Friday, January 29, 2016


I've known my friend Deven since I first went online around 1990, dialing in via modem to an electronic forum called Compuserve before the dawn of the Web. We both helped administer their Beer/Wine forum, and we were all thrilled to have him. Deven was a well-regarded drinks expert - having written about spirits for glossy national magazines and worked as a manager at the North Star Pub, one of the early bastions of artisanal quaffables. Deven had many other lives, too, stretching back to his early childhood. As a child prodigy, he'd managed to befriend a high-level African politician via a particularly precocious fan mail he'd sent (this was one of the few non-corrupt officials on the continent at this time, which greatly impressed young Deven). He was flown over there. What an adventure. There were other remarkable stories. Deven was a character.

When I started Chowhound, Deven was an early regular, and he helped edit our weekly ChowNews publication. He also quietly helped moderate the message boards. We ate together sometimes, and I found him brilliant but complicated, perennially shadowed by a dark cloud and settled into a permanent posture of hapless shrug. He knew everything about everything, and was an extraordinarily idealistic and responsible fellow. Around age 50, he went back to school and became a special education teacher, putting absolutely everything he had into the job. Deven was a guy who actually did stuff. He was the not-so-little engine that could.

But it seems that the day finally arrived when he no longer could. I missed that turn, having lost touch with him (as with most else in my life) during the frenetic end game of Chowhound. He and I exchanged a few emails, but it was hard to find a time to get together. I was unaware at the time that this was because Deven had begun disintegrating.

I'll spare you the horrific details, but it got so bad last year that his estranged wife sent around an email to everyone who'd ever known Deven, pleading with us to send affidavits to support his defense in his latest criminal case. After recovering from my shock, I sent the following letter to the judge (I'll omit the part where I introduced myself):

Dear Judge Cote,

I have always considered Deven to be among the most responsible, ethical, diligent, thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Having been informed of his recent predicament, I’m, naturally, shocked.

That said, there’s been a pattern of struggle. I’ve seen Deven struggle against his own shyness (nearly crippling), and his daunting inconsistencies. As a writer, he suffered from frequent writer’s block, and his very high intelligence conjured up so many options in any given circumstance that indecisiveness was a frequent torment. While I understand Deven was a prodigy as a child, his adult life hasn’t always fulfilled that lofty potential, so while he’s been successful in most things he’s attempted (and he’s attempted a lot of things!), I believe he regretted that he hadn’t achieved more….and the shortfall left him perpetually dismayed. On top of all this, Deven is a sensitive soul, so the slings and arrows of misfortune which daunt us all seem extra daunting for him. Deven hasn't experienced much in the way of “ease” in his life. Again, there’s been a pattern of struggle.

But in all his struggles, Deven, in my long observation, has always, ALWAYS, strained toward the light. To be his best self. To get done what needed to get done, to do right by family, friends, co-workers, employees, and employers; to get results that make situations better and smarter and more kind-hearted…..regardless of struggles and disappointments. This has been true, without exception, over the 30 years I’ve known him.

Deven once managed a very prominent restaurant in SouthStreet Seaport, which was known as a paragon of enlightened management (restaurant personnel normally turn over furiously, but his workers stayed with him for years). I watched him work there a few times, and he always achieved that elusive balance of clearly asserting authority without being tyrannical. It was an extraordinarily "tight shop", but his workers plainly respected and admired him. That's incredibly rare in Manhattan.

He later became a restaurant critic, penning personal, clever profiles of local venues which his newspaper’s readers still recall with affection. He worked as an editor for my company, Chowhound, where he was a rock of honorable dependability. Never missed a deadline, never required attention, incessantly polite and upbeat; his coworkers and I admired him tremendously. When the company was floundering, he volunteered to help moderate the community discussion unpaid - a role requiring a delicate touch, emotional intelligence, and wise decision-making. Deven nailed it every time.

I know how hard Deven's worked at teaching, and in his career at the Board of Education. He tackles every obligation full-heartedly, as if his life depended on it, even though it’s never been easy, having had to fight indecision, inconsistency, shyness, anxiety, and self-disappointment every step of the way.

Deven CARES. Deven cares a LOT. But I’ve never seen him indulge despair and give up. I’ve never seen him desensitize to the human beings in his midst and willingly allow himself to let them down. Nothing ever came easily to Deven (not even his copious natural intelligence, which flows in maddening fits and starts), but he never stopped striving.

I don’t know the details of his current predicament. But I know that if Deven stopped trying, and went the wrong way, or behaved insensitively toward other people, or lost his level-headedness, it could only have been due to a clinical/organic issue***. I feel certain that, in his mind, Deven was still making the wisest, kindest, and most responsible decisions possible at every juncture. Some of those decisions appear to have been mortifyingly, catastrophically bad ones. But I know Deven, and I can assure you that, at least within the tortured logic available to him, he never for a moment blithely indulged an impulse to do the wrong thing. That’s simply not his character.

Very sincerely yours,

Jim Leff

*** - As an aside, I hope Deven can get the psychiatric help he clearly needs. There are plenty of congenital kooks out there, and you surely see plenty of them in your court. If you have not distinguished Deven from that crowd, I'd ask you to think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven. He's not some randomly dopey guy making dopey decisions. Something’s gone very, very wrong in the years since I last saw him. Anything you can do to help would be appreciated.
Earlier this week, Deven was brutally murdered in a NYC homeless shelter. Please don't google the newspaper reports. They are both right and wrong. They paint him as a drifter and a petty criminal, terms which accurately describe some things he did, yet which absolutely fail to express truth.

I know better. I know this was not Deven. Think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven.

I was going to keep Deven's identity ambiguous, but decided it was more important to share with you his wonderful blog, and this interview where he shows his characteristic passion for education. The interview was prompted by this terrific editorial, which I understand went a bit viral in educational circles.

Added in April 2017: Finally, closure.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Rubik's Cube Just Keeps Getting (un)Cooler and (un)Cooler!

Count on the Slog for cutting-edge skinny on what's happening now. Latest: I believe this whole "Rubik's Cube" phenomenon will take the nation by storm.

Ok, it was hokey even 35 years ago. But these videos are sort of amazing. Channel your inner nerd for a minute:

A robot that can solve a Rubik's Cube in 1 second flat:

You would think the instant-solving robot would put the whole thing to rest. But then there's this time lapse of a dude sadly devoting nearly 8 hours to solving a ginormous 17x17x17 cube:

Did I call a 17³ Rubik's Cube ginormous? How about one with 1,000 squares per face?:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Levels of Intelligence

Intelligence level 1:
Everyone's so smart! I can't possibly match the mental firepower I see all around me. There's so much to learn!

Intelligence level 2:
I easily spot people's stupidity; therefore I am smart. The dumber people appear to me, the smarter I feel. Over time I come to feel very smart indeed.

Intelligence level 3:
Everyone's an idiot. Alas, no one more than me.

Intelligence level 4:
Everyone's an idiot. No one more than me. Wheee!

I've never met a truly intelligent person who felt superior. In fact, superiority is the very mark of stupidity (ala level 2).

#2 can't learn, because learning requires feeling dumb. #3 has potential, but they're weighed down by their skewed perspective. The only levels that learn much are #1 and #4. And, in fact, slow-minded people may learn better than anyone. Speaking of which, here's a story from (I think) the Hindu Vedas:
Centuries ago, a teacher told his class to write the symbol for the number "one" in their tablets. They all duly scrawled a vertical line, save for one student, who sat with chalk poised, thinking deeply. "Just write it!" urged the teacher, but the student was frozen. Over time, the class had moved on to all the other numbers, but this one child remained lost in thought. Eventually, he was expelled for being too stupid to learn.

His family abandoned him, and he lived in the woods for thirty years, meditating and pondering. Finally, he returned to the schoool, naked and bearded, and, seeing his former teacher (now an old man) still in front of the classroom, he strode in, picked up a piece of chalk, and, with a godly sweep of his arm, full of confidence and grace, drew an enormous "1" on the front wall. After an awed moment, the entire school cracked in two along the mark he'd drawn.

Secret Bonus Level:
Intelligence is over-rated as a faculty. Calculation's fine, it helps us build cool things. But the very best stuff - the epiphanies, eurekas, and insights - arrive from somewhere other than linear thought.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pre-crastination and Counterphobia

From a much-passed-around piece from today's NY Times titled "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate" :
Pre-crastination is the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible. If you’re a serious pre-crastinator, progress is like oxygen and postponement is agony.
This strikes me as an example of a form of behavior well-known to psychologists, but not to the general public.

A great many mountain climbers started out acrophobic. They've fought back so hard against their fear that they've gone the other way, to the opposite extreme. The term for this is "counter-phobic".

Other examples abound. For example, many staunch meditators are former alcoholics. As they unravel their longing for completion from a certain special material substance, they find themselves transcending materialism, period. Again, it's about reaching the opposite extreme.

Psychologists know people have this capacity, yet they don't seem to speak up about it much. That's sad, given that this is the single most hopeful insight I've ever heard from their entire field (but, hey, psychologists get paid to revert people to the mean, not to facilitate transcendence).

While I find this unsung human behavioral pattern incredibly hopeful and comforting, it's important to note that it's not always a great idea to aim for infinity. A little extremism goes a long way.

If the notion of flipping faults into strengths appeals to you, I recommend a short read of my parable of the iron. Or you can get lost down a rabbit hole with The Enneagram (which I found insightful, though ultimately not as rich a terrain as adherents claim).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Best, Easiest, and Most Sustainable Diet Tip

I'm replaying this one....

At some point in every meal you've ever eaten, the following mental question has arisen:
"Do I want to eat some more?"
It's always asked quietly - so quietly that it may not consciously register. And our reaction is, nearly always, to shrug and eat a few more bites. What the hell!

Here's the thing:

1. No one in the history of the human race has ever asked themselves this question while still hungry. Genuinely hungry people just eat! The fact that you're asking means that you have, in fact, eaten enough!

2. The gratuitous few bites you take after this point will probably add 10-20% more calories to your meal. And most of us are 10-20% overweight, so these are the marginal calories that make us marginally overweight. So drop your fork!

3. This "marginal eating" is the least satisfying part. After all, you're no longer hungry! It's tough to give up pizza, or to go hungry, or to eat only protein, or make other sharp changes to dining habits, which are deeply engrained and tie in with feelings of well-being. But marginal eating is just an afterthought. It's the easiest sacrifice to make.

4. Marginal eating is what makes you feel weighed-down after meals. If you stop eating as soon as you ask The Question, you'll feel better afterwards.

5. Once you learn to drop your fork when you hear The Question, you'll begin to notice that eating the "just right" amount makes you feel great. At that point, when you hear The Question, it will be welcomed. It's not austerity, it's adequacy.

6. As you fall into this habit, The Question starts edging back, and appearing earlier in your meals. You'll find that you've been eating much more than necessary to feel satisfied. And eating the "just right" amount feels, well, just right. Once you start feeling good after meals (it helps to also balance fat/carb/protein, and to never starve), that feeling becomes a new powerful crave. Häagen-Dazs loses some of its allure once you're addicted to feeling clear-headed and energetic.

7. This is a long-term viable behavior. It's not a misery to endure while dieting and then throw away once you've lost the weight. And so, unlike most dieting strategies, it won't lead to endless cycles of weight loss and weight gain.

8. A tip: if you feel you're having trouble "hearing" the question, that means you're there, right now. Listening for it is the same as having heard it. Truly hungry people never consider these things. Drop your fork!

That's the gist. The following is just optional commentary:

This tip resembles a few others you've heard - some ad infinitum. But those others either don't work or are inane. "Always leave food on the plate" is ridiculous; it hinges, of course, on how much food was there in the first place! And setting any arbitrary portion limit will leave you hungry, and hunger-based dieting always backfires (because 1. it triggers fundamental psycho/physiological processes, and 2. it's not long term viable). Simply following this tip ensures, inherently, that you'll never be hungry. It will tailor portion size to your body's needs at any particular moment. What could be better?

We have the notion that dieting involves discipline and deprivation. The "no-pain-no-gain" preconception is why dieting almost never works. The problems stem from a central miscalculation: the way we eat now is "normal", so in order to lose weight, we must do abnormal things. Naturally, we eventually return to "normal"...and get fat again.

So the only thing that makes sense is to create a sustainable "new normal". And this tip is your best bet. Not only is it a gentle way to recalibrate normality, it actually corrects a habitual abnormality in our eating (the result of mankind's current unusual condition of having extra food lying least in the developed world).

That said, the route of natural, sustainable, non-deprivational change is not the fastest way to lose weight. The faster you want to lose, the more abnormal and deprivational you'll need to go. But abnormal changes just snap back to an unhealthy normal. So consider making this much gentler change to your everyday eating, and see if it works for you.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Can't-Fail In-Restaurant Test of Character

Two postings ago, I offered a simple test to winnow useless blood-suckers from potentially productive people. Here's another test, a particular favorite of mine.

All those anthropomorphic comics (Garfield, The Far Side, etc) never struck me as particularly witty with their juxtapositions of human and animal behaviors. I never considered human beings exalted from the animal kingdom in the first place. Cognition's a neat trick, but like everyone with a special skill, we assume it's the end-all/be-all (folks who lack one's special skill always seem like muggles - Harry Potter-speak for the ugly Yiddishism "goyim").

If you want to see the truth, talk to people when their food comes.

Briefly continue your conversation after the steaming plates have been set down, and watch your companion's stress build, eyes darting back and forth between you and their dish, cold brow sweat forming and every muscle trembling from just barely subdued animal instincts. You'll find that instinct nearly always wins. Within three seconds, most people will rudely cease listening to you, and dive into their food. One cannot possibly hope to distract a poodle while kibble flows into her bowl. see if a person has self-control, just take them to dinner, seating them with their backs to the kitchen. When you spot the waiter approaching with food, launch a bright, eager new line of discussion, and see if they can last ten seconds after the plates land.

Those who pass the test will usually vibrate with stress yet manage to continue the conversation. They've demonstrated character (which I define as the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise). They spend their lives struggling against impulse, but at least they make that valiant effort. I think of such people as poodle-plus, and they're usually very good people...perhaps the very best.

But a few can entirely unhook from instinct. Possessing perspective, the rarest of uniquely human qualities, they may experience the same drama, instinctual compulsion, and hormonal juju as anyone else, but they don't let such factors drive their behavior. They'll notice their plate, feel a faint impulse, take a small breath, and easily continue the conversation, perfectly relaxed and twitch-less. The food's arrival registered, but it doesn't keep mentally re-registering. They're able to easily let it go to voicemail.

The pitfall with that last elite group is heart. Detached people sometimes detach all the way. If you find yourself hanging by your fingers over a cliff, a 100% detached person may not be your best possible companion! It's rarest of all to find someone detached from drama and instinct - who rises above the petty yadda yadda - yet retains empathy and compassion. The sad truth is that such people often still seem cold, because they're not compelled to externally signify their caring (a compulsion which stems from vanity and neediness).

The most caring among us may strike us as aloof. This is the predicament which gives rise to the cliche of the curmudgeon/hermit/misfit who turns out to have "a heart of gold". In truth, they pretty much all do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Canard of Tragic Presidential Aging

The presidency doesn't age people. Age ages people.

In 2011, I wrote about how it was the hippest time in history to be 48. Being the same age (give or take a year or so) as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Obama, all of whom (whatever you think of their politics) seemed like cool dudes, felt like gravity defied.

But a mere four years later, we were all around 52, and Jon Stewart was saying that people frequently come up to him to ask "if he's okay," Colbert began using an awful lot of makeup, and I reported that I look like I have one foot in the grave.

But people naturally pay a lot more attention to the president:

This is simply what happens in your early 50s. Though you feel exactly the same, there's a bizarrely rapid plunge in outward appearance. It strikes others as meaningful; they attribute it to your cumulative pressures and defeats. And, non-coincidentally, that's what we say about presidents. That poor man! Look at how the burdens weigh upon him!

The saving grace is that we ourselves can go on feeling like the same people, because we, blessedly, don't need to look at ourselves! As I wrote at that last link:
Aging isn't tough; the hard part is people having more and more trouble seeing who I actually am. But I can't blame them. Appearances, after all, are the main thing they have to go on. If I had to look at me all the time (instead of existing obliviously nestled behind my own eyeballs), I'd surely have the same impression!

I'll save you the trouble of googling presidential ages.

How To Tell if Somebody Is Capable of Actually Doing Something

In my last posting Don't Take it Personally That Nobody Ever Does Anything, I explained why people who join teams and commit to projects most often wind up doing absolutely nothing. It's a serious problem for managers and recruiters of every stripe. Workers capable of follow-through - of actually producing - look a lot like everyone else. So how can you recognize them?

Don't do what I did; don't shower time and attention on every bright prospect who professes interest. Instead, send them a long email. Very few people will read a long email. Most will never even reply. And most of those who do will not have carefully read it. So embed some simple instruction within that long email, and see whether they follow it.

If so, you've found someone with merely a 50% or so chance of turning out to have been entirely yanking your chain. There's not a gold mine in the world capable of winnowing so effectively!

Don't Take it Personally That Nobody Ever Does Anything

I've been working on an ambitious project with a team. And it's been jarring some deeply repressed memories.

I'd forgotten all the time I squandered on people who offered to help with Chowhound, who occupied my limited attention and wasted my dwindling energy, but finally did absolutely nothing. Nada. I'd train, manage, and synchronize them with great care and attention, but they'd not do even a single thing. They'd vanish wordlessly into the vacuum of space.

Of course, I blamed myself. I must have handled them poorly. But, eventually, I accepted a horrific truth: there are two kinds of people: those who produce, and those who suck all the blood out of you and don't lift a finger. And, alas, the vast majority of people are blood-suckers. I built up powerful resentment - so negative that it's no surprise I suppressed the memory.

But now I've been facing that same problem once more, developing what everyone agrees is a sorely-needed, very clever, unique and potentially lucrative idea. What's more, it's fun. And it will do some good for the world. Hey, how often do all those factors coincide? Everyone I've mentioned it to has wanted to be involved. But 75% vanish without doing a thing, and most of the rest drift off wordlessly after contributing some trifling, crappy shred. Getting anyone to complete even the simplest of tasks is like pulling teeth. Even if they loved the idea, and fully grasped its potential. Even if they've signed a contract offering a share of the proceeds.

This time, I'm older and wiser, so the "Blaming Myself" period was brief. And I also blew quickly through the "Angry Resentment" phase. I understand that this is how humanity works. People don't do stuff.

If you pay people a wage they need in order to survive, you can spur them to show up most days, but not do much more than cover their asses, push papers around, and kick cans down the road. That's the apotheosis of human contribution. Beyond that, with regard to side projects and cool endeavors, there's zero initiative. People like the idea of those things - they like to think of themselves as the type who's involved in fascinating and productive things (and they often are....but purely as passive consumers rather than action-takers) - but they don't have it in them to move a muscle. Discovering this deeply embarrasses them, hence the wordless departures. It hurts them more than the likes of me.

If people could follow up on the things they say they're going to  - even want to do - then the gyms would be full, everyone would be slender, we'd all be decent guitarists and our living spaces would be tidy and organized. We'd all speak decent French. It would be a totally different world.

The bloodsuckers are sincere in their desire to contribute. Just as they're sincere in their desire to quit smoking, eat more vegetables, be nicer to their kids, and finally watch "The Wire." They don't mean to conk out. But if they can't follow through on their own personal needfulness, how could they possibly do so for optional third-party schemes?

A couple years ago I devised a remedy for IBS attacks. It was a simple muscular action (35 years of yoga have conferred deep body awareness), but a bit tricky for a non-yogi. It was perhaps as difficult a skill to learn as rapidly slicing a potato. Nothing tremendous, and well worth the trouble. IBS is intensely painful. In the throes of an attack, you really, really want it to stop. You'd write a check for any amount if someone would shut off the pain. And there's no cure. I'd devised a lifeline for folks fated to wretched helplessness

So I coached some people. I'd love to tell you they worked at it, and some found success while others fell short. But not one person got past the first introductory email. It's not that it was tough reading. I'm a professional writer; people have paid to read my prose! But I required them to actually do stuff. Not pop a pill, or submit to a medical procedure; no passive consumerism, but actual reading of stuff with actual paying of attention and action-taking. People couldn't find sufficient drive to conquer an otherwise incurable painful ailment (hey, many emphysema patients keep smoking, right?).

I'm a mutant. I actually do stuff. I've had success in five different fields, and people have referred to me as a polymath. But no, that's not it. I just lack the gene that inhibits people from doing stuff. And if you actually do stuff, well....stuff gets done! (It doesn't even have to be good stuff. Nobody thinks the Watts Towers are, like, beautiful; they were just yet another notable accomplishment of yet another person lacking a flair for paralysis.)

Life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. And so it is with Edison's "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." That quotation used to conjure up images of wild-eyed fanatics banging hammers in garages in the middle of the night. But it's just a matter of normal people blithely but indefatigably putting out. The Colorado River, etcher of the Grand Canyon, is just some shitty little river.

The best among us are shitty little rivers. To me, that's what Edison was saying.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

My 2012 Prediction for a Split Right

I'd like to do a victory lap regarding something I posted in November 2012. The split has certainly happened, windows are indeed being broken, and while it hasn't yet spurred a third party, it almost doesn't need to, as establishment Republicans watch the current scene with horror (much like watching the trajectory of all those Afghan Mujahideen we once trained and armed).
I Think the Right Will Split...Hard

On election night, I posted that "Hispanics/Latinos Won". Now everyone - including Romney's staff - is chalking up Romney's loss to his immigration stance.

But I haven't seen anyone hitting upon my other point - that we are about to see both parties falling over each other to push through generous immigration reform, and to reach out, generally, to Hispanic and Asian immigrants. It will be a tremendous shift.

But xenophobic blue collar whites aren't going to like it much. So I'll make another prediction: a third party will arise to channel their fury. Like the various European ultra-nationalist parties, it won't be pretty (and it won't win many elections). It will embolden and amplify the very worst outlying elements of the current Republican base, and make the ire of the Tea Party seem mild by comparison. But it will at last finally drive the mainstream Republican party back toward the center/right.

The pendulum of the right has over-swung too far to simply swing back again. Rather, my guess is that it will split. And the portion that swings toward still farther extremes will, I'm afraid, break some windows.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

TV Update

Brief update on my ongoing relishing of The Golden Age of Television (here's my Massive TV Round-Up from a year ago, including a descending-priority list of recent shows). The following are my favorites among the most recently playing series (most recently finished their seasons).

You'll Never Be Whole Until You View

The Leftovers (HBO) - The bizarrely grim, yet somehow deeply infectious first season gave way to a stupendous second season, which included one episode ("International Assassin") that was perhaps the most remarkable hour of television I've ever seen - Kubrickian (not a term I use lightly) in its thoughtful detail, deep mood, innovative unfolding, and refined perfection.

Rectify (Sundance Channel) - Still great. The slowest-moving, most nuanced and emotionally honest show you've ever seen. You'll ask yourself how something so utterly deep, honest, and unadorned ever made it onto TV, and, indeed, only about 100,000 of us are watching (we all consider ourselves very, very lucky). If you appreciate Nano-Aesthetics as I do, it's a must-view. I previously raved here.

Fargo (FX) - Season One was too wonderful to top. Season Two topped it. Coen brothers, schmoen brothers. Noah Hawley now owns the admittedly narrow genre of slightly-surreal tragicomic north-central American crime fiction.

Excellent; Well Worth Watching

You're the Worst (FX) - Season one was a bizarrely affecting romantic comedy between two horrible central characters (supporting player Kether Donohue is a national treasure). The secret was meticulous honesty in character (both re: writing and performance), in spite of the sometimes broad comedic approach. Season two just pushed way deeply into that honesty, for a big win. One episode, "LCD Soundsystem", was an astonishing piece whose impact was so well-earned (over the course of the series) that it almost makes a few of Dostoevski's literary long games seem like easy cheats.

Mr. Robot (USA) - This show's a rabbit hole which many of us took a deep dive into. A mentally ill master hacker takes on an evil corporation, yadda yadda, but great stuff is done within the hoary framework. You've got to persevere a bit; elements that initially seem like creative cop-outs turn out to have weight. Have faith!

Deutschland 83 (Sundance Channel) - If you like "The Americans" (returning in March...I'm ecstatic....see my rave here), you shouldn't miss this gripping period tale of East German espionage.

Manhattan (WGN) - Hard to describe, because it's not like anything else. It's a highly fictionalized tale of the Los Alamos push to build the Atomic Bomb in the 1940s. Great performances, photography and evocative feeling of place. Alan Sepinwall describes it best (in a piece begging WGN overlords to renew the series.....which, btw, they did).

Homeland (Showtime) - If you need shows to always make perfect sense, you probably already know this one isn't for you. And even my substantial plot hole tolerance was severely tested by the frequent idiocy of its second, third, and fourth seasons. But this last season wasn't maddening or idiotic; it was Homeland at its best: riddled with a few plot irregularities, yes, but never not insanely entertaining. If you ever had affection for the series, this past season is worth a binge (it should work well standalone; just quickly catch up on major previous season plot points via the very brief overviews here).

The Expanse (Syfy) - A sci-fi series with lots of cliches, but its very transportive quality has sucked me (and lots of other people) in (we're currently at mid-season). If Battlestar Galactica was your thing, you'd probably enjoy this. We'll see whether they can keep up the quality; like much sci-fi, it weaves more high concept plot strands than is probably best for it.

Acquired Pleasures

Doctor Who (BBC America) - just closed one of its best-ever seasons. One episode, "Heaven Sent", was deeply affecting and memorable; certainly my favorite-ever Doctor Who show. It works as a stand-alone but it's best if you have at least some familiarity with the show, generally, and, again, the whole season was worth a binge (even if it can't really compare with the brilliant work listed above).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW) - Weirdo out-of-nowhere musical comedy with a certain attitude. Not for everyone. I'd understand if you found it grating, and I admit there are flaws, but this is so utterly different, heartfelt, and non-calculated - plus frequently hilarious - that I forgive a lot.

Life Below Zero (National Geographic) - Tediously repetitive "reality" show that, in its fifth season is four seasons past its freshness sell-date. It's about people living rough back-to-the-land lifestyles in rural Alaska, and it unwittingly offers a glimpse at a big human truth. Most of the regulars are white guys in a state of perpetual peeved anxiety about stuff going wrong, trying to dominate and "win" against every problem that arises. Miserable bastards, every one of them, who keep trying to live up to the monumental stories they tell themselves about themselves. And then there's Agnes Hailstone, a native Alaskan, who doesn't love being alive the least bit less when circumstances fail to meet her previous expectations. Fans of the show seem not to notice this dichotomy, nor do even the producers of the show. To me, though, it feels like a brilliant advanced course in applied spirituality.

Bitter Disappointment

Masters of Sex (Showtime) went from brilliant to awful in three seasons despite consistently great performances. The nadir was a scene with a gorilla that I lack adjectives to properly condemn. I immediately deleted the series from my DVR queue and glared at my television (which I otherwise am quite fond of) for having inflicted it on me.

One Cool Prospect With Autonomous Cars

As I wrote last year, I'm not convinced autonomous cars will take over as swiftly as is assumed. It might be possible to ban car companies from producing conventional cars, but it would be politically unfeasible to prevent citizens from driving cars they already own. And that would create a prisoner's dilemma: autonomous cars will never feel comfortable while human drivers are out there strategizing their way around them. If it were all robots, that'd be no problem. But it'll be a travail to reach that point.

Also, as I said in that article, cars are optimized for driving, not riding. Take away the driving aspect, and we'd find ourselves in very uncomfortable passive trnasportation devices. A car would make a terrible train!

But I thought of one cool thing. What if you could go to sleep in your camper or RV, and wake up 500 miles away? Achieving that without the least preparation or staging would be something few human beings (at least, ones over one year of age) have experienced. It would feel one notch away from teleportation!

And once highways are 100% autonomous, speed limits could safely increase, so maybe you'd wake up 800 miles away! Just for one thing, it would be a chowhound's utopia: you might read about a great breakfast joint in Jacksonville, FL, and be there the next morning for pancakes...just like magic!

Combined with my current fascination with airstream trailers (see #7 here), it's a pretty irresistible prospect. Especially if I'm 80 years old (it'd likely take that long to happen anyway), and otherwise not getting around very much.


I haven't heard anyone explain the final 100 yards. Autonomous cars rely on meticulous mapping of every lane of every road and intersection. But nobody maps driveways and parking lots, which are often poorly marked if they're marked at all. So how will my autonomous car park once it arrives?

Could I send my car out to pick up takeout?

If issues of liability, theft, and dangerous/illegal contents can be overcome, would I be able to drive for free if I agree to a couple en-route stops to pick up and drop off packages*? Could I lease out my autonomous car for such work when I'm not using it? Will UPS and FEDEX become obsolete?

Further reading:

Why Autonomous and Self-Driving Cars are Not the Same
If Autonomous Vehicles Rule The World (a good thorough piece by The Economist)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Decision Factors

A friend's daughter is choosing a college. She has her heart set on a prestigious one whose very high tuition will keep her in debt for years to come. It has lots of factors she thinks she wants. I sat down to email a terse thought or two, but it kept expanding, until I realized my thoughts applied way beyond college selection, so I thought I'd share it here.

I'm an inveterate strategizer. I've spent a good chunk of my life striving to make super-smart decisions to achieve super-best results, even though ample experience shows that actual results are usually completely untethered from the factors I'd weighed. If you vacation in Maui and catch the flu, Maui will have seemed like a grim wasteland. If you vacation in Gary, Indiana and fall in love, Gary will have seemed like paradise. Weighed factors rarely impact actual outcome. Yet I never seem to learn!

Great photographers swear that you can take great photos with a shitty camera (Ansel Adams worked with equipment vastly inferior to my iPhone's camera). I can assure you that some of the greatest food in the world is made from ho-hum ingredients. And I like my television a lot, even though whenever it rains, the humidity makes its screen go black, and I need to stand behind it, waving a hair dryer through its rear ventilation grill for three or four minutes to dry it out. I don't mind! Feeling a certain affection for my TV, I don't begrudge this maintenance (washing your dog is a pain, but it doesn't make you like the dog any less). Of course, if I'd known this would be my fate prior to purchase, I wouldn't have imagined buying this model! Yet it's fine. Life is experienced in intimate immediacy, not in specs, forecasts, and over-arching imaginings. The best stuff with the best characteristics is not always best in retrospect, yet our callow foresight rarely learns from the accrued wisdom of our hindsight.

We've all learned that seeming crap can be fully lovable. We've all learned that we never fall in love for good reasons. Why does a toddler favor a certain teddy bear? Why does a golden retriever bring home a certain stick? They're not weighty decisions; the answer is: "Just because". Our deepest touchstones are mysteriously capricious. We endlessly re-experience the power of serendipity, yet there's a puzzling amnesia. When I replace this TV, I'll undoubtedly spend hours in research, trying to score just the right one, avoiding, at all costs, dreaded non-optimality.

The fabric and feeling of your college experience will be determined by the aggregate of myriad trivial factors and derailments you can't possibly anticipate. The circle of friends you wind up with. One great professor who gets you excited about a topic you never knew you cared about. A line in a book of poetry. An insight that occurs while you walk home one day. Loneliness. Depressingly awful scrambled eggs. Romantic heartbreak. Your outcome, in hindsight, will consist of the sum total of all such spontaneous minutiae, none of which has the slightest thing to do with any factors you might pre-weigh, or with any of the big-picture scenarios you've mentally conjured. Big-picture scenarios are like cartoons, and we don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.

You can attend your last-choice school and emerge a brilliant scholar, gainfully employed, deeply curious about the world and full of insight, head over heels in love with a true soul mate, and enjoying a circle of friends you'll retain for life. Or you may attend the Sorbonne, and emerge miserable, lonely and intellectually numb. You can't engineer either result via consideration of Factors. "Optimality" is nothing but a head-fake.

Do the research, and fool yourself into believing you're deciding smartly, but understand (and feel comforted!) that there's no right or wrong choice. Rich opportunity awaits at every juncture of every decision tree. Any choice, no matter how bright or disappointing, can yield a jackpot or a dud. In the end, it's not about the choice, it's the chooser. It's you, playing the cards you're dealt - both good hands and bad - with delight and exuberance. If you focus on the rich immediacy, rather than the cartoonish big picture - if you blow-dry your unimaginably high-maintenance TV with the same affection as shampooing your puppy - you literally can't go wrong.

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