Sunday, October 30, 2022

Fixing Reflux

I've been working on fixing reflux for 20 years (along with several other self-healing hacks I've brewed up). And I've finally gotten somewhere.

Alas, it is a very difficult move even for an experienced yogi (it's possible that I'll find a way to simplify it and make it more accessible). But if you suffer from reflux, you have lots of opportunity to practice! While you pop pills and/or prop yourself up on pillows, waiting for symptoms to subside, maybe work on the following. For a few decades! It can happen sooner if you're talented. (Me? I'm like an ant).

First, make sure your front abdomen is lithe and energized. This itself will likely be a multi-year ordeal, especially if you're older. Young people don't get reflux because their front abdomen is lithe and energized! Cause/effect is all interwoven with this stuff!

The best way is by practicing nauli (rolling abdominal muscles up and down and - more difficult - side to side). I could do nauli like a champ as a child, but when I tried in my 40s, I couldn't even begin. Because I’d lost that supple connection. I essentially had gone dead there.

Most middle-aged people end at the bottom of their rib cage, just beneath their diaphragm. We know that below this there's elimination stuff and sex stuff and walking stuff, but that machinery is akin to the underside of a trolley, not well-integrated with one's sense of corporeality...which, once again, ends, for middle-aged people, just beneath the diaphragm.
See, I told you this wouldn't be easy. I know, I know...."What the hell is he talking about???" etc etc. But (please, world, hear this plea) just because you don't understand doesn't make me crazy!
So when you can do a nice responsive nauli all the way down to the top of the pubic bone (where there's not a lot of actual muscle to contract, but that doesn't mean you can't activate what's there) then you're good to begin working on my suggested fix. That's the prerequisite. Also: a few years of meditation (I do this stripped-down, simple, efficacious practice, but I do not recommend the rest of the web site) will help develop your concentration and body awareness to the point where the following will seem less daunting.

Ok, here goes: Be a crocodile. That's it. But it's hard to be a crocodile.

If you lack deep visualization and concentration skills, you'll need to practice while lying prone on your stomach, ala crocodiles. But it can be done while in any body position. This is an entirely internal action, not external. You can do it (I have done it) while playing basketball. But that's way, way harder. I'm apparently one of the few in the world able to do so (I didn't realize this until a celebrated Taoist master explained it to me).

What is the fundamental body charateristic of a crocodile? From one end to the other, it's all a straight line. Food hovers magically in empty space which passes - like a tube - through the body. And crocodiles understand this at some deep level.

Humans don't conceive of our digestive track as a tube, largely because we have a weird and un-animal-like right angle at the throat, which is great because it lets us walk erect, but problematic because it creates a sensation of complication which makes our digestive tract seem like some remote terrain "down there".

We need to learn to disregard the complication of the throat's right angle, and visualize a straight empty tube from mouth (gaping open, and filled with scary sharp teeth - remember, you're a crocodile!) to your body's end, i.e. the soles of your feet. That way, we can integrate it. This is an integration practice.

Foot-wise, there's a certain point just above the arch and roughly in the center of the sole. You'll discovery this point experientially, because as you practice, it will sparkle a little. Watch for that. It will be reminiscent of the sparkly sensation of a body part "falling asleep", but more subtle and more pleasant.

So, again, be a crocodile, with one straight line going from scary open mouth/maw to the other end - the mid-soles of the feet, just above the arch.

Stretch this line. Unify it - make it one. It's hard, because of that stupid right angle at the throat that you need to utterly disregard. You're not a bent human being with a complicated relationship with its digestive tube. You're a crocodile with one line from beginning to end. Stretch the line, unify it, making the soles of your feet sparkle, and then locate your stomach and join it in the line. Maw (scary!), stomach (sour), and feet (sparkly), all as one single unbroken straight line.

If you can't feel your stomach, then you don't have reflux and this is all unnecessary! Just locate the unpleasant sensation, and let that sourness stream down inside your thighs, into your feet (to the sparkly place). Maintain the linearity. Keep it one thing. You're a crocodile. Mouth ajar. Scary teeth. One line. All the way. Include the stomach. Let the acid fill your feet.

I'm repeating myself incessantly because that's how you'll need to practice. It's many things to bear in mind, so you'll need to self-coach, constantly self-reminding the various elements. A straight line really should be easy and all one thought. But often simplicity requires the most conscientious effort. This is exactly why spaghetti aglio e olio is the hardest dish to master. Simplicity makes the mind wander!

If you can learn to actually do this, you can shut down a reflex attack. Don't ask me what's physiologically happening while you're doing it. Perhaps you’re somehow closing that damned flap separating esophagus and stomach. I can't really say. I'm actually a scientific-minded guy, but you can't translate yoga moves into coherent science (though lord knows yogis try). Better to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's - "Caesar" being your GP. Let doctors do the things doctors are good at. But reflux sure ain't one of those things. And necessity is the mother of invention. So welcome to my invention!

I said of crocodiles that "food just hovers magically in empty space which passes - like through a tube - through the body." But it's even more magical for us, because people are vertically-configured whereas crocodiles are horizontal. Our food essentially levitates amid this long hole/tube running through us. It's no wonder that it sometimes wants to reverse course when we lie down. That's why this whole practice is about establishing a unified downward flow.

Connect down to feet from the mouth, via the stomach. Let the sourness shower down through the thighs, pooling in the soles of the feet and making them sparkly. Reading those two sentences might, alone, bring some iota of relief. Maybe memorize them.

There's no stomach acid in your feet, of course, silly! The sparkle is vital energy (which always follows attention). This is why acolytes for millennia have grabbed their guru's feet. It's not supplication, they're getting a charge from the sparkliness. Can I explain any of that scientifically? Of course not! But I'm grateful not to suffer from agita quite as badly these days. Good luck!

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Drivers Notice Infinitesimal Wobbliness

I've had intermittent problems with vertigo (if you get dizzy when your head is in certain positions, you likely have benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and should read this for an easy - well, not easy - fix). I also spent a year mostly off my feet due to a series of crippling foot injuries.

Between these two issues, there've been stretches when I've walked out to my mailbox feeling a bit teetery. And my house is near the bottom of a big hill which speeds cars to murderous velocity. And there's no shoulder. A driver could thwack my mailbox with a short stick held out the window. Fun!

Of course, some percentage of cars fucklessly whiz right by me as I grab my mail. Most, however, give me some room. And when I'm teetery, drivers give me lots of room. They seem to know. The more teetery I am, the more they divert. All of which makes some sense.

But it carries over to a subtle extreme. If I merely feel a touch teetery, but don't actually wobble, I can still feel, via Vulcan mind lock, non-asshole drivers registering this. And their reaction proves it. Same if I feel slightly old-guy-stiff but my motions are solid. Small though it is, it has a measurable effect on drivers.

Here's where it gets weird: If I feel fit, but make a deliberate effort to seem particularly confident to avoid affecting drivers, that gets picked up as well. Even my mental process - my framing - affects drivers.

It's a very fine, very subtle dynamic, only noticeable after paying attention (I’m a guy who pays attention) to 4000 daily mail-getting experiments! There is spooky tectonic stuff going on here, ala dormitory women synchronizing periods.

I've spent 14 years on this Slog explaining all the ways we humans are dumb and are "Missing It". Well, this right here is the thing we're smart at. This is what we absolutely nail.

I meditated a lot as a kid. Like a lot a lot. And I was good at it. A savant. It changed me in fundamental ways, and at first I failed to cloak my blitheness - my orbital view of the amusing foibles of this dramatic performance we're occupied with here. I made no effort to feign eagerness for the myriad chintzy rewards and fear of the feeble punishments, which gave me a serious case of Strange Playground Kid Vibe (SPKV).

It persisted even when I stopped meditating and defiantly plunged back into giving a grippy crap about missing a highway exit or having a flight canceled or eating a lousy cupcake or not getting the job/prize/girl. I never lost the SPKV. Because they Know, and the Knowing is subtle and deeply tuned-in.

If I'm so much as thinking about any of this - retaining any smidge of self-awareness - even that mental process/framing affects external perceptions. Even that affects drivers!

Friday, October 28, 2022

Kanye's Next Move

I've never been more miserable to have been right. One month ago I wrote, re: anti-Semitism, that "my spidy sense has been peaking geometrically." Well, we've come a long way, baby...and none of it's good.

For anyone who's never read a word of history, let me tell you what happens next with Kanye, now that repercussions have finally begun to snowball and he's losing his corporate connections:
"This proves the malicious strength of the shadowy Jewish conspiracy; able to seamlessly choke and bleed the righteous for daring stand up to them with mere words!"
And here's the follow-up:
"...and such is the daunting eeeeeevil power and dark control of these inferior subhuman vermin!"
Pro tip: You know things have reached a tipping point whenever you spot this tell-tale amalgam of "feeble, weak, subhuman vermin" and "powerful, crushing, dominating cabal". They're two sides of the same anti-semitic trope, of course, but, like bagels, it's not just a Jewish thing. Whenever hatred of any sort arises, so does this odd coupling.

Was Obama an incompetent college-failing half-wit, as the Right said, or a tyrant/saboteur bending government to his dastardly radical Muslim vision, as the Right also said?

For that matter, was Trump a clownish moron, according to the Left, or the most daunting peril to the republic in its history, also according to the Left (and, admittedly, me)?

This construction is evergreen. It never doesn't appear. Whenever you notice this amalgam of subhuman/superhuman, idiot/genius taking hold in a society - with people so gripped by hatred that they can't spot their own gaping illogic - alarm bells should ring. You're approaching a bad result. It's a harbinger.

If you're flailing to justify your own buy-in to that loopy amalgam, as I am, it's time to re-frame a few things. It's perilously easy to get spun-up into an antithetical but quite symmetrical, mirror-imaged irrationality. In fact, that spin-up - into a chain reaction of reciprocol hatred - is the very problem, not a mere symptom, even if you feel certain you're on the Good Side (the other guys feel that way, too).

There is only one esacpe from this madness: stop hating and join with reasonable people - including the vast sea of somewhat reasonable people with "wrong" tribal affiliation - against extremists of both sides. I.e. pay less selective attention to the extremists on the other side, and get woke to the holistic peril of extremism, period. Also: stop wincing at "both sides". Any pain you feel from that phrase was deliberately instilled by the dangerous radicals who helped stoke this mess.

Joining at center is the only way out, whether it happens now via force of will, or later in the aftermath of tumult and trauma.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Silverless in the Hellscape

A few days ago I wrote about selling my cache of silver coins (note to web-surfing thieves - it's already gone. If you're dead set on stealing it, go rob Charles freakin' Schwab).

A couple friends emailed to ask "But, Jim, without precious metals, how would you survive the post-apocalyptic dystopia?"

Excellent question! A few thoughts:

1. I've Never Really Believed in That Strategy.
When Mad Max shows up with his gang of burly hooligans, and I offer them a shiny silver half dollar in exchange for a crust of bread or a sip of water, I'm figuring Max would be keen on the rest of my stash. I'm not convinced that burly post-apocalyptic hooligans would have any sense of restraint, or of good faith fair trade.

Even here in Utopia, folks must take precautions with their treasure caches. And it sure won't get safer in the After Times, even if I have a trusty shot gun and a plucky attitude.

2. My Role in All This
Assuming I could make things work by trading for food and water via Mercury dimes stashed in my basement, and nobody sketchy notices and assertively requests the remainder, I still have to ask myself: would I be that guy?

I can visualize several post-apocalyptic dystopia personality types. I've seen all the movies! There's the Fierce And Well-Muscled Predators, the Fraught, Filthy Children, the Shifty, Opportunistic Survivors, the Determinedly Heroic Dads And Their Terribly Worried Wives....etc.

There may or may not be a place for The Bloke Making It All Happen Via A Steady Outflow Of Pre-1965 Washington Quarters Thanks To His Foxy Ability To Establish Trading Connections With Other Wheeler/Dealers While Making Peace With Predators Who'd Be Happy With Chintzy Bribes And Never Ever Disembowel Him For Access To The Rest Of His Cache.

Even if that were A Thing, I just don't think I'm that guy. I'm more the Monk Sitting In Lotus Position Who Eventually Tips Over From Starvation. Or the Sweet-Eyed But Loopy Old Rascal Who Quietly Slips His Final Morsel Of Energy Bar To The Adorable Moppet Next Door Before Wandering Sadly Off Into The Woods To Croak. I just don't see myself as the wheeling/dealing Sergent Bilko of hellscape post-America...even if that were a viable career path.

And, anyway, I won't even be in America anymore. Because while I might not wheel and I might not deal, I do know when to get the hell out (here's my guide to developing an optional escape route without turning it into a whole drama or collapsing into willfully blind complacency).

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Corroboration Begins...

I've been reading Tom Nichols (currently at The Atlantic) for years via his Twitter feed, watching him home in closer and closer to one of my pet propositions: that the problem with this country - and other First World societies - is that it's all way too Utopian.

We're so wealthy and comfortable (even our "poor" are so rich that their most pressing problems include an overabundance of food and possessions) that we all behave like aristocrats: bored, entitled, viscerally cocksure, highly narcissistic, and loudly, stupidly angry (Mrs. Howell is often piqued over the lack of available manicure appointments, or her lazy, awful servants' inability to remember to water the very delicate hydrangeas).

The more delightful it all gets, the more delight we feel entitled to, and the more supremely irritated we are by petty irritations. As I've noted two or forty times, (most recently here), we are princesses constantly scanning for smaller and smaller mattress peas.

I've watched Nichols dance closer and closer to this recognition, and he's finally arrived:

Nichols' is the first high-profile voice to fully recognize the counterintuitive truth that we all feel aggrieved, victimized, put upon, and perennially disappointed (to the point where we're ready to burn it all down) because, well, I'll let him say it this time:
"Thirty years of prosperity and affluence and a narcissistic, leisure-oriented society have brought us (and other democracies) to the impasse where we will destroy ourselves out of boredom and emptiness."
He has, however, not yet linked this in with the Great Filter - the mysterious trap preventing alien civilizations from reaching a point where they'd be easily apparent to us (as I explained here, "Comfort and wealth, baby. That's the perilous X Factor. Comfort and wealth").

Has he been reading me? Did I do this? No, of course not. As I keep saying, the first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Stupid Stupid Stupid Stupid Stupid Stupid

I seriously might be the dumbest person on earth. I am going to describe an intellectual struggle that occupied me for well over a year. During that time, I consulted with experts, posted queries to online forums, and generally strained my creativity muscles trying to arrive at a viable answer.

I collected coins as a child, and own a large amount of "junk" silver. Quarters and dimes from before 1965, today worth a few thousand bucks.

Silver's value climbed a lot during Covid, and I was poised to sell but waited too long and it came back down.
One problem with being an uber-patient, buy-and-hold, wait-it-out guy is it's super easy to miss the boat. For instance, when my $3 shares of SIGA went from $7 to $26 (it cures monkey pox), I kept my chips on the table and now they're back to $8 (monkey pox fizzled). Oopsie!
So now I'll be moving abroad for a while, and shipping my stuff via container ship. I don't want to include my tons of silver coins, because that would be risky and dodgy and smugglery. But, of course, I can't sell right now because silver's so low!

Here is an accounting of my struggle to scheme this all out. It's been a major stressor of this entire undertaking:

Put them into a bank safe deposit box and sell them on a future visit back.
Nope. Due to bank greed and poor regulation, safe deposit boxes aren't safe.

Store them in a friend's basement
The sort of person you'd trust to store your valuable coins is the sort of person who'd avoid the risk of storing your valuable coins, even if you figure out a clever way to make it worth his while.

Store them in a friend's basement without telling him
Who do I look like, Walter White??

Integrate! Swap the zillions of dimes and quarters for a few krugerrands or whatever.
Hmm. Getting better. Bringing a few krugerrands overseas would still feel smugglery, but they'd be super easy to hide in, like, my underwear.

Trade it all for silver certificates or futures or some other abstract vehicle
Now we're getting somewhere! I'd still be locking in the value, and enjoy the eventual price rise, without the risk of transporting any material thing. But how would I make this trade? The transaction costs might be high!

Sell the silver for cash, and THEN buy a silver certificate or future with the receipts
Huh. Interesting. But, wait, wouldn't that be the same thing as.....

Sell the silver and make an (immaterial) investment in silver if you're so sure the price will go up. You know, like an investment. Like any/every investment anyone's ever made anywhere. Like Economics 101. Like don't be an asshole!
I can’t believe I’ve spent months worrying about this. The question is not "what do I do with the silver?" The question is "how do I profit from a future rise of silver value?" And the answer is, by investing in fricking silver, genius. Unload the stupid coins ASAP and then make an investment in silver if you're so certain and/or patient!

Which, come to think of it, I'm not sure I even am! Which means I'm double-extra-stupid!

Friday, October 21, 2022

Dinner Party

Tucker Carlson and Rupert Murdoch are enjoying a high-spirited dinner party, slugging down pricy Burgundy from sparkling goblets.

Carlson, flushed and jolly, turns his head to a smirking Rupert and declares “$50K says I can make them idolize Benedict Arnold.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Docs at Long Last Tamed

Among my myriad sloppy life queues (books unread, recordings unheard, to-do items undone, etc) are a slew of miscellaneous bytes of e-reading material collected over decades.

The oldest are text files and word files. Then there was the flood of saved web pages and various DOC attachment types. Then a blizzard of epub and mobi files which were imported into Kindle or Apple Books ("The Great Forking" which launched my persistent sense of fragmentation).

At one point, I even resorted to publish-on-demand, funneling it all into a word doc and printing a one-off 900 page bound softcover book titled "Catch-Up Reading". So hopeful! So young! But the formating was too wretched to read, and I never even cracked it open.

Then arrived iPad, filling me with unification dreams. But the document-reading apps, aiming to handle all formats, were kludgey, annoying, hard to synch, and generally maddening.

But it's gotten better!

At this point, the old gutbucket e-reader apps seem quaint and moldy. The action has coalesced around the victor format PDF, which seems likely to dominate for years (and remain backward-compatible long thereafter). Also, it's super easy to convert practically anything into PDF as a top-level feature on any platform.

And there are excellent PDF readers for mobile, benefitting from specializing in the single format. I use Readdle's much-loved PDF Expert.
Problem: it overlaps confusingly with Readdle's "Documents" app. If you have both on your device, it's like trying to catch a basketball passed back and forth by two 7 foot tall Harlem Globetrotters. You can't tell which app will open your document, or which you're even in.

Advice: tolerate the confusion and try both. They're a bit different, so choose your favorite (PDF Expert helps you annotate better, Documents has more presentation options) and nuke the other to eliminate confusing confusion.
Both apps offer a panoply of flexible options without interfering with the nice, clean presentation. It's finally a mature field.

So here's what I did:

I opened my txt and doc files and "printed" them into pdf (you can automate this process via scripting or shortcuts), and lobbed the PDF exports into a gutbucket folder.

Same for saved web pages: I opened in-browser, "printed" to pdf, and tossed in the gutbucket (also automatable if you'd like). Epub and mobi files and other kooky archaic ebooks formats go into Calibre, a freeware converter, which interprets them into PDF. The conversion can be done in batches (i.e. convert many ebooks at once). Note, I dimly suspect Calibre could have converted all those txt/doc/html files, too, but I'm not claiming to offer the perfect workflow, just explaining how I did it.

As I went, I trimmed away blank or useless front and back matter (while "printing" to PDF, select a custom page range, leaving off crap pages at either end, e.g. you might "print" only pages 2-54 of a 57 page document). If I failed to clean up every last one, I could go through later, re-"printing" (using that same custom page range trick) to a new, sleeker PDF. Garbage reduction is essential for making device-reading feel less sacrificial. Steve Jobs was right; sleekness helps you feel/work/think sleeker. Be kind to your future self!

I gave each PDF a thoughtful title, and organized them into sub-folders ("Fiction", "Sci-Fi", "Short Stories", "Politics", "Funny", "Nerdy", etc), and then shot the whole crop up into The Cloud. Then I set my mobile reader app to draw from the highest-level folder, and....that's really that. From there, you're pretty much good to go. PDF Expert and Documents quickly index your stuff, and it looks great (if your titling was smart, and you diligently removed garbage pages).

Within the reader apps, you can do further organization - adding tags, amending file descriptions, and otherwise screwing around with the docs, all without touching the actual pdf files. This is both awesome and horrendous. Awesome, because there's no "lock-in"; you can still use those same docs with any other reader app that ever shows up; all the changes were internal to the app. Horrendous, because if you do switch apps, you'll lose that metadata. This is one reason to be super thoughtful about titling the PDFs, and to smartly arrange them in sub-folders. Give yourself a fighting chance!

I have, alas, not yet reached The Singularity. Whole books bought as Kindle books still live in Kindle (the device as well as the app). And I still keep a long queue of web bookmarks in Pinboard, and some of those are flagged for online reading via Paperback. This is my remaining doc fragmentation, and I'm not sure whether to process that writing into PDFs, or to turn all my PDFs into Paperback links. I need to find a fourteen-year-old to consult with; can anyone rent me their kid for an hour?

Minor remaining fragmentation aside ("split in two" is better than "shattered into a zillion pieces"), I no longer need to dig into the Science/Astronomy/To-Read folder of my Mac to find astro stuff I've been meaning to read. Everything's on my iPad. It feels good. I feel sleek!

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Prosperity Ratchet

A luxury soon becomes a necessity.
Example number twelve zillion: I just drove five minutes to the Guatemalan deli for soup. Halfway there, I realized I'd gone out without my preciousssssssss. No iPhone. Well, no biggie. It's just soup! Back in a minute!

The deli was playing the coolest Mexican banda I'd ever heard (I'm a superfan of the genre). And the Guatemalans - who know nothing about Mexico, and for whom the source of the omnipresent music is as mysterious as water or electricity - couldn't help me.

My hand kept reaching into my empty pocket, but the band would remain forever unknown to me. This shocks me, as a modern human entitled to know stuff. I couldn't even jot down a to-do note to try to figure it out!

And there you have it. The central (and almost entirely unrecognized) dilemma of our era. A luxury soon becomes a necessity.

Here we all are, ensconced in unimaginable safety, comfort and freedom, enjoying such vast discretionary wealth that among our gravest problems - even among our "poor" - are the overabundance of food and of personal possessions. Yet we sulk and complain far more than our forebears.

Those ancestors worked and sacrificed to elevate us to this position of heady delight, but the joke's on them: we fuckin hate it. Because the more delightful it gets, the more delight we feel entitled to, and the more irritated we are by petty irritations. We are princesses constantly scanning for smaller and smaller mattress peas.

After 300,000 years, home sapiens has hacked the reward/punishment system, but, as the driving force for all biological life, that process never stops. We wearily accept the heady rewards, which have come to feel like entitlement ("a luxury soon becomes a necessity"), but, in the absence of any real punishment, we fabricate it.

We fabricate grievance and victimhood, even while we wryly recognize “rich people problems,” hahaha. We pour ourselves into sad songs and stories, violent films and video games, and endless rumination over the failure of a given perfect moment to be perfect in every parameter we can dream up.

A friend recently threw a perfect party for the perfect marriage of her perfect daughter, but all she could do was tearfully weep over HOW AWFUL IT WAS THAT HER FATHER COULDN'T SEE IT. I pointed out that this same line could be used to ruin absolutely any delightful moment (remember how we all ballast our happiness?). "I love the cherry pie...but HOW AWFUL THAT MY FATHER CAN'T TASTE IT!"

My observation did nothing to lighten her load; her entitled grievance; her weighty self-encumbrance. Yes, she nodded solemnly, it's true. This imperfection - this unimaginably tragic rupture in her unsullied perfection - has ruined positively everything.

All-purpose self-punishment for the gal who has it all!

If you think I'm A MONSTER because GRIEVING IS HARD and the flamboyantly aggrieved deserve special treatment and solicitous soothing, read this and then read this.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Reward and Punishment

Reward and punishment propel all biological behavior, including human. While deeply locked into that binary system, humans harbor a speck of awareness that they're being manipulated. It stresses us and makes us neurotic. Something seems off!

A lab mouse feels victorious pushing the red button to be fed a treat while diligently avoiding the punishing blue button. No stress there! He’s a real winner! And he'll keep pressing that button over and over until the end of his days. But humans are (just barely) intelligent enough to foggily recognize the game.

Here's the edge of recognition of that dawning truth; the dangling thread to be pulled:

The reward is always chintzy (which explains why humans are "never satisfied") and the punishment is always oversold (which is why the worrying is always worse than the actuality).

It's a pretty crappy game. The cynic's bitter assessment of a shitty world is not senseless. But if you forswear enchantment with the laboratory apparatus - the cheap lures and petty repellants - and simply embrace it all as-is (a unity rather than a binary), that shift of perspective reveals a world that's extraordinarily non-crappy.

To clarify, the crappiness doesn't, like, vanish. It's revealed as part of a greater beauty. Everything in its place! All hues contributing to a full, rich, enticing color spectrum! Exasperation fades and is replaced by fascination with the soulfully intriguing wrinkles within an infinitely captivating tapestry.

We claim to desire a world that's nothing but the "positive" stuff, but such a world would swiftly drive us mad. In fact, that's precisely what's happening right now. As I once wrote,
After millennia spent desperately seeking cheat codes for this world, figuring the whole while that things would be so much better if only we could purge the illness and lions and warlords, the famines, droughts, and extreme poverty, we've done it! This richest of rich-world countries has expunged the vast majority of its nemeses! Yet look around you. Most of us spend most of our time building needless drama, stress, and sorrow for ourselves. We are far more depressed than any human beings anywhere, ever. We build internal towers of brooding discontent, and spend vast tracts of time lost in tumultuous TV shows and video games and sad songs and memories of pain and worries of loss, desperately seeking out whatever snatches of drama we can find to identify with.

Further reading:

A Tale of Two Chickens
Exiting the Skinner Box
Why God Lets Bad Things Happen
Paradise Lost
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
The Evolution of a Perspective

Friday, October 14, 2022

Exiting the Skinner Box

Longtime readers know I own a slew of shares of SIGA. Their drug is the only viable cure for smallpox and other pox viruses such as monkeypox. Amid the monkeypox outbreak a few months ago, SIGA went from $7 to $26. Some short-term benchmarks lay ahead, so I held on, but monkeypox fizzled (yay, world!), and it's back to $9. Whoops!

For a few weeks, I was, on paper, a whole other person. And I felt it! I didn't walk around with a big sack of footballs, spiking them periodically while screaming a deep, throaty "YESSSSS!" Nothing so crazy. But I did project a certain confidence. My mood was markedly different.

At the same time, I lost 20 pounds, and projected a certain confidence as a Thin Person. The weight loss had happened rather suddenly, and I was still more or less fitting the same-sized clothes. But the scale doesn't lie! My mood was markedly different.

The scale, however, lied. Long story, but I didn't actually lose that weight. Just the 8 pounds previously lost (before re-gaining a couple in Pennsylvania Dutch Country). So, yeah, I'm pudgy again. Though nothing really changed, either way.

Nothing really changed. Not in either story. Nothing real improved or declined. Some abstract numbers reconfigured - a couple of meters reported differently - that's all, yet this entirely transformed my mood and confidence. Which means I still haven't fully learned!

I haven't fully absorbed the Holiday Blues story lesson, that what's happening right here and now (if I "come back to my senses" rather than indulging mental abstraction and story-telling) is the only reality...and right here and now is always pretty delightful (unless you think about it). For example, a bubble of life-giving oxygen somehow follows me everywhere, to the point where I actually take it for granted, even though I'm dangerously vulnerable to the briefest pause in supply.

I haven't fully lost my attraction to Skinner Boxes. Those are the familiar lab devices that train mice - via reward - to press one button and - via punishmnent - to not press the other (the same process which, if you pay attention, propels virtually all human behavior). This despite my having declared independence from their feeble machinations. I wrote earlier this year that...
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.
Hey, there's realizing and there's realizing. There's rejecting and there's rejecting. But now that I've framed framing, I undestand better. Realizing and rejecting are framings, and framings are dynamic. We constantly reframe, and that's a feature, not a bug, because a frozen perspective is hell.

If you shift to a perspective of full cognizance - the "full framing", completely dilated without resistence or constriction - and somehow made yourself freeze there, you'd be prey to all the maladies of frozen perspective - depression chief among them - even though everything seems incomparably lovely and problems strike you as soulful and intriguing wrinkles in an infinitely captivating tapestry.

At some point captivation recaptivates. Hmm, what an interesting tapestry! And back into the drama we dive, resuming the continuity of our inner storytelling and placing our chips on the table to savor the delicious stress of stakedness as we chase the nominally good outcome and evade the nominally bad one. A few dollars gained (on paper) or a few pounds lost (on a malfunctioning scale's readout) feel like WINNING, despite the hilariously disconnected flimsiness of it all. As I wrote here,
If you pay close attention, you'll notice the reward is always chintzy (which explains - I've buried the lede - why humans are "never satisfied") and the punishment is always oversold (which is why the worrying is always worse than the actuality).
The chicken, trained to endlessly hit the red button which rewards with a corn pellet (and not the red one which punishes via mild shock), thinks it's just killin' it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Picture Tube Problems

I'm re-watching the last few episodes of Avenue 5 ahead of tonight's second season debut, and it's only reinforcing my creepy first impression.

This is a sci-fi spoof by the great Armando Iannucci, who created Veep and In the Loop and The Thick of It, classics all. It's dense with high quality humor product. Clusters of multi-spectrum jokes - fresh topical jokes and slightly cornier old-school jokes and snarky millennial jokes get the idea. And it's got great actors like Hugh Laurie and Zach Woods (also, alas, irritating Josh Gad, which might be part of the problem).

So why "creepy" and "problem"? I can't quite tell you. The show just doesn't click at a fundamental level. The best diagnosis I can offer is that it takes a 1970s sitcom view of its erstwhile reality - you expect Dean Martin to show up as a boozy guest on the show's spacefaring cruiseship, making winking in-jokes about how "wild" all the science is - and layers it with anachronistically modernist humor. Modernism maybe demands real characters in real situations (ala Veep), not just joke-expelling mouthpieces in front of jokey backdrops. But that's a murky assessment. It doesn't explain how the show got so skewed.

There's some tectonic factor at work just beyond the viewer's, uh, view. A network suit made a giant clumsy demand which the show strains to work around. Or Iannucci is unhappily pandering, or otherwise forcing a result that doesn't jibe with his talents. Or scripts have been re-doctored to the point where there's no meat left, just clever decoration. Some Foundational Problem we can't reverse engineer from this side of the screen.

Unseen tectonic fuckery (UTF) crops up from time to time in any realm. And I have a name for it: a "Picture Tube Problem".

In the early 1970s, when my family got its first color TV, something was unsettlingly wrong with the picture, but we couldn't quite pin it down. Certain colors were over-emphasized, others under-emphasized. It was just nebulously off in some serious way. The repairman came, and explained that the TV produces its spectrum of colors from three basic hues: red, blue, and green. And we'd lost blue. That's all.

The cause was simple, even though the problem seemed vexingly murky/slippery. A clear-cut problem if you knew....or an unsettling miasma of wrongness if you didn't.

A "Picture Tube Problem"!

Monday, October 10, 2022

Taxonomy of Nightmares

Facebook friend asks:
I had a horrible dream where no matter what, I could not remember anything. Where I parked my car, what kind of car I had, etc. I was in the parking garage all stressed out. It was horrible!
My reply:

These are the three most common stress nightmares:

1. Oppressive obstruction or impedance (most common: “I need to run but my legs won’t move”).

2. Forgot a step (anything from needing to return to high school for one last test to going outside naked to realizing you're unprepared for something important).

3. Find yourself somewhere high and can’t get back down.

There’s another sort, not caused by stress, which (unlike the above) we normally forget upon waking: “This world makes no sense.”

This happens when you lose some of the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept dream illogic. It's a dark version of lucid dreaming, where you realize you’re dreaming and have fun with it, flying around, etc. You've applied some critical dispassion to recognize that the realm you're in - nonlinear and unreal - makes little sense, but you're too foggy to frame it as "dreaming", so you get stuck stressfully struggling to force it to make sense (spoiler: our waking world offers the same conundrum...which benefits from the same solution: critical dispassion and blithe embrace, while framing it for what it actually is: a story you're telling yourself).

What you describe sounds like a combination of “forgot a step” and anxious partial lucid dreaming, per above.

Suggestion: practice lucid dreaming techniques (google is your friend) to bridge the impasse if it repeats. And practice meditation to relieve anxiety as well as to boost your lucid dreaming effort (this is the simple, stripped-down, non-dogmatic, non-religious, non-joiny and extremely efficacious meditation practice I do, but I strongly suggest skipping the rest of the web site).

Another asks:
I've had this one for years: Trying to get ready to be someplace and obstacle after obstacle keeps popping up - can't find the other shoe, stuck in traffic, walking through thick mud that slows my pace . . . .
Obstruction and impedance. The first on my list, above

Further reading: Counterintuitive note on dreaming in "All A Game"

Nightmare note in "Inoculation (or: I’ve Figured Out Cats!)"

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Matching Social Ante

Imagine someone aloof, selfish, petty, and peevish, who always carefully observes the social graces. "Good morning" and "Excuse me". And not just "Thank you", but “Thank you very much.” Woah.
He’d never just blurt a text message. There’s always a formal greeting. “Good morning! I sincerely hope you’re well! If I may, regarding the hedge clippers....”

In his mind, he's paid his social ante. No asshole he! He does the things! The goodness things! He's ticked the boxes, so what more could we ask of him?

Christians are saved by declaring belief in Jesus. Others are saved by courteous statements of greeting. Incantations are not a relic of the past! We still have magic words!

Of course, none of us benefit much from such courtesies. In fact, it's cumbersome to wait out the performative box-ticking by people absolving their general dickishness via empty formality. But, of course, none of it is for us. It’s all just preening into mirrors (we don’t recognize this because we’re way too narcissistic to grasp how narcissistic everyone is).

But here's the interesting part. We are compelled to mirror that box-ticking! If you were to informally blurt via text message to a formal text messager, that would place you beyond the pale (it's perfectly logical, given that text message formality is the thing keeping that person within the pale!)

Deft sociality compels us to 1. determine a person's social ante and 2. diligently match it, per normal gaming ante convention.

If Martin Shkreli makes careful eye contact while hand-shaking, you'd best consistently do likewise, or he'll think you a monster. And Vladimir Putin, who annexes peaceful neighbors and once brought an immense dog into a negotiation with canine-phobic Angela Merkel, prides himself on flawless conversational politeness. A class act! If you don't match it, that would make you an absolute barbarian even if you boast a near-perfect record of not slaughtering innocent civilians and stuffing their bodies into mass graves or impoverishing your own nation by stealing more wealth than you could ever imaginably hope to use.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Great 20 Minute Catch-Up on Putin's Nuclear Threat

Bring yourself solidly up to date on current analysis of Putin's nuclear threats via recent thoughts from two of the experts most qualified to under 20 minutes.

Tom Nichols has long been a top authority on nuclear strategy, specifically with regard to Russia. Read his thoughts, intelligent and insightful as ever, in this short essay for The Atlantic (written yesterday). He's worried but not super-worried.

Alexander Vindman lacks Nichols' decades of speciality in nuclear issues, but knows more about Putin and the Ukraine conflict. He deems nuclear deployment even less likely. Listen to this podcast interview, recorded Thursday, here (the nuclear topic starts 17 minutes and 50 seconds in).

Listening to both is edifying. Lots of stuff you likely had never considered. They're also soothing, as neither seems particularly alarmed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Inoculation (or: I’ve Figured Out Cats!)

Our taste buds are designed to benevolently guide us to palatable food, and away from foods that harm us.

Yes, they do entice us toward sugar and fat. But that's because calories - jesus, any calories at all! - were helpful once, back when we were starving cavemen in grasslands. Less so now while sedentary in offices, but they haven't caught up. Our taste biology is due for an upgrade rendering potato chips unpalatable (I just legit micro-panicked).

Bitterness, for example, signals foods toxic to humans. So why do we enjoy bitter stuff like IPA, dark chocolate, and gin-and-tonics?

It's because a harmless dose of The Bad Thing soothes. It provides psychological inoculation against deep-seated fears, such as death from poisoning. We enjoy nothing more than a deliciously safe taste of death. In fact, the French use the term La Petite Mort ("the little death") in reference to orgasm. Heart-stopping ecstasy is a terrific thing. Hearts actually stopping, not so much. It’s, once again, the magic of low density.

Adventure activities such as rock climbing, snowboarding, or moderating online forums inoculate us, psychologically, against mortality. They're most often explained in terms of ego and victory, though. One "triumphs in tempting death!" But while that's a nice clear image, I don't think it's the best explanation. The truth is more subtle. Again: we inoculate against mortality.
This explains why so many mountain climbers are counter-phobics, having started out with profound fear of heights. I love the concept of counter-phobia. You can fight an engrained phobia so far that you go all the way the other way. It's an easy mistake to make, as it's incredibly hard to detect an arrival point - a reasonable midpoint - while fighting tenaciously into a fierce headwind. So counter-acrophobics support their runwaway process via frequent inoculation. More mountains! More sheer cliffs! More granite!
Saunas and steam baths inoculate against oppressive heat

Comedy inoculates against catastrophe.

Intense competitive sports (as participant or spectator) inoculate against warfare.

Teddy bears are a cute, soft, soothing taste of the scariest possible danger. It's no wonder we have kids sleep with them (me, I sleep next to a crocodile, and, in nightmares, crocodiles never attack me, they rescue me). A harmless dose of The Bad Thing is remarkably soothing.

This brings us to cats. Do I even need to say it? Just look at them! They're a stunted, somewhat-not-really harmless representation of evil. Like teddy bears, they're cute and soft and fluffy. But grownups require more bracing inoculation. A higher tiny dose.

Cats are homeopathic treatment for full-out evil. A hair of the dog that bit you. They inoculate us from the very thing they represent.

We keep cats like primitives keep the shrunken heads of their enemies.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

There's Nothing Staler Than Yesterday's Future

There's nothing more corny than a previous era's mind-blowing modernism.

A can of Campbell's soup on a fine art canvas in a fancy gallery is now the opposite of provocative. It's far more corny than a still life or nighttime cityscape - forms that have drearily existed for centuries.

Same for a sax player honking atonally, freed from the chains of tempo and harmony. After four notes, everyone consciously or unconsciously says "Ok, that." A shtick. Again, the opposite of mind-blowing. The very epitome of corniness.

Conservative painters who keep doing figurative work, respecting traditional confines of frame and the whole brush/paint/canvas rigmarole, might present subtle originality which might be parsable generations hence. But while the modernist gambit of smashing form seems rawly provocative in the moment, it never holds up. The last thing modernists want is to ever seem stale, but that's the inevitable fate of form-smashing gestures. After the fourth or fifth iteration, it becomes "Ok, that." A shtick.

There's nothing staler than yesterday's avant-garde.

I hope I haven't made that seem too reasonable, because it's actually a pretty fresh and counterintuitive observation. Though it may not seem so in the future, if this view ever becomes more widely accepted. If so, it will seem dully obvious. Radical freshness of any sort - not just avant garde art - always carries an expiration date.

There's nothing more passé than yesterday's future. Flintstones reruns still leave 'em laughing while The Jetsons now seem archaic (even though we still don't have flying cars). And nothing screams "The Old Days" more than boldly futuristic automotive tail fins, much as I love them.

I've mentioned this before, but in the mid 1990s I commandeered a forum on the pre-web dial-in service Compuserve, and made it "Jim Leff Forum" (after a brief warm-up, months earlier, concocting a "Garlic Forum"). At the time, a personal online presence was like a slot on cable TV. There were no personal home pages. Compuserve wasn't about elevating Sally-Robinson-who-you-went-to-high-school-with. Compuserve was about elevating Hewlett Packard and USA Today and Roger Ebert. It was a shiny, big-money thing.

I acquired the keys to an abandoned forum, turned the lights back on, and tricked it out to make it discordantly personal - the zone of one guy and his pals - and it felt heady and startling enough that people absolutely freaked out (the prank was recounted in a book a few years later).

I can't explain it to anyone today, however. It sounds like the most nothing of nothings. The internet IS Sally-Robinson-who-you-went-to-high-school-with! So while milder, more incremental schemes of mine have stood up over time, my most creative exploit has zero impact in retrospect. It's laughably banal. There's nothing more passé than yesterday's future!

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Relative Mass

195 lbs:
"How do you stay so thin as a food writer?!?"

205 lbs:
"How do you stay so thin as a food writer?"

215 lbs:
"You're pretty thin for a food writer!"

"How do you manage your weight as a food writer?"

225 lbs:
"I was expecting you to be really fat!"

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