Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Viewing Tips

Add to my list of current TV fascinations "The Bridge", on FX. As usual, I agree with TV critic Alan Sepinwall in appreciating its beautifully drawn and acted characters, oddball sensibility, and evocative border atmosphere. In its first season, the series was saddled with the task of adapting a Danish serial killer story, a plot line that was a bit of a dog. The second season goes elsewhere, and has been vastly better and more ambitious. It's been slow-building, growing exponentially more wonderful each week. At this point, I think Sepinwall's right in comparing it to "The Wire" in its scope and patience.

The golden age of television has been zero sum; as TV's gotten great, film's been really stinking it up. It's been years since I left a movie theater thinking it had been worth the foray from my television set, though I loved Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance in "A Most Wanted Man". I did, however, enjoy a preview screening of "Art and Craft", which opens elsewhere this week. It's about an art forger who operates legally - he gives his work away, pretending to be a wealthy collector, so there's no issue of fraud.

The story is all kinds of whacky. The guy pushes paint around with his finger while distractedly watching TV and his current weapon of choice is a large format color printer (results from which he doctors in various ways), and there's no reason for his output to be anywhere near as sublime as it is. He's also paranoid schizophrenic, complete with highly dysfunctional affect, but as the story unfolds we see that he's whip smart and drolly self-aware; the real crazy is the egotistical out-of-work museum official obsessed with taking him down.

I'm a sucker for movies about art and creativity (my faves to date: The Five Obstructions, How to Draw a Bunny, Marwencol(available on Netflix), and Fairweather Man, about this guy...and then there's my own piddling and crushingly amateurish effort, "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies"). While I'm not sure "Art and Craft" is in the same league as the first four of those, it's worth watching.

Finally, for those more into Jerry Lewis than I am (i.e. just about anyone), and with a hat tip to Barry Strugatz, here's a freaky YouTube offering: a two hour cinéma vérité backstage peek as Jerry prepares for his 1989 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Why it's in black and white, I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Get On Lipitor Now

I've read all the debate about statin drugs such as Lipitor. I know about the (small) possibility of muscle cramps and kidney problems, and those are only the legit concerns. The Internet's full of humbug conjecture about how Lipitor's one of the big bads of big pharma.

Everyone I know with actual scientific acumen loves the drug. My long-time technical advisor Pierre says it may even grow back cardiac arteries around blockage. He says Lipitor is one's friend. And my doctor - ordinarily not the type to suggest frivolous medication - had urged it on me 15 years ago. I'd received a borderline high cholesterol reading, and she told me it's a really good drug which she really wanted me to take, and I asked whether I could try to address the problem with diet and exercise.

I lost a bunch of weight, the cholesterol came down to high-normal, and we let it go. Since then, my weight's been high, it's been low, my diet's been immaculate, and my diet's been dodgy. And, to make a long story short, last week I had a stent put in to relieve congestion in one of my blood vessels. My cholesterol, which I hadn't had checked in some time (hey, my diet and fitness were fine!), was through the roof.

No worries. The stent fixed things perfectly, and I'll have no lingering issues going forward. But only because I was lucky.

I'm now on the maxi dose of Lipitor, and cursing myself for having been such an idiot - for ignoring my doctor and my most informed friends. For the first half of the 20th century, we were all pill happy, what with all the medical miracles appearing all the time. Then the pendulum swung (as pendulums always swing) too far the other way, and many of us have come to treat our doctors as if they were trying to kill us with drugs. And maybe they are, who knows. But Lipitor is different. Here's the thing to understand:

Medicine has gotten miraculously good at treating cardiac issues. Better than you've even heard! I should not be alive right now. If alive, I ought to be hobbled. Instead, I'm bopping around, same as ever, running up steps and standing on my head. It's fantastic, it's downright futuristic! But it's only because the blockage happened to be noticed and reversed early. If it hadn't been, none of those miracle procedures would have helped. I'd have been 1923-style hobbled, or even dead.

And the thing about congestion is that you don't know if you've got it. I felt completely okay in the days leading up to the discovery. So it's a crap shoot. If discovered early, you might remain as futuristically vibrant as I've wound up. If not, welcome to 1923.

If (big "if"!) you have high cholesterol and/or family history, you have no way of knowing whether you have a ticking time bomb in your chest, and Lipitor is your friend. If your doctor has ever suggested Lipitor, and you've resisted out of pure obstinate anti-pill sentiment, don't be a moron like I was. Get on the pills and enjoy the privilege of good health. There are people out there trying to convince us that cholesterol's a red herring and Lipitor's a bugaboo. The thing is, though, that our hearts really like oxygen a lot. That's sufficient imperative to disregard the noise and the nonsense.

To repeat: I am completely okay. No restrictions, no recuperation. It's like nothing ever happened. So there's no need for sympathy, concern, wishes for a speedy recovery, or anything like that. Hey, welcome to the future (I'm feeling a lot less miffed about not having a jet-pack).

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Improved Albatrosses and Red Herrings

I've rewritten the bottom half of the previous posting, "Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings", in case you want to give it another read.

As I note in the piece, I've been straining to make this point for some time now, in various postings, and these changes help a bit, though I'm still not satisfied. As always, Leff's Seventh Law applies, so as my thinking clarifies, hopefully I'll be able to finally deliver this in a sharp way. Meanwhile, you can sadistically watch me struggle....

Friday, August 22, 2014

Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings

A few years ago, I lost a bunch of weight, worked out (hard) daily, and, for the first time in my life, looked really good with my shirt off. And yet nothing changed. No one was the least bit nicer to me, women did not throw themselves at me, nothing in my life got detectably better!

Strangers treated me exactly the same; it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them. Crowds didn't gather to gape in astonishment.

"Duh," you say. But if you'll think about it, you'll realize there's something bugging you about yourself that's precisely the same: thinning hair, too short, too old, etc. Whatever your Achilles heel, if you were to rectify it, the world would fail to celebrate. Things would still feel slightly "off". Decks would still seem a bit stacked against you. People wouldn't be quite nice enough, fair enough, caring enough. You might manage to shift yourself to some different category, but the categories are surprisingly non-heirarchical. It doesn't get "better". The same vague undercurrent of malice, which we mistakenly take personally, persists.

I wrote last year here on the Slog that:
If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all external injustice appears to stem from that....The world is "off", and it has nothing to do with you. Yet, whoever you are, including billionaires and movie stars, things seem stacked against you...and it feels personal. So we (mostly unconsciously) attribute the brunt of it to whichever personal characteristic we happen to focus on.
The ramifications are profound, particularly in how they affect minorities. If you're black or Muslim or old or a woman or short or Jewish or Asian or gay or disabled, you certainly endure some bona fide bigoted headwind. So it's natural that much of the world's non-specific harshness, malice, and injustice would strike you as more of that; as more personally focused than it truly is.  

This explains obsessive feminists who over-frame everything as gender issues, Jews who use the term "anti-semitic" several times per day, etc etc. In each case, there are legitimate fights to be fought, but there is an unrealistic notion of how the other side of the coin experiences the world - how good, exactly, it can get even when one's perceived shackles are removed (or are reclassified as something other than shackles). Watch crowds walk by (in a city, where people are less diligent about composing their public expression), and you'll see almost entirely grim, anxious, stressed, put-upon faces. Including people with plenty of whatever you feel you lack - or feel persecuted for lacking.

Money is a great example. When people who've spent their lives fantasizing about riches and resenting the advantages of wealthy people get a windfall of cash, they soon discover an uneasy truth: they shift to become a different "one of them", that's all. Nothing essential changes. We've heard enough tales of lottery winners and child stars to know they don't often live happily ever after, and we falsely assume it's because they've been foolish enough to screw up a good thing. But that's not the problem. It's that the visceral sense of grievance remained; money didn't make everything better as they'd imagined it would*.

Whatever cards you've been dealt, you're playing a role, with upsides and downsides. It's sometimes possible to flip to a different role. But even apparent elevation turns out to be no such thing, because no particular role is inherently better; they're all mixed bags; all of them! Any illusions to the contrary stem from the neurotic human tendency to obsess over what's missing.

* - Facing this reality, people tend to do two stupid things: 1. they overspend in an anxious effort to more tangibly experience their wealth (wealth can be actively experienced only via relentless spending; one quickly inures to baubles previously hoarded), and/or 2. they take silly, desperate risks to get still more money, figuring their continued dissatisfaction stems from being merely rich, rather than super-rich. If you suppose you'd handle that situation more wisely, consider: you yourself are a rich person with desperate dreams of super-riches.

PS - this is an abstruse point I've been straining to make in a few previous postings, including this one. Hopefully I'm getting a little closer...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

You're Old, Part 745

1977 - the year Fonzie jumped the shark on Happy Days and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz was arrested - was as close to today as it was to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

People Don't Fucking Listen

The Economist had an interesting article about research into the fact that one can say completely random stuff to people without their noticing, because people don't fucking listen to each other anyway.

At least, according to the study, 27-42% of study participants provably hadn't. But they unfortunately tested via remote discussion over text messages. If they'd done the study with people speaking face to face - where most communication takes place on the level of pheromones and facial micro-movements and other creepy factors not affected by the higher conscious attention human beings seldom apply - I bet the rate of non-listening would be far higher.

I've been on top of this for years, myself. Whenever I notice someone's attention wandering while I'm speaking, I try to extract what fun I can by linoleum buckling when you put all the chocolate sauce on it those people can all just go to Akron Ohio and wash their shoelaces for all I care how about you how's work?

In fact, I referred to it obliquely years ago here on the Slog in a posting titled "Saying Intentionally Dumb Things to Friends":
It's a good idea to periodically say intentionally really dumb things to your friends, and watch their reactions. If they react pretty much as they usually do, you're in deep trouble.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More TV Show Gushing

I'm going nuts trying to keep up with the Golden Age of Television (probably healthier than my efforts keeping up with the Golden Age of Food In The 90's).

Here's the top of the latest crop (Note: I hesitate to describe gimmick/set-up/genre, because shows this good transcend all that; you don't need to be a fantasy buff to dig Game of Thrones, a horror buff to love Hannibal, or a sci-fi fan to watch Orphan Black; these programs aren't time wasters for niche aficionados, they're bona fide art):

Rectify, on Sundance Channel. You can catch up with season one on Netflix.
This one's actually in its second year, but ratings indicate I may be the only one watching it. Thoughtful, introspective Daniel Holden has been sprung after decades on death row, returning to his lush and louche home town in rural Georgia, where he struggles to readjust to society. Incredibly subtle; the meditative pace bugs the bejesus out of viewers craving lots of action and plot (here's lead actor Aden Young ranting - e.g. "What coke-fuelled moron came up with the idea to criticise the concept of time while watching a show about the concept of time?" - at viewers who are "hate watching" it). Don't listen to the haters. This is a beautiful work of art. And remember that I was recommending Breaking Bad (among other things) to you before hardly anyone was touting it!

Manhattan on WGN, back episodes available only via Hulu Plus (which conveniently offers a free trial week...and you can also find a number of Criterion Collection films there).
A highly fictionalized story of the Manhattan Project, this one's been drawing me in in spite of initial reservations. Such beautiful cinematography, and excellent acting.

The Knick on Cinemax but also on HBO on a slight delay.
In this one, Steven Soderbergh directs/writes/edits Clive Owen in the tale of a cutting edge surgeon in 1900. It's the first depiction of the past where the characters appear to be living in a "now" rather than a mouldered "then". 1900 felt every bit as futuristic at the time as 2014 does now; maybe more so, because the acceleration of progress had just begun to superheat. It's one of the "now"-iest period pieces ever, and the choice of an electronic music score highlights this quite cleverly (that last observation was hoisted from critic Alan Sepinwall).

The Leftovers, on HBO, is another slow, meditative, and particularly bleak dystopian show about the near-future effects of 10% of the Earth's population having suddenly disappeared. It's not an old-school high-concept sci-fi thing making heavy-handed points about our society; it's a thoughtfully worked out feat of world building, and, like Rectify (see above), it will draw you in if given a chance...even if it's not quite the work of art that, say, Rectify is.

Outlander on Starz
Based on Diana Gabaldon's series about a tough but sensitive WW I nurse transported to 18th century Scotland, this one's produced by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald Moore. Yes, everyone's going historical - aka "period" - this year, but such flocking randomly happens, and, again, greatness transcends genre. Only...I'm not sure this one's truly great. We'll see, though. We're only one episode in at this point, and while I'm not seeing the meticulous attention to detail I'd prefer, there's a lot to like, so I'll be giving it a chance.

I'll list, below, ongoing series previously mentioned here on the Slog (if you do a search, note that most have been mentioned more than once). Every one of these is worth going out of your way to catch up with, but I've sorted them in descending order of oh-my-godness:

The Americans
Rick and Morty
Masters of Sex
Game of Thrones
Orphan Black
Orange is the New Black
Key and Peele
Good Wife

Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating things from 1 to 10, I'd say that Hannibal's a "10", the next six are "9"s, and everything from Orphan Black down is a solid "8" (compared not to previous TV series, but to movies and other well-respected art forms). For those catching up, bear in mind that the first three, while great in their first seasons, vastly improved in their second seasons (all completed as of now), and Louie trailed off just slightly in its most recent season (but was still great). Masters of Sex, currently in its second season, is also much improved.

Of the new crop listed above, Rectify's close to "10"ing, and the others are too new to say for sure, but all have a shot at "9"hood...or at least solid "8"ishness.

As always, you'd be smart to follow up your viewing (or catch-up binge viewing) by reading Alan Sepinwall's excellent recaps and reviews....and the often high-quality comments posted beneath his articles.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

More on Chowhound's Policy Shift

It dawns on me, that what I'm reading in this Chowhound policy change announcement is not what others may be reading. This explains, for one thing, the initial happy acceptance of some people in that thread.

A fast reading of the announcement might make someone feel delighted that food professionals will participate and share their know-how. One envisions artisanal cheese makers dropping by to discuss their rennet, or Danny Meyer explaining how Union Square Cafe gets their bar nuts so darned tasty.

No. That sort of thing has always been allowed. We've had many known figures drop by to offer info or just to swap tips. Chowhound's always been the sort of hip venue where they won't be mobbed or hassled.

So that's not it, in spite of the careful wording of the announcment. Thing is, people don't realize the fearsome slime pit perpetually flowing, ala "Ghostbusters" weakest plot gimmick, beneath the streets of I observed in my previous posting that "it's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden," and Chowhound's weed pile, thanks to its tireless moderators, is nothing short of epic. Chowhound is an artificially-created entity, in spite of how natural it may seem. It betrays no shadows of the crap continuously excised. As I posted just two weeks ago:
Every earnest effort eventually gets gamed...massively. That's why there's so little earnestness in the world (and why it feels so charming when it does occasionally arise). At a certain point, either 1. the operation's earnestness evaporates, 2. the operation gets so bunkered that it's no fun anymore, or 3. the operators shift their business plan to leverage the gaming (let's call this one the Yelp approach).
I had no foreknowledge of this announcement, but I guess I nailed it. This is a #3, but it's not even about revenue, directly (it appears that no money changes hands as a result of this policy change). It's simply wild flailing for traffic via the crazy notion that repelling parasites cuts into page view counts.

The community manager recently posted this:
Kneejerk deletion of anything that smacked of advertising was a whole lot faster and simpler than what we're doing now. Trying to help people understand the site and use it effectively is harder than telling them to go away.
So promoters and shills are just wounded children who need to be gently shown the way. Well, good luck with that....

How to use food sites as chowhounding tools

Just posted to Chowhound.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chowhound's Coup de Grace

Lots of links below, all well worth clicking, fwiw.

Well, this is supremely unsurprising. The bean counters and brainy corporate Subway-scarfing geniuses currently running Chowhound have decided on a major change of course. Can't say I didn't see it coming.

As I explained in my series of postings recounting the growth and sale of Chowhound, what made Chowhound good was a counterintuitive move: filtering. Rather than aim for the largest set of eyeballs, we did everything possible to discourage the overwhelming majority of visitors from using the site. The result was an incredibly distilled and valuable group of users whose info was amazingly savvy and reliable. This, in turn, drew hordes of onlookers, who might not be food crazies, but who couldn't resist staying apprised re: the latest soft shell crab discoveries by people whose entire waking lives centers around such quests. The axiom "less is more" has never been more aptly proven.

Every gardener knows that limitation is key. It's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden, and that work is almost entirely subtractive. The more meticulously you stave off bad stuff, the more good stuff happens.

In the case of Chowhound, "bad stuff" means postings which dilute or contaminate the savvy and reliability of the data. Self-promoters and shills contaminate, and the ditzy people who don't mind contamination dilute. This is a vicious circle. As I explained in part 8 of the aforementioned series:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.
Over the years, the moderators have done yeoman's work staving off contamination. But other factors have created dilution, leaving Chowhound a shadow of its former self. This latest decision - to embrace what was once heroically fended off - will be the coup de grace. And c'est la vie. I never expected the thing to run for 10 years, much less 17. How many other circa 1997 web sites remain, plying more or less the same mission?

As you can imagine, veterans have been messaging me like crazy all afternoon. Many will leave the site, which, alas, will only accelerate the decline. The people who make things good are much more skittish than the people who make things bad; that's why entropy and dilution usually win in the long run. In the human realm - even more than in the horticultural realm - flowers perish voluntarily at the sight of weeds (often even upon first glimpse).

My first thought is the same one that's nagged at me over the course of Chowhound's decline: perhaps I should open up a smaller, more soulful forum. My usual second thought is to consider something more pleasant, like grinding out lit cigarettes in my eye.

But, you know, none of the things that made Chowhound's management a horror (staving off contamination, dealing with jerks and psychopaths, coping with jury-rigged software, and flailing to pay bills) are unavoidable.

It strikes me that a private forum populated by a couple hundred serious hounds would avoid all those pitfalls. Heck, it could be a public forum, just so long as onlookers were read-only. I loved Chowhound when it had a couple hundred users. Those were the good days. If we could keep it limited, moderation wouldn't be an issue, dilution wouldn't be a peril, and there'd be no bills to pay. If I could think of a nice easy pre-existing platform to launch it on (Google or Facebook groups wouldn't cut it), I might not even mind spearheading it.

One of our best and most veteran hounds just told me that he no longer uses the site much. His chowhoundish friends simply text each other when they discover good places. That's obviously not a viable way to aggregate and archive tips. In a sense, it's like 1997 all over again, with chowhounds alienated from mainstream food coverage and resorting to tenuous and inadequate word-of-mouth networks. They could use a home.

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