Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Deepest Authenticity

Today I chopped up a couple leftover broiled chicken thighs, and stir-fried them in a wok with garlic and a few handfuls of chopped kale. A bit later I added some leftover roast potato chunks and some chopped mini San Marzano tomatoes from TJ's (being well-seasoned, my iron wok can handle some tomato). Finally, a sprinkling of Penzey's Aleppo pepper flakes, my default source of chili heat.

I served it all over a bed of hummus, and it was delicious. Obviously, this didn't taste like anything one would label as "Chinese", even though I'd prepared this much as a Chinese grandmother might handle these same ingredients. The wok added its magic without leaving palpably "ethnic" traces...but no grandma aims to be "ethnic"!

Because this is how a Chinese grandma would do it, it was incontestably Chinese. If you assume Chinese food needs to have white pepper, scallions, rice wine, and soy sauce...and never ingredients like roast potatoes, chopped kale, hummus, or leftover chicken, that's on you, gringo! This was not "fusion", this was pure Chinese food, prepared with a Chinese mindset on Chinese equipment. I'd nailed it just as squarely as if I'd prepared proper beef chow fun (here's my rendition of that, fwiw).

The food you think of when you think of as Chinese food is a set of popular moves, not a universe of possible moves. I was shocked when I first learned that Ovaltine is a very insider-ish Chinese thing to order in Hong Kong-style cafes, but it's only shocking if you imagined there were boundaries. There are no boundaries. This is the biggest mistake people make in ethnology: cultures don't exist in cages, with neat nameplates. They're as open-ended as your own culture! Study the perspective, not the materiality. To really get it, you must learn to reframe your focus.

Earlier this week, I quickly reheated some chopped roast turkey on a hot Mexican comal, along with a few dabs of stuffing, wilted some baby spinach over it, and stuffed it all into righteous nixtamal tortillas properly warmed on that same comal. With no lime, salsa or coriander, and no crema or queso, the result might have seemed far from Mexican food.

But Mexicans don't know they're eating Mexican food! They're taking whatever they've got...with tortillas (sometimes pre-stuffing those tortillas into "tacos" - a medium, not a dish). Ingredients are mere variables. They don't need to be carnitas or al pastor; nearly anything can feel like dinner. This is what a Mexican grandma might have done with these ingredients, so the result was extremely Mexican, though no foodie would have considered it as such.

There is a deeper level of authenticity that transcends academic notions of authenticity. I aspire to that level.


Whether or not my guests recognize the pedigree, results carry a certain spin that parses as deliciousness.

More Support for Pinker's Theory of Declining Violence

I've noted a couple times that there used to be a term for people – weirdos like hippies and the Amish – who oppose war on principle: "Pacifists".

We no longer need a name for this, because it's become the default. Instead, we name the other side (which seems like a bunch of weirdos): "Hawks".

Here's a similar one. When I was younger, you used to hear - sometimes as a joke, and sometimes straight - that it's wrong to hit people who wear glasses. I haven't even heard that referenced in over 30 years. Why? Because it's not okay to hit people, period, anymore. So the glasses thing makes no sense.

I realize that attitudes and memes shift, passing in and out of favor. It's not usually very meaningful. But some shifts bear examination, because they truly do reflect huge, fundamental changes.


More postings on Stephen Pinker's theory of declining violence.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #6

Monday, January 15, 2018. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 78,900 google search results, up just a tiny bit from last week's 78,800.


All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Funding Your Time Travel

If you could time travel to the past, you'd feel mightily rich, due to inflation. $100 would buy 200 multi-course fancy French dinners in NYC restaurants circa 1893 (source). But there's a catch: you obviously couldn't pay with modern currency. You'd be arrested on the spot as a counterfeiter!

One solution would be to bring along some gold. But an ounce currently costs $1,330, and would be worth only $20 in 1893 (source). So $100 worth of 1893 gold would cost you $6650 in current money, which means those 50¢ dinners would cost you $33 each. Not an awful deal, but hardly a steal - certainly not enticing enough to risk accidentally preventing the meeting of your great-great grandparents, or coming down with diphtheria, or being forced into a duel.

This is something I've puzzled over for years. There are obvious ways a time traveler might earn money in the past (though with substantial risk of meaningfully changing the course of history). But if you wanted to visit the past for just a few days, what would you bring along to pay for essentials, allowing you to enjoy those sweet old-timey prices?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Samson

I run warm. I can venture out in the cold in a t-shirt, no problem, and I rarely sleep with blankets. I feel like an ember, and it's a good feeling. But on those extremely rare occasions when I do get chilled, it's very hard to warm me up. It can be quite a serious development. There was one night so cold when I went to college in Rochester that I still haven't fully warmed up. I tell people this sometimes, as a joke. But I'm not really joking.

I understand most things quickly and clearly, at least in my idiosyncratic way. But when I do get confused, I need things explained to me as if to a child. I once, as an adult, broke down sobbing in a post office when the clerk sullenly refused to help me properly affix the form to a registered mail package while a long holiday season line impatiently waited behind me. It was the most humiliating moment of my life.

I can create things and solve problems and make cool things happen with almost magical speed (I built most of Chowhound in a week or so). But when I get dead-ended - when I confront an obstacle I don't know how to overcome, or am besieged with multiple hindrances - I can freeze up badly, and my recovery's downright pathetic, far worse than other people's. I once tried to repair my Wallace and Gromit talking alarm clock, hit an impossible snag, and left the pieces splayed out on my dining table for 18 months. They weren't touched until I had to move to a new place.

I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly in realms in which I'm talented. The talentless, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage, while I exist in a hellscape of splayed out alarm clocks, imperiled by chills and tormented by potential confusion. Accordingly, I'm completely fine with my flaws and weaknesses - the many realms where I'm talentless! - but my greatest strengths, alas, are my undoing.

The tale of Samson has resonance. Our strengths are predicated on familiar conditions and clear runways. Cut off some hair or revolve some parameter and "hero" doesn't just go to "zero", she plunges into negative numbers.




Superman fears Kryptonite way more than you or I fear cancer or homelessness.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fuzzy Ridiculous Repair!

I messed up my marked-up writing example in this morning's posting, "Fuzzy Ridiculousness" (just below the link for "Six Writing Tips"). Consider rereading if you found the subject interesting!

Fuzzy Ridiculousness

Bad writing is epidemic. Even, alas, in the pages of the Washington Post. In an otherwise interesting article, "How to make an innocent client plead guilty" explaining why 95% of all defendants - including most innocents - accept plea deals, Jeffrey D. Stein writes:
...the prosecution is not obligated to reveal its witnesses before trial. You and your investigator do your best to assess whether the case rests on unreliable eyewitnesses, faulty assumptions or witnesses with reasons to fabricate an account, which you cannot fully explore because — remember — the prosecution has not even disclosed who they are.

Why not ask your client for leads? That might work if the person were guilty. Innocent clients are generally the least helpful, because they often cannot tell you what they don't know.
They "often" cannot tell you what they don't know, eh? So sometimes they can tell you what they don't know? That "often" snuck into the lazy, unconscious first draft, and neither writer nor editor properly went over final copy to remove a word that's not only useless but logically ridiculous ("generally" in that same sentence is also useless - a mere placeholder - though not ridiculous). This all defies #3 of my Six Writing Tips:
Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.

Better:

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.
I'm not nitpicking. Such flubs may not consciously register for all readers, but the aggregated fuzziness (and fuzzy ridiculousness) makes writing less readable and less persuasive. It's like shooting thumbtacks out of the back of your car to put off your pursuers, when the pursuers are the audience trying to read your stuff. The impression gradually arises that this is bulky, non-pre-digested stuff to be grimly endured.


And, take it from me: even paying close attention to such details, writers still risk losing readers to an impression of grim, bulky unreadability if they don't diligently grease the chute, pre-masticate the thoughts, and keep it all simple, stripped-down, and as unrelentingly entertaining as a kid's birthday party magic show. 21st century writers must beg and cajole readers to keep their eyes scanning left/right.

Wonder why almost no one talks about this Slog, or links to it, or comments on it? It's because there's almost no one reading, because I post complex, half-baked material requiring ripe digestion via multiple re-readings (also by jumping wildly between topics, ensuring there's always something of disinterest for absolutely everyone). Unavoidably contrarian, I'm writing like Hegel in the age of Gladwell.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Corn Flakes, Aliens, and Trees



Corn Flakes are among humanity's most delicious creations. Everyone eating Corn Flakes experiences deep bliss, but there's a mysterious amnesiac quality. The moment our bowl is empty, we retract back into indifference. Meh. Just Corn Flakes.

If aliens ever landed, they'd be stunned. This nectar is available anywhere, for mere pennies? And we feign indifference? What's wrong with you earthlings?


On a similar note, if trees had never existed, and suddenly appeared, en masse, we'd all be driven insane by the beauty.

Immigrants

I believe the best thing about America is its immigrants. And it has always been thus. I believe the country would collapse in a heartbeat without its new arrivals, who believe far more passionately in the American Dream than any of us and who actually remember how to work and sacrifice.

This is why I support amnesty for undocumented aliens, a generous policy toward refugees, and liberalization of immigration, generally.

I am proud of the Indians who immigrated across the Bering Strait and gave this land a natural spirituality that even now remains our subtly palpable underlying bedrock.

I am proud of our founding fathers, who crafted this country with such courage, creativity, and wisdom.

I am proud of my grandparents, who came here from shit holes and worked insanely hard to gain a foothold.

I am proud of the natives who declined to welcome my grandparents with open arms, who called them dirty jews, yet allowed them to work insanely hard to prove themselves, eventually showing grudging acceptance, just as America grudgingly accepts each wave in time.

I am proud of the American pattern of initial resistance always being eventually worn away by increasing exposure, until each new group feels like a comfortable, natural part of the national fabric.

It's never been a tolerant process! It's never been welcoming! It's never been The United Colors of Benetton! We haze the bejesus out of each and every new group, and call them names, and make them work shit jobs, and just barely put up with them. But that's the ante for getting into the best game in town, and not one of us would be here if our ancestors weren't willing to pay that price.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Shit Hole Countries

I'm shocked by the shock at "shit hole".

Americans refuse to pay double digits for the cooking of shithole countries, while sky's the limit for French/Italian/Scandinavian/Japanese. We label the rest "ethnic", condescendingly shoving them into a "miscellaneous" drawer of spicy cheap chow. Lesser stuff.

Also: star chefs don't cook your food. Those guys earn millions fronting while shithole chefs anonymously perform the actual miracles. Name one Mexican or Central American chef in NYC! The immensely lower value of people from shithole countries is so intrinsically baked into American socio-economics that I find today's outrage completely inexplicable.




Sure, they're considered "shitholes" on the right, which at least talks straight. But the careful euphemisms from the left are just as condescending. The language isn't what matters. It's the respect, and these countries are nearly universally deemed shit holes by the vast majority of Americans, whether they want to admit it or not.

How immersed are you in the culture or politics of shithole countries? How many shithole friends do you have? How do you pay your shithole workers, compared to the natives? What's their advancement track?

What's your spending limit for the music, food, films, etc., of shithole countries compared to native culture? Name some cultural aspect of a shithole country you've explored and admired to the point of close familiarity (tacos don't count). Can you talk with shithole people with familiarity about their culture and experience? Are they something other than a "menacing brown wash" (right wing) or "peoples of color from developing nations" (left wing), neither of which affords much individual humanity?

Nervous condescension toward The Other is no better than brusque dismissal. These countries will be considered shitholes by Americans until actual interest is taken, and real respect is paid, and the Ecuadorian dude who mows your lawn doesn't need to underprice his service to get traction, and it finally strikes you as odd that the guys who actually conjure the deliciousness in fancy restaurants do so in utter anonymity, or that nobody will pay thirty bucks for Dominican or Ghanaian food....even when it's great.

Even if you're too busy to study and too broke to travel, consider: you probably have 50 things you could say about France, England or China. Would it kill you to know a half dozen things about Guatemala, Haiti, or Senegal? If that sounds strange to you, it's because you deem such places shitholes. There's no getting around it. Even if you're too polite to use the term.

This whole issue, btw, is one of the unspoken agendas behind my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere".


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