Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cheesesteaks, Accent Detection, and Tribal Intolerance

A Philly native asked why every single non-Philly cheesesteak tastes so obviously, ludicrously wrong:


It’s notoriously difficult to transport culture of any sort. It's hard for a European jazz musician to really swing, or for Woody Allen to convincingly replicate a Swedish film director (even using the Swedish director's cinematographer), or for American artists to draw convincing Japanese-style manga comics.

It's easiest to understand if you view it like language. All artists have their touch, tone, voice, and it’s awfully hard to escape those things (it amounts, really, to escaping oneself). They function much like accents.

So a chef with a Los Angeles accent/sensibility/touch almost surely won't pull off a convincing cheesesteak. Even with perfect ingredients and recipe, it’s always going to skew wrong. It will always carry a detectable foreign accent. You can learn a new accent, but that takes enormous work, especially if you're aiming to fool natives.

The problem is that our cultural sensors are exquisitely fine-tuned; it’s part of our innate tribalism (we need to know who’s in and who’s out). Even though I’m a food expert who's pretty well-calibrated for real cheesesteak, a Philly native could recognize foreignness in a cheese steak a couple decimal places more minutely than I, being a New Yorker, ever could. The same mechanism that allows her to spot a fake Philly accent via a single errant phoneme in a movie makes her ferociously intolerant of non-Philly cheesesteaks.

As a NYC jazz musician, I can spot fake swing from just two notes. Same thing. Fine-grained in-tribe/out-tribe detection mechanisms.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Relativistic Illumination Fronts

Any hardcore sloggers out there want to go on a rabbit-hole dive? I was graced by a reply from an eminent astronomer when I inquired about a very fringey (yet scientifically legit) interest of his. He offered a link (to an old lecture of his that's difficult but graspable without math). And the link, which is GREAT, leads to more links (including a preceding lecture that's simpler and that he considers a prerequisite).

The topic is a very Slog-ish conjecture: If you swing a laser pointer around fast enough, the light moves faster than light (there's no mass, so it's cosmically okay). And since it's light, information can be transmitted (and transmitting information faster than light is something we thought couldn't be done, and opens up huge huge huge possibilities, [joke] even beyond much better cell service[/joke]. Not the standard blink-the-flashlight sort of information, which requires fixing on your target (which means it'd happen, duh, at the speed of light). But the shadows and anomalies arising from the faster-than-light registration of the swinging laser pointer from, like, the surface of the moon are trippy as all get-out to consider even if you don't sit through the video lecture linked above.


You just know what I'm thinking, don't you? Per my series on the Visualization Fallacy (which bailed out of the eponymous fallacy early in the very first installment, as I began eagerly pursuing a dangling thread leading to a new view of cosmology), there are framing issues here. Cosmology is going to get super-into reframing (aka Subjectivity). Quantum mechanics was just the first small nudge in that direction.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Workout Posting

Oh my gawd, how did I possibly forget the gymiest of gym regulars of all, the Treadmill Wraiths? I've added them to my posting, "Everyone Chooses The Most Perfectly Wrong Workout". They're second from the bottom, just above the Yoga People.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Everyone Chooses The Most Perfectly Wrong Workout

My brain doesn't ever shut down. So while I'm putting in my daily 30 trudging minutes on the treadmill, I'm looking around and trying to Understand. It's all research for the grand unification theory I've been building to explain What the Hell's Going On Here.

I present, below, an abstract of my twenty years of observational lab data regarding human gym behavior, grouped by equipment preference.



The Bicycle Gents

I don't mean sexy trendy Spinning, I mean dumb ugly stationary Bikes, which are patronized exclusively by glum, haggard guys in their late 60s whose upper bodies are fading into flab and baggy skin, but who have enormous calves, making this the one gym task that comes easily (not that they're exactly pushing themselves here, either).

Too haggard to run or to Stairmaster, they see the bicycle as the equipment closest to their comfort zone, i.e. the sports-watching chair at home. Here there are no beers or pork rinds, plus they must execute some light pushing motions with their feet, but it's damned close.

The Bicycle Gents ought to be doing pilates to restore core strength, and weight-training their curling upper bodies. Instead, they're systematically hyper-developing their hyper-developed calves.


The Pilates Ladies

Your freshness-by date has passed. You used to be stunning and you're pissed off at yourself. So you CRUNCH your abs, OVER and OVER and OVER again, to expunge that ugly disgusting flab. You CRUNCH and you CRUNCH and you HATE and you CRUNCH.

You drastically overdo it - as you overdo everything, being a type-A go-getter who was once captain of the cheerleading squad - until finally your body has been bashed and pruned into a hideous ropey knot of tendons and gristle, your face, even at rest, a tight, ultra-low-body-mass mask of stress, determination, and throbbing temple veins. You don't look good, having obliterated all womanly curves and softness, but there's not one iota of flab anywhere on your drawn war zone of a body. Mission frickin' accomplished.

The Pilates ladies should be doing weight training to create the muscle mass that will prop up their sagging metabolisms, and yoga to gently restore connection to their bodies. But that would distract them from their obsessive "out, damned spot" approach to flab annihilation. The Pilates Lady will, of course, be played by Tilda Swinton in the major motion picture adaptation of this posting


The Elliptical People

Oh, god, the elliptical people. These are the Daffy Ducks of the gym. The most hapless, senseless gym folk of all. "Elliptical", indeed.

Let me offer some tough love:

1. An elliptical is not a Stairmaster. Every one of them approaches it like a Stairmaster, determinedly squaring hips and trying to push...down...with...their...feet, but it's never quite right because the machine really wants a jaunty cross-country skiing motion. Rather than accommodate, they square their hips, lean forward with an expression of screeching anguish, and try to make the screwdriver do the work of a hammer. All while vacant Stairmasters await just a few yards away.

2. Did you know that you can change direction, and do a reverse motion, to break things up and activate another set of muscles? No? Mind blown, right? How did you not realize this? Here's the answer: Stairmasters don't reverse direction, and you think you're on a Stairmaster.

3. If you're dumb enough to use the ones that also have arm-pulling poles (aka a CrossTrainer), you will kill your shoulders. If your goal is to build arm strength, pick up a barbell. You're here for a low-impact aerobic workout, and you have more than enough to worry about trying to achieve the correct lower body motion. Concentrate on that.

3. Going really fast with really low resistance is pointless and hilarious. So don't ever change. You make my day, every day.

The Free Weight Bros

Bruh, I can't believe I squeezed out that last rep, bro. I'm so frikkin' spent, so frikkin' ripped, just look at me, look at how bad I want it, bruh. I mean that, really. Seriously. Look at me. LOOK AT ME. You ain't lookin', bruh. I'm crashing my weight plates together, I'm screaming, I'm flexing, and you're still not looking. WTF, bruh? I'm a super hero right here. You spent $16 to watch that bumpin' Marvel comics flick last week, bro, but I'm giving you that for free RIGHT HERE, bruh. What am I even doing this for if I can't look at people looking at me? I do this for YOU, bro.

The Free Weight Bros - moistly red-faced, manic, and over-aggressive - should be chilling out on a bike. Instead, they lift and lift and lift, expanding their girth to occupy more space and be more unmistakably visible.


The Newbie Trendies

As described here, the newbies show up in their gleaming, expensive workout outfits, ponytails meticulously coiffed. Working with a bored, pot-bellied trainer (played by John Candy in the movie), they gamely run the latest trendy exercise gauntlet, flinging heavy thick ropes, leaping up onto platforms, and generally seizing the "No-pain/no-gain" approach right out of the gate. They are living the worst nightmare of what a gym is for people who've never been to a gym: A caricature of sadistically herculean labors.

Fitness has been their longtime adversary, and they've finally psyched themselves to slay the dragon. They're doing it. Of course, tomorrow they will be so sore and so disheartened by the grinding joylessness that they won't be back until next January, in new gleaming, expensive workout outfits a size or two larger.

The Newbie Trendies should be gently enticing themselves into a habitual and sustainable routine.


The Adorable Bunnies Sticking With What Works

Cute-as-a-bunny early-20-somethings performing, with force of purpose, inexplicable exercises learned as adolescents which they credit with getting them to the ripe age of 22 looking comely.

I don't know where they got these exercises. Probably some piece they saw in Vogue. But they will not be weaned from their pointless routine, because, just look at them. It works! Dance with the one that brung you!

It can't possibly be that they'd look like this regardless because they're 22 and have great genes. No, they've accomplished this. So they sit on the mat, watching themselves making Serious Face in the mirror, grabbing their elbows and squeezing, or rotating their ankles in bursts of five, while the Free Weight Bros crash their weights extra violently to catch their attention.

They have a few years before transforming into tendony body-hating 35 year old Pilates Ladies. They don't realize they're in the green room for the pilates that is their destiny.

They should be instilling an aerobic exercise habit, along with some weight training to ensure muscle mass preservation amid the inevitable dieting.


Treadmill Wraiths

A wide swathe of humanity can be found on treadmills:
  • Morbidly obese slow-starters trudging at 2mph, obviously insecure amid the body-culture (though this is the last place they should ever feel insecure!).
  • A few Free Weight Bros doing high intensity workouts at like 16mph, clodding hard and loud for 30 seconds, gasping and braying like the overcharged stallions they are, craving, at the cellular level, their nutritious mix of physical pain and attentive gaze.
  • A warren of Adorable Bunnies who've finished their inexplicable exercises and need something else to do (and, being too tiny to experience much gravitational resistance, hardly break a sweat even while flat-out sprinting).
But I want to call attention to the ultimate grinders; the Treadmill Wraiths. They run and they run and they run. Well, wait. That sounded joyful. Wind-in-hair, nostrils flaring, peak-experiencing, etc. No, this isn't that. The Treadmill Wraiths are just meat atop shoes, and there ain't much meat left.

Like toast left too long in the toaster or a wool sweater left in the dryer, they're beyond overdone. Having blown through weight loss, blown through cardiovascular conditioning, blown through burning every ounce of muscle once there was no more fat to burn, their bodies are now burning, like, bone and fingernails and ear wax for fuel. Whatever's left!

Their clothes hang on them like on sticks, and one day there will be nothing left to burn and they'll fall silently into the treadmill and vanish. If you examine the belts carefully, you'll notice a smile here, a birthmark there. They never actually stop.

I once wrote about the perils of aiming for infinity, particularly in physical endeavors. For the ultimate example of not knowing when to stop, consider the Treadmill Wraiths.

Obviously, the Treadmill Wraiths should be lifting weights, recovering some muscle mass. But no. The same mechanism attracting us to the foods we're allergic to compels them - like all the denizens I've described here - to do exactly the thing they shouldn't be doing.


Yoga

Yoga class is always a mixed bag but if there is one common denominator, it's that every single participant has a notably horrible ass.

For the average person, what yoga is is a means to developing "yoga ass". You wouldn't do yoga because you have a great ass and want to preserve it. That's what the twenty-something cute bunnies are executing with their inexplicable movements out on the mats. Just as you don't see happy people at therapy, or skinny people at the Big and Tall shop, you don't see people with acceptable asses at yoga class.

The other weird thing about yoga is that it's almost entirely women. So, for Jesus Fuck's Sake, my interest in it is yet another inadvertent gayness token, along with my Mazda Miata, which I was informed, after purchase, is a "gay car", whatever that even means. Thing is, women weren't even allowed to practice yoga until a few decades ago. For centuries in India it was a guy thing, like model railroads and beef jerky, but I think I get it. Guys aren't super interested in having a yoga ass. That's a more effeminate goal. Hence no guys in yoga class. That's just science.


Me, I have the calves and haggardness of the Bicycle Gents, but stick to treadmill where I'm pre-wraith and post-obese.

I no longer do any yoga stuff at the gym, because the resident Yoga Ass Teacher occasionally strafes by to offer me her unsolicited expert feedback based on a decade of yoga experience with her guru Donnie. She once told me I need to "really try to connect with my body", leaving me mentally teeming with such a shocking array of potential abusive, violent, and pornographic responses that I resolved to never so much as touch my toes in the building ever again.


Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Tale of Two Chickens

A Skinner Box is any setup rewarding "good" behavior and punishing "bad" behavior. If you imagine that humans have transcended the animal kingdom, start looking for Skinner Boxes in the animal world (e.g. reproduction = good = reward; not sleeping/eating/drinking = bad = punishment), and you'll find that every damned one of them not only engages humans but absolutely captivates us. The shitty reward pellets are THE GREATEST THING EVER ("Go Cubs!!!").

Whenever we find ourselves in Skinner Boxes - as we do a zillion times per day - we instinctively strive for the cookie, and avoid the electric shock. We're no fools. We know how the game's played.

As I wrote here:
When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
I'm a slightly wiser chicken (#slightlywiserchicken). I've noticed that the cookie's not so great, nor is the electric shock particularly damaging. I've transcended the must-have-cookie/must-avoid-shock mindset. If you tempt me with a cookie-producing red button and a shock-producing green button, I'll triumphantly call out "Skinner Box!!", press nothing, and breathlessly await some Higher Reward.

I feel as though I've ingeniously gamed the game, but:

1. There is no higher reward.
2. The other chickens think I've lost my mind.
3. I annoy the bejesus out of lab techs, who don't admire test subjects who catch on. The sheets on their clipboard do not have a third box to check. You will be not feted but refuted.

And, alas, I'm only a slightly wiser chicken, not the Chicken King. So I keep repeating this move over and over - hollering "Skinner Box!!" and awaiting the recognition that never comes. Perhaps I just need a different sort of Skinner Box. I'm winning the hell out of the next level, but that's just not the current gameplay.

Psychologists have found that if you consistently reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, the subject becomes well-behaved. But if you mete out reward and punishment randomly, the subject loses its health and its hair, and ramps up into anxiety or down into depression. The subject goes nuts (#nuttychicken).

I have been a rejected slug in the coin chute of every institution and system that's ever made the error of receiving me, and they've responded with torture. In all the many realms I've toiled, I've been deemed fantastic by a few and contemptible by many. And there's been no pattern to it, though I've scrambled to try to straighten it out. It can't ever be straightened out if you categorically transcend Skinner Boxes, because Skinner Boxes are all there is. You want cookies? Press the button that gives you the frigging cookie. Don’t overthink it!

When a world runs on reward/punishment, the slightly wiser chicken (#slightlywiserchicken) can only amuse itself via showerings of chintzy cookies and feeble shocks. The pointlessness of it all, and the randomness of the outcomes, feel horribly oppressive. And it's all on dopey me, because my visceral determination to always break the box cannot lead to any happy result in The Only Game There Is.



I attended music school with a talented sax player. He kept his head down and pushed the right buttons, for which he was duly and consistently rewarded. I fought mightily, mashing all the buttons, and no buttons at all, and triumphantly hollering "Skinner Box!" in deserted rooms, determined to opt out of poultrification.

My friend was promoted to the good band, I was demoted to the special needs band. He graduated with warm handshakes and proud well-wishing, I dropped out wordlessly and was never to be mentioned again (I've been purged countless times; e.g. don't look for me in the Wikipedia listing of prominent NY Press alumni, and AO Scott's kind shout-out was a real anomaly. I was even pointedly not-invited to participate in my high school’s commemorative concert by the scattering of alumni who’d gone professionally into jazz - an awfully low bar!).

In the 90s, I blasted out of the stifling chrysalis of the conservatory, befriending every elderly black forgotten jazz great I could find stranded in dismal-but-swinging gigs within a three hour drive of Manhattan. I stretched in every respect, playing all styles with monogamous devotion (and promiscuously eating my way through every cuisine). I had drive.

My friend moved to NYC along with some classmates, with whom he played exclusively. They were fine, but I asked him why he didn't take advantage of the incredible pool of experience and talent. I told him about my gigs with guys like Walter "Baby Sweets" Perkins (the hot drummer of 1959), Eddie Barefield (who'd been an elder mentor of Charlie Parker back in the 1940s), and Shorty Jackson (a pianist who'd played with Stepin Fetchit and who was so old that literally everyone who'd ever heard of him was long gone). My friend listened with polite interest, and replied, with the smooth confidence of a winning chicken, that "the guys I went to school with are the guys I like to play with". Less polite in those days, I let my disgust show, and we lost touch with each other.

Decades later, I just found a gig of his on YouTube. He sounds good. He always sounded good! But his progress has been incremental, not exponential. He’s still that same guy, only more polished. He never reached escape velocity. This is what comes from persistent cookie seeking; of turning toward positive reinforcement like a rhododendron glacially angling toward the sun. It's a perfectly lovely low-friction lifestyle so long as you never glimpse the tedious banality of the game.

Tormented by random reward/punishment; despised by officiators, gatekeepers, and dweebs in six different fields; bald, haggard, and perpetually uncomfortable; I’ve managed to claw out the creative results I'd hoped for (see "Genie Wishes"). But he has a career, while I write a blog virtually no one reads!



Monday, January 20, 2020

Imagination and Induced Perceptual Reframing

I've written a lot about perceptual framing, and a little bit about helping induce reframing in others, e.g. a funeral eulogy that transformed the room. It doesn't always need to be wordy. For example....

A musician friend whose late father was an acclaimed musician lamented:
Friend: My hope for heaven is to get the chance to see my father playing his ass off with his musician friends.

Me: If you ever saw that in the past, it didn't stop. Stuff doesn't become untrue just because we're not experiencing it right now. It will always be a fact. It's undeniable and forever. And in remembering that truth, you've been to heaven.

Friend: I never got to see him with the greats that he played with and the few times I did see him live I was very young and don’t really recall any specifics

Me: Still, you can see it. It's just what you think.

[No response...I think in a good way. He did "like" my final reply.]
My first response was a misfire. I jumped in too soon. As previously noted, I'm pretty good at this, but not great at it. If someone ever gets great at it, they can be The Messiah.

Also, I know what you're thinking. My final line was saccharine childish baloney, inviting him to use, like, his **IM-AG-INA-TION**, and take comfort in fantasy. But that's 1. not how I meant it and 2. not how I expected my friend to take it.

It's obvious that he's mulled this over thousands of times, and has sucked every useful byte of data from his spotty memory, plus the much richer general data set of having grown up with his dad plus the still greater load of remembered experiences from his own musical career.

Most of us can do a credible job of anticipating the responses and actions of people we're super close to. We might not always be perfectly predictive - the person may actually say or do something different - but that doesn't mean they wouldn't do/say the thing we've visualized. It doesn't make it false. Run the person through the same scenario a few dozen times, and something like the anticipated result would likely pop up. Our envisioning (when we know the person well) is not useless horse shit. It's not untrue.

I'm going to let you bridge the rest of the gap on your own. Enjoy the lozenge!


Also: as any police detective will tell you, seeing isn't believing. We project and filter and frame our "actual" experience (particularly experience with deep emotional resonance) so radically that it might as well be imagined. So a glimpse of dad in musician heaven would be just another snapshot. It's all imagination; all snapshots.

Also, I wasn't just trying to "help him remember/imagine/envision". He'd already done that work himself, over the years. I was aiming for something more ambitious: to transform the pain and loss that were obviously burdening him. I didn't "do" anything; I just pointed to a plausible framing. And reframing is always, always, always, always easy. The easiest thing a human can do, despite the titanic towers of grief and stress we build when perspective needlessly freezes.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Joy of Stepping Up

I'm replaying this posting from November, 2014


In my middle school, there was a junior band and a senior band. As a first year student, I was assigned to the former, where I was the best player. One day, one of the senior trombonists fell ill, and I was asked to rehearse with the senior band for a few days.

Here, I was the worst musician, and it was a revelation. Being the worst made me step up my game, lifting me with breathtaking ease. And the joy of that uplift felt so much more satisfying than any pride I'd felt being top dog in the other band. No comparison!

More than anything, I was thrilled by the richness of the music around me. All my previous experiences, where I was the best guy, were with wheezing, strained ensembles. Here, it was real music. I wasn't dutifully playing a role, I was part of something beautiful. It was sublime.

Finding myself the worst guy was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Why would anyone choose to reign in hell when given the option to serve in heaven?


Serve or reign, it barely matters. What counts is location, location, location! The curse of being the strongest guy on the team, the smartest guy in the room, or the best player in the band is to perpetually live amid seeming weakness, stupidity, and discordance. Why would anyone choose that?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Beware Indian Summer

There was a point when Chowhound had experienced one of its early press blitzes and way more people were coming around than I'd ever planned for. Yet it was going okay. I'd learned how to handle things. I had developed procedures. Urgencies that had previously sent me into a panic were expected and efficiently handled. Despite the crazy scaling (hundreds of users!), I could breathe. I was spending most of my time at it, but it was still fun; it still felt like a hobby. And it was far more comfortable than six months earlier, when I was completely out of my depth. I was hitting my stride.

And, because I can be blindly stupid, I was blindsided when we doubled in size again...and again...and again....and again. I wound up spending years flailing (as cataloged in the series on the site's later days and sale, which starts here).
There is a biz-cliché retort to the scenario I've described: "Tons of scaling would be a good problem to have." To anyone who's ever said that, my suggestion is to never advise anyone on anything. We live in a real world, not in a pie chart, and if you can't tell the difference, you need to take your confident smirk and your coffee breath to some far-off cubicle where you won't do harm.
Once you're caught off-balance and the waves won't stop coming, balance will never be reestablished. But I figured my brief reprieve was the way things would always be. An endless summer!

Nope. I got punked. It was Indian summer.



When I was 48, I wrote about how Jon Stewart and Barrack Obama, both my age, had made it hip to be 48, boastfully titling the posting "The Hippest Time in History to be 48" (following up, chastened, a few years later with this.)

Previously, 48-year-olds seemed crustily avuncular at best, but these guys were cool. And, come to think of it, I felt pretty cool, too! Maybe this was a new normal. Endless summer!

It wasn't a new normal. Nothing's ever a new normal. Have a look at these guys now and tell me how cool they look:

Indian summer's over, kids. Indian summer always ends, and it's never pretty.



Both my parents hit their 70s feeling reasonably solid. They weren't running marathons, but my mom could walk a couple miles on the treadmill and my dad was viably doing his thing. They thought they'd hit a stride. Indian summers always feel like a new normal; the sweet perpetual upswing we'd always hoped for. "It's my time!"

They bought into the false confidence and narrowed framing of Indian summer. When it fades and the frost hits, you'll be caught in shorts and t-shirt, scrambling for cover. You will flail. Indian summers leave you more disoriented than unremitting declines. Indian summers are a sucker punch.

I always advise new entrepreneurs not to wait until they're overextended to start hiring extra help - or to efficiently delegate to the team they've got. Once you're overextended, there's no time to make these laborious moves (I'm a poster child for being crushed beneath the boulder of runaway growth). You can't recruit and train amid a hurricane; all you can do is drain your adrenal glands running around endlessly patching disasters (I actually figured this out as a kid; see "Heating the Entire Atlantic Ocean").

Once my parents began fading, they were too occupied with the exigencies of the fade-out - playing feeble whack-a-mole with each accumulating indignity - to deal with any larger-picture view.

You need to look ahead; to lead the football. And you need to plan and act while you still feel comfortable, perhaps even a bit invulnerable. Watch out for that invulnerability feeling! The moment you believe you've hit your stride and attained a new normal; that's your cue. See Indian summer for what it is, resist false assurance, and use the momentum! Jump into gear and plot smartly! Put up storm windows, recruit troops, inscribe protocols, and generally look out for the pathetic slob who's destined to find himself underdressed and overconfident in the howling frost. He will be in no position to take thoughtful action. 



The other day, as I was counting out my comical daily pill ration, aware of the chronic pain in my feet, my back, my neck, and my shoulders, I thought to myself, "I'm not actually doing so bad, considering." I don't grunt when I get up from a chair. I've got lots of energy. I run up steps. My avuncularity is low, but there's hardly any crust, at least internally #LowInternalCrust. Maybe I'm beating the clock. Hitting my stride. New normal. Endless summer!

That was the day I wrote my defiant (almost smug) tale of the fish, including this passage:
I've been blithely me the whole time. I've lived straight through it all, treating it like a ride, come what may. I’m fresh as a daisy (or whatever the non-fruity version of that expression might be).
Uh-huh. Sure you are. 

Indian summer, baby! So this time I've hopped into gear, and begun working out strategy for what I'm going to do and where I'm going to go 10 or 15 years from now (sooner if my health crashes). It seems oddly premature at age 57, but I won't wait for the hurricane to force me into a hasty expedient solution.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Afterlife

I’m replaying this posting from November, 2017. 


A friend asked me whether I believe in an afterlife. I responded that you can't talk about believing in something without some solid idea of what that thing is (i.e. who, precisely, would be doing the afterliving, with the body dead and buried?). You've got to return to fundamentals, slice away invalid assumptions, and at least try to view things clearheadedly.

To identify the thing that might be everlasting, we need to disregard everything impermanent. For example, the device I'm typing on. The desk I'm sitting at, and the room and house around me. The light above my head, the air in the room, and every single thing outside, from the mailbox to the Orion Nebula. Everything one can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and measure is in constant change (a river becomes a new river in every passing moment), and will, at some point, end. Not one drop of it is forever.

Same, obviously, for the hands that type this, and the body they're connected to. Impermanent!

What does that leave? Well....you! But where's the permanence? Your thoughts come and go, and your memories, opinions, and knowledge have all accumulated gradually, and are subject to change or loss. There was a time when you didn't know how to drive, or to eat with chopsticks. Yet you were still you, no? Was there ever a point when you weren't you? I don't think so!

Beyond the impermanent world, your impermanent body, and the impermanent contents of your mind, the one constant that endures and never changes is your sense of you-ness. In other words: Awareness.

An intelligent receptivity has been humming along - even in your dreams - for as long as you've been you (and you've never not been you). It was there even when your body consisted of an entirely different batch of atoms. It was there before you ever held an opinion, before you knew that you had a name. It precedes all. It's the presence that has always peered bemusedly out of your eyes.

That's the unchanging part - the pole star around which all change plays out. The things of the world - external and internal - exist within this awareness. All things come and go - start and stop - but awareness is perpetually aware (what else would it possibly be?). Always that same hum beneath all the drama and noise.

Some might argue that this presence did not exist before the birth of your body. But the past is a funny thing. Have you ever experienced it? I haven't! I've never spent even a moment in the past or the future. Only the present. Since neither you nor I have direct experience of either, it's best to consider past and future as abstract (but useful) concepts. Stories! Did you understand that there was a past or future before you could speak, i.e. before your head filled with concepts? No, you knew only awareness. Time came later, along with the rest of the stories.

Anyway, given that all things - including your body - are within awareness, your body was born into awareness, not vice versa. Once again: everything changes and dies, while awareness is the perpetually unmoving part.

Awareness can just as readily identify with another set of memories, opinions, impressions, names, stories, and worlds. If that sounds odd, consider that it does exactly that all the time, whenever you "lose yourself" in dreams, novels, and movies (not to mention imagination, worry, and memory). In fact, the nature of awareness is to yearn for loads of fresh characters to identify with! Lots of stories and narratives - our use of the term "escapist" is a big clue! This world, in fact, is a playground offering exactly what we crave: a dense and ever-replenishing set of storylines to dive into and make our own.

Awareness - an always-on witness to the action - playfully identifies with the passing drama. If you doubt this is what you do, pop in a DVD and watch your identification effortlessly flip to some other character in some other reality. Then turn off the movie (or put down the novel, or cease your fantasy, or awaken from the dream) and watch yourself flip back to this role. Easy peasy!

Awareness (not the mental ticker tape of thoughts, but the awareness that receives them) precedes all. Your body - just another impermanent thing - was born into it, and will die into it. But the awareness that is you has never flickered. It's the omnipresent fount of Now, and Now is the only real thing.


Note: The links are, as always, important.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Abbey Road

It's been a recurring observation of this Slog that life consists of a series of revisitations to tired cliches, certain with each new pass that we now really understand them. One level up from that [how lithe is your framing?], my life consists of a series of revisitations to this conclusion (about revisiting tired cliches), certain with each new pass that now I really see the cycle.

Prime example: "You can't truly love another person until you love yourself".

At level one, that just sounds gross. "Self-love" associates with vanity and narcissism at best. Then you sort of get it, then, after a critical mass of bad relationships, you begin to develop a better handle on the notion. Then, at the advanced age of 56 (despite having flattered yourself with the idea that you have some insight into human nature), you struggle to explain the awkwardly-phrased recognition that you shouldn't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you [all the links are helpful, but this one's mandatory], and it takes a long four months before you realize you've dumbly reinvented the damned wheel. Again! (I did the same thing here, and, man, so many other times)

Once you reach a deeper comprehension of this surprisingly profound insight, things open up. For one thing, you notice that it works in both directions. At first, it's talking to you, i.e. "what you need to do to be better in romantic relationships" (then, as wisdom takes root, in other sorts of relationships, as well). But it also works the other way, i.e. "why people are not better in romantic relationships", and, in the most advanced interpretation of all, why people aren't better just in general. I.e. you shouldn't expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you.

I am happier than I've ever been, though nothing looks bright on paper. And while I could spill a million words explaining how it happened (in fact, I've done exactly that, right here), it boils down to three words of seeming brutal cynicism: I've lowered expectations.
Is there a darker and more alarming utterance that can be made in America? The horrified multitudes pull away from me as if I were infected. "Lowered expectations?" The phrase hardly makes sense. We test it on our tongues, and it comes out like gobbledygook. Lowahxpitations. Lower Expee Cations. Lowspectorcations.

Ohmygod get Leff to a clinic, pronto. He's lost his "High Hopes"; his high-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.


I have not actually departed for Planet Mope. I've just recalculated how I play the hands I'm dealt, accounting for the fact that everyone's stressed and distracted and aggrieved (inevitably self-created, though, Jesus Christ, don't ever tell them that!). Everyone's skewed, everyone's screwed, everyone's neurotic from struggling under a crushing, completely unnecessary burden. Johnny can't come out to play today; he's not feeling well.

For a long time I expected people to be nicer to each other (and to me) than they are to themselves, which is nuts. I was dismayed at girlfriends for their failure to be more than rotely transactional, when, in fact, "transactional" is the high bar; the nearly-unattainable ideal! If you're lucky enough to have a transactional spouse - one who isn't perpetually frozen in an intractable, dug-in posture of sourly unilateral needy imperiousness - you, my friend, have scored!

I had inappropriately high expectations, which created the strong sense that there's an overriding Problem (and it's not due to the zit on your nose, or the color of your skin, or the size of your schnozz, or the scarf on your head, or your slight limp, or your shortness/tallness/skinniness/fatness/stupidity/eggheadedness [another mandatory link]). I always attributed the Problem to failure on the part of others, when it was entirely a product of my own narcissistic expectations.

Sheesh, what did I expect from people? People sleep on uncomfortable pillows. They willingly poison their lives with drama and delusion. They eat crappy pizza rather than drive another block for good pizza. They frame themselves as miserable turds amid paradise. And I expected them to be kind and fair and engaged and, like, fun? Like they should suddenly snap out of their misery - their dazed stupor - to solicitously meet my needs and make it fun for me? Really? Was I out of my mind???

Here's how I absolutely didn't just frame it:
People suck. They're dull sheeple. By recognizing how much they suck, I demonstrate my superiority. Even though I'm just flapping my mouth bitching and judging, I'm atop the mountain, because I see how much it all sucks, and vision is only possible with elevation. It would never occur to me to work to be the change I want, because it's all useless because it all sucks - aside from me, who's clear-headed enough to recognize the suckyness. What do I offer? Why, the pearls of my wisdom, which consist of telling you how much it sucks and how bored I am and how it's not fun enough and no one's nice enough or fair enough, and how I don't get what I deserve. It all sucks except for me, and proof I don't suck is in the fact that I possess the secret knowledge: namely, I know that it sucks.
Yeah, that move is the one you don't need to do. Recognizing stupidity doesn't mean you're smart, it just means you're observant. Opt out of that hideous mind trap via a flick of your attention. And then...you're good. You can enjoy all the exuberance of 1951 Frank Sinatra (ripely flush with booze and broads and dough) with none of those daffily narcissistic high hopes. You're not starring in a movie.

So, to review, the trick is to:

1. Lower expectations, realizing that people can barely get out of bed in the morning - but remembering that we've actually made vast strides, being exceptionally fortunate that very few people bash other people over the head anymore. (Do not undervalue this advancement even though the scattered few remaining bashers disproportionally horrify you in the same way that smaller and smaller peas increasingly vex coddled princesses from beneath their mattresses.)

2. Not depart for Planet Mope just because a zillion TV shows and movies (and zillions of aspiration-stoking advertising dollars) have instilled the notion that lowered expectations are akin to death.

3. Buy an expensive pillow. A really really crazy expensive luxury pillow. Finance this by drinking tap water rather than bottled.

4. Enjoy paradise, and contribute in some small insidious way, ideally like an ant or an earthworm (you need to go small to go big; remember the camels and the needles).


I didn't know what to title this. And I assume the Beatles said the same thing after recording their album.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch

Ebenezer Scrooge - cheap heartless bastard - dances through the streets in his pajamas, cackling merrily, patting children's heads and wishing the stunned citizenry the finest of Christmases.

The Grinch - scourge of Whoville, stealer of presents, and tormenter of loyal dog Max - finds his heart growing three sizes and makes nice with the Whos.

Think about it for a moment. What happened, in both cases? A shift of perspective. A reframing. Each occurring in an instantaneous flash. The result? Transformation. Grace.

Reframing is an absurdly easy and eternally available move, which can also be induced in others if you're creative (that's what art - at least great art - is), making this the tool any successful messiah would choose.

Reframing is the source of all miracles and transformations. It's so potent - and so undeveloped as a faculty - that we project a God who makes it happen, leaving us, hilariously, eternally awaiting fickle thunderbolts. We don't make our thoughts happen, but we do choose our framing. We've got it all backwards!

Heaven and Hell are instantly available. It's true that death is a prerequisite, but it's not the death of a body (what does your body have to do with it?). It's the death of the previous framing - which you've identified with so utterly that to let it go indeed amounts to a death.
It's quite possible that this posting will kill you. It is lethal. Reframing = creativity, and creativity = destruction (can't make an omelette without breaking eggs), which explains why, as I'm fond of noting, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction is also the goddess of creativity. If your viewpoint feels subtly different after reading any of this - if you're not quite yourself - your previous framing has been slain. Welcome to the afterlife! What's next? Which framing shall you choose now?
How tough is it to replace a perspective; to reframe? Experiment below. See exactly how much effort and drama is required:

 


A good second experiment would be to try bestowing - right here and right now, within yourself; external displays are unnecessary - Forgiveness. The most unearned sort of forgiveness is the most densely ecstatic, but I'd suggest building up to that gradually (though, like all reframings, it's available in the flick of an eyelash).


Even better than Scrooge and the Grinch, for my money, is "The Witch Next Door" by Norman Bridwell. Nominally a children's book, and often mistaken for a homily about tolerance, it really gets to the core of the matter.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Death of the Obvious

A while ago I noted that:
There is nothing more frustrating on god's green earth than trying to use a powerful application to accomplish a simple task.
Designer Phil Simpson (designer of the Eat Everywhere app and the "Missing Manual" book series, among other triumphs) expanded the thought while condensing the word count, coughing up this gem of wisdom:
The obvious no longer exists.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tasting is a Preposterous Charade

It's time to taste something. We immediately start making adjustments large and small. We tighten up to a state of high alertness and zoom all attention toward the tip of the fork. We perform a number of highly stylized gestures and movements, furrowing brows to show our concentration, shifting eyes upward to signify deep processing, and chewing more determinedly or languorously than usual. We uncharacteristically pass the morsel over the full terrain of our tongues while processing the entire proceedings via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain, the goal being to cough up some nugget of analysis (making analogies to other things we've eaten) plus an opinion, i.e. "yay" or "nay".

There is nothing normal about any of these highly stylized kabuki actions. We do none of these things when we actually eat. And, in fact, they're all counterproductive.

Tightening up to signify to ourselves and others that we're "paying attention" actually makes us less attentive. We perceive best while relaxed-but-focused.

By zooming perspective tightly to the chunk on the fork, we imagine we've scientifically isolated it, making ourselves more objective. But you're still the same you, with all your fuzzy illogic and hormonal flows and the pain in your shoulder and your childhood aversions and unconscious needs and the countless other elements skewing your perceptions. You've made only one change: you've shifted to a much less familiar and more artificial framing, where you're actually less able to factor in those prejudicial elements.

And processing via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain to produce a verbalized takeaway is equally counterproductive. Eating is not a purely intellectual activity. Emotion is an essential part. As I wrote in my posting titled "Unhinged":
We peak out at "yum". Well, I’m sorry, but "yum" doesn't always cut it.
Intellects are useful. If we ate with emotion alone, we'd be snarfing from troughs, smearing sweet/greasy pleasure-center-stimulating grub all over our faces and clawing savagely at the other livestock for access to errant chunks. But purely intellectual eating is a dry and pleasureless exercise. This is why you don't want to try to "taste" food by donning a metaphorical lab coat and performing all this absurd play-acting with mincing motions of the jaw and aromas huffed upward into sinuses for the fullest possible data set. That's just as inhuman as the emotional livestock approach. You need both...which is how you normally eat. 

You have vast experience eating food. You are extraordinarily good at it; a master! So why would you imagine that divorcing the experience as far as possible from your normal routine is the thing to do when you want to do it particularly well? That's as nutty as a baseball player reserving a different batting stance for the World Series.

By adulthood, we've invested far more than the 10,000 hours required for mastery. Our normal eating approach is well-proven. By shifting into kabuki tasting mode, intentionally stripping away the context, emotionality, and pleasure that make eating eating, we lose far more than we gain.

The most extreme adjustment is the tiny sample size characteristic of "tastings". You studiously mull over some thimble full of lasagna as if it were a priceless relic, mentally composing your position paper on the specimen. But whatever you conclude will be as divorced from reality as the stilted context in which you tasted it. We are, all of us, mashed potato experts, but if you lop a gram of it onto a tongue depressor and gnash thoughtfully with faux-scientific lab technique, your analysis and opinion will be near-useless. It's a joke!


On the other hand, here's the funny thing. I'm different. Having invested 10,000 hours into scientific tasting, I actually can come up with useful data from a dollop of mashed potato or a thimble of lasagna. I don't need familiar environment, portion size, or context, because I've trained myself to divorce those things and still cough up useful judgements (serious wine tasters do the same).

Yay, me.

Restaurant critics seldom work hungry, and that's the least of the artifice. I've spent way too much of my life mirthlessly ingesting speck after speck of this or that while scrawling, in my notebook, the rhapsodic prose these things would have evoked had I been eating normally.

I once woke up, still nauseatingly full from the previous day's research, in a motel near a shack in a North Carolina tobacco farm where busy plump grandmothers served up fried chicken with fractal crunch and impossible juiciness. At 10am (I had a full day of tasting ahead of me), I took, as my first ingestion (a preparatory banana or yogurt would have been unjustifiable calories), a single bite of that chicken, recorded - with a stone-faced expression - come-to-Jesus lively praise in my notebook, shuddered lightly, paid my tab, and miserably returned to my car while busboys dumped the remaining chicken along with a small pile of plump, crispy hushpuppies.

I didn't miss an iota of the quality. I'm a professional. But the fact that I can actually do this well doesn't make it a happy thing. It feels like work. It's by far the grimmest talent in my arsenal. You don't want this.

I'll never forget, early in my career, coming along on research for a neighborhood food survey with a moderately well-known food writer who kept [every cell of my body pleads not to call up this memory, or to burden you with it, but it's necessary to make my higher point] a Food Bag. She'd grab takeout from a dozen close-clustered places, bring it all back to the car, masticating exactly one bite of every item, then pour the remainder, with a sour, revolted expression, into a gaping plastic seal bag, which she'd compress into a sludge and keep in a shopping bag under the heater in the passenger floorspace of her car. She'd often spit into the Food Bag, as well.

It's hard for me to understand why a civilian would choose to engage in enjoyment-divorced tasting, especially when they're not trained for it. But, hey, everyone wants to be a food writer these days.

Don't taste. Don't ever taste. Eat! You'll do it better! By shifting into some weird Other mode, you won't enjoy, nor will you get an accurate picture. You'll reduce your practical acuity; - your ability to assess the food in context, which has nothing to do with detecting subtle notes of passionfruit. How many olive oils bought after a brief tasting-via-cracker turned out to be useful in your day-to-day cooking? I can answer for you: none of them. You can't/won't anticipate real-world eating from stilted tasting. Stilted tasting produces stilted notes useful only in some alien parallel stilted universe.

Unless, that is, you work very hard for a very long time to develop a real knack for it. I can sprint through 75 glasses of beer and determine the good one, even while becoming increasingly drunk. I can mumble a dour "bravo" to whoever cooked the marinara I've sipped from a teaspoon, even recognizing, if appropriate, the chef as a genius (it doesn't make me unhinged to say so). But this brings no pleasure. This is not how we eat, and certainly not why we eat. It's a vocational trick. When I'm forced to do it, the very best I can hope for is to return one day to eat properly, like a normal human being.

So why would you ever abdicate an opportunity to really eat, when this is the best possible outcome of the "tasting" approach?


The impetus for this posting: a few nights ago I returned to Wolf, the sensational restaurant in Nordstrums, with two friends. We frantically doled out samples for each other on side plates and worked through what remained of our plates, furrowing brows, making tasting motions with our mouths, and coughing up analysis and opinions.

They enjoyed it, intellectually, and, to their credit (they're both serious cooks and chowhounds) did recognize the quality. However while the food was as great as ever, none of us felt any of the deep feelings I'd recounted from my first meal there, where I'd meditatively worked through a big bowl of extraordinary pasta. We were tasting, god damn it, not eating. And we paid (and paid) for the privilege.

Don't taste. Eat!


Friday, January 10, 2020

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).
It's applicable in every human realm. For example, I'm not particularly bright. Whenever I reread a book or rewatch a film I'm stunned to discover I'd soaked up only 60% of the plot the first time. It comes as a particular shock because I'm too dumb to have noticed my non-comprehension in real time. The glue-sniffy viscosity feels normal, sort of the way one might get used to a darkened world viewed through cataracts.
I refuse to read/watch anything a third time, because if I do and it reveals that wiser, smugger, Second-View-Me - the one revolted by the stupidity of First-View-Me - is highly spotty, as well, I...I...can't even finish the sentence.
Yet for a guy who's not super bright, I produce a lot of novel insights, and have been successful in a number of fields. How do I square the contradiction?

I don't obsess over what's wrong with the moment; over what's missing. I don't frame myself as holding up the world. I don't even think I'm the protagonist in this undertaking. With these impediments lifted, I'm not piloting into a 3,000 mph headwind like everyone else. And so I appear to be flying impressively fast, though powered only by a frayed cheap rubber band.
Remember “guileless clunk“?
I'm okay with my aging process, being the longtime disciple of a certain mangy fish I met as a child (it's a long story). But the real horror of advancing age is having to watch one's peers fall deeper and deeper into trances. By their 50s, you can barely have a conversation with them. They find interaction irritating, because it interrupts their process of endlessly telling themselves who they are and what they find wrong with the universe. You may be trying to share a joke or describe a recent quesadilla, but they’re spottily available, often wanting to be left alone to suck on their bitter lozenges.

By middle age they’ve gotten super good at this rumination business, having reached the ten millionth go-round of these cherished mental loops, so there’s nothing you can say or do to rival the familiar vibrancy of their internal go-to stories.

By the time we're in our 80s, many of us stare vacantly into space. We label it dementia - attributable to inescapable medical issues - and I suppose that sometimes it is. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Self-Destructiveness

I'm pulling a line out of an older posting, "Why We Crucify Truth Tellers (and Why They Deserve It)", so I can make it one of my "Definitions" entries (which I try to keep short):


Self-destructive people may seem irrational, but they're not. They're acting out a drama, just as we all are, but tweeking parameters for more challenging gameplay. They're working on a more advanced level, that's all.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Refutation

I once wrote about an encounter I'd had, as a student, with a massively famous trombonist, Bill Watrous, who bashed straight through the disdainful rejection I'd received from a merely famous trombonist - the illustrious trombone professor at the illustrious conservatory who had refused to teach me.
'[Watrous said] I know the guy. You go straight to him and tell him Watrous says to get off his lazy ass and teach you, and that it’s important.'

That fall, I returned to school, delivered the message, and the haughty top-string trombone professor was dumbstruck. He knew me, slightly, as the liberal arts guy who sloppily dabbled a bit in music. I was a dilettante, unworthy of his time or attention, yet here I was, bearing a directive from Jesus Christ himself. The poor fellow just couldn’t reconcile it.
The haughty local capo was interested in turning out clones (and correctly sensed that I’d never submit), even though Bill Watrous, the capo di tutti capi, saw more deeply.
In the same posting, I related this to a similar experience years later:
I’ve seen this pattern repeat constantly; the pack is inevitably smaller-minded than the top dog. I hung around a lot in Jamaica Queens in the late 80s with the guys who were developing hiphop by day and playing jazz by night. The scene included a contingent of very “militant” black Muslims who didn’t like white guys much, and they gave me the serious cold shoulder. Their spiritual mentor was an elderly trombonist who I heard a lot about, and who I expected to be as harsh as the surface of Venus, one Hassan Hakim (father of famed drummer Omar Hakim). But when I finally met Hassan, he was the sweetest guy ever and we became instant best friends, going out all the time to sit in with local rhythm sections. Hassan, who was in his 80s at the time, had little technique, but I hung on every swinging, uplifting note like a gift from Heaven. His followers, who hadn't suffered a fraction of the persecution, poverty and Jim Crow that he had, had sadly misinterpreted his perfectly admirable urgings to cultivate backbone, dignity and self-respect.

When you finally meet the top dog, it's always different.
I hope, by the way, that you experienced some small whiff of Hassan, who I miss a lot, from that short tribute.

This sort of thing repeated a number of times, which was necessary for me to really register the lesson because I'm very slow in some ways. Here's a final example.

For years I'd been posting anonymously to some online yoga forums.
Note: When I use the term "yoga", I don't mean the bendy/stretchy stuff. Yoga has eight parts, and the physical postures are just one part. I've practiced the full package for many, many years, starting as (unbeknownst to me at the time) a child prodigy.
On those forums, I'm respected by a few, but I completely piss off most of the rest, who cannot for the life of them figure out what I'm talking about...but know they don't like it. If you pride yourself on being a yoga expert, and some dude shows up spewing nonsense that seems to make a mockery of your vaunted expertise, every instinct tells you: **ANNIHILATE**.

No biggie. I've been gaslit all my life by people with a stake in realms where my thoughts, actions, and very existence undermine. I can't help it. Creativity inherently undermines status quo, and human beings defend status quo tenaciously. In the most common framing, creative people are - not to be melodramatic - the destroyers of worlds.
It's incredibly wise and beautiful that the Hindu goddess of Creativity is also the feared and despised Destroyer of Worlds. As noted in "Surprising Behavior Breaks Things: an exploration of Groucho Marx, computer hackers, beta testers, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death" I wrote:
The resistance to surprise is what gave rise to the Hindu goddess Kali being known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?). She gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.
Anyhoo...A number of the haughty yoga experts I'd run into online learned from a guy who'd learned from a guy who idolized a guy...an illustrious kriya yoga master who was said to occasionally answer emailed inquiries (obsequiously phrased entreaties to cure a sick kid or to shed light on some deep mystery). The guy wasn't any sort of cult leader/showbiz figure. He just quietly practiced, and had written an exquisite and highly influential book. And, like Steve Jobs back in the day, he would, once in a blue moon, respond to emails, thrilling the lucky supplicants.

So I shot him a note to the effect of, "Hey, dude, what's up, just a couple quick things if you have a sec, to verify that I'm not as kooky as some of your peeps suspect." I sketched out the gist of where I was coming from with yoga in a brashly concise few sentences without a tad of detail or explanation (I was reasonably certain it was stuff he'd been through, himself, so we could talk in shorthand). He wrote back something like "Yup, totally. Nicely stated, by the way....are you a writer?"

We may get together for jello shots next time he's in town. Super nice dude.

What I did not do is screenshot it and shove it in the faces of his students' students' students. I just ignored them with slightly greater confidence as they thunderously corrected my many misapprehensions. I'd finally learned.

The Moral of the Story: If you're creative; if you have any sort of gift (or have worked tirelessly to carve out a deeper perspective) in some realm, and the gatekeepers, henchmen, and middle managers spurn you or contrive to make you seem like a lunatic, do not feel refuted [but see footer, below]. Such people are devoted not to truth but to their political positions; their sense of self worth; their status quo. They're a separate breed, and their focus is always on their position within The Structure Devoted to The Thing rather than The Thing. You can count on it, every damned time.

Never approach the food editor; angle toward the publisher. Don't talk to the priest or even the cardinal; find a way to talk to the pope. Hierarchies are assembly lines; sausage-making machines. If your dream is to serve as sausage, go ahead and knock on the front door like everyone else. But if you have a better idea, take it to the top (where, I hardly need to tell you, you'll still most likely be bum-rushed...though at least you'll have had a sliver of a glimmering of a chance).


Like many insights gathered from multiple reinforcements via tough and protracted life experiences, I eventually remembered I'd previously realized the same thing years earlier, as a kid, and had even tried to warn myself. In the "Postcards From My Childhood" series (here they are in reverse chronological order), I wrote (in Part 8: The Director):
I saw a famous director (I wish I could remember who) on a late night talk show, complaining about how he can't find any great screenplays. The host smiled and replied, "You shouldn't have said that. Now everyone is going to try to get their scripts to you!" The director chuckled and said, "Good luck! I'm not very accessible, and scripts that come in just sit forever in a stack". The host, confused by the seeming contradiction, asked him how he expects to see the good scripts.

With a gleam in his eye, the director replied, "Anyone with the phenomenal talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to come up with a world class screenplay also has the talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to get it to me."

I understood immediately, and sent forward a postcard reminding myself to never, ever enter through front doors.


At the risk of stating the very obvious, don't even imagine that rejection makes you right. Just because they laughed at the Wright Brothers and they're laughing at you does NOT make you a Wright Brother. Oceans of grimy bathwater drain along with the occasional babies.

Ask yourself:
  • Have you invested vast effort in merciless self-critique, trying to poke every possible hole in your assumptions and conclusions?
  • Have you eagerly sought out and carefully entertained counter-argument, not taking it personally, but considering it a service?
  • Have you kept listening to counter-argument even when people say lots of otherwise dimwitted things? (If they find problems, you must ignore their dumb suggested solutions, focusing entirely on the problems they've kindly unearthed.)
  • Have you set it all aside, even for years, and come back later with fresh eyes to see whether it still holds up?
And here's the hardest part: once it's passed your intense self-vetting, can you still keep ears open, at least a crack, amid the nastiest, most ad-hominem responses - even while you confidently disdain them - in the hope that some nugget might serendipitously turn out to be non-stupid, and thus useful in your gleeful effort to recognize your wrongness



Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Dictator

The problem with dictators is that none of their underlings can ever plan or act or explain because they never know when Dear Leader might suddenly and capriciously tack in some new direction, leaving them looking like clods. No one dares speak for Dear Leader. In fact, they’d prefer not to speak at all and just project a weighty air of authority. 


The advantage of a dictator is low resistance (eg congressional scrutiny) to pushing through initiatives achieving their vision (benevolent dictatorships are by far the most efficient systems, though not the most long term viable). No one can speak for Dear Leader, but his words and actions speak clearly, themselves.  


The worst of all worlds is an empty-headed all-for-show dictatorship with no vision or even comprehension, where it’s all a huge bluff - essentially Drag Show Government. #dragshowgovernment


That ensures chaos where nothing makes sense and no one can even TRY to act or explain. Toadies lash themselves to the mast, hoping the ship remains afloat, finding solace in their masks of authority and resorting, when cornered, to nonsensical word salad and slimy platitudes. 


If a nation’s course is set by the whims of one guy, that guy needs substance behind his whims. If not, it’s like a raft made of dander.  #danderraft

Kindred Pragmatic Moderates vs. the Demagogified

Here's how a centrist/moderate sees both sides:

Liberals: Yield to my trendy sanctimonious furies and oblige my flamboyant victimhood...or else you can go crawl up and die.

Conservatives: Greed is good. Settle down, let the plutocracy work its totally benign magic unfettered, and enjoy the fattening of your 401K (if you don't have a 401K, try harder, loser).
Granted, that's more Conservatism circa 2015. But if "Greed is good" why wouldn't Trump deserve a personality cult?
How could any clear-headed, moral person support either side of this gross duality?

The answer: As I once wrote, the vast majority of liberals aren't actually liberal. They're just anti-conservatives. And most so-called conservatives are really anti-liberals. This explains why both sides shift around so shamelessly. They're entirely reactive, with no permanent grounding principles. Any scenario dominated by two "anti-" elements will be as gratuitously slippery as globules of oil in a puddle of vinegar. There's no "there" there.

I keep waiting for the massive forehead-smacking recognition to set in that anti-liberals and anti-conservatives are actually close to agreeing on lots of stuff (even on guns and abortion!), insofar as they can block out the loud-mouthed extremists of either side whose excesses constantly refresh the revulsion.

Good luck with that blocking-out, though. Both sides are correct in their disgust. The problem is a slightly milder and blurrier disgust for the extremists on your own side (incomplete registration of the excesses of one's own tribe is the prime mover in human affairs, as I briefly sketched here, where I made the case for a healthy misanthropy).

Extremists often wonder how anyone could remain centrist in these starkly divided times. My answer is that aside from a few million at either end of the bell curve, the overwhelming majority of us are actually kindred pragmatic moderates habitually affiliating as Dem or Rep mostly as bulwark against the excesses of the opposite extremists. The divisions among this super-majority are vaporous; as thinly symbolic as the division between sports fans. It's only a matter of time before more people get woke and opt out of the demented polarity. 

In the meantime, if you ever find yourself not just supporting but full-out loving/adoring some candidate (e.g. Trump or Bernie), that almost surely means you've been demagogified, and I pray you'll come to your senses and realize that the goal of politics isn't to tear it all down and build something more to your taste every round, but to select someone who'll competently make the sausage.
Competent sausage-making once sounded boring (though I can't fathom how it possibly could at this point) but it's actually an art; a neat trick not every administration manages.

After four years of observing entranced masses loving/adoring a guy for tearing shit down, it stuns me (ok, not really) that people viewing from the opposite end of the curve respond by saying "Cool! I want that...only more to my specs!" Will human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?


Monday, January 6, 2020

Postcards From My Childhood Part 14: The Fish

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.



Visiting a big city aquarium, I raptly watched hundreds of fish swim around an enormous tank. As always, there was one dodgy fish. He was missing half a fin, and sported a few odd bite marks. He wasn't quite an entire fish, and I became obsessed with determining whether he knew.

Lazily paddling endless pointless circles in formation with his school, was he abashed? Or self-conscious? Was he grimacing? Did he feel like less than a fish? I studied his pursed fish lips, trying to catch him uttering a weary "fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck."

After a half hour of riveted observation, I was certain I knew the answer: He didn't feel diminished in the least. Nor did he have his back up, shoving his messed-up fin in the other fishes' faces and challenging them to be okay with it. He was simply doing his thing. Just being a fish, cool as a sea cucumber.

The fish really knew how to live. I decided to imprint my memory of him as a hero and role model.


Many of the postcards I sent forward from my childhood became constant guiding principles, but this one had a time delay. As I grew older, and maladies and issues compiled, I adopted the normal framing, grunting an increasingly aggrieved "Doh!!" upon each fresh injury. But just as I began to spin it all up into a sense of cumulative burden and decline, I suddenly recalled the fish.

Since then, I've lost my hair and received a cardiac stent, a hearing aid, and a wealth of daily pills, along with more challenging maladies than I can count. I launched Chowhound as a youthful-seeming 34 and left it at 44 so haggard and traumatized that I looked twenty years older (if people asked, I'd tell them I was 73, just to hear them marvel at my spryness). Having taken to heart the Zen injunction to "burn yourself completely", I’ve wound up looking like someone who'd been sleeping in a pile of ashes.

But that's just the external. Internally, I've been blithely me the whole time. I've lived straight through it all, treating it like a ride, come what may. I’m fresh as a daisy (or whatever the non-fruity version of that expression might be). 

This involves no cinematic display of chin-trembling bravery. It was more like how glasses, for me, are neither half-empty not half-full (if there's water I drink with gusto, and, if not, I find more water....or simply move on, like the monks and the coffee). Every moment thrusts forward a challenging card hand to play, and I do so exuberantly, without a shred of stoic resignation or self-actualized "positive thinking".

I am bemusedly responsive. Here I am. That's all, and that's sufficient. I'm proud to have grown up to be the fish!

"Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable." - Anthony de Mello


Sunday, January 5, 2020

Lunch Money and Asteroids

The following is a bonus third follow-up (here's the first and here's the second) to my posting "Happy New Year in Paradise".


In "Happy New Year in Paradise", I wrote:
Your life is so good that having a president who's a corrupt racist buffoon (corrupt racist buffoons ran everything for millennia, and, in fact, delivered us to this Utopia) curdles your pampered life experience. We can't bear a president who's less than a wise, honorable statesman (this one’s a "5", but comes after we've been spoiled by a long run of "7"s and "8"s, and I almost perversely hope we get a truly bad one just for the glee of watching everyone reframe to concede that Trump was comparatively sufferable...by which point George W Bush will have been retconned into Abraham freaking Lincoln).
You might have replied:
Donald Trump is definitely NOT a "5". He has done irreparable damage to our institutions and to our global standing. He has, time and again, acted in his self-interest rather than the nation's interest, and his self-interest is consistently tied to that of Russia, making him a de facto - if not actual - agent of Putin's regime. From kids-in-cages to the rising tide of brazen violence, hatred, and racism, he's been a curse on the presidency, the nation, and the world. I truly can't imagine worse.
Agreed on all points except the first and last sentences.

Let's take a trip in the wayback machine to the mid-2000s. How would your younger self of that era have felt about your current assessment of George W. Bush? That maybe he wasn't the worst thing imaginable (despite some horrendous decisions), that he operated from an earnest sense of honor and principle and was indisputably a patriot who cared about the country, its institutions, and its people? How would your 2009 self react to the swelling admiration you may now feel watching the video of Bush going to a mosque immediately after the 9/11 attacks and giving a beautiful speech urging love and kinship for our Moslem-American neighbors?

I'd suspect that your then-self would scorn you, insisting that, no, you greying idiot, Bush is The Absolute Worst (fwiw, my own then-self would have forcefully agreed). He’s the devil incarnate. A blight and a scourge and a shame and an ignorant dick. One truly couldn't imagine worse.

This is how reframing works. 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.

Trump has broken your leg, leaving your lunch money indignation largely forgotten. So don't be a shmuck. Don't tempt the fates to send you gunfire, much less the asteroid.


In the Dungeons & Dragons of religion, I'm not even a level 2 Jew (though I've gone reasonably far in the Zen/Yogi character class). But that last part somehow wafted out of me like a plume of undiluted super-Jewishness. I'm not even Jew enough to explain this recognition (I've never cracked open those books nor remained awake through a service). But via DNA alone (I'm oddly descended from a revered 18th century scholar), I recognize that that's pretty much it, right there. Curl my sideburns and blacken my hat.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Daddy Knows Truth

This is the second of two postings following up to "Happy New Year in Paradise".

The first follow-up noted that I'm definitely not an optimist, though to many people any perspective other than bitter negativity must stem from rose-colored positive thinking.

If you hurt yourself, leaving your body twisting to the left, and a physical therapist straightens you out, you'll feel sure, for a while, that your body is twisting to the right. When you're accustomed to being badly skewed, straightness seems like a skew. This works interpersonally, as well. If you refuse to oblige a control freak, you will seem, to them, to be the control freak. This is how pretty much everything works, from the private kernel of individual being to the macro of massive societal movements. For example, this is why history always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings (sparking a question I frequently ask: Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?).

When the Buddha talked about the Middle Way, this was what he was referring to: opting out of the reactive ping pong table.

So here's the second followup to "Happy New Year in Paradise":



It's odd that middle-aged white guys, as a class, are freely mocked and despised in this society. I suspect a big part of it involves the subconscious, dreamy suspicion that archetypical "Daddy" (a role that is just as easily filled by Mommy, by non-white people, by a deity, or by anyone else; I'm talking about uppercase "Daddy" as a role, not lowercase "daddy" as some guy) knows the truth about certain things, and we are a truth-averse society.

Archetypal Daddy - aka "The Provider" - makes things happen for his spoiled, ungrateful charges while they opt for drama, cultivating furious victimhood amid paradise, all while enjoying unearned perks of modern comfort and privilege. Archetypal Daddy wants to bring you down, puncture your bubble, and plant your feet on, ugh, solid earth where you're not actually starring in a movie. He exerts gravity, dragging you toward a flatly prosaic life of doing, like his life. Pure Hell!
So take your "we're in paradise" bullshit and shove it, Mr. Smug Whitey-White-Boomer-Privilege-Asshole-Who-Can't-FEEL-What-We're-FEELING. Daddy needs to shut the fuck up and pass the lamb chops.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Cold Storage in the Cloud

I've got 500GB of crappy useless data on an external drive, just as you almost surely do. Let's see, there's email from the 1990s, music and videos I deliberately winnowed from my active media files years ago, early versions of iPhone apps, disk images of CD-Roms (remember them?), ancient backups of Desktop, Documents and iTunes Media files, etc. etc.

It's crap, and it lives on a wheezing external drive that's three years past its natural life span. It's only a matter of time before the drive starts doing the click of death, auguring the final demise of this data. Which would be okay, I suppose, but why let data disappear when storage is cheap? This America, baby!

It's certainly not worth buying a second hard drive, so thoughts turn heavenward, to The Cloud. "Off-site" back-up is always smart (in case of fire or theft here at The Hovel), and, anyway, the last thing I need is yet another whirling USB drive next to my desk spewing heat and contributing to my power cord carbonara.

And it dawns on me that virtually every computer user over the age of 40 is probably in the exact same predicament: glancing worriedly at a wheezing aged hard drive containing unimportant files, and scheming about storing them in the cloud for pennies. I feel un-alone.

Yet, not for the first time, Adam Smith let me down. The invisible hand of the market has provided no well-trodden path. It's still wild west out there for cloud storage. Having taken the deep dive, I'll share what I've learned.

The main problem is that the tech industry has decided, as usual, that consumers want to do dumb expensive stuff and geeks want to do smart cheap stuff....and what I want falls smack in the middle.

If I wanted a friendly, intrusive backup program constantly synching - i.e. serving as a sort of Time Machine (Apple's backup protocol) to the Cloud, a thousand companies will eagerly take my money (there's consensus that Backblaze Unlimited Backup - "The World's Easiest Cloud Backup", is one of the better options).

I don't want that. I want to park a 500GB and forget it. For cheap.

There's Dropbox, but they have a maximum file size of 50 GB using their web site and 350GB using their API (i.e. various hook-in services). And, for privacy, I intend to create a 500GB encrypted disk image and upload it as a single lump. Yes, this would be unwieldy to grab files from, but, again, this is just bulk storage, so I won't be grabbing much, if ever.

We're still in the consumer range, more or less. Plenty of services will stow this beast for $10-$15/month plus a penny or two per GB to download. But I don't want to pay $180/year for redundant offsite back up of utter garbage. And that's what pulls me out of the realm of "consumers want to do dumb expensive stuff" and firmly into "geeks want to do smart cheap stuff," where the waters are choppy and poorly lit.

I used the term "bulk storage" to describe my vast lump of garbage data, but the industry term is "cold storage". And the coldest of cold storage has long been Amazon Web Service's "Glacier" storage. However they've recently introduced something colder still, which they call "Glacier Deep Archive". This lets you park 500GB for just 50 freaking cents per month. But they're not exaggerating about the breath-freezing coldness. You must give them 12 hours notice if you ever want to download the data, and the download costs a steep 9¢/GB (they call it an "egress charge"). Which is probably ok because, like I said, this data is super unnecessary and I'm just being a pack rat. Amazon knows that, and this service is for people in exactly my situation (ok, and, of course, IT managers who want to migrate from tape backups). I could store my garbagey lump for virtually free, and pay a decent amount in the unlikely chance I ever actually need it.

Problem: Amazon Web Services is maddeningly technical; the ultimate example of geeks doing smart cheap stuff. Same for Google Cloud Service and BackBlaze's professional product, B2 (which offers a nice simple web interface for files under 50GB, but with large files you're forced deeply into UNIX/Terminal territory - why they don't simply create an AppleScript to handle the rote tasks is beyond me).

Geekiness aside, B2 may be the pricing sweet spot: it's five times the storage cost of Glacier Deep Archive (i.e. $3/month for 500GB) but 1/10th the download charge (a penny per GB). Do bear in mind, though, that while Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud will almost surely be here 10-15 years from now, BackBlaze might...but I'm less certain. OTOH, the impenetrable geekery makes it moot.

One observation. Since I want to park a single 500GB blog and likely never do anything with it, and Amazon Web Service Frigid Frostbite MoFo is insanely cheap, it would make sense to hire a geek to walk me through the process. So that might be a smart solution right there.

Here's what I've decided. I'm going to use ARQ Backup software (Mac or PC) costing a one-time $50. It acts as a friendly, polished front end to all the major cloud services, including DropBox, which is a very nice plus (the DropBox app is super inflexible these days). ARQ is very actively developed, but reportedly quite processor intense - don't expect to do much more with your computer while the app is running. Here’s an in-depth MacWorld review of ARQ Backup from 2017 (which also sheds light on cloud backup, generally).

ARQ doesn’t appear to handle Glacier Deep Freeze yet, but I’ll bet it soon will. Meanwhile it does work with normal AWS Glacier, if you want still pretty crazy-cheap storage with costly downloads.

But I'll hook ARQ Backup up to B2. And here's the thing: having gone this far to find viable cheap cold storage, it looks like ARQ is so easy and powerful that I might want to use it for less hypothermic synch/backup/storage as well. I own a couple more drives with slightly more essential data, so maybe I'll sign up for a couple TBs from B2 for extra redundancy. I'll need to take a close look at privacy/security before I use their encryption rather than encrypting on my side (the latter requires the one-big-lump-of-data approach, which is less viable with data I might need more flexible access to). Although...hmm...as redundant backup (I will also carefully maintain it on my external drives), I may go big-encrypted-lump with these, as well, and swap it out with an updated version bimonthly. 


Potential point of confusion: just as there's the more famous BackBlaze consumer product as well as the geeky BackBlaze B2 discussed here, ARQ seems to make most of their dough selling storage to consumers. I'm not talking about ARQ's storage/backup monthly plans above (which fall under my description of the myriad relatively expensive and smart consumer-side offerings). I'm talking specifically about the ARQ Backup app.

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