Misc. Notes 1/3/2023

I learned a lot yesterday:

Rick Beato’s podcast with music historian Ted Gioia was enlightening throughout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qM4MsEl8avug

Gioia is a vibrant conversationalist who is knowledgeable in domains other than music. His ideas about music intersect with his knowledge of finance, literature, and technology. I found his explanation of the importance of the blues being a mixture of Western and African music especially interesting; and he also mentioned this country song Louie Armstrong recorded with Jimmie Rodgers in 1930 called ‘Blue Yodel #9’ (performed here in the last year of his life with Johnny Cash on The Johnny Cash Show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUeHlyDNki0 — Louie Armstrong playing country, who would’ve thought?

When talking about innovation generally I liked Ted’s toss-off line, “People are always happy with what they’ve got.” He said it in relation to the Steve Jobs quote that “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” but it struck me as an observation even more elemental to human psychology. Taken together, the two quotes complete each other because of course we are satisfied with whatever we happen to have because the alternatives are either out of reach or not a priority.

Another interesting YouTube video I watched was ‘NATO’s biggest weakness is Scotland’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph5H0YFxbJI I’ve been enjoying RealLifeLore’s in-depth realpolitik explanations of what is going on between NATO and Russia right now. His analysis offers information I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else.

The video discusses Scotland’s precarious position as part of the United Kingdom and the strategic waters in the Atlantic that hang in the balance if Scotland votes to split off from Britain and thus NATO. This complicates my gut reaction because normally I would be happy for Scotland to have the opportunity to leave the UK.

EDIT 1/10: This video is a good rebuttal assuming Scotland leaving the UK wouldn’t actually permanently change anything.

I got strange enjoyment from reading the inscriptions in these Louis L’Amour books for sale individually at a used book store. From 1990-96 some woman regularly bought her young son a leather-bound L’Amour western novel and wrote him a note about how she was feeling about him at that particular moment. All together between the 53 volumes, these heartfelt notes read as a thrilling story about a young man doing poorly in high school, trying alcohol, crashing his dad’s pickup truck, friend’s girlfriend dying under unclear circumstances in 1992, joining the Marines; and a mother’s unconditional but always tested love for her son.

Every book a note every note a story.

Would have purchased if I had the shelf space or the appetite for 50 westerns by the same author!

‘The Status Game’ Introduction + 1.


The thesis of the book is stated clearly on the first page: “Life is a game.”

“As a tribal species, our personal survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. Powerful emotions compel us to connect: the joy of belongingness and agony of rejection. But once inside a group, we’re rarely content to flop about on its lower rungs. We seek to rise. When we do, and receive acclaim from our people, we feel as if our lives have meaning and purpose and that we’re thriving…So we’re programmed to seek connection and rank: to be accepted into groups and win status within them. It’s part of our nature. It’s the game of human life.

“These games form our identity. We become the games we play.

Our need for status gives us a thirst for rank and a fear of losing it that deforms our thinking and denies us the possibility of reliable happiness.”

“Status is what researchers call an ‘ultimate’ rather than a ‘proximate’ drive: it’s a kind of mother-motivation, a deep evolutionary cause of many other downstream beliefs and behaviors that’s been favored by selection and is written into the design of our brains.”


The chapter uses the example of Ben Gunn, a man who was in prison for a murder he committed as a juvenile, to show how people will seek to preserve their accumulated status even if the conditions that enable it are absolutely miserable. He was eligible for parole several times and deliberately sabotaged his own release because the purposes he’d built his life in prison around over 30 years would be meaningless to the outside world. “‘I’d go from being a medium fish in a small pond to just another ex-con.’” 

Inside, he was a respected jailhouse lawyer. “Ben would help other prisoners fight the system, sometimes tying officers up for months with densely argued appeals to the most trivial misdemeanor charges. He became notorious with the officials.”

“When freedom means expulsion from the meaning you’ve spent your life making, then freedom is hell.”    

More generally, we all seek status in our own ways even if we hesitate to admit this ultimate motivation is what fuels our interests. “It contradicts the heroic story we like to tell of ourselves…[Proximate motivations] are an essential impulse that’s been selected by evolution and laid down in the wiring of our brains.” The group or the place, even the scale, matters little; people will cling onto status and meaning where they can find it.

“If our need for status is fundamental, this discomfort we feel about admitting it may seem surprising. But we tend to believe the brain’s heroic story, not the subconscious realpolitik of the game. To admit to being motivated by improving our rank risks making others think less of us, which loses us rank. Even admitting to ourselves can make us feel reduced. So our awareness of our desire for status eats itself.”

Our ultimate goals are easily obscured by our proximate needs. However, feeling connected to a community is essential for individual flourishing.

“Whenever we’re in the presence of humans, consciously or unconsciously, we’re being judged, measured. And their judgments matter. Wherever psychologists look, they find a remarkably powerful link between status and well-being…Attainment of status or its loss was ‘the strongest predictor of long-term positive and negative feelings.”

Our First Image of an Alien Solar System

This image, captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the star TYC 8998-760-1 accompanied by two giant exoplanets, TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c. The two planets are visible as two bright dots in the center (TYC 8998-760-1b) and bottom right (TYC 8998-760-1c) of the frame. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are visible in the image as well. By taking different images at different times, the team were able to distinguish these planets from the background stars.   

This is the first time astronomers have directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar in size to the Sun. Although astronomers have found thousands of exoplanets, most aren’t observed directly. Instead they are spotted as shadows crossing in front of their stars, or inferred as unseen forces tugging at their stars. The star, called TYC 8998-760-1, is about 300 light-years away in the constellation Musca.

This solar system is presumed to be comparably young, having been formed an estimated 17 million years ago, and the two visible orbiting planets are 14 and six times the size of Jupiter.

Did Hitler And Churchill Ever Meet?

I was surprised to learn from his book The Coming Storm that Winston Churchill had never met Hitler face-to-face. However, they came close early on when Hitler was rising to power. Churchill was touring Germany in the summer of 1932 and throughout his visit he “sensed a Hitler atmosphere. As we wended our way through these beautiful regions from one ancient, famous city to another, I naturally asked questions about the Hitler movement, and found it the prime topic in every German mind.”

A man named Herr Hanfstaengl was a mutual friend of the two men and was eager to arrange a meeting. “However, in the course of conversation with Hanfstaengl, I happened to say ‘Why is your chief so violent about the Jews. I can quite understand being angry with Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I understand resisting them if they try to monopolize power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth? How can any man help how he is born?'”

“He must have repeated this to Hitler, because about noon the next day he came round with a rather serious air and said the appointment he had made with me to meet Hitler could not take place.”

“Later on, when he was all-powerful, I was to receive several invitations from him. But by that time a lot had happened, and I excused myself.”

How Many Vicodin and Oxy Pills Does it Take to Make a Crisis?




‘Internal drug company emails show indifference to opioid epidemic’ —Washington Post

I’ve read a lot about America’s opiate crisis over the past few years. However, this particular article put a few things in perspective for me that I’d missed before. First of all was the number of pills sold: 76 BILLION pills over ten years between 2006-2016. A CVS pharmacy in Norton, VA is pictured that received 1.3 million opioid pills during that time (population: 4,000).

The corporate malfeasance at every level is good fodder for moral outrage but the sheer numbers of pills shipped is outrageous to think about. It reminds me of these old Rolling Stone lyrics that succinctly encapsulate the struggle of opiate addiction:


Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind a rough
Yeah, and the codeine to fix it
Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies
Who’s gonna help him to kick it?

—Rolling Stones, Torn & Frayed, 1972


Opiate Deaths

Strategies to Improve Practice

Cal Newport published a short blog detailing his friend Jeremy’s strategies for becoming excellent at practicing piano. I’m reposting them here for inspiration in thinking about how to get better at guitar:

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake.Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”

‘The Passionate State of Mind’ by Eric Hoffer


Available on Amazon


“One does not really love mankind when one expects too much from them.”


Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) was a sociologist who was consumed by the power within each individual to strive for good or ill. He speaks of the psychology of mass movements and the turmoil within the individual with a depth of understanding of and sympathy for mankind.  “Our quarrel with the world is an echo of the endless quarrel proceeding within us. The revolutionary agitator must first start a war in every soul before he can find recruits for his war with the world.” 


Eric Hoffer would have been great on Twitter. Below are my favorite insights of his (Bolded sentences are ones I found particularly enlightening):

Continue reading

Documentary: I Am Not Your Negro

—James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary that uses words of James Baldwin (1924-1987) to narrate the events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. It tells the story of activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. but in doing so tells a much bigger story.

The larger story Baldwin’s words tell is one of alienation in modern life and the failure of that elusive American Dream to come true for so many citizens. Of course, the movie is about race but it’s couched in a more general dissatisfaction with the way people in America are incentivized to live and think.

Cut in with the historic film reels from 50 years ago is footage of recent events. To see the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri protests contrasted with footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the Rodney King beating in 1991 gives the history of America’s race relations the sense of a hopeless treadmill.

Throughout the film, James Baldwin speaks with such profound eloquence about the disappointments of modern life that whether or not you agree with him you are forced to wrestle with his provocative statements. He is a man driven to tell his story and describe the world as he sees it. His voice is compelling.

This documentary raises more questions than it answers, such as: Is there a hollowness at the core of modern American life that allows bigotry to fester? Collectively, would we rather deny this emptiness and carry on with vapid entertainments and theme park amusements? How can we address the disparity in outcome between black and white Americans that runs so far back in history? The answers this film provides is the cathartic therapy that can be found in probing these questions with Baldwin’s wise guidance.

This is the most accessible entry point I’ve encountered into Baldwin’s work. In the past, I’d attempted to read a book of essays and criticism several years ago and felt like I was missing the context for understanding what he was talking about. But here, his intellect and sympathy is on full display and it feels more relevant than ever. I think what he is searching for beyond a way to transcend the infernal tensions of race relations in America is to understand the universal pain of being a human in the modern world. What, after all, does it mean to be an American? We are all the benefactors of such amazing collective wealth. The question lingers as to how we can be responsible citizens while acknowledging our debts to those who came before? Moreover, to each other.

Here are his words from the film that most haunted me:

“I have always been struck in America by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.

This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black-white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves they never would have become so dependent on what they call the ‘Negro problem’.”


“Someone once said to me that the people in general cannot bear very much reality. He meant by this that they prefer fantasy to a truthful recreation of their experience. People have quite enough reality to bear by simply getting through their lives; raising their children, dealing with the eternal conundrums of birth, taxes, and death.

“What I’m trying to say to this country, to us, is that we must know this, we must realize this, that no other country in the world has been so fat, and so sleek, and so happy and so irresponsible, and so dead. No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife, and a house with a fence, and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, and then to marry and have the house, and Plymouth, and so forth.

A great many people do not live this way and they cannot imagine it, and do not know that when we talk about ‘democracy’ that this is what we mean.”


“This is the formula for a nation or a kingdom decline. For no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone. Force does not work the way its advocates think in fact it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of the adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness-even the panic-of the adversary. And this revelation invests the victim with passion.

“The American way of life has failed to make people happier or make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula that can be corrected. That the bottomless and aimless hostility that makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created and felt by a handful of aberrants, that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction of personal authority proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic.”

Indeed, this film isn’t easy to watch but it is certainly a powerful statement.

Movie trailer:

James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William Buckley, Jr. (spirited and rational discourse like you’ll never see on 21st century TV)

The Chilling Effect of Fake News As Isolationist Propaganda


Vacant minds For Rent

“There’s a tendency to assume that our political leaders are masters of their message. But what we see from Miller, Abbott, and others suggests that the tail may actually be wagging the dog. They seem to enjoy spreading memes and sharing stories that fire up their base, but the ease with which they’re taken in by fake quotes and photoshopped images suggests that they’re not so much the people pulling the strings as they are the audience for string-pulling, whether they be created by lulz-seeking users on message boards or foreign agents. It’s alarming when the people behaving like any other sucker on the Internet are in high office, blithely sharing things that are compatible with their worldview—even if those things have been carefully fabricated to support it.

‘A Brief History of Texas Officials Falling for Fake Memes’, Dan Solomon

This article from Texas Monthly is instructive for me in thinking about the social media ‘censorship’ debate sparked by the removal of Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify’s removal of Austin-based Infowars from their services. Platform banning has proved to be an effective way of silencing voices who attract mass attention. However, the benefits may be temporary since the misdirected outrage that these divisive figureheads harness still smolders among the body politic. And someone new is always coming along to exploit it.

But what happens when your elected officials are falling for the same outrage memes? It may be one thing to pass paranoid delusions around with your friends but the situation passes another landmark in absurdity when your government officials are making decisions based on the fake narratives filling their heads and newsfeeds?

What made democracies strong in the past — a strong commitment to free speech and the free exchange of ideas — makes them profoundly vulnerable in the era of democratized propaganda and rampant misinformation.

Renee DiResta

It’s hard to believe that Texas is being run by people who believe deliberate fabrications about the nature of reality. If they don’t believe this stuff literally, it’s chilling to think they cynically deploy these memes as a power play to unite and rile their political base. To these politicians, are these incendiary memes simply instruments of retaining power? After all, ‘Vote for me or die’ is the most powerful of all campaign messages.

And personally, I shrug at the paternalism angle because I know better than to expose myself to this nonsense. Banning peddlers of falsehoods cannot save us from destructive worldviews. But as long as facts are invented to manipulate people’s emotions and then spread virally through social media networks then democracy as it was originally conceived will be impossible. Sound decision making requires accurate information about the world and so an informed citizenry is a necessary prerequisite for making the right collective decisions.

Still, an important question to ask is what would cause a significant portion of grown-ups to give up on reality. Are these people stupid or angry? Are their needs as a citizen being neglected? I would have to say that it runs deeper than ignorance vs. enlightenment. I also hesitate to chalk it all up to greed, ignorance, or racism. There is a strange tribalism going on where people are signaling their membership of a group by paying fealty to outrageous lies and ruinous policy decisions.

I’ve heard it said that every country gets the government it deserves but this is an embarrassing low.


It’s true because it feels true. Even though it’s false.

Further Reading

With Alex Jones, Facebook’s Worst Demons Abroad Begin to Come HomeNew York Times:

The problem, he said, goes beyond a few underregulated extremists. It also involves the algorithm-driven newsfeed that is core to the company’s business model. ‘They are blind to seeing the real repercussions,’ Mr. Dissanayake said of Facebook’s leaders.

The Quislings of American CollapseMedium:

People don’t betray their own tribes or families or countries unless, usually, they feel betrayed themselves. And so I think that these men feel deeply betrayed. Not just because they are “becoming a minority” and so on. But because they are the most downwardly mobile of all. White men in this group are the ones in society who have the biggest gap between the life they expected — and the life they live. They expected to live like their fathers — comfortable, stable lives where they sat atop old systems of racism, greed, oppression, and misogyny. But those systems have cracked apart, too, as America has collapsed. Everybody’s life is falling apart, more or less, unless you’re Jeff Bezos.

Presented here is the idea that online common spaces should be held accountable for absurd bloviations and distortions of common truth. Even though I said that I was agnostic about ‘censorship’ I do believe we should hold these companies to a higher standard since they dictate the content of an ever-increasing share of our daily lives.