Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Deepest Authenticity

Today I chopped up a couple leftover broiled chicken thighs, and stir-fried them in a wok with garlic and a few handfuls of chopped kale. A bit later I added some leftover roast potato chunks and some chopped mini San Marzano tomatoes from TJ's (being well-seasoned, my iron wok can handle some tomato). Finally, a sprinkling of Penzey's Aleppo pepper flakes, my default source of chili heat.

I served it all over a bed of hummus, and it was delicious. Obviously, this didn't taste like anything one would label as "Chinese", even though I'd prepared this much as a Chinese grandmother might handle these same ingredients. The wok added its magic without leaving palpably "ethnic" traces...but no grandma aims to be "ethnic"!

Because this is how a Chinese grandma would do it, it was incontestably Chinese. If you assume Chinese food needs to have white pepper, scallions, rice wine, and soy sauce...and never ingredients like roast potatoes, chopped kale, hummus, or leftover chicken, that's on you, gringo! This was not "fusion", this was pure Chinese food, prepared with a Chinese mindset on Chinese equipment. I'd nailed it just as squarely as if I'd prepared proper beef chow fun (here's my rendition of that, fwiw).

The food you think of when you think of as Chinese food is a set of popular moves, not a universe of possible moves. I was shocked when I first learned that Ovaltine is a very insider-ish Chinese thing to order in Hong Kong-style cafes, but it's only shocking if you imagined there were boundaries. There are no boundaries. This is the biggest mistake people make in ethnology: cultures don't exist in cages, with neat nameplates. They're as open-ended as your own culture! Study the perspective, not the materiality. To really get it, you must learn to reframe your focus.

Earlier this week, I quickly reheated some chopped roast turkey on a hot Mexican comal, along with a few dabs of stuffing, wilted some baby spinach over it, and stuffed it all into righteous nixtamal tortillas properly warmed on that same comal. With no lime, salsa or coriander, and no crema or queso, the result might have seemed far from Mexican food.

But Mexicans don't know they're eating Mexican food! They're taking whatever they've got...with tortillas (sometimes pre-stuffing those tortillas into "tacos" - a medium, not a dish). Ingredients are mere variables. They don't need to be carnitas or al pastor; nearly anything can feel like dinner. This is what a Mexican grandma might have done with these ingredients, so the result was extremely Mexican, though no foodie would have considered it as such.

There is a deeper level of authenticity that transcends academic notions of authenticity. I aspire to that level.


Whether or not my guests recognize the pedigree, results carry a certain spin that parses as deliciousness.

More Support for Pinker's Theory of Declining Violence

I've noted a couple times that there used to be a term for people – weirdos like hippies and the Amish – who oppose war on principle: "Pacifists".

We no longer need a name for this, because it's become the default. Instead, we name the other side (which seems like a bunch of weirdos): "Hawks".

Here's a similar one. When I was younger, you used to hear - sometimes as a joke, and sometimes straight - that it's wrong to hit people who wear glasses. I haven't even heard that referenced in over 30 years. Why? Because it's not okay to hit people, period, anymore. So the glasses thing makes no sense.

I realize that attitudes and memes shift, passing in and out of favor. It's not usually very meaningful. But some shifts bear examination, because they truly do reflect huge, fundamental changes.


More postings on Stephen Pinker's theory of declining violence.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #6

Monday, January 15, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,900 google search results, up just a tiny bit from last week's 78,800.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Funding Your Time Travel

If you could time travel to the past, you'd feel mightily rich, due to inflation. $100 would buy 200 multi-course fancy French dinners in NYC restaurants circa 1893 (source). But there's a catch: you obviously couldn't pay with modern currency. You'd be arrested on the spot as a counterfeiter!

One solution would be to bring along some gold. But an ounce currently costs $1,330, and would be worth only $20 in 1893 (source). So $100 worth of 1893 gold would cost you $6650 in current money, which means those 50¢ dinners would cost you $33 each. Not an awful deal, but hardly a steal - certainly not enticing enough to risk accidentally preventing the meeting of your great-great grandparents, or coming down with diphtheria, or being forced into a duel.

This is something I've puzzled over for years. There are obvious ways a time traveler might earn money in the past (though with substantial risk of meaningfully changing the course of history). But if you wanted to visit the past for just a few days, what would you bring along to pay for essentials, allowing you to enjoy those sweet old-timey prices?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Samson

I run warm. I can venture out in the cold in a t-shirt, no problem, and I rarely sleep with blankets. I feel like an ember, and it's a good feeling. But on those extremely rare occasions when I do get chilled, it's very hard to warm me up. It can be quite a serious development. There was one night so cold when I went to college in Rochester that I still haven't fully warmed up. I tell people this sometimes, as a joke. But I'm not really joking.

I understand most things quickly and clearly, at least in my idiosyncratic way. But when I do get confused, I need things explained to me as if to a child. I once, as an adult, broke down sobbing in a post office when the clerk sullenly refused to help me properly affix the form to a registered mail package while a long holiday season line impatiently waited behind me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.

I can create things and solve problems and make cool things happen with almost magical speed (I built most of Chowhound in a week or so). But when I get dead-ended - when I confront an obstacle I don't know how to overcome, or am besieged with multiple hindrances - I can freeze up badly, and my recovery's downright pathetic, far worse than other people's. I once tried to repair my Wallace and Gromit talking alarm clock, hit an impossible snag, and left the pieces splayed out on my dining table for 18 months. They weren't touched until I had to move to a new place.

I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly in realms in which I'm talented. The talentless, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage, while I exist in a hellscape of splayed out alarm clocks, imperiled by chills and tormented by potential confusion. Accordingly, I'm completely fine with my flaws and weaknesses - the many realms where I'm talentless! - but my greatest strengths, alas, are my undoing.

The tale of Samson has resonance. Our strengths are predicated on familiar conditions and clear runways. Cut off some hair or revolve some parameter and "hero" doesn't just go to "zero", she plunges into negative numbers.




Superman fears Kryptonite way more than you or I fear cancer or homelessness.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fuzzy Ridiculous Repair!

I messed up my marked-up writing example in this morning's posting, "Fuzzy Ridiculousness" (just below the link for "Six Writing Tips"). Consider rereading if you found the subject interesting!

Fuzzy Ridiculousness

Bad writing is epidemic. Even, alas, in the pages of the Washington Post. In an otherwise interesting article, "How to make an innocent client plead guilty" explaining why 95% of all defendants - including most innocents - accept plea deals, Jeffrey D. Stein writes:
...the prosecution is not obligated to reveal its witnesses before trial. You and your investigator do your best to assess whether the case rests on unreliable eyewitnesses, faulty assumptions or witnesses with reasons to fabricate an account, which you cannot fully explore because — remember — the prosecution has not even disclosed who they are.

Why not ask your client for leads? That might work if the person were guilty. Innocent clients are generally the least helpful, because they often cannot tell you what they don't know.
They "often" cannot tell you what they don't know, eh? So sometimes they can tell you what they don't know? That "often" snuck into the lazy, unconscious first draft, and neither writer nor editor properly went over final copy to remove a word that's not only useless but logically ridiculous ("generally" in that same sentence is also useless - a mere placeholder - though not ridiculous). This all defies #3 of my Six Writing Tips:
Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.

Better:

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.
I'm not nitpicking. Such flubs may not consciously register for all readers, but the aggregated fuzziness (and fuzzy ridiculousness) makes writing less readable and less persuasive. It's like shooting thumbtacks out of the back of your car to put off your pursuers, when the pursuers are the audience trying to read your stuff. The impression gradually arises that this is bulky, non-pre-digested stuff to be grimly endured.


And, take it from me: even paying close attention to such details, writers still risk losing readers to an impression of grim, bulky unreadability if they don't diligently grease the chute, pre-masticate the thoughts, and keep it all simple, stripped-down, and as unrelentingly entertaining as a kid's birthday party magic show. 21st century writers must beg and cajole readers to keep their eyes scanning left/right.

Wonder why almost no one talks about this Slog, or links to it, or comments on it? It's because there's almost no one reading, because I post complex, half-baked material requiring ripe digestion via multiple re-readings (also by jumping wildly between topics, ensuring there's always something of disinterest for absolutely everyone). Unavoidably contrarian, I'm writing like Hegel in the age of Gladwell.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Corn Flakes, Aliens, and Trees



Corn Flakes are among humanity's most delicious creations. Everyone eating Corn Flakes experiences deep bliss, but there's a mysterious amnesiac quality. The moment our bowl is empty, we retract back into indifference. Meh. Just Corn Flakes.

If aliens ever landed, they'd be stunned. This nectar is available anywhere, for mere pennies? And we feign indifference? What's wrong with you earthlings?


On a similar note, if trees had never existed, and suddenly appeared, en masse, we'd all be driven insane by the beauty.

Immigrants

I believe the best thing about America is its immigrants. And it has always been thus. I believe the country would collapse in a heartbeat without its new arrivals, who believe far more passionately in the American Dream than any of us and who actually remember how to work and sacrifice.

This is why I support amnesty for undocumented aliens, a generous policy toward refugees, and liberalization of immigration, generally.

I am proud of the Indians who immigrated across the Bering Strait and gave this land a natural spirituality that even now remains our subtly palpable underlying bedrock.

I am proud of our founding fathers, who crafted this country with such courage, creativity, and wisdom.

I am proud of my grandparents, who came here from shit holes and worked insanely hard to gain a foothold.

I am proud of the natives who declined to welcome my grandparents with open arms, who called them dirty jews, yet allowed them to work insanely hard to prove themselves, eventually showing grudging acceptance, just as America grudgingly accepts each wave in time.

I am proud of the American pattern of initial resistance always being eventually worn away by increasing exposure, until each new group feels like a comfortable, natural part of the national fabric.

It's never been a tolerant process! It's never been welcoming! It's never been The United Colors of Benetton! We haze the bejesus out of each and every new group, and call them names, and make them work shit jobs, and just barely put up with them. But that's the ante for getting into the best game in town, and not one of us would be here if our ancestors weren't willing to pay that price.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Shit Hole Countries

I'm shocked by the shock at "shit hole".

Americans refuse to pay double digits for the cooking of shithole countries, while sky's the limit for French/Italian/Scandinavian/Japanese. We label the rest "ethnic", condescendingly shoving them into a "miscellaneous" drawer of spicy cheap chow. Lesser stuff.

Also: star chefs don't cook your food. Those guys earn millions fronting while shithole chefs anonymously perform the actual miracles. Name one Mexican or Central American chef in NYC! The immensely lower value of people from shithole countries is so intrinsically baked into American socio-economics that I find today's outrage completely inexplicable.




Sure, they're considered "shitholes" on the right, which at least talks straight. But the careful euphemisms from the left are just as condescending. The language isn't what matters. It's the respect, and these countries are nearly universally deemed shit holes by the vast majority of Americans, whether they want to admit it or not.

How immersed are you in the culture or politics of shithole countries? How many shithole friends do you have? How do you pay your shithole workers, compared to the natives? What's their advancement track?

What's your spending limit for the music, food, films, etc., of shithole countries compared to native culture? Name some cultural aspect of a shithole country you've explored and admired to the point of close familiarity (tacos don't count). Can you talk with shithole people with familiarity about their culture and experience? Are they something other than a "menacing brown wash" (right wing) or "peoples of color from developing nations" (left wing), neither of which affords much individual humanity?

Nervous condescension toward The Other is no better than brusque dismissal. These countries will be considered shitholes by Americans until actual interest is taken, and real respect is paid, and the Ecuadorian dude who mows your lawn doesn't need to underprice his service to get traction, and it finally strikes you as odd that the guys who actually conjure the deliciousness in fancy restaurants do so in utter anonymity, or that nobody will pay thirty bucks for Dominican or Ghanaian food....even when it's great.

Even if you're too busy to study and too broke to travel, consider: you probably have 50 things you could say about France, England or China. Would it kill you to know a half dozen things about Guatemala, Haiti, or Senegal? If that sounds strange to you, it's because you deem such places shitholes. There's no getting around it. Even if you're too polite to use the term.

This whole issue, btw, is one of the unspoken agendas behind my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere".


Three Quick Reads

Two perspective-shifting writings (and one merely interesting read):

Bannon's brutal ouster from Trump and Breitbart circles should frighten Americans is a perspective-flipping short observation on Bannon's fall from Cheri Jacobus that will leave you wondering how you missed the essential point in all this.
Finally, dropped by the Mercers, and by extension and formally by Breitbart, Bannon is now a man without a country, friends or home. That conveys an ominous message: Do not criticize this American president or you will be destroyed.
The Good War: How America’s infatuation with World War II has eroded our conscience by Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes. Graphic novel treatment (not a long read, though) of an insightful look at attempts to stir post-Vietnam America into loving war again via the relentless recharging of WWII nostalgia. Even if you're anti-war, you'll almost surely come away conceding that you've been manipulated by this (among other things, it's yet another reason to dislike Stephen Spielberg).


Less perspective-bending, but still interesting, and including tie-ins to provocative questions of marketing, taste, and economics: How an Underground Fashion Label for Nerds Got Cool, a look into a high-tech hipster clothing company:
Pants tough enough to deal with anything became Outlier’s signature play — trousers “for the end of the world,” as the folks at GQ put it. “We were trying to solve a specific cycling problem,” Burmeister says. “How to not look like a cyclist but still perform.”

They started going to textile conferences — Outdoor Retailer, then in Utah, was a big one. They wanted to find out where big companies, which they assumed used all the best stuff, got their supplies. But it turned out that the big companies of the world actually used the best cheapest materials.

As for the actual best, well, “we found that there was all this stuff nobody was touching. We were stunned. Like, nobody is using this? Nobody is using this?” Burmeister says. Military fabrics, equestrian fabrics, industrial fabrics — they were all for sale, or had been. They found, for example, a doubleweave with Cordura-grade nylon on one side and a softer nylon/polyester blend on the other. It seemed like it would make really great pair of jeans.

A postscript to yesterday's posting on miracles: The James Randi Educational Foundation archived many of their communications with would-be dowsers and telepaths as they negotiated testing conditions. It makes amusing reading.

But there was one particularly odd exchange with "ELAINE McGUCKIN, Asteroid Prophet". Uncommonly terse, Ms. McGuckin simply wrote in to predict the demise-by-asteroid of two towns: Oban, Scotland, and Bowen, Queensland, Australia. The predictions were made in 2004, and while both towns are still standing, there was a large meteor crash just off the central Queensland coast in 2016, and in 2015, Oban was the site of an unusual meteor shower. Of course, this is how cold calls and much other flimflammery works: we ignore contradictory evidence (i.e. the towns are fine) but marvel at any that might be construed as confirmative. Still, kinda weird....


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Miracles

Here's something you likely don't know about the Holocaust.

Hasidic Judaism is recent, having originated in the 1700s and flourished in the 1800s. There are parallels with The Reformation. While Hasidism is, like all religious Judaism, codified up the wazoo, it offers - at least ideally - more sap and joy and immediate personal experience (as opposed to bloodlessly admiring one's spiritual betters) than the stodgy mainstream Judaism of that time.

When sap rises in a spiritual tradition, there's inevitable talk of "power". And the funny thing about spiritual power (the juju that makes people writhe at revivals and transform into fervid devotees) is that it doesn't really translate into worldly power. All traditions speak of miraculous healings and other abilities, but I suspect that's because strictly internal power doesn't make for inspiring stories!

The Hasids, with the heat and freshness of their recent semi-schism, were extreme. Their masters were said to be god-like beings, hopped up with superpowers (don't miss public radio show Studio 360's deconstruction of "Superman", which came straight out of Jewish mythology). But then came the Holocaust, where these spiritual titans were rounded up like vermin and shoved into cyanide showers. No fireballs, no plagues; nothing. They turned out, alas, to be merely human.

(Despite this extraordinarily painful lesson, the same stories of superhuman power continue to circulate. When the Lubavitcher rabbi died in 1994, teams of followers monitored his grave 24/7, with a fax machine at the ready to announce news of his resurrection to the worldwide faithful. So far as I know, those guys are still there.)


In 1964, the James Randi Educational Foundation, a group of skeptics led by a wily magician with a keen eye for sleight-of-hand, announced a "One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge". To oversimplify it, they offered a cool million to anyone proving ability to defy the laws of physics within a controlled environment.

In a half century, none managed it. It might be argued that the foundation went beyond skepticism to actually put their thumb on the scale ("I always have an out," confided Randi, and his claim of misquotation doesn't pass the smell test). It might be argued that the environmental controls were massively cumbersome. It might be argued that truly spiritual people don't need to prove anything or make money (though the $1 million would have fed an awful lot of poor people). Yet, despite all that, surely someone would have won if there was anything robustly demonstrable to any of this.

It must be conceded that the laws of physics cannot be broken by spiritual or other power. And that spiritual power is neither a weapon nor a defense against weaponry. Inner mastery is a thing, but it doesn't grant you cheat codes to universal law.

Miracles are nonetheless possible, just so long as they don't involve levitation, telekinesis, etc. The word "miracle", after all, is highly pliant. When a small child peers at a book of matches and schemes misbehavior, and Mother appears to read his mind, snatching away the matches, it seems, to the child, miraculous. Similarly, any sort of human sensitivity, awareness, skill, or intuition offers extreme cases indistinguishable from magic. Anything within the laws of physics is potentially fair game (note that James Randi and his foundation would strenuously object to this).

It's highly useful to know what's possible and what isn't. Between the Nazis and the James Randi Educational Foundation (not to equate them, of course), we've had incontrovertible boundaries drawn around possibilities that intrigued humanity for time immemorial. Anyone still clinging to this stuff has simply failed to get the message.


A third point of persuasion was offered last century via mere pithy insight. Some wit - perhaps Emile Zola - noted that Lourdes, site of supposed miraculous healings, was full of abandoned crutches and wheelchairs...yet not one glass eye or wooden leg. Really, the persuasive big three on this topic were: Nazis, Randi, and Zola.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #5

Monday, January 8, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,800 google search results, up a smidge from last week's 77,800.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Italians and the New Spaniards

I raved about The New Spaniards, by John Hooper on Chowhound's suggested reading page:
After having visited the land of paella 19 times, I find that Hooper is dead-on perfect in all his observations and assessments of post-Franco Spain. He masterfully explains how the country reached its present point, fitting a surprising amount of historic/cultural background into 470 pages. Hooper offers methodical analysis of every imaginable mileau (art, education, politics, crime, sex, religion, the press,etc etc), plus evocative (and unerring) portraits of each of Spain's strikingly different states. Indispensible for those traveling there, and a fascinating read for anyone even mildly interested in the region.
It's such a great read, with no padding or flabby indulgence. Hooper was the Spain correspondent for The Economist, so he knows how to write with elegance and concision. And I just discovered Hooper was reassigned to Italy a few years ago, and has given them that country treatment, with "The Italians". If you have any curiosity, and want quick sketches of the regions and level-headed recent history, check it out. If you ever travel there, it's surely indispensable.

NY Times review of "The Italians"
Guardian review of "The Italians"

Another cool-sounding book on Italy recommended in the Guardian review (above): Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy"


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Why Trump’s War on the Deep State Is Failing—So Far

The Right has obviously gone off the deep end. The Left is headed toward its own crazy town of self-annihilation. "The Resistance" is a bunch of opportunistic self-promoting drama queens. Amid the tumult and the reciprocal tumult stands, alone, the very bright and clear-headed Benjamin Wittes. Don't miss his well-reasoned survey piece, "Why Trump’s War on the Deep State Is Failing—So Far". It's a ten minute read at most. Drink up some refreshing reason and sanity (as Steve Jobs famously said about iTunes for Windows, "It's like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell."


Here is Witte's Twitter feed.

The Curse, Part 10: Theory "Always Thus"

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order 

As I said last time, there's no one answer. So I think all my theories are at least somewhat true. Before diving in, you may want to re-read the earlier installments. If you're going to theorize along with me, it will help to have the facts in mind.


The most straight-ahead theory is also the most terrifying. It occurred to me very early, and it's such a horror that I hesitate to reveal it. But here goes.

It's always been this way, but it took me a long while to notice.

There's truth to this. The world has always seemed off, but in murky ways I couldn't quite put my finger on, and generally blamed myself for. There were long runs of bizarrely poor results which became harder and harder to explain via my own flaws and deficiencies.

I had a rare chance once to read some pages from Andy Kaufman's diary, not usually available to the public. Kaufman, who, like me, was an "extreme" meditator, noted that every few years everything would completely fall apart for him. He'd decided that it wasn't due to anything on his end (though he'd, naturally tended to blame the most frequently criticized aspects of himself - the "Zit On The Tip Of Your Nose" effect I've written about, e.g. here and here). He didn't write about this with exasperation or self-pity. It was stated as a simple fact, and he seemed more puzzled by the mystery of it than exasperated with the fallout. Meditation gives you a higher perspective.

So this strange movie might have been playing all along. But, if so, it leaves me precisely where I started: trying to understand. So I continued to come up with theories.

There's a related theory that I call "Sensitive Me": The world is not really all that warm and embracing for any of us (I've written about this before), and maybe I feel it more acutely. Remember how at the end of Part 2, I said:
There are lots of greyed-out, fuzzy-focused, seldom-noticed people out there who very studiously mind their own business. Not just introverts, but people who intentionally shrink down to nothing with an almost palpable degree of self-awareness. Not depressed, defeated, nor malevolent, yet deliberately evading attention. I can't help but wonder whether such a "curse" might be less unusual than we imagine.
Maybe some people are more attuned to the selfish peevishness and idle cruelty, and take it extra personally. It's true that I have gotten better at registering subconscious malevolence. I've always had unusually keen intuition and street smarts , so maybe this is what happens when you keep ratcheting up your sensitivity. Intuition is not necessarily a good thing.

The problem is that "Sensitive Me" only goes so far. Whenever I started suspecting that I was making mountains of molehills, there would appear a demonic fishermen or pigeons flying into my chest, or some other almost winking evidence that none of this is normal. And, once again, friends confirmed the Curse and its surreal severity.

So while oversensitivity certainly plays a part, it's not a full explanation. It does, however, fit neatly with "Always Thus". The world is what it is, and my perspective has zoomed in on the underbelly of it all. That's a pretty useful upshot, though incomplete. I'm always a fan of explanations that involve perceptual framing. Our point of perspective/focus plays a far greater role in our experience of the world than we ever imagine.


To be continued...

Monday, January 1, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #4

Monday, January 1, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 77,800 google search results, a bit more than last week's 76,900.



All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

2017 Was Great

As predicted, everyone's complaining about how awful 2017 was. We're like Anne Frank's family, hiding behind the damned bookcase or something. What's to celebrate here at the low ebb of human existence?

Just as a reality check, let me point out that:

I have a stent in my heart keeping me alive and 100% active and healthy (if I'd been born a decade earlier, I'd be dead or incapacitated).

I have the entirety of human knowledge plus infinite free communication with anyone on earth on a <$500 piece of glass in my pocket.

Not one passenger jet crashed anywhere this year.

Cars never stall anymore. When you need to go somewhere, your car will virtually never fail to take you there. We don't even consider other outcomes.

I haven't heard about a mugging, car theft, or house or car break-in among anyone I know in America in a decade. I realize these things are still happening, and that I'm privileged to live in a middle class enclave, but I remember when nice middle class enclaves offered no protection from violence, and a trip to NYC meant a decent chance of returning to your car and finding a shattered window...and, possibly, a hard smack to the back of your head, as well.

2 million Americans confined to wheelchairs are can go virtually everywhere thanks to assertive federal laws that, in retrospect, seem incredibly unlikely to have ever passed.

Gay people, until only a very short while ago, were engaging in an illegal activity. Like junkies or saboteurs, they needed to skulk around in the shadows.

I can't remember the last time I heard someone complain about a headache (I'm not talking about migraines, a separate thing). Thank god for bottled water!

People live into their 90s, and remain young well into their 70's. I remember when 65 year olds stared at the walls!

I remember when it was weird to favor peace. There was a name for such weirdos: pacifists (one imagined flower children and Amish). No one uses that word anymore, because it's the default setting, while warmongers are considered crazy and dangerous. A tectonic shift!

I remember when it was taken for granted that politicians would be slightly (or more than slightly) racist know-nothing blow-hards, and we rolled our eyes at their stupid pronouncements, understanding that, sure, they'd screw things up somewhat, but life would go on. Things have improved so much that we find outselves in a position to find this sort of thing intolerable. Ass-grabbing, too!

We're enduring the latest in a long string of crusty leaders dog-whistling anti-semitic tropes (e.g. the entire "War on Christmas" thing is 100% about those damn Jews, though it's hopeful that I need to point this out). But this one actually has a Jewish son-in-law and daughter. What were the odds of a Richard Nixon - much less Teddy Roosevelt or James Garfield - letting a Jew marry into the family, and not immediately disowning their kid?

I've flown around the country and the world in the last few years like a billionaire, nearly always for less than the $250 my parents paid to fly me to Miami in 1975, thanks to the various cheap travel tools enabled by the Internet. I was in frickin' Singapore for a week last month (photos soon) for well under $700 including airfare and lodging! And that was by far my biggest travel splurge ever! I am living like a billionaire for pennies!

Great beer is everywhere.

So why do we feel so miserable? A collision of two phenomena:

1. As situations improve, dwindling remnants sting disproportionally (this is why Stephen Pinker's observation that violence is decreasing feels so counterintuitive; the remainder feels increasingly intolerable). So brace yourself. The better things get, the more sensitized we'll be, and the worse it will feel. Prepare to hate the rest of the ride up the curve of declining results to perfection.

2. One can understand American behavior much more clearly by recognizing that we are a bunch of horribly spoiled rich assholes. America has always been called a rich country, despite the poverty. But these days, even poorer Americans are ridiculously wealthy by world standards, and downright regal by historical world standards (just try to get a non-immigrant American to do anything for fifty bucks). And rich people are best characterized as princesses interminably vexed by their mattress peas. (Read the part about the "cheat codes" here.)


I'll give the last word to Louis CK - a non-person damned to crawl up and die and neither support his family nor ply his trade due to his icky-seeming consensual sexual practices. Take it away, Louie:



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