Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Joy

After weeks of rain, the sun appears over San Francisco. 

This week I met a friend on Columbus Avenue in North Beach for a long, leisurely lunch. He was new to the city. We traded stories of how we got here and how it's different from the places we came from. 

It was a perfect day to watch the city go by. Columbus Avenue always moves, but at a slow pace. Pretty women walk by. Aspiring novelists type away at their computers in a cloud of espresso steam. We had the luxury of time, which is exceedingly rare for me. Normally, my day starts running and ends running. 

My friend's pleasant conversation reminded me of another warm afternoon in Philadelphia, the summer after I finished art school. My roommate went away to a summer house-sitting gig, so our apartment was quiet as a tomb. My girlfriend had just dumped me, most of my friends left town for the season, and I felt confused about what I should do next. I decided to stay put, work my job, and paint some pictures. I'd think hard about what had gone wrong. I wouldn't make a big decision until I had a well-made plan. 

The hot, silent days dragged by. When I wasn't working my job or painting, I had little to do. Often I just wandered around Center City, watching people. One day I ran into Tony, and Italian boy I'd bussed tables with. We sat in a window at Dirty Frank's on 13th Street, where the house beer only cost fifty cents a glass. Even poor boys like us could tank up. 

I don't know how long we sat there. I unloaded all my complaints on Tony, mostly about my failure to impress young women. He nodded sympathetically, even though he was so good looking, he'd encountered little frustration with girls in his life. Finally we went out separate ways, and the long summer lurched into fall.

At the time, I was embarrassed to say that afternoon drinking with Tony was the best day of the summer for me. I didn't go on a single date with a young woman, after all. Now I feel different. Talking and drinking with Tony, watching people walk past Dirty Frank's was the best thing I could have done. Such moments are rare, and maybe they should be. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Recent Reading

I can't stop reading; I wonder if that might be a good idea. No matter, I can't stop, anymore than a hopeless drug addict can seriously consider life without drugs. I want to pass on some snippets of the current reading, which might interest you. While I have my own ideas on these subjects, I'll withhold them this time. Below is a tray of literary appetizers.

Art is order. But order is not necessarily just, kind, or beautiful. Order may be arbitrary, harsh, and cruel. Art has nothing to do with morality. . . Only utopian liberals could be surprised that the Nazis were art connoseurs. Particularly in modern times, when high art has been shoved to the periphery of culture, is it evident that art is aggressive and compulsive. The artist makes art not to save humankind but to save himself. Every benevolent remark by an artist is a fog to cover his tracks, the bloody trail of his assault against reality and others.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

The central enigma of Hitler's life and career: How could he combine a sincere devotion to the arts with totalitarian rule, warfare and racial genocide? 

Hence the paradox of a man who wanted to be an artist, but lacked the talent, who hated politics, but was a political genius. Indeed, at no time did politics—the interplay of people and institutions engaged in public policy—interest him. On the contrary, his career as a statesman was built on a rejection of everything that sort of politics involves. Freedom, debate and compromise, parties, parliaments and the institutions of a pluralist society. As soon as he could, he abolished them all. What absorbed him was ruling. And ruling, in his view, followed the same evolutionary principles as culture. —Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics


Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing, but a whole universe can. Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . . Spontaneous generation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper and set the universe going. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design

While anxiety and fear are emotions most of us would prefer to live without, they serve as anchors for social and moral norms. Without an ability to feel anxious about one's own transgressions, real or imagined, norms become nothing more than rules that others make up. 

The developmental literature also supports this interpretation. Fearful children have been shown to display greater moral understanding. It remains an open question, therefore, just how free of anxiety we can reasonably want to be. This is something that only an empirical science of morality could decide, and as more effective remedies for anxiety appear on the horizon, this is an issue we will have to confront, in some form. 

No human being stands as author to his own genes or his upbringing, and yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character throughout life. Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize how much luck is involved in morality itself. 

It seems to me that on balance, soul/body dualism has been the enemy of compassion. For instance, the moral stigma that still surrounds disorders of mood and cognition seems largely the result of viewing the mind as distinct from the brain. 

We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these debts must be repaid. 

One of the most interesting things to come out of the research on human happiness is the discovery that we are very bad judges of how we will feel in the future, an ability the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has called "effective forecasting." Gilbert and others have shown that we systematically overestimate the degree to which good and bad experiences will affect us. Changes in wealth, health, age, marital status, etc., tend not to matter as much as we think they will. And yet we make our most important decisions in life based on these inaccurate assumptions. It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things that we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you've ever been impressed by how often people rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship, but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work. The general finding of this research is now uncontroversial: We are poorly placed to accurately recall the past, to perceive the present, or to anticipate the future, with respect to our own happiness. It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled. 

There is almost nothing more common than the belief that one is above average in intelligence, wisdom, honesty, etc. —Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Again, I digress, but I'm sorry, I'm impressed with myself.

I just wanted to do something for a living, where I wasn't drinking from a hose and hanging around with felons.

The best form of home security is a Confederate Flag. The Stars and Bars on the flagpole in front of your house lets everyone know that not only do you have guns, but you're probably cleaning them right now. So if you're a criminal casing the neighborhood, deciding which house will be your next home invasion target, which are you gonna hit, the house with the Confederate flag, or the one with the hummingbird feeder and the cat count sticker for the fire fighters? If this feels too racist for you, the next best thing is the Don't Tread On Me flag. —Adam Carolla, In 50 Years, We'll All Be Chicks

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Approaching Storm

I mean an actual storm.

News from this web site:
1. Poster News: I'm sending a new print order out, so delivery on posters will be delayed. You will get one eventually, and they're free, so chill out.

2. New readers, please send your thoughts in the comments or email me. I'm interested in what you like, dislike, or would like to see in this space.

In my current, never-ending painting project I'm still trying to get a grip on painting water. This is easily the hardest part of the composition for me, and I must nail it. I've made progress over the last seven months, but I'm not quite over the goal line. 

I've looked at water in every way I can think of, from painting it in a cup to copying sections of Old Masters. I've studied it from land, boats and airplanes. 

Right now I'm looking at video loops I shot last summer. Water's surface being complex and moving every second, a photograph doesn't capture the effect I'm after. Therefore, I watch and watch the moving water, and wait for enlightenment. The technique I end up with might not be conscious, but something that seeped into my bones through endless observation. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Power of Less

I have written before about the power of environment and breaking free from possessions. Many people never get around to discovering this, and I'm astounded at the enormous opportunity they miss. 

Hello Al, is my letter to you in one of these piles?
One of my first lessons in this discipline occurred during a hot Texas summer, when I was 21. I visited a married couple in Austin and stayed a night in their small house. My hostess Akiko directed me to their guest room, which consisted of a bare floor with a futon folded against the wall, to make a low couch. Beside the futon was a metal cylinder that might have been designed to hold umbrellas. Akiko filled it with dead tree branches, reaching up to head level. On one of the branches, she clipped an xray image of her chest. I thought, "This room is hot and it could be oppressive, but Akiko has made it delicious, like a firm piece of fruit."

This week I read Leo Babauta's helpful book, The Power of Less. Babauta gave me another opportunity to work on my environment and gain new leverage. One constant imperative: Get Rid Of Stuff! It's the most liberating experience I've found. You have to fight the natural urge to hoard, of course, and that's not easy. 


If you can't bring yourself to throw clutter out, the next best thing is to cover it up. It's a temporary solution, but inexpensive and important, nonetheless.

For many years, my desk looked exactly like this. I despaired over the ugly scene. Finally I determined to do something about it. I went through several possible solutions before hitting on one that did the job for a decent price. Then it took a long afternoon to build the cabinet, place everything correctly and wire it up.

This is the final result, and I'm very happy with it. The cabinet came from the Home Depot bathroom section and cost about $90.

I have a small printer, so it fits inside the cabinet, too [top]. The network devices line up on the white shelf, then my work computer docking station and power strips share the bottom. I just left off the back board, so the cords could run out to the desk and the outlets. On the left door is a network diagram. This should allow my wife and son how to reboot the network themselves, but of course they'll just make me do it.

I can't fully explain how happy this cabinet made me. When I go down to work now, I feel that my work is under control. It looks under control, and that's 95% of the battle. Appearance is everything, and instead of fighting that, let's make it work for us!

A new idea I got from the book: Stop printing my calendar task list, and other working documents. For years, I carried a stack of these papers with me because I didn't want to miss something. I wrote on the pages, then highlighted them when in progress or completed. This gave me two Inboxes to deal with, the one in my computer and the one on paper. This duplication of effort made every task look twice as big. When I reached my desk in the morning, I had the screen AND the paper to face.

Now I just bring up my commitments on Outlook Today, no paper. Again, it looks like I'm caught up, so I feel more in control, even when I'm behind. 

About recent events in Japan

My son Max's drawing of a house fire in Japan.

Thank you for your emails about our family in Japan and the tsunami that reached the California coast, where we live. All of us and our relatives escaped injury and loss. If you'd like to help in the relief effort, you may check out opportunities at this link.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Liars' Olympics

I'm still trying to grow up, to understand more of the world. In intellectual terms, growing up = destruction. I started life with ideas about how the world works. Then I found out my ideas were, almost invariably, wrong. Experience charged into my head like a bulldozer, destroying my ideas and replacing them with facts.

I thought honesty and openness were the best—the only moral—way to deal with others. This idea appealed to me because I'm lazy and I have a simple mind. It is, however, completely wrong. Deception is essential in human relationships, and people who pretend otherwise are often the worst deceivers of all. 

Robert Greene explains the value of deception in his book, The 48 Laws of Power:

Power requires the ability to play with appearances. To this end you must learn to wear many masks and keep a bag full of deceptive tricks. Deception and masquerade should not be seen as ugly or immoral. All human interaction requires deception on many levels, and in some ways what separates humans from animals is our ability to lie and deceive. In Greek myths, in India's Mahabharata cycle, in the Middle Eastern epic of Gilgamesh, it is the privilege of the gods to use deceptive arts; a great man, Odysseus for instance, was judged by his ability to rival the craftiness of the gods, stealing some of their divine power by matching them in wits and deception. Deception is a developed art of civilization and the most potent weapon in the game of power. 

Deception being a crucial life skill, it's worth studying people who are good at it. In appreciation of her spectacular achievement in this competition, I award the 2011 Gold Medal in Lying to Laura Schlessinger, also known as "Doctor Laura." I will not refer to her as "Doctor," because she is an entertainer, and not a physician or counselor. No one with a serious problem should seek her advice, under any circumstances. Because I like her, I'll call her "Laura." Why not? Her last name is too long.

I like Laura. Her radio show was the perfect thing to listen to during long hours at the desk. Her conversations resembled the Inquisition or Perry Mason cross-exam with her callers. Her therapeutic approach can be summarized thusly: "What's your problem? Yes, yes, right. Well, clearly it's your own fault!" The only callers who got off easy were the very young and the terminally ill. This rock-em, sock-em action was a tart antidote to the whiny blame-game of the 1990s.

I read a couple of Laura's "books," and occasionally she got in a good paragraph or two. They weren't as interesting as Laura's public persona itself, so I read Vicki Bane's delightful biography of the woman behind the microphone. 

This week as I browsed Amazon, I saw a link to a new book by Laura, Surviving a Shark Attack (On Land): Overcoming Betrayal and Dealing with Revenge. Love the title. I clicked into the sample pages and in three seconds, I witnessed a magnificent, breathtaking lie. 

To set this up: In the 1970s, Laura broke into radio by "sleeping her way to the top" with an established professional named Bill Balance. In the late 90s, Balance released nude photos of Laura which went all over the internet. Laura first claimed that the photos were fake, then sued Balance and and his online publisher for "invasion of privacy." You can see more detail on this on the Laura Wikipedia page.

Now, back to the new book. Laura makes this highly questionable claim:  The photos with a sweet expression and bottom covered were indeed me, but disgusting pictures appropriate for Hustler, bottom uncovered, were manufactured.

If this were the olympics, that sentence would get a unanimous 10 score from the judges! It is awesome on several levels at once. If, as I suspect, it's not true, then it's time to watch and learn from a seasoned professional, who operates at a level far above the competition. 

It's one thing to lie about something only a few people know about. It's another to lie about something when nailing you will be difficult [Bill Clinton thought he was home free, until he discovered DNA testing and a sticky dress]. But to lie—in print—about something the whole world has known about for twelve years, this is the zenith of ambition. Laura, I stand before my computer and applaud. 
In case you haven't seen them, one look at Bill Balance's photos may raise doubts about Laura's claim. You can see the photos in one second by typing her name into Google Images. If you'd rather not look, don't worry. We can examine the evidence without any depiction of naughty bits. 

Issue #1: Why would anyone care? Breasts are cleaner than "bottoms?" 

Issue #2: She's not entirely "covered." Even the "sweet" photos of Laura show her jeans departing for her ankles. More on ankles ahead.

Issue #3: She already admitted the photos were real. When the photos first surfaced, Laura issued a statement that they were [presumably all] fakes. Later, when this did not prove plausible, she reversed that position by admitting she'd posed for them and by suing for invasion of privacy. Someone faking nude photos of her would not be an invasion of privacy, because nothing "private" would be revealed.

Issue #4: They don't look fake. Sure, I'm not an expert, but nothing looks out of whack here. Laura's bottomless body looks just like her breast-only body. There are people who study photoshop fakery, and I haven't seen any expert claim Bill's photos were "manufactured" with common software.

Issue #5: Laura doesn't like her ankles. She said on her show that her ankles are thick, that her calves go straight into her feet, or words to that effect. I can understand why this would bother her, because she works out every day and the rest of her body is tiny. So if the photos show thin, dainty ankles, they're probably someone else's. Check 'em out:

Issue #5: Great liars know they are lying, and do their best to (a) cover their tracks and (b) prepare for denial if they are caught. Laura covers both bases by (a) waiting until Bill Balance is dead to claim some of his photos were fake, and (b) writing "disgusting photos . . . were manufactured," and leaving out the source, so if someone calls her on it, she can point to an image from the internet like this one, which was altered, but to add the collar, not subtract her pants.

Or she can say, truthfully, that the original photos were manufactured. The process by which they were manufactured: Laura got naked, Bill pointed his camera at her, pressed the shutter and 7-11 developed the film [these were the good old days, folks]. 

In addition to implausibility, Laura provides us exhilarating hypocrisy on the side. If a female caller told her a similar story, she'd require hospitalization when she hung up. For dessert, we feast on Laura's unapologetic self-pity. People who are obsessed with loyalty and betrayal are a special breed. I've been lectured on this subject many times, and the lecturers had one thing in common: none of them benefitted me in any way commensurate to their demands for loyalty. These people were dead set on getting what they deserved, but they recognized no obligations to others. 

Now I promise you, neither Laura nor anyone handling her business is stupid. They anticipated these suspicions, but they had the chutzpah to put the book out anyway. They did it because they could, and their skill soars over me like the space shuttle. Onward to the stars, brave explorers!