Saturday, April 4, 2020

Toothbrush Zeitgeist

A short toothbrush dialog with friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani (in reference to yesterday’s post about toothbrush hounding):

The following, from my posting "Unhinged", explains about admiration compression:
Here's a fun game. Search Amazon for the bajillion consumer reviewers who express utter delight for the product, yet award it only four stars. What are they thinking? The answer is right there: "Well, geez....greatness???".

We drag our feet on the upside. We mentally compress our assessment of quality. We miss the non-linearity. We have been deliberately blinkered by the myriad stolid pud-puds trafficking in the wide part of the bell curve; in mere competency. To point to just one single line of pressure, the billions of advertising dollars streaming out of the Olive Gardens of the world push hard against any notion of duly recognizing and supporting bona fide greatness.
More here, and this is related.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Toothbrush Hound

If you could somehow turn the physical sensation evoked by very advanced meditation practice (this is a great time to start, btw) into pill form, it'd be worth $10,000/pill. I can't explain the biochemistry, but it has to do with natural endorphins, which are way, way better than the standard prescribed opiates. People risk jail to get their hands on Vicodin - said to produce some of the most blissful states available to human beings - but when I popped one once after dental surgery, I needed to vomit it up. It was a complete buzzkill. Just awful.

So that's where I'm coming from on the issue of pleasure.

For the past years, I've been tracking the creative progress of whatever wizard designs REACH toothbrushes. That is, one certain REACH designer. As with Kashi cereals, there appears to be one wizard plus a few lackluster pud-puds at work.

While I can finish a cereal box in a couple of weeks, allowing me a solid overview of the uneven Kashi lineup, toothbrushes last much longer, so it's been a long, languorous odyssey tracking the REACH genius' work. The datapoints have spread so widely that it's like Bugs Bunny wafting down the long staircase:



But a couple nights ago, I hit pay dirt. I unboxed a new model, and...jackpot. Ladies and gents, I present to you the REACH Total Care Floss Clean Toothbrush Soft Full Professional ("this brush does not replace flossing").

It may not look like much (in fact, as I squint for a closer look, "ick"), but the REACH genius has outdone himself. This toothbrush offers more than fresh breath, invigorated gumlines, and outstanding dental hygiene. It also delivers something akin to divine consolation; a tiny taste of the benefits of advanced meditation.

I can't account for the hows and whys, but I'm constantly on the watch for the banal erupting into inspiration (the world's crud, I figure, is in plain sight, so I feel compelled to vigilance), however loony that makes me look. I wrote in my posting "Unhinged" that:
My review of the Arepa Lady, a Colombian street vendor in Jackson Heights, Queens, was rejected by my NY Press editor in the early 90s, because I was told it's nutty to moon lengthily over some stupid snacky item grilled on some greasy street cart in some grim ethnic neighborhood no one ever goes to.
The juju behind the Arepa Lady also applies to the REACH wizard: any item, no matter how prosaic, can be invested with such enormous creativity and care that it's not only worthy but full-out mesmerizing (see Leff's Second Law, as well as my explanation of Steve Jobs).

You gotta get the model with soft bristles (I'm ordinarily a medium bristle guy), and the full-sized brushing head.

Here's a four-pack on Amazon, 'cuz, believe me, you're going to want more than one.

Please do not persecute me for my religious beliefs

I am fully aware that there’s a non-zero chance I’ve gone insane. However, even when I brush absent-mindedly, forgetting the previous experiences, I'm caught by surprise (“Why do I feel so good? OH.....").

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Don't Do MORE

I just posted this rant to Facebook, and figured I'd throw it up here as well.


I heard the normally sharp Nicolle Wallace say on her show yesterday that "One sick person in the grocery store could infect EVERYONE". So much ignorance and misunderstanding.

This isn't a plague. An infected person in your midst can't infect you with his presence. People aren't radiating virus. The air does not sizzle with homicidal microbes.

It's transmitted via large-ish droplets and personal contact. So try super hard not to cough or sneeze on anyone, or be coughed/sneezed upon yourself. For extra safety, stay 6 feet away, out of large droplet range.

WE'RE ALREADY DOING THAT! So we're GOOD! It's enough! Just do that! Not more!

We don't need to view other people as evil contaminators. You can talk to them. You can be in a room with them. You can be around them. Just STAY 6 FEET AWAY. 20 feet won't make you extra safe.

We're being told to stay home because some people are too dumb and sloppy to enforce distancing. But that doesn't mean you can't chat with your friend or neighbor from 6 feet away. Which actually feels pretty normal.

The distancing guidelines are pretty draconian....and they are sufficient! We don't need to do lots of OTHER stuff on top of those guidelines! It won't make you extra safe and healthy!


If you're passing someone in the supermarket aisle, and need to reduce to 5 foot separation for a second, you don't have to hold your breath and squirm. Your viral geiger counter doesn't start clicking.

If you're not coughing/sneezing at them, nor they at you, and nobody's licking their hand and rubbing it on the other person's nostrils, everybody's cool. Regain full separation when you can, just for extra safety's sake, and chill the F out.


The Earth Calms and Greens Amid Pandemic

Couple of interesting sciencey things:

Earth Is Literally Moving Less Now That We're All on Lockdown (h/t Tara Cox).

and...

The environmental upside of the virus shows the green way ahead.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

More Pandemic Reframing

In my posting "The Grief Survival Kit", explaining how to escape grief that refuses to dissipate, I saved my best flip for the very end:
If death's so unthinkable (because living's so wonderful), then why would you pollute your precious alive time with unnecessary drama? If the departed saw you doing this, they'd slap their foreheads and holler "Stop! That's just crazy! Don't do that!! Especially not in my name!" They'd want you to mourn for a while, and then go out there and kick ass, relishing every moment.
By the same token...

If you're currently healthy but feel burdened and stressed and neurotic and depressed due to the pandemic, because health is paramount and desirable, then why on earth would you deliberately make yourself sick over it all? If health's so valuable, why wouldn't you be exuberantly enjoying every second of good fortune?


The ultimate framing reset move is to literally come back to your senses. Look and feel around you, right now, right here where you are. How are you? Feeling okay? Cozily nestled in your sofa, nibbling yum-yums and catching up on Netflix? If so, is siege mentality truly the proper framing?

Yes, there are problems in the world and people are suffering. That's always so. And, as always, we do what we can to help. But our misery does not help the cause. It makes a mockery of our freshly dawned recognition that good health's a blessing.

Great Succinct Explanation of India's Turn From Secularism

With our media caught haplessly in loops, chasing each new bullshit tornado and agonizing over every Chauncey Gardiner-ish Twitter utterance, how'd you like to hear a genuinely smart and objective person explain something extremely clearly and fairly?

Back up. A couple weeks ago, I bemoaned the brazen anti-Moslem violence in India. Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, went on a podcast last week to offer the best half hour explication one could ask for of the conflict. He paints recent history clearly, soberly, and with impressive balance – it’s impossible to know which side he’s on - outlining both sides' many grievances and sins while condemning in no uncertain terms the dastardly anti-Muslim measures instituted by Modi’s government.

As with most things, the story is more complicated than you'd think. Listen to this to learn how this mess happened. Listen to be surprised by some of the background. And listen for the soothing tonic of a very bright guy whose agenda is truth and clarity, period. Remember truth and clarity? This level of clear, clean authority is like a cool glass of water in hell.

The big takeaways:
1. Modi isn't some vaguely malevolent sphinx with historical baggage. It's worse than that (listen for the chilling assessment of India's preeminent psychologist, who had a close-up look at the guy early on).

2. India is in a similar position to Yugoslavia post-Tito, ripe for the likes of a Slobodan Milosevic. In Komireddi's view, the backlash against India's proud secularism/pluralism has already crossed a point of no return, and the country is doomed to behave more and more like a Hindu version of Pakistan's paranoid theocracy.

3. There are three sides to this dilemma: Hindu nationalists (largely though not entirely Northern), Indian secularists (largely though not entirely Southern), and Moslems (who were never as happily assimilated as Indian textbooks - which blame the British for all the strife - have long held).

Handy listening link (this segment comes first, ending at 24:28).
Background on the segment

Note that I have no idea who this Komireddi guy is. I've only heard the 25 minute interview, so caveat listener. He may turn out to be horrible in some way (though his recent Twitter feed confirms my positive impression).

Monday, March 30, 2020

Walking Proves You're Alive

Proving I Still Have a Working Heart

As I've written, I had some heart problems a few years ago. I'm fine, don't worry, but to get from "heart problems" to "I'm fine, don't worry" took some doing. Regardless of my dry medical report, which was rosy, I needed to rekindle vital confidence in this thumping mystery in my chest. It had broken, and once something so vital breaks, it's no easy thing to step down from the fraught state of high alert.

After I'd passed a stress test, my doctor smiled and told me to go nuts with aerobic exercise. No limits. The more the better. It's rehab!

I didn't need to be told twice. I started walking and walking and walking and walking. I dimly put two and two together: I live at the bottom of a hill....and needed to go nuts with cardio exercise...so, on pure instinct, I threw open the door (seriously, I'm not sure I shut it behind me) and brutishly, stupidly walked up the damned hill. Day after day, while commuters and dog walkers shlepped morosely up the slope with tight faces, I was in a whole different movie, beaming with ecstasy. I chugged FAST up the steep slope, feeling POWERFUL. I had a green light, so my heart was okay beating up a storm. It was THRUSTING me magnificently and I WASN'T old and I WASN'T sick and I didn't have some hardened, grizzled, grotesque thing in my chest, no, it was EAGER. Walking didn't just rehab my health, it reset my fear and broken confidence. Walking was my victory. I walked so aggressively, so pugnaciously, that once, as I headed, mid-circuit, into a supermarket to pick up a few things, I swear I very nearly walked straight through the back wall.  

Proving You're Still Alive

This week a friend who'd been in precautionary quarantine (no symptoms) finally busted out of his apartment, away from the fraught sweaty worries with which he'd been cooped up. He's always been a big walker, and told me how ebullient he felt to finally hit the streets.

I completely understood. I've been hill walking 3-4 miles most days during this pandemic, and it's provided some of the same return-to-your-senses reset I'd experienced during my rehab. As I texted him:
Walking was the antidote to my lingering heart worries and it’s the antidote now. Walking is the most defiant and visceral possible declaration of having remained alive.
Grandpa

My grandfather walked faster than any human alive into his 90s. I figured it was the result of his anxiety, or that he was being competitive with the youngster. But now I get it.

Proving You're Burning Calories

I'd been using the native iPhone Health app to track my walking, and the interface is awful and it doesn’t compute calories burned. Turns out there's a free app called Activity Tracker that pulls in stored Health app data and organizes and renders it much more nicely, plus calculates calories (add your height and weight in the settings to ensure that it calculates correctly).

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Broccoli Rabe Likes Me Back


I've never heard a word from @Potatoes over the years...

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Broccoli Rabe

It's time to reveal the official vegetable for my pandemic experience:

BROCCOLI RABE!


The Savior of the Budget Chowhound

There were many, many, weeks of my life where broccoli rabe was pretty much the only green vegetable I ingested. There isn't much, like, Swiss chard served in the sorts of restaurants I once hyper-patronized. If broccoli rabe didn't exist, I'd likely be dead by now.

Broccolini Rivalry

I really like broccolini (aka baby broccoli) and it tastes great simply steamed, so I never learned to prepare serious broccoli rabe, which is fussy to clean, trim, and endlessly sauté. Plus, I'm on a low fat diet, for which the aforementioned broccolini is a wonderful boon, while broccoli rabe...not so much.
Speaking of broccolini...some types of produce simply are what they are. Two equally fresh carrots or cucumbers will taste pretty much the same. But the best broccolini I ever had, from an organic farm in East Islip, Long Island run by an Italian guy, was 100x better than the second best. They hardly ever have it, and, when they do, it vanishes quickly. But it's as richly delightful as fudge.
Daniel Gritzer's Method

I was inspired by chef Daniel Gritzer, who I didn't previously know about despite his amazing credentials:
Daniel cooked for years in some of New York's top American, Italian and French restaurants - starting at the age of 13, when he began staging at the legendary restaurant Chanterelle. He spent nearly a year working on organic farms in Europe, where he harvested almonds and Padron peppers in Spain, shepherded a flock of more than 200 sheep in Italy, and made charcuterie in France. When not working on, thinking about, cooking and eating food, he blows off steam (and calories) as an instructor of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
I like how Gritzer writes - no snobbery, just down-to-earth explanation. I also like that he engages in the comments section (a handy asshole "tell" is non-famous people limiting access/feigning aloofness; people often reveal embarrassing truths via efforts to display status).

First there's the real article, then there's the near-pointless recipe they forced him to create for search engines and recipe clippers.

Nothing mind-blowing, but I appreciated a few points:

1. Don't be too precise about blanching duration because you'll want to overcook the rabe, anyway.
2. Reduce bitterness not via long blanching (which sacrifices flavor), but by long sautéing (he doesn't actually state it this way, but it's implied).
2. Overcooking is encouraged, but do it via a trailing very low heat sauté after the proper cook (which is convenient, because you don't need to fuss with it much at the low heat).
3. The green color can fade in the trailing sauté (so watch for it if that matters to you).
4. His quantity of oil (1/4 cup per 1 lb of broccoli rabe) is ace. Not a drop of excess, but any less would obviously degrade the result.

Mine turned out great! Look!



Foreign Proxies


I served it tossed with gnocchi, because, I think, I was subconsciously craving Shanghai/Taiwanese-style rice cakes with chopped pickled cabbage:

(photo stolen from here)


...and this actually scratched that itch.


I do lots of foreign proxy eating in many contexts. Just as frequent travelers can't help shuffling locales in their heads, I do the same with cuisine. It's all modular for me, like Legos or Garanimals. Examples:
• - A beloved Korean restaurateur once told me she cooked french toast for her kid each morning, and I showed up once at her opening hour, 11 am, begging for french toast. I wanted HER french toast.

• - I once asked a Queens Pakistani restaurant to serve me chicken tikka with raita wrapped in naan. The owner told me “Dude, just go down the block and get a greek souvlaki sandwich!” I said “I know, I know….but I want it from YOU”

• - A fantastic Thai place (as good as Sripraphai in some ways, though the curries are sweet) opened recently in the Westchester suburbs, and they make particularly good pad see ew. I've been building up the desire to have them do beef pad see ew completely mild (I usually request "very spicy" - btw, for the trick to doing that convincingly in Thai restaurants - along with a zillion other tricks for a zillion other cuisines - see my app, Eat Everywhere). Why? Because I'm hankering for Cantonese beef chow fun and don't know any great places for it right now.

Postscript
Matt Stanczak, founder of legendary Stanziato's Brick Oven Pizza in Danbury (no longer his operation but still pretty good), and the legendary EGGZ breakfast truck, as well as myriad other creative food adventures, offers great tips:
I learned how to prep/clean/cook b’rabe about 4 years ago from my Italian mother in law. Before that I was messing it up by blanching until soft in salted water, then finishing off in olive oil with slivered garlic and chile flakes. Now I score the bottom part into 4 (like you would a scallion), so the flowering part cooks at the same rate as the thick stem. I also usually hack it up into 1-2” pieces. Low to med heat in a good amount of olive oil and slivered garlic, adding a splash of water only late in the process to help steam. At that point it’s so versatile...
Matt walks you through:


Friday, March 27, 2020

Indulging Neurosis is Like Going Home

First, a preliminary bit of amusement, not particularly pertinent to the rest of the posting:

An old dude, in front of me in line to get into Trader Joe’s, was wearing a full Vietnam-era military gas mask. He asked me to give more space. I told him “I’m twenty feet from you, not coughing, and you’re wearing a full military gas mask. I'm pretty sure you’re ok”.

Pandemic Neurosis

Look around you these stressful days and you won't see people's best selves. Stress exacerbates our worst traits, and gives rise to some new ones that - who knew? - were latently waiting in deep storage the whole time.

Ghostbusters 2

As I once explained, intuition is a lousy faculty to possess, because people's thin outer veneer of civility is, in nearly all cases, the very best they have to offer. Vanishingly few of us bear beneficial secrets. So one would do well to heed the Wizard of Oz' advice and not peer behind the curtain.

Ghostbusters 2's proposition, that countless tons of psychomagnotheric slime lurk below street level, wasn't just light comedy. It was also powerful psychological allegory.

Mamma's Girl

I've known a remarkably unpleasant woman since childhood. She was toxic and bitterly resentful from the very beginning, and never varied. She had a daughter who started out lovely. She was able to see her mother clearly for what she was, and resolved herself to never follow suit. But over the course of her life, as worldly abrasions took their cumulative toll, the daughter oh-so-gradually hardened and curdled - so slowly she herself didn't notice - into her mother.

The Brother

I have a friend with a ne'er-do-well brother whose life spiralled until he finally landed in a mental hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My friend naturally wondered whether the same fate awaited him. I suggested that each of us, when we break, breaks in some characteristic way influenced (if not entirely determined) by genetics, but that we should concern ourselves less with our particular potential mode of breaking and much more with avoiding breakage; with learning to properly handle stress and improve resilience. I imagine he goes through life like a bowler mortally fearing the tightly-adjoining gutters.

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

I came a step closer to understanding the truth when I wrote about the trials of learning (or relearning) to play the trombone:
It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of brass like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There is a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our intentions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill. And one maintains a soft spot for "dear old dad".

You Actually Can Go Home Again

Mulling over the varied evidence, above, I experienced a Eureka.

When stress pushes us into darker, sloppier, less composed and benign habits and impulses, it doesn't feel like a gutter ball. Rather, it feels like comfort. It's the safe-feeling place. It feels like home. The mamma's girl, the brother, the frustrated musicians, and the pandemic neurotics all wind up where they wind up not from getting lost, but from seeking comfort.


The fuzzy dim world behind the veil, which we call The Unconscious, isn't some alien realm. It's our core; our kernel, our ground zero.


Addendum

Earlier this week, while explaining the ways I've found to coax myself into faint familiarity with unfamiliar material to help catalyze learning, I noted a peril:
If, over the course of drilling, I get the same question wrong a few different times in the same way, that wrong answer starts to supersede the in-my-ear truth. The answer I wrongly coughed up a few times starts sounding right, out of sheer familiarity.
That's how neurosis becomes our comfort place. It's not that we're inherently flawed, or drawn toward dysfunction. The cozy familiarity is created, duh, via our habitual focus. If we choose to go there, "there" comes to feel like home.

In so many ways, your body's just trying to accommodate you. It perpetually tries to return you to the familiar. So we need to take care with our habits of framing, i.e. where we persistently direct our attention! Magnetic familiarity (right or wrong, crazy or sane) is built up by attention over time.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Litmus Test of Social Distancing

I'm out and about more than most people. I'm not flouting Governor Cuomo's guidelines, just helping with logistics for local food pantries, and giving blood, and checking in on people who need help, and going out of my way for takeout from deserted great restaurants that definitely need the business. Plus the necessary food shopping - though I haven't shaken my habit of dividing that between several different stores, which, yeah, is a light flouting, hopefully forgivable.

And I've noticed something. I once wrote that I'd discovered the ultimate political litmus test:
I believe I've struck upon the perfect behavioral litmus test for political affiliation. I haven't tested it, but it feels inarguably true:

Liberals choose Sugar In The Raw, while conservatives choose Domino (sugar substitutes are bipartisan).


As a centrist, I see the folly of both sides. Choosing Domino reveals a lack of imagination and a mulish inclination toward complacent conformity. But Sugar In The Raw is gestural fakery, exploiting the vain appeal of shallow faux-high-mindedness.
Here's an even better one: social distancing amid a pandemic.

Liberals leave 20 feet of distance while waiting on lines, and jerk backward in horror if you appear to be so much as contemplating taking a step in their direction. Fuck the experts; I know better.

Conservatives behave like it's still February. Fuck the experts; I know better.

As a Centrist, I observe the prescribed 6-10” and roll my eyes at both excesses. Obviously, at this moment and with this issue, the latter is far more dangerous. But I don't want either extreme ever running things. I want leadership by sensible, competent, non-tribal technocrats, please.


The above is just a light-hearted observation (albeit on a dark issue), but the truth is that this very divide re: the pandemic has been intentionally orchestrated by the Trump campaign and its affiliated clique of misfit toys, and it's going to get very ugly. The smartest thing I've read all week was this short four-tweet thread by Robert E Kelly (best known as the guy in the infamous and hilarious "Children interrupt BBC News interview" video).

I believe Kelly is absolutely right. And there's precedent for vicious scapegoating in the aftermath of pandemics. In fact, that's what first gave rise to European antisemitism.

Why the Drivers are All Lunatics Now

I spent the day delivering diapers and tampons from a central depot to my local food pantry for distribution later in the week. Lots of people who've never before used a food pantry are about to flood in, and I'm trying to help managers face the flood.

And, my god, everyone's driving like a lunatic. I was tailgated, cut off, and swerved toward by texting pinheads...multiple times. Has the virus driven everyone nuts? Are we all stir-crazy from social distancing?

Nope, that's not it.

Remember the reframing trick I shared in my posting "On Wine and Rubberbands":
Among several fantastically useful insights I got from my old friend Elliot was this gem: If a wine tastes overly tannic, that means it's either 1. overly tannic, or 2. lacking in everything else (so the tannins stick out).
Reasonable drivers are staying in. What remains are the less competent and conscientious ones. They've always been out there, but now they're the majority.

Filtration generates aberration.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

In Your Ear: Instilling Truthful Wisps

I recently explained how I was going about learning a new language as my Perky Pandemic Project. I noted that a few deeper issues of learning - specifically, how to teach new tricks to an old dog - had come up for me. This posting explores the solution I came up with.

First, a slight digression ('cuz it's my Slog and I'll digress if I want to).



On the subject of Privilege, it should come as no surprise that I, a centrist, believe the left makes too much of it and the right too little. Few of us ever really acknowledge how we've benefitted by unearned privilege (when I finally did, that was a big part of how I outgrew Libertarianism).

Here's one big fat juicy hunk of privilege I've enjoyed: my family spoke more or less grammatical English when I grew up. And so I had it in my ear. So, later, when I spoke like a shiftless suburban youth who spent evenings hanging around the dank foosball lounges of Suffolk County, or, even later, like a jazz musician in smokey nightclubs and on endless tour buses, I could flip back any time I wanted to. This eased my way to wailing my SATs, going to a good college, getting good grades, and generally being able to signal class and education via my use of a semicolon. Correct language use was perennially available to me because it was in my ear.

If I needed to determine if a given construction was grammatical, I could run it past my inner ear, and gauge whether it seemed right. Easy peasy.

Not everyone is in a position to do this. In fact, most Americans speak/write correct, grammatical English as a second language. It's not natural, and this "marks" them. Even if they avoid outright errors, their unfamiliarity is telegraphed via telltale bits of awkwardness. Our ears are sensationally well-geared to detect out-tribe inflections so we can categorize who's who. And this social sorting - based largely on unearned privilege! - is a super power people don't realize they wield (I'm so fricking "woke"...I'm thinking about buying a vaping kit, de-vaccinating my children, and signing up with the Bernie campaign).
See my admiring pep talk to a thoughtful young woman working tenaciously up the other side of that hill (including a brief treatment of issues raised in this posting) here
So, in terms of learning....

If I'm drilling hard cold data - especially data that involves a big leap from The Familiar, as when learning a foreign language - and the answer doesn't pop, I'm sunk. I just flail like an upturned bug. Some people might have the mental horsepower to "muscle up" to a correct answer, but all I get is a futile dusty cough (can I even say "cough"? Too soon?).

But if the answer is even dimly "in my ear", so I can "listen" for it, that's something to cling to. I'll patiently wait for thin wisps to materialize into....well, maybe not a solid answer, but at least a slight tipping preference for the correct answer over the wrong one.

Drilling alone is painful. The answer must preexist, however faintly, in my ear. Yet I'm incapable of brute force memorization. There's the rub! The answer must exist in my ear, yet I'm incapable of firmly lodging it there.

It's a major challenge for me, and perhaps for all middle-aged people who no longer enjoy ample cognitive absorbency. How does one bootstrap oneself to the hazy familiarity necessary to even begin to learn?

I solved it, but, like a lot of my best "takes", it was hidden in the most forgettable part of my posting. This seems almost laughably foggy, fuzzy, and generally dismissible:
I formatted the material into a nice multi-page document which I print out and read through at traffic lights and over coffee. I also saved them as one big PDF, which I emailed into my Kindle app for browsing on mobile. It's like knitting or a fidget toy; the thing I pull out at odd moments.
How do kids learn? If they're learning to, say, wiggle their ears, or whistle, or hoola hoop, they'll playfully return to the activity at idle moments all day long. It resembles what adults term "obsession", but without the fraught neediness of adult obsession. It's fun. It's play. And it works!
As I wrote here, It's not "obsessive" if it improves your life. Pejorative terms ought to be reserved for failed tactics.
I take the following as gospel; it's been a guiding principle all my life: Children learn everything via play, and only start losing their innate learning skills when forced to sit up straight and get serious and learn more like grown-ups do - which is to say, poorly and painfully.

My account of informally perusing printouts in coffeeshops doesn't match up with the natural inclination to tighten up the learning process into something normalized and structured; into something one can wrap one's head around and take control of. But those controlling, normalizing, structuralizing moves will not bootstrap you. That's not the way to slip wisps of truth into the recesses of your ear.

Here's how to instill truthful wisps for language learning:

1. Sloppily, distractedly mumble verb forms a zillion times without ever once sitting up straight and Getting Serious. Go ahead and emotionalize the process - even thickly! - but via dilated earnest eagerness rather than the constricted self-judgement and stressful urgency characteristic of grown-up (i.e. shitty) learning. (I just buried the hell out of that lede.)

2. Drill on Anki, drawing blanks, patiently pausing to allow in-ear wisps to materialize into....well, maybe not a solid answer, but at least a slight tipping preference for the correct answer over the wrong one.

3. Continue drilling on Anki until the Knowing becomes snappy (Anki does this for you by exposing you more often to the material you've struggled with).

4. Practice actually using the material, either with a native speaker or else in your own head. (Whether you recognize it or not, there's an omnipresent mental narration, and you can always change the language pref, even if you're a beginner in that language. In fact, the narrator actually enjoys impasses and the process of eternally trying to scale them; that's what the narration function is for; it's the internal rehearsal studio.)


If, over the course of drilling, I get the same question wrong a few different times in the same way, that wrong answer starts to supersede the in-my-ear truth. The answer I wrongly coughed up a few times starts sounding right, out of sheer familiarity. I frame this as amusing and bemusing, rather than anything worthy of aggrieved horror, and gleefully tinker with the formula. I'm my own lab rat!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Asbestos Hope

I've been working on home stuff, and learned that household asbestos abatement isn’t as expensive as you’d imagine. I was just quoted $3000 by a certified, insured firm to handle some asbestos insulation on pipes in my basement. Not cheap, but not the five-figure monster I'd expected.

It may not increase my home value, but not spooking prospective house buyers will lead to a better/faster home sale, and that's worth at least $3000 (home sales aren't determined by a two-dimensional axis of higher/lower. A serious-sounding issue repels 95% of buyers regardless of bargain pricing).

Monday, March 23, 2020

Apple's Down 34%

Just last month, I wrote:
One day, historians will recall that $146 opportunity as a unique aberration: a chance to buy a blue chip stock (with $200 billion-with-a-"b" cash reserves) at an insane 100% discount. If this were jellybeans, people would have been shooting each other in the streets for a chance to buy.
Well, it's now down to $215, so it may happen again. And my previous writing about why Apple's dips are a fantastic opportunity for patient investors still applies. I bought some shares at $250, and I'll buy more now (sidelining a few bucks to buy more if it drops still more).

I've also contributed to two local food banks and Meals on Wheels, am buying tons and tons of takeout from local independent restaurants (and tipping servers 50%+) and keeping enough cash on hand to offer vulnerable friends interest-free loans if necessary. Anyone who can afford to ride out this storm - and certainly anyone grubbing around for stock bargains - ought to do likewise.

Of course, this dip is not based on the usual irrational fear and manipulation. There are actual macroeconomic problems. So the recovery may not occur within a year this time. I might need to wait 2 or 3 or 4 years. But at a 34% discount from its recent high, I'd be happy to spread that gain over a few years.


And if Apple never fully recovers, which is unlikely, then my investment will remain stagnant or perhaps sink a bit more. Not a catastrophe. But it's hard to imagine that this blue chip company with $200B cash in the bank will go out of business, leaving me high and dry. Never say never, but an overwhelmingly high probability of 34% with a very small change of eternal stagnation and a microscopic chance of disaster sounds awfully good to me.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Perky Pandemic Project (PPP): Learn a Language!

Issac Newton developed calculus during Black Plague lock down. And it's said that seventy years earlier Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in quarantine (which is somewhat true, and here's a fascinating though ultimately frustrating dive into the question that suggests we can definitely credit the plague with a lot of Will's poetry, as theaters were shuttered and a bloke's got to make a living).

So what can we do? Hey, I have an idea! Let's learn a foreign language!

It's a timely suggestion, because it so happens I've spent the past five weeks studying Portuguese. And I've been meaning to write about my process of coaxing my 57-year-old neurons into absorbing torrents of fresh information - a process I promised myself I'd never again undertake after a lifetime of laboriously building knowledge in several fields, eventually discovering that insight beats knowledge. The juicy stuff comes - as is so often true in this life - from lithely using what you've got (reframing!) rather than accumulating more and more.

So I didn't want to launch another big learning endeavor, ever. Besides, I figured I was thick as concrete, unable to retain anything for more than 30 seconds (unless it tickles my interest, in which case I'm like Rain Man). Yet, astonishingly, it's working. I guess I'm going about it the right way.

And it dawns on me that we're all home with time on our hands, and might want to emerge in a couple months with the cool superpower of speaking another language. So I'll offer a quick overview of my approach, describing the tools I've been using (all free or cheap), and I'll tackle the epistemology angle separately someday (here's a follow-up).
It really is a superpower. Beyond unlocking a world of culture and communication, a new language coaxes deep reframing. You add rooms to your inner home; fresh viewpoints becoming deliciously available. You've essentially birthed a new person.
Note, first, that I'm a sloppy learner. I don't sit primly at my desk mastering each lesson before moving on to the next. I don't lay solid foundations. I plunge ahead heedlessly the second I get a basic gist, and clean up the slop later - or, if I can get away with it, simply don't. For example, I've been speaking Spanish for 45 years, yet I still call drapes "the-things-you-put-over-the-windows-so-the-light-doesn't-come-in".

Here are tools for sloppy ad-hoc learners; for those of us who dive in and dabble, cleaning up gaps and problems later, if ever.

Anki

Anki is a software platform that's like flash cards on steroids, and geeks worldwide practically worship it. Anki drills you on a few cards per day (and intentionally makes it hard to do more), tracking and ranking problematic ones so that, moving forward, they get re-tested until you've finally internalized them. Sloppy learning nirvana!

There are Mac and PC Anki apps, which you can use to configure your Anki deck. For the actual drilling, just use their web app via your browser (it works great on mobile, as it's an ultra simple interface). You report - via honor system! - whether you find a given card "Easy" (re-test very sporadically), "Good" (re-test moderately after waiting a while), "Again" (you're not there yet), or "Hard" (furious re-testing). It takes work to build and tweak your deck, but it's worth it.

Don't use the canned language decks you can find online. Brew your own deck. Here's what I put in mine:

1. The 100 most frequent Portuguese words (in both Portuguese -> English format, but also separate cards for English -> Portuguese). A zillion web sites offer this sort of thing.
2. Present tense conjugations for the three regular verb types (e.g. "I eat" -> "Eu como", but also the reverse).
3. Present tense conjugations for the most common irregular verbs
4. Past tense conjugations for regular and irregular verbs
5. Numbers, months, days of the week, body parts, etc. All in forward and in reverse.

The Printout

The material that goes into Anki needs to be at least somewhat familiarized before you drill with Anki (it's a bit painful to learn absolutely new stuff via flash card quizzes). So I formatted the material I just listed, above, into a nice multi-page document which I print out and read through at traffic lights and over coffee. I also saved them as one big PDF, which I emailed into my Kindle app for browsing on mobile. It's like knitting or a fidget toy; the thing I pull out at odd moments. Then, once per day, I let Anki quiz me.

I memorize poorly. I remember stuff very well for a short while and then lose it forever. Yet, miraculously, 350 new words are fairly lodged in my brain thanks to five weeks of Anki + printouts. I'm amazed, really. Its true that some are accessed only very slowly, like wading through a vat of syrup, but that's cool, I can ratchet up the speed later. Same with spelling and pronunciation. Again: sloppy learning works for me.

Preply

Preply lists native language teachers worldwide who instruct you via Skype, for as little as $15/hour.

I don't, frankly, need some Portuguese kid masterminding my language education. But to brush up on pronunciation, and offer easy engagement, practice, and feedback, you just can't beat the price. My teacher - a random Portuguese lady living in Mexico - thinks she's my language guru, but while I dutifully follow her lead, I'm mostly in it for the spoken practice.

Google Translate

Google Translate is an invaluable resource, obviously. Not just for quicky/easy lookups, but because it will speak any word, which makes the ghost of every language student who's ever lived insane with envy. The problem is that it's a computer voice - good but not great - and, unbelievably, Google only offers Brazilian-style Portuguese pronunciation - a whole different thing from European Portuguese - so for pronunciation guidance I actually prefer...

Forvo

At some point tons of earnest people in tons of countries had the patience to sit down and speak words into a microphone so Forvo could offer an ambitious library of pronunciations. Sort of like Wikipedia, I guess. So you can drill down to pronunciations not just for major regions, but minor ones, as well, in many cases (the town of every Forvo participant is noted).

Forvo was an enormous help when we needed to provide dish pronunciations for every cuisine (except Chinese, where it's impossible to convey pitch) in my smart phone app Eat Everywhere. Nobody's ever done that before (shockingly) and Forvo was a huge help.

Reverso Conjugator

Reverso Conjugator offers conjugations for all verbs in all tenses for many languages. So useful! And they even offer a browser extension. To quote my late mother, this Internet thing is really something.

Foreign Service Institute

I don't totally grok what this actually is. The Foreign Service Institute web site says "These courses were developed by the United States government and are in the public domain", but they appear to have been written by some kid named Darren. And these sorts of heavy-learning courses are the sort of thing I tend to bookmark or download and never touch. I'm just too lumpy/sloppy. But it's there.

Duolingo

Duolingo is the Wonder Bread of language instruction. The Candy Crush of language instruction. This is the sparkly marketeered happy-talk lowest-common-denominator way to do it, and they make it SUPER FUN....if you're a child or an idiot.

The free mobile apps are nothing but cute tests with lots of breaks for ads and maddening perky awards celebrating your progress. Plus you "compete" via leaderboards, which, yay, is exactly what I'm looking for.

But you know what? There's a gap when you spend lots of time familiarizing yourself with vocabulary lists and conjugations and drilling via flash cards and chatting with on-the-clock natives via Skype. And I'll be damned if Duolingo isn't the ideal spackling for those gaps.

It's very easy to lose an hour answering quizzes, endless quizzes. Fill in the blanks, multiple choices, and even speak-the-answer-into-your-microphones. You'd have to be awfully ditzy to imagine it's actually teaching you the language. Not even close. But for spackle? A-plus. Again, expect to roll your eyes at the shiny contrivances and ditzery. But it counterbalances time spent staring at dry vocab lists.

Homespun Labors-of-Love

A jillion aspergians and monomaniacs have built up impressive web sites and YouTube channels - a parallel series of vast empires of learning tools custom jiggered for their respective native languages (people, fortunately, do the same for individual cuisines, too; one of the unsung features of Eat Everything is that we've vetted and recommended the best ethnic food sites for each region which you can surf via an in-app browser). Find a site you like, and you'll start depending on it, because you need the native flair of someone who's answered 10,000 questions from students like you.

For example, I floundered with Portuguese's crazy-assed way of handling days of the week:
Monday = Segunda-feira
Tuesday = Terça-feira
Wednesday = Quarta-feira
Thursday = Quinta-feira
Friday = Sexta-feira
Saturday = Sábado
Sunday = Domingo
Why the hell is Monday "segunda" (second)?

Dry vocabulary lists don't explain this, but Susana of Portuguese Lab did: Sunday, the lord's day, comes first, above everything. Knowing this, I'll never forget (though I still count silently on my fingers to get to Thursday).

Feeling too blurry to take up something like this right now? That's not because the world is weighing on you. Blame, instead, the exhausting false impression that you personally own the prevalent pain. You're not Atlas; you don't have a world to hold up. A positive, ambitious challenge is the best way to reframe from an unhelpful and smothering sense of apprehension.

Come back to your senses! How are you, right now and right here? Thus reset, you're free to embark on something cool and transformative!

Followup posting

Saturday, March 21, 2020

More Pandemic Reframing

Such a beautiful way of expressing it. I can't remember who said it, but:
If measures seem excessive, that means they're timed correctly.

If measures seem warranted, that means they're too late.
This applies in any realm with potential exponential compounding.



Reminder: you can listen to ghastly news on TV, and accommodate great disruption, while remaining happy. It's possible. It's a choice, though a hugely unpopular one.

If it gives you perverse pleasure to torture yourself over horrific thoughts, god bless, I won't interfere with that. But, otherwise, the smart move is to literally come back to your senses. Where are you NOW? How is it for you right here, right now? This swiftly reveals that cozily abiding in your sofa, or working through your Netflix queue, or improving your cooking, or taking long walks, is not Suffering.

And consider that we're living the very worst case scenario. "Global pandemic" has been atop the fright list for many very smart people for a long time. Well, here we are! Are you currently screaming in incessant agony?

Yes, not everyone has the good fortune to be cozy right now. Help if you can (I've volunteered as a Meals on Wheels backup driver, and have spent hundreds this week on takeout food and bakery items and beer growlers and whatever else I can to support the local economy; btw, takeout food is not a health risk). If you can help, help! But you needn't own the greater pain. If you've decided it's callous to be happy while others suffer, you've closed the door on any happiness ever. Bad move!

You're not Atlas. You do not have a world to hold up. Stress and worries don't help you and don't help the world, so just let it drop. Happiness is an option even now.



Grateful Things and Positive Surprises

1. I despised Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, but now I grudgingly respect Cuomo and find de Blasio redeemably awful, rather than irredeemably so.

Cuomo reminds me of Giuliani after 9/11. I'd loathed him previously, and while his messages to a terrified city were actually pretty boiler plate, at least he rose to the occasion. And that ain't nothing.

2. Doctors, nurses, and health technicians are heroes. They're walking into a battlefield without armor, and they're not backing down. Even in righteous wars, some soldiers go AWOL. But not these guys. Some will die because the government did not move fast enough (and dismantled the National Security Council’s global health security office - the pandemic response experts - two years ago), yet they're still reporting in for work, wiping down their face masks with hand disinfectant so they can be recycled.

3. The weather in the NY area has been so unbelievably beautiful. I'm doing daily three mile walks, feeling free as a bird.

4. It's a great time to start (or rekindle) a meditation practice. This is the stripped-down, non-dogmatic, non-joiny, non-woo-woo meditation method I've practiced for many years. Steer clear of the web site and forum, but the meditation practice is ace (if you like it, add this in a few weeks, then maybe this a few weeks later, then, very far in the future, this).

I faithfully devoted an hour per day to this during my most harried period running Chowhound, when I was really working five or six full-time jobs. So you can't tell me you're too busy for it! The alertness, relaxation, and attitude/framing adjustment you get from the practice more than repay the time commitment. Much more, really.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Magic Question

Many are feeling panic and stress. Neither's helpful, and they affect not just your own happiness, but the happiness of those around you. Your panic and stress literally change the world. It's another curve to flatten!

People who've known me for a long time will tell you that I'm far less stressed and more happy than I ever was in the past. It has nothing to do with worldly outcomes (my life drama has actually been pretty traumatic). Much of it stems from a simple mental practice I started years ago: Whenever something goes wrong and you're about to trigger an "oh shit!", or if some noxious toxicity bubbles up from your gut for no particular reason, ask yourself this question:

"If this is the worst thing that happens today, would that mean it's been a good day?"

That's it. You can ask/answer in under 10 seconds. It soon becomes a habit, supplanting the more familiar "oh shit!" response. Don't try to apply it to big lofty issues. Only what happens to you in the here-and-now. Vexation by vexation in your personal experience.

And don't imagine you can foresee the results. You've never done this. No one has. You must do it long term to see the results....which compound in unexpected and magical ways.

I have yet to answer "no", though some legitimately awful things have occurred. That's because while we irritate easily at minutiae, we are remarkably resilient in the larger picture. And the act of stepping back to a wider view forces us to react to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from our oceans of resilience rather than our thin puddles of irritability.

Eventually, the question morphs into an exclamatory, triumphant statement: "If that's the worst thing that happens today, this is a really good day!" A parking ticket or a lost wallet can feel like a relief - a small sacrifice to the Gods of entropy. It works for cracked cell phone screens and red lights, but even for blown job interviews and romantic breakups. In fact, it works for everything. I spent a perfectly lovely weekend in hospital once after a heart attack (I'm fine; they inserted a stent, I still run up staircases). Sure, I was concerned. But I was still me, just living straight through it all, come what may. Untouchable.

I usually don't like to spoil the outcome. Better to let people discover the effects on their own. But it's critical right now, so I'm spoiling the upshot: it's literally always a good day, and by examining events (and your reactions) on a case-by-case basis your windshield clears enough to recognize that we're living in Paradise...even now, while we're experiencing many smart people's long-feared Worst Case Scenario, and are forced, for a few weeks/months, to remain cozily snug in our homes working through Netflix queues and developing cooking skills.

The above is a repackaging of this older posting

Further Reading:
We're Living in Paradise

Paradise Lost

The Problem With the Serenity Prayer

Ballasting Happiness

The Evolution of a Perspective

...and many of the "Popular Entries" indexed in the left-hand margin.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Framing the Pandemic

At the crux of this situation is a fact I've been unable to integrate into my thinking on all this: influenza kills 640,000 people per year. I had no idea it was so high!

I asked a few friends, "What if COVID-19 wound up killing 640,000 this year?", and they all responded with gasps of horror.

There's a difference. COVID-19 is something like ten times deadlier, and might kill millions, not hundreds of thousands. But, still, I've been trying to reconcile the exponentially heightened alert with the algebraically heightened risk, and I suspect this is what's gnawing at pandemic skeptics.

After rolling it around my head all week, I've come up with a perspective threading the gap between skepticism and alarm. "A centrist's perspective on the pandemic", if you will.

A nasty wave crashes over society each year, barely noticed by the young and healthy, slaughtering multitudes. This yearly culling has been "baked in" as a fact of life, horrific though that sounds.

And this is simply a bigger wave.

It is not a tsunami - some distinct and more deadly phenomenon poised to drag the citizenry down into murky depths. It's not qualitatively different from the standard wave. It's just an extra bad one. The usual demographic (oldsters and immune-compromised) will be disproportionately affected, and the usual mechanism (pneumonia) will be their undoing. Again: the usual thing...only worse.

But while "worse" - especially ten times worse - is obviously an unhappy prospect, it's more perilous than it sounds because the healthcare system is built to handle only the normal wave. The peak of flu season peaks our hospital capacity. Tentuple that peak, and kaboom goes the healthcare system, potentially disrupting even non-pandemic response, e.g. heart attacks, strokes, etc. - the full range of medical services.

We're not screwed because some ferocious killer virus is poised to kill. We're screwed because this is the normal thing but worse, and we can't handle the fallout (no government can afford to build out infrastructure to accommodate once-per-century edge-case perils).

There is no new information above. But conceiving it this way - not as a tsunami, but simply more wave than we can handle - clarifies things, at least for me. It's much less "we're-all-gonna-die" and more "we-must-level-this-curve-to-spread-out-infection-over-time-so-it-doesn't-clump-and-overwhelm-our-ability-to-respond".

The skeptics - who don't understand the danger of an overwhelmed healthcare system - are doing us no favors. But neither should we be alarmed. We must take extraordinary measures in a relaxed and blasé fashion, though humans simply aren't built for that.

Pandemic Takeout Rule of Thumb

If your pantry is thinning out and the supermarket is madness...

Or if you want to support local business without taking undue risk...

Or if you're simply craving some variety...

Let's talk takeout.

But first let's talk germs. Slog technical advisor Pierre (a biochemist by training) says it's madly overboard to worry about touching stuff another person briefly touched (unless, of course, they're visibly ill). First, touching is not infecting. If you wash hands and don't touch your face (perhaps you've heard those suggestions?), the risk is arguably manageable.

And "manageable" is satisfactory here, because it's likely useless to imagine you won't eventually be infected. The virus will find you. We socially distance right now to level the curve of contagion in order to prevent hospital meltdowns (i.e. as much for society as for ourselves). But we needn't imagine the clerk handing us change to be passing along a ripe handful of Dengue Fever.

In terms of food service, here's where I'm drawing the line. I won't eat in restaurants, where three or four people might touch my food after it's cooked. That's too much potential virus going directly into me. Pierre might shrug it off, but I won't. Call me hysterical. But yesterday, for example, I got takeout chicken stew from a Latino steam table. The server certainly never touched the stew (it's hot, and has been hot ever since it was cooked - i.e. sterilized). She did touch my takeout container with her bare hands, and gave me back change with her bare hands.

I returned the change as a tip (she'll need it when such places shut down in a week or three), and disinfected my hands before getting in my car. I doubt viruses thrive on styrofoam, but from an abundance of caution, I transferred the food to a plate when I got home, threw out the styrofoam, and washed my hands. And the stew was delicious (I also picked up some frozen tamales; I'll similarly discard the foil wrapper and wash my hands. That's all.)

In my view (I'm neither a doctor nor a virologist), that's sufficiently prudent, especially considering the ultimate futility of avoidance. I'd be a whole lot more careful with dengue, but I'm normally much less careful with colds and flu.

I declined the tortillas, which were not heated and might have been handled by multiple people...though I certainly could have taken them and heated them up at home (they're tastier that way, anyway). Heat kills pandemic viruses, just like it kills everyday ones.

So my Pandemic Takeout Rule of Thumb is as follows:

1. Anything heated thoroughly during cooking...and

2. served hot enough that nobody would have stuck their fingers in it...and

3. comes to me via a single person not hacking up bits of throbbing lung tissue...is okay.

4. Same for any exceptions to the above which I can very thoroughly reheat on my end.

And that leaves many options. No tacos or sushi or sandwiches, which are hand-assembled from stuff that itself was handled, and/or is uncooked, and can't be thoroughly reheated. But, still, that's a big segment of takeout.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Attention: virus skeptics.

Attention: virus skeptics.

This will be the gentlest message you'll be hearing from anyone. I respect your right to think/say/do as you see fit, but I have a very small favor to ask.

Let's say Italy and Iran have not become essential warzones. Let's say the CDC and WHO (along with all the non-political non-partisan major public health experts) are part of a liberal media conspiracy to drive us into panic, wreck our economy, and tarnish Our President.

Let's grant for argument that this is just another flu...and I'll politely ignore the companion argument that this is bio-terrorism from those slanty-eyed Chinese devils (which sort of contradicts the "it's-a-nothingburger" claim, but whatever).

I'll also concede that if you don't want to socially distance, because you feel we're all over-reacting, you don't need to. You may go and do as you'd like, though you might be infected and non-symptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) and infect innocents, some of whom will infect old people. But it's okay with me. I get it; I don't like to be told what to do, either.

That's a lot of concession! But I do have one request.

Maybe don't broadcast your skepticism as loudly as you possibly can. Maybe it's ok if the rest of us stay home and flatten the curve out of pure gullibility. If there's just a small chance that you're wrong and the experts are right, we'll save millions. So we may be fools, but we're not the most foolish fools who've ever been fooled.

I understand you believe you're right and the experts are wrong. I respect your intellectual primacy; the sanctity of your gut feelings. But if there's a slight chance that this is what experts unanimously say it is, maybe don't work SUPER-hard to urge people to ignore official safety instructions amid what Donald Trump yesterday declared to be a National Emergency. Would that be okay?


If vaccines are safe and effective, there's a place in hell for parents who don't vaccinate their kids. But those who work to convince lots of other parents not to vaccinate will occupy a much deeper, much toastier slot. Because that's mass murder.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Pharmacist

There's a pharmacy I use where the owner dispenses the pills, and he's perennially stressed. Very stressed. He does not have time for your nonsense .

In his view, it just never frickin' lets up. He's got prescriptions to fill, but a never ending procession of people keep walking in to add to his queue. And as he juggles both sides of that equation, he's interrupted by frequent phone calls raising fresh issues and aggravations. He can't fill the prescriptions when the phone rings, so the queue gets larger and he gets further behind and Mrs. Williams is standing there demanding her damned blood pressure pills. So when, exactly, is he supposed to handle Mr. Jones' statins? The three-headed monster of his daily existence must be continuously fed. Dance, varmint, dance!

The pharmacist is not happy. He can never be happy. When would he be happy?

Of course, he could simply choose to be calm and relaxed. He could enjoy it. He could ride the waves rather than panic-dodge their looming crests. He might be delighted to see Mrs. Williams, wish her a cheery good day, tell her her pills will be ready by three, and I'm so sorry, Mrs. Jones, you'll be all set in a jiffy. And the phone! Fresh action - the grist that keeps my business afloat and my vocation consummated! I love when the phone rings! This is sweet success. This is how I serve as the lifeblood of my beloved community!

Yeah, he could opt for ecstasy. Or any gradation of misery or happiness (the choice is made early on, as I explained in the seminal Slog posting, "Ballasting Happiness"). It's easy-peasy; simply a question of whether you'll relax into it, or, rather, sputter and flail in pointless stress.

Musicians may play on top of the beat - pushing aggressively forward, like a punk singer - or lag behind, like a laid back blues guitarist. Or any other gradation of pushing or lagging. But those who push against the beat don't get done sooner. At the end of the night, they won't have played more songs. The tempos are the tempos; one's approach to tempo doesn't change that. It's nothing more than a stylistic choice.

Nothing more than a stylistic choice.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Viral Virus Pivot

Yesterday I sent the following to a friend outside the country:
Massive pivot today here re: distancing. Biz has filled the leadership gap by voluntarily shutting down a ton of stuff. Manhattan streets semi deserted (not quite like Rome yet, but it’s coming). The society is unrecognizable from 24 hrs ago. Man, we got religion fast. I thought American acceptance of gay marriage and raw fish were fast. I ve never seen a pivot like this.

I am no kind of anarchist, but the concept of leadership jumped the shark a bit today. We just discovered that the orchestra sounds ok without a conductor. Serendipitous blessing of Trump.
Also I had this brief text exchange with another friend:
Italy did not do this until too late. We should no longer assume we're in delayed lockstep with them. This was a good day.


If you're not sensitive to reframing, it's easy to miss the scope and breadth of a pivot like this. Most people just sort of float, unconsciously, along with the framing tide.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

More Virus Stuff

Yesterday, I said:
I've come around to a new view (framing?) on the virus: people need to panic more. I don't mean aristocratic Mrs. Howell style panicking - getting all frothy and screaming at anyone who sneezes. But the precautions most of us are observing with 50-75% diligence should likely be closer to 90%
Here's an example: we need to wash produce from the supermarket with soap and water.

Italy has had the exact same infection growth curve as us, but a week ahead, and it is BAD there (death toll in Italy surged over 30% yesterday to over 800). And I just spent the morning having all my Italian friends beg me via WhatsApp to not leave the house. That's all they say. Over and over. It's like they're radioing from a war zone. DO NOT LEAVE THE HOUSE.

I asked one why she doesn't go for a walk, or to a park. She answered:
“Because the lifespan of the virus on objects is not yet known: door handles for example. You should be one meter and more from each person and if an infected person passes by you and sneezes....."
Here's a short video showing utterly deserted streets in Rome, even the most touristic parts. It is surreal. A friend who's lived there for 60 years says this has never happened before.

Panic isn't the peril. It's the other way. It's complacency. Don't get all frothy and stressed. But do ratchet up your attention and diligence. Time to be smart.

The Chinese Communist Party and NYC Pizza

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s/1970s (and again just after the Tiananmen Square massacre), a foreigner could commiserate with visiting Chinese citizens re: the awfulness of the regime. The regime was not China, and China wasn't the regime.

At around the same time, strong, ahem, business interests controlled the cheese available to NYC-area slice pizzerias, and a customer could commiserate with pizzeria owners, who were doing their best under the circumstances with crappy cheese.

Time went by. The regime came to feel like China. And crappy cheese came to seem standard for NYC slice pizza.

Now, it's a faux pas to make remarks about the PRC to Chinese nationals - even those not thrilled with the regime - because you're insulting their country. And if you remark about crappy cheese to a pizza maker, you'd anger him/wound his pride.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Virus Notes

I've come around to a new view (framing?) on the virus: people need to panic more.

I don't mean aristocratic Mrs. Howell style panicking - getting all frothy and screaming at anyone who sneezes. But the precautions most of us are observing with 50-75% diligence should likely be closer to 90%. Even more hand washing, even more distancing, though not to the crazy point quite yet. Hanging with a small group of friends in a park, fine. Hanging with a small group of friends facing each other in a confined and poorly-ventilated space, not fine.

I was persuaded on this by a report from a doctor in Italy who sounded like he was screaming a report from a war zone. Here's the money line:
“I really don’t understand this war on panic...is panic really worse than neglect and carelessness during an epidemic of this sort?”
Can't argue.

It reminds me of when people used to hesitate to recommend their favorite restaurants on Chowhound for fear of having them go downhill from oppressive crowds. I'd always note that while I've watched thousands of great places close from lack of interest, only a tiny handful went downhill from over-attention.

Our first response was bovine complacency, and that escalated - fast! - to a heightened alert some people find extreme. It's not extreme yet. It's only extreme in counterpoint to the recent complacency. As I wrote here:
We latch onto a framing until it's forcibly ripped from us. Getting your lunch money stolen by the school bully will no longer seem like the most traumatic possible thing once you've broken your leg playing softball, and that's instantly nothing if someone starts firing a gun, and even that becomes a mere blip when you've spotted the huge asteroid in the sky hurtling toward Earth.
We're still thinking lunch money, while the gunman approaches. Don't get frothy, but do resist complacency. All the smart and informed experts tell us this will be A Thing. In an interesting article about "flattening the curve" (the gist of which, never explicitly stated, is the geometric aspect; i.e. every infected person who passes the virus along potentially creates a forward-facing ripple effect of thousands of cases and dozens of deaths), an American doctor says:
“I think people are not yet fully understanding the scale of this outbreak and how dangerous it is to downplay,” he said.
Two other notes:

1. Word hasn't gotten out despite the media machine's eagerness for news, but the virus can present gastro-intestinal symptoms. It's not all coughing and fever.

2. FWIW I'm prioritizing getting enough sleep. I'm pretty sure I've seen studies showing that sleep deprivation suppresses immune response. So I'm not indulging impulses to stay up late and binge view TV or read another book chapter. And I'm not making early morning plans. Whatever I can do to protect and foster extra sleep, I'm doing. I'm also eating extra healthy. No meal skipping.

Here is a smart, well-written first-hand account from a resident of Beijing.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Taking Notes

Nearly every positive result in my life came from taking notes.

I walked into a Colombian restaurant at age 19 and was overwhelmed. Still, I managed to order and eat. And it grabbed me. So as I left, I took a takeout menu in order to study dish translations, to note the ones I'd tried, and to circle items that sounded good. On my way home I jotted down the names of a couple other good-looking places nearby.

So that's how that started.

To this day, when people tell me about great places, I don't just make dead eyes while fake-perkily intoning "Ooh, that sounds great!" as if it was of no personal interest to me. I write it down. Plus, I actually go. I get in a car and drive and go and eat - and note good-looking places nearby (following up on those, as well). That's a lot of activity for a member of a species incapable of action! As I wrote here:
Most people do nothing. If they sign on, they won't show. If they pledge money, they won't pay. If you hire them, they'll sit in their cubicle and sip coffee. You know how most soldiers never actually shoot at people? How as few as 30% perform all the kills? I've decided that this isn't a saving grace of humanistic morality. It's just another example of how most people do nothing.

I'm not saying they're lazy. I'm not saying they're liars or deadbeats. Just that they do nothing. Most people do nothing. I think of them as the Zombie Army.



One day a musician friend, who I didn't particularly respect, told me about a jam session he'd gone to, which wasn't particularly great. And it was an hour away, in a dangerous area. I didn't just nod my head. I got out my pen. And the very next week I went to this jam session (because I was looking for opportunities to play and to network), where I impressed the crowd.

25% of my lifetime musician earnings stem from that night.

If I hear about a great movie or book or CD, I write down the tip, and I actually search (sometimes waiting years to find a bargain - I organize libraries and wish lists via the "Pedia" series of Mac apps, as described here).

To most people, this all seems obsessive. If you idly drop a movie name into conversation, you'd never expect me to actually go see it, much less launch upon a long-term quest. I seem like Rain Man! Jesus, Jim, don't you have a life?

Yeah, I do. This is it. This is my life. I'm the guy who pays attention, and takes notes. Why? Because the stupidity and the drek and the cruelty and the shiny crapola are directly in my face, 24/7. I don’t need notes for any of that. But if I'm to enjoy my residency on this planet, I'll need to work for it...by treasure hunting. Not just with food, but in every realm I care about (and even a few that I don't).

To most people, my meticulous follow-up seems eccentric and ludicrous. But if I were to search my house, my computer drive, my memory, and my thought stream, most of it is fruit from the note-taking tree.

It's not "obsessive" if it improves your life. Pejorative terms ought to be reserved for failed tactics. 
Are we all obsessive breathers?


Naturally, when offering tips to others, I'm very careful with what I recommend and to whom I recommend it. The last thing I want to do is send someone on a wild goose chase. That would violate professional courtesy.

But when I do, almost no one takes notes. At best, I'll elicit a perky "Ooh, that sounds great!", as if it were of no personal interest to them.

I worry about whoever put these astonishingly beautiful trees here which we ignore and cut down and pee on and walk right past with our heads down like they were nothing. All the myriad unappreciated lasagnas and concertos over the eons pale in comparison to our arboreal ingratitude.

As I wrote here:
We humans shuffle through our blinkered existence, lost in mental drama, amid this gorgeous paradise planet, a miraculously lush sanctuary in a coldly inhospitable universe, blessed with trees (if trees had never existed and sprung up overnight, people would be driven insane by the beauty) and life-giving oxygen and sunshine and delicious food and refreshing water and all the immersive storylines we could dream of, all of it tailored to our every need (including our need for challenge, violence, and heartbreak) and permeated with heartbreaking love. Yet we scarcely notice. We're jaded, bored, and impatiently awaiting Something Better. We live in eternal anticipation - of our next big win, of momentary gratification, and of the arrival, finally, of "The Answer". We pray for help and then spurn the responders. We even actually have the gall to demand a messiah.

Yet not once have I heard a voice blasting down from the skies: "Attention ungrateful shitheads! How about taking a look at those trees for just like two seconds?" There's never a trace of whining about our endlessly oblivious lack of appreciation. God (or whatever) is like a stoic silent grandmother perpetually serving insanely delicious soup to ungrateful family members lost in fake mental drama who distractedly trudge out of the kitchen with nary a word or smile....yet she quietly feels deeply satisfied knowing that, at some level, they've been nourished.
Until you or I produce anything remotely as wonderful, we have no right to feel harumphy when our offerings fall on dead ears. I bear this closely in mind.

Still, when I offer someone a tip - tacos or whatever - and they they don't take notes (just dead-eyed stare + ”ooh, that sounds great”) I find people as eerily inexplicable as they find me spending hours tracking down some book my dentist said maybe I'd like. Why aren't they writing it down?

I certainly wouldn't insist. Nor can I feel slighted, because trees. But it puzzles me. I'll never understand why people don't take notes.



Speaking of "pejorative terms should be reserved for failed tactics" (an idea I explained from a different angle here): if you do something - anything, really, from mopping to talking on the phone to building bookshelves - while some immense mooing cow stares at you, said cow will deem you "manic". To the multitudes of phlegmatically complacent pud puds, engagement seems like mania. It's imperative for engaged people to dodge that gaslighting.

Same for "over-intensity", a term used by the flaccid to gaslight those who give a damn.

And don't get me started on "Unhinged".


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Groundbreaking Pain Treatment

I've been sending links about awesome-sounding science news/discoveries to Slog technical advisor Pierre (a biochemist by training who knows literally everything...I'm not joking) for 30 years. And not once has he failed to curmudge back.

"Nonsense!" "Garbage!" "Sensationalized!"

This long ago became a running joke for me, though I continue to send stuff, because, y'know, science hope springs eternal.

I just received an email from Pierre re: an upcoming pharmacological treatment for pain and inflammation that causes no stomach problems. He says "so far it looks very good (and is very clever)."

I'm in shock (the double use of "very" is Pierre's equivalent of stripping off all his clothes and sprinting across Times Square waving his arms and screaming). This is big!

Pierre naturally also passed along a link to the chemistry.


I should probably also report that, as expected, Pierre politely declined a gift of propolis throat spray (and since he’d constrained his instinct to roll his eyes over it, I, in turn, declined to chide his refusal with “Absence of evidence isnt evidence of absence!”).

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Where are the Devout Indian Aunties?

Why aren’t elderly Hindu Indian aunties going out in the streets to shield and protect Muslims who are being beaten by thugs?

The shocking intolerance - and now barbarity - of Hindu nationalism is utterly transgressive of the faith itself, which serves as mere “cover” for deeper hatreds and impulses. So where are the millions of real Hindus of deep real faith? Why are they not out in the streets shielding? They manage to show up like clockwork for holidays, festivals and pilgrimages in great plenitude. So WHERE ARE THEY?

In a confusing time of history, this is my biggest confusion. I well know about “the good people who do nothing” in such scenarios. But India, a bastion of genuine spirituality, should be different. The streets should be full of defiant aunties, yogis, and sanyasi. Where the hell are those millions?

If I understand the dynamics correctly, they’d face no recrimination for standing up. The violence isn’t orchestrated, nor has fake thug-Hinduism splintered and turned on the actually devout (nor will it do so easily with millennia of tradition baked into the collective consciousness). There would currently be no consequences for standing up - aside from maybe a minor concussion - for those incontestably in-tribe.

So where are they?


Friday, March 6, 2020

Consider Propolis Throat Spray

I'm fed up with the flood of dodgy Corona virus baloney on social media. Factor in a president circulating falsehoods and noise (I think he's decided Corona virus is "against" him, so he's giving it his traditional oppositional treatment), and we all need to simmer down and let health authorities dominate the airwaves (yeah, under Mike Pence's control, but smart insiders insist CDC would resign en masse rather than make false statements).

So I don't want to hear your dentist's thoughts, or be forwarded the damned emails everyone's circulating.

However...

I'm doing something different, and my urge to shut the hell up is oh-so-slightly exceeded by my obligation to share. Forgive my hypocrisy.



I wrote a few years ago about propolis, a natural antibiotic/anti-viral/antifungal/antiseptic produced by bees to keep the hive hygienic. If a mouse gets into the hive and dies, they coat the body with this stuff and all is hunky dory.

For centuries, beekeepers tended to be in oddly good health. It's propolis. Since I found out about it, twenty years ago, I've used it, with unerring success, for bugs of any sort...a sort of minor league antibiotic/antiviral. One example: medicine offers very little help for gum infections. Smear a drop of propolis tincture over the area with your fingertip and it will be knocked out pronto (rarely, I'll have to re-apply the following day).

Why isn't this more widely known? Because it can't be tested. Ever. No two samples of propolis are the same, because bees make it ad-hoc from natural resins, and different ones are found in different locales. There is no one thing you can call propolis, so there's no  specific substance to test. It may forever be deemed folk medicine.

They now formulate propolis as a throat spray for colds. I use it at first sign of sore throat, and it goes away with stunning speed, though you need to fiddle with dosage (see below).

So while I'm following all CDC guidelines, I'm also keeping a little bottle of this, available for about $12 on Amazon, handy. I've bought several two-packs to give to older people (who are especially vulnerable), after filling them in on the cautions at the bottom of this posting.

There are no known side-effects/dangers (again, it's been used for centuries), but there are things to bear in mind, and I'll lay them out below. Here's the upshot: treat it respectfully. Take as little as you can as seldom as you can. It should never be an everyday/week thing.

Except you do need to "trail" treatment with colds. When I first used propolis throat spray for a cold, it was quickly effective on symptoms, but the cold kept returning 24-36 hours later. So now at first sign of cold, I do a spray to the left side of my throat and one to the right side (inhaling deeply to draw it down) and repeat every 6 hours or so for a few days even after symptoms have disappeared. With the current virus so worrisome, I may continue 5 days from my initial application, perhaps reducing dosage to every 8 or 12 hours after the first couple of days.

Things to Know

1. Propolis is a natural blood thinner. If you're on blood thinners, take caution. I am on Plavix, but the spray's dosage is quite low (more standard propolis tincture, which I use for everything other than sore throat, is much more potent). So I use it sparingly, and am extra careful about avoiding bleeding perils, and treating wounds alertly.

2. Propolis is what Chinese medicine calls "heating". In fact, it's among the most heating substances out there, along with alcohol and hot/spicy foods. Avoid both while on propolis to avoid feeling sweaty/clammy/irritated/hyped up, especially if you're menopausal or if you meditate a lot.

3. Bees are finicky about the cleanliness of the resins they forage from the environment. But they can't detect heavy metals. And heavy metals remain cumulatively in your system. It would be wild overstatement to assume all propolis contains heavy metals, but you can't (ever) be sure. It's just another reason to limit use.

4. Propolis tincture, containing a brownish resin, can temporarily stain teeth (it goes away, and, meanwhile, it's actually fighting plaque). I haven't had this happen with the lower-dosaged spray. But no biggie either way.

5. All the above cautions apply more to propolis tincture than to the dilute spray. You shouldn't have any problem. But, still, don't use it willy-nilly, e.g. as a preventative. It's not candy!


I have no financial interest in the bee industry, generally, or either product linked, specifically.

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