Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse Musings

My idea was to head south to the totality belt, enjoying barbecue all the way. I'd stay over just north of that zone (with lots of cheap lodgings), and dash in for the event itself. It was a fine plan, but I realized it was unviable when every department store and pharmacy all the way up here in New York ran out of eclipse glasses the moment they arrived in stock. Dammit, the eclipse was crossing over out of geekdom. 

So my Monday morning drive into the belt of totality would be a nightmare, my escape from the region a slog, and if skies were cloudy, I'd be forced to join a massive Serengeti of westward vehicles looking for clear skies. Though I've always been afflicted with FoMO ("fear of missing out"), and there's nothing worse than staying home during a total eclipse within driving range, I skipped it.

Not to be a total loss, I pulled my car over at 2:35, gamely flipped on my eclipse glasses, and saw that things had already started. And I immediately flipped the specs back off again, because I'd noticed that the light was...weird.

It wasn't particularly dark. It was hard to describe. I'm no connoisseur of light quality (though I did notice, while playing gigs in Tuscany, that the light, unsurprisingly, had the unworldly character of a Renaissance painting). The sun was 90% blocked, yet it wasn't darker than if a cloud had drifted by. But this was no cloud diffusion. It was something else. The light was unpleasant and eerie. 

It made you cringe a little, like leaving an eye doctor's office with pupils dilated on a sunny day. It felt harsh. My first thought was "this must be what sunlight feels like on Mars." But then I noticed the deja vu. An impression of alien harshness had been my takeaway from every partial solar eclipse I'd ever experienced. I just never clicked it together before.

I drove on to an Italian deli in Queens I've been meaning to check out (Tony’s Beechhurst Deli; not bad), where the counterdude asked a customer if he'd seen the eclipse. Yes, he'd checked it out, but when asked if he'd used eclipse glasses, he scowled and wagged his head. He simply looked up, that's all.

To the likes of geeky me, that's the epitome of heedlessness. But blue collar workers spend their lives ignoring stupid warning labels and doing jobs others are too squeamish to do. They get it done, and don't have time for overblown warnings and prissy hesitation. And this reminded me of a previous sunny New York weekday, when I watched similar-looking blue-collar dudes scale a pile of smoldering debris. The burning smell was sickening; clearly they were risking major respiratory problems. But these guys are conditioned to disregard warnings. And so, I imagine, a whole lot of people looked up today without protection.

My two small insights might not amount to much, but I drove to Arkansas a few weeks ago for little more. I didn't have the socko experience of totality (just as I didn't enjoy an amazing hillbilly-Italian feast), but I'm a guy who appreciates small stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Extremism Provokes Reciprocal Extremism

Our eyes have strayed wildly from the ball as the nation's been caught up in spiraling nonsense. As always, extremism has provoked reciprocal extremism. It's extraordinarily hard for human beings to remain reasonable in the face of stupidity and emotion. Birds watch us with amazement, wondering how we manage to maintain such perfect flock formations (Magnetism? Astral positioning?).


I don't care about Steve Bannon's looks or Donald Trump's hair.

I don't care if Donald Trump's father was arrested at a Klan rally.

I firmly support Nazis and white supremacists' right to freely express themselves (short of incitement - and, yes, I'm aware of the slippery slope). If government decides what's ok to say, we're no longer America. Isn't this whole resistance supposed to be about maintaining constitutional values and the rule of law? How on earth did that lead us to wanting to constrain free speech rights?

The rest of us have the commensurate right to shame and shun those espousing such views. However, I suspect the defeat of this ideology would work better and happen faster if these clowns remained public and unhooded. So the crowdsourced shunning (satisfying though it is) may, in the end, be seen as more self-defeating overreach on our side.

It's ridiculous to assume "Southern Heritage" is a code word for racism. Every culture has atrocities in its timeline, but that certainly doesn't preclude cultural pride (crowds of patriotic Germans give me the willies, but that's my issue, not theirs, and three pints of kellerbier help me sing right along). Anyway, slavery was, obviously, an American atrocity, not a Southern one.

That said, those Confederate statues erected during Jim Crow to intimidate black people should absolutely go (to museums). In those cases, heritage truly was used as a code word. Southerners well know this, and should stop playing dumb. But liberals never reject an opportunity for overreach. A statue of Robert E. Lee is not a talisman of hate. Is there no one, on either side, with capacity for moderation and reason?

"Is Donald Trump a Racist?" is a ridiculous and distracting question. This is how the left joins the right in transforming the presidency into a personality cult. Who cares? Watch his damned legislation and stop feeling endlessly shocked by his patently cultivated outrageousness. Personally, his stated views strike me as perfectly typical of many 70 year old Americans. If, as even the extreme left concedes, "the past is a foreign country" and we ought not judge people in previous eras by present-day values, then we also need to extend some tolerance toward a previous generation. They're dying out, and taking much of this nonsense with them.

Anytime the left advocates something counter to the rule of law (Nazi punching, calling for generals to remove the president, etc.), they are, duh, advancing the agenda of Trump's most ardent supporters. The danger of Trump isn't his racial views or his opinions re: statues. It's his contempt for constitutional values and the rule of law. The antidote is not to find our own ways to tear up the constitution and disrespect the rule of law. It's to work the system, lawfully and maturely. To vote, to make intelligent counterarguments rather than meet hate with hate and lawlessness with lawlessness. That's how the country survives. That's how we regress to the mean.

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

I understand that for some people, the failure to shriek at 110% volume upon the first errant glimpse of anything feared or disliked would feel like a moral lapse. Some readers were offended when I expressed exasperation re: the marches on Washington the week after the election - before Trump had actually done anything. Similarly, the notion of remaining moderate or rational in the face of a few thousand loser/clowns espousing patently stupid and outdated viewpoints may be seen as excusing hatred. But while I don't agree much with right-winger Robert Tracinski, I think he nails the dynamics here:
The entire Trump phenomenon is a live-action version of the old parable about the boy who cried wolf. Spend decades telling everyone that George Bush is Hitler or that Mitt Romney is a racist, and you’ll find that there is nowhere left to go when you try to warn everyone that Trump is worse. Crank your reaction to every Trump statement or speech all the way up to eleven, and people dismiss you as noise and tune you out. So there’s no reserve of extra outrage to tap when Trump really does do something awful.

Speaking of Robert Tracinski; if we want to defeat not just Trump but Trumpism as a whole, we need to listen to anti-Trumpers on the right like Tracinski, who are far more sensible on the issue, and who more keenly understand why their cohorts fell for this in the first place. Start off by avidly following the Twitter feeds of Rick Wilson and John Schindler, even if they don't emanate that comforting tribal smell. Particularly don't miss Wilson's great Periscope live video sessions, announced via his Twitter feed. They're hilarious and insightful - like getting a private phone call from a plugged-in DC insider. Also: they're bizarrely relaxing. What FDR did for the Depression with his fireside chats, Wilson does for the Trump era with his live Periscopes.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Pretending the Annus is Horribilis

Just posted to my FB page (feel free to friend me; my timeline is mostly just pointers to new Slog postings, but sometimes other stuff):
12/31/2017 is going to be the most mopey and bitter New Years Eve yet. I'll try to find a cheap fare to somewhere on Lunar calendar - e.g. Hong Kong - so I can enjoy some noodles and dumplings in peace.

It's necessary to call out bad stuff, to resist it, and to counteract it in any way possible. It is not necessary, however, to pretend that you're not phenomenally lucky to be alive for every single moment, come what may.

Shit doesn't need to go your way for you to bask in your all-too-brief residency here.
You signed up for this. You wanted all the movies.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Expecting Damaged People to Self-Repair to Accommodate You

Here's one of the hardest lessons: When people treat you poorly, there's one critical question to ask yourself before taking offense: do they treat themselves any better?

A plumber friend vented to me one night. He'd gone to the house of a mutual acquaintance to investigate some emergency in his basement. And the basement was a shocking killing field of cat feces and other random, fetid garbage. It was Silence-of-the-Lambs bad. He cringed as he told the story.

The plumber couldn't fathom how the guy could have expected him to walk through all that. Clean it up first! Grab a broom! Show some consideration! He felt, more than anything, disrespected.

I pointed out that the guy lives there. His kids live there. This is how they live! If he were together enough to clean stuff up and make things nice, he and his family would be living in vastly different conditions. If he had it in him to take care of stuff properly, his life would be vastly better. You can't expect him to show more consideration, diligence and effort for his plumber than he does for himself and his loved ones!

My plumber friend won't be back, but he quickly dropped his feeling of offense.

This flip of perspective doesn't come easily to me, even though I'm more conscious of it than most people. I still have to process every single situation through this filter. Most of all, I'm shocked by the frequency. This result isn't exceptional, it's the rule.

We're clearly seeing the world with a skewed perspective, not to notice this more. I think it's that we presume - against all evidence! - most people to be essentially reasonable, capable, and competent. So we punish them when their defects impact us, figuring they've lowered standards out of thoughtless disregard.

An irrational person I know lives a fairly desperate life. When she recently managed to needlessly damage a situation vitally important to me, I flashed with anger. Why couldn't she be reasonable?!? Well...if she could get out of her own way and be reasonable, she'd do so for reasons far more profound than obliging my needs.

Narcissists take note (and I've met very few non-narcissistic humans): it's unreasonable to expect damaged people to self-repair to accommodate you*. Expressed this way it sounds completely self-evident; hardly needing to be stated. But I dare you to actually internalize it over time without heroic effort.

* - ...and very many people are profoundly damaged, whether they reveal - or even self-recognize - it or not.

This is all really just an offshoot of Leff's Fourth Law (which, as I later conceded, was expressed way better way earlier by Napoleon).

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah

A friend just sent me an utterly dejected email about the state of things. Here's my reply.
I see it differently. We’re getting a front row view of something few people have seen in person. it’s usually only read about. And it’s defanged; we won’t fall into autocracy, we won’t lose our freedom, it’s not the third reich. Mueller is solid, evidence is enormous, Congress is pivotting, approval is sinking, and, luckiest of all, the bad guys are self-defeating idiots.

There will be more chaos and chagrin, but we’re getting this view relatively cheaply. When it’s over, center left and center right will come together (it’s already started…pro-Trump stats are so high among Republicans because so many Republicans have renounced their party). This is a last gasp of moldy human tropes; the un-self-aware assholes’ last hurrah. Consider Steven Pinker’s work, and consider the graph at the bottom of this page. It’s not the end of the world, it’s birth pangs for a new better one.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Russians Don't Care If We Know Everything

The most persuasive analysis from the smartest people I read makes a point that really should be obvious (and would be if we were the least bit sophisticated):

There is nothing we will become aware of in this matter that the Russians didn't fully intend for us to eventually uncover. They planted the evidence in plain sight (and murdered the people - including some staunch Russian patriots - who knew the exact mechanisms). From beginning to end, it's had nothing to do with choosing sides. It's been entirely about chaos.

Trump has sowed copious chaos since the beginning of the campaign; turning masses against the institutions and norms underpinning western political culture. In so doing, he also fanned the extreme partisanship that will eventually be seen as having been Russian-kindled all along (along with other factors). Then Trump managed to win, a bonus that surprised even Trumputin. Russia won't see its sanctions removed - they won't gobble up the cherry atop this sundae - but that's ok; there will be plenty more delicious chaos from the scandal and Trump's downfall and the ugly fallout therefrom. Consider: We're at the brink of civil war (those cloistered in big liberal cities don't understand how riled up the MAGAs are). It's working beautifully!

Russia doesn't care whether Trump's in or out, and they don't mind being the bogeymen (Russian bogeymen have been degrading American unity and resolve for decades now). The aim is to leave us (and our allies) confused, demoralized, cynical, and at each others' throats. It's ridiculous to suppose Putin actually favors Trump. He'll be just as happy milking this idiot's disintegration as his ascension. It all suits his purposes.

Osama Bin Laden demolished a couple buildings, inciting reckless responses that have shaken Western culture/values to their core. Similarly, prankster Putin propped up a useful idiot, bringing us to the brink. When the smoke finally clears, we'll need to learn to be more sophisticated about provocation, rather than behave like boobs, endlessly bashing the opposing tribe in an endless, pointless Itchy/Scratchy cartoon.

Moderates on the left and the right will need to drop their litmus tests - strident tribal dividers like abortion and guns - and come together as a coalition to outnumber the rabble, the loonies, and, above all else, the sophisticated tactics of provocation and chaos which Russia excels at...but which ties rich, distracted, earnestly simplistic rubes like us Americans up in knots.

Read that link to get a good start.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Non-Linearity of Deliciousness

I've been thinking about my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food (and other things) on a scale of 1-to-10 (see here).

First, a paradox. If someone well versed in this rating system tells me a pizzeria serves "6" slices but "8" grandma slices and "7" garlic knots, they've delivered a surprising amount of data, painting a puzzlingly evocative picture of the place. I still don't understand how/why.

Second, I believe the scale is non-linear. An "8" is more than twice as good as a "4". Perhaps way, way more. Like thousands or millions of times more.

Dark adaptation - our visual system's ability to readjust, albeit slowly, to a darker environment - is a bigger deal than people realize. It is spectacularly non-linear. You may feel as though your dark vision improves incrementally after, say, the sun goes down, but it's actually logarithmic. Huge. Once you're totally dark adapted, your vision is, like, thousands or millions times* more sensitive. It's a spectacular feat (the downside is that it takes ten minutes to complete the adaptation process).

* - I knew the exact numbers in college, but can't find them right now

You don't realize anything so sweepingly miraculous is happening, because you're used to it. However, there is one clue. Turn on the lights in a dark room after you've adapted, and you'll experience a jarring wave of discombobulation. You will be completely overwhelmed. This tells you how far you've truly gone.

Similarly, going from a "7" ("Soulless but good") to an "8" ("Elicits vocal expression of pleasure") creates a jarring wave of discombobulation. A sense of being overwhelmed.

So while it's impossible to quantify aesthetic experiences, the gradations are non-linear, and sharply so. This is one reason for my conviction that deliciousness is never accidental. It's just too steep a climb, considering that "Mmmm!" is thousands, or millions, of times better than "Meh".

Serve me something delicious once, and I'll remain perpetually receptive to your work, no matter how much crud you serve me in the meanwhile. Deliciousness is never accidental.

Monday, July 31, 2017

More on Health Insurance Policy

Last month I suggested checking out Avik Roy, a right-wing health insurance wonk who, unlike many on the right, genuinely wants poor people to be well-covered. I was intrigued to see that he was happy with at least one version of the Republicans' recent proposals.

Again, I don't understand this stuff. But I refuse to rotely mimic the certainties and piques of my chosen pundits and tribal leaders. I don't want to become a health policy expert, but I'll gladly spend an hour listening to a sincere, non-shmucky, well-informed voice on the right explain a different approach from the ACA.

(I've been on ACA for a few years, and 1. it's far less flexible than private insurance, but 2. a fine last resort for those who can't afford private. It's an apt safety net but a poor catch-all)

So check out this very interesting debate between sincere right-wing wonk Roy and sincere left-wing wonk Ezra Klein. You won't come out of it expert (and it's ok to glaze over a bit when the discussion gets extra wonky...things get much easier to follow toward the ned), but it sheds considerable light on the whole matter. Very highly recommended.

Short version: Roy is naive (and way left of current Republicanism), while Klein has inflexible standards (though big programs like this always require iteration and tweaking). Roy loved the bill not as finished perfection, but as the best possible first step in the right direction, while Klein, paradoxically, mistrusts the system to deliver perfection...which is weirdly topsy-turvy.

Roy also explains why the common retort "But non-partisan CBO says....." shouldn't be the last word on these matters - even though busy, ignorant people like you and I just love a simple argument-closer.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Blue Apron

Dear Blue Apron,

I'm a veteran food writer and restaurant critic. My expertise is on the eating end rather than on the cooking end, which probably puts me in synch with many your customers - people who know food, love food, but are more excited about consumption than preparation.

I have two main reasons for using Blue Apron (every once in a while, anyway; most months I cancel most or all deliveries; sorry...I know that makes me your least favorite type of customer):

1. My cooking gets into ruts, and I like to be pushed into using different ingredients and preparations. There's nothing mysterious about a cucumber and radish salad, but it's not something I'd normally imagine making. After preparing it once, it feels like a part of my repertoire (not just an academic possibility).

2. I buy more or less the same versatile groceries each week, and improvise meals by mixing and matching ingredients in clever ways. Not being a cooking hobbyist, I'm uninterested in shopping for specific recipes. Nor do I have room to fill my pantry and fridge with leftover ingredients I'll rarely use. Blue Apron sends just what I need, so there's no shopping or pantry clutter.

I'm not all that indignant about paying $60 for a box containing $25 worth of ingredients. Since I do it seldom, and for the reasons above, and it works out to only $10 per individual meal, the price point isn't killing me.

Here are my complaints:

Drabbly Corporate Recipes
I understand your recipes are developed under many restraints. It's a tough job. But I'd suggest that you pay whatever it costs to get one really talented non-corporate chef in that loop. My taste buds tell me your team is composed of chefs with a corporate background (degrees from culinary school, experience in some "name" hotel or chain whose branding impressed your non-foodie headhunters, etc.). Such chefs are not primarily deliciousness-oriented. They're about getting stuff done to spec. But you need deliciousness, too!

The recipes are usually at least competent....though not always. Your Saffron And Tomato Bucatini directed us to add full-thread saffron by tossing it in to the sauced pasta and stirring for 2-3 minutes, just before serving. That's not how saffron works. It must dissolve and infuse over time. If the injection needs to be quick, at very least you must grind the threads. This is a dumbfounding error and a waste of good saffron. Highly corporate chefs don't have much experience with this spice. You need someone in the loop who can spot and stave off such problems.

I'm not denying that you need "get it done" dweeby corporate chefs in there developing things to spec. But you need a quality assurance stopgap - someone with deep knowledge and passion tweaking and improving. As-is, the recipes are 100% dweeby.

I understand you're not looking to tart things up with esoteric, indulgent arty touches or impractical complexities. But a non-corporate, non efficiency-oriented food expert could catch gaffes and generally polish things.

And you do need the polish. Your stuff usually more or less "works", and I realize that, alone, is tough under the constrained circumstances. But it's not quite enough.

The Tyranny of Timid Palates
A slight majority of your users probably has timid palettes, but a sizable minority does not. I just made your Caribbean chicken curry, and it flat-lined absolute zero, insipid as an airline meal. Similarly, you consistently under-portion the garlic. Your users complain about these things bitterly (do you read the comments under your recipes? You should!). Offer heat, but make it optional. Offer extra (i.e. correct) garlic, and make it optional.

Really, I'd go the other way, and let the timid opt out by decreasing quantities. I'm sure you've done market research, but understand while some customers inevitably scream/yell about excess spice, those turned off by blandness will drift away more quietly. Extreme reluctance to offend is a race to the bottom, so you need to consider which segment will be more valuable and loyal in the long term.

Natural filtration (i.e. not trying to please every last person) is a viable biz plan. HBO has a healthy subscription base despite its profanity and nudity. The network TV model - offend no one, ensuring you'll delight no one - is awfully stale in this era, no?

Layered Seasoning
Many of your customers mock your recipes for calling for salting/peppering to taste after every single step. It's true that good chefs "layer" their seasoning, to ensure a professional and consistent result. But for those unaccustomed to such layering, it's difficult to avoid under or over-seasoning. Either forego the layering approach, or else stipulate quantities (those who like things more/less salty or peppery can easily add/subtract).

It's 2017. People are eating healthy. I don't believe I've ever seen a full vegetable serving from you - not even in your veg meals. Cucumber salad is not a fully nutritious vegetable portion, nor is an ear of corn, nor the tomatoes in that bucatini. We need green leafy things, cabbagey things (e.g. brussel's sprouts) carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. If I need to cook that stuff on my own, you're not providing a full meal.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Problem With My Cooking

I've been working hard on my cooking ever since I left Chowhound. I'm at the point now where friends find excuses to be nearby at mealtimes. But a lackluster effort at shrimp scampi linguini has left me pondering some serious deficiencies.

I have two strengths:

I'm good at dreaming up combinations of ingredients to create harmonious flavors and textures.

The most underrated faculty for any creative pursuit is taste. I don't care how smart, clever, experienced, and skillful you are; if you don't know what "good" is, you'll rarely produce it.

I'm meticulous.

If a musician tries to play in tune, he'll, inevitably, sometimes play out of tune. But if you try to play really in tune, you'll play reasonably in tune even at your worst. This is a critical life lesson! My toast, for example, is never more or less than a half second from optimal brownness. I stand there and watch, in a state of poised alertness. I would never imagine glancing at my iPhone while cooking.

But I'm absolute crap at seasoning.

I get away with it, because my normal cooking doesn't require seasoning precision. Salt's not an issue, because I use almost none. And I can't go wrong with chili, because I'm happy with the full range, from bland to fiery. In fact, I prefer variation!

I can create a vague wash of garlickiness, but, getting back to that shrimp scampi linguini, the garlic needed to be nutty but not pungent, and should have dovetailed gracefully with the lemon - just enough to cut through the oiliness without smelling like air freshener. The salting needed to be assertive (this dish wouldn't have worked salt-free, of course), but not obvious. And I've never completely understood black pepper (if you consciously notice it, you've probably over-applied it).

When it comes to seasoning, I can barely hit the target, much less a bullseye. I've gotten away with this because my ad-hoc, improvisational cooking approach thrives on entropy. My go-to seasonings - chili, onion, scallions, coriander, cumin, and vague/sloppy garlic - taste good at any level. So I've grown lazy and stunted.

I suppose I need to develop a "feel", because there are too many variables (e.g. variety and freshness of garlic, fineness of mince, quantity of pasta, etc) to rely on strict calculation. But it disturbs me to realize how far away I am from having that feel. I've avoided it by developing an entire cooking style that lets me duck out of the issue!

It runs in the family. I once wrote:
My father, a wonderful sculptor, always wanted to try painting, but he knew he had no facility with color. Finally, he came up with a dazzlingly creative solution: he'd paint only with primary colors. Brilliant! And the results were distinctive and appealing...".

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Note on the Whole Trumputin Thing

A vast amount is known on the classified side. That's why Trump's worked so hard so early to discredit his own intelligence community. They have him red-handed, and he knows it, so he's tried to turn his base against them. Alas, they operate at a disadvantage, unable to make public their mountains of incriminating evidence, while he's free to blab and blab about them.

The press lacks access to that motherlode, but they know way more than they're reporting. The bottleneck is their journalistic standards of confirmation. Trump knows this, too, and it's part of what's fueling his war with them. (The zeitgeist of greatness in our time - ala food in the 90's - is investigative reporting. We're in a golden age of journalism, with the press fully rising to the challenge. I've happily bought digital subscriptions to NYT, WaPo, and several others.)

So there's all the pipeline, and many people know about it (and some finds its way into certain Twitter feeds) but you won't hear about it in the press because it's not double-confirmed.

But there is one sure takeaway: this is an immense scandal. It's not some minor break-in at a Washington hotel. Robert Mueller has a staff of a couple dozen at this point - all superstar investigators and/or prosecutors in their own rights. It's clearly not about any one meeting with the Russians.

So I'd urge you not to waste time with minutiae about this one stupid meeting with Trump's kid. It's nothing in the scheme of things. Either wait for Mueller's report (give it a year), or else dive into the Twitter feeds I follow (here's my list, or, if pressed for time, just follow my "likes") for the raw, unchecked stuff, which often seems to prove right. I'm not talking about Louise Mensch, who's pure chaos. I mean people like Rick Wilson, John Schindler, and Benjamin Wittes, who've been a month or three ahead of things since the election. Particularly don't miss Wilson's great Periscope video chats, announced via his Twitter feed, which have been the saving grace of this entire shitshow.

In the end, it won't matter who the eighth person was at this meeting, or whether Trump was advised about it, or whether there was follow-up. This is tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. There's so much more.

I find myself getting lulled into speculative details and pundit outrage re: the story du jour, but while it's crucial that the press (and Mueller) are dissecting it all, we needn't pay attention on that level. I haven't seen many Trump/Russia stories worth reading beyond the headline. Beyond the golden nugget, they're mostly padding - recap and background. Just watch the headlines, and know that it will all come out in the end. This is like a long road trip at 5 mph. We don't need to plant our attention on every passing weed and tin can.

In the meantime, don't expect Trump to go anywhere any time soon. It is not in our national interest for presidents to be easily removed - and eagerness to ravage institutional processes to achieve one's political aims is precisely the sort of thing Trump does...and we should be better). The smart money says resignation is most likely. At some point Trump will really stop enjoying this, and he'll find a medical excuse.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Criterion Collection Films 50% off at Barnes and Noble

Barnes and Noble (online and stores, both) is running their biannual Criterion Collection sale, with everything (including box sets) 50% off.

The Criterion Collection is the Rolls Royce of film distributors. They only carry great films, using the best available prints, and they take considerable trouble to improve image and sound when necessary. Their releases include copious extras (usually a printed booklet, too). Their release is the last word on any great film.

A lot of people lose their minds during these biannual sales, because every film is so damn attractive. I've been gaming them for a few years now, and have a few tips to share:

1. Don't buy on the basis of how good the film is (they're all great). You can often get much better deals on non-Criterion releases, or find ways to stream. And unless you're some fussy nerd, you generally won't need the very best print, so don't factor that in at all (unless you've got your sights on some lost film of the 1930s where the standard release is raggedy/terrible). Buy Criterion when you really want lots of extras. So: either favorite films (which you'll periodically rewatch) or else difficult, landmark films which you'll want to "chew on" - films by profound, challenging directors like Bergman or Tarkovsky. In both cases, you'll probably enjoy deep dives into special features and essays. If you'll just watch a film and put it back, Criterion is a waste of money.

2. Check price of used Criterion releases at Amazon Marketplace,, and eBay. They may be even cheaper than 50% off new.

3. The new Criterion release everyone's most excited about is Tarkovsky's "Stalker".

4. There's great discussion in Amazon reviews, and, especially, in user comments on the individual film pages at Criterion's web site (Here, for example, is the page for "Stalker"). Also: Criterion Forum

5. There's no reason to still be using a DVD player. Blu-ray decks are cheap, and they play DVDs, so you won't obsolete your previous disks. This one costs just $46, and this one, for $139, will play DVDs and Blu-Rays from any region (note that some constricted players can be made all-region by entering certain codes with the remote. Google your model number for more info). This one, for $549, is the cheapest great/expensive one with lots of bells/whistles (the manufacturer sometimes has refurb units cheap - email them for more info).

6. Bear in mind that Criterions can go out of print. When that happens, their price may shoot up. So you may want to move quickly (keeping tip #1 in mind) and then hold on to your films as an investment. On the other hand, I've bought $200 used copies of out-of-print Criterion films, viewed, and sold mine back again for about the same price. There's always demand for Criterions.

7. If, like me, you're a huge fan of "The Leftovers", consider "Walkabout", the Australian film which inspired this last season, and starred David Gulpilil (who played the aborigine Kevin's father tried to get the song from).

8. If you're buying "blind" a film you've never seen, be sure to check it through Movielens to make sure it's a film you'll actually like.

Criterion films I either own or am considering buying this time:

The 39 Steps Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The Battle of Algiers Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Brazil Director: Terry Gilliam

Breathless Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Burden of Dreams Director: Les Blank

Burmese Harp Director: Kon Ichikawa

Dekalog Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Don't Look Now Director: Nicolas Roeg

Eisenstein: The Sound Years Director: Dmitriy Vasilev, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Director: Terry Gilliam

A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman ("Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," "The Silence")

Grand Illusion Director: Jean Renoir

Great Adaptations Director: David Lean

Grey Gardens / The Beales of Grey Gardens Director: Albert Maysles

Hiroshima Mon Amour Director: Alain Resnais

In the Mood for Love Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Jules and Jim Director: François Truffaut

La Ronde Director: Max Ophuls

The Lady Eve Director: Preston Sturges

The Lady Vanishes Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The Leopard Director: Luchino Visconti

Mala Noche Director: Gus Van Sant

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters Director: Paul Schrader

Naked Director: Mike Leigh

Olivier's Shakespeare ((Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III) Director: Laurence Olivier

Orphic Trilogy ("The Blood of a Poet," "Orpheus," "The Testament of Orpheus") Director: Jean Cocteau

The Passion of Joan of Arc Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Paths of Glory Director: Stanley Kubrick

Picnic at Hanging Rock Director: Peter Weir

Pierrot le Fou Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Rashomon Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Rules of the Game Director: Jean Renoir

Rushmore Director: Wes Anderson

Safe Director: Todd Haynes

Scenes From a Marriage Director: Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal Director: Ingmar Bergman

Solaris Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Tanner '88 Director: Robert Altman

This Is Spinal Tap Director: Rob Reiner

Three Colors: Blue White Red Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Throne of Blood Director: Akira Kurosawa

Videodrome Director: David Cronenberg

Walkabout Director: Nicolas Roeg

Yi Yi Director: Edward Yang

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Thomas Chapin

Great to see my old friend and colleague, dearly-departed saxophonist Thomas Chapin, getting some recognition. A film about him, which I haven't seen yet, is starting to gain some traction, which is heartening. When good people die too young (Thomas was just 40), it's their friends' responsibility to keep memory alive. Hence this posting.

Thomas and I played together in a zillion different bands in zillions of places, having spent the 90's happily embedded in a scene of comically flexible musicians whose typical work week might include a gypsy wake, an experimental puppet show, a lesbian drum circle, a chamber music gig, a Haitian dance party, and a big band performance.

Thomas and I took things one level further than most of the others. We were two of the only players at the time who spent as much time playing crazy avant-garde gigs at, say, The Knitting Factory, as we did playing more straight-ahead jazz in conventional jazz clubs and festivals. Those two circles scarcely intersected, as the avant-garde guys tended to be a bit wild and undisciplined, while the straight-ahead guys tended to be technical and narrow-minded.

Haiti to Mozart to puppets to lesbian drummers seemed reasonable, but the chasm between 1958-style African-American music and 1975-style African-American music was vast. I was a completely different musician on each side of that border, working with totally different pools of colleagues and unique musical challenges. The only common denominator, in fact, was Thomas!

These days, most good musicians can play anything. But back then, while a number players sort of dabbled at the two styles, very few approached both with serious commitment.

So while it wasn't uncommon to find ourselves screaming our heads off in our funky threads at some psychedelic brass band tribute to Jimi Hendrix, it would feel briefly strange when Thomas and I encountered each other in suit and tie (crazy haircuts well-concealed) playing gigs at the Apollo Theater or the Blue Note. Then we'd both remember that, oh yeah; of course, he does this, too! We were like two spies under deep cover bumping into each other out in the field.

Here's the link for the film again, if you want to buy the DVD, or donate (these guys have really been slogging to get the project done).

My work with Chowhound (and, even more so, with my new app, Eat Everywhere) obviously channeled the same credo of nimble-but-heartfelt culture surfing (promiscuity, if you will). In fact, Thomas enjoyed a great cross-cultural bite as much as I did. The chowhounding scene and the postmodern music scene are like identical cousins.

More on that here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Historian Consensus Circa 2117

Nixon: Should have burned the tapes.

Carter: Weak; paralyzed by minutiae.

George W Bush: Late to disengage from Cheney's enthrallment.

Obama: Deliberateness is noble; equivocation is not.

Trump: Campaigned to enhance brand and ego, never intended to win. Victory ensured punishment for lifelong criminality that otherwise would never have come to light.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Buying Tesla Stock

As I've previously reported, I've made a decent living trading Apple for years now. Its stock plunges always coincide with a sudden hailstorm of half-baked crappy little rumors and concerns, few significant and none existential. Eventually, the price settles at a low plateau, I buy, and, just as suddenly, celebration bells ring, everyone notices anew that Apple's still printing money, and the stock boisterously pops up to a new high. I make my 30% return (sometimes after waiting a year or more, but, great, that means low taxes on the long term gain). Rinse and repeat.

The process seems highly orchestrated, given that Apple itself never really flinches, despite the periodic hysterical freak-outs. Yet the shenanigans work every time, showing that people are remarkably oblivious to manipulation. It's not even subtle. The freak-out occurs at some random moment, when a few analysts and a phalanx of dodgy bloggers you've never heard of suddenly get super pessimistic about Apple. Journalists, who love nothing more than drama, jump on, and, without fail, the masses compliantly shift their sentiment and down goes the stock. Someone's hacked our trend-following faculties.

I see the same thing happening right now with Tesla, which is down 16% this week, 20% off its recent high. All of a sudden, a few people you've heard of - and tons of people you haven't - are super pessimistic. The stock price tumbles, and, voila: self-fulfilling prophecy. As with Apple, the rumors seem devised to bypass frontal lobes and go straight to the fearful amygdala. They appear important until you examine them.

Advance deposits for Tesla's upcoming Model 3 may be slipping.
Accent on "may be", as there's no way to actually know. Listen, the phenomenon of many people tying up a grand of their savings years in advance for a car they've never seen (much less test driven) was a display of breathtaking enthusiasm. A decrease in the number of such people doesn't spell doom for the model, it means customers are merely "thrilled and excited"....and only if this rumor is even true. And we don't know if it is. I myself am curious as hell about the Model 3, but I sure haven't laid out a whopping deposit!

Tesla's luxury models are selling merely adequately
Given that the much cheaper Model 3 is getting closer and closer, and zillions of other carmakers are moving into electric, the fact that the luxury models - which are very expensive - continue to sell ok is good news, not bad. Nobody in their right mind - including Elon Musk - imagined the luxury models would be increasing in sales at this point. Yet their failure to exceed projected sales is what precipitated this sell-off. Whuh?

Zillions of other carmakers are moving into electric
Yup. And if you think they'll produce anything close to Tesla's standards, at similar price and scale, with consistent and reliable results, right off the bat, you're nuts. Tesla isn't a scrappy little start-up about to see how the big boys do. Battery tech is hard, and they've been at it for a long while in a smart and well-funded way. Same for the advanced interface stuff (necessary in any modern car, but especially electric and increasingly autonomous vehicles).

Furthermore, Teslas have off-the-charts fahrvergnügen (driving pleasure) and coolness factor, and that's why car people go crazy for them. Volvo (which is going all electric), for example, will not challenge either. EV engine aside, Tesla's fun/coolness has been shaming all other carmakers, and those guys won't suddenly develop the secret sauce - and certainly not while also managing a tech transition Tesla's already completed.

If the competition's first (or even second) generation EVs manage to crush Tesla's established price, range, and quality, Tesla will indeed lose. If any of those parameters fall short (and they will), Tesla will remain the one to beat for a while. The millions of Tesla enthusiasts (many of whom, like me, can't afford a luxury Tesla, but drool over Model 3) will not lose their ardor if a Honda or a Volvo merely comes close. And even coming close will be tough...for now.

Tesla's still struggling to produce batteries en masse
This one is the ribbon of actual truth laced into the bullshit. But it's also a given. Battery production is hard, and Tesla's always struggled with scale and blown deadlines. Lofty as Tesla's stock price has been, production scale issues are priced in. No news here.

And, again, Musk's firm is not some scrappy little startup. If they can't get batteries made en masse on schedule, then I doubt anyone else can - at least not as cheaply, nor with as long a range ("range anxiety" is the all-important factor in all this). Tesla's been at this a long while, with great minds and resources, so I'm figuring some company won't blithely crash through this least not in the short term. And in the long term I expect Tesla, with their head start, to remain ahead of the pack for a while.

So: I'll wait for a plateau, and then buy some. But with a caveat.

The difference between Tesla and Apple is that Apple isn't going anywhere. With its obscene cash horde of $260 billion, it can weather utter catastrophe - several, in fact - and still be able to to easily swallow up, say, Starbucks and Boeing (yes, both!). No matter what, Apple won't, like, disappear, taking your investment with it. A giant metaphorical spring undergirds all its stock movement. The most successful company in history is not imperiled (heck, isn't even affected) by passing trends of manipulation and skittishness.

Tesla's a whole other game. There's no giant spring. But the current drama carries a familiar stench of manipulation. The entities hoping to crater this stock certainly intend to profit on the stock's recovery. So I'll just quietly, calmly ride along.

Finally, wherever I buy, the price will almost certainly sink lower - perhaps much lower ("buy low/sell high" should never be confused with "buy bottom/sell top", an impossible aim). And it may take quite a while before it recovers. And without the giant spring, that might be stressful. I'm patient, and appreciate the low tax rate of long term capital gains. But if I were someone who got anxious about on-paper losses, this would probably not be a good strategy for me.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

"World Peace"

A few years ago, I met a fellow whose thing was "World Peace". He announced this, and stood there, breathing and blinking. You peace! The whole thing irritated the living daylights out of me, but I couldn't find a convincing way to explain why.

I haven't seen the guy in years, but I've continued to think about this. And, finally, I have the answer. The next person who tells me they're devoted to World Peace, I'm going to walk right up to them - invading their space - raise my voice, and exclaim "World peace, huh?" I'll start jabbing him in the collar bone with my index finger, contemptuously asking "What does that mean, anyway, 'world peace'"?

More jabbing.

"Tell me about world peace!"

I'll start poking him in the forehead, at which point, he'll take a swing at me, or at least break into an open rage. And I'll take a step back, calmly grin, and say "Voila: world peace!" holding up my puny, pink little index finger for consideration.

If I get my jaw broken, so be it. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words fucking kill me.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Critical Dream Knowledge

I learned the following in a dream last night (it seemed so urgent that I used extreme force of will to remember it after awakening):

Mezzo sopranos will have a stillborn baby every sixth pregnancy.

Also: there are six scientific "flavors" of woman, four of which are "French," "Scotch-Irish," "Mezzo-Soprano," and "Puerto Rican". I could not learn the other two flavors - and it was driving me crazy all night trying to imagine how just two more could possibly categorize all the rest. But I finally decided it was like quarks, whose "flavors" are categorized with capricious adjectives ("up", "down", "strange", "charm", "top", and "bottom").

If so, "French," "Scotch-Irish," "Mezzo-Soprano," and "Puerto Rican" women may not literally be those things. A Sri Lankan might be, scientifically, "Puerto Rican" or "Mezzo Soprano."


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chowhound's 20th Anniversary

CBS told me they were planning a 20th Anniversary "celebration" of Chowhound, and asked me to reply to a list of very open-ended questions. They also promised to plug my app, Eat Everywhere. The result was this rather sad little throwaway (turn your volume off before clicking...the auto-play video ad is quite loud).

Anyhoo, as a treat for Slog readers, here's my full set of answers, which I hope offers a thoughtful and fitting look back at something launched on a whim as an ad-hoc little side project ("a three hour tour....").

How did you come up with the idea of creating Chowhound?
I'd attracted a following as a restaurant critic, and felt under increasing pressure to act like an “expert.” Ick. I was never comfortable with the notion that my taste buds are more significant than anyone else’s.

I knew loads of people who knew as much as I did about food, and who had great taste. I do have a special knack for treasure hunting, and for writing evocatively, and I was glad more and more people were enjoying my reports in various publications. But the “expert” thing felt creepy and dishonest (I wrote more about this here).

After gradually working my way up the NYC restaurant critic ladder, I got a call from The NY Daily News, which, at the time, was the highest-circulation paper in America. They were looking for someone to take over their restaurant review column. After a series of meetings and interviews, I was finally called into the editor’s office and told I had the job. I asked about pay, and was told that for two pieces per week, plus an occasional longer feature, I'd get $250/week. In a state of shock, I managed to croak out a question about food expenses, and they said I could take care of that out of my $250/week.

The scales instantly fell from my eyes. I understood the game was strictly about vanity (which explained a lot of the lazy food writing at the time). I liked eating well and writing well, period. I wanted to evangelize treasure and tempt folks to stop settling for mediocrity, but felt no urge to puff myself up. The solution came to me immediately.

A network of avid eaters would be way more useful than any one gilded palate, so I'd gather kindred spirits online in an atmosphere filled with zest and personality - as opposed to dry user-rating services like Zagat. And I'd make it flatly horizontal, not hierarchical. I'd been moderating online forums for years as a hobby, so the whole thing came pretty naturally.

I suppose I was the Gorbachev of restaurant critics, working tirelessly to ensure my own obsolescence.
What are your top 3 favorite threads in Chowhound?
Ha. I never looked at it that way. Let me try to explain...

Many users are naturally drawn to the prolific, confident writers - the food critic wannabes. Some of these posters are/were terrific, and many of us, including me, learned a great deal from them. They were always very welcome!

But the stuff I most appreciated was posted by random posters who'd occasionally drop an awesome tip into the mix. They weren't looking for cred. Some had trouble crafting a coherent sentence. But they'd quietly, modestly make it understood that they knew their stuff - had tried every tamal in Queens - and were sharing hard-won solid gold. The poster named "Fedex Guy", for example, was actually my Fedex guy! His tips were always on the money, even if his spelling was a little dodgy. He'd been chowhounding on his delivery route for years.

I often felt like I was the only one paying attention to some of these people. And they were the ones that came to mind whenever I questioned my commitment to keep the lights on.

I'll say one thing, though. I've spent the past two years building an ambitious cuisine app, and whenever I Googled some super-obscure culinary question, I'd inevitably stumble upon some amazing Chowhound thread offering the definite word on the topic. I didn't always have time to read much of the site back in the day, but I'm constantly discovering, even now, how phenomenally useful this data trove is. Years later, there's still nothing like it.
What are your most fond experiences with the community?
I loved seeing great places - which otherwise would have been ignored - thrive and prosper thanks to chowhound support and evangelization.

Everyone assumes that cream floats - that great stuff eventually gets discovered and praised. But that's not true at all! Treasure withers from disinterest all the time. It kills me when greatness fails. It's such a dangerous precedent.

I'm proud that our community has elevated so much treasure. We've done an awful lot to encourage the good guys, and to help make quality profitable.
How many Chowdowns have you organized and how many have you participated in?
None! I was too busy running this beast to gallavant with the crowd! Also, I needed to maintain food critic anonymity. The community arranged and enjoyed them on their own.

Hey, the cook back in the kitchen rarely enjoys the front-of-the-house conviviality. But the chowdowns sure sounded like fun!
Who designed the original logo? Was it based on a dog you own?
Cecilia Lehar designed it. We went through a ton of drafts, trying to ensure the dog didn't look scary, or sloppy. He needed a happy, eagerly-loopy, bon vivant flair, which was hard to achieve. Can you see the cocktail glass in his nose? :)
Could you explain the mystery behind the dog mask?
As a restaurant critic, I needed to retain anonymity. This made it difficult to appear on TV. I was on a program featuring a roundtable discussion with two other critics (one of whom was Ruth Reichl), and the producers offered to provide a disguise. They handed me an awesome dog mask, and let me keep it. I wore it to all public events (e.g. this book signing). About a week after I left the operation, I found it in a box that had been resting on a radiator. It had melted into a pile of gloop.
Have you ever imagined that Chowhound would be around for this long?
Absolutely not. My business partner Bob(TM) and I had planned on five years, tops. It was a fun kooky project, never intended to blow up so large or to last so long. Whenever I hear site users complain about this or that issue, I often have trouble getting my dander up. To me, the fact that Chowhound even still exists is a miracle. How many web sites from 1997 are still out there, serving their original mission?
In your words, what defines a Chowhound?
In the old days, we made all new arrivals to the site read through a text-filled front page, explaining all that. It was designed to filter out the trendies!

*Everyone has one in his or her life: the brother-in-law with a collection of 800 takeout menus, the coworker who's always late from lunch because she HAD to trek to one end of town for the best soup and to the other for the best sandwich. Chowhounds know where the good stuff is, and they never settle for less than optimal deliciousness, whether dining in splanky splendor or grabbing a quick slice of pizza. They are the one in ten who live to eat.*

*We're not talking about foodies. Foodies eat where they're told; they eagerly follow trends and rarely go where Zagat hasn't gone before. Chowhounds, on the other hand, blaze trails, combing gleefully through neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure. They despise hype, and while they appreciate refined ambiance and service, they can't be fooled by mere flash.*

*No media outlets serve chowhounds. There are no chowhoundish newspapers, magazines or TV shows. And they've never had a place to gather and exchange information. This discerning, passionate crowd has long been completely invisible and utterly disenfranchised.......until now!*

*'s Alpha Dog, professional restaurant critic/author Jim Leff, along with Bob Okumura, launched this site to provide a non-hypey haven where their fellow hounds can opine, bicker, and rave to their hearts' content. Anyone who eats is welcome to stop by for unbiased, savvy chow advice or to just sit back and watch in amazement.*

*If you, too, fret endlessly about making every bite count; if you'd grow weak from hunger rather than willingly eat something less than delicious, this place is for you! Welcome to our community. Let's talk. Let's swap tips (click below to get to the meat & potatoes).*

Also....this article, "A Tale of Two Chowhounds", which has been republished many times, was a foundational document.
What would you like to say to the members who’ve been in Chowhound since the beginning?
Check out the cookies from these guys. They're the best I ever had. My favorite flavor is toffee, not listed on their site. Try to score a special order!
What have you been doing since you stopped running Chowhound?
I went on a long binge of exercise, yoga, and meditation. I also learned to cook healthily. Then I got my trombone technique back again (I started out as a professional musician, but hadn't played a note in years, being so busy running the site!). Then I got involved in a few kookie and rewarding projects (intentionally) off public radar. And wrote a Slog, which continues to this day.

For the past two years, I've been working - with a team of chowhounds - on a magnum opus: "Eat Everywhere", a iPhone/Android app that serves as an on-the-fly guide in restaurants of any cuisine. It's like the hitchhiker's guide to the food universe (John Thorne calls it "an impressively designed and wickedly ingenious app. Endlessly useful, surprisingly entertaining, and highly addictive....the distillation of a lifetime of adventurous eating").

If you're a newbie, it will make you fearless about approaching any immigrant restaurant at home (or foreign eateries while traveling), and confident about copping a fantastic meal. If you're already expert, it's the cheat sheet you've always dreamed of.

Everyone knows about samosas and pad Thai. But there are equally killer things in every cuisine. This mines all the best treasure. Really, I should have done this before starting Chowhound. You've got to know what to eat (and how to eat it) before you worry about where to eat!
How are you going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chowhound?
I'll be doing what I did for 20 years before Chowhound, and for the 20 years since: trying to maximize my deliciousness. I'll be out there searching for the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who aim for more than maximal profit from minimal effort. It's what I do! For a few years there, people paid some attention, but that was never a goal. I'm just a guy who really, really enjoys chowhounding!

Here's my Slog posting from Chowhound's 15th anniversary.

Here is the first installment of the epic tale of the selling of ("Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out").

Here are all Slog postings tagged "Chowhound".

Monday, June 26, 2017

The New Health Insurance Bill

Many of us were exasperated by the right's willful incomprehension during the Obamacare debate. Their over-simplified and ignorant objections were expressed via ridiculous hyperbolic slogans designed to shamelessly rile up their base. "Death panels!" and all that b.s....

So what about this new healthcare bill? It's an abomination, right? You know for a fact that it will leave huge numbers uninsured, and "millions will die" (TM)?

If so, how do you know this? Did you read the bill (I sure didn't)? And are you expert in the arcane details of health policy (lord knows I'm not)? If not, then where does that certainty stem from? The answer, as always in recent American politics, is a potent cocktail of confirmation bias and tribalism.

Let me ask you this: if a nerdy, well-respected conservative health insurance wonk (who earnestly wants to see people well-covered, and doesn't just want to apply a wrecking ball to all things good and just) believed the new bill was an absolute gem, and questions the assumptions behind the CBO's projection of millions of uninsured, and thinks the pools will be made diverse even without a mandate compelling healthy people to buy insurance (so it's not just expensive sick people), would you want to entertain his thoughts? Even if it requires effort, because this stuff is complicated, while the hyperbolic slogans go down a lot easier? Is it possible we've been guilty of the same ignorance, over-simplification, and crazy doom peddling ala anti-Obamacare "death panel" hysteria?

Me? I'm very skeptical of the bill. But I refuse to mindlessly parrot the outrage, because I'm not so Dunning–Krugered up to imagine I understand this realm of policy and can know for certain how this will play out. And I'm not confirmation-biased up to the point where I trust the people screaming on my teevee set. And I'm nowhere near tribal enough to trust the mob parroting the people screaming on my teevee set.

The bill may be an abomination...or it may be "the greatest policy achievement by a GOP Congress in my lifetime," as Avik Roy claims (same link as above). But if you're waving pitchforks after heeding only one set of experts - your tribal elders - what's the difference between you and the pro-Tumpers in their Foxbart bubble?

More from Avik Roy (who I don't find likable, and whose assumptions I don't often share): his Twitter feed, and a recent podcast debate.

If you intend to leave a rage-filled comment, please first verify that you've personally read the bill. Calm opinions, however uninformed, are always welcome, but borrowed, rebroadcasted* outrage is a disease, and I'm highly resistant.

* - When I was in fourth grade there was a presidential election, and my classmates mindlessly parroted their parent's political views. We were too young to understand any issues, but everyone was totally wound up and sanctimonious. I grokked what was happening, but what I didn't understand was that our parents, themselves, were parroting.

It's all entirely tribal. It's always been entirely tribal. Actual policy barely even matters - look how the right effortlessly flipped to champion a candidate who campaigned with a profoundly non-conservative nationalist/populist agenda! It's not about policy, it's about tribal grievance. We obediently parrot our tribal leaders, be they parents, TV pundits, writers, etc., delighting in the pre-masticated, ridiculously simplified talking points with which they inoculate us. Both sides (and me, too) are poorly informed, but willful in our ignorance and unwavering in our intellectual self-confidence.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Best North Indian I've Ever Found in NYC

Nawab (2 Hudson St, Yonkers; 914-909-9700) makes the best North Indian (they're actually Pakistani) food I've ever had anywhere. They're even better than Jackson Diner during its heyday, before it moved to its present location (and went way, way downhill).

The cooking is brilliant, and the clientele gives the impression of driving quite far to eat here (it's worth a ride from most anywhere....note that you can take Metro North from Manhattan). It's on a dodgy back street in downtown Yonkers, but they charge a respectable price (as well they should), with entrees $15-20.

Sunday buffet lunch is the time to go. This is a rare chef who actually thrives on buffets; puts his heart into them, and changes them up every week. Even better, though you just missed it, is the break-fast buffet at sundown during Ramadan (features way more dishes than the Sunday buffet).

But best of all is their feast for Eid al-Fitr, commemorating the end of Ramadan. Management also owns a Kubrickian ballroom, seemingly from the 1920's, right behind the restaurant, and once a year they present a dizzying array of steam table offerings there, along with live music. It's something to behold. This year, it will be served Sunday from 1:30 through to evening. Sorry for the short notice. But if you miss it, worry not. Just go and eat any time. It's revelatory. If you need to bone up on the cuisine, we cover North Indian thoroughly in my app, Eat Everywhere.

Here is Nawab's home page (with menu). Here is Nawab's Facebook page.

The Best Mexican I Ever Found in NYC

Cienaga Grocery And Deli (10432 Corona Ave, Corona; 347-353-2366) is the best Mexican I've ever found in the five boroughs.

Understand that I don't make this claim lightly. I'm deeply dialed into Mexican food, and I don't even bother with most of the known names. I only hit up a few obscure secret holes in walls (Sin Dulce in Yonkers and Port Chester, is atop my list right now). So this doesn't blow away some Yelp-raved West Village place. It blows away the good places!

They're a short walk from another contender, Tortilleria Nixtamal (104-05 47th Ave, Corona), which many of you know. But the food's in an entirely different league.

They're Oaxacan! A whole other state, and a whole other cuisine, from the south of Mexico (this cuisine is, of course, covered in my app, Eat Everywhere, if you're unfamiliar).

Like nearly every nabe-facing (as opposed to gringo-foodie-facing) Oaxacan restaurant in this country, they offer a lot of standard items (tacos, sopes, barbacoa, al pastor - none of which are really Oaxacan....also, grimace, burritos, mentioned as inconspicuously on the menu as possible), but all made, it seems, with a Oaxacan touch (understand I'm extrapolating here....I have not explored the menu yet). And they make ultra-hard-to-find tlayudas and tlacoyos! Plus, a holy grail of mine, panbazos. But I didn't order any of those things.

I spotted a pan full of thick sauce and nuggets of meat, and ordered it on impulse. The sauce was a magical concoction of very smokey chiles (not chipotles, I don't believe) and cumin, and it nearly made me faint. The chicken was just brilliant - not dried out, not generic protein, but some of the best on-bone chicken chunks you'll have this year. That never happens!

It was served with meticulously moist, soulful rice, and correct black beans. Don't expect Cuban style just because they're black - no oregano, no onion, these are more homely and grounded, prepared like northern states make (non-refried) pintos. Earthy, not jazzy.

Along with this, the best horchata I've ever had north of the border (check out the residue in the bottom of my cup).

The tortillas are super high quality but, strangely, not from Nixtamal 1/4 mile away. They make them themselves, and they're super.

Service is kind, but tersely diffident. Not much opportunity to ask questions. And don't expect to see an array of show-offish mole dishes. One homey special is offered per day (like the one I had), and it will have sauce which may or may not be a formal Oaxacan mole. Remember, for these guys, molé's just food, not a whole romantic to-do. I will, however, do whatever's necessary to find, cajole, or special order tamales with black mole (might have to wait for a holiday).

See menu shots below.

Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault

Chew on this little-noticed excerpt for a moment:
"By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Left's Immigration Extremism

Last year, I wrote (in response to liberal indignation at the term "illegal", and perspective toward undocumented immigrants, generally):
On most political issues, I’m a moderate/centrist. But when it comes to immigration, I am one-sided: pro-immigrant in every respect and exuberantly xenophilic. If my views and expression nonetheless put me beneath-the-pale in the view of the American Left, it means the American Left has gone Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, straight into Crazytown on this issue. And I believe that’s had very bad repercussions, as extremism always does. At least some of the current extremism on the right is surely reciprocal. That's how it works: extremism begets extremism...
This new Atlantic article makes the same point. It's an important one. It explains why the nativist rhetoric on the Right is not all necessarily ugly (though I strongly disagree with it).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Southwest by South Trip Installment #3

Installment #1
Installment #2

I'd hit the "hyperspace" button during my Dallas/Austin trip, driving, impulsively, nearly 400 miles eastward to check out a hillbilly Italian area of Arkansas, all on the basis of a single photo I'd seen in a magazine. Here's that photo once again:

Upon arrival in Lake Village, Arkansas, I'd eaten a memorable meal - Italian-influenced, per the spaghetti and fish-on-Friday - at Rhoda's Hot Tamales and Pie. And it was time to hunt down Regina's pasta shop.

It was a tough find. Their Facebook page places them at a major intersection, but they're actually a couple miles away. Finally, I took the route of masculine surrender and called for instructions. The proprietor, with her Granny Clampett accent, confessed she was poor at directions, so she passed me to her husband, who I assumed to be a poor mountaineer named Jed (one can only imagine what I sounded like to them!). Upon arrival, I encountered two faces out of a Boticelli painting; faces just like the ones from my childhood Italian neighborhood in Long Island. I fought the impulse to greet them with my customary "Yeah, how yoo dooin'?"

They do, indeed, operate out of this impossibly backwoods-ish shack (actually, it's perched on a lake), but, surveying their wares, it seemed similar to what you'd find in an Italian grocery in, say, Maine or Minnesota. And, really, why wouldn't it? Hey, I get over-excited sometimes. I guess I was hoping for possum parmigiana.

Anyway, they'd stopped serving lunch (their only meal), and I'd need to wait until tomorrow for any sort of food service.

Now what? Well, the last thing I was going to do was to tell them my story and ask for an exception. First, I just don't do that. I want the real experience. Second, I had no rapport with them whatsoever. Third, I'd seem stark raving bonkers. And, fourth, as a stalling tactic while I regrouped, I'd spun around to examine the little bags of homemade cookies at the back of the shop. And my inner baked goods geiger counter didn't so much as beep.

I recognized those slapdash chocolate chip M&M cookies. I'd grown up with them.

There's something about Italians and Jews. As we assimilate, we unravel, culinarily. The second-generation Italian and Jewish moms on my block back in Long Island all talked a good game, but used crap ingredients, and cooked distractedly and unhappily, with cigarettes dangling from their pursed lips. They didn't give an actual damn about food, and it tasted like it. They produced xerox copies of traditional dishes, as did all the restaurants nearby. In fact, it's the same for virtually every Italian-American restaurant (and certainly every Jewish deli) these days.

The restaurant and home cooking were great back when the first generation was in charge, with deep old-world roots. Today, nobody cooks like grandma did. While the offspring have done well - lots of doctors and lawyers - it's come at a cost. Our cooking is soulless. When assimilated Italians and Jews do cook well, it's in spite of our ethnicity, not because of it.

Those blasé cookies spoke volumes, revealing that it's the same in Arkansas as in Long Island. So while I still would have ordered lunch if it were available (though I was stuffed from Rhoda's), I decided it wasn't worth waiting a day for. I also knew, from my initial survey, that there wouldn't be other finds to find in the area. So I purchased a bag of cookies, thanked the owner, marched dutifully out to my car, and started driving back west.

The normal thing would have been to act out in some bombastic manner. But I'd just eaten that incredible cornbread and pie. And I'd seen things and met people and learned things. And I still had ten hours more adventuring ahead (I'd forgotten to do the mileage math re: the return leg to Austin, which, due to some space/time wrinkle, is much further from Lake Village than Dallas, though Austin and Dallas are not so distant from each other)...which felt like nothing but swell opportunity. I'd had great experiences, and more would surely follow.

As I cheerfully pulled out of the parking area - biting into a cookie, which confirmed my suspicions - I decided to make a brief foray over a nearby bridge into Mississippi, where I enjoyed a glass of saison at a wildly out-of-place craft beer store/bar/homebrew equipment shop (Delta Brewing; 631 Washington Ave, Greenville). The proprietors enjoy cheap, if any, rent in a storefront in the once-sparkling burnt-out downtown. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to adjust to the languor of Mississippi, which, per usual, I mistook for stand-offishness.

Hoping to avoid any sense of stalling out, I once again poked the hyperspace button, riding like the wind along a more southerly route, not stopping until I spotted Cormier's Cajun Catering (1205 Forsythe Ave, Monroe, LA), where I had the exuberant feeling of stepping out of a spaceship into a whole different world:

Cajun people were eating under a permanent tent in a parking lot! Isn't driving amazing???

A portrait in beige! Excellent boudin, good crawfish étouffée, plus a side mound of jambalaya (my waitress applauded my ordermanship). And I finally solved a deep mystery. There's something serious jambalaya always reminds me of, which I can never quite name. It's North Indian biryani! Just that connection alone (scratching a decades-long itch) was worth the trip to me.

I stayed over in Shreveport (birthplace of humidity), and, the following day, made an impulsive visit to Gators & Friends (11441 US HWY 80, Greenwood, LA), an alligator park where I zip-lined over hungry crocodilians (who gathered eagerly below us, making me wonder what precedent they'd witnessed).

Here's feeding time:

My quick lunch at nearby El Guapo (9414 Greenwood Rd, Greenwood, LA) turned out to be the very archetype of Tex-Mex:

....reminding me that sometimes you need to go just over the border - this was five miles from Texas - to experience the platonic form of a thing (e.g. that prototypically Texan bar just over the Arkansas border).

Look. A shaky premise is perfectly fine to hang an adventure on, because premises are just excuses. They're abstractions, not real. We only pretend to pursue a premise, and when we get lost in that pretending, it can needlessly spoil a perfectly good adventure. I'd scored brilliant Texas barbecue, Rhoda's cornbread and pie, serious Cajun, three massive cultural jumps, gators, zip lines, eurekas, socio-economic eye-openings, and terrific stories, all inside 24 hours (plus, the day before, Yall's). Tell me this was failure!

If you wallow dramatically over things gone "wrong", you'll likely miss the chance to relish the next thing. In the long run, nothing ever goes wrong! 99% of mourning is needless meta-mourning; we mostly rue our ruing. Opt out of drama, and it's all just stuff - fun (and sometimes harrowing) movies. We're free!

Next time, a rant about Austin's hipster food culture.

Here's how I finally decided whether to stick around for the next day's lunch. I used an intuition trick I'd developed as an eight year old (I was a much savvier kid than I am a grown-up; here's a series of wise reminders I left for my future idiotic adult self): I imagined myself after lunch the next day, driving back to Texas, in two versions: satisfied and disappointed. And I weighed which version looked truer.

Finally....for the ultimate tale of redemption from a food adventuring dead end, read "The Greatest Chowhounding Story Ever Told".

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Southwest by South Trip Installment #2

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I read this article in The Economist about hillbilly Italians in Arkansas, and was captivated by this photo:

I immediately started plotting ways to get there, and remembered my Dallas trip was coming up. After hitting the maps, I discovered that Lake Village, Arkansas is a mere six hour drive from Dallas.

A six hour trip on a whim? You bet! What makes me me is that I act on impulses. I track down tips, and don't sit on them forever. I generally do stuff (anyone with a predilection for depression would do well to always choose action in any given circumstance). Nearly everything good that ever happened to me came as the result of what others might describe as impulsiveness.

I always take country roads in the South (and in Texas, particularly) rather than highways. You can still go 70 or 75 mph - in fact, there's less enforcement than on highways - but you get to experience actual life and scenery. So much better!

That's what I did, and eventually passed through Tyler, TX, where I got uncommonly lucky in a rural part of town with a Yelp search that sniffed out Yall's BBQ and Produce, a fun, funny, multiracial operation that appears to serve pretty much only the surrounding half mile or so. I told them I'm from another galaxy, which cracked them up.

They do real home-cooking, such as Tater Tot casserole and an array of shrink-wrapped, home-baked experimental pastries, heavy on various chips (choc, peanut butter, butterscotch, etc). They offer free tastes of everything they make (!), and the casserole was unfancy (understatement), but brilliantly balanced. And while they offered some straight barbecue choices, this is a place that mostly commoditizes it's 'que - it's ingredient fodder rather than fancy rosy-ringed fetish meat.

I never order barbecue solo in a place that mostly uses it as an ingredient, and, in any case, the owner steered me firmly toward a Texas-sized "Texas Spud" which I still don't completely understand.

An abnormally gigantic potato is violently flattened in the styrofoam, whereupon slatherings of cream and sweet sauce and chunks of barbecued beef are applied, with a few surprises strewn under the drapes of Stuff. It was great, though definitely "eating" food rather than "tasting" food.

I was asked whether they play the TV commercial up north where the guy exclaims "New Yorkers? Somebody get me a rope!", and I giggled (it was asked good-heartedly). I said no, but that I never met a Texan I wouldn't want to spend a few days drinking beer and hanging out with....and that Texan tourists in New York always appear to be awfully happy, as well. She asked whether people back home feel superior to folks with country accents, and I told her that you need to be an idiot to feel superior to anybody - so fools who think that way are just demonstrating their inferiority.

That earned me a free soda, a free gumball, and a loyalty card ("Even if you come back years from now, we'll still honor it"), and I was processed through to the back yard where hubby was manning the bbq pit while his crew of shy, kind-eyed, terrifyingly built pals sat around sipping soda. More good-natured cross-chasm banter ensued, though I didn't get to use my prepared line about Trump ("If he makes things great again, I'm all for it. I'm just not sure I trust that billionaire dude to act in our interest. As I see it, you and I are on the exact same side, but it remains to be seen whose side he's really on").

The potato thingee was great, though squadrons of hornets kept dive-bombing my Dr. Pepper. It was a memorable half hour, and I miss Yall's already. Look at all the love they've put into the place:

In Texarkana, I had some fancy rosy-ringed fetish meat at award-winning Naamans BBQ (their brand new "Hot Spot" at 5764 Hwy 59 S). Super-good brisket:

...and the sweet tea was primo, too (when the simple parameters are perfectly in synch, this stuff is like nectar of the gods). I was right on the Texas/Arkansas line, and, disoriented, I asked which state we were in. Note: this is not a polite question to ask. My incensed counterwoman let me know that this was Texas, that she's Texan, and that she doesn't know anything at all about any Arkansas.

I crashed in Texarkana, where I stumbled into Fat Jacks Oyster & Sports Bar (3324 N State Line Ave), my very first really cinematic and unself-conscious Texan bar - the kind you see in movies (see photos here).

I should have ordered a Lone Star, but, instead, I was a prick and got a Shiner IPA (non-horrible). I unconsciously swirled the bottle a little before sipping, and studied the flavor with a brief but perceptible wine snob aroma suck, and I immediately noticed that one dude had seen this, and, quite rightly, was grinding his teeth with barely constrained malevolence. My bad. Happy people, and a great scene with great vibes. Texans really know how to live (but...woops, this was just over the line in Arkansas. But still!).

In Arkansas, I drove through a procession of burnt-out, calamitous small town main streets, each of which had obviously been middle-class shiny/prosperous in 1965. This wasn't grinding static poverty; it was precipitous decay, ala Detroit. America is not doing great. It's Detroit most everywhere.

Finally I arrived at Lake Village, Arkansas, on the Arkansas/Mississippi border, where I passed the irresistible exterior of Rhoda's Hot Tamales and Pie (714 Saint Mary St)....

...and met Rhoda and her husband:

Note that I've stolen the above two photos from Jamie H. and Nolen G. (all other photos are mine).

Remember: this is an Italian area (though Rhoda and her beau are clearly not Italian). And it's Friday. This explains the fried fish, as well as the spaghetti.

The fish was masterful, of course, though not hot/fresh. The spaghetti was homely and soulful, though I don't need to tell you "al dente" was not a goal. But let's talk about that cornbread.

I noted in the previous installment that good soul food is light, not heavy - a miracle, considering the ingredients and cooking methods are all heavy. This titanically scrumptious corn bread was beyond light. It never actually touched any portion of my mouth. It existed in an entirely other plane, and I have nothing else to say. It ranks along with the Oaxacan Medusa Gruel as one of the most remarkable, mysterious things I've ever eaten.

The hot tamales broke my brain. I expected copious cumin and hot pepper, but we were a bit too far east for that. I have no memory of anything but eating like a crazed animal, and nearly blacking out at several points from the deep primal joy.

Rhoda also makes pie: sweet potato, pecan, or a half-and-half pie with both. I got a shot of this mini-pecan, not very different from any other really great pecan pie you've tasted, but a bit less obtrusive in its sweetness, a bit longer in its finish, and a bit perfecter in its balance. The sweet potato pie filling wasn't quite smooth; the micro-chunks seem to have been created via some advanced laser lathing system, achieving a precise, ideal diversity of texture.

No Trump discussion here, as no one in the restaurant could understand a single word I said (don't they hear Yankees in movies and TV?). Seriously, I had to pantomime, as if I was in Burma. Rhoda did eventually come to understand that I was from New York, and expressed her sympathies for 9/11, which I appreciated. There was a brief sad moment, which was as much as we were able to share (I didn't try to discuss astral planes or laser lathing).

After much mapping and phoning for help, I finally managed to locate the mythical Regina's Pasta Shop, but I'll save that shaggy dog outcome for next time.

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