Celebrity scumbags

Adam Gopnik has an interesting bit on a new biography of Sinatra that seems to confirm that, yes, Sinatra was a musical genious, and yes, he was also a thuggish, mob associating asshole.

I have to pause and tell the great Sinatra joke told by Shecky Green. “Frank Sinatra saved my life once. He said, “Okay, boys. That’s enough.”

Anyhoo, Gopnik does some interesting wresting with how to appreciate a musician’s artistic legacy while still staying aware of the brutality they engaged in.

Shouldn’t this push aside the malicious gossip? Why does the other crap matter at all? It matters because if art and the lower reaches of journalism and biography converge on a single point of common purpose, it is in being truthful about human beings as they really are and not as we would have them be. History is what we have to struggle to remember even when legend is more pleasing. It would be nice if Sinatra had been a good guy with a few regrettable friendships rooted in Jersey simpatico—it was a lot worse than that. It would be nice if J.F.K. were a family man with a sometimes-wandering eye—the truth there, too, is more ravenous and complicated. None of this need diminish our admiration or even our love for them. Humanism is made from a faith in humans, as they actually are, flawed and real, screaming devilish threats at casino managers and then singing “Angel Eyes.”

And then, one of the things you learn ever more certainly as you grow older is that all art is made in the image of the artist. It can often be articulated as an opposite, with all the low spots in life thrust forward in art, as with Sinatra. But it is some sort of picture. It isn’t supposed to be so; high-minded people are supposed to pull life and art apart, trust the tale not the teller, and all that. But if an abstract artist makes pictures only of white, there is a white moment, or knight, somewhere there in her past, bugging her still. Sinatra’s painfully bipolar nature is exactly the pattern of his best music, with “swinging” records continually succeeded by sad ones, again and again, and though this is obviously partly a response to the oscillating commercial demands for dance music on the one hand and make-out music on the other, it isn’t just or mainly that. No one else even attempted it quite this relentlessly. We have “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “Only the Lonely” because Sinatra was a desperately driven man with a melancholic depth. This doesn’t make up for other people’s fractures and stitches, not remotely. But there the albums are, and there he is, a whole man, made up of broken parts, like everyone else.

I pause to think of my own reaction to these sorts of conundrums. I can still certainly enjoy Sinatra’s singing (especially when backed with Nelson Riddle’s fantastic arrangements) but the nature of who Sinatra was is never far from from mind. And these days, when I hear the music of the Beatles, it’s never far from my mind that John Lennon beat a guy almost to death (for implying that the Beatle was a homosexual.) When I hear the music of the Foo Fighters it’s never far from my mind that the entire band distributed AIDS denialism. When I hear Eric Clapton it’s never far from my mind that he once went on a racist tirade onstage.

That said, I still enjoy their music, at least when it’s enjoyable. (Some of the Foo Fighters stuff is pretty mediocre.) I think what bothers me more is not the various crimes these artists committed but the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Had they not had the power of celebrity and iconic status they would have been imprisoned or at least reviled. But most people don’t seem to be even aware of these crimes (it’s only recently I heard of Lennon’s behavior.) It’s the double standard tolerated by society that bugs me.

The narrative form

Lately I’ve been thinking about the narrative form, which could be thought of as the structure that stories follow. These stories could be novels, comic books, movies, even music. I think there’s one basic form that all stories adhere to and we’re all familiar with this form even if we don’t think about it. And we know it when it’s wrong. For example, consider this story:

Bob wakes up and goes to work. He has a project due but since he did a lot of work on it early he has no problem making his deadline. Suddenly a ninja with a sword appears and chops of Bob’s penis. Bob spends several months in the hospital. He begins to question what he wants to do with his life. He meets an older nurse and they begin a platonic relationship. Bob moves in with the nurse. A fews years later he takes up windsurfing. Both he and the nurse find their relationship fading. Bob eventually moves to Arizona and takes ownership of several cats.

That’s an example of not following the narrative form. That story was weird and boring.

Good narrative form should have contrasting sections of drama and calm. (The story above has one dramatic bit and a lot of weird calm) with the dramatic parts becoming more prominent, rising to a crescendo which resolves all or most of the problems.

One thing I find interesting is that this form applies to music even though music can never actually tell a story (unless it has accompanying lyrics or film or some other storytelling device.) Music has dramatic parts and calmer bits and good music contrasts them. Even pop songs often follow a model like: Verse (calm) / Chorus (dramatic) / Verse (calm) Chorus (dramatic) / Bridge (calm or dramatic)/ Chorus (dramatic)/ Another chorus (Even more dramatic!) (How can a chorus be made to be more dramatic? It might be louder or have more instrumentation or “busier” melodies or chords.)

So why is this? Why do humans prefer this narrative form? Why don’t we tell stories like my story about Bob above? Is it somehow ingrained into our genes in some way? Or just a fluke?

Another question: is this form consistent across all cultures? Maybe Easter Islanders did tell stories like my story of Bob above.

My suspicion however (backed by being familiar with stories and music across various cultures) is that there is a kind of universal narrative.

Coffeehouse tattoos

I’m often complaining about the ubiquitous of tattoos even though I have a few. It just seems a trend that has been watered down to the point of being meaningless—there’s no risk of social ostracization anymore.

But are tattoos totally meaningless? I was just served coffee by a barista at a corporate coffeehouse and she had a tattoo of what appeared to be a skeleton holding its heart in its hands while kneeling before another skeleton. Certainly its mild goriness and general reference to death seemed contrary to the image any corporation would like to present. So, maybe in some subversive way she’s defying her employer, refusing to kotow to the image of bland, wholesomeness they would doubtless like their employees to present. Or is the employer the real victor here? Despite all this gal’s affectations towards the dark side, she still has to get up in the morning, put on an apron with a logo and serve coffee.

Who knows?

You aren’t real. Neither was Elvis.

There’s one idea of late that’s really had a profound effect on my thinking. Unfortunately it’s hard to put into words. (In fact, as you shall see, that is the idea.) Basically it’s the notion that our mental concepts of things are not really things the way real physical things are.

For example, I’m looking at a chair right now. The chair exists in the sense that it is made up of physical matter that exists (barring exotic theories like the universe is a hologram.) But the chair doesn’t really exist as a chair. The idea that this collection of matter exists primarily as a tool for humans (and cats) to sit on* is an unreal idea; it’s a concept of the human mind applied to this collection of matter. If all life on the planet ended, the matter we call this chair might continue but its meaning, its concept, would not.

* Chairs are also good for swinging about in a drunken rage.

But what if we apply this idea (that things and their semantic descriptions are different) to people? Let’s take Elvis. People talk about Elvis the performer and might say he did such and such on some particular date. But people also talk about a more ethereal Elvis—more of a concept of Elvis. The conceptual Elvis is an entity linking various disparate concepts like the South, Hollywood, Rock music, Sexual playfulness (the hips shaking and all that), icon worship and on and on. Some people have a more negative view and link Elvis to White appropriation of Black music and maybe some kind of sexism. But this conceptual Elvis is really quite different from Elvis the guy. Elvis the guy was essentially a collection of matter (e.g. the molecules that made up his body) and perhaps also a consciousness though we still have trouble really defining what that is.

But my real point here is that, like Elvis, we all have conceptual and real versions of ourselves. Other people interact with us and build their conceptualization of us off of those interactions, but also off what other people say about us (true or not) and the various stereotypes (true or not) they apply to us, whether we remind them of their dad, and a whole host of other factors. I’m reminded of the ending of the Michael Douglas film “Falling Down” where Douglas’s character, after shooting up parts of L.A. (in his mind, righteously) finds himself saying, “I’m the bad guy?” He realizes that his concept of himself and everyone else’s concept of himself don’t match up.

To make things more complex, we seem to build our conceptualization of us off these external factors. We think “Everyone says I’m a liar therefore I am.” Or, “I belong to (some particular stereotype) therefore I must act in this or that manner.” Or, “My dad was a violent drunk therefore I must be.” It turns into some infinite feedback loop—you think you’re X and thus behave like X and everyone sees you as X and you become more set in the pattern of X etc.

But in the end, you’re really just some molecules.

I get high with a little help from my sugar

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been experimenting with a diet low in carbs and sugar. I haven’t been totally consistent—this weekend was my girlfriend’s birthday party and it was impossible to avoid sweets—but I find it easy to maintain. I’ve noticed one curious side effect: a subtle smoothing out of my mood. It’s hard to really pin down and it could be all in my head (which is, of course, where mood should be) but I feel more on an even keel.

This makes sense. We all know sugar amps us up and then gives us a sugar crash. So, if I’m avoiding those ups and down in body chemistry it should be no surprise that I feel calmer. But it’s interesting to actually observe this effect in myself.

I will say it is, at times, a calmness that borders on being bored. Whatever the evils of sugar, they make life interesting; sugar gives the day an added punch when one is lacking. And I suppose for some people that punch could be addictive.

An obvious question arises: Can sugar be blamed for people’s psychological problems? Since one can find evidence for almost any opinion on the web, we shouldn’t have to look long. And indeed we don’t. (In this case, a Psychology Today article.)

The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders. Research(link is external) has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression and worse outcomes in individuals with schizophrenia.

There’s more at the link. As with sugar, consume at your own discretion.

Nothing is certain

I’ve gotten a sense over the years of the futility of most debates about politics and related topics—history, philosophy, ethics etc. I can think of very few discussions where I changed someone’s mind or had mine changed. People seem very fixed in their opinions and unwilling to move in the face of evidence.

This may not be entirely unreasonable. I think we all have a certain sense that how evidence is presented can distort reality. For example, someone could say, “A 1998 study showed that people who ate mouse droppings lost weight,” while declining to mention all the studies that did not support this argument or the fact that the particular study that did was rife with methodology errors. We’re smart not to take things at face value.

But sometimes the evidence is pretty solid and people seem unwilling to change. I find myself guilty of this; I read something contrary to my beliefs and I almost feel physically resistant. We want our truth to be the truth. Which is really a matter of ego, I suppose.

I find myself particularly bothered by conspiracy theories. Donald Trump just recently repeated the idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been as disproved as possible but refuses to die. Because, I guess, people just want to believe it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Micheal Shermer called “The Believing Brain” where he examines why we are so prone to believe things that fly in the face of evidence. It’s stuff you’ve probably heard before: we want control over uncertainty and conspiracy theories give us knowledge which is a stepping stone to control Why’d your kid get autism? The correct answer is: who knows? The psychologically comforting answer is because he was poisoned by vaccines.

If there’s been an overall trend in my thought for the past 8 or so years it’s been that things are pretty uncertain and we basically need to embrace that. As I’ve recounted a million times, I had pretty solid faith in the medical establishment until I came down with a dizziness they could not explain. I had hand pain that lasted for years and was impervious to any number the “fixes” medicine offered. To solve these problems you basically have to stumble around in the dark until you find something. Few experts saw the economic bust of 2008 coming. It seems like nobody predicted the rise of ISIS in the middle east. Did anyone six months ago seriously think Donald Trump would be the leading Republican candidate? The experts on these matters seem to be largely a group of know-nothings*. But if they know nothing, then we know nothing and that’s not solid ground to stand on.

But maybe that’s where we are. And maybe accepting that is the best course of action. Embrace the mystery of life and all that.

*I’m reminded of the study that political pundits are mostly spectacularly wrong in their predictions.

Editing genes with CRISPR

There’s a recent Economist article on the advent of CRISPR technology which is a gene editing tool that could be used (at some indeterminate point in the future) to allow parents to design their offspring. Don’t want your kid to have your bad breath? Edit it out with CRISPR. Wan’t your kid to excel at music in a way you never did? Bring on the CRISPR.

The catch is that a lot of attributes interact in ways we don’t understand. It’s possible that making someone too intellectual limits their emotional life or that making someone too empathetic could paralyze them with anxiety*. The article points out an interesting fear, that parents intent on improving their kids could actually damage them.

* These are examples I just made up; I have no idea if they are real.

If CRISPR can be shown to be safe in humans, mechanisms will also be needed to grapple with consent and equality. Gene editing raises the spectre of parents making choices that are not obviously in the best interests of their children. Deaf parents may prefer their offspring to be deaf too, say; pushy parents might want to boost their children’s intelligence at all costs, even if doing so affects their personalities in other ways.

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

…if it becomes possible to tweak genes to make children smarter, should that option really be limited to the rich?

Are carbs the embodiment of evil?

i never been anywhere near what people might call fat. But my weight has fluctuated over the years. At one point several years ago I was down to about 160 (after a trying a non gluten diet to cure the dizziness I’ve complained about. It didn’t work.) A couple years after that I ballooned up to 180 or so and it showed. Since then I probably float around 170. I usually don’t look fat but I sometimes have a smallish belly—sort of like the characters from Doonesbury.

As you can tell from reading this blog lately, I’ve been reading about diet and have been intrigued by the argument that carbs are the real cause of fattening. So for the past month or so I’ve been “sort of” avoiding carbs—not eating much toast, rice, pasta etc. It’s not something I’ve put much thought into, just a general disinclination towards carbs. (Not total avoidance. I had a hamburger with a white bread bun last night.) And I have clearly slimmed down quite a bit.

(To be more precise, I’ve really been avoiding simple carbs and sugars. I still eat a fair amount of beans which are a complex carb.)

So what is the crux of the argument against carbs? Gary Taubs is a science writer and the leading voice in the anti-carb movement. He has a semi-recent NY Times op-ed stating his point:

If obesity is a fuel-partitioning problem — a fat-storage defect — then the trigger becomes not the quantity of food available but the quality. Now carbohydrates in the diet become the prime suspects, especially refined and easily digestible carbohydrates (foods that have what’s called a high glycemic index) and sugars.

The obvious mechanism: carbohydrates stimulate secretion of the hormone insulin, which works, among other things, to store fat in our fat cells.

Basically, carbs are sugar, and sugars spike your insulin causing your body to hoard fat (and ultimately set you up for diabetes.)

As Taubs states at the end of the piece, this is not an ironclad argument. More research needs to be done, blah, blah, blah. But he does voice the obvious thought.

From this perspective, the trial suggests that among the bad decisions we can make to maintain our weight is exactly what the government and medical organizations like the American Heart Association have been telling us to do: eat low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diets, even if those diets include whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

Now, I mentioned before that there was another time my weight dropped: when I was avoiding glutens (as well as dairy and a few other things. Not meat though.) When you skip glutens you avoid a lot of carbs—glutens are in bread, cereal etc. My one junk food treat in that time was potato chips which are gluten free. So, I was probably on a low carb diet, just not really thinking of it in those terms.

As a counterpoint to all this I offer my Dad who ate plenty of carbs, drank a fair amount, basically put no thought into his diet yet remained thin his whole life. (He did have heart issues though.) So there’s probably no one-size fits all method here. But I suspect fat’s reputation is going to rise in coming years and carbs’ will decrease.

Shaming the shamers

Lately I’ve been reading Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which is about the advent of public shaming that has overtaken the internet. (For the latest example, see the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion.) Ronson explores a number of cases one might have heard of—Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, even my old acquaintance Mike Daisey who fabricated details of a radio report he did on Chinese workers. These are all people who committed some offense and were basically torn apart by strangers on Twitter.

I’m reminded of an event I observed on my facebook feed. (I’ll keep it anonymous but if you know the story you’re sure to recognize it.) A local songwriter performed at a local bar some months ago and when he went to get paid they basically told him to get lost. The songwriter reported this on facebook and dozens of his followers and their friends, maybe over a hundred, went to the facebook page for the venue and basically screamed at them.

I don’t fault the songwriter for doing what he did, but there really was some sense that he was unleashing a mob. The venue owners relented, apologized and paid him. They’ve stopped doing music and I wouldn’t be surprised if their revenue has dropped as a lot of people have probably sworn off ever going there.

The event bugged me a bit though I have a hard time saying why. Maybe it comes down to two things. These kinds of online mobs deliver a form of justice but is it equal to the crime? These bar owners basically stole 100$ (the payment for the performance) but it seems very possible that they’ve lost thousands in lost revenues. And on top of that I imagine these guys have lost some friendships and had their reputations forever tainted over what used to be a private dispute. Screaming mobs are very imprecise tools of justice.

My second concern is that the people who mete out these shamings—the people posting negative comments on someone’s facebook page or tweeter feed or whatever—aren’t being entirely honest with themselves as to their reasons. They may see it as a purely moral statement but I think everyone likes being a bully, likes the catharsis of damning others. I’m not sure shaming is so much about punishing the perpetrator as much as it allows the shamer to feel good about themselves, and in step with their society, to get high with self-righteous fury

The Cecil the Lion case brings this up for me. I like animals and the guy sounds like a douchebag, but lions are killed by hunters every day (as are plenty of other animals.) Why go after this guy? Because this particular lion was somehow protected? That feels like a pretty arbitrary, legalistic reason. Because Cecil was sort of a “famous” lion? Frankly, I’d never heard of him (I don’t know any celebrity lions.) It seems more likely that people saw a mob movement growing online and jumped at a chance to scream at another person. But I think that mob power can be corrupting. It should be avoided not to protect the target but to protect yourself. (Now, I’m far from perfect on this. I’m often having mental conversations with myself mocking this or that person. But I seldom, if ever, participate in online attacks.)

There’s probably a third reason I’m wary of the idea of online shaming. If you go through the archives of acid logic there’s are doubtless many things that would offend a lot of people. And I wonder of the online mob will ever come for me?

The quiet rise of Ben Carson

There is a lot of legitimate attention being paid to the fact that Donald Trump has so quickly become a big player in the race for the Republican nomination. But I’m surprised there’s been so little discussion of the fact that Ben Carson is now neck and neck with Trump in some polls.

In many ways, Carson sounds like a pretty conventional conservative, but I’m do take note of this New York Magazine article that makes the point he’s not one of these “filled with hatred” guys. He seems capable of disagreeing with someone without wishing for their destruction. We certainly could use more of that.

Ultimately, I think the Republican nominee will be someone predictable—Bush or Christie— but I won’t rule out something like “Trump/Carson 2016.”