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 - 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 to 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).

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