Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Consume and produce cycles

I like to imagine that a model human has concurrent consume and produce cycles—that such a person could create things and take in information at basically the same time. Study something while doing it. Write something while learning about it. Explain something while figuring it out. That seems well-adjusted, whatever that means.

I'm not like that.

My consume and produce cycles feel like offset sine waves—one cycle at its peak while the other is at its trough and then, wheeeeeeeeeee, down one goes and up goes the other, the other cycle at its peak and one at its trough. And so on.

I don't have anything to write here when I'm into a heavy consume cycle. I spent most of the last two weeks or so bootcamping myself through some C and Python programming courses. For vague reasons, it was useful to bring all the things that I semi-knew together into some kind of coherent knowledge. It was resource intensive—sit there, watch some videos, write some code, run some code, over and over again, filling in all the foundational knowledge that I had missed because at one point I had only time enough to just get things to work but not understand all the whys and wherefores. Anyway—I am pooped.

Aside—from an early reading of pre-published Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut at the 92Y:

My name is Dwayne Hoover and I am an experiment by the creator of the universe. I am the only creature in the entire universe who has free will. I am the only creature who has to figure out what to do next and why. Everybody else is a robot.

I am pooped. I wish I were a robot too. It is perfectly exhausting having to reason all the time in a universe I never made.

I don't know how human brains work. I don't really know how mine works either. I sometimes imagine learning things as scribbling new information onto crumpled sheets of paper and flinging them into the box that is my brain. The ones that miss get swept up and discarded [looks at mess on floor] eventually. The ones that make it in the box are piles of crumpled up sheets of paper with information scribbled on them—but they are safe in that box because it's too small for a broom in there.

How do those individual bits of information become useful? Eventually, after a few nights of sleep, [switches to passive voice] connections are made. Magic. This understates a lot of the work involved, but that's how it feels—the level of understanding is zero, then zero-point-one, then zero-point-two, and then it heaves exponential. There is a lag time in there during and after consumption of some new skill or information—a rather frustrating lag time—and then there is a cycle of fantastical production. All of that new stuff becomes something to talk about, something to use, something to overuse. And then that cycle gives way learning something new and different, or digging a little deeper into the thing just learned. That consumption cycle will run its course, and then production ensues, and round and round and round we spin.

I don't know if it's a good approach, it's just the approach that happens for me. I think it should be more balanced—less of an off-on cycle and more just adjusting levels on them. But I just live in this head, I don't really control it.

You can't be what you were

Starting point: Fugazi, "Bad Mouth", 13 Songs (1989)

Casual regret: Why didn't Fugazi appeal to me back in college? The DIY approach. The round, colorful, driving bass guitar. The message. I don't know—really seems like it would have been the time for it for me. Like ships in the night, I guess. There was a ska phase in there, and then Ween, and then indie rock. I think I would have really gotten into it. But if it took into the late 2010s for us to find each other—so be it.

"Bad Mouth" isn't my favorite Fugazi song, but it's the one getting on-repeat play at the moment. For several months it was "Waiting Room" on repeat, but I don't feel much like a patient boy anymore, no matter how much I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait, no matter how much my time is water down the drain. I'm really thinking about second acts now—not quite redemptions necessarily but course corrections. On the conveyor belt to Age Forty, the personal pasts aren't being reassessed as much as they are just starting to smell in all of the places where I hid them. (Descendents: "Shove all your problems under the rug / Then you wonder where the smell came from.") It's not bad, necessarily. Some of those pasts ferment into something new, something interesting, something better. Some of them don't. Most of them die unknown deaths.

You can't be what you were / So you better start being just what you are / You can't be what you were / The time is now / It's running out / It's running out / It's running, running, running out

Concentrate on the daily whatever with that drilling a hole in your mind—ain't gonna happen.


I recently introduced my wife to the movie Groundhog Day. I haven't seen it myself in this millennium, although I did visit the park in Woodstock, Illinois, where much of it was filmed in 2003 for a wedding. (Strangely, many details are missing from that visit—weird, etc.)

I felt like she needed to see it because it's a metaphor for Every Single Day in 2020. I can't possibly be the only person having this experience. Mind you, I don't set an alarm anymore, but when I wake up every day with the sun, it feels like I'm having "I Got You Babe" piped into my consciousness as I build the resolve to get out of bed.

Honestly, I remember the movie being much more depressing than it is. I remember most of all the mornings that Phil wakes up, dead-eyed, numb at the prospect of facing the same day again. I remember the failed romance scenes. I remember the suicide scenes. I remember the frustration at being stuck, repeatedly, day in and day out, in a loop without end.

(You can't be what you were)

Watching it this time was different. The moral aspect seemed more pronounced, and the arc of growth was more obvious—think: Ebenezer Scrooge after three ghosts.

(So you better start being just what you are)

The truth is that I enjoyed the more negative version of the movie that I remembered. (And it seems like it was supposed to be darker.) I suppose that's the passive aggressive desire for justice for the jerks who walk among us. So Phil has to live the same miserable day being his miserable self? That's a shame.

(You can't be what you were)

The final arc is mighty saccharine, but it doesn't bother me much because it comes after Bill Murray has been whipped thoroughly for his sins. By the time the final transition comes, it doesn't feel like a cheap It's a Wonderful Life turn of fate. It's one day. But it's many one days. And there's some work involved. And there is the dip—after almost succeeding at getting what he wants, he has to fall back into the abyss before climbing out again. And when he climbs out he is different—an improved man or a psychologically damaged man, or both.

(The time is now / It's running out)

Time doesn't really run out in Groundhog Day. Imagine a dark version of the movie that never ends. Imagine a more stubborn version of Bill Murray or—pans camera to self—myself. How long would you keep messing around with what doesn't work? Wake up ("I got you babe"), do this, do that, reap marginal results. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. But—the rest of us wake up one day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older. One day older.

(I deleted a lot of attempted lines here that refer to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. "A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man." Had to delete it all. The abyss gazes back at you.)

(It's running out / It's running, running, running out)


Second act... what is the second act? Is this the second act? Was that long break from 2010 to 2012 the intermission, followed by the second act? I think I can believe that. That long strange interstitial period between jobs was also an exercise in isolation just as 2020 is. If I really put my mind to it I could reconstruct those 16 months. (Stare into the abyss.) There was no point to that time, but there was... depth. There was no purpose, but there was... discovery. And there was the abyss.

I think the underlying thought I'm trying to hold onto is that there was no meaning that emerged from that time in that physical and mental wilderness—there was only aggregated experience. There were mountains and valleys—literal and metaphorical. Some of that experience was directed, and some was not. What's the point in expecting something different now? It doesn't make any sense. Have some direction, sure, but know when to let the reins go slack, when to put the map away and follow the terrain, when to stop and just allow yourself to feel the wind as it goes by—when to know that the destination was the journey. You'll know when the Second Act is over and the Third Act has begun. Prepare and prepare and act and act—it's all just rehearsal until it isn't.

Action causes more trouble than thought

Today might have been the okayest day—back off, I'm coining that term, it's mine—I've had in a while. I stopped trying to make sense of it all—whatever "it all" even means. My aspirations, post-virus, are fairly humble—not even survival, really, but more like treading water.

I know how to swim. Swimming is just pushing water behind yourself as you go from Point A to Point B. Treading water is just staying in the game—allowing yourself to breathe until it's time to use those breaths to Do Something.

Here we are in month five of work-from-home. Treading water. Staying in the game.

I swear to you that there was a Point to all this when I got started. Let's lean into it. The title is an aphorism.

Jenny Holzer created a series of ~300 aphorisms called Truisms from ~1977 to ~1979. They are short. Aphorisms are short. They're like a splash of water in your mouth when you're thirsty, or like a bit of chili pepper to your eye when you're cooking, or like a grain of sand lodged between two chunks of pavement in the sidewalk that you're walking on and never see. Yes. Ow. Nothing.

I don't have much to say about the provenance of the aphorisms. Here's Wikipedia. Here's the Museum of Modern Art.

Although the majority of them passed by me without leaving a trace, some of them have stuck around. I was afraid—afraid is maybe not the right word, perhaps apprehensive—that the most dire and depressing aphorisms would be the ones that stuck to me. That's partially true—I like a little dourness in my life—get off my lawn, etc. But the ones that really strike me (here is what purports to be a whole list) are the ones that redirect something that you take to be a given and bend it into something else.

FAKE OR REAL INDIFFERENCE IS A POWERFUL PERSONAL WEAPON

IGNORING ENEMIES IS THE BEST WAY TO FIGHT

MUCH WAS DECIDED BEFORE YOU WERE BORN

RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY

SPENDING TOO MUCH TIME ON SELF-IMPROVEMENT IS ANTISOCIAL

THINKING TOO MUCH CAN ONLY CAUSE PROBLEMS

And so on. There are 300 or so of them. Some of them are forgettable. Some of them are bad. Some of them are the unexpected slap across the face followed by the slackjawed stare followed by the oh-I-guess-that-makes-sense-how-did-I-miss-that epiphany. I want to capture them somewhere here, run them LED style from right-to-left as they were in their original artwork setting. I like aphorisms—as long as they're not taken too seriously. A quick jolt is sometimes good as a reminder to reassess yourself. A quick jolt all the time could turn you into some sort of self-improvement quack. Aim for balance, whatever that might mean.

Happy music

Starting point: Steve Backshall, Explorer, Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4 (2020-08-02).

(Side note: This is the first podcast episode I've listened to in over two months. It used to be a commuting activity, then a while-using-the-rowing-machine activity, and now that I'm still not commuting and running outside instead using the infernal indoor exercise equipment, I just don't listen to podcasts anymore.)

There was a moment about halfway through this episode that I thought was good advice—the sort of advice I've been looking for recently, really:

[15:12] I spend a lot of time on my own. I spend a lot of time in my own head. And I've become quite good at finding ways of manipulating my own mood. So I know that if I'm feeling a little bit down, then I can take myself out for a bike ride in the driving rain, or get up early to see a sunrise, or use music. I find music incredibly powerful as a way of turning my mood the way that I would like it to go, particularly if I'm feeling lonely or sad or down, I can listen to certain tracks and I can make that just go away.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot recently. Every time I make a post about some music—e.g., "Higgs Boson Blues" or "Hurt"—I can't help but wonder why I don't ever think about writing about some happy music. Surely I must listen to some... right? I went on a quick dive into my music files—which are a total shambles now, after years and years of switching from computer to phone to computer, years and years after college where we all had so much music in that short strange window when it was easily available with dubious legality—and, frankly, I don't have much happy music. My most-listened-to R.E.M. album is Automatic for the People ("Everybody Hurts", "Monty Got a Raw Deal", etc.). And there's Tom Waits ("Misery Is the River of the World", "Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)", etc.). And the Beck album I have anymore is Sea Change (where did the other albums go—this is definitely a job for Midnite Vultures).

I don't have a lot of overtly sad music—but I don't have much happy music either. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I don't like it. The closest I get to happy music is, I suppose, Ween or Camper Van Beethoven, but those songs that I'm lumping into the Happy Music box are really more like Silly Music. (Fantastic find: Here is David Lowary with an extended riff that discusses "Take the Skinheads Bowling".)

Too many words. Too many words. Especially when I know what the Point is.

If you don't like riding it out through the low spots, and you knew you could hack your own mood with the Right Song—why the hell wouldn't you do that? I'm going to rummage around in my head and see if I can find one—it must be in there somewhere.

Incompmalice

Hanlon's Razor [1]:

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

However, don't leave out the option that something can be ascribed to both malice and incompetence:

Katherine Eban, How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan “Went Poof Into Thin Air”, Vanity Fair (2020-07-31).

I assumed that we—the United States, collectively, whatever that might mean—were going to sort out the issues vis-à-vis our coronavirus response by the end of May. I told my wife that we would definitely fumble the initial response but, when faced with a real crisis, we would get our collective act together and meet the challenge. That's what we do. Slow to react, but decisive when the deal goes down.

And yet *makes a sweeping gesture with right arm to indicate the breadth of the entire kingdom* here we are.

Looking back, there were a few moments when I realized that we were in trouble (although I didn't expect still-dealing-with-problems-in-August kind of trouble):

  1. N95 masks out of stock in February. In the first week of February, I went to five different Lowe's stores before finding any N95 masks in stock. There was an underlying feeling of "uh oh, the supply chain isn't reacting to this".
  2. During the second week of work-from-home (mid-March sometime), I went for a run in Queeny Park in the middle of the day and it was packed. Cars parked in the grass, cars turning the entrance road into a parking lot, people everywhere on the paths. While it is true that the fresh air and sunshine is good for your immune system, that doesn't account for the fact that being surrounded by people increases the probability that your immune system gets a chance to test itself against virus that spreads from person to person. I took a three-month break from running after that.
  3. Jared Kushner was tasked to lead some of the coronavirus response.

I mean… when the deal goes down, you want an expert to get the job done, or at least someone who can organize a team of experts. I mean… when you are the literal United States, you can call on the resources of the entire United States to get the job done. Instead, what happens is that you get family and loyalists called in to solve the problem. And the rest is history—which isn't even true because history is the past and we're all living weird, stilted lives while some people get shipped out in boxes in the present.

I want to say something blithe like "I hope history isn't kind to these people". But it's not even what I think about the whole thing. Our fields are all behind the same levee here. Even if it's clever to point out that your idiot neighbor's field is flooded—your field is flooded, too. And if your neighbor blew up the levee to punish another neighbor that the felt deserved it—your field is flooded, too. All that is maddening enough, but then you see your neighbor float off on a boat with pontoons filled with $100 bills.

Not all but much of this was avoidable.


[1] Not digging into the why or wherefore of the quote. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_J._Hanlon and https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/12/30/not-malice/ are good enough for me for now, etc. For my money, Robert Hanlon is a corruption of Robert Heinlein.

A million miles away

It seems to be a new feature, borne of these viral times, that I find a song to listen to—and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it and I listen to it.

For the most part, this behavior is benign. It's just a song that I remember from the 90s. It's just a song that I remember from the radio that was released before I was. I mean—it's just a song, and there's no slippery slope into the abyss.

It's not always the case, though, right? All music is sound. Some of that sound digs into some emotion. Some of those emotions are connected to a root nerve that convulses when it's touched. It can't be helped.

Anyway.

I don't remember how this got started, but I've been listening to Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"—and watching it, too. If you listen to it, you'll hurt enough. If you watch it, you'll hurt all the way.

For me, "Hurt" was a minor song on The Downward Spiral. The disturbance in the right channel was a distraction, the last two or so minutes of noise was an indulgence. Besides, the album has "Closer" and "March of the Pigs", and, frankly, you could hit the square stop button before it got to "Hurt" with nothing lost. When you're younger, at least, before the scars feel more like persistent aches than proud markers of having lived a life.

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. I don't know what Trent Reznor's problems were like. There are enough interviews out there, if you search for them, that answer enough of the questions that you might have, if you have them. I don't have any. I don't want to know. Let him have his problems. Let me have mine. I don't think of those problems specifically when I hear these songs, but the weight is there, and the muscles in my body tense as though even they know it's time to jump for something higher, to reach for something else—for Something Else.

Are there any other original/cover duos that manage to exist together with such effect as the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash versions of "Hurt"? Maybe—there's probably some Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen masterwork out there that I'm forgetting. But, damn—the regret that drips off of these two versions of "Hurt"... There's Trent Reznor's apologetic offering on one side, Johnny Cash's broken nostalgia on the other.

Listen—

I'm trying to think of another song that gets me as close to tears as Johnny Cash's "Hurt". I had one earlier but it's escaping me now. I keep listening to Cash's version, knowing that he's only got a few months left in the world after the video, and it throws a bucket of cold water over every other thought. I don't think a man could write a final chapter of his life like that if he wanted to—it just has to happen, and be like that.

What have I become / My sweetest friend? / Everyone I know / Goes away in the end / You can have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt

You know... some dust in my eye... just a second...

I don't know what heroin addiction is like. And I'm not interested, really. I don't need any encouragement to stay away, but Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is enough of a straightarm to stay away—the song drips regret for having fallen into that hole, for having gone that direction, for having been that person. That song really does hurt. And, listening to it 25 years later, the persistent scratchy noise in the background seems less like a kitschy feature and more like an honest reporting of what it's like to live with that flavor of regret—and when that distorted guitar rips in after...

If I could start again / A million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way

...you can hold both the regret and the possibility of redemption in your hands—even if the mass of the regret hand far outweighs the redemption hand.

But when Johnny Cash sings it, and the video zooms in when he closes the fallboard at the end... that's it.


2020... If we're going to have to live in isolation while the virus does what it does, I don't know if I can keep listening to songs like this. It's a weight to lug around. But these songs keep rising out of the background to find me. And once they find me they follow me around until another song finds me, then they compete among themselves for the privilege of following me around. The upshot of this is that I get to become more familiar and acquainted with a few songs while we walk together about the house—upstairs and downstairs and sitting and standing and so on. But why, in this neverending day, can't it be something light and sparkling. Let us all deal with our addictions and darkness later when there are more options to deal with them—who can we even offer our empire of dirt to at this point?

But if you really argued I knew it would be right

Starting point: Gene Wilder on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, 2005-04-29:

Besides what I was thinking is the obvious attraction here—it's Gene Wilder—there's something hidden in this interview that I really think makes sense.

I would write all day, and then he'd come over after dinner and look and, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, OK, now we need a villain, the Burgermeister isn't a good enough villain, we need a real villain. And one night he came over and he looks at the pages and he says, "You tap dance to Irving Berlin in top hat and tails with the monster?" He said, "Are you crazy? It's frivolous." And I started to argue, and then I argued for about twenty minutes 'til I was at least red in the face, I think it may have been blue, and all of a sudden he says, "OK, it's in." And I said, "Why did you put me through this?" He said, "Because I wasn't sure if it was right or not, and if you didn't argue for it I knew it would be wrong, but if you really argued I knew it would be right."

You know... listen. I hate confrontation, really, despite how often I get involved with it. I'm not a "go along to get along" type of guy. It's not my style. What often happens is this kind of oscillation—push the issue with a forearm to the facemask, retreat into shame about having used the forearm in the first place, return to the forearm after the issue that resulted in the forearm occurred anyway after the retreat. And so on. Set your watch to it.

I love this passage with Gene Wilder because it gets at an underlying truth. Maybe a person is just advocating for something because it's their idea, because it's easy to do so, because it's a defense of the status quo. But if that person, when confronted, when they're engaged in the clinch, pushes back and says, no, no, no, this is how it should be, there's a reason, and there's a right way to do it and we should do it that way—you don't have to do it that way, but there's got to be a valid reason to push past that resistance. And that resistance might be based on knowledge, on experience, on intuition. But it's that resistance or friction that leads to the better solution. Without it, it's just a bunch of weak-ass yes-men approving the next instruction from on high, for good or ill. (For ill.)


Including the scene with Dr. Frankenstein—Frankensteen—and the monster dancing was the Right Decision:

Can you feel my heart beat

Can't remember anything at all

I've been listening to "Higgs Boson Blues" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on repeat for about a week now. I recommend especially this version from Austin City Limits in 2014:

Who cares— / Who cares what the future brings?

How many times have I played this song on repeat now? Dozens and dozens and dozens of times. Looking for the secrets. Interpreting the signs. Holding the threads in my hands, trying to braid them back together.

He's got the real killer groove / Robert Johnson and the devil / Don't know who's gonna rip off who

I've invested time—consciously and unconsciously—thinking about this song. It floats back there in my mind, droning and droning. Nick Cave floated into my consciousness by way of Tom Waits on Pandora—and it makes sense to me. These aren't your prototypical band leaders—and yet, what hill wouldn't I follow either of them over, as they growled whatever it is that they were growling.

Take the room with a view / I see a man preachin' / In a language that's completely new

On repeat. On repeat. On repeat. On this loop, this phrase catches my ear; on that loop, another one instead.

There is a Led Zeppelinesque feeling of depth to the song that evaporates, Led Zeppelinlike, with a few quick hits of a spade. Nothin' but dirt under there. But that title and introduction—physics—and the nonlinear story afterwards—mystics—wrap themselves around me like a vine. What were you doing peering into a song for meaning anyway? Like a vine, you can chop it off, and it grows back anyway.

Drivin' my car / Flame trees on fire

What does it mean? Does it mean...

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

It's at this point where the music has mostly trailed off yet

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

there is still a current pressing forward.

I don't get Nick Cave's stage presence at all. It's got a cult fervor to it—and go ahead and count me among the cult's members. I'm not sure you'd see me up there in the front row offering my hand to his chest while he

Can you feel my heart beat? / Can you feel my heart beat?

offers himself to the crowd—but I can't exactly say that I wouldn't be there either. It's awkward if you analyze it, but if you just float and float and float and feel it, the rises and falls and short bursts and long lulls all pull you downstream.

Drivin' my car / Down to Geneva

At some point the float trip has ended, slowly, the current spread amongst the delta mud, and who's to say what has transpired along the way?

Three minutes

I'm working on a case about Bill Miller in finance class this week. To supplement the info in the case I've been looking for some other articles about him, his investments, etc. Naturally, I fixated on the references to other books and people in the articles—it's what I do. Follow the graph, etc.

In this 2020-Q2 newsletter from Miller Value Partners is a great line from A.E. Housman (about whom I knew and know nothing):

Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

Story of my life right there.

Doing a little digging around, the line comes from the introduction (p. xi) of his edited edition of Juvenal's Saturae, available here from the Internet Archive.