Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

When the storm gets close, crack open a window and take a breath. Hurricanes always smell like the Caribbean.

A lot of the forecasting concentrates on predictions about where the storm's center will hit. But that's just because that's what these guys do. It doesn't mean much here, because Sandy is so enormous that you needn't be anywhere near the center to get clobbered. Really, don't sweat the center. Like, at all.

Similarly, all the "Monster" and "Frankenstorm" language has created a misconception that Sandy is an unusually powerful storm. It's not; it's a category 1 hurricane, which is just barely a hurricane at all. It's already been downgraded to a tropical storm once (and quickly recovered), and may be demoted again by the time it hits New England. It's not the power or the wind speed, it's the storm's sheer size... its slow velocity, plus another front coming from the northwest ready to be bashed/sucked into. Between all those factors, Sandy will be lingering. And lingering 75 mph winds can be a lot more damaging than fleeting 100 mph winds, plus there's the extreme rainfall from a system which will take forever to pass. [note: the time lapse video of the above image is even scarier]

I've been following the National Hurricane Center reports (look for the "public advisory" index beneath the map), which come out every few hours, mostly just out of curiosity (there's no sense hoping Sandy might miss the NY tristate area; again, it could "miss" by 200 miles and we'd still be in the thick of it). Each report is signed by the forecaster (at the bottom), and while you wouldn't imagine these guys would be slouches, check out their bios to see how impressively credentialed they actually are.

And that makes it especially amazing to see how those guys reacted in 2005, when a couple freak, ultra-late-in-season storms utterly defied any attempt at prediction. See this great comic for details.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Explaining Centrism/Moderation

I once wrote about how I reached the conclusion, after much study, that
....there's no lastingly viable political system. In the long run, nothing works. Nothing has ever worked. Nothing ever will work. Every system is corruptible, and in the end all but a tiny minority gets screwed. Fortunately, things inevitably churn. Discontentment peaks, corrupt, unviable systems are overturned, and a fresh new corrupt, unviable system replaces it. The ending of Animal Farm is not a tale of failure. On contrary, it's humanity's sole saving grace that the pigs in charge are periodically replaced by slightly less entrenched pigs. That's really the best we can hope for. Blame Eve for eating that apple.
This doesn't make me a nihilist, however. I prefer certain specific policies over others. But I'm unable to get starry-eyed, in a general way, about either pole of a political spectrum. I don't buy in. Toward the negative, there's stuff to be disgusted by (the debt ceiling business really rocked my world), but there's little to be thrilled by in any political realm.

I'm not being cynical, just realistic. Governance is a grind, not a thrill. It's a never-ending series of drastic compromises squelching idealism and favoring competent steady-handedness. The ideal government is one where capable people work to more or less get stuff done within the deliberately tight confines of power. It's important, but dull. So if you find yourself just absolutely loving one segment or another, you're responding to mere charisma. Choosing's fine, but partisan zealotry strikes me as uncalled for.

I'm just not tribal-minded. Close observation of liberals and conservatives makes it clear that policy isn't what drives people to choose one side or the other. It's a more primal dynamic. It's about us-and-them. Conservatives are those kinds of people. Liberals are these kinds of people. Take a deep sniff, and decide which feels most like home. Hey, welcome to the party! And, geez, don't you just hate those other guys?

No, I don't. Because I'm not a "joiner". My values are consciously chosen and personal rather than osmotic and tribal. So when I see some ham-fisted right-wing windbag raging on TV about how Obama's destroying the country, I smirk and change the channel. And when I see some sanctimonious liberal putz raging about how Mitt Romney will destroy the country, I smirk and change the channel. The coded language is never tuned to my ear, because, again, I'm not tribal. It all shoots right by me.

The American public divides neatly into demographic categories. You may deem yourself unique, but the greater corpocracy knows better. You have a tribe, and you will be absorbed into it. The psychology behind it all is terribly advanced, and even I sometimes feel a tug or two.

Yet I haven't been absorbed. So, in both food and politics, I can feel very lonely. It's an outcast's life to exist in a society of tribal zealots (Bud drinkers, Sam Adams drinkers, and Stella drinkers...all infatuated by swill), with everyone but me sung to by soothing voices.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My First Decent Pasta

I've been trying to make pasta for years, always failing miserably. I asked for help on Chowhound once, but everyone kept trying to iron out all my weirdo kinks. My goal wasn't to make restaurant-style pasta (see my explanation of why I never try to cook restaurant food at home), or even Italian-style pasta. I had a vision, but couldn't seem to execute it.

Finally, my friend Paul Trapani helped me see where I was going wrong. I was trying to cook pasta the way I cook rice dishes, and that doesn't work. Paul explained that pasta is much blander than rice, so if you don't zing it up with lots of salt and oil, it's always going to taste flat. And for god's sake, he urged, stop using all those vegetables ("what are you making, soup??").

I don't cook with much salt or oil. That's an uncrossable line. And I'll stick with the veggies, too. But, as I've noted several times, just because you don't like the solutions people are offering doesn't mean there isn't a problem. So I've been working at it, and have finally achieved the pasta I'd been imagining.

Chop half an onion and a clove or two of garlic, and finely slice two carrots. Season generously with garam masala (available from Penzey's) and black pepper, and sauté in a small amount of extra virgin olive oil at medium low heat.

After a couple of minutes, add some chopped broccolini. Add just a bit of stock, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until vegetables are al dente.

Remove vegetables, sauté scallops in a bit more extra virgin olive oil, seasoning both sides with garam masala, until golden.

Remove scallops. Deglaze pan with stock, apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of maple syrup (to balance the vinegar and bring out the caramelized onion flavor; don't worry, it won't be too sweet), and a teaspoon of soy sauce. Cook until liquid is reduced.

Reduce heat, stir in a generous handful of fresh spinach, al dente rigatoni (I used Pasta Di Martino), and vegetables. Serve with scallops atop.

This recipe (which serves two) is essentially no-salt, containing 150 mg of sodium per serving - less than the sodium in a half pound of unprocessed chicken breast. But between the acidity of the vinegar and the fullness of the garam masala, you could win bets with this. Anyone would swear it was normally salted.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Evernote For Takeout Menus

I'm replaying the following because 1. I've added photos, and 2. I'm so thrilled with this solution.

There are several restaurants I order takeout or delivery from. And I don't always have their menus close-by. Some offer their menus online, but they're often outdated, incomplete, and/or difficult to access via a mobile device. And it's not easy to photograph menus and have them be readable in mobile, due to their unusual dimensions and layouts.

But if I scan or photograph a takeout menu into Evernote, some sort of magic occurs that makes the menus easily phone-readable without the slightest processing fuss on my end. It "just works". This has made my eating life a lot more convenient.

The font looks tiny in the following photos, but notice the scale of the phone itself. Everything's easily readable in actual use:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Amazon Erased Her Kindle and Won't Say Why!

Here's a fascinating tale. Amazon closed her account, wiped her Kindle (books she'd paid for!), and won't say why.

My 1st thought: visceral feelings of anti-corporate loathing.

My 2nd thought: even the most psychotic villain is easily capable of issuing mild, reasonable, innocent-sounding protests to stoke the aforementioned visceral loathing. It's impossible to gauge innocence from such protests, which every psycho inevitably delivers.

My 3rd thought: it really sucks, for all involved, when a true innocent gets caught in such a process.

My 4th thought: we have no way of knowing, in spite of the trumped-up way this matter's been reported, if this person is a true innocent.

I saw behavior in my years behind scenes at Chowhound that would curl your teeth. And the most extreme villains really can't be engaged with. There's no greater folly than to recount to a villain the villainous things they did. The really bad ones must be kissed goodbye, and you suck up the fallout when they inevitably stir up backlash by complaining to the Internet.

Such treatment must be reserved for the extreme far end of the bell curve*. But, unfortunately, there's an even smaller group: innocents who get caught in the net, even though you were certain. But the thing is, psychos are really really good at posing as innocents-mistaken-for-psychos. That's their sweet spot. They can even work up genuine pique. Never will they throw up their hands and cop to it. They buy into the pose, and are utterly indistinguishable.

So, again, there is literally no way to gauge the legitimacy of this apparently aggrieved innocent. If she really is innocent, though,,what a titanic drag!

* - 90% of scary-seeming clauses in Terms of Service - e.g. Amazon's right to wipe purchased books off your Kindle and cancel your account without warning or recourse - are about staking out worst-case tactics for use against extreme crazies. The furor on the Web right now about how Amazon may arbitrarily wipe anyone's Kindle disregards the obvious fact that Amazon has a foundational stake in seeing you enjoy your Kindle books. They're certainly not in the arbitrary erasure business. To use the cliche, resorting to this hurts them more than us.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Affirmative Action

I agree with the left that unless effort's made to include minorities in realms where prejudice historically has blocked their entrance, the tendency will be - even for non-prejudiced gatekeepers! - to sustain that imbalance, even if only due to inertia.

But I agree with the right that lowering bars to accommodate minorities is a paternalistic, condescending move which smacks of repressed racism. Jesus, how I'd hate to be a smart black guy at a good school and have everyone suspect I was only there thanks to institutional largesse. The effect of such policy is the opposite of what's intended; it degrades a credential's worth for any minority who bears it. Ick!

So quotas are a big "no" for me. But, again, there's something to the observation that even modern-thinking white institutions tend, often without conscious intent, to self-reinforce their homogeneity. So how to rectify?

A story from the Chowhound days:

I always hoped Chowhound would attract the broadest possible group. I wanted cab drivers and university professors and junior high kids and hippies and cops; the more kinds of people we attracted, the richer our trove of chow tips would be. But, ironically, a great many of our users in the early days sounded a lot like me (see my article "Flocking and GroupTalk" for an explanation of how tone propagates in communities). It was seductive, because it made me feel at home. But it was also irritating, because I was trying to encourage diversity and individualism! The really insidious part, though, appeared while moderating.

If you read a thousand message board postings a day, trying to pick out the bad guys (the shills, self-promoters, lunatics, axe-grinders, and trolls), you will soon develop a certain spidey sense. But a lot of that involves picking out tones which diverge from the mainstream. It's the old "what in this group doesn't belong?" dynamic.

Most of Chowhound's discussion had a public radio sort of tone. So when, for example, the poster known as FEDEXGuy showed up (who was both a superb chowhound and, strangely, my actual FEDEX delivery guy) posting tersely with hard-edged cocky brio and poor spelling skills, it rattled the eye and raised red flags. His postings were great, but moderators' instincts never adjusted to that sort of discordance. We learned to suppress the instinctive twitch of suspicion prompted by outliers.

Anyone managing a large flow of human beings experiences this. It's innate. So I learned to combat it, and trained the other moderators to do likewise. Watching all day for bad guys, bells would ring whenever tonally dissonant people appeared, but we'd exhale, recall the mantra - "different is ok" - and consciously focus attention toward specifics. It's doable; you just have to commit to some mental discipline. It's a part of "being professional".

Gatekeepers of every stripe (including college admissions staff) who spend their time weaning herds of humans, need to be trained in this faculty. Because after reading essays and bios from middle class white kids all day, day after day, an application from a minority kid in Washington Heights or Detroit is always going to feel incongruous. One can't help that - but one can learn to embrace it and focus attention on specifics.

"Different is ok" doesn't mean different is superior. That's just another sort of unfairness. And it certainly doesn't mean different-and-less-qualified is ok. I'm just suggesting a simple but counter-intuitive bit of mental jujitsu, which can help ensure that tonal differences aren't held against applicants.

That's the unconscious dynamic which reinforces homogeneity. It's not a matter of racism*; it's a much lighter issue of oversight and low-level processes which most people would gladly stanch if they were made aware of them. So, at least in a professional setting, training is an effective answer. I saw firsthand what a difference such training makes in the management of a large web community.

* - the same unconscious process will affect even minority admissions staff, who can't help but acclimatize to the dominant tone as they process tons of applications, naturally weaning along lines of discordance. The fact that I completely respect FEDEXguy and personally relate to his tone didn't make the slightest difference; it was his deviation from mainstream in that particular grouping which kept raising my unconscious hackles.

Amazon's Perplexing List of Top-Rated DVDs

My mind was a little blown by Amazon's list of top-rated DVDs.

#1 doesn't surprise me. "Food Production Systems for a Backyard or Small Farm" sounds like exactly the sort of thing 224 people would go absolutely apeshit crazy for. Fair enough! But #2 and #3 are two not particularly popular, not particularly well-reviewed TV shows: "GCB: The Complete First Season" and "Person of Interest: Season One". Why them??

From my experience running Chowhound, I'd be inclined to suspect ballot box stuffing, but that can't account for the complete lack of negative votes (of GCB's 553 reviews, only a minuscule 7 are not five-star).

Next is Mean Girls, rated five-star by over 96% of 4800 reviewers. The movie was popular ($130M gross), but not Star Wars popular ($775M gross). And it was reasonably good (83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but it ain't Citizen Kane good.

So what's the underlying dynamic? I'm guessing a complex set of factors. All are clearly/narrowly targeted enough that they wouldn't likely be bought by people who weren't previously bought-in to "that type of thing". They're niche, but not so niche as to turn off niche haters. And all are a notch or two below massive popularity, making it less likely that purely random customers would wander into purchasing and dilute the unanimity.

Also, while none of these are great works, they're all smoothly competent and have no gaping flaws or potentially annoying or abrasive elements. Contrast with Napoleon Dynamite, which also has clear/narrow appeal, moderate popularity, niche crossover appeal, and whose 1289 ratings are dominated by 626 five-stars, but which also draws 299 one-star ratings...surely in reaction to the love him/hate him protagonist.

Can anyone think of other factors in play?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Entering the Valley of the Shadow of Cheese

Cutting-edge food photography by designer Phil Simpson (I did the lighting). Click to expand:

Thanks to Barry Strugatz for the title.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Planet, a Turning Point

We've found a planet orbiting the Sun's nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri B. It's orbiting way too close to harbor life, but scientists are murmuring about the likelihood of a yet-undiscovered world located in the "habitable zone", at an orbit more akin to Earth's.

This is not huge astronomical news, given that we've already found some 842 extrasolar planets, and are finding more all the time. But this may represent a turning point for humanity. If a planet is found within that habitable zone, human imagination will turn toward Alpha Centauri B, previously thought of as nothing more than just another flaming gas ball. Now it's starting to look like the next destination.

Even at the dizzying speed of our Voyager spacecrafts, it's a 40,000 year journey. But now there's fresh impetus to develop some of the interesting proposed means for human-viable interstellar travel.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Yao's Diner's Menu

I've added a scan of the (interesting and extensive) menu to my Yao's Diner article. Here's the PDF.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sichuan Grandeur Amid Bland Sprawly Blandness

A critical mass of Asian faculty and grad students at Stony Brook University can finally support a really good restaurant. Yao's Diner (2503 Middle Country Rd, Centereach, NY; 631-588-2218) was opened by someone from the university who was sick of the long drive to Flushing for good Chinese food. Determined to offer it closer to home, he overshot his goal. The food here is even better than you can find in Flushing.

They mostly do Sichuan, with some Shanghai dishes and a big emphasis on hot pots. My small group couldn't dive too deeply into the extensive menu (here's a PDF), but everything we tried was a big winner.

The chef has such a classically meticulous touch that it's hard to say much about his work. How does one describe perfection? But I'll single out two qualities:

He's got a crazy knack for timings. The egg in the fried rice is consummately moist, the sauteed pumpkin is optimally melting - not quite chewy, not quite mushy. The bok choy was like a masterclass on stir frying Asian greens; plenty of snap, yet still tender. I've never seen timings more consistently flawless in a Sichuan restaurant. After the first couple of dishes, you start taking it for granted. You quickly sense that mistakes don't ever happen here.

Secondly, the chef has tons of little tricks up his sleeve. He cuts his garlic in lots of different ways, and throwaways - like the scattering of cilantro, chili pepper, cumin, garlic and ginger atop the cumin fried fish - revealed, upon close examination, deep thoughtfulness in prep and execution. Details count for a lot here.

There's way too much emphasis on technique and restraint to expect much in the way of soulful deliciousness. This chef's not trying to play those notes (perhaps he lets down his hair a bit more with the menu's many hot pots). But that's fine. Sometimes you want to bask in majestically skilled refinement. And Yao's Diner delivers exactly that, from an unlikely storefront Chinese "diner" in the middle of freaking Centereach, Long Island!

Let's go to the videotape (i.e. iPhone snapshots, which I suggest you click to expand):

Chestnut chicken

It's not billed as such on the menu, but this is one of Mao's famous red-cooked dishes, and I've never had a better version. The chicken is extremely tender and flavorful, the chestnuts are ideally portioned and textured, and the sauce has the just the right wineyness.

Cumin fried fish

I need to check the calligraphy, but I suspect this is a riff on the Shanghai dish known as "Yellow fish with dried seaweed". But here they dose it with chili peppers and a fairly subtle dusting of cumin (next time I'll try the Sichuan litmus dish of fried lamb with cumin).

It took a few minutes to acclimatize to the chef's frying aesthetic. He's not aiming for crustiness; the batter's actually slightly chewy. The surprising textural complexity grows on you. You never grow tired of it as you might with, say, southern-style fried fish.

That the frying is greaseless and the fish perfectly moist goes without saying.

Fried rice with shrimp, egg, and ham

So refined and subtle that it's easy to miss how (again) perfect it is. The chef is not a show off - highly trained Sichuan chefs never are. It's about making things "just so", and stopping there. In this case, each ingredient is at the optimum point of doneness. The copious skill involved in its preparation has been deftly concealed, revealing only cloud-like, nutty, moist and wonderfully varied succulence.

"Sauteed Shanghai Green Vegetable"

I asked the waitress whether this mysterious menu item was bok choy. She replied by asking me, deadpan, "what's bok choy?" And it did turn out to be, as you can see, bok choy (baby). Crisp, fresh, garlicky, lots of sizzly wok flavor. A show stopper.

Sauteed pumpkin with ginger

Simple. Refined. Subtle. Perfect. Forgive my boring prose; once again, perfection can be boring to describe. They also make pumpkin pancakes, which I hope to try next time.

Decor is functional, a step up from boxy hole-in-wall. Service from the two young servers - a slightly aloof, somewhat scattered woman and a completely aloof and defiantly unengaging male - was at least suficient to get the dishes to our table. The owner seemed friendlier, but only appeared at the end of our meal.

The crowd is a blend of Asian grad students and exultant gringo chowhounds. One of the latter came by on his way out and told me I looked familiar. I replied that of COURSE I look familiar; how many people are out there sussing out such obscure places? The same two hundred of us are constantly eating together! He chuckled, and I hollered "catch you next time!" over my shoulder as he walked out the door.

Next door is an exceptional-looking Hispanic buffet place.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ravioli with "Wrong" Sauce

I chopped half a medium onion and sauteed in Goya extra virgin olive oil with a ton of black pepper way longer than you're supposed to, at higher heat than you're supposed to (staying under the oil's smoke point), until some onion was limp, some caramelized, and some nearly burnt. I didn't stir (as you're supposed to) in order to ensure uneven levels of doneness (which I'll dub "tripiaza", in reference to the Pakistani "dopiaza" technique of combining onions of two degrees of doneness).

I added five quartered Campari tomatoes (which, with their thick skins and low acid are not recommended for cooking), and seasoned with Penzey's pasta sprinkle, which is supposed to be sprinkled on, rather than cooked in. I stirred, covered tightly, cooked on medium for a minute or so, then reduced heat to lowest, never touching it.

When the ravioli (mushroom/gruyere, from Fairway) were done, I spooned the sauce over and served with steamed greens. It killed. My only quibble was that it was maybe just a touch too aromatically simple. I should have done the Greek/Egyptian trick, adding a hint of cinnamon, which would have offset the sharp onions and copious black pepper.

The ravioli themselves were just ok, but I'm spoiled by my two favorite area ravioli makers - Casinelli's (3112 23rd Ave; Astoria, NY; 718-274-4881) in Queens and Mr. Sausage (3 Union Place, Huntington, NY; 631 271-3836) on Long Island.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writer Problems

I learned to write by paying careful attention to other people's writing, noticing problems and sussing out their origins. It's one of my weirdo pastimes; a puzzle-solving activity akin to soduku.

Felix Baumgartner was supposed to set a high-altitude parachute record today by rising to 120,000 feet in a balloon and jumping off in a pressurized suit (here's the feat's web site). But the jump was scrubbed due to high winds. And here's how a Forbes reporter called it:
"Baumgartner’s helmet is off and he is clearly disappointed he won’t be jumping today. We are also disappointed, but we’ll be back tomorrow when Baumgartner and team try to launch once more."
"Once more". Does that mean the daredevil has only one more opportunity? It seems hard to believe; this isn't like a Mars launch with highly sporadic windows. So why would the writer use such an ambiguous construction? Why not "we’ll be back tomorrow when Baumgartner and team try again"?

"Once more" sounds more writerly/pretentious. It's how a newly hired reporter unconsciously figures the Forbes branded voice should sound. Pretension trumped clarity. It happens a lot.

Either that, or the writer noticed that "we’ll be back tomorrow when Baumgartner and team try to launch again" is slightly awkward. So, rather than remove the unnecessary "to launch", he hurriedly swapped in a synonymous phrase for "again" which offered a more balanced cadence. In other words, he chose the wrong thing to change (error #5 in my "Six Writing Tips").

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Saturday, October 6, 2012

TMDTIATW: Goat Milk Caramels

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was an incredible goat milk caramel from Big Picture Farm in Vermont. Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from 1-to-10, these caramels are a rare example of a reliable, consistent, go-to "10".

My first thought after unwrapping the greasy, old-fashioned wrapper and tossing the gooey, fragrant plug of godhead into my mouth was that not just anyone ought to be allowed this pleasure. There really should be a qualifying test.

They aren't particularly goaty, but the nearly subliminal funk adds its nuance to a sublime balance of simple, fresh ingredients. The result is way better than any caramel I've ever tasted, and well worth going out of your way for (here's a list of retailers, including Zabar's).

Converting RTF to HTML

You almost certainly don't care about this, but lots of people do, and they won't find this info elsewhere, so I'm tossing this out to help those desperately Googling for solutions.

Converting RTF to HTML is really really hard. Much more so than it seemingly ought to be. Mac users have three options:

1. Geeky Scripty Stuff

2. Unsupported, abandoned freeware which works halfway decently

3. The freeware word processor Bean, which has a really excellent RTF->HTML export function. I created a Quickey (Automator and/or Applescript might work, too) which opens a selected RTF document in Bean, exports to HTML, and then passes the contents on to BBEdit, where I can tweak the HTML to suit my purposes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Another View of Iran's Nuclear Program

I'm far from knowledgeable about nuclear weapons, generally, or Iran/Israeli dynamics, specifically. But Christian Stork's oft-forwarded article, "The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Iran And The Bomb, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Facts" seems well-argued, if one-sided.

If you've heard nothing but alarmism about Iran's nuclear program, and would like to get some balance from another informed point of view (backed up by heavy hitters in the American and Israeli governments as well as nuclear regulatory bodies), I very highly recommend this five minute read.

Whether it changes your mind or not, it's an undeniable good thing to hear another side of the story, copiously referenced and logically argued. Even with our vaunted free press, we don't often get that sort of thing around here. And as Storks says:
"Given how easily the American public and media were manipulated into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, this moment should give us some pause. The disastrous effects of that $3 Trillion Dollar War are still being felt across the world. For those not interested in seeing a much-bloodier, costlier sequel, I offer this introductory course in intellectual self-defense. The only way to rebuff and dismantle propaganda is to be aware of the truth on which it claims to comment."

Note: have a look at the comments

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