Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Manager's Dilemma: Talent and Laziness

Here's the most counterintuitive management tenet I know: urging workers to try harder isn't the appropriate recourse when they're performing tasks for which they're ill-suited.

My sister - a natural artist who emerged from the womb able to draw, paint, and sculpt - inadvertently taught me this early on. Like most naturally gifted people, she didn't view her talent as special. She assumed everyone could do art! From her perspective, people who draw poorly simply aren't trying hard enough.

This misapprehension can be spotted in many circumstances. Gregarious people assume shy people don't try hard enough to be social. Attractive people think unattractive people don't make enough effort with their appearance. Etc., etc..

I grasped this early on, yet it was slow to fully sink in. This led to problems when people I've managed have failed to be, for instance, creative, or clearly articulate. My urge is to coax them to try harder. They seem, above all, lazy. I've continued making my sister's error long into adulthood.

Egotists don't have this problem. They see people around them (especially those under their supervision) as lesser creatures, so deficiency is unsurprising (they'd never have expected workers to match their magnificent talents). Given that egotists run most hierarchical organizations, this explains why such operations are usually stiflingly drudge-ish. If you never expect people to step up, to "bring it", to leap to unexpected new heights, there's little alternative but to treat them as finite commodities, and to box them in so their core competencies can be efficiently pumped, like egg-laying chickens in tight little pens.

Managers who don't have big egos, by contrast, are shocked and perplexed when workers can't do what they can, leaving those workers confused and annoyed by the expectation that they'll magically exhibit faculties not in their nature. The problem is that the very notion of a fixed, limiting "nature" involves a condescending worldview that's creepy terra incognita for those lacking the condescension gene.

Yet, as with many shortcomings, there's a hidden pearl. If you don't know better than to expect greatness and transcendence, workers sometimes, indeed, will step up to meet those expectations. Whenever people recall that they "did their best work" in a certain situation, it's generally the result of having worked for a non-egotist, who declined to box in chickens because "nature" was never imagined a limiting factor.

But while it's fine for hope to spring eternal, the challenge is to remember that it's not laziness that prevents cats from fetching balls or cows from hunting mice.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Chicken Seasoning Quest

There's a certain seasoning effect I've been trying to convey with broiled chicken for years now. Today I finally nailed it:  Spanish smoked paprika, galangal, and black pepper.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Food Science Can't Foster Deliciousness

I was listening to a lengthy J. Kenji López-Alt interview on Freakonomics Radio when I suddenly realized what's wrong with the whole "food science" movement.

(Note: I enjoy and admire J. Kenji López-Alt's stuff; none of this is a knock on him, personally or professionally.)

Consumer-facing operations like Cooks Illustrated and Lopez-Alt's Food Lab are dwarfed by the mighty funds and smarts invested in the enormous field of food science. And while food science addresses many challenges, the golden ticket would be to make food more reliably delicious. If a food scientist could break the code for wrangling even just one set of ingredients into a reliably moan-worthy result via replicable algorithm, the world would be her panko-encrusted oyster.

But after decades of big food science, with billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of dollars spent - the needle hasn't budged. Burger King does not grace the world with supernal delight....even though ground beef grilled over fire is awfully hard to mess up. Food science doesn't foster deliciousness. It just doesn't. We're in collective denial over this, akin to the widespread misconception that cosmetic surgery fosters beauty.

Food science can ensure more consistent results, increase efficiency, and stave off various poor outcomes. It can allow you to swap in cheaper ingredients and methods. These relatively pedestrian accomplishments constitute the industry's entire return-on-investment. Plastic surgeons can certainly make your boobs bigger.

What is deliciousness? If it's a certain optimal bill of ingredients combined and cooked in an optimal manner, as many people assume against all evidence, then we'd already have cracked the code. If the hordes of brilliant, lavishly-funded PhD's in our industrial-gastronomic complex could make food even 10% more delicious, this would be a very different world.

Similarly, if emotionally affecting music were the inevitable result of certain pitches sounding with given timbres at certain intervals, computer-generated music would make us cry...and bad musicians would use computer assistance to sound great. But nyuh-uh. Such assistance can correct the intonation of an out-of-tune singer, or touch up other blemishes, but it can't make bad singing beautiful, nor make beautiful singing more beautiful. Cosmetic surgery can't make an ugly person beautiful, nor make a beautiful person more beautiful. It can merely correct flaws

Error correction doesn't yield beauty. Beauty is not an absence of flaws (in fact, the greatest beauty is often flawed....and flawlessness is often insipid). There's nothing palpably wrong with most commercial foods. Their low appeal isn't due to flaws, it's due to a lack of beauty. The harder we try to address this shortfall by shaving away at flaws, the worse the beauty deficit becomes. Consider the outcome of lots of cosmetic surgery!

As I write this, The Sainted Arepa Lady somewhere blithely rubs crummy margarine over corn cakes sizzling away upon her unevenly-heated griddle. She summons magnificence from cheap supermarket provisions and dodgy equipment. If Lopez-Alt were to advise her to switch to a provably optimal blend of Moroccan Argan oil and otter fat, they wouldn't taste better, because, past a certain (low) threshold, error correction does not augment beauty (what's more, I have no doubt that a year hence she'll have found a way to make her new provisions taste exactly like margarine; see the tale of George's New Piano).

It's possible to see clearly through a lot of murky thinking if you'll bear closely in mind that great photos can be taken with lousy cameras. My iPhone camera is vastly better than the equipment Ansel Adams used, but the aesthetic gap between he and I hasn't narrowed. The big development is that I enjoy vastly greater ease of use.

"Ease of use". That's our jam. That's where the money and ingenuity show results. Quality, however, remains a great Mystery. It stems from love, skill, care, commitment, and other perturbingly vague concepts that stubbornly resist reduction, formulation, and replication. A century of research, supported by upwards of a trillion dollars, hasn't increased deliciousness. Our food is less flawed, and a helluva lot easier to make, but science is not making it more delicious. If it could, it surely would.

I confess that I'm as enticed as anyone by geeky food science writing. I find myself investing in the widespread baseless hope that some new move will improve my cooking. But it's only possible if I'm doing something so wrong that I'm making success impossible. If so, a more optimized method would indeed improve my results. If you've been cooking steaks exclusively via armpit heat, science definitely has very good news for you.

But the lousiness of the foods all around us is not due to errors. On the contrary, most of it has been fully optimized by food science's best efforts. They've had lots of "work done" (the culinary equivalent of tummy tucks and face lifts). Yet you still can't get a tasty pie at Pizza Hut - even though cheesy, saucy bread is awfully hard to mess up.

I understand deliciousness is not Pizza Hut's sole priority. They'd gladly settle for moderate deliciousness if they could save two cents per metric ton. But if food science worked - like, at all - then Pizza Hut surely wouldn't suck. Sucking would be obsolete. Instead, flaws are obsolete. As is hard work. And that tells me we're actually headed the wrong way. Great food is never blandly flawless, nor is it created by shirking hard work!

Deliciousness barely correlates with (much less is caused by) factors like technique, equipment, or ingredients. I'm not suggesting it's entirely a matter of hippy love and chakras; even the most earnest three year old can't create wonders by simply splashing together random condiments from the fridge. Some minimally effective workflow must be established. But once it is, tweaking via science can increase your efficiency and your consistency, and certainly your ease of use. It can debug flaws. But it won't increase the deliciousness.

Just as plastic surgery can give you tauter skin or bigger boobs, but never anything resembling beauty, we need to recognize what's possible. If a few bucks worth of science could augment your deliciousness, think what the annual investment of $25 billion should have accomplished. We'd be moaning over the supernal, subtle qualities of our Slim Jims and Pop Tarts!

In fact, food science works against deliciousness. Increased efficiency removes opportunities for human touch to impart deliciousness. And flaws are the vital spice of art. And consistency is a regression toward the mean (inspiration is fleeting, so expunging volatility ensures uniformly uninspiring results). As with a taut Beverly Hills face, the application of blunt science to profound aesthetics produces a zero-flaw, zero-beauty outcome.


Companion pieces:
The Evil That Is Panera or...Why Adam Smith's Invisible Hand Reaches For Lousy Chow
and
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors (which was too optimistic about technology).

Careful readers will note that an enormous amount has been left unspoken. As we've considered food, photography, music, and cosmetic surgery, the question pervades: what's the missing chunk? What, exactly, resists dissection, comprehension, and replication? Whence beauty?

It's a question I've pondered since childhood, and have tried to answer, in a thousand ways, in a thousand of these Slog postings. The problem is it can't be stated in a direct, crisp manner. If it could, then it would be something hackable and wield-able. But even a trillion dollars of research hasn't budged that needle. If it could be explained in clear terms, we'd have done so centuries ago.

Scientists remain certain they just need to slice finer and sample wider. I love science, but the two issues which most intrigue me - Consciousness and Deliciousness (and its analogs in other art forms) - appear to resist all scientific/materialistic investigation. I wonder how many centuries it will take for us to spot the cul-de-sac our collective noses have smashed up against (note: this is why some materialists are getting angrily dogmatic. They're starting to smell the inevitable endgame, and they don't like it one bit).


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Modesty, Heroes, God, and Singers

I had a run for a few years where every time an eatery looked good to me, it would, indeed, turn out to be extraordinarily good. I've long been a skilled chowhound, but for this length of time - a period I called my "streak" - I just couldn't fail.

(It wasn't entirely pleasant. It's hard to enjoy peaks when there are no valleys. What's more, I kept questioning my taste, bringing people along just to confirm that I hadn't lost my discernment. It was all pretty confusing and weird. FWIW, my streak ended during my Chow Tour, in Halifax, where "Gingerbread Haus Bakery" excited me so much that I bought a vast array of their stuff for a tasting among local friends, and we discovered that every bite was simply okay.)

Around that time, I made the mistake of telling a young food writer about my streak, and she reacted spitefully. She thought I was being immodest; that I was boasting.

My mechanic can rebuild a transmission. This is one of the most complex tasks a human being can tackle. If I lived a thousand years, I couldn't learn this skill. So is my mechanic boastful when he confidently notes that this is something he can do? Should he instead mumble "Ooh, geez, I don't know about "rebuild"; I can kinda fool around a little, and sometimes it works out pretty okay...."?

My mechanic certainly takes pride in being good at what he does, but it's not something he would ever think to boast about. Nor would it occur to him to soft-pedal his ability. Soft-pedalers indicate that they find themselves so awesome that they need to tone it down for the inferiors.

There's nothing as boastful as modesty. I wrote a few years ago about a Harvard-educated friend who hemmed and hawed whenever someone asked him where he'd gone to school.
He'll meekly fess up, looking horribly uncomfortable. At some point, I felt compelled to point out to him that, really, Harvard's not that big a deal, and that the pains he takes to soft-pedal it transparently reveal how earth-shakingly impressive he actually deems it.
I'm not saying boasting isn't a drag, or that modesty isn't a virtue. But people have lost perspective on this. Modesty isn't about denying that you can do what you perfectly well know you can do - which, among other things, deprives those around you of being helped out by your forte. Modesty is the recognition that everybody's got a forte, and Richard Scarry was right: it takes all kinds (and, by pooling our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole). Modesty is helping people eat better via your extraordinary ability to find good places, and exuberantly tapping other people's skills for the countless areas in which you recognize that you're a complete fricking moron (and admiring - to the point of marvel - all these talents).

The kernel of this is hard to express, because humanity is so extremely turned away from this perspective that the words strike us as flat and incomprehensible: doing great stuff doesn't make you great. There are no great men/women; just shitty little rivers.

  • Recognizing this need not be depressing.
  • This is what all those rock and movie stars mean when they deflect credit to "God" or whatever in their awards speeches. This is their clumsy means of expressing that talent works through you, not from you (i.e. doing great stuff doesn't make you great). The really good epiphanies, eurekas, and insights simply arrive; they're not manufactured (where that stuff comes from is unnameable, and "God" is one term we've chosen to name the unnameable).
  • This is why you should always expect to be disappointed when you meet your heroes. It's helpful to remember that humans are fast-calculating farm animals capable of a few transcendent pass-thru magic tricks. Everything beyond that is mere pose.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Chowhounding Albany (and Environs)

I just posted to Chowhound about some good fines in and around Albany (extending to Troy, Saratoga Springs, and Kinderhook).

I'm way too overwhelmed in my mystery project for this to be any sort of polished writing, but the tips are solid.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Customer Service Turing Test

Here’s how to quickly determine the humanity of your customer service representative (pass it on!):
Them: "Hello, Mr. Leff. My name is Johnny and I’ll be providing you with excellent customer service. How are you today, sir?"

Me: “I’m very well, thanks so much for asking. How are YOU?”
Of course, I’ve stepped on his line. At this point, a human rep will be challenged to do two grueling things: 1. use his brain, and 2. be spontaneous. His response will tell you all you need to know.

25% will register what you’ve done. They'll chuckle, or pause awkwardly for a moment. Roused from the tedium, they'll awkwardly mumble a genuinely off-the-cuff reply, reluctantly bypassing their scripted answer of “Very well, thanks so much for asking.” You are speaking to a human. Continue your call.

50% will simply answer “very well” without batting an eyelash, and move on smoothly. At least they're able to respond to input. Continue with caution.

25% will blithely power forward, replying “Very well, thanks for asking”. And, oh dear, someone’s just rang your doorbell, and/or your lunch is burning, and/or you've spotted a rampaging elephant swiftly bearing down on your house, and/or discovered a lump on your breast or testicle, so you’ll just unfortunately need to call back later g'bye.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A 20 Year Trip to Alpha Centauri

So the plan is to create thousands of spacecrafts, each with the weight of a paper clip and carrying a computer, a camera, a laser communication system, and a plutonium engine. That's the easy part. The hard part is to blast them, up in space, with millions of lasers from down here on the ground, all in perfect synchronization through Earth's roiling atmosphere.

Accelerated to 50,000 miles per second, or one quarter the speed of light, they'll pass Mars' orbit in ten minutes, and catch up to Voyager 1's position in three days, finally reaching Alpha Centauri in under 20 years(!), where they'll take photos, and beam home prints for our perusal four years later.

If we can make this happen 20 years from now, and I watch it with the lasagna, there's a chance I'll be able to see close-up images of exo-planets within my lifetime.

This was all announced yesterday, so even Wikipedia hasn't caught up, but The Economist offers pretty rich coverage.


I never did get my jetpack, but between this and the craft beer boon, I've decided I like the future. I was going to mention "video phone" along with jetpack, until I remembered my iPhone does FaceTime (and, come to think of it, I loathe Facetime, which, hmm, has me rethinking a few things).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Pliant Perspective re: My Posting About Frozen Perspective

I just made some tweaks to the previous entry about frozen perspective. One downside (?) of a pliant perspective is never seeing anything you've ever worked on as complete!

Boredom, Certainty, and Frozen Perspective

I wrote last month about how certainty is humanity's crowning glory ("Since the dawn of history, our heroes have been the staunchest of the staunch. People of unwavering conviction, adhering faithfully to a rigid code") and also its downfall ("The central problem isn't religion, or political ideology, or racism. It's not even mob sentiment or extremism, per se. If you peel through the layers to the core of the problem, you'll find that it is, above and beyond all else, a matter of certainty.").

Between those cojoined Taoist extremes there lies an insidious peril: boredom. Boredom is humanity's most popular expression of certainty. It is the unwavering conviction that nothing interesting or provocative can possibly come from the people you're with in the place you're at. Inputs are shut down and perspective is narrowed. Nothing for me is forthcoming here, so I shift into "sleep" mode.

The remarkable thing about boredom is that it is, itself, incredibly boring. Bored people spray boredom. It's the ultimate rebuke of Gandhi's exhortation to be the change you wish to see in the world. A three step maneuver is involved: 1. assessment (inevitably flippant) that there's nothing of interest, 2. self-defeating shutdown of receptivity to anything of potential interest, and 3. resolution to make yourself of no interest whatsoever to those around you.

If you're someone dedicated to being surprising, insightful, and creative, bored people will be your kryptonite. They're a suffocating pillow. A certainty of disinterest is the single most effective countermeasure to interestingness. Creative, surprising people are put at great risk by the presence of this potent neurotoxin.

At its very root, the problem with certainty - either the big kind that fosters bloodshed, or the smaller kind that fosters buzzkill - is far simpler than you'd think. The problem is that it involves a frozen perspective. That's it! Frozen perspective is at the root of all human misery, large and small, inflicted or endured. And certainty is the means by which perspective freezes.

If you practice expanding and refocusing your perspective, you'll never be bored. And the less bored you allow yourself to be, the more interestingness and creativity will be fostered, both within yourself and in those around you who were previously thwarted by your boredom.


My previous, slightly less developed effort at this
An example of the underlying issue of perspective .

Friday, April 8, 2016

Everything that Happened Around You and Nothing You Did

Actor Tim Olyphant (star of Justified) on today's Leonard Lopate Show, explaining how to keep it fresh and creative while repeating the same scene umpteen times:
Every take you're trying to see how much you can remember everything that happened around you...and nothing you did.


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