Sunday, March 31, 2019

50% of Dropouts are Undercover Rejects

It's impossible to distinguish a dropout from a reject. And nearly all rejects pose as dropouts.

Your friend who entertains you with crazy horror stories about his nightmare ex who he's finally decided to let go? There's a 50-50 chance he was dumped, and that he deserved it.

Your friend who quit her much-hated job? And feels wonderfully free to pursue new opportunities? Just as likely, she was fired (and deserved it).

You do not know. You cannot know. The truth is indeterminable, because such people mask the truth not just for your eyes, but for their own. Their deep cover stems from deep denial. They could likely pass a lie detector test.
I once recruited someone to help out with some Chowhound business issues. He'd been a player in the first bubble, but had dropped out to take on much smaller work, and was infinitely happier with this "downsizing". It seemed like a terrific opportunity to get help from the sort of figure who was normally too busy to pitch in with the likes of us.

At some point, a distant slightly scary possibility arose. The sort of prospect normal people shrug off, since, of course, no action in this world is without risk. But this affable, non-emotional, grounded, sensible person went into utter freakout mode, forcing us into some very painful, very expensive restructuring to rule out the contingency. He threatened, with uncharacteristic belligerence, to walk away if we didn't. Oddly, a year later, he could not remember any of this. It was like he'd had a small stroke.

Being less experienced back then, I called this same person to help with a subsequent project. And it happened again. That time I let him walk away after he issued his ultimatum, having recognized that he was no drop-out. He was damaged goods.
Be careful with dropouts. 50% are what they claim to be, but 50% are in deep denial regarding flaws and fissures that spurred a pattern of rejection. And you’ll only know after those flaws and fissures have become painfully obvious. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Crew vs. Talent

There are two kinds of people: Talent and Crew.

Talent always considers Crew to be wannabes. They're the remainders who can’t cut it; the sad unsparkly souls who don't clean up well and who've let themselves go.

The Crew knows the Talent thinks this (this is not a symmetrical situation), and they know something the Talent doesn’t. Crew recognizes that Talent's perennially desperate, hovering in a state of anxiety, recognizing that they're a few extra quarts of ice cream, or a plastic surgery disaster, or a gaffed social media statement away from being revealed as the Crew we all are under the facade.

No one’s born Talent. We all come from Crew; Talent elevation is a fleeting contrivance of vanity. And we'll go out as Crew, too. Few of us have the capacity for delusion to complete this trip imagining themselves Talent the whole way.

I once noted that "Maturity is the correction of the misconception that you're the protagonist in this drama." So the Talent is immature. Circumstance chipping away at their facade does them a kindness. It's a necessary adjustment to their outlook; a gentle reminder they've been Crew all along.

Ich bin ein Teamster!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

More Backsplashing

I've taken to heart the cook's mantra "never catch a falling knife". Let it drop, let it clatter, don't move. To reaffirm the habit, I mutter the mantra to myself each time. Never catch a falling knife!

The problem is that now that it's engrained, it happens when anything drops. Pens, scouring pads, TV remote controls, Pop Tarts. Just now, I passively watched my heavy gym lock clatter to my previously immaculately finished wood floor, morosely intoning "Never try to catch a falling gym lock."

Mental/behavioral programming always backsplashes. For instance, my clever technique for unwinding at night so I could fall sleep was making me weirdly sleepy during stressful daytime moments.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The POTUS and the Pea

Vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men have run every institution in the world for thousands of years. Trump is only abnormal because in this one country and this one office, we’ve been spoiled - and even here, only lately so - with unusually elevated figures, even, in retrospect, GW Bush (that reframing, btw, offers a useful glimpse of the larger truth).

The fact that we’re all swooning and stressed over this guy is evidence of something I keep pointing to again and again: the downside of life being so wonderful here in The Future is that we're hypersensitive to mere displeasure. We're all princesses more and more vexed by smaller and smaller mattress peas. In utopia mere normality (which this guy absolutely is, in the long view of human history) strikes us as unendurable hell.

When I posted the above to Facebook, a friend answered:
We should expect better. We’ve evolved.
Here's how I replied:
Have you evolved your ability to frame situations realistically, per my posting above? Or are you still exhibiting the ancient fussy neediness, where we need conditions to scan as "just right" before we can get on with enjoying our precious time here?

In my view, evolution consists of expanding perspective, not wrangling a more favorable gift bag of preference results and checkboxes checked. Evolution is measured by changes in me-in-here, rather than in you-all-out-there.

A peaceful, open, and appreciative internal perspective trumps the default human drive of unquenchable entitlement; of How It Must Play Out For Me to Feel Grateful to be Alive. That, to me, is the potential evolution. And there's no hope of evolving our politics, or anything else, until that happens.

If we've evolved in any conceivable way (and I think humans have progressed miraculously over the millennia), it's been almost exclusively under the stewardship of vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men. We work awfully well in spite of them. Any/all evolution happened on their watch.

This isn't my endorsement of that approach, of course. Nor am I complacent about this guy, who I loathe as much as anyone. But this is not the worst life experience any generation has ever felt. On contrary, we are overwhelmingly, obscenely, ridiculously more comfortable, secure, healthy, fed, and entertained than any human beings ever dared imagine, and our forebears surely hate us for our spoiled, disgusting, ungrateful failure to appreciate it. I sense their roiling anger.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Why Simplicity is Hard

In many lines of work, professionals will tell you that the simplest tasks can be the hardest to really master.

I've usually attributed this to exposure. A band of fourteen screeching electric guitarists can hide issues/problems more effectively than one spotlit dude introspectively strumming. Lamb stew may conceal many a shortcut and still be delicious, but a decent spaghetti carbonara requires meticulousness. There's simply nowhere to hide when you're doing something simple.

But as I recently reheated some leftover lasagna (lasagna!!!) with brutish vapidity (belying the many years of experience behind my reheating choices), thunking the cold carby slab into a nonstick skillet at medium heat, drizzling a tablespoon or two of chicken stock into the pan, covering, and cutting heat back to low at first sizzle, I experienced a flash of self-awareness, showing me how Philistinian I looked.

Not a pretty picture. I appeared like some elderly British pensioner futzing around mournfully in his bathrobe, dutifully executing a series of tasks beginning with the opening of a reeking can of cat food. This is not how magic conjuring is assumed to look (yet again: magic is messy).

But then I transferred the lasagna to my plate and beheld a thing of beauty. The bottom was just starting to crunch/caramelize, and the rest was perfectly melty and moistened. As is often true, my reheating turned out better than the original. So-so lasagna was transformed into something that could make you weep. All via my dull, dutiful, uninteresting actions (it reminds me of Von's inability to account for the magic of his legendary cookies cooked from the recipe on the oatmeal box).

But thinking back on it, I realize that I'd done one really clever, advanced, amazing thing: I stayed out of the way. There are infinite ways - many of them smart-seeming - in which I could have made it worse, and I did none of them. Very few people can downshift to this lowly level of utter brutish vapidity. No one wants to be Nigel in his shabby bathrobe. They all want to be brisk, confident David Copperfields. They want to execute moves.

Simple things are hard because of the exposure, sure, but, just as much, it's because we're sorely tempted to screw things up with counterproductive complexity.
My favorite Yiddish word: "undgepotchkied", the term for something hopelessly over-tweaked. It's a subset of FUBAR.
In fact, the very essence of being human is the inclination to fuck up simplicity via heavy-handed complication. It's what we do.

As I wrote in my explanation of why god lets bad things happen:
Consider America. After millennia spent desperately seeking cheat codes for this world, figuring the whole while that things would be so much better if only we could purge the illness and lions and warlords, the famines, draughts, and extreme poverty, we've done it! This richest of rich-world countries has expunged the vast majority of its nemeses! Yet look around you. Most of us spend most of our time building needless drama, stress, and sorrow for ourselves. We are far more depressed than any human beings anywhere, ever. We build internal towers of brooding discontent, and spend vast tracts of time lost in tumultuous TV shows and video games and sad songs and memories of pain and worries of loss, desperately seeking out whatever snatches of drama we can find to identify with. Having finally slayed the monsters, we are bored, discontent, and hellbent on creating new monstrous worlds to inhabit as deeply and as continuously as possible. Virtual reality technology is right around the corner, and one senses that the public can hardly wait. Do you imagine we'll use it to build lovely realms without violence, pain, or menace? Of course not. We like those things! We plainly crave them! Even in our "real" offline lives, we creatively find dire stress and drama amid our ridiculously safe and comfortable American existence!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Pepin's Chowhound Manifesto

From Jacques Pepin's Washington Post op-ed on eggs
The ham and eggs of the corner diner can be as superb as the caviar omelet of Michelin’s most touted triple-starred restaurant.
I never thought I’d see the day when Jaques Pepin would be caught publicly saying something like this. Jesus, he sounds like me, circa 1997. At that time, as was true for decades prior, such heresy would have marked you as a lunatic. Believe me, I know.

Many readers will have no idea what I'm even talking about. It's been forgotten that until fairly recently restaurants without linen napkins, or serving cuisines other than the handful deemed "serious" by tastemakers like Pepin, were gastronomic outcasts to be ignored or else described with dripping condescension ("These wonderfully inexpensive little 'ethnic' places" - thus is literally the entire world tossed casually into a 'miscellaneous' drawer - "offer surprisingly tasty quick fill-ups for those without the refinement or funds to enjoy proper dining").

Always "little" places. "Grandma" places. "Greasy spoons". "Holes in walls". Restaurants that couldn't cough up cash for shmancy digs represented a whole other ilk - dare I say class? It was 100% snobbery, with nothing to do with food or quality.

People don't think like this anymore - the preceding two paragraphs will seem alien to anyone under 30 - because a couple generations of food writers fought tenaciously to bash through long-standing gates of snobbery painstakingly maintained by the likes of Pepin, who needed to justify their premium branding as they fed and/or informed status-seeking "gourmets" and foodies.

Those guys were always in on their own con. They privately winked at people like me - and ate like people like me - while publicly scowling at our lack of refinement. Now you've seen the truth revealed.

I like and respect Pepin and his work. He was far from the most egregious of the old guard of snobs, periodically expressing delight for the "lusty rustic fare yadda yadda of the provinces" (always with a touch of condescension to preserve the elevation of his own position). He was not an utter French chauvinist, sometimes cursorily covering other cuisines.

But he made such moves only after tides had turned, when it was not only safe but lucrative to do so. And, to my knowledge, he never before went as far as this corner diner quote, which comes 25 years too late (frankly, I could have used some cover from someone as established as Pepin back then).

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Why 100% of Mueller Report Should be Public

Frank Figliuzzi, former Assistant Director for FBI Counterintelligence, is the only talking head who says surprising things on TV. Here's a whopper, from a couple minutes ago.

Frank demanded 100% public disclosure of the Mueller Report.

Host Katy Tur asked the correct follow-up question: But what about parts of the report revealing secret intelligence or intelligence-gathering techniques?

Frank batted back with a reply so utterly reasonable, yet so missed by literally all other pundits, that I felt compelled to record it and post here.

Viva Frank Figliuzzi.

Pizza Protocol

During my heart problems a few years ago, I was ordered on a permanent low fat diet. After the subtle shrug that firmly shuts down (if I catch it early) my mind's eager inclination to make things A Whole Drama, I set myself to thinking about how I'd handle my pizza situation.

I resorted to a tactic I like to call "reality". It's the alternative to self-indulgently spinning up ditzy drama (e.g. pouting about how life as I know it will never be the same whenever something changes). And I cooked up the following ground rules:
  • I'd eliminate all bad pizza.
  • I'd eliminate all so-so pizza.
  • Really good pizza is permissable, but only one slice.
  • If really necessary, I could occasionally enjoy two slices.
  • Since I already cooked healthy at home, I'd cook at home a bit more to offset the errant slices.
This policy eliminates 90% of my normal fat-ingestion-via-pizza, while removing only 10% of my enjoyment:
  • I never liked the bad or so-so pizza anyway (and I'd simply work harder when hungry with nothing else easily within range).
  • The first slice is the best slice, anyway. And the third slice is pleasureless gluttony.
  • There's not a single hard denial here of anything really meaningful to me.

Along similar lines, see "The Best, Easiest, and Most Sustainable Diet Tip"


Welcome the latest label/tag here at the Slog: “Definitions”.

Here are all postings with that label (they're pithy enough that you can read all nine in a couple minutes).

Speaking of pith, here are some uncharacteristically pithy statements a Slog reader once extracted.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Why Hacks Think They're Geniuses

I write a lot about commitment. The degree of dedication, focus, obsession - whatever you want to call it - required to create something with some magic to it is not just extremely high, but downright repulsive to view from up-close. I like to remind people that Beethoven composed in a diaper (that expression of revulsion that just crossed your face says it all. Hold that thought!).

As I keep saying, magic is messy...even though we innately expect our magicians to be suave David Copperfields. If people knew what truly went into the magic tricks of creativity - the demented level of over-the-top caring - they'd cross the street to avoid the pathetic, kicked-in wretches who traffic in such work.

I offered this quote a few months ago which gave away the formula:
"When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely." - Zen dude Shunryu Suzuki
Burn victims aren't real suave. A pile of ashes is in no position to impress you.

Practical example. I once challenged a chef friend to try something difficult - it was a playful, informal thing, with no stakes at all - and two hours later I glimpsed him in his kitchen throwing ingredients at the wall and sobbing uncontrollably (and he was a tough-assed, unfussy sort of dude). You might imagine that I dashed, ashamed and alarmed, into the kitchen to call off the challenge. On the contrary, I felt immense satisfaction. Not because I'm a sadist, but because I knew I'd inspired him to create, and this is what real creativity looks like. It's a dirty job that breaks you if you do it right. (P.S.: his final result totally killed.)
My thoughts on this seldom seem to land for people. It's impossible to drive any of this home to uninspired, uncreative creators (the ones who churn out the usual crap, leaning on formula and emulation, and who are constitutionally incapable of a good sob). And I just realized why.

It's super hard to write a lousy book, compose a lousy symphony, direct a lousy film, or paint a lousy mural. It takes 10 years of instrumental training plus another decade of improvisation experience to even begin to call oneself a jazz musician - far longer than med school! - so it's little wonder that every unexceptional player considers himself some sort of genius.

Every purveyor of crap feels - with good reason! - like they've made the Big Sacrifice. They've tasted commitment and suffered for their art. Every one of them. That's why uninspired hacks nod along in weary agreement when you discuss "commitment". Just getting to square one, assembling and presenting something with some minimal degree of competence, is inhumanly difficult. They all believe they've done the thing because they've done the thing!

Here's what I'd say to such people: Remember how hard it was just to generate and organize that material and have it be coherent? Well, what if some impossible-to-please tyrant loomed constantly over your shoulder, screaming at you to demolish perfectly adequate chunks and rework them for a result that's far better than it needs to be; far better than audiences will likely even notice, much less appreciate?

What if that belligerent asshole required you to treat every trivial decision like a matter of life or death?

What if every facile choice and easy cliché stabbed at him like a dagger to the heart?

What if, amid the overall death march, he compelled you to weigh yourself down further with seemingly unnecessary extra compulsions and requirements?

What if he demanded ceaseless self-questioning, leaving you perpetually unsure whether you've committed the sin of settling for "good enough" rather than riding the curve of diminishing results all the way to brilliance (100,000 times harder...when it's already so, so hard)?

What if you needed to spend time soothing collaborators who might otherwise feel smothered by the intensity of the demands he compels you to satisfy?

And what if you could never, ever evade this person, because it was you?

And what if you - broken, bedraggled, and having been entirely (per the Zen quotation above) consumed by the task - needed to put on a tuxedo and go out there and feign ease, because people won't even notice magic unless it's conjured/marketed by some shiny, toothy, theatrically effortless David Copperfield?

See also "The Times Everything Worked Out" - especially the footer - and "The Most Helpful Insight About Creativity"

Thursday, March 21, 2019

There's Framing and Then There's FRAMING

In my recent posting "The Wellspring of Great Results", I noted, in reference to a photo I once took, that driving goal is to accept all elements and conditions as they are. I found a framing that made it perfect.
This applies well beyond photography. We have infinite latitude in how we frame our reality - but forget we possess that freedom. Which is a shame, because there's always a framing that makes it all perfect. All of it. Including the pain and catastrophe we pretend to loathe and reject.

If you're drawn to this, even just a little bit, know that you're close to discovering that the framing that "makes it all perfect" is actually the default framing; the one requiring the least effort and contrivance. In fact, we work tirelessly (like princesses scanning for peas) to reframe the innate perfection as problematic. That's sort of our gig.

I also wrote that I maintain "a stubborn refusal to shoot until I giggle with surprised delight....maintaining a nearly religious faith that such a result is always a few millimeters away. For any given scene, there are billions of delightful framings, always." 

Further Reading
All postings on Perceptual Framing (I'd suggest reading from the bottom up)
My "Consciousness" posting makes a good starting point (along with the two links in the second paragraph above.
"The Visualization Fallacy" was the first of a series of postings (linked via footers) offering a sense of how vast and foundational the little-acknowledged faculty of framing might actually be.

College Admissions

My friend Jon made a good point about the college admissions scandals. Most of the people raging about the news of inequities in college admission have, themselves, benefitted from inequities in this process.
  • Legacies - family members of alumni - have always had an edge (and if your family went to college, that's privilege, right there).
  • Articulate kids with good grades have an edge, and it helps enormously if you speak nice grammatical English because it's in your ear from the house where you grew up (which is normally the case only if you've come from privilege).
  • Kids requiring no financial aid (i.e. grandparents have set money aside) have always had a leg up in the admissions process. Privilege!
  • And, shoot, if you're even talking about college, that's already privilege. Lots of people can't take four years out of their prime earning years for optional education.
Though I didn't come from a fancy background, I benefitted from three out of four of those.

The First World is unimaginably wealthy by all previous standards, and this wildly distorts everything. The admissions scandal is just another ironic and delusional example of slightly-less-fabulously wealthy folks getting indignant about being denied the extra-special perqs of the super-rich. As I wrote last month, in a posting titled "Liberal Materialism", the thinking boils down to this:
We fight not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like our righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers. The have-obscenely-much will be compelled to share their Riedel stemware with the have-slightly-less-obscenely-much. Vive la revolution!
Americans (especially the younger generation) love to pose as anti-privilege. From a more level-headed perspective, it's aristocrats demanding access to the most excessive excesses...which have come to seem like birthright. If I were a genuinely poor person, in some African or Asian village (there are no poor Americans, unless you've mistaken discomfort for poverty), hearing about supposed class warfare in the West, I'd either be laughing hysterically or else sharpening my sticks.

Anyway, no one ever claimed college admissions were like Olympic trials or game shows. Colleges can accept whoever they damned well want to, and it's crazy to imagine that the kid of the guy who funded the new library wouldn't get an edge - or even that he shouldn't. Again: how many edges got you into college?

The conversation continued with a discussion of whether college is even necessary these days.

Me: I've had six careers and no one ever asked about my degree

Jon: Well, but you're a special circumstance. You've been working freelance outside the mainstream.

Me: Ok. But if a degree seems necessary for mainstream work, why not get the cheapest possible state school degree? Unless you're a scholar or pre-med, why spend $$$$$$?

Jon: Yeah, your degree might get you in the door for your first job, but your second job plays mostly out of the first (and so on).

Me: Yep. If, as an adult, you're still boasting about where you went to school, that shows you haven't done much. The luster of that super-expensive credit fades awfully quickly.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Tech Didn't Do The Thing It's Supposed To Do and I Must Scream

I just paid $149, with tax, for this 3TB external hard drive.
In case you don't know, OWC ("Other World Computing") hard drives are considered the gold standard, with an unbeatable three year warranty. It's not that they're bulletproof super-high end kit; just think of them as business class: you pay a 25% premium to bypass absolute crap.
Over five years ago, I ordered a drive of the exact same size, also USB 3.0. And it cost $120. Five years ago.

Gordon Moore, why hast thou forsaken me?

That earlier drive was, in fact, crap. It was from Western Digital (I was very lucky it lasted a half decade). And, yes, it was a special sale deal from Amazon. But still. Five years. This is not how the tech universe is supposed to work. I am completely disoriented, writhing like an upturned bug, pathetic stubby limbs flailing, grievously unable to find the ground beneath my feet. I may not survive this.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Wellspring of Great Results

I've been trying to help a friend take more porny food photos. He'd been under the impression that there are things to know and techniques to learn, and I've been struggling to explain that it's a matter of intent rather than knowledge.

I think I've finally managed to express it coherently here:

This example shows how - without moving anything around - you can try a little harder, and wait a bit longer until you find a delightful framing.

You need to experience some giggling “that’s it!” delight, rejecting the easy satisfaction of a shot that looks like lots of photos you’ve seen before (i.e. the clichéd postcard/magazine view).

I giggled while shooting this. If I don’t giggle, I don’t push the button. Simple as that. No “technique”, no “learning”, no “talent”. Just a stubborn refusal to shoot until I giggle with surprised delight.

Plus, I maintain a nearly religious faith that such a result is always a few millimeters away. That’s critical! For any given scene, there are billions of delightful framings, always. Even with empty milkshake glasses.
The above applies to any pursuit. But some purely photographic notes: If I'd taken a less precisely framed shot and trimmed it down later, I'd never have arrived here. This shot is palpably the product of myriad interdependent small choices made in the moment. Similarly, if I'd moved the objects around before shooting (you can just feel that I didn't), I'd have lost the beauty of the haphazard. For example, if I'd removed the paper place mat behind the right-hand glass, the result would have been a prettier, more postcard-ish picture. But my driving goal is to accept all elements and conditions as they are, so I didn't take the shot until I'd made that element add something. I found a framing that made it perfect. The photo provides a vicarious experience of my snakey, patient, persistent quest to capture the perfection of the haphazard. That's why it seems lively.

In one of my favorite postings, "The Times Everything Worked Out", I explained how I'd stumbled into surprisingly good results on a few occasions in a few far-flung realms. My first example was photography.

I'd fallen rapturously in love with Portugal on my first trip to Lisbon. My nights were spent playing jazz in a local club, but afternoons were free, so one day I took a trip to Sintra, a mystical mountain renowned for its lush beauty. I brought along a camera, though my photography skills were minimal (I'd point the thing toward whatever I wanted to document and push the button. There: my cousin. There: the boat. There: the building. After all, isn't this what you're supposed to do? I was following the instruction manual to the letter!).

But this day on gorgeous Sintra, I was moved. I saw beautiful scenes, but, raising my camera, felt the daunting near-futility of trying to do justice to them on film. So I applied unfamiliar levels of time and care, refusing to snap the picture until what I was seeing through the camera expressed precisely what I was feeling. Until then, I waited, patiently peering through the lens, micro-adjusting the composition by a millimeter in one direction or another. There were still subtler nano-adjustments, where the shot didn't change but my intention somehow did. Only when I felt an inner swelling of exultation, moved by what I saw, did I push the button.

To my flabbergasted astonishment, the photographs were gallery quality. Everyone who saw them fell in love with Sintra just as I had.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Only Weight Loss Free Ride

A few years ago I wrote a series of postings explaining how I’d managed to lose 35 longstanding pounds. Everything in that series was scientifically legit - a few biologists and nutritionists over the years have given it their “ok”. The following is not scientifically proven, but it makes sense, and works empirically for me and for the hordes of body builders who do weight loss a few times per year (they call it "cutting") and have it pretty much worked out.

I call this the “Free Ride”. It’s a feat of judo that makes a virtue of my schlubby condition (various injuries led to me gaining back a lot of weight I’d previously lost). As with most out-of-shape people, my heart takes a long while to fully recover from exercise. A couple months from now, that will no longer the case, but until then I enjoy this free ride!

When I finish my cardio workout, rather than shutting down the machine and going home, I reduce the speed to a brisk walk. It can't elevate my heart rate, but it can lightly tap the flywheel of my heart rate’s long slow-down, decelerating my already laggy recovery. It doesn’t take much. A perfectly comfortable walking pace keeps my heart rate in the cardio zone for a long, long while, just as if I were actually exercising.

It wouldn't work to do this at the beginning of my workout, when my heart rate's normal. But once my heart rate is already 140-ish, and would otherwise settle to 100 within 10 minutes, light walking keeps me north of 125. It’s like drafting in auto racing. A free ride!

The only problem is that this light walking can be boring. You may not want to spend 15 or 20 minutes ploddingly walking a treadmill (three words for you: Pod Frickin' Casts). I just bear closely in mind I'm getting work-free weight loss. It's the only such opportunity in the fitness game, and I’ll be damned if I’ll miss it!

Since walking is limitlessly viable for most people, the only issue is available time. If you can stretch this coda toward 30 minutes, you’ll get a level of workout fit people would need to kill themselves to attain. And you’ve gotten it nearly for free! It's the fatty's ultimate revenge.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Strange Fact About Me

Within five miles of the house I grew up in were Harry Chapin, Jack Kerouac, John Coltrane, the Karate Kid, and one of the world's preeminent Taoism teachers.

I knew about Chapin, and I went to school with Ralph (he was a great dancer but a totally wooden actor who never got lines in school plays; he must have really worked hard). I did not know about Kerouac, Coltrane, or the Taoist guy at the time.

I thought it was boring where I lived.

A Little-Known Perk of Aging

There's a fantastic perk of aging that no one ever told me about. Let me try to explain it with two examples.

As I recently wrote....
I checked out programmable remote controls years ago, and found them to be a non-solution solution, swapping mere annoyance (too many remotes) for a confusing hobbyist mega-brick. Ugh.

I didn't realize there'd been a huge shift in how these things operate. These days, they're transparently contextual, running what computer nerds call "macros". If you haven't fooled around with one lately, you won't understand why they're so essential.
Two weeks in, I'm still gleeful. My universal remote control transmits long streams of complicated commands to multitudinous devices, arranging everything in perfect configuration at the touch of a button, like a magic trick. I'm a big fan of macros and keyboard shortcuts, and have yearned for this efficiency in my offline life. This is the first step.

The fruits of tech innovation are enjoyable for all ages, but older people can experience the extra pleasure of having longstanding aversions and assumptions pleasantly contradicted. Some part of me still expects my car to stall. That it never does offers a perennial small thrill never experienced by those who weren't driving in the 80s. Having surfed online at the dawn of the Internet, when useful content was few and far-between, it amazes me that so much (virtually everything!) is available online. It's like a dream. But if you popped into this world with an iPad in-hand, it's just not the same.

Second example:

I was chatting with my long-suffering tax accountant over Guatemalan tamales (I compensate for my hand-holding neediness with food). She told me she hates to fly out of NYC airports because of the parking hassle. I started to mention off-property parking, but she cut me off. "You mean those vans that bring you to faraway lots? I don't need that aggravation or risk."

For anyone over 50, thoughts of such arrangements conjure up memories of fly-by-night car rental offices in remote industrial parks, or air courier arrangements where you'd check someone else's packages (can't imagine this today!) in exchange for cheap flights after waiting for hours in grungy off-property boiler rooms. I'll stay in the damned airport, thank you very much. Off-property there be dragons.

But no. Now there are gleaming parking facilities where you drop off your car right in front and jump into a clean, friendly van straight to the terminal, all much easier than airport parking systems. Returning, your car's been pulled from the garage, engine running and heater engaged. Step off van, into car, and you're off, having pre-paid. It's super-cheap, mega-efficient, and every element's controlled by smart phone (this operation, near Newark, is my fave).

As I explained this, her jaw dropped. She hadn't realized airport off-site parking had evolved.

Phenomena that don't disintegrate often improve, and the ongoing surprising recognition of this is a fantastic perk of aging no one ever told me about. Why is it so little-discussed? Because almost nobody knows.

My aging parents remained typically ignorant of new tech and new solutions. Whenever they'd brush up against anything unfamiliarly current, they'd throw up their hands in helpless consternation. It's not their universe. Otra cultura. This, alas, is the normal progression of things.

Just don't do that! Never throw your hands up! Keep living in the actual universe! Remain curious and open and informed, and the world just gets better and better. Or else you can shut yourself off to all that and watch your world crumble, as favorite restaurants close, favorite bands break up, and friends all wither and die. If that's where you direct your gaze, it all looks like doom and destruction (hence MAGA, btw). If you ignore the improvements, you'll only notice the disintegration.

It can all be going to Hell...or else to Heaven. As always, it's entirely a question of perspective, and Heaven is the version more grounded in reality.

As a precocious kid, I noticed that while a nice person is delightful, a scary-looking person who turns out to be nice is a greater delight. Same here. It's far more satisfying to have a longstanding gap filled than to be born into gaplessness.

Here's the very first joke I ever learned (from "The Bozo the Clown Show"):

Q: Why are you hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?
A: Because it feels so good when I stop!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art

The following posting from August 2018 was a challenging read, much as Shostakovich is a challenging listen. But it offers a rare big picture view, from a musician's perspective, of the evolution and degeneration of artforms.

Riled up by Christopher Lydon’s terrific Open Source podcast on Shostakovich, I ventured to Tanglewood last weekend to hear his Fourth Symphony. It’s always a powerful, emotional experience; a triumph born of failure. As so often happens in the arts, the composer tried to imitate (in this case, Gustav Mahler) and failed magnificently.

Mahler wove popular songs and motifs, gestures and dogma, commentary and meta commentary, seamlessly into his majestic symphonies. You always know when an orchestra is outfitting itself for Mahler. Every half-decent brass and percussion player in town gets called in to fortify those sections. In this, his most Mahlerian effort, Shostakovich beefs up the band aplenty. A furniture store of basses, along with a complete second set of timpani and a redundancy of tubists (scary gleams in their eyes, awaiting the bloody meal) are just a few of the upgrades.

But I'm sorry, Dimitry. You know I love you, but you've produced no bold smash of schweinefleischy indomitability, because you're just not that guy. Rather, the Fourth Symphony plays out like a nerdy, nervous, soulfully acerbic patchwork of musical tchotchkes. Pravda was foolish to call it "muddle not music", but, political pressures aside*, you can't blame them for failing to appreciate such a sharp turn. Shostakovich's brilliant cornucopia helped usher in a more ADD approach to 20th century art, eventually culminating in postmodernism (as well as at least one soulfully acerbic blogger). In retrospect, it was a glorious muddle of profound musicality.

A style was born, even if partially the product of serendipity. Charles Mingus tried to write like Duke Ellington, but he lacked Duke's jaunty elegance and formal structure, so the result was a rumbling slurry of primal soul. Many of us prefer that slurry.

Mahler has inevitability. His music may sound dissonant and clashy to the uninitiated ear, with more dense cross-talk than a Robert Altman film. But it dependably presents as a unified whole, all elements seemingly preordained. As disparate as the strands might seem, one cannot imagine revision. By contrast, Shostakovich's work feels like more of a ride, a personal journey through 1000 ingenious inflection points. Inhabiting the composer's point of view (Mahler had no POV; he was channeling God or whatever, and you will obediently sit and you will listen), any effort to anticipate where he's going is swiftly toppled by tsunamis of feverishly fertile invention. One’s expectations are methodically and craftily defied.

It amounts to open warfare against expectation. Whenever a passage turns prettily tuneful, some unimagined dissonance - spitting trumpets, kooky double reeds in buzzing half-steps, or WTF jungle juju percussion - descends like a Terry Gilliam animation to wreak havoc and avert complacency. It all hangs together beautifully, but it's pastiche; a dense warren of delightful interludes rather than a structure of momentous revelation.

While Mahler preaches at you, Shostakovich endlessly fucks with you. Temperamentally unwilling to erase his own tracks, he obviously wants you to know you're been fucked with. Never is the listener allowed to feel comfortable; ears are deliberately denied what they want to hear. Instead, you get something fresher, more nuanced, personal, and rife with bittersweet irony. Like a great used bookstore, there's scant hope of finding what you were looking for, but you will assuredly take away greatness.

What, exactly, does the ear want to hear? This is a thoughtful question with a thuddingly banal answer: the clichés of the previous generation, that's all. Bach piously adhered to rational principle - principles he himself had largely initiated. Before art can go “off the rails”, rails must be established, and there was no greater rail-builder than Bach. But the obedience was short-lived. Mozart applied his genius to gleefully, wittily, brilliantly flout those rails, barely skirting wreckage. His music, as heard at the time, was a delight (or a misery, depending on your disposition) of elusiveness, never quite yielding the expected. "This is the part of the meal where you're traditionally offered an ornate chocolate petit four, but here, instead, is a thimble of rich hot cocoa dosed with a provocative touch of black pepper." Mind blown! (By the time Shostakovich appeared, a few centuries later, the metaphor might be scorching cocoa beans shoved up your nostrils while your temples are tenderly massaged, the burn extinguished in the nick of time via a dainty spritz of chilled champagne infused with a note of nightingale sweat.)

Every great creative artist both rebels against the previous generation and lays down updated rails to be defied by the following one. Art advances via a chain of generational defiance. In all eras and in all arts, a few are compelled to shatter complacency - denying the audience the anticipated tropes, and offering, instead, something enticingly skewed.

Shostakovich's rebellion was both deliberate and accidental. Failing to fully embody Mahler, he was diverted by Gustav's gravitational field into a path of his own, following an instinct to mischievously sideskirt convention. Every snatch of tunefulness explodes like a trick cigar; every lovely bit is spiked with bitter bite; every soothing flow chafed by an intractable grind. Blessed with exquisite taste, he was sensitive in doling out surprise, startling open-minded listeners into astonishment rather than pummeling them into confusion.

It's shocking, as a jazz musician, to recognize how far classical composers of this period had progressed. At that time, jazz was flattering its audience with unashamed facile conventionality. Jazz had started as a movement of inventive rebelliousness - marches, waltzes and sappy popular drek were cheekily adorned, defiled, swung up, profaned and debauched. It was beautiful. Mozartian irreverence...and funky! But then it grew popular for a while, and commerce does not encourage the deliberate defiance of expectation ("The film I'm envisioning will be sort of a cross between Forrest Gump and Shrek...")

While jazz had grown docile in its eagerness to gratify audience expectations, classical composers were building sophisticated terrains of dissonance that wouldn't influence jazz until decades later. It was only its death knell as a popular form that recharged jazz' original spirit of rude rebelliousness and invention.

By the mid 1960s, jazz had nearly caught up, but, by then, classical music had painted itself into a corner. Movements like serialism and microtonalism had seemed destined to open up vast landscapes of possibility, but, paradoxically, vistas only contracted and desiccated.

The vitality of an art form derives from the friction between rail hugging and rebellious invention. Creativity is kindled by confrontation with status quo. Thousands of microdecisions emerge from this confrontation, aggregating to imprint a creator's vision, personality, taste; perhaps even soul. Without any rails whatsoever (or with a new, theoretical set of rails that haven't been - and likely never will be - internalized by one's audience) you're left with sound rather than music. We hear many composers mucking around amid infinite space, rather than purposefully blowing up a railroad. Which strikes you as the more engrossing proposition?

Both jazz and classical music have settled into a steady state. Rails fully obliterated, it's now all about performance rather than creation. There's money to be made in reviving old repertory, and armies of conservatory graduates deliver technically accomplished renditions of each era's status quo without a trace of rebelliousness. The performance even of dissonant music once considered subversive now carries the edgy gleam of a Perry Como tribute.

The greatest creative docility is now found at the intersection of composition and performance, in improvised music. Since leaving Chowhound I've roamed unsung nightclubs like Rip Van Jazz Cat, searching for the indomitable creative spirit of thoughtful defiance. But I've heard nothing but flat conventionality, without a scintilla of invention. No bombs thrown, no expectations ingeniously baited-and-switched. To the contrary, expectations are dutifully, even eagerly, coddled. That's become the whole game - the unabashed goal of an entire generation eager to recapitulate the same-old, unskewed by a nanojoule of spontaneity, let alone sabotage. Status quo has, alas, finally become the status quo. And so the universe cools.

Having spent my 20s hanging out almost exclusively with elderly semi-forgotten black jazz veterans, I shudder on their behalf. For example, in 1990 I gigged in a bored Williamsburg watering hole with a musty band of oldsters including Eddie Barefield, a direct link to the earliest days of jazz (he'd played with freaking Bennie Moten!).

Though Eddie had been a fixture in every subsequent era (he'd mentored Charlie Parker, dead 35 years by this time), few remembered him (even his home town of Scandia, Iowa had long-ago faded and died; today it doesn't even Google), hence his presence at this $50 gig. He sat, mildly choleric, in his chair, occasionally hocking loogies to the bandstand's sawdusty floor. His technique was no longer supple, but by the second or third chorus, his spirit would sometimes rejuvenate back to 1936 - the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony's birth year - and, amid the moldy swing tropes, he might slip in some astonishingly oblique ear-defying run that left me and the other musicians startled and breathless. “WHAT IN JESUS HELL WAS *THAT*??” I'd silently scream to myself, whipping my head around toward Eddie, impassive as a wooden Indian, while bored patrons continued to blithely sip their beers. Eddie had gotten from Point A to Point B in a manner never before heard.

Such miracles were not modern anachronisms. They stretched 1936 conventions, never snapping them. Eddie was recalling fallow branchings that had spawned no twigs or flowers; forgotten Shostakovichian tchotchkes of rebellious glee; the sort of material deviously inserted by lesser-known players of the time who hadn't fully shaken their subversive instincts.

* - As for the pressures inflicted on Shostakovich by Stalin's regime, that's interesting history but it's a serious mistake to draw conclusions about an artist's work from events in his personal life. My travails with the DMV coincide with my writing of this article, but I'd much prefer that you consider the material at hand full-on rather than recast this as my oblique rejoinder to a repressive bureaucracy. Great art seldom refers to our planetary day jobs - our day-to-day yadda yadda - despite efforts by the small-minded to reduce a heavenly sweep to something more consciously manageable; to force-translate poetry into prose.

An index of some of my previous music writings

All previous music writings (reverse chronological)

A recently discovered video of me performing on trombone on a particularly good night in 1992.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Pathetic Joy From Hanging the Razor Scrapers

I bought some razor scrapers from Stanley-We-Want-To-Help-You-Do-Things-Right. I had to get three, and they sat for a short while on my kitchen table, along with:
  • The magic mushroom sculpture I brought back from Oaxaca
  • A house number decal for my mailbox which can't be properly installed until the temperature rises to 70 degrees
  • A weird British steamer contraption for sore throats
  • A yellow blown-glass Castillian olive oil pourer
  • A small bottle of Maggi seasoning ("Improves the taste!") I bought on eBay last year and am not sure what to do with
  • Several envelopes of Turkish Salep ("Fox Testicles in Arabic!") I bought on eBay last year and am not sure what to do with
  • A new container of Guardsman Dusting Cloths (ironically unopened amid a dusty tabletop)
  • One travel pack of Kleeenex
  • A cheap squeegee sent along by the decal people
  • An inexplicable unopened shaker jar of lowercase "ariosto" seasoning (rarely do I season - "A Man For No Seasoning" - yet I can't stop buying all these things)
  • A mug full of pens and pencils
  • A can of extraordinarily rare imperial stout
  • Indian Khaman mix ("Best Quality!")
  • A Bed Bath & Beyond 20% off coupon
  • Battenkill Brittle "Energy Bars" (I call them "Calorie Bars")
  • A small pile of junk mail
  • A gooseneck microphone stand adapter
...and this amusing-looking item:

....which I don't recall buying and which is of utterly mysterious functionality.

My house is nice, I'm not a pack rat. But like most people I have my loci of unavoidable clutter. At least my clutter's interesting; more mad scientist than knick-knack collector.

Anyway, it dawned on me that I have a pegboard tool center set up along my basement steps, with one particularly well-positioned rod perfect for hanging the three mini scrapers, whose packaging includes convenient hole punches. I slid the scrapers onto the rod, and immediately broke down in sobs for about a second and a half. A short squall. And then was absolutely normal again.

"That was weird!" I self-narrated. Mulling it over, I realized what had happened. I was happy. Overcome by happiness, in fact. The razor scrapers were perfect, the pegboard was perfect, my life felt like it was really coming together. It felt like a "win".

The unavoidable next thought was, naturally, that I'm the most pathetic schlub on god's green earth. If I've decayed to the point where this was my idea of a "win", please, someone, come shoot me (and sprinkle the body with Salep). But because I no longer indulge concocted drama, my mood didn't sag one bit. The obligatory self-reflective movie scene passed by like a dust mote as I continued to curiously reason through it all.

What would be an appropriate reason for joy? Getting elected Senator! Winning the lottery! Getting the the girl! I'd just experienced that same jubilation from the most trifling experience. I hadn't needed to run a campaign, or buy a ticket, or seduce anyone. I won't spend six years working in a snake pit, or worrying about mo' problems, or squabbling about my kitchen table's clutter.

Neither the Senator, the lottery winner, nor the Lothario have it in them to derive joy from hanging their razor scrapers (nor, I'm guessing, from blow-drying their temperamental TV). Their emotions, not mine, are out of scale. Jaded ease requires ever more momentous wins to feel anything at all, and then one faces the inevitable sugar crash, leaving one thirsty for bigger scores (most lottery winners keep buying tickets, most seducers quickly begin looking around, and every senator wants to be president).

Everyone goes bigger and bigger, while I, ever contrarian, go smaller and smaller. Less jaded and thirsty over time, and hardly ever sugar-crashing. So who exactly's the schlub again?

I'm a nano-aesthete.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

My $10 Billion Idea

They’re trying to get AI to the point where it’d pass a Turing Test, in part to service the incipient age of home robots, where the things will need to have a voice and a personality, and the problem is that humans are extremely sensitive to fake/canned responses - and, even more problematically, revolted by simulation that's merely close-to-human (uncanny valley).

What if we took 1% of that R&D and paid actors? Real live actors, who'd give your robot maid/butler/companion a completely convincing personality. You could, during set-up, flip between a number of candidates (i.e. an audition process for remote actors), finally locking on to the one with the personality you want.

We’d allow the actor to sleep - and to multitask as multiple robots in parallel - very easily. It's just a matter of ignoring conversation at certain times (while fulfilling all robotic functions). That actually makes the robot more like real people (“Fido gets very quiet after 9pm; I’ve learned not to bug him!”). The actor would also pre-prepare certain canned responses for everyday functioning ("Yup", "Ok", "Thanks", etc.).

It sounds expensive, but we could surely pay 30,000 out of work actors, cam performers, or college kids a decent living for the R&D it would otherwise take to convincingly simulate conversation (I don't think it'd ever happen, anyway, as consciousness is not an implantable, cultivatable thing).

If owners get gross or abusive or cross some sort of line, the robot could stand up to them, draw lines, say mean things back (again, this makes them more human!). If an actor no longer wants to work with a given owner, the robot would sulk silently, waking up the next day with a fresh outlook and voice (i.e. actor switch).

To handle inevitable actor churn, maybe there would be a few dozen standard personality types, with back stories and a repertoire of typical expressions, and actors would be trained to portray one of those types. This would ensure some continuity when actors shift (if the owner, per above, gets gross or crosses lines, they'd need to select a personality more in line with their new requirements).

Consider this

Monday, March 4, 2019

Dump Your InkJet Printer

Ink Jet printers suck. They're versatile, yes, but not even close to good at anything (lousy color photo printing, amateurish color docs, and blurry, smudgey black and white text printing). Cartridges are completely unaffordable. And build quality is awful; these units are made to be essentially disposable. They're just utter crap.

I suffered for years because I told myself I needed color, and laser printers - while great, fast, and inexpensive to run, are black and white only. It never fully registered that I almost never printed color, or that the black/white printing that was my bread and butter was perennially blurry and easily smudged.

Finally, I bought myself a Brother HL-L2320D laser printer. And printing was fast, cheap, professional-looking, and "just works". It was three years before I found myself vitally needing a color printout, and, when I did, I discovered salvation.

Save your document as PDF.

Email it to

They'll immediately send you back a code, and you have 24 hours to go to any participating print shop (including most Staples locations).

Upon arrival, enter your code, pay a few cents, and take home a really nice looking color print, way nicer than your old inkjet could ever manage.

If you don't get there before your 24 hours run out, no worries. Your file auto-deletes, and you can simply re-mail it and get another code. You don't pay a dime unless you actually show up to print.

I wouldn't want to do this 6 times per week, but I doubt most people have that many color print jobs.

If you're sticking with your terrible inkjet because of its terrible built-in scanner, get with the times. Do your scanning via smartphone. There are smartphone apps that will straighten-out, square-up, and auto-trim docs via your phone's camera.

NY Times' Game of Thrones Companion

Game of Thrones returns for its final season this April, and NY Times is publishing a clever email newsletter devoted to catching up, rewatching, and/or simply trying to remember the convoluted plot, given that it's been a long 554 days since the last season wrapped. And it's very well done, by obvious true-believers. I hope the Grey Old Lady continues to cleverly innovate in reader service.

Among other things, there are brief recaps useful both for skimmers and full-out binge rewatchers. For more in-depth episodic reviews, I recommend, as always, Alan Sepinwall. Note that his Game of Thrones reviews were written contemporaneously - i.e. from a newbie perspective, whereas the Times rewatch ties things together from a veteran perspective.

Sign up here
Web version if you don't want to sign up for email. They add on to the index weekly.
Other media covered by the Times' "Watching" section

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Buy a Universal Remote Control Right Now

I checked out programmable remote controls years ago, and found them to be a non-solution solution, swapping mere annoyance (too many remotes) for a confusing hobbyist mega-brick. Ugh.

I didn't realize there'd been a huge shift in how these things operate. These days, they're transparently contextual, running what computer nerds call "macros". If you haven't fooled around with one lately, you won't understand why they're so essential. Let me fill you in.
Logitech Harmony 650 is not the fanciest, but is definitely the best bang-for-buck, and it's currently just $30 at Best Buy. I strongly recommend it (note that similar Harmony 650/665/670 models are not meaningful upgrades).
The Harmony 650 (like the rest of the Harmony line) works via contexts, or "actions". One action might be "Play a DVD". You initiate this by hitting, duh, the "play a DVD button", and it places all other devices on standby (conserve power!), turns on your TV, amp/receiver and DVD player, and directs all remote control functions (play, fast-forward, etc.) to the DVD player...except volume control, which is handed off to whichever device you use to control that (in my case, my amp/receiver, which sends audio to my speakers). It doesn't actually play the DVD, of course. It just leaves you one button press away from the usual process.

If I hit "Watch TV", it places everything on standby, turns on TV and amp/receiver, and starts controlling (volume aside) my cable box. There's an action for every device - video game consoles, Apple TV, and whatever else you have going. It won't control my Roku (because it's IR), but will stand-by all other devices and switch over to Roku's main screen, at which point you reach for your normal Roku remote control (or smart phone app) to work within that interface. I can live with two, not one, remote controls on my coffee table (it sure beats six of them!).

Previously, I needed to shut down TV to turn off picture and then reach for my amp/receiver remote to turn off audio. Now I just choose “shut all” and it all goes down...and my living room no longer looks like a cockpit, with a slew of needlessly activated devices. And, once again, you never, ever, need to tell the remote which device to control, or worry which "mode" it's in. Nor do you switch away for volume control. It's not rote button-for-button substitution; it thinks in terms of workflows, utterly transparently.

The Harmony 650 is very smart (it comes preloaded with deep knowledge of all our devices), and includes a slew of buttons, so you won't need to do much custom programming (i.e. for arcane features not reassigned by default). But during the learning curve you can always pick up the device's remote control to trigger some obscure function.

Buy one! It's just $30!

I also recently upgraded my 1985-era stereo amp to a modern AV receiver. This gives me remote control of volume and muting plus integration of a sub-woofer. I bought a cheap refurb from these guys (consider their touchy-though-reasonable return policy before ordering).

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Heaven and Hell

Hell is the frame of what’s missing.

Heaven is the frame of what’s right here, right now.

Fortunately, we actually live in the latter. The problem - the only problem - is that most people find that boring.

All postings labeled "definitions"

Blog Archive