Never Failing is a Bad Idea




It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!

Ooh, I like this speech. But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Don't get me wrong, being able to bounce back from defeat is important. But it's also important to fail sometimes and be unable to bounce back. Otherwise you're missing out on life.

Why?

Let's imagine three high-jumpers; we'll call them Alice, Betty, and Carmen.

Suppose first that Alice, during her entire jumping career, never misses the bar. Let's suppose she clears the bar all the way up to 3 meters, no one else can match 3 meters, so she never loses.

Great, right. Actually, kind of strange, right? Wouldn't Alice want to know how high she can jump, regardless of how high anyone else can go? Maybe she could have made it to 3.1 meters, 3.2. Who knows?

I think most would agree that Alice is not fully exploiting her gifts. The fact that she never lost is irrelevant.

Now, let's consider Betty. Betty is not as gifted as Alice. In fact in a competition with Alice, Betty made it up to 2.49 meters. But when the bar was set at 2.5 meters, Betty missed.

But that's not the end of the story. Betty trained and trained, swallowed raw eggs, and eventually came back and cleared that 2.5 meters. She missed again at 2.6 meters, but eventually she came back and cleared that 2.6 meters.

Inspirational story, right? We all have goose bumps. And suppose the end of the story is that Betty never missed the bar again. Betty has something that Alice doesn't, namely she knows that she made herself better. This is an important principle. Failure gives you a benchmark for making yourself better.

But like Alice, Betty doesn't know how far she could have gone.

Let's take finally the case of Carmen. Like Betty, Carmen failed at the 2.5-meter mark, then trained until she succeeded. Also like Betty, Carmen failed at 2.6 meters, but after that, no matter how much she trained, Carmen never made it higher than 2.55 meters. 2.56 meters was forever out of reach.

Of our three jumpers, Carmen is the richest, because she knows she squeezed as much as possible out of her gift.

Every day you negotiate with yourself on what to achieve for the day. If every day you achieve the goals you set, this indicates mainly that you're a lousy negotiator. (Always having your offer accepted indicates lousy negotiating skills.)

If you fail at some of your daily goals, and then come back later to meet them, good for you. This is what Rocky is talking about: get hit and keep moving forward. Sometimes a negotiation requires several rounds before a deal is concluded.

But an optimal negotiator ends up walking away from some deals. You can't make the best deal unless willing to risk the deal falling through. Likewise, if you succeed at all of your life goals, that indicates that you could have had more.

Negotiate harder.

Practical Joke #14

Recommended for college students and others sharing a room.

1. Collect clippings from the newspaper describing crimes committed, strange phenomena, etc.

2. Collect also random photos, maps, charts etc.

3. Paste all these on the wall over your bed in a grand design like people do in the movies when unraveling a vast conspiracy. Connect them with strands of yarn. Spilling over to the ceiling is even better.

4. Add some scraps of paper with vague, erratically worded threats of revenge.

5. Finally, for the finishing touch, at the center of the web, paste a picture of your roommate, connected to all the chemical weapons and Lindsay Lohans and other elements of the conspiracy.

Opera Sucks


I would like to expand on one experience I had recently while visiting Paris. In the planning stages of our trip my wife expressed a desire to see the opera. I had never been to the opera, but I responded, as I do to most of my wife's suggestions, "what does not kill me makes me stronger." That's no joke; I figured that I might or might not enjoy it, but either way I would learn something.

You can buy tickets for the Paris Opera on-line. It turned out that given the constraints of scheduling, and our desire to see a show in the grand Garnier opera house (which was half the point), our only option was to see Gluck's Alceste (which I had never heard of).

Another decision to be made was whether to go for the moderately-expensive seats or the super-expensive seats. I let my wife make the call, and she said go for the moderately-expensive seats.

Judging that we would enjoy the show more with some familiarity, I bought a recording and spent some time listening to it. After some minutes of this, my wife turned to me and asked, "Is this what we're going to see?" Yeah, it's that kind of music. There's more to say about the music later.

So on the fateful day, we arrived early, and spent some time looking around the Opera house. This is something to see. The architect, Charles Garnier, worked from the principle that more is always better. The Opera house is the embodiment of magnificent excess.

Photo by Rose Trinh

The story goes that when Emperor Napoleon III beheld the Opera for the first time, he asked the architect "What kind of style is this supposed to be?" Quick-thinking Garnier replied, "It is style Napoleon III, your Majesty."

There's a reason why the Phantom haunts the Opera and not the stock exchange or the train station. The Opera demands a story that is grotesque and bombastic. This is not a criticism. Grotesque and bombastic is fun once in a while.

Note the colossal gilded figures supporting the ceiling:


Photo by Chris Chabot

I seem to be the first person to notice that Garnier was clearly inspired by the Gotham City of Schumacher's Batman movies:


Eventually it came time to take our seats. Our cheap seats were on the fourth-level balcony, which was pitched at least 45 degrees. The seats were closer together than economy class on an airplane. If you have somewhat long legs, your knees are knocking the back of the head of the person in front of you. On the other hand, my rather petite wife found her feet would not reach the floor. Being uncomfortable with heights, she felt on the verge of tumbling down the slope and over the edge of the balcony. I suggested she trot down to the front of the balcony and lean out over the railing to look at the famous ceiling by Chagall, but she was strangely reluctant.

By the time the show began we were packed in on all sides. And sweltering. Claustrophobes absolutely cannot go to the opera. Picture "the box" from the prison in Cool Hand Luke with classical music piped in.  



Credit where it is due: we did have an excellent view of the stage.

I knew already the music was not catchy but I consoled myself with the thought that there would be colorful costumes to look at. Hah! The entire troupe was dressed in black. The scenery likewise consisted of a few black slabs of plywood.

I recognize that so far I have talked about the circumstances attending the opera rather than the opera itself. That's what really counts, right? Let's get to that.

I note first of all that after listening to Alceste for several hours before my visit, and then attending the performance, at no time now or in the past could I under any circumstances hum a single phrase of it. I asked my wife and she cannot either. It is simply forgettable. By contrast, a modern musical show incorporates melodies which linger in the mindas the video above demonstrates (BTW I have yet to encounter any phenomenon of human experience which was not addressed in some episode of Seinfeld). 

(I concede that some other operas have yielded some rather catchy tunes.)

The Garnier Opera house is equipped with a screen over the stage which can display captions to the singing. For some reason this was not operating during the first act but then started up in the second. This did not improve things. As long as I could not understand the lyrics I could imagine that they must be something sublime and artistic. The captions ripped away that last glimmer of hope.

The plot to Alceste starts out like this. The king is deathly ill. The queen (Alceste) bargains with the gods to die in his place. The king, making a miraculous recovery, is first elated, then appalled when he learns that the queen must die. He kills himself. The queen then kills herself. 

Setting aside the question of the entertainment value of such a plot, in "opera time", it takes an hour and half to get through those five sentences. Because apparently being an opera composer is the original Lazy Man's Way to Riches. Say you want to write a three-hour opera. All you have to do is write a half-hour's worth, and then repeat it six times.

So a line like "Oh yeah, I'm gonna kill myself" is sung perhaps six times. And it's exactly the same, the music, the words, everything. Not that it was that interesting the first time.

Again, this repetitiveness seems to be peculiar to opera. Look up the lyrics to Master of the House, and you'll see what I mean. Whether or not you find them clever and interesting, you must at least admit each verse differs from the preceding.

Gluck seems to have missed the point that when a character threatens suicide again and again...and again, at some point it passes from pathos to comedy. My wife had to keep shushing me to stop laughing.

Don't ask me what happens following the queen's suicide, because at that point intermission came. My wife turned to me and said, "For the love of God, let's get out of here."

And indeed, as foretold, I stand here today stronger, because I went to the Opera and survived it.






Scenes from Paris 2015

 (Click on any image for a larger version.)

This the Hotel Cluny Square where we stayed, located at the intersection of the Boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel. The hotel is nice and ideally situated close to the center of town, metro entrance is twenty paces from the front door, on the RER B Line which goes directly to the airport. Actually the hotel occupies the second story and above (which the French call the first story and above). The entrance is behind the guy in the red shirt.



Gargoyle at Sainte-Chapelle.


Interior of Sainte-Chapelle. This reminds me of something. The Sainte-Chapelle cathedral for some reason is located inside the courthouse, which means of course one passes through a security check to get in. I would have thought the USA would be second to none in theatrical security measures, but I was wrong. On the way out we passed a sentry who was gripping with both hands, I exaggerate not, two-inch-thick chest armor, and here we American daredevils are walking around in T-shirts and flip-flops and no body armor whatsoever. I didn't take a picture because I was genuinely scared of pissing him off.

Another time we were shopping in a convenience market and a party of soldiers came in (doing their shopping), wearing combat fatigues (which I can imagine happening in the U.S.) and all slinging automatic rifles (which I cannot imagine happening in the U.S.).


Art Nouveau railing at the Île de la Cité Metro station.



Vegetables and fruit at the Place de la Monge market.


Detail of Rodin's "Gates of Hell", which is a highly sculpted pair of bronze doors.


Cultural note: Any construction project, digging in the street, etc., seems to entail setting up a temporary building, on stilts if need be.


One afternoon a gay pride parade came down the Boulevard Saint-Germain right past our hotel room window. This consisted of a swarm of mostly young people, some in flamboyant costumes but most not, cheering and rocking to music from truck-mounted loudspeakers. Some carried signs with straightforward slogans, but to me it seemed the real message was "Look at me! I'm Gay!" And so it went on for hours.

Coincidentally this came a couple of days after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. It seems to me that in this day and age in the USA a similar parade would be met with a shrug. My impression of French sophistication in sexual matters suffered a blow.

The picture shows not the parade, but the ensuing cleanup operation which I found more impressive. The parade left the street and sidewalk littered with empty bottles, scraps of paper, etc. A swarm of workers bearing brooms, leaf-blowers, and other implements of destruction immediately followed, blowing all the detritus into the street. Then followed water-spraying and vacuum-trash-sucking trucks which left the streets remarkably clean. 


Sculptural group in the Notre-Dame cathedral showing what appears to be a funeral interrupted by the guest of honor climbing out of the coffin. Reminds me of a certain bit of by-play from Monty Python. 


Detail of the Notre-Dame cathedral.


Songbirds at the Île de la Cité bird market.


You remember those scenes from the movies where the evil mastermind's underground lair is located in an abandoned transit station? I was pleased to see that whoever built the Île de la Cité metro station had the foresight to plan ahead for this. The station is a cavernous space walled with plates of riveted metal. 


Detail of the Petit Palais.


Architectural detail of a school building.


Architectural detail of—sucker!—this is not Paris, it's Epcot! Point being that in most cases you would expect the Disney version of something to be heightened, idealized, fantasized, but not when it comes to Paris. Every Parisian street is filled with buildings designed to delight the eye. Disney has no need to exaggerate. (Photo courtesy of vmpyr_david.)

Within the U.S. I have noticed regional variation, but generally we seem much less interested in building our environments to inspire delight. I suspect this reflects some lingering Puritan attitudes. Maryland, where I live, is perhaps the nadir. "Should we put a fountain here?" "Naah, the building has four walls and roof. Our customers are lucky we gave them that much."


Pont Alexandre with the Invalides in the background.


One of my mottoes is: If you're going to do whatever it is you're doing right now, why not do it with a little style? This ice-cream truck driver clearly lives by the same words.


Detail of the Pont Alexandre.


Yours truly on the Pont Alexandre.


Mysterious iconic message seen on a building.


Some kind of strawberry desert at the Café de la Paix. The taste was a level beyond what I'm used to as well.


Practical Joke #13

1. Go to college. Study something in the psychiatry or counseling field.

2. Build a private practice as a counselor.

3. Wait for one of your clients to come to your office and reveal something particularly private and sensitive.

4. At this point fling open the false wall of your office to reveal an auditorium filled with thousands of people.

5. Stage lights come on. Music begins to play. TV cameras are switched on.

6. Dr. Phil comes in and begins addressing the camera: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've seen some pretty twisted, perverted individuals in my career, but I have never seen anything as disgusting as the guest we have today...."


Flash-card Case Study: My Chinese Anki Decks Structure, Part I


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(First in a series of posts describing the Anki flash-card decks I use to study Chinese)

Previously I reviewed Anki software for electronic flashcards, and also about using multimedia flashcards. Currently I use somewhat more than 50 Anki decks (nope, that is not a misprint) to study various languages and other stuff.

Some decks are modest in size, for example to learn a new alphabet. For such I add no new cards once the deck is complete and the daily review time dwindles to a fraction of a minute. Others grow indefinitely, for example the various decks I employ to study Chinese. This reflects both the inherent complexity of the language and the level of effort I have put into it for the past several years.

As a case study, I outline here my decks for Chinese study. First, a list of the decks themselves:

Chinese characters: For learning the individual characters. This started based on Heisig's books and has been extended by myself based on Heisig's principles. Currently consists of 3952 "notes" and 23733 "cards." (To clarify, in Anki a single "note" links two or more pieces of information. From this one or more "cards" are created by specifying various pieces of information as the "cue" [front of the card] and others as the "response" [back of the card].)

Chinese vocabulary: Consists of words and some phrases or even entire sentences in (Mandarin) Chinese. Currently contains 4335 notes and 17311 cards.

Cantonese: Currently contains 296 notes and 1025 cards. These numbers reflect the fact that my Cantonese is at a much earlier stage than my Mandarin.

Cantonese Mnemonics: stable at 89 notes and 178 cards. Embodies Stefan's (of Language Ninja) system for memorizing Cantonese pronunciation.

Chinese 20000 HSK Sentences: I downloaded this as an Anki shared deck. True to its name, contains 22148 notes and 22148 cards, each with a single sentence. The HSK is a Chinese government test for evaluating Chinese proficiency.

Chinese Mnemonics: stable at 95 notes and 95 cards. Embodies my own system for memorizing Mandarin pronunciation of characters.

Chinese Williamson's Teach Yourself: When I first took up Chinese decades ago, it was with Teach Yourself Chinese by H. R. Williamson. I struggled mightily and never got past Chapter 10 (although having some worthwhile adventures in the process). This failure nagged at me ever since. A few years ago I set a goal to go back and crush Williamson's book. This Anki deck (125 notes, 125 cards) contains some oddities that I encountered in Williamson's book but haven't been able to cross-reference anywhere else. The Chinese in Williamson's book is old-fashioned to say the least.

Subsequent posts will outline the internal structure of the most interesting of these.