Monday, March 19, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #15

Monday, March 19, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 91,700 google search results, just a bit more than last week's 91,000.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Picatext: If You Can Read It, You Can Copy It

There are many situations where Mac users can't copy a given bit of text to their clipboard. You can't select text in the Mac App Store, in images, in Google Books, in certain apps. For example, just try to select and copy the text in the image below:

Enter PicaText. Fire it up, select some portion of your Mac's screen, and it does on-the-fly OCR to extract the text of the area you've selected. Here you go:

Results are very good, though not always perfect (Picatext missed the space between "but" and "you"). Suddenly every bit of text readable on a Mac becomes completely available to cut/paste. It's magic - a brilliant creative solution to a problem no one ever expected to solve. And it's only $3.99, and nobody knows about it. Can we fix that? Pass the word!

Friday, March 16, 2018


Critics usually aren't masters of the thing they're criticizing. Great violinists and film directors tend to play violin and direct films, rather than write about it. So you can imagine the contempt many creative people feel for critics, who can seem like the most annoying sort of hangers-on.

I'm in a unique position, having worked creatively in several fields in addition to my critical work. Even before I was a critic, my perspective was unusual. If a critic would write about some technical thing I'd done ("interesting use of tritone substitution in an otherwise modal passage!"), or try to figure out which players had influenced me, I'd need to repress the urge to slap them. Even if they were right! Because that's all just stagecraft. It has nothing to do with my aim, which is to engage and move listeners. If you're poking at me and measuring me - analyzing how I do what I do - you're not paying attention to what I'm actually up there to do. Were you moved? Did you feel anything; were you taken anywhere? Was any spell cast?

Whenever a listener tells me they "don't understand jazz", that means they've heard crappy jazz. Jazz isn't supposed to be about jazz. It's a medium for expression, and if expression doesn't express, that's the performer's fault. I prefer not to play for jazz experts. Absorbed by stagecraft, they're the worst listeners.

For my entire career as a restaurant critic, I couldn't cook a damned thing (I've since learned). And I caught grief for it. But I always considered my naiveté a super power. When a puppeteer attends a puppet show, he keeps his eyes on the strings, not on the puppets. Who do you want to read for puppet show recommendations: someone for whom the puppets were alive and magical, or someone bent on explaining how the mouth gestures were derivative and sloppily calibrated?

Of course, you don't want a critic to be a complete shnook; a tabula rasa. Critics need enough experience to recognize when something's special and when it's a bust. But while a chef might gauge the evenness of the slicing, I gauge the likeliness you'll say "Mmmm!" (most chefs have forgotten that "Mmmm!" is even a thing).

To chefs, this makes me look ingenuous. I seem to be reading all sorts of capriciousness into the food. A very long time ago I wrote this about Sal and Carmine's Pizza:
Sauce and crust are merely adequate (though they proof their dough the old fashioned way, in wooden drawers), but they are carefully, exactingly designed and crafted to superbly support the cheese. Crust doesn’t distract, but provides the canvas for this artistic study in cheese. Sauce binds and activates entirely behind the scenes, providing a subliminal buoying catalyst for the slice as a whole. When eating at Sal and Carmine’s, one must remember to eat (conceptually) from the CHEESE DOWN, not from the crust up!
They'd taped the review up on the wall, and I asked Sal (or was it Carmine?) what he thought of it, without telling him I'd written it. His immortal reply was one of the unforgettable highlights of my career: "I don't know what the fuck the guy's talkin' about!"

To chefs, who spend their time occupied with slicing the damned tomatoes and shepherding the right dishes to the right table at the right time, my dreamy conceptualization can seem like utter ditzy indulgence.

I get it. A chef is perpetually occupied with the nuts and bolts of producing food, only unconsciously imbuing it with personal touch via innumerable micro-decisions (ideally aligned via the magical combination of experience and love). But my domain is the opposite end of that process, where diligently packed pyrotechnics erupt into splendor. It's my job to dream about it! But what artist wouldn't want to inspire dreaming?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Three Seemingly Insurmountable Problems with Autonomous Cars

I love to drive, but am nonetheless looking forward to autonomous cars, which are due sooner than we expect. For one thing, I'll enjoy an unprecedentedly active old age. As I wrote a few months ago:
What if you could go to sleep in your camper or RV, and wake up 500 miles away? Achieving that without the least preparation or staging would ... feel one notch away from teleportation!

And once highways are 100% autonomous, speed limits could safely increase, so maybe you'd wake up 800 miles away! Just for one thing, it would be a chowhound's utopia: you might read about a great breakfast joint in Jacksonville, FL, and be there the next morning for pancakes...just like magic!

It's a pretty irresistible prospect. Especially if I'm 80 years old (it'd likely take that long to happen anyway), and otherwise not getting around very much.
But there are problems. Not just challenging problems, but seemingly insurmountable ones, and these are just the three I've thought of. All are most problematic in urban areas, but those are the locales where autonomous cars are expected to be most concentrated.

1. Pedestrian Tyranny

The prime commandment of any self-driving algorithm must be: don't hit humans. This tops all other priorities.

As is, an uneasy truce exists between motorist and pedestrian right of way, and it has little to do with signage (if we locked up all the jay-walkers, there'd be no one left free). The only reason pedestrians ever let cars pass through an intersection is the prospect of getting hit. A driver could be drunk, inattentive, or psychopathic, so it's not worth the risk.

But if cars are constrained from running you over, you can step off the curb nearly any time, and all traffic will politely allow your passage. They will even opt to rear-end each other in order to accommodate you. In fact, all you need to do is wave your arm or umbrella into the roadway. Screech.....bam....walk.

The only alternatives I can think of (1. make jay walking a felony and position police at every intersection, or 2. make every citizen wear or implant an identifying chip and position sensors at every intersection)- seem impractical to say the least.

2. Destination Overload

The great thing about autonomous cars is they remove the issue of parking. Your vehicle drops you at the door, then heads off to the outskirts to park cheaply and await your summons. It may be even easier than this. In the future foreseen by both GM and Uber, car ownership will be effectively over by the middle of the upcoming decade. With no humans needing to get paid, autonomous taxis will be irresistibly cheap, so we'll be using them for everything. In either case, people will no longer approach their destination on foot, having parked in one of the plethora of surrounding options or emerged from various mass transit. Most of us will be driven to the door every time.

So what happens in front of, say, a post office when ingress is no longer a mixture of mass transit, foot traffic, and a slim percentage of drop-offs? What would 44th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue look like at 7:15pm when nearly every theatergoer arrives by car directly to the door? What does midtown Manhattan look like before a concert or basketball game at Madison Square Garden? We have not yet imagined how bad traffic jams can be. This will choke all traffic movement for many blocks away.

3. Hailing Woes

It's hard to get a cab as-is, especially when crowds disperse or weather turns rainy. This is mostly due to limitations on number of taxis, but what happens when a swarm of autonomous cars is available to inexpensively take everyone anywhere? When you push the "hail" button on your iPhone 15, and many people immediately around you do the same, how will the result not be like the chaotic car service pick-up lane at airports, only many times worse?

Between hailing woes and destination overload, how will any proposed nightclubs or movie theaters ever get permission from local community boards, when they'll absolutely choke their neighborhoods? One solution to all this potential mayhem would be to very sharply limit or tax all vehicles in urban areas, but that would make hailing much more difficult than it is now, plus we'd be back where we started, with expensive taxis (perhaps more expensive in light of limits/taxes) and the usual half-assed mass transit...but without the option of driving in and parking. The average citizen would come out worse.

Most cars on city streets are trying to park. This ensures a fanned-out driving pattern. It's polluting and inefficient, but it works. Without this inefficiency, the vast majority of traffic will converge on the top few dozen most popular locales. On the other hand, I suppose that with pedestrian tyranny, no car will ever move anywhere, anyway.

One more thing: if you want to get rich, invest in alcoholic beverage companies starting around 2021. As soon as autonomous cars hit a tipping point, the suburbs will see a level of public intoxication not experienced since medieval England. If, around the same time, we figure out a way to eat caloric foods without gaining weight, things might get interesting.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Perfection Requirement

Enjoy another hulking mound of buried ledes and disparate half-baked thoughts, all weirdo stuff no one else has seen fit to point out.

Having learned, early in my writing career, to draw readers into highly polished, easily-digested narratives, I continue to go the opposite way, assembling insightful hairballs requiring multiple re-readings and sustained reflection. It's not self-indulgence, as I work hard to ensure every lock is provided a corresponding key. But, dammit, the present-day conviction that everything worth knowing ought to be effortlessly swallowed is just wrong. The contemplative approach may be a poor fit for this iPhone age, but stubborn fools persist.

I hated slogging through difficult, dense writers like Kant and Hegel in college, which inspired me to develop a crisp, immersive, entertaining writing style, painstakingly primped to coax readers into sleekly gliding though, like butter. But we've all been butter-gliding for way too long. Much of the human condition remains unexamined, thanks to our mulish disinclination to closely observe, analyze, and integrate.

I've always assumed there were smart, insightful people working that end of things, so I contented myself, for years, to kvell over stroopwafels. But as I've gotten older, I've observed, with horror, that the ball's largely been dropped. So I keep slogging for the handful here who haven't yet been repulsed. Perhaps one day the tide will turn and this sort of writing will become interesting again. As-is, I'm embarrassed by it, but I do feel compelled to persevere.

It's happened literally thousands of times. I say something unscripted that contains some cleverness, and someone - who'd previously assumed from my lack of gravitas and pretension that I'm some goofy asshole - cocks an eyebrow.

Wait a minute. What on earth was that? That was either the craziest thing I've ever heard, or else I've misjudged this guy!

They look more closely, trying to decide: crackpot or sage? But they see before them nothing but goofy asshole, with no detectable deeper nuggets of magnificence. I bemusedly watch their mental gears turn (any process observed thousands of times affords what might be mistaken for superpowers of intuition), and the result is inevitable: "Ok, yup. Crackpot!" Attention dissipates, and there's literally nothing I could say or do to stir them from their permanently settled disinterest. I could levitate and spit gold coins from my ears, but, please, they've had quite enough of this guy's goofy nonsense.

Yet sometimes not. Sometimes someone projects the existence of some nugget. It must be projected, because there truly aren't any, because I am merely (and proudly) a shitty river. Per the footer here:
Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river. The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.
But this time, for whatever reason, someone has begun to pay closer attention.

Understand that this is a very rare occurence. At this point, we've lost the 90% who weren't listening in the first place, the 75% of them who listened while lulled by their own inertia of boredom, low expectations, and the sing-song surface of what's being said - and are distracted by eagerness to find offense, to narcissistically connect everything to their own drama, and to catch you unwittingly falling into some deprecated meme. If you can emerge from this asteroid belt of random chatter, dull inattention, and poison, a bit of consideration might occasionally be paid even though you decline to push the buttons that normally command attention.

That last part is a big thing. People who demand attention - and learn to push buttons to get it - are seldom worth any actual attention. Demanding and deserving are very different gigs. I once wrote this about intelligence:
The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. And it takes ample intelligence to be impressed by actual impressiveness rather than by mere impressive-seemingness. Most truly intelligent people I've met aren't very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it.
The seeming/being disjoint applies beyond intelligence into every realm of the human experience. We register merit via the most superficial and fake-able of indications. Consider: we all have a super-nice person in our circle. This is the person who gives lots of shoulder rubs, and always has a kind word and bubbling positivity. They have 3000 Facebook friends, and if you ever really need them, they're nowhere to be found, because their thing is seeming nice, not being nice.

Genuinely kind people have no reason to manipulate people into deeming them kind. Where's the kindness in that?!? They don't offer shoulder rubs, and they don't effusively coo at you, but they'll go out of their way to help if you're in trouble, without expectation.

Again: if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. But our phenomenally superficial society rarely looks beneath the Seeming. This presents an enormous problem for secure people who don't anxiously tend to their facade. Insecurity and fakery are rewarded, while security and authenticity are overlooked.

So let's say (quoting from one of the links above) you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst. And you are therefore seen as a goofy asshole. But you've just said something clever, and the rare person has not only caught it, but stirred from their reverie long enough to ask themselves whether you're a crackpot or if you're really on to something. And they're tending toward the latter.

What then? This has to be the happy ending, right? Victory?

No, this is where it gets really weird and counterintuitive. We do things at this juncture that we don't consciously realize we do.

We begin to scan for flaws. We wait, with baited breath, to hear something dumb, or wrong. Like good scientists, we scan for contrary evidence. How are we supposed to admire perfection if we haven't thoroughly scanned for flaws?

So a timer starts, and the longer we fail to find flaws, the more excited we become. We've finally found That Perfect Person! And the more excited we get about it, the more attention we pay. Our admiration is inextricably entwined with our flaw-scanning. This is because our heros have always been those we've deemed flawless. (Why are there no heroes anymore? Because we've all grown way more sophisticated in our flaw detection!)

On the other end of that equation, it feels like a high-energy laser blasting at you, measuring and modeling your every cell and pore, hellbent on detecting every iota of fraudulent inadequacy. The attention level of someone who suspects they've found a hero is thirty kajillion times greater than everyday attention. Attention multiplies via emotions like hope and awe. Finding themselves shocked on unfamiliar ground, people give it all they've got. Flaw-scanning and admiration, admiration and flaw-scanning, the two create a vicious circle.

Have you ever met a stunningly beautiful person? Not just someone made up to look attractive, but blessed with an appearance that draws you into a far deeper place than you normally go? You can't stop looking at them. If this person were to laugh an uncomposed laugh, revealing some unconscious ferile, unrefined quality, the spell would shatter. One tiny scar, one piquant fart, and, suddenly, nope. Just another damn person. You'd immediately and intractably lose appreciation for the asymptotic beauty you'd previously registered. The person would descend to a status beneath mere prettiness.

This is why we feel such sharp scorn for our exes, after the momentous come-down from the impossibly lofty elevation of infatuation.

So when I encounter the one in a thousand who's able to hear, process, understand, and appreciate some bit of cleverness, and their attention turns fully in my direction, the clock begins ticking. Like a NASCAR racer, the seemingly admiring crowd relishes the prospect of a juicy crash. With the first disappointing thing I say (and I say many dumb things, because it's never been my intent to construct an image of omniscience), the spell will be broken, attention dispersed, and the primordial question reappears: "sage or crackpot?" Heads nod. "Yup, I thought so. Crackpot!"

Sometimes it takes a few seconds, sometimes a few hours. When expectations rise, and there's a failure to be perfectly wise, perfectly insightful, perfectly equanimous (or even if one manages those things, but in an unexpected, unrecognized way), the value of everything previously said and done plunges to near zero. Remarkableness is not appreciated in the absence of perfection. Dabs of mild talent and cleverness, no problem. But once a higher level registers, the clock starts ticking.

A couple quick examples:

Steve Jobs was such a fucking asshole, amiright? I mean, obviously, all of us can be pretty rude, impatient, stubborn, and arrogant. That's just human nature! But Jobs was supposed to be, like, great, and if you've heard the stories about the dozen or so times he behaved poorly, you know the real truth! And JD Salinger, who stopped seeking publicity and engaging with random strangers - who led the same private life as anyone else - was obviously a crazy, bitter old shut-in!

Three addenda:

1. This explains this.

2. Beware of anyone projecting an image. Remember: those who've got the goods tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. There is a reason, for example, that so many spiritual gurus, aiming to build a following, have been cinematically bearded and smiley...and secretly scandalous. The cranky random dude who sells you your cigarettes might be the real deal.

3. Stage magicians wear perfectly pressed tuxedos. Each gesture is suave, and every result is polished to amaze. And it's all fake. Real-life magicians are everyday slobs with problems and issues, doing their utmost to help and delight, not to impress. Real magic - which is subtle and not physics-defying, and rife with creativity - is messy, never shiny.

"Cornered Rat" Report #14

Monday, March 12, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 91,000 google search results, continuing a recent pattern of dropping, this time from last week's 93,900.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Benefits of Hearing Loss

As I've mentioned before, I have more than 50% hearing loss. And it's great.

1. I won't spend another dime on audio equipment (e.g. my crappy stock car radio will serve perfectly well). I've never been a nutty audiophile, but it's been one of many parameters I've felt driven to bear in mind and factor in, and I've freed up some RAM by letting that drop.

2. I can buy digital music, rather than buying/ripping CDs, even though it's lower fidelity.

3. I remember when I first got glasses, as a child, the sense of relief that my unfocused (pun unintended), semi-conscious impression of something being "off" had a legitimate basis. It didn't just reflect some random neurotic sense of unease. Rumpelstiltskin!

4. It's easier to tune out things I don't want to hear.

Re: that last one...

The downside of my unusually engaged attention - there's an upside and downside to everything - is that I've spent an extraordinary amount of time tuned in to nonsense and banality (which has fed my dismay with the repetitiveness of worldly life). A very long time ago I noticed that people only take in a small fraction of signals directed their way - even in one-on-one conversation - and I always found this unfortunate. But these days, I consider oblivious disconnection something worth aspiring toward. In fact, I believe my thinking and creativity - as evidenced on this Slog - has improved as my attention has sharpened as my occupation with nonsense and banality has subsided as my hearing's decreased.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Why Do People Love Guns?

I've been thinking a lot about guns. And talking to a lot of perfectly kind-hearted people who are really, really, really, really, really into guns.

There are two kinds of people: those who surf more or less blithely over the trials and tribulations of life, and those who aim to wrestle the fucking universe into submission and make things go their way. Both are perfectly normal approaches, but the latter, obviously, loses in the end. You don't need towering mountains of wisdom to see that the universe doesn't care what we want. At all. We have very little control over how things go (even within your very own compass; e.g. how goes that resolution to hit the gym 3x/week?).

The universe will generally give you what you truly need (Free air! Free water! Emergency rooms! $1 pizza slices!) if you can be flexible about your needs. But some people view their needs with fraught needfulness, and see no alternative but to fight, fight, fight until they get some gratification and some sensation of control over it all. It's all a delusion - a hilariously transparent game of whack-a-mole - and this only heightens their anxiety and needfulness. Welcome to planet Earth!

Why do some people armor themselves with muscle? Why do some people make a conspicuous display of their toughness, rather than simply being tough? Because it gives them a feeling of power. Blithe surfing - i.e. acceptance - seems passive. By contrast, they're out there making it happen. Resisting, not accepting. And if you make yourself an obstacle to them, they will stand their ground, defend their interests, and make you awfully sorry you picked on the wrong person. You know, just like a video game.

The truth is that every one of these anxious bad asses is - just like every one of us - a squishy and whimperingly vulnerable human skin bag. And they know it. And it drives them crazy, because deep down they know it's all a pose....which only feeds their sense of anxiety and vulnerability. By carrying a gun, they gain actual power. Their real world bad-assery comes into better alignment with their pose. Who's squishy now, motherfucker?

Why do people love guns so much? The question is seldom asked or answered, at least with any insight. They're fun to shoot, sure. But lots of things are fun without inspiring such emotion and paranoia. The key is understanding that guns are the only thing making bad-asses, universe-wrestlers, and defenders of self-interest, anything more than regular hapless human beings. 

It might sound like I'm savagely putting gun people (some of whom are friends of mine) down. I'm totally not. Life is scary, and it's precarious to be a powerless squishy human skin bag, and we all cope with this fundamental discomfort in different ways. In my case, a gun wouldn't help, because my dread is too subtle and complex to be abated by anything as simple as a killing gadget (also: I would definitely wind up shooting a bunch of people - litterers, for starters). But for those who view it all as more of a video game, it's very easy to understand the primal need for weaponry.

This is why we're not going to have any deep gun control. This is why half the country freaks out at the mere suggestion. It's not about "liking" guns; it's a deeper, more existential issue. Gun people are no crazier than anyone else. Humans always choose irrational and self-defeating ways to cope with the deep-seated realization that we're not actually controlling this thing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Ultimate Political Litmus Test

I believe I've struck upon the perfect behavioral litmus test for political affiliation. I haven't tested it, but it feels inarguably true:

Liberals choose Sugar In The Raw, while conservatives choose Domino (sugar substitutes are bipartisan).

As a centrist, I see the folly of both sides. Choosing Domino reveals a lack of imagination and a mulish inclination toward complacent conformity. But Sugar In The Raw is gestural fakery, exploiting the reflexive appeal of shallow faux-high-mindedness.

Monday, March 5, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #13

Monday, March 5, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 93,900 google search results, down a bit from last week's 97,900.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

The Presidency, Looking Forward...Again

This is your periodic reminder that the next demagogic populist president with authoritarian instincts won't arrive with an impeachable portfolio of traitorous Russian collusion and mobbed-up money laundering, and won't shoot himself in the foot 10,000 times per hour. 

Never forget how hard it is to expunge even the most brazen cartoon villain. The filter must be front-loaded. Always register, and always vote.

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