Thursday, July 31, 2008

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #8

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I am having a bad day with my new hearing apparatus. I hear loudly all the sounds I really don't want to hear like my flip flops flapping........what I want to hear I can't seem to make out. I can't even hear some speech because the external noisy sounds are so loud...I will just have to bear with it and keep using it although I do take it off a lot just to get a breather from all the noise.

Continue to Report #9

Knol: So The Pushiest Loudmouths Don't Always Win

Google recently introduced Knol, a project many observers deem directly competitive with Wikipedia. Read the announcement for a very concise explanation of what Knol's about.

I was once an active Wikipedia editor (as Slog readers might guess, rarely on food topics), and frequently I'd do an edit, and find, the next day, that the original author had changed it back. Sometimes I'd gingerly redo my edit, nuancing it a bit to be more acceptable to the author and inserting a note in the articles "talk" page. Inevitably, it'd be hastily reversed again, with nary a reply to my note.

My recourse at that point was to launch a full-out war, or make a fuss, or present a case to the powers that be for the veracity of my point. I never did any of these things, because while I'm passionate about my points, I got out of the habit around age eight or so of needing to try to "win" every argument. I'd let the original authors have their way.

Needless to say, that sort of restraint is unheard of with some people. During my years (ack, decades) of running Chowhound and other online communities, I've been dismayed to observe a very powerful dynamic: the pushy loudmouths always win. They scramble to the top of the hill, start shouting, and relentlessly push back down the hill all non-like-minded comers. And here's the big problem: the comers are rarely as relentless as the pushers. They tend to cede the turf. Reasonable people, alas, behave reasonably. So the pushiest and most intolerant loudmouths always win, because they are inherently less accommodating than their opposition. We've seen this dynamic in reality tv shows, online communities, kindergarten, American politics, and, for sure, on Wikipedia, which is like cyberchocolate to the uncompromising loudmouth.

Two bedrock policies at Wikipedia make it so: first, everyone's effectively anonymous (and many are completely so), and as we all know from driving, people act their very worst in an anonymous public flow. And, second, the Wikipedia credo involves a very low degree of moderation (though it's ratcheted up a bit over the years), and, as any Somali (or Usenet discussion participant) will tell you, anarchy is not a felicitous condition for human communities - though, like Communism, it sounds great on paper. The big difference of Knol is that it changes both those variables.

To be sure, Knol allows the pushy loudmouths their place in the sun (as if they could easily be deflected!). They get to make their points AND to get credit - and that sort loves credit. But it also allows the rest of us a chance to pitch in without having to don battle gear. And it allows us to collaborate with each other a little more sensitively. The result, if Google plays it right, and if it unfolds optimally (i.e. not as a vast delta of individually-authored parallel articles on any given topic), will be a bifold resource, consisting of a toxic collection of the minor fiefdoms of loudmouthed crackpots (some of them good, and they'll "float" up to visibility), and a much larger collaborative part resembling Wikipedia, only without the loudmouthed crackpots, and benefitting from the higher quality that results from sensitive gardening (i.e. moderation) the greater degree of individual responsibility that comes from naming names.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #7

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

Today the audiologist "beefed up" the programs, so now I start at the first step again and work up to the third (each step brings more sonic variety). We also figured a way to keep the processor from falling off my head when I do yoga..a mold was made of my ear so we can attach the processor from inside, like a regular hearing aid. I have also been using a stretchy headband to keep it on. It looks kind of dorky look but it works.

Continue to Report #8

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

God As Dude

Much of atheism amounts to a straw man argument decrying the absurdity of the notion of some higher-powered dude sitting on a cloud. Who, aside from pinheads and atheists, thinks any such thing, anyhow?

On the heels of the success of abrasive books such as Christopher Hitchen's God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a film called Religulous, starring Bill Maher, is about to be released. I just saw a trailer, and it seems to aspire to new levels of smugly ignorant intolerance.

I loved the following letter, written to the editors of WIRED Magazine in response to an article about the neo-Atheist movement:
Gary Wolf describes the disdain that the New Atheists have for believers. One could argue that religious fervor has caused more grief than any other motivator (see the Crusades, the Inquisition, ongoing Middle East unrest). But the root cause of such strife is not belief in God – it’s intolerance of the beliefs of others. The conviction that one’s chosen religion is the only path to salvation and that other religions are populated with infidels deserving of conversion or slaughter is at the crux of almost every struggle on the planet today. Sadly, since atheists exhibit the same dismissive intolerance, they are no different from or better than any of these groups. -- Phil Hegedusich (Clarence, New York)
The past few decades have seen a groundswell of religiousness worldwide, some of it bombastically extreme. And history always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #6

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I finally thought of the perfect description of how speech sounds: it's like Alvin and the chipmunks, only you can't quite make out what they are saying! It's a bit too fast for me to make out the individual sounds yet...but I think it will be spectacular when I finally catch up.

I tried to listen to the radio in my car and the music sounded very electronic. The bass line sounded "normal", but there was a higher pitched "tinkling" over the top. It sounded quite weird, but, strangely, I liked listening to it.

Continue to Report #7

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976

In a previous Slog entry I mentioned the superb Abstract Expressionism show running through September 21 at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, and the terrific and craved-after catalog accompanying the show. Amazon is now carrying the hardcover version at steep discount: $40.95, much better than the museum's price of $65.

At this price, the book, full of interesting text and some excellent reproductions (a number of paintings don't lend themselves to reproduction, alas), is a steal. If you have any interest at all in Abstract Expressionism (those less familiar can read my above-linked entry for a sense of what goes on within all those spatters and squiggles), you must own this book.

If you make it to the show, don't miss Joan Mitchell's devastatingly beautiful painting on the second floor. I like her as much as I do Milton Resnick. Look for the luscious, erotic, ecstatic blur of indigo just above center. It may be my single favorite brushstroke of all time.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #5

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I am happy about my ability to hear speech so much better even though it still sounds tinny and electronic. The other side of the coin is that I am being driven nuts by the constant warbles, bells, tings and other constant noises in my ear...even things like the ticking of a clock, but it's too slow to be a clock, and I don't know what it is! I don't have anyone here to identify the noises.. you can imagine. I am trying to keep wearing the implants so my brain will hopefully move on with all that.

Continue to Report #6

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fake Steve Jobs/Real Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons, former Forbes tech-biz hack and soon-to-be Newsweek star (replacing Steven Levy), was the creator of the superb Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. His shtick was to thoroughly channel Jobs, and the result was chokingly amusing but also yielded some superb insights into the tech and business scene. If you've never read it, definitely surf through the "best of" postings linked on the bottom right of the front page.

Lyons has put Fake Steve on hiatus, and launched a new blog under his own name,
Real Dan Lyons. Starting with his first 7/27 posting, he's been doing an insightful and hilarious job of dissecting Apple's bizarre handling of the Steve-is-Sick scare. Lyons correctly predicted that Apple's stock price would stumble this morning, even after the "ambush" move with the NY Times intended to boost confidence.

Even if you don't care much about Jobs or Apple, it's worth a read for insight into how media works. Actually,
this Fake Steve posting set the standard for that.

Chowhounding St. Paul

This is from a while ago, but few people seem to have heard it: I suggested to Dean Olsher, host of public radio's "Next Big Thing", that he have me talk him through the ropes of chowhounding while on the road in Minnesota. We recorded the whole adventure (a nightmare for Dean, needing to hold a cellphone in one hand and a recorder in the other), and it worked out so ridiculously well that it's impossible to believe it wasn't a set-up.

I wish I had the raw 90 minute tape for you to hear, to show the actual mechanisms that got Dean to a memorable meal, shared with a table full of strangers met along the way (I invited them by having Dean pass them his cellphone). It would also show that I actually breathe and pause (Dean and his staff were fond of editing me to enhance the cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs persona they had in mind for me). But this is all we've got. Listen here.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #4

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

I love my implants. It's only the fourth day, but I am able to hear people speak so much more easily now. I still read lips because my brain has not been able to decipher the sounds very well yet*, but there is such a beautiful clarity to it...even with the strange quacking sound there is a beautiful bell-like claity. I hear consonants so much better now, the soft sounds of 's' and 'sh'.

I have been enjoying it but it is still work for my brain and I am surprised at how tired I have been these past few days.

* - my bet is that Priscilla will continue to read lips, regardless of how much her hearing improves, for the exact same reason the Benny Lava lyrics seem to match the Hindi vocalizations even for Hindi-speakers (as I predicted in my Slog entry, and was confirmed by one of the commenters). The visual element is irresistible.

Continue to Report #5

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #3

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants (read all entries to date on this topic).

Many different sounds register the same. So tapping three different objects all result in the same ting, ting, ting. It's kind of a drag; after a while, you feel like you are in some strange cartoon reality. It's also very confusing to hear noises but have no idea what they are!

I think its the software; it's not very diverse yet because I'm still at program level #1.

I've just learned about another blog with the account of a cochlear implant patient - a young woman who lost her hearing at 17 and regained her hearing via cochlear implants.

Continue to Report #4

Friday, July 25, 2008

E-Trade Ad with Baby and Clown

This E-Trade commercial totally totally cracks me up.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #2

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants and has been reporting back, starting here.

The processor keeps falling off when I do yoga. Backbends make it fall off. Forward bends make it fall off. It only stays on when I'm upright or lying down. I guess I'll have to find a way to strap it on.

I wonder how children get away with must fall off all the time...

Continue to Report #3

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Consistency, Niche, and the Art/Biz Dichotomy

One of my favorite restaurants is Spicy Mina, a Bangladeshi place run by an eponymous chef in Jackson Heights, Queens. One of the things I like best is that Mina never cooks a dish the same way twice. I love this because it assures that I'll never get sick of eating there. And I greatly admire her ingenuity and commitment. Even when Mina cooks something in a way I don't happen to prefer, I can still appreciate the talent and love that's gone in.

But there has been a torrent of pans on Chowhound, usually labeling the restaurant "spotty" or "inconsistent". I understand: you go to a restaurant, fall in love with a dish, and the next visit you find it's been made another way. Even if that other way is just as good, there's a high chance you'll be disappointed. Go to Mina often enough, and she'll eventually make every single dish in a way that displeases you. And this is why the other 99.999999% of restaurants in the world strive to prepare each item the same way night after night.

Humans are hard-wired to seek consistency, and that's why chains flourish. In fact, that's why our entire commercial sector is as it is. We dislike surprise, and thus we are seldom surprised. Even the perception of human beauty seems to hinge upon consistent symmetry. Our curse as human beings is our tendency to needlessly recede into drudgery, while our saving grace is our infinite capacity for creative leaps. But the smart money's always on the former.

A restaurant that makes a dish spicy one day and bland the next will, in time, disappoint everyone, whereas a place making uniformly spicy food gravitates spice-lovers and a uniformly bland kitchen gravitates spice-haters. This is how niches work, and why it's nearly impossible to gather a following without remaining firmly planted in one.

As a jazz trombonist, I'm a chameleon, easily flipping between different styles and playing dense or spare, loud or soft, hard-swinging or wanly reflective, depending on circumstances. Jazz is an improvised, in-the-moment music, and each moment's different. If you're not spontaneous enough to adapt to different collaborators, different audiences, different moods, you're not really improvising, you're just plying your shtick - and that, alas, is what most jazz musicians do.

But the problem with versatility is that, per Mina, it eventually pisses off all parties. I once played loud and bluesy, and was nearly spat at by bandleader Woody Herman, who was in the audience (and is known for his preference for glibly cool trombonists), yet I've had others deem me flaccid and unswinging when they've chanced upon me while I was playing more introspectively. I've given everyone something to hate!

Audiences have their yardsticks and their assumptions, and, consciously or not, they judge what they see/hear/taste/read by those rigid standards. Whenever creative people vary their approach, large swathes of their audiences flip to one or the other side of the judgmental fence. Vary frequently, and you'll rate no better than an ambivalent "meh" from just about everyone.

Some artists develop a heightened sensitivity that tells them what they need to do to "get over" in a given circumstance, and, like politicians, they adroitly pander. Others find a niche and buckle in tightly for their entire careers, never disappointing those who expect to see pretty much what they've seen before. Still others blithely do what they do and don't give a damn what anyone thinks. 

For years, circumstances created an expectation that I'd write and act the part of the whacky, food-crazy Chowhound. I had a web site to promote, and when I delved into the more philosophical issues behind chowhounding, I noticed that people turned glassy-eyed - and reporters stopped taking notes. So I went Pentecostal, evangelizing the notion that we must stop compromising and start expending massive energy to suss out and support the geniuses who create hyperdeliciousness.

Notice how that last sentence sort of slipped into high gear? It's like putting on a sweater.

I always wanted to talk about how Chowhound actually has less to do with food than with a higher impulse - the tenacious desire to ferret out Quality in a world where that word has less and less value to people, our inner drives having been hacked by advanced marketing hypnosis to the point where we are driven to consume for every reason except quality. And I quickly grew weary of being the single-minded jolly food guy, when food is just one of many interests for me. But soul-smothering though it was, remaining consistently in character helped create a nationally-known brand (and, more importantly, attracted lots of smart food-lovers to swap great tips), 

My guess is that Chowhound now gets something like two million unique monthly visitors. This Slog, by contrast, attracts a couple hundred, period. Its audience will likely never grow much, because there's no unifying shtick. Writing about everything fully engages no one.

As with any creative pursuit, one can stay true to oneself, or one can maneuver mightily for success. The choice is to either remain lithe, flexible, and spontaneous, and be overlooked by modern hyperactive, hyperaccelerated, hopped-up data-thirsty audiences (and eventually repel the few who've slowed down enough to notice you), or to shout loudly, persistently, and consistently, eventually perhaps carving out a small presence in the mainstream consciousness.

The trick, as artists through the eons have realized, is to completely disregard all of this and just do what you do. You can be a salesman or you can be an artist, but you can't be both...because a good salesman thinks only about results, while a good artist thinks only of process (insofar as s/he thinks at all!).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears: Report #1

The following is by Priscilla Gilmore, who recently got cochlear implants (read all entries to date on this topic).

I am hearing all these little noises as I type on the computer; it's a little freaky. I listened to my car key alarm for the first time; of everything I'm hearing, that sounded the most like how it should sound, constant beeping but with a beautiful clear tone. The audiologist can talk to me now without typing on a computer screen; I am still reading her lips but now she can just talk in a normal voice and I am getting it.

It's very strange because the sounds I'm hearing via the processor do not sound like normal speech; nothing sounds quite like it should. It's all a bit tinny, with echo. But something is happening which is making it all easier.

I feel like a kid in a candy store, scuffing my feet and tapping on things just to hear the sound! I don't have the processor turned up to the richest setting yet (there are two more levels), but will pretty soon.

Its also slightly irritating; I miss my soundless world a little.

It's all very different, but I see the potential now. I had a lot of fear but now that is gone. I'm writing exactly how i feel about it all: jumbled and excited. I just "heard" the phone ring. It doesn't sound anything like how it did before with my old hearing aid, but somehow I am not worried.

Continue to Report #2

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Comedy Central's TV Funhouse DVD

Comedy Central's TV Funhouse DVD finally was released today.

These are not the TV Funhouse cartoons run on Saturday Night Live - though, confusingly, creator Robert Smigel is behind those, too. The best of the latter, by the way, is The Obama Files, which oughtn't be viewed with food or drink in-mouth. (if that link doesn't load, try reloading the page...and you'll have to sit through a 10 sec commercial before it plays. Do it!).

No, the original TV Funhouse series on Comedy Central years ago was mostly live action, and was the weirdest, sickest, filthiest program ever presented on television. It was also innovative, in mixing, for the first time, live and puppet animals (requiring agonizing, painstaking shooting and one will ever attempt it again). The series was killed after eight episodes, and these days sometimes shows up very very late at night on Comedy Central, completely freaking out half-snoozing viewers.

This show is not just funny. It is writhe-on-the-carpet funny. It is chew-your-fingers-off funny. But it's not for sober viewing with good posture and a big tub of fresh steaming popcorn. If you do buy the DVD, promise you won't play it before 1:30am...and never when completely awake and/or sober.

Priscilla Gets Bionic Ears (Introduction)

I travel far out of my way (to Centerport, Long Island) to study with my terrific hatha yoga teacher, Priscilla. Priscilla uses keen powers of observation and intuition to uncover hidden physical issues and habits. And she happens to be deaf.

That's an ok thing for yoga classes, where sometimes things can get too talk-y and analytical. But it's of course been a real drag for Priscilla, a keen music lover who used to hear normally (she's got a degenerative disorder). She's been trying for a long while now to muster the courage to get cochlear implants, and a couple of weeks ago, she finally did it (this book helped convince her). And this week, the doctors will turn them on.

Most people do not realize that such implants do not offer a simple quick fix. One must learn to interpret the audio information coming in; it's not like regular, organic hearing. It's actually kind of weird.

Priscilla has agreed to send along a short note on her progress each day so we can all follow along, and I'll publish it as a running diary here in the Slog (in addition to my usual stuff).

By way of preparation, please read a classic 2005 Wired Magazine article on one individual's quest to overcome his deafness and finally hear Ravel's Bolero, and also read his follow-up piece from last year in Wired. There have been a bunch of fascinating Wired articles about new technologies for wiring the brain, generally (when Wired's good, it can be very very good).

Continue to Report #1

Monday, July 21, 2008

Air Conditioner Follow-Up (and a note about portables)

I previously described my travails in shopping for air conditioners. I thought I'd follow up.

I did pick up a couple of
Sears Kenmore 76081s, and they work fine. Just what you'd hope for from powerful window units, the only surprise being that they're fussy to install as they must tilt outward (to keep water from pooling in the unit), and, as an apparent precaution, they refuse to mount happily unless they're at just the right angle.

For my main living room, I ordered a 
Royal Sovereign ARP-5012XH from Costco online, and it was a wretched experience. I sprang for express shipping (at significant expense), it took a week to get out of the warehouse, shipped via ground (not express) from west coast, and was returned by UPS before it ever got to me because damage was found. I only know all this because I was tracking via UPS; Costco never notified me of any of this, and refused to answer any of my inquiries...not even one addressed directly to the the VP in charge. And because they'd ran out of these units by the time anyone started paying (slight) attention to my issues, I was summarily refunded, sans apology, and left air conditioner-less. I'll never order from Costco Online again.

So I ordered, from Amazon, the
Royal Sovereign ARP-5012X. Because I'm an Amazon Prime customer, shipping was free. The unit works well and is good looking, but what they say is true: portables don't cool as well as window units. Why? Window units pump lots of air, and do so via a very noisy fan, which is located outside the window. Portable units are entirely indoors, so they must be quieter, and therefore don't pump as much air, cool though that air might be.

This unit cools my large living room somewhat, but can't get it down to 72 on a hot day. If you'll read reviews of portable air conditioners, you'll see the same being said of all of them: they can't take a room down to a target temperature, they merely make a dent in the heat.

Here's the trick. Start 'em early. I crank up my unit in the cooler morning, and it manages to more or less stay on top of things all day (I help by closing window blinds). If I were to start the unit in the thick of a 95 degree afternoon, it wouldn't stand a chance. The other trick is that you can put most decent portables into a dehumidifying mode, which is a lot cheaper to run (you'll feel less guilty leaving it on when out of the house), and it does make a big difference. Especially if, like me, you own a piano, which should never suffer high summertime humidity levels.

And, as I said in my last post on the topic, don't even think of buying a single-hose portable unit (this one's got two).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tip of Your Tongue

I had a brainstorm a few years ago. Noticing that the same words tended to repeatedly be on the tip of my tongue, I decided to keep a list. Each time I'd think of a word I'd fished for, I'd note it down. It seemed like a useful writer's exercise, and the results were surprising in two ways. First, there were many more such words than I'd expected, and the list grew larger than I'd expected. Second, it's quite an odd list. 

I'll let you see the list in a moment, but first let me direct you to an interesting NPR report on the psychological issues of tip-of-tongue words.

Without further ado, here are fifteen years worth of my fished-for words:
bête noire
je ne sais quoi
raison d'être

Friday, July 18, 2008

Important Info About Pill-Taking

Never, ever lie down just after taking a pill.

While in Mexico, I made the mistake of taking one of my antibiotic capsules (doxycycline) late at night, without enough water, and plopped right into bed to go to sleep. A few minutes later, I felt an excruciating searing pain in my lower esophagus, where the capsule had stuck, and no amount of water would dislodge it, and the caustic medicine burned into the esophageal lining. I am now the proud owner of an ulcerated esophagus (it should heal in a week or two).

Doctors and pharmacists all shrug and say "oh, yeah...sure." They know that this is a danger. So why, amid all the cautions and warnings, doesn't anybody tell the
patients about this?!?

Ironically, the nerve that conveys hunger is right in this area, so I get extremely hungry...though, ironically, it hurts to eat! While the combination may sound like sadistic torture, it's actually good. Without the hunger boost, I probably wouldn't be eating.

Though it sounds awful, an ulcerated esophagus isn't actually all that bad. And, thinking back, when my mom had emergency quadruple bypass surgery and long recuperation, she didn't find that "so" bad, either. Nothing's as bad to live as it is to worry about in advance. We are an incredibly resilient species, but we worry way too much!

Again, please: take lots of water with pills. And never lie down right after.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The White Gym Socks of My Dreams

All my life I've been vexed by white gym socks. They are, for men, what brassieres are for women, and what reeds are for oboists: you just can't ever get the perfect thing.

The white gym socks of my dreams are (perpetually) at Costco. Look for Russell Athletic Dripower crew socks, in the 12-pack. They are neither too long nor too short, and are nicely soft and cushiony. They stay up but don't strangle your calves. And they maintain their cushiness and just-right elasticity through multiple washings. And they never seem to develop holes.

One of the petty frustrations of life can now be crossed off your list (or that of a loved one). Thank your Slogs above.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to Smuggle in Cuban Cigars....Legally!

9:00 am - I land at Mexico City airport for my connection back to the USA, silly with fatigue (being unaccustomed to rising at 6am).

9:10 am - I pass a duty-free shop featuring a great big honking display of Cuban cigars. Only the really good stuff. I stop dead in my tracks, jaw agape.

9:11 am - I phone my cigarhound buddy Barry, who is dumbfounded by the prices I'm quoting him - a mere 5% or so of what he pays his mail order sources in Canada and Europe. I'm talking $9 for a box of five big Cohiba Siglo IIIs. Sealed boxes, genuine-seeming. Smell good. I'm on the verge of a consumorgasm.

9:13 am - Barry cautions me that it will be tough to get the cigars through customs. Rushing to catch my flight, daffy with sleepiness, I tell him I'll "work something out", and buy a box of Siglo IIIs, literally paying for them with pocket change.

9:45 am - I board my flight, and fall fast asleep

1:30 pm - I awaken, refreshed, and able to actually think. I mentally scan the situation: I'm carrying tons of mole paste (pronounced "MOE - lay", the ubiquitous and vastly complex Oaxacan sauces), ok to bring in, as it's dried, but requiring declaration and inspection. And that inspection will involving passing ALL bags through scanning machinery which surely detects cigar-shaped objects, and agents are surely watching for Cubanos.

I could put the cigars in my jacket to avoid scanning, but I'm also bringing in eight bottles of very cheap mezcal...without receipt, so I can't prove their purchase price. The customs agent can calculate duty based on any price he'd care to guestimate, and even confiscate the bottles if he deems them sufficient quantity for commercial use (agents have wide discretion to make such calls).

I'm pretty sure I can convince the customs agent of the mezcal price. And the mole's no problem (customs guys identify mole paste via x-rays as readily as dentists catch cavities; mole is definitely not unknown to them, which I actually find really cool). But if I prove myself shmucky by getting caught smuggling in Cubanos, I'll lose all credibility. All bets will be off, everything will be reexamined in a new light, and deep reaming is possible.

1:45 pm - I resolve to ditch the Cohibas, relieved to lose only nine bucks for my foolishness.

3:00 pm - We land, and I make my way stiffly into the terminal, intending to find a trash can and discretely toss the cigars.

3:01 pm - 3:11 pm - There are no trash cans. Anywhere. Not one.

3:12 pm - I pass through immigration. No problems (but no trash cans). I've checked a box on my customs card stating that I'm carrying food items (the mole paste). The agent says it should be no problem.

3:15 pm - I reach baggage claim. There are no trash cans. I begin to perspire. I cannot simply toss the cigars under the luggage carousel; I could be suspected of being part of a smuggling team, planting items for partners to pick up later. That'd be much worse than losing some mezcal and cigars.

3:21 pm - Luggage starts coming down the chute. I'm running out of time. Homeland security guys are everywhere. I wonder whether sensitive high-tech instruments in the ceiling are detecting my perspiration and keying onto me.

3:26 pm - My bags have arrived. I try to find a bathroom, am pointed down a hallway...but ordered not to bring my baggage (cigars are in my carry-on) with me. Yikes.

3:33 pm - Back at baggage claim, waiting with the crowd to pass through the final customs checkpoint, I suddenly feel supremely confident. Everyone's passing through without hassle. I can just walk straight through to the street. No problem. Stay cool. Just go with the flow, little man. I am Steve McQueen.

3:38 pm - Agent takes my customs card,  and sees that I've answered "yes" to "I am bringing in food". I dismissively note that it's just mole paste, but am sent over to the agriculture inspector. So much for flow. There will be no simple walk out to the street. And the agriculture inspector is unoccupied. Lonely. Ready to lavish upon me his full attention. 

My cool is totally blown as I flash on my situation: I've just passed a customs checkpoint without declaring the cigars. Declaring them now, only after having been singled out for inspection, is, uh, what's the word? Oh yeah. Smuggling.

3:39 pm - I rush up to the agriculture inspector and say, in a high-pitched Hanna Barbera breathless staccato of nearly unintelligble velocity:

"Uh hi I'm here because I checked food I mean the box for declaring food because I have lots of mexican mole paste and you can see it if you want but that's not the main problem here the main thing is that I'm carrying these cigars and and I didn't realize they're Cuban until after I bought them but they are Cuban and I know that's not legal so I need to tell you this immediately and be on the record that I told you this immediately and I'm sorry I'm an idiot I tried to just like throw them away but there were no trash cans so can I like just give them to you right now so I don't like have to go to jail or anything...."

At this point, the unflappable stone-faced agriculture inspector interrupts by gesturing toward me in a way no adult has done since I was in third grade: he smoothly brings his index finger to his mouth and makes a quiet shushing sound. My rant retracts into a low gurgle deep in my throat, as I obediently close my mouth.

"You're only bringing a few cigars, right?" he asks. Before I can answer affirmatively, he hands me back my passport and says  "Shouldn't be a problem. And the mole's no problem at all. Pass through, please."

3:40 pm - I emerge at street level (taxi?? taxi?? taxi?? taxi?? taxi??), with all my mezcal (no duty paid!), all my mole paste (no inspection!), and...five lovely and grotesquely underpriced big fat Cohiba cigars!

I just so totally rule (although Barry believes I was let off on grounds of insanity).

I had some concerns that the cigars might be counterfeit, especially at this price. They looked legit to my uneducated eye, but Barry has confirmed it:

Box ✓
Government seal ✓
Factory sticker ✓
Band ✓
Color ✓
Construction ✓

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting Juiced at the Airport

Some of the best juices in the city of Oaxaca are actually at the small airport's cafe (food's good there, too).

These are the juices you dream of when you dream of juice. I'd say they're not too sweet, but, being fruit, they are sweet...but only in the most refreshing jungle tree-house way. These aren't sticky glassfuls. These are REFRESCOS (say it aloud, rolling your "r"s and holding out that middle "s" for extra cooling tropical refreshment). As the photos indicate, you really can't go wrong here. But savvy juicers always seek out whatever's at the top of its season, and this is the peak time for tuna.

I speak not of smelly canned fish, but, rather, of the Mexican prickly pear. "Tuna" i
s a linguistical "false friend". (My most memorable false friend fiasco was when performing with a singer in Spain and the band played some warm-up tunes without her, then I grabbed a microphone and announced "Quiero introducir nuestra cantanta", intending to say I'd like to introduce our singer. The audience - and band - erupted into peals of hysterical laughter, and it wasn't until after the gig that I was informed that "introducir" actually means "penetrate" in Spanish. Woops.)

Since it's nearly impossible to describe the flavor of a fruit someone hasn't tried, and I'm not working as a professional food writer here, let me gleefully cop out by inarticulately proclaiming the green tuna
awesome...and let the photo convey the cool foamy luscious greenish wonderment (as always, the quantity of missing food by the time I think to grab my camera is directly proportional to the quality of said food):

Red tuna was available, too, but I had already plied myself with some papaya juice and I felt compelled to try to save some pleasure for the rest of my life.

Leaving Oaxaca

So how was the food? Take a look!

Click for an even pornier blow-up view.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Oil Price Hikes Not Due to Speculation?

Slate's Underground Economist columnist Tim Harford has an interesting article, contrarian as usual, called "The World Needs More Speculators: Stop demonizing the investors who are betting heavily on oil prices."

Harford makes a case that speculation is not to blame for the run-up after all. Makes sense to me, but what do I know? Maybe our wanker/banker will comment...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Aztecs in Austria

I careened into the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle, managed to find my unsigned "motel" (a room in the compound of Josefina Ruiz, widow of Eligio Bazan, with cauldrons suspended over smoldering fires and shared outhouses), dropped my bags and headed toward the town center, where a brass band was playing. I'm a big fan of Mexican banda music.

Before me was a scene as rife in contradictions as any I've experienced. In front of an ornate 17th century church (built, conquistador style, atop a Zaputec temple), vendors were selling pulque (Mexico's second lowest-class drink, a sour, sulphurous, slimy potion brewed - not distilled - from maguey). Dancers, dressed in fabulously ornate native costumes made from chicken feathers dyed with the skin of Cochineal beetles, among other colorings, and with enormous round headdresses that made them look like Aztec kings, somehow managed to perform fierce pre-Columbian Indian dances while the village band performed, for some unfathomable reason, their repertoire of lyrical German waltzes. On the backs of some of the dancers' outfits were intricate pen-drawn crucifixion scenes.

It was all part of a religious festival whose origins are so knotted up between Zapotec, Christian, and ancient village customs that participants were unable to clearly explain exactly what was being celebrated. Yet a feeling of religious awe hovered over the scene, as did the ripe aroma of mezcal, bottles and bottles of which were being passed freely among all present.

The increasingly inebriated band negotiated their stodgy waltzes less and less politely, which to my ear increased the musical value tremendously. The musicians on my banda recordings sometimes sounded a bit blotto, and here I was, watching the process first-hand. The dancers, too, were at a mezcal saturation point, and I stared and stared, trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance as they plied their earnest war dance amid all the sonic schnitzel. I shot a video, which you can view at the bottom of this entry.

Finally, suddenly, late into the night, the band closed their music and ripped into a purely local tune of maniacally brisk tempo, intricately layered polyrhythms and mind-boggling complexity. The conductor barely bothered to wave his baton, and the band played from memory, obviously having played this song hundreds of times. The effect was nothing short of galvanizing. Finally, the music matched the dancing! The sense of released tension was astounding.

I had been warned to drink no mezcal, having spent the previous day in a Mexican hospital where a diligent doctor, baffled by the notion of Lyme disease, painstakingly researched the condition - a tick bite from last week's hiking having produced the tell-tale coloration - finally prescribing me a fourteen day course of Doxycycline, one of the most blindly genocidal antibiotics in the physicians' canon (and the correct one for this situation). "No MEZCAL?" I'd wailed to my bemused doctors. "Well, perhaps one shot per day," offered one physician, obviously speaking more as a sympathetic civilian than in any strictly professional capacity.

Back at the concert, late at night, in the jubilant rain, I was on my seventh mezcal, plied without option for refusal by the trombone and tuba sections of the band, which had early on learned that I'm a trombonist (made fairly obvious by my screaming and hooting after each low-brass soli section), when the alto saxophonist, an anachronistic budding jazz musician who is apparently cousin, nephew, brother, or son to every inhabitant of Teotitlán del Valle, invited me to tour the church steeple. It was a thrill for me, because I was a fan of the bell-ringing guys.

The church bell itself is unimaginably cheap, each clang sounding like an air conditioner dropped from a roof into a huge tin trash can. But what they did with it! One team wielded the enormous bell (ingeniously mounted on a flimsy-seeming three hundred year-old wooden frame allowing a full terrifying 360 degrees of vertical rotation) and another slugged away at an even larger one, with a clapper like an oar. They bashed away in a state of advanced religious frenzy at seemingly random intervals, the cockeyed harmonics colliding in impossibly nuanced ways.

We descended to the church proper, which was truly awesome and enormous, festooned with flowers and photos (photos are a part of sacred life here, the flip side of the provincial "superstition" that makes villagers loathe to pose for tourists for "fear" of having their soul captured, which I now better understand). At the alter, six tough-looking young men dashed in and fell to their knees, sending instant tidal waves of palpable devotion slamming to the back wall of the church and beyond. That's bhakti, baby. Was it for Jesus, the Zapotec Gods, or simply the mezcal? In the end, does it matter?

Let's back up for a moment. It had been my previous opinion that mezcal was supposed to be young; that aged ones strictly pander to tourist demand. They inevitably contain a whiff, if not an outright clobber, of turpentine due to poor selection and handling of wood. But I was wrong about that. Among my many shots was one of a deeply golden añejo with the purity of a great young mezcal, only smoother and deeper. The craftsmanship nearly brought tears to my eyes, and jazz sax guy, for whom the appearance in his village of a professional NYC jazz musician constituted a sort of minor miracle, told me he'd hook me up with a bottle. I insisted on paying, to help support the makers. A few minutes later, he sat out one of the waltzes, and went dashing off into the village, returning with a bottle which he thrust into my hands, with a wink, and took his seat back with the band. He would accept no money.

Anyway, as we descended the baroque narrow circular stone stairs from the church's bell tower, I gingerly broached the topic of mezcal trade. I know an importer, I told my new friend, who'd likely pay good money to sell the village's mezcal in the States. After the briefest silence, the subject was changed. It was one of those moments where you realize you've committed a gringo faux pas and been hastily forgiven, but the particulars are not to be further discussed.

After the concert, I was invited into the room where the dancers keep their sacred feathered costumes. Private religious rites were about to take place, and I watched a village elder devoutly, lovingly kiss a mezcal bottle. It wasn't like an alcoholic smooching his hooch, it was more like a rabbi kissing a sacred scroll.

I immediately realized that I must forget about ever seeing this mezcal exported, or even of paying for my single bottle. Furthermore, my respect for the banda music I'd listened to for years was no longer slightly diminished by the drunken bits. It's not sloppy drunkenness, it's a part of the ecstatic whole. There is no difference between sacred and secular/cultural. Here in Oaxaca, with its deep Indian bloodlines, everything is both.

So many seemingly contradictory parts! Mezcal, Jesus, ancient Indian traditions, European waltzes, shamanic polyrhythms, incense and snapshots. Yet a tangible spiritual continuity subsumes all, and the surreal result feels remarkably unmuddled if you really dive in. You may have seen amalgamated Hispanic cultures portrayed in movies, where the trappings always seem kitsch. Up close and live, it's no such thing.

Many fear that modernization in places like this means the loss of vital essence, and that the incursion of alien culture incites the flight of younger generations from villages worldwide. Indeed, Manuel, the aberrational jazz saxophonist is young and possesses a degree of sophistication not found in village elders. There are no jazz clubs for him in this place. Clearly, he's ripe for ditching this scene. But he vowed to me that Teotitlán del Valle is his village, has always been his village, and he'll never move away...aside from brief forays to the big city of Oaxaca for gigs.

Places with far more coherent cultures have proven far less magnetic. But there's clearly something transcendental going on here. It's the source of that divine wind at the church alter, I suppose, and though it finds expression through Jesus, indigenous tradition, swigs of mezcal, and sanctified snapshots, it isn't specific to any of those things.

UPDATE: I'm trying to upload the video, but Blogger sucks in numberless ways, and this is one of them (I'm looking forward to Google running the online world with nearly as much trepidation as China running the real one). To make sure you don't miss it when it's up, I'll give it its own entry. Hopefully later today.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Read about my follow-up visit to Teotitlán del Valle, and my taste of the rare and perilous Medusa Gruel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Oaxaca, Mexico

I'm in Oaxaca this week, for the  Celebration of Indigenous Food and Tamale Fair...and also to do some mezcal-hounding and purchasing of mole paste (which has become pretty much the essential staple of my kitchen). I'll report back if I can get a reliable Internet connection.

Strangely, I somehow managed to miss passing through Immigration in the airport, and am the first tourist in the history of the country to have done so. My passport isn't stamped, I'm officially non-present here, and no one can tell me how to resolve this. The choice seems to be to jail or deport me, or simply wave me away in exasperation, and since I don't seem very menacing, they're choosing the latter.

Explaining Wine's Health Benefits

Finally, a dab of insight as to how the famed "French paradox" (wherein the effects of fatty food are mitigated by ample wine tippling) works, courtesy of The Economist. This doesn't explain wine's helpful effect re: obesity or high cholesterol, but it's a start.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Good Photography

This blog has some excellent photography, including a few impressive food photos. I pay more attention to food photography these days, since I had the challenge of doing my own photography on my Chow Tour.

Watermelon Rind: A Potent Aphrodisiac

There are nine gazillion weird news stories on the Internet, and nine gazillion places to go to hear about them. I don't intend for this Slog to devolve into one of the latter, but this one's too amusing to pass up. Well, I should disclose that, it's 6am as I wait for a connection in Mexico City airport and I haven't slept a wink (the woman in the middle seat on my red-eye flight down had a tick that caused her to involuntarily jab me in the ribs with her elbow, something I'll probably laugh about one day). So I may be "off".

But....who knew that
Watermelon Could Possibly Work As Well As Viagra

Update: several hours of shut-eye (and many blissful quesadillas) later, I can't believe I found this post-worthy. But I'll leave it up as a tribute to the judgement clouding potential of sleep deprivation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Weird and Surprising Music: The Answer!

It's Music from Southern Laos Played by Molam LaoMolam on the khen (sort of a mouth organ). And it swings as hard as any jazz out there. And I'm seriously considering traveling to Laos to jam with these guys (can you imagine the dancing?).

The recording is out of print in America, but you can order it for £14.14 (about $28) postpaid at

Weird and Surprising Music

I'm a big fan of obscure and esoteric musical stylings. But I know nothing more surprising than this. I dare you to figure out what it is (I'll post the answer tomorrow!).

Play it loud!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Interesting idea, though I don't have time to surf around and check it out. Someone's created, a site aggregating food videos.

I'm not sure of the purpose, given that you can surf food videos galore via tagging on YouTube, but if the editors do a decent job of selecting and annotating, this might have promise.

Gay Pride Parade

I walked through the West Village earlier this week, a surprisingly difficult endeavor as I discovered, belatedly, that it was Gay Pride Week. It took forever to get around, with streets blocked off by extraordinarily grim-faced police officers and every inch of sidewalk space packed with, er, colorful-seeming individuals.

As time has gone by, I find myself less and less shocked by same-sex displays of affection, outrageous risque outfits, etc. But while my tolerance has grown, I still felt a certain underlying distaste - which I'd previously chalked up to lingering homophobia. Having given the matter some thought, however, I don't think that's it. It's that I find it distastful to base culture and lifestyle upon sexual preference.

I find it equally distasteful when heterosexuals do likewise. I feel uncomfortable with people whose discussion invariably draws back to sex, for whom innocent double entendres are milked for miles and everything's generally all about getting laid. We human beings have so much to offer that to make one's sexuality the thrust, so to speak, of one's existence seems embarrassingly feral. Love is important, and it transcends mere sexual preference. But sex, in and of itself, and the topological choices it entails, seems fairly mundane; more akin to plumbing than poetry.

One might well point out that homosexuals, as a discriminated-against minority, are compelled to band together in co-affirmation of their sexual preference. Heterosexuals, after all, get their affirmation directly from the culture. But do folks in Greenwich Village really feel a lack of corroboration? I didn't see emotional shackles being cast off as I walked through the crowd - though I did see some other sorts of shackles put to highly creative use. By all means, gays should have equal rights re: marriage, military, etc., and they should join together to fight for these rights, and to confront bigotry in general. But beyond that, is there any reason to build one's cultural identity around sexuality?

Moreover, if gay love is inextricably tied to cultural and lifestyle, doesn't that play into the hands of those who insist gay love is intrinsically different, and therefore gay marriage oughtn't be granted parity? True love carries no cultural baggage. It simply is.

As a member of several minority groups, myself, I feel little compulsion to tie my identity to any of the granfalloons in which life has randomly placed me. And if I ever found myself obliged to choose a tribe, I'd hope I'd find one whose members share a deeper affinity than a common preference for innies or outies.

Needless to say, there's much that I don't grok, having not walked in those shoes. And I certainly don't condemn anyone for the way they choose to act, live, or culturally identify. Such choices are basic human rights, just as sexual choices are! I'm just pondering my feelings aloud, and I reserve the right to be wrong - and to change my mind later, too!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Trends in Pedestrianism

In 1985, it became stylish to cross the street really slowly in front of oncoming cars. I caught this early on, driving in places like Roosevelt, Long Island and Jamaica Queens - the sort of African-American neighborhoods where so many trends are born. Slow-crossing-in-front-of-cars eventually went mainstream, but is finally starting to fade (or perhaps all practitioners have been run over).

The new pedestrian trend is to walk in straight lines, never deviating. Other pedestrians may or may not choose to step aside. That's their issue. Straight line walkers have no part in that. These are the spiritual descendents of the people who walk, chin high, through doors held by strangers without a word of thanks or glance of acknowledgement (a trend which has also increased, but not exploded into viral popularity like straight line walking).

Straight line walking is not to be confused with bullying - i.e. intimidating other pedestrians by forcing them out of your way (what's commonly termed "owning the sidewalk"). Bullying is a power play, a sort of social engagement. Straight line walking, by contrast, involves no engagement whatsoever. It's about self-image rather than intimidation. Since a critical mass of the citizenry now walks around accompanied by their own musical soundtracks, many have come to believe themselves to be starring in music videos. And people in videos don't step aside. They stride, purposefully, in straight lines. As if down fashion runways.

Again, these aren't bullies. Get in their way, and you won't be sneered at or shoulder-bumped; the straight line walker will transparently recover by veering off at a slight angle, as if that was intended all along. Really get in the way, actually breaking the rhythm, and a snarl of disgust will be directed to the four winds (again, you don't exist, you aren't engaged with, you're not in the video). The stride quickly resumes, with an angry, indignant lilt. It's just another section of the music video. Continuity has been preserved and face has been saved.

It's not about walking in straight lines, per se. It's about buying into a self-image as someone who cuts a smooth, powerful line through life. And hey, who couldn't use more of that? I keep trying to straight-line walk, but can't resist the impulse to get out of people's way. I am, alas, clearly not a winner.

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