Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Wish Lists, Queues, and Release Valves

I've learned to maintain wish lists for books, DVDs, apps, etc., that I definitely want but which I wouldn't use right away. If I buy something upon first craving, it will most likely sit around unused, while if I wait until it's needful, the price will often have dropped (especially on the second-hand market).
I'm a fan of DVDpedia, CDpedia, and Bookpedia from Bruji, great software for Mac that lets you catalog both libraries and wishlists.
The purchase impulse can easily unhook from actual needfulness, and wish lists act as a release valve to get back into sync. A wish-listed book I eagerly want to read (once I get through 30 others!) doesn't feel lost. It's merely queued in a pre-sale state. It feels like it's in my ownership, just not yet in my possession.

I very rarely buy the stuff on my wishlists (unless I find something super-cheap), so it's a perfectly effective release valve. Terrific books/music/films are terrific, so it would pain me to deny myself. But this is not self-denial, it's just queueing in pre-sale! I'm waiting for the right moment or for a great deal...perhaps forever. It feels cheerful.
I do the same with long online articles, which get queued to Instapaper or Pocket, aka Read It Later.

I've always argued in my head a lot, especially while on hiatus from meditation. It's a writer thing; I'm always plotting expression on all fronts. And last year I tried an experiment. When someone annoys me, and I found that I've mentally played forward the conversation to craft a response to the imagined next line, I actually write out that response...and stow it away.
It helps me to write everything out, hence this Slog. The creative impulse is not playful delight so much as feverish compulsion...at least if you're doing it right. The creative flow is a magical thing but it is, alas, never optional. Be careful what you wish for!
While it would be daft to actually shoot off a snappy reply to a statement that has not yet been made, it gives me a sense of security to know it's ready. So perhaps once per week I'll queue such a response, and it's like a release valve. But here's the thing: I have yet to send even a single one.

When annoying conversations continue, they never go in the direction I'd imagined (my intuition is quite good, but in this one context it fails me utterly), so these pre-prepared missives remain stillborn. Occasionally I browse through with a sense of horror, beholding a pathetic litany of sputtering exasperation. My shadow self on full display! Meanwhile, my actual replies surprise me with their temperateness. It's not self-restraint, it's just that Real World me is different from Fantasy Imagination World me. In the Real World, I'm not the egotistical center, and a person is a real person.

I cringe at the seeming madness, but have come to realize that it isn't crazy, it's progress. A great many people - including many who've glued a thin veneer of simulated moderation over their seething toxicity - never leave Fantasy Imagination World. That's all there is. Everything's always about them, and other people are mere objects. I seem to be describing narcissism, but if you add in the sane-seeming veneer-gluers and self-deluded mask wearers, this is a huge swath of the population (though obviously not you!).

Monday, July 30, 2018

Giuliani/Trump Logic

Putin Logic: "We did not interfere in your elections...and everyone interferes in each other's elections."

Neo-Nazi Logic: "Jews must be exterminated...and it's a blatant lie to say the Nazis exterminated the Jews."

Giuliani/Trump Logic: "The collusion was totally appropriate....and it's a blatant lie to say we colluded."

Groucho Marx Logic: "The food is awful at that restaurant...and such small portions!"

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Two Strange Observations About Fitness

A personal trainer friend once confided to me that while he can run like a demon on a treadmill, whenever he dashes to catch a bus he winds up huffing and puffing. And though he can easily perform many sets with heavy weights, he's sore for days whenever he helps friends move.

I do an hour of fast, steep hill walking every day. 53 minutes, to be exact. It gets easier every week, but if I try to walk for 58 minutes, I transform into a whiny loser, wheezing and sweating. And, strangest of all, my 58 minute performance is not the slightest bit better than it was months ago, when I found 53 minutes tough.

The other side of the coin: some time ago a friend who's in phenomenal shape (vastly better than me) visited and came along for my hill walk. He struggled to keep up.

Training is way, way more specific than we realize.

You know how your car's "empty tank" light illuminates while you still have several gallons left? It's a sensible precaution. But it appears that the human "empty tank" illuminates when 95% of its reserves remain untouched.

I'm a fan of "The Race Across America", an ultramarathon bike race (there are two movies - both good - available as a package deal here). It stretches from Santa Monica, California to Manhattan, and there's very little stopping or sleeping.

You obviously can't train for this race - how would one train to bike 3,000 miles continuously? - so it'd be only mild exaggeration to say that an Olympic athlete has little advantage over a shlumpf like me. The athlete would feel utterly defeated halfway over the Rockies with thousands of miles still to go, while I'd lose it halfway up the first mountain...with thousands of miles still to go. The question - the only question - of this race is: what happens when you've got absolutely nothing left and still must pedal for days and days and days and days?

Everyone who finishes reports the same epiphany: at the moment when you're certain you have nothing left, you actually have thousands and thousands of miles left. I find this incredibly inspiring.

Whoops, I see that I wrote about Race Across America one before, along with some great links.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Your Mind Can't Make You Do Anything

I wrote last week about "Hitting the Bullseye", a discussion of the psychology behind shooting basketballs and similar win/lose activities. Anyone who's ever worked on this sort of thing knows that the only helpful thing to do with one's mind is to quiet it down. Mind can only distract; it can't actually help.
I recognized that there was nothing my mind could do to help. Thoughts were utterly impotent; they could only comment, to no benefit. Nothing helpful comes from the mind; all calculation is inherently miscalculation. You must train your body to take the action, and otherwise relax and let it quietly happen. Less mental chatter means less distraction.
Slog regular Richard Stanford left this comment:
This post reminded me of something that I feel to be true (yet have no real proof of), mainly the key characteristic that I've found over the years between people who are successful at making a life change (diet, smoking, etc) and those who aren't. The former decide positively to make the change, while the latter feel and know absolutely that they should make the change. Turns out that the art of making the active decision made all the difference in the world.
...and here’s a lightly improved version of my reply:
Yes, but you're offloading all the good stuff onto an extremely fuzzy word: "decide".
For most people, a decision is a thought. And while thought is useful for performing calculation, it's absolutely unable to affect (much less spur) action. All the platitudes and notions in the world can't do a damned thing. As I said in my posting, thought is commentary, nothing more. When we issue a mental command to ourselves, and then carry it out, we imagine that’s cause/effect. But it’s not. The body girds to act before the mind hastily gives the order ("I meant to do that!!"). When, by coincidence, thought and action align, we feel satisfied. When they don't, we feel stressed (see this).

A few years ago, I was about to fall asleep and realized I'd left the back door wide open. The problem was that next to that door lurked a bag of freshly baked cookies I'd managed to avoid all night. So I told myself I'd 1. go close the door, and 2. wouldn't eat the cookies. I headed downstairs, closed the door, and ate the cookies. Every last one of them.

My mind's "decision" had nothing to do with any of it. The door needed shutting regardless of mental resolutions. My body simply did what needed doing, though my mind feebly took credit. And my body ate the cookies, because that, too, seemed needful. The mental narrator gnashed his teeth, re-experiencing yet again the horrible truth: it only pretends to be in control. It's a laughable pretension.

So how do you actually make life changes? When something becomes needful - i.e. grabs your attention as something needing to be done. We rarely obey mental orders, but we do - for better or worse - respond to needs. It must be a visceral need, not an intellectual "want". You can't think your way to action, much less change. That should be obvious.

After I had a stent inserted into my heart, my cardiologist said the way to regain confidence in my heart - to feel healthy and strong rather than sick and victimized - was to go whole hog with cardio. Suddenly, I found I had the initiative to walk up steep hills, miles at a time, day after day after day. This "decision" preceded any conscious decisionmaking process.

Unlike previous resolutions to get in shape, it worked! Friends inviting me over for lasagna? Sorry, I've gotta walk. Twisted my ankle? Fuck it, I'll walk on bloody stumps if I have to. I walked and I walked, and I aced my stress test a month later. The nurse said it felt like a locomotive was in the room (I wrote about it here).

When we become accustomed to responding unflinchingly to benevolent needs (i.e. choosing not to inhibit our natural response via distracting mental chatter), the reflex strengthens. That's how we develop faculties like character and commitment. But people who haven't recognized the flimsy impotence of their mental thought stream never learn to trust their innate need/fulfillment response. They just keep endlessly telling themselves stuff.
“Deciding” only works when the decision is made for you, much as creativity only works when inspiration strikes from beyond conscious thought. You always know, viscerally, when such a turn is being taken. There’s a certain moment when it becomes inevitable. But the news doesn't arrive via a chatty mental ticker tape. It's deeper. And as for the mysterious decisionmaking process, it’s as opaque to us as the mysterious inspiration process. It stems not from a thought, but from a reframing of perspective, which is a whole other thing.

This explains why most people don't do anything. Thinking it is not doing it!

"Cornered Rat" Report #27

Friday, July 27, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 103,400 Google search results, up 3% from last time.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Cognitive Lozenges

Three Slog readers this week separately told me they needed to reread a posting. They were apologetic, figuring they're slow on the uptake.

Not at all. Slog postings are intentionally designed to reward - and even require - multiple re-readings. See those "Popular Entries" listed on the extreme left side of the page? I've read each of them a dozen or more times, myself. And I wrote them!

I understand the appeal of disposable snippets of leisure reading. I, too, consume plenty of that (and, for years, produced it). It confirms what we already believe, or offers new detail in topics of interest. But how much of it is surprising? The same ideas are endlessly re-churned.

Here, I aim to offer mostly new ideas. Not cleverly rebundled same-old, but unique takes you won't find elsewhere, and which may prompt you to reframe your perspective. That's my proposition; my shtick.
(It's not that every thought in my head is original; it's just that I don't post anything that isn't. I have plenty of conventional ideas and opinions, but can't imagine why you'd want want to hear me repeat what everyone else says. We live in a world where seven billion people say about forty seven things. It bores me, and I don't want to bore you.)
These postings are cognitive lozenges which, by design, impede speedy absorption (by, for example, forcing you to unpack phrases like "cognitive lozenges"). The ideas that absorb me are counterintuitive and nuanced, and while I always leave a breadcrumb trail, I choose not to spoon-feed (having worked as a professional spoon-feeder for years). I want you to work it all through, as I have, and maybe go further than I could.

For example, I would never expect anyone to completely grok "Marilyn" Syndrome on first reading. While confirmation bias swallows readily, surprising observations can't be hastily gulped. So if you find yourself retracing, that doesn't reflect on your smarts. Nor does it mean I'm eccentric or needlessly obscure...or that I've failed to be clear. This is what I'm aiming for!

We are accustomed to writers pre-masticating their stuff into a slurpy paste for instant digestion. That treatment works for conventional notions, but, again: Surprising observations can't be hastily gulped. If you're gulping, you're not grokking!

I read super slowly. Like "slow child" slow, even with the most conventional writing. I've tried speed reading classes, but it dawned on me that they were training me to reflect less; to abandon my entire purpose for reading in the first place. Writing that's so gussied up that it deserves to be skimmed is bad writing that doesn’t deserve to be read. If I'm trying to get through a piece of reading as swiftly as possible, with the least effort and commitment, then why exactly am I reading? I don't get it!

Efficiency has become so paramount that we've lost our original purpose for doing the things we do. We breathlessly await the train, then, once aboard, we can hardly wait for our stop. When do we finally arrive at the destination we've been hustling all our lives to reach? Why not now?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

SIGA Prospects

If any of you are still holding shares of SIGA (the Smallpox/Animalpox/Weaponized-Smallpox wonder antiviral - not vaccine - which I first recommended at $3.50, and shot to $15, pulled back to the $2s and is now hovering in the $7s), here's an update:

SIGA will never be, like, Pfizer. There will never be a brisk, broad-revenue trade in smallpox antivirals. There’s likely some boffo revenue ahead, but I’d be astonished if there were more than a dozen individual events in all. Probably way less.

So it’s a game of baked-in expectations, "selling the news" (e.g. FDA approval a few weeks ago didn’t do much for us, though it did rise in anticipation), and tons of shorting and other manipulation. All of which continue to spook the bejesus out of me.

I’ve decided that all that matters is having new revenue on horizon. Not benchmarks, not news, not investor exuberance, but hard revenue. When such prospects appear, the stock price rises in expectation, then usually snaps back fast after they're fulfilled - if (and only if) there’s nothing new on horizon. The reason we’ve remained in $6s/7s so long lately is the large government (BARDA) contract that’s been on horizon for several months. Once that's awarded, if there are no tangible new revenue events ahead, look out!

So, again: scary.

The good news re: that new BARDA contract is that SIGA seems sure to score (though who knows what shenanigans may ensue, with Congressmen still permitted to short stocks). Pricing is still uncertain. But, per above, if there’s nothing else serious brewing at the time of that award announcement, it may be be very hard to exit anywhere near peak. A fast up-and-down. So it might not be dumb to set a limit sell order at $10-15.

Aside from the BARDA award, here’s potential revenue:

Benchmark payments
More revenue gets released from their old BARDA contract as they hit certain benchmarks, e.g. FDA approval (which just happened)

Replenishment contracts
Like all drugs, this expires and must be restockpiled

These two are healthy but not huge, and I believe they’re largely baked in (a third is alternative formulations, a realm I don't completely understand, and consider a mere "kicker"). That leaves, in terms of future revenue, a few faith-based prospects:

Foreign Orders
SIGA investors have been waiting for foreign orders (including W.H.O.) for years. It’s true that foreign govs may have been awaiting the signal of FDA approval, but that’s come and gone with no foreign news. OTOH, SIGA’s notoriously tight-lipped, so we may hear nothing until a sale actually gets booked. I'm not banking on this, and the market clearly is not, either. Yes, South Korea and Israel and many more would be smart to stockpile this drug. Similarly, Betamax was a way smarter format than VCR.

Diehard SIGA investors still hold hopes re: the pipeline of in-progress drug candidates. SIGA had years and years and years to work on these while its smallpox drug was caught in legal/legislative quagmires, and they had the money for it, too (from the big BARDA order), but nothing happened. In fact, several years ago they tried to sell the entire pipeline outright...but nobody went for it, which I took as a bad sign (though there was one sleepy licensing deal we haven’t heard much about). In my mind, the pipeline should be entirely disregarded.

Idunno. If big pharma wanted SIGA’s drug or tech, they could have bought the company cheap a couple years ago. Which doesn’t mean it’s out of the question now that the legal cloud’s finally been dispelled. But I’m not banking on it (and I’m not sure it would bring us a huge premium, anyway).

If something juicy appears on horizon before the BARDA award announcement, that could keep the price up for a while. If not, I’ll expect a fast up/down upon that announcement, followed by an uncertain, becalmed wait for something new. I don’t want to be holding this stock in that scenario. So I’ve set a limit sell order, and will raise or cancel it if I hear anything new/exciting before contract is announced.

Here's my previous update from May.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

"Marilyn" Syndrome

Everyone's the hero of their own story. We know this intellectually, but it's seldom really baked in. It's always surprising to discover that the bad guys think they're the good guys. Most surprising of all is the discovery that you're actually the bad guy! It's helpful to be aware of this, but that awareness comes at a price. 

Remember Marilyn? She was the healthy, "normal" family member in "The Munsters" TV series, and I hereby name a psychological syndrome after her: "Marilyn" Syndrome.

If you're ever forced to engage with several psychological monsters (narcissists, psychopaths, borderlines, etc.) at a time, you'll feel like the Marilyn. But if you're sensitive and aware, an insight will arise: the others think they're the Marilyn, too. Monsters recoil from monsters because they don’t acknowledge their own monstrousness. They feel just like you do. And this can get super confusing.

They won't view you as a Marilyn - at least not for long. Your first sin will be to reveal - however subtly - that you find them monstrous. This makes you the monster. Then, at some point, you'll refuse to enable or fulfill their dysfunctional needs, making you the worst monster ever. As I once wrote:
From the perspective of a control freak, anyone resisting their control appears to be trying to control them.
Once again: your instinctive reaction will be "I'm the Marilyn," and your first insight will be "They all think they're the Marilyn." After that a second insight arises for anyone with a shred of self-awareness and intellectual honesty (which is to say, it's pretty rare): Perhaps you really are a monster. After all, if monsters always think they're Marilyns, and you think you're Marilyn, and the others consider you a Monster, then you may very well be deluding yourself, just as they do.

It may be true! Again, recoiling from monsters doesn’t make you a Marilyn! But for genuine Marilyns, this is the worst sort of gas lighting. It's savagely destructive, psychologically. So it's essential to know how to tell whether you're monster or Marilyn.

Simple answer: The monsters, who believe they're Marilyns, rarely have insight #1 ("Monsters always think they're Marilyns"), and never, ever have insight #2 ("I may be a monster"). By even questioning yourself (in a sustained and penetrating way), you've proven yourself a bona fide Marilyn.

If you wonder whether you're overly selfish, don't worry too much. That's what generous people wonder. Selfish people wonder if they're too generous.

The gaslighting isn't all bad. It presents an excuse to confront your monstrousness (there are no pure Marilyns; we all have at least a seed of horrendousness). If you're stout-hearted enough to face this fact with courage and diligence, the self-doubt can impel you to step up your game, purify your motives, and fortify your character, even if you were pretty cool to begin with.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Bill Frickin' Watrous

"Dude studies with Bill Watrous!" marveled Erich, the worldly and ordinarily cynical sixth grader trombone section leader in my elementary school's concert band. "Dude" was a hotshot player from a nearby middle school. For Erich to be so envious of another trombone student - when he, himself, had lived so large and seen so much - was nearly inconceivable to me. I'd never heard of Bill Watrous, but kids at that age imprint instantly. Bill Watrous, whoever he was, was definitely the bomb.

Erich was impeccably tapped in, as always. Watrous, at the time, was the hottest name in trombone. He was the Elon Musk of trombone; the LeBron James of trombone. I detested his playing from the moment I first heard him a couple years later. But at that age I hadn’t developed a cohesive perspective, so I was able to hold contradictory positions. I could hate his playing while idolizing his status. After all, we’re talking about Bill frickin’ Watrous here!!

Here’s how I sized him up at the time: Watrous spewed breezy streams of fast high notes in a glibly detached monotone. The effect was both laid-back and tiresome. If Axe Body Spray could play trombone, this is how it might sound. His tone was so weak (one of several compromises facilitating his bag of technical tricks) that he had to practically swallow the microphone into the bell of his horn to be heard. There was not much in the way of phrasing or expression, more just a dense packing of flurries of notes. That's it: dense note-packing.

I would take the opposite approach, cultivating a rich, fat sound which projected to the rafters. I'd swing hard and listen with utmost attention to my fellow musicians, never merely gliding over them like wallpaper. I wound up incarnating a 75 year old black man in the body of a suburban white kid.

Here's a sample of Watrous' playing:

Here, by contrast, is my hero, Slide Hampton, who also had formidable technique but who struck me as far more swinging and expressive:

Jump ahead nine years. I’m attending University of Rochester while taking classes at the associated Eastman School of Music. I still dislike Watrous’ playing, but certainly acknowledge his technique and ease. And - hah! - I am offered an opportunity to study with him for a week over the summer. I don’t know quite what to expect. Check out the early photo, above, and see if you don’t share my trepidations about his ego.

Sure enough, he showed up in a shiny Adidas track suit - like an NBA star on his off day - and a haircut straight out of Austin Powers, like some groovy modster from the 60s. A real star, baby! Yet he spoke to his students like colleagues, without a trace of condescension. And I was flabbergasted by his reaction to me.

I assumed Watrous would hate my playing as much as I detested his. I was, after all, the anti-Watrous. But, to my shock, he liked me...just as I was. He didn’t tell me to go buy a smaller horn, or to reign in my fat tone, or to work on cramming a jillion notes into every gap. He didn’t suggest that I take everything up two octaves, or reduce my intensity. In fact, he was far more respectful of my choices than even my most like-minded teachers, who were constantly pestering me to tone it all down.

He offered suggestions, but only to help me achieve what I was already aiming for. Watrous respected my vision, and didn't urge me to be more like him. In fact, he suggested that I tell anyone who didn't like my musical choices to go screw off. No one had ever spoken to me like that before, much less Bill frickin’ Watrous.

Watrous shook up not only my assumptions about Watrous, but about music and art, generally. In fact, I’m still processing the lesson. He told me about a trombonist whose playing style was downright lazy. Notes wouldn’t glibly propel from his horn, as with Watrous, nor did they waft out, as with me. Rather, they’d tarry and slobber, like a depleted wind-up toy. But his playing had personality, so Watrous respected and adored it.

So: what the hell had been my big problem re: Watrous' playing? Why had I been so judgemental about him? You can respect - even love - a thing even when it's not your thing. Again, I'm still processing this, many, many years later. It's a lifelong effort.

I was not making out well in music school (for reasons explained here), which stamped out clones more along the Watrous spectrum - certainly a trendier choice than my geriatric African-American inclinations. I was rejected like a slug coin. I wasn’t permitted to major in music and the illustrious top trombone professor refused to teach me, sloughing me off on the backup teacher (who I now recognize, with immense shame, was a far better player and teacher).

I told Watrous this, and he said “I know the guy. You go straight to him and tell him Watrous says to get off his lazy ass and teach you, and that it’s important.” I was grateful and flattered, but too young to understand how seldom people put themselves out there like that. He didn’t need to do this for me. It shot right by like a heady blip, but now, shortly after Watrous' death, I'm belatedly feeling a fuller appreciation.

That fall, I returned to school, delivered the message, and the haughty top-string trombone professor was dumbstruck. He knew me, slightly, as the liberal arts guy who sloppily dabbled a bit in music. I was a dilettante, unworthy of his time or attention, yet here I was, bearing a directive from Jesus Christ himself. The poor fellow just couldn’t reconcile it. It really messed him up.
This was the first of many times where I would uncomfortably witness the real time shock of someone who'd severely underrated me getting The News. At age 55, it still happens. An old pal, who'd missed the Chowhound period and never really accepted that his goofy musician friend had ever done anything significant, recently reported, dumbfounded, that a food-loving colleague had turned giddy upon learning that he knew me. It doesn't happen often; just enough to keep me awkwardly disoriented.
Thankfully, the top teacher didn’t wind up teaching me after all, and I stayed with the good guy....who was neither important nor famous, but who offered a rare direct link to the late great Remington - hallowed be his name - who was a titanic influence on all my previous teachers. While Top Guy was an egotist whose playing lacked soul, my guy was warmly caring and a truly great player. Exactly the teacher for me, despite my foolish angling to get with Top Guy.

I'd gotten lucky. The haughty local capo was interested in turning out clones (and correctly sensed that I’d never submit), even though Bill Watrous, the capo di tutti capi, saw more deeply.
I’ve seen this pattern repeat constantly; the pack is inevitably smaller-minded than the top dog. I hung around a lot in Jamaica Queens in the late 80s with the guys who were developing hiphop by day and playing jazz by night. The scene included a contingent of very “militant” black Muslims who didn’t like white guys much, and they gave me the serious cold shoulder. Their spiritual mentor was an elderly trombonist who I heard a lot about, and who I expected to be as harsh as the surface of Venus, one Hassan Hakim (father of famed drummer Omar Hakim). But when I finally met Hassan, he was the sweetest guy ever and we became instant best friends, going out all the time to sit in with local rhythm sections. Hassan, who was in his 80s at the time, had little technique, but I hung on every swinging, uplifting note like a gift from Heaven. His followers, who hadn't suffered a fraction of the persecution, poverty and Jim Crow that he had, had sadly misinterpreted his perfectly admirable urgings to cultivate backbone, dignity and self-respect.

When you finally meet the top dog, it's always different.
I'd shallowly idolized Watrous' celebrity while stupidly disdaining his playing. I should have admired his abilities and embraced his originality - however different from my own choices - just as he'd embraced mine. As for the celebrity and status, none of that should ever have been a thing. He’d knocked himself out for me, and I was the furthest thing from a celebrity. So, again, what was my problem?

I’d made assumptions about Watrous’ arrogance, but I was the arrogant one, disrespecting an influential master who respected me, some kid, far more than I deserved. And I'd distracted myself by chasing celebrity for celebrity's sake - twice in this tale, alone (with fortunate results in both cases, though it took years to fully purge the impulse). I should have embraced more broadly while navigating my own course more narrowly and thoughtfully. Instead, I was backwards in both aspects, turning into a judgmental, status-conscious little snot who let himself be distracted from the only thing that matters: the music. I‘d thought I was more "musical" than Bill Watrous. Ha!

I was really sorry to see you go, Bill. Thanks for teaching me so much, even if not one iota of it was about trombone. Also: you played your ass off. You were absolutely the best Bill Watrous ever!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hitting the Bullseye

As a kid I spent afternoons practicing basketball shots. As a precociously serious yogi, I was concentrating on the inner process, sensing how fear and neediness and uncertainty could undermine the shot.

I recognized that there was nothing my mind could do to help. Thoughts were utterly impotent; they could only comment, to no benefit. Nothing helpful comes from the mind; all calculation is inherently miscalculation. You must train your body to take the action, and otherwise relax and let it quietly happen. Less mental chatter means less distraction.

Pretty good stuff for a nine year old, yet I never became a great player. I was the guy who made shots that spun around the rim a half dozen times before drooping down the wrong way. Same for bowling, putt-putt golf, and every sport or repetitive physical activity. I was always a "B", never an "A".

My latest computer game addiction is Fallout Shelter, which I play on iPad (App Store link). Part of the game involves a coordination task that requires touching the screen the moment a rhythmically oscillating series of lights forms a bullseye. And I quickly figured out the trick: feel the rhythm, jab your finger along in time with the lights, and, once synchronized, simply punch the bullseye. But I usually hit a nano-moment too soon or too late. Again, a "B", not an "A".

But this time there was an epiphany. I noticed I was doing something counterproductive; something I'd always done in all sports and games. Once I've begun poking my finger at the screen (or releasing the basketball), I let the gods handle the rest. Having aimed, and quieted my mind, I figure that's it for my end. Either it works or it doesn't. Buh-bye and good luck.

So I tried something new. I did the synchronization trick, I quieted myself down, and added a new step: I also decided to hit the bullseye.

And....bullseye. Every time.

I've expressed it a bit delicately. I "decided to" hit the bullseye. You might call it self-confidence, or faith, or positive thinking, or lots of other things. I've heard it expressed by many people in many ways, but it never struck me that all they're saying is you need to decide to hit it. It's not a desire or need (though that's how some people express it, even if they reject the grunting, whiny, emotional approach I've instinctively avoided). Simply don't forget - amid all the prep and tricks and quieting down and whatever - to also hit a bullseye. Don't leave that part off the to-do list. Don't forget to also hit a bullseye!

I always entrusted basketballs to fickle winds out of a staunch distaste for over-attachment to results. That reasoning was wise, but I'd taken it too far. I was literally throwing it all away. There is an anxious, emotional, yearning sort of attachment that I'd correctly recognized as counterproductive, but there's a much lighter, merely intentional sort of attachment that's necessary. Within calm silence - blithe equanimity with whatever ensues - you still need to engage that playful sliver of an intention. It's small. It's not John McEnroe screaming at the ball. You may entirely let go of the process, but you still must drive it home.

I figured out very early that bad musicians play their instrument while good musicians play the room. I think this is the exact same move; a sense of engaged follow-through. So I already knew it, but forgot to apply it in this context. It's cursedly hard to distribute insights from one realm into all realms. In the end, little's actually hidden from us (which is why revelation so often elicits a sense of deja vu; an exclamation of "of course!"). We just get unnecessarily blinkered. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Friday, July 20, 2018


I condescend to myself. Whenever I speak to my future self - leaving myself notes or taking voice memos or implanting demons, aka reminders), it’s like I’m talking to a total idiot.

In fact, I dictated this while driving (don’t worry, I have a hands-free system), and as I sit here transcribing, I'm growing more and more annoyed, listening to myself straining to be clear and complete and to avoid miscomprehension. I mean....I’m seated comfortably here at a desk in a peacefully quiet room, with ample time for reflection, and that guy's navigating stressfully through heavy traffic. And I’m no dumber than him. Why is that distracted, controlling jerk talking down to me like this?

Wait, what? I dictated this while driving? Then who, exactly, was complaining?

Un-Hijacking iOs Safari

A Facebook friend recently posted a plea for help about web pages hijacking Safari on her iPhone, insisting that she call some tech support number or whatever and locking things all up. Quitting Safari doesn't help; the page just reappears on relaunch.

She got tons of replies, none of them helpful. I never realized the solution was so obscure, so here it is in case it's helpful for anyone:

Go to Settings / Safari / Advanced.
Toggle off JavaScript.
Hard quit Safari.
Relaunch Safari.
The page will reappear, but won’t hijack you.
Close the tab.
Return to Settings / Safari / Advanced and toggle on JavaScript.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


The Left keeps careening leftward, imagining that this is a golden opportunity for, like, Bernie. Meanwhile, the Right seems determined to keep sticking with Trump, despite his escalating corruption, treason, and authoritarianism.

When there's tumult, when we're angry or scared, we instinctually bifurcate. We tribalize. If you imagine the political divide was ever about ideology, you haven't been paying attention (conservatism recently did a 180 - toward statism - with buttery ease). Really, it's shirts-and-skins. It's us-and-them. This sort of thing explains why history unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings; why we never learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism.

We feel particular aversion to conciliation when we're riled up. As I once wrote, "'Character' is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise." And we humans don't always have much character. While it gives hope that three of our most adulated figures - Christ, King, and Gandhi - taught a better reaction, it's dismaying how easily we reject their vaunted lessons whenever emotion kindles.

Both ideologically and tribally, I'm centrist. And I believe the majority of the country is, as well. As explained in that link, I think most people are veeeery loosely attached to an identification, mostly out of pure momentum plus asymmetrical awareness of the sins of the other side (which is also how racism happens).

What does Centrisism mean? Easy: "a pox on both their houses." Only a true believer could feel no attraction for such a stance. When I see children playing Color Wars, I don't get drawn in to taking sides, because I'm not a child. I understand the benefits of giving children arbitrary excuses to compete - to flex strategic muscles and develop their sense of teamwork - but, as a grown-up, my perspective is lithe enough to recognize the silly exercise it actually is (I also completely understand how odd and bloodless folks like me appear to those in the throes of it all).

There are, paradoxically, two sides to a reluctance to choose sides:

1. No Thirst for Villainization

With a few exceptions, the Right isn't the Right; it's the anti-Left. And (again, with exceptions) the Left isn't the Left, it's the anti-Right. But my aversion muscles have atrophied, so I can't muster sufficient hatred of The Other to really motivate myself.

As a native New Yorker, liberalism feels like the more familiar tribe even if it's not my ideology. But Texas (mainstream Texas, not just Austin) is one of my favorite places, and I relate easily to people there...as well as to my Trump-supporter friends back home. So I simply can't summon a good strong "Fuck these people!" I grok both perspectives (which is why I can effectively explain conservatives to liberals). I clearly identify the ignorance and anger driving both extremes, and I'm no fan of ignorance or anger.

Being non-tribal, all that's left for me, then, are issues, and my feeling on issue is moderate and conciliatory in the best of times, and utterly beside the point in times like these. I'd be very happy with a president who's honorable, smart and institutionalist in 2020, even if I disagreed on tons of issues (I didn't love Gerald Ford's policies, but he sure was a relief after Nixon!). For instance, I'd vote blindly for Sally Yates (and who knows what she believes?).

Trump has shown us the damage a loose-canon demagogue can do. Give me a low-key mensch for a leader, period. In 2024 maybe I'll go back to thinking about issues! That's the centrist position (and, once again, it's potentially the majoritarian position; for one thing, bear in mind that Trump approval among Republicans doesn't count those who've stopped identifying as Republican!).

2. No Flocking Instinct

I don't flock. I don't seek the refuge of safe space, of tribal familiarity, of haven. I don't watch a Michael Moore and think "sure, he's an asshole, and he's over the top and sanctimonious, but, hey, he's fighting the good fight," and the same goes for a Rush Limbaugh. I can't get over the assholery and sanctimony. In-tribe gestures - the amplifications of my visceral predilections - don't help me forgive it. It sends me the other way, refusing to embrace divisive indulgent buffoonery from figureheads. Many people enjoy watching the performance of someone roughly like them only comically exaggerated as a guilty pleasure. It strokes their confirmation bias. In fact, there's the Fox audience, right there! But I don't chuckle forgivingly at the seething dimness of a Maxine Waters because she and I happen to agree on this administration's venality.

The Republican party will incinerate along with Trump (people who Know Stuff - hardened NatSec folks - say the truth that will eventually emerge is eyeball-searing and much worse than we imagine; the fever will be broken, and the end game began in Helsinki). I'd love to see it replaced with old-time conservatism. Not social conservatism, telling me how to live. And not libertarianism, a radical and nonviable utopia for sheltered eggheads. And not Koch-ism, deferentially trusting unconstrained elites and corps to act in society's best interest. Rather, I mean an emphasis on honor, moderation, small government, rule of law, and institutionalism. And I'd love to see the Democratic Party return to its traditional role as mild irritant to Conservative complacency, stoking a moderately heated grind between idealistic new initiatives and leery skepticism of change. I'd contribute and vote across party lines in such a scenario.

Of course, that's what America traditionally was like. To be sure, it never felt idyllic in the least. The moderately heated grind often felt like siege warfare - much as long TSA lines before we're whisked around the world in hours for the cost of a couple day's work feel to us like a form of torture. It's all how you frame things. The problem is we ratchet our framing in order to ballast our happiness.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #26

Tuesday, July 17, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 98,700 Google search results, up 2% from last time.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Monday, July 16, 2018


I may have mentioned this before, but I've been using my Twitter feed to retweet especially insightful and/or amusing tweets on our political situation. Very low flow and very selective. Mostly seldom-observed stuff.

You can also follow a Twitter list I've created which brings together some of my favorite tweeters (some left, some right, mostly center and never-Trumpers). A few, like Rick Wilson and John Schindler, have gotten famous since I've been tracking them.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

2020, FFS

I've predicted a half dozen times here that the Democrats will run an extreme leftist for president in 2020, ensuring Trump's reelection. Well, I've never been more unhappy to say "I told you so". From today's NY Times:

"Warren is Preparing for 2020. So Are Biden, Booker, Harris and Sanders".

Four out of five are arguably the most leftist in current national Democratic politics, and are plainly unelectable. None could possibly peel off the burgeoning centrists and Republican refugees and never-Trumpers. In fact, Booker - despite his carefully-cultivated media image - might be a bonafide psychopath (google for hair-raising background).

Joe Biden is obviously who I'd support, though he's a bit of a clown, plus he'll surely go with a woman or minority VP candidate as an anachronistic and gratuitous gesture that won't win him a single additional vote. With a 77 year old, I need a rock-solid VP I like as much as the candidate, and who shares Biden's broad appeal. The only non-White Guy name I can come up with is Sally Yates.

(I have no idea of her politics, but in this election I don't give a crap about issues; I want solid integrity, honor, and broad appeal, period. I want boredom. I want Gerald Friggin' Ford. Which is why the very last thing we need right now is Bernie, the left's Trump - another divisive populist demagogue playing to people's anger and sense of entitlement).

I'm still holding out hope for Schiff/Yates - or, at least, Schiff as Biden's VP. Michael Bloomberg, alas, will be 78, a year older than Biden (and lacks name recognition and national experience).

At this low point we need to drop identity politics (but we won't) and elect someone with some breadth and honor whose primary characteristic is an ability to defeat Trump (and we won't). It's not time for glass ceilings, it's time to save the republic. So, look, I'd be happy to convert to Lutheranism to preserve the purity of this call; that is, I back Schiff and Bloomberg for their circumspection, not their circumcision.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Durability of Our International Alliances

I asked a friend high in the foreign ministry of a major European country whether our alliances will "snap back" once Trump is gone, or if permanent damage has been done. He said that if Trump doesn't get reelected, much will snap back. If he's reelected, he thinks an irreversible course will take place.

I made the point that if Trump were reelected, it would surely be due to the Democrats losing their minds and running an extreme left-wing candidate in a strident campaign alienating independents (who might not vote Trump, but wouldn't vote at all). He didn't appear to completely understand this dynamic (the European left being far more progressive than left, it's hard over there to understand why a democratic socialist would strike mainstream America as unpalatably extreme).

He did make the point that already, many quiet business and political decisions are peeling Europe away from America. For example, there's increasing reluctance to purchase US military equipment because of uncertainty re: ongoing equipment support (something staunch allies never worry about). There's sharply increasing desire to buy such equipment from European manufacturers, even if quality is inferior.

But the more important realignment is in the Third World, where China is eagerly filling our vacuum (the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have helped contain that). Fifty years from now, I suspect we'll see Trump's isolationism and TPP rejection (fwiw, Hillary succumbed to political pressure from the Left to reject it, herself) as an even bigger gift to China than Bush's Iraq war was to Iran. From George HW Bush's funding of the Afghani mujahideen to George W Bush's hatchet job in Iraq to Trump's isolationism (Russia aside), the Republicans have quite an astonishing record of handing fat free victories to our most virulent adversaries.

Speaking of Bush and Iraq, I recall similar European murmurings about how Bush's foolish blunders would be forgotten if he wasn't reelected. Of course, he was, and we eventually sprung back into Europe's good graces anyway. So...who knows.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Louder Racism, Not MORE Racisim

Chilling. But there is, I think, a saving grace.

This is purely intuitive, with nothing to back it up. But I think it's correct: I don't have the sense that new racists are being minted en masse. I think this is entirely just the old racists getting louder and more brazen. Louder racism, not more racism.

Virulent racism is certainly being normalized and enabled, (even in hipster Brooklyn). And maaaaybe some mild racists have been caught up in this and grown more extreme, though I don't get a sense of a lot of that going on. But - again, this is pure intuition - I just don't get the feeling that, even in the current ugly climate - folks previously uninterested in race are turning virulently racist, as has been seen myriad times over the course of history.

That's why I'm more convinced than ever that this is all just The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah.

I try to remain clear-headed, maintaining an unfashionable recognition that everything that disturbs me isn't The Worst Possible Thing....and that gestures smelling faintly of atrocity are not, themselves, atrocities. As a shades of grey person, I often feel quite alone.

But the larger question - are we cycling back to previous brutalism and ignorance we'd thought we'd outgrown? - is what matters in the long view. And, to me, all evidence points to a resounding NO. 

Can a last gasp of brutal ignorance do harm and make things very unpleasant? You bet. But I am now more, not less, convinced of MLK's arc of justice as well as of the propositions of Steven Pinker.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

SCOTUS Pick: Two Wrongs Make Me Right

Last week, in my posting "Prediction re: SCOTUS Pick", I wrote:
Trump will pay zero heed to positions on abortion or immigration...the one and only qualification is some prior decision or writing demonstrating executive privilege maximalism. And he won't be content with private assurance (though he'll surely demand it); there will need to be a solid position statement already out there, preferably unsubtle and flagrant. That way he knows he can count on it.
So I was right. Even though I wasn't. The problem is that we're peering through two levels of stupidity: Trump's and the Left's.

Regarding the latter, read this excellent and very short Twitter thread from Andrew C Laufer, an anti-Trumper legal expert. It has infuriated the Left, which reserves its most visceral outrage for flat-out indisputable truth conflicting with their outrage ("How dare you tell me to be rational?").
I have already seen several misinterpretations on his President immunity opinion. [Kavanaugh] stated specifically that Congress has to change the law in order for POTUS to be immune from prosecution.
The furor over Kavanaugh's expressed distaste for the option of indicting a president is fog. He was urging Congress to change the law. This means the exact opposite of what the press has been bellowing all day. It means he strongly and demonstrably believes that, as the law stands, a president can be indicted. For Trump, that's bad.

Two more factors from Laufer:
We are dealing with very heavy criminal issues involving Trump. I don’t think he was contemplating a President facing possible racketeering, corruption, and treason type charges.
And, what's more,
CJ Roberts can force his recusal on any #TrumpRussia issues. I have been told that the CJ has already done this with Gorsuch. We need to take a breath and move one step at a time. He has to make it through senate confirmation first. Remember, Mueller isn’t going anywhere.
So that's how the press and the Left have lost their minds. Now here's the Trump stupidity: I think Trump made the same bone-headed error. Kavanaugh "seems" temperamentally in favor of executive maximalism because he doesn't want presidents to be indictable. To a cornered rat, this seems like his "heart is in the right place," and that's a straw to grasp at...even though he's actually saying the opposite thing. Even though he's on the record as conceding something not everyone (ask Dershowitz!) concedes: as present law now stands, a president can be indicted.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Derailed By Petty Mental Drama

I've concentrated hard on diet and exercise for three solid months, losing eight pounds and reaching the proud point where I could stride up a very steep hill without pausing to rest. But my regimen was derailed for a week, and last night I returned to it...and had to pause four times going up the damned hill.

It was exactly like this, the pivotal Slog posting. My first reaction was to moan in dismay. "I'm going backwards, giving back hard-won gains! I miss just a few exercise slots and quickly revert to being old and fat and wheezing. That's what I truly am; pathetic frailty is always right around the corner. I'm chasing a rapidly vanishing ideal. Woe = Me."

This, of course, was absolute nonsense. The feat of walking up the hill in one burst is worth less than a cup of coffee. It's no real victory at all, it's just that my mind's been conjuring up entertaining little dramas amid the grind of mindless hill walking, and I've pretended to take those trifling dramas seriously until the pretending froze into something more solid-seeming. What matters here - all that matters - is elevating heart rate and expending calories...period. If I had to stop a thousand times en route, I'd still be 100% successful in this enterprise. The rest is silly mental chatter. It's literally nothing.

Even at this late date, I still get caught! I do, however, notice quickly. That's the best one can hope for: snappy recovery!

This isn't really about exercise, any more than the above-linked posting was about Christmas. It's about mental illness; the habit of indulging empty whimsy - unreality! - to the point of emotional pain for no good reason whatsoever. This is what happens when, having expunged all the classical human blights and nemeses which would ordinarily galvanize our emotions, we make dire, weighty fake problems out of our petty dramatic yadda yadda.

I'm relatively impervious, but after missing a few meditation slots, the fake dramatic chatter starts feeling just a bit solid, and I can be self-trolled into a few moments of senseless anguish. Fortunately, we all have an innate mechanism for rebooting; for shedding useless and indulgent emotional weight.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Frets are Very, Very Far Apart

Like many of us, I'm saddled with a few awful people. Narcissistic, poisonous, resentful, uncompromising, and unreasonable, they are living embodiments of Dunning–Kruger's observation that dumb, incompetent people often feel super smart and extra-competent simply because they're too stupidly incompetent to recognize their own stupid incompetence. They condescend and manipulate, bolstered by the visceral conviction that the opinions, intuitions, and preferences amply gurgling from the pits of their minds are solid gold.

I understand how they got this way. They never left behind the cognitive error we're supposed to outgrow after adolescence, continuing to assume that spotting other people's stupidity makes them smart. Over the decades, they've grown expert at spotting stupidity (never their own), to the point where they feel very smart, indeed. They never grew or learned because whereas smart people are driven to correct their own stupidity, they see only other people's stupidity, in endless supply. Smart people become smart via fixation on their own foolishness. Dumb people stay dumb by fixating on other people's foolishness (here are some other topsy-turvy shifts).

Even now, they continue to disappoint me, which is puzzling. It means I've never stopped overestimating them - hard to believe given my jaundiced assessment. My puzzlement reveals my own miscalibration. I've failed to recognize the non-linearity of human awfulness.

Extreme brutality is very different from, say, blithe insensitivity, but we compress and conflate all bad things into indistinct blobs of badness (BoB). Not only are the levels distinct, but they are more widely spaced at the extremes, like guitar frets becoming steeply wider. This is why we prematurely resort to Nazi comparisons. The frets are very, very far apart, yet we misconstrue a light year for an inch (we do the same in judging food).

I only recently realized that none of these awful people is actually evil. None would go out of their way to purposefully hurt anyone. There's no proactive malice. They might well maim or murder you via thoughtless stupidity and selfishness, and could easily justify self-serving behavior which incidentally brought you harm. But they'd never do so intentionally, just for sport...though this world is full of sportsmen.

So, as awful as they are, these people, being incapable of evil, rate no worse than 5 out of 10 on the human scale of depravity. And, in a way, that's downright noble. A person who's sunk to depths of selfishness is an eyelash away from evil. To steadfastly resist this boundary requires a moral commitment exceeding my own. These most-awful-people-in-the-world, who spew such poison and misery, turn out to be "5s": essentially principled and admirable. 

So what, you ask, does this have to do with Donald Trump?

As many have declared over the past two years, George W Bush wasn't so bad after all. An honorable man, even a mensch, albeit a misguided pinhead. Going even further, one must concede that even bona fide villains like Cheney and Rumsfeld were at least patriots, however we may disapprove of their blinkered, bitter attempts to serve a country they genuinely loved. Neither would ever be spotted humping the leg of a Vladimir Putin, or undermining the American judicial system to save their own ass.

GWB was a downright decent guy, and Cheney and Rumsfeld were "5"s. They committed atrocities, sure, but never just for kicks. They believed they were helping. Trump doesn't imagine he's helping. "Helping" to Donald Trump is like impressionist painting to a gnat. It's not even a Thing.

Yet even Trump is no serial murderer or a despot. His inclinations might point toward the latter - he may be despotic-adjacent, and even despot-enabling - but this shmuck, who's descended us to basement levels we'd have preferred never to explore, is in a whole separate league from a Putin, much less a Kim or a Hitler. Taunting journalists is different from cold-bloodedly murdering them. Persecuting minorities is different from slaughtering them. Rebuffing NATO is different from making war with them. We have dipped our toes into a fetid, poisonous pool, and feel we've drowned.

The Left - never ones for subtle distinctions - see only a BoB encompassing the entire swathe from Trump voters who merely craved a shake-up to those who dare use terms like "illegal aliens" to earnest, befuddled GWB to villainous-but-principled Dick Cheney to Trump to Hitler.

The frets are much, much, much further apart. If we were better able to parse the gradations and to recognize the non-linearity of it all, then Godwin's Law would be unnecessary. My awful people - and GWB - felt like full-on oppression, though they're actually okay human beings. Trump is by no means "okay", but just because he's off the curve of our accustomed existence in the immense freedom, joy and plenty of First World 21st century life doesn't make him The Worst Thing Ever. Or anything close to it. Or close to close. The frets are very, very far apart.

But you'd never know it from the whining. For those convinced that we're the most suffering sufferers who've ever suffered, and that Trump is the biggest Big Bad ever, I have good news and bad. The good news is that we've been spoiled rotten, which explains why we gnash our teeth at the lower end of a spectrum of unprecedented prosperity, tolerance, and high-mindedness - as if someone's snatched away some tiny morsel of our towering portion of astoundingly delicious lasagna. The bad news is that when you've lost all sense of proportion, you curse yourself to apocalyptic pain whenever the floor drops further. And it can and will, because the frets are so far apart, and it's non-linear, and Trump represents not The Bottom of Everything but the bottom of the very tippy top (i.e. the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah).

The next demagogic populist president with authoritarian instincts won't arrive with an impeachable portfolio of traitorous Russian collusion and mobbed-up money laundering....and won't shoot himself in the foot a dozen times per day. We may one day miss Donald Trump, just as we currently miss GWB. And even then we won't be anywhere near the sort of utter horribleness witnessed even as recently as the previous century.

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