Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Musings

My idea was to head south to the totality belt, enjoying barbecue all the way. I'd stay over just north of that zone (with lots of cheap lodgings), and dash in for the event itself. It was a fine plan, but I realized it was unviable when every department store and pharmacy all the way up here in New York ran out of eclipse glasses the moment they arrived in stock. Dammit, the eclipse was crossing over out of geekdom. 

So my Monday morning drive into the belt of totality would be a nightmare, my escape from the region a slog, and if skies were cloudy, I'd be forced to join a massive Serengeti of westward vehicles looking for clear skies. Though I've always been afflicted with FoMO ("fear of missing out"), and there's nothing worse than staying home during a total eclipse within driving range, I skipped it.

Not to be a total loss, I pulled my car over at 2:35, gamely flipped on my eclipse glasses, and saw that things had already started. And I immediately flipped the specs back off again, because I'd noticed that the light was...weird.

It wasn't particularly dark. It was hard to describe. I'm no connoisseur of light quality (though I did notice, while playing gigs in Tuscany, that the light, unsurprisingly, had the unworldly character of a Renaissance painting). The sun was 90% blocked, yet it wasn't darker than if a cloud had drifted by. But this was no cloud diffusion. It was something else. The light was unpleasant and eerie. 

It made you cringe a little, like leaving an eye doctor's office with pupils dilated on a sunny day. It felt harsh. My first thought was "this must be what sunlight feels like on Mars." But then I noticed the deja vu. An impression of alien harshness had been my takeaway from every partial solar eclipse I'd ever experienced. I just never clicked it together before.

I drove on to an Italian deli in Queens I've been meaning to check out (Tony’s Beechhurst Deli; not bad), where the counterdude asked a customer if he'd seen the eclipse. Yes, he'd checked it out, but when asked if he'd used eclipse glasses, he scowled and wagged his head. He simply looked up, that's all.

To the likes of geeky me, that's the epitome of heedlessness. But blue collar workers spend their lives ignoring stupid warning labels and doing jobs others are too squeamish to do. They get it done, and don't have time for overblown warnings and prissy hesitation. And this reminded me of a previous sunny New York weekday, when I watched similar-looking blue-collar dudes scale a pile of smoldering debris. The burning smell was sickening; clearly they were risking major respiratory problems. But these guys are conditioned to disregard warnings. And so, I imagine, a whole lot of people looked up today without protection.

My two small insights might not amount to much, but I drove to Arkansas a few weeks ago for little more. I didn't have the socko experience of totality (just as I didn't enjoy an amazing hillbilly-Italian feast), but I'm a guy who appreciates small stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Extremism Provokes Reciprocal Extremism

Our eyes have strayed wildly from the ball as the nation's been caught up in spiraling nonsense. As always, extremism has provoked reciprocal extremism. It's extraordinarily hard for human beings to remain reasonable in the face of stupidity and emotion. Birds watch us with amazement, wondering how we manage to maintain such perfect flock formations (Magnetism? Astral positioning?).


I don't care about Steve Bannon's looks or Donald Trump's hair.

I don't care if Donald Trump's father was arrested at a Klan rally.

I firmly support Nazis and white supremacists' right to freely express themselves (short of incitement - and, yes, I'm aware of the slippery slope). If government decides what's ok to say, we're no longer America. Isn't this whole resistance supposed to be about maintaining constitutional values and the rule of law? How on earth did that lead us to wanting to constrain free speech rights?

The rest of us have the commensurate right to shame and shun those espousing such views. However, I suspect the defeat of this ideology would work better and happen faster if these clowns remained public and unhooded. So the crowdsourced shunning (satisfying though it is) may, in the end, be seen as more self-defeating overreach on our side.

It's ridiculous to assume "Southern Heritage" is a code word for racism. Every culture has atrocities in its timeline, but that certainly doesn't preclude cultural pride (crowds of patriotic Germans give me the willies, but that's my issue, not theirs, and three pints of kellerbier help me sing right along). Anyway, slavery was, obviously, an American atrocity, not a Southern one.

That said, those Confederate statues erected during Jim Crow to intimidate black people should absolutely go (to museums). In those cases, heritage truly was used as a code word. Southerners well know this, and should stop playing dumb. But liberals never reject an opportunity for overreach. A statue of Robert E. Lee is not a talisman of hate. Is there no one, on either side, with capacity for moderation and reason?

"Is Donald Trump a Racist?" is a ridiculous and distracting question. This is how the left joins the right in transforming the presidency into a personality cult. Who cares? Watch his damned legislation and stop feeling endlessly shocked by his patently cultivated outrageousness. Personally, his stated views strike me as perfectly typical of many 70 year old Americans. If, as even the extreme left concedes, "the past is a foreign country" and we ought not judge people in previous eras by present-day values, then we also need to extend some tolerance toward a previous generation. They're dying out, and taking much of this nonsense with them.

Anytime the left advocates something counter to the rule of law (Nazi punching, calling for generals to remove the president, etc.), they are, duh, advancing the agenda of Trump's most ardent supporters. The danger of Trump isn't his racial views or his opinions re: statues. It's his contempt for constitutional values and the rule of law. The antidote is not to find our own ways to tear up the constitution and disrespect the rule of law. It's to work the system, lawfully and maturely. To vote, to make intelligent counterarguments rather than meet hate with hate and lawlessness with lawlessness. That's how the country survives. That's how we regress to the mean.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

I understand that for some people, the failure to shriek at 110% volume upon the first errant glimpse of anything feared or disliked would feel like a moral lapse. Some readers were offended when I expressed exasperation re: the marches on Washington the week after the election - before Trump had actually done anything. Similarly, the notion of remaining moderate or rational in the face of a few thousand loser/clowns espousing patently stupid and outdated viewpoints may be seen as excusing hatred. But while I don't agree much with right-winger Robert Tracinski, I think he nails the dynamics here:
The entire Trump phenomenon is a live-action version of the old parable about the boy who cried wolf. Spend decades telling everyone that George Bush is Hitler or that Mitt Romney is a racist, and you’ll find that there is nowhere left to go when you try to warn everyone that Trump is worse. Crank your reaction to every Trump statement or speech all the way up to eleven, and people dismiss you as noise and tune you out. So there’s no reserve of extra outrage to tap when Trump really does do something awful.

Speaking of Robert Tracinski; if we want to defeat not just Trump but Trumpism as a whole, we need to listen to anti-Trumpers on the right like Tracinski, who are far more sensible on the issue, and who more keenly understand why their cohorts fell for this in the first place. Start off by avidly following the Twitter feeds of Rick Wilson and John Schindler, even if they don't emanate that comforting tribal smell. Particularly don't miss Wilson's great Periscope live video sessions, announced via his Twitter feed. They're hilarious and insightful - like getting a private phone call from a plugged-in DC insider. Also: they're bizarrely relaxing. What FDR did for the Depression with his fireside chats, Wilson does for the Trump era with his live Periscopes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Pretending the Annus is Horribilis

Just posted to my FB page (feel free to friend me; my timeline is mostly just pointers to new Slog postings, but sometimes other stuff):
12/31/2017 is going to be the most mopey and bitter New Years Eve yet. I'll try to find a cheap fare to somewhere on Lunar calendar - e.g. Hong Kong - so I can enjoy some noodles and dumplings in peace.

It's necessary to call out bad stuff, to resist it, and to counteract it in any way possible. It is not necessary, however, to pretend that you're not phenomenally lucky to be alive for every single moment, come what may.

Shit doesn't need to go your way for you to bask in your all-too-brief residency here.
You signed up for this. You wanted all the movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Expecting Damaged People to Self-Repair to Accommodate You

Here's one of the hardest lessons: When people treat you poorly, there's one 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, he and his family would be living in vastly different conditions. If he had it in him to take care of stuff properly, 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 quickly dropped his feeling of offense.

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. Most of all, I'm shocked by the frequency. This result isn't exceptional, it's the rule.

We're clearly seeing 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 standards out of thoughtless disregard.

An irrational person I know lives a fairly desperate life. When she recently managed to needlessly damage 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 do so for reasons far more profound than obliging 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*. 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.

* - ...and very many people are profoundly damaged, whether they reveal - or even self-recognize - it or not.

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).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah

A friend just sent me an utterly dejected email about the state of things. Here's my reply.
I see it differently. We’re getting a front row view of something few people have seen in person. it’s usually only read about. And it’s defanged; we won’t fall into autocracy, we won’t lose our freedom, it’s not the third reich. Mueller is solid, evidence is enormous, Congress is pivotting, approval is sinking, and, luckiest of all, the bad guys are self-defeating idiots.

There will be more chaos and chagrin, but we’re getting this view relatively cheaply. When it’s over, center left and center right will come together (it’s already started…pro-Trump stats are so high among Republicans because so many Republicans have renounced their party). This is a last gasp of moldy human tropes; the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah. Consider Steven Pinker’s work, and consider the graph at the bottom of this page. It’s not the end of the world, it’s birth pangs for a new better one.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Russians Don't Care If We Know Everything

The most persuasive analysis from the smartest people I read makes a point that really should be obvious (and would be if we were the least bit sophisticated):

There is nothing we will become aware of in this matter that the Russians didn't fully intend for us to eventually uncover. They planted the evidence in plain sight (and murdered the people - including some staunch Russian patriots - who knew the exact mechanisms). From beginning to end, it's had nothing to do with choosing sides. It's been entirely about chaos.

Trump has sowed copious chaos since the beginning of the campaign; turning masses against the institutions and norms underpinning western political culture. In so doing, he also fanned the extreme partisanship that will eventually be seen as having been Russian-kindled all along (along with other factors). Then Trump managed to win, a bonus that surprised even Trumputin. Russia won't see its sanctions removed - they won't gobble up the cherry atop this sundae - but that's ok; there will be plenty more delicious chaos from the scandal and Trump's downfall and the ugly fallout therefrom. Consider: We're at the brink of civil war (those cloistered in big liberal cities don't understand how riled up the MAGAs are). It's working beautifully!

Russia doesn't care whether Trump's in or out, and they don't mind being the bogeymen (Russian bogeymen have been degrading American unity and resolve for decades now). The aim is to leave us (and our allies) confused, demoralized, cynical, and at each others' throats. It's ridiculous to suppose Putin actually favors Trump. He'll be just as happy milking this idiot's disintegration as his ascension. It all suits his purposes.

Osama Bin Laden demolished a couple buildings, inciting reckless responses that have shaken Western culture/values to their core. Similarly, prankster Putin propped up a useful idiot, bringing us to the brink. When the smoke finally clears, we'll need to learn to be more sophisticated about provocation, rather than behave like boobs, endlessly bashing the opposing tribe in an endless, pointless Itchy/Scratchy cartoon.

Moderates on the left and the right will need to drop their litmus tests - strident tribal dividers like abortion and guns - and come together as a coalition to outnumber the rabble, the loonies, and, above all else, the sophisticated tactics of provocation and chaos which Russia excels at...but which ties rich, distracted, earnestly simplistic rubes like us Americans up in knots.

Read that link to get a good start.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Non-Linearity of Deliciousness

I've been thinking about my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food (and other things) on a scale of 1-to-10 (see here).

First, a paradox. If someone well versed in this rating system tells me a pizzeria serves "6" slices but "8" grandma slices and "7" garlic knots, they've delivered a surprising amount of data, painting a puzzlingly evocative picture of the place. I still don't understand how/why.

Second, I believe the scale is non-linear. An "8" is more than twice as good as a "4". Perhaps way, way more. Like thousands or millions of times more.

Dark adaptation - our visual system's ability to readjust, albeit slowly, to a darker environment - is a bigger deal than people realize. It is spectacularly non-linear. You may feel as though your dark vision improves incrementally after, say, the sun goes down, but it's actually logarithmic. Huge. Once you're totally dark adapted, your vision is, like, thousands or millions times* more sensitive. It's a spectacular feat (the downside is that it takes ten minutes to complete the adaptation process).

* - I knew the exact numbers in college, but can't find them right now

You don't realize anything so sweepingly miraculous is happening, because you're used to it. However, there is one clue. Turn on the lights in a dark room after you've adapted, and you'll experience a jarring wave of discombobulation. You will be completely overwhelmed. This tells you how far you've truly gone.

Similarly, going from a "7" ("Soulless but good") to an "8" ("Elicits vocal expression of pleasure") creates a jarring wave of discombobulation. A sense of being overwhelmed.

So while it's impossible to quantify aesthetic experiences, the gradations are non-linear, and sharply so. This is one reason for my conviction that deliciousness is never accidental. It's just too steep a climb, considering that "Mmmm!" is thousands, or millions, of times better than "Meh".

Serve me something delicious once, and I'll remain perpetually receptive to your work, no matter how much crud you serve me in the meanwhile. Deliciousness is never accidental.

Monday, July 31, 2017

More on Health Insurance Policy

Last month I suggested checking out Avik Roy, a right-wing health insurance wonk who, unlike many on the right, genuinely wants poor people to be well-covered. I was intrigued to see that he was happy with at least one version of the Republicans' recent proposals.

Again, I don't understand this stuff. But I refuse to rotely mimic the certainties and piques of my chosen pundits and tribal leaders. I don't want to become a health policy expert, but I'll gladly spend an hour listening to a sincere, non-shmucky, well-informed voice on the right explain a different approach from the ACA.

(I've been on ACA for a few years, and 1. it's far less flexible than private insurance, but 2. a fine last resort for those who can't afford private. It's an apt safety net but a poor catch-all)

So check out this very interesting debate between sincere right-wing wonk Roy and sincere left-wing wonk Ezra Klein. You won't come out of it expert (and it's ok to glaze over a bit when the discussion gets extra wonky...things get much easier to follow toward the ned), but it sheds considerable light on the whole matter. Very highly recommended.

Short version: Roy is naive (and way left of current Republicanism), while Klein has inflexible standards (though big programs like this always require iteration and tweaking). Roy loved the bill not as finished perfection, but as the best possible first step in the right direction, while Klein, paradoxically, mistrusts the system to deliver perfection...which is weirdly topsy-turvy.

Roy also explains why the common retort "But non-partisan CBO says....." shouldn't be the last word on these matters - even though busy, ignorant people like you and I just love a simple argument-closer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Blue Apron

Dear Blue Apron,

I'm a veteran food writer and restaurant critic. My expertise is on the eating end rather than on the cooking end, which probably puts me in synch with many your customers - people who know food, love food, but are more excited about consumption than preparation.

I have two main reasons for using Blue Apron (every once in a while, anyway; most months I cancel most or all deliveries; sorry...I know that makes me your least favorite type of customer):

1. My cooking gets into ruts, and I like to be pushed into using different ingredients and preparations. There's nothing mysterious about a cucumber and radish salad, but it's not something I'd normally imagine making. After preparing it once, it feels like a part of my repertoire (not just an academic possibility).

2. I buy more or less the same versatile groceries each week, and improvise meals by mixing and matching ingredients in clever ways. Not being a cooking hobbyist, I'm uninterested in shopping for specific recipes. Nor do I have room to fill my pantry and fridge with leftover ingredients I'll rarely use. Blue Apron sends just what I need, so there's no shopping or pantry clutter.

I'm not all that indignant about paying $60 for a box containing $25 worth of ingredients. Since I do it seldom, and for the reasons above, and it works out to only $10 per individual meal, the price point isn't killing me.

Here are my complaints:

Drabbly Corporate Recipes
I understand your recipes are developed under many restraints. It's a tough job. But I'd suggest that you pay whatever it costs to get one really talented non-corporate chef in that loop. My taste buds tell me your team is composed of chefs with a corporate background (degrees from culinary school, experience in some "name" hotel or chain whose branding impressed your non-foodie headhunters, etc.). Such chefs are not primarily deliciousness-oriented. They're about getting stuff done to spec. But you need deliciousness, too!

The recipes are usually at least competent....though not always. Your Saffron And Tomato Bucatini directed us to add full-thread saffron by tossing it in to the sauced pasta and stirring for 2-3 minutes, just before serving. That's not how saffron works. It must dissolve and infuse over time. If the injection needs to be quick, at very least you must grind the threads. This is a dumbfounding error and a waste of good saffron. Highly corporate chefs don't have much experience with this spice. You need someone in the loop who can spot and stave off such problems.

I'm not denying that you need "get it done" dweeby corporate chefs in there developing things to spec. But you need a quality assurance stopgap - someone with deep knowledge and passion tweaking and improving. As-is, the recipes are 100% dweeby.

I understand you're not looking to tart things up with esoteric, indulgent arty touches or impractical complexities. But a non-corporate, non efficiency-oriented food expert could catch gaffes and generally polish things.

And you do need the polish. Your stuff usually more or less "works", and I realize that, alone, is tough under the constrained circumstances. But it's not quite enough.

The Tyranny of Timid Palates
A slight majority of your users probably has timid palettes, but a sizable minority does not. I just made your Caribbean chicken curry, and it flat-lined absolute zero, insipid as an airline meal. Similarly, you consistently under-portion the garlic. Your users complain about these things bitterly (do you read the comments under your recipes? You should!). Offer heat, but make it optional. Offer extra (i.e. correct) garlic, and make it optional.

Really, I'd go the other way, and let the timid opt out by decreasing quantities. I'm sure you've done market research, but understand while some customers inevitably scream/yell about excess spice, those turned off by blandness will drift away more quietly. Extreme reluctance to offend is a race to the bottom, so you need to consider which segment will be more valuable and loyal in the long term.

Natural filtration (i.e. not trying to please every last person) is a viable biz plan. HBO has a healthy subscription base despite its profanity and nudity. The network TV model - offend no one, ensuring you'll delight no one - is awfully stale in this era, no?

Layered Seasoning
Many of your customers mock your recipes for calling for salting/peppering to taste after every single step. It's true that good chefs "layer" their seasoning, to ensure a professional and consistent result. But for those unaccustomed to such layering, it's difficult to avoid under or over-seasoning. Either forego the layering approach, or else stipulate quantities (those who like things more/less salty or peppery can easily add/subtract).

It's 2017. People are eating healthy. I don't believe I've ever seen a full vegetable serving from you - not even in your veg meals. Cucumber salad is not a fully nutritious vegetable portion, nor is an ear of corn, nor the tomatoes in that bucatini. We need green leafy things, cabbagey things (e.g. brussel's sprouts) carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. If I need to cook that stuff on my own, you're not providing a full meal.

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