Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Problem Pile-Up

As I sit in my sweltering un air-conditioned house unable to do much because the power’s out and it looks like it won’t be restored for a good long time, and I periodically drive a few miles to check email from the sole functioning cell tower in the area, but can’t get out to walk due to a torn ligament in my foot that’s going to keep me immobilized for another six weeks, and I want to get a slice of pizza but forgot to bring my mask, because - interesting! - multiple disasters seem hard to bear in mind simultaneously, and as our economy crashes, and our attorney general sends mysterious goons to bash heads and extra-constitutionally abduct mostly peaceful protestors, and the president commences to slow roll mail service to mess up the election and Republicans are rejecting economic recovery measures because they want to saddle Biden with the worst possible economy, I had a brief chat with a friend in France who survived the Lebanese Civil War, to try to regain some perspective. She’s not fully up to date on American politics, but that’s ok. 

“Yeah, I get this question from American friends all the time: “how bad does our situation seem?” And I’m not paying as much attention as I should, but I do see you guys mocking the hell out of Trump constantly, with complete impunity, and that’s not something you see with the leader of any other country, so I don’t totally get what’s so bad.”

Yup. Thanks. I’m good!

Trump is a “5”. That’s why he makes Bush, who was a “7”, look like Lincoln by comparison. A “3” or “4” one day would make us very nostalgic for Trump. “Donald wasn’t so bad,” we’d say.

So I’ll stay in my air conditioned car, drive a non-excruciating 10 mins for my mask, limp reasonably painlessly in to enjoy my delicious pizza with no animals mauling me or warlords demanding tribute, chew it with my pearly, painless middle-aged teeth and return home to wait for strangers from various companies (to which I pay a monthly pittance) to wrestle downed trees and utility poles to restore me to fully optimal comfort as I recline on a cozy couch and read wonderful writing, occasionally pondering with eagerness the feast I’ll soon be enjoying from my thawed frozen meats. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Dragon Dropped

As a lifelong geek, space stuff always captivates my emotions. But I didn't expect to find myself, a grown-ass man, tearing up at this landing.

I suppose I've been more traumatized by the political and health stuff (y'know, mass death, encroaching authoritarianism, yadda yadda) than I'd realized. So seeing something good happening feels like (to quote Steve Jobs) a glass of ice water for someone in hell.

Killer 49 Seconds of Classical Trombone

This is my favorite classical trombonist, Norman Bolter, crushing Ravel's Bolero. It's just 49 seconds, and well worth it:

I previously wrote a whole comic opera about the apocalyptic level of anxiety provoked in trombonists by this piece, and the time it blew up real bad once for Norman's Boston Symphony colleague Ron Barron. In that article, I related that disaster to a stupendous blunder I'd made while going a bit apeshit eating cowboy food in Grapevine, TX (near Dallas).
Watching this video, my first thought was, wow. Every note, every beat, every nuance, every vibration of this is exactly, precisely how I think it ought to be played. That's the ideal I'd shoot for, right there! And my second thought was that since Norman was my teacher for a short (but meaningful) while, this should not be in any way surprising.

I was boggled by how my dog had been wagged by all this. My preference had been implanted by the guy whose preference had struck me as strikingly right-on. Loopy loopy! So Christopher Nolan, y'know?
This may be the fulfillment of my greatest fear: that my stuff here isn't the least bit fresh or insightful, and I'm just a retard slowly cluing himself in to the patently obvious (the prototypical example, as always, being "Breaking Free of the Adhesion Mafia", wherein I laboriously rediscover the value of glue). When I reread old Slog postings and find that some actually are as inventive as I'd dared to imagine, it's a drastic relief. But I suspect this isn't one of those.
My other association, listening to this, was to the video of me playing in a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1992 which I keep linking to (because it was a good night, and musicians huddle for warmth around recordings of their good nights so they can pretend they always sounded like that). I suddenly realize that, among other things, I was thinking Bolero in that performance. And I was using what I'd picked up from Norman Bolter. And that's one reason the performance is unique. There aren't many bohemian jazzers in smokey nightclubs channeling highbrows like Norman frickin' Bolter. It's like the fry cook at your local Wendy's sneaking some demi-glace into the onion ring dipping sauce. all comes together.

As a special bonus (and please don't pass the link around; this is just for Slog readers), here's Norman's legendary euphonium soloing from the first movement of Mahler's 7th with the Boston Symphony. You can't miss him, he's featured nearly throughout the movement. I highly recommend the whole recording.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Milking the Apple Money Machine

I'm glad I bought a bunch of Apple shares when the stock went down to $251 on March 12. Today it closed at $425. Buying Apple during its periodic troughs is the gift that keeps giving.

I've explained my theory on this over and over. Here's one of those explanations.

Chicken Pasta With Angry Onions

Rotisserie chicken (hand-picked and chopped)
Roughly chopped onion
Sliced garlic
Trader Joe's gigli pasta
I added some leftover chopped broccolini after shooting the picture (a guy's got to nutrify)

This is more complicated than it seems.

My previously posted salmon pasta used very gently-cooked onions. In fact, I wrote a whole followup about the proper mindset for gently cooking onions.

This time, I flipped that (in case you haven't noticed, I'm a one-trick-pony. Flipping = reframing, and that's what I do. I've been flipping profitably ever since I stumbled upon the move in college while pondering the odd artifact - an iron - my mom had packed for me).

This time I cooked the onions harshly. I was a real bastard. Medium high heat, hardly any stirring, lots of sizzle. I let them brown nearly to burntness, and there was nothing gentle about it. I wanted them a little dry and a little crunchy and plenty sharp and angry.

The garlic, by contrast, was pampered low and slow, bringing out the sweetness. I used more grated parm than usual, figuring it would bridge the harsh onions to the mellow garlic. It worked.

I added the chopped chicken to the onion/garlic pan, raising heat and stirring madly for just long enough to warm it up. Then I stirred the mixture madly into the pasta along with parm and more olive oil (the latter injects a fresher flavor when it's added at the end, without heating much).

The result was just a bit dry (which is why the photo seems slightly flat). I'd forgotten to add pasta water for finishing sheen (and salt). The struggle continues.

Making of:

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Another Psycho War Story

In yesterday's posting, "Julie", a profile of Chowhound's most persistent psychopath, I tacked on a "Further Reading" section linking to previous war stories. But I forgot to include an important one: "Always Talk to the Mask".

Here's a taste:
When it comes to really horrific people, I've found there are two types. The first is the Moustache Twirler. Moustache twirlers not only consciously acknowledge their bad behavior, but revel in it and generally own it. You know how in movies, villains always openly boast about what they've done? Well, surprise: it really happens that way (sometimes). On message boards, it's easy to spot this sort, as they choose nametags such as 'Torquemada' or 'Ballbuster'.

Obviously, moderators love moustache twirlers. For one thing, they make things easy, and, for another, they're more fun to pick off the video game screen than robot spammers bombarding penis enlargement ads.

The other type of horror is vastly scarier. These are the Psycho Pollyannas: people who retain immutably lofty self-images as they do base and underhanded things. Their high-minded self-image is impervious to the abundant reality of their own behavior.

Julie, of course, was a moustache twirler.


The events I'm about to recall took place between 15 and 20 years ago. It describes one of the hardest problems I've ever faced, leaving me so rattled that I've waited this long to tell the story. I've often remarked that running Chowhound taught me things I'd preferred not to have learned. This one's a whopper.

Around 2001, a new poster appeared on Chowhound named Julie. She (I have no idea of this person's actual gender) had no interest in food whatsoever.

Why would you post to a food site if you didn't care about food? Don't look for reasons. Seriously, don't. Crazy people - not mere neurotics, I mean full-out loonballs - don't operate in a linear fashion. There is nothing to be gained by trying to suss out their reasoning. In face, the deeper you dig, the crazier you yourself will become. You know all those serial killer movies where the detective is a twisted-up wreck from being too dialed-in? That's not unrealistic.

Julie posted a lot. And she was annoying. That wasn't foreshadowing, by the way. Her annoyingness was the best thing about her. That's a human trait. She didn't have many of those.

To the other chowhounds, who never imagined the true scope of the problem, her annoyance was significant. This was one of many instances where our meticulous management left users blissfully unaware of how bad our raw feed actually was, and how hard we worked in the background to keep it that way. To them, the problem was an annoying poster. To us, we were facing a Visigoth, a Hannibal Lechter, a ditzy gamer kid, and a Tasmanian Devil all wrapped into one opaque shell of a psychopath.

Julie eventually became super-extra annoying and we had to kick her out. Her final utterance under the "Julie" name tag was her version of the Saddam Hussein taunt. Prior to the Gulf War, Saddam had promised "the mother of all battles." Julie's actual words have been lost to the ages, but they were chilling. She'd thrown down her gauntlet. This would be war.

Long story short, after the smoke cleared, Julie had created thousands of user accounts under thousands of nametags, via dozens of computers at dozens of physical locations. She'd switched ISP many times, and even moved across the country for a while. All to defy our ban. We were her project. Her nemesis. Her raison d'etre. Julie was our User Zero.

In the first installment of the epic tale of Chowhound's rise and sale to CNET (now CBS), I noted:
As our audience increased, so did the scary 1%, which ran the moderators ragged (at our size, even the .01% rabid psycopaths at the far end of the bell curve represented a hundred or so individuals, some bombarding us nearly 24/7, one hallmark of psychopaths being, after all, dogged persistence).
Julie was far from our most dangerous psycho (worst of all was a food-loving Russian mobster who'd passed through the legal system several times but had never been indicted - because all his co-conspirators had, whoops, suffered mysterious and very often life-ending mishaps before they were able to testify. He’d decided to try to buy Chowhound for a pittance so he could install himself as the new Alpha Hound. Fun times!). Dangerous, not so much, but Julie at least won Miss Persistence, hands down.

Midway through my year-long tenure with CBS (Julie disappeared forever the instant our sell-out was announced), I visited my former business partner Bob, who'd used his earnings to buy a new car. I suggested he get vanity plates reading "Julie", and we barked out bitter laughter, our expressions devoid of any trace of mirth.

Let's retrace back from that flash-ahead. Julie's first move after going all Terminator in 2001 was to post as "Jeff Goldman". Knowing I was Jewish, she was probing to see whether I'd go easier on a bro. Don't think about this too deeply, as I did. Like I said, there's a level of cray-cray that rubs off if you dive too deeply.

But the turning point moment - causing me to gulp and to reel dizzily around my hovel of an apartment for a good long while, and pick up the phone to consult with every smart person I knew - was when I suddenly realized she could kill the site.

I received an emergency message at 2am from a moderator in Japan. The previous day, someone had posted a vivid posting that was attracting lots of attention. An innocent chowhound had asked about good eats near Tokyo's Narita airport, and someone replied about an alternative international airport in Japan that's way better. That one is located right next to the sea, so you could exit the terminal, out the front door, and take a refreshing stroll by the water. There is a bench you can relax on, and next to that bench, an aged and mysterious vendor of grilled octopus balls does amazing work. It was a pearl of chowhound tippage, and our denizens were taking notice. A star was born.

My moderator, rigid with foreboding, told me that he'd been to that airport. And it's nowhere near the sea. And there's no bench. And there are no octopus balls. It was complete bullshit.

We quickly recognized that this fake posting was Julie’s work. She’d been posting dozens of times per day, and we'd been struggling to keep up and weed them out, and now she'd escalated (the scariest word in a moderator's vocabulary; akin to an alien monster evolving). Using her 30th or so nom-de-guerre, she'd fired a shot, signaling that she intended to fill our message boards with fictional bullshit. She would attempt to dilute us out of existence.

We took action. Necessity mothered invention and we quickly threw together an ingenious gem of a defense system. Every time Julie posted, we all heard about it because an instant email alarm rippled over the surface of the planet to dozens of far-flung moderators, helpers, and Julie specialists. And they had a protocol to follow.

How did the defense system work? Far brighter technical minds than mine would be stumped. How does one identify an individual who uses different computers, different ISPs, different physical locations, and different names each time they created a new account? I'm still not ready to reveal the secret. It's drilled so deep that I'd choke on the words if I tried to utter it, and my fingers would turn gangrenous if I tried to type it. This, for me, is akin to nuclear codes. It was the hail mary scheme that protected Chowhound - a good and worthy thing thanks to the efforts of a million smart and generous people - being reduced to worthless crud by one random kook.

But I will describe our protocol. It was extremely counterintuitive by design, and it was all about framing. I didn't fully understand framing at the time (full understanding - the ability to frame framing - arrived just a few years ago), but I did have a natural flair for it.

I felt a certain empathy - some distant simpatico - for most of our hundreds of psychos (remember our oppressive scaling issue). I could usually grok their motives and anticipate their moves. But not Julie. She was too empty and metallic. I'm not saying she was some awesome mastermind. Just that there was little human meat on those bones. There are people who act like ciphers, and there are ciphers who act like people. Julie was the latter. I couldn't see her because there was no "there" there.

Yet one single thing was always clear about Julie: she was playing a video game. Not just that; she was addicted to the videogame, which explains at least some of her persistence. We all know kids who stay up all night to play Minecraft. Julie stayed up four years to play Chowhound. Understanding this big picture gave us an advantage.

Again, Julie didn't care about food. She just wanted to "score", by posting and engaging. None of it was real; it was 100% emulation. Emulating a full-fledged citizen in a virtual community, like a Real Girl. So a "win" for Julie would mean establishing an identity and being allowed to participate. The problem was that once she'd dug her hooks in, using her nth new name tag, she'd lay eggs and begin to infest that particular discussion, injecting her preoccupations and relentless obnoxiousness, and spreading wildly to other parts of the site until she was sprayed back. Then she'd restart. Over and over. For years. That was the game.

Here's the thing about people settled into a game-playing mental frame: they will assume, unquestioningly, that the other side is playing the same game. Like military leaders throughout history, we discovered the secret: it's a huge advantage to flip the script and find a way to play a different and higher-level game, unbeknownst to your adversary. This relocates the adversary to a sealed box, under a bright light, where they can unknowingly be examined, manipulated, and disarmed. They carry on their fight, and may even feel they're winning, but you can't lose because the conflict's been transparently reframed on your terms.

Of course it’s never quite that antiseptic and seamless. Periodically, Julie would become faintly cognizant that our game did not match hers. At such moments, we were forced to switch tactics and shift protocols, leaving us momentarily vulnerable to further escalation. But she never quite got the best of us.

Julie assumed the game was a simple cat-and-mouse. She'd try to post, and we'd try to detect and delete. If we tipped our hand by rapidly and thoroughly deleting her, that would provide her with juicy, useful feedback regarding our capabilities, and she'd develop countermeasures. Escalation! Julie's prickly antennae were perpetually tuned to this dance. Again, she was no mastermind (for example, she could never quite fully organize her myriad personas), but, like any sentient organism, she could absorb feedback and use it to learn and to grow.

We recognized early on that we were under no compulsion to play the same game. Honestly, we didn't care much if Julie posted, so long as she wasn't damaging the site. Her attempts to ingratiate with the community - to blend in, apparently defeating our defense systems by posting like a normal harmless Chowhound user - actually didn't bother us at all. So we left those up.

Most of them, anyway. We'd randomly delete a few, after waiting a random amount of time, just to confuse her feedback curve with noisy data. Consistency on our end would teach her things.

So we mostly let her linger in the early, more innocuous stage of her curve, where she won seeming victory over us by hiding her malevolence and behaving well. Assuming this was all about her, she failed to realize that, to our perspective, no malevolence was no problem. The mouse itself wasn’t what we were chasing (we had declined to frame it that way, seeing the larger picture quite clearly, which few people in our position would have thought to do). To her, though we were failing pathetically in our mission of Total Julie Annihilation. She was winning, and that's exactly how we wanted her to feel. Loser Julie would have incentive to escalate.

We gave Julie her petty victories. She'd write pleasant postings complimenting someone's taco discovery, giddy at her cleverness in evading our guns by using, say, a library computer. For Chowhound, there was just one more nice person out there adding good vibes. She'd won...but we hadn't lost.

But we couldn't let her settle in, because at a certain point she could not help herself from compulsively filling our message board with irritating nonsense (or worse). Having revealed that she’d been detected, we'd clean up all output from her latest identity....though even that was done on time delay. She couldn't suspect our easy seamlessness. Better to let her assume we were bumbling Keystone Cops, embarrassingly feeble and incompetent, struggling to keep up against a clever Bugs Bunny perennially ten steps ahead. One needn't seek out advanced laser weaponry to defeat feebly incompetent Keystone Cops.

A reader asks: if you could detect her so easily and seamlessly, why pussyfoot around? Why not just block her completely? The answer: fear of escalation. If she tried harder, shaking up her methods even more extremely than she already was doing, she might serendipitously manage to evade us. If so, and we'd been efficiently expunging her, she'd instantly know which shake-up had been successful, because she'd suddenly find herself able to post with impunity. This, in turn, would have clued her into our methods. Escalation is terrifying because it can happen very quickly (like a chain reaction), leaving us nakedly vulnerable and desperately needing to come up with another stroke of genius. We absolutely could not chance that. Like diabetes, Julie was to be controlled, not cured. She needed to feel victorious and mildly complacent, and to view us as low-challenge opposition.

This might read like a tale of strategy and gamesmanship - spy vs spy - but it's deeper than that. It's about framing. I've noted in the past that
Some people can spur others to reframe in certain ways. That’s what art is all about, for example. "Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective." Also, gifted salesmen close sales by changing perspective. A number of people have some visceral notion of reframing, and may have developed ways to induce it in others for fun or profit.
For example, comedy involves reframing. And psychologists (who believe the concept is way too esoteric for the public to understand) have a limited understanding, at least if they're super-good.

But this posting suggests we should add to that list those who strategize for a living. Game players, athletes, coaches, and military leaders - at least, super-good ones - intuitively understand a thing or two about framing, and develop the ability to nimbly reframe, at least within certain narrow realms. You can win by bashing your opponent's skull harder than he bashes your's, or you can win smarter by letting him bash away while you shift to fight on a whole other level. The fact that subtlety is dead makes it more advantageous than ever to know how to shift and zigzag. As such moves grow increasingly unpopular, they become more and more of a superpower.

Consider Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They played a whole other game than their adversaries, but they got the result they wanted. And they didn't even need to be sneaky about it. They announced their intentions.

I'm not a naturally a "super-good" strategizer. I don't like being sneaky, and don't enjoy manipulating people any more than I enjoy being manipulated. But circumstance compelled me to fire on all cylinders to protect something I loved. Like I said, running Chowhound taught me some skills I'd have preferred not to master. It's one reason my everyday persona is goofy and ingenuous. I choose not to flex these muscles.

Further reading:

"Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out": the tale of Chowhound's sale to CNET. Installment #1 is quoted above, but the whole series intermittently discusses our psycho travails.
No One Loves You Like a Hater Does
Always Talk to the Mask
The Day Vandals Wrecked Chowhound
My Own Robert Mueller Scenario
...and all posts tagged "Chowhound"

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Death of Subtlety

Here's a two minute video of a guy doing unbelievably difficult things with a skateboard and never falling down. This is widely considered the state of the art (the original version of this video got over 9M views in less than a week):

As I viewed it, I experienced a cascade of epiphanies, which I'll recount in chronological order (the first few aren't super epiphanic, which I note mostly because I'm delighted out of my gourd that this word actually exists):

1. That seems hard.

2. He's not making it look easy.

3. He's not even trying to make it look easy.

4. I think that's because he wants it to look hard.

5. He wants it to look hard because the proposition here is "watch me do hard things".

Making it look hard serves that purpose. Making it elegant and joyful and elevational might mean a more rewarding experience for the viewer, but would distract from the main goal.

6. But wait. Elevating the enterprise to serve viewers would ultimately serve him, because he'd be the guy offering that experience - the elegance and joy and elevation - and that's an even neater trick.

Fred Astaire got credit for being a good dancer, but gobs more extra credit for making it look easy/elegant/joyful/elevational.

7. At some point, “making it look easy” stopped being a thing.

There's something deeper going on here, and it has nothing to do with skateboards. There's been a societal pivot.

Making stuff look easy is a complication; a strategic detour from the simpler goal of being seen as the doer of hard things. This complication once offered ample return on investment. "Making it look easy" being the hardest trick of all, doers of hard things pursued this ultimate challenge - graceful ease. And we recognized and appreciated the feat when we saw it.

But such subtlety has fallen out of favor, removing the incentive to tackle that extra complication. Or perhaps it happened the other way: fewer people pursued it, so the rest of us lost our appreciation. In either case, we've certainly lost something. Fred Astaire would not be revered if he were starting out today. He'd just be another good dancer, whose cool elegance would draw a fraction of the attention paid to artists who make a tortured ordeal of it all. The path’s been simplified. We've removed the knot. If it looks easy, it must be easy, period, yawn.

8. This is part of a larger shift away from subtlety.

There are countless instances in life where it's strategic to self-restrain and perpetrate a zigzag. Dogs wouldn’t comprehend this. They run straight toward the ball, come what may, their eyes squarely on the prize. Humans, more intellectually sophisticated and able to defer gratification, are able to pursue, and to appreciate, a subtler approach. At least, theoretically.

Zigzagging would confuse the hell out of a dog, who'd advise you to "just chase the damned ball!" But much of our culture is built upon certain deliberate restraints, complications, and backtracks. It turned out like this because there were rewards for such behavior.

Concert pianists could walk on stage in tux and tails and simply run through some impossibly difficult technical exercises to reap the acclaim they crave. But taking the trouble to wrap it in actual music is worth the extra trouble. Many more people want to hear Chopin than want to marvel at your fancy fingers (though the two sets certainly intersect). So the conceit becomes to at least feign at offering something substantial - a cultured, elevated veil beneath which, naturally, you scramble for validation of your awesomeness. At least you have the good grace to pretend to make it about something more than yourself. You give them their fucking Chopin. It’s a zigzag.

But as we become increasingly canine and simple, such complications seem confusing and counterproductive. If your eye is glued to the prize of seeming awesome, the gig is to heap on awesomeness without restraint - with nary a zigzag. Why waste time going the other way?

And so it goes. The shift has huge implications beyond concert halls and skateboard parks. We've seen it without connecting the seemingly disparate pieces.

I've written about how people, in flaunting their status, make themselves look especially low-class.
I once dined with a well-known food-writer who I'll call Arnold. We enjoyed a pleasant meal, and, once the check was paid and it was time to go, Arnold headed directly for the door. I yelled after him to wait, because he'd forgotten the profusion of plastic shopping bags he'd left under the table. His boyfriend leaned toward me, and, in a stage whisper, explained that "Arnold doesn't shlep!" He and I hastily gathered the bags and carried them out of the restaurant while Arnold strode majestically ahead, unencumbered.

This was what Arnold deemed having "made it": not having to carry bags. It's a fantasy that could be harbored only by someone with sensibilities firmly anchored in the nineteenth century Eastern European ghettos of his forebears. Which is to say that it marks him, unmistakably, as an absolute peasant, even while he feels most aristocratic.
Taking a self-aware step back from indulging such cringe-inducing impulses would be helpful. But it would be complicated to self-restrain amid self-indulgence. You’d need to pay attention to two different things...and there’s little appetite for complexity when there’s awesomeness to flaunt.

The true high-status move is to not give a damn about status. If you ever meet Queen Elizabeth and make a gaffe, she won't embarrass you. Quite the contrary. If you use the wrong spoon, she'll do likewise. If you affectionately pat her shoulder, she won't bat an eyelash. That's what class and status are: not needing to make a showy big deal over class and status. Making a big deal over status always reveals that you've got none. But that’s a subtle zigzag, less and less popular nowadays when the entire world is essentially nouveau riche. The Queen’s a relic, and the fact that her “go with it” attitude seems surprising must baffle the bejesus out of her.

Here's an older posting titled "Going All the Way in One's Shmuckery":
I've never understood people who insist they're right all the time, and who never allow their minds to be changed. Those with a deep stake in their own rightness ought to live for constant correction, because the only way to attain the Pinnacle of Rightness is by having all remaining dabs of wrongness systematically expunged.

The conceited ought to thrill at being proven wrong, as it brings them one step closer to their self-image of utter perfection. Plus, what better way to seal the legend on one's grandness than to eagerly accept fresh ideas and publicly renounce faulty ones? Only terribly competent and secure people - studly, admirable, heroic people! - behave this way. So why isn't this a more popular pose?

Similarly, people who want to be seen as tough and menacing ought to act immaculately gracious and deferential. One can best signal one's ability to harm by exaggeratedly declining to do so. This pose is slightly more popular (in fact, its roots go back to ancient times), as I learned while commuting to my first-ever music gig, with a blues band in a crack house in Roosevelt, Long Island. By waving a pedestrian to go ahead and cross in front of my car, I discovered that I had been perceived to have aggressively challenged him. It took years before I was able to unravel the psychology.

Early in my food writing career, I met a famous food writer/editor, who'd attained her lofty position through unimaginable cunning and ambition. I was struck by how down-to-earth this person seemed, but there was a discernible "twist" to her humbleness. A certain sort of modesty broadcasts one's power more effectively than any boast, just as a certain sort of graciousness says "I could effortlessly crush you like a bug...but choose not to."

If those who've decided to act like shmucks would simply take their shmuckdom all the way, the end result would be a more pleasant world.
Those are all subtle zigzags, less and less likely these days to ever be appreciated or understood.

Compare architecture today to architecture of years past. These days there are few touches or subtleties. Few nuances; mostly just big bold assertive contours, and grand statements. One might let nuances make the statement, but that would be subtle, and thus doomed. The notion of going small to go big is awfully complicated, and little appreciated. A more obvious and winning approach is that “big is big” and “more is more.” If your eye’s on the prize, why zigzag? That move is for the weakly hesitant.

To successfully pull off a zigzag - to inject subtlety; to adhere to “less is more”; to make it look easy - we’d need to be other-than-canine. We’d need to defer gratification, apply intelligence and restraint, and increase effort and workload - all blindly trusting that people will appreciate a result without a big stupid cheesy sparkly "TA-DAHHHHH!!!" They’d need to look beyond the superficial and recognize low-key extraordinariness. And while that’s never been something one could assuredly count on, at this point it’s extinct. Subtlety, modesty, and elegance are not 21st century virtues.

We no longer sigh at the ease of an Astaire. Few appreciate detail work. Power needs to scream “POWERFUL” to seem like power. Authenticity is an empty term - far too subtle to comprehend - so the truly gracious are stepped upon, and we are far more impressed by intelligent-seeming poseurs than by the genuinely intelligent.

And now here we have this dude, looking miserable and clunky, tiresomely performing pointlessly difficult moves on his stupid skateboard, heedlessly revealing every one of his 20,000 hours of brutish practice while we dutifully peer at him on our ubiquitous screens. There is only one takeaway, with no complication of subtext: This is hard. I am awesome because I’m doing something hard.

He doesn’t enjoy it, and we don’t enjoy it, but enjoyment has nothing to do with it. We’re supposed to acknowledge empty pointless accomplishment, and that’s it. Don’t go looking for anything else. Don’t complicate.

A pianist gives you a sonata. A novelist offers a story. A chef proffers yum-yums. None are generous at heart. All operate from the same vain, selfish impetus. But skateboard kid has dispensed with any quid pro quo.

I may, oddly, have been the only jazz musician on Earth who registered the evident fact that people got dressed up and paid money and sat quietly for hours to hear me make up music in the spur of the moment...and tried conscientiously to rise to this daunting proposition. I framed my job as striving to be worthy of their attention, rather than as a public gathering for the affirmation of my awesomeness.

And the reason my writing is often richly surprising is because I owe something remarkable to those who invest limited time in retracing my squiggly characters across the page. I'd never just "express myself." Seriously, shoot me if you ever spot me expressing myself.

The prospect of watching someone express themself is as tempting as watching them evacuate their bowels. As a reader or audience member, I want something I can use. I want to understand something, or to feel something. I want to be a slightly different person than I was before I arrived. If you don't have the power to induce that, don’t presume to draw people's attention.

Mr. Rogers was quite right: you are beautiful and valuable exactly as you are. However, if you seek to occupy strangers’ attention, you owe more. You are scarcely worthy of it, and must bear that closely in mind if you have even a scintilla of generosity in your heart. Do not come as you are. You owe more. So much more.

As I wrote here:
It's not that every thought in my head is original; it's just that I don't post anything that isn't. I have plenty of conventional ideas and opinions, but can't imagine why you'd want want to hear me repeat what everyone else says. We live in a world where seven billion people say about forty seven things. It bores me, and I don't want to bore you.

Monday, July 27, 2020

New Cars and Pizza and Needlessly Making Ourselves Miserable

You've bought a new car, and every scratch feels like a punch in the face from a malevolent universe.

Eventually, your car ages, and one more scratch barely registers.

Why not? What actually changes?

"It's obvious on the face of it," you reply.

But, no, it's not. Each new scratch mars the car as much as if there'd been none prior. The car doesn't change, only your framing does. And you could just as easily frame scratches as trivial from the get-go. Or, conversely, clutch your chest in pain upon the 10,000th scratch. The only thing that changes is your framing. And you have infinite freedom in how you frame.

We habituate our framing choices. How painful would you like the world to seem? At some point, you create a preference for that, and stick with it. Forever.
Everyone, at a certain point, decides how happy they will be (as with most such choices, cues are taken from the happiness of family members and others around them). This decision becomes a bedrock part of identity - the "I am this kind of person" inner narrative we all maintain.
We ballast our desired happiness level by choosing framings which put us in conflict with the unavoidable. Misery is easy: just deem arbitrary trivialities malevolent. Mere scratches - on a miraculous machine which can transport you anywhere you want to go at high speed in safety and comfort, something our ancestors could scarcely have imagined - can become punches to the face. That’s how far we bend over backwards to conjure misery for ourselves.

Framing is untethered from obvious facts. For example, dieting people do this same move with pizza. We try to avoid eating a slice. But by the time we've had three, we might as well have a fourth. It seems trivially incremental, though of course calories don't magically devalue in the presence of lots more calories. Our framing habits are mostly about justifying primal impulses and deliberately disrupting our natural happiness.

"Natural happiness?" you ask, prepared to bitterly catalog the litany of indignities meted out over your lifetime by malevolent fates. But, comically, this discussion takes place as you're lavishly ensconced on a lovely planet full of sunlight and water and food, enjoying a rich, dynamic, immersive panoply of comforts, entertainments, artworks, and dramatic storylines tailored for your precise needs on the sole speck of color, action, and beneficence in an otherwise cold, dark, tight, vacant universe. As you enjoy this unimaginably privileged existence for a blessed short time, your obliviousness - conjuring Hell amid Heaven, and then ruing the misery - is hilarious.

Well, now that I've put it that way, perhaps you've grudgingly reframed perspective a bit, registering some small bit of spaciousness, joy, and freedom. So what will pull you back out of this framing in the coming seconds? New scratches. Quarrels with your own primal drives. Habitual framings chosen to deliberately ignore the essential perfection of it all (yes, "all", including heartbreak, violence, and kids dying of cancer). What pulls us out of heaven aren’t big red letter issues, but mere wispy trivialities. More precisely: the stubbornly willful bitterness we build up by quarreling with trivialities. So straight back to Hell we go...though it's literally the simplest thing in the world to frame the other way. You just need to want to. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Lofty Framing Behind the Embarrassing Hypocrisy

As you've surely heard, armed secret police are beating peaceful protestors and pushing them into unmarked cars without clear authority or Miranda warnings, Constitution be damned.
Am I repulsed and horrified? Yes. Am I fearful? Not particularly. This isn't how a nation falls into authoritarianism. That outcome would require years of smart maneuvering and patiently disciplined frog boiling, all far beyond the feeble talents of this oafish administration. This is merely Fascism Theater, designed to juice the base, cleave the country, and draw attention from Trump's mishandling of coronavirus.

Does that make it tolerable? Absolutely not. Does "authenticity" matter if you're being beaten by anonymous goons? Uh-uh. But though we flirt with the unthinkable, this is not the news reel we'll watch to recall the point when the totalitarianism started. There's immense distance between our present location and that endpoint. This is to "1984" as pasty-faced suburban douches with citronella torches are to Kristallnacht. This is to a police state what Stephen Miller is to an actual tough guy.
My salient concern is the millions of Libertarians who've spent the past decades screaming their heads off about exactly this scenario. For this, they've subjected us to an unceasing second amendment hissy fit and turned the nation into an arms locker. “Nobody loves school shootings,” they explained, “but if we gave up our guns, who'd confront the tyranny?

So where are those guys right now? Hello?

Obviously, they were never anti-tyranny. They were just against being personally tyrannized, themselves. After all, the sign says “Don’t tread on me”, not “Don’t tread on us”, and certainly not “Don’t tread on them”.

"Hypocrites!" you hiss. And, yes, they are. But so are we all.

The Left is against runaway government spending, hollering "Cut the military budget!" The Right is against runaway government spending, hollering "Cut entitlement programs!" Everyone loves spending on their stuff, but nobody would frame it that way. Both sides claim fiscal responsibility.

Black people stand solemnly against prejudice, but dark-skinned blacks are perennially persecuted by light-skin blacks, and neither is fond of Jews or gays. Their demand is for tolerance applied to them, but they’d never frame it that way. They claim devotion to justice and equality.

Every American is a staunch free speech advocate when someone tells them to shut up. But I can report - from my experience managing a huge community - that everyone wants to make someone shut up about something...though they wouldn’t frame it that way. They claim devotion to truth. Latest example: pressuring Facebook to remove “the lies.” Remove the lies! Just like that!
I'd love to explain the insanity of this proposition, but I'm frozen because the notion is so moronic on the face of it that I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps I’d start with the immense difficulty of defining what constitutes a lie, or by observing the fatuous certainty that lies are what other people tell and that arbiters of Truth will always share your values and viewpoint. 
We don’t want to expunge lies. What we really want is to expunge lies we dislike under a hypocritical mantle of righteous full-spectrum truthiness.
If we removed all the lies, you wouldn't like it.

If we let everyone speak freely, you wouldn't like it.

If we thwarted all persecution, you wouldn't like it.

You and yours would get caught in every one of those traps, screaming “Doh!” like scorched lemmings.

The issue isn't hypocrisy so much as unsubtle use of language. We bridle at distinctions and fine-tunings. It's simpler and more flattering to frame a position as broadly and nobly as possible, even if the words don’t quite fit. We couch our personal and tribal agendas in bizarrely universal terms, ensuring hypocrisy as a side-effect of our vain obliviousness.

The Right favors Small Government - except for the vast military complex and monthly disability checks for aging red state boomers. And the Left insists on respecting Scientific Consensus - except issues like vaccination, where they snidely rebuff those so-called "experts.” Nah, everybody just wants their bundle, while wrapping themselves in lofty credos that never truly applied.

The shrunken, calcified psychic pellets exuding our gaseous lofty ideals seem both obvious and ridiculous to a dispassionate centrist. But I’m still stuck on seemingly smart, savvy people demanding that Facebook expunge Lies. Hey, who doesn’t love Honesty and Truth? That’s a good thing, right?

It’s always about other people’s lies. In a late stage duopoly, what's good for the goose is never good for the gander. The Right wants a forceful, even dictatorial long as he's one of theirs. The Left wants democracy, with power to the people...just not the deplorable half. Both sides twist themselves so badly to avoid self-awareness that it's a miracle spines don't snap. We only notice the hypocrisy and the lies of The Other.

It's hard to imagine a much less tolerant movement than the Left's sweeping, indignant, and messianic demand for ultratolerance on their terms. Rigidly conformist tolerance is demanded for the bundle of realms where intolerance has been declared intolerable, but there's no higher commitment to Tolerance as a consistent principle. Just tolerance for a particular bundle. It's another "Don’t tread on me".

Gripped by the primal impulses of prejudice and contempt they profess to oppose, they’ve forgotten the lesson of the French Revolution: that the worst atrocities arise from blind sanctimony. Again, we couch What We Want in loftily universalist language, ensuring a rich flow of unbridled hypocrisy, and, inevitably, outcomes we’d hate to see flipped. The problem is that history has often shown that treaders may soon find themselves treaded upon. Attention sinners: avoid rock throwing.

Both Left and Right try their damndest to increase presidential power while they hold office. Can everyone possibly be too dumb to recognize the greater danger? Yes, we're that dumb. It's the same stupidity that led us to arm the mujahideen during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. We consider only immediate expedience.

The pivotal political delusion of our era is that geese think it’s all geese, and ganders see only ganders. Lacking the minimal empathy necessary to flip perspective - to consider the reciprocality - we unceasingly find ourselves hoisted by our own petards. Whether we're patriotically opposing an imperial president or patriotically fortifying Our Guy with glorious evil-fighting superpowers, we feel so irrefutably justified, and frame our actions in such lofty terms, that, amid all the righteous glory, none ever ponder the precedents set by their hypocrisy, earth-salting, and doomsday trap-baiting. This will not end well.

Pay no attention to people’s characterizations of their stances. Not the libertarians, not the MAGAs, and not the progressives. It's long been Ideology Theater, all around; a drama of self-justification and self-mythology. We peer at our own reflections, framed in poses of valiant transcendence, as we devolve into vile neotribalism.

Joe Biden's a last bastion of the old way, a ghost of sanity past. We do not deserve him, and it’s abundantly clear why extremists detest him. And, Christ, will both sides ever make his life miserable...

Blog Archive