Wednesday, January 31, 2018

West Texas Breakfast Insights / The Deeper Meaning of Salt

So aside from the Sturm und Drang of my operatic failure with regard to the Huckleberry breakfast in Grapevine, Texas at Old West Cafe, how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln?

I have many thoughts to offer; nuggets earned at steep physical and emotional expense, given the massive over-consumption (I couldn't get the Monty Python "Bucket" sketch out of my mind) belied by my seemingly feeble execution (the waiter, removing my plate, only barely concealed his contempt).

This was my first meal ever meriting two separate postings. And here, once again, is the "Huckleberry" - "a hand-tenderized, hand-breaded chicken-fried ribeye steak smothered in homemade sausage gravy served with two eggs, hash browns, and Texas toast":

Objects are larger than they appear; that golden disk in the background is an entire rib-eye.

Old West Cafe appears to have one main function for the world: it's the closest real good meal to monster DFW airport, which half the world likely passes through in a given year. The restaurant is a mere 13 minute ride, so it's always recommended in those perennial "Where do I eat during a layover?" online forum discussions.

Alas, once the world has determined your function, you're stuck with it. What else is Old West Cafe? Well, it's super-delicious, if that counts for anything. And extremely well-run, with excellent service. And authentic; their chicken-fried steak is as good as any I've had. Deliciousness and authenticity aside, the kitchen's QA amid massive Saturday and Sunday morning rushes was remarkable. I highly recommend this place, and would certainly hit it up for lunch or dinner, as well.

Here's the web site, and here's the Yelp page. Note that there are also locations in Denton, Bedford, and Arlington, but I can't vouch for them. For southern food (which has considerable overlap), I'm an even bigger fan of Babe's Chicken Dinner House (particularly out-of-town branches) and Babe's semi-fast-food-ish outlet, Bubba's Cooks Country, which I covered last trip (I fly to Dallas any winter when I find an airfare under $80 round trip).

Weirdly, I was out of there in about eleven minutes flat. And I wasn't the only one. The table churn in this place was like a hyper-accelerated time-lapse. That's unexpected given the landscapes of food. But I've seen this happen at dim sum, too, where super-hungry diners say "yes" to every cart lady, wail through their dumplings in a flash, and slink out woefully clutching their stomachs. Bigger portions may actually accelerate turnover (the higher food cost may be more than offset by this effect). It seems counterintuitive until you consider that especially attractive romantic partners seldom elicit more prolonged attentions. It's exactly, precisely, like that.

These hash browns were the Platonic ideal of this type of breakfast spud. Fancy French chefs don't know how to wield the magic of cusp burntness. I could write volumes on cusp burntness. If so, this would be one of my primary examples:

A seriously righteous chicken fried steak with sausage gravy. Flavor-wise, there is not a lot going on in such a simple dish. No big, bold flavors. Mostly fat, salt, pepper, and fat. But the subtleties are infinitely provocative.

Really, the main appeal was textural. Having been tenderized within an inch of its life, crunchy highlights gave way to a gummy, gravied inner stratum surrounding a core of infinitessimally chewy beef. Here's a cross-section:

When salt and pepper are pretty much the only things going on, and it works, you need to really consider that salting and peppering. So here goes...

I didn't grow up in a black pepper household. When it was used, it was with onion, for a flavor effect evoking grandmotherly/old-world (which tied together for me only this year, when I finally visited a Belarusian restaurant). Other than that, I don't really "get" pepper. It's the flavor of cheesy moderately upscale restaurants - assuming you've bent to the considerable pressure and cared to have some freshly black pepper with that, sir. I don't grok that bizarre ritual, and I don't grok the omnipresence. I get why people expect salt, but much of the time black pepper strikes me as gratuitous. Good dishes would be better without it, and lousy dishes are never saved by it.

But in this context, I totally totally get it. The pepper is necessary. It achieves miracles. It sophisticates the grease and offsets the salt. It lends personality - though, without onions, it's the personality of someone else's family. Who doesn't groove on the cooking of other people's families?

It's also added in great profusion, and I usually only experience massive black pepper in two contexts:

1. A certain type of nouvelle Texas BBQ where the entire outside of the meat is crusted in peppercorns - which are portioned to the customer along with the meat, which turns me off because I'm there for delicious, complex, expensive beef, not some pretentious, dull, monotonous, clobber of black pepper.

2. Certain Thai dishes which demonstrate that black pepper, in sufficient doses, can ignite a spicy roar of its own. Thai food reminds you that black pepper, the original trendy spice, still retains its enigmatic character even in an era when all of us are savvy spice veterans.

Chicken fried steak and sausage gravy is a comparatively new wrinkle in a 4000 year continuum, plumbing fresh profundities with the oldest of spices.

"Salt and pepper" is the mantra, and grease is the medium, but there’s another elusive flavor in there; a subtle complexity tying it all together. It took a few bites before I understood what it was. It was salt! But a deeper salt. This dish was obviously salty, but beneath the environmental saltiness lurks an inner kernel so unfamiliarly salty that it’s hard to identify, short-circuiting any “too-salty” response. The chef has actually hacked salting; altering the brain's reaction.

I kept taking bite after additional bite, trying to confirm a stealthy tang of vinegar. Nope. Beneath the grease and the meat and the black pepper and the big-picture salting, there's only a subtextual salt tang that I do not - and may never - understand. I am, culturally, 10% Latino, 10% African-American, 5% Spanish, 5% Mexican, and 1% lots of other things, but I've got precisely zero cowboy in me. Never even played one as a kid. Never saw a western film (no John Ford, no Sergio Leone...nothing). So don't ask me to explain this salt thing.

Dallas is Texas' most cosmopolitan city (Austin, the state's most provincial town, is merely the apotheosis of hipsterism, quite a narrow thing), and cosmopolitanism is normally the product of confusion and alienation. Too far west to be Southern, too far east to be Western, and too far North to be Hispanic, Dallas is everything and nothing, so you don't see much insularity. Despite my New York accent, no Dallas native has ever suspected me of being a tourist. And so I choose to attribute this wall sign to that cosmopolitan spirit:

I returned the next day to try the migas ("Three eggs scrambled with chorizo, diced tomato and onion, crispy tortilla strips, cilantro, and cheddar cheese. Served with warm tortillas, fried potatoes, refried beans and salsa"). Killer. By the way, if you want to know the origin of migas - which are from Aragon, a lesser-known region of Spain - see my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere (migas are covered in the "Spain" section, under "The Short List").

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #8

Tuesday, January 30, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 83,200 google search results, a worthy increase over last week's 78,900, but a steep dip from the weird momentary peak of 307,000.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Music Postings

I'm a writer and a musician, but am definitely not a music writer. But every once in a while I "go there". For those who enjoyed "Bolero and Breakfast", yesterday's foray into the music world, here are some of my previous rare musings on music:

Having dragged back to light trombonist Ron Barron's worst moment, here's the story of a bad night of my own: Bad Nights

The funniest classical music video ever inspired me to voraciously research the story of New Hero: Carlos Kleiber

I've written profiles of Our Ruggiero Ricci (BTW, Ricci's best friend emailed to say my story - small and juvenile though it was - would have deeply delighted him), the astounding ears of Arnie Lawrence, Richard Wagner: Pussycat, and tepid fusioneer but spectacular flamenco traditionalist Paco de Lucia (¡Venga, Paco!). FWIW, here are all my profiles of people from all walks of life.

The Quandary of Unacclaimed Genius, my take on the infamous Joshua Bell stunt of posing as a subway busker.

My weekly hangout with nonagenarian musicians at Charlie's Jam Session

A video of me playing a trombone feature on a gig back in 1992.

My heartfelt attempt to reclaim music after a decade off: Back From Band Camp

And, finally, "The Majestic Depths of Pop Star Justin Beiber"

There've been other postings tagged "music" (here they are in reverse chronological order, played out over three long pages), but they usually involve music more peripherally.

Bolero and Breakfast

One lesson I learned in the music business: if you're going to mess up, be bold. There's no place in professional music for a furtive, stifled boo-boo. Pros just don't do that. When they get into trouble, it's while playing full-out. The definitive example when I was much younger was Ron Barron's notorious "Bolero" entrance with the Boston Pops - the clam heard round the world.

Barron was a great player; a legend. But on this occasion, he stared down the most heart-stopping task in all of trombone-dom, and he blinked. He blinked and he slipped and he fell and he slobbered and he imploded and he decomposed. It was worst case scenario, the most dreaded nightmare any trombonist could imagine, come painfully to life. Luckily for Barron, the tale has faded in musician memory, but let me resurrect it for cheap perspective on a horrible blunder I recently made at breakfast.

The first note of the dreaded "Bolero" trombone solo is nearly the instrument's highest note. And the thing about high notes on brass instruments is that they're perilously close together, so it's extremely easy to overshoot or undershoot. Imagine selecting a knife from a high shelf on your tippy toes, when they're packed in tightly with one another. With training, you'll get it right 99% of the time, but failure is very messy indeed.

What's more, while Ravel splays out his sexy build-up, you sit there, not playing a single damn note, for nine long minutes. Your chops get cold, your horn gets cold, resolve weakens, and all you think about is that knife you'll soon be grabbing from the high shelf on tiptoes. Meanwhile, your two fellow trombonists sit there next to you, pumping out pheromones - a combination of pity, sympathetic anxiety, and better-you-than-me-dude shadenfreude. Such subtleties are palpable because Bolero's endless build-up contains no lushness or bombast in which to lose oneself. It's like being slowly ratcheted up to the top of a very tall rollercoaster, at the summit of which you'll need to let loose with the music business' most-exposed entrance. Tighten your underpants, redden your face and pop your eyes as you squeal along with me: "DWeeeeeeeeeeeeee...."

Oh, and the solo goes on forever, and stays stupid high the whole time, so you'd better not tighten up. And, man, why on earth wouldn't you be tight, selecting a high knife and broaching a cold horn, your colleagues silently clenching their fists in a paroxysm of stress you must entirely ignore so you can stay loose - not merely fearing, but fearing fear itself. After minutes of this, you must exhibit inhuman control to hit the damned note without ruining absolutely everything, and hope your instrument hasn't gone completely out of tune during the nine minute chilling period.

Geez. I almost blacked out, myself. Just don't be a symphonic trombonist. No one deserves this. I wouldn't wish it on Harvey Weinstein.

So here's what happened that fateful evening with Ron Barron. First of all, he came in like 17 bars early. John Williams, having spotted him hoisting his horn eons before the proper moment, had broken all decorum, wildly flailing his arms to stave off the catastrophe. "No! NO, Ron! Don't play now! Stop!! Don't do it!!" but Barron wasn't paying the least attention. And then, for good measure, he absolutely butchered the note as wildly as if his horn had been grabbed by a drunken 5-year-old. It was a slaughter. There was blood on the fur coats in Symphony Hall. It was frickin' EPIC.

So let me tell you about breakfast. I was facing a thirty minute wait to get into Old West Cafe (600 W Northwest Hwy, Grapevine, TX; 817-442-9378), and had come up with the bright idea of heading next door to a generic random burrito place for a quick tamal and coffee, just to give myself something to do and to tide me over. Over-enthusiastic, I decided to try both chicken and pork tamales. And they were larger than expected:

Soon after I'd polished those off, I received a text message saying that my table at Old West Cafe was available. I wandered next door, and soon confronted what was easily the most intimidating breakfast of my entire life. Behold the "Huckleberry": "A hand-tenderized, hand-breaded chicken-fried ribeye steak smothered in homemade sausage gravy served with two eggs, hash browns, and Texas toast". And, oh, look! They appear to have comped me an extra egg! Lucky me!

I had trouble fitting it all in the frame, so, as with a Mercator Projection, the ratios are off. That small seeming puck in the distance is an entire breaded and fried ribeye steak. The little pile of hash browns was the size of a cigarette carton. I couldn't do much more than nibble at the edges of this fearsome mass. Worst of all, it was sensational. I'd committed a humungous chowhounding blunder. But, like any good trombonist, I sucked it up. At least I'd messed up big.

More about this breakfast tomorrow. In the meantime, here's Bolero, fast-forwarded to the trombone solo:

More music postings

Friday, January 26, 2018

Black Republican Dining

This is a post-graduate-level chowhounding tip.

People who haven't spent a lot of time in African-American neighborhoods don't know about black Republicans. The only portrayal I've ever seen in media was satirical. The great Key and Peele absolutely killed it:

The cliche of Black Republicans is that they're square, uptight, irritable, hard-working, detail-oriented, and constantly stressing qualities like motivation, pride, and achievement. And if you ever come across a Black Republican-owned restaurant, you should eat there, because it will always be great.

How will you know? Because the place will be freakishly clean - to a level beyond any normalcy. The workers all hustle, and the place exudes an almost military efficiency. There's a certain palpable fear in the air. The boss looks for excuses to kick ass.

Same thing with Latin and Hispanic Republican restaurateurs. Of course, I'm not suggesting the reverse - that non-Republican Black/Latin/Hispanic restaurateurs are necessarily sloppy and slack. But the gleaming efficiency of their Republican counterparts is preternatural. It's boot camp level, and unmistakable when you spot it.

This rule of thumb doesn't work with white, mainstream American-owned restaurants. When such places are super-crazy clean and efficient, you should expect blandness. For their food to have any character, you actually want some grit. Also, this doesn't pertain to Black/Latino/Hispanic Republican-owned chain restaurants (of which there are vastly many). I'm talking about soul food (and Hispanic and Latin foods).

And that's why I ordered broiled fish last night. I'm not usually liable to order that in Mexican restaurants. Much less in Tex-Mex restaurants. Much less in a Tex-Méx Mexican restaurant in land-locked Dallas. But I know that the owner of Campuzanos (2618 Oak Lawn Ave) is more likely to chew his own arm off than to allow me to be served iffy fish.

It was slamming, actually. I'd written about their Waxahachie location a few years ago:

Stunning. Amazing. Magic. I understand that the place and the food look like a thousand other Mex-leaning Tex-Mex places, but....KILLER. I almost felt giddy from the quality. I understand it's a glossy big box suburban place on a big box suburban street. But if you eat the shrimp enchiladas and horchata and don't share my thrill, then I'm afraid I can't take you seriously. Just the chips and salsa had me nearly out of my mind trying to figure out how a food item with a short curve of declining results can be 10,000 times better than normal without literally adding crack.
The last time I tried the Waxahachie branch it was missing a certain inspiration. This Dallas location is now the good one, though I was worried by the Puerto Rican hostess and blasting meringue music (there is scant connection between Caribbean/Latino and Mexican/Hispanic cultures). But there's no mistaking the sense of zip - of military tidiness and efficiency

I needed that fish, too. I've been here only two days, and haven't eaten a bite of barbecue, yet my stomach's been roiling from all the meat and grease and cheese.

Hmm...I just realized: there actually was one very conspicuous media portrayal: would you imagine that Gus Fring voted Democrat?

No fish photo, sorry, because the lighting made it look radioactive.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Wouldn't you have thought the word "akimbo" (as in "arms akimbo") derived from Swahili or some other African language?

Nope. Old English, preceded, probably, by Old Norse.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Be the Change (Huncaina Tacos)

The sign read "Mexican/Peruvian Fusion", and I got a good vibe, so in I strolled to Fusion HK Bar and Grill (688 10th Ave between 48 and 49, Manhattan).

The place was empty, the chef was on break, but the bartender offered to cook for me. The menu wasn't anywhere near as fascinating as I'd hoped (when is it ever?). Just a bunch of hoary Peruvian and Mexican classics, at crazy Manhattan prices.

Inspiration struck, and I asked for chorizo tacos....with huancaina sauce. In case you don't know about huancaina, the Peruvian cheese sauce, my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, explains it thus:

Papa a la Huancaína / Potato with Cheese Sauce [PAH-pah a la wan-kah-EE-nah]

So simple, and so unique. There's nothing like it in the world: slices of boiled potato, served cold and topped with bright yellow cheese sauce. The yellow is from the tasty, incendiary ~amarillo~ peppers that are a signature of Incan cuisine.
Understand: it is stark raving bonkers to ask for tacos with huancaina sauce. It's like ordering yogurt bolognese, or Cheerios with Thai curry, or samosas parmigiana. But I had been disappointed, and it bothered me a little, so inspiration struck and I came up with the kookiest, cleverest way to merge the two cuisines I could think of. My own Peruvian/Mexican fusion!

The bartender/temporary cook didn't have the cojones to actually apply the huancaina, so it was served alongside in an aloof little cup. You could almost smell the disapproval.

But I lathered it on, along with the fake Mexican chili sauce, and the tacos were fucking incredible:

(that's a shot of chilled pisco to the left)

"Cornered Rat" Report #7a

Oh, Google.

Three hours later, the phrase "cornered rat" finds 307,000 Google search results, compared to 78,00 this morning.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

"Cornered Rat" Report #7

Monday, January 22, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,900 google search results, the same as last week.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Goat Korma, Great Karma

Geez louise. Behold the life-changing (i.e. "re-framing"!) goat korma from the Sunday buffet at Nawab Pakistani Indian Cuisine, 2 Hudson St, Yonkers, NY; 914-909-9700 (Here's the menu), the best Northern Indian restaurant I've ever found - including the once-great Jackson Diner, my first big published find:

(Click photos to expand for extra porniness):

Visualization Fallacy Redux

For the two or three of you who actually slogged through that last posting, congratulations and my sympathies. To push patience still further, here are some cleanup items, followed by an extra bonus confusion multiplier!

I'm a big fan of buried ledes. In fact, at one point I considered renaming this Slog "Jim's Buried Ledes". Most of the ideas in "The Visualization Fallacy" were non-original, albeit freshly expressed. But two original thoughts were strewn at the bottom: The part about why time seems to speed up as we age (which I'd tackled once before, here, though I hadn't tied it into a larger picture), and a fresh (to my knowledge) speculation about traversing parallel universes via internal shifts of our perceptual framing.

I'd previously touched on perceptual framing here, and I'll be writing much more about it in future. It's something I've been aware of since childhood, and assumed everyone else knew about. It was decades before I realized, to my surprise, that most people mistakenly assume the world shifts their framing for them. They think perceptual shifts aren't directly available to - and perpetrated by - them. The most telling example of this misunderstanding is the construct "You're making me angry". Obviously, that anger is initiated by you. You may be responding to a person or situation, but the external world has no lever of control over your internal framing (in fact, recognition of this is, itself, a reframing). You can be inspired to make shifts, but it's certainly not common to say "You're inspiring me to make myself angry!"

The grossest area of the grossest town transforms into paradise upon a first kiss there with someone deeply loved. And the most gorgeous place will become a bleak hellscape if your beloved dumps you there. Neither the kisser nor the dumper enact this transformation (though we naturally project it back to them). But we've clearly shifted, and the world has shifted with us. It's all different.

There are countless perceptual shifts that can reframe our attention - and thus our world and ourselves. Look very carefully at your cuticle. Then remember we're floating in endless space on an insignificant dust moat. Then return to your cuticle. Do it a few times, like a toddler playing with a light switch, to verify your control. Now try another. Sit quietly and observe that everything's perfect in this moment. But notice your brain scanning to find something to complain about (physical discomfort, hunger, temperature, memories or worries, a mental alarm set to go off soon...or simply the immense buzzing burden of the millions of previously set mental alarms that never quite faded to zero). Then refocus on how it's all perfect....and watch your mind once again spread out its tentacles, a princess perpetually scanning for mattress peas. Toggle between the two fast. 

This mundane-seeming faculty is actually a superpower, and one that can be practiced and developed (I'm working on a book about this), however rusty your shifter may have grown from disuse. It's worth the trouble. Framing is everything. Heaven is a frame, as is Hell. Did you really imagine they were places one goes after death? That's nuts! Do you think a hell could be devised that's worse than most people's day-to-day lives (entirely a function of their framing)? Or a heaven more salubrious than modern-day America actually is (if only we'd stop scanning for increasingly insignificant mattress peas)? Spiritual enlightenment, too, is a reframing.

An infinity of alternative yous, existing in an infinity of alternative worlds, can be visited/inhabited by simply reframing in any moment. It's not magic; we've had this ability the whole time. It's like a smartphone feature you didn't realize you had!

If I wrote yesterday's posting correctly, it should have offered a small, tasty cookie to those who struggled through. It should have inspired a reframing toward expansiveness. It explained how we project a world, and then live within that projection. So we're world builders. Gods! The step backward that's necessary to see this is, itself, a mighty perceptual reframing. But there's another step to be taken.

But before I ask you to stoically plow through the extra bonus confusion, enjoy an intermission via this spectacular adrenalin-pumping short film, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of this...but which, coincidentally, will coax you to reframe. We love movies because they're the slickest reframing aid short of a screaming boot camp sergeant three inches from your face:

The ancient Indians, bless 'em, coughed up a terribly advanced idea a few millennia ago. The Sanskrit term "akasha" is a humble-seeming word with the most cosmic of meanings: "it's all space."

Not in the I-just-smoked-pot-and-think-I-can-levitate sense of space, but they meant it in a legit 21st century physics sense. We now know that an atom is 99.9999999999996% empty space. So everything is almost entirely space. The Earth is space. Even, say, granite is way, way more space-filled than we'd imagine, say, a tissue to be. It's all extraordinarily spacious and light.

However spacious you might imagine it all to be, you're still vastly understating the spaciousness. In a neutron star, matter has imploded on itself to become inconceivably dense. A handful of neutron star material has the mass of Mt. Everest. And even that stuff is permeated with space (the atoms have been broken and compressed, but the component quarks are, you won't be surprised to learn, mostly space). I once asked some astronomers (and astronomy buffs) how much denser matter could get, beyond neutron star density (here's that discussion, if this is of interest to you). They didn't like the question; digressing while I annoyingly tried to wrangle them back on track. Finally I got the answer I was looking for:
"There is only space".

So....remember how I wrote this:
"You've only interacted with a tiny fraction of the molecules in your house, yet you've convinced yourself you have a perceptual and conceptual grip on the chaotic mass of matter you associate with 'home.'"
Now patch in the fact that it's all space. That unfamiliar materiality is actually space. It's nothing! Ferns are space. The marauding tigers are space. The aliens are space. And we are space. Is it now easier to imagine that we can create, project, and inhabit parallel worlds (such as Worldworld, which is so strange that even computers can't make sense of it)? And, just as importantly, has your sensation of expansiveness just grown? Have you reframed? Is this now a slightly different world?

Read the links (both here as well as in the posting this refers to)! I don't include them pro-forma!

I wrote this follow-up posting clarifying and explaining some points.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Visualization Fallacy

A seldom-observed cognitive problem: We visualize concepts, and then we falsely associate the made-up visualization with the concept (usually with the help of movies and TV).

For instance, aliens travel in saucer-shaped ships, right? If you ever spot a saucer flying around at night in the desert, you'd certainly know how to explain it. That's an alien! We "know" this from movies and TV. Some random visualization caught on, creating a false consensus that's utterly non-meaningful.

Alien visitors may or may not be real, but the flying saucer trope almost certainly isn't. We couldn't begin to imagine alien tech, yet most people feel they could identify an alien spaceship because they've been conditioned by some random visualization. It's a form of tail-wagging.

If you walk around an old, dark house at night and encounter a hovering gauzy white presence, your brain will likely tell you - based on movies and TV - that this may be a ghost. Yet, for all you or I know, disembodied spirits look like manicotti, and are delicious, and we've been eating them for years.

When abstract concepts (or concrete concepts with no observable examples) become visualized, we easily become tied to that visualization.

It works at subtler levels, as well. We think we know a few things about how parallel universes work, but for most of us, that's entirely been forged by treatment in fiction. And it's a hindrance. Modeling and conjecture have their uses, but when we unconsciously lock in to a certain conjecture, that's conceptual kludge which must be cleared out before we can really understand. It's an intellectual detour; active miscomprehension dragging us further from the truth than mere non-comprehension ever could. But we can't help ourselves. I'm not sure even the most objective-minded scientist can avoid this trap.

Spiritual teacher Adyashanti (who I consider the only 100% non-bullshit living speaker on the subject) observes that no one ever experiences ultimate reality and reports back that "it was exactly what I'd thought!" Everyone hoping for such an experience shoots for some imaginary canned fluffy-fluff (usually something they read in a book). The folly of seeking after some errant visualization lures them further and further away from the truth.

As with most cognitive failings, this evolved as a feature, not a bug. There is no such thing as a table, or a tree, or a toenail beyond the human brain. Such categories are entirely abstract. That's clear from observing the enormous trouble computers have in distinguishing between classes of objects (a tree from a bush from a telephone pole from a totem pole). This might seem like a computational deficiency, but it's not them; it's us. Our diverse universe does not really divide in this way, so we've been sloppily kludging it all along. Our taxonomies are fuzzy, arbitrary, even irrational. That's why it vexes the bejesus out of computers.

Yet our human flair for generalization serves a purpose. If we allowed ourselves to remain freshly aware of every ant, or taxi, or eyelash - as unique expressions - we'd never get anything done. Preoccupied with each and every fern, we'd miss the tiger dashing out of the underbrush. It is evolutionarily adaptive to dismiss the mundane and key in on the surprising.

In time, nearly everything becomes mundane as more and more becomes patterned. We disconnect from the Actual as it's subsumed by overarching generalization. You don't even perceive the chair you're sitting in because its individuality has been lost to the category. It's not real, it's been reduced to a concept. Not a unique and constantly (subtly) changing arrangement of matter, but merely "a chair". Similarly, you've only interacted with a tiny fraction of the molecules in your living quarters, yet you've convinced yourself you have a perceptual and conceptual grip on the chaotic mass of matter you associate with home. It all stands on the flimsy proposition that we know perfectly well what a "home" is. We abstract it, then we exist in the abstraction (much as we imagine ghosts to be gauzy things, then pattern our world to that visualization).

We create and inhabit Worldworld, a universe of symbols and categories. By adulthood, we barely register anything freshly unless we are surprised. Things which fit poorly within their apparent category blink back into our awareness, becoming real and individual until we manage to reclassify them (that's a necktie, not a snake) or make it fit better into its category (adding a missing fourth leg to a table).

(Note: this is why time seems to speed up as we age. Babies live in the Real World of fresh perception, but as we age we replace Real World with Worldworld, losing the moment-by-moment experience of full reality (an experience babies have, and that we envy) making time appear to fly.)

Living in abstract Worldworld, we forget that labels are mere labels, and that the approximation we've swapped in for reality is a cheat - a vast simplification. Worldworld is not the real world, just a model thereof. In the real world, there's no such thing as ferns. A fern is only distinct from the ground it grows out of and the surrounding air if we've drawn those dichotomies intellectually. Ultimately, it's all fresh and unique and interdependent. It all just Is.

So when we associate aliens with flying saucers, or ghosts with gauzy white presences, it's no different from the expedient means we use to model our entire conceptual world. In the parallel universe of Worldworld (I think parallel universes are subjective frames of perspective; whenever we reframe our attention, we shift into another reality), the aliens really do arrive in flying saucers!

Read the follow-up posting, Visualization Fallacy Redux


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Toilet Seats and Feminism and Exactly One Beer

Every man who's had women in his life knows that it's vitally important to lower the toilet seat. If you don't, women might find themselves sitting directly on the icky pedestal portion. And that's the man's fault, because, duh, he should have lowered it.

Why would a woman wind up sitting on the icky pedestal portion? Because she forgot to check. Hey, it's an honest error! But there's nothing honest about the error of a man failing to lower the seat. That's a lack of consideration. He's an asshole!

If you're struggling to make sense of the Aziz Ansari situation (or, for that matter, the Louis CK situation), I think this is the way in.

I once dated a woman's studies major who insisted that I pay for everything (the boy pays, duh). She'd lecture me on feminist theory while ordering countless glasses of wine at my expense, and, my lord, could that woman eat! One day I helped her move out of her apartment, and we went for a drink afterward. She told me she would buy me exactly one beer, a gesture she clearly considered extremely generous. As I sipped my exactly one beer, I pointed out that we earned about the same income. She didn't even blink. "I'm trying to save money," she informed me.

Funny, she had such trouble understanding why I never returned her phone calls after that.

The Deepest Authenticity

Today I chopped up a couple leftover broiled chicken thighs, and stir-fried them in a wok with garlic and a few handfuls of chopped kale. A bit later I added some leftover roast potato chunks and some chopped mini San Marzano tomatoes from TJ's (being well-seasoned, my iron wok can handle some tomato). Finally, a sprinkling of Penzey's Aleppo pepper flakes, my default source of chili heat.

I served it all over a bed of hummus, and it was delicious. Obviously, this didn't taste like anything one would label as "Chinese", even though I'd prepared this much as a Chinese grandmother might handle these same ingredients. The wok added its magic without leaving palpably "ethnic" traces...but no grandma aims to be "ethnic"!

Because this is how a Chinese grandma would do it, it was incontestably Chinese. If you assume Chinese food needs to have white pepper, scallions, rice wine, and soy sauce...and never ingredients like roast potatoes, chopped kale, hummus, or leftover chicken, that's on you, gringo! This was not "fusion", this was pure Chinese food, prepared with a Chinese mindset on Chinese equipment. I'd nailed it just as squarely as if I'd prepared proper beef chow fun (here's my rendition of that, fwiw).

The food you think of when you think of as Chinese food is a set of popular moves, not a universe of possible moves. I was shocked when I first learned that Ovaltine is a very insider-ish Chinese thing to order in Hong Kong-style cafes, but it's only shocking if you imagined there were boundaries. There are no boundaries. This is the biggest mistake people make in ethnology: cultures don't exist in cages, with neat nameplates. They're as open-ended as your own culture! Study the perspective, not the materiality. To really get it, you must learn to reframe your focus.

Earlier this week, I quickly reheated some chopped roast turkey on a hot Mexican comal, along with a few dabs of stuffing, wilted some baby spinach over it, and stuffed it all into righteous nixtamal tortillas properly warmed on that same comal. With no lime, salsa or coriander, and no crema or queso, the result might have seemed far from Mexican food.

But Mexicans don't know they're eating Mexican food! They're taking whatever they've got...with tortillas (sometimes pre-stuffing those tortillas into "tacos" - a medium, not a dish). Ingredients are mere variables. They don't need to be carnitas or al pastor; nearly anything can feel like dinner. This is what a Mexican grandma might have done with these ingredients, so the result was extremely Mexican, though no foodie would have considered it as such.

There is a deeper level of authenticity that transcends academic notions of authenticity. I aspire to that level.

Whether or not my guests recognize the pedigree, results carry a certain spin that parses as deliciousness.

More Support for Pinker's Theory of Declining Violence

I've noted a couple times that there used to be a term for people – weirdos like hippies and the Amish – who oppose war on principle: "Pacifists".

We no longer need a name for this, because it's become the default. Instead, we name the other side (which seems like a bunch of weirdos): "Hawks".

Here's a similar one. When I was younger, you used to hear - sometimes as a joke, and sometimes straight - that it's wrong to hit people who wear glasses. I haven't even heard that referenced in over 30 years. Why? Because it's not okay to hit people, period, anymore. So the glasses thing makes no sense.

I realize that attitudes and memes shift, passing in and out of favor. It's not usually very meaningful. But some shifts bear examination, because they truly do reflect huge, fundamental changes.

More postings on Stephen Pinker's theory of declining violence.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #6

Monday, January 15, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,900 google search results, up just a tiny bit from last week's 78,800.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Funding Your Time Travel

If you could time travel to the past, you'd feel mightily rich, due to inflation. $100 would buy 200 multi-course fancy French dinners in NYC restaurants circa 1893 (source). But there's a catch: you obviously couldn't pay with modern currency. You'd be arrested on the spot as a counterfeiter!

One solution would be to bring along some gold. But an ounce currently costs $1,330, and would be worth only $20 in 1893 (source). So $100 worth of 1893 gold would cost you $6650 in current money, which means those 50¢ dinners would cost you $33 each. Not an awful deal, but hardly a steal - certainly not enticing enough to risk accidentally preventing the meeting of your great-great grandparents, or coming down with diphtheria, or being forced into a duel.

This is something I've puzzled over for years. There are obvious ways a time traveler might earn money in the past (though with substantial risk of meaningfully changing the course of history). But if you wanted to visit the past for just a few days, what would you bring along to pay for essentials, allowing you to enjoy those sweet old-timey prices?

Sunday, January 14, 2018


I run warm. I can venture out in the cold in a t-shirt, no problem, and I rarely sleep with blankets. I feel like an ember, and it's a good feeling. But on those extremely rare occasions when I do get chilled, it's very hard to warm me up. It can be quite a serious development. There was one night so cold when I went to college in Rochester that I still haven't fully warmed up. I tell people this sometimes, as a joke. But I'm not really joking.

I understand most things quickly and clearly, at least in my idiosyncratic way. But when I do get confused, I need things explained to me as if to a child. I once, as an adult, broke down sobbing in a post office when the clerk sullenly refused to help me properly affix the form to a registered mail package while a long holiday season line impatiently waited behind me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.

I can create things and solve problems and make cool things happen with almost magical speed (I built most of Chowhound in a week or so). But when I get dead-ended - when I confront an obstacle I don't know how to overcome, or am besieged with multiple hindrances - I can freeze up badly, and my recovery's downright pathetic, far worse than other people's. I once tried to repair my Wallace and Gromit talking alarm clock, hit an impossible snag, and left the pieces splayed out on my dining table for 18 months. They weren't touched until I had to move to a new place.

I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly. Those with no particular talent, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage, while I exist in a hellscape of dismantled alarm clocks, imperiled by chills and tormented by confusion.

The tale of Samson has resonance. Our strengths are predicated on familiar conditions and clear runways. Frailty shadows flair, and weakness haunts power. Cut off some hair or tweak some parameter and "hero" doesn't just go to "zero", she plunges into negative numbers.

Superman fears Kryptonite way more than you or I fear cancer or homelessness.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fuzzy Ridiculous Repair!

I messed up my marked-up writing example in this morning's posting, "Fuzzy Ridiculousness" (just below the link for "Six Writing Tips"). Consider rereading if you found the subject interesting!

Fuzzy Ridiculousness

Bad writing is epidemic. Even, alas, in the pages of the Washington Post. In an otherwise interesting article, "How to make an innocent client plead guilty" explaining why 95% of all defendants - including most innocents - accept plea deals, Jeffrey D. Stein writes:
...the prosecution is not obligated to reveal its witnesses before trial. You and your investigator do your best to assess whether the case rests on unreliable eyewitnesses, faulty assumptions or witnesses with reasons to fabricate an account, which you cannot fully explore because — remember — the prosecution has not even disclosed who they are.

Why not ask your client for leads? That might work if the person were guilty. Innocent clients are generally the least helpful, because they often cannot tell you what they don't know.
They "often" cannot tell you what they don't know, eh? So sometimes they can tell you what they don't know? That "often" snuck into the lazy, unconscious first draft, and neither writer nor editor properly went over final copy to remove a word that's not only useless but logically ridiculous ("generally" in that same sentence is also useless - a mere placeholder - though not ridiculous). This all defies #3 of my Six Writing Tips:
Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.


Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.
I'm not nitpicking. Such flubs may not consciously register for all readers, but the aggregated fuzziness (and fuzzy ridiculousness) makes writing less readable and less persuasive. It's like shooting thumbtacks out of the back of your car to put off your pursuers, when the pursuers are the audience trying to read your stuff. The impression gradually arises that this is bulky, non-pre-digested stuff to be grimly endured.

And, take it from me: even paying close attention to such details, writers still risk losing readers to an impression of grim, bulky unreadability if they don't diligently grease the chute, pre-masticate the thoughts, and keep it all simple, stripped-down, and as unrelentingly entertaining as a kid's birthday party magic show. 21st century writers must beg and cajole readers to keep their eyes scanning left/right.

Wonder why almost no one talks about this Slog, or links to it, or comments on it? It's because there's almost no one reading, because I post complex, half-baked material requiring ripe digestion via multiple re-readings (also I jump wildly between topics, ensuring there's always something of disinterest for absolutely everyone). Unavoidably contrarian, I'm writing like Hegel in the age of Gladwell.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Corn Flakes, Aliens, and Trees

Corn Flakes are among humanity's most delicious creations. Everyone eating Corn Flakes experiences deep bliss, but there's a mysterious amnesiac quality. The moment our bowl is empty, we retract back into indifference. Meh. Just Corn Flakes.

If aliens ever landed, they'd be stunned. This nectar is available anywhere, for mere pennies? And we feign indifference? What's wrong with you earthlings?

On a similar note, if trees had never existed, and suddenly appeared, en masse, we'd all be driven insane by the beauty.


I believe the best thing about America is its immigrants. And it has always been thus. I believe the country would collapse in a heartbeat without its new arrivals, who believe far more passionately in the American Dream than any of us and who actually remember how to work and sacrifice.

This is why I support amnesty for undocumented aliens, a generous policy toward refugees, and liberalization of immigration, generally.

I am proud of the Indians who immigrated across the Bering Strait and gave this land a natural spirituality that even now remains our subtly palpable underlying bedrock.

I am proud of our founding fathers, who crafted this country with such courage, creativity, and wisdom.

I am proud of my grandparents, who came here from shit holes and worked insanely hard to gain a foothold.

I am proud of the natives who declined to welcome my grandparents with open arms, who called them dirty jews, yet allowed them to work insanely hard to prove themselves, eventually showing grudging acceptance, just as America grudgingly accepts each wave in time.

I am proud of the American pattern of initial resistance always being eventually worn away by increasing exposure, until each new group feels like a comfortable, natural part of the national fabric.

It's never been a tolerant process! It's never been welcoming! It's never been The United Colors of Benetton! We haze the bejesus out of each and every new group, and call them names, and make them work shit jobs, and just barely put up with them. But that's the ante for getting into the best game in town, and not one of us would be here if our ancestors weren't willing to pay that price.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Shit Hole Countries

I'm shocked by the shock at "shit hole".

Americans refuse to pay double digits for the cooking of shithole countries, while sky's the limit for French/Italian/Scandinavian/Japanese. We label the rest "ethnic", condescendingly shoving them into a "miscellaneous" drawer of spicy cheap chow. Lesser stuff.

Also: star chefs don't cook your food. Those guys earn millions fronting while shithole chefs anonymously perform the actual miracles. Name one Mexican or Central American chef in NYC! The immensely lower value of people from shithole countries is so intrinsically baked into American socio-economics that I find today's outrage completely inexplicable.

Sure, they're considered "shitholes" on the right, which at least talks straight. But the careful euphemisms from the left are just as condescending. The language isn't what matters. It's the respect, and these countries are nearly universally deemed shit holes by the vast majority of Americans, whether they want to admit it or not.

How immersed are you in the culture or politics of shithole countries? How many shithole friends do you have? How do you pay your shithole workers, compared to the natives? What's their advancement track?

What's your spending limit for the music, food, films, etc., of shithole countries compared to native culture? Name some cultural aspect of a shithole country you've explored and admired to the point of close familiarity (tacos don't count). Can you talk with shithole people with familiarity about their culture and experience? Are they something other than a "menacing brown wash" (right wing) or "peoples of color from developing nations" (left wing), neither of which affords much individual humanity?

Nervous condescension toward The Other is no better than brusque dismissal. These countries will be considered shitholes by Americans until actual interest is taken, and real respect is paid, and the Ecuadorian dude who mows your lawn doesn't need to underprice his service to get traction, and it finally strikes you as odd that the guys who actually conjure the deliciousness in fancy restaurants do so in utter anonymity, or that nobody will pay thirty bucks for Dominican or Ghanaian food....even when it's great.

Even if you're too busy to study and too broke to travel, consider: you probably have 50 things you could say about France, England or China. Would it kill you to know a half dozen things about Guatemala, Haiti, or Senegal? If that sounds strange to you, it's because you deem such places shitholes. There's no getting around it. Even if you're too polite to use the term.

This whole issue, btw, is one of the unspoken agendas behind my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere".

Three Quick Reads

Two perspective-shifting writings (and one merely interesting read):

Bannon's brutal ouster from Trump and Breitbart circles should frighten Americans is a perspective-flipping short observation on Bannon's fall from Cheri Jacobus that will leave you wondering how you missed the essential point in all this.
Finally, dropped by the Mercers, and by extension and formally by Breitbart, Bannon is now a man without a country, friends or home. That conveys an ominous message: Do not criticize this American president or you will be destroyed.
The Good War: How America’s infatuation with World War II has eroded our conscience by Mike Dawson and Chris Hayes. Graphic novel treatment (not a long read, though) of an insightful look at attempts to stir post-Vietnam America into loving war again via the relentless recharging of WWII nostalgia. Even if you're anti-war, you'll almost surely come away conceding that you've been manipulated by this (among other things, it's yet another reason to dislike Stephen Spielberg).

Less perspective-bending, but still interesting, and including tie-ins to provocative questions of marketing, taste, and economics: How an Underground Fashion Label for Nerds Got Cool, a look into a high-tech hipster clothing company:
Pants tough enough to deal with anything became Outlier’s signature play — trousers “for the end of the world,” as the folks at GQ put it. “We were trying to solve a specific cycling problem,” Burmeister says. “How to not look like a cyclist but still perform.”

They started going to textile conferences — Outdoor Retailer, then in Utah, was a big one. They wanted to find out where big companies, which they assumed used all the best stuff, got their supplies. But it turned out that the big companies of the world actually used the best cheapest materials.

As for the actual best, well, “we found that there was all this stuff nobody was touching. We were stunned. Like, nobody is using this? Nobody is using this?” Burmeister says. Military fabrics, equestrian fabrics, industrial fabrics — they were all for sale, or had been. They found, for example, a doubleweave with Cordura-grade nylon on one side and a softer nylon/polyester blend on the other. It seemed like it would make really great pair of jeans.

A postscript to yesterday's posting on miracles: The James Randi Educational Foundation archived many of their communications with would-be dowsers and telepaths as they negotiated testing conditions. It makes amusing reading.

But there was one particularly odd exchange with "ELAINE McGUCKIN, Asteroid Prophet". Uncommonly terse, Ms. McGuckin simply wrote in to predict the demise-by-asteroid of two towns: Oban, Scotland, and Bowen, Queensland, Australia. The predictions were made in 2004, and while both towns are still standing, there was a large meteor crash just off the central Queensland coast in 2016, and in 2015, Oban was the site of an unusual meteor shower. Of course, this is how cold calls and much other flimflammery works: we ignore contradictory evidence (i.e. the towns are fine) but marvel at any that might be construed as confirmative. Still, kinda weird....

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


Here's something you likely don't know about the Holocaust.

Hasidic Judaism is recent, having originated in the 1700s and flourished in the 1800s. There are parallels with The Reformation. While Hasidism is, like all religious Judaism, codified up the wazoo, it offers - at least ideally - more sap and joy and immediate personal experience (as opposed to bloodlessly admiring one's spiritual betters) than the stodgy mainstream Judaism of that time.

When sap rises in a spiritual tradition, there's inevitable talk of "power". And the funny thing about spiritual power (the juju that makes people writhe at revivals and transform into fervid devotees) is that it doesn't really translate into worldly power. All traditions speak of miraculous healings and other abilities, but I suspect that's because strictly internal power doesn't make for inspiring stories!

The Hasids, with the heat and freshness of their recent semi-schism, were extreme. Their masters were said to be god-like beings, hopped up with superpowers (don't miss public radio show Studio 360's deconstruction of "Superman", which came straight out of Jewish mythology). But then came the Holocaust, where these spiritual titans were rounded up like vermin and shoved into cyanide showers. No fireballs, no plagues; nothing. They turned out, alas, to be merely human.

(Despite this extraordinarily painful lesson, the same stories of superhuman power continue to circulate. When the Lubavitcher rabbi died in 1994, teams of followers monitored his grave 24/7, with a fax machine at the ready to announce news of his resurrection to the worldwide faithful. So far as I know, those guys are still there.)

In 1964, the James Randi Educational Foundation, a group of skeptics led by a wily magician with a keen eye for sleight-of-hand, announced a "One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge". To oversimplify it, they offered a cool million to anyone proving ability to defy the laws of physics within a controlled environment.

In a half century, none managed it. It might be argued that the foundation went beyond skepticism to actually put their thumb on the scale ("I always have an out," confided Randi, and his claim of misquotation doesn't pass the smell test). It might be argued that the environmental controls were massively cumbersome. It might be argued that truly spiritual people don't need to prove anything or make money (though the $1 million would have fed an awful lot of poor people). Yet, despite all that, surely someone would have won if there was anything robustly demonstrable to any of this.

It must be conceded that the laws of physics cannot be broken by spiritual or other power. And that spiritual power is neither a weapon nor a defense against weaponry. Inner mastery is a thing, but it doesn't grant you cheat codes to universal law.

Miracles are nonetheless possible, just so long as they don't involve levitation, telekinesis, etc. The word "miracle", after all, is highly pliant. When a small child peers at a book of matches and schemes misbehavior, and Mother appears to read his mind, snatching away the matches, it seems, to the child, miraculous. Similarly, any sort of human sensitivity, awareness, skill, or intuition offers extreme cases indistinguishable from magic. Anything within the laws of physics is potentially fair game (note that James Randi and his foundation would strenuously object to this).

It's highly useful to know what's possible and what isn't. Between the Nazis and the James Randi Educational Foundation (not to equate them, of course), we've had incontrovertible boundaries drawn around possibilities that intrigued humanity for time immemorial. Anyone still clinging to this stuff has simply failed to get the message.

A third point of persuasion was offered last century via mere pithy insight. Some wit - perhaps Emile Zola - noted that Lourdes, site of supposed miraculous healings, was full of abandoned crutches and wheelchairs...yet not one glass eye or wooden leg. The observation shook the world, like a cold water plunge of hard reality. The persuasive big three on this topic were: Nazis, Randi, and Zola.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #5

Monday, January 8, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,800 google search results, up a smidge from last week's 77,800.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Italians and the New Spaniards

I raved about The New Spaniards, by John Hooper on Chowhound's suggested reading page:
After having visited the land of paella 19 times, I find that Hooper is dead-on perfect in all his observations and assessments of post-Franco Spain. He masterfully explains how the country reached its present point, fitting a surprising amount of historic/cultural background into 470 pages. Hooper offers methodical analysis of every imaginable mileau (art, education, politics, crime, sex, religion, the press,etc etc), plus evocative (and unerring) portraits of each of Spain's strikingly different states. Indispensible for those traveling there, and a fascinating read for anyone even mildly interested in the region.
It's such a great read, with no padding or flabby indulgence. Hooper was the Spain correspondent for The Economist, so he knows how to write with elegance and concision. And I just discovered Hooper was reassigned to Italy a few years ago, and has given them that country treatment, with "The Italians". If you have any curiosity, and want quick sketches of the regions and level-headed recent history, check it out. If you ever travel there, it's surely indispensable.

NY Times review of "The Italians"
Guardian review of "The Italians"

Another cool-sounding book on Italy recommended in the Guardian review (above): Tobias Jones' "The Dark Heart of Italy"

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Why Trump’s War on the Deep State Is Failing—So Far

The Right has obviously gone off the deep end. The Left is headed toward its own crazy town of self-annihilation. "The Resistance" is a bunch of opportunistic self-promoting drama queens. Amid the tumult and the reciprocal tumult stands, alone, the very bright and clear-headed Benjamin Wittes. Don't miss his well-reasoned survey piece, "Why Trump’s War on the Deep State Is Failing—So Far". It's a ten minute read at most. Drink up some refreshing reason and sanity (as Steve Jobs famously said about iTunes for Windows, "It's like giving a glass of ice water to somebody in hell.")

Here is Witte's Twitter feed.

The Curse, Part 10: Theory "Always Thus"

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order 

As I said last time, there's no one answer. So I think all my theories are at least somewhat true. Before diving in, you may want to re-read the earlier installments. If you're going to theorize along with me, it will help to have the facts in mind.

The most straight-ahead theory is also the most terrifying. It occurred to me very early, and it's such a horror that I hesitate to reveal it. But here goes.

It's always been this way, but it took me a long while to notice.

There's truth to this. The world has always seemed off, but in murky ways I couldn't quite put my finger on, and generally blamed myself for. There were long runs of bizarrely poor results which became harder and harder to explain via my own flaws and deficiencies.

I had a rare chance once to read some pages from Andy Kaufman's diary, not usually available to the public. Kaufman, who, like me, was an "extreme" meditator, noted that every few years everything would completely fall apart for him. He'd decided that it wasn't due to anything on his end (though he'd, naturally tended to blame the most frequently criticized aspects of himself - the "Zit On The Tip Of Your Nose" effect I've written about, e.g. here and here). He didn't write about this with exasperation or self-pity. It was stated as a simple fact, and he seemed more puzzled by the mystery of it than exasperated with the fallout. Meditation gives you a higher perspective.

So this strange movie might have been playing all along. But, if so, it leaves me precisely where I started: trying to understand. So I continued to come up with theories.

There's a related theory that I call "Sensitive Me": The world is not really all that warm and embracing for any of us (I've written about this before), and maybe I feel it more acutely. Remember how at the end of Part 2, I said:
There are lots of greyed-out, fuzzy-focused, seldom-noticed people out there who very studiously mind their own business. Not just introverts, but people who intentionally shrink down to nothing with an almost palpable degree of self-awareness. Not depressed, defeated, nor malevolent, yet deliberately evading attention. I can't help but wonder whether such a "curse" might be less unusual than we imagine.
Maybe some people are more attuned to the selfish peevishness and idle cruelty, and take it extra personally. It's true that I have gotten better at registering subconscious malevolence. I've always had unusually keen intuition and street smarts , so maybe this is what happens when you keep ratcheting up your sensitivity. Intuition is not necessarily a good thing.

The problem is that "Sensitive Me" only goes so far. Whenever I started suspecting that I was making mountains of molehills, there would appear a demonic fishermen or pigeons flying into my chest, or some other almost winking evidence that none of this is normal. And, once again, friends confirmed the Curse and its surreal severity.

So while oversensitivity certainly plays a part, it's not a full explanation. It does, however, fit neatly with "Always Thus". The world is what it is, and my perspective has zoomed in on the underbelly of it all. That's a pretty useful upshot, though incomplete. I'm always a fan of explanations that involve perceptual framing. Our point of perspective/focus plays a far greater role in our experience of the world than we ever imagine.

Continue to part 11

Monday, January 1, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #4

Monday, January 1, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 77,800 google search results, a bit more than last week's 76,900.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

2017 Was Great

As predicted, everyone's complaining about how awful 2017 was. We're like Anne Frank's family, hiding behind the damned bookcase or something. What's to celebrate here at the low ebb of human existence?

Just as a reality check, let me point out that:

I have a stent in my heart keeping me alive and 100% active and healthy (if I'd been born a decade earlier, I'd be dead or incapacitated).

I have the entirety of human knowledge plus infinite free communication with anyone on earth on a <$500 piece of glass in my pocket.

Not one passenger jet crashed anywhere this year.

Cars never stall anymore. When you need to go somewhere, your car will virtually never fail to take you there. We don't even consider other outcomes.

I haven't heard about a mugging, car theft, or house or car break-in among anyone I know in America in a decade. I realize these things are still happening, and that I'm privileged to live in a middle class enclave, but I remember when nice middle class enclaves offered no protection from violence, and a trip to NYC meant a decent chance of returning to your car and finding a shattered window...and, possibly, a hard smack to the back of your head, as well.

2 million Americans confined to wheelchairs are can go virtually everywhere thanks to assertive federal laws that, in retrospect, seem incredibly unlikely to have ever passed.

Gay people, until only a very short while ago, were engaging in an illegal activity. Like junkies or saboteurs, they needed to skulk around in the shadows.

I can't remember the last time I heard someone complain about a headache (I'm not talking about migraines, a separate thing). Thank god for bottled water!

People live into their 90s, and remain young well into their 70's. I remember when 65 year olds stared at the walls!

I remember when it was weird to favor peace. There was a name for such weirdos: pacifists (one imagined flower children and Amish). No one uses that word anymore, because it's the default setting, while warmongers are considered crazy and dangerous. A tectonic shift!

I remember when it was taken for granted that politicians would be slightly (or more than slightly) racist know-nothing blow-hards, and we rolled our eyes at their stupid pronouncements, understanding that, sure, they'd screw things up somewhat, but life would go on. Things have improved so much that we find outselves in a position to find this sort of thing intolerable. Ass-grabbing, too!

We're enduring the latest in a long string of crusty leaders dog-whistling anti-semitic tropes (e.g. the entire "War on Christmas" thing is 100% about those damn Jews, though it's hopeful that I need to point this out). But this one actually has a Jewish son-in-law and daughter. What were the odds of a Richard Nixon - much less Teddy Roosevelt or James Garfield - letting a Jew marry into the family, and not immediately disowning their kid?

I've flown around the country and the world in the last few years like a billionaire, nearly always for less than the $250 my parents paid to fly me to Miami in 1975, thanks to the various cheap travel tools enabled by the Internet. I was in frickin' Singapore for a week last month (photos soon) for well under $700 including airfare and lodging! And that was by far my biggest travel splurge ever! I am living like a billionaire for pennies!

Great beer is everywhere.

So why do we feel so miserable? A collision of two phenomena:

1. As situations improve, dwindling remnants sting disproportionally (this is why Stephen Pinker's observation that violence is decreasing feels so counterintuitive; the remainder feels increasingly intolerable). So brace yourself. The better things get, the more sensitized we'll be, and the worse it will feel. Prepare to hate the rest of the ride up the curve of declining results to perfection.

2. One can understand American behavior much more clearly by recognizing that we are a bunch of horribly spoiled rich assholes. America has always been called a rich country, despite the poverty. But these days, even poorer Americans are ridiculously wealthy by world standards, and downright regal by historical world standards (just try to get a non-immigrant American to do anything for fifty bucks). And rich people are best characterized as princesses interminably vexed by their mattress peas. (Read the part about the "cheat codes" here.)

I'll give the last word to Louis CK - a non-person damned to crawl up and die and neither support his family nor ply his trade due to his icky-seeming consensual sexual practices. Take it away, Louie:

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