the moon

We tried to see the moon tonight ... even drove around looking for a better vantage point ... but the fog wasn’t letting us enjoy the big event.

Then finally it appeared, still in total eclipse. It was covered in a thin sheet of fog, and you had to put your hand up to hide the street lights, but at least we got to see it.

The best part, though, wasn’t the moon, it was the people. I was sitting on the porch. A man walked by, and I said something about the moon. We exchanged a few words, then we exchanged names, then he told us he had retired, but he had been one of our garbage men for many years. A couple of guys from down the street walked up our way, wondering if we could see anything. Robin used an app on her tablet to figure out exactly where to look, and she was the first to see the moon. After a couple of minutes, the other guys walked back to where they had come from, and immediately they called us to come over, explaining that you could see the moon much better from their vantage point. We went there and sure enough, the view was better. One of the guys went inside his house and brought his mom out to see. Across the street, a few people came outside ... they didn’t come over to our side, because from where they stood, there was no interference from the street lights. Soon, a few other families came over, parents pointing out the moon to kids, everyone just chatting about it.

I’m not big on nature, and I’m not exactly Mr. Neighborhood. But damn if that moon didn’t bring us all together for a moment.

link dump

“’We seem to be more frightened than we’ve ever been’: Eula Biss on anti-vaxxers, white privilege and our strange new culture of fear”. “If you don’t approach your subject from a paranoid posture, the risk is that you’ll be seen as naive and complacent, as someone who is kind of playing the fool to institutions of power.”

Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock”. “The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise.”

New Atheists are wrong about Islam. Here’s how data proves it”. “A majority of both Christians and Muslims seem to embrace at least some separation of sacred and secular in politics. That’s one finding that was perhaps surprising and also showed that Muslims are less distinctive than we might think.”

The Hunting of Billie Holiday: How Lady Day found herself in the middle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ early fight for survival.” “Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals.”

'That's Not All!' Kevin Trudeau, The World’s Greatest Salesman, Makes One Last Pitch”. “There was his own Mega Memory training program; the Sable Hair-Farming System (which he promised would ‘end hair loss in the human race’); Dr. Callahan’s Addiction-Breaking System (which he said could break the user of any addiction in 60 seconds ‘virtually 100 percent of the time’); Howard Berg’s Mega Reading speed-reading program, the Perfect Lift Non-Surgical Face Lift, and Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product. There were magnetic toe rings and magnetic mattress pads, crocodile protein peptide, and Biotape, an adhesive tape said to relieve pain by reestablishing broken electrical connections in the body.”

maybe it's just that my brain is broken

Today I watched a soccer match between AC Milan and Inter Milan. Matches between these two are called the “Derby della Madonnina” (here in the U.S. it’s just the Milan Derby). This rivalry dates back to 1908. The two teams are historically very good. What makes this rivalry especially noteworthy is that both clubs play their home matches in the same stadium, the San Siro.

AC Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

Inter Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

I’m not sure why Inter, the “away” team in this match, wore their home jerseys, although I guess they were playing at their home, the San Siro. Whatever, the players looked like those jerseys for the match, with Milan in red and Inter in blue.

As I often do, while the match went on, I had the WhoScored website up in my browser. They offer real-time stat updates. The screen for Milan-Inter looked like this:


I hope you can see the problem. On WhoScored for this match, Milan was in blue and Inter was in red, although those colors were switched for the actual players’ jerseys as I watched my TV. What was worse, in the first half, Inter was going from left-to-right on my screen, Milan from right-to-left. I hope you can see how this was a problem, as well.

My brain couldn’t handle all of this. Even though I’ve seen these teams play many times, I kept getting confused about which team was which as I watched.

I’m sure the brain scientists can explain why this was so frustrating. Or maybe it’s just that my brain is broken.

bewailing the loss of youth

Recently, my friend Catherine Hollis posted something on Facebook from a poem by François Villon:

My time of youth I do bewail,

That more than most lived merrily,

Until old age ‘gan me assail,

For youth had passed unconsciously.

It wended not afoot from me,

Nor yet on horseback. Ah, how then?

It fled away all suddenly

And never will return again.

We had a short conversation in the comments section, wherein she kindly said I was “authentic”. I noted I couldn’t really take credit for that, to which she replied, “Well, there’s only one of you anyway!” And that made me realize/respond: “That's true! And thus, even when I'm being inauthentic, I am in fact being authentic.”

One of the categories I tag on this blog is “science”. It has been neglected for too long … the last time I used the tag was April 23 of last year, in a post that was more about music than science in any event. The reason the post warranted the science tag was that I was prompted by an article titled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” that focused on neuroscience.

And there’s this picture, which I posted on Facebook in response to someone else’s photo of Taco Bell back in the day:

Taco Bell  A033

This photo brings back many memories for me. For one thing, my longtime friend Dub DeBrie is cut out of the picture (he’s on the left), and in some odd way, that makes him more memorable than if he’d shown up in the photo. The fellow on the left, John, was a truly wonderful guy who has dropped out of touch with us all over the years. On the right is Ann, with her Cheshire cat grin and her languid demeanor … yes, I had a crush on her. I can look at myself and date the picture within a fairly tight time frame: my hair was just starting to grow out for the first time, which means I was no longer under my parents’ control in that area, which means summer of 1970.

What drew the most commentary on Facebook was that thing I’m wearing. It’s a poncho, although for reasons that now escape me, I called it a serape. I wore it pretty much every day for about three years … when someone pointed out the likely exaggeration in that statement, several people who knew me then came to my defense and said yes, he did wear it all the time. I don’t think I gave it much thought back then, but playing amateur psychologist now, I’d say I was looking for an identity that wasn’t confusing, and decided I’d be The Guy Who Wore the Poncho. (I still dress kinda like that. I’m not as bad as Steve Jobs, but I’ve got maybe three shirts, one pair of jeans, and one pair of shoes that I wear around 95% of the time. It’s not related to identity any longer, though … I’m just lazy.)

I want science to explain all of this to me. I treat science the way many people treat religion, in that I have no idea how it works, I just believe in it. I want to know why that fragmentary memento of Ann on that particular day at that particular Taco Bell makes me feel nice. I want a concrete explanation for my various madeleines.

I say this as someone who married his high-school sweetheart, with our 41st anniversary coming in May. That makes no sense, and when people ask me how I’ve done it, I just say that I married the right person and she didn’t leave me. But in the back of my mind, even as I talk about romance and love, I still think there’s an explanation somewhere in our brains.

This makes me think of my psych meds. The person in that photo wasn’t on meds (although my parents had me on something for awhile when I was much younger). You might say I self-medicated, given the amount of psychedelics I ingested in those days. But that guy in the poncho is “authentic”. Now, I’m not nearly so sure of myself … maybe I need another poncho to re-establish my authenticity. The thing is, now that I’m on meds, I feel less authentic than ever. It’s a good thing … I’m not nearly the asshole I used to be. But the meds have never dulled me to the extent that I didn’t know they were working. I think the same stuff I always did. I just don’t act on those thoughts quite as readily, which is for the best.

The question is, am I being less authentic because I take chemicals that change my behavior, or am I being more authentic because the chemicals allow me to be “myself”?

leaving high school

“There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.

It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

-- “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior

My teenage years were filled with the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and Astral Weeks. I like to think my musical tastes have gotten broader as I got older … I used to get admiring laughs from students at Cal when I would demonstrate the difference between funk and disco by playing “The Big Payback” by James Brown … but I’m kidding myself. In my post-adolescent life (i.e., adulthood), my musical favorites have been Bruce Springsteen, punk, Prince, Sleater-Kinney, and Pink. Springsteen was famously called rock and roll future, but he was always far more a compilation of what came before. Punk felt revolutionary, but the music was a return to roots. Prince could do anything, but ultimately, he was Sly and the Family Stone with Hendrix sitting in on guitar. Sleater-Kinney were riot grrrls, to be sure, but by the time they met their hiatus with The Woods, it was clear they were indebted as much to Led Zeppelin as they were to Bikini Kill. Pink has offered wonderful covers of Led Zep and Queen and Janis Joplin … when I saw her at the Fillmore, she fit right in. I haven’t strayed too far from my teenage roots.

As I type this, I’m listening to “Live with Me” from Let It Bleed by the Stones. It’s part of my never-ending project/playlist, “FM”, with close to 3,000 tracks that were played on “underground” radio in the late-60s. (Coming up on the playlist: Jefferson Airplane, Beatles, Quicksilver Messenger Service.) This is my go-to playlist when I want to listen to comfort music. (There is nothing “comforting” about songs like “Inside Looking Out” by the Animals, but the ambiance they suggest is comforting.) It’s perilously close to nostalgia, which I hate in myself.

So I suppose it makes me feel better to read Jennifer Senior’s article and find that it’s not nostalgia, it’s neuroscience.

I want music to matter to me. Music in general mattered when I was a teenager, by which I mean I had favorites (Beatles, Velvet Underground, Yardbirds, Astral Weeks) but the integration of music and life was truly important (which is why my comfort playlist isn’t focused on a particular artist, but on the FM radio stations that got me through those years). I was 22 years old when we first connected with Bruce Springsteen, and that’s been a constant ever since. And there have always been others who mattered more than most: Dylan, Lou Reed, the Clash, Prince, Hüsker Dü, Sleater-Kinney. When S-K went on their “hiatus”, I suspected that I had experienced my last love affair with a musical artist. I was too old to crank it up all over again. Since then, I’ve seen Wild Flag three times and the Corin Tucker Band twice, but that’s not moving forward. I’ve seen Pink four times, with a fifth coming this fall … she’s easily the artist about whom I obsess the most these days, outside of Bruce. But I always feel like an observer in Pink’s universe. It’s not like with Sleater-Kinney, where somehow even a middle-aged guy like me felt a part of a community.

I spend a lot of time ranting about the evils of nostalgia, and get cranky at people who quit enjoying new music after they reach a certain age. Perhaps I should look in the mirror.

look up

I’m reading You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, which I am using in a class this semester. In a chapter titled “Introspection”, he writes:

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.

THE TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

The book appears to be a revision of some of his blog entries, so I can point you to a version of the chapter here:

Introspection Illusion

Quoting from the blog now, since it means I don’t have to type stuff in from the book:

Is there a certain song you love, or a work of art? Perhaps there is a movie you keep returning to over the years, or book. Go ahead and imagine one of those favorite things. Now, in one sentence, try to explain why you like it. Chances are, you will find it difficult to put into words, but if pressed you will probably be able to come up with something. The problem is, according to research, your explanation is probably going to be total bullshit. …

This brings up a lot of concerns. It calls into question the entire industry of critical analysis of art – video games, music, film, poetry, literature – all of it.

This ties into something I wrote in a comment yesterday, which reiterates a theory of mine: While we pretend that we construct analyses from scratch and then offer a final evaluation, in fact we first react in a like-don't like-meh manner, and then construct analyses to explain our taste preference. (It’s not analysis followed by evaluation, but evaluation followed by analysis.) I don’t think this process results in total bullshit, or I wouldn’t have spent eleven years writing this blog (or spent nine years getting a Ph.D in English). But the results aren’t what we think they are, and I find this statement of McRaney’s interesting:

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. The problem here is those deeper recesses of the mind are perhaps inaccessible and unconscious.

As I was reading this on my Nexus 7, I commented to my wife that there was a connection between the above and something that has fascinated me over the past couple of days. I have taken the following photo and made it the wallpaper for my Nexus, for my smartphone, and for my computer desktop:


I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at this photo. Something about it reaches me beyond “isn’t my grandson cute?” There are plenty of cute pictures of him … some are probably better than this one, especially when the camera catches him laughing, which is often. But I love this picture.

And so, as I stare and stare, I try to construct an explanation for why I like it so much. I’ve thought about how it is well-composed (although I’ve cropped it for my wallpapers, so that’s not likely the reason). I’ve thought about how he really is pretty darned cute (but, as I say, there are lots of cute pictures of him). I’ve noted the smoothness of his skin (more obvious with higher resolution) and extrapolated a theory about the innocence of a child and how it speaks to me. I even imagined that if you took a picture of me when I was on acid, my facial expression would be something like this.

Anyway, I told Robin about the book passage, and about the photo, and she replied fairly quickly. “You like that picture because he’s looking up, and that appeals to you for some reason.”

Here is one of my favorite pictures of Robin. As a picture it’s nothing special, just one of those “I’m gonna take a picture of myself using my phone” photos:


I couldn’t tell you why I like that picture so much, any more than I could tell you why I like the picture of Félix so much. If I tried, it would be an example of an Introspection Illusion, translating something emotional into words.

But Robin knew right away what was going on, because she doesn’t have an emotional attachment to the pictures. She is able to identify my taste for pictures where the subject is looking up. I would never have thought of that.

Does this call into question the critical analysis of art? Are our responses to art completely subjective, and buried too deep for us to fully understand? And are all our attempts to analyze art total bullshit?

Again, I think the answer to the latter question is no. But it is at least possible that our work as critics, valuable as it might be, has less relationship to the work of art than we realize. And if that is the case, then the best critics are not the ones with the best taste, but the ones who are the best writers. And what we get from critics isn’t a consumer guide (which is being taken over by AI systems, anyway), but rather the pleasures of reading good prose.

i need to pick up a few more diseases

According to this article, of the top five classes of drugs prescribed in America, I get #1, #2, and #4.

I actually used to take three specific meds in that #1 class, statins. In more recent years, I’ve been placed on a combination drug that contains one statin and one other drug. These are all meant to combat high cholesterol … I take another drug besides the combo one, so I’m getting quite a handful in my quest to lower those cholesterol numbers.

This is written by a guy who just finished eating a bacon-and-cheese sandwich w/mayo for dinner.

At least I’m a member of Kaiser, so I don’t spend much on my meds. God help the person without health insurance.

turn left

I’m a few years behind on this, for no reason I can figure. I recently came across an excerpt from one of Ricky Gervais’ podcasts, and now I’m hooked. The show features Gervais, his long-time work partner Stephen Merchant, and “producer” Karl Pilkington chatting about various subjects. The show has turned Pilkington into a cult favorite. The podcasts, downloaded so often they made Guinness World Records, were later turned into an animated series, seen in the States on HBO.

Basically, Pilkington is presented as a bloke with no brain but a great imagination. Gervais and Merchant egg him on, laugh hysterically at his jabber, and make merciless fun of him. There are elements Americans miss, or at least I do … Pilkington is from Manchester, the others are “college boys,” and there seems to be some snobbery in their interplay that we don’t quite get. Anyway, if you lock into the show’s humor, you will find yourself laughing along with Gervais and Merchant far more often than you’ll find yourself thinking Pilkington’s is a mind ahead of its time. Toss in one added ingredient, that it’s never quite clear if Pilkington is playing a role, and you have a fascinating, hilarious, but ultimately mean-spirited show.

And I’d leave it at that, but there is a personal connection, one that doesn’t likely make sense to anyone but my wife.  Because she is the sole recipient of a particular form of, I don’t know, showmanship, that I sometimes come up with. It grew out of times when she would ask me to tell her a story, and I’d make up a fantasy on the spot that usually involved a beautiful lady named Robin and a trip to outer space. Over time, these stories got blended into another type of “story” I would tell. For someone who believes in science as much as I do, I am frightfully uninformed about the actual physical world, disconnected and lacking knowledge. So I’ll start talking about something, and it will have about as much relation to reality as one of my fantasy stories, except I’ll work from a base that includes scientific “facts.” Neither of us is ever quite sure that I actually believe the tripe I come up with … my lack of knowledge really is remarkable, usually because I haven’t thought something through, so Robin will realize I think some off-the-wall thing about the world, and my stories will grow out of those “factual fantasies,” and the next thing you know, I’ve got myself on some ledge that won’t hold. At this point, we both realize I’m full of shit, which is almost a relief … if I really believed some of this stuff, I’d worry about myself.

I appreciate the above doesn’t make much sense … you kinda have to be there, and I’ll only allow myself to expose this aspect of my brain to Robin. But I’ve found an example of my little stories: Karl Pilkington. I’m like Karl, rolling off outrageous stories as if they were true, and Robin is Ricky, laughing at my misguided “intelligence.”

I guess I better offer a sample, or this will make no sense at all. Here is Karl, explaining how monkeys were used in the early days of rocketry:

My favorite moment, from a “Robin” perspective, is when Karl says the monkey would press a button to “turn left.” Honestly, this sounds exactly like a conversation she and I would have when I’m on a roll. And my favorite “Steven” moment is when Ricky says there is no way they’d put a banana dispenser on a space craft, and Karl replies, so you’re saying it’s easy to send someone into space but hard to imagine it would have a banana machine.

eric walker on drugs and baseball

One of the good things about having a blog is that you get to pass along things that catch your eye. For the most part, I’m not a big fan of Lists o’ Links … if you’re a good enough writer to have a blog, you’re good enough to write something about those links.

Once in awhile, though, something comes along that doesn’t really lend itself to a quickie summary. Eric Walker’s “Steroids, Other ‘Drugs’, and Baseball” is a clear example of such an item. The link will take you to the summary page, as Walker calls it. Well, I don’t know how to count pages on a web site … I guess it’s only one “web page” … but it took me 39 mouse clicks to get from the top of the summary to the bottom. So you can appreciate how hard it would be to reduce Walker’s work to 39 words.

Therefore, I’ll just encourage anyone interested in the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in sports to take in Walker’s tome. It will take awhile … just to read the summary will cut seriously into your afternoon … and I know people like to read-and-run online. But it is worth it. I’ll leave you with this quote:

The chief problem--as it always is--is that the crucial decisions are not being made by people with knowledge on the subject sitting down and considering the facts and the implications of those facts: they are being made by demagogues and irrational scare-mongers, many of whom have an obvious axe of self-interest to grind.