Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Intelligence

Someone on Quora asked "How do people know who is intelligent?", and I answered as follows:

Well, the first thing to recognize is that people are quite bad at making that determination. They're impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who project confidence, or by their qualifications. They're impressed by educated people who use fancy words and have lots of information stored in their heads. They're super impressed by arrogance. And, most of all, people are impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who agree with them (look up "confirmation bias"). Tell someone something they already believe, and they'll think you're smart! On the other hand, say something surprising, which doesn't mesh with their prior assumptions (as truly intelligent people often do), and they'll think there's something "off" about you. Most people really don't like to be surprised, but intelligent people are often surprising.

The thing is, you've got to be smart, yourself, to recognize the intelligence of a surprising insight which doesn't line up with your previous assumptions, to distinguish between knowledge (mere data) and intelligence (clever use of data), and to see through arrogance. It takes wisdom to recognize wisdom - and to differentiate it from glibness. If you can't clear-headedly analyze arguments, it's hard to know when confidence is bluffed and qualifications are empty.

You also need to look past appearances. I know very smart people who are uneducated, inarticulate, barely literate, and who need to be explained complicated ideas over and over before they understand - who are what you'd call slow-thinking. They'll ponder stuff practically forever - long after the educated, snappy people in the room have given their opinions....perhaps days or weeks after. And then they'll cough up a conclusion that's so clever, so surprising, so creative that your head wants to explode. Fast thinkers aren't necessarily smarter, nor are slow thinkers necessarily dumber.

The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. And it takes ample intelligence to be impressed by actual impressiveness rather than by mere impressive-seemingness. Most truly intelligent people I've met aren't very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Problem with Spielberg

My holiday movie-watching binge included Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln". It was a perfectly okay movie, but as I watched, I remembered that I never really like any of Spielberg's films. And, for the first time, it dawned on me what the problem is.

All his films seem like works for young adults. Shorn of all subtlety, complexity, and ambiguity, they hurtle inexorably forward as if on a steel rail. The hand of a fatherly figure cajoles us to feel precisely what he needs us to feel at every given moment.

One senses, above all, great pains taken in the name of clarity, but it's not the clarity of fluency (ala Hitchcock) or of simplicity (ala Ford); it's the clarity of someone who doesn't quite trust your powers of comprehension. The clarity of a grown-up striving to make himself understood to children.


That said, dude's a multi-billionaire-with-a-"b". The exquisitely nuanced Lars Von Trier, both despised and ignored by misapprehending masses, is, presumably, worth considerably less.

Writers' Block and Creative Obstetrics

I had two or three interesting thoughts over the past few days, and sat down to put them into writing. After hours of struggle and dead ends, I found myself giving up on each of them. Slowly, from the most repressed rear chambers of my mind, there began to stir a most horrible phrase: writer's block.

But then I recalled Leff's Seventh Law:
When you find it difficult to express yourself, the problem's always in the conception, not the expression.
Show me a blocked writer, unable to express his ideas, and I'll show you a writer with foggy, cruddy ideas.

But that's never how it seems to the writer. For some reason, humans naturally have the conviction that their ideas are golden. If we could simply make the movies in our heads and paint the paintings in our heads and, generally, express our vision, everything would - obviously! - turn out great. It's simply a matter of externalizing it all. In their proto, unborn state, our mental contents unfailingly seem awesome!

Even when they're not. But we always blame the birthing process rather than recognize the baby's congenital defects.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Goalposts and Latitude

I haven't burned food - or seriously overcooked it - in many years. If you're ruining your food every once in a while, you're not applying nearly enough care and attention.

I grew up in a family where "burned" was one of the five basic food tastes (we didn't do "umami"). Just as Heineken drinkers become accustomed to the flavor of spoiled beer (the green bottles allow light to interact with the hops, creating a skunky flavor many drinkers have come to associate with "the great imported taste"), and just as consumers are conditioned to find rancidity palatable, we, like most people, considered the occasional burnt result to be within normal thresholds. But it's not. Nothing should ever be burnt or badly overcooked.

Cooking is not multitaskable. I'm as compulsive an iPhone user as anyone, but I've never once checked email while cooking. I pay far closer attention than most people imagine to be necessary. If occasional burning is acceptable to you (even if you throw away the results!), your attitude toward cooking is entirely wrong. You're not getting it!

I once proposed that losing weight costs $1000/pound. My point was that weight loss is a far more granular and high-stakes proposition than most dieters imagine - which is why most dieters fail. Dieting is less a matter of willpower than of careful attention. Those who don't pay attention will find their efforts undone by mounting lapses. Diets aren't ruined by the lapses, any more than pork chops are ruined by the distractions. The problem in both cases is a misconceived sense of priority from the start.

Similarly, the professional musician's trick to playing consistently in-tune is to aim to be far more precisely in tune than you need to be. A serviceable A-natural can be conjured up anywhere between 439.7hz and 440.3hz, but if you relax into that full latitude, you will unavoidable miss those goalposts from time to time*, whereas those who shoot for 439.999hz to 440.001hz never miss so widely.


* - this is the true meaning of the oft-misunderstood Murphy's Law

Saturday, December 20, 2014

#911them

Let's start a mass movement! Is there something bothersome in your life? Threaten 'em with 9-11! Get on Twitter and use hashtag ‪#‎911them‬

Examples:

McDonalds: serve something actually delicious, or else...9-11! #911them

Stephen Colbert: don't make your upcoming late night show blandly conventional, or else...9-11! #911them

Trader Joe's: stock Kringle coffecakes year-round, or else...9-11! #911them

Why give the cyberterrorists all the easy leverage? Let's make this a tool for consumer empowerment! We can use it for good!

Workflow (iOs App)

A brand new iOs app called Workflow appears poised to be greatly beloved. I won't try to describe it, because I'm just beginning to fool around with it myself, and it's really deep. But they call it a "personal automation tool enabling you to drag and drop any combination of actions to create powerful workflows".

For those hampered by the appliance-like rigidity of their iPhone or iPad, this appears to be a magic carpet.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Canceling Sony's Film: "Beyond the Realm of Stupid"

I've been disgusted by response to the Sony hacking (the reporting, the government's statements, Sony's statements, and, most of all, the theaters' decision not to play the film). My reasoning has been perfectly expressed by Peter Singer (in an interview with Motherboard):
This same group threatened yesterday 9/11-style incidents at any movie theatre that chose to show the movie. Here, we need to distinguish between threat and capability — the ability to steal gossipy emails from a not-so-great protected computer network is not the same thing as being able to carry out physical, 9/11-style attacks in 18,000 locations simultaneously. I can't believe I'm saying this. I can't believe I have to say this.
Oh, but you do, Peter, even though you've stated the conclusion of just about every geek and nerd in the country. Because it's a truth only geeks and nerds appear to fathom.

But, amazingly, nobody seems to have asked them about any of this. Which dumbfounds me, because I thought we were already two generations into the mainstreaming of geek/nerd culture.

The whole interview is well worth a read.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"The Witch Next Door"

There's a question I've frequently returned to over the years here in Slogland (and which is particularly timely given divided reaction to this week's release of the torture reports):
"Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?"
One of the more elegant answers can be found in one of my favorite books - a thin little kid's title called "The Witch Next Door". A witch (a real one, with wand and everything) moves into a new house, the neighbors go berserk, and the witch, rather than responding to hatred with reciprocal hatred (Homo sapiens' signature move), well....she opts for a different route.

It's a beautiful parable, conveyed with great subtlety and economy and strewn with easter eggs (e.g. the posture of the witch - easy to miss - after she takes action against the neighbors) for the enjoyment of readers who give the book the serious study it deserves.

I was actually in my 20s when I first read "The Witch Next Door", and I've since bought copies for countless children and adults. It hasn't helped, though. The virus of reciprocal extremism is way too prevalent for one beautiful little book to offer sufficient inoculation.

Author Norman Bridwell (more famous for the "Clifford the Big Red Dog" series), alas, died this week.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Loops

I don't make a habit of playing computer games, but when I do play it's with the all-consuming binge fervor of an addict. And so I found myself wasting the entire afternoon today - "Jackpot Tuesday" - seeking out a box with 900,000 coins in Subway Surfers, one of those games which, like war and pestilence, ruins families and makes friends vanish forever.

The 900,000 coins would allow me to update my superpowers so that I'd be able to earn coins more easily. And with those coins I could update my superpowers, allowing me to earn more coins. And so forth.

As I left the house to search blearily for food, I had a moment of clarity, and saw it for what it truly is: an empty loop. I contemplated the nature of our brains, which crave these pleasureless loops. And then I realized that's precisely what life is.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How to Know if You're Indoctrinated

If you hold a view which you believe cannot be thoughtfully argued against even by those you know to be reasonable, that's a sure sign your view is the product of mass hysteria (or some other form of indoctrination).

Update: see clarifying comment, below

Мої українські брати і сестри, я вітаю вас!

Може хто-небудь пояснити, чому половина трафіку цього блогу йде з України на цьому тижні?


English Translation

Monday, December 8, 2014

Critics and Naked Emperors

Everyone's been abuzz about Jed Perl's takedown of bullshit artist Jeff Koons in the New York Review of Books. The first couple of paragraphs pretty much tell the tale:
Imagine the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art as the perfect storm. And at the center of the perfect storm there is a perfect vacuum. The storm is everything going on around Jeff Koons: the multimillion-dollar auction prices, the blue chip dealers, the hyperbolic claims of the critics, the adulation and the controversy and the public that quite naturally wants to know what all the fuss is about. The vacuum is the work itself, displayed on five of the six floors of the Whitney, a succession of pop culture trophies so emotionally dead that museumgoers appear a little dazed as they dutifully take out their iPhones and produce their selfies.

Presented against stark white walls under bright white light, Koons’s floating basketballs, Plexiglas-boxed household appliances, and elaborately produced jumbo-sized versions of sundry knickknacks, souvenirs, toys, and backyard pool paraphernalia have a chilly chic arrogance. The sculptures and paintings of this fifty-nine-year-old artist are so meticulously, mechanically polished and groomed that they rebuff any attempt to look at them, much less feel anything about them.
It's a classic naked emperor takedown; a commercially indomitable art world figure is well-known to be full of crap, but critics have been unwilling to publicly call a spade a spade. Perl lances the boil, to relief and rejoicing all around. The other critics seem like sheep - or even accomplices in a massive cultural fraud. 

But it's more complicated than that. There are reasons critics don't often call spades spades. Good reasons. I'll be as succinct as possible, though it's a topic deserving hundreds of pages.

If the NY Times' A.O. Scott called "bullshit" on all the bullshit movies he had to review, and panned all the formulaic Hollywood vehicles that came his way, he'd come off like a curmudgeonly snob. He's forced to give serious consideration to absolute crap week after week, because crap is what the public wants to see. He's a movie critic, and this is the movie business. You don't like it? Don't be a movie critic!

Perpetually telling the masses they're idiots, and that their movies suck, would be a futile enterprise. It would 1. make him look like a dingbat, 2. fail to serve the readers he works for, 3. make him an advancer of an agenda rather than a reviewer of films, and 4. eventually lose him his job. Again: if you don't like movies, don't review movies!

Even the august Roger Ebert privately confessed (even to me) that he was forced to spend most of his life watching and writing about utter drek. He certainly didn't rave about the drek, but neither did he one-star every soulless crappy film he came across. To have done so would have made him irrelevant, because audiences - even his audience - love soulless crap. It was his job to winnow better soulless crap from worse soulless crap. That's the gig!

Same for any other field of criticism. Music critics could spend their careers railing against blanded-out pre-fab hypercommercial pop music (or, for that matter, pretentious, redundant, self-aggrandized indie pop) if they'd like, but they'd become ranting dingbats, their agendas would overshadow their occupations, and they'd soon become irrelevant and unemployed. This is why critics have accepted their mandate to embrace and accept the full range of their purviews, declining to rage against certain segments, shitty though they may be. They cover it all, as if it was all worthwhile, regardless of private reservations and preferences.

Here's the twist. You might assume I'm clucking my tongue at the unfortunate tidal weight of crap in contemporary culture, and ruing the impracticality of shaming philistines who view, buy, wear, eat, and listen to horrendous junk. But if you go back a few decades, that's exactly what critics once did. Critics in early and mid 20th century America would rail about how Chinese food was for simpletons who needed their food cut into tiny pieces for them, about how abstract art was mindless squiggles, and about how the introduction of sound vulgarized film. These guys were embarrassing - windy pedants, choleric snobs, luddites, and reflexive cultural conservatives arrogant enough to project their personal preferences as grand truths. Ick.

I'm shocked at how few people remember that, until the 90's, food served in venues lacking linen napkins was unfit for serious critical consideration. My review of the Arepa Lady, respectfully paying tribute to a brilliant chef who worked from a street cart in an "ethnic" neighborhood", was published only with extreme trepidation by my editor at the time, one Sam Sifton (who cleared the bad taste in his mouth by publishing this screed in the same newspaper shortly afterwards).

It seemed, for a very long time, absurd on the very face of it to acknowledge "ethnic" chefs or genre cooks to be serious practitioners of culinary arts. Such workers might produce occasionally tasty treats for those too poor or too rushed to sit down for a real meal, that's all. Even one of the kings of egalitarian food criticism, Jonathan Gold, fought back (in the 1990s) at my insistence that anyone producing deep deliciousness deserved the very fullest respect, regardless of venue or milieu. Gold had written with passion about tacos and such, but he explained that such stuff isn't, like, serious cuisine!

It's since gone out of style for critics to anoint "seriousness". For the most part, everything's now on the table, nothing pushed out-of-bounds. Sure, criticism requires opining, and opining always involves prejudices, but smaller opinions are now the way - opinions about a given iteration, rather than blunt wholesale aversion. After all, anointing a critic's anointing power is just as crazily arbitrary as anointing musicals over comedies, or French food over Chinese.

A number of us fought bitterly against the notion of a vertical hierarchy in food, insisting that the entire spectrum deserved equal respect. So before I cluck my tongue at an art world phenom like Jeff Koons being given respectful attention in serious publications, or, say, Shrek being reviewed by serious critics sans evisceration, I recall what it looks like when critics deem themselves weightily above the fields they survey - not just opining on this or that creation, but dismissing swathes as unworthy of credulous consideration.

I despise Koons, and felt a certain catharsis reading Perl's takedown, but I know something Perl seemingly doesn't: raging wholesale against the Crap, while tempting, leads nowhere good. Those who take on the task never affect the popular appetite for it, and the very worst crap of all is generated when vexed cultural authorities vent spleens at all that's "gone wrong".


Along similar lines: language usage pedantry has also fallen out of favor. See Vanquishing the Language Pedants, The Ugly Roots of Language Pedantry, and No One Owns Grammar, No One Owns Usage. Or else simply view this beautifully done, light-shedding video by the great Stephen Fry, a recovering usage snob:



Friday, December 5, 2014

"You're the Worst"

"You're the Worst", the new show I raved about in my last posting, turns out to be available via iTunes.

Massive TV Round-Up

I've broken out "television" as a separate "label", aka tag (see all the different tags in the left margin). Here are all Slog posts tagged "television" in reverse chronological order.

A great new show to tell you about: "You're the Worst" just finished its first season on FX. The premise sets a couple of selfish assholes in a traditional romantic comedy, and while you'd expect it to play as broad farce, the creators have faked us all out by opting for realism. If the show wasn't beautifully written, acted and directed, it wouldn't possibly work. But it does, and it's great; e.g. it's rare to see even minor characters given such depth and dimension. The first season was a slow build, but well worth the time investment. Unfortunately, You're the Worst is not yet out on DVD, nor Netflix/Amazon. So put it on your wish list (and add it to your DVR queue to catch reruns and next season), or else see if you can find it on-demand or via the FXNOW app.

Update: it's available on iTunes

My favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, recently posted his "Best of 2014" list, and it reminds me of an intrinsic difference between me and him: Sepinwall likes television, whereas I really don't. I only watch when it's something great; something elevating or inspiring, somehow that leaves me with something more than just skillful entertainment.

Sepinwall likes to be elevated, moved, and inspired, too, but that's not all he cares about. So there's stuff on his list that's made me grow as a person (Hannibal, Rectify, Fargo, The Americans) but also stuff that was extremely well-done, but ultimately thin soup (Orange is the New Black) - at least by the ridiculously deep standards of this golden age of television (OITNB would have been the unquestioned best show of the year for most of the history of television).

The following are series I've loved. Not all are particularly deep, but I got something enduring (not just skillful entertainment) from all of them. I'll arrange them in a rough order. I wrote more about many of these shows - and about my ordering of them - in an in-depth roundup last summer. Here's another, earlier effort.

Links below lead to my previous mentions, often very terse. For much more in-depth writing, read Alan Sepinwall's reviews on HitFix, or, for shows prior to 2010, his old "What's Alan Watching?" blog. For me, and for thousands of others, Sepinwall's recap/reviews (and the excellent reader comments) is my first stop after watching an episode of a great show, to gather my thoughts and to hear other views.

For catcher-uppers, here's Sepinwall's "Best of the 00s" list from 2009.

Ok. Asterisks signify programs still in progress:

The Wire
Breaking Bad
*Hannibal
*Louie
*Rectify
Luck
*Fargo
Party Down
*Rick & Morty
*The Americans
*Veep
Men of a Certain Age
*Game of Thrones
The Hour
Torchwood: Children of Earth
*Doctor Who (the modern series)
*Silicon Valley
TV Funhouse
*Key and Peele
The Sandbaggers
True Detective (1st Season)
*Orphan Black
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee
The Bridge
*Homeland (often stupid, but always insanely entertaining)
*Sherlock
*Top Gear (British version only, on BBC America).
*Good Wife
Intelligence
*Masters of Sex
*The Leftovers
*The Knick
*Manhattan
*Outlander

I still need to watch Deadwood and Mad Men...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Does Time Pass Quickly or Slowly?

Someone on Quora asked "Why do I feel that there are some days that pass so fast and other days too slowly?", and I replied as follows (in a slightly geeky voice, per Quora's house tone):
Human beings reduce familiar actions and things to abstract classes. We don't fully notice an individual chair once we mentally assign it to the category of "chairs". They almost "disappear" into their classes.

As we grow older and experience more and more, fewer and fewer things surprise us. Nearly everything is categorized, and thus falls beneath our conscious awareness. Eventually, we're no longer living in the world; we're living in "World World", a set of assumptions and summations and mental shortcuts that keep us from experiencing the here-and-now in a fresh and vital way.

This is adaptive; we need to be on guard for the new and the mysterious (i.e. stuff that might harm us), not pouring our attention into every single daisy the way young children do. But this takes us out of our senses and into our heads (our abstraction-oriented cortex), and time passes much more quickly when attention is focused there rather than on a richly dense set of ever-shifting perceptions. That's why time appears to go faster as we age. Less surprises us, and more is reduced to mental abstraction. The dynamic world disappears as the static modeling fills out.

Days which pass slowly are ones where you, for whatever reason, "come back to your senses" and experience the raw immediacy of your surroundings. Because such experience is richer/denser, the pace of time appears to slow. This happens when we're thrust into a new or surprising environment, or when some internal impulse spurs you to temporarily discard the mental modeling and immerse in the immediate.

Immersing in the immediate sounds lovely, and it can be. But it can also result in a cognitive stall - aka boredom. Everything seems immediate - but oppressively so! That's a bad sort of slow-passing day. So...experience of the immediate is not always lovely. And, by the same token, to focus attention on abstract mental modeling can be profound - especially if you're a mathematician! Neither perspective is fundamentally better or worse. But if time seems to uncomfortably slip away, you need to shift from abstraction to perception. And if time seems to uncomfortably drag, you need to shift from tedious over-awareness of your prosaic surroundings and find the infinite space and freedom in your creative imagination.
Here are my other Quora replies.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Chris Rock

If I can be half as insightful once per month as Chris Rock is nearly every time he opens his mouth, I'd be happy. (Not yet a fan? Check out Bring the Pain, his comedy special which I listed among singular human accomplishments here.)

Check out this deliciously long interview with Frank Rich. Highlights:
I would love to see Hillary [run for president], but there’s a part of Hillary that’s like the Democratic McCain at this point. As he showed, “It’s my time” is not really enough.

[Frank Rich]: Obama came out of nowhere, basically. At which point Bill Clinton started making public statements that often seemed one step away from knifing Obama.

[Chris Rock]: He’s a dick, but you’re talking about a guy who’s embarrassed his wife. So he had a choice, and I couldn’t judge him. I had to choose between pissing off all the black people in the world or having my wife mad at me? Then the hell with the black people, because he doesn’t live with all the black people. He lives with his wife.

[Rich]: Even though he was the first black president.

[Rock]: Allegedly. Until a black guy showed up.

[Rich] Do you think [Obama] has had any effect on pop culture?

[Rock]I’m not sure. I mean, time will tell, and what I mean by “time will tell” is: We’ll see who gets into politics. That’s the real test. In a weird way, him saying he listens to Jay Z — it’s kind of revolutionary, because he’s of the age that he’s supposed to listen to that stuff. And so he’s a little more himself than most politicians. We’ll see if more politicians end up being just themselves.

The thing about George Bush is that the kid revolutionized the presidency. How? He was the first president who only served the people who voted for him. He literally operated like a cable network. You know what I mean?

[Bush was] the first cable-television president, and the thing liberals don’t like about Obama is that he’s a network guy. He’s kind of Les Moonves. He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.

When Obama first got elected, he should have let it all just drop. Just let the country flatline. Let the auto industry die. Don’t bail anybody out. In sports, that’s what any new GM does. They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes. Let it all go to hell knowing good and well this is on them. That way you can implement.

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.

My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

We always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery. Being a comedian, 80 percent of the job is just you notice shit, which is a trait of schizophrenics too. You notice things people don’t notice.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Joy of Stepping Up

In my middle school, there was a junior band and a senior band. As a first year student, I was assigned to the former, where I was the best player. One day, one of the senior trombonists fell ill, and I was asked to rehearse with the senior band for a few days.

Here, I was the worst musician, and it was a revelation. Of course, the greater skill level made me step up my game, and I improved much more swiftly than I ever had before. The challenge to step up lifted my abilities with breathtaking ease, and the joy of that felt far more satisfying than any pride I might have felt from being top dog. No comparison!

But, more than anything, I was thrilled by the richness of the music around me. All my previous experiences, where I was the best guy, were with what seemed like wheezing, strained ensembles. Here, I was surrounded by what seemed like real music. I wasn't dutifully playing my role, I was part of something beautiful.

Finding myself the worst guy was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Why would anyone choose to reign in hell when given the option to serve in heaven?


Serve or reign, it barely matters. What counts is location, location, location! The curse of being the strongest guy on the team, the smartest guy in the room, or the best player in the band is to perpetually live amid seeming weakness, stupidity, and discordance. Why would anyone choose that?

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Key to Happiness is Rolling With It

"Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable."  - Anthony de Mello*

No matter where I drive my car, regardless of whether I've been diligently following its instructions, my GPS is always perfectly content to recalculate based on current circumstances. (...and to think we're trying to teach computers to think more like we do!)


If you can resist being pulled into the drama of a friend's sad tale of woe (or, even more difficult, your own sad tales of woe), and clearly examine the particulars, 95% of the time it amounts to nothing more than: "I thought X would happen, but Y happened". Humans hate surprise (not that they love their status quo, either). Cultivate an eagerness for it, and the world transforms.


Consider ants (as I did last month):
I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable round of smashings, and who only with great suffering manage to soldier on with reconstruction - are the sad ones.
It helps that ants don't tell themselves sad stories about what's happening.


* - The quote atop is one of those aphorisms where the sentiment's so catchy one can easily overlook the fine points. De Mello doesn't mention mere passive acceptance of the inevitable, but active, engaged cooperation with it. Even though I disregard the instructions of my GPS time and again, it never disengages; never petulantly says "fine; turn right, turn left, I really don't give a crap."


Update: see a follow-up posting here

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Malice, Competence, and Conspiracy

Leff's Fourth Law says: 95% of apparent maliciousness is actually incompetence. Napoleon, it turns out, said it earlier and better: "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."And Jon Stewart accounts for the Iranian interrogators in the real-life events depicted by his film, Rosewater, thus: "Evil is relatively rare. Ignorance is epidemic"

This shows the problem with conspiracy theories. They're always built on the assumption of both seamless malice and seamless competence, whereas both those things are relatively rare.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Huge Barnes & Noble Film Deal

Criterion produces DVD and Blu-Ray* editions of great films. They seek out the best possible prints, transfer them with care, and package them beautifully with copious extras, features, and notes. Their aim is to give great films the definitive treatment, and most agree that they've succeeded. You really can't go wrong buying Criterion stuff.

* you can buy a Blu-Ray player for under $50 these days.

The problem is that they're a little expensive (and not much cheaper second-hand). But BarnesandNoble.com is running a huge 50% off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blue-Rays through December 1. Amazon has never gone that low (once in a while they do 40% off Criterion sales). You won't find Criterion this cheap at any other point in the year...or in any other year. When Criterion editions sell out, they tend to increase in value. Pretty good investments.

Here's my write-up of Barnes and Noble's 2012 Criterion sale, along with a long list of recommendations.

Remember how last year I wrote a memorial of Les Blank, the great documentary film maker who was way ahead of his time making funky films about food and music - "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'"?

Only yesterday, Criterion released a five disk collection of some of Blank's best stuff, all remastered and laden with special features, and Barnes and Noble's selling both the DVD and the Blu-Ray versions for $63. It will never be cheaper. And Blank's enough of a cult figure that the price will undoubtedly skyrocket after Criterion eventually runs out.

The set includes two foodie classics, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and Dry Wood...as well as The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins; God Respects Us When We Work (but Loves Us When We Dance); Spend It All; A Well Spent Life; Dry Wood; Hot Pepper; Always for Pleasure; Sprout Wings and Fly; In Heaven There Is No Beer?; Gap-Toothed Women; Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking; The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists; and Sworn to the Drum.

Here's more from that piece I wrote about Blank last year, for those you don't have time to click back to read the whole thing:
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 Blank 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".

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grandeur Is Not A Goal

As I once wrote:
Billions of people yearn for greatness.

Millions of people do things they hope will make them great.

Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

After CNET bought a failed upstart magazine brand called CHOW (over my strenuous objections) to graft onto Chowhound as a slick editorial front-end, I observed the accumulation of something quite alien to me: a whirlwind of empty self-feeding hype.

As hires were made and editorial mission statements concocted, I watched the shiny, new faces go on and on about how this instant-on titanic online brand - which didn't, at the time, even exist - would take cyberspace by storm. Their managers watched with glee, delighted by the momentum and team spirit they'd instilled within this not-yet team.

What struck me was the certainty - the absolute unwavering certainty that the result would be terrific and hugely popular. Really, there was no reason to think any such thing. These was just an unproven bunch of eager twenty-somethings. But CHOW, it was felt, would inevitably be huge, simply because it was an operation characterized by people phenomenally confident about its inevitable hugeness. The audacity of tautology!

There was never any "there" there. A short-lived bit of of fluffy fluff, it was quickly pruned down to a skeleton crew once the Chowhound community - and then the Internet at large - failed to catch the fever.

How could it have turned out otherwise? You can't create greatness by posing as someone creating greatness. Greatness isn't even a thing, it's a side effect...of talent, love, and very hard work. If you're working hard enough to create something of genuine value, you'll be the very last to notice. After all, the greatness isn't for you, it's for the folks out there - the customers, the audience, the users - to appreciate while you keep on absolutely killing yourself behind scenes.

But nobody understands this. They think it's about aiming for grandeur, as if that were an actual thing. This is why things mostly suck. As Banksy once said, working to get famous is like eating a great dinner to take a shit.

Here, by contrast, is Stewart Butterfield, CEO of a really terrific service called Slack, discussing how he sees things:
I try to instill this into the rest of the team but certainly I feel that what we have right now is just a giant piece of shit. Like, it’s just terrible and we should be humiliated that we offer this to the public. Not everyone finds that motivational, though.
Yup. Not everyone finds that motivational. People want to feel satisfied, not dissatisfied. But nothing great comes from satisfaction. It comes from aggravating the bejesus out yourself with the painful slog of transforming entropy into order (like an ant!); from grappling perpetually in the muck with an insanely pig-headed refusal to ever say "good enough", much less "great".

Monday, November 17, 2014

Great Daily Show Line

John Stewart makes an elegant point I hadn't heard anyone else make this week (uttered sarcastically regarding Republican reaction to the President's executive order):
"You don't govern through executive orders. You govern through shutdowns and impeachment."

Access

When I was running Chowhound, I was forced to limit my accessibility because I was busy, not because I was important. There were too many people trying to occupy my limited time and attention, and I had no choice but to take countermeasures if I was to get anything done besides engaging with strangers.

The moment I left Chowhound, I dropped my deflector screens with considerable relief. The "send me email" link at the upper left of this screen has been there since day one (though it doesn't link to my personal email address). Of course, a few errant haters use the open channel to fling profanity-laced screeds my way, but I long ago came to recognize these as offerings of love from people too twisted to love in healthier ways (it's the thought that counts!). But, all in all, free accessibility is a much more enjoyable way to live. And lots of people way better-known than I ever was feel the same.

This is why it cracks me up to see non-inundated people limiting their access as a pretense. Limited access is not natural; it's not fun. It's a prison people relegate themselves to when the sunny freedom of the public world sadly becomes a pleasure which circumstance no longer allows them to enjoy. Choosing to inhabit that prison just so one can project importance is as crazy as chopping off one's leg to garner sympathy (and people actually do that).

The pretense is rarely recognized. The public doesn't think twice when someone they've heard of turns out to be inaccessible. We expect such people to be arrogant, aloof, and generally out of our spheres. We think these things come with the territory, but they really don't. As I once wrote:
Like most people, I always assumed arrogance was the inevitable trait of smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people. After all, why wouldn't superiority be palpable?

But I kept meeting really smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people who weren't arrogant. Nor were they falsely modest (which is just another sort of arrogance). They were just....people.

If arrogance isn't inevitable, then it must be strictly elective. People actually choose to act this way! And ever since I realized this, I've found arrogance hysterically funny.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Donnie Osmond Killing It

I'm not a Weird Al Yankovic fan - and didn't think I was a Donnie Osmond fan - and I try not to link to amusing videos more than once per year. But you've got to see this.

Weird Al hired Donnie for his "White & Nerdy" rap video, and, for a first take, told him to go wild doing whatever he wanted. The result defies description. Sign me up for Team Donny (did I just really say that?)



Here's the final version, which is harmed by the inclusion of Donnie-less parts.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cooking Versus Painting

These cooking infographics (scroll down that page), explaining how to use spices, herbs, and such, have gone viral. It's a whole new graphical way to present the same old blockheaded advice: use coriander with chicken, beef, fish, pork, or tofu*. Garlic powder pairs well with oregano, cumin, coriander, and turmeric**. Got it? Go forth and season!

* - 'Cuz who in his right mind would use coriander with shrimp???

** - ...in hell.

Aside from the fact that such info is always insanely arbitrary and often flat-out wrong, the problem is that it just doesn't work like this. There are no rules in cooking beyond the dictum to create deliciousness. Any rules that arise have been arbitrarily concocted based on what the concocters, in their limited experience, have observed other people doing. They don't help you cook; they help you conform!

As I once wrote:
In composing his chorales, JS Bach invented modern four part harmony. His methods were subsequently analyzed and formulated into a series of rules which have been rigorously followed for centuries. Interestingly, Bach himself broke those "rules" repeatedly! His chorales, judged according to this abstract framework, weren't very "good"!

Of course, Bach wasn't trying to compose "correct" chorales, he was following his muse to achieve a result that would foster a certain effect.
For some reason, we're more clear-headed about this in the visual realm. How does the following strike you?
Let me teach you about color: blue works well alongside green, lemon yellow, and certain shades of pink. It's used to depict sky, trousers, and cars. Avoid using it with orange, because the two are opposites!
Ridiculous, no? We'd urge anyone consulting such rules to simply go out and watch for blue in the world, and then go home and use his blue paint/ink/crayon to bring out that aspect in his art. We expect people to recognize blueness for what it is, and to harness it in imaginative and original ways.

Why should the chef's palette resist our direct, natural acquaintance when the painter's palette does not? Why not notice flavors as we eat, and then bring out those aspects in our cooking? Why does one so seldom hear this suggested? Why is it so much more difficult for people to make this leap in flavor than in other realms?

In the visual realm only rank beginners would be caught dead painting from recipes (i.e. paint-by-numbers). Yet the vast majority of cooks are utterly helpless without guidance. They need to be issued daft orders like "use mint with carrots, eggplant, watermelon, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

NYC's Most Dystopian Subway Station

I'm a fan of the 96th Street 6 train (IRT) station, which looks straight out of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil". I took these shots a few weeks ago:





Weirder still, the station's entrances are right out of Logan's Run. The following are other people's photos: photo 1, photo 2

Friday, October 31, 2014

Mass Delusions (or: Tulips, Gluten and Ebola)

The New Yorker covered gluten madness this week. It's a remarkably long, cautious, and meandering article, clearly written from a position of terror of offending the, Jesus, 1/3 of American adults who say they're trying to eliminate gluten from their diets. The crux comes midway through the article:
"How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening?"
The answer - the obvious, simple, Occam's Razor-sharp answer - is that only mass delusion can do that (same as the Ebola hysteria, where the American death toll's climbed to "still zero"). Mass delusions happen often and are well-studied, yet we still get caught up in them. If you want to understand the craziness crowds of humans are capable of, the definitive work is "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" (here it is for a little more than a buck in a Kindle version; here's the Wiki rundown). History reveals that human throngs have always had some irrational and massive this-or-that going on.

It seems like everyone's forgotten that we used to swoon, and to succumb to "nervous exhaustion". Only recently, a very large number of people suffered from "chronic fatigue syndrome" and TMJ, but we don't hear much about that stuff anymore, either. With all those conditions and syndromes, there was actual virulence at work, but it was an idea virus. And such viruses can absolutely flair bona-fide physical symptoms ("psychosomatic" is, after all, half somatic!). It's been evident for some time that mass sentiment can foment real malady, just as it can foment courage or hatred. And tummy-aches - endlessly rebranded under a succession of serious-sounding names - have perennially been a go-to complaint for the high-strung.

And, of course, business fans the flames, because there's always profit to be made from a nice fat mass delusion (check out Mcdonalds' response to gluten madness). But it's a risky move, because, like any virus, these things die out as swiftly as they conflate. We'll eventually move on to new ways to account for the fact that idle time - a new development in human life - gives neurotic people the opportunity to pay lots of attention to the fact that they don't feel quite as vibrant as they imagine they're entitled to feel.

One more observation. Mass delusions are stirred up tribally, and anti-gluten craziness is particularly popular on the left. Same for anti-vaccine craziness (I heard a statistic recently - which I haven't been able to confirm - that in parts of northern California vaccine non-compliance among children approaches 75%). It's illuminating to note that adherents of both tend to be highly-educated people (smart people aren't immune to human folly!); the same people who stridently chastise the right for being anti-science. And they're correct: the right is anti-science. But so's the left. Human beings are anti-science.

It's a useful exercise, when observing bad thinking or behavior in others, to pin it not on their most noticable distinguishing characteristic (lazy blacks, greedy jews, chuckle-headed Republicans, bleeding-heart Democrats, etc etc), but on their humanity. As I once wrote:
We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Font for Dyslexics

I'm astounded at how few dyslexics know there's a font which makes reading easier for them. I guess that's because learning about such things requires the sort of fluent web surfing so essential to modern life and so difficult for dyslexics.

If you are one or know one, please pass along the word about opendyslexic.org, which offers an open-source font which can be used as a computer system font. It even works with some smart phone apps (those configurable enough to accommodate custom fonts - and you can always lobby software authors to include this functionality; it's not the hardest thing in the world to program as operating systems often prioritize accessibility) such as text readers and web browsers.


If you're not dyslexic, having to spell out that word a few times in a row could almost make you that way. There almost seems to be a cruelty baked into language - consider the silent "b" in "dumb" which seems almost intentionally to throw off the uneducated...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dr. Grell

When I was in third grade, we took a field trip to the local high school for a science lecture by the famous Dr. Einar Grell, a high school teacher so popular that there was, we were told, a waiting list to get into his class.

Years later, when I finally made it to high school, I made a beeline for Dr. Grell's AP biology class, and was puzzled at how easy it was to find a spot. I seemed to be the only one excited to be there.

Grell was what they used to call "a real character". His teaching style involved constant digression and non-sequitor; while covering genetics or asexual reproduction, Doc slipped in so much information on fishing, diving, and his countless other fascinations/obsessions that the more unimaginative students (the wonks with pens constantly poised) quickly became exasperated. After a week in Doc's class, they stopped asking their perennial question of "will this be on the test?" They were completely disoriented by what seemed like mad ravings from this sad excuse for a teacher.

Meanwhile, I hardly ever took a note, simply drinking in all the fascinating information. Doc showed us slide shows of his diving trips to the Caribbean, expertly describing the fish and wildlife and ecosystems and such, punctuated occasionally by shots of stout native girls dressed in shorts and ill-fitting second-hand brassieres. He was a hoot, galaxies more energetic, intelligent and funny than the rest of the ploddish teaching staff. He was so quick, and so bright, that they could barely perceive him. What was a brilliant Columbia PhD doing teaching in our sleepy suburban school district?

It was close to where he liked to fish. I only later learned that Grell held (and holds still) a number of fishing world records. It goes without saying that he had all sorts of unique and clever techniques. A fellow fisherman (chiming in at that last link) memorialized him thus:
He would study fishing habits and knew more what the fish liked to eat then the fish themselves. He was deadly with the ugly stik and used a repetoire of tricks that would baffle most fishing buddies by his side. We spent countless hours chasing [weakfish] in the back drains of the Great South Bay,
Unsurprisingly, Grell's colleagues and supervisors viewed him with enormous condescension and annoyance. The era when wild, wooly, wonderful teachers were considered a boon was over. Grell wasn't focusing on the state's Regents exam (the first incarnation of the current teach-to-the-test climate). He was off-script, off-message, and it was abundantly clear that pretty much the entire school community would have been much happier swapping in some robotic coffee-breathed dweeb in his place. He was precisely the thing he took the most pains to educate us about: a vanishing species.

Society doesn't value characters any more. We've become far more conformist, and off-script types terrify us. But you know what? I learned a ton about biology from Dr. Grell. My attention was actually held through every class, and he made me happy to come to school and to be alive. He "got it done" (I aced the Regents exam), while also brimming with, yes, totally superfluous humor, propositions, and raving theatrics. I thought then, as I do now, that he stuck out not because he was a madman, but because he, alone, was doing it right. But I was in the minority. Everyone else patronized him from below. He was, they'd say with a sardonic grin, an eccentric.

If you hold world's records, you are not an "eccentric" fisherman; you've simply found a better way. The best teacher in his district is not an "eccentric" teacher. Doing stuff much better requires doing stuff differently. Eccentrics, by contrast, are self-indulgers who do stuff differently merely for difference's sake. Why would we be so stupid as to lump resourceful innovators in with them?

I once wrote about eccentricity:
"Eccentric" means "odd and wrong". "Eccentric" people build perpetual motion machines, or believe they've found a way to communicate with the dead. They're absorbed in cranky, flaky quests which will never amount to much, but at least they're entertaining. It's a term of condescension; this is how we condescend to non-conformists. But is that an appropriate way to describe bona fide miracle workers?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Close Mayoral Encounters (plus: Jessie Helms Goes Hassidic)

Musicians spend lots of time near politicians. It's one of the weird things about the music business. You're playing for crowds, and nobody loves crowds more than a politician. So it's a natural collision.

This is how I managed to view extraordinary sights like shit-kicking arch conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms wearing a yarmulka at a Hassidic fund-raiser for Israel (this was when evangelicals were just beginning to realize that, by golly, they have common interest with those Jewy folks after all, 'cuz they all need to return to Israel before the Messiah - who, by the way, totally won't be, like, pissed off in the least about what's transpired in His name - will come back). This was, alas, in the era before camera phones.

Also, I've spent time standing poker-faced behind three NYC mayors. If you're someone with street smarts, you can get some mileage out of the close-vicinity behind-scenes view.

Ed Koch, for example, was an egotistical asshole. This was clear even before his arrival. When the aides for his successor, David Dinkins, approached a bandstand to prep his entrance, they'd politely ask if the band could play "Take the A Train". Koch's brash scumbags, by contrast, imperiously informed us that we will play "New York, New York". Standing three feet behind Koch as he alternately milked and drank the applause, I knew that I'd never again witness such an epic and utterly shameless display of vampiric sucking. Being mayor wasn't sufficient; it was apparent that he required such ovations to function. Without them, I suppose he'd have swiftly desiccated into the petty, choleric old putz he truly was. At the time, I was also performing with Lionel Hampton's band, led by the music business' most notorious applause whore, but Hamp was a Benedictine monk compared to Koch.

Even worse, in his own way: Giuliani. My god, Giuliani. The atmosphere around him scintillated with edgy paranoid malevolence. My colleagues and I snuck off stage in mid-speech, and I noticed, to my horror, that wherever I stood in the very large crowd, he seemed to be staring right at me. With hatred. The other musicians, scattered around the area, all reported the same. I still shudder.

Any suspicion that my impressions were exaggerated due to the heightened nature of celebrity encounters was dashed by David Dinkins. The man was, as far as I could tell, walking dead. Dead eyes, dead vibe, Absolutely nada. No idea how he got that job, or who was pulling the strings.

These memories flood back because a few minutes ago I turned on my TV, which was playing a public television documentary about Ed Koch, and the show opened with the following remarkable statement:
"Whenever I would fly home - especially if it was at night - there was the city of New York laid out below me. And I thought to myself, 'This belongs to me!'"
This guy is remembered with great warmth and affection. While Michael Bloomberg, who really didn't need the aggravation, and who reigned selflessly and with great passion and competence, motivated entirely by civic-mindedness, is mostly remembered as that super-rich dude who outlawed soda.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Great Dumplings of New York" Tour

I led a "Great Dumplings of New York" tour last weekend (in support of Leanne Brown's charitable "Good and Cheap" project; read her account of the tour here), and I thought I'd share the itinerary. Considerable time and advance research was invested in the venue choices:

Pirosmani (2222 Avenue U, Brooklyn; 718-368-3237)
...for Georgian khinkali (steamed soup dumplings full of soulful ground meat* and dill-flecked broth, with a doughy button baked in for easy hoisting). These are good ones, achieving the trick of being sturdy yet melting. It killed us not to dig into a host of other great Georgian treats (platters of garlicky roast potatoes and shimmering katchapuri kept sweeping by), but a dumpling tour's a dumpling tour. Onward, to....

* I'd always assumed khinkali were made with lamb, just out of sheer blind idiotic assumption, but I just realized with a sudden epiphany that I've never eaten one with the least lamby flavor (I see my food knowledge as perennially blurry, and always coming into greater focus.....and contentedly so, because I long ago resigned myself to the fact that no one can possibly know everything about cuisine). Wikipedia says it's pork and beef, and, of course, Wikipedia's never wrong).

Li's Henan Food (136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, Queens at the New World Mall, stall 12; 718-888-9393.
I found out about Kaifeng-style dumplings only recently. Take a look:


Photo (and venue discovery) credit: ace trumpeter Jerry Sokolov


Viewed from the top, it's a huge mottled, crunchy, oily crepe, but flip it over and you'll see that dumplings adhere. My guess is they fry up a starchy slurry along with the dumplings, creating an irresistible crunchy mass. I'm pretty sure this is the only place you can find it in NYC. Read more discussion (including, alas, much baseless conjecture further down) in this Chowhound thread. Nice review (with photos) of the venue here.

Note: I've been tracking Flushing shopping mall food court food for many years, and New World Mall is really the apotheosis of the genre. One of our group had recently been in China, and said this enormous, almost overwhelming basement felt more like China than many places she'd seen in China.

Henan Feng Wei (136-31 41st Ave, Flushing, Queens; 718-762-1818 )
Alas, we couldn't get here before closing. A shame, as these may the best B-flat boiled pork & chive dumplings in town. Interestingly, this place is from the same province as Li's Henan Food, but they don't make the weird crepey dumplings (I showed the staff a photo once, and they wagged their heads ruefully, clearly recognizing the dish).

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao; 59-16 Main St, Flushing, Queens; 718-)
These are my current picks for XLB right now (conveniently right off the LIE exit for Main Street, perfect on the way to the airport). Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao on Prince Street in Flushing is the more popular contender, but I tasted both back to back last week and there's no contest. As I reported on Chowhound:
"every time I go [to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao], I'm less and less happy and this was no exception. Service was horrendous (there's a very strong not-giving-a-crap vibe, though when they first opened - I was one of their first customers - these guys were fastidious). The crab/pork XLBs were extra crabby, but it was a trashy crabbiness, tasting as much like shell as crab meat. Whatever the opposite of "refined" is, that's what they were. Unfocused, with thick and extra sticky wrappers. Just not real good.

Immediately after, I hit Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao. Huge diff. Night and day. There was a cleanliness to the flavor utterly lacking at Nan Xiang. Really true crabmeat flavor, more generous broth, and better textured and flavored wrappers.
Alas, the XLB cook had left early, a mortal wound to the heart of the tour. We could have sampled some of the fine-looking Shanghai cold appetizers, but instead we moved on to....

Gangjong Kitchen, 72-24 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside, Queens; 347-848-0349)
I predicted over a decade ago that this micro-nabe would become Little Nepal (and that Elmhurst would be Little Banghkok), and I guess I was right. You could throw a tennis ball at three, maybe four Nepali or Tibetan eateries from here, and this tiny one's the least well-known and least presentational. But I love everything about it, especially their devastating red sauce. Tibetans feel unrestrained pride and affection for two things: their Dalai Lama and their red sauce....not necessarily in that order. There's no one recipe - each sauce is a snowflake - and the one here is great.

We got chicken momo because it was all they had left. Also, they steamed them, though I'd asked for fried. The chicken wasn't quite robust enough, and without the requisite pan frying, they reminded us of mini kinkhali. But damned good mini kinkhali! Their fried beef momo, though, are devastating.

Quick non-dumpling stop at my beloved Bangladeshi Bread Ladies (aka Tawa Food, aka Dhaulagiri Kitchen, 37-38 72nd St). Like the nabe itself, this storefront is Nepalicizing. Back in the day, it was a time machine portal where Bangladeshi women doggedly pounded out roti and paratha in the back and grilled them on an enormous, ancient grill (Tawa). Then a Nepali concession took a share of the already-tiny space, making a few things better than anyone else in the neighborhood (momo - not as good as the more recent Gangjong - and tsel roti, still the best anywhere and one of the most delicious things available in NYC). We arrived late, and Nepalis had completely taken over the joint. We did buy some bags of alu paratha and whole wheat roti left by the Ladies, but we got very lucky and tsel roti were just coming out of the oil. These are huge loops of crunchy fried rice flour, impossible to analyze or describe as the brain refuses to do anything but undulate during their ingestion. They rated a "10" on my surprisingly unditzy scale for rating foods (and other things) on a scale of 1-10.

We passed the new Arepa Lady restaurant (owned and operated by her kids, who are very nice but who disprove Lamarckism with every good-not-great corncake they churn out), and moved on to the real thing. The Arepa Lady, at her cart, was in fine form, though she's making her arepas de choclo (the sweetish crepes made from fresh corn) ahead and rewarming to order. The arepas were better than the tsel roti. Better, in other words, than a "10".

Philosophical question: is pie a dumpling?
We decided that an essential characteristic of dumplings is their compact portability. Which, of course, raises the question of mini-pies.

Forgot to hit: Cassinelli's (31-12 23 ave, Astoria; 718-274-4881) (or, at least, the deli next door, which sells lots of Cassinelli's products, frozen, 24 hrs/day)...for NYC's best ravioli (I like the spinach cheese) and tortellini.

Three great-looking new (or, at least, newly noticed by me) non-dumpling places spotted en route:
Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn; 718-998-2827)
Rural Restaurant (42-85 Main St, Flushing; 718-353-0086), and...
Chicken on Fire (94-09 101st Ave at Woodhaven Blvd, Ozone Park, 718-845-6433)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Walking Shape" versus "Running Shape"

I've always ran to get into shape. I've never been much of a walker. Running's far more efficient, after all. So in active periods, I run (and otherwise drive), and during lazy periods, I drive. I'm a true child of suburbia!

Recent medical problems forced me to temporarily lay off the running, but I was encouraged to walk as much as possible. So I've done 4-5 miles most days, mostly up and down hills. This is very new for me. I've been a sporadic hiker, but it's never been a daily routine.

After a few months, I've noticed something very surprising. Being in "walking shape" isn't, after all, just a cheaper version of "running shape". It's a whole other thing. I live up a hill, and am long accustomed to being a tad winded from the final stretch, even at times when I've been doing lots of running. But lately, when my body begins that climb, a voice inside says "Oh, good!", and I find myself accelerating up the hill, eating the climb like it's absolutely nothing. As if I was driving my car. Even at my physical peak, I've never experienced this.


(the downside is that, even with an incredibly careful diet, I've only lost a few pounds. No running means no weight loss, so I'm starting running again this week).

Fix for Sluggish Mac Performance in Yosemite

Does your Mac seem sluggish after updating to Yosemite? Here's a fix. Go to System Preferences -> Accessibility and check "reduce transparency". Sleep and then wake. You should be better.

Also: make sure you have plenty of empty disk space.

You can also try Resetting the System Management Controller (SMC)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Is reheated pasta less fattening?

Pasta gets more and more glycemic as you overcook it (i.e. it comes to have more or less the effect of sugar on your body; so a plate of overcooked ziti might be thought of as the equivalent of a slice of chocolate cake). That's why al dente's healthiest.

Problem is, while I love al dente pasta, I also happen to love leftover pasta. I always assumed the reheating tacked on glycemic effect, making the pasta less healthful. Aw, contraire!

Courtesy of Slog technical advisor Pierre Jelenc (note: Pierre is not in any way responsible for errors, speculations, or outright lies I publish; he doesn't actually review stuff, he just answers questions), here's a BBC report about a finding that reheated pasta (potatoes, too) is actually less fattening.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

iPad Upgrade Opportunity

Note: all prices below are for wi-fi only models.

You can buy one of the fancy new iPad Air 2s at $600 for the 64GB model (the cheaper 16GB model has too little storage to be viable).

Or you can buy last year's model for $450, with a barely adequate 32GB (Apple no longer sells a 64GB version). (Here's a handy guide to all prices of all options).

Or you can buy last year's model, with a full 64GB, second-hand on eBay for $550-600 (wuuuh???).

So what I don't understand is this: why would anyone in the market not buy a 64GB refurbished iPad Air from Apple for $439, with full warranty? You save $161 over the newer model (touch i.d. is cool, but not $161 cool). You save a few bucks over the previous model with half the storage, and you're beating even scuzzy eBay prices by miles.

Unsung Massive Societal Changes

I'm enjoying "How We Got to Now," a six-part PBS series (here's a NY Times review) explaining how things we take for granted about the modern world came to be - often with much struggle by people we hardly remember.

A mere 150 years ago, for example, we traipsed through human and animal excrement whenever we went out. Modern waste management was grafted on more recently than we recall, and only via herculean effort (series host Steven Johnson tells the tale of a planner in Chicago named Chesbrough who hatched a plan to jack up the entire city by ten feet to allow run-off).

It's amazing how clean our world is (cleaner even than my childhood, due to the demise of unleaded gas and smoking and to the clean air act), but we've forgotten to appreciate it. Humans have a peculiar amnesia for major shifts. At age 50, a few such shifts have occurred during my lifetime. And not all of them, of course, have constituted progress. The most fundamental shift has been so all-encompassing that it seems hardly anyone even noticed it.

A friend recently made a flatly incorrect remark about something I know a great deal about. I argued against her statement with vehemence and passion. Midway through my spirited rebuttal, I realized that people don't do this anymore. Have you (those of you over 40) noticed that hardly anyone argues these days? If someone's wrong, and you know with certainty they're wrong, the polite, friendly, enlightened, modern move is to blandly smile and feign agreement (while internally registering one's "superior" understanding). Better to let erroneous conclusions stand than to risk friction.

And that's new. We used to treat only incorrigible morons - those who couldn't be made to see reason - this way. It was a response born of disrespect. Nowadays, one winces at the very word "moron". The distinction is unfashionable, so we disrespect everyone like morons, and deem ourselves more civilized for it.

As I wrote a few months ago,
To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.
I attribute it to the increasing influence of corporations. Corporations once seemed like incredibly odd places where friction (with coworkers, with customers, with everyone) was avoided so strenuously, and at such great cost (of accountability, of honesty, of humanity), that they were seen as suffocating environments. In my lifetime, corporation culture has become omnipresent, and a tipping point was passed where corporate-style communications became the prevalent mode even in social and private lives. The world is now corporate. In fact, the very term "corporate" is hardly used anymore, because there's no longer a distinction to be drawn. The dryly uptight, creepily artificial culture described by that word has become our culture, inescapable even for those holdouts still working outside that system.

Ever since it became fashionable to adopt the mores of corporate customer service representatives, we rarely contradict each other. We pamper, placate, and pander even friends and loved ones. The sole reprieve is when conversation takes place under the cloak of anonymity (i.e. on the Internet). In such cases, the popular move is to excoriate, with infinite savagery, anyone who's so much as omitted an apostrophe. Online trolling, flaming, and general snark has become a suffocatingly corporate society's sole outlet for conflict.

In corporate work life, the avoidance of conflict and contradiction has given rise to the notoriously imperious American consumer, relishing life in an artificial ecosystem where they're denied nothing, challenged never, and flattered perpetually.

In corporate private life, the inviolable expectation to never be challenged or contradicted has given rise to the strange custom where a great many people would rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ridiculousness

Last week I had a chance to meet with a top executive of a very well-known company. I didn't go in with my hat in my hand; the idea I was proposing wasn't for my own direct benefit, so there was no reason for deference. I could be honest and cordial, rather than solicitous.

We had our chat, he seemed to like my idea, and he walked me to the elevator while telling me about a mysterious restaurant he'd recently ferreted out. The story drew to a close, I got on the elevator, and we said another quick goodbye, instinctively moving to shake hands even though we'd already done so a few minutes before. But the elevator door closed right at that moment, making us jerk our arms awkwardly back. I chortled at the slapstick, assuming he'd share in the humor. But he did not. Nary a grin.

As the doors closed, I saw him shudder at the echo of my unilateral guffaw, which seemed to resonate throughout the elevator shaft and building as a whole. I was Satan himself, roaring forth with infinite derision while descending back to my subterranean palace of fiery lava.

Ever since, I've been trying to work out what the hell happened. I'd like to conclude that my ability to laugh at myself was a good thing. But there's more to it than that. As my friend Leslie succinctly put it, awkwardness is not the image this fellow wants to project into the world. And the thing is that I've never been big on image projection.

It started with my father, who couldn't stand the thought of ever seeming wrong. I remember the desperate maneuvering required to perpetuate this image of infallibility. It goes without saying that everyone around him was painfully aware of both his failings and of the desperate cover-ups. And I noticed the anger and exhaustion which gradually built in him, as it does in anyone flailing to maintain an ego-crucial image without the release valve of humor and self-awareness. This is exactly why self-serious characters are comedy mainstays. We, the audience, enjoy the awareness and release on their clueless behalf.

With image cultivation, as with political scandal, the cover-up's always worse than the crime. We're never so silly as when we struggle not to seem silly (if you've never seen "Fawlty Towers" - e.g. on Netflix Streaming - watch it right now. I'll wait!). I'm even more vain than my father. I so hate to be ridiculous that I spare myself the worst of it by owning my fallibility (it's something like this).

And so I've always been proudly informal. But perhaps informality isn't always a greater good, and pretense isn't always an atrocity. I've suffered from my lack of gravitas, really. I have a very hard time being taken the least bit seriously by people unless I trumpet my supposed "accomplishments" (something I'd never do). As I wrote a few years ago:
"If you don't project superiority - if you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone. "
Goofy informality hasn't really worked out for me. As I once apparently remarked (I was in a drunken stupor and don't remember saying it): I've tried all my life to come off as nobody special, but I never imagined everyone would actually buy it!

So I can't say I was right and the exec was wrong; that I was "real", grounded, and human while he was stilted, uptight, pretentious. Cool composure has its benefits, but I go too far the other way. In this situation, maybe I truly was the guffawing jackass.

Worse, my mogul-blanching snigger surely registered as my laughing at him. We could call it a misunderstanding, since I was, after all, laughing at both of us. However, he was indisputably half of "us", so I can't say I wasn't laughing at him - and I'm guessing that's not something he's accustomed to. So I was inflicting my rueful self-deprecation on him. While in the big picture we were, indeed, acting like a vaudeville team, I'm not sure I had the right to frame the scene. In his milieu, irony is an unacceptable indulgence - perhaps rightly so, given that even innocent laughter, I've just discovered, can deflate.

But here's the really weird thing. In the middle of writing this, I ran out for some groceries. Distracted by some particularly toothsome-looking broccolini, I returned to my cart, which I began to push, when an agitated-looking woman rushed over to point out that I was pushing her cart. My normal reaction would have been to chuckle sheepishly at my own foolishness. But for some reason that didn't happen. I quietly apologized, grabbed my cart, and puttered away with bland, deadpan seriousness.

Aslan and Arepas

Two important religious discussions from today's NY Times:

1. Reza Aslan, one of my favorite talking heads, offers his usual clear-headed sanity in an Op Ed about the misunderstanding of religion, generally, and Moslems, specifically*. It goes well along with my brief look at atheism ("God as Dude") from a few years back.

2. The dining section covered the Sainted Arepa Lady, focusing on her kids' new brick/mortar restaurant. (I appreciated the shout-out, but I "helped found" Chowhound?)


* -Aslan's so clear and so reasonable that it's easy to conclude he's stating the obvious; but if you read carefully, you'll see he's clarifying a host of challenging issues with masterful economy in this short piece. Extra bonus: watch Aslan politely and deftly annihilate an ignorant, bigoted Fox News anchor:



Monday, September 29, 2014

Reheating Triumph, Recounting Failure

I don't mean to brag, but I'm a virtuoso of reheating. When I'm really "on", I can do more with leftovers than many chefs can from scratch. It's a product of necessity; having authored enough guide books and nabe-survey articles for my refrigerator to have hosted a dizzying assortment of greasy takeout bags and boxes, I've invested way more time and energy into learning to reheat than I ever did learning to cook. My analogy is to hip-hop studio guys who sample, mix down and otherwise reuse preexistent material. They may not be able to compose or perform, but they've developed an uncanny ability to repurpose and recycle.

I wrote an article about my reheating techniques several years ago, but have never posted it publicly. I guess I'm hoping to one day publish it as an article or book. But last night I killed it so utterly - putting together an excruciatingly delicious dinner from so-so leftovers in under ten minutes - that I feel compelled to share.

My fridge contained:
One overcooked chicken breast
One takeout container of slightly dry hummus
One takeout container of marinated portobello mushrooms
Some scallions
Broccolini

I cut thin 1"x 1" x 1/4" slices off the chicken breast. I chopped the mushrooms and three scallions. I briefly sautéed everything in a pan with just a bit of olive oil at medium heat. I didn't manipulate anything (leftovers don't like to be handled much), didn't even stir the ingredients. I added only black pepper. Meanwhile, I steamed the broccolini.

I spread the hummus around a plate. I dumped the chicken/mushroom/scallop mixture on top of it. I drizzled fantastic extra virgin olive oil on the broccolini, plus some Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes (from Penzeys). If I hadn't used a nonstick pan, I might have deglazed to make sauce. But, really, it wasn't necessary (and I didn't sauteé long enough to gather much browned protein, anyway).

Sometimes the whole exceeds the parts. I live for such moments. In fact, it's literally all I care about. To me, that's magic; that's why we want to be alive; everything else is a function of humans-as-livestock. And this turned out to be a rather extreme example. So much so that I'm questioning whether I should even post this, given how prosaic and uninteresting every move I've described above seems upon rereading (remember "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies", where I struggled, unsuccessfully, to explain how a guy wielding the recipe on the Quaker oatmeal box was consistently able to produce the best cookies I - or any of his friends - had ever tasted?). How do you explain magic? As the Von tale illustrates, you can't - least of all the magician responsible! The meta-secret is that the magician never reveals his secrets because he has no idea!

As I scarfed this dinner, it sounded like the soundtrack for a porno movie. The deliciousness was a "10". But as with Von's cookies, it's likely that you couldn't recreate it. In fact, I probably couldn't, either (unlike Von, who reliably rang the bell every time). 

I launched into writing this with great brio, confident I'd be sharing something of serious worth. But there's nothing here. I have no insights, no connections...nothing*. I just know that I was (pleasurably) run over by an aesthetic freight train of my own creation, yet, like Von, I have no idea what the hell happened.


* - some pretty good links, however...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Anti-Hounds

I haven't sweated Chowhound's dilution over the years. I never expected the site to last anywhere near this long (we're coming up on twenty years!), so its mere survival strikes me as pretty freakin' dayenu.

But when I see clots of site regulars indignantly and mindlessly railing about how there's nothing good to eat in some locale, when they haven't invested the least effort into sniffing out off-radar treasure - or even considered doing so! - it drives me crazy. How did it become comfortable (much less fashionable) to be diametrically anti-Chowhound on Chowhound.com?

I just interrupted some site "veterans" moaning about White Plains, NY (one of the best - and broadest - little food towns anywhere) by offering a litany of superabundant treasure they've missed. It won't go well, of course. They'll try one or two places, order cluelessly, eat naively (the Sichuan food's too oily/spicy!"), and happily resume their prejudices and false assumptions. Or perhaps not even that (consider how this played out). The only outcome beyond imagining would be for these guys to go out and jubilantly bask in all these great places. If that was their shtick, they would never have gotten to this point in the first place!

I've been making this point forever: the stuff that's pushed at you is the product of devoted pushers, not devoted creators. The best course is to resist the misdirection and proactively hunt for your own treasure; suss out the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who do earnest, loving, inspiring work. They're hidden, and uncovering them is your task, not anyone else's. If the only options on your plate are the shiny, obvious, talked-about and passively-received options, you will miss the greatness - and, just as sadly, you'll miss the chance to support the greatness, which is often plied from a precarious foothold. Cream does not often rise!

But, alas, once you've fallen in love with your prejudices and false assumptions, truth feels like poison. People would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Resurrection Wine

I used to play music in Lisbon with a Portuguese count (third in line for succession if they'd ever brought back the monarchy) who was a terrific guitarist. His name was a long series of generically European-sounding hyphenates, and he spoke English with an accent from a previous century, perfectly matching his flamboyant snow-white mustache. His family, among many other things, had produced some of the 20th century's best port wine.

And he taught me a trick. If you keep a wine long, long past its time - until well after its quality dips - it will often resurrect into something wonderful and different. It's just a question of patience. He even did this with white wines (never intended to be aged). I was once served, in his impoverished palace with copiously leaky roof, a good white he'd patiently laid down for decades which displayed the qualities of aged champagne - nutty and honeyed. It was great!

So this week I discovered that I'd inadvertently aged a case of "Sangre De Toro", a so-so Catalan garnacha no one considers a laying-down wine, for 20 years. Yesterday I opened a bottle, and it had real character! It could almost have passed for "stately"! Serious wine! The problem is that over-aged wines only enjoy fifteen minutes or so of grandeur before falling apart (if you swirl, they'll self-destruct even sooner, the wine already having been subjected to as much oxygen as it can stand)*. But within that short window, a decent wine can dramatically over-achieve (if not - if it tastes nasty or faded - just leave the other bottles alone for another decade).

I once got to taste an 1874 Bordeaux (which certainly was made to be aged). It fell apart in my glass within 3 minutes...but those three minutes were great!


* - If you quickly seal and refrigerate the remainder of the bottle, you might squeeze an extra day out of it.

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