Sunday, September 15, 2019

Why is Deliciousness So Rare?

Why isn't deliciousness more common, considering that we finally enjoy:
  • Omnipresent availability of nearly every imaginable ingredient.
  • Immense widespread knowledge about cooking techniques once guarded as professional secrets, plus common familiarity with techniques of other cultures.
  • A public that appreciates deliciousness much more than ever (prior to the 1990's rich people dined out mostly as an expression of status and non-rich people were mostly content with basic nourishment - deliciousness being a welcome yet unnecessary parameter for both).
  • Massively advanced food science, fed by multibillion-dollar R&D budgets.
  • Food lovers no longer being considered fussy weirdos. Now that the jocks and the cool kids can be "into food", chowhounds and foodies no longer seem so ditzy.
For one thing, it seems certain at this juncture that delicious cooking doesn't scale; it can't be produced by chain restaurants. If McDonald's could offer scrumptiousness, they'd have done so long ago (wouldn't it be fantastic if McDonald's was great?). If a mid-level family restaurant chain could turn out poached chicken breast or lasagna with the ability to make customers moan with pleasure, they certainly would have. Chains can hire outstandingly talented chefs to create recipes, and leading scientists to innovate processes ensuring a faithful rendering, and yet, it's still all crap. 100% crap across the board, despite vast advances and money and science and economies of scale. It's at least edible, sure; edible drek that can be fluffed and lit and marketed to not detract from a wider brand experience. But it's drek nonetheless.
Popeye's fried chicken is pretty good, yeah, but it's more mindlessly crunchy/greasy/brain-stem-pleasurable than truly delicious. Just try any of their inert side dishes (or their cringe-inducing biscuits) to see the hard limits. Popeye's chicken seems to represent the ceiling of what's possible, quality-wise, in a large chain, and it's really not that good.

I know there are those who insist McDonald's french fries are damn good, but compare them to fries produced by a talented fry cook and I know which batch you'll ignore.
The problem is that there's no talent in the kitchen at a McDonald's or Applebee's or Olive Garden. Just low-priced drone cooks following strict procedures backed by infinite money, research, and industrial design. While it may all flow from genuine talent atop the pyramid in some industrial kitchen somewhere, even the cleverest procedures can't mass-produce deliciousness. This should have been conceded by now (instead, biz types mostly just define deliciousness down).

But while chains are a big slice of the food service pie, there are still countless venues where professional cooks cook. Alas, these mostly pretty much suck, too.

As a picky mo-fo, I'd go so far as to declare the vast majority of celebrated hipster pop-up Yelp-5-star chow more shticky than toothsome. Even the rarified top echelon of today's culinary heap, the pricy, much-lauded tasting menu temples, inevitably leave me cold. They can be extraordinarily competent, but mere competence - even diligent, meticulous competence - cannot yield deliciousness. Deep training and luxe ingredients can't make me go "Mmm", much less lose my mind. Never forget that The Sainted Arepa Lady used supermarket margarine, and I've never found a way to spend my way to her level of aesthetic devastation.

So why isn't food better? Why is deliciousness still such an aberration that its discovery gets people excited? Why are "8"s ("vocal expression of pleasure") so rare, and "9"s ("rational thought breaks down") like meteors? I've thought a lot about this, and much of it, you'll be unsurprised to hear, boils down to limited perceptual framing, i.e. perspective.

Most people in food service have been trained for consistency and competence, not deliciousness (remember Leff's Third Law!). Most food service jobs are about getting it done, not conjuring magic, which is a whole other thing. This is big reason why most food flatlines the deliciometer. In "Should You Go to Cooking School?", I wrote:
Deliciousness and competence are very different things. In any given moment, mountains of competent food are being cooked - much of it by culinary school grads - that you or I would never want to eat. That drab hotel breakfast buffet is competent. That mediocre fund-raiser chicken dinner is competent. The expensive "gourmet" catering store where everything's precious but nothing has a lick of flavor? Competent! All the grim non-deliciousness out there, comprising 98% of food service, is prepared by competent robo-chefs who literally can't remember what deliciousness is. They believe they're nailing it, because they're doing the moves they were taught, and they're doing it all correctly.

All these hacky, uninspired chefs cook drab, spiritually neutral food that is, from a technical perspective, right on the money. It's hard to stock that breakfast buffet with ninety zillion individual items! It requires the logistical and execution skills of a small army, and the chefs can be rightfully proud of pulling it off day after day. But they may never register the fact that no customer has ever clenched eyes shut, pounded table with fist, and hollered "Holy CRAP that's great!". Such an outcome is not even on their radar.
Aspiration frames your perspective, and limited aspiration functions as a constraint. In a posting titled "Framing Failure", I explained that if you don't aim higher than necessary, you'll average lower than necessary:
Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less; they must be trying to play in tune and consistently succeeding. Wrong. They're failing as often as anyone, but they're working within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but they're failing well.
If you're intending to make competent quiche, you'll wind up just below that - nowhere near greatness. And if you try make great quiche, you'll come out below that. Greatness only happens with unreasonably high ("better than great"!) aspirations, and even then only if there's the talent, commitment and endurance to fulfill those aspirations. Why should that be anything than rare?

Greatness is never an accident. Greatness is produced by heroically, obsessively fighting crazily far up the curve of declining results. It doesn't just "happen".

As I wrote in a posting titled "The Most Helpful Insight About Creativity":
"Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond.
To achieve steady output at the high level of "delicious", you've got to be an absolute kook, raving and sobbing and treating your kids maybe not so nice and getting ulcers and dying young. This is not "normal."

Another way of seeing it: you can't achieve escape velocity without a shmear of the slippery, artsy-fartsy, woo-woo stuff - i.e. love, talent, magic, touch, etc. - which I've been writing about here for years, trying to pin it down (see postings labeled "Creativity"). One of my central points is that that the process leading to that stuff isn't normal, isn't healthy, and you'd turn your head away if you were to glimpse the process. Magic is messy, not clean and prim and shiny. Never forget that Beethoven composed in a diaper.

Consider this: just opening a drably mediocre restaurant and keeping it going day after day is an exhausting experience requiring super-human perseverance (which makes even hacks mistakenly consider themselves deeply-committed artists).

Another factor: restaurateurs undervalue the importance of a chef's touch, talent, and commitment. As I wrote in "What Makes Restaurants Go Downhill?", they think of chefs as hot-swappable modules, failing to "recognize that deliciousness is the outcome not of sound management, diligent investment, and clear vision, but mostly of how lovingly the chef flips the next pancake."

See also "The Non-Linearity of Deliciousness"

See also "Why My Cooking Isn't Great", which confesses:
Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Formula for Falling Asleep

Once you're in bed with lights off...

1. Un-smile your face.

2. Press your head gently into the pillow, then keep applying just the slightest downward pressure (almost none at all).

3. Imagine the minor ways your body will slump once asleep, and do that.

4. Think of a comforting object or pet or deity (just not any actual person). Perhaps your teddy bear when you were a kid, or an imaginary friend, or a departed pet, or Jesus or Buddha or whatever. If nothing comes to mind, buy yourself a rubber chicken or toy crocodile and sprawl it across your nightstand. And let's call it "him".

5. As thoughts, sensations, feelings, memories, worries, and emotions arise, outsource to "him". Something you forgot to take care of? Let "him" do it. Tight hamstrings? Let "him" fix it. Someone you're worried about? Let "him" worry. Tough problem to solve? Let "him" work on it. Bad thing someone said to you? Let him stew over it. Keep doing this unceasingly; whatever your mind or body or emotions produce, hand it over (imagine a sprawling flow chart where every contingency leads away from you and towards this central point that's not you).

Friday, September 13, 2019

Love Thy Neighbor

Two ambiguities have spurred loads of the notoriously un-Christian behavior seen among Christians.

One is that the New Testament comes tantalizingly close to expressing tolerance for other faiths. If there's only one God - as The Book affirms - that makes all believers of all stripes brothers. One literally can't go wrong! Whoever you're praying to, whatever you happen to call Him/Her, that's the dude! But then comes a plainly self-contradictory and rather dick-ish muttering: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me!" I visualize that part being scrawled in by some sternly uptight church father with a Sharpie. What other gods??? I thought there's only one???

Here's the other ambiguity:

Everyone assumes "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" refers to the person in the house or apartment next door. But this makes no sense. First, that would mostly just reinforce tribalism (particularly at that time, when neighborhoods were not, shall we say, super integrated), which isn't at all the vibe the teaching appears to be aiming for (nor is it necessary; humans are plenty tribal without any encouragement).

But there's another interpretation that's beautiful and inspiring and is what I'd imagine was originally intended: "neighbor" means the person who's before you at a given moment.

The Uber driver. The clerk at CVS. The drunk wobbling down the street. The Hispanic painter who works on your living room. The waiter. The imperious rich guy raging re: some perceived trivial overcharge. The beggar asking for pocket change (making you rationalize that, hey, you can't help everybody....but she's not everybody; she's your neighbor; the person before you right now). Help that person. Care about that person. At very least, humanize them (crowds are inherently anonymous, but the person next to you amid a crowd needn't be). Take responsibility for your corner of the world, moment-by-moment.

Even blasting by at 60 mph on the highway: give space and show mercy! Do what you can to make it a pleasant and safe ride for others in your corner of the world. Don't push or lag, and if you're about to miss your exit, maybe rather than scare the crap out of other drivers by lunging across lanes, go an extra couple miles to the next one (you might discover good food!).

If you take this seriously, you'll encounter the usual dilemmas experienced by the helpful. I listed a few in my quick-start guide for would-be Messiahs:
What do alcoholics wish for? Booze. Will it help them? No.
What do control freaks wish for? Obediance. Will it help them? No.
What do narcissists wish for? Attention. Will it help them? No.
What do depressives wish for? Isolated rumination. Will it help them? No.
What do victims wish for? Revenge. Will it help them? No.
"Loving" doesn't always mean giving people what they want. And a related question: how much abuse should you put up with from a stranger/neighbor? Well, I know the Christian answer, but the problem is that cheek-turning doesn't help people; it just enables their worst instincts. Cheek-turners might as well be booze-suppliers. For Christ's sake, I don't think...uh...Christ thought that part out real well. But I do love the neighbor thing.

A rare footer to a footer: Speaking of being helpful and not always giving people what they want, yesterday I saw a guy pushing his bewildered 18-month-old daughter in a shopping cart across a parking lot toward his car. When I say "pushing", I mean he was forcefully shoving the cart forward, as hard as possible, laughing, catching up, then repeating. I approached him screaming. Not because I was angry. I was angry, but that's not why I made a scene.

I could have approached him cordially, pointing out that, gee, friend, this may not be like the safest thing in the world given that cars can back out of their spaces at any moment (and aren't watching for children zooming past super-fast in runaway carts), and that carts can easily overturn, and, y'know, concussion and death and stuff. But that approach couldn't possibly spur behavioral transformation for someone so oblivious. It couldn’t have brought him the million miles from “lighthearted-fun-with-daughter” to “my-god-what-have-I-done???” Low-key feedback couldn’t traverse that vast terrain. 

The guy needed to reframe; be shocked into recognizing behavior shocking enough to draw screaming harangues from strangers. So, yup, I screamed, hard, and while he's undoubtedly stupid enough to deem me the entire problem, a dent might persist in his animal brain. Maybe, just maybe, the super fun game of flinging his bewildered toddler around busy parking lots will have been sadly ruined for him going forward ever since that asshole made a scene and embarrassed him. There are times for persuasive argument, but in matters of extreme safety, you gotta imprint.

Screaming at him, in other words, felt like absolutely the neighborly thing to do.

Expecting Damaged People to Self-Repair to Accommodate You

I'm replaying this golden oldie from August 2017. It offers a dandy example of perceptual reframing from just before I learned to fully frame reframing.

When people treat you poorly, there's a critical question to ask yourself before taking offense: do they treat themselves any better?

A plumber friend vented to me one night. He'd gone to the house of a mutual acquaintance to investigate some emergency in his basement. And the basement was a shocking killing field of cat feces and other random, fetid garbage. It was Silence-of-the-Lambs bad. He cringed as he told the story.

The plumber couldn't fathom how the guy could have expected him to walk through all that. Clean it up first! Grab a broom! Show some consideration! He felt, more than anything, disrespected.

I pointed out that the guy lives there. His kids live there. This is how they live! If he were together enough to clean stuff up and make things nice, his life would be vastly better. You can't expect him to show more consideration, diligence and effort for his plumber than he does for himself and his loved ones!

My plumber friend won't be back, but he immediately dropped his anger.

This flip of perspective doesn't come easily to me, even though I'm more conscious of it than most people. I still have to process every single situation through this filter. And I'm shocked by the frequency. This result is the rule, not an exception.

We're clearly viewing the world with a skewed perspective, not to notice this more. I think it's that we presume - against all evidence! - most people to be essentially reasonable, capable, and competent. So we punish them when their defects impact us, figuring they've lowered their standards out of thoughtless disregard.

An irrational person I know lives a fairly desperate life. When she recently managed to needlessly mess up a situation vitally important to me, I flashed with anger. Why couldn't she be reasonable?!? Well...if she could get out of her own way and be reasonable, she'd have better reasons for doing so than meeting my needs!

Narcissists take note - and I've met very few non-narcissistic humans: it's unreasonable to expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you (and very many people are profoundly damaged, whether they reveal - or even self-recognize - it or not). Expressed this way it sounds completely self-evident; hardly needing to be stated. But I dare you to actually internalize it over time without heroic effort.

This is all really just an offshoot of Leff's Fourth Law (which, as I later conceded, was expressed way better way earlier by Napoleon).

Thursday, September 12, 2019


A hero is like a person in a dunk tank, but without the laughter and affection.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Supplemental Lesson

Yesterday, I offered a brief story worth $145,000 for its deep revelation about consumer behavior. Today's story is a companion piece, probably worth at least a few hundred bucks. But first a bit of history.

When I was three years old, I looked up at my parents and said "Smart people have no common sense". So I'm not exactly someone who's been overestimating human intelligence, having been thoroughly disillusioned around the time I'd learned to stop making poopy in my diapers. Yet every few years I need to lower my assessment even further. I constantly discover I've been overestimating.

(Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to make a much more important observation - one managed by very few people who recognize human lunacy: I myself am plenty bad and dumb and slow and deluded in my way. Spotting idiocy doesn't mean you're smart; it just means you're observant.)

We invited people to sign up for Chowhound's mailing list, but, as always, had no tech. So we asked users to send a blank email to with their email address in the subject line. We set it up this way so they could sign up addresses other than the one they were mailing from (at the time, circa 1998, many people were locked into their work addresses when emailing from work). And it would be easy for us to cull the intended addresses this way.

Question: What percentage of our users (triple filtered for smarts being computer users, early Internet adapters, and appreciators of a niche all-text web site) would you think managed to follow these directions?

I obviously can't account for those who put their sign-up address in the "To" field. But way more than 50% of the remainder put their address in the body, or didn't add it at all. Most arrived with a subject of "Sign Me Up!"

The fact that many people tend to respond to this story by saying "Duh, you made it super-complicated!" does *NOT* invalidate my point!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Obvious Connection Between My Miata and the Zombie Army

As I've mulled over my previous posting, "The Greatest Lesson Ever Taught", it occurs to me (and I just added as a postscript) that the fact that people can be thwarted by trivial impediment is surely related to the fact that most people do nothing.

My posting last year, titled "Filtering the Zombie Army", read, in part:
Most people do nothing. If they sign on, they won't show. If they pledge money, they won't pay. If you hire them, they'll sit in their cubicle and sip coffee.

You know how most soldiers never actually shoot at people? How as few as 30% perform all the kills? I've decided that this isn't a saving grace of humanistic morality. It's just another example of how most people do nothing.

I'm not saying they're lazy. I'm not saying they're liars or deadbeats. Just that they do nothing. Most people do nothing. I think of them as the Zombie Army.


The practical upshot - the thing you can count on - is this: the thing you want them to do is the thing they won't do. Even if they'd like to. Even if they really meant it when they claimed to be spunkily "all in". Most will do nothing.

The Greatest Lesson Ever Taught

You should be charged $145,000 to read the following. I'm not even kidding. It teaches virtually everything you need to know about interface, web design, consumer behavior, and customer friction; the stuff that really matters in commercial enterprise.

Earlier this year I bought a cover for my second car, an old Miata, to keep the birds from crapping all over it. It takes just one minute to easily uncover the car, and another minute to easily replace the cover after I get home.

I have not driven the car once since.

See also "Filtering the Zombie Army"

Monday, September 9, 2019

Past and Future

Talking to someone plagued with guilt over a past action, worried he'll never overcome it:

What do you suppose it will feel like to be you in the future? Try to envision how Future You will feel. Even just 20 seconds in the future! Will the future feel different? Will it feel tangibly futuristic?

Ok, and...we're there! I'm now speaking to Future You! The curtain has pulled back and here he is! So, how does it feel? Futuristic in any way? No? Same old feeling, just like always? Super-familiarly “now”, even though you're Future Man?

Let's try another. What did it feel like to be in the past? Try to remember who you were when we began this conversation. You're recalling through the gauze of memory, so Past You doesn't feel quite real; he's a bit of a ghost. Well, in 20 seconds I'm going to ask you to look back and remember this. So take stock! Do you feel ghostly?

And....20 seconds have passed. We're there! So look back. Who was that person? How did the ghostliness get in? How did the reality drain out? Is there truth to any of that? Can you directly remember it feeling like “now” then, or is the recollection more of a photocopy of the real thing? If feels like a photocopy now, did it feel at all that way then?

Collate all this information and ponder it (if, like me, you're someone with enough curiosity to constantly reexamine the obvious). The future, looking forward, seems alien. The past, looking backward, seems ghostly, drained of real Now feeling. But actual experience never varies. It's always totally Now. It's never not now. Unquestionably Now-ish always and forever. No one has ever experienced past or future, so they’re not real. They’re intellectual constructs. What's real is right now. And now. And now. Here you are. And here you are. And here you are.

That being true, it means we always start fresh. Every moment starts fresh, with infinite potential.

See also "Baking Fresh Every Time"

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Club™

A business proposal not just for one venue, but a chain of them. This would be a mashup of a coffeeshop, a country club, a craft beer bar, and a buying coop.

People pay something like $2000/year to be in The Club™ (not quite luxury, and plenty of value offered for the price. Comparables: Amazon Prime and airline lounge clubs).

The Club™ offers:
  • A quiet reading room, way more comfortable than a coffeeshop. Great wifi.
  • A bar.
  • A cozy screening room with an impressive library of Blu-Ray movies. Reserve a slot to play your choice, and the schedule gets publicly posted so others can join if interested, with discussion afterwards (plus less formal followup in bar).
  • A small store selling, at near cost, items normally marked way up (batteries, phone chargers and cables, etc.).
  • Fun member events...quality stuff (good lectures by interesting people - draw from membership if possible - badminton and backgammon tournaments, etc).
Coffee, drinks, and light snacks are priced only moderately above cost (bartenders are strict about not serving intoxicated people). Perhaps price rises at peak times, or when occupancy rises above X level.

Beer, wine, and snacks are super well-chosen. Seating is super comfortable. Bartenders are super friendly. The film library is super thoughtful. It's all super clean and super well-run. Elite in terms of quality, not hollow status/luxury (strict quality-mindedness attracts quality members; that's how Chowhound attracted such a great, friendly, expert crowd).

No live music performances in the screening room, because local music almost always sucks, and The Club™ is all about quality.

One-time visit fee $75. Guest fee $35. 

Employees are trained to encourage introductions and friendly interaction, particularly between dissimilar members, engendering this as core The Club™ culture. Members pick this up and do likewise for new members. Social structures are far more adaptive to modeling than people realize.

Rules are strictly enforced. Members can be kicked out (and refunded). Management weeds diligently to ensure a more attractive garden (another facet of the quality-mindedness).

I'm assuming Slog readers don't need to be explained that people need a place to go besides home and work, and current choices are not quite satisfying. Also, the digital age paradoxically makes us crave personal connection and social affiliation more than ever. Yes, British clubs are fading, but the need remains, and could be served by updating the concept and sucking out the musty stodginess.

I have no idea if the numbers could work, but, if not, there's surely a way to add on one or more revenue centers without losing the overall feeling of generosity. Just for one thing, if quality-minded members are attracted, that would be akin to the Chowhound audience, so my never-implemented marketing strategy might apply. As I wrote here:
Chowhounds' appreciation of quality obviously extends beyond food. Nutjobs who trek 75 miles for slightly better muffins don't watch whichever crappy movie is on at the multiplex, and they don't buy uncomfortable socks just because they're on sale at Kmart. They don't purchase lackluster bicycles or radios, and their music collections are full of people who can really sing. These are discerning and diligent consumers, mega brand-loyal folks who not only appreciate quality, but pretty much live for it...and evangelize it!

Companies with truly good products and services would love to connect with such consumers - consumers to whom they can pitch intelligently and on-the-merits. Companies like Virgin, Apple, Aveda, Saturn, Patagonia, and anyone with a particularly high-quality, high-value product - especially the new-and-exciting - could count on chowhounds to take interest, to early-adopt, and to spread word with ferocious passion. Where else can one find an audience so precisely tuned for that? It's a rare occurence, because such people, like cats, resist being gathered.
Would club members likely roll their eyes at a demo of new Tesla or Apple tech? Would they ignore really interesting and intelligent pitches re: genuinely cool things before film screenings, and on wall-mounted monitors?

While I'm not expert re: physical plant issues, I'd imagine you could repurpose franchises out of defunct hotels, gyms, etc.

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