Cognitive Dissonance

Two things I’m finding confusing right now:

1. Taste dissonance: grapes and raisins. Given that grapes and raisins are practically the same thing, you would expect their tastes to be complementary. So why is the experience of eating one and then the other in rapid succession so unappetizing? Try it for yourself– it’s surprisingly bad.

2. Not-so-fundamental nature of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. The Fundamental Attribution Error is super cool-sounding. But the phenomenon it describes isn’t really all that fundamental: basically, if you step in poop, I’m likely to assume that it happened because you’re the kind of person who steps in poop, whereas if I do it, I’m likely to assume that its because the poop was poorly placed. This reflects an interesting bias, but it’s not like the phenomenon crops up all that often.

To me, it seems to me that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ would better describe the phenomenon where somebody mistakes a symptom of a situation for its cause. For example: lots of people are having accidents, and there are lots of ambulances on the streets– therefore, the ambulances must be causing the accidents. This comes up more often than the step-in-poop phenomenon described above, if you ask me.

I wonder if people who work in various fields of social science are secretly miffed that ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ got scooped up and used before they had a chance to claim it for whatever mistake-tendency they happen to be researching.

(Image: Josef Muller-Brockmann poster designed for public service campaign against noise pollution. Actually has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance, but works nicely together so long as you don’t speak German).

New Year’s Resolution Scorecard

People generally express surprise whenever I mention that I’m a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I guess the thinking is that, being a coastal elite / leering smartass, I’m supposed to express contempt towards this type of conventional, pokey idealism. Au contraire! (as we coastal elites say)– self-improvement is a fucking bitch, so it makes sense to approach it in a structured manner that provides a framework of manageable expectations: tackle one or two big things per year… otherwise just stay the course and don’t change a thing. Seems like sound advice to me. Also, the fact that you get a year to accomplish your goals seems like a reasonable timeframe– you get a few months of procrastination, then a productive sense of urgency kicks in around October to finish the job.

Not that I have anything like an unblemished record with my resolutions, but there have been a few winners over the years. Here are my resolutions for this year, plus a few notable hits and misses from the recent past:

1. Chew food more before swallowing (2008)
Status: closed

OK, this one was partly tongue-in-cheek. I admit that I came up with it the day before New Year’s, and that the idea came from watching a Suzanne Somers (shown above with Thighmaster) infomercial. But it’s a good one that I legitimately recommend. You truly enjoy your food more, plus its a zen easy-to-do-but-hard-to-remember type thing that poses an interesting challenge of behavior modification.

2. Learn to drive stick (2010, 2011)
Status: open

I failed on this one last year and am officially rolling it over to this year. Yes, I actually presently own a car that I’m not able to drive. I feel that this fact is literally more humiliating and inconveniencing to me than every single other embarrassing aspect of my life combined.

3. Get involved in book cover design (2006, 2007, 2008)
Status: sort of closed, but still kind of waiting

This one was notable in that it took me three tries and a move to Europe to accomplish (I remain convinced that this goal would have unattainable in San Francisco– worming my way into the doings of a cool small press would be like trying to become a veterinarian in terms of the level of competition one would face in that city. Meanwhile, in Prague, if you have a creative idea, you’re quite likely the only person who’s thought of it…) Finally, I made good on this (see here, here and here), although I’m still waiting for the projects to be published. So, maybe there’s hope yet for me to learn stick.

4. Wreak revenge on Mission Mission for dropping me from their blog roll (2011)
Status: open

At some point over the summer, Mission Mission unaccountably dropped me from their blog roll. I say ‘unaccountably’ because, if they were generally pruning down their blog roll and only leaving blogs of the highest quality, I would understand… but, in fact, they’ve kept all kinds of lame things up there that haven’t been updated in months, or are super self-indulgent and crappy, etc. Granted, this resolution is only half-serious, as I do still love Mission Mission. But I’m also a small and petty man in many ways. So, watch out, Mission Mission: If I ever learn how to drive stick, there’ll be no stopping me and my vindictive score-settling.


Update: OK, blog roll link has since been reinstated. Apparently, it was deleted by accident.

The Julius Peppers Challenge

Who’s got the coolest-sounding name in America? Why, NFL standout defensive end Julius Peppers, that’s who. I was having a rare football interlude last night and Peppers was involved, causing my name envy to be suddenly rekindled.

In 2004, Peppers starred for the Carolina Panthers, who were playing my beloved New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXVIII. I let it be known then that if the Panthers somehow prevailed (they didn’t), I would legally change my name to Julius Peppers as an homage. Now I’m willing to revive that offer for Peppers’ 2010 Bears. Who’s with me?

The Comenian Islands

Living in a small European nation, there are often times when I feel that I’m missing out by not living in a larger European nation, one with more historical prominence and cultural relevance. For instance: I don’t even know how the Czech national anthem goes. It’s half-surprising there even is one anymore, after centuries of pummeling from foreign neighbors. Somehow, I don’t think I’d have this problem if I lived in France or Germany. And it would be nice if mentioning where you live brought to mind a deserving historical figure than Jaromir Jagr for the average listener. Even if it was one as belittling/reviled as Peppy Le Peu or Adolf Hitler– still, it would be an improvement.

But most of all, I feel I’m missing out by not living in country with a colonial legacy. Um, not that I’m into colonialism, per se– heck, it’s responsible for all sorts of bad things. But from a sheer present-day travel perspective, it would be fantastically entertaining if we could jump on a plane during these cold winter months and taking a lengthy flight to some distant Caribbean island with a poignant connection to the Czech lands. I imagine local guys wearing white sweaters and playing cricket while speaking in an island patois variant of Czech. Jerk goulash. A mysterious, enduring tradition of giving male children traditional Czech names like Jaroslav and Svatopluk.

In all likelihood, this island– if it existed– would be named after Charles IV, like everything in Czech. But let’s pretend that they throw us a curve ball this time and name it after the third-most historically noteworthy Czech, Jan Komensky. ‘The Comenian Islands’ have a nice ring. (Komensky fun facts: generally regarded as ‘the father of modern education’… was allegedly asked to become an early president of Harvard University… pops up in a Rembrandt painting… attempted to invent a language in which false statements are impossible).

My unreliable sources inform me that there actually a brief flickering moment where the possibility of the Comenian Islands could have become a reality: at some point in the 90s (sic?), Croatia owed Czech a ton of money, and the idea was briefly floated of the debt being paid off by Croatia handing over one of its innumerable islands. Unfortunately, they seemed to have come to their senses (or perhaps this never happened– I’ve been totally unable to confirm it). I think the group that gives up the island for cash always winds up regretting it down the road.

My favorite-ever parent-child relationship in the annals of colonialism is definitely Denmark and Greenland. Like a tiny parent walking down the street with its Augustus Gloop-sized offspring, there’s a delicious size juxtaposition at work here in this relationship. One salient fact that I think is often overlooked is the fact that Greenland and Denmark are actually similar in shape, despite the massive difference in scale (shown below with the Faroe islands, to complete the formidable ‘Danish Commonwealth’):

I would love it if the two were somehow exactly the same shape, in some sort of unparalleled geological and political coincidence.

If Van Morrison is a Jerk, Does That Make "Brown-Eyed Girl" Any Worse?

I recently came upon this interesting interview with Greil Marcus where he talks about his new book on Van Morrison. I’ve always liked but not loved Van Morrison, so I’m not about to run out to buy the book, but I was very interested in how, in the interview, Marcus espoused a form of musical analysis that seems comparable to New Criticism, the old school (mid-20th century) style of literary criticism that they taught at Dan and my high school. In short, it was all about the close reading of texts as self-contained entities, with no regard whatsoever for the biography of the author or, really, any other context. It turned out to be a great way to be introduced to the study of literature, and I’ve always felt that the rigorous training in such close reading has served me well in various other endeavors, including my eventual career as a lawyer.

I no longer believe that such analysis is the end-point for understanding a given work of art, but I’ve puzzled for years over the question of how to determine the meaning of music, which, lyrics aside, is so much more abstract in “form” than any other sort of creative work.

So, anyhow, I was intrigued to see Marcus explaining, somewhat passionately, how he didn’t give a damn what was behind Van Morrison’s classic songs, and whether there was a real “Madame George” or not, and how basically irrelevant such context is to “true” appreciation of the music. I found myself drawn to this approach as a way of helping to explain how a song’s “feel” can be so powerful, even if the words are just “Sweet Thing” over and over again or whatever.

This topic was particularly relevant to Marcus’ work on Van Morrison, I gather, because Van Morrison is this legendary despicable, hateful guy – although to be honest, that doesn’t actually strike me as all that surprising given his music, although I can’t say exactly why.

But then a little bit later in the interview Marcus seems to contradict himself 100% without recognizing it. He talks about this long “dead period” where Morrison failed to produce any decent music, from about 1980 to 1997. And then he analogizes it to a similar dead period for Dylan, which he cites Dylan himself as identifying as stretching from his post-John Wesley Harding recordings (1968) all the way until the early ‘90s:

“Essentially, that entire period — that’s a long time — was worthless, was searching for something that would give him a reason to sing, faking it the whole time. Any Bob Dylan fan would say, ‘Oh, what about Blood on the Tracks or ‘Blind Willie McTell’, that great song he didn’t even release in 1983? I loved Desire, Under the Red Sky. How could you dismiss all that?’ Well, because he knew how he felt singing those songs, making those records.”

Notice the contradiction? Suddenly the “value” of the songs is very much tied up in how the author “felt” while making them – whereas moments before Marcus was espousing this New Critical, context-less analysis of the music. And he even goes on to say that when an audience embraces music that the artist “knows” to be phoney, “it can only breed contempt for the audience. If the people who supposedly care about your work can’t tell the good from the bad, can’t tell the real from the false, why should you have respect for them at all?”

So much for the professed disinterest in where the songs came from. I can’t say that I was really surprised by this turnaround – as much as I always loved Marcus’ ability to capture the “feel” of a song in words, his writings always seemed more about mythologizing the performers than about getting away from them.


Dan adds: I wonder if this New Criticism / Greil Marcus method of analysis can be applied to blogging as well? In particular, I hope it will be invoked to redeem the long “dead period” that I’m anticipating taking place in my own blogging between 2012- 2025.

The Birthday Post, Part Two

This blog has a proud tradition whereby, anytime it’s my birthday, I’m allowed to drop the usual contrived charade of trying to contextualize whatever it is I want to write about and just present it as is. Thus…

Once my friend and I were watching the The Silence of the Lambs and commenting on how riveting the acting is in exchanges like this one between Anthony Hopkins and Jody Foster (click image for clip):

Suddenly, we got preoccupied by trying to image the worst two actors to cast for the role, those whose talents (or lack thereof) would most detract from the dramatic suspense. “Heather Locklear…” my friend suggested. “… And William Shatner!” I countered. I wish I had the time. energy and savvy to create a knock-off version of the above clip with Hannibal Lecter’s lines delivered in Shatner’s halting, hammy, melodramatic delivery: “THE SILENCE……….. of the lambs”.

Similarly, the only time I went to Burning Man (2004), we dutifully trooped over to watch the Man being burned, but found it off-puttingly sanctimonious and high-handed (again, click for clip):

Particularly, the new-agey, nouveau-Tibetan music being played in the background seemed to be laying it on a bit thick. After a while, to lighten the mood, we started discussing what would be the most inappropriate, mood-ruining music to pipe in through thousands of mega-watts, eventually settling on “The Heat Is On” by Glenn Fry. Subsequently, we discovered that people at Burning Man really, really don’t like it if you continuously shriek with laughter while the Man is being burned.

So, there’s my birthday wish for this year: some personal, metaphysical YouTube where these two clips exist side-by-side.

Jazz 78s, part two and unrelated ranting

• Looks like I spoke too soon about my back. After victoriously crowing about it feeling entirely better on Monday, I screwed it up again on Tuesday playing basketball. Not good times. Bad times.

• To follow up on an old post: my buddy Tol is blowing through Prague this week and reports having heard that Zoltan Rex is out of jail now. Might just be a false rumor, but three years in a Hungarian prison seems about right as appropriate punishment for faking your own death.

• By sheer coincidence, my father’s cousin and mother’s cousin were both visiting Prague last weekend, giving me a chance for some quality time with the ol’ cousins-once-removed.

This got me pondering my own weirdo family tree a bit: my father’s side of the family is Jewish, but my own distinct branch bears little evidence of this because my father’s mother was a social climber who found it inconvenient to be Jewish in the Manhattan of the 1940s and essentially smothered all consciousness of it in our family. What’s interesting is that members of the family who don’t descend from this dubious grandmother seem discernibly Jewish, whereas my father and I don’t (even though my father is no more or less Jewish racially than they are). It’s strange how the awareness of being something (or lack of awareness) can seemingly alter one’s very physiognomy. They should do one of those experiments where they take two identical twins and raise one with an awareness of being Jewish and the other without and see what happens (whoops, I just used ‘experiment’ and ‘Jewish’ in the same sentence– let’s just move on…)

• It’s become clear that the train ride from Budapest to Prague is Central Europe’s 9 hour version of the 14 Mission bus line in SF. If you take it at night from Prague to Budapest, they stuff you into old commie-era trains that have seats like slippery church pews, so you spend the entire night groggily sliding around as the old train SCREETCHES around curves, whinnying like a terrified horse in a lightning storm. In the daytime, meanwhile, the air conditioning inevitably breaks down, amidst other sundry horrors: when I last rode it, I personally witnessed an organized purse snatching; when one of the cousins-once-removed took it last week, the guy sitting next to her had an epileptic seizure in the middle of the air-conditionless heat. To my undying amazement, my cousin suddenly remembered her training from 5th grade home room and stuck a pencil in her hand into the guy’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue.

• Imagine if there was a rare condition that caused your head hair to take on the wiry roughness of body hair and your body hair to take on the fluffy lustrousness of head hair. That would be disgusting.

OK, here’s another round of those vintage jazz 78s I was talking about. I love the Harold Owens Hawaii one in particular…

More subtle condescension techniques

Two new undermining tactics I’ve come up with (the first I’ve put into practice, but the second is too combustible and so far exists in theory only):

1. Deliberately misjudge or question the gender of a person you’re communicating with by email (or any other internet-fueled written medium of discourse). This one came in handy recently in the comments section of JohnnyO’s blog, when a fairly asinine reader kept making troll-ish comments and basically being a nuisance. I wrote a comment sort of subtly poking fun at this person, but the key was constantly referring to him as ‘him/her’ or ‘he/she’ when it was clearly obvious both from his handle and his writing style that it was a he we were dealing with. He replied with a huffy diatribe that ended with ‘I’m a he, by the way!!’. Mission Subtly Undermine = accomplished.

It became clear to me how subtly undermining it can be to have your gender misapprehended when my best friend fell of his bike when we were 12 years old. My friend had long-ish hair and was at that humiliating not-quite-to-puberty point when it’s possible to be mistaken for a girl. Anyway, he wiped out on his bike, landed hard and broke his collarbone. As he was writhing on the pavement gasping for air, a good samaritan guy arrived and started shouting out, “Call for help! This little girl is hurt! She can’t get up!”. My friend was desperately trying to wheeze, “I’m a boy!” but couldn’t manage it. Bad times!

2. Anytime you call someone and reach their voicemail, quickly jot down their entire spoken outgoing message. Then, when it’s time to leave a message, recite back their outgoing message but in a high-pitched, whiny, mocking voice. I bet you could alienate every single friend with voicemail and perhaps entirely wipe clear your social slate by doing this for a month or so.

See also: Subtle condescension techniques

Designated 'Roid Guy

Everyone knows that Major League Baseball has hosed itself with its mismanagement of the steroid problem. Purists can no longer innocently compare players from different eras when the late ’90s and early ’00s were conspicuously full of wily middle infielders who suddenly showed up with 50 extra pounds of muscle, a plague of tics and 40-home-run power. Idealistic fans feel betrayed for having emotionally invested themselves in the doings of cheaters. What’s worse — but rarely discussed — is that the few fans who aren’t offended by what happened during the steroid era are bored by what’s happening now that the game’s been cleaned up. In Bill Simmons’ recent mailbag column on,  a reader named Mark from Baltimore sums it up perfectly:

So I was at an O’s versus Yanks game the other day and an Orioles rep was going around asking fans questions, and one of them asked me what I thought the O’s needed to do to improve this year. I said, “They need to get Miguel Tejada back on the steroids so he can blast 40 home runs like the good old days.” They did not think that was funny.

Baseball– let’s face it– is a fairly boring game, and (health issues aside) it’s clearly more entertaining to have guys doing steroids, blasting home runs, donning togas and lying to congress than not doing these things, especially if your team stinks.

My solution to this is to bring steroids back into the game, rather than trying futilely to sweep them under the rug as MLB has been pathetically attempting for the past few years. But you have to bring it back in a controlled way. So, each team should be allowed to have ONE guy do steroids. It’s the evolutionary descendant of the Designated Hitter– we already have the DH, now we’ll add the DRG (Designated ‘Roid Guy). This way the comical/enraged foibles of the steroid user will be reintroduced to the game, but in a contained way such that the culture of ‘roiding wouldn’t overrun the sport again.

As a bonus, imagine the strategic wrinkles that the DRG would add to the game. If you’re the Red Sox front office, for example, do you tag David Ortiz as your DRG (the obvious choice– hopefully, he suddenly recovers his 04-07 power)… or, do you take a chance on Adrian Beltre, who put up one of the most obviously steroid-inflated stat lines in 2004 (.629 SLG, 48 HR all in Dodger Stadium in what JUST HAPPENED to be a walk year before hitting free agency)? Moreover, let’s assume MLB screws up the implementation of the new rule and adds it to just one league and not the other, like they did with the DH. Suddenly, you’d have teams furiously ‘roiding up a guy and then de-‘roiding him in preparation for interleague play and the World Series. Finally, there would be the comedy of inept GMs making dumb choices and squandering the DRG rule. I can just imagine the Pittsburgh GM using the DRG tag on somebody like the diminutive David Eckstein and being all surprised when it doesn’t work.


[ed note: this week, I’m back visiting my old haunts in San Francisco]

Whenever I’m back visiting, it strikes me that one way to think about the Mission is: if there’s a platonic ideal of the Person Who Lives In the Mission, that person is 28. Most everyone I see who’s younger than 28 has adopted an air of being a bit older, while my friends (all of whom are now older than 28) go to great measures– sometimes desperate– to manifest a sense of youthfulness. 28 seems to be the spiritual age that everyone’s trying to converge on.

I always remember, too, that the years when I was about 27-29 were the years when I was least conscious of being any particular age, which generally signals that you’re in a good place vis-a-vis your surroundings.