Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Closure of Tekserve and the Purging of Wozniakism

Jon Kalish, whose voice you surely know from his years of great NPR reporting, wrote a heartfelt piece for PC Magazine on the very sad news of the closing of Tekserve, Chelsea's legendary Apple repair shop (turned retail juggernaut).

As you'll glean from Kalish's article, Tekserve was an apotheosis of quirkiness, and also a pioneer in enlightened retailing practices. The two strands made the place irresistible for its many loyal customers (I was one for 26 years).

Tekserve also represented an alternative vision for the direction Apple might have taken when it jumped into retail in 2001. But Jobs, and then Cook, chose the other way. Sterile slickness rather than quirkiness, and grinding treatment of employees rather than enlightened practice.

No Apple Store I ever saw ever had a porch swing, or an antique Coke machine selling the good, old-school, thick-glass small bottles for a dime.


The Competition

What killed Tekserve was Apple. Corporations must either grow or die, and when Apple got into retailing, the writing was on the wall. Even before this, Apple was puzzlingly unfriendly to its largest presence/godsend/cheerleader/ambassador, even during the dark Steveless years when Apple's hardware was lousy, its vision muddled, and Tekserve served almost single-handedly to maintain morale and keep the faith in this part of the country. But once the Apple Stores opened, blood was in the water. Tekserve was methodically taken down.

Wozniak and Jobs was one of those odd partnerships that ignited, ala Lennon and McCartney. The warm, goofy inventor and the fastidious, arrogant schemer. Both strands were palpable in the corporate mix for an awfully long time. But Apple has spent the past forty years purging its Wozniak DNA, especially when the reigns passed to Tim Cook, the firm's most un-Wozniakian figure. While an independent operation, Tekserve was nonetheless viewed by many of us as inseparable from the greater Apple ecosystem. So the day Tekserve died marked the moment that the last iota of fun, quirk, character, and warmth was cleansed from the brand, leaving an unsullied dystopian impression of shiny white sterility.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why You Shouldn"t Pull Back the Corn Husk in Stores

Kudos to those courageous enough to come out of the grocery-shucking closet and confess that they rip open their ears prior to purchase...and who want an explanation of why that's a bad thing.

Typical comments:
"Why is it wrong to want to check that what you are buying has not been half eaten by corn worms?"
"I do this, shame on me, or not. I peel back the shucks just enough to reveal the end of the cob. If it is missing kernels or has very tough woody kernels ("cow corn") I put it back. There's gotta be a reason that my local supermarket can charge $2.99 for a pre shucked four pack of cobs you can get in the shucks at 50 cents or less."
Let me explain. It's like checking eggs by cracking them open in the store. Yes, you will avoid bad eggs this way, but you'll ruin your good ones in the process, and leave your fellow customers with ruined eggs, as well.

1. There aren't that many truly bad ears.

2. Due to #1, the vast majority of discarded ears have merely cosmetic issues. People claim to be avoiding worms, but what they're actually doing is searching for a certain look. God forbid there should be a few misshapen or under-grown kernels at the tip.

3. Husks are nature's ideal way of delaying the processes of drying and of conversion of sugar to starch (much as shells are the perfect means of keeping eggs fresh). By ripping them open, you lose that defense, and your corn will go bad much, much faster. You've turned a lifespan of a couple days into a lifespan of hours, even minutes. And consider the corn you've left for strangers. If you've done your damage at, say 10 am, late afternoon shoppers are stuck with shitty corn. (note: "replacing your divot" so to speak - taking only a small peek and trying to rewrap the husk - is ineffective. The seal's broken, period).

4. This forces the store to throw out tons of corn before its time. A plague of human locusts force American retailers to throw out mountains of corn before its time. Vast quantities of water and carbon are wasted due to the mulish assertion of consumer's perceived right to winnow through haystacks of corn for that magical, legendary, perfect ear. Viable, delicious food is blithely turned into garbage for no good reason, and at the cost of everyone's freshness, including the consumer's own (this is game theory where all parties lose).

5. You know how at home, a bit of silk always winds up on your floor, and it's tricky to clean up every last strand? Consider the stores. You're turning their floors into a sticky disgusting mess. Cleaning that involves yet more water and more carbon.

6. Who do you think pays for those mountains of needlessly ruined corn, and for the titanic efforts to clean up the ever-expanding web of corn silk on grocery floors?

No Less a Fish

So here's how I'm approaching aging. I believe this will take me as far as I need to go.

When I was a kid, I spent an afternoon at the aquarium watching a fish that had a chunk missing from one of its fins, and sported some deep gauges on its body. Plus, one eye was a bit cloudy.

As we often do while observing animals, I anthropomorphized him, pondering whether he even realized how imperfect he was. Had every missing piece, every non-optimal function left him cringing with horror? Apparently not. He just swam and swam, no less a fish; no less himself.

More detail on the fish story

Monday, August 29, 2016

In-Store Corn Semi-Shucking: The Kernel of Human Stupidity

It's corn season. This always reminds me of airport luggage carousals and of certain gym members. More on the other two in a second.

Corn season means that whenever I go food shopping, I must navigate crowds of sourpussed people peeling back corn husks to discover that - surprise! - there's corn inside. They stand there, peeling and peeling, drying out their own ears as well as the ones they arbitrarily discard, hastening conversion from sugar to starch.

A palpable cloud of stupidity emanates from these crowds. You can feel it. It's a vibe. This isn't just people acting stupid, it's stupidity incarnate. Whatever the Manhattan Project felt like, this is its polar opposite. This is as close to livestock as human beings get. As I fight my cart through the shucking hordes, it feels more like stock pens than modern America.

I've cataloged human stupidity since early childhood. And I've found ways to account for the vast majority of it. Much can be chalked up to caprice (it can be more enjoyable to do/think wrongly), blind spots (who conducts every aspect of their lives with perfect linearity and competence?), or "otra cultura" (more of our behavior is tribal than we realize). Most often of all, it's usually not as black or white as it seems. People have surprising reasons. Often, I'm the wrong one!

However, the corn thing cannot be accounted for by any of the above. It's not capricious fun. It's not cultural. And it's certainly not a blind spot. They work intently, like locusts, avidly tearing and tearing away at nature's perfect corn-protecting swathes. It's distilled mulish stupidity; people doing something utterly counterproductive simply because other people do it.

I can think of only two other examples of human stupidity which are equally unaccountable:
* People crowding, dead-eyed, in front of luggage carousels, though their own baggage is not imminent, preventing anyone whose luggage is passing by from grabbing their bags and safely hauling them off of the belt, and....

* People in gyms wearing non-breathable plastic garments (even repurposed trash bags) in order to dehydrate their way to weight loss.
Corn, luggage, sweat: the ultimate trinity of widespread, unexamined. unaccountable, black/white binary human stupidity (I've left off a close fourth - people who get up and stand uncomfortably in airline aisles, apparently forgetting that they won't move an inch for at least 10 minutes; one might at least weakly attribute this to "stretching one's legs.")

But here's the thing. Spiritual gurus report* that even the most worldly of us can, if you look at them right, be seen to be winking. At some level, we know we're pretending here, even as lost in the drama as most of us appear to be. We're not as lost as we fear. We are always, at some level, winking, even as we pretend otherwise.

It's a phenomenally hopeful observation, and I see a link. One experiences a similarity in the company of corn vandals, luggage retrieval barriers, and gym dehydrators. Watch them; faces slacken in precisely the same way in all three instances, almost as if they, themselves, register their stupidity at some level. They make their stupid face! It's a tell; a wink. It's the saving grace!

Otherwise, why would people engaged in these three things seem so eerily similar? If you're truly convinced of the wisdom of store-shucking, why wouldn't you display the same efficient competence obliviously doing this stupid thing as while you're crisply parallel parking, or briskly chopping onions? How do people engaged in these three inexplicable acts of stupidity know to look and seem stupid while they do them? My conclusion is that, at some level, they know.

* - The best guru of the current lot, I think, is Adyashanti. He's the most consistently clear-headed, inspiring, and non-shit-full figure currently in that realm. In fact, I think it was he who made this very observation. Good interview here, and some free audios and videos here. Not a joiny thing.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Insomnia Cure

Let your thoughts drop into your pillow. As new ones arise, let them spill into your pillow. Give the entire process over to your pillow. Let the pillow become intelligent, as you yourself go dull.

Notice that as you do this, the pillow becomes more comfortable, and your head falls more heavily into it. Let your head fall through it.

Of course, this stuff is always zero-sum. While it's neat to be able to go to sleep in a fingersnap (which will happen if you practice the above), the downside is that you can go to sleep in a fingersnap (I'm about to fall out of my chair just writing this). This problem also appeared, come to think of it, the last time I figured out a sleeping trick.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The "I Love Chowhound" food festival

Behold, some weird Chinese festival at the National Agricultural Exhibition Centre (sweet times at the natagexcen, bro). Here's a review in English (spoiler: she hated it).

Don't ask me, I haven't a freaking clue. But I sure wish I could get a t-shirt...

Does this mean that even after CBS shuts down Chowhound, the term, at least, will continue in perpetuity via perplexing Chinese usage?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Affectation and Honesty, Projection and Patronization

This keeps happening: I meet black people, and as I speak to them, I notice mounting exasperation and disgust in their faces. They've pegged me as yet another patronizing white guy trying to "talk black" with them.

The problem is that I naturally speak in a highly informal patter of jazz musician phrases and inflections (because that's what I am, at heart, even though I use a different voice in many of my writings here). It struck people as much more in character back when I was a kid with crazy hair and a trombone case perpetually strapped to my back. But my current appearance as a bland middle-aged white dude is at odds with how I talk (not to mention with how I think, behave, and believe; or with my motives, or with the source of my odd-seeming intensity*).

I'm mortified to be seen as racially patronizing. So I've started speaking to new black people in the most Caucasian possible manner - my impression of Richard Pryor's imitation of a white guy. And the funny thing is that it goes over perfectly well. Affectation comes off as honesty, while honesty seems affected.

* - This explains my ambivalence about transgendered people's insistence on being socially viewed in alignment with their inner self image, as if that were a human right. Millions of us never imagine (much less demand) such alignment. For example, I'm extremely handsome. But, recognizing that 99.99% of people don't share my view, I've learned to accept the classification the world hands me. Virtually none of my essential and defining qualities are ascertained by the public as I go about my day. But isn't this sort of misalignment a fundamental characteristic of the human condition?

See also "The Burden of a Perpetually Clean Slate", my Groundhog Day tale of the crushing drudge of having walked into 10,000 Hispanic or Latino restaurants as a seeming clueless gringo.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I'm trying something. Every time I'm inclined to deride some stricture or objection as being "P.C.", I'm trying, first, to swap in the term "polite". If it fits, then I recognize I'm the asshole (if not, then I double down on my indignation).

I loathe nearly everything about "political correctness". But I recognize that this aversion can go too far, justifying needlessly hurtful expression in the name of expressive freedom. I don't like people telling me how to talk/write/think, but I also don't believe a staunch open carry approach to taboo speech is the appropriate countermeasure. And I'm chilled by society's reversion to some old tropes. It's like seeing smallpox creep back.

It's always damned hard to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Case for Opting Out of Life Extension

When I was young, I fretted over longevity. I did the math, and it seemed clear that I'd start aging near the point where serious life extension would become possible. It seemed entirely likely that I'd find myself on the wrong side of the most heart-breaking cut-off in human history. We'll all die some day, at some point, but there was an excellent chance I'd be in the last sad wave of stooped, sick old people. Just my luck!

The transformation has already begun (though, as with many fundamental transformations, we barely notice it). I remember when 70 year-olds sat glassy-eyed clutching tea. Now, I know plenty of clear-headed, active, healthy 80 and 90 year olds. Living to 100 is no longer a spectacular achievement.

Life extension research seems poised to really pay off in the next couple of decades. Indeed, it will probably be too late for me. But I've changed my mind. I'm no longer distressed about missing that cut-off, because I've recognized the coming catastrophe. People somehow miss the self-evident truth that human society is predicated on churn.

Many of us now work an extra decade or so. And even more of us are working effectively into their 60's than ever before, holding onto full power and position, overturning the previous tradition of the gentle denouement, where we pushed the senile old windbags gradually aside before finally showing them the door.

That's not a polite way to phrase it, but we need a clear-eyed awareness of how things are changing. And one momentous recent change is the sense of unprecedentedly narrowed opportunities among our current crop of young people. There are many factors, but the previous generation's disinclination to step aside at the usual time is surely one of them. So what happens when humans work - failing to pass on our assets and our power - into our 80's, 90's, 100's, and 110's? You don't have to be Nostradamus to foresee that outcome.

You may have noticed some tension in our body politic these days, on both right and left. Income inequality is a huge, toxic problem, poisoning society in all sorts of ways. Same for power inequality. As the Olds enjoy greater and greater lock on both, and maintain that lock for longer and longer, there will come a tipping point when the imbalance becomes parsed in these terms. Youngs aren't going to like it. The energy and momentum of Occupy Wall Street, and the anger of Bernie and Trump's followers may be recalled as minor foreshadowings once a generation is clearly seen as refusing to step out of the way.

I'm okay not watching that collision play out.

Morality question: is opting out of life extension tantamount to suicide? Must we live the lengthiest possible lifespan available to us in order to be considered sane and virtuous?

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Base

As I sat quietly in a suburban restaurant recently opened to cater to exactly the likes of me - craft beer, lots of wines-by-the-glass, coal oven pizza, good music - a couple of bros walked in asking for Bud Lite, and for the staff to take off the Olympics and put on the Yankees game.

"Excuse me! EXCUSE me!" they insisted until the waiter hustled to meet their demands. I was watching the Olympics (and drinking the most expensive, esoteric beer on the list), but up came the Yankees, and out came the Bud Lite. My empty glass went unnoticed. 

I sat for twenty minutes, waiting to have my empty, dirty plate removed and another beer offered. Never happened. 

As I paid and skulked off (while the bartender chatted amiably with the bros), I suddenly realized that it's not only politics where "the base" is taken for granted. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Winsome Muffin Road Photos

Join me in creating a "thing" by posting rainy day dashboard shots of winsome muffins to social media.

Two of my best efforts:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Creating a Vacuum to Leech Out Eurekas

This has been the tough stretch of the secret project I've been laboring over for 18 months. Grinding and grinding, drawing worrisomely close to the point I described here where my life starts falling apart just a little as I let everything else go (this is where creativity connects to depression; depression is simply a misuse of creative faculties; both look similar to an outside observer, but creativity actually pops out a useful result). Beethoven composed in a diaper, you know.

Roasting at my computer in a 100 degree heat wave, researching opaque fine points of Cambodian sub-ethnicities, way too immersed to be fully miserable, I had to wrench myself out of my grind and put on my manager hat to speak with one of our project's Grown Ups. And during that discussion, it became clear that we'd need to change the project's title. And we'd need a new one ASAP.

Every creative reader just groaned in pain. Titles are hard to devise under the best of conditions, much less in mid-project while waist-deep in the weeds of filling in blanks and getting stuff done. When you're slogging along under the gun, you're the very opposite of creative, inventive, clever. You're just not that person. That person's a capricious dreamer, whereas you're an industrious worker ant, covered in mud. The twain don't meet.

Creativity requires space. You don't tighten your belt to foster your best creativity, you loosen it. You don't bear down, you dilate.

If you were to observe me, you'd think I was the biggest slacker in the world. When not in mid-project (actually executing the things I've dreamed up), I spend an awful lot of time sitting around, watching TV, ruminating, hanging out, not doing anything productive.

This used to mortify me. I figured I was lazy, shiftless, and broken. I've constantly worried about wasting my life. It's been a huge source of shame since early childhood. But at a certain point I turned around, looked back, and noticed, to my surprise, that I'd actually accomplished stuff, and developed a range of skills, even in my seeming sloth. Magically, stuff got done!

I know now that it's easily explained: creativity is fostered by loosening the belt, by making space for epiphanies. An awful lot can get done via relentless hard work (and I eventually learned how to knuckle down into that in order to execute my ideas), but creativity is a different animal, and it looks lazy.

But it's hard to shift - to jam on the brakes while in "knuckling down" mode and go back to "expansive dreamer" mode. The prospect nauseated me. So I hatched a plan.

I resolved to go easy on myself (always a good move; indeed, this was an important Postcard From My Childhood I'd sent forward to my elder self as a child). I'd cease work completely for a day, but be very careful not to start thinking about title quite yet. I wouldn't turn the issue around in my mind, nor would I turn around in my mind the impending need to turn this around in my mind. Two levels! No struggle, and no underlying dread of the upcoming struggle (meditation helps for this sort of thing, enabling rather precisely-targeted "letting go" processes).

After a day of decompression, I'd take a long drive, and think about titles in a state of dilated, dreamy relaxation. I'd make space. And I'd even make space around the space-making. In the meanwhile, with work ceased, and all stress suspended, I relaxed into what seemed like a pregnant vacuum. I went to bed. And I woke up at 4am with the perfect title. Eureka.

Now, of course, it's going to be hell to push myself back into industriousness mode. I'm in a frame of mind where I want to write poetry, think up loads more schemes, and go do fun things, when I really need to knuckle back down!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Oh Jesus Christ....My Hands are Exactly Like Donald Trump's!

The Hollywood Reporter reports:
Trump does indeed have hands just below average size, particularly for a man standing 6-foot-2. According to various human anatomy websites, the average-height American adult male (5-foot-10) has an average hand size (measured from the tip of the middle finger to the wrist) of 7.44 inches. Trump's measures 7.25 inches.
I immediately reached for a ruler, of course. And discovered, with nauseated horror, that this is precisely my hand size, as well.

I'm not sure how to take this. My hands are the only body part to have completely escaped ridicule all this time.

A Feature, Not a Bug

This dialog with a Pakistani acquaintance (who knows quite a lot about America, but, like many people I suppose, misses the key ingredient) helped me organize my thoughts about this election, and about some recent and distant history.

He wrote:
C'mon friends and acquaintances in USA. This is more than enough. Can someone stop this idiot. And I don't mean by Second Amendment, like he did. I mean can someone get him off the Republican Ticket. Assassinating a Presidential Candidate or a President? Even our nutcases in Pakistan haven't gone that far against the President, the PM or his brother in their often ridiculous speeches.
I replied:
If they could have replaced him, they would have. But there's no mechanism post-convention to remove (much less replace) a nominee. He's an extreme edge-case our election system has no tools to repel....aside from the vote itself.

And he needs to be resolutely voted down (not just administratively censured), to send the proper signal. And note that his thundering defeat might accomplish the impossible: overturn the heavily gerrymandered (and thus nearly bulletproof) Republican majority in the some stuff might actually get done (though hopefully Clinton won't indulge her hawkish instincts).

Unless, that is, Julian Assange's promise of an October Surprise revealing indictable offenses by Clinton comes to be. In that case, who knows (if so, please find a jazz club for me to work in so I can come live in Pakistan).
...and he replied:
Many people are voting for Hillary because of Trump, but if Julian's emails appear and she loses, will Trump win? Will someone else take her place to fight Trump? This looks like the most amazingly stupid election in USA in my life.
...and I replied:
There's no replacing him now, there's no replacing her later. The very essence of our democracy is that there's no overarching authority to make these weighty parental decisions; no thumb on the scale. The people ARE that authority, period (a feature, not a bug).

This is why Jefferson wrote so anxiously about his hope that the people would be found to have been worthy of this experiment.

We largely have been. In nearly 250 years, we've more or less gotten the job done, which is an awfully good run (I'd have staunchly denied that after Bush's reelection, but, frankly, he's looking pretty good to lots of us right now - an honorable man we merely disagreed with).

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Protest Vote": The Narcissist's Reckoning

When I was a kid, my mother occasionally told me I was "the best little boy in the world", and that I could do anything I set my mind to. I completely realized she was full of crap. She herself plainly didn't believe any of that. My generation - the product of parents who raised children at arm's length, barely tolerant of our nonsense - proceeded to go too far the other way and made our kids the centers of our lives. Kids were kings. A generation was raised as Kardashian celebs, with all attention fixed adoringly on their every utterance and preference.

This, naturally, launched an era of screaming, imperious kids terrorizing public places - like restaurants - with parental impunity. Anyone complaining - e.g. on Chowhound - about such practices was savaged with thermonuclear heat by parents indignantly certain that every childish impulse is like pure gold. A generation of entitled narcissists was being raised, and one day I knew there'd be a reckoning. Well, here it is.

A short article has been making the social media rounds, titled "There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote". It patiently explains that democracy requires lining up and being tallied, so your "protest vote" is not special. The subtext is, of course, that you are not special. Your predilections and compulsions are flaccid, useless little puffs of nothingness. You are not a celebrity. You are small.

People nowadays actually need to be told this. And the article is considered a controversial and insightful piece of writing!

An excerpt:
" doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it. No one is listening. The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to “I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.” It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.

This is frustrating, of course, but that’s how our Presidential elections are set up. Democracies alternate the coalition in power, but different systems do so in different ways. In multi-party systems, voters get the satisfaction of voting for smaller, ideologically purer factions — environmental parties, anti-immigrant parties, and so on. The impure compromises come when those factions are forced to form coalitions large enough to govern. The inevitable tradeoffs are part of the governing process, not the electoral process.

In America, by contrast, the coalitions are the parties. Our system also produces alternation of power, and requires compromises among competing interests, but those compromises happen within long-standing caucuses; issues come and go, but the two parties remain. This forces the citizens themselves to get involved in the disappointing tradeoffs, rather than learning about them after the fact. No one gets what they want in a democracy; two-party systems simply rub voters’ noses in that fact...

...Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people. Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Hilarious Trump Antidote

The Twitter feed of this TV producer and sometime writer (he wrote a few episodes of The Office) has been my salvation and consolation for over a week now. This Owen Ellickson guy has been using Twitter to create behind-scenes dialogs between Donald Trump and other people (mostly Paul Ryan, who serves as his Shakespearian chorus), and it's both hilarious and uncannily apt. Beyond parody, it often approaches something more akin to channeling.

I haven't written about it before, because it's kind of hard to come in in the middle, and Twitter doesn't make it easy to catch up. But one of a burgeoning number of fans (when I started, he had a couple thousand followers, but it's now nearly 25,000, including Patton Oswalt and other latecoming grandees) put together this helpful link and I quite honestly can't recommend it enough.

This scratches that stunned can't-look-away Trump itch we're all feeling. Spend a minute, and you'll spend a couple hours.

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