Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Five reasons we accept the hearsay about Buddha more than the hearsay about Jesus

Fairly often we're reminded by professors, pundits, comedians, and your better read ice cream men that Jesus never wrote anything down. We're reminded that his sayings and biography come to us via people who wrote about them many years after he was gone. Each time I hear this, the person saying it acts like he's the first to say it, and that because he's brought it to light, all the churches are going to be empty next Sunday. You gotta envy a guy who walks around believing every word out of his mouth goes to a global PA System.

The Buddha also wrote nothing down (he didn't even tweet, talk about sacrifice). Not once in my life have I heard this brought up. When the Buddha is mentioned, no one hustles to his feet to make the big announcement: "How do we really know what the Buddha was all about when we don't even have his exact words?!"

Some reasons this isn't brought up:

1) The pundit class exalts all things Eastern.

2) The pundit class that exalts all things Eastern possesses no knowledge of anything Eastern.

3) You cannot make a living ribbing Buddhism.

4) Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is focused on a message rather than an icon.

5) Followers of the Buddha are less annoying than followers of Christ, so poking them in the eyes isn't as enjoyable.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Economic Value: Books vs. Music

Compared to other forms of entertainment, the pleasurable effects of music are less likely to wear off. People turn to a favorite album far more often than a favorite short story or favorite film. All entertainment experiences diminishing returns, but on balance, the returns from music are more consistent and stable than its competitors.

A telling example of this: You read a book in a bookstore so you don't have to buy it. You listen to an album in a record store (when they existed) to see if you want to buy it.

An average album doesn't "end" for you. The greatest book does.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How to Call a Different Kind of Market Top

A contradiction that agitates me: Nearly every school of thought on this celestial orb named Earth believes the following: Money doesn't buy happiness. Yet what happens when a rich person complains? "Oh, what does he have to complain about? He's rich."

So money can't buy happiness, but the rich have no right to be unhappy because they're rich? If the rich can't be unhappy, then money must buy happiness (a snake eating its own tail enters stage left). What's cute is people make these statements back to back without noting the conflict.

Around the start of the 21st Century, hip-hop introduced the world to the concept of player/playa-hating. From urbandictionary.com: "when someone is a player, and your [sic] jealous of them, you are a Player hater."

Stars like Puffy managed to deflect criticism simply by accusing the critic of being jealous of his money and success. It couldn't be that Puffy's songs were blander than moisture-free water. The only possible motive for criticizing him was jealousy and "hate;" even if the critic was Keith Richards, who had enough money and success to overdose on drugs and fame. Soon everyone carried a deck full of "you're a playa hater" trump cards.

Today nobody says "hata." Quite the opposite. Major celebs like the Kardashians and Charlie Sheen get hammered non-stop. Sometimes it's hard to tell if Twitter is a marketing tool or a firing squad.

Post-credit crisis we seem to be living through an inversion of playa hating. Everyone is welcome to throw tomatoes at those on top, and those on top aren't supposed to complain or fight back because they're on top. "C'mon, he's a big, rich guy and I've been out of work for six months..."

Today it appears the successful can't respond to criticism without attracting criticism. The less successful have free reign, and the elites have to sit there and take it, because, after all, they're rich and powerful, so what do they have to complain about?

Perhaps it is only in good economic times that concepts like playa hater can flourish. In periods of broad economic strain, the 99% feel they have less chance of becoming playas themselves and lash out accordingly. When they feel the ladder is open to them, they wonder if the critics really are just jealous. You've heard about the hemline index; the theory that hemlines rise as stocks rise. Maybe we need a hata index. When Taylor Swift starts accusing everyone of jealousy and regular people join in the chorus, maybe the market is nearing a top and it is time to sell.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why Catholics Sound More In Touch with Reality than Protestants

Even if you've never been to church, you've probably noticed Catholics do less bible thumping than Protestants. Both camps recruit, but Catholics are more sedate about it. How many Catholics have you seen standing by the side of the road with signs urging you to go to confession?

If you watch an interfaith discussion on TV, you'll notice the Protestant usually sounds more out-to-lunch than the Catholic (the Protestant probably sounds out-to-dinner too, and it's a five course meal). The Protestant is liable to blurt out many more outlandish and obscure Bible remarks than the Catholic, even if there are non-Christians on the panel. The presence of non-Protestants rarely prompts a Protestant to go meek. He's a believer, and woe to anyone who attempts to broaden the subject.

This is also typically the case in casual conversations about Christianity. Catholics are less likely to tommy-gun you with proverbs and personal revelations based on those proverbs.

Here are some reasons:

1) The Bible is full of many funky stories--Jonah and the giant fish, the parting of the Red Sea--that sound quite absurd when discussed as fact. Catholics seldom reference these funky stories, because Catholics don't read the Bible. They can't even tell you which Book describes the Red Sea incident, let alone why the water came apart, so they're less likely to mention it in the first place. Meanwhile a Baptist who attends church twice a year can usually outwit a Monsignor in the Bible trivia department. Because Protestants know the Bible and read it like it's the sports page, they have no problem telling you Jonah took a powder inside a giant fish, and that the fish wound up puking Jonah out for fear the calories would go straight to his tail.

2) Catholics aren't fundamentalists, meaning they don't believe everything in the Bible to be literal historical truth. They take some stories to be parables (Job, for instance). Therefore, even when they know the Bible, they are less likely to reference Biblical events as part of the literal historical record. This is why you don't see Catholics in the Creationist movement (probably the worst PR Christianity faces today). Many Protestants are fundamentalists, so they'll speak about Adam and Eve like they were as real as Clinton and Lewinsky.

3) Catholics believe less strongly than Protestants. Look at the Catholic-heavy states: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey. How truly Catholic do they seem to you? Even Massachusetts, the American Catholic Mecca, has long been one of the most socially liberal (social liberalism contradicts nearly all Catholic doctrine) states in the union. Rhode Island, the state with the highest percentage of Catholics, just legalized gay marriage. Contrast that with Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, where deep Protestantism is at least somewhat reflected in the culture and legal code (to the extent this can happen in modern America). And Utah...yeah, you can quickly detect who is in charge there and what they believe.

Compare Catholic politicians with Protestant ones. All politicians are reptiles, but because at least some Protestants take their faith seriously, Protestant politicians usually have to be more discrete about their constant violations of the faith. Not so true with Catholics. Look at Giuliani, the pro-choice, unfaithful divorced husband. He was pretty, pretty, pretty far from living the Catholic life, yet no one laughed when he looked into the camera and proclaimed his Catholicism. Can you picture such a thing happening in Utah? Can you imagine a self-proclaimed Mormon bringing this to a Utah podium:

"I've made no secret of my strong Mormon beliefs. True, I own a strip club, have a quintuple espresso at Starbucks each morning, and take my whiskey neat, but no one should ever doubt the sincerity of my faith."

I don't see that gentleman getting elected. There are no Mormon Nancy Pelosis.


Unsurprisingly, folks who know less about their faith, take at least some of their faith to be myth rather than fact, and who believe less fervently in their faith are less apt to bug out their eyes with cauterizing zeal at the mere mention of God. A half-believer isn't going to be as oblivious to how he sounds as someone who thinks he's going to be a pin cushion for pitchforks should he not convert that Denny's waitress to his belief system. And God help her if he asks for Coke and she says "Is Pepsi all right?" 





Friday, May 24, 2013

"Important" Writers You can Safely Avoid

There is too damn much to read in this world, and not enough cocaine to make all of it interesting. What's worse, there is constant pressure from sadistic teachers and zombified book reviewers to choose thrill-free fiction. Someday you're going to die, and the time you spend trying to figure out why Slaughterhouse-Five is still in print is time you never get back. Think about that. Seriously.

Should you decide to read some literary fiction you need a list of BIG FORMIDABLE AUTHORS to leave OFF your list. For starters:

Joseph Conrad -  Great premises undone by tin-eared writing. Hilariously, Joseph is considered a great stylist. I guest Conrad could be called a stylist, in the same way a quadruple amputee tossed on an ice rink could be called a figure skater.

William Burroughs* - If no one knew his biography, his writing would be rightly discarded. Take away his association with the Beat Movement (every Beat writer was horrid), the high profile censorship of Naked Lunch (the only time I've sided with a prosecutor), and the glamor of being a heroin addict (living as a constipated vegetable is the bee's knees), and you're left with a curmudgeon who lacked the ability to make his grouchiness engaging. It doesn't surprise me he killed his wife in a failed William Tell act. He had a knack for missing the mark.

John Updike - No one actually enjoys Updike's writing, so I'll save you the trouble of joining the others in pretending to like him.

J.D. Salinger - In this case I am using the word writer very loosely.

Samuel Beckett - Oh, those Irish existentialists with French tongues! What will they do next? Beckett seemed to believe existence is a painful mistake, and if you spend any time reading him you will find yourself agreeing.

Jorge Luis Borges - Spoiler alert: all of this stories end in boredom.

Joseph Heller - Ever imagined what it would be like if an open-mic comedian wrote an anti-war novel? Now you don't have to. Catch-22, a 400-page root canal, features a character called General Scheisskopf. Get it? Scheiss-kopf. That pain in your ribs? That's Heller's heavy-handed elbow smashing through your ribs with the world's clumsiest nudge. I'm sure giving characters names like Scheisskopf was extremely edgy back in 407 B.C., but here in A.D. land, we need a little more.

Truman Capote - His legacy is a series of commas occasionally interrupted by words.

Mark Twain - Let me guess: You tried reading him and then felt bad for not seeing what all the fuss was about? It's not your fault. You were probably corralled in Twain's direction by professors and critics who know nothing about wit, timing, or even sentence structure. If you like funny writers who are funny, consider Oscar Wilde, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Chandler.

John Cheevers - Railing against the suburbs through the works of people like Cheevers is what suburbanites do to convince themselves they haven't bought into suburbia. And those suburbs sure are heavy, huh? Yes, living with a deck and porch are among Man's great trials. Surprising Sophocles never tackled the pathos of having a lawn.

Sylvia Plath - Irony of ironies: this icon to feminists died in an oven. That has nothing to do with her leaden writing, I just needed a pick-me-up after remembering that time I read The Bell Jar.



*For a treatment of similar themes, complete with entertainment value, try J.G. Ballard; especially his early short stories.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The IRS is US

Back in April, during the gun control discussion, the President dismissed "suspicion about government," the foundation of many gun advocates' fears, because after all "the government is us."

OK, if Obama and friends are the government, why is he denying involvement in this IRS scandal? The IRS is part of the government, and he IS the government, so doesn't that make it impossible for him not to be connected to it?

It isn't merely concern about the people at the top of government that makes people suspicious. The executors who implement and enforce those policies also generate major suspicion and concern. The government's lowlier agents are the ones most people encounter, so they probably cause more concern than the top level folks they report to.

How typical: when something happens that the President favors, the government is he and he acolytes. When something happens he wishes to deny, suddenly it is the work of "rogue agents."

The government admits rogue agents exist, but continually smears citizens who worry about them.



Saturday, May 11, 2013

That Time I Almost Died Part VII

December 2008 (I think this string of blogs was titled “The Apotheosis of Payne”)

My body and psyche have capitulated, so when I return to the U.S. for Christmas, I will be remaining there for at least a few months while I seek First World care. The hope is that a diagnosis and treatment plan will be reached quickly, and that I’ll be back to reasonable health and London town by the spring. 
Back to business: Dec. 11th return trip to the hematologist: Not only was PMR ruled out, but another theory, B-12 deficiency, was checked off the list. In fact, my B-12 reading was one of the only indicators that was slightly high.

The hematologist showed me a computer screen clustered with bloodwork jargon that was supposed to illuminate us both. Evidently, nothing kooky dared show itself, which brought the doc to a new theory: hepatitis c. I felt like saying, "I’m flattered you think I’m happening enough for hepatitis C (the C stands for cool), but let’s face it, I’m not that outgoing.”

Instead I said something about how square my life had been, making hep C astronomically unlikely. I could see by the doubting smirk on her face she didn’t believe me. I protested, citing all the important stats of my boring life. With each word, her face became ever more scrunched and skeptical. This is the only time I’ve ever had trouble convincing a woman I don’t get laid much.
We went back and forth on this point, then she began to speculate wildly about tapeworms and rare liver diseases. Once I half-convinced the hematologist that hep c was a long shot, she offered a very unappealing Plan B; a bone marrow biopsy. My reaction must have said a lot, because she tried to backpedal a bit by saying: “I don’t think you’re as sick as you look."

The word biopsy is a downer at 89. When you’re 29, it leaves you vegetative. Maybe I'm just accustomed to the diagnosis roller coaster, because some of the initial shock value was lost on me. What replaced it was a very specific kind of resentment. Age 30 is just around the bend for me, and I couldn't help but think of how I spent my 20s: loitering in comedy clubs with comedians I mostly disliked. Comedians are a twisted and often very unamusing bunch. If you like people who take a Type A approach to annoying everyone around them, hang around comedians. If you want to be around a bunch of wannabe peacocks who think saying they have a fancy tail and actually having a fancy tail are the same thing, find your way to a comedy green room. If you like people with more tics than a woman who has been sexually trafficked, visit an open-mic.
The comics I started with also became great friends. Unfortunately, they were a small minority of...oh...let's just say single digits. The majority of comedians I’ve met do nothing but put several exclamation marks on a business that can only be described as heinous.  Don’t get me started on the bookers.

I spent my 20s in such company, all because of a delusion about “making it" in comedy (I can't even write it without cringing!). A poor choice on my part. But hey, any chump who bunny hops toward a mirage deserves what he gets.

I guess I should say a few words about the idea of public, socialized healthcare. Go to any scandalous online newsstory about healthcare, and you’ll find a spate of comments like, “Yeah, what do you expect from for-profit healthcare?” This statement states nothing whatsoever, but by blending vague cynicism with what sounds like industry jargon, it lets its author play the role of informed commentator. All that’s lacking is a misused Latin phrase. Referring to “empirical evidence” while providing no actual evidence or even demonstrating that you know what empirical means is another winsome tactic.
Hard not to laugh at Americans cheering on government conscripted medicine. Given how abominably government performs in all its other functions, why would anyone trust, let alone insist, that we turn over healthcare to government officials? A giant government system is a giant government system. It doesn’t matter if it’s the military or medicine, stealth bombers or stethoscopes, the results from plus-sized government are the same; lethal and inept. The same process (and underlying assumptions) that strands you in Iraq enables medical bureaucrats to hit the snooze button on your cancer treatment. Government healthcare is the collateral damage do-gooders have deemed acceptable. Health redistribution doesn’t work any better than wealth redistribution.

Yes, I’ve had wacky healthcare experiences in America. At age 12, during a family vacation in North Carolina, we stopped somewhere to eat BBQ ribs. I managed to get a splinter of rib caught in my throat. I wasn’t choking; it was just a scratchy obstruction. We were near Cherokee, North Carolina, an area which comes complete with live Cherokees. We pulled up to the first hospital we saw. Turns out, it was for Cherokees only, and I was turned away (had it been an emergency, I believe they would have been compelled to treat me).
Don't know where my comedy goes from here. Do know I need to get funny again. Hope I'm haven't become permanently pretentious. If I have, hopefully I'll recognize it and quit jokes forever. I'm not cut out for confessional folk comedy, and neither are crowds.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

We've Retired Jordan's Jersey. Let's Retire the Search for the "Next Jordan"

If you pay any attention to sports, you're going to continually hear some prospect touted as the "next Jordan" or the "next Joe Montana" (but especially the next Jordan*). I realize that this is partly a marketing tool--Jordan's popularity elevated all American team sports--to keep people watching, but to hear it repeated so often and with such seriousness depletes your mental electrolytes. Because...

The NBA is almost seventy years old. If we accept that there has only been one Jordan in seven decades, it follows that we cannot reasonably expect a new Jordan every year, or every few years. Furthermore, when we say that all these "next Jordans" didn't live up to their potential because they didn't become Michael Jordan II, we are again talking nonsense. We attached a demonstrably improbable expectation to them, and then criticized them for not meeting it. "Oh, he didn't become the next guy who has only surfaced once in 2/3 of a century? Ugh, why did he even pick up a basketball?"

It is a testament to Jordan that his career spawned its own subgenre of sports analysis. Unfortunately, "expert" sports forecasts, like most other expert forecasts, have the same pleasant tone as a test of the emergency broadcast system.


*We are also seeing it now in golf. Everyone is the next Tiger Woods.



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Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Table of Contents Ain't Necessarily a Table of Substance

In a social setting, you'll notice the awe people have for those who can talk mathematics, or for those who can converse about the Classics; the works of Homer, Horace, Plato, etc.

It is strange that these two faculties seem to impress people almost equally. The talents needed for each aren't equally rare. Comparatively few can read mathematics, which is why math causes great struggles for so many. Meanwhile any literate person can at least read and recite passages from the Great Ancient Books (ever hear of someone contemplating suicide over a exam about Seneca the Younger?). The fact that people weight these two skills equally is yet more proof that most people can't do math.

It surprises me that more people don't study the Great Ancient Books so they can lay more women and bamboozle more people at parties. An unnecessary reference to the Classics is a Trojan Horse that would make Virgil proud.




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Thursday, May 2, 2013

That Time I Almost Died Part VI

Late November-Early December 2008...


Tuesday I had an appointment with a new physical therapist. The one I’d been seeing for 2 ½ months informed me at the end of my last session she’d be out of the country through January. The notes she’d made during my mostly ineffectual treatment were lobbed to another therapist, and my first appointment with him was primarily a questionnaire. 

For the second session, he put me through a wide range of tests, focusing mainly on my reflexes. Using the old reflex hammer, he made four consecutive unsuccessful attempts to get a reaction from my right leg. On the fifth, my kicked up with Rockette flair. Attempt six? Leg did nothing. Even the therapist had to chuckle. 

He told me I shouldn’t come back, as this was beyond the scope of standard physical therapy. Can't argue. When your reflexes don’t work, doing push-ups against a wall doesn’t help.

Thursday I received a call from a private (out of pocket $$$) hematologist offering me an appointment that afternoon. It was an initial consult, priced at 170 pounds. Appropriately, the doctor was located near Baker Street, the old solving grounds of detective/part time coke sniffer Sherlock Holmes (read “The Yellow Face” for cokeheaded goodness).
The hematologist and I labored through many of the same questions I’d been through with other docs. At least she stayed wake while I gave my answers.

She had me remove my shirt and handed me a gown to preserve my much cherished modesty. The gown did nothing to cover me up. It was as transparent as a white person namedropping MLK.

While looking me over, she kept reiterating: “You really are pale.” As I’ve mentioned, since coming to London, multiple strangers have approached me and asked, "Are you all right?" One even strongly encouraged me to sit down, (though she probably didn’t want it to be next to her). That happens when you look like Casper the Friendly Corpse.

When all was said and done, the hematologist’s best guess was something called polymyalgia rheumatica, though she admitted what should have been one of the key indicators in my earlier bloodwork had come up normal. She ordered another round of tests and told me not to leave the hospital without getting my blood drawn.

I said adios to several more tubes of blood and went to pay. The bill I was given contained nothing but a few hieroglyphics, and I am not an Egyptologist. I was told I had to go to another building to pay the unreadable bill. Two buildings, one bill. Two buildings, one bill. I know I said that already, but I didn't have time at the hospital to take a deep breath and count to ten. I am doing that now...

Once inside the second building, I handed King Tut's Lost Medical Diary to the cashier. I was delighted to discover it translated into a charge of £462. And that was just for the bloodwork. I am to be invoiced later for the £170 consult fee.

I should know the results this week. If the hematologist is correct, the condition should be treatable with steroids (not the Barry Bonds kind, though those would come in handy right now), and I will begin the program within days. Individual results may vary, but my research says the process could last up to two years. Although this diagnosis wouldn't exactly be good news, I am in the strange position of half rooting for it, so that at least I'll know what I'm up against.

And no, what does not kill me isn’t going to make me stronger. But seeing that this is one of the pet phrases of middlebrow optimists, I am bound to hear it soon. That this line is linked with Nietzsche has even given it currency among people who should know better.

Grave setbacks don't make you stronger. They make you weaker. Do you see marathon winners purposely rolling their ankles during training to help them win the big race? Know many ballerinas who don a neck brace along with their leotard to give them that all important edge? People looking to excel take protein shakes, not chemo. But much like its cousin, the broken window fallacy in economics, the myth of rising from the ashes as some sort of superphoenix never seems to fade away. By the way, here's something else Nietzsche said: If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Speaking of weakness, I’m now having constant biting spasms all over my body. It feels like I’m being pinched by an invisible lobster. The worst spasms are those now making guest appearances on the bottom of my feet.

The spells of immobilizing fatigue are coming more often. I keep finding it necessary to rest on stairwells, to lean against walls, and to scout for places to sit, even after the mildest activity. My train station is 10 minutes from my flat. Sunday night I barely made it home, and fell through the door winded and without an ounce of strength left in my body.

I feel stronger already!