Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tribal Politics: It's All Where You Place Your Attention

A while ago, I offered an unorthodox explanation for the root cause of racism, sexism, classism, and other -isms. My thinking went like this:
"When I was a kid, Polish jokes were all the rage. And it surprised me to discover that each culture has its Polish analog - a group deemed stupid. And its Jewish analog - a group deemed stingy. And its black analog - a group deemed lazy. How bizarre it was to learn that Norwegians tell jokes about "those dumb Swedes"!

The same negative labels persist all over the world, regardless of the group being pinned with a given label. And that's because plenty of people, of any given group, are, indeed, dumb, stingy, and lazy. Those are human qualities, but since our perceptions are set up to focus on the unfamiliar, we notice those qualities more readily in those unlike us. We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, and classism are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy."
The same mechanism underlies all of the many ways human beings behave tribally, and politics is prominent among them. Consider this quote by H. L. Mencken:
"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right."
The extreme polarization we see right now is merely the fruition of Mencken's dynamic. It hinges, really, on the age-old loathing of The Other. When it comes down to it, its not each other's political beliefs we really abhor. It's deeper than that. We smell otherness and recoil from it. And the resultant climate - of dogmatic certainty, disrespect and dehumanization - only feeds the process. Our empathy muscles grow flabby as our outrage muscles hypertrophy. Think Israelis and Palestinians.

This accounts for why we've seemingly lost any ability to tolerate (much less empathize with) other positions. As with racism, sexism, classicism, etc., we smell, at a very deep and primitive level, deep ugliness in "the other side". Alas, the ugliness is truly there! Trying to deny or suppress it is fruitless! In spite of the obvious symmetries, we fail to notice that we're keying into a universal human ugliness that's actually unconstrained to any one group. We just notice it in Other because that's where we focus our attention. And, per Mencken, political forces have a stake in keeping our attention right there.

Sniff hard enough most anywhere and you will smell stench. Or the divine. For we are all both.

Monday, March 28, 2011

NYC Restaurant Hygiene Ratings

Union Square Cafe: B.

Difara Pizzeria: A.

I'm just sayin'...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jazz and Star Trek

Here's my question:

Given that recorded jazz is so cool, so evocative, so effective at signaling lush sophistication that it's played in virtually every upscale restaurant, how can it be that there's roughly zero market for jazz musicians, jazz recordings, or jazz clubs?

You have no idea how disorienting it is to spend your life plying an art form that's so extraordinarily marginalized - even ridiculed - when that same art form is the unanimous commercial choice for setting a tone of hip urbanity.

Imagine if you were super into Star Trek, and suffered the inevitable taunts, yet each time you walked into a smart restaurant or boutique, you found workers sporting pointy Vulcan ears and making "Live Long and Prosper" gestures.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Buy Apple?

I suggested getting ready to sell Apple stock here (at $356.79) and here (at $360.80), and finally said "it's time to sell!" here (at $360.07).

And....the stock quickly dropped to the $330s. I wish I could take smart aleck credit for uncanny foresight, but I didn't foresee the Japanese earthquake, which left Apple hard-pressed to find new suppliers for components they'd previously bought from Japan. That's why it dropped.

But it dropped too far. Apple probably deserves to be back in the $350s (though not much higher, for reasons explained in those previous entries). Here's why:

1. Bad news always drops Apple's stock price more than it deserves, because investors are extra skittish about overbought stocks.

2. I think Japan will recover faster than we expect - though things may get worse before they get better. Who, for example, foresaw the speedy rebuild of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? When it comes to snap-backishness, it's hard to beat Japan (did you know that one month after the nuclear bombing, the area around Hiroshima was hit by a typhoon that killed 3000 and destroyed half the remaining bridges and ruined most roads and rail lines? And they still snapped back much faster than we took care of post-Katrina, a far smaller disaster?)

3. I expect Apple to be resourceful about re-sourcing the Japanese components. More so than their competitors, because Apple's immense cash stockpile - plus their experience with in-house manufacturing - affords them many more options.

4. Apple's competitors are also affected.

So if you want to make 10%, this would be a good time to buy back a little. But not as a long term hold, because that 10% may be all they have left in them (and that's assuming - as the stock price itself assumes - Apple continues its unprecedented success).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Getting Clever at the DMV

A few weeks ago I wrote:
"Whichever profession you're in, you have The Things You Hear a Million Times. The repetition can be boring, but what's soul-crushing is how clever people think they're being, each and every time."
Yet, still, yesterday I found myself - while surrendering some license plates at the DMV - telling the clerk, as I plopped them down on the counter, "I surrender!" With, of course, a big goofy grin.

She didn't look up, she didn't stop shuffling papers, and she sure as hell didn't smile, but I did spot the tiniest grimace. After a moment's reflection, I decided it wasn't the sort of grimace that's building as she begins to tire of hearing this. No, it was a grimace receding, as she, over the course of many, many years, has learned to stoically suck it up.

The situation was, naturally, non-recoverable for me.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Getting Past Google's Fuzzy Search

A while ago, Google started getting so damned user friendly that it wouldn't let you search for stuff it considered misspelled...even if you use quotation marks.

Sometimes Google would show you results for the "correct" spelling while also inviting you to search for what you actually requested (still a hassle), but sometimes not - and those times would make my blood pressure soar (because the computer is supposed to do what you tell it to!).

Quotation marks don't help. They're just for grouping terms together. But here, thank god, is the answer.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tap Dancing on Saturn

Hear the sound of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft passing through Saturn's ring dust here (explanation here).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Another Perspective on Japan

Some of my fondest memories are of occasions when things went horribly wrong. One of the most romantic moments of my life came as the result of my falling asleep in Barcelona airport one morning. I'd been up all night playing jazz in nightclubs and missed boarding. All passengers were seated, the plane was about to depart, and a kind-hearted airport security woman spotted me, roused me awake, and wrangled me through gate security and onto the plane. I was in a state of disoriented adrenaline rush, so it wasn't until the plane door sealed and I'd clicked on my seat belt that I realized she and I had fallen in love.

Such things don't happen when things go right.

I've found my car stuck in snowbanks in deserted scary areas, and been wordlessly pushed out by mysterious faceless people who disappeared before I could thank them. And one day, years ago, in an overwhelming moment of depression, I pulled over to the side of the road, too sorrowful to drive another inch. "I give up," I gasped, and felt the most enormous peace descend. And of course I remember the luminous beauty of 9/11 as New Yorkers, normally paralyzed by urban social inhibitions, came alive and started caring for each other.

Human beings awaken from their numb stupor when things go terribly wrong. And so it goes in Japan right now. Have a look at
this, and see why I envy them.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Smartphones, Stupid Servers, Stupid Layout

Woops, the cartoon I posted a couple days ago had its punchline ("punchpanel"?) missing. For the full treatment, you can view here.

Do Mile Runners Run Full Tilt?

Last night, I awoke, for some reason, in the middle of the night with a burning need to know if champion mile runners simply run flat out the whole way. So I took a look:

The current record for the mile is 3:43, or 16 m.p.h..

The current record for the 100m (328 feet) is 9.58, or 23 m.p.h..

So: good news, mile runners! Even if you hope to set a world record, you can still relax and lay back quite a bit!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

An End to Nuclear Complacency?

It's amazing how swiftly public perception of nuclear power was rehabilitated in recent years. I myself gave up the fight when I noticed that Stewart Brand, a brilliant guy with impeccable environmental credentials, turned pro-nuke a few years ago (here's an update...scroll down for the print interview).

I don't doubt Brand's sincerity, though I see no comment from him this weekend. But isn't what we're seeing in Japan (authorities desperately trying to prevent meltdown by flooding reactors with seawater and evacuating hundreds of thousands) precisely the sort of scenario that made many of us protest nuclear power years ago? I thought this was fixed!

And the politics and economics behind it all are worse than you think. Check out this very interesting information from an engineering manager who's worked on nuclear facility construction (who kindly gave permission to reprint):
The operative words to listen for is when they flood the reactor with sea water. Sea water contains salt which is a death knoll for a reactor. Stainless steel and salt (chlorides) do not go together. Add sea water and that reactor unit is toast. Time to decide to rebuild or moth ball after clean up.

The interesting part about this catastrophe is the American people don't understand our own taxpayer liabilities. The clean up that will have to be performed in Japan for the nuclear power plants would in the case of America have to be borne by the American taxpayer. The American Government is the insurance company for all Nucs in America. No other underwriter would touch it.

And if that is not bad enough, the new reactors that are being designed/planned for the United States have US Governent guaranteed loans. Again the American taxpayer is on the hook for repayment of the loans should a utility with Nucs default. Again, no entity will loan for them without the Government guarantee. Plant costs plus cleanup would be astronomical if a failure should occur. It is all corporate subibsidy and none of it is figured in the electrical rates which makes nuclear power appear cheap versus other forms of generation.

If you are looking at subsidies, then you should also look at the subsidies for research through the Department of Energy and the subsidies in the nuclear fuel cycle. The costs and subsidies do not begin or end with the power generation cycle.

The ever-prudent Mitch McConnell
insists that we move ahead with nuclear power in the US because "I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy." Absolutely right! The time to assess the perils and costs of nuclear power is during quiet periods, when the public's lulled into complacency!

Smartphones, Stupid Servers

From xkcd:

Click the cartoon to see the full version.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vocational Mysticism

Computer Scientists: Consciousness is non-local. Mind is a dumb terminal.

Musicians: Thought always lags behind the beat. Try living squarely on the beat, or even slightly ahead.

Artists/Creative types: Your best inspiration always takes you by surprise. This can be rule rather than exception if you'll allow even mundanity to surprise you.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Must-Have Mac App (for iPhone/iPad) on Sale

PhoneView is a great application that allows you to handle iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch stuff on your Mac...the type of stuff iTunes won't let you do.
PhoneView is the Mac companion for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Access voicemail, SMS/MMS, call history, photos, App Store app data, notes, file storage, iTunes media, voice memos and contacts with one click. PhoneView also automatically archives your messages, call history and voicemails, so you can access them even when your iPhone is not available.

Store any type of data.
Access your music, videos, podcasts and photos.
Play, export and archive voicemail
Access notes, SMS, MMS, contacts and call history stored on the iPhone.
Move files between work and home.
Back up important data to your iPhone.
Keep useful apps and installers with you at all times.
It's on sale, today only, for 40% off here

An Open Letter to Idiot Web Developers

Dear Web Developers,

I understand your motivation in slicing up articles into a zillion pages so you earn ad revenue from all the page views. I also understand why you don't offer a "single page view" option, which would defeat that purpose. I tend not to patronize such sites, but I understand your motivation, which is logical, albeit predatory.

But if most of your articles are one or two pages and you don't offer a "single page view" option - when hitting that "single page" button would constitute a second click serving me more ads while letting me view the whole article (in case, for example, I want to search the text) - then you're being illogical and predatory, which is a really stupid strategy.

Finally, there is a special place in Hell for web developers who provide a "print" button which simply brings up your computer's print dialog without reformatting the page's text. I keep expecting such sites to offer an "Exit The Site" button which shuts down my computer.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dan Rather and HDNet

Check out this interesting and inspiring article about Dan Rather, who's doing his thing at age 79 for a small audience on an obscure cable channel...and apparently having the time of his life. It's yet another example of the sort of thinking described in my "Explaining Salinger" article.

I've been checking out that channel (HDNet), and find it nowhere near as cheesy as the writer describes. I caught one episode of their series of "Baltic Coasts" documentaries and found it spectacularly good. The series focuses on the work of a variety of "nobodies" doing ordinary things with extraordinary grounded happiness in faraway places. Thoroughly transportive, with loving writing and cinematography - just great television, not to be missed.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't...

America's predicament in the Middle East was concisely epitomized on tonight's "All Things Considered" broadcast.

A Libyan rebel fighter
told NPR's Peter Kenyon:
"This is our fight, it's a Libyan problem. We don't want foreign troops here! But the day will come when we will ask why no one intervened. When this is over, we will remember who was on our side and who was not!"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Proving My Point re: Apple (Plus Other Investment Stuff)

In the previous entry, I recommended getting ready to sell Apple stock. Well...check out what just happened this week:

On March 2, Steve Jobs, who'd recently been reported to be near death,
showed up on stage, spry and energetic, to introduce a sock-o new iPad. He revealed some unbelievable sales figures, and the update itself was so killer that Samsung delayed their Galaxy Tab launch so they can try to make it competitive in features and price.

Could you possibly ask for better? But Apple's stock, $350 just prior to the event, piddled up to just $354 later that day (it's since risen to $360, along with the overall market upturn). The lamented Jobs resurrected, sales targets exceeded, a boffo lead product, and competitors flummoxed: all this raised the stock a dab over 1%.

This is what happens when a stock's overbought. Expectations are so high they cannot possibly be exceeded. With hyperbolic success already priced in, there's nowhere to go but down. It's time to sell!

SIGA just went over $15, an all-time high. If you own some, hold on. It's just getting started! If you don't own any, know that it will likely double again before the fat lady sings and Ron Perelman sells it out to big pharma (in a couple years).

Why all this fascination with investment? When I left Chowhound I was shocked to discover that no one remembered me as a writer. My only reputation was as a "web personality", which is not something I'm interested in trading on. So, to make a living, I turned to investment, and have more than doubled my savings since 2006 thanks to SIGA and some other investments. And I figured I'd share my strategies with you, faithful reader. If you find it boring, consider buying yourself a couple dozen shares of SIGA, so you can root along with me!

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