitably fails to applaud them? I'm just 52, and I can remember a time when nearly every instance of violence was roundly applauded by at least some kindred-feeling portion of society. Racists may not be sobbing today, but I'd imagine that only the fringiest of the fringe are celebrating. This is another sign of violence's decline. Yes, there's still organized violence in the world, so there are still gangs to applaud along ever-narrowing lines. But that's no longer the norm. Do you realize how huge that is; that it's no longer the norm?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lebron's Magical Moment of Inspiration

I like sports but I'm not an expert. I've been watching the NBA finals like a newbie, missing a lot of the subtleties. But I do know about intuition, and I caught something amazing in Tuesday's game which even the announcer missed.

At the end of the 3rd quarter, Lebron stole a pass and scored an easy basket. The announcer says it was a “bad pass”, but I slowed it way down, and discovered that it was a perfectly good pass, but what happened was that Lebron saw it coming way, way ahead of time. So far ahead of time that it could only be accounted for by what they call a "flow state". This doesn't often get captured on camera, so I'm excited to share it.

The following video shows the play, then repeats it in super-slow motion. In the slower version, notice that LeBron James starts out under the basket, hardly paying attention. At a certain point he glances up, and his body just knows where the ball's going to be passed. He goes directly there, quite obviously without thinking. It's a small gem with power to inspire even if basketball's not your thing.

I'd suggest you click in the lower corner after you hit "play", to blow the picture up to full-screen size. And you may have to watch it a few times; it's so nonchalant in its inevitability that it's quite easy to miss the magic of what actually happened.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Caitlyn and Rachel

So...

When a dude takes hormones and calls himself a woman, he's praised by the left for his courage. But when a white chick darkens her skin and curls her hair and calls herself black, those same people make her an object of pitiless scorn??


I've heard it explained that it's in bad taste to pose as an oppressed minority. So I guess that means females aren't considered oppressed anymore? And the years this woman has spent fighting oppression mean nothing? What the fuck does "courage" even mean at this point?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Best Marketing Advice I Ever Got

My original plan was for Chowhound to be a site about "cheap eats". I had a chip on my shoulder about fine dining. People involved in that end of the spectrum condescended to other food genres*, and that pissed me off.

"But wait," said a friend who happened to be a brilliant marketer. "I've eaten with you at four star restaurants. You really like those places...so long as they're good!"

So long as they're good. Yes. The real distinction to be made wasn't price or ethnicity or locale. Neither snobbism or reverse-snobbism was the way to go. What matters is quality. Anything, so long as it's good. That's how I truly felt; my vision was not quite aligned with my own true feelings.

"Why exclude people who eat a certain sort of thing?", my friend asked. "You want all sorts of eaters sharing tips about all sorts of places, so long as they're good...right?" I couldn't argue. Her adjustment made my mind catch fire. She'd helped me see the full breadth of what I actually wanted. I'd constrained things unnecessarily.

Marketers always want you to make your product more broadly appealing. The broader the appeal, the larger your potential consumer base. So go ahead and compromise your core principles, dull those sharp edges, and dilute the concept until it's so neutered, toothless and blandly uncontroversial that it appeals strongly to no one in particular.

That's how you make most marketers happy, which is why so much of our landscape is so neutered, toothless, and bland. And it's also why visionary founders loathe marketers. Marketers are the natural adversary of the creative person. They are a scurge.

But what I learned that day was that these things are true only of sucky, hacky marketers. Their compulsion to neuter and dilute stems from sheer laziness. It's much easier to tailor a product to fit a marketing message than the other way around, and that's why sucky, hacky marketers are always trying to get their talons into the product. It's really that stupid. They're bad at their jobs.

My friend had a flair for marketing the unmarketable. She would simply find a way. "Keep doing exactly what you're doing," she'd enthusiastically tell her oddball, unclassifiable clients. "Let me find a way to make a broad range of people fall in love with it. Give me absolute control of the message, but the product itself is all yours!" If you were to dilute your product to pander to a greater market, she'd lose all respect for you. She'd probably quit working with you.

She might urge adjustments, but they'd be offered with the sensitivity of a dramaturge, deeply respecting the original vision. Chowhound had the potential to serve as a stupendously broad and inclusive service, but I'd failed to fully consider what I truly wanted to create. In broadening its scope, she was neither meddling nor diluting.

Only hacks try to meddle with your vision purely to suit their aims. Marketing doesn't require interference or compromise. Good marketers hold creative inspiration sacrosanct. They may urge you to expand chunks which are needlessly constricted - and nearly every vision is needlessly constricted in some way or other. But if they do it right, you'll like your product better. Chowhound turned out both broader and better thanks to this guidance. A neat trick!

How many marketers are this good? Damned few. They're nearly all hacks, so my aversion to marketers remains firmly in place. But that's okay. If you really understand what I've written above, you now know everything you need to know to market on your own - and you'll do so better than 90% of the professionals. If you're creative enough to have birthed an original vision, you're creative enough to find ways to market it....and, critically, to de-constrict it.

Accessibility does not require dilution or pandering. Nearly everyone gets this wrong. The world would be a lot better if this was more widely understood.

I can't count the number of people I've shared this advice with, and who've done very well with it: Dream free. Dream unfettered. Then remove unnecessary constriction; i.e. do everything you can to make the result as broadly attractive as possible without the slightest creative concession. Without, that is, dishonoring the integrity of your vision and all that makes it unique. Then convey the attraction to anyone who you imagine you can excite. That is all.

Unique things are tough to market. But marketers averse to hard tasks are hacks who don't deserve a moment of your time. Good marketing is hard and requires insight and creativity. But now that you understand how it works, you can do it yourself, as I ultimately did.

* - It's hard to believe today, with a much more open-minded view having taken hold, but mainstream writers in the 1980's and early 1990's would freely make ignorant pronouncements about how "ethnic" restaurants are a handy way to grab yourself a cheap stomach-busting fill-up if you're unable to afford serious cuisine. The fact that the cuisines anointed as "serious" perpetually re=shuffle should have tipped people to the snobbish absurdity of this view. Leading restaurant critics in the 1930s described Chinese cuisine as fit only for toddlers, given that it's all chopped up into tiny little bits.

"Ethnic" has always been a euphemism for grub from cultures which current tastemakers happen not to respect. Hey, rich people need to draw lines if they're to fully relish their sense of elevation. But then a funny thing happened: rich people discovered how great tacos and falafal are, and how left out they were, and it all came gloriously tumbling down.


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