Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Thwarted Goals

This is dense, I know. It's not a "read", to be skimmed for a cheap hit of confirmation bias. Like many Slog postings, it's a carefully-constructed lozenge for contemplation, which can spur reframing and reward multiple readings (and deep link dives).

One of the scariest monsters perpetually snarling just below my waterline has been a sense of shame at my growing tragic bundle of stalled and paralyzed plans and schemes. I've felt the weight profoundly. It's instilled a deep-seated conviction that I'm a miserable failure, and made every moment of repose feel like truant self-indulgence.
The snarling has, to my immense relief, diminished sharply with age. I'm old enough now to look back and see that I haven't, in fact, wasted my life. I got a lot done while feeling damnably idle and vagrant. I can finally see that my 15,000 item to-do list (not kidding) and gigabytes of stalled articles, books, and projects (some potentially distressingly amazing) are not a shameful burden, but more like a chef's leftover mis en place. One needn't grieve over stillborn chunks rotting in the fridge. The relevant question is: how did the meal go? 
This comforting late-middle-aged realization is - if you can embrace it when it arrives and reframe yourself to the new perspective - the saving grace of the familiar litany of aging indignities.
Like every stress point, this was, from the beginning, nothing but a simple framing malfunction. Think of it this way (flip along with me!): if you doggedly completed every task, idea, and goal you'd ever brewed up, how wrecked would your life be? How enslaved would you have been to your caprices? If you'd served as fervid henchman to your every passing whim, how scattered and random would the cumulative result have been?

The trick is in the winnowing. But no one is more daunted by that part than me. I'm cursed to know that the most substantial and tectonic ideas can be the least realistic; that the most pleasurable-seeming ones can prove the most tedious to sustain; and that the passion and drive accompanying an inception might be significant, but can later seem inexplicable (I once spent three hours feverishly combing Philadelphia for a "Beer & Cheese Love" t-shirt I felt I couldn't live without, and whenever I chance upon that shirt, abandoned in the bottom of my drawer, I cannot make myself understand what the hell I was thinking).
We don't really choose, though. If we did, we'd all be the perfect weight, tautly muscled, speak twelve languages fluently, live in immaculate homes, and never yell at our kids. If we were the choosers, I wouldn’t buy potato chips, nor ruminate over the horrible thing that girl once said. If you make a study of it, you'll find that thinking and choosing is not done by us. We do get to frame - that's our sole freedom - but thoughts and choices arrive as faits accomplis for which our chattering minds claim credit.
The carcasses of expired tasks and discarded goals are mental relics we keep around to fuel our epic obsession with What's Missing. But despite our best efforts, we don't live in the world of What Isn't. We're here for the meal we have, not for the ones we don't...much less for those plastic-wrapped bits of onion and mushroom liquefying in our "crisper". Such artifacts exert no actual pressure on us, unless we go out of our way to needlessly frame them as oppressors. 

Per here, "when an insight seems fully-baked, even after years of digestion, a greater clarity may appear in the very next microsecond, leaving you aware of how ridiculously incomplete or wrong you'd been. It's not like waiting for batter to become cake. It's all eternally batter."

Same for projects and goals. Another moment may cast these smokey, abstract mental constructions in a different light, and we ought not disregard the fresh clarity, even though sensitive responsiveness to such momentary shifts may make us seem aimless and undisciplined (see my posting about procrastination, which is a companion piece to this one).  

With our sole lever being our freedom to direct attention (a.k.a. to frame), best practice is to come back to your senses, opting out of convoluted mental stories about what you're doing and where you're headed, and focus on duly relishing your placement of attention, with the rapt delight of a child at play. In so doing, you're acting as the prime mover in this reality

And then pour yourself entirely into the task at hand (“the meal you have”), however trivial. The results may not ring one of the tinny bells of 21st century culture, but they will be good...and will provide comfort to your elder self (no old person ever regretted heartfelt good work).

Monday, February 17, 2020

Phantom Memories and the Tragic Downfall of "Três Montanhas"

The task I set myself in building out my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, was monumental. I needed to explain what the food's like, what to order, and how to eat in pretty much every common immigrant cuisine; 75 for now  (it's mostly for "ethnic" eating here at home, but also works well abroad). If science ever allows us to download our mind's contents into a database, I already know what that will feel like. I couldn't quell a nagging thought: Kill me now, for I am redundant. Forty years of know-how was juiced out of me and made freely available to anyone with $4.99 (we should have charged $300. Underpricing was a big part of the problem. Nobody seems to grok exactly what this thing was or what it did - except customers, who've exclusively rated it 5 stars).

I had to opt out of some extremes. It couldn't become a full-fledged encyclopedia of world food, because a firehose approach wouldn't provide the practical in-restaurant advice I wanted to offer - the sort of life-line help friends often request via text message. Nor could I drill down to lots of sub-regions. The app does divide regions of Italy, India, France, Mexico and China, but only because it needed to do so to be useful. Further division would force users to identify the exact region of their restaurant, ruining the newbie-friendliness (the app's surprisingly newbie friendly while also catnip for seasoned vets).

I also constrained mostly to can't-miss dishes. Millions know and love samosas, pad Thai, and sushi, but it's crazy that Bengali mishti doi, Russian chebureki, Brazilian pao de queijo, Burmese shway gee mote, and Egyptian eggah are not equally craved. To try them is to love them, and the app's like a magic key unlocking the whole world‘s rapture.

I did, however, hold on to one strict and ambitious edict: don't screw up. No flagrant mistakes. I knew readers would head straight to their own family's nationality to gauge whether the app's legit, and while, per above, it will necessarily seem incomplete, it can't seem unsavvy. It needed a consistent insider's view, rather than the standard aspergery gringo foodie treatment. We wanted Ethiopians and Cambodians to assume we had paisanos on staff. We needed to do justice to all these cuisines we so love, which meant: no big blunders. No naiveté. You may argue with what's been included/excluded, and your family might make tamales differently. Plus there are, alas, surely hundreds of minor errata. But no big fat ones. No shark-jumping.

The big problem is that I picked up my food knowledge on the fly. This helped me learn to eat like an insider (insiders just eat, they don't think about it, taxonomize it, poke at it with a pointer, or fetishize it into a stamp on Instagram), but the problem with empirical knowledge is - as I discovered to my horror while pushing every last speck through a verification grinder - that 5% of my knowledge was skull-crushingly wrong all along.

Early drafts included a dozen dishes that don't exist. Some I'd concocted mentally - phantom memories of hallucinated meals - and some were accurate recollections of restaurant contrivances bullshittedly claimed to be authentic. Some of these dishes had been foundational for me, and helped define my view of a cuisine. I confess with mortification that I've referred to some in my (professional) writing. But none of them googled because, jesuschrist, they don't exist. Finding and extracting fake foods, false memories, and general misapprehensions was a fraught process - literally and figuratively akin to brain surgery.

Wait, I'd keep asking myself. Do I know FOR A FACT that Thai people eat noodles with chopsticks? Or that Tibetan soup is called (much to a musician's delight) "thang"? Or that Koreans may quietly add rice to their soup at the table despite the nominal taboo? How do I know anything in my head is rigorously right? The fact that I'm considered an expert only makes it more nauseating.

So, anyway, this just happened:

I listed for a Portuguese person the cities I've performed in in Portugal. And it turns out that one of the major ones, Três Montanhas, doesn't exist. Never existed. Mind you, this was no minor data point. The locality had, for decades, occupied a prominent place in my mental map of Portugal. Yet there IS NO "TRÊS MONTANHAS". Nothing even close to that name. My friend helpfully ventured that I'd simply been in a place near three mountains.

No. The Três Montanhas I know - in the universe I live in - is a pillar of northern Portugal, especially its cuisine. I'd absorbed the style they cook there, spending hours at restaurant tables being explained the history and fine points of it all while course after delicious course emerged, clearly misunderstanding the Portuguese (or the Portuguese-accented English). I don't remember who I was with, so I have no one to ask. Who could possibly advise me about a place that's not a place? How does one find GPS coordinates for Shangri-La?

If there's no "Três Montanhas", then nothing in my life makes a lick of sense. All is open to question. I find myself (per my open letter to Bernie supporters) feeling like a blotchy pink mole rat, blinking confusedly. 

I'm in epistemological crisis, especially after pondering how one can ever declare a conclusion verified when (per here) "a greater clarity may appear in the very next microsecond, leaving you aware of how ridiculously incomplete or wrong you'd been." 

Update: thank you, Jesus

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Turing Test Postscript Postscript

I added an explanatory video clip at the bottom of the preceding posting, Turing Test Postscript.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Turing Test Postscript

My recent posting Artificial Intelligence, Turing Tests, Art, and Reframing concluded with this:
The secret to effective Turing testing is to ply agile reframing and see whether the AI keeps up. But it won't. This will always be its limitation.
I was being glib, and wound up saying something dumb.
It's hard to decide when a thought is mature (much of what I post here on the Slog has been incubating for 40 years or more). When an insight seems fully-baked, even after years of digestion, a greater clarity may appear in the very next microsecond, leaving you aware of how ridiculously incomplete or wrong you'd been.

It's not like waiting for batter to become cake. It's all eternally batter, making it madness to ever write anything down (the Hindu vedas have a story about this; see the indented portion here).
Well, half-dumb, anyway. Challenging an AI to reframe is indeed the smart way to trip up an AI. The problem is that most people have frozen perspectives. Having forgotten that they have the ability to reframe, they'll fail the test, as well. My Turing test strategy rejects all but the most creative people.

The dismaying question is this: should I try to think of a better Turing test strategy - one that never rejects humans - or is this one right after all because most humans (needlessly) allow themselves to become as flat and square and inflexible and blinkered and machine-like as machines and therefore shouldn't pass?

How convincingly does Margaret Dumont's character demonstrate a lithe reframing ability in this clip?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

AAPL Strategy Keeps on Giving

I just sold the Apple shares I bought at $146, for $327.

One day, historians will recall that $146 opportunity as a unique aberration: a chance to buy a blue chip stock (with $200 billion-with-a-"b" cash reserves) at an insane 100% discount. If this were jellybeans, people would have been shooting each other in the streets for a chance to buy.

I likely won't get that return again, but the cycle will surely repeat. And the next time AAPL sinks due to some crappy worry snowballing into irrational panic, I’ll buy, per my trusty strategy.

I’m not faster, richer, or smarter than the market, but I am more patient, my sole edge. And in this gloriously endlessly repeating case, I know with near certainty that whatever issue may tailspin Apple’s stock will not drop it permanently into penny stock territory. So while one day I may fail to profit from a subsequent recovery (nothing's forever), the disappointing sales report or tariff rumor or bendy iPhone case at least won't tank the company into nothingsville, and that constrains my downside. The upside, meanwhile, continues to pay my bills.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Artificial Intelligence, Turing Tests, Art, and Reframing

Art is any human creation devised to induce a reframing of perspective. (more definitions)

Computers can't freely reframe perspective (though they can be programmed to reframe in canned, finite ways). They're essentially stuck. That's what conveys the sense that computers are basically "dumb" - which we all recognize despite their prodigious calculative prowess. They're not hip. They can't get the joke. They're married to the page. They are, in other words, machine-like, and there's no higher threshold of yet-more-awesome-calculative-prowess that will allow them to transcend that (Kurzweil's "Singularity" be damned). Your bookworm friend who can't get a date won't improve his results by reading another 200 books. 

Maslow's hammer can only do so much, even if it's an outstandingly great hammer. The problem is that framing is a whole other faculty, completely unrelated to calculation. So while computers can certainly simulate artwork (someone has even built a writing bot), and even lousy art may spur a person to reframe, reframing is not something a computer can register, much less devise and anticipate. That's the part a computer is missing. 

(Who, exactly, frames?)

AI will only pass Turing tests via clever pre-programmed chicanery. The secret to effective Turing testing is to ply agile reframing and see whether the AI keeps up. But it won't. This will always be its limitation.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The New Illiteracy

I belong to a an online group for my block. We're not a very up-market neighborhood, but, still, I'd guess >75% are college-educated. Yet it's stunning how bad people are at the basic tasks of forming a coherent posting and knowing exactly what usefulness to expect from an online forum.

For example, someone just posted:
Does any one know of a CPAP supply store that is open on Sunday? My mother is visiting and our puppy chewed part of her mask. We’re looking for replacement or alternative parts.
There are occasions for web searching, and occasions for posting in an online forum. This would be a web search moment. I was joking with a local friend about it:
Uh, yeah, my kid’s heart stopped beating. Does anyone know like a pediatrician or whatever? Really, I guess any kind of doctor, even, heh, a vet, at this point could potentially be helpful. Standing by.
But it's a serious thing, even at a more basic level.
  • Many people don’t know how to choose an online tool for a given task.
  • Many people can't devise effective search terms for web searching
  • Many people can’t type worth a damn.
All three should be taught. Not in schools - kids are already good at this stuff - but for adults who've missed out. It’s the new illiteracy, afflicting many otherwise well-educated people, and no one’s talking about it because those who've developed these skills are only dimly aware that many haven't, and those who haven't lack a sharp sense of exactly what's missing.

Such people blurrily shrug it off by saying they're "not good at computer stuff”. And if it's a big blurry blob of "computer stuff", there's no hope of fixing it. In fact, the blobbiness is the problem. It feels like an enormous mountain of ignorance built from every tech situation that's ever frustrated them. From reinstalling system software to changing desktop background to creating macros and spreadsheets, all that stuff gets globbed along with the far simpler and more necessary basics.

You don't need to be a speed demon with the mouse or know how to set up a peripheral daisychain, but you do need to effectively web search, choose appropriate online tools, and type out a couple sentences in under 15 minutes. And here's the key concept people don't get: These are not computer tasks. They're more like home appliance tasks, like punching in a phone number or adjusting a thermostat. There's no soldering required. It doesn’t take a "hacker".

Media doesn’t help. They still categorize stories about YouTube videos or Twitter trends as “tech”. We need to finally decouple basic tasks accomplished with a computing device from tech/computation. By 1950, telephone users felt no need to understand, say, switches and trunk lines. Web searches, online tools, and typing are more involved than using a telephone, but they are still appliance tasks, not tech tasks...though lots of people don't realize this.

Dear Bernie Supporters

Dear Bernie Supporters,

I think you're being played for demagoguery rubes by yet another guy who's discovered the inertial power of a great big angry mouth and whose proposals are as patently unviable as "bringing back coal".

Bernie would fracture the country pretending to accomplish those ridiculous fake goals - while inciting you to a high Taliban pitch (we've seen that game up close once already). And it dumbfounds me that you've failed to notice that Bernie's grown old and wrinkly while holding extreme power for decades and achieving nothing - not even incremental evolutionary progress, much less the complete transformation of our political and economic system he promises (mirroring the shameless empty moron hubris (#moronhubris) of "Only I can fix it!").

It's obvious to those of us outside his alternative cult of personality that Bernie is all mouth, all incitement, all brutish anger, with no pragmatic substance (sound familiar?).

And yet.....fine. Really. Tis the season for demagoguery, I get that, and I cannot hold your preferences against you. You have the right to support and vote for whomever you want. Bless you, and same for my MAGA friends. Democracy doesn't mean my side always wins. Everyone gets a shot. Hell, I'll even vote for him, though a Democrat will undoubtedly carry New York either way.

However, I have a question.

If the Democrats nominate Bernie and he loses 44 states because the critical segments of Trump-averse Republicans and moderate Democrats both turn out poorly (figuring "A pox on both demagogues!"), will you guys say "It was still worth it"? Will it seem worth four more years of Trump to have gotten your message "out there"? If so, I can respect you as I hastily move north to Canada.

However, when those results come in - and those results will come in - and even one of you says, "Whoa, what the hell happened?!?", I will erupt with the fury of a thousand suns. My peak will blow and my lava will spit.

I will carry neither gun nor knife, to ensure no one's murdered (jail food would not agree with me). I will wear velcro sneakers to remove the strangling temptation of laces, and attach pillows to my fists, elbows, knees, and feet to avoid injurious gratification of my savage fury. But my mouth...my mouth will be unstoppable. My words will dissolve your brain and reduce you to a mumbling, insensate vegetal state. I shudder at the imagining.

I can view MAGAs - even the vicious ones - sympathetically. They know not what they do. But you (gifted with higher perspective from recognition of the intrinsic con of the large MAGAllanic cloud from the other mouthy/angry outer boroughs demagogue - and having been given an opportunity to restore sanity by declining the sugary enticements of Bernie's small MAGAllanic cloud) will be left, post-election, stranded, naked, with neither shield nor excuse; a blotchy pink mole rat choking on its own spleeny foolishness, blinking confusedly at the panicked citizenry of a nation you've failed. It will all be on you.

Again, if Bernie's the candidate - and so Trump inevitably wins 44 states - and you feel, in the aftermath, that it was worth it, that's a different thing. There's a consistent through-line there that I can respect as I pack my bags for Canada. But you'd better be damned well prepared to own that result.

I've been kicking myself all these years for voting Nader in 2000 (an immoderately reactive pendulum swing away from my renounced libertarianism), helping to elect George W Bush and make possible the Iraq debacle, but your action will make that look like the sanest, wisest, savviest, most beneficial political choice any citizen ever made. What Trump's done for the legacy of Warren Harding, you'll have done for me. And I won't even appreciate it.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Delectable Opportunity to Finally Be The Asshole You'd Always Aspired to Be

I have an old musician friend who was always extremely talented. He knew it, we all knew it, but he was a nice, normal guy - though he worked so seldom that I sometimes had to house and feed him. I lost track of him during the Chowhound madness, and he'd gotten a bit famous. I gave him a call and we made plans to grab a beer, but he, awkwardly and apologetically, asked me not to also come to his gig the same night. Other childhood friends, he explained, had shown up at gigs and behaved poorly, embarrassing him. Really, that scenario just never works out well. (I actually knew him in his 20s, when I was a busy and well-regarded player, but he seemed to recall that as his chrysalis period, before the dawn of Real Time.)

I bought a painting once from a student painter, seeing something in his work. He was quite a down-to-earth nice guy. A year later, he won a young artist prize, and immediately transformed into a sneering arrogant lout.

An old friend who's been a respected amateur in a certain field went pro three days ago, to no particular acclaim (it takes time). I complemented his first professional effort, and he aloofly ignored me, like I was a stranger complimenting Beyonce for her singing. Later in the same conversation, he informed me that "I don't make mistakes."

This is not an unknown phenomenon, of course. What's surprising is the instantaneity. I came in late on my musician friend's lofty ascendance, so I didn't track it in real time, but the painter and the amateur-gone-pro transformed in a flash upon the slimmest achievement. I'd always assumed people got high-and-mighty via accretion over time.

I also got the distinct impression that they'd been waiting for it. Not for the success, or the validation, but for the opportunity to be assholes. They'd been assholes-in-waiting the whole time, and seized upon the first excuse to become That Person. In fact, the painter's hardly produced anything new in years. I suppose he got what he wanted.

My dad owned and ran an auto parts store with two partners, one of whom, "Bernie", was older. I remember my father saying that Bernie would soon reach a stage in life where he could sit in the back room at a nice desk, working less and worrying less. Count the money, kibbitz with visiting salesmen, etc. He said this with a cherishing look in his eye, which surprised me, because I never realized he thought so highly of Bernie.

Turned out, he didn't. Rather, he was cherishing his own fantasy. Bernie died, my father got older, and, yup, he lorded over the back room at a nice desk, working less and worrying less, counting money and kibbitzing with visiting salesmen, as he'd envisioned all along. Finally, he'd blossomed into his true self. Meanwhile, his surviving partner - and younger partners they'd brought in - struggled to hold up disproportionate shares of workload. I suspect that was part of his glee.

See "Mike Tyson Goes Into a Bar" for more confused delusions of self-elevation. Oh, and don't miss "Cringeworthy Displays of Status".

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Feeling the Bern

"Bernie Sanders is currently favored to win the nomination, a prospect that would make Donald Trump a heavy favorite to win reelection, and open the possibility of a Corbyn-esque wipeout," reports the savvy Jonathan Chait.

History always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

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