Saturday, April 29, 2017

Rant v1.1

I cleaned up my previous posting ("Passionate Rant Against Nationalism") some; polishing the writing and clarifying some poorly-stated points. If it was of interest to you, you may want to reread.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Passionate Rant Against Nationalism

I hate nationalism. I feel that anyone paying attention to twentieth century history must conclude that, as I once wrote,
Nationalism is always a noble-seeming mask for xenophobia. Show me someone who loves "Us", and I'll show you someone who hates "Them".
It's time to recognize that nationalism is a noble-seeming veneer we stick over our shamefully lingering tribal instincts. Nationalism is the driving force of most large-scale human violence. It is among the most dangerous of the deep, primal strings we must resist plucking. Yet there's something about it that makes people feel supremely righteous. We desperately need to stamp that out.

The bad behavior often ascribed to religious zealotry, for example, always stems from patently obvious tribalism/nationalism. Any sort of group affiliation can trigger the impulse. The banner doesn't matter; any will do. So we need to stop looking at the surface of things, and recognize the deeper tribal pattern. If you watch for it, it soon becomes almost corny.

I've been devoting myself to trying to deprogram nationalists. I'll recount two recent discussions with otherwise reasonable people from places where nationalism flares (both of which seemed to have actually had some effect):

A Turkish Waitress from Izmir:

Her: We are more cultured than the rest of our country. More educated, more modern. We can't relate to the others. It's time to separate!

Me: When I go to Texas, or Mississippi, or North Dakota, it's like another universe. I can't relate to the values, beliefs, or lifestyles of the people there, and lord knows they can't relate to mine as a New Yorker. But it wouldn't occur to me that we should be different countries!

I can't relate to my sisters, either, but we (more or less) agree to exist within the arbitrary, random framework of Family. Siblings don't need to share values or interests. One simply accepts the granfaloon (every human grouping is a granfalloon!) and goes about one's life in a world where someone who looks like you and lives next door might be unrelatable, whereas someone halfway across the world, who speaks a language you can't understand, might be a kindred spirit. There are cascading scales of identification, and it's all quite fluid. We can weave our own affiliations.

Those of us who fully embrace this all-leveling, world-shrinking digital age understand this, innately*. Why not identify with a nation of the spirit; with people who share our values? That's the new, positive, evolved way to go. The trope of making a big deal over geographic border-drawing - over what you call the groupings - and buying into the "loving my people" bullshit, which always entails disdaining the Other (I like the Other! I'm xenophilic!) is an old, musty, stupid pattern. So, so corny. And dangerous!

* - I was in Bogota recently, and the folks typing on laptops in cafes there were absolutely sophisticated and "modern"; indistinguishable in most important ways from my cohorts doing likewise in Brooklyn. I could have long conversations with any of them; we enjoy enormous shared knowledge and outlook. Their parents, however, are half their size and wear, like, blankets. The world is filling with first-generation immigrants to modernity who share an evolved sense of kinship. Travel a bit and you'll see...the Internet has changed everything (don't get me wrong, though....these people were all culturally Colombian for sure, just as I'm culturally a New Yorker....but my point is that that's just one affiliation!).

A Catalan musician:

Him: I'm not a totally crazed nationalist, like some people I know. Though I have to admit, deep down, I do feel a strong drive of that. I can't explain it rationally, but something about it just feels right to me.

Me: Let me tell you about a deep drive. You see that woman over there? (I gesture across the bar to an attractive female). I'd like to walk over there, throw her to the floor, rip all her clothes off, and fuck her senseless. This is not a drive, however, that I choose to indulge. Responsible people learn to disregard their drives, even if they might "feel right" at some dark, primal level.

For the ultimate parable of the ridiculousness of nationalistic fine-slicing (which never ends well; in-groups always shrink, and out-groups always grow), consider the Valencians. See the italicized footnote here. I love Valencia, by the way. I deem them completely out of their skulls from a position of utmost love and respect.

Transformed Attitude Toward Travel

Wow: $596 from NYC to Vietnam, roundtrip, including all fees and taxes, courtesy of the addictive and life-changing The Flight Deal web site (previously described here).

I've used the site to fly to/from Austin for $80, Savanna for $96, Barcelona for $325, and Bogota for about $250 (minus another $100, due to a special deal, long story). And I've very nearly pulled the trigger on a bunch more.

Between, Airbnb (or Hotel Tonight for nice lodgings at sharp discount) and Uber, my attitude toward travel has changed entirely. I treat it all like an informal drive to Boston or DC, i.e. minimal planning and fuss. Just go and sort of...hang out. Chowhound a bit, try the beer, sit in at some jazz clubs and try to make contacts. Otherwise, it's about feeling perfectly normal while I'm somewhere completely different (as a touring musician, I've had a bit of a head start on this mindset).

A friend recently proposed hitting Paris for culinary exploration. That (airfare aside) would cost serious dough. I'd need to plan carefully...and disappointing results would feel crushing and wasteful. The stress  doesn't appeal to me. It's just not how I travel anymore. I'm not looking for home run experiences. 

In an era when I can spend a week in Bogota for under $500, total, I'm content to find a park bench to read a book, and to scarf some randomly-found street arepas, while feeling blissfully happy about the momentary flavor of my life. It involves making a big thing into more of a small thing, but enjoying the hell out of that small thing.

I can work just as I do at home - have laptop will travel - but, when I step away from my tasks, I'm somewhere breathtaking. I don't gear up for it. I don't bone up on the history, or try to really "do" the city. I essentially "go to ground". No sights, no guide books. Rather: I just blend in, feeling normal and at-home, except I'm not in Kansas anymore.

I didn't invent this, by the way. This is a Thing...and it's called "digital nomadism".

$600 is too expensive for whimmy travel, so I won't be hitting Vietnam. But still....tempting!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Finding Empathy for Trump's Enduring Support

From today's Daily 202 email from Washington Post:
Trump’s approval rating is at record lows, but he maintains credibility with his base. Our new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that his overall approval rating is 42 percent, but his rating among those who voted for him is 94 percent. Only two percent of his voters now regret doing so.
Here's my go-to move to empathize with Trump supporters. I think back to the point where it looked certain that the 2016 election would be Bush v Clinton, and I remember how demoralized I was at the prospect of such very weak tea - representative of the entitled "because it's his/her turn!" strain in American politics which seems so hidebound and ill-suited to the new century. I recall wishing that someone (Bloomberg? Huntsman?) would shake things up.

Perhaps you wished, too. Many of us did. And, low and behold, we got the "surprising" rise of Bernie and Donald. I wasn't a fan of either, but there's no denying they disrupted the process. They were not weak tea. And they were neither Bush nor Clinton.

These days I find myself wailing about the importance of norms. But I've flip-flopped. I felt less affection for norms when Bush vs Clinton inevitability was making me physically ill. Lots of people felt the same, but many of them didn't flipflop. They wanted disruption, they got disruption, and they're delighting in the disruption, even though polling indicates that many of them disagree with Trump's tweets, tone, and policies (not that he's the least bit consistent with the latter; he's just a wrecking ball, and that's why they love him).

Of course, my disruption-mindedness didn't compel me to embrace every sort of disruption. But this is a route for returning to the point before many of us branched. Mentally returning there again and again helps me maintain empathy for reasonable Trump supporters (if not the rabid rally attendees in MAGA hats), though certainly not with Trump himself.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the phenomenon of Trump's enduring support, I return to my crestfallen reaction to Bush vs Clinton inevitability. Then I refocus my vision, recognizing that many people felt strongly enough to act from that perspective.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Obsession or Creativity

I was in a restaurant eating lunch when I happened to re-check (for the 50th time) the website for my upcoming project (which launches publicly next week). I noticed a minor error. And while I didn't sputter or stress over it, I did feel a very strong impulse to abandon my meal, run home, and fix it.

Of course, I did no such thing. But a daemon, had been created, and would not easily relent. I was gripped by a powerful urge.

Again, this was only a very small issue. So my behavior might seem "obsessive". But labeling it that way would show a poor understanding of the creative process. It's taken me over five decades to understand that this sort of thing isn't neurosis. It's a feature, not a bug!

"Obsession" is the unhealthful and unhelpful application of deep attention to random, trivial, or even self-destructive tasks. It's the neurotic misappropriation of a perfectly admirable faculty. When, by contrast, a mother checks in on her baby just one last time before going to bed, we wouldn't call her obsessive. We'd recognize her to be elevating to her best self; showering her loving care and attention. Though the baby would be fine without the extra check, few of us would sneeringly deem the mother "obsessive". She's being a good parent!

Creativity is being a good parent, too!

OCD happens when creative people deny themselves a creative outlet (or have never stumbled upon an apt one). Their impulse to deeply care and commit becomes overwhelming, so they latch on to any (or every) random stupid thing. It's a perversion of the creative process, but it's a far worse perversion to use the language of dysfunction to describe someone engaged in genuine creative activity.

Your neighbor who stays up all night counting his rice grains is certainly "obsessive", but a Beethoven, wearing a diaper to ensure unbroken concentration while composing his symphonies, would be a very different case. An artist isn't a more functional obsessive; obsessives are malfunctioning artists. The behavior itself is only as detrimental as its application! (examples)

OCD is not the only mental health scourge that arises when creative impulses are misapplied to pedestrian or negative ends. Consider depression.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Leftovers Soup

Sauté in nonstick fry pan:

Thin-sliced half onion in olive oil, salt, and pepper, with a bay leaf

Add 1/2 leftover baked yam, roughly mashed

Add one leftover broiled chicken thigh, diced

....and continue until mixture starts to brown.

In soup pot, boil:

1/2 cup chicken stock

Leftover chili

Handful of chopped kale

Generous handful of Trader Joe's "Melodious Blend"

Serve boiled mixture in a bowl, topped with sautéed mixture.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Is there an afterlife?

My latest Quora posting: Is there an afterlife?

My two most popular Quora postings: In a fine dining restaurant, what is a polite way to tell the sommelier the price range for the wine you're considering? and How do people judge whether others are intelligent or not?

Ironically, my answer to the second question explains why I rarely get more than a scattering of up-votes. I only post when I have something surprising to offer, whereas the posts that get wildly popular tend to stroke people's preexisting biases and assumptions. Few of us are looking for surprising insights with the power to change our perspective. If people relished having their minds changed, the human condition would be very different.

I love surprise, myself. I love having my perspective shifted and my mind changed, so I've developed my capacity to surprise others. But I find myself endlessly relearning that most people are not wired to enjoy that sort of thing.

As a jazz musician, I understand that if I string together cliches, audiences will have a more soothing experience, because their unconscious predictions of how phrases will resolve turn out correct. It feels, to them, like a "win". Some musicians respond to this pressure by defiantly dashing all expectations (see Thelonious Monk), but I try to be a good storyteller, sensitively balancing familiarity and surprise. If only more people noticed...

More on consistency and predictability here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mama Grimaldi: Part 3

Coverage continues of my friend Andrea's trip home to his mother's kitchen in Rome (part 1, part 2, a slideshow of Andrea himself at work in the pizza oven in his garage, and photo spreads from two previous visits (this and this)

This time we're seeing some serious soul food. You don't see these things in restaurants.

Two notes:

1. Andrea would like to note that it's spelled "Mamma" in Italian.

2. Clicking to expand photos (every one of them) is obligatory.

Neapolitan Broccoli/Sausage

Macaroni Frittata

"O Père e 'o Musso" (Neapolitan dish of boiled pork cuts)

Orecchiette with Broccoli

Tortano Napoletano (a rustic Easter bread)


As I've been saying for months now, the Twitter feeds I follow are consistently ahead of the news (read over my shoulder via this public list...or, if pressed for time, scan my Twitter "likes", which I'm offering as a trail of breadcrumbs). Recent mainstream reports like this are no surprise to those of us who've been following things closely.

Mainstream news, of course, has a higher burden of proof than someone yakking on Twitter, and properly so. But while most yakkers are useless, those with deep ties to American intelligence, like John Schindler, are another thing entirely. He and the others in my list are drawing connections and pointing out patterns, applying great intelligence and experience. And they've been wrong about very little.

It's abundantly clear that we're in a full-scale intelligence war with Russia, and have been for some time, and Trump and an eye-popping proportion of his team are in the thick of it. And it wasn't just about the election. So where is the conclusive proof? Where are the prosecutions? The problem is that the key evidence is top-secret.

Our intelligence community (and the agencies of our allies) have known about this for quite some time, but what they know is classified. That's why mainstream press has lagged (reporters are working their asses off to independently confirm, via publicly available methods, solid stories they've known about for months). Prosecution's even harder. Even downright treasonous behavior can be difficult to prosecute because classified evidence can't be introduced at trial without burning sources and methods. Some truly despicable characters in our country's history have walked free because of this problem.

So that's why you're not hearing conclusive proof, and that's why people aren't being arrested, despite solid assurances from intelligence agencies (Obama, fwiw, knew all about it, but was apparently confident Clinton would win without his sticking his neck out). The world's counter-intelligence community is on the verge of a collective stroke, knowing what they know while the bad guys remain in place.

It's my nature to spurn conspiracy theories. And, post-McCarthy, anti-Russian paranoia and witch-hunting pushes strong buttons. But I'm forced to accept that the Russians have been engaged in impressive, wide-ranging actions with shocking results. I'm even coming around to the intelligence community's view on Snowden (public antagonism to the NSA - and intelligence community, generally - created by Snowden's actions have has had the opposite effect of increasing government transparency, plus they've clouded the ability of our intelligence people to warn us about situations like the current one; it's superb cover, really).

If, like me, you're unaccustomed to parsing the convolutions of disinformation deviousness, it's time to get up to speed. Russian intelligence agents have certain obscure, but highly-developed, tactics for screwing with people - and groups of people. Read this explainer, which helps cut through some of the (deliberately and painstakingly sown) confusion.

And if you can make the effort to read through this important Twitter thread, strewn with acronyms and potboiler-ish suspicion and counter-suspicion, you'll take away a deeper understanding of how confusion can be sown on a grand scale...and weaponized. The goal isn't just one thing (though Putin would love to lose those sanctions). Plain, random confusion is a potent tool for weakening a society - and associations with allies. Russian disinformation campaigns always play both sides, just to sow chaos and doubt. In other words, the Russian agents aren't just the people spouting pro-Russia agendas. Our president, for example, just apparently gave Putin a black eye by creating some potholes in an airstrip in Syria, even offering a "Take that!" to the Russian leader afterwards, but only a simpleton would conclude that he's switched sides. Look for more "Take that!" (he's not a puppet; you're the puppet!).

I've created a new blog "label", Trump/Russia, which links to my previous postings on the topic.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Unnecessary Wondrousness

I get very sad when I come upon older buildings displaying unnecessary detail work - the smaller and finer the better. Such frivolity is unthinkable nowadays, having been vanquished by the momentum of capitalism, which demands adherence to two doctrines: 1. maximize revenue, and 2. minimize expense.

Maslow's scissors were inevitably applied to aesthetic caprice, which disappeared along with the real butter in pastries, the real sugar in sodas, and any lingering vitality to the semi-archaic term "labor of love."

But every once in a while, I'll find myself on a less familiar city block and be transported to an era when human beings were frivolous enough and caring enough to embed easter eggs just because; an era when we occasionally tried just a bit harder than was strictly necessary.

At this point, there's scant rational basis for even an iota of non-monetizable delight. I mourn the turning away from the sacred credo of nano-aesthetics, the essential doctrine of my religion of Apprecianity.

But every once in a while there's a wink from within the miasma. Some anonymous drone takes the care to construct an unnecessarily wondrous lede sentence like the following one, and I realize all is not lost (it's small and quiet, yes, but nano-aesthetics compels the appreciation of minor wonders):
Ever since ENIAC, the first computer that could be operated by a single person, began flashing its ring counters in 1946, human beings and calculating machines have been on a steady march towards tighter integration.

God bless The Economist.

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