Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Missing Ending

Regarding my recent posting (the one pretentiously/preciously titled "Effortlessly Cultivating Tiny Miracles"), here's two funny things about me: 1. I always bury the lede (see the writing in tiny font explaining that I've reframed Zen) and 2. I always forget to add an ending (usually because these things get too long and I despair of anyone reading to the bottom).

So here's the ending, which I can't find a way to wedge into the original posting:
Watching my film about Von and his cookies, you see that the man is sharply conflicted. He freely admits that his cookies are unreplicable, and clearly takes pride in them, yet he's deeply skeptical of the notion that he's doing anything special. He's just following the recipe on the oatmeal box, for god's sake, talentlessly using stupid ingredients.

This contradiction, which I highlighted, isn't just charmingly quirky. Rather, it's the precise combination of perspectives I've declared necessary. To climb high up the curve of declining results, be bemusedly undramatic - never overthinking or overdoing - while sustaining your mild caring over many iterations. So the video didn't just get to the heart of the mystery; it also (unbeknownst to me at the time) reveals the secret.

Von cared because the cookies became his calling card. His friends had come to expect glory, and that expectation stoked some light fuck-giving, sustained over decades of iterations. Von was a man with deep interests and impressive accomplishments; oatmeal cookies were a playful sidelight. So he baked them bemusedly, never taking praise seriously. He was as surprised by their grandeur as the rest of us. After all, it was nothing he did. Things just turned out that way. Such is the effortless cultivation of tiny miracles!

Sloppy Slogging

The posting below, "Effortlessly Cultivating Tiny Miracles", was mistakenly posted for a while in a very early draft and under a different title. It's much improved, and I'd urge another read even if you checked out the previous version. It's strewn with Easter eggs.

Effortlessly Cultivating Tiny Miracles

Every day I make masala chai, and it's always way better than last time. I always use the same ingredients and the same recipe. No clever new moves, no tweaks. And, frankly, the procedure is not difficult. Zero learning curve. Yet the improvement is hyperbolic.

I've always known, of course, that "practice makes perfect", but that's a notoriously bumpy ride. Many people spend their lives making chai or cookies or violin concertos or other things, always yielding more or less the same-old. If practice always made perfect, McDonald's filet of fish would be a work of art by now.

Many elements of my life have not blossomed with practice. Some have even degraded. But every masala chai is WAY better. Same with my cooking, and a few other things. My insatiable curiosity compels me to try to understand what's going on, and the underpinnings have begun to tie together.

Ten years ago, I made a video about a guy named Von, locally renowned for his unimaginably great oatmeal cookies. He couldn't understand the fuss, as he wasn't a good cook and he used the most standard possible recipe. Yet he had to admit that when other people made the same cookies from the same ingredients and recipe, they never turned out nearly as good.

I used the video to explore the central mystery of cooking; of creativity; of humanity itself. It had been pondered by Aristotle, and we still haven't pinned it down: why is the whole sometimes greater than the sum of its parts?
Why are certain brownies delicious, certain song performances moving, certain poems illuminating?
What the heck, here's the video, embedded:


My Guatemalan superstar contractor has a fatal flaw. He can't estimate jobs. A pragmatic man, his head swims with potential snags. And if an unanticipated problem absorbs extra time, he might find himself below the weekly income he needs to feed his kids (and the kids of his workers). That outcome terrifies him, so he estimates crazy high (most customers just pay him by the hour). Here's how I advised him:
Whenever you start a job, flash a number in your head of what you think the job will cost the customer. Don't try hard! Don't mull it over, or get out your calculator. Just let a number frivolously, stupidly float into your mind. A two second operation, if that.

Then, when the job's complete, see how close you came. Don't try to learn from your mistakes. Don't analyze short/longfall. Just note the disparity, shrug playfully, and move on. And keep doing this, over and over and over. In way less time than you'd imagine - weeks or months, not years - you'll find your guesses getting more and more accurate until you’re eventually nailing the exact figure every time.

All without even trying! Hey, trying hard never worked, anyhow, right?
This is something our spidey-sense recognizes as possible, because we brush against this mysterious facility from time to time. For example, many people claim the superpower of always knowing the precise time when they wake up. They've guessed it many times, as a mere playful caprice (more on that essential part in a moment), and gotten incrementally better and better at it. After a few hundred iterations, one becomes weirdly infallible. It's like a magic trick no one ever really examined.
The Slog is my longstanding effort to examine facilities we normally relegate to spidey-sense.
I don't try particularly hard with my masala chai. I approach it like a playful caprice, much as I urged my contractor to be off-handed with his practice estimations. Hard trying and industrious thinking are counterproductive to this strangely light-and-breezy process.

No one stresses while guessing the time when they wake up. It's light playfulness; a breezy childish guessing game. And that's the proper framing. If you can conjure up that perspective, opting out of effort and needfulness, results will become semi-miraculous over time, so long as you stick with it (the way children stick with whatever they’re currently playfully working on).

Most likely, you'll mess it up. If you stand at your kitchen counter with $4000 worth of fancy tea-making equipment and special water, grimacing in your effort to craft Great Tea by rigidly controlling the procedure to GET IT ALL RIGHT, you'll struggle endlessly. You're getting in the way of a natural process! It's not a process you can consciously own, so trying to force it is like pushing a string.

Don't turn it into some Big Thing. Don't derail the mysterious - and innately natural - process of forging a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The calculating, narrating, highly critical mind is useful for certain tasks, but it loves to co-opt processes better left undisturbed - especially this fantastically useful one.

Paradoxically, you actually do need to do one thing with your mind. One small thing!

If repetitive processes always improved, your mother would have been crafting absolutely scrumptious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by fourth grade. I don't know about you, but my Mom's sandwiches were crap the whole way. And that's because she didn't care. She lacked even a scintilla of interest in sandwich deliciousness. The notion never occured to her. And you do need to care.

But it must be a certain sort of caring. Not squinching up your face and praying to baby Jesus and making a big display about your deep caring. Don't fill your mind with Improvement Thoughts, or tell yourself stories about it, or judge yourself, or any of the other absurd things humans do to tie themselves in knots. Don't watch yourself on a mental movie screen - the super diligent soul who cares soooo much. Don't pose as Mr. or Ms. Mindfulness. Don't do any of that poseur stuff.

Let yourself deflate to a state of detatched blasé, but still give like a half a fuck...and steadily maintain that part. Don't ratchet up the intensity, but don't let go of the intention; the perspective; the framing. That's the move, and it's small. A half fuck of caring applied consistently over a few hundred iterations is the golden ticket. The bottled lightning. The key to the kingdom.
Don’t self-consciously watch yourself care. Just do it. A little! A little caring, smeared consistently over a long haul of banal repetition. That’s it.
You can think about baseball while you do it. You can go ahead and be grudging and distracted and assholic. You needn't "avoid negativity" or follow any of the other sappy self-help platitudes. It's not a moral enterprise, nor some lofty quest. Don't try to seem caring. Just care...some! Control your perspective (locked and loaded on light fuck-giving) while letting go of self-consciousness ("Me, the great fuck-giver!").

If you raise the caring level (while remaining playful and stupid) that would work faster. But for most people, increasing the caring provokes stress, ego, needfulness and gobs of self-conscious mental narrative - all crashing in like a mob of rowdy vandals. So better to stay light. You can get to infinity with light iteration, so why risk summoning the vandals?
FYI, I’m translating ancient wisdom into pragmatic modern idiom and shifting the perspective, aka reframing. Making a notoriously hard thing easy. Showing you how to bottle lightning.
If you're a wake-up-time-guesser, you already know how to do this! You're already doing it! The keys are right there, in your jacket pocket! Time-guessing is certainly not something you stress over, or weightily consider. It's not a grown-up thing. It’s totally flippant (aside from the light spritz of sustained fuck-giving). Just peel your pushy mind away from dominating the innate process of effortlessly cultivating tiny miracles (great cookies, great chai, precise carpentry estimations, and always knowing your wake-up time).

So let's rethink "practice makes perfect." How about this: "Light fuck-giving, flippantly applied over many iterations, delivers miracles." The best part is you don't need to try. No effort or stress. In fact, it's best if you don't try! This is an innate ability, like a forgotten smart phone feature, and it's fantastic. Just let the process unfold. Lightly give half a fuck while otherwise relinquishing control. Then just look on with delight.

Hey, what time is it right now? Don't look at your phone! Just play a cool guessing game with your pal Jimmy! Fun! Pretend it's important, just like pretending you're cowboys or indians. Pretend hard, but remember you're just a kid, so none of it truly matters!
I've often noted that adults are so poor at learning because of their reluctance to learn the way kids do - even though kids naturally perform dazzling miracles of learning. Grown-ups formalize and proceduralize and stress themselves and APPLY DISCIPLINE, bracing like for root canal. So many unnecessary, unpleasant, counterproductive moves!

Learn playfully - without ego, in a state of bemused delight, like a toddler mastering the art of whistling - and you can learn and grow with the offhanded voraciousness of a child. The masala chai gets weirdly better and better.
The ending of this post, which is brief, was posted separately, here.



Three lagniappes:
1. This explains Zen archery, and other Zen "arts". Again, I’m radically revamping and integrating old wisdom for a new century (must keep baking fresh!)

2. Like nearly every epiphany that's come my way, I find myself realizing it's a lesson I'd learned before, but failed to bear in mind. "Don't forget to also hit a bullseye" is another way of saying “Lightly/persistently give half a fuck!”

3. Sorry I've been writing "fuck" so much. I don't often curse in my speech, but my mind has a tendency to echo, and I'm still working off the jubilation of my home fry posting, "Blessed Are the Fuck-Givers".


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Is the Real Estate Bubble Really a Bubble?

The most common cliché one hears amid a "bubble" (an irrational buying frenzy) is "This time's different!"
This time, the market (or asset) will remain super-high forever!

This time, it will be all boon and no bust!

This time, the music won't stop!
The irrational exuberance isn't the side-effect of a bubble. It IS the bubble. (Framing!)
My parents kept moving farther and farther from NYC, but kept finding, to their utter disgust, that each time the area would fill up with goddamned city émigrés. It never, ever occurred to them that we were the city people. We were the problem.
But as Thomas Harris explained so memorably, comprehension and self-awareness do not fireproof you from deluded thought or action.
Hello, Clarice.


With all that firmly in mind: I don't think the current real estate frenzy is a bubble.

I've been trying to complete necessary work on my house in order to sell it before home prices crash back down again. A race against the clock. It's taken months, and I still have a couple months to go. I've been watching prices very carefully, and they've stopped shooting up super-fast. They're now rising very slowly.

And my theory is that bubbles don't slow down. They accelerate - massively! - until they suddenly pop. I can't think of a bubble that ever decelerated. Irrationality swells until the fever breaks, whereupon punters scan their surroundings realizing, to their horror, that they've run off a cliff.


Lots of people have tried to buy houses lately, escaping crowded cities post-Covid, and as professionals embrace work-from-home. This flow is starting to slow. Eventually, home prices will plateau, and, surely, as with all cycles, descend a bit. But since this isn't behaving like a bubble, I don't foresee a crash.

Famous last words, though. I know.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Self-Healing: Muscle Cramps

This is part of a series of postings on self-healing, which you can access via the "Self-Healing" tag which appears in the Slog’s left margin below "Popular Entries". For general tips and background on self-healing, read this.


I've had problems with muscle cramps all my life. Over the years, I cultivated, with great effort, the habit of lightly resisting the cramping - i.e. opposing the direction your body part's pulled by the muscle spasm. It's difficult, and requires grace under duress, but it helps. But it's not always sufficient.

I eventually came to notice that firmly tapping my foot against the floor relieves toe cramps. And I expanded on that to develop a cure:

Rhythmically and firmly slap the body part with the palm of your hand like you're trying to coax ketchup from a bottle. Repeat two or three times per second until the cramp subsides. It works.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The 'Great Resignation'

This is one of my "old-dude" postings, repeating a point I've previously flogged to death, out of the hornery conviction that nobody fully grokked it the last x times.

The repetitiveness of old people is not entirely innocent, though they hope you'll keep thinking so. They know they're doing it, but are too lazy, self-indulgent, and entitled to throttle the impulse because they think they've earned the right. Consider my favorite anecdote about old age (originally posted here):
My favorite aunt had a favorite story. Her mother's mother was a piece of work; a hard-assed, uncompromising, raging bucket of unreasonable impossibleness. My aunt's besieged, haggard mom had pleaded with her, as a child, "If I ever become anything like my mother when I'm old, please let me know!" When the day finally arrived and my aunt let her mother know, her feisty, pugnacious response was "She was right!!!"


A much-discussed Forbes article from last week titled "The 'Great Resignation' Is A Workers’ Revolution" started off like this:
We’re entering a new post-pandemic paradigm. The old-school management style of dictating terms to workers is ending. An ongoing war for talent pushed businesses, such as Target and Walmart, to offer free tuition for their workers. Many companies are providing sizable sign-on bonuses and higher wages to attract and retain people.

The "Great Resignation” is a sort of workers’ revolution and uprising against bad bosses and tone-deaf companies that refuse to pay well and take advantage of their staff. Millions of workers voted with their feet and walked out of their jobs—many without having another position already lined up. They no longer want to feel like victims. The quitters are making a powerful, positive and self-affirming statement saying that they won’t take the abusive behavior any longer.
Nope. Absolutely the wrong take.

It's not that we're fed up or beaten down or unfairly treated. It's that we're aristocrats. We've reached a point where we're piqued at the prospect of being directed or held accountable in any way.

As I argued here, the missing factor in the Drake Equation (explaining the mysterious lack of evidence of intelligent life in the Universe, which mathematically should be teeming with it) is comfort and wealth.

Intelligent organisms are not built for comfort and wealth. Mrs. Howell is not a happy, grateful, satisfied person, and we're all Mrs. Howell now; princesses increasingly vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. And that's why it's all unwinding.

This article describes a milestone in societal disintegration. If we grow much more coddled, our immensely expanded sense of rage and victimization will lead us to blow up the world. And this is the x factor completing the Drake Equation.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Caring Less to Avoid Burnout!

I keep seeing smug people saying evil crap like this:

...and it infuriates me.

When Beethoven composed in diapers, it wasn't because he needed advice about work/life balance. He wasn't doing it wrong. He wasn't unhinged. He understood that this is the level of commitment required to give posterity a majestic gift. I'd say nothing less about my car detailing friend, a seeming yokel who devised a way to change the reflection of light off of paint via thousands of caring strokes with his trusty blob of putty. He doesn't need the money, but works like a demon. He cares way too much.

People who care too much have given us everything worthwhile about our world. Every delicious bite, every funny quip, every comfortable chair. Anything better than adequate/functional comes from fuck-givers. And none of them - no one who's done anything good or meaningful or delightful - would ever advise you to care less.
One exception: you can definitely care less about the fake mental drama you've been nurturing as an ongoing project.
Burn out! Burn the hell out! All the way! Use every damned calorie and then keep running on empty! Leave it all on the field! Do everything like your life depends on it because life is short and if you spend it just fiddling around, you're wasting a great gift!

Care the bejesus out of important tasks, but also seemingly trivial ones. Because there are no trivial tasks. Your every action - every word, every gesture - shapes the future. You are the god-like prime mover of all that comes after. You are the Ancestor. You create posterity's ripples.

Funny how the people telling us to care less are always dullards. Shitty reporters grinding out click bait, or Glen from Human Resources, or the sort of noodge who hangs around Facebook all day piling up "likes" via strokes and platitudes. Unimpressive people. Not people you'd want cooking you lasagna, or sharing a foxhole.

The world is full of milk-blooded puddy pud-puds, which, by itself, is fine - I don't judge - but a few of them aren't content to simply eschew full-heartedness. They devote their feeble cojones to persuading the rest of us to give less of a fuck. That's where they invest their quarter-watt of vital human energy. Their passion - insofar as their sour, farty, primly moderate inclinations could be equated with passion - is to patronizingly coax the rest of us into being less passionate. They are forces of darkness. They are energy vampires.

I wrote here that
Passionless people don't behold passion and say "Yup, that's the good stuff!"

The passionless maintain relevance via two lines of gaslighting: 1. "nothing's worth passion", and 2. "passionate people seem awfully loopy".

We have been deliberately blinkered by the myriad stolid pud-puds trafficking in the wide part of the bell curve; in mere competency.
I like to observe that "Shitty", "Adequate", and "Great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond. You can't get there out of moderation. 

I know the reply to that. "Greatness? Woah, buddy. Slow down. That's not my jam."

Yes it is. You've just been denatured by the pud-puds.

And needlessly so, because you do phenomenally great work every single day. The mental world of brooding discontent, self-aggrandizement, and general fantasy you've been nurturing is a bona fide masterpiece of painstaking creativity. If you feel too exhausted to raise your aspirations - for example, to generate delicious bites, funny quips, or comfortable chairs - it's because you've been so fully committed to that.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Technology, Creativity, Hacking, and Risk Assessment

My iPhone's been bugging me to update its apps. Scores of them. So I let it "Update All". Then, a few minutes later, I asked it to update to the latest iOS. I was cognizant the OS update would require the device to restart, interrupting the other process - the app update. Was this a problem?

"No," I quickly determined. But I noticed my mind doing a bunch of things to reach this conclusion.

My first thought was that both these iPhone processes have been largely unchanged for a decade. If they played badly together, it would have been noticed and fixed.

My second thought was that App Update was designed to roll with interruptions. Power interruptions, connection interruptions, restarts, etc. Knowing how programmers think, I understood that the two processes don't need to talk to each other. App Update will simply assume its subservient position when the gnarlier OS Update seizes control of the device. It will duck out of the way, and continue later...or, come to think of it, maybe not. App updating might not resume upon restart, but I can always resume it later.

What won't happen is my winding up stuck with zombie half-updated apps from an interrupted process. If that were a thing that happened, iPhones wouldn't work. So that potential peril point had surely been addressed eons ago. I know that the device doublechecks newly downloaded apps to ensure their integrity. And, again: App Update gracefully gets out of the way. My only downside would be needing to complete App Update later. Ni problema.

My next thought was more complicated, and more ominous. There was a minute risk of a freak condition no engineer had thought to address. App Update and OS Update each contain multiple user-invisible processes, and there is a sliver of a chance that some vulnerable component of App Update might collide with a vulnerable component of OS update, confusing the phone and creating Problems.

It's unthinkably unlikely. These processes are close to fully assured for safety because there's so little a user can do to surprise them (and, again, they don't need to ever talk to each other, anyway). Each is triggered by a simple start/stop command, like a light switch, so there's little terra incognita - potential interference or unpredictably shifting conditions.
I'll note, parenthetically, that you actually can mess up a light switch if you use it surprisingly - e.g. violently mashing it on/off over and over, especially if it's a cheap or old switch. And maybe you could burn out the bulb faster if you stood there flicking on/off/on/off 10,000 times. Even the simplest process can fail if you surprise it with behavior its designers hadn't anticipated.

Creativity is about defying expectation and behaving in unintended ways. So creative people perennially make themselves edge cases, conjuring surprises that designers never anticipated, which means they break stuff a lot - both deliberately and accidentally.

This makes us terrific software testers. In fact, that's a hobby of mine. I've helped programmers uncover problems with their code by mashing their switches 10,000 times, or pushing the down-volume button when they wouldn't have expected it, or dunking the device in chocolate milk, or a zillion other surprising moves normal users don't normally do. This helps them make their apps more robust. A programmer once told me, with great admiration, "Gosh, Jim, you could break anything!"

See here for how this all ties in with creativity, Groucho Marx, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death.
The start/stop commands for App Update are non-physical, so an iphone, unlike a light switch, doesn't care if you sit there punching at it all day. And there's little confusion or surprise one can introduce into such a simple process. Rigid constraints and simplicity ensure predictable user behavior.

Turning this around for a moment, if you've ever watched engineers use technology, you've noticed that they do so carefully, like walking a tightrope. They have a deeply engrained sense that stepping off the path of normal operation (to any degree and in any way) might provoke crisis. A layman might conclude that engineers are oddly frightened of technology, but that's not it. They're immensely cautious because they know that everything is held together by spit and wires, designed to surprisingly narrow purpose.

In that last link, I wrote:  
"There is risk in making yourself an edge case. Parking lots, for example, are designed for slow driving. Those who navigate them at high speed will tend to have drivers crash into them, because anticipating really fast cars while backing out of parking spaces requires more violent neck-craning than most people apply."
So this isn't just a tech thing. It's true of any designed system. It might work out fine for a night or two to sleep on an air mattress perched upon your kitchen countertop, but it's risky, because there are potential failure points never anticipated by the designers of the air mattress nor the designers of the countertops. And the severity of failure is inherently unpredictable. Anywhere from mild annoyance to the implosion of the galaxy. At least theoretically.

As a child I loved it when calculator batteries ran low and began reporting that 2 + 2 = 0000101010 or whatever. Good times! That spirit is what made me (I hesitate to use the English language's most misunderstood word) a hacker. I don't steal data, I don't break into the Pentagon, I don't change all my grades to "A" in the school computer, and I don't wreak revenge on adversaries. Those are activities of criminals with tech expertise, some of whom might also be hackers. Hacking is a simple and beautiful thing. It's the mindset of being unable to resist using technology in unintended and surprising ways. Creativity + technology = hacking. In earlier eras, we called it "tinkering." And, hey, as in any human realm, assholes gonna asshole.
I'm hacking right now. I'm repurposing this "Blogger" platform to create a whole other thing. Do I really strike you as fitting the "blogger" mold? No, I've got something else in mind - something hard to name or to pin down - while I squat gleefully in this hokey environment like a virus subverting its host.

I was hacking in 1997 when I repurposed the still-new tools of web publishing for the supremely odd purpose of chronicling my eating ("What Jim Had for Dinner"). These days half the world blogs about food (the first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop), but the first time's always a hack, inevitably perpetrated by a hacker. So stop hating on hackers! You need us! We blaze the trails!
There is absolutely good reason - and a long and storied tradition - of willingly making yourself an edge case...and breaking stuff in the process. That's what art's about (or should be about). Creativity is inherently destructive!

All these strands, god help me, run through my head as I decide whether it's ok to run App Update and OS Update concurrently. I recognize that it's almost surely safe; and that the less important process, App update, will probably be interrupted, but surely recover gracefully; and that, yes, there's a minuscule chance that obscure aspects of both processes might coincide to make my phone play only Mr. Magoo cartoons for all eternity (or, more likely, transform into an expensive and stylish brick), because I'm doing a somewhat less common thing, which inescapably leaves me on marginally thinner ice. But I chose not to worry about it.


Being intensely curious, I begin to consider how other types of people might approach this same question. I turn my hacker's eye toward their mental operation.

Novice: "What, you mean the phone's doing two things at once?"

Average User: "Better cancel the App Update. It's not worth taking the chance. Tech can be unpredictable. I've been hurt before."

Power User: "I trust Apple on this one. Both processes are highly iterated and work beautifully, and App Update is designed to robustly handle interruptions of various sorts. So whatever OS Update does to the phone, App Update should gracefully get out of its way."

Engineer: "Mostly agree with Power User, but she failed to recognize that some unanticipated portion of one process might conflict with some unanticipated portion of the other process, creating problems with no hard limits (i.e. phone bursting into flames is ridiculously unlikely but not completely impossible). Best to be safe, and not make yourself an edge case."

CEO Type: "Technically possible catastrophe is not a pragmatic risk when odds are this low. Don't sweat it."

I know people who still disinfect groceries because, early in COVID, a scientist demonstrated that COVID can survive a day or two on surfaces. The study shook up laymen, who didn't understand that detecting some small quantity of virus under laboratory conditions is an exceedingly far cry from contracting covid from an egg carton. The research didn't conclude that the world is crawling with potential infection. It merely delineated the range of what's technically possible. It should have surprised no one that cooties transfered to a slab of plastic or paper don't immediately vanish in a puff of smoke. This doesn't place us in a Michael Crichton thriller with deathly supervirus lurking positively everywhere.

The risk is virtually zero. You'd need a ragingly infected stock boy to recently smear gobs of snot all over the item you bought, and for your fingers (unwashed and un-disinfected) to pick up sufficient viral load AND transfer that load directly into your nasal cavity (didn't your mom teach you not to pick your nose?). And even then infection isn't assured, nor are symptoms inevitable if infection does arise. So it's more like your phone bursting into flames from updating apps while updating OS. Theoretically possible, but not a pragmatic risk.
I'm not super curious about the conclusions of novice, average user, power user, engineer, or CEO. Nor am I particularly interested in their reasoning. What fascinates me are the various perspectives. All are looking in completely different directions!

Novice views from the baseline perspective of "me and my cool but unfathomable device," with a hazy expectation that it will always work.

Average User views from the perspective of distrust. Bad experiences with technology have instilled a visceral unwillingness to refrain from getting "fancy". A burnt hand forever recoils from hot stoves.

Power User views from a high-level perspective.

Engineer views from a low-level perspective.

CEO Type views from a managerial perspective, broadly scanning the horizon - all component factors - to identify likely SNAFUs and assign a risk level. Focus is on the potential for individual minor human failures to aggregate, creating chaos....while avoiding the engineer/scientist's professional fascination with pragmatically irrelevant edge-case scenarios.

That last more nuanced style of consideration involves myriad agile reframings of perspective, whereas the novice, average user, power user, and engineer remain mostly fixed in their perspectives.


A lithe perspective staves off addiction, depression (also this), and can even save your life. But it also allows you to view the world more holistically by nimbly swiping through a multiplicity of framings impacting a given situation.

This facility underpins my chowhounding prowess. While others stand before restaurant windows poring over the menu, or querying Yelp for ratings, or hustling departing diners for their assessment, I'm less specifically immersed, considering the evidence and mentally swiping through jillions of micro-decisions (of design, of branding, of lighting, of pacing, etc.) by the forces behind the operation. I'm sensitively probing their perspective in order to gauge my risk level in venturing in for a bite!


Friday, October 1, 2021

You Can't Solve Most Problems With Money

This is a followup to my previous posting, "Zen and the Art of Bathroom Renovation", where I wrote:
I'm not saying problems can be solved by throwing money at them. That's completely false.
I'll explain, below, how I first realized this. I hesitate to do so, because it makes me look silly in multiple ways, but I'd rather make myself useful by telling truth than look good.

In "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", an epic series of posts telling the tale of my web company's sale to a major corporation, I explained how the windfall impacted me.
The amount, really, was immaterial. Literally. Below a certain point, publicly traded companies need not disclose acquisition costs. Our price was never announced (and I'm sworn to secrecy) because it was below that threshold. The official term really is "immaterial". It's the businessman's way of saying "pocket change".

Of course, an amount laughably immaterial to the business world is material indeed to a jazz trombonist/freelance writer. If I remained modest in my overhead, I could, post-CNET, enjoy a few years off to handle long-deferred personal maintenance. I would never again be forced to take crap from clueless authorities (which I hate), and could concentrate exclusively on doing quality work (which I love). And I'd be able to afford as many pizza slices and secondhand dvds as I want. Awesome!
Many of my friends assume Chowhound's sale made me a massively wealthy Mr. Howell (and the more I try to dispel the misapprehension, the more certain they become). But here's the thing. Being quite poor (as I was) and becoming dentist rich is far more transformative than going from "comfortably well-off" to "billions". My sensation of wealth, in other words, was indeed massive. So, in a way, my friends are not wrong.

For a freshly-minted billionaire to live up to his new circumstances - i.e. feel a real sense of change - he must add cumbersome elements to his life. That new private 727 won't fly itself. And you'll need to go find a chalet to buy, and add it to the long list of things you worry about. Your "people", who you'd imagine would help you with all this stuff, must be found and hired, and will ultimately disappoint you and mess things up just like the people you and I hire for our more modest needs. Even if you get lucky and stumble into someone flawless and honest and resourceful and perfect, that person won't work for you forever. He wants to go out and become someone like you, not work year after year as your well-paid butler.

My position is much better. When I use a Manhattan parking garage, I get giddy over the privilege and convenience. I can't believe I can afford this. I do not require a plane or a chalet to feel massively wealthy. And, now, having filled in all this background, I'll tell the story of how I realized that throwing money doesn't solve problems. It's a doozy.

The immense cruelty of my new boss became apparent at the moment his company's cash transfered to my checking account. I've explained the aftermath in my work life, but not, until now, in my personal life.

I'd been living in cheap NYC rental apartments in scary areas for my entire adult life. Now I could afford to step up a couple notches. I had to move, anyway. My current landlord needed my apartment for one of his family members, so I had a month to get out.

My deal with CNET did not relieve the immense burden of running Chowhound. All plates would remain spinning, plus there'd be time-consuming interaction with corporate overlords. So my workload actually increased. There was no time to buy a dream home, or even hunt down a more habitable rental. What's more, the overlords wanted me to spend lots of time in California.

I'd be in a state of limbo for the year I was contracted to them, so the smart move was to book a small, cheap apartment for the year, then run screaming from the corporation and attend to life issues such as housing.

I hastily rented a small fourth floor walk-up apartment in a bad part of Queens. This may sound harrowing to you, but it was well within my established comfort zone. I took the apartment so hastily that I forgot to measure rooms and consider fit. It didn't matter. I'd leave most possessions boxed, poised to transfer somewhere nice after the sacrificial year of corporate servitude.

But on moving day, my couch didn't fit. My beloved couch. The only nice thing I owned.

What do you, reader, do in this circumstance? You're standing on a mean street in Corona, Queens in 95 degree summer heat and the movers are bringing your beloved couch back down to street level, and need a decision. I tapped into my poor-guy resourcefulness, but no solution occurred to me. And suddenly I remembered....I was no longer poor. Petty vexations like this were a thing of the past! I could buy my way out of problems like this!

I actually reached for my wallet. I didn't quite pull it from my pocket, but I did reach for it, in a delusional impulse to extract a fat wad of cash, hold it high above my head, and insist that someone fix this, pronto. I'd summon the rich guy helicopter, which would land beside me on 82nd street, and terribly competent people would spill out and handle this, albeit at great expense. It made me indignant to think that I, a person of some means, had found myself in this position. Unacceptable! I marinated in my indignation until Louis, the 6'7" mover, tapped my shoulder and reminded me that, bro, we have another job to get to so what do you want us to do with the couch?

"Leave it," I sullenly replied. It was dumped in front of my apartment building, and was gone by morning.

No helicopter ever appeared. There is no helicopter. I was still a shmuck. I'd always be a shmuck. There is no elevation from shmuckdom. One might spend a handsome sum to pretend otherwise, but that's the truth. My huffy elevation lasted a brief three minutes and never reappeared.

Money buys comfort. One can occupy a marginally larger and fluffier airplane seat for a few hours for a couple thousand extra bucks. But money can not, in and of itself, solve most problems.

If Bill Gates really needs to get from First Avenue to Tenth Avenue IMMEDIATELY during Manhattan rush hour, too bad, Bill. You can reach for your wallet, hoist bills, and imperiously scan the sky for a Rich Guy Problem Resolution Helicopter, but you'd be wasting time better spent hopping in a cab. Even better: the subway, which is faster. Bill Gates, in that position, cannot do better than the subway.

I've never lost touch with that image of Bill Gates hopping in the subway.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Zen and the Art of Bathroom Renovation

How to power through a bathroom renovation....lose weight...and be successful in any pursuit.
I'm not kidding, either. But what I can't help you with, because I'm so perennially poor at it myself, is remembering to actually do it. Knowing the trick is worthless. Doing the trick grants you the keys to the kingdom. YOU NEED TO DO THE TRICK! I keep learning this, but, like an idiot, also keep forgetting!

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Weight Loss

One of my least understood postings made a counterintuitive point about weight loss. I won't say its title right away, because it propelled readers into a dream state of previous assumptions. But I'll try to explain better now, and then circle back to that posting, which turned out to be more significant than I realized.

There's a common psychology among those who put on, and keep on, weight:
I've done all the stuff! I stopped eating junk food (except when I’m hungry and short on time). I gave up soda (but do drink juice, which is “totally healthy”). I exercise a decent amount - maybe not with great intensity or zeal, but I do hit the gym a couple times per week. I try to avoid fried foods and park my car far from the store so I walk more. I hardly eat! I skip breakfast and often lunch, which I know is unhealthy, but it reduces my calorie count, and yet, I can't lose the weight! I've done EVERYTHING!!!

These moves should have been sufficient! I'm not training for the Olympics, so I shouldn't have to resort to extremes - skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. So it must be my endocrine system, or heredity, or something else quite outside my control, because for some strange reason I still can't lose the weight!
Millions of perennially overweight people imagine they can fiddle their way to weight loss. A renounced bad habit here, a pushup there, and the weight should just spill off. Yet it never does.

The solution is obliviously missed. You just said it! You need to resort to skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. And so much more. All those "special occasion" exceptions must vanish. No junk food or fried foods or dessert ever. Expunge the juice (drink water!) and scarf nary a brownie...not even to reward yourself for skipping a few meals, which really just messes up your metabolism by convincing your body that it's starving and must conserve fat at all cost. No socializing around food; no canceling gym to go to brunch. And your epic 1/8 mile trek from the distant parking space? That's nothing. Leave your car home and walk to the store, even if it's 4 miles.

So long as weight loss feels like a hobby, you won't lose weight. It's only effective when it becomes your occupation, worth a handsome salary for your time investment, lifestyle shifts, schedule disruptions, and increased grocery bills as you feed yourself with the fussy care of a show horse. That's what it takes to lose weight. It must be your job for a number of months, and that's why I titled the aforementioned post "Losing Weight Costs $1000/pound". As someone from a rotund family who had recently lost 35 pounds to fit into high school jeans with 32" waist, I knew what I was talking about. One must reframe the enterprise. Not just "get serious", but transform outlook, actions, and life. You can't fiddle your way there.

You can't fiddle your way there.

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Home Improvement

Now let's talk home improvement.

Nine years ago, one of my best friends at the time was a contractor who talked me into an ambitious home improvement project which he offered to helm. He tore open my house, installed a thing or two, then promptly disappeared.

I was hoping to find a white knight to step in and fix it all. Preferably inexpensively! A procession of contractors stopped by to offer estimates. Few could make sense of my guy's plan, plus, it's an old house, with the standard headaches, so the most experienced (i.e. laziest) contractors suggested gutting and rebuilding, for $$$$$. Most considered it aggravating and stopped returning calls. Or hollered at me about the ridiculous mistakes my friend had made.

Let's focus on my epicenter of pain, my great nemesis, the upstairs bathroom. Among myriad problems, one wall is covered with 100 year old "white" subway tiles that are no longer close to white. They're more of a putrid yellow, which vintage bathroom aficionados assure me is "gorgeous". And they couldn’t be replaced, because the wall behind them has devolved into sandy sediment and werewolves and tornados. So I was stuck with those tiles.

But then how do you waterproof behind the shower area, which had been stripped down to drywall? I couldn't install new white subway tiles, because they'd clash with the existing ones. One solution might be to buy “vintage” white subway tiles which actually match my old ones. But they're outrageously expensive. Like, thousands of dollars. I couldn't imagine paying so much for tiling.

So the bathroom (and all the rest) sat frozen for nine years, forcing me to bathe in the downstairs utility shower and to avert my eyes from the many construction zones and mangled atrocities (e.g. the tub was installed half on/half off the floor tiles, among a vast number of other insanities which, as I explored them, left me understanding why the incompetent bastard had run off).

"I'M NO GOOD WITH THIS STUFF!"

Whenever I tried to help my Mom with her computer or her iPad, she'd respond with harried helplessness. "I don't understand tech things!" she'd wail, before I'd said a word. That was her default posture: an aggrieved full-body shrug. Unsurprisingly, she hardly learned to turn her devices on and off.

I tried to reframe the issue. She hadn't been born knowing how to boil eggs or drive cars. She'd learned via curiosity and an open mindset. And this was no different. But she was, shall we say, unreceptive to this analogy.

Mom never learned to turn on/off her computer, but the pathway was clear enough: invest the time, put in the work, get serious with learning to do stuff that doesn't feel like stuff you (i.e. your persona) would be able to do. Evolve, gradually, into a whole other person who's good at tech stuff.

Adults lose their ability to learn when we stop entertaining the possibility of change - specifically, changing into someone able to do the thing we've convinced ourselves we can't do. Our "story" about our persona becomes a choke collar. In freezing perspective, we preclude the lithe, easy changes fluidly available if we simply stop self-strangulating for a nanosecond.

What It Takes

Local house prices had begun soaring, compelling me to consider selling. This injected hot incentive into my veins, and, with newfound clarity, I realized I needed to do way more. The meek forays into recruiting a white knight who'd Fix It All (preferably inexpensively) were comically insufficient, so I became project manager and designer... with lots of help. In the Internet age, help is always available, but you must move the ball. I girded myself to "give it a shot" - aka "fake it till I make it" - but with lots of advice. Including from clueless people (in life one must learn how to productively triangulate and select advice from low-value sources).

I posted incessantly to Facebook home improvement groups. I didn't wail "WHAT DO I DO?" (i.e. more hunting for a white knight), which would only unleash torrents of random low-value opinions. I broke it down into finite chunks. At long last, I'd seized responsibility. Even though "I'M NO GOOD WITH HOME STUFF". I stopped wailing and self-strangulating, and stepped courageously into the typhoon.

My head spun a lot. Needing to make a hundreds of consequential decisions in realms of no interest to me, I blasted forward without an iota of natural facility. Which is an unfamiliar sensation for me.

I'm used to swiftly pulling off hard things by operating on talent. In realms where my natural talents don't apply, I'm like Samson post-haircut (read this, it's a goodie). I'm not just diminished, I'm helpless. A writhing gelatinous puddle of mess. As I wrote in that last link:
I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly. Those with no particular talent, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage.
Most people learn to grind talentlessly, an essential life skill I lack. But grind I did, and I messed up things which needed to be redone. I wasted serious money (including $1600 worth of dumb materials I needed to throw out). And I took a full year of essentially full time work to get it all done....and even then only because I got lucky in finding a dandy carpenter (though it was manufactured luck; I found him only via obscene persistence, plus he has innumerable quirks I've had to learn about and work around).

I adopted the rallying cry of "no half measures". My weight loss success had taught me that you can't just dip your toe. You can't fiddle your way there. You can't take a step or two and demand that the world gratify your minor effort with success. You must go all the way - whatever it takes! - like a driven maniac. Like Fitzcarraldo.

One sometimes must elevate some narrow slice of life into The Only Thing There Is for a while. Confronted by obstacles offering no easy workarounds, you've got to ramp up a benign and finite obsession.

Finally, I did buy those overpriced tiles. My previous self screams, from the back of my head: "You blew that sum on shower tiles???", to which I calmly reply "You spent a stressed decade living in a construction site and showering downstairs just to save a few bucks?"

Framing!

Flash-Ahead to a Successful Dismount

Very very very very long story short, bathroom's nearly done (and the rest of the house is close). I am now someone who's good at home stuff! I still can't swap out a light bulb, but I have a crew of loyal workers*, a phalanx of fans in Facebook home improvement groups who've followed my travails, and, most of all, I've learned that the quantity of effort that must be invested is way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way more than I'd previously assumed.
* - My main contractor is a Guatemalan genius who I've made locally famous via postings on NextDoor (a neighborhood forum) recounting his epic heroics. Now, the guy's phone never stops ringing, he's raised his hourly price, bought a new pickup, and given his kids dental work, and, if a bird craps on my roof, he's here in like 20 seconds.
I now write big checks like I put quarters in parking meters. Big checks are the grease that lubricates the system, and restricting that flow makes things exponentially more difficult. I'm not saying problems can be solved by throwing money at them. That's completely false. But even great outcomes by loyal workers laboring at a reasonable price add up, and you need to fulfill your role.

When Guatemalan Genius and his small army of eager hammer swingers complete shoring up your ceiling joists in a hot August attic for 1/4 the price of the arrogant anglo "top" local contractor, you still must write a four digit number on that check. Get over the fear and loathing. Making your dreams come true - even if it's done fast and thriftily by a Guatemalan Genius (i.e. the best-case scenario) requires writing tons of big checks. So build that in. But don't expect this, alone, to kickstart the process. It's lubricant, not firestarter. Paying is just a tiny part of your commitment.

What's more, it's not always best-case scenario! Sometimes my painter has a slow day and doesn't get much done. That's ok, Kurt! Come have a beer and a sandwich, and relax on the porch! You'll knock 'em dead tomorrow! Oh, and here's your $300 with my intense gratitude!

For example: See that floor?

We swapped in a bunch of new tiles, matching the vintage color, but could not match the grout. Many hours have poured into this floor, and it's crazy no one saw this coming, but I won't waste a nano-calorie getting indignant. We'll simply retile the floor. No problema! Let's do this!

Get the idea?

Redux

Home Repair is not impossible, as I'd previously concluded. It just demands far deeper wells of commitment, persistence, effort, and expenditure than you'd begin to imagine.
The inescapable dynamic of this universe is entropy. Opposing entropy to compel things to serve some intended purpose requires enormous energy. Like salmons thrashing their way upstream, it's possible, but you can't fiddle your way there. The universe desperately yearns for your house to dissolve into sawdust.
I thought it was sufficient to recruit contractors and pay them (hopefully not much!). I'd conceived of this as consumerism: I pay, and you make all my problems go away. Wrong. That's the same fallacy that makes us suppose that cutting out soda and hitting the gym twice a week will make excess weight fall away. Same with my mother figuring a quick fix from me makes all tech problems go away.

You can't fiddle your way there. It's not enough. Not nearly enough! Just as weight loss (unless you have the metabolism of a humming bird) requires skim milk, meticulous nutrition, daily gym exhaustion, and 5 mile walks - $1000/pound worth of effort - home repair requires the strategic skills of an Army general (your contractor is the colonel, who takes orders from you, and who must be supervised and periodically overruled). You need to work tirelessly, making thousands of decisions in dorky realms, tolerating missteps, and flinging loads of money freely, even jubilantly. And those are just the prerequisites. You need to reframe it this way.

The familiar aggravations of home improvement are laughable. My house has been overrun with tarps, paint cans, cut tiles, black trash bags, various tools, unidentified doodads of hardware - and all my possessions pushed into stacks - for literally longer than I can remember. I am only distantly aware of these things, or of my perilously dropping bank balance. I am at war. Distract me not with trivial concerns, for I am he who opposes entropy.

Home improvement "costs" $1000 per inch. I don't just mean currency. Your time, work, patience, and obsession all have economic value. And all are required. No white knight will appear - and, if one does, he'll mess everything up while charging an order of magnitude more than I just paid.

I Constantly Forget My Own Hard-Won Lesson

One of my favorite postings was "Why My Cooking Isn't Great". If you read it there, you'll see a nice photo that sets the scene, but I've pasted in an abridged version below, because it ties in an essential connection:
From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers.

What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. And pains were taken. Vast concentration, vast attention, vast levels of caring. It’s not that they were projecting an image - impressing others or themselves with their theatrical intensity. This was a deep and non-self-aware sense of commitment, period.

It was inspiring to see, but highly ironic that I’d be struck by this at such a late date.

I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

As I said a couple of postings ago, it's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.

Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?

I could have written a perfectly acceptable version of this in ten minutes flat. Instead, I've sat here for hours, fiddling with every word (and fretting over that last comma) as if the fate of the universe hinged on perfect, seamless clarity. I'm a much better writer than a cook. This is why.
Again, with home improvement, I’d made the same mistake. I underestimated the requisite commitment, perseverance and resilience. Which is weird, because I have an abundant supply of all three. And I constantly urge readers to cultivate these things. Yet here I am, at 58, still relearning my signature lesson. Sigh.

But What Am I *Really* Doing Here (in this essay, this bathroom, and this lifetime)?

I wrote here that
"Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond.
I never thought I was trying to do a "great" home improvement. Really, I just wanted to be able to take a shower! But, now that you mention it, I was more concerned about this going right than the average person. Maybe, now that I think about it, like a quadrillion times more. I can't separate the perfectionism from the breaking-of-paralysis. I lack self-awareness on this. But the result, come to think of it, was kind of fantastic in some ways.

Here's the bathroom. Need to de-wrinkle that shower curtain. And buy a new light fixture. And lord give me patience re: the floor tiles. But it's close.


How much water escapes from the shower? NOT ONE MOLECULE finds its way to the floor or the window ledge. All that wood by the window I was panic-stricken about soaking? Dry as the Gobi freaking Desert. Because I wasn't building to "keep it reasonably dry". I worked it like a holy mission.

The Unexpected Magic Afterglow

Home decoration is way easier than home renovation, though I'm ill-suited for both. In a posting titled "Home Decor for the Visually Incompetent", I noted that...
It took nearly three years to furnish the house, but I lavished great care, and, in the end, the place had the magical power to make anyone stepping into it feel absolutely comfortable and relaxed. The place didn't make a grand impression; there was no particular design "impact". But neither did things look sloppy or mismatched. What hit you was the Vibe. I'd nailed it!
This bathroom has a vibe, too. Maybe you can see it a little in the photos. Taking a shower is an almost mystical experience. I know what you're thinking: "Of course it does, you lame-brain! It took you nine years so what you're feeling is just your own immense relief and self-satisfaction!" But nyuh-uh. It really is a magical shower (I'll have friends try it out and see what they report). When you put this much love* and effort into something, trippy stuff happens.

* - I should note that I don't actually give a rat's ass about bathrooms (which explains my utter lack of natural skills). I'm just trying to whip the house into shape so I can sell! So it’s not love, per se, but, with apologies to Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced level of caring is indistinguishable from love. And it took immense care for me to get this done. And when my care machine switches on...

The Kernel

In this posting I recounted a story from the Hindu vedas, which I'll paste in below. Most will read it and figure it's just Jim getting kooky/mystical and whatever. A few may understand that it speaks to the underpinnings of worldly experience; unconscious truths we distantly intuit but rarely touch upon:
Centuries ago, a teacher told his class to write the symbol for the number "one" in their tablets. They all duly scrawled a vertical line, save for one student, who sat with chalk poised, thinking deeply. "Just write it!" urged the teacher, but the student was frozen. Over time, the class had moved on to all the other numbers, but this one child remained lost in thought. Eventually, he was expelled for being too stupid to learn.

His family abandoned him, and he lived in the woods for thirty years, meditating and pondering. Finally, he returned to the schoool, naked and bearded, and, seeing his former teacher (now an old man) still in front of the classroom, he strode in, picked up a piece of chalk, and, with a godly sweep of his arm, full of confidence and grace, drew an enormous "1" on the front wall. After an awed moment, the entire school cracked in two along the mark he'd drawn.

I don't selfishly horde and hide my tricks. I desperately want you to surpass me (I mean with the stuff I’m actually good at) and make me look like a shmuck, and have been showing you how all along. It's counterintuitive, but isn't that inevitable? How far does conventionality get us?

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