Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Intelligence

Someone on Quora asked "How do people know who is intelligent?", and I answered as follows:

Well, the first thing to recognize is that people are quite bad at making that determination. They're impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who project confidence, or by their qualifications. They're impressed by educated people who use fancy words and have lots of information stored in their heads. They're super impressed by arrogance. And, most of all, people are impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who agree with them (look up "confirmation bias"). Tell someone something they already believe, and they'll think you're smart! On the other hand, say something surprising, which doesn't mesh with their prior assumptions (as truly intelligent people often do), and they'll think there's something "off" about you. Most people really don't like to be surprised, but intelligent people are often surprising.

The thing is, you've got to be smart, yourself, to recognize the intelligence of a surprising insight which doesn't line up with your previous assumptions, to distinguish between knowledge (mere data) and intelligence (clever use of data), and to see through arrogance. It takes wisdom to recognize wisdom - and to differentiate it from glibness. If you can't clear-headedly analyze arguments, it's hard to know when confidence is bluffed and qualifications are empty.

You also need to look past appearances. I know very smart people who are uneducated, inarticulate, barely literate, and who need to be explained complicated ideas over and over before they understand - who are what you'd call slow-thinking. They'll ponder stuff practically forever - long after the educated, snappy people in the room have given their opinions....perhaps days or weeks after. And then they'll cough up a conclusion that's so clever, so surprising, so creative that your head wants to explode. Fast thinkers aren't necessarily smarter, nor are slow thinkers necessarily dumber.

The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. And it takes ample intelligence to be impressed by actual impressiveness rather than by mere impressive-seemingness. Most truly intelligent people I've met aren't very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Problem with Spielberg

My holiday movie-watching binge included Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln". It was a perfectly okay movie, but as I watched, I remembered that I never really like any of Spielberg's films. And, for the first time, it dawned on me what the problem is.

All his films seem like works for young adults. Shorn of all subtlety, complexity, and ambiguity, they hurtle inexorably forward as if on a steel rail. The hand of a fatherly figure cajoles us to feel precisely what he needs us to feel at every given moment.

One senses, above all, great pains taken in the name of clarity, but it's not the clarity of fluency (ala Hitchcock) or of simplicity (ala Ford); it's the clarity of someone who doesn't quite trust your powers of comprehension. The clarity of a grown-up striving to make himself understood to children.


That said, dude's a multi-billionaire-with-a-"b". The exquisitely nuanced Lars Von Trier, both despised and ignored by misapprehending masses, is, presumably, worth considerably less.

Writers' Block and Creative Obstetrics

I had two or three interesting thoughts over the past few days, and sat down to put them into writing. After hours of struggle and dead ends, I found myself giving up on each of them. Slowly, from the most repressed rear chambers of my mind, there began to stir a most horrible phrase: writer's block.

But then I recalled Leff's Seventh Law:
When you find it difficult to express yourself, the problem's always in the conception, not the expression.
Show me a blocked writer, unable to express his ideas, and I'll show you a writer with foggy, cruddy ideas.

But that's never how it seems to the writer. For some reason, humans naturally have the conviction that their ideas are golden. If we could simply make the movies in our heads and paint the paintings in our heads and, generally, express our vision, everything would - obviously! - turn out great. It's simply a matter of externalizing it all. In their proto, unborn state, our mental contents unfailingly seem awesome!

Even when they're not. But we always blame the birthing process rather than recognize the baby's congenital defects.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Goalposts and Latitude

I haven't burned food - or seriously overcooked it - in many years. If you're ruining your food every once in a while, you're not applying nearly enough care and attention.

I grew up in a family where "burned" was one of the five basic food tastes (we didn't do "umami"). Just as Heineken drinkers become accustomed to the flavor of spoiled beer (the green bottles allow light to interact with the hops, creating a skunky flavor many drinkers have come to associate with "the great imported taste"), and just as consumers are conditioned to find rancidity palatable, we, like most people, considered the occasional burnt result to be within normal thresholds. But it's not. Nothing should ever be burnt or badly overcooked.

Cooking is not multitaskable. I'm as compulsive an iPhone user as anyone, but I've never once checked email while cooking. I pay far closer attention than most people imagine to be necessary. If occasional burning is acceptable to you (even if you throw away the results!), your attitude toward cooking is entirely wrong. You're not getting it!

I once proposed that losing weight costs $1000/pound. My point was that weight loss is a far more granular and high-stakes proposition than most dieters imagine - which is why most dieters fail. Dieting is less a matter of willpower than of careful attention. Those who don't pay attention will find their efforts undone by mounting lapses. Diets aren't ruined by the lapses, any more than pork chops are ruined by the distractions. The problem in both cases is a misconceived sense of priority from the start.

Similarly, the professional musician's trick to playing consistently in-tune is to aim to be far more precisely in tune than you need to be. A serviceable A-natural can be conjured up anywhere between 439.7hz and 440.3hz, but if you relax into that full latitude, you will unavoidable miss those goalposts from time to time*, whereas those who shoot for 439.999hz to 440.001hz never miss so widely.


* - this is the true meaning of the oft-misunderstood Murphy's Law

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#911them

Let's start a mass movement! Is there something bothersome in your life? Threaten 'em with 9-11! Get on Twitter and use hashtag ‪#‎911them‬

Examples:

McDonalds: serve something actually delicious, or else...9-11! #911them

Stephen Colbert: don't make your upcoming late night show blandly conventional, or else...9-11! #911them

Trader Joe's: stock Kringle coffecakes year-round, or else...9-11! #911them

Why give the cyberterrorists all the easy leverage? Let's make this a tool for consumer empowerment! We can use it for good!

Workflow (iOs App)

A brand new iOs app called Workflow appears poised to be greatly beloved. I won't try to describe it, because I'm just beginning to fool around with it myself, and it's really deep. But they call it a "personal automation tool enabling you to drag and drop any combination of actions to create powerful workflows".

For those hampered by the appliance-like rigidity of their iPhone or iPad, this appears to be a magic carpet.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Canceling Sony's Film: "Beyond the Realm of Stupid"

I've been disgusted by response to the Sony hacking (the reporting, the government's statements, Sony's statements, and, most of all, the theaters' decision not to play the film). My reasoning has been perfectly expressed by Peter Singer (in an interview with Motherboard):
This same group threatened yesterday 9/11-style incidents at any movie theatre that chose to show the movie. Here, we need to distinguish between threat and capability — the ability to steal gossipy emails from a not-so-great protected computer network is not the same thing as being able to carry out physical, 9/11-style attacks in 18,000 locations simultaneously. I can't believe I'm saying this. I can't believe I have to say this.
Oh, but you do, Peter, even though you've stated the conclusion of just about every geek and nerd in the country. Because it's a truth only geeks and nerds appear to fathom.

But, amazingly, nobody seems to have asked them about any of this. Which dumbfounds me, because I thought we were already two generations into the mainstreaming of geek/nerd culture.

The whole interview is well worth a read.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Witch Next Door"

There's a question I've frequently returned to over the years here in Slogland (and which is particularly timely given divided reaction to this week's release of the torture reports):
"Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?"
One of the more elegant answers can be found in one of my favorite books - a thin little kid's title called "The Witch Next Door". A witch (a real one, with wand and everything) moves into a new house, the neighbors go berserk, and the witch, rather than responding to hatred with reciprocal hatred (Homo sapiens' signature move), well....she opts for a different route.

It's a beautiful parable, conveyed with great subtlety and economy and strewn with easter eggs (e.g. the posture of the witch - easy to miss - after she takes action against the neighbors) for the enjoyment of readers who give the book the serious study it deserves.

I was actually in my 20s when I first read "The Witch Next Door", and I've since bought copies for countless children and adults. It hasn't helped, though. The virus of reciprocal extremism is way too prevalent for one beautiful little book to offer sufficient inoculation.

Author Norman Bridwell (more famous for the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" series), alas, died this week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Loops

I don't make a habit of playing computer games, but when I do play it's with the all-consuming binge fervor of an addict. And so I found myself wasting the entire afternoon today - "Jackpot Tuesday" - seeking out a box with 900,000 coins in Subway Surfers, one of those games which, like war and pestilence, ruins families and makes friends vanish forever.

The 900,000 coins would allow me to update my superpowers so that I'd be able to earn coins more easily. And with those coins I could update my superpowers, allowing me to earn more coins. And so forth.

As I left the house to search blearily for food, I had a moment of clarity, and saw it for what it truly is: an empty loop. I contemplated the nature of our brains, which crave these pleasureless loops. And then I realized that's precisely what life is.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How to Know if You're Indoctrinated

If you hold a view which you believe cannot be thoughtfully argued against even by those you know to be reasonable, that's a sure sign your view is the product of mass hysteria (or some other form of indoctrination).

Update: see clarifying comment, below

Мої українські брати і сестри, я вітаю вас!

Може хто-небудь пояснити, чому половина трафіку цього блогу йде з України на цьому тижні?


English Translation

Monday, December 8, 2014

Critics and Naked Emperors

Everyone's been abuzz about Jed Perl's takedown of bullshit artist Jeff Koons in the New York Review of Books. The first couple of paragraphs pretty much tell the tale:
Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.
It's a classic naked emperor takedown; a commercially indomitable art world figure is well-known to be full of crap, but critics have been unwilling to publicly call a spade a spade. Perl lances the boil, to relief and rejoicing all around. The other critics seem like sheep - or even accomplices in a massive cultural fraud. 

But it's more complicated than that. There are reasons critics don't often call spades spades. Good reasons. I'll be as succinct as possible, though it's a topic deserving hundreds of pages.

If the NY Times' A.O. Scott called "bullshit" on all the bullshit movies he had to review, and panned all the formulaic Hollywood vehicles that came his way, he'd come off like a curmudgeonly snob. He's forced to give serious consideration to absolute crap week after week, because crap is what the public wants to see. He's a movie critic, and this is the movie business. You don't like it? Don't be a movie critic!

Perpetually telling the masses they're idiots, and that their movies suck, would be a futile enterprise. It would 1. make him look like a dingbat, 2. fail to serve the readers he works for, 3. make him an advancer of an agenda rather than a reviewer of films, and 4. eventually lose him his job. Again: if you don't like movies, don't review movies!

Even the august Roger Ebert privately confessed (even to me) that he was forced to spend most of his life watching and writing about utter drek. He certainly didn't rave about the drek, but neither did he one-star every soulless crappy film he came across. To have done so would have made him irrelevant, because audiences - even his audience - love soulless crap. It was his job to winnow better soulless crap from worse soulless crap. That's the gig!

Same for any other field of criticism. Music critics could spend their careers railing against blanded-out pre-fab hypercommercial pop music (or, for that matter, pretentious, redundant, self-aggrandized indie pop) if they'd like, but they'd become ranting dingbats, their agendas would overshadow their occupations, and they'd soon become irrelevant and unemployed. This is why critics have accepted their mandate to embrace and accept the full range of their purviews, declining to rage against certain segments, shitty though they may be. They cover it all, as if it was all worthwhile, regardless of private reservations and preferences.

Here's the twist. You might assume I'm clucking my tongue at the unfortunate tidal weight of crap in contemporary culture, and ruing the impracticality of shaming philistines who view, buy, wear, eat, and listen to horrendous junk. But if you go back a few decades, that's exactly what critics once did. Critics in early and mid 20th century America would rail about how Chinese food was for simpletons who needed their food cut into tiny pieces for them, about how abstract art was mindless squiggles, and about how the introduction of sound vulgarized film. These guys were embarrassing - windy pedants, choleric snobs, luddites, and reflexive cultural conservatives arrogant enough to project their personal preferences as grand truths. Ick.

I'm shocked at how few people remember that, until the 90's, food served in venues lacking linen napkins was unfit for serious critical consideration. My review of the Arepa Lady, respectfully paying tribute to a brilliant chef who worked from a street cart in an "ethnic" neighborhood", was published only with extreme trepidation by my editor at the time, one Sam Sifton (who cleared the bad taste in his mouth by publishing this screed in the same newspaper shortly afterwards).

It seemed, for a very long time, absurd on the very face of it to acknowledge "ethnic" chefs or genre cooks to be serious practitioners of culinary arts. Such workers might produce occasionally tasty treats for those too poor or too rushed to sit down for a real meal, that's all. Even one of the kings of egalitarian food criticism, Jonathan Gold, fought back (in the 1990s) at my insistence that anyone producing deep deliciousness deserved the very fullest respect, regardless of venue or milieu. Gold had written with passion about tacos and such, but he explained that such stuff isn't, like, serious cuisine!

It's since gone out of style for critics to anoint "seriousness". For the most part, everything's now on the table, nothing pushed out-of-bounds. Sure, criticism requires opining, and opining always involves prejudices, but smaller opinions are now the way - opinions about a given iteration, rather than blunt wholesale aversion. After all, anointing a critic's anointing power is just as crazily arbitrary as anointing musicals over comedies, or French food over Chinese.

A number of us fought bitterly against the notion of a vertical hierarchy in food, insisting that the entire spectrum deserved equal respect. So before I cluck my tongue at an art world phenom like Jeff Koons being given respectful attention in serious publications, or, say, Shrek being reviewed by serious critics sans evisceration, I recall what it looks like when critics deem themselves weightily above the fields they survey - not just opining on this or that creation, but dismissing swathes as unworthy of credulous consideration.

I despise Koons, and felt a certain catharsis reading Perl's takedown, but I know something Perl seemingly doesn't: raging wholesale against the Crap, while tempting, leads nowhere good. Those who take on the task never affect the popular appetite for it, and the very worst crap of all is generated when vexed cultural authorities vent spleens at all that's "gone wrong".


Along similar lines: language usage pedantry has also fallen out of favor. See Vanquishing the Language Pedants, The Ugly Roots of Language Pedantry, and No One Owns Grammar, No One Owns Usage. Or else simply view this beautifully done, light-shedding video by the great Stephen Fry, a recovering usage snob:



Friday, December 5, 2014

"You're the Worst"

"You're the Worst", the new show I raved about in my last posting, turns out to be available via iTunes.

Massive TV Round-Up

I've broken out "television" as a separate "label", aka tag (see all the different tags in the left margin). Here are all Slog posts tagged "television" in reverse chronological order.

A great new show to tell you about: "You're the Worst" just finished its first season on FX. The premise sets a couple of selfish assholes in a traditional romantic comedy, and while you'd expect it to play as broad farce, the creators have faked us all out by opting for realism. If the show wasn't beautifully written, acted and directed, it wouldn't possibly work. But it does, and it's great; e.g. it's rare to see even minor characters given such depth and dimension. The first season was a slow build, but well worth the time investment. Unfortunately, You're the Worst is not yet out on DVD, nor Netflix/Amazon. So put it on your wish list (and add it to your DVR queue to catch reruns and next season), or else see if you can find it on-demand or via the FXNOW app.

Update: it's available on iTunes

My favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, recently posted his "Best of 2014" list, and it reminds me of an intrinsic difference between me and him: Sepinwall likes television, whereas I really don't. I only watch when it's something great; something elevating or inspiring, somehow that leaves me with something more than just skillful entertainment.

Sepinwall likes to be elevated, moved, and inspired, too, but that's not all he cares about. So there's stuff on his list that's made me grow as a person (Hannibal, Rectify, Fargo, The Americans) but also stuff that was extremely well-done, but ultimately thin soup (Orange is the New Black) - at least by the ridiculously deep standards of this golden age of television (OITNB would have been the unquestioned best show of the year for most of the history of television).

The following are series I've loved. Not all are particularly deep, but I got something enduring (not just skillful entertainment) from all of them. I'll arrange them in a rough order. I wrote more about many of these shows - and about my ordering of them - in an in-depth roundup last summer. Here's another, earlier effort.

Links below lead to my previous mentions, often very terse. For much more in-depth writing, read Alan Sepinwall's reviews on HitFix, or, for shows prior to 2010, his old "What's Alan Watching?" blog. For me, and for thousands of others, Sepinwall's recap/reviews (and the excellent reader comments) is my first stop after watching an episode of a great show, to gather my thoughts and to hear other views.

For catcher-uppers, here's Sepinwall's "Best of the 00s" list from 2009.

Ok. Asterisks signify programs still in progress:

The Wire
Breaking Bad
*Hannibal
*Louie
*Rectify
Luck
*Fargo
Party Down
*Rick & Morty
*The Americans
*Veep
Men of a Certain Age
*Game of Thrones
The Hour
Torchwood: Children of Earth
*Doctor Who (the modern series)
*Silicon Valley
TV Funhouse
*Key and Peele
The Sandbaggers
True Detective (1st Season)
*Orphan Black
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
The Bridge
*Homeland (often stupid, but always insanely entertaining)
*Sherlock
*Top Gear (British version only, on BBC America).
*Good Wife
Intelligence
*Masters of Sex
*The Leftovers
*The Knick
*Manhattan
*Outlander

I still need to watch Deadwood and Mad Men...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Does Time Pass Quickly or Slowly?

Someone on Quora asked "Why do I feel that there are some days that pass so fast and other days too slowly?", and I replied as follows (in a slightly geeky voice, per Quora's house tone):
Human beings reduce familiar actions and things to abstract classes. We don't fully notice an individual chair once we mentally assign it to the category of "chairs". They almost "disappear" into their classes.

As we grow older and experience more and more, fewer and fewer things surprise us. Nearly everything is categorized, and thus falls beneath our conscious awareness. Eventually, we're no longer living in the world; we're living in "World World", a set of assumptions and summations and mental shortcuts that keep us from experiencing the here-and-now in a fresh and vital way.

This is adaptive; we need to be on guard for the new and the mysterious (i.e. stuff that might harm us), not pouring our attention into every single daisy the way young children do. But this takes us out of our senses and into our heads (our abstraction-oriented cortex), and time passes much more quickly when attention is focused there rather than on a richly dense set of ever-shifting perceptions. That's why time appears to go faster as we age. Less surprises us, and more is reduced to mental abstraction. The dynamic world disappears as the static modeling fills out.

Days which pass slowly are ones where you, for whatever reason, "come back to your senses" and experience the raw immediacy of your surroundings. Because such experience is richer/denser, the pace of time appears to slow. This happens when we're thrust into a new or surprising environment, or when some internal impulse spurs you to temporarily discard the mental modeling and immerse in the immediate.

Immersing in the immediate sounds lovely, and it can be. But it can also result in a cognitive stall - aka boredom. Everything seems immediate - but oppressively so! That's a bad sort of slow-passing day. So...experience of the immediate is not always lovely. And, by the same token, to focus attention on abstract mental modeling can be profound - especially if you're a mathematician! Neither perspective is fundamentally better or worse. But if time seems to uncomfortably slip away, you need to shift from abstraction to perception. And if time seems to uncomfortably drag, you need to shift from tedious over-awareness of your prosaic surroundings and find the infinite space and freedom in your creative imagination.
Here are my other Quora replies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Chris Rock

If I can be half as insightful once per month as Chris Rock is nearly every time he opens his mouth, I'd be happy. (Not yet a fan? Check out Bring the Pain, his comedy special which I listed among singular human accomplishments here.)

Check out this deliciously long interview with Frank Rich. Highlights:
I would love to see Hillary [run for president], but there’s a part of Hillary that’s like the Democratic McCain at this point. As he showed, “It’s my time” is not really enough.

[Frank Rich]: Obama came out of nowhere, basically. At which point Bill Clinton started making public statements that often seemed one step away from knifing Obama.

[Chris Rock]: He’s a dick, but you’re talking about a guy who’s embarrassed his wife. So he had a choice, and I couldn’t judge him. I had to choose between pissing off all the black people in the world or having my wife mad at me? Then the hell with the black people, because he doesn’t live with all the black people. He lives with his wife.

[Rich]: Even though he was the first black president.

[Rock]: Allegedly. Until a black guy showed up.

[Rich] Do you think [Obama] has had any effect on pop culture?

[Rock]I’m not sure. I mean, time will tell, and what I mean by “time will tell” is: We’ll see who gets into politics. That’s the real test. In a weird way, him saying he listens to Jay Z — it’s kind of revolutionary, because he’s of the age that he’s supposed to listen to that stuff. And so he’s a little more himself than most politicians. We’ll see if more politicians end up being just themselves.

The thing about George Bush is that the kid revolutionized the presidency. How? He was the first president who only served the people who voted for him. He literally operated like a cable network. You know what I mean?

[Bush was] the first cable-television president, and the thing liberals don’t like about Obama is that he’s a network guy. He’s kind of Les Moonves. He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.

When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop. Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don’t bail anybody out. In sports, that’s what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes. Let it all go to hell knowing good and well this is on them. That way you can implement.

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

We always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery. Being a comedian, 80 percent of the job is just you notice shit, which is a trait of schizophrenics too. You notice things people don’t notice.

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