Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why People Don't Like to Learn

Learning requires feeling dumb for a while. And that's why people don't learn.

Everyone tasked with teaching anything to adults has ample experience with students feeling anxious and embarrassed for not instantly and perfectly grasping some point or other. It's not what you think. It's not a reaction to having tested poorly. The distress precedes the test; it precedes even the lesson. It starts with the acknowledgement of whatever deficit the lesson aims to correct.

People are accustomed to masking their ignorance, but learning requires dropping the mask. And that is horribly, horribly upsetting for many people. So they flail to show both themselves and their teachers that they hardly needed the instruction in the first place. Believe it or not, this is incredibly common; the rule rather than the exception. Exactly at the moment when receptive curiosity would serve them best, they're always trying to prove how very clever they are.

Children don't do this. Lacking an immutable self-image, they're perfectly fine serving as empty cups. That's one reason they learn so easily, while adults are famously incapable of doing so past a certain age. It's not a cognitive problem, it's an emotional one. Learning requires feeling dumb for a minute, and that's just a deal-killer.

This expands on something I previously wrote: I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot. By contrast, most people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

More thoughts on impedences of adult learning:
Two Obstructions to Learning
Learn Like a Kid
Gradual, Thorough, Incremental Learning is Obsolete

Also see all postings tagged "education".

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cool Crazy Science Geeky Stuff

XKCD is a comic which prides itself on inside science geek humor. It's rarely quite this arcane, though:

Thankfully, there's an entire site dedicated to explaining XKCD comics, titled, logically enough, explainxkcd.com. This week's comic will mystify most non-technical readers, but the explanation page is absolutely fascinating for lay science geeks like me.

A few things I learned:

1. The use of Earth for gravitational assists (i.e. to accelerate spacecraft), aka "flybys", sometimes results in speed gains that can't be accounted for. It's called "Flyby anomaly", and sometimes it's just a little bit of a difference, but other times it can be a substantial amount. And get this: one possible explanation is the existence of a dark matter halo around Earth!! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Please, please let it be a dark matter halo! Man...I'm having a geek meltdown!

2. According to the explanation for the comic's mention of dark energy: "It's possible space itself has intrinsic energy." Oh boy! I'm having a tantric meltdown!

3. The cosmic background radiation is "incredibly uniform". I find that, for some reason, incredibly consoling. We are being sung to sleep from a chorus spread with painstaking evenness across the heavens.

4. Protons don't seem to be decaying. But it's cool, because their freshness expiration date is likely way in the future. Matter is only just getting started.

5. While hopping around Wikipedia reading up on all this stuff, I stumbled across a page explaining the Anthropic principle. I understand it only enough to be dangerous, so this summary will almost surely be both inept and inapt (heh...I'm having a linguistic meltdown), but here goes. The various cosmic rules we've worked out show remarkably scant overhead. Tinker just a bit with a constant here, a ratio there, and the universe would be vastly different, and couldn't possibly support intelligent life (I take issue with the apparent assumption that our sort of intelligent life is the only kind). So the Anthropic principle says (again, I'll get this wrong) that in a multiverse (an infinite - or at least extremely large - set of parallel universes), that very same intelligence is what  selects the universe supporting the intelligence. It's tautological, but the theory's proponents recognize this.

Thing is, I already live in an unnaturally serendipitous universe in which any changed element would erase me. If my dad had used a condom, if the school bus hadn't braked in time, if my every single ancestral couple extending back tens of thousands of years hadn't fallen in love (or, at least, lust), I'd go "zoop". The current situation - any current situation - is built upon a tower of preposterous coincidences. But isn't that the intrinsic nature of all things in a time continuum - i.e. subject to cause/effect?

Also, I wish cosmologists and philosophers would consult mystics once in a while. Pretty much anyone who carries out diligent spiritual practice - regardless of background and tradition - will eventually have the same insight: consciousness is non-local, and the universe exists in consciousness, rather than vice versa. These days, with serious, starchy scientists taking in stride notions like quantum theory and (much less so, of course) this Anthropic principle, science is drawing closer to recognition of the full magnitude of the subject/object issue. We humans carry laboratories for the exploration of consciousness around with us, and over the eons many of us have compiled a model. It's a waste to ignore these hard-won findings.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

In Defense of Salted (and Even Whipped) Butter

A chowhound poster found some lovely-looking Welsh butter at Trader Joe's, but demurred because it is (gasp) salted.

Here's Bbmorecupcake's photo:

I posted, in reply, the following defense of salted - and even (double gasp) whipped - butter:
I think the "never use salted" credo is an overblown relic of the 1980s, when salted product was often older or crappier quality (i.e. the salt hid sins). People said it made it hard to adjust salt in recipes, but unless you're using gobs and gobs of butter, the salt content of your TB of butter couldn't make that big a difference....and/or could be compensated for, albeit not to 100% precision.

Thing is, pro chefs often DO need that level of precision, so they're compelled to eschew salted butter. And back in the late 1980s, home cooks were starting to fancy themselves mini-pro chefs...but that's a whole other story (of frustration and of unhealthful home cooking habits).

For cooking, salted butter is a micro-variable easily compensated for.

For buttering, like, toast, salted is way better than applying unsalted, then raining down a minuscule shower of salt (good luck getting it even!).

And salted lasts WAY longer in the fridge.

If you trust the quality of the producer (i.e. they haven't subsumed that extra storage time before you bought it), IMO salted is a no-brainer.

In fact, I double sin. I use Kriemhild butter, which is salted AND whipped. The whipping means I can't use it for recipes (I keep solid butter as well), but I know the producer isn't using the whipping process to mask crap, and the whipping means I can use less, total, while spreading more evenly on toast, etc.. And it tastes way, way better than circa 1980 whipped butters, which really were crap.

Crap salted butter and crap whipped butter from bad producers are, obviously, no-gos. But this is another era, when we have Kriemhild and other wonderful products (like this Welsh stuff appears to be) to enjoy. Holding onto an anti-salted, anti-whipped bias in this very different era of product availability would be a shame.

The following reply was posted:
With unsalted butter, you can control the amount of salt in a dish. With salted butter, not so much. I use it when the recipe specifically calls for it, unsalted otherwise.

You can also control the amount of salt by reducing some added salt to compensate for the salted butter.

If you believe you must work to extreme precision as a home chef, that would perplex me. Why would you want to replicate the exact flavor/seasoning profile each time you home cook a dish? Such tight regimentation is the burden of restaurant professionals, accommodating customers who demand extreme consistency. Home chefs are free to vary approach, avoiding boredom both in prep and in ingestion. There's no conceivable mandate to work within extremely tight tolerances as a home chef.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Trying to Understand Apple Investors

So Apple's stock is down 25% from its high, thanks to the random herd scare du jour. And no one smart doubts it will eventually recover...as it always eventually does.

So why not buy here? If the price recovers in two years, you'd make a return of 12.5%, plus dividends. If it recovers sooner, you'd do better, still. And risk is crazy low; no one imagines that Apple is poised at some horrendous cliff of extinction (then again, I didn't think so with SIGA, either).

It seems absurd to think that my shlubby self has spotted a clear pathway to profit no one else did. Plenty of other people surely see what I see. So why aren't they buying at this bargain price? Two reasons, I think:

1. They're too greedy to buy until the current dip goes all the way down. 25% discount's good, but 26% would be even better! Of course, one can't possibly spot a bottom as events unfold. But greed keeps buyers on sidelines, which prolongs the plunge. They'll buy - probably higher than at the current $106 - on the way back up.
This is why one should always park at the near end of big events. Disappointed multitudes park en masse on the other side, all the way to the horizon.
2. They're too greedy to wait the year or two for recovery; they think they can do better than 12-25%. Nobody likes to park their investment.

OTOH, I've bought upon all of Apple's irrational dips over the years, and the profits have paid an awful lot of bills.

Will I be wrong this time? Will Apple forever remain at this price (I'd lose nothing, but not make any profit, either)? Or, worse, are they about to crumble, messing me up as badly as the aforementioned SIGA did? I don't see either happening. So I can't imagine a reason to turn down a 25% profit. Even if it means parking my investment, and losing a shot at 26%.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Resistance and Surrender

Whatever practice you do, whether it's meditation, prayer, mindfulness, or something else, you will eventually, inevitably, have the sensation that you've been pushing a string.

You can't push toward Unity (or Love, or Silence, or Awareness, or "What Is", or God, or however else you might unwisely choose to name the unnameable entirety). You can only allow yourself to be pulled. All that's resisting is you.

"Yoga" is Sanskrit for "yoke". It's often claimed to refer to a union - a bilateral treaty of sorts between you and everything else in the Universe. But that's not it. The rest of the universe acknowledges only unconditional surrender.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Chowhound Revival

In 2005, I made an appearance at Manhattan's Coliseum Books (now defunct) to publicize the "Chowhound's Guide" series published by Penguin. See a report of this rather jolly event, including photos, at Slice. As you can see in the photos, I did the event in a dog mask, for food critic anonymity purposes.

Anyway, I just found the script I'd written for myself, including canned "ad-libs", because I was worried I'd be nervous and need the extra help. I staged it like a religious revival (at that time, Chowhound had a much more fervid tone to it). Enjoy this rather odd artifact. (I recited the prayer at the end in a long crescendo, reaching a full-throated defiant wail - no kidding, I was pretty much screaming - with "kooky obsessive")


Yes, brother and sister chowhounds, for a great many eaters - and who among us is not an eater? - things are...rough. Rough indeed.

As we sit here together, many of us delighting in the after tingle of a morsel of delicious this or that, the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of people are at this very moment heading to dinners where they will willingly....gladly.....blindly....ignorantly....insanely... ingest.....CRAP!!!

Let's all bow heads for a prayer for those less fortunate souls.
Oh, chow father, who art in the Big Kitchen, please help our confused, unthinking bretheren to realize that they don't have to follow the crowd that follows the marketing. Please help them awaken to the fact that they have been hypnotized by the forces of greed and cynicism into being led like sheep to compromised ingestion. They knoweth not what they eat.

The forces of evil have deluded these wretched souls into consuming in slavish lockstep in the pursuit not of happiness or self-interest but of order and predictability. Oh, chow father, let the prevalant, the pandemic, the highly touted hold less sway over these souls. Let them see the light, let them partakath of the Difara's pizza slice. Let them partaketh of the Arepa Lady's stunningly holy corncakes. Let them awaken to the ambrosial joys all around them, that they might live better and support those who cooketh from heart and soul. Amen.
You, sir. What did YOU eat for lunch today?

You, madam. are you settling for Snapple? Why the undelicious drink?

Brother and sister hounds, like many of you, I have been ridiculed for demanding that the food I eat be delicious. But many have lost track of the notion that food even CAN be delicious. For many, deliciousness has been purged from the equation, and as a result, the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who cook delicious, loving, inspiring food have but a precarious foothold in a market increasingly dominated by those who convey no message at all - much less a deep and loving message - via their cooking.

In the interest of mass market efficiency and lowest common denominator consistency, food is increasingly manufactured rather than cooked, by minimum wage cogs rather than by devoted artisans, and the only flair, the only intelligence, the only human empathy in the entire process is in the geniuses who create the marketing campaigns. Those are the artisans, the magicians of today. There is a fixed quantity of human genius in the world, and today's are not writing literature or leading governments or building theories of relativity. No. They're working to hypnotize and persuade the rest of us to consume things we don't want, don't need, don't like, can't use, and won't help. People eat soulless crap, and have lost all sight of deliciousness.

I see a day, not too far in the future, when our dining choices will be as radically pruned down as our choices of hardware stores or book stores. Fast food has already crushed the diners, automats, and food carts. And recently, we've seen an incursion of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Panera and their ilk, which are putting incredible pressure on midpriced restaurants around the country. Countless "best of" reader polls around the country award these abominations top honors in their niches. Marketing trumps quality.

Now we're on the verge of seeing the same in expensive restaurants. The notion of "star chefs" is branding, no more and no less. People like Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges have reduced themselves to upscale Ronald McDonalds, engaged in a land grab as they spin off multiple branches where they'll never actually cook. You're not buying their talent, you're buying their branding.

I'm not saying every Chinese take-out, every taco joint, every French bistro, every sushi parlor will be crushed by an upscale, downscale, or midscale chain operation. A few independent bookstores and hardware stores survive these days, and there'll be still more cracks and crevices in the dining market. But consider this: right now, at very best, restaurants are shaky propositions. Their foothold is precarious, and even great places are more likely to fail than succeed. And that's without immense pressure from huge massive marketing and its proven ability to hypnotize consumers into gladly ingesting garbage.

So what happens when companies like Barnes and Noble or Home Depot enter this market and apply economic and marketing pressure to an already insanely difficult industry? The only hope is if enough of us care. As people are lulled into soulless places which craftily push their buttons without offering actual quality, people will lose even more of their abilitiy to even distinguish quality.

If you think that's impossible, consider orange juice. In just a few decades, we've gone from drinking fresh squeezed, which is delicious, to drinking frozen concentrate, which is not, to drinking TANG, which isn't even food. If you offered someone in 1911 a glass of Minute Maid frozen concentrate, they'd spit it out in revulsion.

Our human adaptability makes us vulnerable to those who work to wean us off of deliciousness and onto crap. Like live lobsters heating slooooowly in a pot, we don't realize how bad it's gotten until we're cooked. Becuse of marketing, Adam Smith's invisible hand reaches for lousy home fries!

Chowhound is an antidote. A red pill, designed to wake up consumers from their marketing hypnosis and make them aware that treasure is all around them, ripe and low on the trees, if they'll simply ignore the marketing messages and make smart decisions for themselves.

Please turn to page 338 in The Book.
"It's extremely important that we never settle for anything undelicious when there are so many geniuses, hold-outs, and proud craftsmen investing hearts and souls into cooking edible treasure which can sate our deepest hankerings. Just venture a bit further and care a bit more, and all occasions can be special...and the good guys will win."
This incredible chowy period we're all enjoying, this bonafide rennaisance of chow with a multitude of geniuses, holdouts and madmen producing food of heightened deliciousness virtually everywhere you look, will not last forever unless we make it last forever. Every bite we take makes a significant difference. Where you choose to eat your muffin - and where you choose NOT to eat your muffin - makes a political statement and affects the quality of all muffinhood. We must vote with our forks and support the good guys who make the good stuff!

Are you with me?

Then everyone, please rise....and hold your forking hand in the air for the chowhound pledge. Please repeat after me in a good, clear, loud, strong voice!

I pledge
never to settle
for anything less than fully delicious
ever again
so help me
[insert deity of your choice]
and the next time I'm hungry
looking around for something to eat
I will NOT cave
and just eat in some stupid place
just because it's easy or convenient
even if the person with me
gets really mad
and calls me a kooky obsessive
For refusing to settle for crap!!!
I didn't write this book. I'm just the spokesperson, Vanna White in a dog mask. So it's a bit silly for me to autograph anyone's book, but I'll autograph yours if you'll autograph mine. Okay, let's get to it!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Two Points of Spiritual Progress

(spoken in a bitter, self-pitying voice)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!
(spoken in a voice of bemused relief)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Non-Evident Goals and Unrecognizable Devotions

As a jazz musician, I poured my attention into listening very closely to the musicians I was playing with. No one noticed this, of course. Not even my colleagues, who were rarely listening closely enough to notice they were being listened to. Audiences were consumed with the superficial layer, so while I was giving everything I had to forge a deeper connection with the music, they were mostly just noticing the occasional missed note.

As a food writer, I poured my attention into doing justice to my subjects. They struck me as heroic in their commitment to create sublime deliciousness, so I felt obliged to try to convey the truth of it via words. But readers were paying attention to the most superficial layer, so while I was giving it everything I had to doing justice to my subjects, they were mostly ascertaining whether the restaurant was worth a trip, and what to order.

As an entrepreneur, running Chowhound, I poured my attention into preserving the honesty of the resource. I understood that shilling and self-promotion could undermine the site's value, so I was perpetually at war with characters hoping to use our open microphone for their own ends. Site users had no idea this was going on. Participating at a more superficial layer, they couldn't understand why I was so geared up, and managing in non-transparent ways.

One more example, before I get to my point. As an author, with my last effort ("The Chowhound's Guide" series for Penguin), I decided to present a smorgasbord of chow tips in a manner that would foster serendipity for readers who couldn't decide where or what to eat. I arranged the material not geographically, nor by food type, but in whimsical alphabetical order, compensating for the caprice with nearly 100 pages of clever indexes, cross-referencing venues, neighborhoods, and food types. The series failed, because readers cracked open the books, saw the alphabetical ordering, missed my explanations (which never work anyway), and decided the books sucked. Again, my thoughtful intentions were non-evident.

It's taken me 53 years to notice that this is what I do: I occupy myself with solving problems no one cares about, in ways nobody notices. That's neither a boast nor a lament. It's just the truth.

I've been building a new project for the past few months. And I just realized I'm doing it again. I'm so hellbent on making the product work a certain way for one type of user that the result will perplex everyone else. It will give the impression of sloppy conception, though every detail has been closely examined. It makes sense, but they won't recognize the sense.

So don't say I never learn, or never compromise! I've reversed course, and the team and I will let that one portion of our audience down a little bit. We will leave them hanging...just a little bit. And they won't even blame us. Because this is a problem no one sees as a problem! So no one will realize that we declined to solve it. They'll figure it's "just them". Our asses will be covered.

More importantly, the users we would have confused by our tortured attempts to solve an unrecognized problem won't be confused. And we'll still solve the problem somewhat for the people I was originally hoping to help. But not all the way. I won't pilot the ship into the rocks to fulfill my stubborn vision. I will compromise this time...a little!

Whenever I see people doing something stupid (e.g. crossing a street without looking), I take a moment to reflect. If such carelessness is survivable (every one of these people has successfully reached their current age!), why do I, being so much more heedful, still wind up in mishaps and quagmires? If these mopes are in the game, why haven't I, like, won it?

Now I have the answer. I've spent my life pouring energy into unrecognizable devotions. And the game is won by being blunt and relentless; by never budging from the most superficial level, where victories are registered and rewarded. (So, really, it's a miracle I wasn't run over, in some manner of speaking, years ago.)

And while winning isn't everything (I'm not Donald Trump), it ought to at least be a minor consideration.

In this Slog, I have two goals, neither of them recognizable. The first is to create a Web of my mind disguised as a blog. And the second is to write articles that reward multiple re-readings.

Trump in the Skinner Box

The following comment was posted beneath my previous posting, "The Trump Thing":
After the latest round of super-crazy, I'm really leaning towards the conspiracy theory camp that this is all just a big joke that got out of control. I think that Trump wanted to have some fun, get some TV time, and never had any particular intention of moving on out of the debates - and purposefully set up an "extreme" campaign to meet those goals.

If you look at his positions over time, they've continued to ratchet up to the point that initial-candidate-Trump seems downright reasonable compared to present-day Trump. You really couldn't get much more fascist at this point unless he starts building a TrumpCamp (never say never).

I do wonder if somewhere in there he's both proud of his coverage and horrified at the number of people who keep going along with whatever he says when he doubles down...
I also got several emails reading something to the effect of "I don't know which is worse; if he believes his rantings, or not."

I said, in my original posting:
As for what Trump really thinks, he's a narcissist in an enormous Skinner box. That's all you need to understand about him.
For those who didn't click that link (when I was a lad, people read explanatory links!), a Skinner Box is a laboratory device that systematically rewards one particular behavior. When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.

Donald Trump is a narcissist. He has an infinite, unhindered need for public attention. And he's spent the past few months in a Skinner Box, being taught what to say to get the reward his brain needs above all other rewards.

Does he believe what he says? You and I have a need to check back and compare our mouth's output against our belief structures. That's our Skinner Box (we feel rewarded when there's unity between what we think and what we say). But that's not Trump's need. He'd look at such a need and be as baffled as we are at his. What? "Check back"? "Beliefs???" That's all completely beside the point. A non-factor.

So, no, he doesn't sit in his limo after each appearance, rubbing his hands gleefully, saying "those clueless assholes ate that right up!". There's no fiendish master plan. He's just at a latter stage of figuring out what he needs to do to get the really good heroin injected in his bloodstream.

Of course, that's not how he sees it. Test subjects in Skinner Boxes, deeply engaged with the satisfaction of their deepest needs, aren't deconstructing the scenario. Neither the chicken with the pellets, nor the rat with the orgasm electrode, nor Trump with acclaim, can glimpse what's happening to them with any clarity. At a certain point, they simply need - like an alcoholic needs vodka - more reward at any cost.

Bodybuilders say it's possible to be completely lean and still be, effectively, fat (if your metabolism is sluggish and you have no muscle tone). They call this condition "skinny-fat". Mr. Trump is poor-rich. He has all the money in the world, yet exhibits the most impoverished neediness. In Buddhist terms, he's a Hungry Ghost.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Trump Thing

The following is a conversation I've been having with a friend about the scary Mr. Trump.

"I'm having a hard time with The Trump thing. I don't like the man at all, but I cannot believe that he is so stupid that he himself believes the crap about stopping all Muslims from entering the country. I have to think that he knows better, but that he's somehow intoxicated with the possibility that he has a shot at the election, and is just trying every way possible to pander to the frustrated masses. That he has come this far is truly scary."
Not masses. 30% of identified Republicans, or roughly 6% of the electorate overall. And 6% of the country believes we faked the moon landings. Read this classic 1964 article, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" to see that this very same fringe has long been a part of our scene. That set finally has a candidate to call their own (it's about paranoia, not politics, which is why someone with terrible conservative bona-fides is being embraced). That's a rare situation for them, and I hope they feel warm and cozy for now, because he'll never win an election.

Meanwhile, seeing people like Lindsay Graham condemn him for going too far with his fear-mongering is not a bad thing. I wasn't sure Graham and his ilk even had a "too far" threshold. Nice to have found a bottom.
"I'm thankful that they have found a bottom (more likely because they see him as the real threat that he is to their party). But the question that remains for me is what Trump thinks. Does he really believe the shit that he is spouting, or does he understand in some level that he is playing the demagogue card?"
Yes, there are political considerations to their condemnations of Trump, but that doesn't matter; it doesn't cheapen it. Remember: to politicians, politics aren't something that "intrudes". It's their life blood. It's way more important than values. So it'll do. It's not full-on terra firma, but it's the best we can expect for now.

As for what Trump really thinks, he's a narcissist in an enormous Skinner box. That's all you need to understand about him.

The real problem is that his words are being seen in the Moslem world. The extremists' goal - to provoke and to polarize, in order to breed more extremists - is being furthered. We are slowly but surely being pulled into the "War Against Islam" these monsters use as their prime recruitment slogan.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Angels From Both Perspectives

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers." -- Mr. Rogers

Angels are real but they're not what you think. Angels don't appear with beatific smiles or soothing tones of voice. They're neutral and unremarkable. They fix things and leave quickly, before you can fully register what's happened. The best adjective I can think of is the very last one you'd expect: they seem ridiculously normal.

I was late for a very important gig at a famous jazz club in Madrid. I was beyond lost; I was hopelessly, miserably lost in the city streets, trying to find the club. This was very very bad, and I was starting to become hysterical. Suddenly, I reached a corner, and someone who seemed to have been waiting there came towards me, and pointed me down a cross street, indicating where I'd need to turn left. I turned to thank him, but he was gone, and I followed the directions straight to the club. It was all so unremarkable, that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice the strangeness of what had happened. What had happened? To this day, I have no idea. I'd never performed in Madrid before. And this all took place in the bustling city center, where countless people were on their busy way to countless destinations.

A few years earlier, coming home from a gig, I'd gotten stuck in a snowbank in the most dangerous part of Queens, right next to a particularly notorious housing project. In sub-zero conditions at 4 in the morning. With $8000 of music and sound equipement in my car. Three figures appeared, out of nowhere, startling me at first, but it somehow was immediately clear that they were righting my car. A few minutes later, I was on my way. I tried to tip them and thank them, but they were gone. It was all so smooth and matter-of-fact that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice what had happened. Again, too normal-seeming to jar me with the strangeness.

I have a handful of other such stories (one happened just today, in fact; once again, it wasn't immediately obvious how unaccountable the situation was, and it was only upon later reflexion that it dawned on me that there was no rational explanation). And I'm certain there've been plenty of times that the smooth ordinariness of unexplainable aid has lulled me into failing to register that anything strange had happened. No elderly magical black man winking at me, no radiant blonde babe with a wand. In fact, I can't remember any of the faces. They were all as if in my peripheral vision. Those are the guys who get your car out of the snowbank, that's all. And this is the guy who tells you where you're headed. Nothing remarkable. They blur into the background.

It should be no surprise that the other side of the equation is just as disquietingly humdrum.

I was friends, at age 9, with a 19-year-old. We went to movies and stuff. Eventually, she got married, and I got busy, and we fell out of touch. I'd heard that her son had died, that she'd gone through a nasty divorce, and had withdrawn from friends. But I hadn't spoken with her in 35 years.

One day, out of the blue, I thought of her. I did a web search, and found out that she'd been having health problems and money problems a few years ago. I couldn't verify that this was still the case, but I had an intuition that something needful was happening in the very moment.
I'll digress to offer a brief explanation of intuition. People often confuse it with hunches - i.e. random guesses we make about the state of something. But while hunches make you think, or worry, real intuition makes you act. The brain does not intermediate. You don't feel a suspicion of something, you feel the actual thing.

If I slow down my car while passing a restaurant and remark that it looks good, it probably is good. A good hunch! But if my car suddenly screeches to the curb and stops and I find myself getting out, without actual thinking, then the restaurant will be great. It's always great. It's never not great.

If you've never found yourself simply acting in some circumstance, without thinking, then you've never experienced true intuition. It most often occurs under great duress, when a deeper, calmer awareness seizes control for a moment. You can easily miss it when it happens. The deeper awareness doesn't call attention to itself. It doesn't change the flavor of things. It quietly steps forward and acts. It does what needs to be done, and then it fades. It's not at all remarkable (have you spotted the connection?)
I found myself writing a check an order of magnitude larger than I'd ordinarily offer to help an old friend, and I also found myself writing a note.
I won't reprint the note here, because very, very few people would understand it. I'll just say this: there are people whose lives have been a never-ending stream of undeserved calamities, and while such people often wind up broken and embittered, they may also wind up illuminated (this, it turns out, is a very touchy thing to remark out loud; I was once tar-and-feathered by a Facebook friend's circle for having offered this observation, so I'm far more careful now).

But even those lucky/unlucky few can forget the hard-won lesson, and be partially pulled back into the drama they'd previously learned to transcend. Such people need reminders, and we're such a vanishingly small group that there is really no place to go for reminding. So what I did was to remind her of this expensive insight, and I congratulated her for having earned it in the first place. How did I figure out she'd earned it, or that she needed reminding? I didn't. Sometimes the car screeches to a halt.
I dug up her address via the Internet, and sent my note. I heard back, and the message had, indeed, been just what she needed to hear; a reminder of something she'd already noticed. And the money had come at just the right time, as well. She asked to speak by phone, and we didn't exchange pleasantries or "catch up". It was as if none of those 35 years had gone by, and I simply got to it, restating, in several ways, that same reminder (which helped engrain it in my own mind more deeply, too). We said goodbye, and that was that. The entire interlude was normal, in a very strange way. Or, maybe, strange in a very normal way.

I'm figuring she hung up the phone, smiled, then, as she went about her day, asked herself "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" The entire thing was so matter-of-fact, while also completely unexplainable. I can't explain it, either. I just did what needed to be done, and it certainly wasn't my idea.

I've found myself in this position a few times (a word here, a pointer there, sometimes just a strategic smile), and found that people for the most part don't consciously notice. They distractedly accept the help and dozily move on to the next thing. Which is as it should be. If you spill entirely out of their peripheral vision to occupy clear central attention, you're not fully in the flow of it. That's a whole other thing. It's favor-doing, or do-gooding, or some other bold gesture stoking your self-image issues (Superman, you'll remember, wore that super-bright suit; there was no missing him). It's highly explainable kindness.

There's really very little for me to say about any of this, either way. Sometimes the car screeches to the curb, and one gets out and enjoys radiant noodles. And that's just that. More remarkable-seeming occurrences are merely part of your personal drama. But the really good stuff barely registers. 

Founding Principles

The Paris attacks killed 130 and injured about 360. Anti-Muslim bigots, generally, were driven into a tizzy of cowardice over 130 dead Frenchmen. And all the Republican candidates came out favoring actions in stark opposition to America's founding principles.

As of this writing (statistics suggest the following figures will be obsolete by day's end), 462 people have died (1314 wounded) in 355 mass shootings this year right here in America. And those same candidates insist that even sane, reasonable gun control measures, favored by a steep majority of the population, must be rejected, because any control at all would be in stark opposition to America's founding principles.

I do understand that gun control issues are more nuanced than the left will concede. What I don't understand is the failure of our national risk assessment skills. Is it really so difficult to distinguish the actual, larger threat? Or is it that bigotry is the MSG of fear, elevating mild worry far beyond its measure?

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