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 spice-wise...an 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 this...stuff....in 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.

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