Sunday, February 14, 2016

You're Glad He's Dead?

I find it fascinating that Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Scalia were the best of pals, yet I'm hearing plenty of random yahoos gloating over his death.

The real venom of this partisan divide is fueled by loudmouths who lack real personal ties to folks with differing views and styles. It's easy to desensitize from afar. That helps make people seem something other than real, breathing people.

That's why it's easy to recognize that Trump doesn't have personal connections with Mexican immigrants, for example. If he did, they'd be real, breathing people for him.

Judging by the reaction of many progressives to this news, there's some Trumpishness in many of us.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Are You Caught Up on Gravity Waves?

You likely read the NY Times article about the gravity wave detection announcement (did you also watch the great video on that page?).

Here's an alternative report, elegantly written.

If you want to go a little deeper, see the video and comic explainers at PHD.

For the lighter side, see XKCD's amusing take.

But, most interesting of all is the question: what does this all mean going forward - for science, for humanity, for our future? The media has done a poor job at explaining this, but here are four layman-friendly paragraphs, seldom-linked though it's written by the people who actually did this science, explaining where this discovery may take us. It's less than a 10 minute read, and it's pretty amazing and brings it all into context. Don't miss it!

"So That Happened"

I'm replaying this posting from last year:

Last month I wrote:
If you can resist being pulled into the drama of a friend's sad tale of woe (or, even more difficult, your own sad tales of woe), and clearly examine the particulars, 95% of the time it amounts to nothing more than: "I thought X would happen, but Y happened".
I once found myself forced to listen to a few excruciating pages from the memoir of a woman who'd lived as a small child at her family's large estate, which was eventually swapped for a much smaller house. Her wonderful, saintly father eventually died. And, as a result, she did not live the life she expected to live. She painted her tragedy as if it were an opera. It was the worst pain any person had ever suffered.

I was flabbergasted. First, who ever gets the life they expect? What sort of pampered upbringing creates the impression that your expectations carry any weight at all? And what sort of narcissist throws a literary tantrum about things not being just so, expecting readers (few of whom grew up in estates or had saintly fathers, and most of whom have been forced to understand that life's a ride rather than a drive) to sympathize with her anguished indignation?

Most humans can't relate to entitlement; it's as alien-seeming as psychopathy. After all, the expectation of perpetual augmentation is sharply contradicted by even a casual look at the world in which we live. This doesn't mean total misery is inevitable. On the contrary; if you see the world clearly, and have never fallen prey to the virus of entitlement, you come to recognize that none of life's surprise or turmoil is negative unless we label it that way.

A tiny dose of surprise and turmoil is welcome - so much so that we gladly pay a cover charge for the experience. It's haltingly processed, and released via an oscillating diaphragm in rhythmic pulsations, like a garden hose just barely accommodating a sudden flow. But when a stream of surprise and turmoil exceeds our thresholds, many of us reflexively clench against it, so it gets stuck. "This is not happening!" we hoarsely cry out to the universe, lacing our systems with elective stress*, as the universe blithely continues its business.
* - Stress is something we choose to do to ourselves in response to life situations we choose to consider non-optimal.
Kudos to David Mamet, whose film "State and Main" contrived a different response (wait for Alec Baldwin's first line upon exiting the wrecked car):

Oh, crap, the video link's dead and there's no other to replace it (if anyone out there can find one, please leave a link in the comments). Alec Baldwin's character epically, horribly, crashes amd flips his car. He extricates himself from the upside-down vehicle, notices that a pedestrian has witnessed the whole thing, and remarks to him, with casual flippancy, "So that happened!"

The phrase has caught on in pop culture, proving, once again, that a language tends to be wiser than its speakers.

This is a good opportunity to re-mention my all-time favorite book title - a title so great that one needn't even read the book (a good thing, as it's out of print....though there's an e-book version): "What's Wrong with Right Now ... Unless You Think About It?"

My GPS is sanest of all. "Recalculating!" she exclaims, with cheerful equanimity, even when her most insistent demands have been ignored.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Coddling the Spark

Cultivating a habit is like starting a campfire without matches. It's not the time to visualize big blazing fires. Your job is to focus on generating a precious spark. Then to coax that tiny spark into something just a bit greater. At a certain point, it has a life of its own. You don't create the fire; you only cultivate the spark, which, in turn, makes the fire.

Or maybe the wind blows it out and you must start again. No problem; with attention focused on sparks, fire's inevitable. But if you wind up in an "oh, shit!" mindframe - where the failure of your imagined image of bounding flames to materialize gets equated with every other way the universe has ever let you down - results will be mixed at best.

After taking many months off from the gym due to injury, I was badly out of my workout habit a few years ago. One day, via a herculean act of will, I got myself to the gym, where I parked my car, turned off the engine, sighed deeply, checked my email, briefly stared out into space, registered my anxious lack of focus, and then drove home. But here's the perceptual jujitso that makes me proudly ant-like : I deemed it a success. A spark had generated, getting me to the parking lot!*

The next day, I went inside, and worked out like a wuss. The day after, I also worked out indifferently. But the following day, I started buckling down, and was soon striding into the gym with confident purpose and working out like a Tasmanian devil. I'd coddled the spark to flame and inevitable fire.

* - I knew, of course, that if I were to back up the camera for a cinematic long view during my resigned drive home, I'd have felt preposterous and pathetic. I likely wouldn't have returned to the gym for weeks. But I've learned - and it's by far the best lesson I've ever learned - to pay no attention whatever to the cinematic view of myself. It's never true and it's never helpful. It's just story-telling, and I don't believe in it anymore.

The great secret of ants - the key to their industriousness and resilience - is that they never, ever pull back the camera for that long view ("Jesus, Larry, we're really gonna have to rebuild this damned hill again?!?").

To cultivate a habit, you need to be way more ant-like and way less imaginative.

The Wheel of Lunch

Thanks to Harriet Halpern for hipping me to The Wheel of Lunch

Don't forget to fill in your zip code!

It'd be even better if it were binding….i.e. you’d commit to your order being placed (e.g. via Seamless), come what may.

Bloomberg's Prospects and David Brook's Tardy Embrace of Obama

I'm a fan of Mike Bloomberg and certainly hope he runs.

I like to read stuff I disagree with so that I can practice finding my rational way around the minefield of my own hot buttons and shoulder chips. So I gave this nasty, inaccurate, unfair, and inappropriate slam/slur on Bloomberg’s potential candidacy my best shot. I'd need 30 pages to rebuff most of the invective and off-kilter nonsense, but I do concede that a couple of the root issues may have merit. Bloomberg would likely do little about income inequality or bank regulation. That said, neither would President Sanders. There's only so much a president can do.

Though, hmmm, perhaps that's wrong. Consider this:

Obama could never push for marijuana legalization (or relaxed drug penalties, generally). The "black guy" simply can't get away with that. That's also how Hillary congealed into her neo-con-ish hawkishness after starting out as an anti-Vietnam activist. The liberal lady must talk tough. To hold on to independent voters, one can't personify ones most obvious cliches. One must lean the other way.

For example, look how long Obama delayed in nudging so much as a finger toward gun control - in spite of sustained hysteria from gun people certain he'd take away their guns. Years and years of attendance at mass shooting funerals - Sandy Hook really wrecked him, as it did us all - yet he didn't go near the issue. Not once! Yes, he's finally boiled over, but it took an awful lot, and even now, his proposals are as mild as can be. They're literally the least he could do.

So here's what I'm thinking. Bloomberg is the furthest thing from the crony capitalist portrayed in that article. He didn't turn his nose up at "Occupy Wall Street" because he's a plutocrat; he found the flailing, unfocused class anger distasteful. And while he certainly wouldn't foment the wild, fantastical revolution Bernie gets his followers riled up about, he's solidly positioned to institute well-reasoned bank regulation, and to work on income inequality in subtler, more pragmatic and realistic ways than the storm-the-gates approach. This may, in fact, be an issue that only a connected billionaire (with a social conscience) could realistically and effectively take on.

Two more political things to read:

I agree 100% with conservative pundit David Brooks' salute to the mensch-ness of Obama, and applaud his frankness. However, I also agree with Salon that it's far too little, far too late.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Effusion's Startlingly Brief Half-Life

Over the course of my life, I've met a number of people who quickly turned effusive, telling me how fantastic I am, how smart and funny I am, how very very very glad they are to know me. (I hasten to note that I've also met a gazillion times more people who found me as impressive as a slug, as funny as a canker sore, and, in light of my congenital lack of gravitas , were unable to take me the least bit seriously in any way.) But, strangely, not one of these admiring people - not a single one - remains in my life. The people who've stuck around mostly think I'm just okay. A mixed bag, but overall worth keeping around.

So what happened to all those instant-on best friends? Like so many deep enigmas, it can be summed up via an appallingly banal cliched: Easy come, easy go.

It unnerves me to be cursed with knowledge of how easily people can slip from "you're my hero" to "you're an asshole". There's a scene in Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" where a woman is speaking on the telephone as Woody's character (a filmmaker) walks by. She interrupts her call to gush to him about how she's his biggest fan, and asks him to say hello to her son, who's on the other line. He politely declines, whereupon her face contracts into a mask of rage. "Cancer!" she screams. "I hope you get cancer and die! I never liked you!"

When I first saw the film at age 18, I assumed this was surreality. But, no, it's terrifyingly true - and not just for celebs, either. With a certain type of person, "beloved hero" and "despised asshole" are precisely one notch apart.

My problem is that, after years of this, whenever anyone new starts flattering me, I react in a way that seems very strange: I recoil, as if punched in the gut, and start to lose interest in further conversation. I've been conditioned to winnow from my social landscape anyone who seems the least bit geared up about me. It's terribly unfair of me, but if whenever you walk outside people wearing purple t-shirts punch you in the face, you won't be able to control yourself from involuntarily flinching at anyone coming toward you in a purple t-shirt.

How to Spot a Hack Marketer

The marketing person is often the natural antagonist of the creative person. They're always pushing to make the product blander, more accessible, more widely and broadly commercial. They nag you to water it down, smooth the edges, and, ideally, imitate other products with proven track records.

This is because most marketing people completely suck. Their job is to market things. If they can't market a product as-is, that's on them, not you or your product.

Nearly anything can be successfully marketed. Even plain old rocks once made someone millions. It's the marketer's job to take what you've created - whatever it is! - and find clever ways to make it enticing to the largest possible market. People who are good at this (such people do exist!) don't need you to retrofit your product to their tired, rote formulas - the strategies they learned in school. Such expectation is the ultimate dog wagging, like a cab driver pressuring you to see a different film because he's unsure how to get to your theater.

Marketers who try to make the product fit the marketing, rather than vice-versa, are wretched hacks who should be immediately fired. Such a thing would never occur to anyone with the least skill in their profession. Talented marketers don't angle for products that "sell themselves" any more than taxi drivers relish the idea of autonomous cars.

Alas, there are vanishingly few talented marketers. That's why so many products are so blanded out. If more marketers knew how to market, greatness would prosper and treasure would much more frequently ignite into popular sensation. Creative people would work unfettered, and whimsy and diversity would rule the day. It would be the world many of us appreciative, chowhoundish types would love to see.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Postcards From My Childhood Part 11: Heating the Entire Atlantic Ocean

Previous installment
First installment

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

I was reading a book about survival where the author described how, bobbing in his life vest in the north Atlantic, he'd managed to lose his waterproof body heater. It had, he wryly noted, gone on to try to heat the entire Atlantic Ocean.

"Try to heat the entire Atlantic Ocean." That image really connected for me. So I pushed forward this reminder to myself: don't ever try to heat the entire Atlantic Ocean.

This isn't the same as the mundane warning "don't take too much on." I like to taking too much on! That's where all the fun (and productivity) is! I was warning myself, rather, not to aim for infinity. Alas, I disregarded this advice in running Chowhound, where I kept taking on more and more workload - it was either that or close the thing - very far past the breaking point, injuring myself in some ways that can't be healed. I believe I'd seen it coming as a child.

There is one, and only one, way in which humans can heat the entire Atlantic Ocean without draining themselves - the only infinite outpouring requiring no replenishment: love. That's the sole inexhaustible resource, even though it's the most stingily allocated. The entire Atlantic Ocean can be filled with love without depleting batteries - the single case where infinity represents a warm invitation rather than a fraught danger.

Letting Go and Getting Better....but Feeling Worse

Every once in a great while, narcissists can have a moment of clarity, realizing it's actually not entirely about them. They may let go a little. And letting go is always a profound experience. It's what we've been placed in this maze to learn to do.

But following the initial exultation, such people will normally become depressed - perhaps for years. Sullen disenchantment accompanies the letting go, as one's inner dramatic narrative spins this as a negative. "The world is not all about me" is a realization that can be stated with bitter glumness or with utter lightness. And it's inevitable that the former comes first.*

You've seen some truth, and taken a step toward it. You feel better! But none of this fits the story you've been telling yourself. From the perspective of that story, you're losing.

Same for control freaks, alcoholics, and all other skewed perspectives. As you recover - discarding behaviors, perspectives, tendencies, and assumptions - you still need to let go of The Story to complete the recovery. It's the easiest piece, but we forget that we ourselves are the story tellers; that we are completely free to change the story at any moment.

* - This is what I was talking about when I wrote this (in a posting titled "Two Points of Spiritual Progress"):

(spoken in a bitter, self-pitying voice)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!
(spoken in a voice of bemused relief)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!

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