Sunday, July 29, 2007

In Search of the Meniscus

I endeavor to live a healthy lifestyle. This means regularizing patterns of sleep (the Okinawans, who enjoy a lifespan approaching 100 years, swear by this), exercising with cardio routines and light weights (so as not to put too much pressure on the heart with extra muscle that I can't maintain through midlife), and consuming plenty of wholesome, organic, synthetic foods.

I'm a sucker for non-foods that pretend to be healthy. I dig in to them like the wasted shell of man who dragged himself across scorching desert to the heart of a village feast. To increase the intensity of the experience, I read the narratives on the side and back of the box as I eat. I take comfort in their words, in the stories of family farmers who had the good fortune to reap some success four generations ago so that now they're in the perfect position to oversee distribution of their products by a multinational.

The king (or queen) of the boxside narrative is Annie. As in Annie's Homegrown, the pasta maker based in Napa, California. Sometimes, just reading a box of Annie's Shells and White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese is enough to tide me over until dinner. Consider a box of another stellar product, Shells and Real Aged Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese. The box speaks to me: "Dear Friend." The box is full of life: little bunnies, including a rabbit's tail that you push in to open the box, Annie's signature after a lovely note about the "smooth texture and sharp taste of real aged cheddar," and a photograph of the product that (get this!) is not even enlarged to show texture. That's right: it looks fine just the way it is. No artificial anything! (the preceding sentence in its entirety will soon be a registered trademark.) Zero grams of trans fat! Keep your letters and emails coming! No weird chemicals! Annie's Way of preparing the meal (which sounds suspiciously like everybody's way - boil, stir in, cook, measure, drain, pour - but that's alright). An entire panel about how I can Be Green to Help the Earth Live (I must "speak out on behalf of all of the Earth's inhabitants," including "plankton"). Symbols populate the box like it was from another world - designs that whisper in code near the bottom of the box that the manufacturer purchases renewable energy, uses recycled paper fiber, and uses certified organic ingredients by Oregon Tilth. Oh, and one last thing: please remember to Reduce Your Footprint, Too!

All of this for a product that is suspiciously similar to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. In fact, the entire product before me (cheddar mac and cheese) is Annie's attempt to speak to the kids who, according to Annie, "want orange cheese." But enough rhetoric. Let's look at the first 10 ingredients: wheat, cultured pasteurized milk, salt, enzymes, whey, buttermilk, cream, salt, sodium phosphate, annatoo extract. Now, Kraft: wheat, niacin, ferrous sulfate, vitamins B1 and B2, folic acid, whey, milk, salt, calcium, Sodium Tripolyphosphate. Yes, Kraft includes a splash of artificial color (which is what Annie's is so desperately trying to compete with through use of her own "orange cheese"). But relatively speaking, you're getting the same thing - same amounts of protein, vitamin A, calcium, fiber, and fat. You miss out on the organic experience, for sure. But given the regulations, a farm can use treated sewage sludge one year and before long attain "organic" grower status.

All of this is missing the most important point - the product, whether made by Kraft or little grower Annie, is NOT A REAL FOOD. Not in the sense of the produce and meats with which human beings co-evolved. It's a fabrication, a figment of focus groups and the minds of other people. It's not how the natural world, in all of its wisdom, elected to provide sustaining nourishment, carefully providing ingredient A along with B, C, and Q because Q aids in the absorption of C and is best consumed along with B. It is, as the box rightfully proclaims, "manufactured," and on shared equipment that also processes eggs. I'm not trying to knock the product at all - I will consume Annie's until my dust is scattered along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railroad by my future grandchildren (my children couldn't do it because they were taking part in a preemptive strike against Sri Lanka). And Annie's is one of the more benign "health foods." For example, Nature's Path Peanut Butter Granola cereal includes two nutrition labels on its box: one with the real nutritional value, and one for "an 8 ounce serving of dry roasted peanuts." The latter is brimming with vitamins and minerals galore. Only problem is, most of these are missing from the product that you are asked to buy.

But Annie's is emblematic of a broader trend in our culture: calories are readied for intake, and we eat them not because they are good for us, but because we are told as much. And it takes a lot to tell us in so many creative ways. And that takes money. And for that, we pay. Never mind that a pound of pasta and a hunk of cave-aged cheese, with a dash of milk and butter, would be much cheaper and better for us.

Another of my all-time favorite products (this time a 7% juice beverage) is Orange Mango with Mangosteen Honest Ade. It's wonderful for so many reasons. But extra kudos go to Seth and Barry (yes, the best health food manufacturers put names, and hopefully faces, to the product) for the meniscus at the top of the bottle. They fill their bottles liberally, all the way to the brim, and I mean precisely to the brim. Reminds me of those days in high school when you played with test tubes and learned how water molecules attract molecules in the glass tube, tugging the water slightly higher than it should otherwise travel near the sides of the container.

And if I'm going to pay $1.99 for 16.9 ounces of mostly water, it helps reassure me that I've done the right thing when I'm welcomed to the beverage consuming experience with a meniscus. Other drinks don't fare so well. I bought a pint of Naked juice the other day for over $3, and the entire neck of the damn bottle was empty! Not cool. Perhaps it was to remove some weight from the juice so as to save on shipping costs. Or maybe it's part of the broader trend of downsizing foods. Don't believe me? Just look at a slice of Wonder bread nowadays. You may be able to eat it with real cheese, but make sure that your favorite gouda is sliced like a deck of playing cards.

Vaya con Dios - Ordinary Skill

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On Fear

Scientists are on their way to curing fear. I'm afraid that this could get out of hand.

Here's what the folks at MIT accomplished: mice, the usual suspects, were given small shocks when placed in particular environments. Some of them were genetically engineered to have lower levels of a kinase (an enzyme, called Cdk5) than the others. Mice with higher levels had far more difficulty distinguishing between the memory of a shock and the environment in which it was received. Those mice froze. The mice with inhibited kinases felt comfortable enough to continue exploring their environment, despite the painful memories. The men and women in white coats were quick to point out that the mechanism concerns fear based on a traumatic event. They intend to focus their efforts on developing a drug for use with those who suffer from PTSD. But what's to say that they will stop there?

The next frontier would be the kinds of background fears that accumulate as we live our lives and absorb culture, stories, associations, and the like. Many of these fears are irrational, so good riddance. But then there are two seemingly divergent kinds of fears that I'm not ready to part with as yet. In one direction are the fears that we learn over the eons, that are hard-wired by evolutionary experience. And then there is the seemingly ephemeral (because it is so complex that your conscious thoughts only capture bits and pieces on occasion) but actually quite pervasive fear: existential fear. The ability to "cure" or control fear presents a bit of a conundrum in that it could lead to an outbreak of existential crisis.

Let's say that we remove a sufficient amount of fear within the general population through some pharmaceutical means, and not just fear of the trauma-induced kind. People grow less afraid of not just situation-memory links but of concept-concept bonds, such as aging and death. Some may shed their belief in a higher power and the comforts of faith, finding less of a need for the narratives of triumph over death and endless renewal that they provide. But then what? Fear reduced, freed from religious dogma, and hopefully not killed prematurely because they forgot to look both ways before crossing the street, what do these human beings do next? Lacking a narrative for what life is all about (remember for a large swath of the newly medicated, their existing supernatural narrative went away along with the kinase levels), but still aware of their impending personal demise, they are ripe for existential malaise. If the reduction in fear does not also address the negative affect that comes with the realization that life is meaningless (at least until another narrative comes along to replace religion), we could find ourselves living among a teeming subpopulation of millions of Woody Allen clones. Hopefully scientists will deal with this side effect and avert a public health crisis.

Fears of all kinds are difficult to pin down. This became apparent to me recently when ran a story about old Sesame Street sketches from the 1970's. The article struck a chord - attached to it grew an endless string of links to YouTube and videos that in one way or another frightened the reader. Why were the skits on children's television so scary back in the day, the readers asked? One reader even exclaimed, "I am having post-traumatic flashbacks just watching it!" Psychedelic rubber-band faces contorting while reciting the numbers one through ten, clown-men who look like stalkers or worse sitting uncomfortably close to the camera while they remove their makeup, a Muppet trying to sell the letter "O" to Ernie with a shadowy, drug-dealer air to him, stop-motion fruits singing in kitchens bathed only in the hues of twilight - is this really how I learned to read and count and move through this new world? Try these on for size:

But then I thought about it and drew the following conclusion: I fear these scenes now, in ways that I could not have possibly feared when I was three years old. I even remember watching Sesame Street. And I remember feeling not fear, but fascination at these clips. Only later did I grasp, with a little help from some enzymes and a lot of careful teaching by forces that I have yet to understand, of what I should really be afraid.

Vaya con Dios - Ordinary Skill


yip yip yip yip...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Scary Thought of the Day

Just thought you might like to know.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Senator Bayh and Representative Celler proposed (and the states later ratified) the 25th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Section Three of the amendment states that the President may, by transmitting written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, transfer his authority to the Vice President on a temporary basis. This is more commonly known as voluntary withdrawal.

That was 1967. Dick Cheney, aged 26, was newly married and enjoying his fifth draft deferment from the Vietnam War. He was two years away from the start of his political career as an intern for the Nixon Administration. He was a good twenty years away from becoming Secretary of Defense. He was not the Vice President.

The 25th Amendment has been in effect for 40 years. Let's review the history of Section Three.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan underwent a colonoscopy. The President was told that he would have to enter surgery within two weeks to remove a precancerous lesion. Reagan debated evoking the 25th Amendment, transferring power to George H.W. Bush. He made it clear that he did not want to set the wrong precedent. Historians still debate whether he truly did transfer power to the Vice President. The written statement did not specifically mention Section 3.

That was July 13, 1985.

In 2002, President George Bush underwent a colonoscopy. Prior to the colonoscopy, he transferred authority to Dick Cheney, citing Section 3 of the 25th Amendment.

Otherwise, Section 3 has never been evoked by a sitting U.S. President.

Until today.

Again, prior to a routine colonoscopy, President Bush transferred his powers to Dick Cheney at 7:16 a.m.

No word yet whether the necessary follow-up letters have been sent to Speaker Pelosi or President Pro Tempore Byrd. For all intents and purposes, as noted this morning by a White House spokesman, "The Vice President is now serving as acting President."

May God be with us and protect us in this our time of need.

Vaya con Dios - Ordinary Skill

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


This is merely a placeholder.

I'm getting tired of the government's lack of straight talk concerning the likelihood of another terrorist attack on American soil (which any rational thinker would know is 1). Most recently, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security told the Chicago Tribune that there was an increased risk of such an attach this summer. How does Michael Chertoff know this?

His gut told him so.

The next day, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee sent Chertoff a letter. It asked, "what color code in the Homeland Security Advisory System is associated with a 'gut feeling'?" The letter also went on about the tens of billions of dollars that have been spent to increase capacity to secure the "homeland." Blah, blah, blah.

I work in a building where a few years ago, an Al Qaeda operative sat for several days, tallying how many children played in the atrium at certain hours. The building sits on stilts and rises more than 50 stories into the air in midtown Manhattan. It's existence was even erased from Google Maps for a while. I also take the subway to work, which according to Ron Suskind came within 45 days of a hydrogen cyanide gas attack using a mubtakkar (Arabic for "inventive"). The attack was called off, and there was no public explanation for why. Except this: the media got one thing right after the story broke: it contacted the appropriate experts and reported casualty estimates for such an attack: 3,000 people if the several "inventives" functioned according to spec. This was simply not catastrophic enough to follow September 11th. Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden in particular, has always underscored the importance of incrementally increasing the pain endured by the United States until it is forced to reassess certain geopolitical stances. Given this simple logic, and the network's track record for patient planning across many years, one might ask, what did the organization decide to wait patiently to execute that would prove more damaging than a subway gas attack? And what does our man in charge's "gut" have to say about this?

Of course, everything that I just wrote might be complete fantasy. After all, it comes from books and reports and hearsay. Such sources, in the right combination, fail to conjure the legitimacy they once held over the American public. But the question remains: New Yorkers were possibly days away from being gassed and my building's blueprints were found on a laptop in a cave in Afghanistan - what should we do about this elevated gut?

I intend to take a first step: since libraries are out of vogue, crumbling, abandoned, or seriously out of date, I will go to Barnes & Noble, gather a handful of the best sources I can find in plain view, and sit in a chair for 90 minutes. From there I intend to compile a more realistic assessment of my city's threat level than has been provided by the media. Of course, I won't come close to the data mining capabilities of our Department of Homeland Security. But that isn't the point. The point is to simply outperform the media. To provide you, Dear Reader, with better intel than CNN, MSNBC, and others have shared with you.

Consider the most current reporting on CNN's website, which represents some of the best coverage in that it asks a couple of tough questions. The story is called "On the Scene: The bottom line on threat reports - Is America safer?" The writer tried his best to get answers. He "pushed" a Bush aide on the most recent National Intelligence Estimate that "Al Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities" in Iraq to launch an attack within the U.S. The reporter added that a Senate Intelligence Committee report mentioned that Bush was warned before Operation Iraqi Freedom that preemptive war with Iraq could give Al Qaeda influence within Iraq, influence that the network historically did not have. The aide answered:

"every time you poke the hornets' nest they are bound to come back and push back on you"

That's right, kids. An admission from the White House Homeland Security Advisory that we're dealing with not one head, or even a hydra, but a hornets' nest. In Iraq. That didn't exist prior to the war. And that cannot be stopped by a decapitation strike (setting aside for the moment our failure to do even this much in Tora Bora).

Next up, the article recounts an exchange between one of the author's colleagues and White House spokesman Tony Snow (former guest host of the Rush Limbaugh Show and the O'Reilly Factor) about Bush's claim that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror." Whither Northern Pakistan? Tony was asked. And why don't we pursue the terrorists where we know they will be found, along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan? Tony replied:

"When you talk about the U.S. going in there, you don't blithely go into another nation and conduct operations."


The former talk show host later mused for all to hear that Al Qaeda is "weaker" than it was in the past, even weaker than "a month ago." Yet the new Intelligence Estimate says that the group has for the most part reconstituted. And the National Counterterrorism Center recently reported that Al Qaeda has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001." And then there is this elevated gut indicator (GI). What led to Secretary Chertoff's indigestion? No specific intelligence, we are told. Only "several factors," which were reported as (a) the group's increased freedom to train; (b) an increase in public statements by their leadership; (c) their proclivity for Summertime attacks; and (d) increased activity in Europe and Africa (more attacks, more "homegrown" operatives in those regions). Factors that have lined up many a time before, with the possible exception of "increased freedom." Where is this increased freedom: in IRAQ and PAKISTAN. Why is there increased freedom for the evildoers within those two nations? Because we invaded one and chose not to invade and diverted attention and resources away from the other. This is about all we can deduce from the media for why we should be extra worried this summer.

So to recap: Al Qaeda as strong as in 2001. New leverage in Iraq. Increased freedom of movement within Pakistan and Iraq, among other places. Many of our spy satellites repositioned over the Iraqi theater to focus on the surge (which, by the way, was announced months ago but the White House argued this week is only "three weeks old"). Resources stretched thin. Elevated gut. What do municipalities do to prepare? How should they optimize resource allocation? What do we do?

Meet me at Barnes and Noble.

To be continued...

Vaya con Dios - Ordinary Skill

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Proof of Subliminal Media Influence?

I really don't care about the iPhone.

(a) I don't want to spend $658.99 (with plan) for anything

(b) After roughly 300 recharges, the questionable battery life will start to fade

(c) My company already pays for my crackberry misadventures (note to self: write post about "snoozing with 'Berry")

(d) My device is not on the slower Edge network, yet I already look like a dumbfounded chimpanzee happening upon a stone monolith as I wait for a Google search to execute

(e) I could rely on the Wi-Fi alternative, but what if I start dating someone who frequents my favorite hotspot, and then we part ways? Too risky.

(f) Remember the first iPod? Now think 2G nano. Now you wait.

Anyway, I was watching some of the more popular YouTube videos this morning when my computer froze. The video featured New York Times technology columnist David Pogue reviewing the iPhone for the CBS evening news. I've noticed media bias in the coverage of Apple products before (e.g., MicrosoftNBC's coverage over recent months, not to mention how the news site buries negative MS publicity, such as when they were ordered to pay $1.52 billion to Alcatel-Lucent in the largest patent award in history). But this one befuddles me. Here's what happens on the clip:

Pogue first runs down a list of positives for the new gizmo, which are considerable. As he does so, he continuous to scroll through the phone's various features with the camera providing a closeup of the device. Then it gets interesting. Pogue says, "All the criticisms are also true. There is no keyboard except for on the screen. It can be a little slow at first to tap out text. It's the AT&T network, and the Internet, when you're in a wireless hotspot, is very fast. But when you're out in AT&T network land, it's very slow." (emphasis added)

No big deal, right? Obvious criticisms. But this is not about Pogue and his opinions. It's about the video's opinions. For just as Pogue's nonpolemic switches from pros to cons, he switches from the photo viewer to the iPhone's digital keypad to type a "new note." Buried in the switchover, and appearing with the text near the top of the iPhone screen (where it reads "1 of 405" in picture mode one moment and "new note" in keyboard mode the next), are these words, for a small fraction of a second:

"Very slow"

Don't believe me? Here:

And no, I don't have time to doctor images, nor would I know how. And you can try moving from screen to screen near the 44 second mark yourself:

The question that remains is, who at CBS added the text, and why? Was it just a prank, on a whim, or was it more purposeful? And if the latter, who stands to gain? I leave those answers to you, dear reader.

Vaya con Dios - Ordinary Skill

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Your Mantra

A week ago, one of my favorite people asked me to give her a mantra. Of course, that conversation is privileged, confidential, attorney work product, and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, so no need to share it here. It reminded me of Jeff Goldblum (in, sadly, one of his greatest roles) in the movie Annie Hall. Jeff is seen only for a split second while on the phone at a party as the movie takes a slight detour to California. He speaks to his unseen confidante and says urgently, "I forgot my mantra." And then he is gone. Sadly, shortly after I mustered the strength to share a mantra with my friend, so was she. Think about it: if you were speaking with a friend with whom you shared a deep connection, and you were asked to, on the fly, create a pearl of wisdom that would follow her around as she went about her day, that would be nestled somewhere in her mind for the foreseeable future (if only a few hours) - what a moment! What a tragic honor! I don't remember the last time I used that much of my brain for anything, including my dissertation or when I tried to locate my dentist's office in midtown.

It's kind of funny how people, usually not thinking about it this way, desire a personal mantra, because what they want is the antithesis of a mantra. A mantra has deep roots in eastern religions, and is used to focus thought and guide self-reflection. Whereas, a western mantra is more like a slogan, the incessant repeating of which builds confidence or serves the barely changed self in some other way. Actually, the mantra tends to encapsulate a sum of what the modern person believes, or wants to believe, or should believe, if only they didn't need a mantra. Sure a mantra in the modern sense focuses us as well, but the meditation is not of the quiet, searching form; it's more akin to how an archer focuses on her target before she releases the arrow. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Some people truly need that kind of focus.

And then there are the crackhead mantra utterers, like the guy sitting three rows down from me in my bar review course, who once a week (maybe more?) wore a T-shirt that blared from the back, "GET IT DONE."

Well, it's no Om Mani Padme Hum. This is an obviously motto-style mantra - all goal, no grounding. No multi-layered wisdom...or is there?

There's a mantra, so to speak, making its way around the halls of my law firm. I would love to provide attribution, but my friend who has shared it with a few others has already been told by one attorney to cease and desist. So we'll call him J. J is one of those kindred spirits, very highbrow without trying to be, a man whose job it is to help fix things when they break down at work, and in the process he winds up setting the occasional human being straight as well. His mantra is tongue-in-cheek, but as with the lotus flower evoked in the midst of certain Buddhist mantras, it is layered as well. It comes at minute 3:00 in this clip, but please substitute the word "billing" at the end.

For now, I leave the unfurling of the layers to you. But there are dozens (hints: "second prize: a set of steak knives," "I'm here on a mission of mercy," the incessant use of the word "lead" - which in an onomatopoeic sense feels so simple and pure, stripped of the real-world machinations that generated them, or perhaps not? - and another, more vulgar word (the original Pulitzer prize-winning play used the latter 150 times which in the early 1980's in London was apparently a big deal).

Let's talk about something important.

Vaya con Dios - brooding presence

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Self Awareness Week


OK, so I just finished posting an eharmony profile. Scary stuff. Why is it scary? Because my matches seem a bit disharmonious (it's a real word, I promise).

I tell the gurus at eharmony that I don't watch TV. Match 3 says that the four things she can't live without are (in this order): The Lord, My friends, The Bible, TV(!), My car. Match 6 says: My family, My dog, My friends, HDTV(!), The New York Yankees.

One attorney says that her boss (!) is the single most important influence in her life.

Hey, guess what Match 7's friends think about her: "you'd have to ask them" (!!)

Match 2 just read Pride and Prejudice(!). Is that code for "I don't read"?

Match 8 adds at the end of her profile, "Tell the truth!" (exclamation point free with quote)

Big news! All of my matches are "intelligent," "caring," "hardworking," "athletic," and..."modest."

Two of my matches reveal that their best life skill is..."managing their personal finances."

One says that she can't live without..."the Olympics."

Another adds that she is wary of those who live "like pod people."

So maybe I filled out the survey incorrectly. Scarily enough, I doubt it. I think that this is me, staring me hardworkingly and caringly in the face, with finances in order and remote control in hand, looking for an honest answer to some basic questions. And there were some very interesting elements as well. Like Match 4's favorite recent book about the hunt for Edvard Munch's stolen artwork. Or Match 9, my personal favorite, who specializes in kidney disease (how did eharmony know about my kidney stone?).

For those of you who are still on the fence, gather 'round. There are several things that you need to consider before taking the $30 a month plunge. First, be liberal with your answers. Don't box yourself in. One of my best friends answered everything truthfully, including how she would only date a Christian/Jew and would prefer someone who didn't drink or smoke. She was told the following:

"Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched. This occurs for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service. We hope that you understand and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time."

Frankly, I'm stunned. But then again, I live in New friggin' York, and only got ten matches so far. I mean, "matches."

Next, consider this: yes it only takes about 20 minutes to fill out the 400+ questions, but then you are placed in a holding pattern where you have to "ask her questions," send "must haves and can't stands," "send second questions," "read her answers," "read Dr. Warren's message," and only then are you granted a furlough where you may begin "open communication." For the daring among you, there's the red button option - "request fast track." This is an e-mail sent through eharmony that includes a request to bypass all of the above. A dangerous move, likely to scare away those whose "friends think I'm shy" and the many who appear to need to "build trust." Be warned!

Next, consider the scope of the questions that you may select and send to your "match." Of the zillions of things worth talking about, your questions are confined to the trite and pedestrian. Do we really need to know whether our dates would prefer "roller blading by the ocean" to "the ballet" for a date?

Most disturbing are the banner ads that grace the pages of eharmony, most of which are for teeth whitening or digital photo enhancing services. We wouldn't want anyone seeing what we really look like right away, would we?

Finally, it should be noted that many "matches" also means many people who at any moment can put you "on hold" or "close" your profile, turning you down before they even know about your love for the sound of cool metal against the boardwalk. So rejection can come fast and in stereo. Be strong, my brothers!

I don't trust this 29-dimensional algorithm, which claims to allow you to be flexible in finding the right person for you, yet returns a group of strangers who seem so eerily similar to one another. There are many ways to be wonderful, and I refuse to believe that I can only find love in a careerist smiley gal who enjoys hugs and is thankful for free will. The most disturbing part of it all was how I told the nice interface that I was open to people of all faiths, as long as the person believed in God, only to find my "matches" confined to Christians. There may even be a political element to eharmony - a desire on the company's part to bring together people in certain combinations. After all, it's impossible to instruct your computer that you'd like nothing better than to meet members of the same sex.

I want to develop my own patented matching algorithm, but need your help. It needs to seek out more than one personality type for each weary traveler, giving them the chance or at least the hope for finding love in unexpected, exciting, and edifying places. Here are my first ten questions. Comments welcome.

1. What was the first thought that ran through your mind when you woke up this morning?

2. Which would you prefer, to awaken finding yourself with your own body and the mind of an orangutan, or with the body of an orangutan and the mind of a human being?

3. I can think of a New Yorker cover that provides a nice visual depiction of where I am in my life (Likert scale)

4. Puddles on the sidewalk - to step in or to avoid at all costs? (scale)

5. You have one dollar bill. You happen upon some street performers in a subway station:

(a) an African singer who plays guitar and a sings in Swahili with a moving voice but dances embarrassingly out of rhythm;
(b) a violinist who plays a halfway decent but movingly heartfelt version of Clair de Lune; and
(c) a woman with a long, flowing, ruffled dress and dark, curly hair, sitting with a drum machine in her lap that is connected to very large speakers, who randomly sways to a techno beat while she howls into her microphone.

Where does the dollar bill find its home?

6a. "We're marooned on a small island, in an endless sea. Confined to a tiny spit of sand, unable to escape. But tonight, on this small planet..." Would you use this quote in a TV show, a movie, or as a sample in music?

6b. Kindly complete the above quotation.

7. You are sent to Best Buy to purchase The Office. Do you bring back (a) the original BBC series, (b) the American version, or (c) Extras?

8. In a crowded place, I stare (a) down at my feet, (b) at any available advertisements, (c) directly at other people, making occasional eye contact, (d) randomly, everywhere.

9. True or False: People who apply the "veil of ignorance" concept to an ordinary life situation while in group conversation either don't know what they're talking about or are in love with themselves.

10a. An article appears on page three of the New York times, indicating a new correlation between the sipping of green tea and the reduced risk of disease. I (a) immediately drink more green tea; (b) change nothing about my green tea consumption; (c) take out my anger at the gross misrepresentation of multiple regression analysis by drinking less or even no green tea; (d) do nothing; it's the Times, after all, and I'll be damned if I eat or drink like a Liberal.

10b. Follow-up to 10a: will that be jasmine, gunpowder, "whatever they're serving," or sencha?

Vaya con Dios - brooding presence

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Life in the '07

Yeah, it's nearly mid-January, but I needed to gear up for my new year's resolutions. Promises, promises.

BP's New Year's Resolutions:

1. Practice (after figuring out!) proper IM etiquette. If I want to have a fight with a friend, first I must GET RID of my active icon, such as the Yeti who dodges avalanches and smiles that adorable smile. It's just not acceptable when you're going off on a person to have a Yeti dancing around and making sounds similar to what the other person would hear walking past a construction sight. And I need to figure out all of those abbreviations and acronyms. Like, brb = "be right back," ttyl = "talk to you later," igtldywahs = "i'm going to lunch, do you want a ham sandwich" and so on. Many of these shortcuts, I should avoid. For instance, tech support at my job has been known to write, "I'll fu later" for "follow up." I am NOT kidding. Believe me. I'm not writing this for laughs. I can't even see you as you read're sitting too far from your web cam...

Also, I should avoid holding too many IM conversations at once. This practice has been known, in several documented cases, to result in "cross-messaging." I want to avoid the following scenario:

broodingpresenceatwork: LOL
cipher84: hey i'm thinking of going to France
broodingpresenceatwork: but you don't speak French ; )
cipher84: you're always so critical of me! i don't like that about you
broodingpresenceatwork: i was just trying to be funny. brb
cipher84: where the hell are you going? you can't run away from conflict!
broodingpresenceatwork is away...
cipher84: like i have all day to wait for you
broodingpresenceatwork: sorry, had a partner on the line
cipher84: look at you, Mr. Man. all important and bullshit like that
broodingpresenceatwork: well you don't have to be rude!
broodingpresenceatwork: i was just sayin, maybe try something a bit more out-of-box than Paris. Like the trans-Siberian railroad. You could stop at Lake Baikal and see the
[box 2 opens on screen]
partneratwork174283: can you stop by my office as soon as possible?
broodingpresenceatwork: six-gill sharks that still live there, virtually unchanged after millions of years!
partneratwork174283: excuse me?
cipher84: see the WHAT?! why are you being cryptic with me?
partneratwork174283: never mind, I'll ask somebody else
cipher84: i can't believe you think you're too good for Paris.

2. Speaking of IM: remember: the existence of IM communication does not render asking a woman on a date via e-mail the new "in-person."

3. Speaking of dating: resolution number 3: resolve the "brick and mortar" vs. "sketchy Internet dating" divide and elect to probably try neither. I admit, I've come close to convincing myself that it's OK to dump your bio data on some website, of course after sufficiently researching whether you agree with how their algorithm selects prospective partners. I once thought that Internet dating was just plain wrong, because I needed a "narrative" about how I met a person - it had to feel random yet predestined. But now that I've been reading a lot of science fiction, I'm sure that I can come up with something worth telling the grandkids by the fire while we're camping in the Adirondacks. And why would randomly running into someone at work or Borders Books and Music and Coffee and Biscotti be any better than learning about them on-line first? I mean, e-harmony basically creates a virtual book store, "populates" it with several dozen people who, like you, are all about "the dawn" and love to eat those little yellow candy chickadees at Easter and are constantly seeking expression of who they are and meaning in what they do (andhavethesamelevelofeducation - ain't nothin' wrong with a little bit of SES), and then lets you browse. If you see one of these ravenous chickadee eaters in the Inspiration section, you can start up a conversation without sirens going off and the poor, misunderstood (I didn't smile at you!) woman escorted by armed guards to safety. Because for some reason, people only feel like going to this particular book store when they're single and interested in dating. Or so they claim.

Now I just think it's sketchy.

4. Stop acting so careerist. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them." But what to quit? And which cousin to estrange? And let's not forget that RWE is only one man. Everyone and his mama has something to say about "genius." Like Einstein. He said that "intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." Whither me, Mr. InstaConflict? (just add water!)

5. Speaking of quitting jobs AND real genius: this year, establish a beachhead within the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship selection committee; maybe one of them has a daughter with a YouTube channel on which I could post an endearing comment or two. Hey anonymous nominators, imagine how purdy my blog site would be if I had an extra 100 g's? Heck, you've awarded the fellowship to rare book binders and clowns, and I'm sorta funny and my book that just came out might as well be rare based on its Amazon sales ranking, so holla!

6. Speaking of funny: this is the year I take the world of stand-up comedy by storm, or at least by rumors of rain. Where art thou, open mic? My first joke:

"You all ready to have a good time? You ready to laugh your asses off? Huh?! Are you READY TO LAUGH YOUR ASSES OFF!? OK, goodnight!"

7. Charitable giving: decide whether I want to keep setting casts and handing out slings or if I want to finally invest in filling that pothole out in front of the doctor's office. Give accordingly.

8. Resolve all moral quandaries, especially whether I should donate a kidney. If I were to pass an icy lake with a small child drowning in it, and I knew that jumping in to save her would increase my chances of dying before my time by 1 in 4,000, I would try to save her. Otherwise, I would be valuing my life 4,000 times more than her own, which is just silly. But to date, I have not increased my risk of premature death by the same amount and rid myself of a superfluous organ. I've asked my friend Greg, who is studying to become a priest, this very question, and he promises to bring this up in his next class. I can see the news clip now:

"One seminary. Twelve priests-in-training. Twelve kidneys. The inexplicable mass-gifting of kidneys anonymously to children who were too far down the donor waiting list to otherwise have a fair chance of survival began shortly after the new year began. It is sparking a nationwide movement, and spawning copycat donors within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who some say have the most to lose."

9. Be nice to people. And I mean everyone. Whip up a nice batch of niceties and start dishing them out, even to people who don't even come close to deserving them. Then just sit back and start keeping score! I mean, just sit back and bits of happy will return to you from the ether. Duck if they're inordinately large.

10. Realize that every day is a gift. Live each day with the sense of urgency that such a realization demands.

I gotta go.

Vaya con Dios - Brooding Presence

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

blog take two

Why hello there!

It's been a while since I've posted, mostly because I've been busy with work and other work and working on other things. But it's good to be back. This is the first post of the rest of my life, and I'm thankful for that. But I'm also confused...

Did you ever have a moment where you were struck by the enormity of how utterly strange the world seems? I mean, it's gotta be some sort of joke, right? Maybe you've had this gestalt while waiting in line at a public restroom. Or perhaps as you stood in an elevator and watched several others stare at the little Captivate screen. You may have even had the moment staring at your likeness in the mirror - you know that it's human, and yet this being in the reflection appears so alien to something inside of you.

We've been around as human beings for a couple of million years! And we've evolved to what? We've risen above what?

Start with the physical plane on which we exist, which to my best guess is a ghetto in space-time where we believe that there are three dimensions when in actuality there are closer to ten or maybe two, depending on who you ask. Other dimensions weave in and out of our limited existence in the form of bridges both subatomic and infinite. Add to that the notion that embedded within this slop is some sort of consciousness, allowing physicists to account for the uncertainty principle. And don't forget the 99% of it that we can't see or classify and to which we've attached the label "dark." Time in this ghetto only appears to advance in one direction, and yet we are housed in shells that decay over the years (one of my favorite professors, Roger Fisher, once told me that "getting old ain't for sissies"). The mind is infinite, but at any moment it can be snuffed out by a blood clot. We have many emotional states, situated intelligences, and personalities, but this gradually (and then not-so-gradually) decaying frame of ours gives us a semblance of oneness. We rely mostly on information embedded in our surroundings, scaffolds that are essentially energy in a form we can interacted with and could just as soon be something completely incomprehensible to our limited conception of reality. We exist as vast heaps of trillions of cells working in relative harmony, allowing us to interact with these surroundings, and through our actions, we create information, or entropy, which is proof that we existed and some physicists believe will be replayed for all of eternity when the universe collapses. We never think about any of this. We live by a few routines (movies, work/physical exertion, eating, gossip, and sexual politics) and close out the rest from conscious consideration.

Ever feel that there's something strange about all this? Just think! Millions of years and yet the best most people can do after a movie is leap to their cell phones and exclaim, "it was amazing, you gotta see it, the ending was incredible," or "that was strange, I didn't get it, it was too slow"? Millions of years and we find our mates through either algorithm-assisted screening or randomized false pretense performed in privately-provided public spaces (such as barnes and noble)? Millions of years and the average person at least in our neck of the woods spends 10-14 hours a day staring at one kind of screen and then another and holds out hope that meaning can be found in the arrangement of the pixels? Millions of years and yet when some of us find ourselves with some time on our hands that has not already been claimed by toil and trudging things about, we have absolutely no idea how to use it? There are a billion things that we could be doing, if only we could maneuver through the infinite possibilities and potentials with some sort of perseverance.

The human condition seems so limited at times, and yet our circumstance is so profound. Why the disconnect? Even in Manhattan, where anything can happen from the mundane to the terrific to the terrifying, most of what goes on seems scripted. Those who ask for money on the subways even have prepared speeches. So I tend to my own rituals, in which there must be an answer, some clue as to what this is all about. It is true that what we do not know approaches infinity, and the more that we are aware of this, the more paralyzed we feel. We use rituals as veritable landcruisers to take us across the multiformed abyss of a thought, a field, a teaming mass of life in a drop of water, a city, an ocean, a fold in spacetime. And through those rituals, like heating a pot of water and forming a mini-cyclone in a glass as we pour our tea in the morning, or standing in line for some sugar, water, and fatty cells and watching time grind to a halt amidst the swell of the morning rush, we can contemplate infinity and eternity from a vantage point that is infused with some sense of security. But why have these rituals not led us as a collective to higher states of consciousness after all of this time? Is the relatively recent phenomenon of drawing artificial boundaries between "nature" and "society," by which we claim some semblance of mastery over the cosmos, just no match for what evolution has imprinted on our minds, the text splattered across our cognitive maps of most of the known universe that reads, "here there be monsters"?

It seems that the limited physical plane in which we act out our daily routines offers us faint hints or whispers of the infinite, of that which really matters. What does it mean that after millions of years, the bridges are so hesitantly lain and most care not to tread on them?

Vaya con Dios - brooding presence

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Some of you may love hip-hop. Like me, you may be elated that De La Soul recently decided to abandon major label support and release their masterpiece. You may marvel at the infinite creative potential of a single funk tune from decades past such as "More Bounce to the Ounce." Do you recall how in the early- to mid-1990's, an entire nation's youth danced to this song, not even knowing that it existed? Take the music from its origins in Zapp, loop the first nine seconds, slow it down, pin it up against Cool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" at strategic moments, and have a couple of former boy scouts from Brentwood, NY trade boasts, one with a speech impediment, and you have "You Gots to Chill" by EPMD (Erick and Parrish Making Dollars):

"I be the personal computer informational rap
Like the B-I-Z my pieces will make your toes tap
I format the rhymes, step by step
Make them sound def
to maintain my rep
Prepare to come off
In case of a diss
Don't worry about a thing
Cause we can do this
Cause we can turn the party out just be standing still
Make the ladies scream and shout
While the brothers act ill
Take total control of your body and soul
Pack a nine in my pants for when it's time to roll."

Speed up "More Bounce" a tiny bit, add reverb, a Yes guitar lick every 16 bars, and Brother J speaking about the Blackwatch movement and the red, black, and green, and you have "Heed the Words of the Brother," by X-Clan:

"Great blackness brought from the Genesis
We'll exist till Armageddon is a witness
The originals built the earth
Why must there be aggression to learn a basic lesson?
Quite majestic, stern within reality
A juggernaut when you tamper with mentality
Or with a crown, extension and dimension of a brain cell
Bringing hell to the sellout
The ever-tangled web we weave
Always trying to obtain, no attempt to achieve
Descendants of kings and queens act like jesters
Never potential
Quarter of the measure
of what are we
becomes tendency
for their thievery."

Loop 4:04-4:08 of "More Bounce"'s high-pitched wail and the bassline, skip it rhythmically, deconstruct a whiney tone several octaves higher during the chorus, and pass the mic to a simple-minded pimp, and you have MC Breed's "Ain't No Future in Yo' Frontin'":

"This sound hard
Somethin funky people gone dance to
Give the record a second and a chance to
Hittin people like a scene of amazement
While they slippin back my feet is planted in the pavement
Crumple I could never do
So now I'm lookin dead at you
What are you gonna do
You're listening to the knowledge of a scholar
You say how Breed, tell em how I holla
I'm the E-double, and I proclaim my name
Straight up, good game, peeps all gangs
I'm like a rhino runnin through the roughest pack
They figure I'm a trigger happy brother so they step back
BREED, the microphonest, who lasts the longest and who's the strongest
It ain't a game it's plain to see
You're listening to the sounds of Breed and the DFC."

This endless take on "More Bounce to the Ounce" lasted for years, spanning east coast, west coast, expansive gangsta rap and claustrophobic east coast hip-hop alike. Then, a few weeks ago, De La Soul unleashed "Relax." See, in hip-hop, imitation is a form of flattery. For example, MC Breed, above, called himself the "E-double," which was actually Erick Sermon's nickname when he was with EPMD and made "You Gots to Chill." In "You Gots to Chill," Sermon also says "Relax your mind, let your conscience be free and get down to the sounds of EPMD." In turn, De La drop "Relax," complete with sample of that line during the chorus, an inverted "More Bounce" beat, and a loop of the few seconds before the splice used by MC Breed. As De La trade "relax your mind"'s with the sample, it just works. As Guru once said, "the rhyme style is elevated, the style of beats is elevated," but it's still More Bounce to the Ounce...and something completely different at the same time. And then you progress to "Wasn't for You" and other classics, and all is right with the world.

There are two primary reasons why people won't listen to hip-hop: they can't hear the lyrics for what the artists are trying to communicate, or they think the sounds are too repetitive. I actually believe that the latter is a source of strength for the art form. To prove it, let me invite you to participate in an experiment. If you want to understand why people live for this music, purchase Mayday's "Nothin." Load it onto your mp3 player, and press play. The song rises to its feet from a deep slumber, bass drops stretching, hand claps shaking off the hours of stillness, a distant guitar chord morphing into a random-walk keyboard, reverb slinking in and out of this seemingly barren landscape, until the beat drops.

There's something about a steady 808, bassline, keyboard progression, and dueling, obscure treble samples that lulls you into a peaceful ponderance. The music gently hovers you above the known world, a presiding mind, and the continuity of it all gives your mind a canvass upon which to weave complex thought tapestries. Inverse biomorphic concretism. There's nothing like it. Instead of the elements of a piece, at first seemingly disparate, snapping together in the mind in a moment of gestalt, the monotony slowly deviates from itself in how it's perceived, meaning every time you hear the beat, it's not entirely the same as when you last encountered it.

Mayday enters the stage, singing the chorus, and then he begins:

Nothin's really real
Nothin's what it appears
Nothin's what I feel
When I'm wiping the tears
Nothin is somethin here
An inner space where the gravity is gone
Where the weight is not so strong
Still it all amounts to nothin
Nothin in your ears
Nothin I can do to not disappear
Nothin is somethin here
So I repeat and dissect the prior years
Smokin weed drinkin beers
Gettin numb, let it breathe

And then the bass meanders, and you breathe easier. Your mind is more alert, filled with images and concepts. You begin to listen to the song in your headphones as you walk down the street. As you slink into a chair at the end of the day. As you drift to sleep. The world seems different as the beat plays and shifts and weaves through your mind. It is your drug. And its only known side effect is the desire to hear it again. I've known people to leave their apartments in the middle of the night, before there were mp3's, in search of a friend with a particular beat. They could not sleep without it. I admit I have shared this addiction and I'm not ashamed of it.

If you have any doubts about the power of this medium, you need simply stick around for verse two of "Nothin'." If you aren't choking back a tear by the end of verse two, before the chanting begins with "Mayday, save me," then you are a hopeless case or have no soul. The world is vast, and perhaps another genre will suit you. But hip-hop is not in your blood.

You should listen to "Nothin'" for the first time not knowing the lyrics, but I reproduce them below for your records:

Rhyme-wise, I drew the figure eight
There's nothin I regret nothin I won't make straight
She told me save those tapes
Cause my life is logged in 'em
Hidden within the words
Buried inside the rhythm
I said "sure,"
Not knowin that's the last we'd speak
She fought it hard
But eventually just chose to sleep
Back to nothin
But somehow somethin lingers behind
Imprinting my mind
Broken bloodline
And I can still see her there
Cooking in the kitchen
Feeding us with all her care
But now there's nothin there
It vanished into air
So will I
Say goodbye
Let her go
Let her die
Mother please don't cry.

Vaya con Dios - brooding presence