Saturday, May 29, 2010

10 Things You Need To Know This Morning

There are so many sites aggregating news one really can't live without that there are also countless meta sites summarizing them, and presenting news you really really can't live without. And there a few that summarize the summarizers to offer news you really really really can't live without (the ultimate summary of even those meta meta summaries would be, simply, "Om"*).

So we're all a bit burnt out on grabby summaries. And none of us needs to spend more time web surfing than we already do. But I've added one stop to my daily rounds: a tech rundown on Silicon Alley Insider (via Business Insider) called "10 Things You Need To Know This Morning
", which has consistently been interesting and useful for me.

- An esoteric yoga joke. The Hindu scriptures (Vedas) are nearly endless. Their wisdom is said to be encapsulated by the Upanishads, which are merely sprawling. They, in turn, are encapsulated by the surprisingly terse Mahavakyas. And the final encapsulation of the Mahavakyas - in other words, the complete distillation of all the spiritual knowledge of the ancient rishis, or wise men - is, simply, "Om".

Friday, May 28, 2010

Health Code Regulations Trap Good Guys as Well as Bad

I recently raved on Chowhound about an exemplary yogurt brand from a small Connecticut farm. Someone replied by noting that the farm's operator had been charged with multiple health code infractions. I'll reprint my response here, because it applies well beyond this one example (even, really, beyond food):
I noted that CT inspectors are "tough". And that can also breaks the other way, into inane niggling and inflexibility. For example, you will never find unrefrigerated mozzarella cheese in CT, even from those who make it fresh daily and store it, properly, in cool water. Perfectly healthful, but the code says you refrigerate dairy products, period.

It's important for the general public to remember that operators with poor health violation records are not necessarily cynical pigs doing disgusting things in blithe disregard for the suckers who buy their food. There ARE such operators, and health laws are intended to thwart them (and do a great job), but they also catch some conscientious operators in their nets - operators who are trying to use perfectly good, perfectly safe methods that happen not to adhere to the letter of the law.

Ironically/tragically, such operators tend to be more conscientious operators than average, because they stubbornly insist on following non-standard protocol, and there's a fine line between "non-standard protocol" and "artisinal methods".

The standard protocols, after all, are created according to the chain model, because that's the dominant modern industry standard. Nobody at the DOH is working to build in flexibility to accommodate small batch traditional methods....much less eccentric trail-blazing methods. And violations are charged to the letter, not the spirit of the law. That's the only way it can be; we can't expect inspectors to be wise greybeards invested with broad powers to bend rules according to their superior judgement. That's not how enforcement works - nor should it work that way.

All this said, this may be a sleazy, cynical operator! But the sublime flavor of his product makes it impossible for me to imagine that. And, being a devoted chowhound, I go with what my palate tells me.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Back and Forth on Sony

This profile from a recent Wired Magazine of Sony CEO Howard Stringer, making the case that this overgrown, lazy behemoth of a company may be tanned, rested, and ready, made me consider investing in Sony. And I was impressed with how quickly Sony's jumped into the incipient Micro Four Thirds camera fray. Maybe they are indeed newly innovative and flexibly responsive.

But my ire was cooled by Sony's recently announced pact with Google re: their
TV product, a turkey of an idea (the hoary WebTV model is definitely not the future).

But now there's this news that Sony has demonstrated a working roll-up video screen. This is a tech holy grail that's been avidly pursued for decades. And the market doesn't seem to have adequately priced the news (which broke Wednesday afternoon) into Sony's stock price.

The Ethics of Illegal Downloading: Update

This is an update to yesterday's entry about the ethics of illegal downloads. There's been discussion via various channels.

Seth Godin posted the following (as a comment to that entry):
"I always disagree with Randy as a matter of principal, Jim, but the flaw in your point is pretty clear to me: when you buy second hand, you lower the cost to the original purchaser. You create an economic incentive to buy new, one that in an efficient market for second hand could be significant."
I'm pretty satisfied with that philosophically, Seth, but, practically, I suspect many CD/DVD sellers on the used market are ripping and sharing prior to selling, so it's probably an ethical zero sum (i.e. I'm enabling so much free/illegal distribution that it nullifies the benefit of enabling new purchases).

Randy Cohen had this to say via email:
"The key to solving these problems is to make it effortless for the consumer to pay his or her fair share to the producer. When you listen to a song on the radio, for example, the writer, publisher and performers are all paid a tiny amount, with no inconvenience or moral qualms to you. In England, libraries pay royalties to authors whose books are borrowed. Both of these systems were in place long before computers made it easy to keep records of such transactions. It would present no technical problems for Amazon to build in a small fee for each sale via their Marketplace, an infinitely better solution than anything any individual can do. But only a change in law will compel them to do it. Don't wait around for anyone's conscience or understanding of the economics of writing to dictate such a change.

And the flaw in Seth's argument is that you "lower the cost to the original purchaser" at the expense of the folks who created the music. And this: is there any actual evidence that this "savings" actually increases sales? I'm skeptical."
On that last part, Seth would likely make the point that many second-hand buyers would not otherwise buy new, so they're probably doing more good than harm in supporting those who DO buy new.

I like the proposal to microcharge for (and track) all sales, not just new. It would be a logistical nightmare, though; much more so than the ASCAP model for music. It could only viably be instituted for the largest and most established second-hand channels (e.g. Amazon). But, of course, vendors would argue against the unfair targeting. So, while I'd love to see it, I doubt it's workable.

And I found that last sentence (about "waiting around") thoroughly cryptic. Again, if support for the artist is the crux of the ethical argument, there's either an ethical compulsion to always buy new, or else we may as well freely download content, since my thoroughly legal and ethical 2nd-hand purchases provide no support whatsoever to artists.

Update: be sure and read the comments posted to this entry.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Computer Virus Infects Man

The BBC reports this morning that a British scientist says he is the first man in the world to become infected with a computer virus. (Thanks, Joshi.)

I always feel eerie when I read reports about computer viruses. Back in college, I hung out with a nerdy crew of brilliant tech-heads. I was a humanities major, but always had a hacker-ish mentality (for those who don't understand, hacking is about curious tinkering; most of us think of hackers as evil bastards who wreak havoc, but that's not hacking, it's an evil application of hacking techniques).

In 1981, one of these friends explained the fascinating theory of computer viruses. And it truly was fascinating at the time; computers were fairly primitive things, and it was a heady notion that they might be used to mimic living functions.

There were no actual computer viruses then (the first appeared a few months later). And I always wondered how much of a part that friend (who I've been out of touch with since school) had in starting it all. I didn't think he was a particularly evil bastard, but who knows....

The Ethics of Illegal Downloading

I just sent the following email to Randy Cohen, the NY Times' "Ethicist" columnist (I'll let you know if he replies):
I heard your show with John Schaefer re: the ethics of music downloading. I wasn't able to call in, but I just wanted to throw out a wrinkle.

The main argument against downloading is that, regardless of whether you deem it truly "stealing", you're not supporting the creative people. As you said on the show, that's the ethical issue it all boils down to. And as a writer and musician, I'm all about supporting the creative people!

But here's the thing. I mostly buy books, cd's, and DVDs second-hand (from, Amazon Marketplace, etc.). I can save a bundle that way, and no one could dispute the legality. However, creative people get nothing from such sales. And without the "support the creative process" argument, I have to wonder why I'm not just downloading (thus saving not only money, but also the resources required to pack/ship the item to me). From my position, there's no ethical issue, just a (weak) legal one.

Given that support of artistic process is, as you said, the persuasive ethical consideration, the question is this: do we have an ethical obligation to buy only new/retail content, since the secondhand market doesn't support the artist (or, as importantly, add to their sales numbers)? And if support is indeed an ethical compulsion, couldn't we further argue that there's an ethical obligation to directly donate supplementary funds to support our favorite artists, because their cut of a sale is so negligible as to constitute no support at all? Where does one draw the line on the notion of "support"?
Update: See this entry for Cohen's response and some further thoughts.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Solving Solving Problem Solving

I recently learned that a friend has put her life on hold to come home and take care of her mom, who was in a horrendous traffic accident and suffered massive brain damage. Of course, I immediately called my friend Tony.

Tony was my auto mechanic during the 1980's. He wouldn't strike you as the brainy type, and, indeed, his reading and writing skills are poor. But I saw that Tony was brilliant. He fixed cars via highly creative methods, often involving a sledge hammer (don't ask). And he was an honest mechanic, that rarest of rarities. His career choice was either priest or mechanic, and he went with the option requiring less academic prowess. Yet there was always a hovering air of benediction inside Tony's messy back-alley Queens garage.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from Tony, who was in a state of distress. His brother had been working on a scaffold, and had fallen thirty feet to the sidewalk, directly on his head. He was in a coma, on total life support, and the family had been told to expect no improvement. Tony had flown to San Francisco to attend to the situation.

I wrote down the medical information so I could do some research, and found only dead ends. I delicately suggested to Tony that things looked irresolvable.

A few weeks later, on the eve of a trip to California, I gave Tony a call to see whether he was still out there. He told me he'd been camped out in his brothers hospital room, and that I wouldn't believe what's happening. I flew west, grabbed a cab to the hospital, and walked into a room filled with....stuff. Strings, poles, clips, bags, pouches, blocks, and much more. Tony's brother looked awful - his skull was collapsed, making his head look like a deflated football. He was completely out of it. But Tony was exuberant.

"Watch!" he said, while he clipped a clothespin to his brother's toe. The comatose patient immediately began shaking his feet and flexing his toe in order to remove the pin. Tony methodically moved the clothespin from toe to toe, from foot to foot. And he'd asked the orderlies not to shave his brother's face. As a result, his hands were creeping closer and closer toward his head in order to scratch the itchy stubble.

Tony was spending 24/7 thinking up creative, great solutions like this. There were literally thousands of them, an outpouring of pure genius. And let's cut to the end (the entire tale needs to be a book or NY Times Magazine article, if I can summon the ambition). Today, Tony's brother is out of the hospital. He's walking, talking, feeding himself, and otherwise functioning normally. Sure, he sleeps 16 hours per night and is quite spacy, but the neurologists have been left completely dumbfounded. This was not a possible result.

Tony has since worked with other hopeless cases, with great success. (Unfortunately, Tony has no certification. No title. No degree. No education. Where could he work? Who would hire him? We pay neurologists huge salaries to cluck their tongues in such cases and insist nothing can be done. But Tony, who can actually fix people, can't make a dime!)

I told my friend this entire story. And informed her that Tony had offered to advise her via phone, and to stop by to see her Mom, and work with her (pro bono) if she'd like. If things in this world were priced in accordance with their true value, this was a ten million dollar offer. My friend expressed grateful appreciation, but, weeks later, she still hasn't called him. I guess she won't. And her mom will not be getting better.

As I lamented
here, solving difficult problems is hard, but it's nowhere near as hard as persuading someone to embrace a worthy solution. Spinning my wheels on this ever-recurring quandary (here's another example), I've learned some things. I've learned to detach and not insist. I've learned to shrug and accept that gently offering is all that one can do. I've learned to calmly observe people opting for problems, pain, and suffering in the face of obvious solutions. This has all been intensely challenging for me. But the problem is that within my newfound detachment, I find it really hard to empathize. I go cold. Not sulky or exasperated, and not waiting for a "told you so" moment; just annoyingly cheerfully aloof. How does one remain emotionally engaged while blithely shrugging off?

The next time I hear from my friend with the brain-damaged mom, I'll need to summon genuine sympathy for her sad dead-end tale. And I need to reconnect with the guy with the mysterious (self-inflicted) muscle tears, who I've been avoiding. It seems crazy to find oneself holding a bag of hard-won solutions while watching folks who've declined those solutions suffer. But it's necessary to overlook the craziness - as we humans must overlook so much craziness - and remain fully sympathetic. Because suffering is suffering, self-inflicted or not, and a flair for problem solving is but one faculty (and a minor one at that) to wield in a world where people fall in love with their problems and actively stave off solution.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Spotted in the sig footer of a posting to a tech message board:
Go outside, the graphics are amazing!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tristan Da Cunha

I've had a longtime interest in Tristan Da Cunha, the most remote human inhabitation on the planet. It's located midway between Africa and South America (here's a Google Map), and you can only get there by taking a ship from South Africa which may or may not stop some distance from the island. If the weather's ok, the ship will drop longboats, it's a matter of rowing like hell and praying to God you're not dashed on the rocks (there is no harbor). If the weather's not so ok, you'll return to South Africa some weeks later without having visited.

The population of 275 people - all descendants of various shipwreck victims - wears thick heavy socks and speaks a dialect of English heard nowhere else. And the main dietary staples are lobster, crawfish, and potatoes. And everyone's friendly. It's heaven.

Their potatoes are reported to be the best on earth, because they're grown in penguin guano, which seems to be the optimal spuddy medium. They are so good that they can be eaten raw, like apples. Tristan da Cunha's post office even issued a potato stamp once:

The potatoes are grown in a special farm called "Patches", located a couple miles from the main inhabitation:

My interest was piqued when I caught an off-Broadway play about the island, written by the granddaughter of a minister who'd lived there for a while. I went home and learned everything about the island, eventually coming upon the news that, one year prior, Tristan da Cunha had suffered a catastrophic hurricane which had done great damage.

I knew the island had one single email account, so I wrote in, expressing my sympathy and solidarity, and asking how I could help with the relief efforts (and also asking if anyone wanted to exchange potato recipes). Nine months later, I received a letter, in very unusual handwriting with amazing-looking stamps, from Mr. Glass, who at the time was Chief Islander. He thanked me for my offer, and asked for my address so he could send me a copy of the Tristan da Cunha cookbook. He also shared some news about his family. It was very friendly and touching.

A year later, I got another letter from Mr. Glass, apologizing because he'd actually just returned from New York, where he'd attended a lobster conference, and had intended to hand-deliver my cookbook but he'd unfortunately forgotten to bring along my address. Enclosed with the letter was the cookbook. It was charming, wonderful, gratefully received...but, alas, wholly unexceptional.

I wrote back telling Mr. Glass that next time an islander visits New York, they could consider me the unofficial welcoming committee, and that I'd take folks out for potato-heavy meals and otherwise show them a good time.

Eight months later, Mr. Glass sent me a letter thanking me, informing me of the great success his son had been having in boating competitions (if you can survive getting to and from Tristan from the South African boat, you can apparently accomplish most anything nautical that comes up), and asking me if I could help with a problem. Mrs. Glass had been painting penguin eggs to sell to tourists, but had found it difficult to remove the yolks without damaging the shells. He'd heard there were kits for this, and asked if I could send one.

Egg decoration is a Ukrainian tradition, so I headed to a Ukrainian crafts store in the East Village, where I shared the entire story with the impassive proprietor. I thought I'd surely score a free kit, but she charged me the full three bucks and nearly threw me out of her store.

I sent it along some years ago, and have not since heard back, but it's possible the egg decoration kit never arrived; Mr. Glass told me the Johannesburg post office is notorious for pilfering packages. But, in the overarching sweep of our relationship, I deem a half-decade or two of non-communication to be a mere blip.

Here are some links.

Traveling to Tristan Da Cunha:
Organising Tristan da Cunha Visits

Trembly's Travels, a personal web site of a woman who loves far-flung travel which offers a terrific personal travelogue of a visit to Tristan (the whole site's worth reading; check out her Saudi Arabia visit!)

Another Trip Account

General Tristan Da Cunha Info:
The Tristan Yahoo Discussion Group (it's good to know I'm not the only one interested in Tristan!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I had a great meal last night at Cafe-Bakery Tbilisi (1871 86th St, Brooklyn, NY; 347-492-3808), a new off-shoot of the better known Restaurant Tbilisi(811 Kings Hwy, Brooklyn, NY; 845-480-0088). Let me offer that first URLonce again, and beg you to click and let the slide show load - the accompanying Georgian music is amazing.

I love Georgian food; hordes of different nationalities have run through, each leaving a distinctive mark on the cuisine. The result is vast depth and soul. And Georgia is one of those rare places where deliciousness is a top mainstream priority, so it's unimaginable that someone would open a lousy Georgian restaurant. In fact, I've never had even mediocre Georgian.

But this place is extraordinary even by Georgian standards. I'll let the photos, below, do most of the talking. No fancy camera tricks were used; I just shot, as usual, with my iPhone camera. This is really what the food looked like, and it tastes just as it looks.

This eggplant with walnut sauce was devastating; we ate in hushed awe (please click to expand!):

Fried chicken in garlic sauce. God.

Potatoes with mushrooms. The potatoes tasted exactly like classic Nathan's fries without the crinkle cut. But the mushrooms...oh, God, the mushrooms:

Also great: chicken in walnut sauce, "Khinkali" (Georgian soup dumplings, here with half a cup of soup in each), the noodlier of their kachapuris (I forgot the name)...and the hellish little bodega across the street, which, along with Michelob and Miller, sells, for some unfathomable reason, Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA , at a mere $10 per six pack, which is 1. hard to find, and 2. miraculously happens to be the perfect drink to go with Georgian food (divine providence?)

"Whisper Ads" From Google

I almost never find The Onion funny. Yet I almost never find videos from "ONN" (Onion News Network) not funny. This latest one is a scream:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 16

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Without our staff of volunteer moderators, Chowhound would long ago have ceased to be Chowhound. Our users see friendly, focused, honest conversation, but the raw version behind that well-gardened veneer is a fearsome thing, rife with guerilla marketing, flaming, trolling, self-promotion, and all the other familiar online detritus. For their trouble, these guys receive no credit, and take endless crap from users, none of whom like to be moderated.

Our moderators are heroes. I'm intensely grateful for the job they've done (and continue to do; all our moderators stayed on board after Chowhound's sale to CNET, and we have lots of new ones, all drawn from our user base). Looking back, I see that we made some smart decisions in how we recruited and managed them, and, before continuing with this tale, I need to explain one of the more counterintuitive precepts of volunteer management.

Anyone who ever volunteered in any capacity for Chowhound (four or five dozen people in all, working on publications, business or tech issues, etc., as well as moderation) was informed that no commitment would ever be expected. No one is "responsible" for any given task. For example, no moderator takes responsibility for a given message board; everyone lends a hand everywhere. In fact, no one even commits to showing up! If someone needs to drop out suddenly for weeks or months, we wish them a cheery bon voyage, and that's that. No one's locked in, tied down, or hooked up in any way. They come and go as they please, and determine their own respective roles and workloads.

As a result, moderation feels just as recreational as surfing the Chowhound site for food tips; it's a pleasant diversion undertaken on momentary whim. And great things can come from the proper channeling of whim! Consider Wikipedia (which Chowhound predated by four years), where a critical mass of users enjoys managing and editing as much as reading. Both the back end and the front end are handled in the same carefree, self-paced spirit.

Paradoxically, the slack we offer our volunteers ties them more tightly into their roles. Freed of any concern of bogging down, or any sensation that they're "working", they happily contribute countless hours. We literally could not pay people to work this hard or this well.

And so, counterintuitively, paying would actually mess everything up. It would drastically change the entire dynamic. Because here's the thing: if you pay people, they've got to show up. They have to commit. And regardless of how much you love what you do and believe in it, if you have to show up, it's a job. You're working...period. Helping Chowhound would come to feel like work...and all these folks already have work lives. In fact, moderating Chowhound is their diversion from all that! If we paid moderators to moderate, and posters to post, the whole enterprise would turn to crap in weeks. Just think: could you pay people to compile a Wikipedia?

Why maintain a forum for free? For the same reason they chip in food tips for free: it's a pleasant hobby, and the results are highly useful to themselves and others. I experienced this, myself. Difficult though my unpaid slogging years were, there was an underlying playful glee to it, which was utterly stamped out during the year I was drawing a good salary from CNET. I'd worked hard on Chowhound all along, but there was never so much as a whiff of that stultifying time clock/workplace feeling. When that cut in, I could feel the life force draining out of me. Jesus, what a buzz kill.

But Chowhound had two volunteers who, over the years, had gone way beyond whim. They took on a managerial role, and while they were free to disappear at any time, per our policy, they didn't. They could be counted upon, and I started to involve them in more and more decision-making. In the final year, when my workload and stress level had grown grotesquely overwhelming, and I was damaged goods (my memory shot, my judgement shaky), they covered for me, taking on many tasks far beyond their roles. These were not mere volunteers, and I owed them.

Every once in a while over the years, I'd daydreamed about Chowhound winding up a financial success. The high point of my fantasy was the part where I'd send generous checks to each of these two, along with hand-written notes, which I'd already composed and polished in my mind. So as we started wrapping up the particulars of our deal with CNET, I announced to my lawyer that a share of our proceeds would be going to these volunteers. The lawyer blandly questioned me:
"Are these people paid workers?
"Do you have a contract with them?"
"Do you have a verbal agreement to pay them a certain amount in the event of acquisition?
"Then...unnh...why, exactly, are you paying them??"
"Because they deserve it."
On the other end of the phone there was a vacuous silence while the word "deserve", that most nonlegal of terms, was pondered and chewed upon. Then I heard a long, slow inhalation through tense nostrils, followed by a weary, pained promise to take the idea into consideration.

The news of my request was relayed to our accountant, then to CNET's accountants, and their lawyers. Each, in turn, asked the very same questions: Are these paid workers? Is there a contract or verbal agreement? Then why, exactly, are you paying them....???

These were all experienced professionals, very strong on mergers and acquisitions. They'd seen it all. But I'd stumped the band. Cold. This was not a move they could wrap their minds around; it completely threw them. Why, why, why, why are you paying these people? It's just not done that way! There's no precedent! This is madness! Everything's growing cloudy....can't think...

I'd done psychic damage by throwing this wrench into the machinations of corporate power. Our corporate treasurer threatened to resign her position as an officer of Chowhound, Inc., out of fear of legal spill-back. CNET railed against it, and our lawyer offered me the following sole hope:

If I could persuade these individuals to affix their signatures to a page full of cold legalese in which they'd swear, for the love of Jesus Christ and the preservation of their dainty, uncrushed kneecaps, to never sue, or try to get any
more money...then, ok, fine, we might find a way to accomplish this.

The document would, essentially, read something like this:
"I, XXXX, do hereby agree to accept $XXXX in blood money under the provision that I release Jim Leff, and the awesome, intimidating powers standing behind him, from any delusional notion I might be owed even so much as a spit in my face. This is an unearned gift, and it's all the money I'll ever be getting, and I understand that I won't even get this without explicitly renouncing my claim to anything else...ever. I will grab your check in my hot, greedy, litigious little hand, and kindly get the F away from you."
[Obviously, I've just slipped into surreal mode again; something I hesitate to do because so many aspects of this story are genuinely surreal, and I don't want you to think any of it is invented or exaggerated. But I'm aiming for vicarious impressionism here, so indulge my kookiness...which I'll always clearly label as such.]

The document, obviously, would be starkly dissimilar in tone to my long-imagined hand-written note of gracious thanks. My loyal colleagues would open their mailboxes and find this insane bit of ugliness, which would utterly poison the loving impulse behind it all. I tore myself up, lost sleep over it. I protested loudly that these people were
not going to sue anyone, for God's sake. My assurances were politely ignored.

Adding to the excruciating discomfort was the issue of a particularly damaged and damaging ex-girlfriend of mine who'd provided some key help with Chowhound's formation way back in 1997. Bob and I had promised her, at the time, that if Chowhound ever amounted to anything, she'd receive a cut. (Note to entrepreneurs: don't ever do this. Sign a formal agreement or just shaddup!) We obviously needed to honor that promise.

My two colleagues were, as ever, completely understanding about this whole affair (the ex-girlfriend was handled via our accountant). They signed the scary document. And then, at the eleventh hour, for reasons I can't recall, the whole thing was off. CNET was refusing, even with the legal protection of signed affidavits they'd insisted upon, to pay these guys directly out of the deal. It had all been for nought. Bob and I would be paid, and afterwards, if we liked, we could cut personal checks to send as gifts. Which meant that Bob and I would be forced to pay the (substantial) tax, plus we'd use up a substantial portion of our lifetime allotment of non-charitable gifting.

It was all so crazily screwed up. But nowhere near as screwed up as things were about to get...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Case Against Conservation

As a child, I was very conservation-minded; forever agonizing about water and electricity wastage. But as I hustled to switch off lights and shut faucets, I began to notice a logic problem.

I became increasingly aware that there was no end to how finely you could slice it. We know to turn off the faucet while brushing our teeth, but do I really need the short burst of water to pre-moisten my toothbrush? Sure, a dry brush makes for icky brushing, but that could be tolerated in the name of conservation. And do I really need to triple rinse my mouth? A double rinse might leave some toothpaste, but would waste less water. And each time I use the sink, if I could turn the faucet just a wee bit less, that would, over my lifetime, save considerable water. I could train myself by twisting a millimeter less each time...perhaps even mark the faucets to track progress.

You get the idea.

Fortunately, I also worried about going overboard. There's no need to grimly sacrifice; the point is to make do with somewhat less, rather than to vigilantly stamp out all trace of waste. After all, the water saved by rinsing just twice, or by declining to moisten my toothbrush, or by micro-adjusting flow rates would be infinitesimal in the scheme of things.

But there's the rub. Really, just about any conservation you do is infinitesimal in the scheme of things. The margin between caution and carelessness, viewed within the context of a city, a neighborhood, even just your block, is virtually nill. One person's habits make scant difference.

On the other hand, my mental argument went, it's not about any one person; it's about the aggregate. Small adjustments made by a great many people yield huge results. And good people do their part. But, that case, again, why waste the least little bit? Why rinse thrice, why moisten my toothbrush, etc.? Sure, it seems petty, but if it's all about doing my little part, then how can the term "petty" even apply? By being hypervigilant, I'd balance, in the aggregate, someone who's a hyperwaster.

I finally decided that a comfortable middle ground made as much sense as either extreme. Rather than be an extreme hog or extreme conservationist, I'd remain squarely in the middle: conscientious but not obsessive. And that's where I remain. I leave lights on when I'm home because I like the cheeriness. I use incandescent bulbs because I dislike the light from fluorescents (update: LEDs are great). I let the shower run until hot, sometimes overshooting by a minute or two. I never conserve past my comfort zone, because there's no end to all that...and precious little real benefit. I'm conscious of the waste at all times, and there's no unconscious waste. I deem this the very definition of "conscientiousness".

Whenever I'm reminded of our environmental predicament, I feel a strong urge to do more. But then I remember the logical sinkholes involved in the voluntary creation of scarcity. So long as my water and electricity service remain unlimited, a line must arbitrarily be drawn, and non-crazies draw their lines well beyond anything like true conservation (i.e., the lifestyle we'd be forced to live if compelled by actual scarcity). And I can't see a persuasive reason to be more conservationist than most moderately conservationist Americans - in other words: hardly conserving at all.

....though I'm ready to go back to dry brushing and cold showering whenever need be.

Just one request: before flaming me, please answer the following questions:

1. How often do you shower (and why would you let your vanity trump your conservationism? What's more important, smelling good or saving the planet?)

2. Blind people are able to navigate their apartments without any light at all. It requires training, yes, but it's viable, and if they can do it, so can you (alternatively, you can go to bed at sunset to avoid darkness entirely). Why have you not undergone that training? Is the convenience of illumination truly more important than saving the planet?

3. We easily survive outdoors far below room temperature. It's simply a matter of proper clothing. So what sort of clothing do you wear at home? And do you turn on the heat when the temperature's above 45?

4. Salad is delicious and nutritious. Do you use electrical cooking appliances? If so, how can you justify this?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Solving Problem Solving

A friend of mine has endured a series of disabling muscle tears, and at this point is having trouble getting around. It's all completely mysterious; he's been to doctor after doctor, but no one can figure out what's causing this.

The other day, I asked whether he's tried stretching out. He replied that he's been doing so all his life, so, no, that's not the problem. It's not a matter of tightness. I pushed a bit further, asking exactly what sort of stretching he's been doing. His eyes brightened, and he eagerly explained his method: he stretches each muscle to the point of pain. And then he stretches it a bunch more.

I stared at him, slack-jawed. And didn't make a peep. I just let his words reverberate, figuring he'd hear them for himself, slap his forehead in realization, and the problem would be identified and immediately corrected. And so I waited. And waited some more. But his forehead remained unslapped.

Finally, I stated the obvious, as gently as I could. But my friend wasn't listening. His eyes were unfocused, he was somewhere else. I tried to restate my point from a different tack, and he remained in a fuzzy, half-listening fugue state. I could also see that he was growing annoyed. Something about truth annoys people. He wagged his head, "no" at me, testily. "I've been following this stretching regimen for years without any problem." I decided it wouldn't help to point out that it appears his lucky streak had finally ended.

So I dropped it. And muscle tears keep on plaguing him. The mystery continues.

Speaking of plaguing, this is exactly the scenario that has always driven me nuts. And, like all scenarios that drive us nuts, it keeps repeating. Over and over and over again. Like Groundhog Day, I find myself being run through the deja vu until I eventually get it right. "Problem? Hey, I thought of a solution!" "No, shut up." "Oh, ok...sorry." Cut. Try again! "Problem? Hey, would you consider listening to a possible solution!" "No, shut up." "Oh, ok...sorry."

And, just to ensure maximal irony: as I relive this endless Groundhog Day, I find myself growing more and more skilled at problem solving. It's sort of a gift, I suppose. But I can't use it much, because people fall in love with their problems and actively stave off solution. Fixing stuff requires change, and change is scary. It also requires acknowledging that one's previous approach was wrong, and that's way too humbling for most people.

Which I don't get at all. I've always loved having my wrongness illuminated for me. All the better to become ever more smugly right.

See this follow-up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Blair's Death Rain

I've sampled a vast number of potato chip brands, including some so delicious that I can no longer be easily impressed.

I also have a slight aversion to flavored chips. Talk about gilding lilies; why mask the spudly goodness?

But Blair's Death Rain, which are not only flavored, but extreme-flavored, are great. Their medium spicy ones are just about right for me; the heat crests into tongue-singeing intensity without quite creeping past the pain point. Their cheddar flavor is remarkably true, and their chipotle is beautifully smokey and delicate. Both are further proof that the latest generation of food additives are getting really really good.

They're available at Fairway Markets and (in bulk) at Amazon...or order via the company's online store (at link above).

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Best Chocolate in the World

It seems silly to proclaim a "best chocolate in the world" because people have such divergent preferences. After all, there's nothing more personal than chocolate.

That's not so in all gastronomic realms. Burgundy drinkers, for instance, tend to be more synchronized, because few people come to wine with fixed opinions. As you absorb the consensus view, you're trained to taste from the point of view of that consensus, so most Burgundy bozos seek loosely the same qualities. But everyone, from eight year-olds to anorexic supermodels to NASCAR dads, feels like a chocolate expert, and we all expect widely divergent things from chocolate, so there's no pleasing everyone. To some, it's candy. To others, caviar.

Chocolate geeks, a separate breed entirely, bring a snooty sensibility to the scene, and some of their favorite products - very bitter, highly refined, and staunchly inaccessible - would gravely disappoint anyone hoping for sweet unctuous decadence. And, at the other extreme, Hershey's churns out 80 million Kisses per year.

But here's the thing: regardless of what you seek from chocolate, Rabot Estate Chuao will absolutely slay you. That's why I call it the best chocolate.

Are you a materialistic foodie, who squeals at the prospect of tasting the most lauded, sought-after variety? Chuao is the single estate cocoa bean everyone's always talking about. Enjoy with a nice fecal cup of civet coffee!

Are you a chocoholic, less interested in subtleties and provenance than in a smoothly embracing cloud of choco-love? You can gobble this stuff mindlessly, decadently, and it still delivers.

Are you a chocolate geek, pursuing highly refined products that elicit all the right adjectives? Whether you're all about the fruity, the ashy or the evasive scintilla of cassis, this will leave you ecstatic.
Are you a reverse snob? This is a completely accessible chocolate which doesn't show off its refinement. It's as friendly tasting as it is impressive.

Are you a bargain hunter? The two better-known chuao brands, Domori and Amadei, are three times more expensive. Rabot Estate will set you back a mere four bucks for 35g. Such a deal! (and I prefer Rabot Estate to both those others).

Are you an aesthete, seeking culinary fireworks? A morsel of Rabot Estate Chuao offers a multi-layered, ultra long flavor experience Grucci himself could have choreographed.

Whoever you are, Rabot Estate Chuao is The Bomb. As it melts in your mouth, and you've acknowledged its bombhood, it takes you deeper, enveloping you in perpetually unfolding lush woozy richness. It goes on and on.

For now, you can only buy Rabot Estate Chuao in England. But I've been informed that the two new Boston outposts of Hotel Chocolat (the overlords of Rabot Estate) will soon carry Chuao - hopefully for a reasonable price. Watch this Slog for an announcement. Thanks to Chowhound veteran Limster for turning me on to this chocolate

Bonus Recco: second best chocolate, for me, is Russian, believe it or not. I don't know much about the brand, and neither do you, but Russian food lovers speak in hushed awe about Babaevsky 75%, and it's become my house chocolate. You can find it in good quality Russian food stores, or via mail order at that previous link (warning: their minimal shipping charge is high, so you may want to add on items like Borodinsky Black Rye Bread ...and note that there's free delivery in Manhattan for $40 orders and higher, via this sister site).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Update re: Sitting vs Standing

I've added some new material at the bottom of the entry about the perils of sitting down.

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out....Update

Just a note, for those of you who've been following along with the Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out series (wherein I tell the tale of Chowhound's final independent days and its sale to CNET), to say that I intend to continue shortly. The upcoming chapters will include some unpleasant memories which I haven't been in a hurry to dredge up (plus there's some delicate stuff I need to write carefully), but we're in the midst of this lovely Spring weather, so I've taken a deep breath and am typing away.

You may want to work through the series again to get in the mood; several correspondents have told me they've really enjoyed re-readings.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Herman Miller: The Silent Killer

A lot of science has emerged lately demonstrating that sitting is really bad for you (read this, this, and the bottom two paragraphs of this). Like, really bad! A mere hour or two of sitting does ghastly things. Even if you eat modestly and exercise like a banshee, your desk job, TV watching, and web surfing are making you fat and unhealthy. Consider these facts (I'm quoting from the second link, above):
Every hour spent watching TV (an activity that usually involves sitting) was associated with an 18% increase in heart disease deaths and an 11% increase in deaths overall among 8,800 Australians who were followed for six years, according to a recent report published online in Circulation. People who watched TV at least four hours a day were 80% more likely to die of heart disease than those who watched less than two hours a day. (Americans watch an average of five hours of TV a day.)

A Canadian study of 17,000 adults also found a consistent link between chair time and deaths from heart disease: The more people sat, for any reason, the more likely they were to die of heart disease within 12 years — even if they were slim and exercised regularly.
"Even if they were slim and exercised regularly"! Spooky, no?

This all jibes with three pieces of physiological common sense:

1. Fidgety people have higher resting metabolisms...and don't gain weight as easily. That's been proven, scientifically (sorry, I don't have time to find the link right now, but it's out there). And standing requires the action of tons of small postural muscles. In general, the aggregate of tiny actions during one's day seem to have more impact than twenty strenuous minutes on, say, a stairmaster.

2. People who stop running (due to injury, etc.) and substitute a regimen of walking are often surprised to find that long walking gets them into shape more effectively than short or medium running...even if fewer calories are burned. Time and intensity are both important, but time seems to have the edge. And, for one thing, time spent walking, like time spent standing, is time spent not sitting. It's amusing to consider that wellness might be more about simply "not sitting" than it is about doing anything more pointedly grueling in lieu of sitting. But as I've previously noted, gyms are full of perpetually fat people hammering away at themselves. The effectiveness of that approach seems limited.

3. I find it incredibly difficult to lose weight. And I grew curious enough to try making it my top priority for a year or two. I eventually learned that even with a perfect diet and daily rigorous exercise, I'm unable to lose more than half a pound per week. I finally lost 35 pounds, but it was unbearably slow, required extreme discipline, and left me far less skeptical upon hearing people complain they simply can't lose weight. Science used to smugly insist that since weight loss is simply a matter of calories in versus calories out, you have only your laziness and hunger to blame, but now science is registering some weird things (nothing weirder, by the way, than this). The main weird thing is....sitting is an absolutely huge factor. This seems to be a key (and who's not in favor of effective weight loss keys that don't require monstrous discipline, exertion, and restraint!).

Human beings did not sit for hours per day until a century or so ago. And that's when we started getting fat and sick. It's not what we're evolved for. (And yes, these studies do take into account the fact that people naturally drawn to sitting are constitutionally different than those naturally drawn to standing, walking, and exercising.)

The rich have been comfort-addicted for time immemorial. Money may be a surprisingly inadequate solution to most problems, but it sure does buy comfort! And the rich developed world has been increasingly obsessed with reducing exertion to the very bare minimum, even after an eight hour workday of sedentary labor. Well, we seem to have hit the wall with that.

Solutions: work and surf at a standing desk (the word out there is that after a couple weeks of adjustment, you start really liking it a lot, and endurance increases quickly). Or, if that's too much, use an active sitting chair or a stand/sit chair. Or, to take it to the next level, I actually hear good things about this ridiculous-seeming treadmill desk.

One very simple workaround - unproven scientifically, though it does make sense - is to set a timer whenever you're sitting, and get up for five minutes per hour to walk around a bit, stretch, and maybe go up and down some steps.

Update: I need to stress that it's not just about the higher muscular exertion involved in standing versus sitting that's at work here. The first article linked in the top paragraph includes this fascinating discovery:
"If you're standing around and puttering, you recruit specialized muscles designed for postural support that never tire," he says. "They're unique in that the nervous system recruits them for low-intensity activity and they're very rich in enzymes." One enzyme, lipoprotein lipase, grabs fat and cholesterol from the blood, burning the fat into energy while shifting the cholesterol from LDL (the bad kind) to HDL (the healthy kind). When you sit, the muscles are relaxed, and enzyme activity drops by 90% to 95%, leaving fat to camp out in the bloodstream. Within a couple hours of sitting, healthy cholesterol plummets by 20%."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mark Bittman Slogs....With John Thorne

Apparently, Mark Bittman is about to launch a "Slog" of his own. It's hard to imagine how a mega-successful author/columnist could ever be perceived to have "slogged" (my use of the term is explained here), but, hey, anything that gets John Thorne more widely read is great by me.

Thorne will be contributing, so this would be a good time to reprint my tribute to him which once was a part of Chowhound. He's published some books since, all of which should be bought immediately:

John Thorne thinks deeply about food. In his personal, utterly unaffected voice (which is actually a hybrid of himself and wife Matt), he ponders the minutia of meatballs, the inner meaning of rice and beaning. Aptly illuminating quotations are cited, seemingly unrelated concepts elegantly connected; Thorne's rhythms are so honest, his erudition so copious and his iconoclastic conclusions so clever that the reader never suspects the daunting legwork that goes into it all. Thorne, the hardest working man in the food writing biz, erases all traces of these labors, so his prose goes down as easily--and as deliciously--as the most soulful polenta.

When the ruminations conclude--and you've discovered historical, cultural, scientific, and spiritual depths to, say, pancakes that you'd never suspected existed--Thorne presents recipes. Not dozens of variations on a cooking theme, but a few concentrated treasures, the distillation of the preceding essay's meditations. The recipes may or may not be to your taste, but such care went into their developement that they're manifestly more than tested, more than polished...they're downright perfected.

Each of the following three books is composed of articles from Thorne's
Simple Cooking newsletter, cleverly selected and arranged to (loosely) fit various themes.

Simple Cooking
This first volume contains two of Thorne's best essays: one contrasting fat and thin cooks, the other about the "outright disgust and hypnotic fascination" inspired by truly awful recipes (those which promise to "conjur instant elegance from dross" like, say, Velveeta or Lipton instant onion soup mix). Other articles (arranged under headings Personal Passions, Perfect Pleasures, Table Talk, and a seasonal Kitchen Diary) include: Ultimate Cheesecake, Pasta in a Paper Bag, A Bowl of Porridge, Aged Sardines, and Carpaccio. Plus, a chapter of insightful reviews of Cook's Books.

Outlaw Cook
Outlaw Cook is arranged into sections on Learning to Cook, Made to Taste, The Baker's Apprentice, and The Culinary Scene. These headings serve as catch-alls for reprints of articles such as: Forty Cloves of Garlic, Russians and Mushrooms, My Paula Wolfert Problem, Soup Without Stock (With A Note on Pea Soup), Natural Leavens: Sorting Out Sourdough, Breakfast Clafoutis, Mangiamaccheroni (a person who eats pasta with his fingers), Some Thoughts on Omelets, and The Discovery of Slowness.

Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots
Serious Pig covers Thorne's native New England (Knowing Beans, Building a Chowder, Clamdiggers and Downeast Country Stores, etc), Louisiana (Gombo Zhébes, A Note on Oysters Rockefeller, Rice& Beans: The Itinerary of a Dish, etc), and Texas (Benchmark Chili, The Seared& the Stewed, and Cooking With Wood: An Update, etc).

Another SIGA Update

Want to make a fast profit on an otherwise slow-moving stock?

I've been writing about SIGA for years now. This is a biotech company with an apparently perfect cure for smallpox: 100% efficacy and no side effects (aside from "headache" in a very few subjects). It's been used in real-life pox-related cases (
here and here - search for "siga" on that second link), it works prophylactically, it boosts vaccination effectiveness re: certain non-smallpox viruses, and it works against all pox viruses, including the weaponized kind that is our #1 bio terror threat).

ST-246 should be approved by the FDA next year (just about all testing is done), but we don't have to wait for that for the government to stockpile it, which they will in the next few weeks, via a contract estimated to be worth $500M - $1B to this$300M company. Foreign governments won't wait, either; any nation worried about bio terror (i.e. every nation) will want to stockpile this drug, and
Israel has already signaled an intention to buy a slew.

SIGA developed this drug via a remarkable new platform, and they have an amazing drug pipeline in development, including medicines for dengue fever, anthrax, drug-resistant strep and staph, and, just as a longshot, a broad spectrum anti-viral which shows preliminary effectiveness against HIV, polio, hepatitis, Ebola, leukemia, and the common cold (read lots more juicy background in my first posting on SIGA
here). Project Bioshield (supporting companies developing medical countermeasures against biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear agents), and depending on governmental procurement for its revenue, management has learned to stay extremely discrete and low-hype.

That contract is due to be announced any day now. But today, Dr. Oz (a former SIGA board member, who may have left to avoid conflict of interest in reporting on the company) is doing
a show on smallpox. The mainstream is about to hear about SIGA. You may want to buy a few shares.

Update: the show has aired in a few markets, and I understand SIGA was not mentioned. The stock is down 1.5%!'s not for nothing that I titled my first entry about SIGA "Get Rich Slow With SIGA"! Patience will be rewarded; this stock will see $30-40 one day!

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