Thursday, August 18, 2016


I'm trying something. Every time I'm inclined to deride some stricture or objection as being "P.C.", I'm trying, first, to swap in the term "polite". If it fits, then I recognize I'm the asshole (if not, then I double down on my indignation).

I loathe nearly everything about "political correctness". But I recognize that this aversion can go too far, justifying needlessly hurtful expression in the name of expressive freedom. I don't like people telling me how to talk/write/think, but I also don't believe a staunch open carry approach to taboo speech is the appropriate countermeasure. And I'm chilled by society's reversion to some old tropes. It's like seeing smallpox creep back.

It's always damned hard to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Case for Opting Out of Life Extension

When I was young, I fretted over longevity. I did the math, and it seemed clear that I'd start aging near the point where serious life extension would become possible. It seemed entirely likely that I'd find myself on the wrong side of the most heart-breaking cut-off in human history. We'll all die some day, at some point, but there was an excellent chance I'd be in the last sad wave of stooped, sick old people. Just my luck!

The transformation has already begun (though, as with many fundamental transformations, we barely notice it). I remember when 70 year-olds sat glassy-eyed clutching tea. Now, I know plenty of clear-headed, active, healthy 80 and 90 year olds. Living to 100 is no longer a spectacular achievement.

Life extension research seems poised to really pay off in the next couple of decades. Indeed, it will probably be too late for me. But I've changed my mind. I'm no longer distressed about missing that cut-off, because I've recognized the coming catastrophe. People somehow miss the self-evident truth that human society is predicated on churn.

Many of us now work an extra decade or so. And even more of us are working effectively into their 60's than ever before, holding onto full power and position, overturning the previous tradition of the gentle denouement, where we pushed the senile old windbags gradually aside before finally showing them the door.

That's not a polite way to phrase it, but we need a clear-eyed awareness of how things are changing. And one momentous recent change is the sense of unprecedentedly narrowed opportunities among our current crop of young people. There are many factors, but the previous generation's disinclination to step aside at the usual time is surely one of them. So what happens when humans work - failing to pass on our assets and our power - into our 80's, 90's, 100's, and 110's? You don't have to be Nostradamus to foresee that outcome.

You may have noticed some tension in our body politic these days, on both right and left. Income inequality is a huge, toxic problem, poisoning society in all sorts of ways. Same for power inequality. As the Olds enjoy greater and greater lock on both, and maintain that lock for longer and longer, there will come a tipping point when the imbalance becomes parsed in these terms. Youngs aren't going to like it. The energy and momentum of Occupy Wall Street, and the anger of Bernie and Trump's followers may be recalled as minor foreshadowings once a generation is clearly seen as refusing to step out of the way.

I'm okay not watching that collision play out.

Morality question: is opting out of life extension tantamount to suicide? Must we live the lengthiest possible lifespan available to us in order to be considered sane and virtuous?

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Base

As I sat quietly in a suburban restaurant recently opened to cater to exactly the likes of me - craft beer, lots of wines-by-the-glass, coal oven pizza, good music - a couple of bros walked in asking for Bud Lite, and for the staff to take off the Olympics and put on the Yankees game.

"Excuse me! EXCUSE me!" they insisted until the waiter hustled to meet their demands. I was watching the Olympics (and drinking the most expensive, esoteric beer on the list), but up came the Yankees, and out came the Bud Lite. My empty glass went unnoticed. 

I sat for twenty minutes, waiting to have my empty, dirty plate removed and another beer offered. Never happened. 

As I paid and skulked off (while the bartender chatted amiably with the bros), I suddenly realized that it's not only politics where "the base" is taken for granted. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Winsome Muffin Road Photos

Join me in creating a "thing" by posting rainy day dashboard shots of winsome muffins to social media.

Two of my best efforts:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Creating a Vacuum to Leech Out Eurekas

This has been the tough stretch of the secret project I've been laboring over for 18 months. Grinding and grinding, drawing worrisomely close to the point I described here where my life starts falling apart just a little as I let everything else go (this is where creativity connects to depression; depression is simply a misuse of creative faculties; both look similar to an outside observer, but creativity actually pops out a useful result). Beethoven composed in a diaper, you know.

Roasting at my computer in a 100 degree heat wave, researching opaque fine points of Cambodian sub-ethnicities, way too immersed to be fully miserable, I had to wrench myself out of my grind and put on my manager hat to speak with one of our project's Grown Ups. And during that discussion, it became clear that we'd need to change the project's title. And we'd need a new one ASAP.

Every creative reader just groaned in pain. Titles are hard to devise under the best of conditions, much less in mid-project while waist-deep in the weeds of filling in blanks and getting stuff done. When you're slogging along under the gun, you're the very opposite of creative, inventive, clever. You're just not that person. That person's a capricious dreamer, whereas you're an industrious worker ant, covered in mud. The twain don't meet.

Creativity requires space. You don't tighten your belt to foster your best creativity, you loosen it. You don't bear down, you dilate.

If you were to observe me, you'd think I was the biggest slacker in the world. When not in mid-project (actually executing the things I've dreamed up), I spend an awful lot of time sitting around, watching TV, ruminating, hanging out, not doing anything productive. This used to mortify me. I figured I was lazy, shiftless, broken, and worried that I was wasting my life. It's been a huge source of shame since early childhood. But at a certain point I turned around, looked back, and noticed, to my surprise, that I'd actually accomplished stuff, and developed a range of skills, even in my seeming sloth. Magically, stuff got done!

I know now that it's easily explained: creativity is fostered by loosening the belt, by making space for epiphanies. An awful lot can get done via relentless hard work (and I eventually learned how to knuckle down into that in order to execute my ideas), but creativity is a different animal, and it looks lazy.

But it's hard to shift - to jam on the brakes while in "knuckling down" mode and go back to "expansive dreamer" mode. The prospect nauseated me. So I hatched a plan.

I resolved to go easy on myself (always a good move; indeed, this was an important Postcard From My Childhood I'd sent forward to my elder self as a child). I'd cease work completely for a day, but be very careful not to start thinking about title quite yet. I wouldn't turn the issue around in my mind, nor would I turn around in my mind the impending need to turn this around in my mind. Two levels! No struggle, and no underlying dread of the upcoming struggle (meditation helps for this sort of thing, enabling rather precisely-targeted "letting go" processes).

After a day of decompression, I'd take a long drive, and think about titles in a state of dilated, dreamy relaxation. I'd make space. And I'd even make space around the space-making. In the meanwhile, with work ceased, and all stress suspended, I relaxed into what seemed like a pregnant vacuum. I went to bed. And I woke up at 4am with the perfect title. Eureka.

Now, of course, it's going to be hell to push myself back into industriousness mode. I'm in a frame of mind where I want to write poetry, think up loads more schemes, and go do fun things, when I really need to knuckle back down!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Oh Jesus Christ....My Hands are Exactly Like Donald Trump's!

The Hollywood Reporter reports:
Trump does indeed have hands just below average size, particularly for a man standing 6-foot-2. According to various human anatomy websites, the average-height American adult male (5-foot-10) has an average hand size (measured from the tip of the middle finger to the wrist) of 7.44 inches. Trump's measures 7.25 inches.
I immediately reached for a ruler, of course. And discovered, with nauseated horror, that this is precisely my hand size, as well.

I'm not sure how to take this. My hands are the only body part to have completely escaped ridicule all this time.

A Feature, Not a Bug

This dialog with a Pakistani acquaintance (who knows quite a lot about America, but, like many people I suppose, misses the key ingredient) helped me organize my thoughts about this election, and about some recent and distant history.

He wrote:
C'mon friends and acquaintances in USA. This is more than enough. Can someone stop this idiot. And I don't mean by Second Amendment, like he did. I mean can someone get him off the Republican Ticket. Assassinating a Presidential Candidate or a President? Even our nutcases in Pakistan haven't gone that far against the President, the PM or his brother in their often ridiculous speeches.
I replied:
If they could have replaced him, they would have. But there's no mechanism post-convention to remove (much less replace) a nominee. He's an extreme edge-case our election system has no tools to repel....aside from the vote itself.

And he needs to be resolutely voted down (not just administratively censured), to send the proper signal. And note that his thundering defeat might accomplish the impossible: overturn the heavily gerrymandered (and thus nearly bulletproof) Republican majority in the some stuff might actually get done (though hopefully Clinton won't indulge her hawkish instincts).

Unless, that is, Julian Assange's promise of an October Surprise revealing indictable offenses by Clinton comes to be. In that case, who knows (if so, please find a jazz club for me to work in so I can come live in Pakistan).
...and he replied:
Many people are voting for Hillary because of Trump, but if Julian's emails appear and she loses, will Trump win? Will someone else take her place to fight Trump? This looks like the most amazingly stupid election in USA in my life.
...and I replied:
There's no replacing him now, there's no replacing her later. The very essence of our democracy is that there's no overarching authority to make these weighty parental decisions; no thumb on the scale. The people ARE that authority, period (a feature, not a bug).

This is why Jefferson wrote so anxiously about his hope that the people would be found to have been worthy of this experiment.

We largely have been. In nearly 250 years, we've more or less gotten the job done, which is an awfully good run (I'd have staunchly denied that after Bush's reelection, but, frankly, he's looking pretty good to lots of us right now - an honorable man we merely disagreed with).

Monday, August 8, 2016

"Protest Vote": The Narcissist's Reckoning

When I was a kid, my mother occasionally told me I was "the best little boy in the world", and that I could do anything I set my mind to. I completely realized she was full of crap. She herself plainly didn't believe any of that. My generation - the product of parents who raised children at arm's length, barely tolerant of our nonsense - proceeded to go too far the other way and made our kids the centers of our lives. Kids were kings. A generation was raised as Kardashian celebs, with all attention fixed adoringly on their every utterance and preference.

This, naturally, launched an era of screaming, imperious kids terrorizing public places - like restaurants - with parental impunity. Anyone complaining - e.g. on Chowhound - about such practices was savaged with thermonuclear heat by parents indignantly certain that every childish impulse is like pure gold. A generation of entitled narcissists was being raised, and one day I knew there'd be a reckoning. Well, here it is.

A short article has been making the social media rounds, titled "There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote". It patiently explains that democracy requires lining up and being tallied, so your "protest vote" is not special. The subtext is, of course, that you are not special. Your predilections and compulsions are flaccid, useless little puffs of nothingness. You are not a celebrity. You are small.

People nowadays actually need to be told this. And the article is considered a controversial and insightful piece of writing!

An excerpt:
" doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it. No one is listening. The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to “I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.” It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.

This is frustrating, of course, but that’s how our Presidential elections are set up. Democracies alternate the coalition in power, but different systems do so in different ways. In multi-party systems, voters get the satisfaction of voting for smaller, ideologically purer factions — environmental parties, anti-immigrant parties, and so on. The impure compromises come when those factions are forced to form coalitions large enough to govern. The inevitable tradeoffs are part of the governing process, not the electoral process.

In America, by contrast, the coalitions are the parties. Our system also produces alternation of power, and requires compromises among competing interests, but those compromises happen within long-standing caucuses; issues come and go, but the two parties remain. This forces the citizens themselves to get involved in the disappointing tradeoffs, rather than learning about them after the fact. No one gets what they want in a democracy; two-party systems simply rub voters’ noses in that fact...

...Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people. Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Hilarious Trump Antidote

The Twitter feed of this TV producer and sometime writer (he wrote a few episodes of The Office) has been my salvation and consolation for over a week now. This Owen Ellickson guy has been using Twitter to create behind-scenes dialogs between Donald Trump and other people (mostly Paul Ryan, who serves as his Shakespearian chorus), and it's both hilarious and uncannily apt. Beyond parody, it often approaches something more akin to channeling.

I haven't written about it before, because it's kind of hard to come in in the middle, and Twitter doesn't make it easy to catch up. But one of a burgeoning number of fans (when I started, he had a couple thousand followers, but it's now nearly 25,000, including Patton Oswalt and other latecoming grandees) put together this helpful link and I quite honestly can't recommend it enough.

This scratches that stunned can't-look-away Trump itch we're all feeling. Spend a minute, and you'll spend a couple hours.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"The Professor: Tai Chi's Journey West"

The eye of the hurricane, the sublime master of every art form he practiced, the betrayer of Chinese secrets, Cheng Man-Ching, aka The Professor, brought Tai Chi to America (royally pissing off the Chinese businessmen who'd brought him over to teach them, rather than the American hippies who flocked in). He was so slippery that even his best students failed to find a handhold - literal or metaphorical. In martial arts practice, they reported they could only brush the soft, light cloth of his tunic, never his person. Ching seemed to be nowhere.

Watching the 75 minute film, "The Professor: Tai Chi's Journey West", I strained to remember that the affable, listless, unexceptional man at its center is extraordinary. Without discernible effort, he throws much larger men far up into the air. Watch his opponents, and you see sharp, dynamic action. Watch The Professor, and there's only silence. The mind strains to link cause and effect, but cannot accept that the impassive Professor and the flying bodies have any relationship with one another.

The Professor was also a master painter, producing work that was lushly moving. There, too, he worked with utter casualness. That dude simply does not seem capable of producing these paintings. One student recounts having a casual conversation with him while The Professor appeared to be cleaning his brushes, realizing minutes later, with a start, that he'd been creating a masterpiece the entire time. Totally casual. Like it was nothing.

Same with his calligraphy: there's an utter disjoint between the Professor and the rich miracles flowing from his pen. Once again, his output has obvious presence, yet, regarding The Professor himself, it appears no one's home. You might lightly brush his sleeve, but never find a handhold.

His students, even his family, spend 75 minutes failing to say an insightful word about the man, making this something of a shaggy dog story. One sympathizes with the filmmaker (Barry Strugatz, writer of "Married to the Mob" and original tipster to DiFara Pizza). How does one make a movie about a cipher - an utterly empty vessel? What's to talk about when no one's there behind the empty tunic?

Strugatz nailed it. He pointed his camera at The Professor's output; the ripples, the fruits of his labors. Most of all, we watch and watch his students - mostly senior citizens now, and comically unable to pin him down in words any more successfully than they could with their hands. As the camera lingers on their faces, it becomes apparent that they, themselves embody The Professor, as much as do his gorgeous paintings, sumptuous calligraphy, and piles of bodies thrown high into the air.

Each student is palpably changed. You see him reflected in them; in their faces and spirits. Each is, superficially, a "type" you've seen before, but none turned out quite per original destiny. There's a marked skewing - a twist - no more accountable in concrete terms than any other aspect of The Professor's juju.

It's subtle. The film could never have been made by someone who wasn't himself a lifelong tai chi practitioner. It'd have failed due to the sheer non-materiality of its subject. The student interviews - laughably failing to capture the world's most un-capturable man - would have piled up in a film cabinet, unusable. In fact, I saw early pieces of this film (decades in the making), and worried the project was terminally stalled.

But, in its final form, the film weaves around The Professor, in his insubstantiality, intuiting its way into gaps like a tai chi game of "push-hands". As his students come into focus, you notice (via everything but the words from their mouths) that they remain in dynamic motion, and you can sense (though never glimpse) the hand which propelled them. They've been thrown up into the air, with no idea of what the hell happened to them. They can't read the writing on their walls, but we can.

Here's the DVD , and here is an iTunes link . And here's a short trailer:

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