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

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