Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jim At Long Last Goes Home

"So what's your home cuisine, Jim?" no one's ever asked me.

Good question! I suppose Cantonese. I spent my formative years in a restaurant called Shing Kee in Manhattan Chinatown, where I memorized the menu, and where the waiters came to treat me like a complete paisano. To this day, Cantonese feels like my culinary ground zero.

"No," insists nonexistent person, "I mean your family's food!"

That'd be burnt brisket and Green Giant canned French-cut string beans - over-boiled and cooled to room temperature before serving. And, on (very) good days, slice pizza, normally consumed while driving.

"But what are you, exactly? Your people must come from somewhere!"

Well, my grandparents had accents, so I figured they were immigrants. But they didn't like to talk about the old country. My paternal grandparents were from "Russia", but that seemed like an amorphous blob. I knew my grandmother was from Minsk, and my grandfather was from Pinsk, though I had no concept of these places, and it freaked the bejesus out of me when Corporal Agarn on F-Troop recounted the exact same origin story. Anyway, you are now thoroughly up to speed with every data point I have concerning my heritage.



Ace chowhound Barry Strugatz (new movie out next spring; read his lightly anonymized story here) recently told me about a brand new Belarusian restaurant in Sheepshead Bay that's crazy-popular. I perused the food shots on Yelp, and felt a strange stirring in my chest.

A few days later, having made the trek to Sheepshead Bay, I awaited the waiter at Belarussian Xata. Playing out a hunch, I checked the Wikipedia entry for Minsk, discovering that, geez, yeah, I'm actually Belarusian. Honey, I'm home!

Felt like it, too. The place is outfitted like a Russian village. See plenty of interior photos on the Yelp page, but I shot a couple minor touches:





I've never eaten Belarusian before. I had my grandmother's cooking a few times, but, being a "picky eater" as a kid, I pretty much confined myself to her fried potato pancakes. Nobody has ever made them the way she taught me, by the way. I figured it was a family thing.

Starting off in food critic mode, I ordered a couple of high-difficulty items, to troll my tablemate and prove myself worthy to the establishment: garlic toast with salo (unrendered pork fat), and hog's ears.

The "garlic toast" consists of fingers of pumpernickel that are fried crunchy. They're super garlicky, and, combined with the lard, offered a glimpse of a magic land I'll never fully enter without a couple new stents in my chest. I contented myself with a few small dips, but they were life-changing.



Them hog's ears was about three times normal size (see dollar bill for scale). Do they sew them together, ala Silence of the Lambs? Or crush them in some fearsome lobe press? They were chewy, of course, but a bit dull. I like how the Portuguese prepare them way better. But the visual was astonishing. I was thinking more "Dumbo" than "Babe":



The Belarussian borscht tasted like somebody at long last got borscht exactly right. It was neither a clobber of beety sweetness, nor watery/dull. So soulful, with a few chunks of floating over-cooked meat - the ingestion of which stirred some muttering deep in my deep brain that could only represent innumerable generations of ancestors approving, finally, of an action of mine (or maybe they were just screaming bloody murder re: the hog and the pig fat). My tablemate and I were so mesmerized by this soup that we forgot to add sour cream - I felt so utterly embarrassed that I seriously considered hiding the untouched cream in a nearby potted plant. Amateur error (tsk, don't buy my app after all).



Then things got all primordial as the potatoes began arriving.

First up: Potato koduni with meat. These are the gordita form of potato pancakes - a couple inches high, glistening with grease, and full of very black-peppery ground mystery meat. I've never had anything like this, yet it was like giving an elephant its first peanuts. I didn't so much enjoy it - it didn't have much flavor to speak of, aside from groaning tonnages of spuddy starch and fat - as meld with it. I suspect this may be what I'm meant to have been eating all along. It was so heavy and greasy and unlively and burdensome...and something in me liked that.





Then came the potato pancakes "with meat", which consisted of bovine chunks and sausage in a creamy, black peppery sauce (the "old country" always tastes like black pepper), all served atop a murderer's row of oversized potato pancakes that are my grandma's latkes...for the first time ever (including Hanukah latke parties at the Jewy functions my parents would occasionally drag me to, where like 40 families all brought their versions, none resembling ours in the least).





These are not "fun" potato pancakes. They are not a special "treat". Non-delightful. These are staple, akin to rice...or, more precisely, Ethiopian injera, given that they serve primarily as a spongey mop for the creamy sauce and residual grease. I've been potato obsessed my whole life - apparently, it's in my blood - but now I've finally spotted them in their natural habitat.

What's more, neither the latkes nor the koduni are crispy, but my grandma's weren't, either, and neither are mine. I can achieve crispy edges, but the middles are always soggy. I've seen latkes fried as crispy as Mississippi fried chicken, but I've never managed it, myself. I figured it was a character flaw. Little did I realize, this is The Way of My People.

These limp, homely, very familiar potato pancakes also contained no onion (rendering them even more staple-ish and non-delightful, yet still highly satisfying). I happen to use onion, but I suddenly recall, out of my distant memory, a note of controversy on the matter. I believe we didn't normally use onion, either. I am Remembering.

At this point, I'm in pain. Not badly over-full, just over-full of the sort of thing I never ever eat. But I craved a bite of vareniki (dumplings) stuffed with sour cherries, another ancient youthful memory, and the waiter talked us into also getting "cottage cheese cakes 'orshanskie'" - cheesey dough balls in pot cheese and cream with loads of vanilla.





The vareniki are not exactly light in the dough. In fact, I nearly requested a steak knife. And this, too, seems deeply right to me. The cherry filling is resolutely tart (very little sugar), and, oddly, you can taste grease, which seems to come from out of nowhere. You know how Game of Thrones has gratuitous nudity? This place is like that with grease.

The cheesey thing was devastating - figuratively and (in my condition) literally.

As I rued the wrecked state of my digestive system, I found myself plotting ways to raise funds for passage to a new land, a modern place where people eat green foods and everything isn't so goddamned heavy and burdensome. America! I must make my way to America!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Check Out the "Eat Everywhere" App for Free!


The Hitchhiker's Guide to All Cuisines!

Your Personal Eating Assistant!


The "Eat Everywhere" app previously cost $5. Problem: being utterly unlike anything out there, it's tough to explain exactly what customers are buying! So we've made it "Freemium". Anyone can install the app for free (it comes with several cuisines), then make an in-app payment of $4.99 to unlock all 75 cuisines.

We'd appreciate if you'd inform friends and networks that "Eat Everywhere" is now free to check out. Links to both iPhone and Android versions can be found on our home page, EatEverywhere.cc.

Previous customers need to know that we took different approaches with the iPhone and Android apps:

Previous iPhone customers:
You'll see an update in "App Store" on your phone. Once you update, you should automatically be upgraded to premium mode, with access to all cuisines (also new: iOs 11 and iPhone X compatibility). If not, please let us know (via email to the address in the app).

Previous Android customers:
Do nothing! The freemium version is a separate app, but you can stay with your current one. However, please do refer friends to this new, freemium one (at this Google Play page, or linked in EatEverywhere.cc">the app's home page).


Thanks very much to those who already purchased. The app has received exclusively five star reviews. We built it with great love and dedication, the goal being to absolutely delight you.

Bitcoins and Bubbles

If you're even considering getting involved with Bitcoin (and, for that matter, even if you're not), read the classic "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" by Charles Mackay (read for free here, listen to a free audiobook here, or read free on Kindle here), chronicling centuries of irrational investment crazes. It's an amazing, entertaining read, and will inoculate you against this perennial viral foolishness.

These bubbles appear periodically, usually right around the point where memory's dimmed about the previous one. I hear people are now re-mortgaging their houses to buy Bitcoins. Also that the Russians are exploiting and manipulating the market as a way to evade sanctions - and perhaps in order to cause further chaos in the West. What could go wrong?


Please don't comment or email me about how this bubble is different and you're going to make a jillion dollars. It's not, and you won't.

Killer Breakfast Scramble

I managed a full-out "9" (using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from one to ten), and it's a kooky enough recipe that I want to share.

This is a skillet of veggies and egg where the egg is essentially steamed. Topologically, it's an upside-down skillet scramble, sans scrambling, and with no saturated fat...that actually tastes good. Feel free to tart it up all you'd like, but this really works as-is.

You can use any leftover veggies, but I used a combo of shisitos from Trader Joe's (remove stems, slice into thirds, marinate in olive oil, salt, and pepper, then blister in a wok with Chinese cooking wine and scallions), stir-fried chopped kale, and baked sweet potato.

Preheat nonstick skillet on medium. Light coat of olive oil (spread via paper towel).

Remove skin and flatten leftover sweet potato between your hands, place in skillet, allow to partially caramelize.

Flip sweet potato, add shisitos and kale (also some quartered cherry tomatoes).

Add three egg whites, seasoned with salt/pepper, roughly atop the sweet potato. Don't stir. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper flakes. Immediately add 3 TBS water and cover tightly (I'm still riffing on this move). Once sizzling dies down, reduce heat a little and agitate pan (to spread the oil).

Serve when egg whites are quite firm, with some hummus for dipping (recent discovery: blistered shisito peppers and hummus are a fantastic combination, but it also works superbly with this whole dish).

It's killer. Obviously, less healthy versions can be made with cheese, bacon, etc., but it's killer as-is. The egg works its way in everywhere, really tying the dish together, but without the usual blubbery insipid egg whitey vibe. And there's no scorching since egg doesn't touch the pan much and is super-humidified.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Alternative Universe Doug Jones Victory Speech

Why are politicians so godawful at politics? Here's an alternative universe Doug Jones victory speech:
Thank you! Thank you everybody!

A lot of people across the country are watching right now, and I hope they'll excuse me, because I just want to speak directly to my fellow Alabamians.

I understand that very close to half of you did not offer me the honor of your support. But I want to assure you that I intend to work tirelessly for everyone in this state, and to listen carefully to everyone in this state, and to represent everyone in this state. Alabama goes first in all my considerations. You may not have chosen to hire me, but I'll be working ferociously on your behalf!

I'm also aware that I owe this victory to Republicans who voted as an expression of conscience and morality. I want those voters to know that I feel a grave responsibility to govern with that same commitment to conscience and morality. I am determined to honor your moral commitment with every action I take, large and small. I like to think I've led my life until now in a way I can be proud of. But I'm going to step up my game. I will stop at nothing to make myself worthy of the principle shown today by those who took the brave step of voting across party lines.

It was said during the campaign that I'd be a puppet to my party leadership. That's just not correct. I don't work for anyone but the citizens of this wonderful state. And while you may not agree with me 100%, by the time my term ends, you just watch and see if I don't leave you surprised by how hard I listened to you, and how much I cared about doing right by you, and how hard I worked to represent you.

Grief Survival Kit

This works for all forms of grieving - not just for departed loved ones. Feel free to pass it on to someone in need, or bookmark for a future moment. See also the Depression Resuscitation Kit.


To be clear, it's ok to feel sad. Grieving is natural. I'm not suggesting that we should be cold, emotionless robots. But I write this with one important assumption: that you aren't trying to fall in love with your pain. You're not using this sad moment to milk drama and stoke self-pity. You feel bad...and you'd honestly like to feel better. If so, this will help. If not, the following will upset you by minimizing exactly what you're trying to maximize! So consider carefully before proceeding.

Here's the question which you must ask yourself - relentlessly, again and again: What is real, and what isn't? Keep shaving off all the layers of untruth and drama. Slice away until you get to the real part, and then let that hurt (open yourself all the way to this pain; don't deflect it). You do not need to find fake reasons for heightening your pain. Deal with what's real.

Below are a few typical falsehoods (there are many more). They're things we've seen people saying in movies, so we have an unconscious urge to say them, ourselves. But they're just empty memes:

"Poor him/her!"
Whatever you believe regarding afterlife, your dearly departed is certainly not discontent. You can repeat "Poor him/her" ad infinitum, making yourself more and more miserable, but it's not a real thing. You're just hypnotizing yourself, and that's self-indulgence, not grief. "Poor him/her" is not true. Slice it off.

"She/he will never get to see/do X"
We, the living, miss out on things all the time. I'll never play quarterback for the Jets, and most likely none of us will celebrate our grandchildren's 75th birthdays. So what? This isn't the sort of thing we particularly sweat, so why would it be any more so for the dead? And if someone checks out at a low point, missing the happy turnaround, well, that's just normal odds! How many ecstatic peaks have you experienced? And would you have been particularly happy to have died during one them?

So young!
We all die young (at heart, we're the same person we were since we first opened our eyes; we only pretend to be grown-up). This meme, too, has to do with a person's "story", not the actual person. It's not real. Beneath the story-telling, we are ageless presences who watch stuff unfold. This, from their point of view, was just another thing that unfolded - and unfolds for each of us. It's not dramatic in any way. Don't try to make it so.

What a lousy way to go!
Accounts of gristly deaths used to really upset me. But I'm old enough now to have actually lived through some gristly stuff, and you know what? It was all just stuff. Broken bones and root canals seriously hurt! But such things don't ruin our lives. We get through them, and relief follows. Rest assured all suffering's over. It's natural to sympathize with pain, but, question: Did you sob for days when your cousin broke her ankle skiing?

I'll miss him/her.
Ok, now that's real. And that's all that's real. Everything else is just stuff you're telling yourself to heighten the drama and pain. Stay with what's real, open up to it, and let it subside, gradually, to a more manageable level. That's actual grieving, not cinema. Stay with the true!


The impulse to torture ourselves with dramatized falsehoods has nothing to do with the departed. It's entirely about our own internal issues. Consider this: if death's so unthinkable (because living's so wonderful), then why would you pollute your precious alive time with unnecessary drama? If the departed saw you doing this, they'd slap their foreheads and holler "Stop! That's just crazy! Don't do that!! Especially not in my name!" They'd want you to mourn for a while, and then go out there and kick ass, relishing every moment.


Resilience is related.

Monday, December 11, 2017

"Cornered Rat" Report #1

December 11, 2017. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 74,300 google search results.




Good and Evil

"Cold" isn't a thing. It's just a subjective impression of the absence of heat.

Similarly, "Goodness" is just a subjective impression of the absence of malevolence. There's no being a "good person"; even saints are merely opting out of malevolence.


Why do people act malevolently? Simple. It's resistance, born of fear, insecurity, or other internal turmoil. Think of it as aggrieved friction between one's internal and external world; between how one needs it to be and the way it really is; between the burden of the myriad stories one carries around and the utter simplicity and lightness of the actual flow of it all. People are frustrated by the ineffectual toy steering wheel they've spent their lives grasping, and feel compelled to force a result of some sort.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Celebration

I've never had a taste for celebration. I've beaten myself up about this over the years, figuring I was a mope, or a cynic, or that this was just another component of depression. After years of working as a musician while strangers celebrated, maybe I'd gotten detached from human high-spiritedness.

Even worse, my inner terrain was full of discontent and aggravation. I could have used some celebration! For years, I felt like I was a guy with a steep emotional downside and no upside.

In recent years I've re-landscaped my inner terrain via some adjustments of perspective. Tl;dr: I no longer perpetually probe around for what's missing or imperfect in a given moment, nor do I pull back the camera to view and judge how I come off from a third party view. I've let go of my hopes and dreams in the good way. And, finally, I've thinned out my agenda to focus on the things that give me real satisfaction. As a result of these small adjustments, the present moment always feels pretty good. Celebratory, even! But I still don't celebrate "occasions." I just don't get it.

I think, for most people, celebration represents a brief respite from their everyday sense of punishment. I find that appalling. I don't view life as punishment...even when it's punishing. It's all just a ride for our bemused entertainment. And if I needed relief from my normal state of mind, I can't imagine I'd find it in birthday cake and sparklers!

And most people see their lives as hanging upon a series of dramatic plot points. Graduation, new job, favorite-team-wins-Superbowl, That Bad Thing That Happened, etc. But I don't fall for that cinematic view. That Story isn't me; I'm just this guy right here living straight through it all, as always. Nothing happens to me; it all happens around me.

So what's to celebrate?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Presumption of Innocence is Bullshit, Man

I saw this much-liked posting on Facebook:


We need to judge more; to act more confidently from our uninformed initial takes. The problem is too much restraint and circumspection. We don't put enough stock in our snap impressions. Never forget: your initial visceral uptake is solid gold. Embrace your piqued outrage and act out from that!

Don't talk to me about facts or rational deliberation. I have something far better: a deep intuitive knowing about things. When I go there, that's when I'm fully alive. It's kinda spiritual, even if its primary use is to gin up the sort of outrage that generates angry mobs. It's a righteous sword to be cherished, not resisted. Unconstrain yourselves!


This is how the right managed to vomit up MAGA, and now this is how the left is responding. Same exact damned thing from the same exact damned impulse. Just swap in a new set of variables.

Got Lots of Change?

Those Coinstar machines take a percentage. But if you choose to take your payout in Amazon credit, there's no charge at all. So just add the credit to your Amazon account, and spend off of it.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Prediction

I'm going to make a prediction. This is all short term; I say it all goes down within the next four to six weeks:

1. Three dozen or more congressmen from both parties are accused, en masse, of sexual misconduct...with reasonably solid evidence.

2. Both Dems and Reps clean house (though the fate of Roy Moore is unclear).

3. Brief pause

4. Very solid, irrefutable evidence appears of Donald Trump doing something really awful of a sexual nature.

5. Franken and Conyers are seen, in retrospect, as having served as sacrificial pawns in the effort to bring down the king (more Franken than Conyers; the latter is bona fide awful).

6. The administration is rocked, but the GOP remains largely firm in its support (depending on polls of GOP base - not just Trump's hard 30% - and also whether they still need Trump for the tax bill or not).

7. The evidence (#4) is suspected to have originated with Putin (who isn't pro-Trump so much as pro-chaos/pro-dissent).


Anybody want to bet me a beer?

Is It Me Or Is It Them?

"Is it me or is it them?"

Most people never even consider the question. Of course it's them!

People with the psychological sophistication to ask the question most often choose "me", and crumble into a neurotic morass of indecision and self-questioning. Good things can grow from this, but it takes a lot of time (roughly 45 years in my case).

Those who choose "them" certainly have ample evidence of widespread stupidity and madness to draw upon. Such people are good to go, ad infinitum...so long as they can keep ignoring their own crazy stupidity.

The only rational course is to declare "both," and tolerate the paradox (without being grim about it).
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function" - F Scott Fitzgerald

See also this

My Favorite iPhone Apps

Been meaning to do this for a while. I don't have time to make this slick with nice icons and stuff. So let's just get right to it. I'll skip "duh" apps (and, yes, I need to catch up with a few emails). Here's the first screen (see second screen below):



Bedside Clock ("Disappearing Bedside Clock")
Wow, I love this app. It gives you a great big bright clock (digital or analog) while your phone charges at night (I put it in a dock, so it's standing up and easier to read). Many apps do this, but the problem is they throw too damned much light. Bedside Clock remains absolutely black...unless you touch the phone, or wave your hand near it, or tap the nighttable, at which point it illuminates (at a custom brightness level, so you don't need to shock your eyes). No alarm built in; just set alarms via Apple's clock app, which pops up notifications anyway. Note that this is a bit fidgety to set up (spend time getting it right). Massive life improvement!

BlogTouch Pro
Lousy....but the best way to create and edit blog entries on the go.

Casts ("PocketCasts")
Lousy....but the best podcast app if you prefer streaming (which you'd be crazy not to).

Fandango
Lousy....but the best movie app if you want easy flexibility switching from viewing nearby theaters to viewing nearby movie titles. Also: watch-lists.

The Hit List
I live in this app, both for Mac and for iOs. Nominally it's a to-do app, but it's so freeform that you can use it for nearly anything - notes, text, etc (no graphics, though). And the custom paid synch is a dream - the best synching experience I've had on any platform ever. This is my preferred way of transferring info between phone and Mac. Rock-solid app, always updated for latest OS.

Instapaper
Lousy...but the best way to save longer web articles for later reading. I also email reading material to my Instapaper account. Often fails to grab all the photos, damn it. Also, it leaves off comments. And they keep adding on stupid features, rather than shore up the basic functionality. Yet still invaluable, and keeps me from having to keep a jillion browser tabs open.

Marvin
I keep my restaurant list here. On my Mac, it's an RTF document, and I use a macro to export it (via Calibre) into an .epub, divided up by chapters (nabes), which I periodically synch to Marvin on my mobile devices. The great thing about Marvin is I can search for a text string - say, 'pancake' - and be shown every instance, in context, organized by nabe. Yelp's bookmarking is handier, but their iOs apps choke with too many bookmarks, so I'll keep maintaining my 30 year old document with its untold thousands of venues. I also keep my Tip-of-Tongue list in Marvin.

Meditation ("Meditation Timer Pro")
Super-flexible meditation timer. Handy if you have multiple steps you need timed at different durations. I use the "Tingshas" alert sound (with "repeat" toggled off); it's the only one I've found that's both audible and non-annoying.

RecUp
Brilliant. Hit the big red button, it records. Hit the button again to stop, and it auto-saves the sound file to DropBox. Done. I use IFTTT to notify me via email of new sound clips awaiting, so I remember to transcribe when I'm back home....using this Transcription app on my Mac (which I've set up with lots of custom keyboard shortcuts to help me pause, fast forward, etc. without reaching for the mouse).

Wikipanion
It's dumb and annoying to have dedicated apps for web sites that work perfectly well in-browser (Amazon, I'm looking at you). But you unquestionably want Wikipanion for Wikipedia. SO much better. And it's free! I use it many times per day. 



AppShopper
Lets me wish-list apps (both for iOs and OS X), which cuts down on compulsive purchases. Also lets me see price history, so I can predict if a sale might be forthcoming (plus: emailed alerts when a wish-listed app goes on sale). App isn't well-maintained, but the web site's still there, and just as good.

BeerMenus
Craft beer offerings for venues near you (great for bar discovery; they're opening so fast no one can keep up), and also a search engine to locate places serving individual brews. I can't figure out the logging features, but that's ok.

Big Words
Ever wish you could hold up your phone and flash a message? It doesn't work with the shrimpy font in a text editor app. This shows....yup....big words. I use it to order in noisy bars, or to flash sardonic messages to friends seated at a distance from me.

Citymapper
"Real-time departures. Transit maps. Line status and real-time disruption alerts. Uber integration. Bike routing and live bike share info. Everything you need -- and may not even realize you need -- to manage your life in the city." I only use this while traveling, but they say it's awesome for NYC too. Much beloved around the world, though I haven't dived in deeply yet. Apparently, it doesn't use data, but I always get a local data plan while traveling anyway.

EAT ("Eat Everywhere"")
My own app. I probably know more about ordering in "ethnic" restaurants than you do. And yet even I find this indispensable, and refer to it often, because I can't possibly keep all the info in my head. It's insane how rich and useful this app is. It's the most useful and ambitious thing I've ever created, and it's addictive even for armchair perusal.

FTP Client Pro
Few people have their own web server anymore, in spite of the extreme cheapness. Most use DropBox or iCloud instead. Well, I'm old school, and that means you also gotta have an FTP client. PIA to set up, alas.

HotelTonight
When traveling, I mostly use ultra-cheap AirBnbs. But sometimes I go blind, and book very last minute (i.e. when I get to town) via the HotelTonight app. It offers nice, luxe hotels at steep discount. I enjoy the cheap splurge and the carefree spontaneity. 

iTranslate
A family of apps for written or spoken translation. Kind of magical to be able to dictate in English and have it chatter forth in other languages. And it really works!

Pocketpedia
I catalog all my books, CDs, and DVDs in Bookpedia, CDpedia, and DVDpedia, respectively. These are Mac programs from a great company called Bruji. Pocketpedia is a small iOs app for accessing all that data on the run. Nothing fancy, but very convenient.

Reflect
The most obscure app I own. Hasn't been available in many, many years, and iOs 11 breaks it - which is why I'm still in iOs 10. Here's a demo, and here's info on the ambitious plan that unfortunately was soon abandoned.

Simple
Online banking. Good for what it is, which is very limited, but they offer some fee-free ATMs. I don't use a physical bank, so this is necessary.

Skype
I detest any form of video chat. But at some point you're going to need to make a phone call without a cell connection (or, at least, without a good one), and if you have a balance on Skype, that's your lifesaver. Facetime audio is even better, but doesn't work for landlines or Android people.

Type-Writer ("The Amazing Type-Writer")
Ok, maybe I have the sensibility of a 15 year old girl, but I totally love this retro typewriter which allows you to waft your anonymized output into the void (i.e. to be read by other users), and to read their stuff, as well. All inner thoughts, no ditzy chatter. As Chowhound demonstrated, if you can cultivate a great crowd, infectious quality ensues. Something about clacky, cranky old typewriters attracts insightful, clever writers and dreamers. Way beneath-radar, and I love it.

Unobstruct: This isn't actually on my second screen, I just stuck it there to remind me to tell you about it. It's a service app that installs itself into Safari. If you choose it from the "share" menu, it will remove those floating header or footer bars that get in your way and limit the area of visible text. Must-have. More info here.

Wordament
I've been very addicted to this game for years. I'm "Ouchmyfinger".

WordRollES
Decent cheap fast Spanish dictionary. I use the iTranslate apps (see above) for more complicated needs. Woops, this is no longer available.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mobs

A reader writes in (the following is lightly edited and anonymized):
Last year I made a post on social media that was a lot like your recent blogs. I spoke with some sympathy of a guy convicted of sexual assault. I'd read the entire police report online twice and concluded he might have been innocent. All my friends got together and decided that I was a supporter of rape culture and did not deserve to work in this town. They contacted my employer and told them to fire me or face a huge boycott. They fired me. Though it was in the journalism field, no one saw any free speech issue.

I was told by otherwise intelligent parties that I never should have posted anything in support of anyone accused of a sex offense, and I deserved exactly what I got.

This has been traumatic for me and I don't post about politics anymore. So be careful what you post.
I'm aware of the stakes, but angry mobs don't make me want to shut up. As a writer, I don't really have a choice. Speaking up is what I do.

Nor will I be provoked into an oppositional stance. Women have put up with way too much crap for time infinitum, and men who don't view and treat them with proper human respect need to reconsider and retool. As a completely separate issue (it's not just one blob of "Men = Monsters"), I find it absolutely shocking that woman can't walk anywhere they want, anytime they want. I don't want to live in a world like that, and I'd like to see it fixed - while remaining reasonable and tolerating all thoughtful perspectives and voices.

Explaining the Franken Outcome

I have a nice concise explanation to offer for the Democrats' crazy treatment of the Franken matter. I think this explains the whole thing.

You know the old adage "A little knowledge is dangerous"?

Here's a corollary: A little morality is dangerous.

The Democratic Party is perhaps 5% more moral (it's spiked a bit higher this year, due not to Dem high-mindedness but to Republican depravity). And that's just not sufficient for them to be anywhere near righteous/sane/effective in posing as paragons of virtue.

Arguably

The Washington Post just wrote:
Franken’s alleged offenses were arguably less serious than those attributed to Moore...
Anonymous accusations of ass grabbing and attempted kissing are only "arguably" less serious than multiple named accusations of child molestation in the view of one of our nation's preeminent newspapers.

We have lost our flipping minds.


(And no, I don't think ass grabbing or attempted kissing are acceptable behavior, duh. But sane, moderate people are obviously able to distinguish degrees of misconduct).

Zero Tolerance

I'm testing out, here, a new-for-me perspective. I reserve the right to walk it back if I decide it's overstated. But the more I think about it, the more gears clink into place, leaving me increasingly confident that this counterintuitive view is correct.


If you've ever advocated for a "zero tolerance" policy, you are not moderate. You are an extremist, lacking the essential human quality of restraint. And if you'd insist that there's no shame in being an extremist for What's Right, I'd remind you that every extremist who's ever lived has deemed themselves precisely that.

Restraint should not be optional. Restraint doesn't imply sympathy for bad deeds, nor for the doers. Restraint doesn't equate with weakness. Restraint is an essential faculty exercised by modern, civilized people even when (particularly when!) they're feeling scared, disgusted, or outraged. To eschew restraint is to be un-modern, uncivilized, and extreme. Staunchly unwavering conviction is not, it turns out, our best look.

Terrorists are awful. Do they deserve restraint, or shall we torture them freely? What? You oppose torture as a matter of principle? Swell! So: is that restraint an expression of weakness? Does it make you a terrorist sympathizer?

If you favor principled restraint in some realms and zero tolerance in others, you should take time to resolve this contradiction (it's a doozy; don't expect it to budge quickly). Try applying principled restraint to your pet outrages and loathings. Consider the proposition that Louis CK, for example, with his icky - but consensual - sex stuff might deserve human consideration just as you might insist on for a jihadist mass-murderer (I realize this is a dangerously bold assertion at this touchy cultural moment).


After mulling over the ramifications of mob craziness recently witnessed in several realms, I've decided I have a zero tolerance policy toward zero tolerance policies. Those who advocate them, ironically, are the same folks who preach the virtues of tolerance. We ensure a tolerant society via zero tolerance. It's the ultimate deranged endgame of The Tolerance Paradox. We have arrived.

Both feel seductively soothing to our animal brains, but nothing good comes from nationalism nor from zero tolerance. The sooner we can recognize these idealogical dead ends and move on, the better.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Novel Approach to Silencing Movie Theater Chatterers

Two young women right behind me in a theater were talking. Continuously. Honestly, I've never heard human beings maintain unbroken speech for such a length of time. It wasn't loud, but it was unceasing.

I shot them a look. The talking continued. I offered a sustained glare. No improvement.

Finally, I wheeled my whole body around, startling them, and gave them my best goofy grin. "Hi there! My name's Jim!!" I piped up, with my happiest happy face. "Hey, are we having a discussion? That's awesome! So what do you guys wanna talk about?" There was no trace of menace; only pure eager affability.

They froze. One managed to croak out an "I'm sorry." And they didn't utter a sound for the remainder of the film.

See also my "Two Strategies For Deflecting Cellphone Loudmouths"


Here's the thing: If I'd asked them - politely or not - to be quiet, I'd have made myself yet another oppositional force to ignore. Instead, I leveraged their deep, primal disinclination to engage with a friendly stranger. Now that's a powerful force!

This is also a great way to discourage strangers from grabbing the seat next to you on a bus or subway. I just smile at them warmly as they approach (ala "Hey, great! It's you!!").

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Everybody Lies

Lawyers may or may not be among your favorite organisms, but it's useful to learn from the way they think. People are talking about a great new article, "Everybody Lies", explaining why you should never, ever talk to law enforcement (especially the FBI) without ample consultation with a lawyer. It presents a profoundly cynical view of human nature and of law enforcement, but it's very hard to quibble with its witty and counterintuitive conclusions, which obviously stem from deep experience.

It's a particularly important read for over-earnest types like me. One's truthful compass may not be built on ground as firm as you'd imagine...and it likely won't save you, in any event.

Author Ken White is a legal blogger and former federal prosecutor. He tweets as Popehat and is part of my Twitter must-read list of informed Trump opposition figures.

Excerpts (but please read the whole thing; it's an enjoyable quick read):
You, dear readers, know my advice about talking to the FBI: don't. If the FBI — or any law enforcement agency — asks to talk to you, say "No, I want to talk to my lawyer, I don't want to talk to you," and repeat as necessary. Do not talk to them "just to see what they want." Do not try to "set the facts straight." Do not try to outwit them. Do not explain that you have "nothing to hide."

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.
And...
There's a commandment about not bearing false witness. But rules don't become commandments because they're really easy to follow. They become commandments because we — we bunch of broken hooting apes — are prone to break them. Everybody lies. Humans lie more under pressure. FBI agents are trained in two dozen ways to ratchet up the pressure on you without getting out of their chair — verbal, nonverbal, tone, expression, pacing, subject changing, every trick that any cop ever used in the box. You're only human. Unprepared, you will likely lie. Smart people, dumb people, ditchdiggers and neurosurgeons, lawyers and accountants, the good and the bad, they all lie.
And...
But the FBI would never prosecute you for a false statement that was the result of a failed memory, right? Oh, my sweet country mouse.

Monday, December 4, 2017

My Racist Window Unit

My early brush with Outrage Culture:

In 1994, I bought an air conditioner from an Indian family in my building, and for the next several years, whenever I turned on the unit, my whole apartment would smell overwhelmingly like curry (fine by me, naturally). I thought this was a great story, so I mentioned it a couple of times to friends. Their faces tightened. I was being "racist." The fact that it was true was utterly irrelevant.

Strangely giving a crap, I learned to stop telling that particular story. But one day, a different friend visited me on a warm afternoon, and we turned on the air conditioner. Unprompted, my friend inquired about the curry smell. I explained its origins, and her face tightened. Even now, I was being a racist...when she'd been the one to make the observation!

Or maybe my air conditioner was racist. I'm still not sure who exactly the racist was...


Soon thereafter, I opened Chowhound and learned about the propensity of mobs to lose their minds over whatever yadda yadda happens to offend them this week (it truly got ridiculous; one user demanded that I stop recommending the classic "White Trash Cookbook", asking if I'd be so eager to promote, say, the "Filthy Jew Cookbook"...to which I believe I replied "From your keyboard to my literary agent's ears!").

The magic catalyst, I discovered, was a critical mass sympathetic to the outraged party. Without this, mouthy offended people seem like deranged lunatics. But if their pique goes viral, it can take over absolutely everything. 
Mobs are scary, though they feel sublimely righteous from within. Nothing feels better than an angry mob to an angry mob. 

Gary Lucas' Astonishing Concert

I saw an astonishing gig last night, a solo concert by Gary Lucas, the guitarist from Captain Beefheart's band, who I'd always enjoyed on those records from half a century ago.

Live, solo, and decades later, he was a whole other thing. He whipped through Fellini film music by Nino Rota, Chinese pop tunes from the 30s, Leoš Janáček studies (I'd have killed for some Villa Lobos), and various covers and originals, all performed in a funky, bluesy, apparently sloppy swamp-gas style with such intense relish that the effect was downright devotional.

I say "apparently sloppy" because while at first it sounded like random notes were popping out of the gutbucket mayhem, it wasn't until passages repeated three or four times that I realized, with wonderment, that the same "random" notes were appearing each time, via inhuman control. With this earth-shaking realization, I understood the magnitude of what was happening, and started listening far more closely.

I finally thought to record a couple minutes of the very last tune (by no means the best). I've played with thousands of guitarists, and dozens of highly inventive ones. I've heard, ad infinitum, every one of the usual permutations guitarists choose to voice chords. And he is doing things here that I can't begin to analyze. Not noisy, anarchic things (which easily defy analysis), but tuneful, formalized things which do not normally lend themselves to wholesale reinvention. A lot of the magic is in his myriad weirdo tunings, but it's unimaginable that he could be so utterly fluent within each different one.



The almost goofy thing about Lucas' performance was how extraordinarily easy it would've been to assume he's just a manically funky strummer with fast hands. I'm sure that's how the vast majority of the audience heard it. But as with an iceberg's water, 95% of the talent is hidden well out of sight, cagily slipped beneath the funky clamor, and easy for even a seasoned musician to miss. Each time my attention drifted - because my ears felt assured they were locked onto something familiar - I'd be jarred from my reverie by some subliminal thunderstroke making me exclaim, out loud, "What the HELL was that?!?"

Gushing subtle miracles and slyly understated wonderment, Gary Lucas is a god of nano-aesthetics.


Shortly after I erased myself from the music business to concentrate on Chowhound, Lucas slipped into a band I'd only recently been playing with. I really wish I had hung around a while longer....

How Latin was Replaced by Italian

Check out this fascinating reply to the question "When did Italian become the language of Italy?"
“...so, it can be said that the evolution of Italian did not take place directly from Latin, but rather it arose from the need for a new “common language” understandable by all the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, that replaced the disappearing Latin over a background of thousands of different languages and dialects that were the evolution of the vulgar versions of Latin spoken since Roman times. And it can be said that literature and poetry were the greatest drivers behind the making of Italian language, which probably is part of the reason for its musicality.”


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Huge Dyson Vacuum Sale

Following up on the OLED TV deal, more bargain luxury...

The Dyson V6 is, pretty unanimously, by far the best cordless vacuum you can buy (detailed review) There are also models V7 and V8, but they're mostly about longer charge time, and you pay like crazy for it. V6 is still the popular one.

The V6 is now available for $229 with free shipping and three free tools (I got it yesterday for $209, not sure what's up with that) instead of its usual $499, and it's never been nearly this cheap anywhere (here it is on Amazon for $407).

There are many V6 variants, all mechanically the same. The difference is in the vacuum head and tool bundle. The deal linked to above is for the “V6 Fluffy”, especially intended for hard floors (though it does carpet, too). Other products are on sale, too, but not as dramatic.

You get to select three tools for free (only when buying directly from Dyson, btw). I chose Mattress Tool (also good for sofas and other upholstered items) and Up Top Tool

Negatives:

1. You need to keep your finger on a button to keep it powered up. Some people say it gives them hand cramps.
2. They advertise “up to 20 mins” on a charge (it’s cordless), but it’s more like 15. And if you use their super-suction mode, it drains battery fast. So between both these issues, this isn't your best choice for 1960's housewife-style vacuuming, wailing through room after room methodically in a big house. It's more for room-or-two-at-a-time.

Big benefit: you can lose the stick and use this as a handheld vacuum/dustbuster, for use on cars, quick spills, etc. Not needing a separate Dustbuster justifies the price, in my view.

Also: You can return it within 30 days for refund (you pay return shipping plus $10 restock).

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Next One Will Be Much, Much Worse

So this guy's toast. Moving on, here's the thing that bothers me. None of the things I despise about Trump's administration (its ignorance, venality, racism, demagoguery, disrespect for institutions, authoritarianism etc.) will have had a lick to do with his downfall.

It's easy to wind the whole Trump mess up into one single ball of badness - the issues I just listed, plus the criminality, obstruction, and treason. But that's not correct. We got super lucky here. We had no right to expect those last three. And the next nativist pussy-grabbing demagogue and would-be tyrant won't come loaded with an array of easy hooks from which to hang him.

Ha. Looks like I already made this point, way back in May:

This all reminds me of one of the strangest experiences of my life. I recounted it here once, back in 2013, and here's a replay:
When I was 22, and building a career as a jazz trombonist here in New York, I spent lots of time in black neighborhoods, where I was tolerated - sometimes a bit more than tolerated, sometimes a bit less. Among the less tolerant incidents came courtesy of a bass player named Tarik. He was friends of friends of mine, and I was kind enough to give him a ride home one night from a gig we'd played. I'm not sure why I'd offered, considering that he was a sour, glowering fellow with a huge chip on his shoulder. But, hey, as a white dude playing jazz, I blithely took my lumps.

As we drove, music played on my tape deck. Tarik asked whose recording it was, and I told him I don't label my cassettes, preferring to listen as freshly as possible, without knowing too much about what I was hearing. He didn't like my answer. In a voice dripping with self-righteous disdain, he replied "Well, that may be fine for you, but this music is my people's heritage, so it's important that I learn as much as I can about it." I of course wanted to stop the car and shove him, his bass, and his heritage out onto the curb. But I remained polite - then and in subsequent highly unpleasant encounters.

Years later, it was in the news that a jazz bassist had been arrested in a FBI sting operation. He'd run a sidelight business teaching various fighting and weapons styles, and had told the wrong person how eager he was to train jihadists, admitting to having sworn an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden. He boasted about his skill at blending in among infidels, always prepared to slit their worthless throats in an instant.

It was, of course, the same guy. Tarik. He's currently locked up as a terrorist, likely forever.

When I heard this, my emotions were complicated. There was a sense of validation (yeah, hey, I told you he was an asshole!). But the crazy scale of it wouldn't quite parse for me....
Generally speaking, assholes who mistreat you don't wind up in the Supermax for terrorism. And deranged, bigoted authoritarian demagogues, similarly, don't normally turn out to have juicily indictable histories of collusion and obstruction, plus a demented propensity for self-incrimination.

Even so, expunging this one will continue to be slow and tedious. Next time, it will be incomparably more difficult. I hope we've learned something. Most of all, I hope we all start voting.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Afterlife

A friend asked me whether I believe in an afterlife. I responded that you can't talk about believing in something until you have any sort of solid definition. Everyone has a different notion of this, so all we can do is try to view things clear-headedly.

If we're trying to identify the thing that's everlasting, we need to disregard everything impermanent. For example, the device I'm typing on. The desk I'm sitting at, and the room and house around me. The light above my head, the air in the room, and every single thing outside, from the mailbox to the Orion Nebula. Everything one can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and measure is in constant change (a river becomes a new river in every passing moment), and will, at some point, end. Not one drop of it is forever.

Same, obviously, for the hands that type this, and the body they're connected to. Impermanent!

What does that leave? Well....you! But where's the permanence? Your thoughts come and go, and your memories, opinions, and knowledge have all accumulated gradually, and are subject to change or loss. There was a time when you didn't know how to drive, or to eat with chopsticks. Yet you were still you, no? Was there ever a point when you weren't you? I don't think so!

So beyond the impermanent world, your impermanent body, and the impermanent contents of your mind, the one solid thing that endures and never changes is your sense of you-ness. In other words: Awareness.

An intelligent receptivity has been humming along - even in your dreams - for as long as you've been you...and you've never not been you. It was there before any of your current atoms existed in your body. It was there before you ever held an opinion, before you knew that you had a name. It precedes all. It's the presence that has always peered bemusedly out of your eyes.

That's the unchanging part - the pole star around which all the change plays out. The things of the world - external and internal - exist within this awareness. It all plays out on the screen of your awareness, and the screen is utterly neutral. All things come and go - start and stop - but awareness is perpetually aware (what else would it possibly be??). Always that exact same hum beneath all the drama and noise.

Some people might argue that this presence did not exist before your birth. But the past is a funny thing. Have you ever experienced it? I haven't! I've never spent even a moment in the past or the future. Only the present. Since neither you nor I have direct experience of either, it's best to consider past and future as abstract (but useful) concepts. Stories! Did you understand that there was a past or future before you could speak, i.e. before your head filled with concepts? No, you knew only awareness. Time came later, along with the rest of the stories.

Anyway, given that all things - including your body - are within awareness, your body was born into awareness, not vice versa. Once again: everything moves and changes, while awareness is the perpetually unmoving part.

The awareness undergirding it all can just as readily identify with any other set of memories, opinions, impressions, names, stories, and worlds. If that sounds strange to you, consider that it does exactly that all the time, when presented with dreams, novels, and movies (not to mention imagination, worry, and hope). In fact, its nature is to yearn for loads of fresh characters to identify with! As everything churns and changes, awareness simply pays attention, sublimely unaffected by the plot points of the show playing out for its viewing pleasure (has the presence staring out of your eyes ever changed in the least, going back as far as you can recall?).

Awareness precedes all. Your body, which is just another impermanent thing, was born into it, and will die into it. But it will never so much as flicker.


Your awareness can narrow or expand to focus on this or that - an ant or the vastness of the nighttime sky. Habits are established as we find ourselves favoring certain frames of perspective. Heaven is one such frame, and hell is another. If you haven't noticed that either is available to you in any given moment - by merely choosing to reframe your awareness - then you haven't been paying attention (literally!).

Note: The links are, as always, important.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Restraint

Black people have always had a tough time making the rest of us understand the extent of police harassment across the racial divide. White America was freaked out by black America's reaction to the OJ verdict only because they lacked awareness of the situation for black people - particularly in Los Angeles. As I once wrote:
I was one of the few white people at the time who knew how police treated black people in Los Angeles (I toured there in 1989 with an all-black band, and was surprised to see my normally nonchalant bandmates waiting anxiously for lights to change before entering crosswalks. It was explained to me. I gulped. Hard.).
Now the problem is more broadly recognized...while black people, understandably, wonder why the hell it took us so long. But, at the same time, some black activists overreach. Every white policeman who shoots a black person is instantly assumed to be a homicidal racist monster. Policemen (who walk into hideous danger) are thought to deserve no slack whatsoever. We go too far. We always go too far (will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?).

Now tons of public figures are under fire for sexual harassment. And woman, who've been putting up with this for years, wonder why the hell it took us so long. But, as always, there will be overreach. For example, even consent is no longer sufficient (congratulations, Ms. Dworkin!). And we've seen mass infection with a disturbing viral notion: anyone so much as tiptoeing into the hot societal outrage cauldron du jour must lose their job - their ability to make a living for themselves and their family - and be shunned forever by polite society and prohibited from plying their trade or contributing in any way. Total personal and economic annihilation, without trial. Crawl up and die.

Extra-judicial annihilation feels right to us, it fills us with righteous satisfaction. But only when applied to the trendiest rages. Arsonist? Counterfeiter? Terrorist? Let judicial process handle it! But re: the grievance du jour, let's go ahead and toss them in the furnace and walk away. Literally no severity of outcome is too severe.

It's dangerous to advocate restraint amid an angry mob, which inevitably equates restraint with sympathy for the Person Who Did the Unforgivable Thing. Swept up in mass outrage, people can lose their morals, their humanity, with unsettlingly ease as they righteously expunge bad-doers. Hey, we're weeding out evil; isn't that a worthy result? No. Restraint is always appropriate, even when we're talking about A GODDAMN MONSTER WHO SHOULD HAVE SHOWN HIS ***OWN*** RESTRAINT BEFORE HE...(etc., etc.)" 

Those hollering that sort of thing most loudly now are the very same folks who (correctly!) object to the use of torture, Guantanamo, and other exceptional measures for certain classes of criminals - and whose stance, in turn, gets equated with sympathy for the bad guys and provokes a bellicose insistence that THE GODDAMN MONSTERS SHOULD HAVE SHOWN THEIR OWN RESTRAINT BEFORE THEY...(etc., etc.)"

Let's stop considering restraint to be optional. Let's at least question our thirst for the total annihilation of those who appear to be beyond-the-pale (per current outrage boundaries in either idealogical camp), shall we?


Why are sentences ridiculously high for drug offenders? Because drugs provoke periodic mob outrages, and nobody ever wants to be seen as advocating for moderation in that ugly realm. So it's an upward locking ratchet. The same gloves-off approach is also how we get to Louis CK being unwelcome to ever again delight us with his creation because of his ugly activity, having shown some people his junk with their consent (not to say, of course, that this was acceptable behavior, or that I'd ever be caught sympathizing with a GODDAMN MONSTER WHO SHOULD HAVE SHOWN HIS ***OWN*** RESTRAINT BEFORE HE...etc., etc.)

Audiophile

I have a friend who just bought a $20,000 sound system. "It sounds exactly like you're in a jazz club!" he enthused.

"But how great do jazz clubs sound?" I asked. "When you're hearing actual live music, are you orgasming over the scintillating aliveness of the sound? Do you think to yourself, 'Man, this is a $20,000 experience'?"


If true-to-life sound is so magnificent and luxurious, how come more people don't swoon the moment anyone picks up a flute?

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Paying Attention to Crazy People, i.e. People

If I had it all to do over again, I'd change one thing: I'd pay way less attention to crazy people.

I've felt a burning curiosity about the thinking and perspective of crazy people, which has driven me to pay them far too much attention, and listen way too deeply. I've worked tirelessly to find resonance with their worldview so I can see things as they see them (you can't really understand someone unless you resonate with them in some way).

At this point, I get it. Immediately. I see their perspective - I can inhabit it - and, really, I'd rather not. It turns out that's not such a good skill to have. Knowing isn't helpful.

I've had more crazy people in my life than most people, but running Chowhound, with its inevitable psycho load (scale's a bitch), was a few steps beyond. As I wrote years ago:
One of Chowhound's moderators is a psychologist who's spent years treating indigent addicts in the South Bronx. After just a few weeks working with us, she declared that she'd been shocked to observe vastly more twisted and demented behavior in a given week of moderating Chowhound than she ever had at her day job. Helping to manage Chowhound amounts to what she describes as "a post-graduate course in aberrational psychology".
The larger problem is that everyone's at least a little nuts - and often more than a little. I know this because I can spot and understand the cray-cray so easily. So if I were to lose my understanding and empathy for them, that would mean less comprehension of humanity, generally.

But that would be fine. Too much understanding of people (which should be the subtitle of this Slog) is as troublesome as any other excess.

When I was a kid, I had no understanding of people whatsoever. All I knew was that these mysterious, irrational entities kept blocking me from doing the stuff I was into doing (which rarely affected them). They were needy, aggressive, and deluded, and one couldn't talk sense with them.

Rather than shrugging dismissively and blithely turning back to my interests, I pivoted, spending years exploring the mystery - unknotting the irrationality, accounting for the neediness, explaining the aggression, and discounting the delusions.

Mission accomplished, but I should have trusted my childhood instincts - always better than I'd realized - and plowed ahead with my stuff. I've gotten very little out of this detour. I can offer insights here on the Slog, but, as I said in my previous posting, understanding people doesn't help. There's not much practical application for empathy, which I suppose is why it's so rare.


Maybe if I wanted to manipulate people, this sort of knowledge would have been useful. But a firm prohibition against that sort of thing is one of several childhood creeds I continue to respect and obey.

BTW, I hope you've enjoyed my bitter post-holidy mumblings. For my previous burst of misanthropy, see this posting composed immediately after a jaunt to Trader Joe's at peak shopping time.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Art and Expectation

I was taking a music arranging class in a place where I was considered a lousy musician. No big deal; I was there to learn, not to impress. I plowed forward.

The previous summer, I'd arranged a piece for four trombones, and my trombone teacher (a veteran who'd toured with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman) was kind enough to record the result, multi-tracking all four parts. I played the recording for the arranging teacher, who suggested a different arranging approach, and had his four top trombone students perform both versions. He asked which I preferred, now that I'd heard my version played by really GOOD players.

He'd assumed it was me on the recording. Which had soured him on the whole thing. Because I'm a lousy player. But it wasn't, and, anyway, I'm not. As my mind processed it all (and the class awaited my response) I felt both surprised and disoriented to discover that I could empathize with his perspective while simultaneously knowing the truth. That said, knowing what to actually do with this comprehension was another thing, entirely. All that came to me was a near-overpowering yearning for a nice tasty beer.

Years later, someone (can't remember who) suggested I nix the amateurish paella-cooking video I'd posted here on the Slog. They assumed (as with the previous example, not without reason) that I'd whipped it up myself. In this case, I indeed have no talent for that sort of thing, but it was actually created by its subject - David Cid, one of his country's most respected animators.

I remember, as a kid, seeing Bob Hope on TV talk shows not saying one remotely funny thing, yet leaving audiences in stitches.

One more! Audiences, unfortunately, applaud after jazz solos. Even if you ignore this - even if you quietly spitefully reject it - you will notice - and at some level be manipulated by - the variance of enthusiasm from solo to solo. Same thing with those damned Facebook "like" counters.


I'd hate to see you injure yourself trying to tie together all these vignettes, but to me they're all part of the same crazy-making machine. I'd love to report that I've seen clearly through the miasma of expectations, and can navigate it all clear-headedly. But I've got absolutely nothing to offer here besides a nice frosty glass of hypothetical IPA. Cheers!


As I wrote earlier this week, "I keep my head down and do what I do." That's as far as I've gotten in all these many years.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Consciousness

There are two aspects to consciousness: cognition and perceptual framing. We know an enormous amount about cognition, but few of us spend even a moment considering perceptual framing. It is assumed that external factors frame our perspective for us; that it's not under our own volition.

We'd freely acknowledge that a given city block is experienced through completely different eyes, depending on, for example, whether we've just been kissed by a new loved one or been ditched by a previous one. But we assume we must wait for external circumstances to provoke emotions for perceptual shift to occur. There is no reason for this assumption. All frames are available in any moment. We just get lazy, and forget that we can actively choose.

We assume that we own our thought stream - though we obviously do not (try to not think about the thing you're currently worried about) - yet we assume our perceptual framing is imposed from without - though it patently isn't (you can't make me angry, only I can make myself angry). We get both oddly wrong. This is a central problem.


Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.

Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman and the Creative Death of Hollywood Film

I finally finished my rewatch of Interstellar. When I first saw it in-theater, I was confused by some plot points, and figured it would settle better if I could watch again. Uh-uh.

So Matthew McConaughey and Company are sent through a specially created wormhole to find a new home for earthlings by their distant future descendants - who'd only exist if that new home had been found.

He manages to achieve this by sending messages back in time to himself which could only be received if he'd gotten the message in the first place.

Finally, he contradicts all previous actions by sending himself a message of "don't go", which, if followed, would make most of the players and events in the movie (including himself) not exist. Immediately thereafter, and after no discernible change of mind, he contradicts himself yet again by sending information that will lead to everyone's rescue and happy future.

This all is made possible via his rescue by the aforementioned distant future descendants, who give him a communication channel via an awfully specific bookshelf in an awfully specific room that they somehow know about, but couldn't communicate through, themselves, necessitating the entire convoluted and logically absurd set-up of the film. Why? Because Morse code can only be sent via, like, Love.


I'm not one of those moviegoers who insists on meticulous realism and who gets all crazy about plot holes. I just need some "there" to be there; anything beyond fancy pretentious horseshit. But this is how it nearly always goes with Nolan, a supposed stickler for detail and for science who depicts a Saturn V-style rocket launch from inside an office building while workers continue to blithely work.

Nolan is considered a brainy, geeky presence in Hollywood because he is merely 99.5% mush. He's like the dull-headed kid deemed a smarty by the other dull-headed playground kids because he's always going on about quantum this or that and drawing pictures of terribly complicated-seeming machines.

Much like how Charlie Kaufman, another poseurish mess, is seen as a penetratingly insightful commentator on human psychology for his audaciously lofty and vacant bong hit-fueled nonsense.

Nolan and Kaufman are the two horsemen of cinematic apocalypse; the ultimate naked emperors baffling with bullshit for lack of any ability to dazzle with brilliance - and getting over because they're the only ones even making an effort to transcend the standard moldy, suffocating formulas.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Why Singers Get All the Attention

A friend who's super into music was observing the poor overall quality of singers. I explained to him that the entire situation resulted from a musicians' strike in the 1940's.

It's quite a story, though it's been almost completely forgotten. I'm a repository of such information, because, in my early twenties, I befriended many musicians in their 80s and 90s. So now, as I edge toward my 60's, I find myself full of forgotten lore.

With the advent of recordings in the first half of the 20th century, music was suddenly a big deal - center stage in the culture for the first time since the dawn of man. For all previous history, musicians were itinerant bums, traveling from town to town, putting out their hats, and barely getting by. A select few might get a symphony gig and teach in a conservatory, but that was the furthest one could rise - a lower-middle class existence in near-complete obscurity, working as a nameless servant for famous impresarios and conductors.

Suddenly, thanks to new technology, your playing could reach a wide enough audience to be commercially successful. Music became a huge business, and while, needless to say, musicians didn't see much of the money (which was intercepted much higher up in the food chain), they at least enjoyed very steady work. My nonagenarian friends would wag their heads, marveling about how everyone worked and worked, constantly and widely, for comparatively good money.

What's more, there was, finally, a pinnacle to shoot for. The top of the crop garnered success comparable to top artists in other arts, like painters or novelists. Stars like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, - so famous you even recognize their names today! - were all instrumentalists, and they supported an entire economy of lesser luminaries - the guys who were left wagging their heads in perplexed dismay forty years later.

At the height of all this, the musicians' union, flush with money and power, lost its mind and instituted a recording strike. All of a sudden, the red-hot pipeline of recorded music had no product to push, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. So the money guys looked to singers, who belonged to a different union, to fill in.

There had always been singers, of course. They'd tour with bands, but were far lesser creatures than their musician-leaders. Sinatra sat dutifully on a chair in front of the Dorsey and James bands, eagerly awaiting his few minutes of featured time while the trombonist and trumpeter (respectively) soaked up the serious adulation and made the real money.

Now, the story you'll hear literally everywhere is that Sinatra's career inevitably blew up as adoring fans demanded more and more of him, his fame inevitably eclipsing that of his former bosses left in the dust blowing their stodgy horns. But it wasn't inevitable. It was manufactured.

Singers were pushed very hard, and the public bought it. This was the moment when the execs, managers, agents, and other money people came to realize how generic the star slots were. Cultivate the right image and publicity, and you could throw just about anyone in there to serve as an instant profit center. So by the time the musicians strike ended, the scene had flipped and singers were the sensations. The execs liked singers because they tended to be dumb, malleable, and so obsessed with fame that you could lead them like lemmings. Instrumental musicians, on the other hand, are a whole other thing.

Becoming a top musician requires more training than doctors or lawyers. It's unbelievably hard to reach a point of real excellence (and professional-level consistency), so they tend to be shrewd, highly-motivated, and obsessed with silly irrelevancies like quality. If you're a recording executive, who would you rather anoint and exploit: those wily rascals or some skinny dude with a pleasant voice who, this time last year, was delivering packages or fixing bikes?

The music business never looked back. Instrumentalists were shoved into the shadows, the public stopped paying the least bit of attention to the band, and singers were everything. Every package deliverer and bike repairman imagined they could sing as good as the person on the radio....and they were often right. To this day, singers remain predominant, enjoying all the fuss, the billing, and the money while the saxophonist who spent 20 years mastering his craft at least gets to enjoy a doobee or two while practicing scales after his package delivery day job.

It's not entirely one-sided. In every era, some instrumentalist manages to claw his way to the top of the mountain. Herb Alpert, Herbie Mann, Chuck Mangione, Kenny G - guys like that*. Every single one of them is a pitiful example of shoddy musicianship. To the rest of us musicians, the message is very clear: our Masters let exactly one of us in the door at a time - the most scant-talented but dentally shiny - as a reminder of what our advanced skills and astute savvy are truly worth.


* - Chris Botti, the latest flavor, is actually solid, but he's not anything like the thing he's sold as being. He's a fine session player - good for playing pads and pops in a horn section on record dates - who's been weirdly (and successfully) marketed as a shiny/moody jazz/pop virtuoso/messiah. But at least the guy can play his horn.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

International Travel Tips

I've traveled to 26 countries (including 25 separate trips to Spain), mostly as a touring musician. I've developed some pre-trip to-dos that might look like a bit much, but it's the result of deep experience.

While you're in trip prep mode, ticking down a 100 item to-do list, it's easy to forget that not every step's of equal priority. You'll need to invest a solid hour in the following, but it prevents huge potential pain; way more so than if you, say, forget to pack suntan lotion (Globalism is your friend, by the way; you can find Pepto Bismol or bobby pins most anywhere now).

I'm preparing this for The Niece in Greece (she's headed over to cavort with shiftless millionaire sponge-diving playboys), but hopefully this will be of use to others, as well.


Cautious Stuff

1. Make a copy of the photo page of your passport, and carry it in a different place than you carry your passport. If you lose your passport, this puts you way ahead of the game in getting a replacement (and/or temporarily keeping you cool with local authorities)

2. Your phone may house beautifully organized trip info, but what if you lose your phone (or it runs out of juice at the wrong moment)? Write up a one page document with all flight and ground transportation details, hotels, credit card cancellation non-800 numbers, etc. Print up a jillion copies, and put one in every suitcase and carry-on, plus one in your pocket or pocketbook.

3. Start a word processor document with a big, bold 14 pt header titled "In Case of Emergency" (google-translated into the local language). Beneath, in 9 point text, with very narrow columns, add a name and local contact number (hotel, Airbnb host, local friends or work contacts), and make clear (again, using Google Translate) that this person is local (e.g. "En Barcelona"). Also add your email address and any medical information (allergies, conditions, medications - remember, if you're in a health crisis, you won't otherwise get your usual meds for a few days).

Print it out, scissor-trim it into a tight, narrow strip, and feed it into a wallet slot, prepped so the "In Case of Emergency" header is clearly visible. Also: save the document on your computer to use as a template for future trips.

Take a moment to carefully consider your choice of contact. This will be your sole lifeline and means of referral back to friends/family in USA. Consider adding an American contact (most foreigners have a cheap way of calling abroad these days...more so than Americans do). Set up the number carefully, with local international call prefix plus American country code, and specify (in local language) the languages your American contact speaks (e.g. "Inglés solamente").

Don't rush this step; you want it done right! Imagine how various scenarios would play out.

4. Prepare a similar document, without the medical info or American contact. Just include a local contact plus your email address (local EMS will check your wallet; this one is just for a lost phone or informal street help in the event of a problem). Photograph this document, and make it the "lock screen" on your smart phone, so it's what everyone sees when they turn on the phone, prior to enterring passcode (take the time to make it look right, and save the document - not the photo - on your computer so you can use it as a template for future trips).

5. Call your credit cards to let them know you'll be abroad, otherwise they may assume someone stole your card.


Using Smartphone Abroad

You want lots and lots of data abroad. Many people shut off data to escape roaming charges, and only connect via wifi. They're horribly wrong. This is when your smartphone shines! You want to use tons of Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, local mass-transit apps (add research/downloading these to your to-do list), plus stay-in-touch email and US news checks. You want loads of data! But don't pay thousands of dollars by doing so on your home mobile plan. What you want is a local SIM (which gives you a local phone number plus a daily/weekly data allowance plus text messages). Again, get one with high data allowance (upwards of 10g/week). Don't be cheap on this!

Note, per #1 below, that you'll need an unlocked phone.

T-Mobile, last time I checked, offers free local data everywhere, but it's super slow. Know what? Screw it! Even if you're on T-Mobile, spring for the local SIM with fast data. It's never expensive (figure $15-30/week). Live a little!

Downside: phone calls to your normal home number won't ring through. You can give important correspondents your foreign local number for emergencies. And call back to your home phone number via Skype to grab voicemail (always keep a balance on Skype). As for text messages, see #4, below.


Smartphone Pre-Travel

1. A week or more before you leave, call your smartphone carrier to verify that you have an unlocked phone (so it can take a local SIM). If not, and they balk at unlocking it (they can do so remotely), threaten to cancel your plan with them (if they mention penalty charges for breaking your contract, tell them T-Mobile offered to pay the penalties for you).

2. Google your destination plus "local SIM", and ignore all results over a year old. Find out which week-long packages are available for travelers. Often, there's not much choice or price variation (seriously, don't waste too much time comparison shopping here), in which case, great, get it done right in the airport as soon as you land. Otherwise, hit a cellphone kiosk in the most touristy town center. And bring your passport, they usually ask for it. 

3. Bring a small paper clip for opening the SIM tray. When you buy the SIM, they'll take care of that for you. But you'll need the paper clip to open it up to pop back your original SIM when you arrive at your home airport.

4. Send text messages to all your frequent correspondents saying you'll be out of range, but inviting them to email you. Note that you SHOULD be able to connect via text even with a new SIM, but only if your correspondent uses the same platform (iOs or Android) as you....and, even so, it won't work if your phone's not properly configured (and Apple keeps changing the config options, so I'm never quite sure). Text messages are voodoo, so be safe and assume it won't work (if you use WhatsApp, you're all set, of course...and that app's super popular abroad, fwiw).

5. Make sure you have my app, "Eat Everywhere" loaded on your phone to help not just with the the local cuisine, but also for other cuisines cooked by local immigrants. We offer helpful local pronunciations and background on the food. Don't eat out without it!


Smartphone After Arrival

1. After the insolent kid in the cell phone kiosk tells you you're good to go with your new SIM, step to the side, turn off wifi, and try to load a web page. If it doesn't load, don't leave until it does. Also, ask him/her to text you, and you text back.

2. Guard your old SIM with your life. I shove it, hard, into an unused bottom corner of my wallet. Sure, you can always get a replacement back home, but you really want a working phone once your plane lands back home.

3. Go to the "Cellular" section of your device's settings and make sure LTE is enabled for voice and data (it probably is at home, but for some reason this setting often gets toggled off when you add a new SIM).

4. Sometime that day or the following (most often at the 24 hour mark after buying the SIM), data may stop working. If so, follow the instructions (probably dialing a number with some asterisks and pound signs) for initially setting up data (carry the SIM instruction paperwork in your wallet). Often you just need to do this again...every day (after calling, a text will tell you you've already been set up, and data should now work). No idea why.


Money

ATMs are expensive. Not just due to the usual fee, but also the hefty foreign transaction charge. I've tried alternative ways of getting money, but they're all bad (trust me: you don't want to fool around with traveler's checks). So I take a huge ATM withdrawal right at the airport. Several reasons:

1. I won't need to make as many subsequent withdrawals, each with terrible fees (they add up!).

2. I won't have to use my credit card as much (again, terrible rate plus an international fee - though some cards are better than others; do some research if you travel a lot).

3. If the big withdrawal is lost/stolen once every ten trips, I'll still have saved money overall compared to paying multiple int'l transaction fees.

4. My thief will be far happier with me (and less inclined to conk me over the head) than if he'd found just twenty five bucks for his trouble.

Other than this big-gulp strategy, I don't stress over foreign transaction fees. Certain travel expenses can/should be squirmed out of, but this one (like the high data local SIM plan) I just suck up.

One ATM tip: always request a granular amount of the local currency, so you don't wind up with a wallet full of the local equivalent of $50 or $100 bills (which nobody wants to break). Ask for 310, 320 or 325 rather than 300 or 350. This will allow you to purchase whatever doodads you need right from the beginning. And start trying to break up bigger bills as soon as you get to your hotel.


Passport

If you carry it everywhere with you, you may be sorry (if it's lost or stolen).

If you leave it in your hotel room, you may be sorry (if it's required and you don't have it with you).

My rule of thumb is that the more authoritarian or alien the country, the more likely I am to bring it everywhere with me. But if you leave it in your hotel, leave it well hidden, or even in the hotel vault (leave out a big, honking, hardcopy reminder to yourself to re-claim it before you leave). Don't leave it in the same bag as the copy of the passport you made before leaving.

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