Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Wall is Solely a Cattle Prod

He doesn’t want to build a wall. He just wants to be seen as fighting to build a wall.

In fact, the longer he’s obstructed, the longer he gets to play out this show where he’s 1. the victim (i.e. his safe space) and 2. the only one trying to create border security.

That’s why he didn’t try hard at all to get it done with the Republican Congress. No clear juicy victimhood. And that’s why Nancy Pelosi didn’t “outplay“ him. It was never going to happen anyway, and he didn’t even want it to happen. Again: he does not want to build a wall. Stop listening to what he says he wants!

If he can manage to not have his way on the wall all the way through to the campaign, then he can flog the Deep State DC-Swampy Fake News Libtards over their lack of patriotism, campaign as an outsider, generate several seasons worth of Kayfabe, and hold on to his surefire tagline.

“If you reelect me, you will super-fortify my power so I can build you this beautiful wall, and also, please, give me an all-Republican Congress and Senate, but this time a much better one than the feckless RINOs I had to try to work with last time.”

He’s a dimwit but has crafty instincts (like all salesmen, he's a natural born demagogue). So he knows what no one else seems to: an accomplishment is good, but vowing to accomplish something is vastly more mob-electric. And given that the whole thing is a patently unviable pipe dream to begin with, this one is nothing but cattle prod.

Reheating Frozen Leftover Pizza

This will not restore leftover frozen pizza to the way it tasted while fresh....
My first rule of leftovers (I'm very very good with leftovers; as a food critic, I've had to cope with a fridge perennially full of greasy brown paper bags) is: don't try to recreate the original meal. Just find some way to make it delicious. If you aim to recreate the original meal, you will 1. fail, and 2. work within a low ceiling of possible quality, which is why everyone normally hates leftovers. I view leftovers as mere fodder to be disrespectfully repurposed, retrofitted, and recycled rather than resurrected.
...but it will result in something tasty and worth eating.

I assume you've wrapped the frozen slices individually in tight aluminum foil. If that's not true, improve your procedure, fast forward, then proceed.

Open the foil to expose the top surface of the slice. Place it directly on the rack your toaster oven at 350 degrees (preheating's unnecessary). Check frequently after four minutes. When the cheese begins to just barely loosen (not warm but not fully frozen), heat a cast iron skillet or griddle on medium. A couple minutes later, transfer slice (still encased in foil, which should now be lightly re-closed) from the toaster oven to the skillet/griddle. After three minutes, watch carefully, as the crust can suddenly burn right through the aluminum (I'd suggest, btw, using thick heavy-duty aluminum, which also offers better freezer protection).

When the kitchen smells like pizza, and the crust's underside is beginning to pick up some additional color (perhaps there are minor dark patches appearing; that's ok...again, we're not recreating the original experience), serve. Note that while crust will be hot, the cheese will be pleasantly warm, not hot. If you want the whole thing raging hot, you'll be forced to eat a dried-out cracker with unpleasantly molten twice-cooked cheese. Ick.

If the slice has significant toppings, and they're not quite warm, pop it back into toaster oven once more, at a high temperature (broil, if possible), for just a short time...and watch it like a hawk. Do not wait till cheese bubbles or top crust begins to brown! That's much too late! This isn’t like the original baking of the pizza (again: don’t try to recreate). 

Further Reading:
A Toasted Bagel Tutorial and Manifesto

Saturday, February 16, 2019

My 30 Minutes as LeBron James

I was always a naturally gifted athlete, but very slow to learn physical moves. The two are absolutely not contradictory.

This is why I'm extremely respectful toward slow thinkers, though I myself think swiftly. As I once posted to Quora (my most popular answer there!), in answer to someone asking how to recognize a person's intelligence:
You need to look past appearances. I know very smart people who are uneducated, inarticulate, barely literate, and who need to be explained complicated ideas over and over before they understand - who are what you'd call slow-thinking. They'll ponder stuff practically forever - long after the educated, snappy people in the room have given their opinions....perhaps days or weeks after. And then they'll cough up a conclusion that's so clever, so surprising, so creative that your head wants to explode. Fast thinkers aren't necessarily smarter, nor are slow thinkers necessarily dumber.

The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. In fact, most truly intelligent people I've met haven't been very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. Watch out for seemers!
I contrasted my syrupy physical learning curve with my snappy cognitive one in a Slog posting titled "The Infinite Potential of Slow Learners":
I've driven several yoga teachers to near breakdowns with my thick-headed sluggishness. "Do this," they'd instruct the class, and I'd stare in dumbfounded confusion while the others simply did the move. They'd talk slooooowly to me and raise their volume, assuming me to be an idiot. But my mind isn't the problem. It just takes a while for my body to absorb new instructions.

At this point, I've practiced yoga for 35 years, and can do some really hard poses. I'd "impress" those same teachers if they saw me! And because it took decades, rather than months, to, say, plant my palms on the floor in a forward bend, I've learned an awful lot. Every millimeter of progress produced a tiny jewel of insight. If you watch me bend forward, you'll feel like something's happening. That's not true of naturally bendy people. They just bend!

I've tried over the years to take Salsa dance classes, because I love the music so much. But dance teachers are the sort of people who learn dance moves quickly, so it's impossible for them to relate to a below-average student who needs to practice each step dozens of times. Once a step sinks in, I can perform it with good feel (maybe more so than "naturals" can!). But it's tough to find a teacher with sufficient patience.

These are areas where I learn slowly, and that's just how it is. They will not get faster. But the important thing is that my potential in these realms is as high as anyone's. In fact, maybe a tad higher, because in taking my time and pondering minutiae, I go deeper.
With that all in mind, here's a story. I was always very fast, very strong, and very energetic. But because no gym teacher ever offered me extra time to sharpen skills - and I also had a preternatural loathing of frikking dodgeball, "the sport of douchebags" - I developed a reputation as a klutz (also, I was precociously working on spiritual practices that set me on the wrong path for skills such as shooting a basketball). But one day things clicked.

I was playing two-on-two half court basketball with some of the better players in 6th grade - surely because no one better was available for my slot. And I could not miss a shot, or fumble the ball. The player guarding me seemed absolutely vestigial; I just couldn't conceive of him as any obstacle between me and the basket. He was like a cloud drifting overhead on a sunny day. And the ball unerringly did what I wanted it to do, and went where I wanted it to go, so I scored point after point after point, like butter. I saw no other players on the court. It was as if LeBron James were puppeteering me (if he'd been born yet).

The other three were dumbfounded, but didn't say a word that day, or at any time after.
The universe has done a meticulous job of force-starving my potentially expansive ego. Another example: I once phoned a friend, out of a sudden sense of unease, to make sure she was okay, and her roommate answered with a flat "sure, she's fine" though she knew that, a few moments earlier, my friend had been mugged at knifepoint in the building's lobby.

I only heard about this later, when my friend told me her roommate had had an incomprehensible but powerful urge to keep it from me. This happens a lot. I've lived most of my life with no idea of what I'm actually good at, because no one ever tells me (people who think I suck are, however, generally quite outspoken).
While I was exhilarated, I couldn't consider it remarkable because it felt so natural. That had been the entire texture of the experience: naturalness. It's hard to remark upon what's supremely natural. You'll never think to yourself that you've just taken a particularly super-terrific breath.

So I simply let it go (as I've done with even grander breakthroughs), and returned to fulfilling klutzy expectations, though the memory has remained in the back of my mind. I'd like to say that memory has changed me, somehow, but I'm not certain it's any more meaningful than, say, my memories of dream-flying.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Things Seem Worse as Things Get Better

For centuries, things have been going to hell, the next generation has been disappointing, the language has been bastardized, and we've tacked in the wrong direction. In my 56 years I haven't seen a single New Years Eve where anyone said "You know, this was a damn good year!" It's always "Good frikkin' riddance!"

And yet here we all are. Vastly healthier, safer, more comfortable, entertained, and well-fed than any human beings anywhere ever. Vastly less violence, pestilence, racism, sexism, and war. It's been falling apart for as far back as we can remember, even as it's all come together, and despite the fact that we're obviously the generation our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents sacrificed for.

If you think this is First World gloating, consider the most startling fact of all: extreme poverty is down almost 36% over a mere 25 years (1990 thru 2015). That's crazy!

As I wrote earlier this week, it's NOT all turning to shit. And yet people are angrier, more pessimistic and stressed and fearful and outraged than ever. Why? Here's the answer, seldom-observed: wealthy people (you, yes you, are unfathomably wealthy) behave like aristocrats, and we are princes and princesses afflicted by greater and greater vexation over smaller and smaller mattress peas.

As I wrote in that last link:
Unfortunately, the present crop of humans - with its unique wealth, health, comfort, interconnection, and security - is uniquely prone to terror. We may not fully register what we have, but we sure as hell fear its loss. We may not acknowledge our wealth, but we typify the “more to lose” anxieties of the wealthy. Hence our hair trigger.
I realize we're a dim and blinkered species, so allowances must be made. But how many millennia will it take before we get even the slightest perspective, and recognize that we have some very serious problems with how we frame it all? My guess is it will never happen. Rather, we'll perish en masse from the infinite pain caused by the last infinitesimal speck of displeasure.

For some reason, I enjoy the bejesus out of life here in the future, even cognizant of the irritants and non-optimalities. In fact, I giggle as I walk...and people glare at me for it. Remember when I contrasted (here) the framing of finding things hilarious vs the framing of "it's not funny"? Ever contrarian, I opt for the former in an increasingly humorless, angry, scowling society.

BTW, if you feel likewise, DVR Nichole Wallace's show on MSNBC. She manages sober analysis of our national politics (by far the best on TV; her guests are ace) while never losing touch with its slapstick comedy aspect. Same goes for the invaluable Rick Wilson on Twitter.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Dialog on Racism and Mob Shaming

Below is my dialog on racism and mob shaming with Ken White, one of my Twitter heroes. That was fun!
Here's that podcast, btw, where this guy, Ken White (a lawyer) explains to Josh Barro (a smart centrist journalist/commentator) the legal issues behind AMI vs Jeff Bezos. "All The President's Lawyers" is consistently a worthy podcast to listen to, just generally.

I never enjoy the smug feeling that I've won an argument. I'd have been happier if he'd come back and explained why I'm wrong (honestly, he probably just got too busy to keep arguing with some Twitter rando). I love to be shown why I'm wrong.

Queued Responses

When I was younger, if I believed I'd been wronged, I would fire off an angry letter or email.

Gradually, I reduced the anger. I was firm, but less hotly emotional.

A couple years ago, I started something new. I would indulge my impulse to dash off missives, but would hold onto them (in a folder titled "Queued Responses"). And, first, I'd send a short friendly query to verify my understanding of the situation.

I suspected that this might prevent a few unjustified accusations, confrontations, and escalations. But, to my utter shock, I almost never need to send the queued communication. It's almost never called for.

When I browse that folder, it looks like madness. Metric tons of stress-causing uproar - like trapped carbon - unreleased into the atmosphere. Adding this simple step to my workflow was probably the most philanthropic thing I've ever done. Want to really save the planet? Keep your heavy-flow shower head, but do this.

This is a very different thing from choking down rightful anger. I'm not talking about going out of one's way to avoid confrontation, or allowing people to get away scot-free with injurious behavior. It's that polite error-checks very often show me I had the wrong impression. That, plus the extra time buffer, almost always illuminate the truth: confrontation is not only disagreeable, but most often misguided and unnecessary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Last Thing Analysis You Need to Read About Trump

What's the only thing I have less patience for than I have for Donald Trump? People who think they're adding something, at this late date, via yet another hot take on how awful Trump is.

I have a Facebook friend who's made a name for himself by frequently posting "Fuck Trump". Just that. People think it's a hoot. Me? I've muted him.

Donald Trump is neither complicated nor surprising, so there is nothing new to say, nor will there ever be. Endless regurgitation of his flaws and failings simply plays into his plan - in fact, the only game he knows - of getting in, and staying in, our brains. You're not doing anyone a favor by gratuitously dipping us in that murk.

So it takes a pretty fresh and insightful "take" to leave me glad to have read 650 words characterizing the guy. And this, a clever examination from the British perspective, is it (yes, he fails to acknowledge that Britain is full of Trumpism - um, Brexit? - but I forgive him).

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

It's NOT All Turning to Shit

If you appreciate my efforts to try to make sense of an insane world and to spot the underlying fallacies and subconscious drives making so many people so puzzlingly wrong so often, you should follow Tom Nichols on Twitter.
I actually disagree with Nichols' central shtick; as the author of "The Death of Expertise," he's crustily sick and tired of know-nothings spouting off on stuff they know nothing about and people like him know tons about.

It goes without saying that society is in the midst of a Dunning Kruger jubilee, where even our uplifting credos ("Keepin' it real", "You go girl"; etc.) seem to encourage blindly uninformed willfulness. But while a consensus of experts is a compelling thing, usually best deferred to (I'm talking to you, climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers), the problem is that individual experts disagree. All the time. Whatever you think, there's a bona fide expert to back you up. And even consensus shifts around aimlessly (saturated fat was helping us, then killing us, then helping us again, then killing us again). So my expertise doesn't make me right, nor you wrong. If you don't like my favorite taco shack, that's perfectly ok.
Tom's latest bugaboo is great. He's on a tear about wealthy, comfortable, privileged people (and you, yes you, are unfathomably wealthy, comfortable, and privileged) who rant about how everything sucks and it's all getting worse and we're living in hell....when we're all unfathomably wealthy and comfortable and privileged.

Watch him fence with hot-heads, infuriated by his patriarchal something something complacency, as he effortlessly drops bodies one after another:
"Yelling at your wife and dog while throwing beer cans at the TV." Yep, that was about it in those days. And now you see yahoos wielding an omnipresent open mic via their very own personal supercomputer over a miraculous nearly free global network to rage about their voiceless disempowerment.

We are so phenomenally spoiled that we confuse discomfort with poverty, and this has kindled a movement on the extreme left (which encompasses a whopping slice of young people), that I've dubbed Liberal Materialism, which uses Marxist constructs and revolutionary zeal to furiously and unashamedly demand unfettered access for all to the fruits of extreme consumerism. I characterized it this way:
We fight not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like our righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers. The have-obscenely-much will be compelled to share their Riedel stemware with the have-slightly-less-obscenely-much. Vive la revolution!

Here are some more contrasts between Then and Now I came up with:

Cars never stall (i.e. they “just work”), don’t need to be warmed up, are almost never broken into, and last twice as long.

No gross haze of leaded fuel fumes and cigarette smoke.

It’s vanishingly unlikely you’ll ever be punched in the mouth, even if you’re an insufferable asshole.

Most people are anti-war, whereas that was once a weirdo minority with a semi-derogatory title: “pacifists” (when was the last time you even heard the term?).

The experience of “getting lost” feels like a freaky, outrageous edge case. I used to spend as much time dealing with being lost as I did trying to hunt down facts at the library or looking for a payphone (or for change for the payphone).

Television is a vast portal of endless rich inspiration.

Nobody gets headaches anymore (since bottled water). We were absolutely plagued with them before (I don't mean migraines).

Food that’s better than basic nourishment for under $$$, and waiters who don’t scowl if you’re not wearing expensive shoes.

Sushi, spicy food, fresh vegetables; espresso and lattes; organics; and Thai, Mexican, and (authentic) Chinese restaurants.

All human knowledge, media, products, and music plus infinite free worldwide communication on a slab of glass in your pocket.

Nice wood floors; not always crappy synthetic carpeting everywhere.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Framing as Hilarious or as Catastrophe

Regular readers know I'm extremely interested in perceptual framing. You can read all postings with that label here (I'd start from the bottom), or start with this short posting, which explains that we have no actual control of our thought stream (though we imagine we do), while we do completely control our framing (though we imagine it's imposed on us).

I've never provided a clear example of what framing is - though you can get a strong sense via the primordial Slog posting, "The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues", recounting how my mind on one Christmas Eve kept flipping between the framing of my being sublimely comfortable and happy and the framing of my tragic failure to personify a prefab notion of Christmas Eve. I found it oddly difficult at the time to distinguish the truer framing, even though the latter one was so patently contrived, gratuitously dramatic, and not based in any actual reality.

Over the years since, I've explored this issue thoroughly, discovering that framing is positively everything. It determines who you are and what your world is. This free, instant choice - literally the blink of an eye - can imprison you or set you free.
Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.
Depression happens when you get stuck in a framing. Likewise nearly all human suffering (you can't frame away from pain, but you definitely can from suffering). If you can re-frame at will (and you can; it's like a cell phone feature you didn't realize you had) you'll never get stuck again.

So here's that strong, clear example:

Have you ever read news about the Trump administration and erupted into giggles over their sheer stupidity and incompetence? And then suddenly stopped yourself by remembering that this isn't funny?

A new framing transforms everything, externally as well as internally. It's suddenly not the same Trump, and it's suddenly not the same you.

In the slapstick comedy framing, it's all a riot, and it's impossible to be stressed. In the grim framing, it's impossible not to be stressed. Like an optical illusion, one can flip from one perspective to the other, but never inhabit both at the same time.

In daily life, we habitually favor one sort of framing (it's the primary way we ballast our happiness). Why is "laughter the best medicine"? Because it's the most easily available means of instantly reframing a fraught, stressful perspective (forgiveness is an even better one, but it’s inhibited by most people). But it's not all binary - fraught-or-funny. Potential framings are infinite. The only limit is your own creativity and litheness - and, most of all, your ability to remember that you own this faculty (fwiw I'm working on a book of exercises to help people rediscover their latitude).

To offer a rather surprising and expansive reframing (my favorite kind!): this is how one traverses the multiverse. Each reframing (we do it all the time, though usually subconsciously; just as fish swim without realizing they do it, frequent reframing's our characteristic trait) shifts us into a parallel universe.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Makes Restaurants Go Downhill?

One of the founding features of Chowhound was "Downhill Alert", an ongoing list of good places that had deteriorated. Avid eaters understand that most places eventually go downhill. Along with the frequency of closure, it's part of the restaurant business' notorious churn. One thing that drives chowhounds is an imperative to catch treasure while it's still good.

But while the industry's closure frequency is well-discussed, you seldom hear anyone accounting for Downhill Syndrome. I think I can explain it, and while I was going to disclaim my lack of operational experience, it's probably actually an advantage. Few restaurateurs dine out as widely as I do. They have firsthand experience, but I have data points.

Most people would attribute Downhill Syndrome to these factors:
  • Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
  • Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
  • Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
But while these do occur, they're nowhere near prevalent or severe enough to account for widespread dramatic downhilling (see footnote). A mysterious gravitational force inexorably pulls down quality; it's the restaurant industry's dark matter. And I believe it stems from a widespread miscalculation among restaurateurs.

Restaurateurs work very hard. They invest and sacrifice a great deal, and make lots of big decisions. So they naturally take credit for the quality of their operation. Why wouldn't they? That's how organizations work: the top dog enjoys the kudos and weathers the failures. But this industry has a built-in aberration. We don't eat at Tony's Trattoria primarily because Tony is great. It's because Miguel, the Salvadoran chef, happens to have a certain touch.

I don't patronize places for the lighting fixtures and tablewear; the busboy uniforms or awnings or atmosphere or server training. I'm not there for the menu, or for the wine list (that last might tempt me, but 99% restauranteurs accept whatever their sales reps push at them - awful, highly-branded plonk - rather than ferret out bargain deliciousness). I'm not even there because Tony was high-minded enough to spend $2/lb more for superior veal. Better is better, but I'd much prefer a great chef with mediocre ingredients than vice versa. I'm there mostly for one reason: the chef's touch. I'm there for Miguel.

So there's a very sharp disjoint between what actually makes a restaurant good (i.e. Miguel) and what Tony thinks makes the restaurant good (i.e. Tony). I do understand Tony's viewpoint. After all, he hired Miguel. He pays Miguel and is the boss of Miguel. In his mind, Tony encompasses Miguel...and much much more.

Music business execs have a dismissive term for musicians. We're "the talent". It's a chillingly condescending way to refer to the thing that really matters: the people making the music. But musicians by themselves aren’t a business, so it's not that business people have no important role. There are two discrete frames from which to view things, and they are utterly irreconcilable, and the rub between them creates friction and miscalculation.

No restaurateur would ever recognize a given chef as indispensable. To do so would be to acknowledge that Tony's a mere figurehead at Tony's Trattoria. Like the music exec, he's built the damned platform. Chefs, like waiters and accountants, are modules in that platform - software, not hardware - to be switched in and out at will. Tony's Trattoria is great due to myriad factors and decisions, and quality ultimately flows from Tony, who can always slide in another chef module.

Or so believes Tony. And he'll continue believing this even when Miguel's good-not-great replacement has crashed revenue. Hey, it's still Tony's! His formula is proven, and business is notoriously cyclical, so he just needs to give it time and believe in himself. Thus whithers Tony's Trattoria. That's the lifecycle, right there.

Understand that I'm not simply saying restaurants go downhill because chefs tend to move around. It's true, they do, but that doesn't get to the root of the problem. Chefs wander for the same reason musicians do: they are conditioned - by the very foundation of the industry and by indifference from the suits above - to deem themselves expendable modules. And modules gonna module.

I have, on a few occasions, asked restaurateurs whether they've recently lost their chef. It's always the same response; barely-concealed outrage at my poking my nose into the stagecraft - the backstage magic. Focus right here, on the branding! The chef's an expendable shlep; a cog in a machine serving an overarching vision. You, customer/asshole, are concerning yourself with the wrong part!

No. Miguel is not a cog. Never was. And the vision and branding were never the salient factors. That’s a delusion; I know it, Miguel knows it, and even Tony, at some level, suspects it, to his immense agitation. So until owners fully 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, chefs (not snazzy, aloof “executive chefs”; I mean the guy who actually cooks food) will remain modular and restaurants will keep mysteriously going downhill (and chef/owners will continue to have a big long-term advantage).

De-factoring the factors mentioned above:

Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
This is way less common than you'd think. Every line of work has its baseline element. If you drive trains, you carefully watch your speed and brakes - i.e. the only controls you've got. The ingredient budget is intrinsically baked into a restaurant's entire business plan from day one. Restaurateurs may have delusions about the source of their quality, but the one factor 100% under their direct control is this one, and they very well realize it. The portions might shrink, the whisky might be watered down and the beef stew might be frozen and reheated in batches, but by the time you're eyeing the ingredient budget as a revenue source, things are likely terminal. And, per above, chef skill/touch trumps ingredient quality anyway. The Arepa Lady squirted cheap supermarket margarine on her sublime wares.

Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
Course corrections occur, but they're big, expensive turns - think cruise ships - too difficult and expensive to execute while desperate. As such, they rarely degrade quality, which is a separate parameter. No owner ever brightly exclaims "I know; we'll make the food shittier!"

Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
There are many subtle differences between professionals and amateurs, but the most obvious is that pros can do many iterations without slumping. An amateur actor will buckle if called to do 115 takes, but a professional makes it work. And even lousy professional chefs, if they have any real experience in the industry, are professionals through and through. As a musician, I once backed up Tony Bennett on his 41,274rd performance of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". The dude was a legend, who easily could have coasted. But he dug in. Hard. He made it fresh; he made it music. Not because he's a genius (though he might well be), but because he's a pro.

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