A Minor Issue with Some Grits

I went to make myself some grits on Friday night for dinner. As the water was boiling, I pulled the container out of the pantry and noticed that the plastic ziploc bag was neither air-tight nor water-tight as it was supposed to be. This turned out to be a problem where, for at least ten seconds, I considered whether the grits were still salvageable because, after all, people in India wouldn’t waste food. I determined that reclaiming the bottom third of a $2.89 box of grits was not worth whatever dire ailments might ensue.

Then, it turned out there was a similar issue with what we thought was a tightly-sealed container of steel-cut oats. Crumbs. Mildew.  As we unearthed a few more containers, my wife said, “Do you remember that problem we had with water damage a few years back?”

Uh-oh. That was quite a few years back, during the great recession if I recall, when I was out of work for a short spell, and we were moving money around to pay for a leak that required rebuilding and replastering the wall at the back of the hall closet which is on the other side of…. Oh, the pantry.

Well, these things happen, a small problem that you dig under, and suddenly it’s a large problem. Half of a Saturday gets devoted to cleaning out and assessment, followed by trips to the hardware store, powering up the Black and Decker tools, consultations with experts i.e. your DIY friends and the internet, and half of Sunday, and all of it far more involved than you planned for.

Continue reading “A Minor Issue with Some Grits”

How to Get Away with Binge-Watching

20170913 group How-to-get-away-with-murder

I didn’t grow up binge-watching shows. I grew up waiting for the final episode of M*A*S*H* and speculating over an entire summer about Who Shot JR? But in a day and age when there are hundreds of shows, both current and past, and with libraries helpfully stocking entire seasons and series, it is a distinct and guilty pleasure to watch an entire season. When a courtroom/ detective show bucks, twists, and turns like a raft down the Colorado River, it almost has to be watched in a handful of sittings. At least, that was my sense from enjoying the first season of How to Get Away With Murder.

In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
–Stanley Kunitz, The Testing Tree

Why murder mysteries? We humans have such a penchant for mysteries with all the books, movies, and television shows! I believe I’ve been shown more dead bodies over the years than your average homicide detective. Lucky for me, I’ve never seen a real murder in person. Knock wood, let’s keep it that way. We need our escapist entertainment. This was a particularly good week to divert attention and keep the mind off giant hurricanes barreling towards family members.

Before going further, it must be said, How to Get Away with Murder is a flawed show. Every episode included close-ups of characters ripping their clothes off — not just euphemistically — but literally pulling down pants and whatnot.  I like a good lusty heyho as much as the next person, but not every half hour and not when it gets in the way of the dead bodies falling. Plus, nearly always in public? What’s up with that? “How did you know we were having an affair?” various characters ask. Well, gee, the parking lot, your car on the street, the pub’s bathroom…how could I not know?

That is the beauty of binge-watching, though. Fast forward and move on. And suspend your disbelief. Forget that these are law students and lawyers committing acts of legal foolishness or relying on rules that don’t occur in the real legal world. I object, Your Honor, law school students wouldn’t be working on current real cases or be told to miss other classes in order to watch one teacher in court. Fast forward and move on. Suspend your disbelief.  As Henry James said, “Grant them their donnee.” Take the premise that this is a juicy potboiler of a murder mystery. You’re going to have some ridiculous conversations and plot twists. Move on. Continue reading “How to Get Away with Binge-Watching”

I Didn’t See That Coming

Why don’t we anticipate large scale events better? Giant hurricanes (again, the 3rd in ten years)…500 year floods (again, the 3rd in Houston in three years by at least one account)… the crash of the economy… the election of crazy people… the list is getting pretty darned long.  People’s inability to see the coming tsunami wave is analyzed quite well in a book I recently read: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. The illusion of understanding…
b. The retrospective distortion…
c. The overvaluation of factual information and the handicape of authoritative and learned people
The Black Swan

Taleb’s book is only ten years old but already a classic. I read it on the mini-bus driving around the quiet hills of Ireland, and I can’t imagine a better way to absorb such an indictment of our human myopia. It’s very readable; there are some numbers in it, but mostly in the footnotes or the appendix. Most of it is anecdotes and stories, which is kind of ironic, since one of Taleb’s main points is that we rely on anecdotes to understand things because we can’t cope with the math. As it turns out, that’s probably okay, because we aren’t using the math properly anyway.

The Illusion of Understanding–Don’t Be the Turkey
One way Taleb says we fail to predict properly is in our inability to understand the world in front of us. The world is complicated and large; it’s hard to take it all in. As a result, we either (a) conclude that we can’t predict anything because it’s too complicated or (b) we rely on simply models and create quasi-statistical understandings entirely based on the present. These models fall apart if what our scope is limited. The best example of this is Taleb’s Turkey analogy.

The turkey, born on January 1st, for example, learns to look forward to the chef. The chef feeds him every day, lovingly popping the tastiest grains and morsels into his little mouth. For 330 days, he sees that chef come over and knows, from experience, that something good’s gonna happen.

Until it doesn’t. Continue reading “I Didn’t See That Coming”