Monday, September 18, 2023

Narcissistic Friendship

It happens periodically, and never fails to shock: A total stranger pipes up to tell me they like my writing. And therefore we need to meet and be friends.

They offer nothing. No paint chip sample card of who they are or what they're like. No indication of what they do well, which might be of interest to me. No banter, no rapport. No conceivable reason for me to engage, much less submit to instant-on friendship.

Their unilateral appreciation strikes them as quite sufficient. They've decided, and the notion of me as an independent soul existing outside their head would never occur to them. By having invested their attention in me, a relationship has already been kindled. They've done their part; now it's time for me to do mine!

I had my first taste of this mindset (framing!) back when an early ex-girlfriend, shortly after I'd told her we needed to give it a rest, replied "You can't break up with me! I love you!" That was her entire pitch, and for her it seemed suficient (this was also the declaration that started me pondering what love actually least for most of us).

It becomes clearer and clearer that one human calling another "narcissistic" is like birds calling each other "flighty". The narcissism on this planet is hilariously thick, and we only miss it because we're all too narcissistic to notice how narcissistic everyone is! To notice the narcissism, you'd need to have a vague notion of other people as other people!

A lot of readers seem to like my posting about what it's like to have fans.

Even scarier, consider what happens when Mike Tyson goes into a bar.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

ChatGPT is Getting Really Good

What I don't get is why it didn't suggest twelve septillion waters. Just that one single "water" is not, well, logical.

On second thought, it might interfere with that essential "balance".

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Idiocy of Voyager

As a teenager, I was furious with Carl Sagan and his possee for equipping the Voyager space probe with detailed instructions on how to find us.

What could go wrong, right?

"Carl Sagan may be high-minded enough to assume that extraterrestial life would be benevolent," I'd have explained to you at the time (1977), "...and that lifeforms would stop by to happily wave at us, sharing technology and milkshake flavors. How delightful of you, Carl! And perhaps you're even right!"

"But, here's an idea; maybe don't hinge our race's entire future on your irresistible optimism. Maybe you, a decent astrophysicist and infinitely thirsty publicity hound, shouldn't even be the one to make the decision. Maybe this call was way above your pay grade, and you ought to have taken a step back and...asked around a little. Seen what your neighbors think. The teeming billions of us."

"I can tell you what *I* think, Carl. I think this was a shmuck move, marking you as the worst possible example of stupid-smart."

I understood it was vanishingly unlikely that any intelligence would come anywhere near this tiny probe amid the enormity of space. But that was no excuse for Carl being permitted to smugly make this unilateral decision on behalf of the rest of humanity.

To my enormous satisfaction, Omni magazine published a short story in 1980 positing widely divergent scenarios for how Voyager could lead to planetary ruin. I've spent years hunting for it. And today I tracked it down to the author's web site, virtually unsearchable as an image scan from Omni. And it's glorious.

Yes, I remember the Star Trek movie. I saw it when it came out. But it wasn't half as good as Ian Stewart's short story.

Postscript: Ooh, it's not an author page. It's some guy who's posted scans of some of the best stuff from Omni (which, some of you may remember, was great!). Here's the index page .

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Another Nice House with Good Vibe

A while ago, I bemoaned the lack of appreciation, cognizance or even just availability of housing that's "nice" without being regal. I offered an example of a "good vibes nice place": surrealistically, the former Manhattan apartment of saxophonist David Sanborn.

Here's another. This time it's a bona fide mansion, yet completely unpretentious, situated a bit west of Lisbon. Just need to ditch those damned candelabras. I can't find a way to extract the video tour, so you'll need to click here and scroll down to it.

It's not that a good-vibes nice-place place is any easier to find in Portugal, though one might imagine so in a land of seemingly sturdy, grounded folks. No, "nice" homes in Portugal have 1200 pound doors which close like bank vaults, and shiny, hard surfaces ensuring that an egg dropped anywhere would create a 12 yard splatter circumference.

Iberia is actually the hardest region in the world to find a nice, soulful place where (quoting my posting linked above) "everything works and there's a good vibe [but without] magnificence. No 'presentation'. Nothing 'impressive'. Nothing to announce to visitors that I am 'A MAN OF FRIGGIN' SUBSTANCE.'"

The house in this video is a unicorn.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Susan Feldman

In first grade, the glamorous Susan Feldman told me "I can't believe I liked you in kindergarten!"

First, I had no idea she'd liked me in kindergarten. The revelation gave this otherwise traumatizing public announcement (issued loudly at the communal lunch table) an oddly positive overall cast.

Second, I hadn't actually done anything to affect her esteem. She just perceived a consensus that my social cachet was not what she'd previously imagined.

Third, the proper response, "I can't believe I gave a scintilla of my attention to a person vicious enough to make such a public announcement re: someone who'd never wronged her", was unavailable to me. I lacked the psychological sophistication to game out the playing field. My intuition was better attuned, offering up a visceral impression of having been wronged. But I mentally attributed that gut reaction to the superficial tickertape of bad news; that Susan didn't like me. Ever since, I've aimed for more penetrating astuteness. Alas, to infinity.


A young body is a shiny new car. You mourn every new scratch. 

An old body is a used junker. As long as it still gets you there, you thank your lucky stars.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

More Seneca

Following up on yesterday's posting, see, below, more great quotes from Seneca, courtesy of (Note: his essential "Letter's From a Stoic" can be downloaded as a PDF for free from Internet Archive. It's pretty high up my list of recommended books.)

You'll notice that the quotes are pretty much my own shtick, only more elegantly and tersely stated. I haven't read any of this since college, and had forgotten much of it. As I browse through, I find myself getting excited about how deeply it corroborates my own understanding - having goofily forgotten that it helped form my understanding.

I guess it's the same thing as when, a few years ago, I viewed a short clip of my old trombone teacher playing with the Boston Symphony, and felt gratified at how he was applying exactly my own approach...when it was, of course, exactly the other way around. (Rewatching three years later, I think I'd have played it a bit less sweetly and considerably more seductively. Ideally, Bolero should get under the listener's skin; a reaction I was working on inducing in my prime (here's an example from 1992.) Anyhoo, take it away, Seneca:

- We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

- While we wait for life, life passes.

- Cease to hope and you will cease to fear.

- Wealth is the slave of a wise man and the master of a fool.

- While we are postponing, life speeds by.

- Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms, you will be able to use them better when you are older.

- He who is brave is free.

- It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.

- Difficulty comes from our lack of confidence.

- Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.

- For many men, the acquisition of wealth does not end their troubles, it only changes them.

Seneca Comes Very Very Close

"Everything hangs on one's thinking... A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is."
~~ Seneca
Not thinking.


Here's the difference.

Friday, September 8, 2023

China's Xi Jinping Shleps the Piano Past its Destination...and Other Insights on Infinity

I’ve written a couple times about a valuable insight I got from yoga teacher Priscilla: "Don't aim for infinity!".
Students working to achieve a difficult stretch often aim for infinity. That's a big mistake. If you don't aim toward a specific arrival point, you will, over time, wind up overdoing, pushing your body to do things it's not made to do, as you stretch further and further toward infinity like an out-of-control robot.
This truth is expressed in various ways by various cultures. For example, it's a large part of what Buddhists mean by "The Middle Path". But something about Priscilla's construction speaks to me. Don't aim for infinity!

I've taken on many daunting missions/quests in both my private and professional lives. For example, my first big-time writing assignment was a survey for NY Newsday of all the best food beneath the 7 train in Queens. Imagine cataloging the best sand grains on Malibu Beach! But I did it. And Chowhound launched with no startup money and no tech guy (my partner Bob was not a real tech guy, as he'd be first to admit). But that got done, too. Nearly everything I've taken on has been pretty impossible, though I'm certainly not bragging (visualize me, instead, wincing, flinching, ticcing, and desperately trying to control my wildly spasmodic limbs while my eyelids tap out "SOS" in Morse code to no one in particular).

I can assure you that those who take on impossible tasks seldom key in on precise arrival points. They just give it all they've got. All they've got! Tasked with carrying a piano across Manhattan on your back, you wouldn't focus on the exact location in Mrs. Perlmutter's living room where it's to finally be set down. You'd be occupied with hoisting and groaning and plodding and enduring, and quite likely be spotted in the Hudson River, thrashing wildly among the whitecaps with the damned piano still strapped to your back. Hell, you might wind up in New Jersey. Or California. Or Guam. Me, I've shlepped many a piano to Guam!

"But how," you ask, "does this pertain to Chinese macroeconomics?"

China is at a dire crossroads, according to a great, easily-digestible Atlantic article, "The China Model Is Dead" and an equally great/digestible piece from The Economist (with a less grabby title), "China’s Slowing Economy, Seen From Ground Level".

Here's terrific overview from the former:
When China’s free-market reforms were just getting under way in 1980, the country was poorer, per capita, than Ghana or Pakistan. Today, China has an $18 trillion economy capable of devising 5G telecom networks and electric vehicles.

The motor of the China model is investment, and lots of it—into factories, highways, airports, shopping malls, apartment towers, you name it. China was destitute at the outset of its reforms, and much of the new infrastructure was necessary. Better transport systems helped to boost economic efficiency; new housing sheltered families migrating from farms to cities in search of opportunity. The investments turned China into the world’s factory floor and produced eye-popping rates of growth.

Over time, China developed a more advanced economy, but the state and companies nevertheless kept on building. The growth rate stayed high, but now the economy was generating wasteful excess that undermined its health. Logan Wright, a partner at the research firm Rhodium Group, estimates that China has 23 million to 26 million unsold apartments. That’s enough to house the entire population of Italy. Many of these apartments will never be purchased, Wright conjectures, because they were constructed in towns with declining populations. China’s automobile industry, figures Bill Russo, the founder of the consulting firm Automobility in Shanghai, has enough unused factory capacity to make more than 10 million cars (sufficient to supply the entire Japanese car market—twice). Beijing boasts about its extensive network of high-speed railways, already the world’s largest—but the state-owned company that operates it has racked up more than $800 billion in debt and posts substantial losses. The Cato Institute once described China’s rail-building bonanza as a “high-speed debt trap.”

The Chinese “continue to invest beyond what they can actually absorb,” Alicia Garcia-Herrero, a senior fellow and specialist in Asian economies at the think tank Bruegel, told me. “This is why their model went wrong.”
Let's re-trace the contour: Chinese leaders, back in the sub-Ghanian, sub-Pakistani 1980s, realized they were lagging miserably. So they pumped the gas extremely hard, strapping on the piano (so to speak) to hoist a billion people out of poverty. Years later, still sweaty and fervid and very much dug into a mindset (framing!) of "Lift!!!/Build!!!/Invest!!!", they'd overshot by a couple light years. And even now, they're still paddling to Guam.

“Aiming for infinity” (I sort of prefer "paddling to Guam", now, but let's stick with the bit) isn't a brainy matter of miscalculation. Rather, it's the product of pure zeal. You need some zeal, but not unbridled zeal! Don’t aim for infinity! Know where you're going with the damned piano! Don't dunk in the river, much less swim to Guam! Keep your eye fixed on Mrs. Pelmutter's living room!

Note: China's predicament reveals one of many reasons capitalism (where market demand determines investment, rather than a central authority), for all its many ills and excesses, works best.

Also: I was making a larger point, above, but, as both articles make clear, China failed to scale back its Guam-bound fervor not just due to the inertia of frozen perspective, but also for political reasons. Xi probably understood the economics, but autocrats can’t loosen control without loosening control. So that's the other side of the problem.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

The Ups and Downs of Authenticity

Replaying a posting from 2021....

I have a number of friends who send only "formal" emails.
"Hello there, Jim! I trust the pandemic has..."
...blah blah blah. It's like they put on their TV announcer voice and do the thing. They're not actually communicating, it's communicative gesturing. They watch themselves, in the mirrors of their minds, corresponding. Authenticity is hard for many people. They're starring in movies in their head.

I generally shake off such niceties, though I try to be good-natured about it. When my exasperation is noticed, people always attribute it to some issue with the particular form. "The Pandemic" must be a touchy subject for me. I must prefer another formal template! But, no. The template itself is the problem. Drop the stiltedness and just be real. Talk to me! Don't announce at me! Let's not play out a canned scene, sharing wry observations and maintaining "connection" so we can feel duly correspondy. I don't like to play contrived scenes. Can't we bake fresh?

Alas, such people prefer to receive emails that way, too (every friend has a handbook on style and engagement to be reverse-engineered and diligently followed). If I shoot a quickie note - "Hey, check out this video", or "Don't forget to get vaccinated!" - to a formal communicator, I can sense their frantic effort to recombobulate - to return the communication back onto proper track. "Jim, what a delight to hear from you once again, and thanks ever so much for the video link. Rebecca sends her very best, and I trust the pandemic has..."

But, late-ish in life, I've learned something very important and little-noticed. When such people "get real", you'll very often wish they'd left on the wrapping paper. It's not clean in there. They were doing you a favor. They were right. It's better this way.

Certain segments of our society - and I was one of them for a good long while - foolishly assume that authenticity's always the good stuff. Scrape down to the core, and you'll find nothing but beauty and light.

Nyuh-uh. In many - perhaps most - cases, the core is either an aggrieved needy mess, a savage tasmanian devil, or a sniveling homunculus. Tightly-wrapped people should be revered for performing a public service. It is not in your - or their - best interest for them to come as they are; to speak from the heart; to let it all hang out. Informality, it took me forever to learn, is not always the best course. It's not gems they're hiding (this is also why intuition is overrated).

I've come to appreciate uptightness. In many cases, it's just people keeping their gelatin from squirting and talons from slashing. They are showing that they care.

For one thing, I've come to view Northern Europeans in a very different light. My propensity was always more African/Latin-American. I'm one for exuberant syncopation and unbridled soulfulness. "What it is, baby!", etc etc. But (especially after managing a million people on the Internet) I've learned that bridling has its virtues.

To learn this lesson in a manner that can never be unlearned, check out the notorious/villainized Lars Von Trier film "Antichrist", in which the director kicks you in the head repeatedly to unencumber you of the foolish notion that "opening up and acting from one's deepest and most authentic feelings" is always the best course for everyone. In the film, a wife has been in therapy, where she's taken the credo to heart, and, on a rustic vacation weekend with her very patient, very understanding, very nurturing husband, turns into a fiend, eventually (graphically) severing his penis. And from that point it gets really violent and crazy. It's the longest 108 minutes you ever lived, but you will assuredly get the message.

They say great art changes a person. Most people who view this film change their willingness to ever see another Lars Von Trier movie. My shift was more per the director's intent: even though this represents a worst-case scenario (i.e. hellish savagery isn't always the outcome), I'm way less eager to see everyone acting from their unbridled, uninhibitted, fully authentic core. Thanks, Lars, I get it now.

As a devoted yogi, I know for a fact that our core of cores is, indeed, pure love and light. But what therapy junkies and new-age types naively fail to recognize is that, in most cases, a vast layer of scorching molten mantle lies between crust and core. That, in fact, is the reason people are driven to button themselves up in the first place. So don't unbutton the buttons unless you're prepared to dismantle the mantle.

See also this post, written a couple years later and extending (and explaining) that core/mantle metaphor.

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