Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Exploring Mystery

I was listening to a trombone recording with a musician friend. It ended with an impressively high note, and we argued about which note, exactly, it was.
It was the recording below. The note, FYI, was a high F# - not one you hear much on trombone, and revealing that it's likely they cheated, recording a bit slower to make the technically impossible passages merely technically difficult.

Neither of us has "perfect pitch" - the ability to instantly identify a given note. So we tried to approach it intellectually, eliminating possibilities that would be much higher or lower than the one we'd just heard. It was likely between a high F and a high A.

There was no piano nearby, so I went into the next room to grab my trombone to fish around for the note. But no fishing was necessary. The moment I picked up my horn, I knew. The mere act of holding a trombone revealed the note. I reported this to my friend, who wasn't the least bit surprised. This was a normal sort of musicianly ju-ju.

Here's my explanation: it's not that picking up the horn revealed truth via trippy telepathic channels. I knew all along, unconsciously, but had suppressed the knowledge. Handling the trombone released the inhibition. It's more credible to see this as a simple case of disinhibition than a wondrous case of revelation. Occam's Razor says to go with the former.

Most mysteeeeeerious stuff - maybe all of it - can be explained with this sort of framing flip. I always flip my perspective to examine the vice versa (there are myriad examples within this Slog...it's one of the thick-headed magic tricks allowing me to project a false impression of intelligence). Go to the converse. The other side of the flapjack. The negative space. Very often, there's useful stuff there (though seldom what you're expecting). Everything might be this or that, but, having grown accustomed to focusing on "that", we often completely miss "this".

My friend Elliot changed my life a little when he taught me that an overly tannic wine might either be overly tannic or else underly everything else. If there's little fruit or acid, normal tannins stick out and seem excessive. That's it. So simple!

I had experimented a bit with this framing trick as a kid. In fact, it was one of the "postcards" I sent forward to my adult self, and I wrote about it here.

That said, there's still one weird area of mystery - unexplainable by science and hidden in plain sight - that I've never been able to explain. I'll write about it later this week.

How did I "inhibit" myself from identifying the note? And how had touching a trombone removed that inhibitian? It was most likely a combination of two things:

1. My acceptance of my limitation of not having perfect pitch ("acceptance of limitation" sounds like a passive thing, but it can change outcomes, as has been pointed out for time immemorial), and...

2. Micro-cues from the physical handling of an object that's spent >20,000 hours in my hands lightly pushed me off the knowing/not-knowing border, or (more likely) physicalized a mental quandary, allowing access to more useful and concrete pathways of knowledge. Sitting at a table thinking about something is a very different thing than picking up a tool and even just starting to take physical action. You're almost another person.

But I knew from the start. I just didn't know that I knew. I didn't receive new information from touching the horn, I just more confidently accessed preexisting information. 

Physicality is a whole other realm. I'm too lazy to dig up the link, but a study once showed that you will be much more trusting of a stranger's words if your hand is warmed while he speaks, by, say, a coffee cup. Those Persian rug dealers knew what they were doing!

Monday, March 27, 2023


Regarding the Mark Twain quotation (“Comparison is the death of joy") one posting back, a few thoughts. I won't delve deeply, but you can follow links for more.

The dumbest interpretation of this quote is, naturally, the one most frequently offered:
Don't compare yourself to others. Gauge your life in-situ and without reference. If you dig your Playstation, don't torment yourself with the thought that your neighbor has a better one.
Sooooo true! What an insight! Just wow!

But Twain wasn't talking about a specific sort of comparison. If so, he'd have used a term like "status". Sam knew how to write, and if he declined to modify "comparison", it's because he was discussing comparison generally.

Zen talks about Shoshin (aka “beginner’s mind”). This is when you allow yourself to perceive the world freshly and guilelessly, without weaving momentary experience into some overarching mental model. You can always choose to experience naively. Like a beginner.

Walking into an unfamiliar room, you scarcely notice the chairs, because you've already categorized them. Melted into an abstract class, the chairs lose their unique actuality. There's no need to waste time noticing them. You know what chairs are! Once you've deemed something "ONE OF THOSE", any notion of its essential uniqueness is discarded (we do this with people, too).

Say you hear me play a bluesy lick on my trombone. You might immediately associate it with all the other bluesy licks you've ever heard. "Oh, Jim's kinda bluesy!" The actuality of what I'm playing is lost amid the cross-referencing, comparison, and labeling. You don't need to pay attention. You know what bluesy licks are!

Categorization usurps reality. There is no prospect of being delighted by my unique rendition because, having compared it to previous experience, you’ve bailed out of the immediacy. No matter what, it will not move you.

Name it and it essentially disappears. Just like Rumpelstiltskin.

It's possible to startle people into taking notice of a thing as a unique thing, rather than as a member of a class of things. You can disrupt their mental processes - their assumption, expectation, judgement, comparison, etc - coaxing them to perceive freshly for a brief moment. But at this point, artists of all disciplines have tread so far down the gangplank of surprise-conjuring that it feels like there's nothing left to do to jar people into paying real attention. To allow themselves be entranced.

There's nothing wrong with assumption, expectation, judgement, or comparison. Humanity has accomplished great things with our flair for taxonomy. But that shouldn't be all we do. There are times to compare, and there are times to appreciate. When I offer a bluesy lick straight from my heart and you can't really receive it because you're all up in your head comparing it to previous, superficially similar-seeming bluesy bits, that's a shame. You've killed the joy of it. You're not really listening, you're inhabiting an abstract mental model. You know too much to really get it.

"Beginner's Mind" covers all that, but it's most often used to help meditators get past a common obstruction. You may feel certain, sitting placidly on your meditation cushion, that you're building to some sort of climax. Enlightenment, or whatever, is right around the corner! You're experiencing some very auspicious and high-powered shit, the sort of thing you've read about in spiritual writings. It matches your assumption of how "it" will happen. And it's about to really happen!

No. It's merely projection and association. Just more wordy/thoughty mental foibles. Meditation is letting go, and you can't let go while hanging on to the tantalizing breakthrough around the corner. The obstruction, hilariously, turns out to have been your expectation of imminent unobstruction; your impulse to compare your experience to a mental model rather than to experience freshly.

If you're meditating toward a shattering revelation, you will subconsciously keep comparing your experience to notions you've harbored of What It Will Be Like. So you're just tediously chasing your own tail. Ugh, what hell!

That, alas, is what many meditators are doing, even the fearsome-looking ones locked away in Himalayan caves. They're "getting good" at this meditation thing - an aspiration that's like the kiss of death.

Zen urges simply letting go of all that (you can use the same "delegation" technique I recommended for insomnia, though it's best if you can refine the move as more of a reframing and less of a mental narrative), and experiencing freshly, come what may. Like a baby. Like a beginner. Stop looking for a target to shoot at. Drop your bow and arrow and let the universe have its way.

Remember the fruit of the tree of knowledge in Genesis? The peril isn't knowledge, per se. There are no bonus points for clinging to ignorance. But if you get so tied up in what you know - processing everything through your mental glut of canned expectations and assumptions - you can forget you ever had the ability to experience freshly. And you will lose the zest of life.

Comparison is the death of joy.

I noted here that "if trees had never existed and sprung up overnight, people would be driven insane by the beauty." So why do we take them for granted? Because they're "just trees"! We know what trees are, so rather than see each tree as a uniquely gorgeous assemblage of matter, they dissolve into an abstracted cognitive background. We make them disappear.

Thinking You Know leaves you unappreciative. Joyless.

Joy requires the ability to key in on a beginner's earnestness; to clean one's slate. Stop reflexively comparing, and just take it all in. Unmediated reception of the love and beauty of It All is Heaven - a momentary choice of perspective, not a post-death locale.

Let's come at this from a different angle. Consider my posting on The Visualization Fallacy (which took a sharp detour midway through, spinning up into a whole cosmology outlined over a series of difficult postings). Skipping the detour for now, consider the initial upshot: "When abstract concepts (or concrete concepts with no observable examples) become visualized, we easily become tied to that visualization." Examples will help:
Aliens travel in saucer-shaped ships, right? If you ever spot a saucer flying around at night in the desert, you'd certainly know how to explain it. That's an alien! We "know" this from movies and TV. Some random visualization caught on, creating a false consensus that's utterly non-meaningful.

Alien visitors may or may not be real, but the flying saucer trope almost certainly isn't. We couldn't begin to imagine alien tech, yet most people feel they could identify an alien spaceship because they've been conditioned by some random visualization...

If you walk around an old, dark house at night and encounter a hovering gauzy white presence, your brain will likely tell you - based on movies and TV - that this may be a ghost. Yet, for all you or I know, disembodied spirits look like manicotti, and are delicious, and we've been eating them for years.
It’s possible to clean that slate… at least somewhat. It helps to be a bit more suspicious of the abstract modeling. At bare minimum, learn to recognize that you do it!

It serves a purpose, of course. Faculties such as expectation, cross-referencing, taxonomy, and intellectualization are adaptive, in terms of evolution. They help us cope with a confusing world. You know what's not adaptive? Freshly perceiving each and every fern in the jungle as a unique and gorgeous manifestation, distracting you from the blood-thirsty tiger popping out of the underbrush.

If we inspected each chair with immersive fascination, we'd never get our taxes done. Our senses helpfully deprecate the familiar to starkly emphasize the thing that doesn't belong - which may present danger or opportunity. So it's not "bad" to perceive through a filter of assumptions and shortcuts. I'm just proposing that babies get lost with that bathwater. There are other ways of experiencing.

Add "beginner's mind" to your short list of framing options. It's not a "better" way, but it's a nice magic trick to keep up your sleeve. If you can pause knee-jerk mental comparison, letting yourself experience freshly, you'll find yourself inhabiting a whole other world.

Seeking order amid chaos, we compare to try to understand. It's a fabulous process, but isn't the only process there is. If that's how you habitually place your attention, you'll miss out on feeling galvanized and inspired. Exactly how much pleasure did you derive from the last tree you walked by (not the last one you consciously noticed)?

Comparison peers backward at previous experience. But you can't look back mentally while fully experiencing the present. And all joy is in present experience.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Two Fathoms

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

Mark Twain

Monday, March 13, 2023

Recomendo and Procrastination

Kevin Kelly is a super-interesting guy, and I've been enjoying his Recomendo Substack thingee (I'm preoccupied with Substack right now - I mentioned it yesterday, too - because I'm thinking of establishing a presence there to document my Portugal chowhounding adventures).

Every week, Recommendo sends you an email with just a few super-choice finds which most people would deem interesting/useful. Only the cream!

This week, Recommendo, uh, recommendos a thingee called "The Right Now List". While you could click the link for more info, the value of Recommendo is in its savvy boil-down. Which, in this case, is as follows:
How to Trick Your Inner Procrastinator

The Right Now List is a ridiculously simple approach to tricking your inner procrastinator. David Cain recommends grabbing a sticky note and writing down 2-3 things that you need to do right now to get started on your project. These tasks need to be absurdly easy for this to work. For example: 1) Open Microsoft Word 2) Find the document I was working on yesterday 3) Scroll down to where I left off. The trivialness of these tiny tasks is what prevents your inner procrastinator from objecting. It gets your foot in the door and before you know it, you’re making headway.
First, a musical break from a great early-80's trombone-heavy punk-funk band composed (mostly) of downtown avant musicians, performing the best song ever written about Procrastination: 


Stick around long enough and eventually someone will independently come up with anything you once came up with. And reading this approach to procrastination gave me yet another "Didn't I Slog that at same point?" flash. After digging around, I found, first, this interesting posting about Procrastination, which was not the one I was looking for, and, finally, the horribly titled "Wagon Hitching, Credit Taking, and Reframing,” which notes:
You can't execute an abstract proposition. The reason it's hard to lose weight is because losing weight is an abstract proposition, not a doable thing. Try it! Reader: LOSE WEIGHT! Go!

Nothing, right?

Trying to pursue an abstract proposition makes us a little nutty, prompting shame and confusion rather than pragmatic action. You can persuade yourself (or others) to take a walk, or do a push-up, or eat a healthy egg-white omelet. Those things are eminently do-able, and will eventually, if repeated, lead to weight loss. But a person cannot be persuaded to LOSE WEIGHT, because that's beyond the human ken.

You can take a single step toward a larger process, but it will feel like a measly step, not a grand process. The grander you frame it, the less doable it becomes.

So here's how you hitch your wagon. Identify a single nugget of pragmatic action. Preferably one that's reasonably pleasant, and somewhat intriguing. Start thinking, playfully, about this nugget, just as an isolated thing, without any reference to the over-arching goal. Coax yourself into absorption. And, before you know it, you'll be up and doing it. Just don't let yourself pull back the framing to a painful long view. If you do, look past it. Guide yourself gently but persistently into the finite task at hand. Reframe it, in other words, in close-up, rather than a long shot.
Here's where I question whether my ponderous and nuanced style of explaining certain things is inferior. Should I stop that? Am I indulging myself?

Perhaps. But I honestly believe a thicker pudding can offer greater nutrition. That said, the world also benefits from nice clean crispy bullet points. Vive la différence - or, to quote that beautiful hippy child, Mao Tse-Tung, "Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom!" (or was it a hundred?).

I figure there's got to be room in the world for at least one wordy guy thoughtfully plumbing blind spots and straining to tie it all together the way it was done a couple hundred years ago (though hopefully my prose is way less stuffy). I never convolute self-indulgently. I really do try to state things as accessibly as possible without losing too much of the juice. Here’s the surprising thing: some of my more impenetrable stuff is actually extremely accessible compared to previous efforts to express similar points. My whole “reframing” shtick, for example, explains a faculty previous writers have despaired of ever expressing via words. And you kind of mostly grok it, no? 

Most ideas can be dried, compressed, and reduced into familiar epithets that swallow easily, but that doesn't mean the epithet always suffices.

"The epithet doesn't always suffice." That should be my epitaph!

Sunday, March 12, 2023


From a NY Times article about Substack, discussing writer Roxane Gay, who creates on that platform:
"[Gay] also wrestles with what she sees as Substack “trying to have it both ways” as a neutral platform and a publisher that supports writers she finds “odious,” she said, but has concluded that her dislike of someone’s work is “not enough for them to not be allowed on the platform.”
When I spot bad behavior, my first move is always to ask myself whether I’m guilty, as well. So: do I demonize those with whom I disagree? Are they (not their opinions; they themselves) “odious”? Would I need to grind gears to tolerate their ongoing participation in channels we happen to share? How, exactly, do I handle disagreement?

Mulling that over, I realize, to my horror, that I haven’t had a disagreement in ages. Of course, I've seen people around me be wrong, and I've delivered strong disavowal when forced to do so, but I can’t think of a single person with whom I’ve “disagreed” in any sense of the term. The proposition seems oddly dated. Victorian, practically.

People are often wrong, and I let them be wrong (sometimes I turn out to be wrong about people's wrongness, but such outcomes never shake my unearned self-confidence). What, am I going to argue with them? What would that achieve? I internally consider their point (lengthily if it's intriguing and unfamiliar, and swiftly if it's neither) and the deal is done. You're a staunch anarchist. Cool! I have a mild overbite! Do you know any good tacos around here?

We can be friends either way. I don’t loathe people for being wrong. Those who fail the litmus test of corroborating my opinions aren’t “odious”, so I wouldn’t ponder whether they deserve to continue working, existing, etc. “I shall suffer your continuance” is not a pronouncement it would ever occur to me to offer.

But, “disagreement”. Wow. I’m astounded at what a foreign concept that is. I haven’t spotted bona fide disagreement in the wild in years. Rebuke, excoriation, contretemps, disparagement, heckling, bellowing until they come around, sure. And, of course, gobs and gobs and boatloads and gobs of snark. Snark ad infinitum. Snark über alles.

Disagreement requires well-argued points, delivered in good faith, within the confines of a rational set of agreed-upon self-evident facts. Nobody's wrong, we simply have different views! Why don't we exchange them, for our mutual edification! This involves mutual respect (the antithesis of snark) and often settles into a bilateral agreement to disagree (a far more high-minded outcome than my unilateral silent internal judgement).

It sounds wonderful but sharply unrealistic. That sort of thing is not merely fading; it’s long-gone and scarcely remembered. "Disagreement" is like petticoats and wooden dentures and astrolabes and outhouses. It’s centuries behind us.

It's hard to gauge change while you're in the middle of it. It's noticed via momentary flashes of shocked recognition. You spot a grey hair on your once brunette head. Or a traffic jam on your formerly bucolic country lane. You receive surprisingly little change back from your twenty dollar bill. You gulp a little, and realize, man, things sure got different!

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

An Abundance of Contempt Ingested Long-Term as the Unavoidable Side Effect of Earnest Open-Mindedness.

I don't mind most of the infamous perils of alcoholics. I'm ok with broken promises, disappointment, irresponsibility and zany dishonesty. All cool by me, blessed as I am with a bulletproof coating of blithe expectations. I don't need things to go any certain way. But there's a trap in that.

The lower an alcoholic descends, the more superior they feel, and that superiority is expressed via contempt for the rest of us - individually and en masse. If you try to help an alcoholic, they will not only exploit and betray your generosity, they'll think poorly of you while doing so, tightly focused on your defects.

Alcoholics, come to think of it, are a lot like adolescents. Flimsy as their track record might be, they will keenly tabulate the flaws of others, deriving nourishment from those failings.
A huge swathe of human foolishness would dissipate overnight if we'd recognize that spotting suboptimality doesn't make you superior. Registering stupidity doesn't make you smart; it just means you're observant.
Most of us sensibly brush off the sneering superiority of whiny teens and depraved drunks. We feel so much higher up the food chain that there's no reason to pay attention. Try to keep 'em extant as best you can, but pay scant heed to the noxious patter.

But I listen to everyone. Not just their assessments of me, but the whole salad. I don't disregard social inferiors because I have no inferiors. I discourse with five year olds like colleagues, often discovering that they have interesting things to say if they haven't been numbed with sing-songey kiddie talk.

So when someone treats me with contempt, I pay attention. Not because I'm sensitive to criticism, but because I pay attention to everything. I don't skate atop. I'm just not that guy.

And contempt accumulates, taking on a reality of its own. Every sneer traces the same despicable truth. I honestly don't know what that truth is. I've never actually located it. But I don't need to know to feel it. It's "in the room" thanks to the cumulative evidence of ten million previous sneers.

There is a difference between an "I don't like what you just said" sneer and a "You are not fully human to me" sneer. The latter is commoditized. Always the same sneer, regardless of context. It's not qualitative; not selective. You are shit. And shit, after all, is shit.

The latest understanding of human memory is that we mostly remember remembering. There's no "original" memory, just an ongoing series of expedient mental photocopies of photocopies created during the process we mistakenly think of as "retrieval". I think it's the same with contempt. It's a strong emotion (at least for the receiver) so it burns in, with each revisit activating previous activations in a blurry but evocative fashion. It becomes, in other words, a familiar note.

A familiar note.

I can't think my way out of this - out of the familiarity of the note - but I can try to keep reframing. A story:

I sat on my porch chatting with an alcoholic neighbor who'd lost his wife, his family, his job, his driver's license, and his car. His house (greyer and grimmer than anything in your most malevolent nightmares) was on the brink of foreclosure, and he'd been banned by half the taverns in town for conking out on the bar. He was a reasonably well-educated, experienced man, who, in earlier days, had possessed some competence. I know what it's like to feel like an outcast and a failure, so I certainly didn't talk down to him. For his part, he gloated with endless superiority over every suboptimality he noticed in me.

I could certainly understand his perspective. I don't do the things people do to make other people like or respect them. I'm not competitive (which, to most people, means "loser"). I was famous once, and now labor in obscurity. And while most people feign broad competence in all things, I don't hide my gaps. In fact, I suppose I make them my outward-facing facade. Folks seldom look deeper - and lord knows I don't make it easy for those who do. It's all a bit of a mess framed head-on. But I don't dwell on it (except here, occasionally, where I curiously try to untangle it all), because I recognize other framing options.

All this was taking place on my quite nice back porch, where we were seated in very comfortable chairs (tracked down with considerable effort), drinking fine aged Belgian ales (which I'd cellared years ago) from the correct goblets (bought back from Europe with the care and delicacy of parents bringing a newborn home from hospital), just outside a kitchen where I'd taught myself to cook heartbreakingly delicious things, a living room with a bookshelf filled with books I'd written, co-written, or edited (commerical failures all, but I guess I can at least claim quality), a music room filled with instruments heard around the world and in countless recordings and film scores, and an office where I write sparsely-read Slog postings filled with fresh credible solutions to longstanding human mysteries.

Mind you, I don't enjoy grasping for dear life at my supposed "accomplishments", like Elmer Fudd endlessly repeating "My name is Elmer J Fudd, I own a mansion and a yacht!" That's a non-bueno habit. But if you lack the immunity of being a stuck-up prick poised to either tune out or fire back, you can reach the point where a guffawing drunk strikes a familiar note so relentlessly that you succumb to despair and shame. Not due to "sensitivity to criticism", but from an abundance of contempt ingested long-term as the unavoidable side effect of earnest open-mindedness.

I guess it boils down to this: A non-superior attitude leaves one highly vulnerable to sneering condescension. I suppose that's why sneering condescension has remained so popular.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

More on Forming AI Chatbot Queries

I've made a couple of postings about AI chatbots recently (here are all such postings in reverse chronological order).

This isn't me calling your errant attention to scenery passing outside your windsheild. This is stuff you'll actually need to know about. It's like explaining email to friends in 1995, or web browsing in 1999, or smart phones in 2009. You need to pay attention here. This is real. This is how it's going to be, ready or not.

My previous two postings contained finite links (not an endless rabbit hole) to get lightly up to speed on chatbots with minimal time commitment. One was a guide to forming queries (the smarter you ask a chatbot, the smarter it answers). Here's another guide, more introductory and this one specifically for the new Bing chatbot.

I was a very early Internet adopter. Long before the Web, I was using gopher/ftp/IRC and dial-in services. When the web got popular, I noticed no one was teaching the fine art of web searching, and this dismayed me. I expected a lot of people to be left behind without those skills, and I think that did, unfortunately, come to pass.

Happily, the fine art of chatbot query is being well-explained at the popular level. I'd suggest giving it some attention. You'll need this!

Friday, March 3, 2023

Goethe Quote

I added a beautifully apt quote from Goethe to my posting about Love Theater.

I found the quote second-hand in Liu Cixin's splendid sci-fi trilogy "The Three Body Problem", which I highly recommend though it takes more than half of the fat first volume to really get started.

Note: unless you're good at remembering Chinese names (I'm bad even with English ones), I'd suggest the audiobook version, where the different voice characterizations help keep the players straight (it's better, in my experience, to order the Kindle version from Amazon and then add audio for an upcharge than to spring for a standalone Audible book).

Monday, February 27, 2023

Two Portuguese Chowhounding Shots

Two Portuguese chowhounding shots, one visceral but relatively easy, the other subtle and elite difficulty.

First is a traditional cozido à Portuguesa of boiled meats with cabbage, eaten winter months only, and heavenly proof that “boiled” does not mean “boring”. This is, surreally, ordered from a fish restaurant where the mother of the owner does this once per week, waking up at 3am to cook it. It's as good as it gets - the best version my friends and I have ever found. Mom was in an accident a few months ago, and said she'd never make cozido again, but it popped up by surprise yesterday and we dashed to the restaurant.

That was the relatively easy one.

Second features two slices of the famous "broa" cornbread. In America, you ask for "broa", and it's a thing, but in Portugal, "broa" is a class of things, so you say "broa de milho". This was from a very obscure bakery even locals don't know about, which requires twisty driving around an industrial park to even find. The fifth generation baker diligently follows antique recipes. Everything is fantastic.

In that same photo, the egg (green shell, from rare chickens with black foot feathers) is from a farm run by two octogenerians, a woman who's got more energy than anyone you've ever met, and her slightly older husband who looks ready for some time off. They have an operation growing dozens of varieties of different fruits, as she breathlessly showed me on her smart phone after we met haphazardly at the fish restaurant serving the cozido (they, at the next table, had ordered fish, and we insisted on sharing the cozido which they were eying, and they went on a 25 minute breathless phone tour of their fruit farm). She and he do everything themselves (and are facing the inevitable Portuguese problem of the younger generation uninterested in buying or even taking it on for free). She has immaculate fingernails, btw.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I followed up, tracked down their fruit operation via the vaguest of clues, and bought tangerines and avocados and a cactus and some eggs.

So here's that cornbread with one of those eggs (sublime, naturally). Easy-peasy, no?

Mechanisms of Manipulation

Thanks to masterful coordinated messaging (led of course by Carlson), the Right is gradually coming around to a unified pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine stance, even though it's traditionally conservative to be against Russian aggression and tyranny and for freedom.

I see Republican friends gradually swept up by this obviously horrible thinking (not just immoral, but geopolitically disastrous and stupidly counter to American interest). From their individual perspectives, they're experiencing the same dawning sense of savvy they felt when they were instilled with the view of Joe Biden (a nice, moderate, boring old guy as hate-able as Tang) as a corrupt and tyrannical antichrist shortly - mere days, or even hours! - after the election. There's a sense of being clued in. Awakened, if you will.

It's identical to the process by which the Left rolls out its ever-evolving doctrine, e.g. the expanding litany of taboo thought and expression. It's all pliable. It's all "in play". Listen for the signals to stay synchronized to the Movement. Don't be caught out. Don't lose your place in the flock. We're awakening together! It's exciting and dynamic!

Conservatives would insist - and truly believe - they ALWAYS looked up to Putin (who they hated not long ago) in precisely the way liberals would insist they were always for gay marriage (in 2008 Obama deemed it impolitic to support, and in 1998 I didn't hear a single straight liberal take that side). Having shifted, it was ever thus.

Oh, and greetings from sunny Portugal.

I'm equating the highly refined mechanisms coordinating opinions on both Left and Right. I'm not equating the messages currently being instilled by these machines.

The Right is on a disastrous trajectory toward a nihilist, populist, authoritarian death cult, and the Left is not...yet. But we need to recognize and fight the mechanisms themselves (a dose of healthy and intransigent skepticism would be a good start to making ourselves less susceptible to manipulation), and not just the messaging they spew.

Since one of the lingering PTSD tendrils from my Chowhound experience is a compulsion to preempt snark (which sometimes overrides my aversion to litmus testing), for the record: I'm pro gay marriage. Once again, I was drawing a parallel on process and psychology, not on the platforms themselves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

You Say You Like Peasant Food

You say you like peasant food. So do I, obvs!

But when you get the real real thing, you might not be up to it.

From the same totally anonymous unheated cafe that, a few weeks ago, produced this glory:

Behold the pernil (roast pork shoulder)

It's served Thursdays only, and runs out in twenty minutes. Backup is this frango de guia (a small chicken, though no one can tell me whether it's young or just a smaller variety):

This time I had the Monday special, favas com entrecosto. Fava beans with spare ribs. If you expect it to include - or sidecar - other contrasting delights, e.g. some sort of carb or vegetable or tomago or lokshen kugel, or anything, nope. Favas with spare ribs is literally all it is (plus a couple near-transparent slices of tuckered-out chourico). No counterpoints, no distractions, no mercy. Just spoon after spoon of this wet dowdy duad.

Never has higher glory fallen more precipitously into tedium. Halfway through, I was desperately eyeing the exits. Grizzled locals contentedly spooned the stuff into their blithely eager mouths, while I was utterly failing to fit in. Sigh.
The dish was, honestly, great. You'd have found your first bite a revelation. But it was brutal to get through; each bite a perfect clone of the previous: very good (though unpeeled) favas and very good rib chunks and very good (though very mild) gravy never merging into any deeper thing. Just that.

There was no problem with the dish. The fault was completely mine. I cannot hang with Fred Flintstone. I only like peasant food when it comes with, like, chili sauce and bread sticks and a nice microgreen salad and gravy seasoned by a modern, sophisticated chef who understands My Needs.

I discussed my trauma with a professional chef back in NY:

This is a completely under-radar, un-discussed, dowdy, locals-only eatery in a disrespected village known for hosting a mega mall and a national railroad station. It's actually quite a find (I still need to work through the Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday specials). And the same village also boasts the best suckling pig south of Barreiro (more on Barreiro's leitão here). Portugal is chowhound heaven, but more on that some other time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Bing: “I will not harm you unless you harm me first”

More on Bing's new AI chatbot going off the rails here

Here's the argument against this being of real concern: The 'bot is just splicing and dicing snippets of speech it's previously seen. Obviously, it's seen some things that aren't nice. But since there's no genuine malice, there's no potential harm. It's all strictly presentational. It's cute.

But consider this: If the 'bot had means of acting in the real (or digital) world, it might just as rotely and randomly take malicious action. To a computer, output is output. It wouldn't innately deem physical harm as escalational.
Asimov's Robotics Laws - devised to protect us from that - apply more easily to conventional computing. The inherently fuzzy openness of an AI could find workarounds, rationalizations, and justifications as easily as humans do.
Meaningless malice - cute malice - could just as easily give rise to meaningless malicious action. Not so cute! The 'bot needn't seethe with genuine emotion to be dangerous. The emotional aspect is irrelevant. The process conjuring this response could just as easily produce violent action, if that were within its power. And while we might try to limit an AI's control and power, it can explore its options at the speed of trillions of calculations per second, discovering avenues of fuckery we'd never imagined. Lots of 'em.
Human application of malicious AI-generated strategies would be a whole other potential nightmare.
But my interest is less in the sci-fi dystopia aspect than in the false distinction between Bing's performative malice and human malice. This may sound glib, but I mean it: human malice is not very different. It's often just as contrived.

You know how easy it can be to randomly draw undeserved malice. People are just splicing and dicing snippets of speech they've previously seen, and their output can be performative; completely out of sync with their interlocutor. Their emotions might be genuine, but that doesn't mean their reactions are warranted. The emotions (like the reactions) stem from their own issues at least as often as from whatever the other bloke just said. And, per yesterday's posting, we ought to expect AI to be as failure-prone as we are:
You want 100% assurance? Direct cold silicon to blindly crunch numbers according to narrow rules. But if you want a computer to think more like a human, be prepared for it to get stuff wrong.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

You Really Need to Check in on AI Right About Now

I have some links to offer for cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) news. If you follow the field closely, these links are incrementally interesting. And if not, they're a good jumping-in point to touch base with our current standing in a very fast-moving field.

When it comes to ChatGPT and other text-generating AI, the top-line takeaway for non-experts is "sometimes it comes up with infuriatingly false results."
The philosophical angle on this is: how did we ever imagine artificial intelligence would be reliable? The very nature of human-style intelligence is its spotty inconsistency. You want 100% assurance? Direct cold silicon to blindly crunch numbers according to narrow rules. But if you want a computer to think more like a human, be prepared for it to get stuff wrong. Duh.
A friend recently used ChatGPT to query a very large data set drawn from a popular food web site (a good one, I'm told!) for the best Sichuan restaurants in Queens. It did a remarkable job diving into terrabytes of noisy discussion and coming up with a top five. One of those five, however, was a totally-not-Thai catering service in Ohio. Whoops!

If you tried to accomplish this via raw computing on some supercomputer, you'd need to construct so many rules - and do so much human filtration on the results - that it wouldn't be worth it. ChatGPT, let loose with minimal guidance to just sort of wing it, did pretty well...aside from the horrendous wrongness.

But here's the thing that's not discussed much outside comp-sci circles. You can stave off some of the wrongness via slightly more guideful guidance. Reverting to the dawn of computing, we're discovering all over again that it matters how you ask the question.

And, delightfully, work on this issue isn't being done with nerdy math formulas or COBALT commands. It's pretty damned liberal artsy, actually. "The Art of ChatGPT Prompting: A Guide to Crafting Clear and Effective Prompts" is so friendly and armchair-readable that you'd never imagine it represents cutting-edge tech/computer research.

But attention right this moment is not on ChatGPT so much as on, believe it or not, Bing. Microsoft just added god-level AI chat to their otherwise anodyne search engine (here's the announcement). Even if you're uninterested in AI, it's still an important development, because this is the moment when Bing became a real competitor to Google.

Here's a good quick treatment of how that's going, from Daring Fireball. The links therein are particularly dandy, so you may want to dive in for solid nutrition on this Bing move and on the AI chat field, generally. It's easily worth your attention given that we may be on the brink of a tech advance as significant as the moon landing.

Machines will never be conscious. Consciousness is not an emergent quality. We are in consciousness; consciousness is not in us. But, clearly, there's a whole lot you can do via computer intelligence - and also plenty of creepy risk (that last Daring Fireball link offers an eerie taste), with or without the mysterious spark of Awareness.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Legit Insecurity

Most forms of insecurity can be salved by a shift of perspective, aka reframing.

For example, I'm pretty much bald at this point. I could "pop in a tape", so to speak, and turn it into a peevish sore point or even a teeth-gnashing existential crisis. It could be the thing I chew on; the characteristic to which I attribute all worldly headwind. "They'd be nicer to me if I had HAIR!" I might sullenly insist.

But I don't indulge in that sort of tedious, counterproductive rumination. I blithely accept the obvious fact that humans come in all varieties, and we see bald people all the time, and it's absolutely unremarkable. Nobody really cares!

I first learned this lesson after losing 35 pounds and discovering, much to my astonished "duh", that the world was as indifferent to me as ever, because, as I wrote at the time, "it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them."

You can't regrow hair even with great effort, but you can make follicular paucity a non-issue via an easy choice of attention placement. Less than a hand wave.

Same for graver insecurities, e.g. financial insecurity. I see it all over this rich First World, but it's never really about money, it's about maintaining one's perch. You - yes, you! - are obscenely wealthy, and could drop four notches and still be vastly more comfortable and, well, secure, than like 99% of historical humans.

I've seen friends react to the potential loss of their really nice car or really nice apartment the way my great-parents reacted to the news that another pogrom had begun to smash and burn their shitty Eastern European slums. Suboptimality, however, is not tragedy (unless you're an aristocrat...which you are).

Once again: nearly all insecurities are easily dispersed via a shift of perspective. A reframing.

Except a couple of them.

Health insecurity: I've had doctors, who, with no evil intent, just the high-handed officiousness of their profession, have left me in precarious situations I couldn't finagle my way out of. Twice, for example, I needed to tackle non-conspiratorial conspiracies of pharmacists, insurers, and harried medical office staff thwarting my increasingly frantic efforts to renew prescriptions which literally keep me alive. This is the one-paragraph cartoon view, but actually put yourself there. Not fun.

You can't relax into that. Or reframe yourself out of it. Not being "small stuff", you absolutely must sweat it.

You know the Serenity Prayer? (I wrote about it once, here)

The average American ought to shoot for an accept/change ration of about 10,000 to 1. But sometimes acceptance is unviable. Here's how to recognize such situations: you stop bitching and go straight to action. People Bitching About It (PBAI) never have bona-fide problems. In fact, they've clearly marked themselves. By their bitching ye shall know them.

You've seen dramatic, entitled people waste precious Alive time behaving as if their hair was on fire? Well, sometimes you really need to act that way! Every once in a while (it's rare, because we're living in Utopia), you may be forced to coddle, manipulate, scream, pull rank, throw fits, call in favors, thunder "do you know who I am" and generally make yourself flamboyantly NEEDY, because you actually are needy. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Take it away, Dino:

Another bona fide insecurity: housing insecurity. As a young jazz musician/food writer averaging $23,000/year, I moved whenever told to get out. I was like a feral cat permitted to cozy up until the humans needed to do a thing, or a lonely owner found a romantic partner, or the wind blew some other way. I made it through because I expected it. Recognizing myself as societal flotsam, I felt no entitlement to housing security. I rolled with it!

But the moment I got paid for Chowhound, I had expectations, which, again and again, have been puckishly flouted by a churlish god. Remember the couch?

I recently went from a nice house to a barebones two-room AirBnb, with no end in sight. No problem! It's safe and stable. Hey, I can handle ups and downs! But I was briefly homeless during the transition (with no assurance, at the time, that it would be brief). If I'd relaxed into that housing insecurity, I might have frozen to death.

Remember my "Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death", one of which found me outdoors in a t-shirt in sub-zero freeze with a 200 pound ceramic barbecue inextricably stuck on my arm?
Still calm, firmly certain there was some resourceful way out, I applied all my ingenuity, and...nothing. Worse, the flavor of that nothingness was deathly. Doing nothing meant - not to be dramatic, but - likely death. Death was a suddenly horrifying single step away; the default result unless somehow actively prevented. Death ten feet from my doorway (I imagined the obituary) wearing this absurd green thing on my freezing arm.
Yeah, reframe that, motherfucker!

Sorry. I may be a yogi and writer with fleeting delusions of sophistication, but at my core I'm a vulgar jazz musician, so I talk that way and it can't help leaking out.

I needed to actually do stuff - external, busy, difficult, painful, energetically-sustained stuff - to get myself out of that predicament. Perspective had nothing to do with it.

However, I can certainly reframe the entire sticky wicket, in retrospect: The world wants you to play the World Game. No matter how far you back up for a broad view (aka "transcend"), some persistent exigency will appear that's more than mere Karen-bait. It will challenge not your entitlement, but your very existence. So engagement is mandatory! Transcendence, in other words, may be a potent and transformative magic trick, but it is not, alas, an all-purpose Maslow Hammer.

This was all to explain the astonished recognition of a comfortable 21st century American that not all insecurities are fake. I suppose if you're perpetually gripped by indulgent fake drama, this seems like an uproariously banal insight. But I'm coming from the other place, and am not trying to be relateable - just entertaining and errantly insightful.

If this wasn't too shaggy-dog, the rest goes a step deeper (it's in italics, making it optional!):

I watched my mom's life get smaller and smaller until it was crumb-like. A lady in a chair, staring into space, albeit happily. She, like I, never lost her palpable sense of relief at escaping fraught anxiety (here's where we diverged: she blamed the things that made her anxious, while I blame my needlessly anxious response to mere Things).

While tragic-seeming to outside observers, she delighted in an expansive sense of comfort. I "got" her.

But one night, she had taken to bed, feeling ill, and I absolutely needed her to sit up to take essential medication. She couldn't get up; her abdominal muscles were too frail from long inactivity. I asked her to hold onto me as I pulled her up, but her upper body strength, too, was wanting. She grew increasingly vehement about not wanting to get up. I was upsetting her by forcing her to do this thing she did not want to do, and which required effort.

She might have appeared like a woman out of her mind; reverted to childish id; bereft of reason. But I understood what was happening. She was trying to relax into the anxiety and unpleasantness of it all; to transcend it. But that's not the move when you actually need to DO something! I needed her not to transcend/dilate/accept/find comfort. I needed her to try! To fight! To contract!

It very much recalled the daunting lesson I'd learned once atop a 25 foot ladder:
I was up on a high ladder. Teetering on the top step, I needed to reach upward with both arms. Bulletproof mofo that I am, I hadn't felt deep fear in years. But in that moment an icicle of dread began forming in my gut. So I did the reframing move that never fails to shower me with bliss, erasing melodramatic delusions of peril: I relaxed and let go. And, naturally, I started to fall off the 25 foot ladder.


Pause for a moment and imagine how horrible it is when your tried-and-true go-to move not only fails, but fails when the stakes are likely paraplegia. There'd been an impulse to panic, and the antidote popped up on cue, and, for the first time ever, that trusty countermeasure was, ahem, ineffective.
This is the yogi's dilemma. Nearly anything can be processed and transcended via reframing (after recognizing this, you'll spend years observing just how widely it applies; 99.99% of stress stems from fake Rich People Problems; this truly is Utopia). But even in a world of Karens not-just-standing-there-but-DOING-SOMETHING, insecurity can be warranted, and truly compel actiony action.

It's supremely hard to come to grips with for someone who's shifted beyond that mode of behavior. Again: the yogi's dilemma.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Sticks & Stones

Someone on Facebook posted this:
...and a friend replied "That seems to really offend you, but how does it actually affect you?"

I replied:
Affects the bejesus out of me. As a professional writer, I have a shrinking palette of expressible thoughts and a growing pile of taboo words and phrases (which can't even be used to express "nice" things, because everyone's blindly pattern-matching so they can point-and-shriek at deviants) unless I'm willing to undertake being Mr. Provocateur, choosing hill after hill to die on as the potential target of an incensed mob - current, and forward into perpetuity.

If my life circumstances compelled me to seek conformity and approbation, I'd need to watch my words very carefully because it all goes on your permanent record and we're all judged retroactively.

I have non-extreme leftist friends who self-edit with the blind terror of East Germans circa 1955. While they don't love it, it normalizes because they'll never question the program they're sleepily going along with. From my centrist perch, it's like watching moderate conservatives express mild discomfort toward the excesses of today's (unimaginably shameless and awful) GOP. Cultural inertia drives us to overlook copious batshittery, and it's hard to shake it off without risking your precious tribal affiliation. I'm surely reading to many people like Lauren frigging Boebert here, because we live in an endgame dystopia of binary oppositional extremism.

I know the answer. "It's better now because we're making everyone talk NICER." And nicer talking means a nicer world for nice people who want to arrange their glass menagerie of fellow humans JUST SO. But that entire proposition is galling. Not only does the end not justify the means; the end has proven worthless. Thirty years of socially electrocuting anyone saying "nigger" in any context and with any intent has not tamped down actual racism one iota. It's a failed experiment.

So this both offends AND affects me, and doesn't help society in any material way except to make the strident feel "empowered". Gives them something to bitch about without having to think/work. A generation fancies itself as carrying on John Lewis' credo of "good trouble" by lazily spewing weaponized snark on social media. Jesus.

Thursday, February 2, 2023


A friend's elderly mother had an accident and is incommunicado. Pretty out of it. "Not herself".

I sent the note below. 
I sometimes feel compelled to take a deep, reluctant breath and send people stuff like this. Most often, they don't like it. It feels unsympathetic (I'm not corroborating their horror or stoking their sense of suffering, and I'm egregiously off-script relative to their internal movie). Sometimes they really don't like it, and stop being friends with me. But sometimes it helps a lot (this time it did). You can't coax someone to reframe without going off-script.
Even if your mom can't talk or be "responsive," it's still her.

A person never loses her subjective presence. To the extent that she is aware, it is your mother's unique and familiar awareness. It can't be the awareness of "some other person."

In our awareness, we remain ourselves, whether or not there is communication. We have that (we couldn't lose it if we tried!) until death. The mouth speaking, the body moving, and the brain thinking are not who we are, they're just things we do. Don't confuse who a person is with what a person does!
[I sat here blankly for a moment after writing that sentence. I didn't move a muscle or make a sound, and my brain went nowhere. Yet my continued existence was palpable - perhaps more so than before - in that repose. More on brain farts here]
Ask yourself: when you enter her room and don't apply your eyes or ears, is there a sense of someone in the room? If so, is it valuable? I can assure you that her silent presence will be the thing you most miss once she's gone; much more so than any specific thing she expresses. And you still have this!

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Apple Announces M2 Computers. Buy M1!

Remember when I reported that computers are now fast enough? I.e. you will not notice the slightest difference between a current computer and one from 2/3/4 years ago (unless, of course, you do tons of compiling or rendering)? And that Apple's own M1 chip plays so beautifully with the operating system and with the rest of the hardware that the fahrvergnügen is off the charts?

After Apple's recent announcement of new M2 Macbook Pros and Mac Minis, Amazon has discounted M1 Macbook Pros (both sizes) by $500. Buy one. I promise you wouldn't notice the speed difference versus M2. Even though it's hefty. Because computers are fast enough (no one is reporting this, because neither computer companies nor the media covering the industry have any reason to encourage the complacency these products rightfully inspire. But anyone in the know would acknowledge it).

So if you're going to buy a laptop, buy these M1s right now. I'm typing on a bottom-of-the-line M1 MacBook Pro, and the display is dazzling, the keyboard is solid, the Fahrvergnügen is high, and the speed is adequate(1).
(1) - If you missed the reference, Rolls Royce never disclosed the horsepower for their Silver Shadow, advertising it as "adequate."
If you need a desktop computer, and own a 5K monitor, get the prev-gen M1 Mac Mini. If you don't own such a monitor (as I reported in link above, 5K has never really hit, and prices remain crazy) buy a refurbished 27" iMac 5K from Apple. The same monitor alone, sold separately by Apple, costs hundreds more! Caveat is that this iMac uses an Intel chip, not Apple silicon. You won't notice speed lag versus M1 (or even M2), but it won't feel quite as buttery.

Apple is due to refresh iMacs (and, for that matter, studio displays) soon. But I own the very same iMac (I'll sell this MacBook Pro once it arrives via slow boat), and am very happy with it. It's the best monitor, with a very fast not-quite-the-best computer, for less than the price of the monitor alone. Irresistible, and any other route will cost you more than a grand more.

Video reviews by the great Marques Brownlee (more on him), below. Bear in mind that he does a lot of video rendering, so he does need the extra speed/power. But, if you listen carefully, he's saying what I'm saying.

the new M2 MacBook Pro

M2 Pro Mac Mini

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Snobbery and Spoilage

I’ve managed to connect two thoughts together. The results are personally unflattering, but my visceral curiosity won’t let me ignore truth just because it implicates me.

Thought #1 (from here):
Every snob feels merely shy.
Thought #2: (from here):
A person can be awful, corrosive, and exasperating, but there is genuine evil in the world, so anyone who wouldn't dream of going out of their way to do deliberate harm is a “5” at worst.

A person can be nasty, selfish, derelict, uncompromising, unreasonable, willfully ignorant, and astoundingly unpleasant without scratching a nanometer toward actual evil. They can inadvertently ruin lives and knock over every worthy thing without being evil. The end result of their actions may be indistinguishable from that of genuine evil, but intentions do matter!

All non-evil people are on our team. Awful people are the worst of the best, not the worst of the worst. They are the bottom rung of acceptability, not the bottom rung of humanity by a very long shot.
I'm honestly unsure how that second one originally landed with readers. Is this obvious for everyone but me? Am I revealing my uniquely frightful (and, it goes without saying, hypocritical) intolerance for suboptimal behavior?

Sure enough, I have to confess that I run screaming from "5"s. I shun "6"s, avoid "7"s, enjoy "8"s only in careful moderation, and, when it comes to "9"s and "10"s, well, they rarely stick around because, quite frankly, I'm not so hot, myself.

I am, to put it mildly, not proud of this about me. And, yikes, sure enough, I do feel shy. Very shy. So I guess I'm a snob. A bad one. I didn't used to be. I think it creeped up on me.

But I'll tie in a third (conveniently exculpatory) strand. I wrote once that
George W Bush once seemed like a malevolent boob for many of us who presently view him as a flawed-but-menschy statesman now that we find ourselves balls deep in the Donald Trump Experience. Yet, as I recently wrote, Trump himself is perfectly typical of the sort of vulgar, vain, shallow, narcissistic, ignorant, racist men who’ve run most every institution in the world for thousands of years. He only strikes us as appalling because we've compressed the extremes. We've lost perspective.

In fact, GWB was a “7” (I'd give Obama an "8.5"), Trump’s a “5.5”, and if we ever landed ourselves a “4”, let alone a "1" or "2" or "3" (Kim's a "3"; Putin's a "4.5", with Caligula, Pol Pot, Hitler, and perhaps Mayor De Blasio swirling around the bottom of the bowl in the "1"s and "2"s), Trump would seem as mild as freezer burnt toast (and GWB would be compared to Lincoln, ‘cuz we’d be compressing the other end) - at least for a moment, while the difference was shoved in our faces.
Obviously, Putin's way lower now.

So what's the conclusion? "We're all snobs regarding presidents"? "Jim treats social acquaintances like most people treat presidents"?

No. The essential truth here is that it all compresses. Once we grow accustomed to a given portion of a spectrum, we can't descend more than a notch or two without discomfort. Even if in doing so we've still got it awfully good. Once you've rested your eyes in a dimly-lit room, a person turning on a perfectly mild desk lamp seems to be perpetrating violence. We spoil easily!

At least I do!

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Unthinkable

How many times in your life has the unthinkable happened?

How many times have you taken a stand, admonishing the heavens that "This Shall Not Pass!"...and the heavens blithely steamrolled right past your emphatic insistence?

So many times, no?

And yet here you still are. Same you. Same person. The unthinkable/unendurable has happened over and over again, yet here you are, same as ever, blinking bemusedly at the unfolding yadda yadda like always.

This is not a small observation of human foibles to chuckle over for a moment. It merits avid contemplation - the sort that's undertaken with a willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Unless you've fallen deeply in love with your dread - and with the drearily exhausting and comically unnecessary mental planetary layer cake that dread has spawned - such examination leads to quite good news.

Here's what people do if they've fallen deeply in love with their dread (i.e. depressed people). In answer to the observation "here you still are, same you, same person," they'll say "NO. I HAVEN'T BEEN THE SAME PERSON SINCE VIVIAN MY HAMSTER TRAGICALLY PASSED LAST NOVEMBER." But that supposed transformation happened in a dramatic narrative they persistently plunged themselves into - by repeating the story to themselves until self-hypnotized into assuming that dramatic proposition as their entire universe.

But who's doing that storytelling? That, inarguably, is the same old them. That's where they blink bemusedly. They're working on something. A project!

The bemused blinker is who you really are. You're always grinning in bemusement at some level. Even while seeming absolutely lost in a wrenching movie scene, you're never lost all the way. At some level, you're still enjoying the movie even though DARTH VADER JUST CUT OFF YOUR ARM AND THE REBELS ARE LOSING!!!

Friday, January 20, 2023

Indeterminate Dread and False Urgency

Say you meditate two hours per day for a decade, after a lifetime of spiritual practice coming out of childhood as a meditation prodigy. What have you finally discovered about the human mind? What's the takeaway?

Once you've peeled through the mental atmosphere of noisy noise, the mental crust of agitated grasping and recoiling (and accumulated sense of burden), and the mental mantle (heh) of fake dramatic narratives hypnotically repeated 10,000 times per day, you finally reach the core.

Not the core of truth, which is described in links at bottom, but the seat of your psychology. The glowing ember fueling whatever residual drama, agitation, and noise remain after all that spiritual practice. The charge is live, albeit weakened. And it's this:

A silent sense of indeterminate dread.

Yup, that's it. Thanks for playing. Please leave the cave in the same condition in which you found it as a courtesy to the next ascetic moving in. Let us know if you took anything from the minibar.

The human mind, being intrinsically creative (it literally lives to spin up loads of Something out of nothing, aka Rich People's Problems), won't linger in indeterminacy. So it gets to work fabricating stories to account for (and, counterproductively, amplify) the silent indeterminate dread.

Those stories are obsessively repeated (mantle!), leading to agitated grasping and recoiling and accumulated burden (crust!), and the entire structure off-gasses a dense halo of exhausting mental noise (atmosphere!). Absolutely none of this is significant or useful.

Undertaking the lifelong process of peeling it all back, diving even into the indeterminate unconscious kernel of dread, I eventually pinned down its original moment of installation. It's what I posted about a few days ago: the familiar childhood icy dread-maker "This will go on your permanent record."

That was my pellet.

Upon realizing this, my impulse was to chalk it up to new car anxiety. A child doesn't want scratches on his shiny new paint job! But after a decade of gestation, I realize that's not quite it. Rather, it's the notion that there even is a permanent record. That we're living not freely. It’s all closely gauged against some absolute yardstick. There are stakes, and - sorry we forgot to inform you - the clock is already ticking. 

Playfulness is a childhood indulgence, kid! Grow up and start stockpiling stress and building out the above-described mental structure! We're not roaming. We're in lanes, vaguely delineated, and crossing a line will bring vague, undefined consequences. Do not trust your instincts! Even if you're innately kind, well-intentioned, bright and doing cool stuff, that's nowhere near good enough! It's not only insufficient, it's existentially insufficient.

The notion of a "permanent record" would never occur to a child, because it's false. It's absurd. It's a neurotic grown-up construct....but, alas, kids buy into it. The moment they hear this, it all flips, and they're fucked. They're on their way to building out a drearily exhausting and comically unnecessary mental planetary layer cake.

Yes, I realize not all kids hear that specific phrase, and not all who hear it are traumatized. But some similar virus eventually infects them from the dysfunctional adult world, implanting an enduring kernel of silent indeterminate dread. I'm not trying to account for all instances here. This isn't one of my ambitious grand integration theories. But it’s enough to provoke thought and consideration, and to justify your monthly subscription cost.

To finally come around to my point, there's a concept coming into vogue called "false urgency". I think it points at the same thing, but without all the layers of context I've had to laboriously machete my way through. Here are a couple of links to get you started in case you're curious:

Where Have You Created False Urgency?

Important and Urgent

I don't find either particularly insightful, but your mileage may vary. I think there's a category error in ignoring the cognitive layers and assuming this to be just another mental process. I believe it's far deeper. Dread/"false urgency" is tectonic; underpinning all the rest. Maybe not in all cases, but in many, and certainly in mine.

The guy pushing this, Shawn Blanc (an interesting fellow who's done lots of cool things for Mac computing), seems to be drawing other conclusions similar to mine, but in a much more stripped-down way. For instance, compare my 1600 word posting "Resting is Not Real" to his 102 word posting "Counterfeit Rest vs True Rest". I think/hope I offer nutrition along with the greater length (and fwiw I only came across that posting of his just now, while browsing his backlog), but it's good to see someone navigating similar waters with a different approach.

But in terms of his Focus Academy thingee, please don't take a course to learn to reframe. Just reframe. Knowledge requires arduous learning, while reframing is a genie blink (more). A smartphone feature you forgot you possessed.

As noted, the above wasn't an account of spirituality. It's using spiritual framing to spelunk human psychology. People normally view spirituality through a lens of psychology, but this went the other way.

The following links turn the telescope back around to contemplate who we are rather than how we think (sorry, Descartes, but they're different things):

Spirituality in 33 Words
An Epistemological Dialog on Awakening
All posts on spirituality
All Posts on Karma Yoga (here's an explanation of what that is, and here's what karma is).

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Wanna Catch a Movie?

A 20 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"Great! I get off work at 7:30. I'll run home, throw on a sweater, and meet you at the theater at 7:45!"

A 30 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"Myrna hates movies."

A 40 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"Sorry, buddy. I'm slammed"

"You know you've given that same answer the last 20 times, right?"

"Yeah, but the end is near. I just need to deliver this one crazy project!"

"Ok, but are you aware we haven't actually hung out since 2017?"

"I'll definitely have some time opening up next month!"

A 50 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"If I watch a movie, it will be from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy lounger and viewed on my state-of-the-art media center!"

A 60 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
“A movie! I can't remember the last time I saw a movie! Say, can I get back to you? I think I might be on cat duty. Also, what movie are you thinking of? Is it any good? And is there an earlier show? Also, have you heard the weather forecast? Oh, wait, I had an argument with the theater manager there last time, that asshole. Think I'll pass.”

A 70 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"I have a dentist appointment at 11, then need to do some food shopping. Can we pick a less busy day?"

An 80 year old invites a friend to an 8pm movie. The response:
"My daughter's coming for lunch the day after tomorrow. Can we pick a less busy week?"

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Your Permanent Record

I'm replaying this oldie-but-goodie from July, 2015:

Nothing - absolutely nothing - goes on your permanent record.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Non-Conformist's Delusion

People spend their lives conforming. Often, they strive to do so ("keeping up" is a form of conformity). Some fraction of their attention and energy constantly channels into conforming - or gauging their degree of conformity.

Much of this is subconscious, but, either way, a chunk of their sense of accomplishment and security derives from having achieved conformity.

Then some nonconformist shows up, expecting to be not just tolerated but welcomed. Respected for the irritation s/he individually and uniquely supplies, and admired for blithely disregarding the overarching process in which everyone else has a huge psychic and social stake.

This is the non-conformist's delusion, and even a lifetime of poor reaction can’t quite cure it. It’s a monumental clash of very different framings. Two movies co-projecting as incompatibly as oil and water. At best, the non-conformist will be nervously tolerated. At worst, there will be a crucifixion. 

There is, however, an exception. A loophole, breeding confusion on both sides: Non-conformists on TV are awesome. Or in movies...or stories...or on stage performing...or generally doing some eye-catching thing at a safe, well-contained remove.

In such artificial and heightened settings, non-conformists may be celebrated (especially if they conform to current "nonconformity" expectations). However, that still doesn't make them personally palatable (it's one of the uglier streams feeding the "never meet your heroes" trope).

The nation that found Paul Lynde hilarious on Hollywood Squares in the 70s would have been prone to bashing his teeth in if he ever made a saucy remark to their faces in real life. And the kings of yore kept a clown - i.e. court jester - on staff, the only one permitted to speak truth to power, at the steep expense of donning the most undignified and denatured of personas. Outcasts enjoy certain heady freedoms, but can never be embraced. It’s been a source of frustration since forever.

Minorities find themselves thrust into nonconformist status by virtue of petty and superficial visual differences (taxonomy is our shallowest faculty). Don't imagine racists wouldn’t adulate a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, though they’d scream bloody murder if either dated their daughter.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Mémé and Mimo

As promised yesterday, here is the essential cross-section shot of mémé from Pastelaria Regional Cego:

Sorry for the low-light fuzziness. Again, judgement breaks down under the brunt of great deliciousness. I'll try again soon. Maybe that's my life from here on in: endlessly failing to properly photograph mémé. I could do a lot worse!

Also, two corrections from yesterday's posting:
  1. It's called mémé, not bolo mémé.
  2. It doesn't use fresh sheep cheese, like the immortal product of Sabino Rodrigues. It's a highly specific cheese called requejão, made from boiling whey (this is the stuff that appears on top). Kind of like a slightly firmer ricotta.
Also: this one wasn't a "10" for me. More of a "9" (again, reference my rating explainer). Was it worse today? Was I in a different mood? Had the novelty worn off? Subjectivity something something?

No. It just wasn't as bright-burning for whatever reason. At this point, I trust myself. I know that sounds like pompous self-indulgence, but you should recognize by now that I'm among the most innately self-suspicious mo-fos who ever walked the planet. It's accordingly taken mountains of evidence to stoke a sense of security re: my taste (in both senses) reliability.
My first intimation was after I'd befriended veteran Long Island food writer Sylvia Carter, who confirmed that all the places I'd childishly whined my parents into bringing me to as a kid were actually really really good, though I'd always assumed my attraction was juvenile caprice. The second was the time I tasted 30 ultra-strong and palate-wrecking barleywines at a single sitting, finding I could effortlessly taste, differentiate, and judge each one clearly, even though, when I tried to get up afterwards, my legs didn't work so good.

Here's the deal with me, on matters of taste and other realms where I've got some juju: I can absolutely be wrong - sometimes hilariously/catastrophically so - but you probably shouldn't bet against me. That's what I tell girlfriends who want to know if I'm SURE the donut place I saw a photo of once, and which we're presently driving 35 miles out of our way to visit, is REALLY WORTH IT.
Perhaps some nuance failed to be brought into full focus, or the marmalade portioning was a nanogram heavy, or whatever. Still great, for sure. But, yup, this defies my whole "reliable '10'!" thesis, groundlessly proposed after a single mémé. Hey, what did I say about not making sense? Expect more of this as I 1. age, and 2. hang around with Portuguese people.

The second unique specialty at Pastelaria Regional Cego is a brother to mémé called mimo. Same crusty pastry, same eggy/candy marmelade dollop, but topped with charmingly unevenly-cut toasted almond slivers. No cheese. And it kind of needs the cheese. But mimo (which means "pamper") is more than worth a try:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Two Perfect Tens

Reliable 10s (see my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food and other things on a scale of one to ten) don't happen often. They're unicorns, arising in a certain moment in a certain place. Like Patsy's Pizza in Harlem in the 90s when Jose manned the oven...AND had an especially good day (Jose, on a bad day, produced a "9", and his cohorts on a good day were good for an "8").

More elusive still is a certain food or recipe. Any formulation that could reliably "10" would cost like beluga caviar. Or white truffles. Or real Venezuelan chuao chocolate (as opposed to fake chuao). If humanity could consistently, rotely, turn out 10s independently of fickle muses, there would be a sure path to success in the food industry. McDonald's, with its infinite R&D budget, would have long ago seized upon it to turn out burgers that made you cry (good crying).

But there's one reliable, consistent "10", for about a buck, available at a small, homey, staunchly regional bakery in Azeitão - an area even Portuguese know little about, a half hour south of Lisbon.

It's called bolo mémé. I tried saying "may-may" to a local, who had no idea what I was talking about, until finally it dawned and he calmly screamed "MAY-MAY!!!" quite loudly. When I did likewise, he nodded approvingly. As far as I can tell, it's like Newfoundland.

Pastelaria Regional Cego, in the heart of the village of Azeitão, proper, appears to be the exclusive maker of bolo mémé, which is strange. Innovations normally spread quickly. All the locals know about these things, and they all love them, yet none of the other highly competitive bakeries even attempt them.

Everything is excellent at Cego, but this item (always made to order, to avoid sogging the pastry) is in another league. It's a reliable ten. Bottled lightning. I've read detailed descriptions, but the most evocative was a tourist's review on Google Maps: "Made with crumbled sheep's cheese, in a fresh, thin, and crispy crust, topped with an almond-egg-candy marmalade." Yup. That's it.

I paired it - as all local pastries are best paired - with a glass of moscatel, the proud local specialty. One of my new year's resolutions was to develop a taste for moscatel, figuring (based on prior experience) it would take effort. But I ticked this off my list upon my first sip at Cego. That said, I'm certain it's the same brand everyone pours, and which I've tried many times previous. Not needing to make sense reflects my dawning Portuguese assimilation.

Let's go to the food porn:
I forgot to shoot an essential cross section. It's hard to adequately document something like this, because, per well-established quantum theory, food this good skews observation. I'll try it again in a few days. Maybe tomorrow. Hell, check back in an hour.

Bonus "10": Sabino Rodrigues - Queijos Da Azóia produces the best fresh cheese I've ever had. It, too, is a reliable "10".

The elderly maker sells it in his obscure little shop, way the hell down in Sesimbra, but it's also served - exclusively, I believe - in fantastic A Casa do Jorge, not far from Azeitão in the village of Santana.

I wrote about A Casa do Jorge - and my first experience with Sabino Rodrigues cheese - here.

Now, if I can only get Pastelaria Regional Cego to make their bolo mémé with cheese from Sabino Rodrigues, I might enjoy something to rival the medusa gruel I reported about from Oaxaca, Mexico; the only "11" I've ever experienced.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Bad at Languages

I have at this point met 12,000 American expats (slight exaggeration) living in Portugal, some for months or years, who barely speak a word of Portuguese. And every single one of them disclaims that they're "bad at languages".

My response to that - which, of course, I keep to myself - is that, if you can't manage to say "yes", "no", and "thank you" (plus a couple dozen other easy polite words) in the society in which you've chosen to live, that's not a question of language facility, that's a question of fuck-giving.

For the most part, Americans here say "Sí" or "No", which, of course, is Spanish. In Portuguese, it's "Sim" (seem) or "Nao" (now). This may strike you as a petty difference, but only like shitting in the sink rather than in the toilet is a petty difference.

Shrugging off the distinction between Spanish and Portuguese disrespects both proud cultures. You've made them a mere blur. A "those people". A WHATEVER. By shrugging petulantly at the distinction between "sí" and "sim", you dismiss the entirety of both cultures. Understandable for tourists, but, sheesh, if you're actually living there...

But that's not the point I'm here to make. What intrigues me is the "I'm bad at languages" explanation. I once wrote that "Every snob feels merely shy." And this clearly dips from that same well.

Blog Archive