Monday, December 31, 2018

Being Smart vs Feeling Smart

If you have a deep-seated conviction that you suck (perhaps so deep-seated that it only reveals itself indirectly, e.g. by undermining your efforts and your peace of mind), there are two courses you can take:

1. Work on the conviction


2. Work on the sucking

These are very divergent pathways. You can feel smart, or you can be smart. The eternal choice.

I'm guessing I don't need to point out the more popular approach. It doesn't help that therapists are paid by their patients, who wouldn't much appreciate being told to "work on the sucking." Another factor is that we are all wealthy aristocrats (you, yes you, are unimaginably wealthy), with all the vapid Mrs. Howell-ish ditzery this involves. And so we live in a conviction-tinkering culture rife with unabated suckage.

Among other things, this accounts for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which observes that dumb people feel smart (because they don't recognize their dumbness) and smart people feel dumb (because they recognize their gaps and doubts).

Me? I chose #2. I worked on the sucking. As I once wrote:
I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot.

By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior . They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

It's taken me a very long time to learn not to apply the golden rule on this one.
I grew up amid smart-feelers and conviction tinkerers. So I am extraordinarily proud of myself for finding and pursuing the other route. It's the only accomplishment I can boast about, because it's the only one where I drew no help or inspiration from any other soul. And it was hard – really hard - and went against all my impulses (it certainly wasn’t the expedient path to Planet Feelgood). But I would be a completely different person if I hadn't.

I still don't feel smart - at all - and I absolutely still suck (e.g. I must endlessly relearn the same essential lessons), but I nurture these sentiments. They're my furnace.

See also "Truth and Curiosity"

Sunday, December 30, 2018

When to Splurge

It's perilously easy to talk oneself into a splurge purchase. But only two rationales actually seem to hold up:

1. Buying quality once rather than endless cheap replacements (i.e. "buy it for life", or trendy acronym: "BIFL").
I sleep on an expensive goose down pillow (with a quality pillow protector to stave off allergies), after buying a succession of $50 "down equivalent" pillows that each turned into concrete in under a year.
2. Essentials which frequently impact on multiple critical processes.
Smart phone, eyewear, online bookmarking service, etc.

I do a lot of ultra-discount travel, and the perqs of a travel credit card might smooth some of the bargain basement roughness without much additional cost. It looks like the Sapphire card from Chase makes the most sense. There's a $95/year Sapphire Preferred (annual fee waived first year) and a $450 Sapphire Reserve. The Preferred, which offers many of the same perqs, seems like the best deal.
There are two perqs which both are missing: price protection (available only with Mastercard, and Sapphire is Visa) and Virtual Account Numbers (which remove the threat of fraud, and of hacked stored cc#s, and, by letting you set a dollar limit for a given virtual number, thwarts auto-renewal).
The expensive Sapphire Reserve, however, comes with $300 in travel credits, which I'd easily use (reducing the cost to $150), as well as free Global Entry/TSA Pre✓ (letting you jump the line at airports), a $100 value. So, wow, the Reserve is actually cheaper in the end!

I could easily convince myself the Reserve card is sensible, but I know from experience what would happen: I'll either make myself nuts worrying about using every dollar of those credits (and likely spring for unnecessary things just to use it), or I'd space out and forget to use the credits, putting me on the hook for the full $450. Some years I'd nail it, but some years not. If a shmancy credit card were really necessary for me, that would mean it's so central to my life that I'd be completely on top of these issues. But it's not. It's tangential. So I don't need it and I'd be a fool to spring for it, even if I can convince myself it's cheaper in the end.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card reviewed by The Points Guy
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card reviewed by The Points Guy

Saturday, December 29, 2018

What Does Trump’s Sincerity Look Like?

I'd appreciate it if a reporter would ask Trump about an untrue accusation so we could see what his sincere denial looks like (a “control” if you will). 

E.g. “Is it true that you projectile vomited all over the Japanese Prime Minister?”

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Perfect Umbrella

I've owned a full-sized umbrella for a while (it's really more than full-sized, with a generous five foot diameter), and haven’t used it much, never having understood the widespread fear of water. Tonight, I took it for a long walk in a drizzle, and was awed by the superb balancing, the light, sure, comfortable grip, and the rock solid build quality of this thing. It was so aerodynamically balanced that I could nearly let go of the grip. I wondered where I'd gotten it, figuring it was a splurge, and googled the product number I'd found on a little tag at the center. Turns out it's this $5 Home Depot item, a "golf umbrella" or whatever.

I may buy three more, just as backups.

This is exactly the sort of item that will vanish one day, leaving behind nothing but Chinese-made crap and pricey hipster fetish options, and the Internet will echo with people bemoaning its unavailability. The great five dollar umbrellas you used to be able to get at Home Depot before everything turned to shit.
Costco sold white men's athletic socks two decades ago which hordes of aggrieved guys have mourned for years; to this day, entire web communities are devoted to sussing out alternatives, which inevitably disappoint.
Biggest irony: customers at give it four stars! Anyway, when this umbrella is no longer around, and you never bought a few, don't blame me.

Maybe I should buy a hundred, and sell them @ $30 one day.

Revenge is Unnecessary

Revenge is unnecessary because awful people create their own living hell.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

David Copperfield Postscript

Some might read my last posting and think to themselves:
“How are strangers supposed to KNOW you’re an expert unless you spell it out? It’s ridiculous to assume they’ll hang on the word of some random stranger. In fact, this sounds like mental illness, walking around sulking about how people don’t magically recognize your well-hidden supposed awesomeness.

Either man up and boast (or at least state your credentials), or else reconcile yourself to being an ignored random shmo.“
Indeed, it’s a symptom of both autism and schizophrenia to expect strangers to recognize one's inner life (and to feel hostile when they fail to register one's self-imagined specialness). I don’t believe I have that illusion, nor is this my point.

I certainly don’t expect people to intuit my expertise and listen raptly. I just question why it cuts so extremely the other way. That’s the interesting question requiring the lengthy answer.

Again, we expect awesomeness to arrive with shiny veneer and gravitas. Without those markers, we actively reject, not just passively ignore. And that’s an instinct to be overcome, because toothy David Copperfields in well-pressed tuxedos will never show up to help you. Those cultivators-of-image are strictly transactional. Helpers, by contrast, are there (usually briefly) for you, not for them. Neither glossy nor suave, they project no cultivated image because image is for the vain and selfish, and projection is for those with agendas.

One can’t possibly know who I am or what I know, obviously. But when I shyly pipe up or chip in (stammering a bit and displaying a rattling intensity, because everything’s the most critical thing in the world) and you squint your eyes to size me up, maybe, just maybe, you’re looking for the wrong stuff. Apparently so, given how those size-ups pan out. Most often, I never get the chance to even imagine stating my credentials. I'm doomed from the first word because I am not the thing you're looking for - i.e. someone with gravitas and sparkle (this, btw, is a great example of the Visualization Fallacy I once wrote about!).

Listen, if I offer, say, chow tips but your spidey sense tells you “Hell no!”, you’re gonna miss out, that’s all. People sometimes need to override their innate spidey sense, much as they’ve learned to modulate their innate lust and aggression.

I don’t have a fraught need to be of service, so none of this is frustrating on my end. Its just a shame for you! I don’t sulk over rejection, because I have nothing at stake. I’m not seeking praise, gratitude, or new friends, just glad to help and get you back on your way. I’m available....though seldom used. And the world is quietly full of us. So I’m letting you know.

People recoil from help while ruing the heaven that ignores their prayers. It’s a nutty state of affairs. But the dilemma is your’s, not ours. It’s not that we need better ID badges, it’s that everyone ought to stop overlooking life’s manifold gifts and chasing preconceived empty images. Help is at hand (the answer blows in the wind!) and we actively, stubbornly, maddeningly repel it!

tl;dr: Just stop spurning creation’s gifts, that’s all.

Extreme Bargain Pricing on AAPL

I bought some Apple stock at $192, and more at $172. It's now scraping into the $140s, and I'm getting itchy to invest the rest of my loose change into yet more.

Standard caveats:

1. It may take a long while for the price to recover (but that's good; you need to hold for over a year to enjoy low long-term capital gains tax rates)

2. If China - for reasons smart or stupid - decides to severely restrict or end Apple's ability to conduct business there, I think the stock price might eventually recover some, but it will never again approach $230. This is a very unlikely risk (Apple employs 5M Chinese, pays China billions in tax, and to injure Apple would injure the US economy in which China's deeply invested), but China's regime is completely opaque, and that unpredictability creates its own risk (it might be argued that it's our unprecedented - albeit imperfect - business transparency that's fueled America's rise).

Waiting for David Copperfield

"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

I recently overheard people trying to figure out where to eat. They didn't want chains, they didn't want obvious big names, they prefer "ethnic" and need something really great. Geez, if only there were a leading expert nearby!

I broke in shyly and offered to advise. I didn't reveal myself with suave confidence; I certainly didn't start with "This must be your lucky day!" As their eyes focused on me, I saw them mentally scanning and assessing some random dude who doesn't look like anyone they'd normally socialize with. Is he hitting on us? Is he nuts? Is this a marketing come-on? What does he want? The scanning ended - the assessment unflattering - and they excused themselves with quasi-politeness and walked off.

This happens reasonably often, with food and other topics where I might have more to offer than anyone they'll likely meet. I suppose I could have summoned my polished TV voice and bowled them over with self-confidence, boasting of my accomplishments, and signaling via sparkly eyes that, hoo, boy, you've really found That Person! Your lucky day! Yes, I'm exactly the guy you need, the one with answers, here for you and asking nothing in return. That magical person with the million dollar smile and impeccable tuxedo. It's happening! It's really happening!

But no. Seeing is believing, and one sees only a random, tuxedo-less nobody.

I understand how they feel, because I spent years hoping for aid and answers, myself. I can't begin to count the many zillions I missed while waiting. I certainly never imagined it might come from uncomposed randos. On the contrary, when the answerer shows up, his feet probably ache and his mouth may twitch and he looks like maybe he might have been crying a little. Low bravado and low gravitas, he’s gun-shy from people telling him to fuck off because he doesn't seem worth taking seriously.

People who work on "seeming" are a very different breed from people who work on "knowing", though absolutely no one seems to realize this. While awaiting Seemers, we grind out our cigarettes on the Knowers. You can recognize them from the countless burn marks.

After many burnings, your Knower treads lightly; so lightly that he's easily disregarded (the truth is always delivered quietly, and never repeats itself). He's there to help, but not for his own agenda, which means he's dismayingly unaffected; the opposite of impressive. We're easily impressed by shiny narcissists who cultivate impeccably masked faces. We expect bringers of magic to look shiny, like David Copperfield, when, actually, magic's messy.

I constantly find myself among people so habitually bored that all my interestingness congeals, and I become one with their boredom (it feels like being shrink-wrapped in Kryptonite). How can I be interesting if you’ve made yourself utterly numb and unresponsive to surprise? And I have passed like a ghost among thousands of people gaping at vast supermarket beer selections or straining to formulate takeout orders - or to unravel the tendrils of their depression or to dislodge a frozen perspective. If I pipe up, they'll most often focus, scan, assess, and, finally, harden their faces, clutch their children's hands, and move away.

I suppose I have two options: 1. blanket everyone with cartoonish obnoxious spiel, like Richard Simmons grabbing fattening foods out of strangers' shopping carts, or 2. retract and choose my moments, chiming in only in the rare event where someone seems the least bit receptive. Option 2 means constantly registering their sadly lost opportunity - and remembering how much I myself once overlooked; how I neutralized interestingness with my boredom and allowed shallow preconceptions to inhibit my receptivity to the answers and the help I sought.

Understand what you’re reading here. This is a guy with answers (beer, pizza, and more!), blown in by Dylan's wind. One of Mrs. Rogers' helpers. Out of 180 quadrillion web pages, this may be the only first-hand word you'll hear on this. I'm explaining why help seldom seems to arrive; why you often feel left high and dry; why the heavens appear to have forsaken you. It's because you insulate yourself from your desired result. You actively repel surprise via your boredom. You overlook serendipitous opportunity while obsessing over your sad stories. And you are absolutely rotten at spotting the magicians delivered in response to your hopes and prayers.

None of this leaves me embittered. I've recognized a great big critical fact: god (or whatever you prefer to call the deepest frame of awareness; I certainly don't mean some supernatural guy up on a cloud) gets exactly the same treatment, so why would I expect better?

We humans shuffle through our blinkered existence, lost in mental drama, amid this gorgeous paradise planet, a miraculously lush sanctuary in a coldly inhospitable universe blessed with trees (if trees had never existed and sprung up overnight, people would go insane from the beauty) and life-giving oxygen and sunshine and delicious food and refreshing water and all the immersive storylines we could dream of, all of it tailored to our every need (including our need for challenge, violence, and heartbreak) and permeated with heartbreaking love. Yet we scarcely notice. We're jaded, bored, and impatiently awaiting Something Better. We live in eternal anticipation - of our next big win, of momentary gratification, and of the arrival, finally, of "The Answer". We pray for help and then spurn the responders. We even actually have the gall to demand a messiah.

Yet not once have I heard a voice blasting down from the skies: "Attention ungrateful shitheads! How about taking a look at those trees for just like two seconds?" There's never a trace of whining about our endlessly oblivious lack of appreciation. God (or whatever) is like a stoic silent grandmother perpetually serving insanely delicious soup to ungrateful family members lost in fake mental drama who distractedly trudge out of the kitchen with nary a word or smile....yet she quietly feels deeply satisfied knowing that, at some level, they've been nourished.

At some level they've been nourished.

See this postscript. Also see “Angels From Both Perspectives” and "Why God Lets Bad Things Happen".

I have an ingeniously viable business plan for a means of uninhibiting ourselves and engaging with the help and expertise immediately around us; for channeling pent-up latent human generosity. But since I can’t seem to interest people in what I consider the most uniquely useful food resource ever created for a mobile device (even being the guy who’s previously done the same for the early Internet), I doubt I could persuade anyone to give this a try, either, so the idea’s been mothballed for now. Hey...folks don’t even notice the trees! Why would they recognize my creations? How could I complain if god never does?

Sunday, December 23, 2018

HappyMerry ChristmasHolidays

Ah, Christmas. Here at the Slog, that means it's time for my trademark Jewy/conciliatory perspective on the holiday. I've been running the same editorial for several years (my popular "Guide To Holiday Greetings For Christians"), but this time I'll share a Facebook conversation instead. It's a bit raw and sharp-edged, but that makes it fitting for 2018:

It's an American holiday as well as a religious one. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the cultural divide are unable to digest that degree of complexity. Something being two things is way more nuance than anyone can handle.

Being no more staunchly Jewish than, say, Irving Berlin, I happily wish a Merry Christmas to one and all.

I invite you to read/reread what I consider the prototypical Slog posting, describing the most foundational insight of my life which happened while I laid on a couch watching a movie one Christmas Eve: "The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues". I've been writing a lot lately about perceptual framing (see all such postings here - I'd suggest reading from the bottom up - and you can see a definition here), and it all flows from this. In fact, pretty much this entire Slog flows from that one epiphany (here's a rough map of how it's unfolded).

Do it Completely, Like a Bonfire

"When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely."
                      - Zen dude Shunryu Suzuki

Upside: good results that you can be proud of (insofar as you take credit, which you won't if you've followed the instructions).

Downside: observers will find you "off", excessively intense and eccentric. The 21st Century First World does not tolerate, much less appreciate, this sort of thing.

Further reading: The Times Everything Worked Out

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Big Mouths/Small Brains

Why do the most bombastic voices always come from the fuzziest thinkers?

I guess they're desperately trying to convince themselves. They're essentially shouting at themselves (clearer thinkers convince themselves via subtler means - i.e. thinking). If you step back and view everything with some distance, it's shocking to realize how much human communication is actually self-directed. I honestly think it's close to 95%. Maybe a lot more.

It's so adorable to hear people describe certain other people as "narcissistic". It's like birds diagnosing each other as "flighty".

Friday, December 21, 2018

Driving Tip

The only useful tip I picked up from Driver's Ed class in high school:
Don't be the slowest or the fastest car on the road. That's where the danger is.
It's true in many, many contexts beyond driving (for just one thing, it's yet another reason to be careful about Aiming for Infinity)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Why the Syrian Withdrawal

Here's my guess as to what prompted Trump's mercurial Syria withdrawal.

The first two are well known, the third's the scariest, and has been mentioned by no one.

1. The boss in Moscow wanted this gimme (and, indeed, he praised the decision, buying Trump a bit more job security after he shamefully failed to deliver the sanction relief he was installed to provide.

2. Erdogan gets to eviscerate our most faithful longterm area allies, the Kurds.

3. Iran expands into the power vacuum, providing Trump with an excuse for the tail-wagging Iran war he's been quietly arranging for a while now.

How are people not seeing this? Do they really think Trump will allow himself to be cornered without starting a war? All the pundits were worrying about this scenario on day one of his presidency, and now, when the investigatory end game is in sight, and he's shifting pieces in the Middle East, no one sees it?

It's the same strategy Paul Ryan used against social security and medicare with that last budget. Ryan knew it was a horrendous budget that would provoke a deficit crisis, which would eventually offer cover for the entitlements slashing he'd long licked his chops over. It's always a problem when fanatics reach positions of power (and hold their noses to ally with venal autocrats). This appears to be the new Republican playbook all around: tank the country, milk the crisis.

Aside from that budget move and, possibly, this Syria move, consider: gov funding shutdowns, installing as heads of EPA, Consumer Financial Protection, and Labor Dept figures who despise the very foundations of those agencies, electing psychotic morons as president, etc etc.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Autonomous Cars and Doctors

Few people understand this, but the practice of medicine is almost entirely a matter of procedures and protocols. It's about memorizing flow charts, zillions of them, as well as the chemical, biological, structural, and anatomical basis for them. Med schools aren't tough to get into (and out of) in order to select particularly talented and resourceful hero/healers. On the contrary, admission is crazy selective in order to filter out the well-rounded and broad-minded. We want single-minded nerds who can memorize all that stuff and apply it without screwing up. That's the whole ballgame: not screwing up.
A very good doctor hardly ever screws up.
A fair doctor mostly doesn't screw up, at least on important stuff.
A lousy doctor screws up.
(and, needless to say, the nurse, pharmacist, and, most egregiously, you and me screw up prodigiously, regardless).
There's a popular notion that especially good doctors - the fancy expensive ones - put a personal spin on their treatment, wielding resourceful and unconventional moves to uniquely respond to their patients' unique health situations. If you ever find any such a doctor, run away fast.

The problem is that a single doctor operates from a few hundred data points, whereas medicine as a whole operates from millions of them. Protocols have been honed to the best of our ability, and while medical science may not have all the answers, it unquestionably has the most rigorously proven ones. So deviating from protocol out of intuition, creativity, or other fuzzy subtleties places patients in no-man's-land; an untested realm. Gambling. 

While as a chowhound I resist well-trodden pathways, as a patient I prefer to be placed smack in the bright center of the lane. Don't give me your extra-special best attention. Don't play out your hunches or untested regimens. Feed me into the machine and treat me exactly like the jillion who came before me. That's where my best odds are.
Unless, that is, your hunches and untested regimens are utterly harmless. I actually have some hunches and regimens of my own, some surprisingly effective (propolis, for example), but that's not where I seek when things get serious...except in scenarios where medicine has nothing viable to offer (the sole realm where a "God of the gaps" perspective, otherwise fallacious, might make itself practically useful).
Medicine will soon be dominated by algorithms and robots. They lack intuition and judgement, but in most cases, that's a feature, not a bug. What's most important is that they never screw up.
One seeming exception is diagnosis, which is considered something of an art in edge cases - e.g. when rare diseases are hard to distinguish from more common ones. One might hesitate to have computers handle this part, even though human doctors are notoriously prone to misdiagnosis. An innate fallacy makes humans feel most indispensable at their greatest failure points.

Same with driving. One might insist that human experience/intuition/higher-level judgement is invaluable to safe driving, but the overwhelming majority of traffic accidents are due not to inadequate subtlety of judgement, but to plain old stupid screw-ups.

I've got very good driving intuition. I can spot, for example, when a driver is growing aggravated by a slow car in front, and is impatiently pressurizing an impulse to spazzily dart into the passing lane. Similarly, I can tell when someone awkwardly inviting me to proceed is poised to step on the gas if I hesitate. Spazzy driving bursts are not difficult to anticipate (it's not telepathy, just a read of ongoing micro-actions - wheel direction and speed changes, general jerkiness, etc.). It will be a long time before autonomous cars match my street smarts.

But that ignores the salient point. If I were to honestly survey all the cat lives I've used up by committing blunders while no one happened to be in the way, dozens of potential calamities have strewn my 40 year driving career. However we absolve ourselves via amnesia, we're fortunate that our errors haven't killed multitudes. While an autonomous car would lack human wisdom, it wouldn't make the infrequent stupid blunders that kill people.

As AI powers more and more critical tasks, and we feel leery about the loss of human intuition and judgement in such systems, bear closely in mind that stupid blunders are what kill people.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The OxiClean Enigma

Can someone please help me?

I was watching this OxiClean commercial, thinking to myself that it's really well done, strikes all the right notes, and is remarkably persuasive re: the product. And then, at the very end, this weird, cheesy, 1980's dude comes out of nowhere to deliver the capper with an extremely weird vibe, like he'd stepped onto the set from another commercial.

Take a look:

I've been trying to suss out how this might have happened. Here's my best theory:

They'd planned to dress the guy in a referee's uniform, put a whistle around his neck, and have him deliver the capper like an official game call, with mock gravitas. Finding it didn't quite work - and they already had him on set, and desperately needed the tagline delivered somehow or other - they had the actor take off the ref's outfit and just deliver the line. They didn't know how to direct him because, having nixed the referee idea, there was no alternative rationale for someone to step in-camera at that moment to make that statement. So he went with the referee gravitas he'd rehearsed, and, to "really sell it", lubed it up with all the 80's charisma he could squeeze out of himself.

Any better ideas?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Solution: Big Scary Health Insurance Pitfall

There were two bright lights during my year of forced labor with CNET after they bought Chowhound. One was Max Mead (written about here), a brilliant business wiz who brought our site to his company's attention, and a human resources health insurance specialist who prefers anonymity and who had a gift for explaining a level of human kindness unusual in big corporations. Both these qualities would seem to be obviously necessary for an HR employee. Ha. Haha. Hahahahahaha.

This person has - no surprise - a smart comment to offer on my "Big Scary Health Insurance Pitfall", which apparently is no pitfall at all...if you take the proper steps. Great news!
I’m commenting on your article about in-network hospital care and unknowingly receiving treatment from an out-of-network provider.

New York has a law on that.

Insured are protected if this situation happens; the insurance company pays as if the provider was in-network and the out-of-network provider has to accept the payment.

I haven’t seen it work in practice, but in the link there are instructions on what to do. It might be helpful to discuss with your insurance company.

Other states have enacted similar laws, although New York posts the information more clearly than other states.
Note that this all started out with my posting about Psyching Out Health Insurance.

How to Polymath

Here's part of a recent New Yorker article, "Garry Kasparov Says We Are Living in Chaos, But Remains an Incorrigible Optimist: The chess grandmaster and political activist on Putin, Trump, and how we are living again through the eighteen-fifties" by the great Masha Gessen:
Kasparov: I realize that I can’t compete with the leading chess players today.

Gessen: How does the greatest chess player in history feel being unable to win?

Kasparov: You can’t really maintain the level of concentration. I can play a strong chunk of a game, or I can win one game in a beautiful way. But, on the whole, that’s not my life anymore. You can’t come from a different life at fifty-five and beat a thirty-year-old, or even a forty-year-old who does nothing but chess. I’m an amateur, and I feel comfortable with that.
Welcome to my world. As I've lamented, I will never be the musician I was in my 20s and 30s, back when I lived and breathed music.

Nor will I ever be in the physical condition I was in in 2009, nor be the manager I was from 1997-2004, nor the hatha yogi I was from 2002-2011, nor the social butterfly I was in the early 1990s, nor the rapier-like insult comic I was in high school, nor the voracious reader I was in the late 1980s, nor will I likely ever experience another freaky, multi-year food discovery Streak, etc. etc..

I've had a half dozen careers, several dozen all-consuming hobbies, and been a slew of different people under an uncommonly diverse set of circumstances. But I can't simultaneously keep all skills sharp or be all of those people (I use procrastination, i.e. compartmentalization, as my process for channel flipping, but it's a primitive, glitchy trick that only goes so far).

But let me make an important distinction. With a couple months work, I could play trombone well enough to get satisfaction, and to please audiences (so long as I stay within a narrow comfort zone, rather than try to be the uber-versatile chameleon I once was). I could also get back into at least some semblance of shape (I can no longer lift heavy weights due to my stent; a serious limitation). I could be a respectable dilettante in nearly every field in which I'd previously been an expert, given sufficient time (and tolerance of the zero-summing that ensures that some other part of my life disintegrates as I pivot my attention).

The problem is that it's difficult, and humiliating, and depressing to find yourself a dilettante in fields in which you were once expert. And I hadn't planned for this! I'd always imagined myself exuberantly riding the various bulls til the bitter end!

Perhaps the smarter way to have done it would have been to choose two main fortes, and stick with them all the way, channeling fickle curiosity into much broader dilettantism, rather than the spotty Swiss cheese I allowed myself to become (anyone who knows me well can attest that I'm really bad at everything I'm not really good at).

Either that, or do it my way, chalking up a gaggle of fields where you've invested 10,000 hours...but be better prepared than I was to amiably watch plate after spinning plate crash down over the years.

Hardly one thought from this Slog could have sprung out of my mind prior to 2004 or so. In fact, I've used this vehicle to answer nearly all the questions I've spent my life eagerly curious about. So I sometimes hear my younger self shrieking at me to stop regretting what's missing (I may never entirely learn)...and to recognize that what I'm engaged in is at least as worthy, if not more so. In fact, I’m the envy of my younger self!

The problem is that I perennially undervalue my immersion-du-jour, even if I register quality when I infrequently step back to appraise. Current engagements usually feel as pedestrian to me as an earthworm's view of its process - i.e. consuming dirt and shitting out slightly improved dirt. Earthworms don't take victory laps.

I'm obviously no Einstein, but I have similar self-framing aberrations to the ones I imagine he had....and that we all have (which is why it's important to tell people what they are).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Big Scary Health Insurance Pitfall

Friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani points out a little-known health insurance pitfall contradicting my assurance in yesterday's posting that a plan's maximum out-of-pocket "is the point where your insurer shuts up and pays. Forget coinsurance, copays, deductibles, etc.; the health care system opens up and saves your ass from potentially infinite expense."

First, one note: not one of the Affordable Care Act plans in NY state include any provision for out-of-network treatment.
There’s a potential gotcha with “out of network”. I don’t think the maximum out-of-pocket applies there. You can obviously choose in-network when it comes to your personal physician and specialists, etc., but you may find yourself at an in-network hospital, being operated on by an in-network doctor and they call in an out-of-network anesthesiologist or other out-of-network-specialist. People have been hit with high bills because of it.

This can be extremely expensive, because out-of-network doctors never agreed to your insurance company's negotiated rates and can charge whatever they want.

In the event this happens to you, you have two plays:

1. Apparently insurance companies sometimes relent and pay.

2. You can negotiate a payment plan with the out-of-network provider, even if it’s a minimal figure like $20/month. They are willing to work with you out of fear that you'll declare bankruptcy, leaving them completely unpaid. Not ideal of course, but it’s something....

But wait! Read this!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Psyching Out Health Insurance

After staring at Affordable Care Act plan choices for hours, and taking lots of time to parse wording and seek foothold on the actual decision points, I believe I've found the gist and uncovered the game.

This is deliberately confusing. It buries the actual decision point. Consider:

Deductible is 5500, and max out-of-pocket is 6550. This means "50% coinsurance after deductible" (e.g. emergency and hospital services) only applies between 5500 and 6550 in expenses. Up until 5500, you're paying in full. Past 6550, you don't pay a cent. So virtually all terms of the plan apply to the very narrow terrain between those points. So it's all misdirection.

Upshot: you'll pay some, one way or another, for all your standard health care stuff like doctor visits and prescription costs. You can't get around this. You might find a hugely expensive plan taking care of most of that stuff (there are no such plans in NY state under Obamacare), but premiums would be so high that you'll still lose in the end. It's like Vegas: you will absolutely lose in the end, so strategy, insofar as it exists, is entirely about setting hard limits.

Fortunately, Obamacare makes this aspect super clear, via "maximum out-of-pocket". That's the point where your insurer shuts up and pays. Forget coinsurance, copays, deductibles, etc.; the health care system opens up and saves your ass from potentially infinite expense. [UPDATE: Hmmm...maybe not. Definitely read this.)

And god bless Obama for making it so they can't cut you off for previous conditions or if your totals do get scary high. That's not a scenario most of us will experience, but it's extraordinarily relieving not to have to worry about it. Also: the exchanges are highly regulated, so the cheapest plan will keep you just as alive as the most expensive one. That's not clear at first glance, either. A lot of the goodness is baked in and not explicitly touted.

Typical doctor visits and prescription charges are more or less set costs (a tad higher or lower from plan to plan, though you will never ever find one mis-priced to give you a break). Above/beyond that overhead you'll be highly vulnerable (in case of health surprises) up to the max out-of-pocket. All variability between ACA plans occurs in the subtle shadings within that vulnerability window. Which is to say, they don't really matter! What matters is your maximum out-of-pocket. So keep your eye squarely on that number. I did, and chose a cheap bronze plan from Oscar.

I'm shaving complexity here, but by no means implying that you shouldn't still study and compare coverage. For example, one important variable for me is the "gatekeeper" requirement. Oscar doesn't make you go to your primary care physician for specialist referrals (a huge pain).

Video Driving Games and Trump Scandal Hobbyism

When I was first learning to drive, I was also playing driving video arcade games. And one day while doing the latter, I realized something that made me gulp: since I was crashing frequently in the game, doesn't that mean driving's super dangerous?

The next time I got behind the wheel of a car, I shifted my frame of perspective, and imagined myself inserted into a driving video game. And I instantly realized: real world driving is really, really, really slow. Crazy slow! That's why people only rarely crash.

Driving normally doesn't seem slow. After all, it's ten times the speed of walking. And there are tens of thousands of annual fatalities. But cars aren't poised to kill you at every given moment, and that's because they're really, really, really slow.

I've been flashing to this memory throughout the progression of the Mueller investigation. It's seemed like a relentlessly intense roil of activity; so many revelations, so many puzzle pieces endlessly being filled in. The Friday night news dumps. The indictments. The talking heads and their hot takes. I know people who've hardly taken their eyes off their iphones and TVs. They feel exhausted and aged by the speed of it all.

But it's an illusion. It's all been happening really, really, really slowly. All the fantastic reporting from WaPo, NYT and Daily Beast has been so minutely incremental that one has scarcely needed to read beyond the headline. A vanishing drizzle felt like a hurricane. You could spend all day watching cable news or digesting newspapers without aggregating much more useful new data than you could via a fast rake through a few smart Twitter feeds. The daily movement of the progress thermometer could easily be encapsulated within a few 140-character Tweets.

Take a James Fallows article that came out this morning: "Serving Trump Revealed Who John Kelly Always Was". I haven't selected some turkey to shoot at; it's a good article, well-conceived and well-written. But there's no new news, no fresh theory, and nothing not entirely understood by virtually everyone. The article could be boiled down to a single hashtag: "ETTD", the signature acronym of Rick Wilson, author of the bestselling "Everything Trump Touches Dies", from whence the acronym draws.

We've become so meme oriented that we endlessly re-wield the same bag of memes and feel expressive...and we endlessly re-consume those same memes and feel full. We keep sweeping the same pile around the floor. Very little's actually happening but we're plumb exhausted not by the speed or the complexity but from the sheer density of our own collective repetition. We're perpetually crashing from memey sugar highs augmented by the starchy ingestion of mountains of padding. It feels like the bracing rush of a car race though the car's actually been just barely inching along.

Some try to rectify the contradictory sensations by diving into minutiae. I know people who can name all the relevant Russian oligarchs; who've mapped the corporate spider web of Cambridge Analytica and mastered the time line of the Trump Tower meeting and its foreshadowings and after-tremors. These Trump Scandal hobbyists are even more frazzled - but hardly more clued-in, generally - than the rest of us.

The solution, I think, is to do precisely what weighty folks rail against: skate. Grab the minuscule daily bait in the form of headlines or tweets, swallow quickly, and move on to other life stuff. In so doing, you'll know 95% as much as the hobbyists, and what's missed can easily be filled in later when our First (Crime) Family is in orange jumpsuits and the networks produce slick retrospective overviews (which will have the added benefit of being accurate and thorough).

I made some of these same points 1-1/2 years ago, including links to the Twitter Feeds I find helpful.

Ricky Jay

I've been thinking a lot about Ricky Jay, who died last month. If you don't know about Jay, you absolutely need to. Start with the documentary about him, "Deceptive Practices" (free on Amazon Prime), move on to the New Yorker profile, and from there you have a world of books, films and videos to explore (as well as Jay's own web site).

You don't need my two cents about Ricky Jay. It would be ridiculous to try to sketch - to capture and circumscribe - a man who'd made an exquisite art form out of startled surprise. Lightning resists bottling. However, I will relate the most Ricky Jay-ish experience of my life. If I'd ever met Jay - alas, I did not - I'd have told him this story, and I'm certain he'd have loved it.

There was a "bookstore" in the East Village in the 80s called Harris Books. I use quotation marks because it was not, in fact, a bookstore. It was just this dude's apartment. His name was Harris, and he lived a couple floors above Kiev Restaurant on Second Avenue with his hippy British girlfriend and an autistic (or maybe I should say 'especially autistic') cat. If you rang the "Harris Books" buzzer, and he was at home, you could come up and hang out, and perhaps buy a book or two from his large-ish collection.

Harris looked a bit like Zonker, the character from the Doonesbury cartoon strip, and he was a real character. Once, I mentioned that I'd been hunting for a certain extremely obscure book. I was mostly just making conversation. The title was much too arcane to be found even in a gigantic bookstore. But as soon as its name left my mouth, he broke in and said "Look straight down." I did, and there it was. The very book.

I tallied the miracles. First, that he had the book. Second, that I was standing right in front of it. Third, that he knew that I was standing in front of it. And fourth (and perhaps most unsettlingly), while there were hundreds of volumes within my line of sight peering downward, something about his unequivocal command to "look down" made my eye lock straight onto that specific book.

Next visit, I mentioned another obscure book (different topic), whose title I'd forgotten. He asked me to describe it, I offered a vague few words, and damned if he didn't pull it straight off a shelf and hand it to me.

On the following visit, I'd planned to ask about yet another book in yet another topic, but when I arrived the title once again escaped me. "What's it about?" Harris asked. That, too, had suddenly slipped my mind. As I stood, sheepishly mute and struggling to recall, Harris walked to a shelf, pulled out a volume, and it was, somehow, that very book.

This was one of only a precious few times I've experienced a sense of heart-stopping wonder akin to the Max Malini ice block trick.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #29

It's been a while since the last "Cornered Rat" report, back in October, when the phrase "cornered rat" found 123,000 Google search results.

It's now up to 144,000, a gain of 17%.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bagel Postscript

If you've heard the term "hand-rolled bagel" and wondered what that meant, the bottom photo on my previous posting is a great example. You can clearly see where the ends were joined together. A machine-punched bagel has no end (trippy....but also less delicious).

What the hell; I'll re-publish the photo for your convenience:

A Toasted Bagel Tutorial and Manifesto

This starts off about bagels, then blears without warning into something more broadly about toast. I was going to re-jigger it for consistency, but I really want to say both things, and it's my party, so I'll blear if I want to.

Much like my overwrought ravings about perceptual framing and karma yoga, it's just another poorly organized missive from an eccentric, enfeebled former writer, the poor dear!

Ok, cue the curmudgeonly, condescending food snob voice, and....go!

Every toaster has a hotter side, and the brown part of the bagel must face that side. You want the brown side thoroughly caramelized, its blisters well-crisped. The cut side is a more delicate matter. There is an extremely brief window where a wide diversity of toasty coloration and texture can exist. The outer rim has just begun to display a dark golden brown hue while virginal white wheaten patches still punctuate a fast-widening golden landscape. Wait another five seconds, and the entire surface will be browned, dry, monotonous. Pull five seconds too early, and there'll be little crunch or resistance (#resistance).

To zero in on that vanishing moment requires high-level attention-paying. As I wrote last year:
I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms).

You must commence buttering immediately, and work swiftly. You can't pause for an instant, because the surface is rapidly cooling and drying - i.e. becoming less absorbent. Soon, your buttering knife will kick up micro-powder from the desiccated surface (if you hear that awful scraping sound, you're too late), and the powder will settle back down and absorb the butter. Greasy grit. Awful.

You must strive for very thin yet very thorough coverage. Know that there's a theoretical limit to buttering thoroughness. One can never completely cover the surface without using huge quantities of butter. So one must triage. Darker ridges are the highest priority. Being more caramelized, they're more flavorful, so non-butteriness will stick out more than with butterless gaps in milder, breadier portions.

There must be no pooling of butter. I understand the French aesthetic of bread-and-butter (i.e. tons of the latter), but a bagel - a homely, sturdy carb bomb - is no sophisticated Frenchie delight. A bagel is earthy, and whether you're a Hispanic Indian pounding out tortillas or a Japanese crunching through the rooty delights of kinpira, earthiness is something to connect with directly, and not to defile with reckless gussying-up.

Also: this is toast. Fresh bread can receive infinite butter while remaining bread, but toast absorbs, and no one wants to suck saturated pockets of liquid butter from their toast. Yuck.

This is more or less where it becomes about toast, generally. Hey, happy holidays, everyone! Be careful out there, and don't forget to tip your waiters! Ok, I'll let you get back to it...

The butter's nothing more than a necessary compromise to mitigate what would otherwise be unendurable blandness. So paint with your knife, rather than smear. Butter quickly, yet thinly, yet thoroughly, a devilishly tricky goal. In my fifth decade of effort, it still doesn't come easily. It requires inhuman commitment.

If your first bite comes more than 10 seconds post-buttering, you've committed an atrocity. That hard-won diversified landscape of toasty texture is quickly stiffening into the inevitable end state of hard, dry unity; what industry types call "bagel rigor mortis". The clock's ticking, so you'd best be chewing.

If your ideal breakfast is to leisurely work on a crossword puzzle with periodic interruptions for a bite of toast and a slurp of coffee, for god's sake, find some other bready vehicle. Toast must be eaten not calmly, like a croissant, but eagerly, like xiaolongbao.

I realize much of this contradicts widespread beloved life habits. But people acclimatize themselves to hideous culinary results all the time. The average American is perfectly fine with roaringly rancid nuts (e.g. 75% of the nuts in packaged foods like breakfast cereal or granola), and see no problem at all with "skunked" beer, where light's interacted with the hops through clear or green glass bottles to conjure up horribleness. We accept awful tastes out of habit, and toast is among the most grievous victims.

If you enjoy crap like Taco Bell, bless your heart. It won't taste any better if you're diligent, so scarf freely. Botched toast, however, is a crime, and a waste, because toast can be great.

Ok, cue the singing angels (and click, please, for full porn):

...and no, you can not have my bagel plates when I die. They will be shattered and buried, because I have looked long and hard but found no one worthy of the mantle.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Being Bob Hope

Whatever you do (assuming you think you're pretty good at it): if a total stranger stumbled across your most recent three efforts, would he find them impressive?

If not, regardless of your excuse (e.g. if they were just dumb jobs you essentially phoned in, knowing that'd suffice; or if it was a bad day; or if the asshole who hired you didn't want quality; or if you had life issues distracting you from doing your best work) then you might want to reexamine your self-image as someone-good-at-what-you-do. You have very likely fallen victim to a widespread virus that makes people forget that they need to actually be good to assume they are good. Not just once, at a fondly-recalled peak, but all the time...including right now.

I saw Bob Hope sporadically on TV for thirty years - from the early 1970's until his death in 2003 - without once so much as cracking a smile at a word he ever said. I sat through accolades and standing ovations, preenings and posings, and he was never, ever funny. It's not that he was in a decline - i.e. trying his best but simply out-of-date. He made no apparent effort at being funny, nor did he seem to care in the least that he wasn't.

He didn't need to be. He'd grown beyond it. He was Bob frickin' Hope. And that, alarmingly, appeared to be sufficient. A reputation for quality paradoxically supplants any obligation for quality. So if you want to be That Guy Who's Good more than you want to actually be good, there's no reason not to stop cold at that finish line and gloat amid the perqs.
Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing.

When I finally saw some of Hope's old movies, they, unsurprisingly, weren't funny, either.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pro-Bono Dignity vs the Condescension of Compensation

I had two friends over my house, served them delicious drinks, and drove them to a great obscure place for dinner and back. When the check arrived for our meal, and we all pulled bills from our wallets, one refused the $10 change he had coming to him. "Keep it!" he told me. " All the driving and hosting...!"

I, alas, couldn't conceal my indignant reaction (which he absolutely did not deserve; one of my several character flaws is a complete lack of 'game face'). "Ten bucks doesn't cover all that, dude!" I replied. To his credit, he thought about it, nodded slightly, grabbed the ten, and stuffed it in his wallet.

A lot of my seeming "generosity" stems from the disgustingly conceited conviction that my effort is priceless. 'For free' makes it a gift, and there's dignity in that. Turn it into a job, and odds are that I'll recoil from the inevitable condescension.

I remarked to a friend during my Chowhound slog that if I were being paid to run the site, and it was anything less than an absolutely obscene wage, I'd have dropped the whole thing in a hot second. Stressful 15hr/day/7day/week unpaid work amid abject poverty was preferable to the prospect of condescension.
I've been condescended to a lot in my life, and have become over-sensitized. I used to consider this evidence of my own roaring ego, but eventually discovered that I don't enjoy deferential respect much, either.
Working for free is always the next best option.

At age 21, I was the world's angriest street busker. When someone threw a quarter into my trombone case, I wanted to throw it right back at them. It's not that I expected them all to toss fifty dollar bills. I didn't know what I'd expected! I just sure as hell valued myself at more than a lousy quarter. And, to this day, I still can't unravel the knot. I see how my perspective is justified and right, and also how it's awful and wrong, but can produce no higher-level Slog-ish insights beyond reporting a deep, deep impulse to simply play, period, and let it be a gift. To let it all be a gift. It sounds kookily quasi-messianic, I suppose, though - at least when I think about it - it feels like defeatism.

It Will Be Totally Rod Blagojevich

I have a prediction on the Trump/Russia thing. I already essentially put this on record back in February:
...but let me solidify it.

The president has no strategy post-Mueller. His lawyers might have concocted a strategy, but they knew their client would just blow it up with some stupid tweet, so they've simply kept him out of Mueller's hot seat and gathered intel on the investigation via slimeballs like Manafort. And his aides haven't the slightest idea what he actually did, so they have no way of anticipating any end game. After towing the brainless, loud-mouthed "No Collusion!!!" line for months, that's all they've got. It's the facade, the building, and foundation. There's no other structure.

So just as dear, dear Rod Blagojevich indignantly and furiously insisted on his innocence of blatantly obvious crimes right up until his fate was sealed and there was nothing else to say, we'll see that Trump’s got nothing (or, as Giuliani might put it, "bupkis"). We'll hear incredible tales backed up with incontrovertible evidence from Mueller (or whoever winds up sharing/leaking Mueller's report despite Trump's inevitable effort to muzzle it), and there will no rebuttal.

Needless to say, there will be fire and brimstone, rage tweeting, random incriminations and deflections, and there might even be a tail-wagging war with Iran to try to change the subject. His base will stand with him, and as long as they do, so will the Senate. Impeachment is inevitable, but conviction is a very tough hill to climb. So I'm not saying the story will be over.

But mark my words: it will be utter anticlimax. He'll be even guiltier of worse deeds than we imagined, and that...will be that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

An Epistemological Dialog on Awakening

Ralph: So, Ted, after doing all that meditation, are you enlightened?

Ted: What do you mean, Ralph?

Ralph: You know, Enlightenment! Nirvana! Spiritual realization!

Ted: So far as I understand, those terms all describe something inherently unknowable and undefinable. So you're asking whether some essentially random label applies. You may as well ask me whether I'm fzzzzzgppppp.

Ralph: Are you fzzzzzgppppp?

Ted: No idea. But whether I confirm or deny, if the question is unknowable, what difference does the answer make?

Ralph: But enlightenment isn't completely mysterious. It's the recognition that there's no separation. All is one, etc etc.

Ted: Well, if you know this, it means you're enlightened, no?

Ralph: I don't actually "know" it; I just know the gist.

Ted: It doesn't sound like something that could boil down to a gist. But, anyway, if someone recognized that he isn't separate, then he'd have to be nuts to then go ahead and affix a label onto that non-existent separate self, right? Isn't that a complete contradiction?

Ralph: My head hurts.

Ted: I do view the world via a different perspective, but since perspective - like any framing - is inexpressible (you can only describe objects, not subjects), it's really not a useful question.

Ralph: So what's a more useful question?

Ted: "What have I forgotten?" You and I and all the rest of us are aware of the truth at some level, because it's the same truth for all of us. Even if we've mostly forgotten, it's still what we are, and can be related to - if only slightly.

Ralph: Ok: what have I forgotten?

Ted: That the stories of you, your life, and your world, are just stories. Everyone's pretending.

You surely recognize, for example, that you're the same child you always were, only now pretending to be an adult. Just like people caught up identifying with a movie plot or with being Yankees fans, you've convinced yourself it's all rock solid. Underneath, though, you know full well that you're playing. Pretending. You choose to forget in order to heighten the experience; an ongoing suspension of disbelief. Yet underpinning it all is a steady hum of awareness that's always been there and never wavered. That constant, unchanging hum is what you are. It's the part that chooses to do the pretending.

Even if you don't have it all worked out in your head, does this ring the least bit true for you?

Ralph: I guess I can kinda/sorta relate to what you're saying, a little.

Ted: Good! I'll take it! Let's say you 5% remember. That's pretty good!

Ralph: So are you saying you don't pretend? Or that you remember that you're pretending while you're pretending?

Ted: I pretend when I'm with other people, while 75% remembering. In other words, I pretend, but lightly. So I can easily snap out of the pretending.

The snapping-out is actually the hard part. I had to work hard just now to induce your 5% remembrance, and it's already fading. If I see you in Walgreens next week and ask whether you still remember, you might nod a hazy, tentative "yes", but you won't really remember. But if we meet and you looked at me expectantly, I'll nod my head with full bemused recognition...even if I'm in the middle of a screaming fight with the cashier, or picking up newly prescribed terminal cancer meds. I never completely forget. That's the difference. The only one.

Ralph: So how do I increase my remembering from 5%?

Ted: Remembering, like any faculty, can be developed. Again: meditation, etc. But I need to warn you that if you work at it for some time, and then slack off, you'll retain a false confidence. It's hard to distinguish between real remembering and the remembrance of remembering. You'll feel certain you still have "the gist" of it - a sort of mental snapshot - even though actual remembering is no longer available. The gist of remembering smoothly dissipates into the fog of forgetting. While remembering remembering, you can easily forget that you've forgotten.

Ralph: Kill me now.

Ted: I just did.

Further Reading:
Waking Up
Realized, Shmealized
Spirituality in 333 Words
Spirituality in 33 Words
Why God Lets Bad Things Happen
Soothing the Baby
All postings tagged "Spirituality"

Monday, December 3, 2018


Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Business With No End

I have never before seen a newspaper story anything like "A Business With No End", published, somehow, last week by the NY Times.

Remember that weird FBI raid a while ago on Newsweek, which hooked into the cultish group that had bought the company and had immediately set about mass-firing the journalists?

Do you ever wonder about those Amazon marketplace sellers who price items several times higher than Amazon itself does?

Have you ever had the subconscious impression that clickbait is growing like kudzu - just as fast as you've learned to evade it - and that it may have become vastly vaster than your vastest imagination could imagine?

And have you noticed that the clickbait model of aggressive, empty, attention-clogging trash has adapted and propagated to every plane and realm? As the article asks,
What is the experience of clickbait other than realizing we have vastly overpaid, even if only with our attention? News, information and products are simply someone’s inventory.
Most scarily, had you ever imagined that the kudzu of multi-realm clickbait might leap from our monitors and begin taking over our actual world? Quoting the article again:
Still harder for me to grasp was the total interpenetration of e-commerce and physical space. Standing inside Stevens Books was like being on a stage set for Stevens Books, Stevens Book, Stevens Book Shop, and Stevensbook — all at the same time. It wasn’t that the bookstore wasn’t real, but rather that it felt reverse-engineered by an online business, or a series of them. Being a human who resides in physical space, my perceptual abilities were overwhelmed.
What if all the above are weirdly related? Well, they certainly seem to be. Check out the article. But I would discourage you from reading it in its entirety. It's a vertiginous microcosm of the vertiginous house of mirrors it futilely attempts to map.

I'm dumbstruck that the NY Times even published it. It lands absolutely nowhere, serving as a deftly researched/written performance piece more befitting of Werner Herzog or Lars Von Trier than the Grey Old Lady (I suppose they did it to swipe back at the folks who ran Newsweek into the ground; journalists grant themselves unusual indulgence in score-settling against those who attack their profession).

Read the first few paragraphs, and, each time you start feeling as if you're drowning, jag forward via agitated punchy scrollings until the narrative retracts itself from each of countless rabbit holes and cul-de-sacs. Do not read thoroughly/carefully. Do not attempt to follow all the way down, and for god's sake, do not Google. There madness lies.

A ten minute browse is sufficient, and well worth the effort. In the 70s and 80s, weighty "futurists" would tell us what the future would be like, their predictions inevitably laughably wrong. But there's something about this article - this article! - that leaves me certain I've been shown a sharp picture of Life on Earth circa 2025 (i.e. just before we all perish in the rising waters). It may - or may not - be the diabolical and unknowable scheme of a slippery Korean-American evangelical pastor/spider named David Jang and his shady company, IBT Media, and his shady bible college, Olivet University, in association with all matter in the visible universe.

Update: check out this comment on the article.

Dud Monolith?

I was listening to a podcast about the film "2001" where one of the guests (Dr. Drang, at 17:50) made an interesting point which sailed over the heads of the other guests:
"The monolith isn't magic - or "technology that's indistinguishable from magic". It is just a black solid 1 x 4 x 9. That's literally all there is to it. And the reason it accelerates their evolution is that by merely seeing this thing we would now call "man-made" - not a natural formation - is just enough to kick that one ape's mind into the idea that you can form the world to your desires; that you don't have to accept everything as it is. It's not trees and rocks and grass. This thing is clearly not a tree, or a rock, or grass. It is so unlike anything you've ever encountered that it triggers in your mind a new way of thinking about the possibilities...It's just literally a simple non-natural shape...and that would be enough."
So the first monolith - the one that appeared before our apey ancestors in prehistoric times - might have delivered zero juju. It may have been sufficient to come across an obviously unnatural object to catalyze the realization that we can build and control; that we needn't be unwitting flotsam in the daily life of the world; that our conscious intelligence lies beyond the frame. It's not genetic evolution so much as a contagious expansion of consciousness.

The monolith on the Moon was different. That one (like the one near Jupiter) was a tripwire, beaming home notification that the humans had reached a threshold. But the apes had done nothing especially clever; nothing to indicate a threshold having been reached.

I'll add this thought: if the first monolith had directly intervened to effect some critical change, why hadn't it done so the previous week, century, or millennium? Why had it chosen to appear then and there? It can only be that that one ape was primed to make the leap. It was time. And this particular leap requires only an expansion of awareness - a reframing. Reframing can never be externally imposed (nothing in the universe can alter your perspective for you*; this is the essence - and extent - of your free will), though it certainly can be externally inspired, e.g. by art. For example, by a jarringly smooth and beautifully polished monolith, or by an equally jarring and polished film.

Two Kubrick bonuses (click for legibility):

Saturday, December 1, 2018

When Mere Decency Seems Heroic

The following may read like a disrespectfully back-handed compliment (poorly-timed, to boot), but I feel compelled to make a larger point - one that I suspect George H.W. Bush himself would have eagerly agreed with.

What It Takes, the much-admired study of presidential politics, marvels at Bush's common touch (read the chapter for free here). As a WWII officer, he had personal relationships with the enlisted men under his command. He referred to his chauffeur by his name, rather than referring to him as "my chauffeur". He behaved like an ordinary guy, rather than like a stuck-up patrician prig, and for that we are to laud him.

And as president he disavowed the political rise of David Duke, an unrepentant Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. We are to deem this a monumental gesture of humanitarianism.

I get it. I myself once wrote that "character is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise," and George Bush had plenty of character (not to say he was a moral paragon, which he certainly wasn't). And it's undeniably true that character is in very short supply these days on all fronts...and has never been particularly common.

But it's nearly impossible to express how sad it makes me to be part of a species where character is so rare that we celebrate its possessors as heroes. Treating people like people and declining to condescend oughtn't be heroic. Disavowing Nazis oughtn't be heroic. Are we really to be moved and inspired by mere common decency?

Whenever someone dives into water or otherwise puts themselves at risk to rescue someone, newspapers deem them a hero. Inevitably, the hero objects that this is simply how everyone should act...and this "modesty" adds to their heroic legacy. We would do well to listen more closely to such "heroes", and take them at their word.

Same for celebrated people who refuse to take personal credit for epiphany, eureka, and inspiration, since this stuff - the really good stuff - inevitably arrives from who-knows-where. Why don't we take them more seriously when they try to explain this?

Fantastic Breadless Stuffing

Big discovery. This is the best stuffing I've ever had, it's super easy to make, and it doesn't use any bread (I will not use the "g" word). Low fat, to boot.

Any time I post a photo of a meager food portion, that's a good sign. It means I tore into it like a hunger-crazed wolverine before calming down sufficiently to think of shooting a picture.

Heat nonstick pan to medium, spreading olive oil thinly but thoroughly (e.g. with a paper towel). Sprinkle salt and more black pepper than you imagine you need in the pan.

Coarsely chop a medium onion and spread it out in the pan. Cook a minute or two.

Finely chop a few red Swiss chard stems (green works, though is less festive-looking), add to onions.

Skin and use a fork to hastily/coarsely mash a large leftover baked sweet potato (I prefer Murasakis, the purple-skinned Japanese ones, seasonally available at Trader Joe's). When onions and stems are soft, lay mashed sweet potato over vegetables. Add a small splash of water or apple cider (especially good: cider sediment and/or cider that's slightly spoiled) to pan surface (i.e. not directly onto vegetables) and immediately cover tightly (if liquid doesn't immediately sizzle, increase heat).

When liquid stops sizzling, stir violently with spatula, add another splash and cover again.

Season with cumin and chili pepper flakes. Stir again (optionally drizzling some olive oil atop before final stir), and monitor closely, removing from heat once onions are nicely brown. Timing is tricky. Sweet potatoes burn easily, so it's better to forgo fully-browned onions rather than risk burning the sweet potatoes.

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