Friday, July 22, 2016

The Horrifying Portent of Brilliant Analysis of Donald Trump

If the airplane's making funny noises, watch your flight attendant. If she turns super-brisk and super-professional - if her IQ seems to suddenly jump 50 points - that means there's a problem. She won't reveal fear on her face; you'll know it by her rising to the occasion. That's how you know there really is an occasion.

It's famously hard to know, in the moment, when history is taking an auspicious turn. Most times it turns out to be nothing, in spite of popular uproar (remember the anthrax scare? remember the overpopulation scare?). People will get rattled and act out at any little thing. If you want to spot a significant turn, watch for people rising, not sinking, to the occasion.

I found Donald Trump's speech last night deeply frightening for a number of reasons, none of them related to his deliberate efforts to frighten me. And, sure, there's uproar about it. There's always uproar. But what terrifies me is reading through the responses, as reported here. I see reasonably bright and moderately insightful people hitting it out of the park with daunting brilliance. The emergence of pockets of brilliance is, alas, a portent.

The following are from Republicans and Conservatives:

George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter:
"He is summoning primal forces of anger/fear, and displaying leadership without moral guardrails, religious principles or civic responsibility"

Mitt Romney's chief strategist:
Give him credit for this: Donald Trump is a dark, disturbed man, and he sees in the country what he sees in the mirror"

A conservative blogger:
"Trump's speech sounded better in the original German"

Bill Kristol:
"Trump's 'I'm the only one who can fix it' marks descent of the Republican Party from Republican constitutionalism to demagogic Casarism"

Best of all...conservative writer Stephen Miller:
"RNC who made fun of "Yes We Can" for seven years are now chanting "Yes You Will" on the convention floor"

Conservatives normally enjoy trading in fascist imagery about as much as black people enjoy tap-dancing over watermelon.

Maybe it's just me, but I read people sensing something truly pivotal in their guts; not just twitchy displeasure. This happens in groups only in the face of auspicious historical turning points. When people start rising to an occasion, that's when you know you're really fucked.

PS: Can we finally please stop focusing on his stupid hair and mannerisms? His buffoonish absurdity is the very least of our problems.

Please vote this year, even if you're normally blasé, and even if you're sure your state couldn't possibly go Trump. Also, please consider adding a similar footer plea to your social media posts, your email sig, etc.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

David Chang's Unified Theory of Deliciousness

You've probably seen this much-discussed manifesto from David Chang, titled "The Unified Theory of Deliciousness". It stems from a consideration of loops:
"DeLong and Hofstadter both found great beauty in what the latter called strange loops—occasions when mathematical systems or works of art or pieces of music fold back upon themselves. M. C. Escher’s drawings are a great, overt example of this. Take his famous picture of two hands drawing each other; it’s impossible to say where it starts or ends. When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren’t just thinking about what’s happening inside the picture; you’re thinking about the system it represents and your response to it.'
It's often observed that wisdom is the ability to tolerate paradox. This is an attempt to reverse-engineer that result. If you can present paradox in an easily-digestible fashion (as Escher famously did), you can convey the beauty of wisdom. As artfully-presented paradox surprises and delights us, we experience the revelatory jolt of a creative person's eureka. We get it, at least for a moment. That's why people sometimes nod their heads affirmatively or burst into laughter while reading or listening to music. Epiphany!

It doesn't need to be as blatant as Escher made it. There are many ways to inject paradox, and all good creation has a whiff of it. Without it, you're merely swapping around building blocks. Paradox makes a whole more than the sum of its parts, and that's the entire delight of humanity. Without that gestalt - that magic - all human pursuits would be dully prosaic.

Paradox can be made digestible in any medium, including the literal digestion of cuisine. This is the basis of Chang's thesis. Unfortunately, he then proceeds to set up rules for the swapping around of building blocks. That's the trap creative people inevitably run into whenever they try to codify a process. As I wrote in my attempt to explain Steve Jobs,
What's the source of Steve Jobs' Shakti? He tried to explain in his Stanford commencement address. Ironically, he condensed it into rules. That's always what happens. Again, the rule's not the thing (must one dutifully obey a command to "Think Different"?). You can't codify it. You just gotta surrender to the Shakti. Simple as that.

See also this explanation on why nearly all human art is nothing more than a clever masking of perfection.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Broken Pendulum...or Why I Miss George Bush

When George W. Bush - an empty vessel infested by extremist neo-cons - was elected, I thought to myself "Good. They'll wreck the country a tiny bit, but the long-festering foolishness will come to a head and be seen for what it is. The political pendulum will swing - as it always does - back to a more moderate position." Then he was reelected in spite of his disastrous decisions, and I worried that the pendulum had broken.

Now as I watch the Republican convention, I find myself remembering George W Bush far more fondly than I ever imagined possible. He was, at least, sincere.

During the rise of Trump, I've remained a staunch political Taoist. Here, surely, was an extreme of extremes - a walking reductio ad absurdum of talk radio conservativism who could never be swallowed by mainstream America. But that gulping sound, quite audible this week, indicates otherwise.

At some point, we'll reach a bottom. That's not an expression of faith; it's how the world has always worked. Things will inevitably get wrecked a bit; wreckage is necessary for many people to recognize a "too far" point. Some of us can't spot a dead end until their noses are pressed so hard against the wall that blood streams from their nostrils.

But it's not entirely a matter of the obstinacy of zealots. It's also the lobster principle for moderates. Boil a lobster slowly/gradually enough, and it'll never try to escape the pot. Concentration camp inmates (subjected to steadily increasing persecution for a decade by their tormentors) were fond of saying "it's all good" (s'iz gut). Human adaptability - a feature, not a bug - is easily exploited.

This is why you must register and vote this time. No matter how numb you've been made to feel, don't wait for the next-gen monster; don't wait for total wreckage. Non-voting good people are the problem....and our great hope! The question is: how wrecked will things have to get before we recognize it, and care, and restore our seriously stuck pendulum to equilibrium?

Read the latest sanity from the unquestionably nonpartisan Mann and Ornstein

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Feel Good Story About Donald Trump Supporters

I know a grimy pizzeria, in a scrubby blue collar nabe, serving cheap pizza but also, very quietly, a short list of quite good Mexican items on the down-low. I never see other customers opting for sopes or quesadillas. It's all dry wall guys and FEDEX drivers scarfing cheap slices for lunch. Oversized working class white dudes whose car bumpers all seem to have "volunteer fireman" stickers. And, naturally, Trump stickers.

While I awaited my sopes, I watched the scene. Arriving customers warmly greeted the Mexican owner (a big, garrulous guy who, himself, wouldn't look out of place on a fire truck). Ordering was no-nonsense, but wives and children were tersely asked after in both directions, by name. I heard Donald Trump mentioned a couple times, but the Mexican dude didn't tense a muscle. He wasn't just shucking and jiving; he really relates to these guys. I bet he'd vote Trump, too, if it weren't for the virulent racism. Maybe he manages to overlook that part, just as they do.

The burly customers finish their pizza and wave goodbye with warm eyes, like with family. I, from another world, nibbling my sopes de al pastor, received more distant/polite treatment from the staff. I was "sir". The owner was with those other guys. And they were with him. And as Trump brashly blasted on CNN, none of the Mexican workers behind the counter ground their teeth. They're bought in. They like America. And they sympathize and identify with these guys. And here's the thing: I think they absolutely understand all about hijo de puta politicians who talk a lot of shit. They've seen that before, and would never blame the followers for being conned. Same as it ever was.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Subtle Rewards of Quiet Caring

I recently added a new worker to the project I've been cooking up for a year or so. Unlike our other team members, who work as a partnership, her role's more limited, so she's being paid as a clerical worker.

Today I noticed her caring. She did some small things better than she needed to. Not to impress me, and not to make any splash. She didn't realize anyone was paying attention, but small touches revealed sincerity beyond her own self-interest. She'd invested more than was necessary, and the result had some love in it. An ember, not a bonfire. Like a little secret, or a child's wish; small but pure.

I quietly made an adjustment to her compensation which may well translate into a small windfall down the road. I don't believe she entirely registered this; she wasn't really paying attention. (Very few people care when no one's looking - which is why I was touched today - but still fewer care about caring to the point where they notice it in others; it's quite a lonely perch.) But that's fine by me. We'd both quietly done the right thing, without fuss.

In this late stage of capitalism, caring more than strictly necessary seems like an irrational indulgence, and it rarely seems to be rewarded. There were long years when this observation led me to despair. But not all rewards are explicit. The good stuff's subtle (and the great stuff's very subtle). On occasions when you've lavished uncommon care, you really can't be sure it wasn't noticed. And you likely failed to register the quiet blessings that came your way. They just easily blended into your flow, provoking little notice.

It's this ("The times everything worked out.....I was simply caring...a lot. Possibly too much. Likely to a degree the mainstream would consider odd.)
...and this ("The rewards of living life with commitment - pushing oneself to do cool things that help and/or delight people - are entirely intangible...and entirely sufficient.")
...and it grew out of this ("The cure for ennui: make life exciting for others. If you feel you're not getting your due, work to give others their's. If you feel helpless, help others. If no one understands you, show people you understand them. If you're lonely, ease others' loneliness. If you're sad, cheer people up.").

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Victitude: the Sublime Bliss of Stress Tests

As I wrote at the time, I had a stent implanted in my heart two years ago. It was an amazing experience to watch along on the monitor as the surgeon snaked it up my arm and into the valve. A year after insertion, there's vanishingly little chance of further problems. In fact, since my heart's been examined down to the last inch (an expensive and slightly risky procedure unavailable to symptomless people), I have far less heart risk than the average person, who, for all s/he knows, may have been slow-building plaque to the point of blockage*. I know I've got flow, baby!

* - if your doctor recommends Lipitor, please get on it ASAP!

There was an incredible moment when I was given a stress test two months later. After weeks of coddling, and viewing my own chest as terra incognita, I sweated, I worked, I huffed and puffed, and my heart behaved just like a heart. Durable! Not-delicate! I strode out of the medical office like an Olympic champion, far more confident in my body than ever before. I deeply understood what I'd been blessed with, both re: my new lease on life (if this were 1965, I'd be dead) and re: the original equipment itself. I could walk fast up steep hills - without dying, to boot! - and it felt deeply victorious. Since I'm not a competitive person, victory is not a feeling I'd previously known. This was an exultant blend of victoriousness and gratitude. Victitude!

This weekend, I felt some strange sensations in my chest. I emailed my cardiologist, who really hates losing 53 year old patients (particularly yogis with low heart rates and no stress levels), and who therefore rushed me directly into a same-day stress test (after an EKG), and stayed two hours after his normal office hours to watch me take the test in person, biting his lower lip the whole time.

A stress test is a highly controlled attempt to coax a heart attack. It's the only effective way to determine your headroom - i.e. to know whether you're living on the brink. That's awesomely useful and life-saving knowledge to have! Yet it sounds horrifying, because most people have a 1965-ish reaction to the phrase "heart attack". A quick explainer:

A heart attack is nothing more than your heart not receiving the oxygen it needs. If it occurs during a stress test, they spot it on the EKG, they pop a nitro glycerin tablet in your mouth, and things open back up again super-quickly, no harm no foul (though you'd damn well better address the underlying issue ASAP, because you now know that you have no headroom). A heart attack is only a problem if the oxygen deprivation is lengthy. Look at it this way: technically speaking, a sponge diver, holding his breath for three minutes, risks brain death. But there's no need to be so dramatic. When he surfaces to breathe, all is well. Again: no harm, no foul. It's all about duration.

The test once again brought exultation - victitude - as I worked up to the most grueling stage without the slightest problem. It is impossible, even for a veteran writer, to articulate how it feels to know one can frickin' murder ones heart with exertion and have it perform like a champ, after a few hours of uncertainty about the vagaries of this mysterious pump buried in ones chest.

Now, here's the thing I need to tell you (quickly, before the immediacy fades for me, degrading this message into empty words): you should feel exultant, yourself. Even if this vast universe turns out to be rife with life as we know it, it is still exceedingly rare for matter to be invested with the ability to move of its own volition for a few precious decades. Each twitch of a finger is a miraculous defiance of inertia, a complete and utter victitude.

That was the idealist interpretation of my feeling of triumph. The more cynical view is represented by the first joke I ever learned as a child:

Q: Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?

A: Because it feels so good when I stop.

Friday, July 8, 2016


Offense is the closest citizens of wealthy societies ever come to tasting the delicious sanctimony of victimhood.

Offense-prone people zealously nurture their hot buttons and shoulder chips. To question their indignation can evoke seething wrath. Challenging their entitlement to take offense is a far greater affront than the offense itself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Six Pointed Stars + Money = Scandal

Warning: shield your eyes from the horrifying imagery below:

The fact that the Republicans can run an ignorant authoritarian thug for president, and Democrats feel compelled to drum up some ridiculous anti-semitic controversy over a six-pointed star having been placed near money really drums home why I'm a moderate/centrist.

Here's the thing, bleeding-heart liberals: if you scream "anti-semite" whenever anything the least bit vaguely Jewy (to you) gets associated with anything the least bit fiscal, that mostly just shows where your minds are at. Thank you for undermining efforts to call out Trump for his actual monstrousness.

As I once noted,
"As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?"


If you're an intense person - whether via meditation, or by having overcome tough challenges, or simply because it's how you're configured - you've surely noticed that other people often respond to you in strange and unpredictable ways. The following are counterintuitive insights from 53 years of trying to understand why.

Intensity is most often mistaken for anxiety, because that's such a common channel for human intensity. Anxiety is the clammily inadequate holding pen for our most bombastic impulses (depression is another intensity holding pen, but it doesn't look like it from the outside).

In cases where intensity simply is, rather than having been tamped down into anxiety, it's still (literally) always misinterpreted. The problem is that human beings can't parse free-floating-ness. So they subconsciously associate intensity with some concrete intention - one they're afraid of, or one they habitually obsess over. They make it a thing.
People afraid of anger will interpret the intensity as rage.

People who fear loss of control will interpret it as pushy aggression.

Insecure people will interpret it as arrogant superiority.

Paranoid people will interpret it as nefarious attention on them.

People obsessed with sex will interpret it as sexual attraction, in either direction (this can be a big problem especially if the person is otherwise uninterested; you'll feel like unwelcome attention at best, and, at worst, their ambivalent impulses will be projected back at you in wildly inappropriate ways).

People obsessed with religion will interpret it per the mythology of their particular religion.
Intensity aside, your mere superficial difference leaves you prone to the usual playground social dynamics which arise from "otherness".

The scariest thing is that the the more invisible you try to make yourself, the more nefarious your agenda appears, because it parses as if you're hiding your true intentions...even if you have none.

The same happens, inversely, as well. Many people can't parse their own free-floating intensity, and wind up channeling it into one drive or other. They actually do become obsessed with sex, or religion, or some sort of fear.

When you channel non-specific intensity (i.e. g
eneric radiant love), great things can happen, but there are problems from the unbalancing. We learn to "let go", in meditation, prayer or selfless service, to unkink old habits of intensity constriction. The tremendous "kundalini" energy experienced by advanced spiritual practitioners is the sum of this energy wrenching free from its moorings.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Lazy Fat Lonely Kings

The late, great, Elie Wiesel reviewed Disneyworld, back in 1957, and reported that it beats the hell out of Auschwitz. The article about this been linked everywhere this week for the following line:
I don’t know if a Garden of Eden awaits adults in the hereafter. I do know, though, that there is a Garden of Eden for children here in this life. I know because I myself visited this paradise.
But his description of the House of the Future was what got my attention:
Futuristic man will live such a wonderful life! Everything will come to him so, so easily! If someone knocks at the door, you won’t have to go to see who it is: He will appear on the screen of your television. If the telephone rings, you’ll be able to see the person you’re speaking with and not just hear his voice. And a thousand other such conveniences will turn your house into a royal palace and transform you yourself into a lazy, fat, lonely king.

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