Friday, March 27, 2015

Disrespect Your Teachers

I'm hell on teachers, and always have been. I question relentlessly and pointedly; I refuse to accept assumptions without ample explanation and persuasion. I bluntly point out faulty reasoning, and can't endure even a touch of facile skating. I want to learn what I want to learn the way I want to learn it, so that I can discard the teacher like a worn-out shell and go about my business. I'm anything but deferential - but I am, after all, the one buying the service.

I've done a good bit of teaching, myself. And this is how I wish students would treat me, because it's the best way to learn. Alas, my students have all been deferential. AND they've paid me. The combination strikes me as daft***.

All learning is self-learning. Your doctor can cure you without your participation, and your stylist can make you look sharp while you chat on the phone, but no teacher has ever taught anyone anything. Teachers are mere aids in a learning process that's student-owned. Students who truly wish to learn should wrestle teachers into giving them what they need, in the way they need it. They ought to treat their teachers like wrenches or bits of tape.

Teachers, of course, are ill-accustomed to such treatment. They're usually spoiled with deference. They imagine, strangely, that teaching magically happens while they drone on. All the messy stuff taking place - as the student scrambles to translate words into useful mental nutrients and rearrange neurons to facilitate a miraculous transformation in comprehension - is beyond their concern. They drone, we learn.

And we do so obediently, though we're the ones churning idle words into actual education. If it's our role to defer as well as make education happen, then, once again the question arises: who's buying this service??

I also beat teachers up by peppering them with my own conclusions, analyses, and insights, however half-baked. You may be a famous chef teaching me to cook, but, really, wouldn't lime work much better here than lemon?

All teachers respond the same: learn it my way first, then do it your way. But that's just another ploy for transferring responsibility for education to the student. It's sheer laziness. Shitty teachers don't bother aiming their teaching, they simply present their patter like anchormen or toastmasters. But that's not educating, that's talking. Good teachers figure out what the student needs and custom-target their patter. They apply flexibility and empathy. They make themselves useful tools.

The dull roteness of most teachers explains why so many creative people do poorly in school (I was a perennial B student). There are two types of people: those with an instinct to imitate and those with an instinct to follow their fancy. One does not magically transfer into the other. Fancy-free types do not - can not - diligently, rotely, follow; it's not in their nature. Yes, Picasso showed he could produce old-master-ish paintings as a teenager, but I'd bet he drove his teacher to murderous rages.

Creative people are constitutionally loathe to do things the usual way, the easy way, the instructed way. Their scheming caprice is like a whirring car starter, desperate to ignite regardless of fuel availability. A good teacher feeds the engine what it needs, and lets the student roar away, free, into the distance, rather than seeking to impose order on the process.

Good teachers teach; bad teachers drone and impose order. Alas, nearly all teachers are bad teachers. And I should know, because I'm the world's worst student...yet also, perversely, an awfully good learner.

An old Zen saying goes "If you see the Buddha walking down the street, kill him" (my old college professor, Buddhist scholar Neil McMullin, insisted the correct translation is actually "shit on his head"). Learning is next to impossible once teacher or material has been enshrined. A student must make the material freshly his own, and this requires a posture of defiance, irreverence, and even disrespect...if not out-and-out murderousness.

*** - it reminds me of the way spiritual gurus are treated by their followers. Having supposedly gone beyond suffering, they're nonetheless coddled with great delicacy. Really, they ought to be complained to, railed against, and generally acted out upon, given that they, more than anyone, can handle it.

Deference should flow toward the party facing the daunting task of learning - whether enlightenment or trigonometry. Droning's easy; learning's hard, so it's the learners who need to be coddled.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Driverless Cars (i.e. Trusting Those Cold, Dodgy Algorithms)

Driverless cars are viewed by most knowledgable parties as inevitable - sooner rather than later. This leaves me, with my lingering skepticism, feeling out of touch. Our post-Google society has a deeply engrained trust for algorithms, but I just don't see it, myself.

Driving is subtle, and the subtleties can't be baked into an algorithm. An automated car could get from point A to point B under normal circumstances, but what about the unexpected? What about that tipsy, swerving driver up ahead? I'd surely spot him - and evade him - more effectively than the algorithm. A pile-up a quarter mile ahead would appear to the system as a number of stationary objects, and that's not much data. A person can factor in psychology - e.g. a keen awareness of the inattentive driver behind you (would an auto-pilot know to flash its brakes to grab his attention, or to stop a bit short and carefully parcel out extra braking room while gauging his reaction, or to wave an arm out the window as a last-ditch means of drawing attention?). Reducing this all to a calculation weighing Stationary Object A against Moving Object B forfeits the awareness and resourcefulness humans can uniquely muster.

On the other hand, how intuitive and resourceful is the average driver? It could be argued that most are no wiser than canned computer code - and far less alert and reactive. True defensive driving - accounting for shortcomings and cannily evading problems via instinct and intuition - isn't common. So a driverless car might indeed be safer than the average day-dreaming, hapless human pilot. Computers may be idiots, but at least they're efficient and rational.

But where does that leave above-average drivers, who'd take a step down by ceding control? Well, if all cars were self-driving, and efficiently connected, that would be irresistible. As-is, every incompetent fool you've ever met is empowered to wail down highways in a two-ton bomb of glass and metal - an insanity that will make future historians shudder. So as long as even a few cars are still under human control, I wouldn't imagine handing control over to computer code. And I won't be the only one feeling this way, so a Mexican stand-off scenario would ensue among the hold-outs. No good driver will want to be the second-to-last to yield control while even one asshole still operates a vehicle.

Some worry about being legislated into conformity. Elon Musk tweeted the other day that "when self-driving cars become safer than human-driven cars, the public may outlaw the latter." But it would be politically unfeasible to ban people from driving their vehicles. We may eventually be unable to buy human-driven cars, but I doubt we'll be prohibited from operating one.

Safety issues aside, there's something no one's discussing. Wouldn't you feel like a putz sitting frozen in a typical car seat with nothing to do and no option for roaming around and pursuing other activities? A trip in a driverless car would feel like the chintziest public transportation experience imaginable. On trains or buses, there's space to fidget, interact, and do stuff, but sitting idle in a small tin can with your attention riveted forward toward the roadway would hardly be a pleasant prospect. If public transportation systems had been continuously refined over the past half century, the demise of driving would surely have meant the end of cars. But it seems inevitable that cars - which are for driving, period - will morph into something more like buses, daft though that progression would be.

I feel similarly out of touch re: Amazon's scheme to deliver packages via drones. Like many others, I chortled at the prospect of limb (and power line) severing lawnmowers plying public airspaces. But it looks like even this may come to pass, after all.

It may just be a generational thing. Some of us will remain skeptical of algorithms, but perhaps we sound like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy, bewailing the perils of having ones molecules scrambled by that damned transporter contraption....

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Journalism (and Knishes)

If you're ever interviewed by the press, or if you're intimately familiar with a topic covered by the press, odds are you'll be grievously disappointed with the results. I've seen this from both ends, having worked as a journalist and also been an interview subject many, many times. From the journalist's perspective, no subject is ever happy unless they've been showered with unmitigated praise. And even highly-praised subjects might hate the results. One of the first restaurants I reviewed - extremely favorably - tried to poison me.

I'd raved mightily about them, and they managed to figure out who I was. When I returned a few weeks after publication, I found the place uncharacteristically mobbed, and the owner solicitous and thankful. But he did point out, with poorly concealed pique, an error in the driving directions included within my article. What's more, I'd noted that they hadn't drawn the crowd they amply deserved (the owner had previously told me he was on the verge of closing down). "You made us look pathetic," he seethed. On my next visit, I queued up for takeout while the owner pretended to be immersed in his work. I waved to get his attention, just to say hello, and he growled, without looking up, "I'm busy here, Jim, and I really can't give any customer special VIP priority." Stupidly, I made the mistake of returning a third time (hey, their food was great). I kept my head down, hoping for a smooth purchase and exit. When I got my order home, I noticed that (obviously) rotten food had been tossed into my sandwich.

That was in my first year as a writer, and while I didn't fully understand it at the time, I eventually learned it wasn't a fluke. The only thing people hate more than obscurity is press. Go figure.

But there are reasons:

1. Reporters are scavengers. They zoom in, they write, and they're off to the next story. They can't absorb more than a superficial acquaintance; the goal is sufficient savvy to inform readers, not to impress you, the insider, with the deep faithfulness of their account. They're sketchers, not portrait painters.

2. No one ever views you as you see yourself. In everyday life, one is shielded from this disjoint, because politeness precludes friends and family from showering you with feedback as to how you appear to them and how they interpret your words and deeds. Reporters break these boundaries, and when their view of you fails to line up with your own view of yourself - as it unavoidably must - that's a serious wound (and a gallingly public one, given the masses reading along).

Those two explain the piqued restaurateur. The erroneous directions, due to #1, drove him crazy (how could I botch something so important to him?), and "under-appreciated" wasn't an image he enjoyed seeing in the mirror I'd held up, per #2. But the biggest disjoint, which makes a great many newsworthy folks hate (or at least mistrust) the press, stems from compression. You are saying thousands of words to a journalist who only reports dozens of them. The winnowing amounts to a sort of co-speaking; you've chosen which words to speak, and the journalist chooses for you, as well. That's some awfully close, clammy collaboration! One hears countless complaints about "out of context" quoting, but all quotes are out of context. Whenever many words are spoken but only a few are conveyed, context is inherently lost. Perfect synopsis is impossible.

I offer, as a recent example, an article on knishes I was interviewed for. The writer did a good job; I have no serious complaints. But I thought you might enjoy seeing how the sausage is made. Below is the entirety of our dialog (interesting if you're curious about knishes, specifically, or food history and culture, generally). The completed article is here, but I'd suggest reading through the following first. You'll see how co-speaking happens (via journalist's choices) and how perfect synopsis is impossible. Again, I'm not complaining. The writer did a good job; my point is that these issues are intrinsic to journalism.

The following is very lightly edited:


I'm working on an article about knishes and, in my research, read an NYT article from 2003~ that quoted you on the dismal quality of street knishes.

Was wondering if we could talk some more about those feelings?


Sure, Chris.

I consider it a homonym situation. There are two things called “knish”, both spelled and pronounced the same way, that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There’s the knishes made for centuries in Eastern Europe (lets call them, for convenience, ur-knishes), and there’s a product - an object - created by a company called Gabila that has nothing to do with those, and which they happened to brand as a “knish”. Since ur-knishes hadn’t penetrated American mainstream consciousness to any serious extent, it was easy for most people to link the name to the Gabilla objects.

Nothing wrong with that. And if they were delicious, you’d hear no objections from me. But they’re not delicious. They’ve a convenience item invented by some dude trying to move product, not by an innovative chef creating “a new wrinkle on an old tradition” or anything like that. But delicious or not, something that does not belong to a class of things can’t be magically made to inhabit that class simply by naming it so. Branding is powerful, but it can’t achieve that. Nowadays, culinary historians (and just regular avid eaters) will tell you there are two varieties of knishes. It’s not the case. A very slight tail wags a very substantial dog.

Consider: if I took supermarket corn-toaster-cakes and dusted them with powdered cheddar and shelf stabilized them and used marketing muscle to sell them under the name “Pupusa”, we couldn’t say that from that moment on there are now two varieties of pupusas…..even if lots of people bought my shitty creation. Foodways morph and transform and branch, yes, but it’s an organic process. Some corporate meshuginah in Brooklyn doesn't make it happen via a penstroke. Gabila just copped the name, nothing more. This did not create a fork in the road of a rich culinary tradition.

Just because somebody sold chocolate under the name “vanilla", it would take a thoroughly silly taxonomist to expand vanilla’s definition/classification to accommodate this.

The interesting about knishes is that they are a rare “land bridge” between ashkenazic and sephardic cultures. If you follow the gastro-geography from Poland/Ukraine to India, you see that samosa-like objects start appearing early in that journey. The “samsas” of Uzbekistan progress through the sambosas of Afghanistan/Tajikistan and eventually wend their way into the familiar South Asian item. A potato knish, dowdy and eastern-european though it appears, is just the northernmost outcropping of an Asia Minor foodway.


This might be stretching it, but do you have any thoughts on why the ur-knish didn't penetrate mainstream American consciousness? It's certainly an object of great affection, longing, and meaning for New York Jews but it never really achieved the crossover appeal of the bagel or, less so, the bialy.

I do feel like the pervasiveness of the Gabila's square knish probably turned a lot of people off to the food and the possibility that knishes could be good. There has to be an explanation for why knishes didn't quite make it, because of how important they were and, well, the appeal of a good one is pretty obvious and it's not an unusual food. Everybody eats dough wrapped around something.


This might be stretching it, but do you have any thoughts on why the ur-knish didn't penetrate mainstream American consciousness? It's certainly an object of great affection, longing, and meaning for New York Jews but it never really achieved the crossover appeal of the bagel or, less so, the bialy.

It’s a peculiar question. Is there an expectation that foreign traditions ought to permeate our culture? Why have Celtic music, Iranian film, Argentinian tango - all completely accessible and lovable - not grown omnipresent in American consciousness?

It’s because it’s a big world, and different places stress different things. That’s why we travel. That’s why we explore. It’s a delight, not a problem, that the world has not homogenized.

When something does make that jump - bagels, sushi, anime - that’s the exception rather than the rule. But it’s not like football play-offs; the worthiest don’t make the cut via a series of trials. Stuff just sneaks in. Borders are porous. It’s an organic process. One can trace why tacos did make it, but there’s no explaining why knishes didn’t. Yes, they’re delicious (when right), but a great many things are delicious when right. What, for example, is more delicious than Chinese Zongzi? Yet how many Americans have even heard of them?

That said, the presence of a disgusting, highly-commercialized item bearing the same name absolutely confused the development of brand awareness. So I’m with you on that. Markets are easily confused (hence trademark law), and Gabilla certainly poisoned that well.

But there are no trade groups for basic foodways. It’s not an angle anyone “works”. Stuff seeps in via osmosis or it doesn’t. Usually it doesn’t (and, again, that’s a feature, not a bug).

But you know what? I had a decent knish (round and proper) from an Italian deli in Putnam County yesterday. That may not represent the apotheosis of prevalence, but the place wasn’t selling pupusas or mamaliga or zongzi or Burmese thousand layer pancake or any of ten million other foodways Americans would instantly cotton to.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


"Character" is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


You don't have to be a political correctness zealot to know it wouldn't be cool to call a short person "big guy", an overweight person "skinny", or a street person "Senator". You'd be a complete oaf. So why is it okay to refer to older guys as "young man"?

There's a dude who works at my supermarket who's taken to greeting me as "young man" (the first of a long line, I'd expect). This last time, I smiled jovially, and replied "I'm good! How are you today, genius?" He was offended (maybe it takes an actual genius to parse the equivalence).

A few years ago I crowed about how it was "The Hippest Time in History to be 48":
I'm the same age as Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Never before has it been this hip to be 48 years old. When I was a kid, people like Jonathan Winters and Ed McMahon were crustily 48, and no one under 40 trusted anyone over 40. It makes it easier to be 48 when you're living at the hippest time ever to be that age.
Well, that's over. I'm 52 and I look like I have one foot in the grave (as do, for that matter, Stewart, Colbert, and Obama). Problem is, I've never stopped feeling like the exact same person I've always been, irrespective of the old dude staring back at me in mirrors. Aging isn't tough; the hard part is people having more and more trouble seeing who I actually am. But I can't blame them. Appearances, after all, are the main thing they have to go on. If I had to look at me all the time (instead of existing obliviously nestled behind my own eyeballs), I'd surely have the same impression!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Year of Marination

I've always broiled meats, fish, and poultry plain, figuring marination was too much trouble and too froufrou. But I've gotten over those reservations (for one thing, marinating proteins hugely improves the quality of my panini). In fact, 2015's been my Year of Marination. The following is Cooking 101, nothing revelatory, but here's my particular take on it. If you're not a marinater, I hope I convince you to give it a try. It's fast, easy, and is one of the best bang-for-buck moves you can do to sharply step up quality.

This works for chicken, fish, or tofu (I don't marinade mushrooms this way; I just rehydrate them in hot water then sauté with garlic, olive oil, a bit of sherry vinegar, and sometimes a bit of dill or cilantro). Choose at least a couple from each category:

Onion, garlic, scallion, fresh ginger, miso.

Soy sauce (I use Filipino calamasi/lemon soy sauce, aka toyomansi), fish sauce, maple syrup, balsamic or white vinegar, extra virgin olive oil. Or any other flavorful liquid, even just a bit of stock. But don't overdo the liquid; you want the marinade wet enough to coat easily, but you're not making soup!

Tabasco (I prefer piri-piri, the Portuguese hot sauce), cumin, black pepper, toasted sesame seeds, basil, horseradish/wasabi, lemon/lime/orange zest (and some juice, too), cilantro*....or anything else flavorful.

* - a few thoughts on cilantro: this is a great secret touch, reliably yielding professional-tasting results. If you despise cilantro, you won't like it here, but bear in mind that the flavor won't be anywhere near as penetrating as if you'd cooked it directly into the food (even if you use a ton; I usually include a big handful) because in this application, it's more of a team player and agent of je ne sais quoi. Use mostly leaves, ripping off most of the stems. And note that Trader Joe's carries this (bags of scallions, too, which I massively apply to marinades and just about everything else I's another key touch).

You'll need to apply your taste imagination in selecting harmonious components. You want some complexity, but if you go too far, you'll wind up with muddled results. Try this reliable combo: scallion, garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, Tabasco, cilantro (adjust salting later, though, due to soy sauce).

Here's the big trick: you've got to overdo it. Apply way more hot sauce than you'd ever add directly to food; enough ginger to create a ginger bomb; enough olive oil to fry a potato. Remember these items are not actually going into the food, so all flavors must be exaggerated (plus, most of this stuff is going right in the garbage later). The first few times, you'll almost surely under-season your marinades, so be prepared to step it all way up. Also: this is also why you shouldn't add salt to the marinade; it's hard to get it precise. Instead, salt food later, as you cook it.

Don't bother cutting or chopping anything nicely. Just toss it all into the food processor (I have this tiny, cheap, easy-to-clean one that works great for this purpose) and pulse until there are no large chunks. If you've spent more than five minutes on prep thus far, you're dawdling unnecessarily!

Spoon the marinade into a large zip lock bag, add meat or tofu. Seal the bag (removing most of the trapped air) and squish contents around forcefully to create an even coating (if you didn't use enough liquid, you'll have trouble distributing the coating; next time use more olive oil or soy sauce!). Leave in fridge for 45 - 90 minutes.

Note: you can prepare double the marinade quantity and preserve half to use later as a sauce, but proper marination means you don't really need sauce. My home cooking is austere and healthful, so I'm not much of a sauce guy (aside from simple deglazings). Marination ensures rich, deep flavors without the extra fat, salt, and fuss.

There's art in the transfer to broiler pan. If you dump the contents, marinade and all, into the pan, you'll wind up with an overly-wet, gurgling/boiling mess. But neither do you want to remove all coating. I grab pieces with tongs, one at a time, and give each a firm small shake (back into the bag; remember, salmonella may be present, and you don't want it on kitchen surfaces) before transferring to broiler pan. And I remove any excess liquid halfway through the cooking.

Throw out the bag, and broil a little longer/browner than you normally would. Some extra caramelization dovetails beautifully with the marinade, and, for some psychological reason, consummate tenderness isn't quite as important with marinated foods, though of course you don't want to dry anything out. I broil chicken thighs 6-7 minutes on one side then twice that on the other, which is nearly double the cooking time I apply to non-marinated (skinless) thighs.

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