Thursday, June 30, 2022

Deep Fresh Insight on Mike Flynn

If you enjoy the Slog, it's likely because you strive to navigate a little deeper; to understand beyond lazy snark. "This sucks!" is an adolescent trope, and we've devolved into a society of adolescents. Cynical snark offers scant nutritional value, but media is now wall-to-wall junk food, leaving some of us starved for more enriched fare. Please, someone, tell me what's actually happening here, rather than spewing talking points, clichés, spin, and groupthink. Just the mere repetition of it all can be horrendously numbing.

There's so little fresh thinking. I'm seldom surprised by anything anyone says or writes, and I thirst for insight; for anything provoking rumination; for anything that doesn't merely leave a sweet or salty taste in my mouth.

But powerful forces drive media to preach to choirs. I wasted the first two years of the Trump administration watching endlessly agitated MSNBC pundits endlessly discuss and debate whether Donald Trump is a RACIST (spoiler alert: why, yes he is!). Audiences line up for their dopamine hit, tightly glued to the teevee box soothing them with predictable tribal patter rife with angry fear and outrage. The game is to resonate with the belchy toxins sloshing in people's guts. Forget insight or truth; the real money is in interminably "giving voice" to trendy viscerality, as if it weren't already being voiced absolutely everywhere. Media's finally become a true echo chamber.

But I found one gem of bona fide insight this week. A fresh, surprising, insightful, and enriched consideration, from 2016, of exactly what might have happened to Mike Flynn. You've never thought of things this way, so it's like entering a new world. And there's no snark, tongue-clucking, cliché, or dopamine-milking amygdala squeezing.

It's good. It makes sense. And it's something you've never considered in your whole life. A fresh perspective on a fresh perspective, with the power to shift your own perspective. You'll find yourself watching for this phenomenon everywhere, which is delightful given that it's all about the unusual ways in which some of us watch for certain phenomena everywhere!

Above all, it hammers home the little-recognized fact that every awesome gift comes with a built-in (and highly unpredictable) rebound/backsplash/downside. It's zero sum all the way, baby. This is one of the few things of which I'm unshakably certain.

Without further ado, here's "Making Sense of Mike Flynn" by Yoni Appelbaum, from The Atlantic.

The Atlantic offers fresh insight perhaps 1% of the time. That's world record territory, which is why I bought a digital subscription.

Oh, and do follow the links down the rabbit hole re: fossil hunter/UFOlogist Ray Stanford.


Every snob feels merely shy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Introducing "Year of Smoothies" (also: How I Learned to Cook)

Here's how I learned to cook.

I didn't want to be "educated". I didn't need to know how to blanch a rutabaga or prepare savory gelatins or make my own lasagna noodles or bake croissants or cut a turkey or roast a capon or whip up a hollandaise or chowder. I'm the only food lover who doesn't yearn to be a chef. I just wanted to cook healthy and delicious at home. That's all. Modest ambition. But really seriously delicious. Focused modest ambition!

I don't cook dishes with names. For dishes with names, I go out. At home, I might whip up something interesting with chicken breast, kasha and scallions. I improvise. But I wanted better results. I wanted control. I wanted touch.

I started with a Year of Panini, circa 2015. All year I cooked pretty much exclusively panini. And, no surprise, I got good at it. Because what makes you good is iterations. Lots of go-rounds. That's why restaurant cooking is so consistent; they've made that calamari 50,000 times, and it shows.

Not just iteration, though. You don't want to stand there with a pinched face and dangling cigarette pounding the food into submission, like scrubbing a toilet. You can't be rotely procedural. Instead, I played off of my perspective; my framing. Every time I have to make a decision, I picture myself eating the final result. Would I prefer this crunchier? Saltier? Would it miss some sort of oomph or other? Is this how I like it? How could I better serve my own taste? What might give me 100% satisfaction?

After a year of diligently making panini, I'd evolved certain habits - bundles of micro-tricks and nano-decisions. As mutations crept into the DNA of my panini-making, the successful ones endured. And that's how you build up deliciousness. Constant micro-revision, careful analysis, and sticking with what works amid oodles of iterations.

Why panini? I could get my mind around it. It felt familiar. And there's a safety net. Merely dropping a leftover chunk of chicken between two slices of decent bread and press-toasting would yield reasonably good results. The entry point (on my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods and other things) would be a "6". If I'd started out attempting to master stock or crêpes Suzette, vast terrains of awfulness would need to be evaded. Also: panini-making didn't intimidate me. It didn't feel fussy. I could stretch my mind around it. Nearing age 60, I've discovered the immense power of a comfortable entry point.

My panini eventually got great, and I followed with Year of Tacos. I'd sourced righteous nixtamal tortillas (which again propped me up at a "6" starting point). And, as with the panini, as I improved my prep of protein fillings and my artful use of spices, sauces, and condiments, I sneakily instilled broader cooking skills. I learned how to sauté a helluva chicken thigh, and mastered salmon-broiling and high-confidence omelets (instructions buried here). In the end, I discovered that tacos and panini are effectively identical: protein engulfed by starch. I already had a feel for that, thanks to panini, so I expanded into tacos from a position of confidence.

Then came Year of Pasta, another configuration of engulfing protein in starch. I applied what I'd learned. I started getting good faster. I was learning. And now, even if I'm not making panini or tacos or pasta, I can use that experience, so long as I don't try to preparae dishes with a name. Still no hollandaise!

I've been smoothie-curious for some time, but whenever I research blenders, I rediscover two truths:

1. Everything but a Vitamix absolutely sucks, regardless of how many of your friends rave over their Nutribullets or Ninjas. Dig deep into comments and reviews, and you'll find that they suck. They all just suck.

2. Vitamixes are super-expensive, super-bulky overkill.

Whenever my blender amnesia leads me to deep-dive this realm, the conclusion is identical: I really can't beat the $20 Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender I already own.
Note: recent versions of the Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender suck. For liability reasons, they've added a safety nanny switch at the other end of the stick, so you need to press the "on" button with one hand and the nanny switch with the other, giving no way to control the cup, which results in splurging explosions of milk and fruit. I don't know what to tell you. Maybe try to buy a "vintage" used Smart Stick on eBay predating this "innovation.” Or else just give up and bite the Nutribullet.
The notion that I had the magic shoes all along was too surprising to stick. So I'd snooze the idea for another 6 months and then launch back into blender research. I was caught in this loop for several years.

Finally I roused myself from my stupor and bought this steel cup for smoothie-making (it doubles for smoothie-drinking), and gave it a try, discovering that my immersion blender actually works better than a conventional blender for smoothies, because you don't need to stop to unclump. Immersion blending is a more active way of blending, so clumps unclump in situ.

The one drawback is that only an expensive conventional blender can really crush ice. But you don't want ice in your smoothie! As any beginning chef learns: water dilutes. It's the enemy! So I slice bananas onto wax paper, freeze them for a couple hours, then pop the slices into a sealed freezer bag. Those are my ice cubes. Any other sort of fruit will work the same way. And not every smoothie needs to be super cold. When I must resort to ice, I do the spoon trick, very lightly but persistently tapping upon each cube with a teaspoon until the vibrations shatter the cube. Walla.

My stone mortar and pestle is better/faster than any other method for grinding flax seeds. You don't want to buy/keep ground flax seed, it goes rancid super-easily (it probably did before you even bought it). Whole seeds are far more resilient, and can be ground, a teaspoon or two at a time, in 20 secs flat. You can grind lots of other stuff in mortar pestle faster/easier than in food processor (unless you'd doing large quantity). Low-tech, low-price really works best in this realm.

My first smoothie triumph is a bit of a work-in-progress:

1 pitted medjool date, chopped fine (Trader Joe's has these)
1 handful of raw unsalted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds, also Trader Joe’s), lightly pre-ground in mortar and pestle
9 ounces Milkadamia unsweetened, non-vanilla macadamia milk, available at Shoprite or Whole Foods

The result was really thin (and not super-cold, since nothing was frozen), but smoothies don't always need to be milkshake thick or freezing cold. But the flavor. Oof, the flavor.

One problem: I found the limits of my immersion blender. It left a sediment of chewy date nuggets at the bottom of my stainless steel cup. But that was a problem only until I grabbed a spoon and ingested said nuggets amid dregs of the nutty medium, at which point I had no problems on god's green earth.

I have bought lucuma powder (low-glycemic butterscotchy natural sweetener) and dried mulberries and Venezuelan Gourmet Cocoa Powder as well as planet-killing plastic flexi-straws in preparation for this understaking. My flax seeds are organic whole goldens from Bob's Red Mill, bought at Stop-N-Shop.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Ed Norton Approach to Shifting Perspective

Realizing truth is shockingly easy, in any scenario and at any scale. It's often not a matter of learning, which is laborious, but of shifting perspective, which is instant and effortless. The truth is always blowing in the wind. It's right there in front of your nose, awaiting your embrace.

The impediment is the need to recognize - and let go of - previous wrongness. That’s the hard part, because, being an unflattering process, emotions arise. So you must adjust yourself to accept the possibility that your assumptions might be crap.

You can’t let go of something while continuing to embrace and defend it. Visceral self-skepticism is requisite. Not self-loathing, not neurotic ambivalence. Just an earnestly alert blitheness. "Hey, wouldn't it be interesting if I were totally wrong on this?"

If you have a big ego (most do, including mild-mannered quiet types), self-skepticism challenges everything you've been clinging to. Terrifying! So wrongness stays.

This is why wise people advise us to work on ego. Loosen those straps, they say, and quit clinging. Then quiet your mind to reduce shouty mental distraction. By the time you've run that gauntlet, years have been spent preparing to make an easy shift of perspective so you can become a little bit less wrong.
What's worse, 95% of the time you'll bring that ego and clinging and noise along with you, so the supposed shift of perspective becomes a dramatic pose rather than an actuality. You'll conjure up a mere emulation of knowing.
Jeepers, so much work for something intrinsically effortless! Just shift! Choke down ego, favor childlike earnestness, open yourself to fresh perspective, generally STFU, and blithely try another perspective!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Quick TV (and Movie!) Update

Following my sweeping TV update back in May, here's a quick update:

"Love Death and Robots" is a sometimes raunchy animated anthology series (each episode stands alone), sort of a mash-up of "Black Mirror" and Heavy Metal Magazine. Each episode has a different creative team, so quality is very mixed. But here's a list of the highest-rated episodes (in descending order), which makes it easy to just catch the good ones. At 6 - 20 minutes/episode, it's a neat way to fill time when you don't want to digest anything more ambitious.

If you want to list out best-to-worst episodes of a series, create a bookmarklet with the following code and trigger it from the main IMDB page for any series:,desc%22);
Movie, not TV: "Everything Everywhere All at Once" features an everything bagel that is literally everything. The movie itself is also every movie (it's not at all the film you think it is for the first few minutes...or ever). I thought it was fantastic, and you can still catch it in theaters (the usual streaming services charge $20).

HBO's "Rome" was their Game of Thrones (hugely expensive, sumptuous production values, sweeping purview) before Game of Thrones. At the time, it was known for being rrrrracy [Austin Powers cat meow], but I've finally dug in and find it tame compared to GOT and other more recent titles, and quite substantial (in a good way). The kind of show that tugs at you to view another episode. It can't hold a candle to "I Claudius", but what can? The latter can be streamed for free on Hoopla or Acorn (both likely available via your library account).

"The Other Two", a series about the elder brother and sister of a viral child megastar was great in its first season. This season it's been a bit too in love with itself. Still good, but not great. If you like this show, you'll love "You're the Worst", which is near the top of my pantheon of great shows nobody heard of ("Breaking Bad", "The Leftovers", and "Party Down" were originally part of that pantheon).

"Detectorist" is a lovely small, slow, charming, subtle show about metal detecting enthusiasts in England. Very highly recommended if that's your cup of tea. If you're allergic to affected, self-conscious British cutesy, don't worry, this isn't that. It's miles above pandering. Also: it's funny how emotions scale. The show's extraordinarily mild antagonists - e.g. detectorists from a competing club perennially trying to horn in on a promising meadow; a poacher from Germany; an archeologist consultant sold out to construction industry interests - seem far more awful than Joffrey in GOT or Sauron in LOTR. Absolutely horrible and emotionally scarring.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Mike Pence Fallacy

There is a popular argument that Mike Pence was no hero because he was merely doing his job and obeying the constitution.

This argument is fallacious.

Heroism is doing right under duress. And no one can argue that Mike Pence wasn't under world-crushing duress. And there's no such thing as "merely" doing right. Right-doing is morality, especially under conditions where "right" becomes strenuously distant.

In any given moment, 10,000 bureaucrats are passively not-accepting bribes, which is moral (they'd all love Teslas) but not notably so. But if one is actively offered $10,000,000 - while everyone else in his office flagrantly accepts pay-offs and threatens to destroy him for making a fuss by refusing - his refusal is an entirely different thing from the passive complacency of non-criminality.

Heroism is actively doing right amid elevated effort and repercussions. It's evidently distinct from mulish passive compliance.

So Mike Pence behaved heroically.

Some point to the heroism Pence did NOT demonstrate to devalue the heroism he did exhibit. This is nonsense. When a fireman "just does his job" to pull you from a burning house, he doesn't also need to be nicer to his kids and cut back on drinking and philandering to deserve credit for heroism. If a person needed to be morally impeccable on every front to get credit for a heroic action, there would be no heroes on Earth, ever.

And the twisted notion that there exists a higher moral choice than "merely doing the right thing" has long been the source of much evil in the world.

There's a political stratum the Right mocks as virtue seekers. Discontent to be "merely" moral, they stridently, belligerently attack ("call out") those who engage in an ever-shifting and ever-growing portfolio of taboo thoughts, phrases, or behaviors. Such people see themselves as super-extra moral.

Their impetus is identical with those on the Right who reject being "merely" good Christians, framing themselves as super-extra good Christians by ferreting out witches for burning or "sexual deviants" for punishment.

Always try to avoid super-extra good people. They will fuck you up. They practice an ancient human trope: screaming, seething, accusing, and attacking in the name of morality. One might seek to be so Christian as to become obviously unChristian and so anti-racist as to become plainly racist. Vanity masquerading as lofty moral aspiration manifests as savage immorality. So the extremes of both Left and Right are perennially afflicted by super-extra virtuous types for whom everyday morality seems like such weak tea as to scarcely warrant attention while they grandly set their sights on towering moral heights.

In fact, those are the very ones currently shrugging off Mike Pence's genuine heroism on that one day. For them, doing right is weak tea.

Monday, June 13, 2022

My Piano Tuner's Romanticism

I've gathered a stable of titans. My massage therapist is a miracle healer (as umpteen of my friends have discovered, you don't need to even tell him what hurts; his fingers find, and rapidly fix, the problem, and that's that). The guy who cleans my car (I originally wrote about him here, and then again, recently, here) can, quite seriously, make cars look better than they did in the showroom (my theory is that he changes how light reflects off the car via a zillion strokes of his cleaning putty - like a Renaissance artist applying dabs of fresco). And my plumber may be the world's best brewer. Actually, he's my ex-plumber, having finally gone pro in the beer world, working here and here, though his full genius has not quite scaled. His commercial output is very good - worth going out of your way for - but not yet as mind-bending as his home brew.

There are others, but let's cut to the chase. My piano tuner, Lou, happens to be one of America's best contemporary composers.
He's also a good piano tuner. The thing you need to understand about piano tuners is that they hate your piano. Doesn't matter what piano. Piano tuners are fussily pedantic perfectionists, predisposed to exasperation, and no piano can be perfectly tuned (they're fiendishly complicated boxes which swell and contract from minor climate variations). This makes the entire proposition - i.e. their livelihood - a complete horror. But Lou is a good piano tuner because he doesn't quite curse my piano out loud. He does his best with my turd of a (very nice) 1959 Chickering baby grand (same year/model Bill Evans kept at home), and he walks away (with fistfuls of my money), his unbridled contempt stoically veiled. A consummate professional!
Louis Pelosi's compositional work merits thorough examination. But while I've played a decent amount of contemporary classical music, it's not really my thing. So I'm not the guy to write it, nor is this the place to publish it. I'd recommend a deep dive into his web site, full of sound excerpts (start with "Twelve Etudes for Piano"). I'll just use his work as a launching pad for some broad thoughts on music, and creativity, generally.

There's a word that frequently comes up with Lou - sorry, Louis. Mr. Pelosi. "Romanticism". Usually it's something like this: "While thoroughly modern in most facets, Pelosi always has one foot firmly set in Romanticism." They say it like he's defiantly holding on to Old Ways. They mean he's a bit conservative, or even - seethingly insulting to a modern composer - traditional.

I’ve never seen a really satisfying definition of Romanticism, so I’ll roll my own. Romanticism, when it comes to art, is the deliberate arrangement of artistic events into a dramatic contour intended to create emotional engagement with the audience.
There's a Japanese word for the pace of unfolding events in an art form, and it's almost entirely unheard-of outside of Japan: "Ma". Think about "Ma" - make it the thing you listen/watch/taste for - and you'll reframe your appreciation interestingly.
More simply put, Romanticism is storytelling. And that's widely considered reactionary, because we're still coming to terms with a rather extreme shift orchestrated (hee-hee) by 20th century composers. Like all extremists, this crop defined themselves by their transgressiveness. For them, Romanticism is your father's music. It's gross.
"You might as well go all the way and don a straw hat and pick up a banjo if you're concerned with emotions and engagement and all that corny showbiz bullshit!" I hear them shouting from their graves.
That generation - primarily snooty academicians, naturally - prized a dryly intellectual approach and produced radical music impossible to listen to. They shunned any hint of romanticism, which struck them as juvenile and unserious as stringing up garish Christmas lights on one's appallingly bourgeois abode.

These days, classical composers find themselves adrift in the backwash of that extremism, and it can be hard to find one's bearings. If one manages to forge a coherent and persuasive compositional style that's modernly unchained yet also emotional - dare I say, Romantic - you'll be seen - even by those who don't share the radical frosty severity of a Schoenberg or a Webern - as reactionary.

I've been listening to Lou Mr. Pelosi's work for years now, and recently realized I'd unwittingly bought into this. All this time, I've been discretely appreciative of the emotional coherence and tasteful unfoldment, which make his output more accessible. More "musical", if that's not another taboo term. But as I listened to the dazzling performance of his work at Merkin Hall in NYC this Spring, I finally realized I'd bought into utter hogwash.

Romanticism is not a trend. It does not connotate an era or school. One may depart from it, or even reject it, but it's been the default approach to art for all eternity, and will continue to thrive forever. Telling stories with a coherent dramatic contour arranged to evoke a given emotional response is not "old school", unless Fire and The Wheel are "old school". If you design triangular tires, I'll salute your creativity, but, when your contemporaries persist in designing round ones, it doesn't make them fuddy-duddies.

Lou Mr. Pelosi's work is "grounded" modernism - free-wheeling, often dissonant, inventiveness arranged in a coherent, engaging manner that Handel might, with effort, find affinity with.

Note that I said "manner", not "structure". Novice composers pay great attention to structure. An etude is, primarily, an etude; a chorale a chorale. But real artists regard structural norms as mere scaffolding; a throwaway framework - a mere propositional excuse, really - for organizing the deeper thing they actually do. A chef might serve a smaller portion of pasta at lunch than at dinner, but it's the same cooking; he's not thinking "LUNCH". A great chef barely acknowledges framework - yadda yadda like whether wait staff wears bikinis or tuxedos. It's all about the food!

Handel would not find a single structure in this music he'd feel comfortable with. He'd experience the full violence of the gradual unchaining by which generations of composers have freed themselves, and with which our modern ears have grown gradually more or less comfortable. But he'd still dig the Romanticism. Not because it's of his time, and thus stuck-in-the-mud, but because it's grounded in the terra firma of humanity's eternal relationship with art.

Mateusz Borowiak, a young Polish-British pianist, is the most frequent performer of Lou Mr. Pelosi's music, and he's a gem. The Japanese "ma" I mentioned above - the pace of unfolding of events in an art form - is something Borowiak has mastered (normally, one must be ancient, with throbbing arthritic fingers; e.g. check out the immortal Michal Hambourg). This comes in addition to his technical mastery - never wielded as a raison d'être - and his delightfully juicy, "go-for-it" gleeful passion (passionate glee?). Check him out, he's about the best guy out there, for my taste (we all keep expecting him to explode into massive fame and champagne and limos, but perhaps 2022 isn't the era for that).

But how does classical piano relate to the cheesy cake of El Salvador? Here's your answer!

My proudest writing on music composition is a piece seemingly no one can get through. But since I do try my damndest to be coherent, digestible, and emotionally engaging (I'm very much a romantic), I'd be grateful if you'd at least take a stab at "Shostakovich, Eddie Barefield, and The Evolution of Western Art"

Here are all postings tagged "music", in reverse-chronological order

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Opting Out of Rumination Over What's Missing

Way back in January 2009, at the dawn of the Slog, I posted one of the most enduringly popular entries, titled "The Monks and the Coffee". It featured this story:
A woman worked as a driver for some Buddhist monks traveling around California for a series of meditation programs. The monks had fallen crazily in love with a certain brand of coffee they'd discovered during the trip. But while they practically jumped for joy whenever they came upon some, she found it interesting that they never showed the slightest trace of disappointment if they failed to find any. Even when days went by without finding their coffee, they were no less happy. It began to dawn on her that if they never drank that coffee again, it wouldn't bother them in the least. Yet each time they found it they positively basked in the delight.
It struck a chord with me (and with many readers), but I couldn't say I really understood it. But a few months later, I was given the key to unlock the mystery. That Christmas Eve I found myself flipping between peak experience and crushing sadness, all while nothing changed even the tiniest bit. Just my perspective! My framing!

This galvanized my attention, and I pondered it closely for years, cataloguing here my unfolding epiphanies, as indexed in "The Evolution of a Perspective". Eventually this exploration of perspective/framing produced fresh understanding of human happiness, autism, addiction, depression (here and here), creativity, art, cosmology, theology, and all the way up to the nature of the universe and multiverse.

But the initial insight was the most practically useful: we don’t live in What’s Missing. We live in What Is. What's Missing isn't real. In fact, it’s the very definition of unreality. And there's always stuff missing; an infinite depot to draw from in dredging up needless misery for oneself.
Why would you do this? To ballast your happiness, of course!
It works according to a dementedly simple formula:
(Optimality) - (Current Moment) = (Misery)
It's absurd, because "optimality" is a mind trip; a head fake; an empty intellectual construct. It's plainly ditzy to begin with. Just for one thing, optimality is famously slippery. Once you attain it, you quickly grow tired of it and start dreaming up some other notion of it. You know this! Yet you still fall for it every time, generating gratuitous misery. 

Whatever's happening right here/right now, your dear departed grandpa won't be here to see it. And odds are that you are not currently experiencing a thrashing orgasm courtesy of a mesmerizingly attractive and solicitous lover. Moment: I proclaim thee SUBOPTIMAL! Hence misery.

But what-isn't-happening doesn't have anything to do with anything, and certainly shouldn't affect our experience of the current moment - aka "reality". If you drop the habit of scanning for suboptimality (like a princess detecting smaller and smaller peas beneath her mattress), you'll be left with nothing but appreciation of the current moment on its own terms. And that appreciation won't deplete over time, because it's real.

Peak moments are quickly deflated by trivialities. You have to pee. You remember that you don't own a Porsche. You recall that terrible thing your second grade teacher said. Or you just get tired of the sunset view from your chaise lounge in Hawaii. Time to go in, and find lots of fresh juicy suboptimalities to thwart your natural flow of contentment, appreciation, and grace.

We scramble to reconstruct peak experience by trying to book another vacation. We save up, praying for a raise at work and for the perfect obliging companion to share it all with. We struggle to get it all just right; to make the world correspond as closely as possible with the fake, cartoon-like optimality cooked up by our fevered brains.

But, again, even if we make the world cough up that optimality cartoon, we won't be happy for long. Soon we'll need to pee, or remember we don't own Porsches, or recall that thing teacher said. When the dog catches the car, it's just a car. Just a chaise lounge. And I need to pee.

The spiritual teacher/troll GI Gurdjieff wrote a book that was bullshit aside from its title: "Life is Real Only Then, when 'I Am'". He hid the entire message in plain sight: We're all 100% aspirational. Like greyhounds at a racetrack or hamsters on a wheel, we never arrive, and it's entirely a choice of perspective. Of framing.

Arrival is a manifestation of perspective, not the prize received for lining up ducks in a perfect row. You can arrive now, just as you are, even if you need to pee and are not in Hawaii and still don't own a Porsche. Even if grandpa isn’t here with you right now

Without the neurotic, delusional consideration of fake-out "Optimality" in the formula...
(Optimality) - (Current Moment) = (Misery)
....all you have is Now; un-judged, un-ranked, directly experienced. “Right here, right now” is all that’s real. What’s missing is not real. Obsession with What Isn’t is indulgent caprice. At best, it's stories we tell ourselves. At worst, we're all bonkers, living a dystopian fantasy of un-lost loss; of needless misery.

If you live in a fairytale (i.e. bonkers) world of self-narrated stories, you are condemned to live in What's Missing, and there's another word for that world: Hell.

If you opt out when your mind gently invites you to consider how GRANDPA'S NOT HERE WITH YOU - which is completely irrelevant - you will appreciate the here and now, and there's a word for that world: Heaven.

The links are important. They're not just pro forma.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Jan 6 Hearings: We All Know it Wasn't Power Trump Was Grasping At

I'm configured for honesty. I can't say I'm a 100% honest person - no one is - but I choose truth even when it makes me look bad, or lowers my position, or creates impediments. Show me truth and I'll click to it like a light switch.

It's not because I'm virtuous. It's because I configured myself this way as a child. I fully recognized back then that the child is father to the man, so I had a responsibility to set myself on a good track. Adults seemed like lying liars so conditioned for untruth that they lied even when they didn't need to. The aggregated weight of falsehood was a pressurizing, toxic burden leaving them unable to see straight. I wanted to see straight, so I locked in a robust propensity for honesty.

So I find it cognitively unpleasant when the good guys - e.g. the congressmen bringing Jan 6 instigators to justice (or, at least, to public exposure) fudge the truth.

Trump wasn't desperately hanging onto power, as they framed it last night. Trump didn't even like being president. If we'd made him a cool outfit and propped him up in a regal chair and appointed him king - a constitutional monarch with only ceremonial power - he'd have loved it. Trump was no more interested in presidenting than Chauncy Gardiner (Peter Seller's character in "Being There") would have been. Hell, he's not even interested in real estate, which is why, after several bankruptcies, he changed his business into mostly a licensing bureau for his name and image (self-elevation, his sole interest, being a malady that could be leveraged into remunerative commerce).

Everyone in America, from these Congressmen, to you and me, and to the MAGA faithful, understood that Trump would never accept defeat. All his turmoil, division, noise, and propaganda is 100% about saving face from the loss. It's not grasping at power, it's grasping at feeling like a winner.

But the Jan 6 committee chose to cast this as a power grab rather than a petulant child stomping over the game board and setting fire to the house, the neighborhood, and the nation, after being defeated by other kids.

If you're configured for honesty, the above will hopefully soothe you and help inoculate you from the colliding waves of expedient truth buggery on both sides. I'm no fan of confirmation bias; I normally fight against it here, where I present counter-intuitive notions and endless observations of how we all do it all wrong. But in a moment where one side lies and gaslights shamelessly, and the other side seems dementedly incapable of recognizing that the truth is bad enough - a bit of confirmation isn't a bad thing.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Downsizing 101

Here's what I learned from finally going through all my stuff and selling/giving/throwing most of it away. It's all about triage:

Take ample time to sell high-quality in-demand stuff for a good price.

Do this first, if possible. Clear somewhere in your home (and a folder on your hard drive) to dedicate to organizing, temporarily storing, and packing/shipping actually valuable stuff.

Make this distinct - and higher priority - from other downsizing tasks. This one actually pays! Disposing of your previous laptop or iPhone is not akin to getting rid of, say, a Napoleon Dynamite DVD.

Note that you can process and store items in this category together with items in the following category, but do make a distinction for the valuable stuff. Give it more time/attention/marketing muscle.

List anything worth over $20 for sale and hope for the best.

Between eBay fees, credit card fees, postage and handling, and materials, you won't make much even on a $20 sale. But you can learn to create tidy listings (eBay, Craig, NextDoor, FB Market) quickly, and streamline your fulfillment to the point where it's easy and fun and worth it even for the flow of a few bucks here and there. I was once eBay-phobic, but I've made it so efficient that it's now a delight. For details, see my previous posting, "Making eBay Efficient and Fun".

Give lots of gifts.

But don't waste much time hunting for charity solutions. Everyone's rich now. Nobody wants your old shirts. You can donate books to the library, but the "normal" titles will be sold in annual sales for pennies, while the really cool and interesting ones will almost certainly wind up in the trash. Maybe .5% of books are worth something and have a chance of connecting with a buyer. If no one wants to buy it, no one wants to own it. So if you can't sell or gift a book, trash it. Any other solution is just a conscience-salving intermediary step to trashing. (Caveat: if it's something that a typical 15-25 year old might read, maybe find a library in a rough area that might accept the donation, but they will not make proper use of your Shanghai soup dumpling cookbook or anything else "weird". Only stupid books are widely useful. 

Photograph anything you hate to let go of.

This is how you push past the tipping point on mementos and curiosities you want to remember but don't need to display or keep close. Tell yourself you're photographing it so you can remember, but really photograph it so you can let go.

Then blithely chuck what's left.

"When in doubt, throw it out." That's your Johnnie Cochran money line. Use it early and often. You don’t need to justify trashing it. Flip that and try to justify keeping it. 

Everyone starts out by pricing garbage containers and other industrial-strength solutions. That may be right for some people, but you're likely not to produce that scale of garbage so fast. Try putting it out incrementally with the garbage. If this backlogs you with many large trash bags (I use these for this purpose, because they don't puncture easily and they're unscented) perennially awaiting the next trash day, ok, pursue sturdier solutions.

Before you start, here's a framing: how much would it be worth it for you, in dollars, to get this done? Probably a few grand, if you're honest. Make that your reverse budget; the amount you're willing to waste to get this done. You may need one of those five clipboards - or felt stick-on furniture gliders, or light switch wall plates - one day! If you throw them out, you might need to re-buy them! Well, if/when that day arrives, the money you spend will draw from the reverse budget. Accept that you might waste $XXXX at some indeterminate future date rebuying items you imprudently throw away today. As you toss those things in the trash, make a mental note of it. And notice how satisfying it is to trash more and more stuff. It’s worth a lot!

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Making eBay Efficient and Fun

I was once eBay-phobic, but have made the process so efficient that it's now a delight. Here are tips.

Between eBay fees, credit card fees, packaging, postage and handling, you won't make much even on a $20 sale. But if you can learn to create tidy listings (eBay, Craig, NextDoor, FB Market) quickly, and streamline your fulfillment, it becomes an absolute breeze; worth it even for a few bucks here and there; or even just to escape the shame of throwing away useful stuff. eBaying is the new "donating". It's like this cool thriving circle of regeneration.

First, get a free account at Pirate Ship, a beautifully sleek web app that imports order data from ebay and offers you shipping choices (all discounted). Great service, too (they communicate in pirate-speak). Note that options like Priority Mail flat-rate and media mail (which you must ALWAYS use for books/audio/video) are available; you just need to dig around a bit as you plug in the particulars for a given shipment. And remember that padded envelopes ship way more cheaply than boxes.

For shipping, weigh with a good digital kitchen scale (don't buy a postage scale, they all suck). Weight limit is usually 10 lbs, but you won't be shipping heavier items much. Get this tape (don't use a tape gun for small packages; they're too unwieldy) and this handy little tape measure. Print labels out (Pirate Ship makes it easy) and stick them on with tape (see below).

If you don't already have an enormous collection of small and odd-shaped cardboard boxes (which are expensive and annoying to buy one-by-one), treat yourself to Amazon Prime for a while and order every damned thing you ever need to buy (toilet paper, tissues, toothpaste, eyedrops...everything!) that way and save the boxes. Just do it for the boxes. Also buy (e.g. from Staples) some 8x10 and 9x12 clasp envelopes and some 5x9 and #3 (8.5 x 14.5) poly bubble mailers. EBay seller TheBoxery has the best prices. Remember you can "shrink" large padded envelopes by folding them over on themselves and taping, and shrink clasp envelopes by cutting from the opening side and taping shut.

Buy all that stuff and set aside a dedicated space for eBay activity so you're not constantly reinventing the wheel ad hoc for each sale and shipment. Keep dedicated tape and tape measure and scale handy there even if you have similar items scattered elsewhere around your house. I also keep dedicated scissors, box cutter, and sharpie. Set up a folding table to serve as Sales Central. Dedicate a closet shelf to storing listed items awaiting sale/shipping. This is how you make eBay fun rather than hassle. Respect the hustle!

Always thoroughly scrape off or cover up or black-sharpie over old shipping labels. I've heard horror stories of a sticker code meaning "hazardous item", so your shipment gets pulled aside and you need to drive hundreds of miles to go pick it up because they won't restore it to shipping channels.

If the fussy scraping and taping and weighing and all the rest start to feel oppressive and/or "beneath you", here's a framing trick. You're sending personal items which have served you well off to nice people who eagerly await them. Pack and process like you're dispatching holiday presents - or even pets/babies for adoption. Call it corny if you want, but that's actually what eBay is at its heart (though plenty of buyers and sellers might not get it). I sometimes throw in minor treats, too, as a disciple of Walter the Bus Driver. The world insidiously improves, despite the evident shmuckery.

If you're on deadline, every couple weeks, reduce prices on anything unsold by 20%. But bear in mind that more obscure items can take a while to connect at any price.

For pricing, don't just search eBay. Check the "Completed Items" box in the left margin as you search to discover what stuff's actually selling for. Remember that good feedback, coherent and thorough description (talk like a real person; don’t feign brusque impersonality), and quality photos all help earn a premium. 

It's way better to lose money than to anger a buyer, even if it's someone awful/stupid/crazy (they mostly are very nice!). I have 100% feedback, and it serves me way better than 99.8% feedback. So maybe let them keep the item even though you've refunded. Etc etc. Your goal is to serve people as quickly and effortlessly as possible, even if sometimes it costs you extra. Delight them if possible, but marginal satisfaction works fine, too. Don't get drawn into spats or negotiations. Who's got time? If you're the contentious and/or penny-pinching type, eBay will drive you slowly mad. Everyone else: enjoy the release and surrender of low-stakes caving-in to imperious consumers. Retail satori!

Monday, May 30, 2022

Student Loan Amnesty

I'm on a roll!

Last month, I posted a provocative argument about "Free Speech" on social media, which, instead of getting me incinerated, completely stopped all discussion. On a social media thread. In 2022.

I seem to have done it again. On the topic of student loan amnesty, I posted:
Pay back everyone who worked their way through college FIRST.

If everyone gets retroactive free college, let's start with people who didn't sign contracts promising to repay and who did more than cash an easy check.
...and, of course, I was attacked for being an elitest boomer tyrant fascist MAGA mo-fo. One onlooker stuck around after the beating to question me a bit, finally surmising that maybe I wasn't totally against making education accessible (this was infinitely kind of him; in this era, a stranger expressing a "bad" opinion is ALL BAD THINGS WITHOUT EXCEPTION. Like, don't even ever FEED him).

Here was my reply, which appears to have actually shut up yet another angry crowd:
There's vast space between desire for accessible education and retroactively paying (via taxes) for the education of people who elected to sign loan contracts. I'm in that space.

Similarly, I support accessible housing but don’t want to pay off people's mortgages because their obligation feels oppressive.

It's not entirely hypothetical. The 20-somethings screaming about student loans will eventually be 30 and 40-somethings screaming about mortgages (and, yes, I know it's not exclusively 20-somethings screaming about student loans).

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Nutritious, Delicious 5 Minute Meal

This is a guaranteed "8" (out of 10 in my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods and other things from 1-10).

Directions are lengthy, but execution is easily completed in less than 5 minutes.

It's remarkably healthful and nutritionally well-balanced, and beefed up to be as filling as an entree. Perfect light supper after an ambitious lunch.

Trader Joe’s BBQ & Black Pepper Toscano Chopped Salad includes chopped green and red cabbages, shredded carrots, broccoli, and three separate packages:
  • Mini cornbread croutons
  • Aged black pepper Toscano cheese
  • Sweet - but not quite obnoxious - BBQ sweet onion dressing
TJ's says of the dressing that "its molasses notes pair exceptionally well with the flavor of the black pepper cheese, and the rest of the dressing profile (including mustard, white wine vinegar, onion, garlic, and chili powder) provides the finishing touch for this un-shy salad." Yeah, whatever. Sure it does.

We will disrespect the intention. Creativity requires disrespect. That's why many people feel "uncreative." They've been instilled with over respect. Clast those iconos!

Throw a steamer basket in covered pot with some hot water, heat on high.

Heat small skillet on medium, with a bit of olive oil.

Shuck one fresh ear of corn, dump in steamer, steam 5 mins.

Scramble two big eggs (or 3 medium), or use whites for maximal health. Add to skillet with salt and pepper.

Dump half the salad into large bowl. Add about 1 tablespoon of salad dressing (way less than half the packet), and mix with large spoon. That quantity of dressing will essentially disappear. That's fine.

When eggs begin to set, sprinkle a teaspoon of cheese (just a touch, to prevent egg from registering as bland; also make sure the egg is well-salted), distributing evenly. Flip omelet. Doesn't need to look pretty. I like the eggs soft for this application, but you can let it brown if you'd prefer.

Remove omelet from pan and chop fast/roughly into small pieces. Add to salad bowl.

Remove corn, holding ear lengthwise in salad bowl (stick a fork in the high end to hold it from). Remove kernals with a steak knife (or serrated bread or paring knife).

Mix like crazy.

Sprinkle the mini cornbread croutons (some toasted sesame or poppy seeds, too, if handy).

Drizzle with your most characterful extra virgin olive oil.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

Stock Muttering Summation

I forgot to offer a needed summary beneath my recent "Stock Mutterings" posting. So I added it there, and will reprint it here for your convenience. For more details about the stocks mentioned, see, of course, the above-linked posting.

To review:

AAPL at $138 offers an extremely tempting opportunity for a 45% gain at absurdly low risk (by "risk", I mean the chance of losing money). That's an extraordinary proposition, and I can't understand why everyone wouldn't jump at it. The stock may dip lower before it turns around, but not even the gloomiest bear would imagine it won't eventually reach $200. It's just a matter of time (hopefully it will happen about a year from now, making it a long term capital gain!).

TXG offers a very good opportunity for a 4x gain without tons of risk...though it might take a while (remember: patience is the little guy's investment super power).

Even a smidge of moderately positive news might lift CRIS from the populous slurry of biotechs parked and awaiting grandeur. If so, a 10x gain would be pretty easy (the $7s aren’t exactly gangbuster territory). With bigger news, which I don't expect anytime soon, sky's potentially the limit.

I Don't Hate Elon Musk Enough

I’m despairing that I’ll never hate Elon Musk enough.

I feel like I’m in the ballpark re: Hitler, Putin, and Harvey Weinstein. But I still think of Elon Musk as human, and as someone who’s done some admirable things.

I don’t want to dissect him alive with a dull knife. I don’t want to see all his relatives die or his stockholders impoverished or his cars exploding just to cause him sadness.

I believe the fetid core of all this is his principled stand on free speech, which could possibly mean restoring Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. I realize that’s literally like restoring Auschwitz and hooking up the gas jets, but while I really disliked Trump’s tweeting, I’m still not feeling the proper caustic roar of abhorrence.

Is there a course I can take to get right on this? Can anyone out there Clockwork Orange me re: this abomination?

Saturday, May 21, 2022

SIGA Follow-Up Thoughts

It’s beginning to look like the monkeypox outbreak may (or may not) be a limited edge-case sort of situation. If it can be quickly contained, SIGA's stock will not hold anywhere near its current $15.

It could still rise some Monday morning due to pent-up exuberance, but at some point the hammer (i.e. the big $$$) will forcefully descend, and long-suffering SIGA investors who didn't get out will find themselves once again becalmed amid single digits.

If, however, this turns out to be a new mutation, and thus an ongoing and expanding threat, then selling at this point would be a horrible move. SIGA's rise over the past few days has been enjoyable but by no means meteoric. I'd describe it as restrained. It has much higher to go if this turns out to be a serious and burgeoning outbreak.

The good news is that even if they do contain it quickly, SIGA should benefit from its greatly enhanced visibility (no one even knew there WAS a smallpox cure until this week!). But in that event, I'd still have preferred to have taken my profit and bought a bunch of AAPL, TXG, and CRIS.

If you bought SIGA eons ago, and are fed up, and it wouldn't destroy you to watch it shoot up like crazy after you've sold, here's my advice: create a limit sell order right now for $14.50 or $15. A bit lower if you're even more fed up.

Or, at very least, watch the action closely Monday morning, poised to sell. But bear in mind that even if it rockets upon market opening (I suspect it won't), the hammer might be poised to drop at any moment, and, once it does, you will be the zillionth person in line to get your sell order processed. Staying in front of things with a limit sell order (which, alas, risks losing out) is your best hope for locking in a price in the teens if this thing drops. Once fate shows its cards, it will be far too late to make a move, even if your finger's on the button.

It depends how bad you need the money. If you bought a few shares on a lark, and you're not straining to make a mortgage payment, let it ride. But don't holler at me if it quickly falls back to $7 for another bunch of years.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Stock Mutterings

Sorry for the lack of links to my previous write-ups on these topics. The Slog's search box is your friend!

I've never felt more morbidly ashamed than the last two days spent feasting my eyes on the news of an incipient monkeypox crisis. It's been, perversely, fantastic for my shares of SIGA, a company I invested in (at circa $2.50) in a previous century, which has developed, approved, and begun selling a highly-effective anti-viral (not a vaccine) for smallpox and other poxes (the EU approved it for monkeypox). My first thought is that I don't like being in a position to profit from misfortune. But my second thought is that I helped bring a drug to market that will make this impending crisis far less harmful. But I'm trying to keep my delight levels duly low.

So Apple's falling back down again. Once it bottoms out (the lower the better!), buy it. Even if you're scared it might go lower. Even if it goes lower (you needn’t nail the nadir). Even if analysts predict further drop (analysts always predict further dropping when a stock drops and further rising when it rises; that's their clever little trick). Even if the market's falling apart and you imagine no bright day will ever come. That's the suppressive perspective that keeps people irrationally unable to spot the opportunity of fantastic value at firesale prices. One day AAPL will drop and fail to ever snap back, but you will not lose all your money. Apple will not go to zero. They have enough cash on hand to stop making iPhones and iPads and Macs and just go buy Goldman Sachs and Starbucks....and still have $17B leftover in case they want to start an airline or whatever.

I bought TXG at $50, where it was severely undervalued, and it rose to $200. Now it's back to $50, and nothing fundamental has changed. This isn't some speculative play; they are doing substantial business, and are well-known as a serious player in their field. All that said, TXG is nowhere near the solidity of Apple. But Apple doesn't have the potential of quadrupling (at least not anytime soon).

Still more undervalued, and still less solid, CRIS shouldn't be priced anywhere near its current 75¢. The only explanation is "market's down and biotechs are really down". That's not a substantive rationale (note that there were some trivial testing issues which might have justified a 5-10% haircut). If you have a few bucks lying around you'd like to use to take a speculative flyer (and wouldn't mind losing all, because, again, this is NOT Apple, and it COULD go to zero), CRIS would be a fine choice. Even if its peak of $15.60 (where I should have sold) was fluffy, the stock is pretty clearly worth seven-ish, which makes it a hell of an enticing bargain here. Though I could be wrong. Like with Parker.

I'd be surprised if Parker ever revives. I can't be angry at Andrew Tobias for recomending it; he's right more often than than he's wrong. But I still haven't sold. Maybe if I finally sell my SIGA shares and need to take a loss to offset the gain for tax purposes....

To review:

AAPL at $138 offers an extremely tempting opportunity for a 45% gain at absurdly low risk (by "risk", I mean the chance of losing money). That's an extraordinary proposition, and I can't understand why everyone wouldn't jump at it. The stock may dip lower before it turns around, but not even the gloomiest bear would imagine it won't eventually reach $200. It's just a matter of time (hopefully it will happen about a year from now, making it a long term capital gain!).

TXG offers a very good opportunity for a 4x gain without tons of risk...though it might take a while (remember: patience is the little guy's investment super power).

Even a smidge of moderately positive news might elevate CRIS from the populous slurry of biotechs parked and awaiting grandeur. If so, a 10x gain would be pretty easy (the $7s aren’t exactly gangbuster territory). With bigger news, which I don't expect anytime soon, sky's potentially the limit.


The Mexican restaurant was deserted in the middle of the afternoon, and I sat at the bar, chatting with the waitress in Spanish, while awaiting my meal. We discussed lots of topics, and her reserve gradually evaporated as she found rapport with my intimate knowledge of her culture.

Just as my food was about to arrive, the subject of Donald Trump came up, and she let it be known, with feigned cheerfulness, that she assumed I was a supporter.

Shocked, I, asked how she could imagine such a thing. She politely explained that it was because I was white and old...without being so rude as to actually say it was because I was white and old.

"You've just been speaking to me for 20 minutes. You actually know something about me. Do I really strike you as that type of person? Do anti-immigrant racists often overflow with knowledge and appreciation for foreign cultures? Am I speaking to you (in Spanish, yet!) like I think you’re someone who floated in with a mob of rapists and murderers? Do you get the impression that I find you in any sense inferior?"

"I don't know!" she answered with an amiable shrug - her knowingly defiant half-smirk never receding. "You never know what people think!"

But she had reason! She'd had a 20 minute window into who I am and how I think! I was no blank slate to her!

And if such determinations are so fuzzy and difficult, how would that explain her snap judgement based on my age and ethnicity? If she's such a snappy Sherlock with that meager evidence, why wouldn't she be affected by substantial REAL evidence - i.e. my obvious love for the the things my skin and age told her I despised?

We still, at this late date, live in a world where snap taxonomy - first impressions and stereotypes and prejudices (all the stuff that was once associated with racism back when we still thought clearly about the subject) - reigns supreme. A world where there's literally nothing one can do to transcend preconception based on superficial, nonelective traits. If you're one of "them", I know your deal. Even if you are demonstrably the antithesis of my preconception. A generous Jew or uncorrupt Italian is just hiding their true self.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Expertise is Disrespected Because Dumb People Can't Judge it Properly

It's frequently been observed that we have less and less respect for experts.

As a related observation, consider Twitter, where at any given moment hordes of ordinary people may suddenly transform into constitutional scholars, virologists, Kremlinologists, etc etc. Every week, another wave of fresh genius. It used to be that an expert would expound on Azerbaijan or particle physics, and we'd listen humbly, because we knew nothing about those things. But now anyone can flip over to Wikipedia, read for three minutes, and claim to have researched the matter. Voila, an expert!

This explains why everyone's suddenly an expert, but not the evaporating respect for actual experts (Tom Nichols wrote a great book on the topic). But I think I've got it.

I love the observation that Donald Trump is a poor guy's idea of a rich guy. So consider a dumb guy's idea of an expert: Someone who's always right. Just like experts in the movies; like the professor in Gilligan's Island. A bona fide expert says how it will turn out...and it actually goes that way. He doesn't say "I don't know". He's certain and he's right. 

If you're uncertain or wrong - if it doesn't turn out like you say - then you're just some fancy talker. Put up or shut up! Produce!

Of course, expertise doesn't work that way. Experts aren't devoted to being accurately predictive. They're often less certain than non-experts. And they can absolutely be wrong, and aren't particularly ashamed about it. They're more occupied with deep understanding of hidden factors and mechanisms. They can explain the basis for things, but can't always place it in current context or issue incontrovertible pronouncements. That's not what expertise is.

But a dumb person can't gauge that deep understanding or parse those nuanced factors. So none of it matters. All a dumb person has to go on is your predictive value and track record. Your stats.

This explains the contempt for Dr. Fauci. Dumb people recall every little thing which failed to come to pass exactly per his prediction. Ample proof of fatal flaw! He's no expert, because expertise means being unassailably right. If I ever catch you being wrong, that makes you less expert than me!

By this standard, society is desperately parched for expertise. Doctors (unlike faith healers or TV quacks) can be uncertain, and unwilling to make solid predictions. And experts often can't even agree with each other, which means they're not expert at all! The experts who warned about high fat last year are warning about low fat this year. That's not expertise, that's flip-flopping bullshit! A real expert knows the absolute truth, and sticks with it, period. If you bounce around, that means you never really knew, and if you don't know, how can you call yourself an expert?

Of course, none of that has the slightest to do with genuine expertise. Just as genuinely wealthy people don't really shit in gold toilets.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Jim's Law of Stupid Drivers

Whenever another car cuts you off, there's a better than 50-50 chance that they will slam hard on their brakes within 15 seconds.
Now that I've told you this, you'll watch for it, and see that it's true.


At age five, I had a firm conviction that people who've done something stupid were stupid people who'd always do stupid things. Don't trust that person with delicate toys, or put him in charge of important tasks. Stupid people will act stupid, period.

Then I grew up a bit, and realized it's not so black and white. Hey, we're all stupid sometimes! Even me! You might have just caught this person on a bad day, making the single mistake he'd made all year.

Years later, I realized my initial conclusion had been correct. People who do something stupid are incredibly likely to do something else stupid, and soon.

Fwiw, here are all Leff's Laws

Monday, May 16, 2022

Carry a Tuba, Be a Celebrity

You can make a living as a freelance musician in NYC if, and only if, you're able to chameleon yourself into any musical context (I wrote about my crazy musical promiscuity here and here), and double or triple up your gigs. You must work like a madman, and there's often no time to take a breath and register how odd your life has become. One particularly jam-packed day - June 9, 1993 - nudged into extreme oddness.

The night before, I'd played with my raucous brass band - veteran downtown players copping funky NOLA stylings with a boisterously avante perspective well ahead of its time. And the legendary Bob Dorough had driven in from Delaware Water Gap to sing a medley of his "Schoolhouse Rock" tunes with us, a decade before those 1970s gems came to be celebrated as a cultural touchstone.

We performed to an empty house at Greenwich Village's Gulf Coast restaurant, having chased away diners with our boisterousness - manager Jacqui Perrine (a helluva hip gal and friend-of-the-band), incensed that her customers didn't love us as much as she did, summed up her feelings tersely - "Fuck 'Em!" - and spent the night sashaying around the room in what was essentially a command performance.

The gig paid primarily in food and drink, and the latter rolled on until wee hours of the morning. So when my alarm clock blared the next morning at 8:30am, I was in un-fine fettle. Having hit "snooze" a few too many times, there was no time for shower or breakfast. I had to jump on a subway and go accompany a phalanx of giant trippy puppets (someone somewhere had gotten a grant) at World Trade Center as part of a lesbian drum band. All in a day's work.

I threw on a dilapidated tank top and shorts and dashed for the subway with my gigantic hundred year old sousaphone. Alas, in my stupor, I got on the green line rather than the red, necessitating a tricky cross-town transfer. So I emerged at City Hall Station in high dander, frantically flagging down taxis directly in front of City Hall, where a bored press gaggle was waiting for something newsworthy to happen.

A cab pulled up, and I instantly realized that I was about to make a spectacle of myself by trying to wedge an enormous sousaphone into a taxicab mere feet away from a phalanx of unoccupied photographers while in an unshaven, half-naked, and horrendously hungover condition. Oops.

The smart route would have been to disassemble the tuba to fit it into the cab, but that would take time I didn't have, so I tried to nonchalantly slip the sousaphone into the taxi, self-consciously aware that every choice was making things worse. And the damned thing absolutely I began to panic at the sound of advancing footsteps behind me - the press surging en mass down the steps to grab a local color shot on a slow news day. "Grungy homeless musician comically tries to fit sousaphone in cab." Ha ha ha ha ha. Funny.

Finally, I braced my arms against the cab’s frame and impelled the tuba inward with my feet - success! - jumped in, slammed the door, and commanded the driver to move! I never looked back. If they'd shot my face, I'd have been recognizable...and disgusting. Hearing the clicks of multiple shutters behind me, I felt like Lady Di hightailing it away from paparazzi.

I arrived at my gig in the nick of time, sliding suavely into the queue of musicians as we emerged behind enormous puppets in the sunny plaza between the twin towers. Video cameras from all local TV news stations were there to excerpt the event. More press, argh!

As we finished up, I was ready to get home and finish cobbling together a night's sleep. But the band's trumpeter, my frequent musical co-conspirator and fellow non-lesbian non-drummer Frank London, suddenly announced that he and his girlfriend, Tine, had decided, spur of the moment, to get married. We were, after all, close to City Hall! So...would I come serve as tubist/witness?

The press, thankfully, had deserted City Hall. We found the marriage certificate office, Frank and Tine filled out paperwork, the judge did his bit, and I boomed some schizo-Mendelson on my sousaphone until staff from surrounding offices poked their heads in to request cessation with a gentility unique to NYC bureaucrats.

One can't get married without a celebration, so the plan was to head over to Odeon Restaurant - yet another crosstown jaunt. Frank (in shabby pawnshop tie, tails, and top hat) and Tine (in an improvised lacy white Bridezilla get-up) strutted proudly downstairs and west on Chambers Street, stalkishly followed by an incongruous hirsute brute bopping funky bass lines on a 19th century tuba.

We drew attention. And while I was as underdressed for a wedding as any human being since the late Mesolithic, I'd reached a point of glazed giddiness, finally going full-metal Jacqui. Fuck it!

The strut transformed into a boogie. We shimmied and jived and moon-walked to Odeon, with pedestrians and construction workers hollering in approval, some following us for a block or two.

En route, a guy came up to us, poking a professional-quality microphone in our faces. "I'm Brrbz Brrbzn from CBS national radio! Can you tell me what's happening here?" Frank and Tine gave him a nano-interview, I churned out some soulful bluesy licks on cue, and Brrbz was off, hollering over his shoulder that this would be heard by X million people later that day. Hey, more press!

We paraded to the restaurant, necks craning to fathom what seemed like some celeb "happening". The streets throbbed with music and cheers as Frank tipped his absurd Mad Tea Party top hat toward strangers left and right (also: above, as we were waved at from office windows).

I later learned that the silly WTC gig had been reported on all the local news that night (none had shown up for our historical brass band performance the previous day), and that the radio report was heard by some huge swathe of the American public (radio was still a thing back then). But I missed every bit of it, having yet another gig to play that same night, cleaned up in suit and tie, contributing dulcet trombone tones to some classy soiree. All in a day's work.

And while it can't be the only photo from my taxi fiasco that surfaced in print, I couldn’t miss this one on the cover of the following day's NY Times Metro Section:

Photographer Steve Hart, the NY Times rookie covering City Hall back then, has gone on to become a respected fine art photographer (seriously check out his stuff, it's great), but kindly took time to dredge up the original image:

The moral of the story: If you ever want to make an enormous impact, 1. bop around Manhattan with a huge antique sousaphone, and 2. steadfastly resist attention.

Oh, and the nationally-celebrated tuba is still with me, now a still-jaunty 130 years old. At this point, he's like a family member:

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Processing Process

I've been improving my preceding posting, "Process". Depending on when you read it, you might have missed the expanded introduction (now three paragraphs), or the note beneath the two paragraphs of "Oscillococcinum".

I also made myself look like slightly less of a maniac in the portrait of what my life would look like without intellectual self-constraint (under "the Stuffy Professor").

Plus various other clarifications.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022


I've managed to tie together a few loose strands of thought and reduced them to something more succinct. One simple sentence, in fact.

There is risk to synopsis, however. Over-compress and the point might diminish into seeming-banality. Even the most transformational insight can be pounded thin into dry cliché. It’s just a question of how much juice you’re willing to drain in the interest of brevity.

Ideally, readers will rehydrate it via their own rumination. Aphorisms are the ancient version of compressing data for efficient storage and transfer. Processing power applied on the receiving end restores the intended nuance and vitality. So consider giving the opening sentence more than a nano-second of attention, despite its seeming easy banality!

If you get (really) good results, don't question your process.


Homeopathy is a crock. There's no evidence for its (ridiculous) underlying "theory", and there have been no proper scientific trials, to my knowledge, of any homeopathic drugs. It's a scam and a fraud. But Oscillococcinum, the popular homeopathic flu remedy, works for me.

It's effectiveness is just as likely due to some little girl in Utica having prayed for it to be so, or the pills containing alien entities, or the letters of Oscillococcinum adding up to "Jehovah", as the homeopathic explanation. "Insert nonsense here." I don't care. It works, and that's enough for me. If you get (really) good results, I don't question your process.

Note: good results don't prove the validity of the process. It takes more than a few data points to prove something. But proof is a far higher standard than practicality requires. Your success might be due to unknown factors, and your process might be a complete red herring. Fine! If it's working, don't look under the hood. It's not necessary to both succeed and explain how/why. Just keep going, and don't sweat naysayers - if, that is, you get (really) good results!
The Acupuncturist

I once knew an acupuncturist who got very good therapeutic results, and who was shockingly good at diagnosis. She'd know if your tumor had gotten worse. She could predict your blood test results. Stuff like that.

When I asked about her process, she demurred. Do I really want to know? I insisted, and she started telling me about how the earth spirits sing to her when she spins the....etc. etc. The audio mutes at that point, when I stopped paying attention.

It's not that I'd marked her as crazy, or a quack. Why would I do that? I'd most likely never believe in what she believed in, but I respected her results, regardless of how she got them. If you get (really) good results, I don't question your process.

The Car Detailer

I once wrote about a friend who details cars. His results, I swear to Jehovah, make your car look better than in the showroom. Better than the brochure. Not in some vulgar way. The finish isn't made extra shiny or sparkly. It's that your car gains an unmistakable classiness; a stateliness; a presence. It's eerie.

He's a genius who found a way. But for the yo-yos in the neighborhood (who'd readily concur re: his results), he's an "eccentric", because he doesn't do things the usual way (also: he's exuberant). In my profile of the guy, I wrote:
"Eccentric" means "odd and wrong". "Eccentric" people build perpetual motion machines, or believe they've found a way to communicate with the dead. They're absorbed in cranky, flaky quests which will never amount to much, but at least they're entertaining. It's a term of condescension; this is how we condescend to non-conformists. But is that an appropriate way to describe bona fide miracle workers?
You're not "eccentric" if you do better. Success should innoculate you from snark. If you get (really) good results, don't question your process.


I talk to myself. A lot. Always have. My writing is just another channel in that outgoing stream.

At age 59 (and I've been everywhere, man), I've observed a large number of people talking to themselves. Some appear to be anxious, or to lack proper self-awareness. Many slide into reveries so readily that they lose touch with worldly experience. They're not here. In many/most cases, I'd use terms like "kooky" or "deranged" because insanity, as I once wrote, is the inability to reframe despite clear environmental cues. If you can't "read the room" - if you can't even perceive the room you're in - that's a problem. You will get poor life results until you manage to implant yourself in some semblance of a here-and-now.

Yet it goes without saying that reverie (deliberately light fixture in - or even temporary disconnection from - the here-and-now) does have its creative uses. I guess it's a matter of whether you can control it or not.

In my case, I verbalize thoughts and impulses to capture my intuitive flow. Unless I verbalize that stuff, it remains intuitive, steering "gut" and "heart", but entirely unavailable to my rational mind.

And the stuffy Victorian professor in my cranium needs to examine and make a ruling. It must all be crisply explained in nice clear words, dammit. Arranged into neatly digestible verbal cutlets. While the professor feels brilliantly robust, he's secretly quite feeble and needy. He easily grows upset and flustered if not properly fed. Hence the verbalized self-explanation.

I lacked this under-the-hood view for most of my life. All I knew was that I felt a mysterious compulsion to explain stuff to myself. I chalked it up to neurosis, and worried about myself....until years later, when it dawned on me that my process had worked tremendously well. This surprise came quite late in the game. Astonished, I gasped once I finally let myself see that I'd gotten really good results. It came as a surprise, and I realized that I didn't need to keep questioning my process.

The Stuffy Professor

If you don't understand the respiratory system, you might suspect that breathing itself is a neurotic compulsion. The stuffy Victorian Professor, in his boundless curiosity, might declare skepticism regarding this ridiculous huffing and puffing in which we endlessly engage.

Of course, that bodily function need not be thought about or declared upon. One might simply breathe, unexamined, as lamas and gerbils do. Let it be and go with the flow, baby. But a stuffy Victorian professor, in his staunch frosty rigor, won't shrug off doubts so easily. Skepticism compels examination. In time, the professor-in-your-head recognizes a proper basis for breathing and lets go. One can finally enjoy gerbil/lama breathing with no curious overseer injecting himself into the process. You got the stamp!

One might easily conclude that it's always better to go with the flow, baby. But, Jesus, imagine the potential disaster of an unexamined existence. Unchecked, I'd never cease chomping potato chips or chugging beer. I'd drive the wrong way down one-way roads (it's faster!), carry a gun and shoot awful people right in the head (I dislike them!), burn down my local Pizza Hut (eradicate lousy pizza!!), and randily hit on every attractive woman I ever encountered (ooh, shiny!!!).

Unchecked, id is horrendous. And it's checked not just by superego - conscience, shame, and moral compass - but also by knowledge and rationality. So we need to scrutinize gut feelings and apparently natural processes for bona-fide utility.

Back to Me Again

The intuition that's laboriously been verbalized for my brain - logged via an outflow of words, both written and vocalized - has, to my utter shock, produced good results. And if you get good results, don't question your process!

Thanks for your suspicions, professor, but this process has proven beneficial. Scrutinize other stuff!

Youthful Processes

Young people don't know if their process works. They lack sufficient evidence. Without a track record of success to consider, who knows; your process might be wrong-headed! At very least, skeptical scrutiny is called for.

Ceaseless self-narration, for example, might represent disruptive anxiety rather than a mental logbook of insight and epiphany. There's no single recipe; no master list distinguishing fruitful, proper processes from ditzy, anxious, backfiring ones. We're all unique.
And that's precisely why you must never question someone's process - or your own - if it gets (really) good results!

The proof's in the pudding! By their deeds you will know them!
So I don't know what to tell people under 40, aside from the postcard I sent forward, as a child, to my adult self, reminding me
Be kinder to yourself.
Keep self-assessing - stay skeptical! - but maybe don't be the very harshest of hard-asses.

On the other hand, like anything else, self-kindness isn't the best process for all people in all scenarios. That's why I also sent along a caveat:
...but don't make a crutch out of it.


Why am I not a full-out digital nomad?


Most people work on at least a 27" computer screen. But when traveling, you have to make do with 15". And most people watch at least a 55" television. But when traveling, you need to make do with 15". A bit larger if you stay in hotels.

After making do with a 15" laptop for a week or two, upon returning home you'll feel considerable relief plugging back into a comfortable work set up, and plopping down for evening entertainment on a decent sized TV. It's not an enormous sacrifice, but it's a big reason to come home. Cut that tie, and everything changes for a bunch of people.

You can fix part of this, if you're wealthy and insane, by buying a $2000 flight case for your 27" computer monitor and shlepping it around with you, paying overweight baggage fees. Of course, you're still sacrificing, just in a different way! But nobody takes their TV with them.

If I could have reasonable screens away from home, I'd feel at home anywhere, both working and relaxing. But it's simply not possible. This heightens the magnetic attraction of my house.

Millions find themselves in this predicament without realizing. Travelers in 1875 didn't complain about being out of touch with friends back home. It's one of the traveler's inherent sacrifices. How could I possibly talk to Ruthie if Ruthie's not here with me? I’ll be back in a week! Talk then!

But hook Ruthie up with a phone, or a Zoom, and we realize what we’d been putting up with.

If I could stretch or unfold some portable rectangle to 27" or 55", my ties to home would loosen substantially (I'd likely buy more of my books on Kindle and scan more of my paperwork to further cut those ties).

This tech advance is so necessary - a serious chunk of society bursts with the need, whether we recognize it or not - that it's simply got to happen, and soon.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Two Post-COVID Social Anomalies

Two post-COVID social anomalies:

1. Everyone Thinks We Can Read Their Mind

In the middle of a discussion of house prices, a friend suddenly declared "Three Monks!" and peered at me expectantly. Not playfully. No rakishly cocked eyebrow. He wasn't inviting me to solve a puzzle. This wasn't a Jeopardy moment, he expected me to parse his declaration and keep going.

Confused, I asked him to explain.
"That's the beer!"

"The beer...uh, well, I've heard of Three Monks beer. But how does that pertain to house prices?"

"Remember how last month I was trying to think of that beer I liked?"


"Well, that's the name! Three Monks!"
This happens a lot. Almost constantly. Here’s how I believe it plays out: “The random thing which just fired in my cortex must be meaningful for you, because my thought-stream is paramount. After all, that's where all of this is happening.”

Last week, someone began to update a friend of mine about someone named "Raquel". My friend asked who this Raquel person is.
"You know, Raquel! Bobby's wife!"

"Who's Bobby?"

"My neighbor!"

"I've never met Bobby or Raquel."

"How is that possible?"

"There are literally billions of people I've never met. Also, I've never even been to your house."

"But I thought you knew everyone!"
It's all happening in my mindspace. You exist in my mindspace. How can you not be intimately familiar with the flow of thoughts through my mindspace, or with the other objects existing in my mindspace?

2. Knowing Who You Are Doesn't Elevate the Relationship

Say there's a clerk you see regularly, but who treats you brusquely, like a random customer. You figure she doesn't remember you. One day, you approach, start to identify yourself, and she interrupts.

She knows who you are. You don't need to say your name.

But there's no eye contact, no human engagement. She remains every bit as brusque and impersonal as if you were a random stranger. You've gone from being a random NPC (non-player character) to being an NPC with a name.

This never happened to me before COVID. Once people knew my name, there would be some minimal level of human interaction. "Hey, Karla." "Oh, hi, Jim." No more. Now I’m expected to silently approach and accept my takeout order or prescription or paperwork, exactly like before, but without self-identifying. Like an 18th century Russian serf grimly awaiting his weekly potato.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Not Hollering at the Pharmacist

I returned from the pharmacy with two paper bags with my old-dude pills. Ripped them open. One contained, instead of my prescription, an open bottle of Ibuprofen. Whaaaat?

Being a prudent person, I carefully checked the packaging. No other bottle. And as my indignance grew, I began rehearsing my speech to the pharmacist. Why a speech? Because everything about pharmacies these days is messed up. I was already on my last nerve.

In my imagination, the pharmacist insisted she'd filled it right, and I took her to task, emphasizing the LIFE OR DEATH nature of her sacred mission and scolding her for blame-shifting when she owed me an APOLOGY.

Before driving back to the pharma to speak my lines and retrieve my pills, I figured I'd hastily double-check the discarded packaging. And there, of course, was my correct pill bottle. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what getting old is like.

Three takeaways:
1. When things get weird, check twice.

2. Raise your anger threshold every year. Otherwise you WILL be "that guy". The older you get, the less you must holler. Burn that into your brain. Old people hollering cluelessly is like Jewish stinginess or black people publicly eating watermelon. Go the other way! Do not give them the satisfaction!

3. Napoleon's great quote, "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence," has a corollary for the over-55 set: "Never ascribe to society's decline that which is adequately explained by your decline."

I still don't know how the Ibuprofen got into my hand. Must have been on the shelf next to me. The older I get, the more strangely objects behave.

See more posts about aging here, and more amusing anecdotes here, and more "funny" postings here (notice the index of "labels" - aka tags - in the left margin, below "Popular Entries").

Friday, May 6, 2022

The Antidote

I surely don't have any strident extremists reading along at this point. They hate calm, reasonable centrism even more than they hate the opposite extremists. Above all, extremists hate having their perspective shifted. They like it RIGHT WHERE IT IS.

But this morning I jumped into a Facebook group to make my usual maddeningly complacent case for calm and blessing-counting, and drew the familiar patronization (that's easy for me to say; I don't understand how terrible things are, etc etc).

I posted the following response and....nada. I actually shut everyone up, en masse.

I shut everyone up. In the midst of a contentious social media thread. In 2022. I'm here rubbing my eyes, unsure what to do with a magic ring this powerful. Anyone know a volcano I can toss it into?

It appears that I've stumbled upon the antidote:

Thursday, May 5, 2022


I am not competitive. Not the least bit.

Why would you suppose this is? Docility? Low testosterone? Complacency?

No. It's because I try my best.

To a few readers, that made sense. But let me draw the connection for those who don't immediately understand.

I do my very best, and let the chips fall. It's a simple maxim, and I like simple maxims. But here's the problem with this one - a problem I struggled with for 50 years: sometimes the chips fall and you still don't win. Sometimes the chips fall and you don't win even though you did something terrific while everyone else just dicked around.

Such scenarios are not merely "disappointing". Psychologists say that if a lab rat is randomly rewarded or punished for the same behavior, the rat will lose its hair, age prematurely, and go insane. So if you ever find yourself caught in a system where reward and punishment are doled out with bafflingly randomness, you have three options:
1. Lose your hair and go insane.

2. Armor your ego and develope a snarling self-confidence that "they" are wrong idiots and you hate them and don't care about them at all and you didn't want to go to the prom anyway.

3. Meditate, a lot, until whatever happens makes you giggle.
If #3 sounds a bit like drugs, alcohol, and other familiar escape hatches, that's only a superficial similarity. Those routes scramble you so you can't think, and blind you from seeing. With meditation, you see and think clearly, but reframe it all from a lofty enough height that it just doesn't matter.

Here's the missing chunk: don't just let the chips fall, but don't even hang around for the tally. Once you’ve done your thing, act like a movie star walking away from a burning building. Not superior, and not disenchanted. Just already on to the next thing.
I've gone extreme. I entirely eschew Skinner Boxes. I don't grab at trinkets. I don't seek wins or validation or kudos. I've been through all that, experiencing both profusion and scarcity, and am no longer opted-in to the process (see this important posting). But given that the world is nothing but Skinner boxes, what's left if you reject all that?

Doing your best. Always doing your best. That's what's left when the smoke clears and the insanity subsides. That's the solid ground.

Do you know that jaded feeling when people have too much candy or sex, or so many possessions that they need a bigger house? Human beings are famous for becoming inured. Take that recognition one step further, and you'll notice that the prizes - the finger traps and waffle parties and YOUR BIRTHDAY - are hilariously chintzy to begin with. Yet we keep striving, driven mad by the desire for the same sad, crappy prizes. We never learn!

The only thing that never gets old; never gets dull; never ceases to satisfy; is the satisfaction of a job well done (or, at least, a full effort given). The satisfaction of trying your best and letting the chips fall.

Competitive people have an aversion to trying hard, so they require motivation. They need provocation. They need some shiny shitty trinket to grab for. That's why they're competitive. Competitive people take a detour from Doing The Thing by watching themselves as they do the thing. People who simply do the thing, devotedly, have no use for trinkets or other red herrings. They don't watch themselves on a big screen in their mind’s eye. They just work. Like maniacs.

Most people are remarkably disinterested in the thing they've devoted themselves to doing. It's all just props for the pose; an excuse to compete for the crappy trinkets which are their one true love. They live their lives pining for yet more Skinner boxes, playing video games to the 16,000th tediously repetitive level in order to add the blue sapphire to their on-screen meaningless abstract trophy case.

They're expending energy and pumping emotion and imagining themselves to be trying their best, as an abstract simulation - almost a parody - of people who really do try their best. But it's all about the meaningless abstract trophy case. It’s all about the greater flaunting. All about them.  A whole other framing!

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing.

If you truly want to sing, it doesn't matter how other people sing, or how people view your singing. Just sing! Do the thing you say you want to do! Give it all you've got....without framing yourself as "The Hero Who Gives it all S/He's Got". Skip that detour. Just sing, and walk away non-chalantly. The chips may or may not flow your way, but the chips are just stupid chips.

Confession: I can be passive-competitive. Just as one can be aggressive without being aggressive, one can be competitive without being competitive. I make hay with the line, falsely attributed to Sun Tzu, that “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by." I know how to wait.

Napoleon said "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." I would add that human beings are constantly making mistakes. Again, all you need to do is wait.

We human beings are so flawed that if you just wait, your competitors (even if you're not competing, that doesn't mean phalanxes of people aren't competing with you!) will inevitably hoist themselves by their own petards.

You don't need to stop in order to wait. Keep on going, but pause your assessment. Action continues, expectation suspends. That's how I beat the golden adonis Ricky in a ping pong tournament when I was literally the worst player. As I recounted here:
When Ricky's shots, humming with topspin, sizzled toward my side of the table, I'd simply return them. Clunk. Right down the middle of the table. Nothing fancy. No english. No pace. Just a big, dumb, clunking return - volley after volley, point after point. And Ricky, sensing my strategy, began tightening up, returning my cloddish volleys with increasingly hostile smashes....some of which missed. Meanwhile, none of mine missed. Clunk. Right down the middle. Clunk. Clunk.

I won, of course. And, of course, he refused to shake my hand. Poor guy. I may, to this day, be the worst thing that ever happened to him; the sole blot on Ricky's otherwise immaculately golden life record. Here's to you, Ricky, and the botoxed pilates teacher with whom I visualize you sipping overly buttery Chardonnay in your Malibu hot tub. Remember me by my sound: "Clunk".
This was me that summer. Fearsome, no?

Blog Archive