Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tightening Loop of Historical Repetition

In an election season bursting with horrible news, perhaps the most significant macro issue has scarcely been discussed.

Many, many people voted for Trump as a protest vote, assuming he'd never win. Or they voted Stein or Johnson as protest votes from that same assumption. Quoting the DNC's Andrew Tobias:
According to one pollster, 25% of [Trump's] votes came from people who — knowing for certain he had no path to 270 electoral votes, because that’s what the media assured them — voted for him to make a statement, but would not have if they had thought he might actually win. If that’s true, and had they voted for Hillary instead, the vote would have been something like 47 million for Trump, 80 million for Clinton. Even more if some Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters would have voted Clinton if they’d thought Trump could win."
Political observers are correctly blaming the Clinton campaign for projecting over-confidence, the cardinal political sin. They had, in countless ways, signaled that victory was inevitable, leading to false confidence among an electorate which therefore voted for reasons opposed to their fundamental interest in keeping a lunatic out of power.

But what has me queasy is that the exact same thing happened with Brexit. Countless Brexit voters, who voted for something they didn't actually want to happen, because they were confident it wouldn't happen, woke up profoundly rattled the next day. We watched that happen, and proceeded to march straight off the very same cliff.

I accept that societies endlessly repeat mistakes. We forget the lessons of history, and repeat them. The younger generation's waning enthusiasm for democratic systems, for example, makes sense, because the despots of the early 20th Century are gone from personal memory. This crop didn't grow up in the wake of WWII, so history's due for a repeat. I don't like it, but I understand it.

But the Brexit vote was just five months ago! So either our memories are getting so flighty that we now forget our history not within decades, but within weeks...or else we've lost the ability to learn entirely.

This leaves me floundering. World events have always unfolded via an unending series of reactions (usually overreactions) to the previous thing. If we no longer react - even unwisely! - but just randomly poke ahead, then all bets are off.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Jnani Train

You arrive in the midst of the story, like in a dream, finding yourself standing in the aisle of a speeding train, greatly stressed from carrying a titanic load you can neither view nor explain.

Your hands clutch many handles, your shoulders tremble with unseen weight, and the burdens on your back, hips, trunk and neck are impossible to account for - you have no idea where your body ends and the load begins. And you've been here a very, very long time; since before you can remember.

Two things seem certain: 1. The burden is nearly unendurable, and 2. It's crucial that you not drop any of it.

Why must you not let go? Strangely, you'd never considered the issue. Here you are; self-evidently the bearer of this load! Does Atlas*, who holds up the entire world, ever take a moment to ponder the necessity of his sacrifice? Of course not; he's got a world to hold up!

But suddenly there is an epiphany. The train is moving; bringing you somewhere, and your load with it. You don't need to personally transport it; it's not on you! You can drop it - drop it all! - and the train will continue to bear the weight, just as it's actually been doing all along. Your efforts were unnecessary. Unhelpful. Redundant. Wasted energy, all. Silly, really. You surrender and let go with a sense of titanic relief, but also some sheepishness. You'd somehow failed to recognize it was never your load to bear in the first place.

Glancing around the train, you see, clearly for the first time, innumerable others with similarly crushing burdens, and plead with them to simply let it drop. They are, after all, here on the train, which easily bears the weight! But your urgings only irritate them. With all they've got to struggle with, there's no patience for your nonsense.


* - Regarding Atlas, the Greek God who holds up the Earth...first, that's actually a mistranslation. Atlas wasn't holding up the Earth, he was holding up the entire universe. But the Earth makes for a better visual, so let's go with that (though I'd suggest you return and reprocess this adjustment after). Well, here's the truth of the story: Atlas, poor shmuck, could have let go at any time. It wouldn't have fallen apart. It'd have been fine.

Also:
The Toddler and The Steering Wheel
The Evolution of a Perspective

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My First Book on Tape; My First Hemingway

I've never been a fiction reader, not sure why. I read the novels one reads in school, the de rigueur sci-fi, and the adolescent classics (Vonnegut, Salinger, Gibran, Robbins, etc.). But I never did a serious read of the classics. Being blessed/cursed with a lifestyle that exposed me to a wide range of people and places, I tried to fathom the human condition via direct observation rather than through the eyes of others.

I never read a lick of Hemingway before last year, when I bought the unabridged audiobook of William Hurt reading "The Sun Also Rises." I planned a drive to Detroit and back to accommodate the 8 hours of playing time, and I popped the disks into my car stereo.

And I quickly realized why I haven't been more attracted to fiction: my internal narrator is incredibly flat. The voices in my head as I read strike a dull monotone. I didn't realize there was any other way until I heard Hurt read. I always found nuance in the language, but never dramatic tone and contour. Strangely, I've had some acting training, and am expressive when reading aloud. But my interior "reading voice" developed before that, and I might be stuck with it.

I don't often do long drives, and my mind's too excitable to submit to a steady regimen of multi-hour books on tape. Instead, I've been trying to train my imagination to be a better actor. However, I'm certainly convinced of the power of great actors to heighten this experience.

Alas, there aren't many truly great actors reading audiobooks. But the Hurt recording is just one of a series of "name" actors Simon & Schuster hired to read Hemingway classics in a series known as "The Ernest Hemingway Audiobook Library" (reviewed by NY Times here)

In the same series:

A Farewell To Arms, read by John Slattery
To Have & Have Not, read by Will Patton
For Whom The Bell Tolls, read by Campbell Scott
Across The River & Into The Trees, read by Boyd Gaines
The Old Man & The Sea, read by Donald Sutherland
Islands In The Stream, read by Bruce Greenwood
The Garden Of Eden, read by Patrick Wilson
True At First Light, read by Brian Dennehy
Death in the Afternoon, read by Boyd Gaines
Green Hills of Africa, read by Josh Lucas
A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, read by John Bedford Lloyd
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, read by Campbell Scott
The Short Stories (three volumes), read by Stacy Keach

You can order individual ones on iTunes, Amazon, or Audbible or the whole collection, which is expensive (I got lucky and scored a used set on eBay for $75).


Audiobooks Links:
10 Audiobooks That Are Worth Getting for the Voice Acting Alone
The 10 Greatest Audiobook Narrators
The complete, original BBC radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Free Audiobooks Courtesy of LoudLit.org
LoudLit.org's acclaimed audio version of "Heart of Darkness" " for free on iTunes
A master index of free audiobooks, including ones read by well-known figures such as Neil Gaiman and Julian Barnes.
(How to) Put your audiobooks in the cloud with iTunes Match

Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld: The Reveal is Never That Great!

I know lots of people are watching "Westworld". Here's my gripe (no spoilers):

The problem with shows that tease and tease some mega-awesome mythology, mystery, or puzzle is that when the answer is finally revealed, it can never possibly be that mega-awesome. Wasn't this the cautionary tale of shows like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica"? Isn't this the lesson well-learned by "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof and insightfully applied to his wonderful follow-up series, "The Leftovers" (where he's made very clear that he'll never, ever explain the show's foundational gimmick)?

Mythologies are wonderful things to bounce characters off of, to see how interesting characters respond to interesting circumstances. But if you make the puzzle the focus, you create impossible expectations...because TRINTG ("The reveal is never that great"). Humans are interesting in the micro ("Rectify"! "Hannibal"! "Louie"!). If you're imaginative, you can make the macro interesting, for a short while (e.g. a two hour film). But the downside of the the length of serialized TV is that your macro gimmick gets tedious fast, and the viewers can feel - even if only subconsciously- that TRINTG.

You could spoil me about "Westworld". Write the answer on an index card, and I'll glance at it, shrug and toss it in the trash. I just don't care! This mythology they're constantly cudgeling us with is nothing but distraction and disruption. The show drops us in a fascinating world, and it's beautifully shot and acted, and I'd like to hang out here week by week, without constantly clobbered with the pushy demand that I figure out uninteresting mysteries whose reveal will most likely do nothing for me.

More on some of the shows mentioned


There are deeper implications: e.g. human narrative is not as mythic as we'd like to imagine. We're clever livestock. The ways in which we creatively grind against the banal contours of our worldly dramatic narratives can be beautiful and surprising (and no television show has ever risen to the level of "Rectify" in the unflappable commitment to examine the nuances of that). That's our saving grace, our transcendence. But the contours themselves - including juicy conspiracies and mysteries - are non-awesome. That's what makes our desperately hopeful overuse of the word "awesome" so adorable.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Magicians and Their Secrets

There are a few skills and faculties I've worked very hard on for decades (after having started out with natural aptitude), and I've gotten really good at them (though there are way more realms where I'm pathetically lousy; it takes all kinds!). Yet, most often when I find myself around people involved in those very same areas, they pay very little attention. Respect - or even admiration - might be expressed at the outset, but my process - which I never hide - is rarely observed.

I know that a lot of it's because I don't act like a pompous prick. As a low gravitas individual (LGI), I don't exactly compel hushed solicitation. But what I've learned is very surprising: even magicians who are loose and free with their secrets find themselves preserving their shroud of mystery due to sheer disinterest.


Similarly, it's a misconception that you must take great care to protect your creative ideas from being stolen. First, the very few human beings capable of bringing ideas into existence are already extremely busy bringing ideas into existence, rather than fishing around trying to snatch your idea (unless you've got, like, a procedure for manufacturing a widget for 2¢ less per gross). The problem's never persistent over-interest. It's disinterest. Even those gifted with fantastic ideas and the eloquence to explain them are universally misunderstood and ignored until the big reveal (and even then, good luck with that better mouse trap!). Even the most brilliant innovations are invariably laughed at and undervalued in the beginning (even the iPhone) - and those are just the ones that we've heard of!

To digress from my digression, here's my standard reply when asked whether I've ever "ruined" a restaurant by over-publicizing it: "I've seen way, way, way more great places wither from disinterest than from over-attention."

That's why keeping great stuff secret is a mortal sin in my religion.


Pastor Jim Bakker wants to help you prepare for Trump's America

I've linked previously to Vic Berger's hilarious video edits, but the following exceeds all others in its terrifying hilarity ("hilarifying"?). I've heard people for months now using the phrase "beyond satire", but now, for the first time, I truly get it:



Follow Vic Berger here or on FB. Now that Owen Ellickson's stopped writing "The Trump Leaks", he's all we've got!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Black Friday Deals: Cooking Lessons and Instant Pot

Good tips from Paul Trapani, who doesn't pile onto this sort of stuff rashly....
I've been holding off on buying stuff this year for Black Friday-Cyber Monday, but found two things I couldn't resist:

Rouxbe Cooking School Sponsored Tuition
An online cooking school with really good lessons (knife skills, making stock etc.). Even stuff I knew about, I learned a lot on. It's got videos that show how stuff should be done. Makes a big difference in learning. Normally they have $299 tuition plus $4.95/month. The $299 had been a deal-breaker for me in the past, but a company is now sponsoring, with no strings attached (other than you see their logo when you log in). They cover the tuition, then you can subscribe for $4.99 for as long as you'd like. Well worth 5 bucks per month.

Instant Pot Electric Pressure Cooker
Instant Pot is one of the best-reviewed Electric Pressure Cookers (and does a bunch of other stuff too). On sale now for $68.00, normally around $120. I ordered one. I have a stove-top pressure cooker and love it, but this has the convenience factor of not needing to monitor as much. One thing though: this thing is a lot bigger than I thought from the picture. It fits on a counter, but it's bigger than a rice cooker.
Instant Pot was raved about on The SweetHome.
Follow-up Instant Pot tips from The SweetHome
Here's a particularly informative Amazon Instant Pot review.
Instant Pot has a great web site with great how-to-cook guides (and timings) like this one.

"Why Would Romney Even Want This Job?"

I didn't think of this. From the Washington Post's invaluable "The Daily 202":
A serious question: why would Romney even want this job? A diplomat tends to be most successful when allies and adversaries believe that he or she speaks directly for the president. This was the case for Condi Rice but not Colin Powell. Romney would be ineffective if foreign leaders did not think that his words carry much weight because they, hypothetically, could send intermediaries to appeal to Trump’s children who are overseeing his financial interests abroad.
Much as I'd love to see a sane, solid, pragmatist as Secretary of State, this is a good point. Anyone sane, solid, and pragmatic will be seen by foreign governments as distant from the capriciousness and drama of Trump and his inner circle. And a weak Secretary of State will indeed augment the corruption likely to flow through the kids (whether that channel "sticks" is irrelevant; even if the kids turn out to be moral paragons, what's important is how other countries see the incentive structure).

I can't express how deeply I loathe Giuliani, but if he was to convey something to a foreign government, they'd certainly believe he had the full weight of his administration behind him. Romney would not only find his assurances cuckolded from above, but foreign leaders would expect that from day one, even if it never happened (and, oh, it certainly would). There is nothing more useless than an impotent diplomat.


WaPo's Daily 202 arrives every morning in my email, just the right length and density for a quick scan, and there's always something enlightening. It's free; sign up here or read online here.

Also: whether you're opposed to Trump or warily voted for him hoping for the best, consider supporting the Washington Post's excellent reporting (which has been the strongest out there on Trump for months) with a $99 digital subscription. Help keep what's left of independent journalism alive during these scary times and be part of "the solution"!
I never read straight down their front page (the way I sometimes do with NYT), but I keep bumping into their articles (via referrals from Twitter or Google News), and it's great having an automatic sign-on and no pesky reading limits. And whenever I read those articles, I find myself thanking heavens above for Washington Post. Really, they're doing the best non-strident Trump investigation and push-back.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hypocrisy

Jon Stewart on today's Charlie Rose show:
"There is now this idea that anyone who voted for [Trump] has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. But there are guys I love and respect, who I think I have incredible qualities, and who are not afraid of Mexicans and not afraid of Muslims and not afraid of blacks. They're afraid of their insurance premiums!

In the liberal community you hate this idea of painting people as a monolith. "Don't look at Muslims as a monolith! They are individuals and it would be ignorant!" But everybody who voted for Trump is a monolith...is a racist."



As I wrote last week: "Liberals work very hard to advocate for tolerance and respect for people who look differently, or love differently, or pray differently. If I had an extra genie wish, I'd use it to help liberals invest some of that same passion into tolerating and respecting people who think differently."

Is Trump's Infrastructure Plan a "Trap"?

I'm not sure of what to make of this article, which describes Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan as "a trap."
"[It's] not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports, as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 infrastructure proposal. Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects."
Worse,
"Trump’s plan isn’t really a jobs plan, either. Because the plan subsidizes investors, not projects; because it funds tax breaks, not bridges; because there’s no requirement that the projects be otherwise unfunded, there is simply no guarantee that the plan will produce any net new hiring. Investors may simply shift capital from unsubsidized projects to subsidized ones and pocket the tax breaks on projects they would have funded anyway"
And, worse yet,
"because there is no proposed funding mechanism for Trump’s tax breaks, they will add to the deficit — perhaps as much as $137 billion. Yes, some economists think more deficit spending will boost growth. But you can be sure of this: In Trump’s hands, rising deficits will be weaponized to justify future cuts in health care, education and social programs. Just as David Stockman used deficits caused by the Reagan tax cuts as a rationale to slash social programs three decades ago (the “starve the beast” theory), the deficits caused by Trump’s infrastructure tax cuts will be used to justify cuts in programs."
The writer's fourth point seems entirely speculative (and weaselly so, if you'll read the whole piece):
"Buried inside the plan will be provisions to weaken prevailing wage protections on construction projects, undermining unions and ultimately eroding workers’ earnings. Environmental rules are almost certain to be gutted in the name of accelerating projects."
My reactions:

1. The writer, Ronald A. Klain, is, according to the history I was able to find for him, more of a political guy than a policy guy. He does have policy experience, but he's drawn fire for being a political messaging operative known for wading into policy work without real qualifications (e.g. his gig as Obama's "Ebola response coordinator", without prior public health experience). I may be wrong, and I don't doubt that he's a very intelligent and astute observer. But there's an awful lot of conjecture in this article which strikes me, as a writer, as artfully inserted to push buttons.

2. The article keeps singling out "contractors" as the primary fat-cat recipients of the plan's largesse. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but I'm pretty sure most contractors aren't plutocrats or moguls. So what's wrong with supporting middle-class contractors? I realize they're the dudes who vote Trump, but they only support Trump because the Dems neglected them.

3. I supported Obama's Jobs Bill because the extraordinary conditions of the Great Recession warranted Keynesian spending. A consensus of non-extreme economists consider conservative's beloved austerity an outmoded countermeasure to severe economic distress, so I'm persuaded that governmental spending is good to do when economic cycles crater. But while I still think we need jobs, and that we need infrastructure repair, I would not support Obama's original approach at this time. You don't do New Deal-style undertakings at non-dire moments; that's similarly discredited liberal thinking. So I'd actually lean, at this point, toward an approach using tax credits, incentives, and one-notch trickle down (contractors-to-workers, rather than billionaires-to-everyone). That said, I'd certainly want to ensure that an infrastructure bill really does improve infrastructure, and, of course, that this isn't just "starving the beast" toward some nefarious end.

But here's the thing. Beyond my broad viewpoints, I'm beyond my competence. I'm not experienced enough to study policy first-hand; to grok the language and see clearly through to repercussions and consequences. I'm stuck here! But who do I go to for convincing explanation in such a bifurcated society, where absolutely everyone's angry, everyone's spinning, and where even the most sincere, sober analysis can't help but be colored by assumption and emotion?

If I were a liberal or a conservative, I'd have my cozy nest of experts who speak my language and stoke my confirmation bias. Sometimes I feel like the last American not wanting his assumptions stroked and his anger justified. Going it alone means losing certain perqs of tribal membership.

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