Saturday, March 29, 2014

Write Sleek-Looking Music With Your Finger!

Music notation software* has a high learning curve and is a drudge to use because there's nothing natural about translating movements of a computer mouse into notated music. We use a keyboard to input words...imagine if we were forced to do that via a mouse!

* - I prefer an obscure, lovingly crafted $37 shareware program called Melody Assistant

The process is painful and counterintuitive. But...tablet computers have touch screens, allowing you to enter music with your finger. That's way better than with a mouse. And I just heard about an awesome app for iOs and Android called NotateMe which recognizes your finger (or pen)-entered music notation and 1. plays it back, and 2. converts it into professional-looking notation ready for export as PDF, MIDI, or MusicXML (for input into Sibelius and other heavyweight music programs).

This is huge! Have a look at this brief tour by SweetwaterSound (the most knowledgable source of music and electronic equipment):

Slog Readership by Operating System

I wouldn't have expected Slog viewership to be so skewed toward non-Apple users (it's even sharper than it seems, because I myself account for some of that Mac, iPhone, and iPad traffic):

Windows 60%
Macintosh 13%
iPhone 9%
iPad 5%
Linux 5%
Android 3%
Other Unix <1%
Windows NT 6.1 <1%

Thursday, March 27, 2014

How Do New Things Happen?

An editor friend recently repeated the flattering assertion of a slog reader (see comment here) that I "invented" a style of writing (which, I should note, I seldom apply here on the Slog), and that lots of people have copied me.

I replied with my thoughts on zeitgeists and flocking, ripe moments and catalysis, and causality versus inevitability. It's something I pondered as a kid: why do so many artistic movements, scientific advancements, political revolutions, even athletic achievements stem from the parallel actions of unconnected people? How does The New unroll? Why, for example, was the four minute mile so easily achieved by so many people the instant Roger Bannister managed it?

My perspective boils down to this: We over-emphasize first-movers, crediting them with creating waves when, truly, they're just surfing them like everyone else. Causality has nothing to do with it. The first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop.

Not to say that lots of copying doesn't happen. That's what later expands an innovation into a zeitgeist. All early adopters are moved by the same ripe conditions, and the masses - a bit later (always laggardly out of phase) - are simply conforming. The leading edge isn't actually leading, in other words. It's simply ahead of the lagging mass reaction to the previous thing!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


A few days ago I wrote about a recording session I'd been hired for, to be held in what was once my junior high school, along with my junior high school band conductor, Ed Balsamo, on drums...all via sheer coincidence.

My old teacher is in great shape. He looks exactly the same (in spite of some health problems), and plays better than ever. As I said, he was - and remains - one of the best technicians I've ever heard, but he's also pulled off a miracle. "Swing" is one of those things you either have or you don't. And while he was never the least bit stiff, he wasn't necessarily the swinging-est of drummers. But, via some miracle, now he is. That's not supposed to happen. Ever.

I just sent him this email:
It was fantastic to see (and, particularly, hear) you again!

When you were playing, I looked over at you and saw a familiar KILLER determination in your eye. It was familiar for two reasons. First, because I always watched you carefully while you played, and I remember this very clearly about you. And, second, it's the exact same look I get in my eye when I play. You can burn the room down....or cut my foot off....but I will still be putting everything I've got into every single note like my life depended on it.

That sense of total commitment was my secret weapon during my musician years. It was the thing I had that nobody else had, and I made a living off it for twenty years. And I realized Monday night that it came entirely from you. Your drum student who I met that night had that same commitment. It's an incredible gift to be able to transmit this to people. It's the quality most lacking in the world, and the very hardest thing to teach.

I've also applied this to my writing. And to my web site. It's been the most important thing in my life. It's been the fuel for everything I've done. I really owe you absolutely everything.

Your fan,


Monday, March 24, 2014

Can't Stop Sneezing?

Allergy season started two weeks early this year, and is way worse than usual (the water from all the melting snow makes trees pollinate more). I set a new record last night of eleven consecutive sneezes.

Because the trees are still mostly bare and it's so early in the season, many people are assuming they've developed a cold or flu. Nope. Allergies. Medicate appropriately.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Front-Loading My Aging

I grew a beard a few months ago, just for kicks, and it came in white as snow. I thought it was funny, and decided to keep it. But the other day, I brought my 83-year old mom to the doctor, and the nurse asked me to hand some papers to my "wife". Naturally, this completely freaked me out, and my first impulse was to run home and shave. But then I thought about it.

I've never enjoyed having my biological processes brought to the forefront. I cringed as an adolescent when people made a big deal about the errant hairs atop my lip. Even as a small child, it offended me to have so many people focusing such attention on the fact that I was getting taller. Hello? I'm a child. Children get taller. If this is the most interesting thing about me, please, for god's sake, shoot me! Have you heard my piano playing? Have you read my short stories? Have you seen my wiggle only my left ear? Really, this is the thing which defines me? The fact that I, like all mammalian offspring, am getting taller?

Similarly, everyone's treating me different now because, like many 50 year olds (including Obama, Stewart, and Colbert, all of whom are looking less hip these days than when they exemplified the newfound coolness of 48), I look older. So, once again, I appear to be leading with my mammalhood.

I have a slew of quests, battles, schemes, ideas, and adventures brewing at any given moment. Regardless of whether you like or approve of any of that, it's just got to be more notable than the state of my male pattern baldness. Again: if my prosaic biological processes are the most remarkable thing about me, shoot me, please.

So I've decided not to cut the beard. Instead, I'll flip the situation. Here's my plan: I'll train myself to walk with a slight halting hesitation, and I will buy myself a non-functioning "vanity" hearing aid to wear when I go out. I will, in other words, front-load my aging, so I can enjoy a couple decades with all of that taken completely and blessedly off the table.

Westboro Baptist Church Counter-Protest

I only post viral webby stuff maybe once or twice a year. Never a cute kitten. Hope you'll indulge me.

The Westboro Baptist Church Went to Protest a Lorde Concert. This Is the Counter-Protest They Encountered

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Back to School

One of the most common dreams is finding yourself forced to return to school, because you missed some class or exam required to graduate. Surreal though it sounds, I am living that dream.

I once explained how during my Chowhound years, I never actually quit the music business:
At no point did I announce I'd quit. I didn't have time to quit! I just stopped returning calls. I figured offers would still drizzle in for a year or so, then gradually thin. With my massive network of contacts, I'd still get calls for busy nights like New Year's Eve as distant associates, desperate to fill gaps, worked down their lists to me. A fine mist of offers would waft my way for years.

But, as it turned out, within two months my phone went completely dead. The "fine mist" added up to maybe three calls. It wasn't that word had spread about my going incommunicado; my contacts were far-flung and disconnected. Yet within just eight weeks, it was as if I'd never existed.
It was a logarithmic decline, and you know how those progressions go. A day...a week...four months....twenty years.

And, right on cue, I recently received my first work offer from an old colleague in two decades (I've been playing these days with a new circle of players). He wanted me for a recording session for a film score. The recording would be done at a college in Long Island, which I know was once, many many years ago, the junior high school* I'd attended at a kid.

* - youngsters, that's what we used to call "middle schools".

I haven't been in the building since I was twelve years old. So I figured it would be a bit weird. But I had no idea. Yesterday, I was told who's playing on the recording, and the drummer is one Ed Balsamo, my band conductor when I attended that very same school. I haven't seen him since I was twelve, either. And because the school was sold shortly after I left, he hasn't been back there, himself. So I am returning to a school I last saw nearly 40 years ago, where my band teacher and I will greet each other as if time had stood still. And every bit of it is complete coincidence.

Now, if this were happening when I was 25 or 35, that would be a different thing. Childhood would still be gradually dissolving. But I'm freaking fifty! Every part of this is supposed to be ancient history, long ago evaporated (just as I'm not supposed to still be hearing the music of my youth everywhere I go). When I was a kid and my father turned 50, his childhood was a crusted, moldered memory....not just for me, second-hand, but for him as well.

I guess it can be chalked up, in part, to increasing lifespan and persistent vitality. When I was a kid, people at age 70 (my teacher's age) were more or less finished. My father's long-ago band teacher certainly wasn't hustling his drum kit to recording sessions. Another factor is that most 50 year-olds weren't ranging around quite as widely as I do. They settled in - a process I defiantly resist.

But still, damn, this is weird. And wonderful.

The other interesting thing about Ed Balsamo is that when I was a kid, I thought he was the best technical drummer I'd ever heard. Of course, all the professional musicians I met at that point struck me as titans and heroes, and once I turned pro myself, and bumped into many of them professionally, I was disappointed to find that more often than not, they were just sort of okay players. I suppose this disenchantment was the standard experience of growing up.

But I've heard recordings of Balsamo over the years, and, even having had the pleasure of playing with a few all-time great ones, he remains one of the best technical drummers I've ever heard.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Putin and Crimea

Horrendously superficial reporting from the media; horrendously simplistic posturing from politicians; knee-jerk predictability from both the left and the right...coverage and analysis of the Crimean crisis has been piss poor, and it's not getting any better.

The media, squeamish after decades of strident accusations of institutional liberalism from the right, continues to give undeserved weight to disgraced hawks like William Kristol and Dick Cheney, who are peddling the same arrogant and short-sighted moves that nearly wrecked us in Iraq and Afghanistan (and whose "solution" to Iran would have dealt a coup de grace of belligerent recklessness). Voices on the left predictably proffer the Rodney King view of international relations- i.e. "can't we all just get along?" Not much meat on that bone, either.

Insight is awfully hard to come by. Our professional experts are, as always, shooting from the hip, and we're getting a cartoon view of the situation. The public demands a simple snapshot and our media and our leaders oblige us as best they can.

The best, sanest, most cogent and insightful voice on this crisis I've heard has been that of Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of that Khrushchev and a professor of international affairs at the New School (and who has almost as few Twitter followers as I do). All her predictions have panned out thus far, and she alone seems to make sense in accounting for what's been happening.

On Monday, she explained her view of Putin's intentions (short version: he fancies himself a latter-day Alexander the Great) on public radio's "The Takeaway". She believes Crimeans are looking to Russia as a great and glamorous power, but, given that this incident may turn Russia into something of a pariah state and harm its teetery, one-legged economy, Crimeans may soon grow disenchanted with their new association.

Here is her appearance last week on MSNBC:

And here is her diffuse but instructive thumbnail sketch of Putin and his historical context from yesterday's Washington Post. An excerpt:
"Would that Americans understood Putin for what he is — no mere bully, he is “an old KGB chinovnik,” a petty clerk.

Although Putin enjoys the popular image of the terrifying KGB agent, Khrushcheva says he was really a clerk whose nickname was “Moth.” More Miss Moneypenny than James Bond.

In his own mind, Putin is “messianic, a uniter of lands and corrector of historic wrongs,” Khrushcheva says sarcastically. Which is to say, he is often delusional. Yet his delusion is buffeted by the wounded pride of his countrymen, many of whom also want to see the motherland restored to greatness."
A couple more Crimea-related items:

Yesterday Putin gave a speech yesterday categorically denying any intent to take over territory beyond Crimea. His exact (translated) words were:
"Who is shouting that Crimea will be followed by other regions? We do not want the division of Ukraine. We do not need it.".
Everyone has been analyzing this statement to decide whether it's earnest reassurance or mere propaganda - the assumption being that, at face value, the statement delivers good news. No one seems to have paid attention to that short, blunt final sentence: we will not take it because we do not need it.

This came after days of Putin's painstaking explanation of the historical basis for Crimea's re-inclusion in Russia - i.e. his defense against allegations that this was nothing but a brutish assertion of Lebensraum. So he's saying that Russia didn't snatch Crimea because they simply decided they wanted it. Oh, and they won't snatch the rest of Ukraine because they simply don't want it.

You may also want to have a look at this brief interview with a cranky/craggy dude named Stephen Cohen, who thinks a lot of this hinges around NATO expansion. The video (below) starts (after a short ad) with a pretty good interview with a former US ambassador to Russia, but the Cohen portion begins at 4'30":

Update: Cohen is, I see, being reviled both on the left and the right for being a Putin apologist. He may in fact be one; I don't know his work. But I do think Americans are awfully quick to call someone an apologist when they're merely trying to ascertain the motivations of people whose actions we don't like. Something's fundamentally wrong when a culture demonizes understanding.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Flocking and GroupTalk

I'm replaying this one 'cuz I think it makes an interesting point.

Whenever you group human beings, they tend to start speaking similarly. This "Grouptalk" tendency is the very core of human culture. It's our nature.

When I wrote for magazines and newspapers, I'd find myself unconsciously writing in the style of the publication's other writers (all of whom were doing likewise). Check out the letters section of any publication (or blog comments), and you'll notice a similar aping of tone by readers. It's the same in online communities; during Chowhound's early years many posters sounded uncannily like me. That's because I (to use a phrase which, itself, describes the dynamic) had "set the tone" for the community.

So it's not just that like-minded people flock. Just as often, flocks become like-minded.

This is a mostly useful process. Along with, obviously, tightening bonds in human communities, it allows effective new modes to "bubble up" and disseminate. But the problem is when genre cliches endlessly self-reinforce. Amateur food writers, like amateur sportscasters, nearly always emulate the worst of their genres. It was hell weeding out all the food writing cliches plied by the folks enlisted to write our "ChowNews" newsletters. Their Chowhound postings were all great, composed in easy, natural voices. But once they poised to do "real" food writing, it was as if they'd donned a turtleneck and clutched an oversized glass of sherry. "Do try the carbonara....", etc etc.

An extreme example of Grouptalk can be seen in eBay feedback. Eons ago, mega sellers started spitting out inane robo-feedback for their customers. You'd buy, like, a sink faucet and find yourself lauded as an "AAAA customer! An absolute delight! Smooth sailing all the way!!!!!!" But newbie users have started doing the same. How bizarre to see grandmothers with six lifetime transactions belch out feedback ala "Great Communication! Fast Pay! Terrific eBayer! A1+++++++++++++++"). However, it's completely normal. Like most human beings, they feel an irresistible urge to do things as they see the group doing them. That voice becomes their voice (at least while in that group).

And this helps explain why truly creative people are so often drug addicts, alcoholics and suicides. You can't swim against the current of human nature without serious consequences!

More postings about creativity

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Computer Generated Recipes

Per a report on NBC news, Watson, IBM's Jeopardy and chess winning supercomputer, has been tweaked to "not only recall data but to think creatively. Watson digested more than 35,000 recipes from around the world, learning the flavor profiles and chemical compounds that taste good in order to to generate some combinations never attempted before."

The talk of this being an example of "cognitive computing" is hypey bullshit (hence the introduction at SXSW rather than in academic papers), but in light of such concoctions as "Belgian bacon pudding (with bacon, heavy cream and figs)", it seems clear to conclude that, as predicted, computers are plotting to kill us.

Hat tip to Barry Strugatz for the link.

Gradual, Thorough, Incremental Learning is Obsolete

Given how I prefer to learn, as described in my previous posting (i.e. quick-and-dirty, then doubling back to fill in gaps as necessity requires), I obviously was not a happy camper in our educational system, which teaches exactly the way I hate: slowly and thoroughly. I kept finding myself alternately lulled by monotonous repetition of concepts I'd already grasped or jarred by demands that I cough up some random uninteresting fact which could just as easily have been looked up.

As with many things that bugged me as a kid, I see now that I was right! The idea of "thorough" learning is a strange and artificial concept without real world applicability. My knowledge is extremely spotty. But isn't that how the world works? We're not four billion microcosms of human knowledge, we're each specialists with a unique bundle of know-how and experience.

Of course, I wouldn't propose we go full-out Aspergers and encourage complete vapidity in all but one's favored realms. Children should be familiarized with a broad range of knowledge, but it's all about how they're asked to do it. There's no question that one can go further by learning playfully and filling in ex post facto than by trudging toward some apocryphal ideal of Complete Knowledge. Kids are born knowing how best to learn (i.e. via play), and teachers are taught to rewire that natural mechanism; to strip away the jubilant curiosity and impose a more formal, dry, adult style of learning. Decades of psychological proof that adults are extremely poor at learning has done nothing to shake the assumption that children need to be forced to learn in a grown-up manner.

This incredibly stupid and counterproductive philosophy of education is a product of the Victorian era. It's designed to produce uptight, starchy, blinkered little Victorians. But we're living in a completely different era. As I wrote a few months ago,
The Victorian era revered scholarship. Work having become grindingly inhuman, erudition became the ne plus ultra for humanity. Educators drilled facts into students, and the most respected scholars were walking encyclopedias of their subjects. Nowadays, with everyone carrying supercomputers in their pockets, it seems silly to locally store in one's brain data that can be instantly looked up. Walking encyclopedias now strike us as eerily inhuman; more akin to hard drives than people.
In this century, the critical intellectual faculty will be insight, not knowledge. Insight is what computers will never have - and what most people, having been educated to think algorithmically, lack, as well. Insight will flourish when kids are allowed to be kids...and when adults finally adopt for themselves a more child-like way of learning. Adult-style learning is responsible for adults' inability to learn!

Friday, March 14, 2014

I'm Learning to Program!

I've learned CSS (ending years of confusion about why removing one HTML element sometimes results in lots of other elements totally freaking out) and am in the middle of learning Javascript. I intend to learn Python, Ruby, and PHP.

First observation: getting a leg up on this stuff is about two orders of magnitude easier than I'd expected. Any intelligent and experienced computer user has a feel for how computers work (e.g. variables, if/then contingencies, calls to other processes, etc). We just don't know the yadda yadda for making that stuff happen. And the yadda yadda (look, I'm already using variables!) isn't esoteric magic. In fact, it's pretty intuitive once you learn some basic grammar, none of which is rocket science.

My long-time friend, programming legend Bill Monk, has been encouraging me to get into this for years. He's insisted that you don't need to undergo some starchy, serious course of study. This is a realm where you can spend a couple of hours learning a few moves, then fool around like mad, pulling new strands into your tangly nest of knowledge as you go.

Once you're able to grok the general gist of a given bit of code - even if you don't understand every part - you can plunder that structure and make it do new things, building fresh worlds atop the hulk of someone else's work. Of course, the ability to create structures from scratch without reference is a little daunting (though not all that daunting), but that can come later. There's so much prior art, and so many references and tools available that you could make a career from cannibalizing stock structures.

Learning a computer language seems like learning any foreign language, except:

1. You could get along very well with a two year-old's vocabulary, and be downright erudite with a five year-old's.

2. Everything about the language is "regular" and logical; there are hardly any exceptions or special cases to learn.

3. You know those stilted language-learning dialogs which feature characters talking in ways real people hardly ever speak? That's exactly how people actually use these much so that those dialogs can be endlessly and fruitfully recycled.

4. There's no shame in looking stuff up as you go. In fact, you'd be a fool to try to keep it all in your head. Programming is the natural domain of inveterate cheaters!

Bill already told me all of this. I wish I'd started years earlier!

I'm learning via Codecademy, a free site which offers courses composed of static tutorials. The courses are very stripped down, and delightfully superficial. Each concept receives precisely one lesson, mostly taught pragmatically, via reverse-engineering example cases.

If Codecademy taught basic arithmetic, the multiplication lesson would look like this:

You have three pies, and you need to double that amount. We call this "multiplying" (symbol is "x). Doubling means multiplying by 2 (and if you double three pies, that's 3 x 2, or six pies). Of course, you can multiply by any number you want. Study these examples and confirm them for yourself by diagraming and counting:

5 x 3 = 15
6 x 4 = 24

So solve these, type your answers in the panel (which will tell you if you're correct), and click "hints" if you get stuck:

2 x 4 = ?
4 x 2 = ?
5 x 2 = ?

No one will become a multiplication whiz from such lessons (and I'm hardly a skilled CSS or Javascript programmer at this point!). But you'll be amply demystified, solidly oriented, and painlessly reach a point where mere practice could bring you fully up to speed. And that's how I like it! Once I understand something, I like to do my own exploration of whichever concepts interest me, remaining loosely informed about concepts which don't. I can decide how deeply schooled I want to be in a given area, and fill in, later, with other bits of know-how as needed.

Learning systems drive me nuts when they insist on thorough familiarity with each concept before moving on. I know people who've emigrated to a foreign country and spoke English right up to the moment when their local language skills felt 100% fluent...and then switched over. That is antithetical to my style. Everything I'm good at began with me being playfully sloppy and chaotic, and gradually whipping it all into shape - and sometimes I willfully leave off that last part (my Spanish, for example, remains sloppily chaotic).

If you share my learning predilections, consider trying Codecademy. You'll be amazed how swiftly you can attain MSC (minimal sloppy chaos)! Style sheets took a day, and Javascript is taking only a bit longer. I'm learning with blinders on, spending just enough time on each lesson to get me through to the next, and never sweating specifics (stuff can always be looked up!). I repeated CSS, and it sunk in much more deeply. I intend to go through each course at least two or three times.

If you're more of a thorough incremental learner, try Treehouse. It's not free, but there's a 14 day trial, and each new concept is introduced via calm videos of someone thoroughly explaining things. You're drilled exhaustively before moving on. It gives me hives.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

To Be a Moderate Makes One a Democrat

Are you a non-crazy Republican? If so, you need to ask yourself four questions:

1. How is it possible that a party that's all about "spreading democracy" can admire the leadership style of a Vladmir Putin?

2. How is it possible that a party that's all about patriotism could have tarnished America's faith and credit via its debt ceiling antics? Or brazenly changed laws to make it more difficult for certain groups to vote? Or gone bonkers trying to repel smart and sorely-needed conservative solutions (like the Affordable Care Act) simply because they'd been adopted by the other side?

3. How is it possible that a party that's all about freedom and hardcore constitutionalism could fundamentally despise the organization devoted to vigilant protection of our Bill of Rights? Or press forward with "social conservative" agendas which would sharply restrict individual liberty?

4. How is it possible that a pro-business party could applaud and enable sharply widening wealth inequality, when any business person knows that continued profits require a huge base of customers with discretionary savings?

I wouldn't want to see radical liberalism in America anymore than I'd want to see radical conservatism. I've never thought of myself as a Democrat (nor Republican). But, sheesh, I wouldn't go near a Republican candidate these days. In this era when primary blitzes hail down upon all but the most extreme and ignorant GOP candidates, it is impossible for a Republican to advocate the moderate policies which interest me.

Not true for the Democrats, a more diverse collection not beholden to their radical fringe. If we still had two parties whose margins remained marginal, I'd keep my independent status, choosing candidates I like (i.e. moderates) from both sides. But we don't, so I'm considering registering as a Democrat in spite of my distaste for Hillary, Al, Nancy, Rachel, et al, as well as for the real meat of the liberal agenda - much of which hasn't seen the light of day in a few decades (we haven't had a liberal president since Carter, and even he was pretty centrist, even if he seems like Abbie Hoffman to a demagogue like Limbaugh).

As a moderate, I'm fundamentally opposed to extremism. And extremism is disproportionally stacked and empowered on the right at this point. So the enemy of my enemy is the Democrats.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TMDTIATW: Salmon Panini

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was this salmon panini:

I made it with:

Two slices of Orwasher's multigrain bread

...smeared with Bella Cucina's Tomato-Basil Panini Spread (available from Crate & Barrel)

... and dusted with coarsely-chopped onions sautéed with cumin and black pepper

...and some baby spinach leaves

...topped with a slab of broiled Alaskan salmon lightly smeared on both sides with homemade raita (yogurt + chopped scallions).

Error: I should have let the salmon rest for a few minutes rather than use it straight from the broiler (it was too hot and juicy, so it humidified the bread a bit).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Price to Pay

In a comment on my previous posting, "Who's Your Imaginary Poor Person?", bobjbkln said:
"A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a young, moderately conservative Canadian (Newfoundlander). His attitude was that welfare cheats were a scourge BUT that he believed that they were a necessary evil. Canadians felt that all people should not go without adequate food, shelter, education, health care, etc. If a few gamed the system, well that was just a price that they had to pay to assure that the people who really needed the help were able to get it."
Like a number of leftist principles (which is what this is, despite the affiliation of the Canadian) I think this "feels" smarter than it "thinks".

The big problem with moral peril is that it inflicts a steady pressure on society, so its effect inevitably accelerates over time (as is true of anything under steady pressure). We saw this with the welfare states of 1970s England and America. And, more extremely, with Communism, which held this thinking as a core principle with exactly the results Paul Ryan, etc., worry about. I wouldn't want to return to 1973. We went too far. You could feel society slogging and smell the rot (and pay a tax rate north of 90%). 1973 could have made a Tea Party partisan out of any but the most fervid of current liberals. 

The unfeasibility gave rise to radically extreme counter-balancing: Thatcher and Reagan, who yanked things to an opposite extreme (and then some!). The end result is the worst of all worlds: the poor get extra screwed by the harsh counter-swing, and the middle class gets screwed both ways.

And that's not all. The escalating counter-swings and counter-counter swings can ferment into political extremism - ala the current day, with an extremist clash between Great Society and Reaganism. It might be oversimplification to describe our current political climate as a direct outcome of liberal overreach - of tolerance for that "necessary evil" while social engineering - but it does describe the broad outline of our politics over these decades.

I realize it sounds downright evil to suggest that everyone may not deserve "adequate food, shelter, education, health care, etc.". But each of those noble-sounding propositions represents a perilously slippery slope. For example, why should I have a really good, really expensive heart surgeon when a poor person just gets some hapless shmuck, and must wait an extra week for the surgery in a worse hospital, and will therefore have lower survival odds? Where does "adequate" cut off? Communists certainly had an opinion on that, but most modern thinkers acknowledge the need to draw the line well short of the extreme of perfect equality of result...cold-hearted though it sounds (I learned the hard way that running successful communities requires tough pragmatic decisions which don't always mesh with our dreamier "ideal world" hopes and aspirations).

And the dangling "etc." (in "adequate food, shelter, education, health care, etc.") is troubling. Liberal agendas start off moderate and reasonable-sounding, but there's always an "etc", stated or unstated (recent example: transgenderism being snuck into the choices moderates and conservatives are expected to normalize along with gay marriage).

I don't think conservatives are unhinged in suspecting that unchecked leftism would, from its core principles - I.e. those notorious "good intentions" - naively recommit some of the gravest errors of the twentieth century...but don't get me started on conservatives, either, most recently re: their shocking love affair with the iron fist of Mr. Putin.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Who's Your Imaginary Poor Person?

There has been, in the past, plenty of intelligent thinking about poverty, from both liberal and conservative thinkers. But little of that is being touched these days. Current discussion of poverty mostly involves conservatives doubling (and tripling) down on Mitt Romney's super-efficacious comments about the Moocher Class. That's obviously not a very sophisticated approach.

In my "How I Outgrew Libertarianism" article, I noted how most Libertarians seemed to base their perspective on poverty around a cartoonish mental image of a lazy, unmotivated underclass ("hanging out smoking Pall Malls in front of the 7-11"). There's shocking naiveté out there. As I said in the article, "show me a Libertarian, and I'll show you someone with a sheltered upbringing."

And it's not just Libertarians. Most conservatives seem to mentally refer to a Cartoon Poor Person; a simplified model used to reinforce their opinions. Cartoon Poor People are virally disseminated, and the following are the two most common strains for this particular flu season:

Cartoon Poor Person #1: The once-noble poor person who's been morally crippled by Big Government and its wrong-headed approach of encouraging proud individuals to go on the dole.

This Cartoon Poor Person derives from an actual problem that once existed. But with the Great Society of the 1970s long gone, the problem's largely obsolete. For conservatives, it's still 1975 and none of the vast slashing (by Democrats and Republicans both) ever occurred. Cartoon Poor Person #1 is a caricature of a stereotype of an era long past*. But the disconnection hardly matters, because people who walk around with this Imaginary Poor Person in their heads are often trying to soften and justify a harsher image which less refined conservatives more openly acknowledge. Namely....

Cartoon Poor Person #2: The Atheists, Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, terrorists, and abortionists who are not only screwing up MY country but also making the government steal money from MY WALLET!!

That's the root of it. That's why even a historically low tax rate upsets so many people. That's why a thin and tattered social safety net seems like the lap of luxury. That's how working poor - on the verge of needing food stamps themselves - have been co-opted into the economic vision of sharks desiring the entire pie. Deeper, darker fears and resentments are being cannily played, and that's no new thing.

Cartoon Poor Person #1 once offered some truth worth plumbing - and plumbed it was, leading to the dismantling of a great many inefficient and overblown government services and the rise of the American Right some thirty years ago. But Cartoon Poor Person #2 is nothing more than a strawman built from strands of paranoia, alienation, and racism, plus the general anger perennially felt by a sizable portion of the nation, and there's nothing truthful there, just a highly-manipulatable nexus of dark emotion. Cartoon Poor Person #2 is just the old Us-versus-Them. It's all about tribe. And there's nothing rational to be discussed when people go tribal.

It goes without saying that Liberals have Cartoon Poor People in their heads, as well; radiantly righteous, quietly wise woman of color with lots of turquoise-ish jewelry doing their noble best to provide for their families. Etc., etc.. That's too simple to be useful, as well. Poverty is not representable via any one image; there's infinite diversity in every parameter. So there's no use, in considering the issue, for passing one's thoughts through a ridiculously simplified mental model (liberal or conservative). All that does is stoke one's confirmation bias. Nearly everything I hear said about the poor these days is a straw man argument.

One way to make poverty feel more personal, without resorting to cartoonish models, is to mentally put oneself there. But if you do, don't forget to strip off your jewelry and medals first. As I wrote in the aforementioned article about how I outgrew Libertarianism:
One fateful night, I had a beer with a grimly untalented middle-aged musician. He was neither a druggie nor an alcoholic, but he was only barely functional. He walked with a limp and didn't think too clearly. I looked into his eyes, and realized, with overwhelming empathy, that this guy, who'd worked hard all his life, and who was a really good, conscientious fellow, was hanging by a frigging thread, and had lived his entire life with one foot in the abyss. No resourcefulness, no connections, no education. Crappy genes, crappy family. And none of it was his fault. He was truly doing his very best with what he had. By just plain being there, reasonably healthy and well-fed, he'd overachieved more than I ever could hope to.

The scales fell from my eyes and for the first time I saw all my unearned advantages. And I fell into a reverie, envisioning myself with a never-ending lifelong case of flu, with fever impeding my intelligence, judgement and energy. My parents and friends were gone. I was on the verge of eviction from my apartment, and had no savings or education. I'd dropped out of high school to support myself, and had nobody smart to call for help or advice. No lifelines, no backup plans, no connections. Dizzy, feverish, and disheveled, I could hardly think straight. Let's add a couple of children to the picture, as well. Ok, hotshot: what's your move? How would you make out in a society with no safety net? What would be your odds? "My God," I thought to myself, shuddering with terror, "what on Earth would I do?"

*I called the habitually on-the-dole parasite an obsolete stereotype from an era long past. That's not to say there are no remaining welfare cheats, malingerers or lazy bums. Every society has some; even in a Libertarian utopia, people will find ways to cheat philanthropy (and Libertarians, if they're intellectually consistent, will applaud such wily strategy!). But with government assistance having been so deeply pruned over the past 35 years, it's no longer the problem it once was, though edge cases can certainly be found. 

Errant cheaters are a handy bugaboo providing cover for other Conservative dark intentions, e.g. minuscule instances of election fraud used to justify measures clearly devised to make it harder for blacks and other minorities to vote.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Duke University Porn Star Story

The unsettling and counterintuitive thing about writing is what a crazy difference context makes.

Yesterday, there was a discussion curated by one of my Facebook friends, Barry Campbell (if you've ever wondered what FB is good for, Campbell - who seems to have been born to find and post vast amounts of consistently compelling stuff - is the answer), about the anonymous Duke coed who's been paying tuition by doing porn. The news story has gone through several twists. It started out out ala "So This Is What Kids Need to do to Afford College These Days", but the woman pushed back, insisting that she actually likes doing porn, what?

Which is a good point, actually. But, inevitably, Internet scum swiftly revealed both her professional and personal names, and death threats and Salem-ish public shaming ensued (as she strained to remain rationally, reasonably ahead of the brouhaha).

Such outrage against someone who happens to be smart, respectable, and who plies a defiantly non-standard sexuality (her porn is apparently especially kinky, degrading stuff)! I'd thought we were living in an era of tolerance for non-standard sexuality, but it appears not. Consensus is forming that the woman's icky sexual choices invalidate her from ever being taken seriously for anything, ever. She's a slut, pure and simple, and slutty sluts are only good for sluttin'.

A couple examples from among Barry's followers:
"Whats interesting is she seems to do a lot of degradation themed porn which is interesting for a womens studies major who wants to become a political activist"
"In the end she comes across as someone who enjoys doing presumptively outrageous things and then acting surprised when fellow cretins express trumped-up outrage. She incites baser instincts in her audience and then is surprised that those baser instincts are not easily compartmentalized."
I responded by making a case that sexual choices - even those we find dopey or repulsive - have absolutely nothing to do with anything else. My post was a minor hit, so I whipped it into a slog entry, and, a few hours later, reread it and discovered that it seemed to come from out of nowhere. Which, I guess, it did. It was a transplant, and transplants don't always thrive.

So I un-published the piece, reworked it, and offer it below, hoping this additional context will help it read more as I'd intended. Here goes:

I'm disturbed, as anyone would be, to hear about the violence and death threats she's received from sickos. But I'm also disturbed by some of the reaction from otherwise intelligent, reasonable people who see irony/contradiction between her preference for degrading and outrageous sexual behavior and her expectation of respectability in non-sexual realms.

My sexual tastes happen to be appallingly conventional, but I've been with highly respectable women whose sexual preferences were at sharp odds with the persona they project in the real world. Sexuality is, even for the conventional, a wholly separate world, and one's preferences within that realm do not justify the denial of respect outside it (much less the sort of crap this young woman's put up with).

The same applies even in light of the starkly public nature of her sexuality. That's just another sexual preference; one she had every right to keep separate and private, even if it was a public sort of privacy. One's sexual preferences are not grounds for being disrespected. Full stop.

The woman's clear-headed, well-articulated statements under such blistering punishment (at such a young age!) have certainly earned my respect; much more so than any rote adherence to someone else's standards of propriety ever could.

Cosmos Reboot (plus: why can't The Science Channel find room for science?)

Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's classic "Cosmos" series appears this weekend. Alan Sepinwall reviews it enthusiastically (here's a Q&A with Tyson about the series, and here's Tyson's much-loved StarTalk Radio podcast)

It will be airing on multiple network, but the word is to TIVO it on a channel other than FOX (its home network) which is rumored to be making fatter commercial cuts.

Also: the original Carl Sagan series will be rebroadcast this weekend on National Geographic Channel (here's a schedule). It's also appearing on NatGeo's HD channel, which gives me high hopes they've cleaned it up. Definitely worth recording!

Speaking of science on TV....

Science Channel is, as you know, an oxymoron. Real science is way too niche-ish for a mainstream cable network. So they program lots of shiny junk with some tenuous link to tech (which, in the public mind, is identical with science). What I don't understand is why Science Channel doesn't take their weakest programming slot (Mondays from 6 to 8, or Sundays at 11 or something) and devote it to real, actual science?

Public radio has a valuable property in their "Talk of the Nation Science Friday" (aka "SciFri"), which is devoted to real, undiluted science. It's niche for sure, but a substantial number of people within that niche tune into that show, and would surely do the same if the Science channel could stake out a narrow slot for actual science.

It would cost them next to nothing. I really don't understand why they don't do it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


For years and years I've shunned web development/design software. These programs invariably spit out godawful code, and you're invariably better off simply learning to write HTML rather than investing time to learn to use these kludgey, crappy, inflexible and overpriced packages.

But Macaw, a hugely successful Kickstarter project due to launch at the end of this month, seems very different; a quantum leap. I've pre-ordered (for a nearly 30% discount), and I can't wait to use it.

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