Monday, December 26, 2016

Refusing to Give Up This Time?


I recently posted an entry about feeling demoralized over an Op-Ed piece I was preparing to submit to a leading newspaper. I wrote that I used an online website to analyze the piece for readability, and it indicated that my Op-Ed used too many big words and long, complex sentences to be read easily by anyone with less than a college graduate or post-graduate education. I also wrote that other pieces of mine that I had analyzed on that website scored largely the same, and that I didn't know what to do about this, because I felt uneasy about trying to write any simpler than I thought I did already. But I said I would do my best to "overhaul my writing style" without losing my voice in the process.

Well, as I indicated later, I polished the Op-Ed piece and submitted it, and I've been waiting several days to see if the newspaper accepted it. But they haven't, so I don't think they will. And this leaves me wondering what I should do. Should I just give up? I tried, they didn't take it, and so now it's time to admit defeat and move on to something else? Or is the message of my piece important enough that I should rewrite and resubmit it? That way, even if they don't publish it, I'll have made a nobler effort than I have in a long time to accomplish something important to me. What's more, I will have worked on improving the readability, and, thus, marketability of my writing.

I think I should go for it. It won't be easy, and I've spent much of my life avoiding what's difficult. But not this time?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Judging One's Own Judgment


Something happened yesterday while I was bowling in my league that has never happened before in my nearly fifty years of league bowling. I threw my strike ball, it hit the pins a little farther to the left (I bowl right-handed) than I wanted it to, and a pin remained standing. But not for long. Because another pin rolled across the pin deck from left to right and knocked it over just as the pinsetter raced down to grab it.

Bowling league rules say that after a ball is thrown, if the pinsetter knocks a pin over while it's standing or touches it while it's falling, that pin has to be reset on the deck. But it looked to me like the pin fell over without the pinsetter touching it, and one of my teammates, who was watching at the time, said it looked that way to him too. But members of the other team and some spectators in back of us said that the pinsetter touched the pin as it was falling, while a bowler on the next pair of lanes agreed with me and my teammate that the pin fell untouched by the pinsetter.

What to do? As I said, I've never dealt with this situation before. That is, I've seen pinsetters knock over pins while they were falling, but it was obvious that this is what happened. But yesterday's instance was not nearly so clear-cut. There was a difference of opinion between those of us who saw it happen.

I ended up taking a strike instead of having to reset the pin and shoot at it for a spare. But I think the haggling that occurred over it disrupted my concentration so much that on my next ball, I did something I haven't done in league for decades. I threw my strike ball in the gutter. I followed that up by leaving a pocket 10-pin on my spare ball and going nine-out for the frame, which was very costly to our team at a vital moment in our second-quarter position round match against the opposing team. The other team ended up narrowly winning the second quarter and making it into the league roll-offs at the end of the season, while my team finished second for the second consecutive quarter.

I'm writing about this because it touches upon something that has long been an issue with me. I've always lacked faith in my own opinions and powers of observation.

I've heard of psychology experiments where test subjects were placed in a room with confederates of the researchers, and they ended up concurring with the obviously false opinions of the confederates in response to questions about, say, which line in a series of lines was the longest. And it's not that the test-subjects necessarily lied just so that they wouldn't catch flack from the others. In some cases, they actually believed that their response was correct because, even if it didn't really look correct to them, it must be because it agreed with everybody else's.

I have little doubt that if I were a test-subject in such an experiment, I'd do the same thing. I'd figure that since everybody else said a certain line appeared to be the longest, it must be even if it didn't look that way to me. Well, actually, given the fact that I was a psychology major in college and know about these experiments, maybe I wouldn't do this. But otherwise, I think I very well might.

Yet, I'm glad that I stood up for my perspective of what actually happened to that falling pin yesterday instead of silently submitting to the protests of those who had a different perspective. I didn't insist that my perspective was correct, because I know that human perception and eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable and that my own perceptions may be more unreliable still.  But I continued to insist that it looked to me as though the pinsetter didn't touch the pin until the issue was finally resolved by the opposing team agreeing to credit me with a strike.

But this raises a broader issue of how much I can trust my own judgments about anything, especially when it's about myself. In my previous two blogposts, I questioned my longstanding judgment that I was a good enough writer to potentially earn money from writing. I wondered whether my dream and goal of writing professionally might be akin to a wretched or mediocre singer aspiring to become the next "American Idol." I wrote that in the unsettling wake of a linguistic analysis of some of even my simplest writing that rated it as too complex in its syntax to appeal to most readers, I was feeling very disheartened at the prospect of being able to turn even the one thing I thought I was pretty good at into a profitable activity.

Well, I discovered something today that gave me a little hope. I read a New York Times column by Ross Douthat that scored even higher on unreadibility than my writings did when I subjected it to the same online analysis. And I honestly believe that my writings are clearer and, arguably, better stylistically at least. So, if Ross Douthat can write a regular column for one of the world's most respected newspapers with a style possibly even more opaque than mine, maybe there's a smidgen of hope for me after all.

And to place an exclamation point on that hope, I submitted an aforementioned Op Ed piece to a newspaper this morning. I spent a couple of weeks writing and polishing it meticulously until I could see no additions, subtractions, or corrections to make with it, and then I pulled the trigger and sent it.

All I can say is that getting that piece published in such a prestigious medium would be the crowning achievement of my writing hobby thus far, and perhaps the doorway to writing as more than just a hobby. I won't hold my breath waiting to receive word that my piece is being considered or has been approved for publication. I'm realistic enough to know that the odds are very much against it. But I still have a shred of hope in me. We shall see what happens.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Midnight Musings


I'm usually in bed this late. But this hasn't been a usual day. As I posted previously, I'm feeling lost. I thought I was a good writer. I hoped to spend my remaining years writing professionally. But now I don't think I'm very good. And I doubt that I'll ever be good enough. And if I won't, where does that leave me? What should I do?

I say to myself that the test I took yesterday doesn't tell the whole story. That my writing is special. Yes, I tend to write big words and long, complex sentences that inflate my "reading difficulty" scores. But I do it in a way that is much clearer and easier to understand than those scores suggest.

I tell myself this, and I believe it. A little bit. But not enough to feel much comfort or hope.

I need to go to bed. Maybe I'll wake up tomorrow with a clearer head and more hope and determination to pursue my dream of being a writer no matter what.

When I say this, I think of those contestants on American Idol who thought they were the bee's knees as singers. They seemed to believe that they were headed for superstardom. Or that they would at least have a decent paying singing career. And, yet, as soon as they opened their mouths, it was obvious that they were mediocre at best or awful at worst. There was no way they'd ever earn a dime singing. Yet, even as they were firmly ushered out the door, they said they'd be back and that, next time, they'd succeed.

Am I like them?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Overhauling My Writing Style



I’ve been shaken to my core this afternoon. It began with my reading an article by a journalist named Shane Snow about how the best writing is as simple as possible without oversimplifying. Then I made the mistake of using an online utility to analyze a piece I was hoping to get published in a major newspaper. I thought I’d managed to craft a pretty good Op Ed article that had a decent chance of making the grade.

Yet, the resulting analysis all but destroyed that hope. By every widely accepted measure of the complexity of a document’s language, my document scored outrageously far above the parameters that Snow recommends in his article. I reeled in despair.

But I didn’t stop there. I took several posts from this blog that I thought featured some of my simplest, clearest, and best writing and subjected it to the same analysis. And the complexity scores weren’t much lower than they were for the newspaper piece I’ve been working on.

I’ve prided myself on my writing ever since I was a kid. In fact, writing is about the only thing I’ve thought I do reasonably well. Almost everything else has been an uncommon struggle for me. But at least I believed I could write better than most people. Maybe even well enough to earn some money from it. But if Snow’s article is correct, I can hardly expect to earn a living writing any more than I could from repairing cars.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There’s no way my NLD could allow me to be an auto mechanic. But perhaps I’m fluent enough in English that I could learn to write more simply and clearly than I do now. Maybe then people would want to read what I write and even pay for the privilege. Yet, it looks like I’ll need to radically overhaul my writing style to have any chance of that, and I don’t know if I’m up to it.

There is an old story about Sonny Rollins that gives me some hope. Sonny Rollins recorded some of the most celebrated saxophone music ever in the 1950’s, but he was unhappy with his own playing. And so he stopped recording and performing in public and retreated to a bridge where he played only to himself for a couple of years until he had reinvented his approach. Only then did he reappear in the music world and go on to continue building his legacy as a “saxophone colossus.”

Of course, Sonny Rollins was tremendously successful before he did that, whereas I’m a nobody in the writing world. And Rollins had immense musical talent with which to effect his transformation while my writing talent is a giant question mark.

I think or thought I write well, and others have told me I do. But some have also told me I should write more simply and clearly so I’m easier to understand. And now I have an objective analysis that backs them up. Moreover, even if I can make my style more readable and appealing, do I have anything to say that people want to read about?

I worry that if I change my writing as much as it looks like I need to, I’ll lose my unique voice and any appeal I might have as an author worth reading about anything. And I don’t know what to do about this. I grant that if I’m too wordy and “sophisticated” now, few people will want to read me and that nobody will probably pay to do it. But if I don’t stand out in a good way, how will I attract any more readers than I do now? And how can I stand out if I stop writing in a way that comes as naturally as my previous writing has? I haven’t a clue. I feel hopeless except for the hope that “this too shall pass.” And in the meantime, I’m going to keep refining and eventually submit that article I’ve been working on and see what happens. What's more, I’m publishing this blogpost which I’ve tried to make as simple and clear as I can without overdoing it. What do you think of it?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Another Jackass and We Who Encourage Him


I really don't know what to make of people who do things like this. I'm assuming that what's depicted in the video--a shirtless, morbidly obese young man lighting a so-called "suicide vest" of firecrackers wrapped around his torso and then crying out in pain as the exploding firecrackers burn his body and he frantically jumps into the snow seeking relief--is real.

I say this because it seems that CGI has now become so sophisticated that it's capable of making the wildest video illusions look stunningly realistic. Yet, I can't help but doubt that the young man in the video, his off-camera accomplice who lights the firecrackers, or anyone else connected with such a ridiculous stunt possesses the skill to pull off such an impressive feat of video prestidigitation.

So, I return to the vexing question of why someone would subject himself to such a searingly painful exercise in self-debasement. Will he earn enough pleasurable attention, much less money, from it to justify the lingering suffering and self-inflicted humiliation?

And do those of us who watch the video and share it on social media the way I did on Facebook and Twitter and now here this morning encourage him and others to perform these kinds of dangerously reckless and even potentially deadly stunts to receive whatever rewards they hope to receive from them?

Moreover, what does it say about me that I simultaneously feel something akin to condemnation and disgust on the one hand for what this guy did and find it uproariously funny on the other? And what does it say about homo "sapiens" that a good many of us seem to spend our time watching and enjoying this kind of foolishness more than we do far more uplifting and ennobling material?

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Correct Gently, Listen Deeply


I woke up early this morning and listened to James Hoggan speak before the Commonwealth Club. I would have liked his presentation to be more focused, but I agreed with his central point that the “public square” has become so “polluted” by adversarial tribalism and personal attacks that “we the people” can’t come together to accomplish anything worthwhile and that we wallow in self-defeating intolerance, anger, and despair.

One particularly salient point of Hoggan’s talk is when he said that during his interview with Thich Nhat Hanh he was gently admonished to correct others gently, if necessary, but to listen to them deeply. I don’t recall if those were Thich Nhat Hanh’s exact words, but they were to that effect. And I thought, How often do I do this when I disagree with someone? How often do I listen deeply to what they have to say and then, if I think they’re mistaken about something, correct them gently instead of pouncing on them for their perceived mistake, especially if the subject of our disagreement is political or religious?

This was a rhetorical question because the fact is, if someone has disagreed with me, especially about something political or religious, I’ve been ready to let ‘em have it more often than not. I recount two recent examples of this in a previous blogpost concerning my disagreement with people who thought very poorly of anyone who burned the American flag.

But ever since listening to Mr. Hoggan this morning, I’ve felt like following through with Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice. Moreover, I’ve felt a lot more lighthearted about myself, my beliefs, and life in general, and more good-hearted toward people I disagree with and in general. And, for the time being at least, I want to see the best in everyone and to relate to them accordingly, with kindness in my heart.

I think it’s fair to say that I won’t always feel as inspired to do this as I have so far today. Yet, I’ve increasingly become convinced that one of the surest avenues to feeling a certain way is to act as though I feel that way even when I don’t, and I hope that I can at least sustain this online and off.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

A Better Kind of Sex Education?

A friend posted this to Facebook today. I shared it it with the caption "Today's sex-ed for the 21st Century prepubescent?" This is what I wrote as a comment on my friend's initial sharing of it:
The video reminds me of a German sex-ed book that came out decades ago titled "Show Me." It featured very explicit and controversial, at least in prudish domains such as ours, photos and descriptions of male and female anatomy of children and adults and of human sexual behavior. I think the book, which was available here when it came out, would probably now be regarded as kiddie porn and a person could possibly be imprisoned just for possessing it.
Speaking for myself, I think there's nothing inherently wrong with the video (and the book). In fact, I think it would be great if our society were open to such explicit and thoroughgoing sex-ed for kids, and I wish I'd had it when I was young. I think societies would be far better off if human sexuality were treated so matter-of-factly at an early age instead of being regarded as some magical mystery function and attached to profound and pathologizing feelings of shame and guilt.

But I don't think that's likely to happen anytime soon in our fucked-up country teeming with Orange Menace-worshiping Christian and other prudes."
Maybe I was a little harsh on "Christian[s] and other prudes," but sometimes I can scarcely help myself, especially in the wake of the recent presidential election whose results I blame, to no small degree, on the overwhelming support of religious fundamentalists and evangelicals for Donald Trump. But I do believe that we as adults would have healthier attitudes about sex and better sex lives if we gave children the kind of sex education depicted in the video, and I do wish I'd gotten it when I was an impressionable kid.

We, of course, did receive sex-ed in school, but I think it came later than it needed to, and it definitely left a lot more to our imagination than the video does. And the imagination can conjure up all kinds of crazy ideas. Moreover, the hushed and expurgated way sex education was rendered and the way sex was and is treated by society then and even now turned it into something not only alluringly mysterious to the point of arousing obsession, but it had connotations of nastiness, naughtiness, or worse that caused many of us to feel embarrassed and even ashamed about our bodies and our sexuality, and this creates, it seems to me, a breeding ground for the warping of sexuality into paraphillias--dangerously and even destructively abnormal sexual desires and behaviors--of all kinds and other sexual problems.

Yes I know that kids today can and do go online and see the full range of pornography. But if they could be given the kind of matter-of-fact presentation of basic sexual information when they're really young and before they see those porno videos, they might not even care that much about viewing pornos, and if they did view them anyway, they might be less adversely affected by them.

Contrary to what many adults might fear, I don't think kids would either be traumatized by the sex-ed video above or be prematurely sexualized by it, making them more vulnerable to sexual experimentation or to being molested by adults. On the contrary, I suspect that if they had good, solid sex education when young, they would be less likely to experiment in damaging ways and less vulnerable to exploitation by adults, and, if molested, I think they would be less damaged by it psychologically. It's arguably the kids irresistibly curious about the forbidden mystery of sexuality who are most likely to get into trouble having sex, and those who are taught to regard it as nasty, embarrassing, and shameful who are most likely to be emotionally scarred by having it forced upon them by adults, although I suspect that fewer adults would be forcing it upon children if they had seen videos like the one above when they were young.

I realize that I'm not citing scientific research to corroborate my opinions about all of this but am largely just talking off the top of my head because I want to finish this blog and eat dinner and watch a bowling tournament coming up in a few minutes. Yet, I hope to research all of this over time and possibly have more to say about it and more to back up what I say later on.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Hiromi's Sparks of Genius

George Gershwin, Mozart, Bach, Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. If that were the line up the whole world would turn out to see and hear some of the greatest music artist in the history of the world, the history of classical music, the history of jazz. Every TV station, every jazz radio station, every music and movie celebrity, film makers, broadcasters, play write, composers, musicians and just plain music lovers would fill the venue along with the streets outside. Living among us today is a music artist that embodies the skills of all those artist put together. Meet Hiromi Uehara!! A Modern Musical Genius! One of The Greatest Piano Players The World Has Ever Seen! Blending jazz and classical and fusion, weaving in and out of the stride techniques of Monk and Waller, implementing boogie-woogie techniques, swinging into bebop, rising from from her seat at the piano like a phoenix, arms stretched to reach inside the piano to play the strings as if they were a second instrument, injecting the composition with Weather Report/Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea fusion before floating effortlessly back to her seat. She lures you in with piano notes touched by the fingers of Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart as she
resumes a position of perfect posture at the keys. Folks, I am sorry but watching Hiromi play is complete insanity. It’s hard to get your mind around what this young lady is doing on the piano. She is redefining the words prodigy and virtuoso. Honestly there are no word to describe the musical experience you will be treated to when she sits down at the keys. I am at a loss, and I earn a living broadcasting, talking and writing.” ~ Asian Jazz Radio



Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, once again, I give you Hiromi, from a recent performance on Japanese television of some of her compositions from her most recent album Spark.




Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More Moral Outrage


Yesterday, I examined my moral outrage against or, at least, disapproval of drivers who illegally misuse carpool lanes while the rest of us don't. Today, I want to address another, stronger example of moral outrage or, at least, of disapproval on my part.

One of my Facebook friends published the following post: "I suppose you have the freedom to burn the American flag but don't be surprised if most Americans think you're an idiotic, disrespectful, sophomoric, coward."

If you've read much of this blog, which I realize you probably haven't, you can well imagine that I didn't agree with my "friend's" sentiments. This is how I responded:
Perhaps some who burn the flag wouldn't lift a finger to aggress against nations we have no business invading and destroying but would lay down their lives to defend you or this country against attack. Maybe one reason they burn the flag is that they're contemptuous of our government habitually sending young soldiers into harm's way to wreak devastation and death in situations that don't warrant it but which do aggrandize the "military-industrial complex" and garner misguided support for politicians who push for it. I may not like it when people burn the flag, but when we get upset when people do it, we need to understand that we're just upsetting ourselves and giving other people power over our emotions that they don't need to have.

Moreover, instead of reflexively condemning and pejoratively labeling people who burn the flag, maybe we should remain clear-headed and try through dialogue and probing reflection to understand why they do it. We might then be able to empathize whether or not we continue to disagree with their actions.
Now that was pretty tame considering what I was feeling at the time and in keeping with my message of empathy and tolerance. But then I read the following comment in that same thread: "Anyone who burns the flag hates the country and should be punished or deported," and I responded this way:
Not everyone who burns the flag necessarily hates the country. In fact, they may love the country so much that their burning the flag is their frustrated and angry protest against what they perceive not as a symbol of the country as a whole but of its excessive meddling and military misadventures abroad and its callous neglect of serious problems and suffering here at home and of mindlessly "patriotic" spoutings like we see here in this thread.
 I would never burn our flag in protest, but I can empathize with why some do, and I would never be so foolishly presumptuous as to accuse them all of hating this country. In fact, I suspect that some of them genuinely love this country far more than do their pseudo-patriotic and insufferably self-righteous accusers, especially if those accusers voted for the dismal likes of Donald Trump.
Voting for Trump is arguably an act prodigiously worse than the protest burnings of a thousand American flags, because it could do vastly more harm to this country than those burned flags ever could.

For example, Trump has chosen an ideological fanatic to be Health Secretary who reportedly wants to dismantle Obamacare and Medicare as we know them and replace them with disastrously privatized systems that could leave untold millions of our most vulnerable citizens without adequate health care and/or hopelessly impoverished.
Why aren't you railing against THAT instead of against harmless flag-burners, you pathetically posturing fools?!
This was undeniably and blatantly less empathetic and tolerant, a fact not lost on me even as I was posting it.

So why did I post such a clearly hypocritical put down of people in that thread? Did I do it out of uncontrollable anger or hatred? Not really. I don't think. The fact is, I didn't feel all that angry at the time, and I don't hate, at least not consciously, the woman who posted or those who agreed with the comment I attacked. So why did I say what I did?

I think there are times when I'm just in one of those moods when I want to vent, as provocatively as possible, frustration and resentment. I'm frustrated that people are so simple-minded in their so-called "patriotism," and I'm especially frustrated and resentful that many of these same people undoubtedly voted for Donald J. Trump to be our next president. So, even if it meant contradicting my own previous advice and making myself look like a first-class hypocrite, I just had to let 'er rip. And so I did.

Having said that, I believe that what I wrote in both comments was true. Except, perhaps, for the last line in my second comment. My jury's still out on that one.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Driving While Morally Outraged



My wife didn’t sleep well last night, so I drove her to work this morning. And after I dropped her off and waited my turn in the metered lane of the onramp to get back on the busy freeway, I saw several cars whiz past me in the unmetered carpool lane, none of which contained the required two occupants or more for that lane.

I felt resentful and wished there were a CHP unit stopped somewhere nearby monitoring these blatant violators and preparing to sock one of them with a costly ticket that would, henceforth, deter them and others from taking advantage of highway amenities for which they didn’t qualify while the rest of us dutifully abided by the law.

Of course, if all those drivers who disregarded the law obeyed it instead, the metered lane would have backed up even more than it did, and my wait would have been even longer. So was it really such a bad thing that some drivers illegally took advantage of the carpool lane? Was that really so different from infractions I commit all the time such as breaking the speed limit?

My first inclination is to think improperly using a carpool lane violates Moral Foundation Theory’s principle of fairness in a way that exceeding the speed limit doesn’t. And, being the political liberal I am, I’m purportedly more insistent on people treating each other fairly (and caringly) than are my more conservative fellow humans who are said to place equal if not greater value on other innate foundational values such as liberty, even when I arguably benefit from some people acting unfairly and using the carpool lane when they shouldn’t, thereby decreasing the traffic and wait time in the metered lane for those of us who act fairly.

Yet, how is it really being unfair to me if I’m actually being helped by it, and, if it is unfair, why don’t I think it’s unfair of me and others to exceed the speed limit when others don’t? Why don’t I stay at or under the speed limit and feel angry when others fly past me?

Am I maybe just resentfully envious of drivers who improperly use the carpool lane when I don’t have the nerve to do it, although I do have the (less) nerve required to speed?

Maybe if I spend more time thinking about all of this, I’ll be able to discern a significant difference between speeding and misusing the unmetered carpool lane of a metered freeway onramp that justifies my indifference to the former and aversion to the latter. Or, failing that, maybe I’ll either stop speeding, or I’ll stop feeling upset and self-righteous about carpool lane violators and go on about my driving with greater equanimity.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

San Junipero and Artificial Paradise


I grew up watching the original version of the television anthology series The Twilight Zone, and I still consider it one of the finest television series ever. Now there’s a worthy successor to it in the brilliant British anthology series Black Mirror. It focuses on the dark side of modern technology.

Last night, I watched an episode from the series that I found extraordinarily moving. It was titled San Junipero. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to before reading the rest of this post.

The basic storyline can be found here, so I won’t bother offering my own inferior summary. But what I will say is that right after I watched this episode, I felt so moved--overwhelmed with emotion actually--that I posted the following to Facebook: “I just finished watching one of the most beautiful and moving stories I've ever seen on a TV or any other kind of screen! I am just blown away with equal parts sadness and joy! It's an anomalous episode from the third season of "Black Mirror," the brilliant British TV anthology drama series usually focusing on the dark side of technology. The episode is "San Junipero," and I recommend it in the strongest terms to anyone reading this who can watch the show on Netflix or some other way, because it's THAT extraordinary.

I watched this episode last night because I wanted to hear afterward what the Very Bad Wizards had to say about it in Episode 102 of their outstanding podcast series. I listened to the podcast this morning.

I must say that I was so overpowered emotionally last night that I didn’t spend much time reflecting on the deeper issues raised by “San Junipero.” But Sommers and Pizarro spurred me this morning to ponder the story in more depth.

Until last night, all the “Black Mirror” episodes I’ve seen have painted gloomy if not frightening portraits of technological dystopias, but “San Junipero“ seemed much more upbeat and ended with Heaven is a Place on Earth (lyrics here) ringing joyously in the sonic background as the two protagonists drove blissfully off together into their cloud-based paradise. But is the story really as happy as it seems outwardly?

What would it be like to have one’s consciousness posthumously uploaded to the Cloud where one could experience for as long as one wished a place or era or perhaps any number of places and eras as though one were still embodied but know that one was not?

Tamler and Somers surmise, and the episode reinforces this, that at least some of those who choose this fate could end up jaded, bored, and emotionally numb in an “afterlife” where one can do pretty much what one wants without consequences and eventually runs out of novel experiences to spice up life and make it worthwhile, finding oneself trapped in empty, hedonistic decadence.

This reminds me of a famous Twilight Zone episode in which a petty criminal dies in a shootout with police and ends up in a place he thinks is heaven because it’s filled with every hedonistic experience--like having beautiful, adoring women at his beck and call and always winning at gambling--that he craved in life, yet he quickly becomes bored and even miserable and jarrringly discovers that he’s not where he thought he was.

Not only that, but knowing before one dies that one can be transported to cyber-paradise and even being able to preview it on a weekly basis beforehand could cause one to look forward so much to the artificial reality of the afterlife that one ceases to be fulfillingly engaged in the reality of this life.

Yet, come to think of it, how different is this from the monotheist focused on escaping this earthly vale of sin and tears into everlasting heavenly bliss? Moreover, the people who ended up in San Junipero were already old and/or dying before they went there, and many of them, like Kelly, had lost their spouses and/or children to the grave. They had very little left to look forward to in their current lives, and poor Yorkie had been a motionless quadriplegic for forty years and now had the chance to run joyfully across the sand with her gorgeous lover for as long as the two of them wished.

By the way, everyone who elected to be uploaded to the Cloud after they died had the ability to opt out and die completely or, perhaps, to change their artificial locale, era, and circumstances whenever they so chose. That is, if heaven turned into hell, they could exit into a new virtual reality or into oblivion at any time.

So, it’s hard for me to see “San Junipero” as a typical “Black Mirror” dystopian nightmare. And if I were given the chance to do what Yorkie and Kelly did, I’d probably take it. After all, not so unlike Yorkie, I’ve lived a life that, while very comfortable by worldwide and historical standards, has been quite bereft of rich experience. If I could artificially reinhabit my youthful body and go back to my teenage and early adult years of the sixties and seventies knowing what I know now, I might have quite a time of it. And when I got tired of it all, I could do what I suspect we all end up doing anyway.

The only thing that might give me pause would be uncertainty about just how trustworthy and foolproof the process actually was. For if we humans are intrinsically flawed, it would probably be foolhardy to assume that any of our technologies are impervious to failure or, perhaps, misappropriation, and a failure or misuse of the technology discussed here could conceivably turn San Junipero into a ghastly nightmare one could never escape.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Am I Really a Liberal?


I read an article today I may blog more about later. But right now I want to focus on one aspect of it. The article is a concise summary of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s take on the psychobiological roots of political liberalism and conservatism.

Haidt says research shows that liberals are “open” to and even crave novel experiences whereas conservatives resist novelty and stick with routine and that these differences are very likely biologically programmed and innate. Thus, liberals naturally push for social and cultural change they think will make life better, and conservatives naturally recoil from such change they think will disrupt established order and make life worse.

I first became acquainted with Haidt’s claim from his TED talk a few years ago. And I remember thinking that my political liberalism doesn’t fit Haidt’s mold. That is, I’m very liberal politically but exceptionally resistant to change in my personal life. How could this be?

I didn’t think much more about Haidt’s claim until it dawned on me today that what may be happening in my case is that I’m like other political liberals in craving novelty, but I stick with many routines not because I really want to but because my cognitive deficits and psychological hangups prevent me from seeking the novelty I’m naturally predisposed toward.

For instance, in his TED talk, Haidt says conservatives gravitate to restaurants like Applebee’s and liberals to ones like Chez Panisse. Yet, I am just the opposite. I like Applebee’s and have never eaten in a real French restaurant.

But why is that? Is it because I really want to keep eating at the same old humdrum places? Or is it because, while I want to eat at new places and sample new cuisines, I’m afraid that my learning disabilities and social awkwardness and anxieties will poison the experience and I want to avoid this unpleasantness?

After all, I know nothing about French food. Not only about what it is but also about how to order and, perhaps, even eat it in a way that won’t make me look stupid. So, I stay away from Chez Panisse or the Moroccan or Afghan restaurant nearby, just as I avoid doing so many other things, especially in public, because I don’t want to appear awkward and stupid and be looked down on.

Yet, when it comes to doing things, like reading about or listening to new ideas in philosophy, science, religion, or what have you, I love it and seek out these experiences with relish, so long as I don’t do it in a public manner that potentially exposes me to looking awkward or stupid.

That is, I love to read about or listen to new ideas in private or with people with whom I feel comfortable. But I wouldn’t be as keen on exposure to these ideas in situations where I’m with others with whom I might be expected to intelligently discuss these ideas, because I’d be afraid that I wouldn’t be up to the task and would look stupid.

And in some cases, I resist doing new things even when I don’t fear that other people would think I looked stupid doing them, because I’m afraid that I would FEEL stupid trying to do them and failing. For example, I might stay away from an art gallery because I don’t “get” art, even though I’d really like to, and I don’t like to place myself in situations where I feel inadequate.

In an upcoming blogpost, I’d like to say more about the article I read today.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Zakaria Interviews Kissinger


I've come to pretty much despise CNN. Its pre-election obsession with Donald Trump is no small part of the reason. It seemed that almost every time I tuned into CNN over the past umpteen months, they were talking almost exclusively about "TRUMP...TRUMP...TRUMP."

It was as though there were virtually nothing else, short of an occasional terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, going on in the world worth covering. To make matters worse, their coverage of Trump, as with almost everything else they sporadically touched upon, was shockingly shallow.

Rather than investigate Trump's past with due journalistic diligence or thoughtfully explore the ramifications of his policy proposals, such as they were, CNN chose to lightheartedly and nitwittedly dwell at mind-numbing length on "The Donald's" most recent petulant tweet in response to the latest SNL skit mocking him or on some other such trivial nonsense. They treated Trump like everybody's favorite clown, or, as NYT literary critic Dwight Garner semi-famously said, like a "dancing bear" who always has a chance to win when an election is turned into a "three-ring circus."

Indeed, if psycholinguist George Lakoff is right, this incessant attention from CNN and the rest of the so-called mainstream media, even when seemingly negative, boosted Trump's visibility and correlative popularity. I'm thinking it may well have been the decisive factor in Trump being elected.

But there's one CNN program that I still like. Well, actually, there are two. The other is Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown. But first and foremost is Fareed Zakaria GPS.

No doubt many, depending on where they fall on the political spectrum, would accuse Zakaria and his show of being either too liberal or too conservative. But I find every episode informative and thought-provoking even though I'd love to see a wider range of guests and opinions presented.

Fareed's first guest today was Henry Kissinger. Now say what you will about Kissinger--some consider him one of our greatest Secretaries of State while others think he's one of the world's most monstrous living war criminals--, this 93-year-old guy seems to have retained his smarts, and he said a couple of things today that stood out to me.

First, he said that Trump comes to the office with less "baggage" than any president-elect he could recall. I think he meant that Trump doesn't appear to be intransigently ideological and hasn't spent time in political positions where he's accumulated political debts to anyone. Once in office, he could do pretty much what he wanted provided it was constitutional and he could, when necessary, marshal requisite popular and congressional support.

When Zakaria asked whether Trump carried the baggage of policy proposals he made during his campaign, Kissinger cautioned against the press 'nailing' him to those positions and criticizing him for turning away from them, because there was a chance that if they did as Kissinger advised, Trump's pragmatism would prevail over destructive and dangerous ideology.

This morning, I saw a Saturday Night Live sketch where Adam Baldwin portrays President-elect Trump feeling overwhelmed by preparations to assume office and exhibiting resistance to carrying out some of his campaign pledges, such as rescinding Obamacare. And I thought this might not be so far from how it really is for Trump now that the campaign is over and it's time to dispense with the bullshit and face up to the crushing realities of being president of the world's pre-eminent nation. Maybe Kissinger is right that we can help him to handle reality more effectively by giving him some space.

Yet, what the sketch also showed was Trump delegating as many duties and responsibilities as possible to Mike Pence and his staff. And given the sensibilities and histories of Pence and others Trump seems intent on surrounding himself with, I fear that he'll be letting incompetents, fanatical ideologues, and ethical pygmies run this country while he largely retires to his gold-plated penthouse in Trump Tower between ceremonial functions in which he'll represent this country on the domestic and world stage with nothing approaching the impeccable intelligence, eloquence, and class our outgoing president unflaggingly demonstrated for the past eight years.

The second thing Kissinger said was that Trump's professed attitude toward Russia's Vladimir Putin may actually defuse some of the tensions between our countries that the condescension toward Russia and the aggressive expansion of NATO's military capabilities near the Russian border under the Obama administration may have gone far to arouse.

We shall see...