Monday, February 1, 2016

Find Pierre an Apartment

Many of you may know my friend Pierre - biochemist, homebrewer, web designer, photographer, and knower-of-all-things. Pierre's suddenly being asked to move out of his long-time rental, and needs reasonable housing come springtime. He's in NYC, but willing to relocate if necessary. His current apartment has been rent-controlled for years at $1000. That nice run of luck just ran out.

Pierre's a great, super-helpful guy - he was Chowhound's technical advisor, and has helped on most of my other endeavors. He translates novels from Swedish into Esperanto. And he's an awesome ally (like I said, he knows having Pierre as a guy you can text questions to is akin to a genie wish). Would you consider running this query (or reposting it) through your own social networks? Pierre's super reliable; would be a dream tenant for any landlord (or roommate share).

I'm posting below, for the first time ever on the Internet, my famous Cat Dander Story, which illustrates the miraculous power of Pierre (feel free to include it in your repost, if you do agree to spread word of this to your network).

The Cat Dander Story

It was 1992, and I'd just moved into a new apartment. Tons of boxes sat in a pile, and I, alas, couldn't breathe. Though this was a pet-free building, it turned out that the previous tenants had multiple cats, and I'm very allergic. Like asthmatic-allergic. Like "can't breathe" allergic." I bought a HEPA vacuum cleaner, but it didn't help. I mopped (with a dust mask on). Nothing. I couldn't live in my own apartment for more than 15 minutes - at least not while breathing.

Naturally, I call Pierre, who knows everything. Pierre thought for a moment, then said:
"I seem to recall a molecule...."
This, believe it or not, is not an unusual way for Pierre to begin a sentence.
"....that should probably neutralize the protein in the dander that's causing the problem. It should be present in laundry detergent enzyme. You need to go to the store, and look for little bottles of enzyme additive. And mop the floors with it."
I went to a number of supermarkets, finally finding little yellow bottles from Switzerland claiming to be enzymatic laundry additive. I bought five of them. I added them to water. I mopped. And my apartment was fine. Crisp, spring day fine. Breathe deep and don't even cough fine. Problem solved. Like it was nothing.

There was a toll-free number on the enzyme bottle for consumer comments. I called and told the operator my story. She listened patiently, then asked:
"Sir, do I understand correctly that you've used our product to mop your apartment?"
"Yes, that's right," I replied.
"Sir, that is not a recommended use of our product."

If you'd like to borrow Pierre for yourself, all you need to do is find him an apartment! Feel free to email me at

The Taboo of Judging of Crazy People Crazy

A few months ago, I spent some time with a young friend who'd had a psychiatric break, forcing her to leave college. I accidentally offended her by suggesting that this was a bad thing. She insisted that what she'd experienced was not craziness, it was other-ness. Other ways of seeing, being, acting. Neither better nor worse. I was judging, and judging's always bad.

Understand that I'm a yogi, very accustomed to altered states and alternative interpretations of everyday phenomena. And I was once a jazz musician, well-versed in other sorts of altered states. So I'm as receptive to this argument as anyone you'll ever meet. But, of course, I could see it was bunk. You're on psych medicines with serious side effects. You're no longer in school. You're unhappy. If what happened wasn't something we can clearly describe as negative, then why take all possible steps to reverse it?

To my horror, I realized it was not the madness talking. She was clearly parroting what her health professionals had told her. This is the new attitude: nothing's wrong, nothing's bad. It's just "other". Spineless, ditzy mega-relativism has apparently taken hold of psychiatry. We seem to be telling crazy people that it's just fine. You go, girl!

But if it's just fine, why are we treating them? Why are they put on these drugs? Why are they unhappy? I'd pronounce the whole thing crazy, if "crazy" weren't a trigger word I've been told we must never, ever utter.

My tragic friend Deven, who was smarter than any doctor, delighted, as crazy people do, in hoodwinking his shrinks. This was incredibly self-destructive (hey, he was crazy!) but the judge, who I'd begged to find him better help, couldn't do anything. And his estranged wife, who spent heroic hours reading up on psychiatry, couldn't do anything. Because Deven needed to be respected, and his devious, untruthful self-accounting in therapy taken at face value. Because crazy people aren't, like, crazy. They deserve respect and tolerance and self-determination. Everyone deserves those things, right? Tra-la-la, love-love-love!

So he ran his shrink ragged, never letting her in, while loved ones watched helplessly. He spiraled down and down. And one of the brightest people I know wound up beheaded in a homeless shelter.

Parents don't seem to want to be parents any more. No one wants to personify the cliche of the screamy, spanky, tyrants who so vexed us as children. Today, it's all enlightened parenting. You collegially reason with your kids, expecting them to make right choices, just like you would expect from any reasonable, rational adult. If not, you patiently and cordially review their workflow, highlighting points of non-optimality. It can hardly be coincidence that so many kids appear to be narcissistic monsters, gleefully running circles around their parents, as Deven ran circles around his shrinks.

It sucks for nice people to have to exert authority. I had to do this for Chowhound, and didn't enjoy one moment of it. It sucks to draw hard lines, to tell people they can't act in certain ways. Renouncing this unpleasant responsibility feels incredibly relaxing and enjoyable, so selfish, spineless people (as parents, as managers, and as authorities of every stripe) have been dodging their obligation to place hard limits upon those in their charge. The problem's societal. Everyone's seeking to avoid friction for themselves - and vainly, smugly assuming this to be enlightened behavior. We make a virtue of our lack of resolve. 

Sometimes, for a greater good, lines must be drawn (see Chowhound's head moderator describe the anguish she felt every time she was forced to limit a user's free expression), though I, for the record, am as anti-authoritarian as they come (ask any of my teachers, many of whom were scarred for life). Well, the pendulum's swung too far the other way even for my taste. This is the first generation in human history so smug, selfish, and lazy to assume it's found a better way. 

And so Deven, who was nuts, was treated with respect for his rational volition, and that volition spurred the "lifestyle choice" of residency in a homeless shelter in Harlem. Hey, he's an adult, and he made his choices. All lifestyles are equally valid, so who are we to judge?

I, who still have my balls, shall judge. When Deven first started doing terrible things shockingly at odds with his own core values, he should have been coercively helped. I understand that the asylum model of the past was a failed model. As a non-conformist, myself, I keenly understand that if we "lock up the crazies", we will inevitably trap those with legitimately different values as well as those with organic discombobulation (it's a fine line!). But empowering crazy people is not the solution. Erasing the word "crazy" from our vocabularies is not the solution. Pretending to respect the volition of people who are in no position to exercise rational volition is not the solution.

Friday, January 29, 2016


I've known my friend Deven since I first went online around 1990, dialing in via modem to an electronic forum called Compuserve before the dawn of the Web. We both helped administer their Beer/Wine forum, and we were all thrilled to have him. Deven was a well-regarded drinks expert - having written about spirits for glossy national magazines and worked as a manager at the North Star Pub, one of the early bastions of artisanal quaffables. Deven had many other lives, too, stretching back to his early childhood. As a child prodigy, he'd managed to befriend a high-level African politician via a particularly precocious fan mail he'd sent (this was one of the few non-corrupt officials on the continent at this time, which greatly impressed young Deven). He was flown over there. What an adventure. There were other remarkable stories. Deven was a character.

When I started Chowhound, Deven was an early regular, and he helped edit our weekly ChowNews publication. He also quietly helped moderate the message boards. We ate together sometimes, and I found him brilliant but complicated, perennially shadowed by a dark cloud and settled into a permanent posture of hapless shrug. He knew everything about everything, and was an extraordinarily idealistic and responsible fellow. Around age 50, he went back to school and became a special education teacher, putting absolutely everything he had into the job. Deven was a guy who actually did stuff. He was the not-so-little engine that could.

But it seems that the day finally arrived when he no longer could. I missed that turn, having lost touch with him (as with most else in my life) during the frenetic end game of Chowhound. He and I exchanged a few emails, but it was hard to find a time to get together. I was unaware at the time that this was because Deven had begun disintegrating.

I'll spare you the horrific details, but it got so bad last year that his estranged wife sent around an email to everyone who'd ever known Deven, pleading with us to send affidavits to support his defense in his latest criminal case. After recovering from my shock, I sent the following letter to the judge (I'll omit the part where I introduced myself):

Dear Judge Cote,

I have always considered Deven to be among the most responsible, ethical, diligent, thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Having been informed of his recent predicament, I’m, naturally, shocked.

That said, there’s been a pattern of struggle. I’ve seen Deven struggle against his own shyness (nearly crippling), and his daunting inconsistencies. As a writer, he suffered from frequent writer’s block, and his very high intelligence conjured up so many options in any given circumstance that indecisiveness was a frequent torment. While I understand Deven was a prodigy as a child, his adult life hasn’t always fulfilled that lofty potential, so while he’s been successful in most things he’s attempted (and he’s attempted a lot of things!), I believe he regretted that he hadn’t achieved more….and the shortfall left him perpetually dismayed. On top of all this, Deven is a sensitive soul, so the slings and arrows of misfortune which daunt us all seem extra daunting for him. Deven hasn't experienced much in the way of “ease” in his life. Again, there’s been a pattern of struggle.

But in all his struggles, Deven, in my long observation, has always, ALWAYS, strained toward the light. To be his best self. To get done what needed to get done, to do right by family, friends, co-workers, employees, and employers; to get results that make situations better and smarter and more kind-hearted…..regardless of struggles and disappointments. This has been true, without exception, over the 30 years I’ve known him.

Deven once managed a very prominent restaurant in SouthStreet Seaport, which was known as a paragon of enlightened management (restaurant personnel normally turn over furiously, but his workers stayed with him for years). I watched him work there a few times, and he always achieved that elusive balance of clearly asserting authority without being tyrannical. It was an extraordinarily "tight shop", but his workers plainly respected and admired him. That's incredibly rare in Manhattan.

He later became a restaurant critic, penning personal, clever profiles of local venues which his newspaper’s readers still recall with affection. He worked as an editor for my company, Chowhound, where he was a rock of honorable dependability. Never missed a deadline, never required attention, incessantly polite and upbeat; his coworkers and I admired him tremendously. When the company was floundering, he volunteered to help moderate the community discussion unpaid - a role requiring a delicate touch, emotional intelligence, and wise decision-making. Deven nailed it every time.

I know how hard Deven's worked at teaching, and in his career at the Board of Education. He tackles every obligation full-heartedly, as if his life depended on it, even though it’s never been easy, having had to fight indecision, inconsistency, shyness, anxiety, and self-disappointment every step of the way.

Deven CARES. Deven cares a LOT. But I’ve never seen him indulge despair and give up. I’ve never seen him desensitize to the human beings in his midst and willingly allow himself to let them down. Nothing ever came easily to Deven (not even his copious natural intelligence, which flows in maddening fits and starts), but he never stopped striving.

I don’t know the details of his current predicament. But I know that if Deven stopped trying, and went the wrong way, or behaved insensitively toward other people, or lost his level-headedness, it could only have been due to a clinical/organic issue***. I feel certain that, in his mind, Deven was still making the wisest, kindest, and most responsible decisions possible at every juncture. Some of those decisions appear to have been mortifyingly, catastrophically bad ones. But I know Deven, and I can assure you that, at least within the tortured logic available to him, he never for a moment blithely indulged an impulse to do the wrong thing. That’s simply not his character.

Very sincerely yours,

Jim Leff

*** - As an aside, I hope Deven can get the psychiatric help he clearly needs. There are plenty of congenital kooks out there, and you surely see plenty of them in your court. If you have not distinguished Deven from that crowd, I'd ask you to think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven. He's not some randomly dopey guy making dopey decisions. Something’s gone very, very wrong in the years since I last saw him. Anything you can do to help would be appreciated.
Earlier this week, Deven was brutally murdered in a NYC homeless shelter. Please don't google the newspaper reports. They are both right and wrong. They paint him as a drifter and a petty criminal, terms which accurately describe some things he did, yet which absolutely fail to express truth.

I know better. I know this was not Deven. Think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven.

I was going to keep Deven's identity ambiguous, but decided it was more important to share with you his wonderful blog, and this interview where he shows his characteristic passion for education. The interview was prompted by this terrific editorial, which I understand went a bit viral in educational circles.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Rubik's Cube Just Keeps Getting (un)Cooler and (un)Cooler!

Count on the Slog for cutting-edge skinny on what's happening now. Latest: I believe this whole "Rubik's Cube" phenomenon will take the nation by storm.

Ok, it was hokey even 35 years ago. But these videos are sort of amazing. Channel your inner nerd for a minute:

A robot that can solve a Rubik's Cube in 1 second flat:

You would think the instant-solving robot would put the whole thing to rest. But then there's this time lapse of a dude sadly devoting nearly 8 hours to solving a ginormous 17x17x17 cube:

Did I call a 17³ Rubik's Cube ginormous? How about one with 1,000 squares per face?:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Levels of Intelligence

Intelligence level 1:
Everyone's so smart! I can't possibly match the mental firepower I see all around me. There's so much to learn!

Intelligence level 2:
I easily spot people's stupidity; therefore I am smart. The dumber people appear to me, the smarter I feel. Over time I come to feel very smart indeed.

Intelligence level 3:
Everyone's an idiot. Alas, no one more than me.

Intelligence level 4:
Everyone's an idiot. No one more than me. Wheee!

I've never met a truly intelligent person who felt superior. In fact, superiority is the very mark of stupidity (ala level 2).

#2 can't learn, because learning requires feeling dumb. #3 has potential, but they're weighed down by their skewed perspective. The only levels that learn much are #1 and #4. And, in fact, slow-minded people may learn better than anyone.

Speaking of which, here's a story from (I think) the Hindu Vedas:
Centuries ago, a teacher told his class to write the symbol for the number "one" in their tablets. They all duly scrawled a vertical line, save for one student, who sat with chalk poised, thinking deeply. "Just write it!" urged the teacher, but the student was frozen. Over time, the class had moved on to all the other numbers, but this one child remained lost in thought. Eventually, he was expelled for being too stupid to learn.

His family abandoned him, and he lived in the woods for thirty years, meditating and pondering. Finally, he returned to the schoool, naked and bearded, and, seeing his former teacher (now an old man) still in front of the classroom, he strode in, picked up a piece of chalk, and, with a godly sweep of his arm, full of confidence and grace, drew an enormous "1" on the front wall. After an awed moment, the entire school cracked in two along the mark he'd drawn.

Secret Bonus Level:
Intelligence is over-rated as a faculty. Calculation's fine, it helps us build cool things. But the very best stuff - the epiphanies, eurekas, and insights - arrive from somewhere other than linear thought.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pre-crastination and Counterphobia

From a much-passed-around piece from today's NY Times titled "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate" :
Pre-crastination is the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible. If you’re a serious pre-crastinator, progress is like oxygen and postponement is agony.
This strikes me as an example of a form of behavior well-known to psychologists, but not to the general public.

A great many mountain climbers started out acrophobic. They've fought back so hard against their fear that they've gone the other way, to the opposite extreme. The term for this is "counter-phobic".

Other examples abound. For example, many staunch meditators are former alcoholics. As they unravel their longing for completion from a certain special material substance, they find themselves transcending materialism, period. Again, it's about reaching the opposite extreme.

Psychologists know people have this capacity, yet they don't seem to speak up about it much. That's sad, given that this is the single most hopeful insight I've ever heard from their entire field (but, hey, psychologists get paid to revert people to the mean, not to facilitate transcendence).

While I find this unsung human behavioral pattern incredibly hopeful and comforting, it's important to note that it's not always a great idea to aim for infinity. A little extremism goes a long way.

If the notion of flipping faults into strengths appeals to you, I recommend a short read of my parable of the iron. Or you can get lost down a rabbit hole with The Enneagram (which I found insightful, though ultimately not as rich a terrain as adherents claim).

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Best, Easiest, and Most Sustainable Diet Tip

I'm replaying this one....

At some point in every meal you've ever eaten, the following mental question has arisen:
"Do I want to eat some more?"
It's always asked quietly - so quietly that it may not consciously register. And our reaction is, nearly always, to shrug and eat a few more bites. What the hell!

Here's the thing:

1. No one in the history of the human race has ever asked themselves this question while still hungry. Genuinely hungry people just eat! The fact that you're asking means that you have, in fact, eaten enough!

2. The gratuitous few bites you take after this point will probably add 10-20% more calories to your meal. And most of us are 10-20% overweight, so these are the marginal calories that make us marginally overweight. So drop your fork!

3. This "marginal eating" is the least satisfying part. After all, you're no longer hungry! It's tough to give up pizza, or to go hungry, or to eat only protein, or make other sharp changes to dining habits, which are deeply engrained and tie in with feelings of well-being. But marginal eating is just an afterthought. It's the easiest sacrifice to make.

4. Marginal eating is what makes you feel weighed-down after meals. If you stop eating as soon as you ask The Question, you'll feel better afterwards.

5. Once you learn to drop your fork when you hear The Question, you'll begin to notice that eating the "just right" amount makes you feel great. At that point, when you hear The Question, it will be welcomed. It's not austerity, it's adequacy.

6. As you fall into this habit, The Question starts edging back, and appearing earlier in your meals. You'll find that you've been eating much more than necessary to feel satisfied. And eating the "just right" amount feels, well, just right. Once you start feeling good after meals (it helps to also balance fat/carb/protein, and to never starve), that feeling becomes a new powerful crave. Häagen-Dazs loses some of its allure once you're addicted to feeling clear-headed and energetic.

7. This is a long-term viable behavior. It's not a misery to endure while dieting and then throw away once you've lost the weight. And so, unlike most dieting strategies, it won't lead to endless cycles of weight loss and weight gain.

8. A tip: if you feel you're having trouble "hearing" the question, that means you're there, right now. Listening for it is the same as having heard it. Truly hungry people never consider these things. Drop your fork!

That's the gist. The following is just optional commentary:

This tip resembles a few others you've heard - some ad infinitum. But those others either don't work or are inane. "Always leave food on the plate" is ridiculous; it hinges, of course, on how much food was there in the first place! And setting any arbitrary portion limit will leave you hungry, and hunger-based dieting always backfires (because 1. it triggers fundamental psycho/physiological processes, and 2. it's not long term viable). Simply following this tip ensures, inherently, that you'll never be hungry. It will tailor portion size to your body's needs at any particular moment. What could be better?

We have the notion that dieting involves discipline and deprivation. The "no-pain-no-gain" preconception is why dieting almost never works. The problems stem from a central miscalculation: the way we eat now is "normal", so in order to lose weight, we must do abnormal things. Naturally, we eventually return to "normal"...and get fat again.

So the only thing that makes sense is to create a sustainable "new normal". And this tip is your best bet. Not only is it a gentle way to recalibrate normality, it actually corrects a habitual abnormality in our eating (the result of mankind's current unusual condition of having extra food lying least in the developed world).

That said, the route of natural, sustainable, non-deprivational change is not the fastest way to lose weight. The faster you want to lose, the more abnormal and deprivational you'll need to go. But abnormal changes just snap back to an unhealthy normal. So consider making this much gentler change to your everyday eating, and see if it works for you.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Can't-Fail In-Restaurant Test of Character

Two postings ago, I offered a simple test to winnow useless blood-suckers from potentially productive people. Here's another test, a particular favorite of mine.

All those anthropomorphic comics (Garfield, The Far Side, etc) never struck me as particularly witty with their juxtapositions of human and animal behaviors. I never considered human beings exalted from the animal kingdom in the first place. Cognition's a neat trick, but like everyone with a special skill, we assume it's the end-all/be-all (folks who lack one's special skill always seem like muggles - Harry Potter-speak for the ugly Yiddishism "goyim").

If you want to see the truth, talk to people when their food comes.

Briefly continue your conversation after the steaming plates have been set down, and watch your companion's stress build, eyes darting back and forth between you and their dish, cold brow sweat forming and every muscle trembling from just barely subdued animal instincts. You'll find that instinct nearly always wins. Within three seconds, most people will rudely cease listening to you, and dive into their food. One cannot possibly hope to distract a poodle while kibble flows into her bowl. see if a person has self-control, just take them to dinner, seating them with their backs to the kitchen. When you spot the waiter approaching with food, launch a bright, eager new line of discussion, and see if they can last ten seconds after the plates land.

Those who pass the test will usually vibrate with stress yet manage to continue the conversation. They've demonstrated character (which I define as the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise). They spend their lives struggling against impulse, but at least they make that valiant effort. I think of such people as poodle-plus, and they're usually very good people...perhaps the very best.

But a few can entirely unhook from instinct. Possessing perspective, the rarest of uniquely human qualities, they may experience the same drama, instinctual compulsion, and hormonal juju as anyone else, but they don't let such factors drive their behavior. They'll notice their plate, feel a faint impulse, take a small breath, and easily continue the conversation, perfectly relaxed and twitch-less. The food's arrival registered, but it doesn't keep mentally re-registering. They're able to easily let it go to voicemail.

The pitfall with that last elite group is heart. Detached people sometimes detach all the way. If you find yourself hanging by your fingers over a cliff, a 100% detached person may not be your best possible companion! It's rarest of all to find someone detached from drama and instinct - who rises above the petty yadda yadda - yet retains empathy and compassion. The sad truth is that such people often still seem cold, because they're not compelled to externally signify their caring (a compulsion which stems from vanity and neediness).

The most caring among us may strike us as aloof. This is the predicament which gives rise to the cliche of the curmudgeon/hermit/misfit who turns out to have "a heart of gold". In truth, they pretty much all do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Canard of Tragic Presidential Aging

The presidency doesn't age people. Age ages people.

In 2011, I wrote about how it was the hippest time in history to be 48. Being the same age (give or take a year or so) as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Obama, all of whom (whatever you think of their politics) seemed like cool dudes, felt like gravity defied.

But a mere four years later, we were all around 52, and Jon Stewart was saying that people frequently come up to him to ask "if he's okay," Colbert began using an awful lot of makeup, and I reported that I look like I have one foot in the grave.

But people naturally pay a lot more attention to the president:

This is simply what happens in your early 50s. Though you feel exactly the same, there's a bizarrely rapid plunge in outward appearance. It strikes others as meaningful; they attribute it to your cumulative pressures and defeats. And, non-coincidentally, that's what we say about presidents. That poor man! Look at how the burdens weigh upon him!

The saving grace is that we ourselves can go on feeling like the same people, because we, blessedly, don't need to look at ourselves! As I wrote at that last link:
Aging isn't tough; the hard part is people having more and more trouble seeing who I actually am. But I can't blame them. Appearances, after all, are the main thing they have to go on. If I had to look at me all the time (instead of existing obliviously nestled behind my own eyeballs), I'd surely have the same impression!

I'll save you the trouble of googling presidential ages.

How To Tell if Somebody Is Capable of Actually Doing Something

In my last posting Don't Take it Personally That Nobody Ever Does Anything, I explained why people who join teams and commit to projects most often wind up doing absolutely nothing. It's a serious problem for managers and recruiters of every stripe. Workers capable of follow-through - of actually producing - look a lot like everyone else. So how can you recognize them?

Don't do what I did; don't shower time and attention on every bright prospect who professes interest. Instead, send them a long email. Very few people will read a long email. Most will never even reply. And most of those who do will not have carefully read it. So embed some simple instruction within that long email, and see whether they follow it.

If so, you've found someone with merely a 50% or so chance of turning out to have been entirely yanking your chain. There's not a gold mine in the world capable of winnowing so effectively!

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