Monday, December 29, 2008

Mezcal Video

Oh, how I love this little video on the real, traditional method of making mezcal. It helps to understand Spanish, but you can catch the vibe even if not.

Making real mezcal requires far more care and effort than could possibly be recouped at any price. So the good stuff, like these guys are making, is literally priceless (though if you can find it sold anywhere, which you most likely won't, you'll generally pay under $10/bottle). And the mezcal that's sold commercially is total crap, with corners cynically cut. In any case, it's very, very seldom that you see the real process as it's made by real, non-cynical, non-commercial people. What a blessing YouTube is...

It may strike you as inappropriate for a little kid to be involved in mezcal culture. But it's essential to understand that mezcal, for indigenous people in Southern Mexico, isn't booze for getting drunk and all messed up. It's a
sacrament. And that's why they knock themselves out to make it.

Let me at least get you started, translation-wise:

Title: "Dad's Palenque"

"Here, folks are very used to drinking a drink that comes from the maguey plant...it's called "mezcal".

Ooeey, but to make mezcal is
so laborious!

The place where it's made is called a "palenque"

My Dad has one, and I'll take you.

It has to be near to "un rollo" [slang], and in a second I'll tell you why.

We've arrived in Dad's palenque, where they make mezcal.

The rest is explained visually.


Also check out the film about making (incredible-looking)
nopales soup.

Here are
tons more videos from the same producers. You can see the full video index on their website (here's an English translation). They're doing amazing work; if I can figure out how, I'll gladly donate to their efforts.

Loss-Leading Luggage

It's a great time to buy luggage. Here are two insanely priced fancy fold-over (aka "garment bag") pieces:

1. 
Travelpro FlightPro 4 Horizontal Rolling Garment Bag for an unprecedented $110 (the other discounters all have it for $175) 

2. 
Samsonite Aspire Lite Ultravalet for a jaw-dropping $45 (closed-out elsewhere, but not this cheap), which has a suggested retail price of $220).

Also...it's a steep $270, and not discounted, but LL Bean's Ballistic Rolling Garment Bag is unique, 'cuz it has space for a toiletry kit and other such items that usually only fit in traditional luggage. View more detailed catalog photo on page 13 here

Awesome bonus: check out the hip/cool/snarky/great laptop bags, and lots of other sorts of bags, from Crumpler (note that the prices are Canadian...and that Amazon carries many of their products).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Great Mail Order Cookies

Galaxy Cookies

New Year's Resolution Aid: Workouts

Interesting Washington Post article (and separate photographic evidence) re: how Obama has kept religiously to his workout schedule despite the rigors of campaign and transition.

During my Chowhound slog, the one thing I didn't let go was my every-other-day workout. Given that I was putting in 15 hour days 7 days/week, it perplexed me to hear others say they couldn't find time to work out. Here's the key: you won't "find" time to workout, you've got to make the time. It needs to be chiseled into your day at the same priority level as picking up the kids or getting to doctor appointments. It must be bedrock infrastructure, rather than optional leisure activity.

That's the only way to sustain a workout schedule. If, on a given day, you lack energy for a proper workout, then walk on the treadmill rather than jog. And cut down a brick of weight on the machines. But honor the commitment!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Vladimir Posner

Remember Vladimir Posner? The hip Russian talking head who'd appear on Nightline and other programs in the 1980's to articulate Soviet thinking in perfectly unaccented English?

Interestingly, he later recanted.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Thoughts

Wishing a Merry Christmas to all.

And to our Jewish friends: enjoy your Chinese food.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TrafficLand

TrafficLand.com patches you in to live traffic cameras - 4000 of 'em in 32 cities. Here's a photogenic one of the 59th Street Bridge traffic flowing east from the Manhattan skyline. Another nice angle on the skyline from FDR Drive. Or how about Times Square?

Cool feature: you can set up a schedule to have TrafficLand email stills from up to ten cameras at a preset time of day.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 2

The previous installment of my chronicles of Chowhound's final (independent) days concluded with this teaser:
I got an email out of the blue from one of the most important figures in the online world, a top executive for a gigantic, titanic household-name media conglomerate. He wanted to take me to dinner.

I can't say it was particularly surprising or exciting to have been contacted by this guy. Over the years, I'd dined with many such people. That may sound like boasting, but, as with so many Chowhound-related experiences, the reality wasn't what you'd expect.

Here's how it would work. Important people, hinting that they wanted to help, would request a meeting...always asking me to choose a restaurant. Eating with that jolly Chowhound guy was the real agenda, but sometimes there was also a sincere helpful impulse. We'd meet, they'd lavish praise on Chowhound, confess their utter addiction to the site and enthuse over how great they've been eating ever since they found it. They'd listen to my plans, flatter my ingenuity, and avow their bright confidence in the operation's future. Exuberant about my powerful new allies, I'd pick up the checks to thank them for their time (the meals I bought for millionaires during this period were beyond counting), and they'd leave feeling terribly virtuous for having offered their sympathy, their solidarity, and their presence. And that would be pretty much that. I discovered that expressing a heartfelt desire to help, for most people, satisfies 110% of the minimum daily requirement of virtuousness. No actual help is necessary.

To be fair, Chowhound was hard to help. If any of these geniuses had a sure-fire road map for monetizing large online communities, they wouldn't have been whispering it to me over merlot. No biz guru had better ideas than I did, because the puzzle had never been solved. In fact, as I write this, Facebook still hasn't solved it! As for lending a hand with our crushing server bills - mere peanuts to them - well, the burning love for Chowhound and staunch affinity for its values never reached the check-writing point. A very small group of regular Chowhound posters, none massively wealthy or powerful and none bugging me to take them to dinner, was bearing much of that load. They were so small a group, in fact, that if one ever went on a diet, the entire enterprise would have sunk.

But I gamely ate dinner with this honcho du jour, and he surprised me by telling me some useful things I didn't know (but should have!). First, he shared with me the traffic and Google AdSense weekly revenue stats for some of the web sites he oversaw - all names you'd recognize in a millisecond. We'd installed Google AdSense on Chowhound, and it was providing decent though still grossly inadequate income. But his properties, just an order of magnitude or two busier than us, were bringing in amounts like $35,000 per week on AdSense alone.

$35,000 per week. Our chief moderator, a
retired grandmother, awoke each bitter cold winter morning at 5:30am to make ends meet as a school crossing guard. We could have rescued her from a year of that hell via the first three days of revenue. And by the end of that same first week, my entire year's rent would have been paid.

I hadn't realized that Google AdSense revenue was not directly proportional to traffic. Beyond a certain traffic threshold, payment shot up dramatically...and we'd been operating just beneath that point. Just beneath the $35,000 per week point.

Here's where I'd gone wrong. From 1997 to 2000, we, along with the rest of the first wave of web companies, were all about attracting lots of users. Compiling a serious data trove of chow tips, after all, required a critical mass of hungry hounds. So we guerilla marketed our way to heavy growth, doubling traffic every six months.

In 1999 the dotcom bubble arose and pet cologne startups were sucking up $200 million in funding and companies whose function no one could explain were enjoying massive IPOs. Finally, Bob and I began thinking we ought to try to turn Chowhound into a “real company”, realizing even at that early point that our labor of love deserved to endure, but that our adrenal glands were not a viable long term fuel source. So we took deep breaths and reluctantly approached the gravy train (if this were a movie, you'd be seeing a montage of slick confident sharpies spitting rapid-fire MBA-speak at fat cats across desks, followed by me and Bob looking forlornly miserable and hideously out of place).

One of our users had been hired by a top Silicon Valley law firm, and I flew out and spent twenty minutes pitching to the slightly unhinged name partner, a Valley legend, who kept raving at me and Bob about how we'd need a home run; how he could find us funding but we'd need to promise a home run, that everyone wanted to see a home run. We were signed up as clients, and instructed to create a business plan forecasting a hundred million dollar home run for investors after three years. He kept repeating that figure. A hundred million dollars. That, above all, was key. He slurred the phrase slightly from long over-repetition: a hunredmillindollis.

His law firm would wait to be paid for its services until we were funded, an arrangement offered as an act of great benevolence. A few weeks later, I noticed that this preliminary meeting, which took place before we'd even actually signed on, had been billed at a heart-stopping rate to our account. Cue the "Jaws" theme.

Bob and I struggled for months to concoct a spreadsheet whose dots somehow connected our present reality (no income, no assets, no funding) to a hunredmillindollis home run in three years. But we share a character flaw that's pure poison for entrepreneurship: honesty. Bob and I tried to flex our puny, hopeless bullshit muscles, but they merely sagged, woefully. We brought in bullshit specialists (read: MBAs) to lie for us, but lying's like anything else: to do it right you really need to do it yourself. We sweated and we stalled, and soon, thank God (in a way), the bubble burst and there was no funding to be had and we'd gone from Cutting Edge to hopeless relic in the space of a few months. Yah, we ran a much-loved content web site with tons and tons of users. How friggin' quaint.

Online advertising, which had not yet settled upon a model, was a steaming wreckage. All of us who'd struggled to attract crowds to our sites were left with no prospects but steep bandwidth charges and daunting customer service burdens. Hugeness meant precisely nothing, aside from bragging rights. And I've never been much of a braggart.

Given the unviability of advertising, plus the increasing bandwidth costs, the customer service burden, and the growing awareness that our antiquated, jury-rigged software might begin groaning under its load, it didn't take a genius to conclude that continued growth would work against us, not for us. More than anything, we were terrified by the Psycho Scaling Effect: that even a few more kooks would severely strain our resources, and every 50,000 new users meant 5000 jerks, 500 scary whack jobs, 50 dangerous psychopaths, and 5 endlessly plotting Hannibal Lechters.

So we did everything we could to slow down growth. For one thing, I stopped talking to big league press for a while. And we came to view our unwieldy interface as a boon. It took forever to do anything on Chowhound, which repelled a huge percentage of newbies, and also filtered out regulars who were less than fervid. We were satisfied, because the quality of our food tips was better than ever, with only the most devoted hounds sticking around through the adversity.

A few haters, bless them, built competing communities, determined to grab as much of our audience as possible and gain what they deemed all-important Bragging Rights. They mostly drew off our lowest value usership - the troublesome hotheads and shameless self-promoters. Naturally, we prayed daily for their success. Maximal hugeness had never been the goal. We just wanted the best possible resource. And so we kept the brakes on.

Traffic eventually decelerated, and, years later, leveled off - though, in spite of our best efforts, we remained the highest trafficked food community. But sometime right around then, gigunda audience had became valuable again...and the news had escaped me. Of course, it's not like I was spending any time leafing through biz journals. There were limits to how much of a weenie I was willing to transform myself into for this damned thing, even if I had time for all that.

My trembling hand returned to the scarfing honcho his proprietary, paradigm-exploding site statistics. If, instead of having clenched into a traumatized posture of repelling the masses, we'd hustled in new software and resumed guerilla marketing, we'd surely be at least up to the traffic levels my dinner companion was talking about. We'd be pulling in $35,000 per week instead of lying prone on the asphalt, broke, bedraggled, and weeks away from pulling the plug on a vital resource depended upon by a million friends.

Oops!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Airport Food

There's a well-intentioned and well-written piece in today's NY Times on chowhounding (it even gives the site a kind shout-out) in airports. The writer's discovery of an In-N-Out Burger outlet in an airport parking lot was brilliant (though he hit the wrong Chicago airport: Midway is the chowhound's choice). And I was glad to learn about Dallas/Fort Worth's Cousin’s Bar-B-Q, having previously only been to Dickey's (see quote, below). But I found the last sentence of this paragraph appalling:
Cousin’s Bar-B-Q was easily my favorite — the brisket had just the right balance of meat, fat and chewy, charred burnt bits — while Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, whose brisket was watery and ribs dry, made an intriguingly spiced hot link. Only Railhead BBQ disappointed, perhaps because I was already stuffed and had to save my chopped-beef sandwich for a cold midnight snack.
There's a difference between reporting on food professionally for the benefit of millions of readers and simply shoving yum-yums into your maw. If, by chance, Railhead BBQ is cooking its heart out, it deserved better than this. And if I, as a reader, am interested in food at DFW Airport, I'd expect reliable and complete reporting - exactly what any journalist (especially one from the Gray Lady) would be assumed to provide.

When you must 
report on a broad range of food, you taste one or two bites of every item, maximum. It's unpleasant duty, because you'll suffer bad bites of things you know won't be good (just to check) as well as great bites of sensational things that you'll abruptly kiss goodbye. The job is anything but decadent, but you're being paid to work, not to enjoy. You're eating for multitudes.

Not to pick exclusively on this fellow, who otherwise did a great job. There's a broader trend at work. One curious characteristic of post-chat/blog/forum food reporting is that many professionals have ceded their sole professional advantage: their professionalism. Food reporters and editors, perennially the Rodney Dangerfields of journalism, have completely sunk to meet low, fluffy expectations. Can you imagine a city reporter writing (with his editor's approval) that he missed the end of the mayor's press conference 'cuz he had to go make a wee-wee?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Adios, Hermes

Here's a first person account of a rich lady (and well-known author) who lost every cent to Bernard L. Madoff. 

I don't want to comment much, not to influence you before you read. But I'll say this: I never expected the article to leave me feeling so extraordinarily ambivalent. It is, I believe, a masterpiece...however unintentional.

I Did Not Know That

Did you know that prior to the invention of the light bulb, most people slept ten hours per night?

Bonus trivia: Costa Rica is north of the equator, yet people there call our winter "summer", and our summer "winter".

I'm not telling you these things because I'm running out of things to write. I'm just home sick and snowed in, and in my feverish state this stuff seems burningly important.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Deal on Steve Jobs' Health

One thing you quickly learn when you've been part of an operation drawing coverage from reporters and pundits is that reporters and pundits aren't all they're cracked up to be. I have extra insight into this, having worked as reporter and pundit, myself. I noticed how few checks and balances are in the system.

The "Steve Jobs is Dying" rumor mill, which has been moving markets and making headlines for months now, is pure ditz. Same for the latest iteration: Jobs won't be speaking at Macworld this year, so he's feared dying.

Cancer, as a general hazy constellation of afflictions, is indeed scary. And, yup, Steve Jobs had it once. But in spite of possession of critical faculties and a huge pool of medical information, the chattering classes seem unable to reach more nuanced conclusions than "Steve Jobs Ooh Scary Cancer Dying"

Why hasn't anyone thought to, duh, ask a doctor? I had to dive down into the comments section of a Mac geek site to find the sole intelligent analysis of the issue (the following are his words, not mine):
As a physician (in internal medicine), I will attempt to explain some of this, which I hope will satisfy at least the readers of MacInTouch. While what I have to say is more informed, it is still based on speculation and ties together many things which have been said before but "conveniently" ignored by bloggers and financial analysts because again, the rumors as they currently stand are more damaging to the stock than the truth warrants. 
First, people are worried because Jobs had pancreatic cancer, which carries one of the worst prognoses of all cancers. But what people are overlooking is that there are two types of pancreatic cancer. One type is adenocarcinoma, which is 95% of all pancreatic cancer. This is the one with poor survival rates. Less than 5% of people with adenocarcinoma survive to live five years after the diagnosis. This is *not*, I repeat, *not* the kind of pancreatic cancer Jobs had! (Emphasis because many financial analysts and bloggers seem to keep ignoring this). The type that Jobs had was a neuroendocrine tumor, which accounts for the other 5% of cancers. This type has a *much* more favorable prognosis. In fact, he did not even need chemotherapy or radiation after the surgery. This generally means that his doctors were highly confident that his cancer was cured by the surgery.
Second, the surgery that Jobs underwent to remove the cancer is the reason for the way he looks today and it is the reason that he is always going to look very thin. Jobs had what is known as a Whipple procedure. In this procedure, most of the pancreas (the head), part of the stomach (the pylorus), and the first portion of the small intestine (the duodenum) are removed. This has drastic consequences for a patient's nutritional status afterwards.
With the head of the pancreas gone, many digestive enzymes needed for absorbing nutrients are gone, and must be supplemented. Also, with the pylorus gone, food does not pass through the GI tract normally, and finally, the duodenum is the part of the small intestine where the bulk of the nutrients are absorbed through the body. So, Jobs has had all the parts that do most of the absorption of nutrients removed. In fact, some people have to undergo an additional surgery to help improve absorption (basically involves going back in and connecting up what is left of the digestive tract in a different way). Jobs had this additional surgery, too, but it still doesn't make up for all the effects.
People who have had the Whipple procedure must take pancreatic enzyme supplements, eat a modified diet, and take lots of vitamin and mineral and calorie supplements for the rest of their lives. Most people can live long, relatively healthy lives after a Whipple procedure, but they will always be undernourished and thin.
Has Jobs' cancer returned? I can't answer that. It's possible, but I think that if it had returned, Apple would have said so by now. But what I explained above is a lot more likely to be the truth, and if Jobs would go on the record and explain this much of the speculation would be ended once and for all. But, as others here have stated, his health is a private matter and he has no obligation to disclose any of it, no matter how much others think otherwise. I honestly think that if Steve was in a poor health as the rumors make him out to be that he would not be saying that he's fine even off the record.
I realize that this is a long post, but I felt it necessary to explain these things that I feel have been ignored by the media and by financial analysts. I would be interested to hear if Ric Ford and any other MacInTouch readers find the information I have provided helpful or reassuring about Jobs' health. Likewise, if anyone would like to add anything or point out any mistakes or tell me that I'm completely wrong, go ahead. I'm only human, and I make mistakes like anyone.
John D. Broughton
Stavros Karatsoridis, D.O.:
As for the news that Jobs won't speak at the upcoming Macworld - which precipitated a plummeting stock price and flurry of dramatic press speculations about Dear Leader's health, it should be noted that Apple also announced that the company will no longer appear at Macworld shows, period, after this one. It's an obvious move, if you'll think about it, though no pundit seemingly has. 

Macworld has a fully ingrained image as a computer show, and Apple Inc is no longer a computer company. They've even stripped the word "computer" from their name. Apple tends not to make major iPod announcements at Macworld, because iPods are consumer electronics, not computers. Instead, they mount "special iPod events", slick dog-and-pony shows which have done quite well. iPhones, technically computers but occupying a whole other niche, have been a poor fit for Macworlds, and deserve the Special Event treatment, as well. And, when you come down to it, Apple no longer sells Macs as computers, either. They're branded-up designer lifestyle hubs. Or something like that. At this point, big Macworld announcements would be a poor choice for Apple - sort of like Steve Martin showing up for book readings with an arrow through his head. 

So: Apple committed to this year's show, but needs to save big announcements and big guns for the proper time and place. So what do they do? Have another exec speak to the trade show, and keep the star on the sidelines until later.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Free New York Magazine Back Issues

Every New York Magazine from 1965 to 1995 is now available free, online, including the pictures.

It's important to bear in mind that the mag wasn't always q drippy staid affluent echo chamber. It used to be good - relevant, even - so there's gold to be found in those back issues.

The Dilemma of De-Ba'athification

Economist Dean Baker on Obama's dilemma re: economic de-Ba'athification.

Note that this is the comment referenced by Noam Chomsky in the
speech I linked to in this entry (and his point was far more nuanced and balanced than Chomsky's paraphrase indicated).

Random Bits of Web Surfing Goodness

David Pogue’s Photography Tips and Tricks

Andrew Tobias' Recession Investing Tips. Also good: a couple of links therein to Tobias' previous articles Prongs and Cake

A NY Times story last week about
how strangers cheer you up (which should work as well vice versa, though it's a telling indication that neither the study being reported on nor the headline writer would have dreamed of phrasing it the other way around).

Black Cover: the Search for the  Perfect Little Black Notebook

Rob Corddry, former Daily Show reporter responsible for my all-time favorite moment on that show (his commentary on the basis for the Abu Ghraib scandal), curates a collection of favorite online comedy videos. Some are rarified - i.e. "comedy for comedians", but as with music, you have to actively keep up with comedy memes or else risk getting totally out of touch.

Interesting LA Times
story on how nutritional labeling of menus may affect the restaurant industry.

Adamclyde's Google Map of Port Chester Latin Food. Also: his nicely done blog.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Love, Fault, and Loss of Innocence

I asked in an entry below:
"Wouldn't it be fantastic if we lived in an age so enlightened that each side [of a heated rift] helped the other articulate its message?"
Of course, we all know that no such thing will ever happen. Human beings, having survived and evolved by aggressively, even savagely, defending our individual interests and cooperating only insofar as those interests are directly served, simply are not wired that way.

I can remember the first time I fully realized this disheartening truth. I was watching a tennis match on television, and the camera caught a ball landing just inside the line, though the umpire called it out. What interested me was that the receiving player was in a position to clearly see that the ball was in. But he just stood there, silent and clench-jawed, while the player who'd hit the shot argued plaintively with the umpire.

It seemed like spectacularly poor sportsmanship to me, but I observed not a glimmer of ambivalence on his face. And it seemed clear that he'd suffer no stigma, though a million viewers knew he knew the truth and yet had said nothing.

I was eleven years old, and this was the end of my innocence. I saw the problem clearly, and buckled down for the potential unpleasantness of this whole life thing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chomsky on Obama

I'm not a big fan of Noam Chomsky. His patter - incensed allegations delivered in the dullest of deadpan - can easily lull the listener into a state of bitter numbness. Hearing him go on and on about how nefarious and hypocritical everything is (and we are) makes one yearn to ask: well, Noam, what exactly would you suggest? How would you proceed if you were running it all? But, in the answer to that question, he jumps the shark.

Very smart people (and no one's smarter than Chomsky) excel at spotting problems, but often believe in the most naive solutions. Karl Marx, for example, noticed the subjugation of workers at a time when few were paying attention to such things. His solution, though, was so patently silly, so only-on-paper effective, so obviously the sort of fatuous pie-in-sky brewed up by cloistered intellectuals groupthinking in cafes, that only a sheltered genius could deem it viable. Have a look at 
Libertarian Socialism and Anarcho-Syndicalism to learn what Chomsky deems viable.

That said, I do like to check in from time to time to hear what Chomsky has to say. His perspectives are always unique, and he can often shed light on things, even if I don't always buy his conclusions. And so I was wondering how he feels about the Obama victory. Would it shock you to learn he's not real heartened?

Watch a two minute
YouTube video of Chomsky's appearance on Al-Jazeera(!), and/or check out this lengthy speech presented by Democracy Now! (download the MP3, or read the transcript just below the scroll).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 1

Today my agreement with CNET Networks has expired. The contract barred me from competing with them or "disparaging" them (how's that for a broad term?) for three years. But, as of today, I'm free. So this seems like a good time to tell some of the story, in the hope that what I've learned is of use to anyone out there. There won't be much juicy disparagement (let's cut to the chase: I'm generally pleased with how the site has fared, am on good terms with Chow.com chief Jane Goldman, and remain convinced it was the right move), but I nonetheless think you'll find the tale edutaining.

Every business school student knows about The Slog (any resemblance to the title of this web site, by the way, is strictly coincidental). This is the painful time when a company's founders, out of idealism, denial, or both, strain to keep a lost cause going in spite of all reason. For a period of utterly joyless weeks or months, the monster is fed, deadlines are met, and lights stay on...barely. The founders take on more and more workload themselves, expending their sweat equity when no other sort of equity remains. Eventually, they collapse from exhaustion and the operation goes under. It's a classic scenario, and it gives shudders to contemplate.

Chowhound slogged for a record seven years. During that period, I worked fifteen hour days seven days per week unpaid (to support myself I drained savings, maxed out credit cards, minimized overhead, and relied greatly on the kindness of family, friends, and strangers). My typical day included editing three sprawling weekly newsletters, wholly writing a fourth (alone, the most challenging task I'd ever set myself), recruiting and supervising a staff of volunteers, handling customer service inquiries, running an online storefront (including orders and fulfillment as well as working with designers and vendors to create an entirely customized inventory), fielding a dozen press inquiries per week, downloading enormous Apache log files several times per hour (via a dial-up connection - I couldn't afford broadband) and raking through them to defend the site against vandals and lunatics, endlessly recruiting programmers to redo our software (and managing and testing their efforts), and constantly scheming, consulting, and developing plans to make the damned thing more self-sufficient so I might one day return to doing what I really wanted to do: write books and play music. Not a day passed where I didn't contemplate shutting it all down, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's not so easy for Dr. Frankenstein to slay his own creation.

The worst thing about slogging is that the daunting challenges of day-to-day operations leave the principals fatally overwhelmed and overextended. At a certain point, there's no way out. I'd conjured up, over the years, some very clever ideas for how Chowhound could be profitable - or at least self-sufficient. But toward the end there was no leftover time, energy, or resources to devote to pushing forward with any of those ideas even if opportunities arose. As anyone who's actually built something will attest, execution is everything. But one can't possibly execute while flailing to merely endure, much less to personally survive.

I had started Chowhound as a lark, out of fondness for discussing food and swapping tips with others. But my life had come to have nothing to do with food or its discussion. It's a uniquely American problem: you start off with a passion and talent for something, and natural inertia draws you away from that thing and into managing a structure wherein others indulge their passion and talent for that increasingly distant-seeming thing. All energy winds up going into maintaining the structure, which is generic (you may as well be operating a tanning salon), and starkly divorced from your original interest. And so I found that I'd become a businessman, a manager, a marketer, an editor, a publisher, a retailer, an umpire, and, most of all, a tireless janitor, all in the interest of keeping alive an operation facilitating other peoples' discussion of food. None were roles I desired or enjoyed. I'm a writer and musician.

And the damned thing wouldn't stop growing. As it scaled, all tasks augmented, the monthly server bill began including devastating $3000 high-bandwidth surcharges, and our archaic software was ripping apart at the seams, frequently requiring my partner Bob Okumura, who still has nightmares, to rebuild the data, painstakingly by hand one byte at a time. Our volunteer moderators faced an ever-growing crowd (nearly a million per month by the end), 99% of whom were the most wonderful, smart, generously food-loving souls imaginable. The problem was that as our audience increased, so did the scary 1%, which ran the moderators ragged (at our size, even the .01% rabid psycopaths at the far end of the bell curve represented a hundred or so individuals, some bombarding us nearly 24/7, one hallmark of psychopaths being, after all, dogged persistence). Chowhound would have closed years earlier if it wasn't for those moderators' thoughtful and heroic efforts. That the resource remained remarkably honest, on-topic, and flame-free was a testament to their labors.

Outsiders, observing the large and well-loved structure I'd created, assumed I was deliriously successful and content. People, after all, eat bugs to get on television for a minute, and my name was appearing regularly in major media. I'd become "That Chowhound Guy", but, while I was proud of the site, I'd created it on a whim, as a hobby. My life goal was never to host an online forum. And interacting with reporters took time and energy, and presented daunting pitfalls (which I'll discuss another time). After the heady first couple of articles appeared, it became mere landscape to me, the way a restaurateur soon ceases to thrill at seeing his takeout menu on the desks of strangers.

The Slog was a bad time, and I don't remember much, aside from day after day of waking, going to the computer, and, many hours later, getting back up and going off to sleep. I'd often forget to eat. Days would drift by where I didn't go outside or talk to anyone. Literally everything in my life was eventually let go of: my health, most of my friendships, my musical career (even my trombone technique), and any notion of romance. My hair turned prematurely grey and fell out.

When I finally reached the point where I found myself avoiding busy roads (a compulsion had been building to throw myself into traffic), I realized it was time. On July 30, 2005, I emailed Bob and told him I couldn't do it anymore. We quietly, privately hashed out a schedule for shutting things down later that summer. We prepared this "goodbye" page, poised to eventually swap in for our home page. And I, mortally strapped for cash, applied for a job working the counter at a computer store owned by an old friend. The application was rejected.

Then, two weeks later, I got an email out of the blue from one of the most important figures in the online world, a senior executive for a gigantic, titanic household-name media conglomerate. He wanted to take me to dinner.

Read the next installment (#2)...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Art-Hounding Hits a Snag!

I've been furiously looking for paintings by the artist Milton Resnick ever since I first discovered him earlier this year. There are a number of artists whose work I eagerly view at any opportunity. But Resnick, unfortunately, hits me a different way. When it's time to leave the museum, I find that I hate to say goodbye to his paintings. That's never happened before.

I've been to many beautiful and famous places, having toured as a musician in something like 21 countries, and I've enjoyed them all greatly. But one attraction alone, the Alhambra, palace of the Moors in the south of Spain, hit me in a different way. I have no desire to do anything more than visit the Louvre, the Japanese Imperial Palace, or most other World Heritage-ish sites, awesome though they are. But the Alhambra...the Alhambra I'd very happily live in. It's not that it's more beautiful; there's just an undefinable something that makes me yearn to inhabit, rather than just visit. When it was time to leave the Alhambra, I recalled the tale of the expulsion of the Moorish King, who was said to turn and look back at his palace with tear-filled eyes. It's important to note that Moorish Kings weren't known for being the weepy type. But I understood how he felt.

I'll never move into the Alhambra, alas. But if I were to find a smaller Resnick painting, from outside his most prized period (1959 to 1965 or so), and found myself compelled to throw away way more of my savings than would conceivably be prudent, and not replace my five-year-old car any time soon, I might imaginably come to own something by him, if I hold out for a dark horse bargain. Never having been the itchy acquisitive type, I'm shocked by how persistent the compulsion has been. I suppose it mostly boils down to this: I've spent hours staring at several Resnick works, and have hardly begun to plumb the depths of any of them. These are not paintings to view, they're paintings to live with. They can't be fully experienced in mere hours. Imagine if you were a big Mahler devotee, but had never heard any of his symphonies all the way through.

I've approached a number of art dealers, mostly snobs who glance at my zhlubby appearance and cheap sneakers and resolve to waste as little time with me as possible. Roughly half the works for sale I've viewed have been
counterfeits (one can easily tell; a real Resnick spews ecstacy, a fake just lies there). And everything's been either overpriced or underwhelming. So I've bided my time, placating myself by thumbing through reproductions in old exhibition catalogs, sighing heavily like a childless young Mormon woman.

With much detective work, I learned that, as of the late 1970's, a certain university gallery had a Resnick painting. The gallery no longer existed, but still more detective work revealed that while the painting was all but forgotten by the university, which long since had lost interest in art, it was currently hanging, unannounced, in some cheesy conference room. I learned which room (yep, I've been working hard), and the kindly Conferences Director agreed to bring me over to view it. When he opened the door and turned on the buzzing, throbbing overhead fluorescent panel, I saw a masterpiece, cheaply hung, unspotlit, and drooping a few inches to the left. Decorating the wall of this small, grim institutional room, it might as well have been a "Hang in There, Baby!" poster. There was no protective glass pane; I was surprised some student hadn't scrawled "Kimmy and Dom 4Evuh" in the corner.

I've since considered all my options, including outright criminality, and decided my best bet would be to try to ingratiate myself with the university president, tell him my tale, get him caught up in the whole chowhounding ethos (my fascination with this third-rate abstract expressionist is art-hounding, pure and simple), offer to teach a class in ethno gastronomy for free, and see if he'll find a way to let me either buy the damned thing or else borrow it in exchange for a generous donation. So I wrote him a long, passionate, super-enthusmo letter, which I fear he may not read all the way through. I'm also afraid the board of trustees will either nix the sale or else, their curiosity piqued, confer with a zillion sleazy art dealers who'd promise unrealistic megabucks while tying up the painting for an eternity. I haven't mailed the letter.

This is a private university, not particularly prominent, and currently featuring a mostly pragmatic vocational type curriculum. The painting is a bit out of place there. It would be much, much happier with me.

Any clever suggestions?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

More on Perfect Pitch

Some interesting comments were posted in the "Is Perfect Pitch Dying Out Like the Honeybees? entry. Thanks! I've found some interesting information, though not an answer to the mystery:

From an Interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce
"My very young pre-school son learned to play the piano quickly and easily, sitting in my lap—to the point that by age five he was considered quite precocious and was studying with an excellent pianist. His mother, however, was concerned that he would become “one-sided” if he went on being completely absorbed in music and insisted that he attend school and learn to read and write. We put him in a small private school, and within a few months his freely-expressed musical facility began to falter. Little by little his coordination between the hands was not as good, nor his sight reading. Even his perfect pitch declined, and by age seven he had lost much of that original spontaneous capacity."
This next one's particularly interesting to me, as I've always wondered how "tone deaf" people manage to communicate in Asian societies with pitch-based languages, e.g. Chinese or Vietnamese). From an article by Jonathan Ames:
"... psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US...think perfect, or absolute, pitch - the ability to precisely recognise musical notes - is what actually helps babies to learn to speak.

Once this task is achieved, perfect pitch is lost - unless it is deliberately cultivated in some way, either by learning a musical instrument or by speaking a language that conveys subtle meaning with different tones."
More on that same theory (courtesy of this discussion): according to this National Geographic program, the human brain goes through two stages of cutting off unused connections: in early childhood, and again at adolescence. So, again, if you don't use your perfect pitch, you might lose it. 

But wait! What does "using your perfect pitch" mean? Music's everywhere! Is perfect pitch more of a skill than a faculty, involving an intentional, conscious processing of what's being heard? I believe people with perfect pitch don't experience it that way. Also, the reports I'm hearing are of adults losing this faculty, not children.

Those Freakin' Whiners...



Click photo to see larger version...

Godin Retrieving

Welcome to those clicking in from the recent links in Seth Godin's blog. You may want to have a look through the previous entries, most of which are non-time-sensitive. The following are some recommendations selected for a Godinesque crowd:

Friday, December 12, 2008

In Twenty Years, We'll All Drink Daily Milkshakes and Be OK

The NY Times reports that scientists have identified a mutation which shuts down the function of the human apoC-III gene. This results in an enhanced ability to quickly break down fat, and it lowers LDL cholesterol and raises HDL...plus, just for the heck of it, keeps arteries plaque-free. Not bad, huh?

On the other hand, I worry about the unintended consequences of shutting down this gene. I'd like to talk to the folks with this mutation before I get all excited about one day choosing to have my own apoC-III knocked out of commission. It might turn out they can't correctly punctuate sentences or appreciate flamenco or crack their knuckles.

Devil's Advocate on Gay Marriage

I'm particularly fond of arguing against my own core beliefs. As a young philosophy major, I was taught that the best way to examine your assumptions is to attack them with everything you've got. With practice, you develop a faculty sorely lacking in most people: empathic insight into the minds of your ideological opponents.

On a recent Daily Show, host Jon Stewart was 
debating Mike Huckabee on gay marriage. And as has often been the case, I felt that the socially conservative side failed to ably communicate the gist of its position. Since I, myself, oppose most socially conservative positions, this failure to articulate should delight me. It means, after all, that "my side" wins the argument - as Jon Stewart clearly did this time.

But what's the prize? Minds are not changed by debates. And rifts can never be bridged by poor communication. It's in everyone's interest for differing positions to be as clearly explained as possible. A principled opponent with whom you disagree on ideological grounds, after all, is an opponent you'd be less likely to dehumanize. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we lived in an age so enlightened that each side helped the other articulate its message? (If such a scenario seems unimaginable, we ought to reconsider how "modern" our society truly is!)

The Daily Show debate reminded me of a dialog that took place in the comments beneath 
this Slog entry. I tried to articulate the conservative perspective on gay marriage in a way that's at least understandable, if not morally justifiable. Since not everyone reads comments, I've reposted the discussion here:

Commenter Jon:
For the life of me I can't see how gay marriage threatens anything or anyone
My Reply:
Really? It's awfully clear for me. It means cementing, legally, a cultural change that is not in line with the way things have always been, and which makes them uncomfortable (being pro-gay rights, my reply is "well, too freaking bad", but that's my reply, not their feeling). There are homophobic bigots out there, but also plenty of nice (and, in my view, wrong) folks who are not quite ready, psychologically, to accept daddy/daddy and mommy/mommy marriages as a normal part of their cultural landscape. Shoot, I'm not sure you or I would have been hip enough to feel comfortable with that back in, like, 1975! We're ready, they're not. Again, too freaking bad for them, I say. But it doesn't make them homophobic bigots. Just people used to things the way they are and not in a rush to keep changing that status quo. Conservativism. It's a valid way to see the world, generally. Certainly not unfathomable.

They don't want their cultural landscape changed our way. But we don't want ours changed their way, either (creationism in schools, anyone? banning of stem cell research? etc etc). That's the point of my entry. We get lost, just as they do, in our certainty that our changes are good, smart, reasonable ones. Both sides think the same, but they never argue on the same plane. That's the impasse.


Eventually, with the application of steady gentle pressure and greater interpersonal contact, the mainstream everywhere will feel more "comfortable" with gay marriage, and homosexuality generally. As I've been writing for the last few weeks regarding political antagonists here and abroad, the ultimate solution is greater familiarity and bonding between actual people. Symbols and strawmen are easy to demonize and fear.

But, in the meantime, this is a civil rights issue, and legalization of gay marriage ought to happen now, regardless of comfort levels. Justice vastly outweighs comfort.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

RADIOLAB

Public Radio's "Radiolab" has been quite good this season, particularly this recent provocative and interesting show on Race, which offers some intriguingly counterintuitive viewpoints on that combustive topic.

The producers use some unconventional editing techniques which may annoy listeners expecting the usual public radio soundscape - not an inappropriate expectation given the program's unabashed debt to This American Life (e.g. the program's host positively channels Ira Glass). But I grant them slack; it's admirable to see radio people stretching for some new tricks, and one can't, after all, expect every experiment to work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is Perfect Pitch Dying Out Like the Honeybees?

Over the past few weeks, I've heard several accounts of perfect pitch recently starting to fade for people who'd possessed the faculty all their lives. Other musicians have reported hearing the same.

I'm no expert on perfect pitch, but, as a musician, it's something I've been around for years. (I, myself, don't possess it - and wouldn't want to, as it would annoy me when listening to musicians tuned above or below the standard A440, or using non-traditional and microtonal tunings.) But I've never before heard of perfect pitch fading. I'm guessing it's a new - or, at least, newly common - phenomenon, and surely a great subject for some enterprising psychology graduation student to study.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Bag of Hurt" Watch Part 6: I'm Goin' YIDDISH on Y'all!

The phrase "Bag of hurt" has dropped further to 157,000 Google search results (if you haven't been following along with this saga, you can read up on it here).

The algorithm controlling all this is so piss poor that I find myself straining for Yiddish curses to hurl at it. The problem is that I don't speak Yiddish. So I'll have to settle for sputtering furiously about how this farshingenpaskudnyavershlimkenkukh search engine is absolutely kerplongenshlimfashlugnyishkep.

Update: it dropped another thousand results in the past 45 minutes, to 156,000. Unbelievable.

Ballasting Happiness

If you know a worrier, you've surely discovered that such people play a perpetual game of "whack-a-mole". Alleviate a worry for them, and they'll instantly find something else to worry about. It's all about the mindset, not the worries themselves (if there are no real worries at hand, silly ones will be manufactured). They think they're plagued by worries, but, really, they're plagued by the desire to worry.

When you try to alleviate the circumstances that make an angry person angry, or a sad person sad, or an aggravated person aggravated, nothing is accomplished because circumstance doesn't create the mindset, it's the other way around. The mindset comes first. Slings and arrows are sought out and eagerly grabbed at.

Your Uncle Louie is not an Aggravated Person because things aggravate him. Things have aggravated him because he's an Aggravated Person.

How does this happen? Everyone, at a certain point, decides how happy they will be (as with most such choices, cues are taken from the happiness of family members and others around them). This decision becomes a bedrock part of identity - the "I am this kind of person" inner narrative we all maintain.

Aside from truly dramatic life events, people maintain a remarkably consistent happiness level over time. Even moody "up-and-down" types are consistent in their range. We maintain the equilibrium our self-image requires by taking on and discharging ballast - like a ship. And, just as we choose our happiness level, at some point we choose our ballast of choice: worries, anger, sadness, aggravation, etc. The ballast enables us to maintain our happiness at the correct level.

The world does not lack for ballast. In fact, potential ballast is infinite. Yet isn't it interesting how people vary in their eagerness for the stuff?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Chocolate Debunking

This is apparently (much-loved) ancient web history, but since I missed it, you might have, too. Hence, I point you to the priceless and brilliant debunking of pricey/snobby Noka Chocolate. Definitely read all ten parts.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"Bag of Hurt" Watch: Part 5.1

In mere hours, "Bag of hurt" has dropped still more, down to 878,000 hits.

"Bag of Hurt" Watch: Part 5

The phrase "Bag of hurt", which had very recently drawn just over a million Google results, seems to have mysteriously receded to just 879,000 results.

Coincidentally, this mysterious backtrack occurred immediately after I requested payment on a bet I'd made with a Google employee, six weeks ago, right after Steve Jobs more or less coined the phrase, that it'd shoot over a million within a year.

Never bet the people who manage the algorithm...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bush Doctrine Better for Goose than for Gander

We've had the expected ratcheting up of tensions between Pakistan and India, now that it's clear Pakistan-based terrorists were responsible for the Mumbai attacks. Hey, the Bush Doctrine settled this, didn't it? A nation has the right to aggression against states harboring terrorists threatening that nation (clunky syntax, I know, but much web surfing found no smoother versions).

Like its use of torture, the Bush Doctrine was an unthinkably reckless meme to circulate into the world. It will only lead to massive destabilization - the sort of climate provocateurs are aiming to create. Why shouldn't India do to Pakistan what we did to Afghanistan and Iraq? 
"I've been in the Bible every day since I've been the President" -- George Bush
Yep, he's been in it, all right!
Before: "That ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
After: "Smite down with all your might whosever so much as associates with anyone who might ever smite thee on thy right cheek."

All said, I do hope Pakistan rounds up those monsters immediately (especially Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, whom the Pakistanis once had under house arrest but subsequently released, and who, as late as 2006, was
said by Pakistan's foreign office to "not [be] involved in any subversive and terrorist activities."), and that it doesn't devolve into civil war as a result.

Not So E-ZPass

I've been suspended from the E-ZPass program for 60 days for going through a few m.p.h. faster than the posted limit. I only discovered this because, on an impulse, I opened my first E-ZPass statement envelope ever to discover the notice. If I hadn't opened the envelope, and attempted to use my E-ZPass during the suspension period, I'd have paid a steep fee and had my E-ZPass revoked.

Who on earth actually opens letters from E-ZPass? But, more practically, where does one get a whole bunch of one dollar coins?

"Letter of Reference and a Certificate Worth Framing"

The ever-ingenious Seth Godin would never just put out a call for interns to help staff a project!


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why People Read Restaurant Reviews

I'm amazed to discover that my Google map of Obscure Street food in Eastern Jackson Heights has had nearly 100,000 views. I haven't updated the map in ages, yet people keep streaming in.

It reminds me of when I wrote my first book, a guidebook to lesser-known NYC eateries, which earned great reviews from journalists who clearly didn't know and hadn't tried any places mentioned in the book. On what basis were they praising my work? Well, they enjoyed the vicariousness of reading about interesting-sounding places.

I nearly killed myself rechecking every single place before handing in my manuscript to ensure that my opinions were as timely as possible, given publishing's long lead time. Checking 150 restaurants, even briefly, is a herculean undertaking. But I'm not sure it was worth the effort. The fact is, I could have invented half the restaurants in the book, and it would have received the exact same reception. Over the course of my career, I've learned that while a few great finds passionately reviewed may ignite a furor and get lots of people to actually go eat somewhere (Jackson Diner, Sripraphai, Kabab Cafe, Charles Southern Kitchen, Mississippi BBQ Shack, etc., in my case), the vast majority of restaurant review readers never visit the places written about. They read solely to be transported.

Rereading my notes on the Jackson Heights street food map, I guess they are pretty entertaining. But isn't it daft to constrict one's writing to a niche as confining as food when people are just reading along for the writing, anyway? 

UPDATE: Ah, I see the problem. Google, suckily, doesn't include a year in its "last updated" date. So as time passes, the map never seems more than 11 months out of date, and that's why no one realizes how out of date the damned thing is. I suppose I can either add a disclaimer...or else eat a hundred tacos and update the info. I wish there was some way to open up the map, wiki-style, for marking up and comment. It's so 1998!

Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome

I mentioned in a previous entry that governments are amoral (consider, for one thing, that we've never had a president who wasn't a mass murderer). And this reminds me of Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome, a phenomenon I noticed during a trip to Rio de Janeiro several years ago. Bus drivers there have an unwritten but firm agreement with gangs and drug lords: they do not interfere with or testify against crimes and violence perpetrated on their buses, and, in exchange, they themselves are spared.

The question is: what does this situation do, psychologically, to those drivers? It would be hard to make a moral case against them. They're poor, their jobs feed their families, and they never, themselves, do anything evil. They couldn't personally stop anything that goes on (they're not police, they don't carry guns), and, with their attention occupied with the safe piloting their vehicles, they're rarely in a position to testify against perpetrators anyway.

The drivers are not Bad Guys. They're not even true accomplices, as they reap no share and actively facilitate none of the activities they're forced to endure. But I couldn't stop looking at them. They had grim, hardened, harrowed faces, all of them, with dead eyes. They were withered, even the young ones.

The faces of Brazilian bus drivers, in fact, show the same degradations famously seen in the faces of presidents at the end of their terms. It's usually chalked up to premature aging from the rigors of office. But that's not it.

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