Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sappy Spiritual Holiday Homily

I was going to keep this to myself, but, it being the holiday season, I thought I might get away with slipping in some embarrassingly sappy mysticism.

I was attending, god help me, an eight hour long Buddhist lecture (Dzogchen, for whatever it's worth ) and the teacher was going on about Love, as spiritual teachers often do. A student raised his hand, and overshared about how he loves his cat...and his girlfriend...and whatever...so much that sometimes he simply can't stand it. Sometimes, he feels just..... gaaaaaaahhh!!

He made a roaring noise in his throat, like he just couldn't quite let it out. Or in. Or whatever. And setting aside the fact that I despise cats, I'd suppose that's a feeling we can all relate to a little bit. "I love such-and-such so much, I feel like I'm going to explode or something" (for me, that might be the duck penang curry at Woodside's Ayada Restaurant).

The teacher, an eloquent fellow, tried to weave together an explanation. But it was late in the day, and he had trouble organizing his thoughts, and he petered out with some dry Buddhist jargon. I got up my nerve (I'm horribly shy with strangers) and piped up the following suggestion, which started out sounding like me, but veered off in a direction I had neither intended nor expected:
Love is infinite.

The cat? It's limited and finite.

You? You're limited and finite.

And "Gaaaaaaahhh!!" is the sound of something infinite trying to squeeze through limitation!

So...don't be so specific. Forget the cat. Forget you. Drop the whole scenario of you loving the cat and just let it be love loving love.
No idea where that came from. And I wouldn't blame you for dismissing that as cliched hippy spirituality. But, in any case...happy holidays. Thanks for slogging along with me this year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Good Source for Cheap Cables and Adapters

It's really hard to find stuff like USB or firewire cables and adapters for any kind of decent price. Best Buy, Radio Shack and Amazon will gouge you, and web sites offer great prices but heart-stopping shipping fees.

Monoprice offers great prices, thorough inventory, and cheap first class shipping.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Huge Chocolate Sale From Great Maker

Hotel Chocolate is spectacularly good. As I wrote here, they make a few of my favorite specific varieties, and while none of those esoteric products (the chuao being the best) are represented in the Christmas samplers currently discounted 50%, everything these guys make is worth having and eating.

The prices are astounding (and apparently last until they're out of stock). Man, they must have really overestimated with their holiday inventory....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

To Roth or Not to Roth?

Roth IRAs are so, like, totally hot right now.

Year's almost up. Time to move if you want one. My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, is enthusiastic about them and wrote about them on his (terrific) blog
here and here and here.

A trusted Wharton-educated CPA friend is more leery. Take it away, leery trusted CPA friend:

1. The key question is "do you expect your marginal income tax rate when you are retired and making withdrawals from your IRA to be higher or lower than your current marginal income tax rate?"

If you expect your retired marginal income tax rate to be higher than your current rate, open a Roth IRA

If you expect your retired marginal income tax rate to be lower than your current rate, add to your traditional IRA.

I find it odd that so many people rushed out to open Roths. But if you are not working when you are retired, your marginal income tax rate would normally be lower than your current rate. Thus, a Roth IRA wouldn't make sense.

Also, eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out as your income increases. For Single filers: Up to $106,000
Modified Adjusted Gross Income (to qualify for a full contribution); $106,000-$121,000 Modified Adjusted Gross Income (to be eligible for a partial contribution)

2. If you have self employment income, a much better retirement vehicle is a self-employed 401k. That's because the amount you can contribute (thereby reducing your taxable income) is much, much higher. You need a bit of time to set this type of vehicle up and must do it by year end.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Statistical Observation re: YouTube

Many YouTube videos play out over multiple parts. And in such cases, each of the later installments always has fewer views than the one preceding. You can count on it.

It'd be an interesting data analysis experiment to see if the trail-off always follows the same curve. Also, that same curve might apply to a number of other human activities.

I'd wager that there is no multi-part video that could hold all viewers through all parts. Even if Jesus and Muhammad returned to Earth to issue a joint proclamation video, Part 4 would have fewer viewers than Part 3, which would have fewer viewers than Part 2, which would have fewer viewers than Part 1.

This fascinates me, though I'm not sure why...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Generosity in Business

One key to raging success in business is a predisposition toward generosity. Generous people naturally anticipate the needs and desires of others, and their customers can feel that, even if only at a subconscious level. Ungenerous people may try to simulate the same result by coldly thinking through their customers' prospective needs and desires, but the result's never as good (Microsoft's interfaces are a pain to use because no generosity has been applied).

It's not black-and-white, though. There is a spectrum of generosity which extends quite far. Those extreme cases, instinctively driven to absolutely delight their fellow man, almost can't lose.

Much has been written about the basis for Apple's success, but the key is the extraordinary generosity (in design, interface, and attention to detail). When you fake it, it's not the same.

As I wrote
Chowhound had a vibe, and that vibe was the nucleus of attraction for (at the time) nearly a million unique visitors per month. With no publicity budget, our success was entirely due to that powerful and singular vibe, which extended in subliminal ways into all aspects of the operation. The vibe was seamless because it was real. Everyone running the site was sincere and cared deeply, and perfectly mirrored the sensibilities of our audience. You just can't beat Love as a unifying principle. If, say, Coca Cola or Union Carbide had such synchronization of the heart, there'd be no limit to what they could achieve. Instead, the corporate world has created a vast array of mechanisms to simulate that - and to hypnotize various parties into sniffing it when it's not really there. Comparatively shoddy workarounds, all.

Once a Rising Star, Chef Now Feeds Hungry

Forget the great work he's doing; you ought to send his organization some money just for the feel-good buzz you enjoyed from watching him in this amazing video:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.

Maybe it's just me, but this list of imaginary medicines from Stephen Colbert made me laugh harder than anything I've seen in a couple years. Beautifully written comedy (comedy, at its best, is the equal of poetry in its careful, knowing subtleties of word selection and rhythm).

I'll quote liberally, but there's a lot more at that link (and it's all good):
Vaxadrin – The only weight loss pill recommended by Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.

side effects:
Dry Mouth
Severe Weight Loss
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Arm Syndrome
Restless Torso syndrome
Massive weight gain

Children’s Vaxadrin – It’s guaranteed to grow strong, healty teeth. Often in your mouth!

side effects:
Mild Hulkism
Diet Cherry Vanilla Vaxadrin

Vaxadrine – From the makers of Vaxadrin

side effects:
Phantom Hand Syndrome
Vivid dreams of self-cannibalism
Bad humors
Late onset albinoism

Vaxadrine with Calcium

side effects:
It has a certain sedative effect
Spontaneous pregnancy
Increased risk of vampire attack

Vaxa-Smacks – It’s the first cereal guaranteed to shrink your prostate. Or, if you’re a lady, grow ya one.

side effects:
Dry mouth
Hairy Uvula
Speaking in toungues

Vaxa-Smacks is not for people who have, may have, or have decided not to have children

Vaxa-Dream – Kissing someone who brushes with Vaxa-Dream is like making out with the cleaning crew at a steak house

side effects:
Spontaneous and uncontrollable gum growth

Vaxadril – Curbs your appetite by causing short-term blindness

side effects:
Increased appetite
Permanent blindness

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Self-Destructive Self-Righteousness

I was in a very minor traffic accident last week. Backing into a parking spot on a narrow street in Manhattan, I was surprised to see that I'd sideswiped a car which had zoomed up and tried to go around me.

The driver jumped out of his car in a blinding rage. With a thick Israeli accent, he screamed "I knew it! I knew it!". He'd seen me backing up, concuded that I wasn't paying attention, and, sure enough, I (clueless asshole that I am) swiped his car. I asked the fellow why, if he'd foreseen this, he'd decided to zoom in and squeeze past. He bellowed back "Because it was
my right of way!!!"

I looked him calmly in the eye and suggested that this was precisely the same psychology that's led to Israel's West Bank settlements.

Naturally, he wasn't amused. But I was. Feeling delightfully detached, I sat placidly on the trunk of my car as he made a big show of checking every single system of his car for damage (there obviously was none; my car was the one scraped up). Finally, he drove away, still angry, his afternoon both thoroughly ruined and completely validated.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Aggressive Drivers in Cheap Cars

Followup to this enty:

Each time I get cut off by someone driving a cheap car, I wag my head ruefully. If you're so aggressively and heartlessly out for yourself, why aren't you stupendously successful? Why live the worst of all worlds?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 19

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

In case you missed them, installments #17 and #18 were posted just a few days ago.

At exactly noon on December 15, 2005, the appointed moment for the CNET/Chowhound deal to consummate - for everyone's electronic signatures to be electronically merged in some terribly official electronic document somewhere, and for payment to be electronically transferred to me and Bob's bank accounts - I got a call from Clay. He sounded oddly downcast.

"Jim, I'm soooo sorry to have to make this call. Let me say that I really respect what you've done with Chowhound. It's a fabulous site, and you have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of your work. But it's been decided that this is just not something we can move forward with. I know how disappointed you must be. I am, again, so very sorry."

Standing there frozen, my mouth agape, I could feel the hot vomit snaking its way up my esophagus. I struggled to regain composure for a reply. But before I could speak, Clay hollered into the phone: "Just kidding!!! Congratulations, my friend, it's a done deal! Oh, and I have big news for you! You and I will keep working as a team; I'm taking a new position at the company, and I'll be your superior! Isn't that great?"

And there, faithful reader, my tale ends. Thanks for coming, please take all personal belongings with you. Yes, there's much left untold. But the truth is, the year you're imagining I had is, indeed, precisely the year I actually had, so there's no reason to recount the obvious. For starters, would you imagine I actually was allowed that firmly-promised and direly-needed two weeks off before starting work?

I know you know the answer. So just take it from here, and you'll find that it all vividly plays out in your mind, like a giant roll of toilet paper ebulliently unfurling.

However, there remain some scraps to attend to, plus a few brief subsequent highlights to share.

Stay tuned.
Read the next installment (#20)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 18

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

When we started this story, I was at a scary point of bedraggled exhaustion; not just on the verge of shutting down my baby, Chowhound, but relishing its closure like a starving man imagines a steak dinner. I was broke, bedraggled, and avoiding traffic. I was, to extend the carnivorous metaphor, dead meat. But that apparent rock bottom, was, by this point, months past. And the site was still there, and I was still drowning in it, plus I'd also trudged through the disorienting and, at times, perilous events recounted in this tale.

It's hard to describe my psychological state, but the upshot was that I was living the nightmare where you try to run but your legs feel all rubbery. More than anything, I just wanted to lie down. I so wanted to just lie down and go to sleep. Lie down right now, right here, right in front of everyone, I don't care. Curl up on cold tiled floor and collapse into undreaming oblivion.

But first we had to close the deal, which meant appeasing a business development guy conjured up by Hieronymus Bosch. And I had to steel myself to work for CNET for a full year. The terms were essentially indentured servitude: if I quit, or did anything to get myself fired, I'd be sued. In consideration of Chowhound's loyal users, I'd give my all to protect against anything especially dumb being done to it. It was my role to make sure the site was modernized without sacrificing its all-essential vibe. This would mean, even in the best of scenarios, plenty of wearying friction. Even better: friction with corporate squares. Hey, my favorite!

But at least they were best-of-type corporate squares. The managers I'd met were reflective, respectful, and smart. I could do this, I told myself. The plan was to take a couple weeks off after the deal was signed, recoup a little, and then blast through the year, giving it my all, and finally drag myself to some dark corner of the world to dissolve into a puddle. It seemed doable. Heck, if I liked the new environment, I might even stay on for a couple years. CNET was, after all, offering dental! Can you imagine? Dental!

Meanwhile, with due diligence done and only fine points remaining to work out, and with CNET confident I wasn't going to bolt, I was being treated less like a coddled prospect and more like a corporate soldier. It was at this point that my business development contact (who I'm calling Clay) began revealing his Orwellian attitude toward Truth. He had two modes: 1. earnestly assuring me of this or that, or 2. testily denying he'd ever given any such assurance. I watched in utter fascination as he'd weasel and repudiate...or, as a diversionary tactic, simply rage about some random issue unrelated to the matter at hand. Then he'd quickly recompose his syrupy charm and move on to the next assurance slated for instant evaporation. I noticed, with growing alarm, that he'd never communicate anything solid in email form. It was all phone calls. For a high-tech company's exec, he sure did love him some phone calls.

But the striking thing was the neediness in his voice as he tried to make me really really really believe him
this time. He needed me to appreciate his overarching empathy, because, naturally, we are, at the end of the day, all on the same team here, though we may have, heh, our little arguments and things might get, y'know, a bit heated from time to time. Hey, know what, Jim? I've got an idea! Let's go get a beer! Wouldn't that be great? Let's you and me go out an' grab a beer! Oops, no, wait, you get a beer, Jim, I'm just so sorry, but I just remembered I need to get home. I'll reimburse your beer, though; just bring me the receipt! Really! Seriously!! Just bring me the receipt! What's this you're handing me? Um, Jim, it is not company policy to reimburse your boozing. Please let's be extremely clear on that, bokay? So...what are your plans for the weekend, buddy?

Ad infinitum. But...whatever. Again and again, I kept reminding myself that, come January, I'd never see the dude again.

Read the next installment (#19)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Charging Headphones?

Why hasn't anyone created portable earphones/earbuds containing a (recharable) battery which charges your device as you listen to it?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Doctor Who and the Reflection Trap

"Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal just because you want to take a shit!" -- Banksy
I've become a fan of Doctor Who - the British series about a time traveler careening around the universe in a phone booth. I'm speaking not of the first 26 years of unbelievably cheesey, low-budget Doctor Who, but of the reinvigorated Doctor Who that launched in 2005 with much higher production values.

The series' central conceit is that the Doctor, a 900-year-old Time Lord from another planet, brings a series of human companions along with him as he traipses around the universe. The dramatic function of the companions, of course, is to provide an excuse for the Doctor to explain what's going on to the audience. If there were no companion to serve as our proxy, this would just be some dude silently doing inexplicable things in inexplicable places.

But after viewing a slew of Who, barely tolerating the dramatic kludge of the companion, it hit me: if the Doctor had undergone his adventures without folks along for the ride to observe how cool it all is, it wouldn't seem cool at all.

I've seen people be bored stiff doing the most remarkable things. The glum operator of the Aeri de Montserrat cable car outside Barcelona, who spends his days traversing a spectacular misty mountain face in a cabana dangling from a cord, might as well be peeling potatoes.
The Doctor must see himself through others in order to avoid an existential void. Adventuring around the galaxy for nine centuries would soon come to feel like the most pointless tedium without an external reference point to serve as mirror. All glamour is strictly secondhand. To feel glamourous to oneself requires vicarious self-reflection - a tangly maneuver, indeed.

We've all been in situations where we failed to notice we've said or done something interesting, smart, or funny - until someone around us took note. We've all passed through stages of our lives where we were too busy living it to notice what it was like, remaining oblivious until we could see it via the viewpoint of an outside observer (or, much later, via the hindsight of one's own memory). On those rare occasions when I write or play something affecting, I can only really appreciate it, myself, when it's expressed by others. There have been a number of times when someone's told me how a piece of writing or music I've created has affected them, and I've gone back and revisited the work, and, only in that light, was able to really understand what I'd done.

The problem is that creative people need to shun self-consciousness. It's the death of spontaneity, so attention must be riveted on the doing, rather than on the doer. The periods of our lives when we're too busy living to notice what it's "like" tend to be our most content and productive periods, in large part because we've not distracted ourselves via self-reflection. Divided focus is weakened focus, and so the richest results come from persevering in an unselfconscious oblivion. Results are best when you don't stop to experience them. Show me someone who talks a good game about what she's trying to "accomplish", and I'll show you someone who's more talker than doer.

To make magic (creativity is what magic is) requires heedlessness - utter immersion in moment-to-moment process. Food results from a great chef's work, but he rarely sits at the table. The makers of the greatest port wines never taste their best work, which require decades to mature. Few musicians dance. To take one's own measure is to quench the creative flame - to taint inspiration and reduce spontaneity. The centipede gets along perfectly well until made aware of his hundred ungainly legs.

What's worse, the reflection is never quite apt. Many are the creative people who've been deranged in trying to be "understood". One never can be, precisely. So it's best to pay reflection no heed at all.

A magician fades into oblivion as his work gains power. He can only take his own measure via the reactions of others, but he shuns that fatal yoke at all cost, working on faith alone, with single-minded commitment to process.

But if the Doctor doesn't remind himself how cool and adventurous he is, seeking neither affirmation from others nor self-conscious glimpses into the mirror, how does he forge on for nine hundred years? Or, for that matter, even for seventy? We live, alas, in a society where such a prospect is unimaginable; where the only reason to do anything is so that one can claim doership.

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