Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Sane Word About Toyota

Why doesn't anyone explain the Toyota mess from a perspective of sanity?

If you sell millions of cars, statistics dictate that you'll get "
million typing monkeys" type results. Every report you could possibly imagine will roll in. You will get one-off reports of sedans suddenly transforming into fairy chariots, of steering wheels growing inexplicably smaller on rainy days, of exhaust systems that play "Ode to Joy" and shut-down cars going on satanic rampages and trying to mow down the mailman.

You cannot, in other words, have "zero tolerance" for reported safety issues, because too many crazy, stupid, deluded, loud-mouthed, random people are flooding you with too much ridiculous data every minute of every day.

A level above that are errant reports from relatively sane people conscientiously describing seemingly real problems...but who are observing wrong. They're making mistakes and misattributing them to defects. Think about it: you're sane and conscientious, right? And I'll bet you, from time to time, get stuff wrong. One time out of a thousand, you get something totally egregiously wrong. Well, millions of car owners - even leaving aside the crazies - getting stuff egregiously wrong .001% of the time means a huge swarm of noise for those trying to detect bona fide safety issues.

Single reports can't possibly be chased down and investigated. Clear patterns must be detected. And that means a lot more than zero tolerance. Extremely sporadic problems - like those afflicting Toyota - look a lot like noise.

In hindsight, after a serious pattern has emerged amid the noise, it's easy to recriminate. We hope car makers take every single report extremely seriously. They can't. And while that sounds callous to us, and we get indignant reading transcripts of execs blithely shrugging off sporadic problems and trying to manage their way around recalls, that's the only way it can possibly work.

The odds demand that some apparently crazy claims must eventually prove true. And therefore cars may explode, and people may be injured, or even die, before a problem's taken seriously. Exploding cars and dead drivers are, we all agree, bad things, but cars explode and drivers die for reasons that are no fault of carmakers, too. Driving has never been a risk-free proposition, and cars are not designed or built with the meticulousness of airplanes (if they were, we'd never afford them). It's all compromise.

The truly amazing thing is that cars work as well as they do, and that so very few people die as a consequence of mechanical error. It'd be great if we could do something about the tens of thousands of annual deaths from driver error.

Swooning Over Vacuum-Fried Pineapple Chips

Trader Joe's new vacuum-fried pineapple chips are a thing of genius.

Hypercrunchy, almost glass-shatteringly so, they feel greasily wonderful in your mouth, yet contain very little oil (palm, alas, but too little of it - 3g per serving - to add up much). And there's such deep, intense pineapple flavor, captured by the folks who make this stuff in faraway Thailand, where the pineapples have tons more je ne sais quoi.

The overall gestalt vibe is just dreamy. It's worth a special trip. Pick some up now.

Update: According to the Wikipedia
entry on Vacuum Frying, there's less fat absorption with this method due to the lower frying temperature. Plus: less cancer! Two more bags, please!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Great Manhattan Food Find

2 Bros Pizza Plus (601 6th Ave between 17th and 18th; 206-8656) is a dismal pizza mill which, for some reason, has grafted on a concession run by a latino woman who cooks wonderful, soulful chicken (baked or fried), yams, garlicky string beans or broccoli, and other stuff, all for insanely low prices (it's hard to spend more than $5). There's minimal service and ambiance, but the prideful cooking makes up for it with food that's much, much better than it needs to be.

The place has been discovered by hordes of middle-aged African American midtown workers, who line up in awe. It's becoming a real sensation. Here are photos (click to enlarge):

The price, the setting, even the lines all evoke Depression era gloom (huddled masses, etc.), but it's still awesome.

Update: I went by today, and it was a different cook, and the food looked desultory, cheap, vulgar, and mean. I'll just keep going back over and over again till I find the miracle chef again. I'm not one to give up. I never gave up, for example, on Quisp.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Healthy Chocolate

I've written twice lately (here and here) about some of the newly discovered health propoerties of chocolate - or, specifically, the flavanols contained therein. In addition to reducing risk of cancer, obesity, stroke, and hypertension, I just noticed that chocolate may also boost blood flow to the brain. Wow. Go, chocolate!

The two problems are: 1. getting the flavanols while minimizing the fat and sugar, and 2. figuring out which chocolate products are richest in flavanols.

Happily, the answer to both questions seems to be cocoa powder, which is largely defatted (typical is 10% fat) and wholly unsweetened (add your preferred sweetener in your preferred quantity). According to
a study of flavanol content, the products with the highest level of flavanol antioxidants were cocoa powders, followed by unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate and semi-sweet chips, then milk chocolate and finally chocolate syrup.

Cooking tip from Jill Black: "I often toss some into a batch of chili. It plays well with the other flavors, with a kind of mole-esque undertone. When my son was younger and going through a period of wariness about spicy foods, we'd make sure he saw us putting the cocoa in and refer to the final product as chocolate chili."

In other news from that study, Dutch alkali processing doesn't destroy all the flavanols - though such processing does reduce it. But if you want to find a product maximizing flavanol content, note that you can't gauge it by the darkness or naturalness of a product. It's way murkier than that. And the above referenced study was backed by Hershey's, so the scientists helpfully masked their results so we can't know which (non-Hershey's) product had the most flavanol. So...selecting the best cocoa powder is tough.


Just this week, Mars (which has a special flavanol-preserving process called "Cocoapro") and Barry Callebaut (who call their process "ACTICOA") have
announced that they'll be working together. So hopefully there will be a wide array of high-flavanol chocolate products coming our way, which will mean that, sorry, we won't need to eat as much chocolate to get our health fix (an ounce per day seems a popular rule of thumb).

I'd imagine, with the rash of recent pro-flavanol medical news, that we'll soon be seeing lots of chocolate companies (i.e. higher quality than Mars) trumpeting high-flavanol products. I'm not sure why no one's devised a flavanol pill, but, then again, I cherish that gap.

God, Shmod

I've always been uncomfortable around a lot of talk about "God", and I think I've finally pinned down why: It strikes me as the very worst sort of name dropping.

On the other hand, that sort of thing is still better, in my book, than

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Turmeric/Ginger Tea

Since turmeric and green tea have been found to be extraordinarily healthful in several ways, I'm looking for new ways to consume them. Here's a recipe for turmeric/ginger tea courtesy of Vaughn Tan. It's more of a loose suggestion than a recipe, so feel free to play widely with the proportions:

Makes 2 large mugs.

1 one inch piece of turmeric root, peeled for a cleaner flavor (otherwise unpeeled)
10-15 green cardamom seeds (not pods)
1 pinch whole aniseed
1 clove
1 inch piece of root ginger (about 3/4 inch diameter)
1 teaspoon green (unfermented) assam tea (here's an inexpensive source). Chinese and Japanese green teas won't work as well, because you want a light, astringent tea. In a pinch, a light Darjeeling works, too..

Bring water to boil. Thoroughly crush turmeric and ginger with the flat of a heavy knife or the base of a water glass, then chop roughly. Crush cardamom and aniseed. Leave clove intact unless you really love the flavour of cloves.

Place everything, along with the tea leaves, into a brewing basket or infuser in a mug. When water is at a rolling boil, pour into mug and allow to infuse for more than three minutes.

This will brew at least 3 mugs of tea, after which the turmeric and green tea will have to be refreshed (another 1/2 inch piece of turmeric and a pinch of tea leaves for every 2 additional mugs).

Note: green tea is also purported to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, like the curcumin in turmeric. Also, turmeric's yellow pigment is where the healthy stuff is, so the yellower your brew, the better!

You can use turmeric powder (a couple of shakes, up to 1/4 teaspoon) as a quick and dirty substitute. The taste is different, mustier even than root turmeric, but you get tons of pigment extraction. The resulting infusion is the colour of marigolds.

Another note: when I asked Vaughn about the instruction to use boiling water (usually a no-no with green tea), he replied that "I think you could brew this at a lower temperature, but then the cardamom flavor won't come out as much. I used to infuse the spices in the boiling water for a bit and then add the tea afterwards, but it didn't make enough of a difference to me to warrant the extra hassle. Also, I think more antioxidants are extracted if you brew at a higher temperature.

Patternicity: Order in Chaos (but it's all chaos)

Scientific American published an article last year on "patternicity", a term coined by author Michael Shermer to describe the "tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise".

Indeed, human beings are fundamentally set up to find order amid chaos. Give a day trader a fake sheet of random stock prices, and he'll derive great significance from the data. And even the most logical gamblers insist their luck runs hot or cold, though their odds of success at any given moment remain constant. Why don't non-Catholics ever find the Virgin Mary's face in tree stumps or stalagmites? We project. It's not rational, but it's who we are.

But Shermer presupposes that there's an alternative to patternicity; that some of the patterns we find in the world are meaningful, rather than random and noisy. And that's daft. First, how do we meaningfully gauge meaningfulness?

The assignment of meaning is always a highly subjective kludge. I defy you to define a tight rule to determine whether a given formation of matter is or isn't a chair. Computers have a hard time making such distinctions, because there's no way to crisply define what a "chair" actually is (or, even more difficult, what a chair isn't). The term more or less covers a fuzzy, subjective range of objects. That said, it's certainly a useful fuzzy, subjective category for purposes of human cognition, but outside our minds, stuff just "is" (hence the computer's fail). Names and labels are all graft-ons; some more useful to our purposes than others, but none with intrinsic meaning. All categorization is patternicity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ceding to the Idiots

Q: What do the following have in common: Evan Bayh, The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEM), and expert chowhounds who bail from the discussion because too many know-nothings come around?

A: By taking themselves (or, in the case of the VHEM, their genetic material) out of the running, they cede everything to the idiots, much exacerbating the problem.

It's a bug in the human operating system: When things get dumb, conscientious people bail, leaving behind an ever-greater proportion of dumbness. By contrast, the idiots, who inherently act from a less high-minded position, always stick around. In fact, they're nearly impossible to remove (dogged tenacity being one hallmark of the sort of idiot who exasperates the high-minded into quitting).

Giving up may seem to make sense in the narrow view. Yes, Congress is ridiculously, unendurably beset by partisan strife, so moderates feel a strong compulsion to recoil and leave. Unconscientious human beings are destroying the planet, so the conscientious choose not to reproduce. And postings about Cheesecake Factory on Chowhound make serious eaters want to bolt. But this reflex leads to extremely short-sighted behavior.

We often hear the phrase "It's what you make it", cried, usually in vain, by the few who understand how things really work. Having grown utterly passive and consumptive in our outlook, we forget that we, as individuals, are part of the picture, not external observers. Life isn't happening on TV. We're actually a part of it all, making things happen. Our actions have ramifications; what we do, how we vote, what we support, what we buy - all these little individual decisions - determine absolutely everything. When the pineapple, perturbed by an over-abundance of coconut, opts out of the piña colada, it leaves behind a completely coconutty piña colada! We vote with our feet, and everything truly is what we make it. When we leave, we haven't switched a channel on our end; we've left a palpable vacuum in the real world.

It should be noted that this human blind spot sometimes works in the converse. Consider, for examle,people who keep picking up and moving farther and farther away from it all to escape suburban sprawl...never realizing that in so doing they
are the suburban sprawl.

The blind spot needs to be illuminated. We need politicians, like Evan Bayh, who see how wrong things are going. By checking out, he lessens hope. Similarly, if environmentalists fail to pass forward their concern - and their genetic propensity to be concerned - then there's less hope. Same when food experts leave a food discussion, ceding to the less expert. Less hope. When the pineapple storms out of the piña colada, the result is pure coconut juice.

The less moderate, less conscientious, less high-minded people always prevail. There is, alas, no symmetry here, though. Partisan congressional pinheads, callous anti-environmentalists, and mindless eaters have no compunction about anything, so they're not going anywhere. Assholes stick around!

The fallout? Look around you, and you'll notice an awful lot of decent good people (mostly quietly aggravated) and a small minority of loud idiots (mostly highly geared up). So, which side seems to be prevailing? And what about those vast hordes of people - nearly half the country - who decline to vote in national elections? Why did they pull out of the process? In most cases, blame the same spirit of disgust that disenfranchised Evan Bayh.

The pushiest loudmouths always win.

Here are some observations about the Evan Bayh situation from Robert Reich (thanks to Barry Strugatz).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Anti-Cancer Foods

There's been much excitement over the past day or so about newly publicized information regarding the antiangiogenic properties of certain foods. There's reason to believe that consumption of such foods is even more powerful in inhibiting cancer (including some cancers that are impervious to drugs) than taking antiangiogenic drugs. They may have action against obesity, as well.

See more info, as well as a list of those foods,
here. If you were to pick a few to concentrate on, you might consider green tea, blueberries, dark chocolate, turmeric, and grapeseed oil (though, please, not all in the same dish). Those have been found to be healthful in other ways in other research (click respective links for details), making them, in light of this latest discovery, appear to be "super foods".

It's best to avoid really loading up, over time, on any single food, though. You'd be multiplying not only the healthy properties of that food, but also any negative ones that may have yet to be discovered (and/or which might, as a fluke, adversely affect your particular system). So it's smart to vary your diet.

Also, while it's probably fine to save money by foregoing organic when it comes to foods eaten occasionally and/or in ordinary quantity, foods eaten in larger portion and frequency ought to be sought out in organic form. My reasoning is that what regulators deem a healthful level of pesticides, etc. in normal serving size might well be unhealthful in greater quantity. This is even more urgent when concentrating foods, e.g. via juicing, where one consumes far greater amounts than in ordinary servings.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"I Knew J.D."

(The following is an update of an entry from last week)

Here are some "I was friends with Salinger all along" tell-alls. They're starting to spill forth, now that Salinger's no longer around to miff and sue. If you've spotted other such accounts, please post links in the comments.

Roger Lathbury (invited, at least for a while, to publish Salinger's last short story)

Lillian Ross in the New Yorker

J. D. Salinger a Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors (NY Times)

Dear Jerry, You Old Bastard: My adventures answering J.D. Salinger's mail (Slate)

and, while not a tell-all, here's a nice
NY Observer piece by Gay Talese on Salinger's influence

Also, if you haven't been following along with the comments to my recent
Explaining Salinger entry, there are some interesting things to check out there.

Enough Olympics

I'm through with the Olympics.

If you're not really into rooting for your country to win (whatever that even means), there are three ways the Games can make you feel:

1. Numbly awed (by the physical attainments of kids who've devoted their lives to rotely drilling the same moves over and over and over, and who now perform those moves in a state of highly contagious anxiety and terror),

2. Disconsolate (watching the anguish of kids who've devoted their lives to rotely drilling the same moves over and over and over who happen to sneeze or wobble this particular time, making it all for naught), or...

3. Inspired (by talented athletes performing in a state of transcendent a palpable expression of love for what they do, rather than a creepy merging of naked ambition and robotic dehumanization).

The problem is that there's not much #3 happening.

Anyway, I just had my heart broken watching little Cheng Fei burst into bitter tears after some stray impulse landed her on her bum amid an otherwise flawless execution of a series of essentially meaningless super-difficult maneuvers. That, in turn, came after little Alicia Sacramone was bitterly tearful after being shut out of a vaulting medal when Cheng Fei's landing bauble was deigned less significant than her's. Which took place after a Brazilian man performed a floor routine with a galvanizing grace that achieved result #3, but who suddenly lost it and fell-down-went-boom, and a Brazilian woman performed a sublimely ecstatic floor routine that merited no consideration at all because her foot went outside the line ("That sure was energetic," was all the commentator could say). God bless Brazil, which, naturally, has never medaled in this event. The man's shattered face, relentlessly pursued by NBC's shameless, merciless cameramen, will continue to haunt me.

Gymnastics and diving are like piano competitions, where all glory goes to whoever commits the fewest errors. It's an aesthetically repulsive framework, more befitting of a factory assembly line than any sort of noble human achievement. And for those of us following along, it's like watching NASCAR, where the "entertainment" is in the wrecks (hence the insatiable thirst of those cameramen for teary money shots).

There are people whose lives are so grimly numb that only via voyeuristic identification with crashing cars and inconsolable kids can they can feel anything. And there are people more impressed by cold perfection than by raw, real, flawed beauty.

Me? I've come to realize that the Olympics is all downside. Cold rote perfection does little for me, but watching kids have their dreams crushed feels like the worst kind of torture. I can't understand why I've been giving this four hours of my nightly attention.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Adult View on Preference

Have you ever been to a meal where a three year old was making a scene about wanting to sit next to so-and-so, and insisting that everything be changed around to suit a preference which, to your adult eyes, seemed absurdly petty?

After much whining, seating arrangements are shifted to accommodate the child, who, basking in his power, starts lobbying for a special someone for his or her other side. Attempts are made to stave off the tantrum while the adults mill around uncomfortably. Finally, things settle down, and someone asks you where you'd like to sit.

You might, if you stopped to think about it, acknowledge that you do, in fact, have your preferences, and could, if you chose to go that route, insist on being accommodated. With effort, you might even be able to work yourself up into a lather about it. But, as a sane grown-up, you see that it just really doesn't matter. So you tell your host, with an amiable twinkle, you'd be perfectly happy to sit wherever works best. And though you may harbor stillborn preference, you mean it. You can make do. It doesn't matter. Let's just get on with it!

All issues of preference are like this. One can easily dredge up - and even dramatize! - a preference when the situation demands it (after driving fifty miles with friends to a shuttered restaurant, equanimity would only freak the others out). But, really, amid all the childish Sturm und Drang in a world where petty, arbitrary predilections are grasped for with utter tenacity - and little lasting satisfaction - it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that, really, it hardly matters, one way or the other. We live in a world full of three-year-olds of all ages desperately needing to eat dinner next to Aunt Thelma.

Preference is inherently petty and arbitrary. And it's also irrelevant. The real zest of life is not in frantically scrambling to get - and keep - your ducks in a row. It's in relishing the experience of playing the hand you're dealt, remaining gleefully fluid as the hand constantly changes. Fretting about the cards is an indulgent - and futile - waste of energy.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Explaining Salinger

After leaving CNET, as I considered my next steps, I arrived at a small pearl of insight. What makes me happy, I realized, is writing well and playing music well. Period. "Full stop", as the British say.

My most cherished moments have been spent embroiled in the creative process. After that comes only problems. I detest having to find channels for my output; the touchy ritual of petitioning
unhip, haughty gatekeepers. And then there's the issue of reaction. While I'm pleased when my work happens to be appreciated, I understand that the active pursuit of acclaim is a house of mirrors.

Creative people quickly learn to expect a zany mix of zealously wrongheaded admiration and flat out rejection in response to their work. And the killer is that success rarely correlates with quality. So one must labor within a madness-making, completely erratic feedback system (it's worth noting that lab animals become mortally stressed when reward and punishment are randomly meted out). There's no predicting or controlling how your work will be perceived - or whether it will be perceived at all. Those lucky few who attain some perspective on it all (usually via great success or failure) quickly realize that it's foolhardy to stake one's self worth on an uncontrollable, capricious system. Far better to just do the best work one can, and let chips fall where they will.

Of course that's not how you build a career. That's not how you get your playing heard and your writing read. That's not how you cultivate contacts and build a following. That's not how you "become somebody". And such things can hardly be disregarded if you aim to live off your creative work. That's why I deeply respect artists like Charles Ives, who plied a humdrum day job so he could compose in the spirit of pure creation.

It's not that I'm too lazy to hustle. I love to work hard; there's nothing more arduous than the task of creating something original and beautiful, and polishing it well beyond the point of "good enough". But the best results come from immersion in the doing, without regard for the distractions and turmoils of the aftermath. When attention divides, quality suffers. And
isn't quality the point?

It seems self-evident that artists require an audience - the bigger the better. This truism is a new development in the history of creative arts, but the striving for attention is now pandemic. When the impulse sneaks up on me, I remind myself that I created a platform once which grew huge, and found its hugeness
a crushing burden. The reality is that unless you are driven by an unquenchable thirst to be projected upon the public consciousness, mass attention actually feels quite disturbing and artificial. For one thing, it's never truly directed at you; it focuses on a facet of a layer of a static image which happens to have your name affixed to it. And you play little part in choosing which facet of which layer of which image is focused upon. The assignment process is remarkably similar to the way children get dubbed with nicknames.

So I find myself writing this Slog (in addition to several projects outside the public eye), read by a few dozen readers, by far the smallest readership of my career. I know a thing or two about guerilla marketing from my experience growing Chowhound into a national brand sans marketing budget, but I've done little to try to expand this audience (in fact, I've actively tanked it by jumping wildly among varied subjects). Rather than scheme about traffic, I bear closely in mind that bigger is not better; that more eyeballs mean more pressure and more non-creative obligations; that what satisfies is to create work which hopefully has some magic to it...period. Full stop.

Anything beyond that is distracting at best and painful at worst. Fretting over low readership can make a writer feel upsettingly puny, but the weight of a large audience (portions of which will mistake intentions, clamor for attention, and
enviously/admiringly shoot poison darts) brings its own world of hurt. As with so much human experience, pain arises only when one pauses to gauge how one measures up. Actual doing never hurts; creation is a peak experience, and it stays peakiest when quality-for-quality's-sake is the sole goal.

We think of JD Salinger as an embittered eccentric because he turned away from us. But consider, for a moment, that any number of people who you don't personally know live with their backs to you. It would be madness to expect a random stranger to live his life within our purview because we, singly or en masse, happened to take an interest. Does anyone really owe us that? Is there a degree of attention which somehow commands submission - and which therefore makes a person something more (and less) than a person?

I'm neither bitter nor eccentric. I love doing what I'm doing, and have never felt more creative or hopeful. But while I welcome you here, and can nearly exhaust myself toiling to make my writing hopefully worth the time you kindly spend reading it, I honestly don't care if there are a thousand of you, or just one of you, or none at all. And I love this newfound heedlessness as keenly as Dr. Zhivago loved Lara. Discovering the nucleus of my happiness has been intensely liberating. I've cracked the satisfaction puzzle.

And so did Salinger - who, vastly more eminent than I ever was, had reason (and wherewithal) to retreat more deeply from commensurately greater pressure and distraction. If there's madness to his story, it's that a deluded public would equate the spurning of limelight with dysfunction. The public's sense of entitlement makes it unimaginable for an object of its attention to opt for a private life; the natural human condition of anonymity seems freakishly unnatural. But most puzzling of all is the notion that a writer writing writing which you and I can't read is hardly a writer writing at all.

Nonsense. The play's the thing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chocolate and You

Dark chocolate is surprisingly low in calories if you eat it in modest amounts. And, fortunately, while I have a sweet tooth, I rarely crave more than a bite of the really dark stuff. A single perforated square of Taza 80% stone ground dark chocolate weighs about 7 grams. That's less than 50 calories!

For what it's worth, the
recent medical study which showed an impressive 22% reduction in stroke incidence among chocolate eaters fed its subjects 7 times that amount of chocolate. So I guess that if you want the important health benefits, you've got to eat an unhealthy quantity (on the other hand, I assume that 80% chocolates are richer in healthful favanols than the supermarket chocolate the researchers used).

Twice that quantity (100 grams, or an enormous whole jumbo bar) has
been shown to help with blood pressure.

I'd suppose that if I were to eat an entire kilo of chocolate every day, I'd live to 200. All nine hundred pounds of me!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Millionaire Gives Away Fortune Which Made Him Miserable

The headline of this story made me suspect this was just a publicity stunt, but the beauty and insight of the following two quotes from the subject, Karl Rabeder, stopped me dead in my tracks:
"I had the feeling I was working as a slave for things that I did not wish for or need."
"It was the biggest shock in my life, when I realised how horrible, soulless and without feeling the five star lifestyle is...we had the feeling we hadn't met a single real person"
I especially love how Mr. Rabeder managed to quickly unload his luxury house: via raffle! He sold 21,999 tickets for about $136 each, the total somewhat exceeding the stated value of the house.

He concludes:
"I have the feeling that there are lot of people doing the same thing."
Yes. There really are. It's beneath radar, but things are changing tectonically.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Inescapable Hell of Solo Jazz Piano

I'm mostly a trombonist, but play piano nearly as well, and have always played gigs on both instruments. And the thing that makes me, like many other pianists, ready to drive an ice pick through my forehead is that there is seemingly no way to perform solo jazz piano without having nearly every civilian in the room instantly think "cocktail piano!". Even if you're playing very spontaneously, very non-glibly, very swingingly, and otherwise showing no resemblance at all to the stylings of rancid, corny cocktail pianists. Play a couple of dense chords in a row on a piano and you will find yourself, like a wooly mammoth specimen, locked into inescapable quicksand for all eternity.

Imagine if whenever a fine painter created a solid block of color, he was identified as a "house painter". Or if anytime a ballerina swung her hips, audiences assumed her to be a stripper.

But wait, it's so much more twisted than even that. Because, you see, the archetypal cocktail pianist is nothing but a
bad version of a real jazz pianist. So even though you're playing the way a cocktail guy vainly tries to play - dreams he could play - you are deemed as cheesy as he is, because you "sound like" him by virtue of the very medium. There's a paradox here that's so utterly, screamingly insane as to be nearly unfathomable. It's as crazy as people smirking at a Mark Rothko because whenever they see paintings they're reminded of Leroy Neiman, who, everyone knows, is such a ridiculous hack.

The mere vocabulary of jazz, when rendered on a solo piano, regardless of quality, sounds, to the untutored ear, like the sonic equivalent of Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese. And there is just no getting around it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reverse Graffiti

Reverse graffiti seems to be catching on (
examples). The NY Times covered this phenomenon nice and early, back in 2006:

The British artist Paul Curtis is not sure what to call his version of vandalism. “People call it ‘reverse graffiti,’ ” he says, “but I prefer something less sinister: ‘clean tagging’ or ‘grime writing.’ ” Curtis, a k a Moose, selectively scrubs dirty, derelict city property (tunnel walls, sidewalks) so that words and images are formed by the cleaned bits. “It’s refacing,” he says, “not defacing. Just restoring a surface to its original state. It’s very temporary. It glows and it twinkles, and then it fades away.”

To pay for industrial scrubbers, he has sold some of his reverse graffiti as advertising. But mostly he sticks to his own art. Critics, like the City Council in Leeds, have accused him of breaking the law, but for what? Cleaning without a permit? “Once you do this,” he says, “you make people confront whether or not they like people cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression.”

Friday, February 5, 2010

Buy a Toyota?

As a proud contrarian, if I were in the market for a new car, and didn't need to use the car immediately, I'd be all over a super cut-rate Toyota right now.

Yes, it's possible (though by no means certain) that Toyota has perpetrated an evil coverup, but it's way too spotlit right now for the matter to reach any resolution other than a full, free, assured fix (assuming the current recall doesn't turn out to implement a complete solution). And, in the meantime, there are measures one can take to mitigate the danger in the exceedingly rare event the problem cuts in (e.g. simply disengage the cruise control!). Toyota won't risk wrongful death lawsuits with the whole world staring at them, and neither are eight million cars going straight to junkyards. It will be resolved.

And while the acceleration problem sounds fearsome, it doesn't make these vehicles out and out turkeys. They're still great cars, with a possible problem in one aspect of one system. It should have been fixed sooner. But they're on it. So, sooner rather than later, that problem will have an assured fix (if the current fix proves insufficient). So why not scoop up a bargain?

I'd even consider buying stock. Without understating the seriousness of the branding hit Toyota's suffered, or the swelling fortunes of its competitors, the market may well have overreacted (TM is down more than 20%), as it often does in the thick of big fear-inducing stories.

On the other hand, here's a different viewpoint from Forbes Magazine: "Toyota's Troubles Are Just Beginning". I suspect that much of the negativity in that article is already priced in to Toyota's stock, though. And the key to investing - elementary, though a surprising number of people don't realize it - is that it's not about assessing how a company will fare, but in assessing how wrong everyone else is about how the company will fare!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Please Tell Me They Won't Attack Iran...

Will someone please protect us from the neo-cons and Israelis who are frothing at the mouth right now about attacking Iran (latest examples re: the former and the latter)?

Yes, the issue has been foaming for years now, and many of us may have grown complacent with the notion that it's just sabers rattling. But there are indications this nightmare may come true. As with Iraq and Afghanistan, the result would be diametrically opposed to its intention: it would prop up the wobbly Iranian regime and spur them to pursue nukes at full speed and at any cost. And while most experts agree that it's absurd to expect Iran to nuke Israel, a preemptive strike by Israel would certainly set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, I point you to that first article not for its coded railings about the "Israeli lobby" (the latest euphemism for "the Jewish conspiracy"), but for the way it captures the spreading perception that wheels are moving faster and faster in some circles.

Skewed Education Yields Skewed Performance

Richard Whitmire, author of "Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind" was on Brian Lehrer's radio show on WNYC yesterday (listen here).

I was driving, and didn't catch the whole thing, so I won't even attempt to give a deft recap, but the scatterbrained A.D.D. version (hey, I'm a guy!) is this: boys are not doing well in school. A surprising majority of females predominates in colleges these days, and the academic gap seems to be deepening. Whitmire has an astounding number of fascinating facts at his fingertips, and the issue spreads intriguingly through areas like biology, culture, and the shifting sands of educational theory. Obviously, something's changed. When I was a kid, boys were scholastically behind girls for the first years of elementary school, but soon caught up and often even surpassed.

Whitmire offered tantalizing anecdotes of schools that have tweaked their teaching methods, managing to reverse the trend. Alas, there are few avenues to disseminate the findings of successful experiments. (A parallel problem exists in medicine, and, a century ago, in agriculture; for more, see this must-read
New Yorker article which suggested using the latter as a model for improving the former. I get the strong feeling it all applies to education, as well).

But I had a thought: If mere shadings of educational focus can make fully half the species appear laggardly, then how can we not similarly attribute failure with regard to smaller and much less carefully-accommodated segments that have also appeared to lag, academically (poor kids, African Americans, Latinos, etc)?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My Wine Guru Now on Twitter

My private wine resource has just gone public. If you want extremely reliable wine tips (mostly low-end for now, though he also knows all about shmancy Bordeaux), definitely tune in to my friend Dave Sit's brand new Twitter feed.

If you have questions about wine, just post @davesit queries on Twitter, and (though he's a busy dude), you'll get answers you can count on.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Seth Godin Interview

Interesting interview with Seth Godin.

On brewing up creativity:
"If I am listening to music, I'll spend half the time listening to music I like and half the time listening to music I've never heard before. If I'm driving in a town, I will put on a radio station where they're talking about stuff I don't agree with. And confronting these edges in our culture is bound to create sparks, and sparks turn into fires."
And how! I often say (though am seldom understood) that I like to be rubbed the wrong way. A big "yes" to confronting the edges (that's why yoga's great, by the way) and to delving into stuff you don't know/like/prefer. Creativity and conciliation are closely related; it's the opposite impulse of polarization and tribalism. One is the divine aspect of humanity, the other its animal aspect. We, as a society, swing cyclically between those poles (usually favoring, alas, the latter).

On choosing a career path:
"If you're going to put your heart and soul into it, it had better be something you're proud of. And that's why I always roll my eyes when I hear about the smokeless‑tobacco people suing the city of New York today because they banned grape‑flavored chewing tobacco. The people who are doing that, that's their job. They chose to do it. They don't have to do that. I don't know how you put your heart and soul into suing for the right to market grape tobacco to 12‑year‑olds."
While I strongly agree with that first sentence, I think Godin's chosen example overlooks the "dirty jobs" issue: society needs people filling certain functions. Not that luring twelve year olds to tobacco is my idea of a noble aim, but defending legal rights even for scoundrels surely is. And there's certainly pride to be felt in doing a dirty job well.

What really shocks and appalls me is someone who devotes his life to making cruddy pizza. The bane of humanity is not so much the wicked as the vapid.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Thought for the Day

Why are the most controlling people invariably the least competent?

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