Monday, June 30, 2014

What Human Beings Do

Birds sing, kangaroos box, pigs wallow, and human beings generate complexity by aggregating simpler steps.

Note: Beavers do the same.

All postings labeled "definitions"

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Midwestern Traffic Pattern Mystery: Solution

In yesterday's posting, I invited explanations for a Midwestern Traffic Pattern Mystery:
Driving around quiet areas of the Midwest, in places lots of parking spots and very few traffic jams, I constantly found myself trying to make left turns, but needing to wait for ludicrous lengths of time. The traffic would just keep coming and coming...even though there was, again, really not much of it, all told.

It took me several days to figure out the reason; why it's so much more of an ordeal to make left turns in easy-going suburban Cleveland or Pittsburgh than in the bustling thoroughfares of Queens or Brooklyn.
Here's my theory: when the light turns green in a fast-paced urban area like New York City, everyone floors their accelerator. They move forward in a tight, ultra-competitive pack, each driver thirsting to advance to the front. So if you're waiting further up the road for them to pass by, they're all gone in a flash, leaving an empty, silent road to comfortably turn onto.

In the Midwest, things are more relaxed, so the pack fans out into an endless procession of well-spaced vehicles - none quite far enough apart to offer a chance to break in.

In the city (or speedy NYC suburbs), forty cars pass in 40 seconds. In Midwestern suburbia, twenty five cars take a couple minutes...while I sit there, grinding my teeth.

Edit: reader John Clark guessed right (see comments beneath previous posting)!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Midwestern Traffic Pattern Mystery

I just returned home from a road trip, feeling pretty smug about having figured out a deep mystery.

Driving around quiet areas of the Midwest, in places with lots of easy parking spots and few traffic jams, I constantly found myself trying to make left turns, but needing to wait for ludicrous lengths of time. The traffic would just keep coming and coming...even though there was, again, really not much of it, all told.

It took me several days to figure out the reason; why it's so much more of an ordeal to make left turns in easy-going suburban Cleveland or Pittsburgh than in the bustling thoroughfares of Queens or Brooklyn. Any guesses? I'll post mine tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nobody Gets Headaches Anymore

I just suddenly realized it's been 25 years since I heard someone say they had a headache. Before 1985 or so, people had headaches all the time.

Two theories:

1. It was one of those contagious hysterias like "the vapors", "nervous exhaustion" or "swooning" which are incredibly popular for a while, then fade.

2. The end of headaches coincided with the beginning of the era of bottled water. We've become a much, much more hydration-conscious society. Could it be that our cranky forebears were all simply dehydrated?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

More Clash

Thoughtful dialog is currently playing out beneath my previous posting, Clashing Over My Beer/Gay Clash!. Take a look!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Clashing Over My Beer/Gay Clash!

Seth Godin commented on my previous posting, "A Clash of Beer Week and Gay Pride":
Oh, Jim. Last time I checked, no one had recently been beaten or killed because they liked to talk about corned beef hash with willing waitresses: [link]

Or even forced to quit their job, or leave town or hide out.

False equivalencies are a dangerous slope. We can never imagine someone else's life, and telling them to get a life isn't our most generous act.
My reply wound up way too long to post as a comment, so I've published it here. It's so long, in fact, that I've highlighted the most important parts (for those in a rush).

Hi, Seth,

Thanks for commenting. Looks like I wasn't clear about the comparison I was making. My fault. Let me try to sharpen it. The distinction is a bit counterintuitive, so please forgive some repetitiveness as I try to approach it from a few different angles.

I'm drawing a strong distinction between bona fide persecution/oppression (which, for the record, I think is bad, something I figured readers would grant me) and the kind of social sorting and friction which, though unfair and unthoughtful, is inevitable in any society for literally everyone.

Hopefully, we can create a society where everyone has political and legal equality. It ain't easy, but it's getting there. Gay people are doing awesome. Even my crude friends strongly favor equal rights and marriage for gay people (we discussed it). If someone tried to attack this guy, they'd have defended him....I have no doubt at all. In 1970? Perhaps not. But now...yes. It's a great time.

But there's a question, and it's real, and oughtn't be dismissed without some clear-eyed contemplation: is everyone owed full, respectful, social acceptance by everyone? Beyond legal/political/economic rights and personal safety rights?

I'd love to answer a resounding "yes". But be brutally honest with yourself (as I've tried to be here with myself): do YOU fully respect and accept everyone who appears in your social orbit? I try to do that. I really do. More than most people, I suspect. But I fail a lot. Petty sociality is an often mean-spirited arena, and conceding this obvious truth doesn't mean you've conceded that some people deserve to be beaten or persecuted!. You may secretly hope the obnoxious, bad-breathed stranger who's latched onto you at a party might fall into a deep pit...and you might even roll your eyes or otherwise let him know how unpleasant you find him. But if a pit magically appeared, you wouldn't imaginably actually push him! I believe that's an important distinction. In fact, it's the very one I'm drawing. We're not talking about hatred. It's a lighter matter (though that guy would nonetheless be mortified if he knew what you were thinking), and we need to see it as such.

We all have dismissed certain sorts of people, and shut them down even when they're non-evil. We even might smirk or glare a little, though we hate to admit it and try hard not to. Perhaps not at gay people, but we all have our flavor of "different" which strikes us as amusing, disturbing, or beyond our particular pale. I've elicited catty, mean remarks from gay strangers for my shlumpfy clothing (and they were right!!). I'd never expect immunity from that.

No one should. Human rights don't extend that far! In our moral imaginations, everyone in a social setting ought to be treated with perfect kindness and respect. But that's one of those imagined ideals which even idealists don't live up to. Why do many of us pretend otherwise?

Question: when you watch the Marx Brothers, does your heart break over Margaret Dumont, the aristocratic, uptight fat lady attempting to sing an aria at her pompous party while Groucho and the boys ridicule her and ruin everything? Think about that one! I actually think about it a lot. It's exactly my point. I mean...women have been victimized by misogyny for centuries, and overweight people are tragically discriminated against. So do you duly recoil at the disgusting treatment she receives in those movies? If not - if you laugh (or if you EVER laugh at slapstick) you need to self-examine, Seth, and try to understand why you're not a perfect font of tolerance and generosity (that's what I was attempting to do in that article).

But don't judge yourself too harshly. Because there's a huge difference between social callousness/petty meanness and bona fide brutality/oppression. That's the distinction I'm trying to draw. And it's not fatuous, it's not hateful, and it's not uninteresting. But you, alas, dove past the distinction to flatly equate the puny with the brutal. My friends aren't brutal in the least. And neither are you or I, even if none of us is a perfect font of tolerant gentility.

No human being escapes from social callousness and petty meanness. And gay people (who can be as snobby, condescending, mocking, and judgmental as any of us) would be hypocritical to demand otherwise.

As I once wrote, the opposite of being a discriminated-against minority isn't becoming an empowered minority, it's pluralism. Boring old pluralism! And in pluralism we put up with petty affronts and social friction. If a disenfranchised minority imagines soaring past pluralism to a point where petty social swipes never afflict them, that's 1. unrealistic, and 2. not something they could ever manage, either (unless they're Mr. Rogers....who I idolize, btw).

Human beings irritate, abrade, and offend each other, but brutality, oppression, and persecution are - as of recently, at least - beyond the pale. So that's where the line gets drawn. But it doesn't extend to uniform niceness and social smoothness. I'm not always nice. You're not always nice. You and I don't beat people up, however, or deny them their rights. Those are completely different things, and that is the real false equivalency here. Any minority (each of us is a minority in a few respects) who fails to recognize this distinction is doomed to mistake the unavoidable petty swipes of pluralism for the unendurable brutal assaults of hatred.

Lots of minorities miss this. It creates bitterness and division. It may be the single most troublesome miscalculation humans make. And the solution is not to try to transform humanity into a uniformly thoughtful and welcoming species incapable of social affront (good luck with that!), but to encourage everyone to see petty as petty and brutal as brutal. All negative life experience doesn't stem from a single monolithic blob of evil persecution.

If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all external injustice appears to stem from that.

Finally, yes, people who primarily self-identify via their preference for innies or outies (including straights....and as a member of a Queens health club, believe me, I see a lot of that) rub me the wrong way. It does the same for plenty of gay people, too. Just for one thing, if you make that your primary characteristic, you can hardly be offended when others see you primarily in terms of that characteristic. A fuller and broader persona invites people to view us as less narrow and cartoonish.

Yes, you're right, though, that any such judgement is ungenerous of me (though perhaps you missed my recantation further down). But a question: are you rubbed the wrong way by certain sorts of behavior, Seth? Or do you personify the perfect large-minded generosity you're advocating? If not, why the scorn as I attempt to earnestly parse through it all? These are tricky, knotted matters to try to unravel. I'd love thoughtful input!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Clash of Beer Week and Gay Pride

I had an interesting experience in Philadelphia last week at wonderful, wonderful Philly Beer Week, where the country's best beer city steps up its game six notches and dozens of great local bars serve up keg after miraculous keg of rare and supernal spuds.

Philly Beer Week, strangely, coincides with Philly's annual gay pride celebration. Not my favorite scene; as I've written previously, I don't find public celebration of sexual preference a tasteful thing (one's preference for innies versus outies is supremely uninteresting; those who self-identify on that basis really ought to get lives).

But we ran into one fellow who seemed to span the gulf between both events, and at 1am in a dark specialty beer bar, where me and my blue collar buddies were goofily swilling esoteric Belgian brews, this fellow, an ardent home brewer, struck up a conversation with me.

My buddies (who are actually very kind-hearted), being wasted and goofy from drinking all day, got up, stood over the guy's shoulder, and started batting their eyes and making kissy faces at me. Unfortunately, the guy noticed and quickly left in a quietly dignified pique.

My friends asked whether I realized that he was gay and appeared to be "into me". My reply was that I didn't give a damn on either score, and that I was enjoying the conversation (he's a physicist doing fascinating research). Someone's sexual inclinations have no bearing on me or on anyone else. And if inclinations were indeed directed toward me (I hadn't gotten that impression, but I wasn't looking for it), what difference would it make? Lots of people are interested in lots of people for lots of reasons, few of which are pertinent to an interesting discussion about physics. If he'd chosen to make it pertinent, he'd have been politely refused, case-closed. So what, exactly, is the problem? Is gayness contagious? If that's the worry, then the problem would obviously be a crisis of confidence in one's own orientation!

That shut them up. And we went on to enjoy further carousing, but I felt a lingering dismay, having registered the guy's pain as he'd been essentially ridiculed out of the bar.

As I mulled it over, though, I realized this hadn't been bigotry or hate or anything so ugly. In fact, much the same happens to us all...frequently! Just a few weeks earlier, I'd enjoyed a riotous discussion with a 19 year old waitress who shared my love for corned beef hash. As we jubilantly swapped favorites, trying to one-up each other, her coworkers didn't hide their disgust toward the middle-aged creep shamelessly chatting up the hot young girl. Upon registering this, much to my horror (I do corned beef hash jams with strangers of every stripe; I hadn't even imagined anything romantic), I left in a similar state of quiet humiliation. Guys my age are not supposed to socially bond with younger people. It looks desperate and creepy. Lots of things look desperate and creepy when they're really just normal and friendly!

My experience with the corned beef hash waitress had been the exact same situation! Was I a victim of hatred? Were the other waitresses bigots? Was this prejudice or persecution? No. It was just normal stuff. There are times when our differences stick out, with humiliating results. Remember how I was made to feel like an escaped convict during my ill-fated sport jacket-buying trip to Saks?

Gay people have made enormous strides. Yet people still rank on them sometimes. Well, that's likely to continue. It's a part of coming to the table, rather than remaining hidden. Alienation and repulsion are unavoidable in human social interaction. It stinks, and I try to never do it, and I deeply wish my friends had shown some class (though, geez, who expects class at 1am in a beer bar?), but it's not hatred. It's not even bigotry, which involves actual malice and oppression. Neither of my friends is remotely capable of that.

Living in a multicultural society means being ranked on, condescended to, looked askance at, and generally called out for being different in some settings, and embraced for being like-minded in others. Perhaps those gay pride parades aren't so distasteful after all; everyone needs to swim with their school sometimes.

Why should gay people expect equal rights plus some idyllic condition of seamless dignity and indiscriminate welcome which none of the rest of us enjoys? This isn't a Benetton commercial; this is real life! So, to you, humiliated gay home brewing physicist, I'd say: it's not just you. Everyone experiences social friction from difference. Laughter stems from that same friction, and, in the end, that's okay (though a challenge to one's dignity), and quite far from hatred. See things for what they are - far less malevolent than you'd at first imagine. And don't ever quit talking to all sorts of people; we all need to show courage in this life!

See this follow-up.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Euro Eggs Versus Ours

A Huffington Post article, "Why English Eggs Are Way Different From American Ones", by Alison Spiegel, has been passing around a bit today, and while I agree with much of her thesis, she gets the rest almost entirely wrong, because of one faulty assumption.
"English eggs look and taste very different from American ones. The yolks are more orange and they taste slightly richer. They also taste fresher and more flavorful than your average American factory farm egg. (We're not talking free range, organic eggs, but the kind that come from chickens stacked in tiny cages.)"

That's all correct (though I'd say the difference is more than "slight", and the editor who titled the piece apparently agrees), right up to the parenthetical. Most of us tenaciously hold on to an assumption that farm eggs taste better. It's become a truism, and is never questioned. But the issue is easily examined. And I have. Several times.

If you taste, side-by-side, a lousy convenience mart egg, an organic free-range Whole Foods egg, and a fresh-from-the-farm egg, having scrambled identically in the same pan with the same quantity of salt and oil (not butter, which makes things too distractingly delicious), you'll find that none of the eggs have any flavor at all. If you use butter, all three will taste like butter. The flavor of eggs in America is butter. And butter is good. That's why we love our eggs. Shoot, it even makes popcorn (one step up from styrofoam pellets) delicious!

American eggs have no flavor. Not convenience store eggs, not fancy Whole Foods eggs, and not eggs from rustic friends' pampered roosts (I've sampled at least ten different ones). You may or may not go so far as to judge them flavorlessness. You may detect some flavor (though I'd insist it's oil and salt). But, tasted blindly (using an actual blindfold to eliminate color cues) you will not correctly distinguish the eggs. Try it sometime. It's so easy that I'm surprised food lovers never do.

I first discovered this when a great Spanish chef visiting NYC offered to make me a tortilla (a big round potato omelet). I bought same-day organic eggs directly from a local farmer. But, as is the case with every tortilla I've ever had in America, it tasted like potatoes and oil. Because our eggs have no flavor. They can't stand up to other flavors. In Spain, tortilla is a sublime balance of egg and potato. I wish I was there right now.

Spiegel ascribes the difference to washing and storage. That's not it. I've snatched eggs from under chickens and cracked them warm. Never washed, never stored. And the flavor was a great big (sorry) goose egg.

There's no denying European eggs are more richly flavored. I'd take an ordinary Spanish, French or English egg over a great American one any day. And I'd love to know what the problem is. My guess is that it must be varietal.

Screw-Ups, Dummies, and Shades of Grey

When I was young, I snapped to conclusions about people. If I saw someone being dumb twice, I assumed they were dumb...period. If I saw someone screwing up more than once, I figured they were screw-ups. If someone repeatedly disappointed me, I expected them to always disappoint me.

Then I matured into a more nuanced view. People aren't all one way. We all screw up. We all say/do dumb things. We are all sometimes disappointing. I learned to lighten up and gave people a chance. For the next 35 years, I forced myself to see shades of grey.

Now, after a half-century of experience with a huge number and range of people, I've reverted to my previous assumptions. There are dumb people, screw-ups, and disappointers. They make themselves quickly apparent, they are consistent, and you'd have to be a dumb, disappointing screw-up yourself to fail to recognize this....even if it doesn't jibe with your higher assumptions about humanity.

People always mystified me. I knew they were mostly irrational, but my inability to understand and predict them led me to assume that their irrationality stemmed from deep complexity (we overestimate the complexity of the things which confuse us). But at this point I understand people well. I can see the world through the eyes of even the most irrational of them, and can often predict their behavior. (For similar skills, try managing a community of a million people for a few years.)

I've found that, twisted and opaque though people often are, they're rarely very complex. Most of them operate via about 20 lines of computer code. We're phenomenally predictable; more consistent than you'd ever want to realize. Shades of grey may sometimes be seen in the varied outcomes of consistent behavior, but intent (the deep intent of our drives and instincts, not to be confused with our superficial mental narrative, which tells us stories about our intent) is nearly immutable.

Narcissists don't sometimes decide to care. Control freaks don't once in a while say you've got this one. Compulsives won't graciously let it go. Bumbling fools under performance pressure won't hit home runs. Unreliable types don't suddenly come through for you. If any of these things appear to occur, there are unseen factors at play. They are special cases.

We want to assume people are grey-shaded. Innumerable movies invite us to believe in transformation. It's charming that we humans believe this so viscerally! But in real life, change is so rare that movies are made about those who manage it. We convince ourselves that we're a change-embracing species, but it's a lie.

That said, change actually is possible. It's just a matter of transcending the fear. As I've noted, people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots. This is a bit like that. We hack the wrong part of the equation, justifying, rationalizing, and denying how things turn out (how things always tend to turn out) for us, rather than shining penetrating light on our deeper intent. We identify, consciously and unconsciously, with that intent - that stance - and so to question it would be to question one's very identity. Scary!

This is, in fact, where the distinction between creativity and non-creativity is drawn. Noncreative people identify with their stance and rationalize their (flakey) output. Because stance is static, they innately crave status quo. Creative people* identify with their output and rationalize their (flakey) stance. Because output is dynamic, they innately crave change.

* - who are very rare; working, even successfully, in a creative field doesn't make you creative.

Monday, June 2, 2014


The following is not actually about yoga. I realize that those who haven't joined the craze are tired of hearing about yoga, so I need to extend this pre-apology. Years ago, long before yoga was a craze, I seemed eccentric for talking about yoga...and now I seem trendy, or even passé, for talking about yoga. I have not yet found my sweet spot in human society. But, again, this article is only ostensibly about yoga. So if you're yoga averse, please read anyway. Thanks for pre-reading.

In the style of yoga I practice, doing a handstand without the support of a wall is considered very difficult. I've been practicing for 30 years, and only two of my toes actually touch the wall, but if I push off, I get very teetery and soon fall over.

There's a different school of yoga where handstand without a wall is considered even beginners manage it with no problem!

My style of yoga once taught that headstand (not handstand) without a wall was easy. And so I've always found it easy. In the past few years, however, they've started teaching that it's hard, so very few experienced students can do it. People marvel at my wall-less headstand ability!

None of this makes sense to most people. It's incompatible with how we model human learning to work. But this is absolutely how it works.

It makes sense to me, though. This long ago become my model, and it feels natural and even intuitive. Yet, even so, I absolutely can't hold a handstand without a wall. Mentally understanding it all doesn't change a thing.

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