Wednesday, April 25, 2012

File Under "That Can't Be Right, Can It?"

Courtesy of xkcd:

Seconds in a year: 754

Age of the universe, in seconds: 1515


More Slog science stuff

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 22

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


Before signing up with CNET, I studied their previous acquisitions to see how those sites had held up. One had been put through the wringer; the community was overhauled suddenly and insensitively, leaving loyal regulars incensed. I mentioned this to Clay, who explained that the catastrophe was greatly regretted. Lessons had been learned, and such mistakes would never be repeated. But, within a few weeks of becoming a CNET employee, I overheard him refer to that transition as an unmitigated success story. And that's when I understood what was coming for Chowhound.

Clay gutted everything. When I reminded him of his early promise to fix "only what was broken", he smirkingly shot back "Yeah, everything's broken".

Well, then, we needed to build it back up again, didn't we? Early in the process, Clay hired some consultants to work up a profile of four imaginary-yet-definitive Chowhound users. I swear I'm not making this up:
Andrew, culinary student, 27 years. Lives in Oakland, but his family is in Seattle. He uses a Mac, and loves lamb, duck, beef, local organic produce. Cooks five nights a week for self and roommates. Eats lunch at school, dinner out twice per week. Tries new restaurants every other week. 

David, lawyer, 35 years. Lives in Pasadena, uses Windows, loves all kinds of food, but wife has a nut allergy. Likes to make up his own recipes, and the wife does the baking. Eats out on weekends. Likes Chowhound because "it's so open and participatory!".

Margaret, retired administrator, 60. Lives in New Rochelle, uses a Mac, loves stews and braises. Tries new restaurants once per month. Son is a vegan. 

Sandy, IT projects manager, age 38. Feels like she is always getting stuck going to the same places even though she really likes finding new treasures. Uses a Windows laptop. Husband travels a lot on business, so she often meets co-workers after work and girlfriends for weekend brunch. She is a social person.
The one thing all have in common, besides the puzzling fact that none of them seem to eat out very much, is that these don't sound remotely like the type of people who'd made Chowhound what it is. I told Clay this - that neither Andrew, David, Margaret, nor Sandy sound anything like me, any of my chowhoundish friends, or any of the site regulars I knew. He grinned broadly and said "That's great!".

(Why, then, does the site not suck? Because 1. Chowhound's culture had considerable momentum, and 2. Clay couldn't, thank god, actually make anything happen.) 

A marketing guru was brought in at great expense for a day-long seminar, putting us all through a series of exercises, pondering terribly deep questions such as "If Chowhound were a color, what color would it be?". It was a delight to watch Clay and the other genius executives knead their brows, applying all that fabulous mental horsepower. Bologna sandwich eaters looking deeply inside themselves for an answer to "What shape would Chowhound be if it were a shape?".

I watched with mouth agape. Welcome to corporate America, home of the uncreative! Why "uncreative"? Because creative people can swiftly intuit the underpinnings and dynamics of things, generate options, and sift through them to pluck out a winner. That's what creativity is! But most people are not creative, and corporations are vehicles enabling uncreative types to build shitty things following rote formulas via blunt force. Shitty things, I hasten to add, which sometimes make lots of money, because while such people may lack creativity, they compensate with relentlessness. And then they confuse financial success with confirmation of their creative brilliance. Bill Gates really believes his company makes splendid software.

Real creativity is nothing but a bee in this bonnet. Would anyone at Burger King appreciate a grill man who's worked out a tweak for tastier Whoppers? How long would that guy last?

One day, early in my tenure, Clay informed me it was absolutely business-critical that we acquire a massive database of recipes. He'd tried to buy a couple of recipe sites, but they'd rebuffed his offers. I asked him to give me two hours. I took a walk, lost in thought. Then I chatted with some of the other Chowhound managers, thought some more, and typed up a proposal for how the Chowhound community could generate a high-quality, neatly normalized trove of thousands of original recipes within three months for a few thousand bucks (the cost of copy editors). It was clearly viable; even an idiot could see it.

Clay skimmed my proposal, furious. I'd applied creative thinking...and that's just not the way things are done around here, Jim! In the future, please spare me your loosey/goosey, artsy/fartsy "big ideas". When we have a business need, we sit around a conference table and apply tools and methods proven to yield desirable results. We use real metrics, not a heap of magical bullshit, and capable executives collaborate to determine the best possible course of action. Do you really imagine - are you arrogantly disrespectful enough to imagine - that you can just, like, leapfrog all that with your cockamamie homegrown "solution" which you just pulled out of your ass?

Well, yeah, actually. I can. And I can also understand Chowhound without resorting to shapes and colors, or perky yuppie thumb puppets with improbably fleshed-out backstories.

But, hey, it's not just Clay. It's not just CNET. This is just how it is. A corporation is no place for a genuinely creative person. Creativity threatens the hierarchical structure and skirts established procedures ("procedure" and "creativity" being natural antagonists). Uncreative people don't have ideas, so they resort to various mental braces and pulleys to compensate. But they don't see those things as remedial; they feel, to them, like Grown-Up Tools. Actual ideas - which they don't have, don't understand, can't recognize, and don't trust - seem absurdly juvenile and scarily subversive (as, indeed, they are!).

The best route for creative people with business impulses (or vice versa) is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pudpuds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it. Just do not, for god's sake, allow yourself to be hired on! 

Of course, Clay never got his recipes. Meanwhile, the Chowhound Home Cooking board has been chaotically spewing a daily torrent of excellent, fresh, non-copyrighted ones, but nothing's being done to cull and compile them in organized fashion. (CHOW offers a maddeningly unnavigable recipes database, and they essentially hide the means for users to add their own.)

I concluded the previous installment with this cliffhanger:
One horrible initiative was actually pushed through...and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.
CNET/CBS's failure to capture, organize, and repurpose Chowhound's prodigious data torrent is the basis of the problem, as we'll discuss in installment #24, after a brief digression in the next installment, #23.

Read the next installment (#23)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Science Denial on Left AND Right!

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind ("Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion"), was on the Leonard Lopate show today.

I didn't find myself agreeing with Haidt on everything, and his style is a bit Ned Flanders-ish, but I admire anyone suggesting a calm, conciliatory, even-handed view of our current hot divides. And one point was particularly interesting and insightful:
"Everybody questions science. Everybody denies science when it is inconvenient.

On the left everyone is so comfortable talking about the science denyers, about global warming and about evolution. But in my field of psychology, we deny science when it's uncomfortable on matters of race and gender."

You can't talk about racial or gender differences. Can't touch it. There is a taboo of scientific research on the matter, or of any discussion of the topic. A moral tripwire precedes any/all research; no matter how careful and neutral your work, you are a racist asshole for even going there. For other people, the moral tripwire is evolution. Again, values come first. Don't go there!

Should touchy moral preferences impact how science is done and taught? I don't think so. But before you answer, consider how you'd feel if your children were taught that a particular gender or minority was proven, on average, to be, for example, less intelligent.



My feeling? Who cares! Averages don't apply to individual cases, and that's what counts. I know lots of brilliant people - way smarter than me - of every race, size, and shape. A mean is not a cap, and it certainly doesn't justify preloaded expectations (people who preload their expectations will do so regardless).

As I've previously written:
As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?



Update: it's worth acknowledging that denying fundamental science (e.g. evolution) or direly urgent science (e.g. climate change) does much greater harm than denying comparative nitpicks re: gender and racial differences. But the greater point stands: everyone discards science when it impinges on moral precepts.

The Five Stages of Hosting

I just noticed a nice little essay by the founder of Pinboard, a cloud bookmarking service I deeply love. Every bit of data you view on the Web "lives" on a computer disk somewhere, hooked up to the Internet. "The Five Stages of Hosting" cleverly discusses the advantages and disadvantages of different set-ups.

Chowhound, fwiw, was at the "Apartment" stage when we sold it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

You Don't Need iCloud After All!

Apple's iCloud service requires that you update to their latest system software, OS 10.7, aka Lion. Lion's horrible, and Apple's previous cloud service, Mobileme, shuts down in June, stranding users who haven't updated.

Gulp! Without some sort of cloud synch, Macs, iPhones, and iPads will not synch calendar entries, contacts, or bookmarks.

But...good news! Fruux offers a free way to set up cloud synch! Contacts and calendars synch instantly and automatically between devices, including Android! (I'm still trying to figure out if they support Safari bookmarks).

Update:
"Unfortunately we're not supporting bookmarks at the moment - not because we don't want to, but simply because there is no widely supported standard for it (yet). If that changes in the future (we sure hope so), we'll definitely be very interested to support it."

Another Update:
Count this as hearsay, but a very reliable company which doesn't compete with Fruux, but whose service ought to be a natural match for it, told me:
"We haven't had a lot of great reports on fruux, especially around calendars. We think the major players (Google and Apple at the point, if you need iPhone support) are a better long term play, but it's your data."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Will Romney's Insincerity Actually Help Him?

I don't always agree with Chris Hayes (or his guests), but I still find his show, Up With Chris Hayes, (Saturdays and Sundays 8-10 eastern on MSNBC), the single most informative news/opinion show on TV (here's my previous rave).

The show's tone is unabashedly liberal, but it's almost entirely free of spin and talking points. Discussion is substantive and respectful, and intelligent almost to a fault. I have to concentrate to follow, which makes me remember watching MacNeil/Lehrer Report as a kid. When was the last time news/opinion TV actually challenged well-educated, informed adults?

This morning Hayes offered an interesting mini-editorial:

"There is a tried and true trajectory for presidential candidates as they enter Act 2: the legendary pivot, wherein the candidate attempts to wriggle free from the idealogically charged positions he or she took during the primary in order to appeal to the base of the party...."

"Mitt Romney, if not a master of the pivot, is well practiced at it. In fact that's the entire rap on Mr. Etch-A-Sketch: that he's been on both sides of more or less every issue. At one level, this would seem to trap him as he enters the general. Since he already has a well-earned reputation as a habitual position changer; a finger-to-the-wind politician who alters his pronouncements based on what's politically expedient, he would seem to have less flexibility to do that now, as he enters the general election.

But it is possible that, ironically, Romney's now-legendary reputation for insincerity will actually help him in the general. If voters come to believe that all the terrible positions he's previously held were just insincere pandering.

They may think that once he's elected, he'll jettison all that nasty and govern as the genuine moderate they think he actually is."

Hayes says this is flat wrong (I myself suspect two words are all liberals and moderates need to consider to get past this hurdle: "Supreme Court").

Watch the video, below for the whole thing:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


Hayes referred to his recent radio interview with WNYC's Brian Lehrer (who is, incidentally, one of the most astute voices out there; I really enjoyed the interviews I did with him back in the Chowhound days). Check it out here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Passwords

If you've been using my trick for entering sensitive passwords on public computers, please reread; I've added a warning with updated info about why it's no longer very secure.

Read a short and particularly vivid explanation for why you shouldn't re-use passwords.

Here's an interesting recent article from The Economist on computer passwords.

Your best bet is to use a password manager, which allows you to securely store and retrieve log-in data, serial numbers, credit card info, etc. This makes it a lot more feasible to create different passwords for different sites, and to make them all perfectly unmemorable. I like Password Wallet and 1Password, both of which are available for Mac, Windows, iOs, and Android (you'll definitely want the mobile versions - and to keep them well-synched). The problem is that to open your password manager, you'll need - yep! - a password. So make it a damned good one (1% of the population uses "12345" or "123456"!)

Monday, April 9, 2012

New Orleans Trip #11: Odds & Ends

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order



On my last trip to NOLA, decades ago, I'd happened upon a small-time vendor whose pralines were leagues better than any other I tried. Tee Eva's was the bomb, and Eva herself was the nicest lady ever.

Tee Eva's is now a thriving, well-known business (5201 Magazine St; 504-899-8350), and Eva, herself, has left the building. It's now run by people claiming to be her family, which I find hard to believe because they are so brusquely unfriendly. And prices are now sky-high.

So I hesitate to recommend them, but must admit the pralines are still supernal. Leagues above anything else. And worth putting up with a very dark retail vibe to score. Better, order online, though they will absolutely kill you on the shipping charge ($15 to send a dozen bite-sized pralines, themselves pricey).


"Old New Orleans" is a great new small distillery here, and it's enjoying increasingly national distribution. I didn't try their regular rums, but, for some reason opted for their spiced rum, even though I'm not usually a fan of the style. My instinct was right; it's awesome. The spicing is identical to Dutch speculoos (e.g. "Biscoff", i.e. gingerbread) cookies. It's the single happiest spirit I've ever imbibed, redolent with the innocent deliciousness of yummy Dutch cookies!



I bought this trippy wall hanging, an antique Indian gypsy embrodiery, circa 1920, at Tribal Revival, run by a friendly and well-travelled New Orleanian yogi named Ryan. He mostly sells Oriental rugs, has exquisite taste and charges fair prices. Every rug has a story, and Ryan loves to regale prospective customers over a cup of good tea in his living room/showroom. It's a must-stop.


My intention was to get out of New Orleans before Mardi Gras. I don't like crowds, generally, and had assumed Mardi Gras was mostly about drunken frat boys screaming at women to take their shirts off. But as my time there started to leak into the leading edge of the festivities, I realized that I'd erred. This is not just another parade. It's not just another drunken crowd.


It's the source of all that. This is the good one, putting to shame all others. So while I was scurrying around preparing to leave town, a certain vibe was palpably building, and I regretted not sticking around to steep in it. Several strangers urged me, in all sincerity, to stop dashing around and just hang out and enjoy the party. And, in a one-hour span of pure Twilight Zone, I bumped into nearly every person I'd met on my trip. Amid the roiling horde of thousands, hey, here's the older woman from the bar with the electric handshake and her son who seems only about money but isn't! And there's Cassidy, the bike tour guy! And, wait, look, it's the guy who sold me a hat last night! And now the girl in the folding chair I'd previously asked for directions! It felt totally crazy, but, who knows, maybe this happens all the time...only, everywhere else, such near-strangers would be more inclined to turn away rather than grab your arm and holler "Hey! How you doin'!".


By the way, the hat shop was Goorin Bros.. It's on Royal Street, the classier, more grown-up, quieter street parallel to Bourbon Street. It's a fairly staid, upscale store; the sort of space you'd see in an upscale shopping mall. But at night, they set up a table with a guy making free cocktails (for anyone passing through, not just customers), and a DJ. The atmosphere feels like someone's party, and there just happen to be hats for sale. Real cool hats, too.

And the merchandise was selling like hotcakes. But, opportunistic and imitative though retailers are, you can bet "just make it all feel like a party!" won't ever be seized upon as a widespread marketing strategy. We are, after all, a puritan nation.

New Orleans is very much a separate country, though. My first walk up Bourbon Street, the mega-touristic French Quarter throughfare, spurred a wide range of emotions. First, it's mind-bogglingly commercial; one is hustled in a thousand directions by grizzled barkeeps, sexy bartenders, and innumerable dodgy characters. And while you'll find no shortage of violently drunken tourists sucking down Hurricanes and clapping hands arhythmically to the beat, that's not all there is. Bland jiveness is actually in the minority, because this is, in fact, ground zero for lots of things I like. Bourbon. Funky music. Fried shellfish. Interesting beers. Passionate quirkiness. Dancing. Going off-script in everyday conversation. It was so disorienting to be pelted with crass come-ons for things I'm actually interested in!

Which is not to say that I find Bourbon Street an appealing destination. Each of those things can be found much better in other parts of town. But it's an awfully odd sensation to find my own tastes reflected even on the most crassly commercial strip in town, accustomed, as I am, to scurrying, rat-like, toward remote corners of any given place to evade a mainstream which makes me feel completely alienated.

It's like when I first went to Japan and found not the Bible but "The Sayings of Buddha" on my hotel night table. I'm not a Buddhist, nor am I a full-fledged New Orleanian. But there's a certain unburdening when prevalent taste is so much closer to your own.

And I'm not sure, frankly, that I like it!


To be continued...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Twelve Years Into the New Century*

At some point in the past few years, it stopped being ironic to refer to "the last century".

Pretty soon, the twentieth century will seem quaintly distant. And, not long after that, anyone who can personally remember it will seem old.


* - and still no jet pack!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Boston and Worcester: Lost Love Returns

My second favorite diner* is back from the dead. Hallelujah!

(* - My favorite is Bishop's 4th Street Diner in Newport, Rhode Island.)

The latest regime at Yankee Diner (23 Worcester Rd (Rt 20) 508-248-7370), twenty minutes southwest of Worcester, is deftly keeping hope alive. Prepare for majesty:

Corned beef hash: vinegary, hardy, spiritually immersive, slightly feral (in a good way).
Hash browns: oniony, texturally miraculous
Egg over easy: fine.

Strawberry shortcake: I'm pretty sure this was the best thing I've eaten this year (and I just came back from a week in New Orleans). Fairly generic biscuit, heated on the griddle. Strawberries pulled out of marination in the back of some distant cooler. Cream hand-whipped to order. The whole was extra more-than-sum-of-parts-ish. I.e.: magic. Devastation was complete.

Yankee Diner remains a great, great hang in a super old-school railroad-style diner. Such nice people (both staff and clientele). I've stolen these two photos from their web site:



Hound can't live from breakfast alone. Thus, lunch. Vaughn Tan's find-of-a-lifetime is the superb Sri Lankan Biryani Park (105 Broadway (Rt99), Malden, MA; 781-397-1307). This place healed a different heartbreak. Dakshin, specializing in Tamil food, closed years ago in Framingham, and it was the absolute bomb. But Biryani Park has depths all its own. The photos tell the tale:



This lamb roti kotthu had crunchy bits of toasted paratha strewn in, reminiscent of Turkish Iskender kebab.

Here's everything we ordered:


Go quickly, as this place may not be long for this world. Prices are not cheap, in spite of the dreary nabe and people's preconception of South Asian as cheap eats. For food this good (and rare), the price is a bargain...but I'm not sure locals will forgive the sticker shock (you'll pay $30 - $40/person if you order generously, as you must).

I've been ordering kringles (big circular Scandinavian pastries that are something like a flakey multi-layered coffee cake) from Racine, WI for years. But I did not know, until this trip, that kringles lurk in the Boston 'burbs. Danish Pastry House, clean, well-lit, and friendly, has branches in Medford (330 Boston Ave; 781-396-8999) and Watertown (205 Arlington St; 617-926-2747). I checked out the Medford location, and enjoyed my kringle. Not as good as Racine, but Vaughn says it was an off day:


Speaking of Scandinavian bakers, back in Worcester, I ate my way through a pile of unrecognizable little Swedish doodads at venerable Crown Bakery (133 Gold Star Blvd; 508-852-0746). I think that's the way to go, ordering-wise: little cookies and twisties and stuff. This is no artisanal mecca, it's an nth-generation Swedish-American joint where corners have come to be cut, and larger, more ambitious items appear sort of flat. My booty was wolfed down post haste, but this one blurry relic (impressive looking, and yummy enough, but containing no discernible butter) remains:


Sorry to bury the lede, but one of the last cuisines I've never tried is quietly offered in a sensational-looking Kenyan place in an outer stretch of Worcester. Safari Cafe (215 Chandler St; 508-799-7989) has a great vibe, but they are, alas, closed Mondays. Also in Worcester: fantastic One Love Cafe (800 Main St; 508-753-8663), which I love for Jamaican. Lots more good stuff in Worcester, too (check out this epic Boston Globe chowhounding piece by Joe Yonan from back in 2005).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi



Don't miss "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", a portrait of 85 year old sushi master Jiro Ono which may be the best food movie of all time. It also elegantly restates many of the themes I've been slogging about. If you like food, or movies, or this Slog, you won't want to miss it.

The film is currently playing at Manhattan's IFC Center

Even Here, You Can't Escape the Trayvon Martin Case

I'm having an OJ verdict moment, where the statements and actions of otherwise reasonable people seem insane, and my point of view strikes them as an abomination. Of course, maybe I am insane. But I don't think so.

This Zimmerman kid does seem to be a warped vigilante, and Trayvon Martin does seem guilty solely of an excess of melanin. Absolutely. We've seen this before, and justice must be done. But how do we know for sure? All we've heard are news reports. We don't know much, just appearances and assumptions.

Guilt in this country is established by jury verdict, and until then our national credo is to presume innocence - or at least to keep an open mind until all data is considered. But this week, previously harmless - even virtuous - statements like "presumption of innocence" or "keep an open mind" have suddenly become very touchy. To even utter such words is to be deemed, by some very smart and reasonable people who I respect a great deal, squarely in the same right wing backlash camp as the white supremacist scum who conjured up fake photos of Trayvon acting out in order to fuel a "he had it coming" argument.

How on earth did "let's not rush to judgement" become an ugly statement?

It's particularly baffling, because the angry, viral conclusion-leaping mechanism at work here is precisely the lynch-mob dynamic that's long been the bĂȘte noire of African Americans. If you hear the 911 call where Zimmerman supposedly called Martin a "coon", all that's for sure is that he uttered some garbled word starting with a "c". Am I the only one who finds the way this audio rorschach has helped fuel outrage flagrantly lynch mob-ish? Or to find disgraceful the eager stoking by media? (the normally sober Lawrence O'Donnell has gone positively apeshit this week, screaming at every guest, regardless of their role in the incident.)

The proper target of anger should be Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law (versions of which appear in nearly a dozen other states), which makes shootings ok if you merely say you did it in self-defence, encouraging citizens to shoot 'em dead so as to avoid any counterargument on the whole "self-defense" thing. The law's repugnant and flagrantly immoral. It should be repealed at once. But if police let killers go because their legislature's passed an obscene law, I don't see how the police are the problem.

Why is all the anger directed at hapless policemen and a messed-up kid (who'll eventually get what's coming to him) and his panicky father, rather than at the NRA, which rammed this awful law down our throats via political extortion? Without such a law, killers would go into custody, period, with guilt to be determined later via due process. Fiasco averted!

It's been pointed out that if the victim were white and the shooter black, the latter would have undoubtedly been hauled to jail. Law or no law, a way would have been found. That's damned right. So how do we fix this inequality? One option would be to treat white kids just as brutishly. But the other is to strive to make things more fair for everyone...which entails a fierce defense of the presumption of innocence and enduring respect for the moral value of an open mind.

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