Saturday, April 27, 2013

Leff's Law of Green M&Ms

As Chowhound grew, so did the moanings about its decay. We opened in July of 1997, and we weren't far into autumn before I started hearing complaints about how the newbies were ruining it. Too many bad postings! Too many dopey posters! Too many flames and rude responses! Too many bad things!

It's true that Chowhound did eventually overgrow (per this explanation), and it's true that the community's credo, as so often happens, got lost. But the death knell was being sounded even back when Chowhound was getting better and better. I've often explained this via my Law of Green M&Ms.

If you absolutely hate green M&Ms, you'll be increasingly horrified by larger and larger bowls of M&Ms, simply because there will be more green ones....even though the proportion remains the same.

As a thing grows, we see only decline. We don't grant equal attention to the good stuff quietly growing in equal proportion. So even though Chowhound became lots more useful as it grew from hosting 50 good postings (and 5 bad ones) per day to hosting 5000 good postings (and 500 bad ones), the natural reaction was "Geez, look at all those bad postings!"

Law of Green M&Ms also explains why urbanites are seen as rude and heartless. Visitors to Manhattan will, in the course of a day, pass 10,000 people. Two will randomly yell crazily at them from the street, one will fail to hold a door, three will cut them off while driving, one will shove them to get by, and, right there, that's more assholery than they'd see in an entire year back home. Of course, they fail to register the hordes of quietly good people.

Have a look at this very interesting Ted Talk where Steven Pinker convincingly argues that violence has drastically declined in human society (even factoring in the horrors of the 20th century and the dismaying violence which continues). It's a deeply counterintuitive argument, and I attribute its surprisingness to the Law of Green M&Ms.

We obsess and focus on the violence that exists to the point where it's all we see, and we fail to notice how much better it's actually getting. In other words, we only see green M&Ms even when the proportion of greenies is steeply declining! And that's a good thing. By all means, let's stay sensitized and abhorred as ever less violence is tolerated!



I'm reaching an age where my perspective is long enough to spot over-arching societal shifts. I remember when it was still more or less acceptable to punch assholes in the mouth. But you don't see a lot of punching any more. And this seems a random observation, but only because the behavior's become so taboo.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Friday, April 19, 2013

Back to Falafal for a While

Shortly after 9/11, noticing that Middle Eastern restaurants were empty and anti-Moslem bigotry was becoming an obvious problem, I published "A Call to Eat" on Chowhound, stating my resolution to eat nothing but Middle Eastern food for a while in support of friends and neighbors who were unfairly suffering for the monstrous behavior of people who happen to share a very broad group affiliation with them. I encouraged others to do likewise.

Unexpectedly, this turned out to be a very controversial suggestion (it even got reported on in Food & Wine). Who knew the notion of sticking up for unfairly stigmatized neighbors would strike people as offensive?

To this day, I know very kind-hearted, reasonable people who can't imagine why anyone would argue with the observation that "The Moslems" are trying to kill us. Hey, "they" attacked us, didn't they? What more proof do we need?

And now, alas, more "proof". I hear the sound of a million American Moslem hearts sinking. Of course, that's a terrorist objective: to provoke America into anti-Muslim bigotry that will marginalize - and, ideally, radicalize - moderate Muslims. If you want a big fight, you need to fuel conflict. It's a page out of the same provocation playbook of Palestinian extremists who bombed not hawkish Israeli temples and religious schools, but dovish secular night clubs and shopping malls. If violence is the ultimate goal, the first thing to do is rile up the peaceable majority and its dangerously conciliatory attitude.

Passing through Fairfield, Connecticut at lunch time today, I spotted a Syrian restaurant called "Safita" whose parking lot, unsurprisingly, was deserted. I entered the empty restaurant, ordered takeout, and talked for a long time with the extraordinarily warm, kindly owner, who had the saddest eyes I've ever seen. He made me a shish tawouk sandwich with toom (Lebanese garlic mayonnaise), and some lentil soup. He asked me if I was local, and I replied that, no, I was driving through. So he asked what had prompted me to stop in. I hadn't planned to get into a discussion about it, but couldn't lie. I explained that I'd eaten nothing but foul madamas and kibbe for two solid months after the 9/11 attacks, trying to drive business (and good vibes) to as many unfairly stigmatized Middle Eastern restaurants as I could. And I figured it might be time to restart that practice for a while.

Looking relieved that I'd broached the topic, he walked up right next to me and whispered a story about how he'd worked in a Middle Eastern restaurant in 2001, and a woman came for lunch every single day. After the attacks, she never returned. He spotted her one day in a supermarket, and asked why she never stopped by. "I'll come in sometime if I ever decide to put on a burka," she spat back at him.

He had tears in his eyes. We both glanced over at his wife, angelically cooking in completely modern Western dress. Not to mention the full bar. I sighed sorrowfully and left with my sandwich - which, by the way, was wonderful. Just as the guy was wonderful. If the Nazis ever came back, he's exactly the sort who'd let me hide in his basement. And, as I pulled out of his empty parking lot, I wondered whether I could convince a few of you to join me in sticking up for the good guys.

Americans are famously indecisive about where to eat. How about defaulting toward falafal for a while? You don't need to discuss politics. Just show up. Spend a few bucks and be neighborly. Step up, just as you'd hope folks would step up for you under such circumstances.

If the idea pisses you off, though, do me a favor and keep it to yourself.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Terrorists Suck at Terrorism

Nearly all the terrorist attacks I can remember have been clumsy and hapless. It's important to take stock of that fact on days like today, with the news of this latest clumsy, hapless attack.

People only dimly remember Al-Qaeda's first attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, which was amateurish and failed in its objective to topple the buildings. The shoe bomber plot was pure idiocy, as were several others around that time. On 9/11, the Pentagon segment was poorly targeted and ill-conceived, and United flight 93 never even reached the target.

Nearly every Al-Qaeda attack has been sloppy, ill-targeted, and poorly-disciplined, including today's (which I'm supposing was from those same slimeballs). If you set off three bombs in a humongous crowd and only two people die, that means you suck at terrorism. My heart goes out to the families of the victims, but this was really a pathetic bit of mass-murder.

The only time they ever really succeeded was the September 11 attack on the Trade Center. OBL claimed to have predicted the towers would implode from the heat, but I think that's bull. I think they mostly got lucky (though the planes-as-missles idea was creative). If the Towers didn't implode, everyone would have run down a few flights, and it would have been yet another angry gesture, rather than tragedy. So even that one could have gone either way.

I don't see a learning curve. I don't see these idiots growing smarter or better-disciplined. I see sloppy, childish lashing out by amateurs. I am not terrorized.

The Cold War produced way more fatalities on our end than this supposedly hot one. This isn't persecution, it's annoyance, in the larger picture - though, of course, complete tragedy for the victims' families. I don't underestimate that, having myself lost a friend in one of the feeble attacks I've mocked above.

TV is really good at making us feel as if we were really there (and the cameras have done a swell job of intruding on the full explicit horror, no? I'm rewarding them by getting all my news on this via radio alone). But you're not there. You, along with the other 313,914,039 Americans, are safe tonight (including you, Boston friends). So don't let our own media complete the job of terrorizing you!

You really should read this fascinating and stupendously thoughtful series on Slate examining why there's never been a 9/11 style follow-up (eight explanations are proposed, but my money's on the "The Terrorists-Are-Dumb" theory.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Short Poem About User Interfaces

The purpose of computers is to do work,

so I can work less.

Whenever your app makes me work

to serve your app rather than the other way around;

Whenever your app makes me so much as lift a finger or shift my gaze to do something your app could do for me, however trivial,

you are completely missing the point

of what computers are for.


(I know a number of professional drummers who can't keep a beat. They can perform impressive and highly technical things, they can sight-read effortlessly, and they have long resumes from drumming careers...but they seriously can't keep a beat. Why on earth did they become drummers? It drives me absolutely crazy!)

Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Tell If You Have an Actual Problem

If you're worried, that means you don't have an actual problem. You're just creating gratuitous drama for yourself.

People with actual problems don't worry. They're too busy dealing with the problem.

If, god forbid, there was gunfire near you right now, you wouldn't be weaving it into your inner narrative of woe. You wouldn't be brooding about how bad stuff always happens to you, or what a lousy week you've been having and "now this". You wouldn't be telling yourself stories - about the world, about yourself, or about the situation. Rather, you'd be flat on the floor, getting from one moment to the next. Very clear-minded. Very factual. Very here-and-now.

After the gunfire ended, that's when the inner narrative and the worrying and the suffering would start. Right at the point where there's no longer an actual problem.

Further Reading:
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Depression Resuscitation Kit

Vote for Mideast Youth

Here's what nobody realizes, because nobody's reporting on it: the youth of the Middle East (who are demographically overwhelming, and poised to soon run things there) are incredibly sophisticated, smart, cool, modern, digital, tolerant, and conciliatory.

This is the generation responsible for the Arab Spring (which the oldsters co-opted). They're the generation behind the Green Revolution in Iran (which the oldsters brutally repelled). They are as plugged-in to the Internet and other digital culture as anyone, and are way hipper and more worldly than you or I. The image we have of culture in that part of the world is thoroughly outdated, and has been for some time. A tide's turned, but we've been too insular to notice (the erstwhile hip have turned insular, and vice versa!).

I'm not claiming that this description fits every single young person in the Middle East. Of course it doesn't. But trends do occur, and new generations do have their tone, even if the tone's never uniform (there were certainly crew-cutted Republican kids in 1969).

A prominent group giving voice to this generation is one I've long admired and supported: Mideast Youth. They first drew my attention with a mind-blowing YouTube upload convincingly dubbing the audio of MLK's "I Have a Dream" into a raving Ahmadinejad speech. Awesome!

This CNN article gives a good overview, and they've continued to work for the rights of minorities (Kurds, Baha'is, women, LGBT, guest-workers, etc) and generally advance their values. They've also launched some amazing projects, with the group's characteristic pizzazz, such as Crowdvoice, which allows everyday people to report news from the streets (hot items get floated to the top). It combines the best sort of crowdsourcing and citizen journalism; sort of a visual Wikipedia for news. Crowdvoice also offers a brilliantly produced Syria infographic that's way deeper than it appears at first glance.

If this sounds like a group you'd like to encourage, you can donate (it's tax-deductible), or, even easier, vote for them for a BOBs Award for 'Best Blog'. It takes just a second, but your vote would help them out quite a bit.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Werner Herzog on Les Blank (plus garlic!)

The following video was shot long prior to Les Blank's death, but in it Werner Herzog offers a perfect short (three minute) eulogy:



My one Blank/Herzog connection: Les loved my observations about Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", and emailed Herzog to suggest he give it a read. I have no idea if he ever replied; there's no reason to assume Les would have notified me if he had (as Herzog attests in the video, Les was extraordinarily opaque).

Finally, in case you didn't follow the link at the bottom of my Les Blank tribute to view great excerpts from several of his films, please at very least check out this three minute excerpt from "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers", which says it all:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Profiles

I've written some sketches of friends, acquaintances, and interesting people here over the years, and they seem to have been popular. So I've created a new "label" (for a list of all labels, see the left margin) in order to gather them. I probably missed a few (if you notice any stragglers, please let me know by leaving a comment), but here, for now, are all Slog entries labeled as "profiles".

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Les Blank, Ur-Chowhound

Note: some of the links below aren't working, as Les' web site has been overwhelmed with visitors (I can hear the sardonic chortle from Beyond). It should be running ok in a few days.
My hiking buddy, granola-making idol, and favorite documentary director Les Blank passed away today. Just a year ago, he was kicking my ass fast-hiking up the steep Berklee hills surrounding his home. But his illness hit suddenly and the fadeout was quick.

Most people would, it's safe to say, prefer not to die. But Les was more anti-death than the next guy. Though he'd been a legendary chowhound in his day, by the time I befriended him he referred to sugar and flour as "white death". Just my luck: to hang out with the great Les Blank during his Gary Null stage, when he was taking all possible steps to stop the clock.

But, oh, the eating he'd done before. One of Les' most famous films was "Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers"(1980), a survey of the annual garlic festival in Gilroy California. The film would drive audiences wild with hunger, and he'd heighten the effect by frying garlic in-theater during screenings. I caught it back in college, and it was a big influence on me, and on many of the people who went on to persuade Americans to care about what they ate.

He made quirkily wonderful films about quirkily wonderful people and quirkily wonderful scenes. Blues musicians and folk artists and Mexican polka bands and even "Gap-Toothed Women" (read this swell Roger Ebert review of the latter). And since everyone eats, Les usually seized opportunities to slip in an incredible meal scene or two (mostly, he confessed, so he could partake).

Less food-oriented, but a unanimous classic, his "Burden of Dreams" (1982) was a feature-length portrayal of the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" in the jungles of South America. It's considered the only making-of film as good as the (classic) film it's about. Herzog was telling the story of a megalomaniac opera impresario who, in his determination to bring fine opera to the natives of the South American jungle, managed to push a 320-ton steamship up a mountain, so it could be set down in the river behind the mountain and piloted thousands of miles into the rain forest. Herzog, a megalomaniac himself, insisted on shooting without film tricks, so he actually pushed a huge steamship up a mountain. The meta levels could make one's head explode, and Les drank up the dizzying irony, crafting a film looking deeply (but never weightily) at art, obsession, and ego.

Les' fame had been in decline for some time, but those in the know always knew, and always will. It's a pity Roger Ebert isn't around to eulogize him, but he did previously describe Les as a "brilliant filmmaker".

The great thing about Les was that once you actually got him eating, he'd slip off his health food dogma without a second thought. He was very quiet, and ate very slowly - often hardly appearing to be eating at all. But at the point where table mates were gripping midsections in pain, Les would eat smoothly on - effortlessly and with perfect gentility - until every last speck of food was gone. Les Blank would eat you under the table every time. He was like a one-man locust swarm. How he relished deliciousness!

I often stayed at Les' place when visiting the Bay Area. Due to my musician's time clock, I'd wake up hours after he did, but when I walked into the kitchen, there'd always be a freshly-served bowl of his homemade granola awaiting me, festooned with local fruit (much of it stolen from neighbor's trees or the local fruitstand's dumpster, as Les was notoriously stingy), including his beloved persimmons (he made a cult of drying them on strings hung all over his house).
Also: unpeeled kiwis. It was Les' opinion that anyone lacking the verve to ingest them skins-on was undeserving of his granola. I've learned to prefer them that way, too.

Before it was taken over by CNET and CBS, Chowhound sold most of Les' films. That's how I got to know him. Les introduced me to tea pundit David Hoffman, with whom I've enjoyed some evocative meals. Les recently released an amazing film about David, called "All in This Tea". It was among his best works, but failed to draw the attention it deserved. I tried to persuade Roger Ebert to champion it, but Ebert was too saddled with drek he needed to screen and review to work far down my Schindler's list.

I wasn't present for Les' fade-out. I sent emails until he was too weak to reply. I missed "Les Blank Day" - hastily declared in Berklee when local residents, who'd for decades taken him for granted, realized they'd better honor him quickly. I did send him the following note of congratulations, along with some great goat milk caramels. I hope it made him smile:

Les,

Sorry there's not time for me to make it out west for Les Blank Day. But as far as I'm concerned, every day is Les Blank day.

Every day I eat garlic, every day I eat kiwis with the skins on, every day I play my trombone with extra funky brio, every day I make tea, every day I walk past my bookcase (loaded with your movies), every day I hike, and anytime I so much as hear the word "granola", it's Les Blank day.

It's more thickly Les Blank-ish around here than in other places, of course, just because I know you. But it's at least thinly Les Blank anywhere there's good food or good music, or anytime anything the least bit funky happens in a motion picture.

I'm sorry no other director fully picked up your mantle of funkiness. Cinematic funkiness started, and mostly ended, with you. But for generations, lucky people will continue to blunder into your films and be illuminated re: 20th century American culture in a way that's unavailable via any other channel.

In year 3000, someone will be wishing he could go where you've gone and see what you've seen, because the ecstasy of it will remain vividly potent. Just like some of us today, he'll feel insanely lucky to have found this treasure, and wonder why everyone in the world doesn't know about it.

Your fans will always be unique glowing misfits, just like your subjects. By connecting the two, you've done incalculable good.

Your friend,

Jim


UPDATE: If you're unfamiliar with Les Blank's work (or, for that matter, if you're a huge fan), this remembrance on Indiewire.com includes lots of great embedded excerpts.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert's Vanishingly Brief Film-Hounding Period

In over-eulogizing people, we don't do them proper justice. Roger Ebert was our most-respected film critic, and he deserved great credit for his work, but I think even he would admit that he owed a good amount of that stature to the power of television (he and Gene Siskel were the first film critics to garner massive national exposure via that medium) and to sheer indefatigability. He'd plied his Chicago Sun Times column since, christ, 1967.

He was a very good writer, and knew a damned lot about film (if you check out some of his educational stuff - intended more for film geeks than the general public - you'll see how much he holds back in his more mainstream writing). But what he was truly great at was being Roger Ebert. He was a completely unaffected man, utterly accessible, always curious and friendly. He never stopped being a film fan. Never having placed himself above it all, he helped inspire my realization that arrogance is strictly elective.

There was never the least cynicism, either, even after working nearly 50 years in a trade rife with both arrogance and cynicism. He chose not to become that sort of person, though no one would have begrudged his right to do so. It's rare and inspiring to see people act far better, and try far harder, than they could easily get away with.

I'd been in touch with him sporadically over the years. Ebert was one of the early adopters of CompuServe (a precursor to the Web) at a time when I was helping run a number of forums there and perpetrating various proto-cyber pranks. Years later, I tipped him to some little-known but masterful films, begging him to Schindler-List them from undeserved obscurity. He fell in love with one of them, choosing it to headline his "Overlooked Film Festival". Alas, it didn't help, as the film remains almost completely unknown. There's only so much even a Roger Ebert can do.

He asked how I'd managed to come across such cinematic diamonds in the rough, and I explained the chowhounding credo, and its applicability to realms well beyond food. He found it all fascinating, but complained that he was forced to spend much of his time screening and reviewing drek. He couldn't filmhound nearly as much as he'd have liked.

Just two days ago, Ebert posted to his blog that he was going to slow down a bit:
I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.
I was so delighted to read this. After a half-century, he was finally free!

But today I feel absolutely whiplashed by the news that someone who just this week was writing about his future with such liveliness had suddenly evaporated from our midst. Only in an unjust universe does a man like Roger Ebert enjoy a mere 48 hours of freedom.

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