Thursday, August 31, 2017


Prediction: the term "cornered rat" will become geometrically more prevalent in print and online media over the next nine months. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Love and Aliens

My esteem for Christ, Gandhi, and King just keeps increasing. What a spectacular hack it was to confront hatred with love; to deliberately choose - in defiance of all human impulse - to react to extremism with something other than reciprocal extremism.

It's nothing new, of course; this move has been out there, however unpopular, for millennia. And there are always a few ordinary people (the genuinely spiritual, rather than the more common affectedly spiritual) who instinctively go to it. But among those ambitious and competitive enough to rise to a level of prominence where their voices are widely heard, this has been applied consistently by only a tiny handful in the past two thousand years. It's as rare as comets.

But how, you might ask, does this apply to the likelihood of intelligent alien life in the universe?

Evolution prizes ruthlessness, aggression, and competition. It's essentially an arms race as everyone vies for limited resources, and only the selfish go-getters win - i.e. live long enough to pass on their genes.

That's why it seems obvious to me that any advanced society will eventually blow itself up. Only a planet's top species - the most relentlessly brutal fighting dogs - attains high technology, and while some individuals (or even many) might be calmed into an uneasy competitive truce (e.g. the social compact, game theory alliances, vanity-feeding piety, or the aforementioned rare genuine spirituality), any annihilation button will eventually be pressed by someone. I think this is the most obvious factor in the Fermi Paradox which tries to account for the lack of evidence of alien intelligent civilization.

Only apex predators win. But politics (in the broad sense of making oneself known and influential) requires the competitiveness to rise above one's peers. Such people are particularly unlikely to personify the antithesis of all that, i.e. selflessness and love. With precious few exceptions, we can't look to our leaders and influencers for this strategy.

But while there there aren't many Christs, Gandhis, or Kings, there's potential in the general population. As I wrote here:
"If reasonable Israelis and reasonable Palestinians, reasonable Democrats and reasonable Republicans, reasonable Pakistanis and reasonable Indians, all of whom are brothers and sisters by virtue of the unity of their peaceful aspirations and the tenor of their temperaments, are ever to conspire to break the demented cycle of provocation, it will be via direct and personal contact rather than via the proxy of their respective authorities."
Here's something no Chruchill, Macron, or Merkel would ever do (though, to his credit, George W Bush did visit a mosque on September 17, 2001, where he gave a terrific speech):

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Truth and Curiosity

I love truth. I crave it obsessively, even when it works against with me; even when it conflicts with my deepest assumptions. I live for counter-intuitive and surprising information. Please, please, show me how I've been dumb. Over and over and over. Don't stop!

As I once wrote:
I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot.

By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior . They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.
My obsession with truth makes me insatiably curious, and uncommonly persistent about satisfying my curiosity. I may appear to be studying, learning, and pondering, but what I'm really doing is scratching a perpetual itch. And it's reaped an unexpected reward. A few decades in, I'm amused to see that some people are fooled into thinking I'm smart.

I'm not, really. I read slowly, I memorize poorly, I have trouble following instructions and following novel and movie plot points. I don't digest data points quickly or easily. I was a B+ student, and am shockingly poorly-read. My cognitive horsepower is, at best, mildly above average. But, after half a lifetime of insatiable curiosity, I know some stuff, and can easily shift my perspective, even under duress (a cool party trick which churns out interesting insights and creativity - which have little to do with intelligence). All because I love truth.

Interestingly, most people sharing my genetic material - who work with similar raw material - take comfort in dodgy, unexamined assumptions, push back tenaciously at conflicting information, and choose "denial" as a go-to reaction mechanism. They're almost entirely incurious, and it all stems from their inveterate fear of truth. The difference is in that one little flick of the switch.

Curiosity is fueled by a deep-seated conviction that you're wrong, misguided, and incomplete. Curiosity is thwarted by the conviction that you're smart, on-track, and complete.

The Dunning-Kruger effect ensures that those most needful of curiosity remain steadfastly incurious. The Dunning-Kruger corollary ensures the converse. This is the same underlying mechanism behind the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Pardon Me?

A friend asked:
Doesn't the pardon violate his oath to preserve protect and defend the Constitution?
The oath of office is not legally binding, but pardon power is enshrined in law.

However, acceptance of the pardon constitutes acknowledgement of guilt, opening this mofo up for a host of civil lawsuits by his victims. Also, being pardoned, and thus acknowledging guilt, forfeits your fifth amendment right not to testify. You have to testify if asked, and face perjury if you lie.

If Trump pardons freely to targets of the Russian investigation, it will come back to haunt him in both these ways, plus he'd risk a much, much deeper split with Senate Republicans.
Can't they just be pardoned for the perjury as well?
Yes, absolutely.

But while I realize a lot of people feel we’re on the brink of full-blown brown-shirted autocracy because Trump condemned a small group of clownish half-wits with less than full-throated vehemence and telegraphs bad intentions he's too incompetent to ever fulfill, we’re actually at like a 1.1 on the tyranny 1-to-10 scale (we’re so spoiled by American status quo that this increment feels like the end of our world). But if Trump starts giving out pardons like Tic Tacs, granting supplemental pardons for perjured compelled testimony, etc, that would be a huge step, raising us to a 2 or 3. And there will be repercussions, becase we have a system designed to handle this - just not as quickly as many of us foolishly demand.

Liberals have been asking since day one why Congress won't get off its ass and remove this guy. But then again, Liberals blew all their powder Inaugural week, expressing their utter dissatisfaction with the other half of the country electing a candidate they dislike. Again, we’re actually only at a 1.1 (and Congress is doing stuff, from the Russian sanctions block to proposed legislation to protect Mueller, to the overt war with McConnel), and we’re freaking the heck out because we’re spoiled princesses accustomed to a smooth status quo completely aberrational in human history (while we should definitely push back against every incremental step, including this disgusting pardon, the freaking out doesn't help).

BUT...if we ratchet up to a 2 or 3, that’s an entirely other ballgame.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Musings

My idea was to head south to the totality belt, enjoying barbecue all the way. I'd stay over just north of that zone (with lots of cheap lodgings), and dash in for the event itself. It was a fine plan, but I realized it was unviable when every department store and pharmacy all the way up here in New York ran out of eclipse glasses the moment they arrived in stock. Dammit, the eclipse was crossing over out of geekdom. 

So my Monday morning drive into the belt of totality would be a nightmare, my escape from the region a slog, and if skies were cloudy, I'd be forced to join a massive Serengeti of westward vehicles looking for clear skies. Though I've always been afflicted with FoMO ("fear of missing out"), and there's nothing worse than staying home during a total eclipse within driving range, I skipped it.

Not to be a total loss, I pulled my car over at 2:35, gamely flipped on my eclipse glasses, and saw that things had already started. And I immediately flipped the specs back off again, because I'd noticed that the light was...weird.

It wasn't particularly dark. It was hard to describe. I'm no connoisseur of light quality (though I did notice, while playing gigs in Tuscany, that the light, unsurprisingly, had the unworldly character of a Renaissance painting). The sun was 90% blocked, yet it wasn't darker than if a cloud had drifted by. But this was no cloud diffusion. It was something else. The light was unpleasant and eerie. 

It made you cringe a little, like leaving an eye doctor's office with pupils dilated on a sunny day. It felt harsh. My first thought was "this must be what sunlight feels like on Mars." But then I noticed the deja vu. An impression of alien harshness had been my takeaway from every partial solar eclipse I'd ever experienced. I just never clicked it together before.

I drove on to an Italian deli in Queens I've been meaning to check out (Tony’s Beechhurst Deli; not bad), where the counterdude asked a customer if he'd seen the eclipse. Yes, he'd checked it out, but when asked if he'd used eclipse glasses, he scowled and wagged his head. He simply looked up, that's all.

To the likes of geeky me, that's the epitome of heedlessness. But blue collar workers spend their lives ignoring stupid warning labels and doing jobs others are too squeamish to do. They get it done, and don't have time for overblown warnings and prissy hesitation. And this reminded me of a previous sunny New York weekday, when I watched similar-looking blue-collar dudes scale a pile of smoldering debris. The burning smell was sickening; clearly they were risking major respiratory problems. But these guys are conditioned to disregard warnings. And so, I imagine, a whole lot of people looked up today without protection.

My two small insights might not amount to much, but I drove to Arkansas a few weeks ago for little more. I didn't have the socko experience of totality (just as I didn't enjoy an amazing hillbilly-Italian feast), but I'm a guy who appreciates small stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Extremism Provokes Reciprocal Extremism

Our eyes have strayed wildly from the ball as the nation's been caught up in spiraling nonsense. As always, extremism has provoked reciprocal extremism. It's extraordinarily hard for human beings to remain reasonable in the face of stupidity and emotion. Birds watch us with amazement, wondering how we manage to maintain such perfect flock formations (Magnetism? Astral positioning?).


I don't care about Steve Bannon's looks or Donald Trump's hair.

I don't care if Donald Trump's father was arrested at a Klan rally.

I firmly support Nazis and white supremacists' right to freely express themselves (short of incitement - and, yes, I'm aware of the slippery slope). If government decides what's ok to say, we're no longer America. Isn't this whole resistance supposed to be about maintaining constitutional values and the rule of law? How on earth did that lead us to wanting to constrain free speech rights?

The rest of us have the commensurate right to shame and shun those espousing such views. However, I suspect the defeat of this ideology would work better and happen faster if these clowns remained public and unhooded. So the crowdsourced shunning (satisfying though it is) may, in the end, be seen as more self-defeating overreach on our side.

It's ridiculous to assume "Southern Heritage" is a code word for racism. Every culture has atrocities in its timeline, but that certainly doesn't preclude cultural pride (crowds of patriotic Germans give me the willies, but that's my issue, not theirs, and three pints of kellerbier help me sing right along). Anyway, slavery was, obviously, an American atrocity, not a Southern one.

That said, those Confederate statues erected during Jim Crow to intimidate black people should absolutely go (to museums). In those cases, heritage truly was used as a code word. Southerners well know this, and should stop playing dumb. But liberals never reject an opportunity for overreach. A statue of Robert E. Lee is not a talisman of hate. Is there no one, on either side, with capacity for moderation and reason?

"Is Donald Trump a Racist?" is a ridiculous and distracting question. This is how the left joins the right in transforming the presidency into a personality cult. Who cares? Watch his damned legislation and stop feeling endlessly shocked by his patently cultivated outrageousness. Personally, his stated views strike me as perfectly typical of many 70 year old Americans. If, as even the extreme left concedes, "the past is a foreign country" and we ought not judge people in previous eras by present-day values, then we also need to extend some tolerance toward a previous generation. They're dying out, and taking much of this nonsense with them.

Anytime the left advocates something counter to the rule of law (Nazi punching, calling for generals to remove the president, etc.), they are, duh, advancing the agenda of Trump's most ardent supporters. The danger of Trump isn't his racial views or his opinions re: statues. It's his contempt for constitutional values and the rule of law. The antidote is not to find our own ways to tear up the constitution and disrespect the rule of law. It's to work the system, lawfully and maturely. To vote, to make intelligent counterarguments rather than meet hate with hate and lawlessness with lawlessness. That's how the country survives. That's how we regress to the mean.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

I understand that for some people, the failure to shriek at 110% volume upon the first errant glimpse of anything feared or disliked would feel like a moral lapse. Some readers were offended when I expressed exasperation re: the marches on Washington the week after the election - before Trump had actually done anything. Similarly, the notion of remaining moderate or rational in the face of a few thousand loser/clowns espousing patently stupid and outdated viewpoints may be seen as excusing hatred. But while I don't agree much with right-winger Robert Tracinski, I think he nails the dynamics here:
The entire Trump phenomenon is a live-action version of the old parable about the boy who cried wolf. Spend decades telling everyone that George Bush is Hitler or that Mitt Romney is a racist, and you’ll find that there is nowhere left to go when you try to warn everyone that Trump is worse. Crank your reaction to every Trump statement or speech all the way up to eleven, and people dismiss you as noise and tune you out. So there’s no reserve of extra outrage to tap when Trump really does do something awful.

Speaking of Robert Tracinski; if we want to defeat not just Trump but Trumpism as a whole, we need to listen to anti-Trumpers on the right like Tracinski, who are far more sensible on the issue, and who more keenly understand why their cohorts fell for this in the first place. Start off by avidly following the Twitter feeds of Rick Wilson and John Schindler, even if they don't emanate that comforting tribal smell. Particularly don't miss Wilson's great Periscope live video sessions, announced via his Twitter feed. They're hilarious and insightful - like getting a private phone call from a plugged-in DC insider. Also: they're bizarrely relaxing. What FDR did for the Depression with his fireside chats, Wilson does for the Trump era with his live Periscopes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Pretending the Annus is Horribilis

Just posted to my FB page (feel free to friend me; my timeline is mostly just pointers to new Slog postings, but sometimes other stuff):
12/31/2017 is going to be the most mopey and bitter New Years Eve yet. I'll try to find a cheap fare to somewhere on Lunar calendar - e.g. Hong Kong - so I can enjoy some noodles and dumplings in peace.

It's necessary to call out bad stuff, to resist it, and to counteract it in any way possible. It is not necessary, however, to pretend that you're not phenomenally lucky to be alive for every single moment, come what may.

Shit doesn't need to go your way for you to bask in your all-too-brief residency here.
You signed up for this. You wanted all the movies.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah

A friend just sent me an utterly dejected email about the state of things. Here's my reply.
I see it differently. We’re getting a front row view of something few people have seen in person. it’s usually only read about. And it’s somewhat defanged; we won’t fall into autocracy, we won’t lose our freedom, it’s not the third reich. Mueller is solid, evidence is enormous, Congress is pivotting, approval is sinking, and, luckiest of all, the bad guys are self-defeating idiots.

There will be more chaos and chagrin, but we’re getting this view relatively cheaply. When it’s over, center left and center right will come together (it’s already started…pro-Trump stats are so high among Republicans because so many Republicans have renounced their party). This is a last gasp of moldy human tropes; the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah. Consider Steven Pinker’s work, and consider the graph at the bottom of this page. It’s not the end of the world, it’s birth pangs for a new better one.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Russians Don't Care If We Know Everything

The most persuasive analysis from the smartest people I read makes a point that really should be obvious (and would be if we were the least bit sophisticated):

There is nothing we will become aware of in this matter that the Russians didn't fully intend for us to eventually uncover. They planted the evidence in plain sight (and murdered the people - including some staunch Russian patriots - who knew the exact mechanisms). From beginning to end, it's had nothing to do with choosing sides. It's been entirely about chaos.

Trump has sowed copious chaos since the beginning of the campaign; turning masses against the institutions and norms underpinning western political culture. In so doing, he also fanned the extreme partisanship that will eventually be seen as having been Russian-kindled all along (along with other factors). Then Trump managed to win, a bonus that surprised even Trumputin. Russia won't see its sanctions removed - they won't gobble up the cherry atop this sundae - but that's ok; there will be plenty more delicious chaos from the scandal and Trump's downfall and the ugly fallout therefrom. Consider: We're at the brink of civil war (those cloistered in big liberal cities don't understand how riled up the MAGAs are). It's working beautifully!

Russia doesn't care whether Trump's in or out, and they don't mind being the bogeymen (Russian bogeymen have been degrading American unity and resolve for decades now). The aim is to leave us (and our allies) confused, demoralized, cynical, and at each others' throats. It's ridiculous to suppose Putin actually favors Trump. He'll be just as happy milking this idiot's disintegration as his ascension. It all suits his purposes.

Osama Bin Laden demolished a couple buildings, inciting reckless responses that have shaken Western culture/values to their core. Similarly, prankster Putin propped up a useful idiot, bringing us to the brink. When the smoke finally clears, we'll need to learn to be more sophisticated about provocation, rather than behave like boobs, endlessly bashing the opposing tribe in an endless, pointless Itchy/Scratchy cartoon.

Moderates on the left and the right will need to drop their litmus tests - strident tribal dividers like abortion and guns - and come together as a coalition to outnumber the rabble, the loonies, and, above all else, the sophisticated tactics of provocation and chaos which Russia excels at...but which ties rich, distracted, earnestly simplistic rubes like us Americans up in knots.

Read that link to get a good start.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Non-Linearity of Deliciousness

I've been thinking about my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food (and other things) on a scale of 1-to-10 (see here).

I believe the scale is non-linear. An "8" is more than twice as good as a "4". Perhaps way, way more. Like thousands or millions of times more.

Dark adaptation - our visual system's ability to readjust, albeit slowly, to a darker environment - is a bigger deal than people realize. It is spectacularly non-linear. You may feel as though your dark vision improves incrementally after, say, the sun goes down, but it's actually logarithmic. Huge. Once you're totally dark adapted, your vision is, like, thousands or millions times* more sensitive. It's a spectacular feat (the downside is that it takes ten minutes to complete the adaptation process).

* - I knew the exact numbers in college, but can't find them right now

You don't realize anything so sweepingly miraculous is happening, because you're used to it. However, there is one clue. Turn on the lights in a dark room after you've adapted, and you'll experience a jarring wave of discombobulation. You will be completely overwhelmed. This tells you how far you've truly gone.

Similarly, going from a "7" ("Soulless but good") to an "8" ("Elicits vocal expression of pleasure") creates a jarring wave of discombobulation. A sense of being overwhelmed.

So while it's impossible to quantify aesthetic experiences, the gradations are non-linear, and sharply so. This is one reason for my conviction that deliciousness is never accidental. It's just too steep a climb, considering that "Mmmm!" is thousands, or millions, of times better than "Meh".

Serve me something delicious once, and I'll remain perpetually receptive to your work, no matter how much crud you serve me in the meanwhile. Deliciousness is never accidental.

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