Monday, December 31, 2012

Letting Missing Eggs Lie

If you order steak tartare and it doesn't arrive with an egg, it's a mistake to ask the waiter about it. He'll just go back to the kitchen and grab any old egg (rather than an extra fresh one earmarked for raw ingestion).

This is useful knowledge well beyond the realm of food. It's a life lesson I find myself endlessly relearning.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Clever Little Online Ordering Move

I got this message when I was about to complete my order at Zingerman's Deli:

Save On Shipping
You can add up to $7.50 without increasing your shipping charges.
***Show me merchandise under $7.50 or stuff that ships for free!***

It's a small thing, but very clever, and I wouldn't be surprised if it meaningfully increases their revenue, along with other benefits (like customers ordering - and potentially falling in love with - items they wouldn't ordinarily have tried).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Piece Unearthed; Good Veal, Too, Man!

Here's wishing all sloggers out there the merriest of Chistmases (or, if you don't roll that way, hey, keep the "X" in Xmas!). Yes, 2013 is one ugly-sounding prime-numbered year, but here's hoping it defies appearances.

Appropriate to the spirit of the season: in installment #2 of "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", my epic tale of the sale of, I noted that the site got more and more expensive to run, and...
A very small group of regular Chowhound posters, none massively wealthy or powerful and none bugging me to take them to dinner, was bearing much of that load. They were so small a group, in fact, that if one ever went on a diet, the entire enterprise would have sunk.
Here's one of the scariest things I know: all good causes hang by a thread. All of them. Your $25 or $100 or $200 donation is way more helpful than you'd ever imagine, because almost nobody donates. It's a rare mutant gene, and those few of us born with it face heightened responsibilities.

If you can imagine writing a check, don't think too hard. Just do it. Shopaholics should know that donation offers exactly the same endorphin buzz as buying any other sort of stuff. I'm not saying not to buy shoes or golf clubs; just add to your shopping list a couple of items to make the world a little better. It's addictive. You'll like it!

Again, a tiny, tiny few people support all the good works out there. You'll be compensating for hundreds of selfish, lazy slobs who feel like civic-minded nice people but who never actually pull the trigger.

Also, show some imagination. Invest the same savvy and diligence you'd apply to buying shoes or golf clubs, and suss out a worthy organization or two that can really use the support. Here are some great-sounding ones recommended by Chris Hayes this morning:

Give Directly
Solar Electric Light Fund
Partners in Health
Architecture for Humanity
Doctors Without Borders
Guiding Eyes for the Blind
Farm Sanctuary
The Humane Society

You can get some descriptions (after watching the annoying ad) of all these organizations in the video below.

As always, you can do nerdy research at Charity Navigator. And if you've been cutting back donations due to the recession, know that everyone else is, too...making your donation even more critical. Finally, don't forget to opt out of having your information shared (just click onto the "privacy" page for whatever organization you support).

Read my previous postings about this sort of thing (including some other tips for cool under-radar organizations worth giving to).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Expert's Innate Condescension

Another bug in the human operating system: when you're really good at something, it's very difficult to respect people with intermediate skill. Anyone less than fully proficient seems like a rank beginner.

For example: expert chowhounds might consider someone who slavishly follows his Zagat guide a ditzy know-nothing. But actual no-nothings don't care at all about food. They've never heard of Zagat; they just go to Wendy's. To a wine expert, those who drink super-buttery Chardonnays or vulgarly bombastic Zins are idiots, even while tons of wine drinkers blithely suck down generic boxed wine.

We seem unable to register the fact that just because we're super good at something doesn't mean people who are merely good at that thing are lousy.

Some more bugs (I eagerly await the Humanity 2.0 upgrade):

"Selfishness and Generosity"
The weirdly reversed self-images of selfish and generous people..

"Common Strange Shifts of Perspective"
More weirdly reversed self-images.

"Ceding to the Idiots"
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.

"Arrogance is Elective"
We innately assume that arrogance is the inevitable trait of smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people.

"Kafka Time"
The converse of the previous. If you're not arrogant, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone.

"'The Age of the Unthinkable' - Why Life May Not Return to Normal"
Humans have the damnedest time grokking cycles. We always expect highs to stay high and lows to stay low.

"Giving Misanthropy Its Due"
Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

"Flipping Your Street Smarts"
It's more natural to learn to scan for dark depths than for divine heights, though both faculties are useful.

"Always Talk to the Mask"
Our mythic self-images are remarkably impermeable to contrary evidence.

"Natural Egocentric Dispositions"
Nine ways our natural egocentricity steers us wrong.

Postcard From a Bar Brawl

Just a quick housekeeping note to point out that my posting, "The Strong Drunk", has been reformatted as a part of my Postcards From My Childhood series.

Also, I'll be posting another entry in that series this week.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The NBA Dreams of Deranged Shooters

Why is the NBA dominated by black people? Why are all the best sprinters from Jamaica? How did Jews develop a reputation in medieval European as money lenders? Why have women been thought of as natural-born cooks? Why are so many cops Irish?

Is it that black people are genetically faster and more agile? And that Jews are innately greedy? Do women have baking in their blood, and are Irish naturally officious? Many people think such things. But, no, that's not it.

In each case, a minority found a way up and out through one of the few channels open to them. If you're a kid living in a Jamaican slum, you don't dream of launching a Silicon Valley biotech firm or attending law school. Such options aren't available to you. The only established route out of your situation, established by those who came before you, is running. Running like crazy. Thousands of hours of training to the point of nausea - a level of dedication others, with wider options, can never match. And so Jamaicans usually dominate.

In the Middle Ages, Jews weren't allowed to do much other than loan money (which for most of history was considered lowly work). Women were kept at home baking brownies - unwillingly fostering a stereotype as brownie-bakers. Irish-Americans were barely tolerated a century ago, but police work, low-paid at the time, was an area where they had entrée. And in America's inner cities, hordes of kids dreamed of becoming the next Michael Jordan because, until recently, there were no Obama dreams. So they practiced relentlessly, and a few went on to stardom, crushing competitors who lacked their live-or-die motivation. Never underestimate the fevered effort a certain type of person, cornered by circumstance into stagnation, will devote to a pursuit which might transform him from desperate nobody into glorious somebody.

Smart, motivated nobodies fervidly climb the ladders available to them. But there are countless people in this world who see no clear route to potential glory. And, for some of them, that fervid pull may fester into horrific forms. If the Devil finds work for idle hands, you can imagine what he does with idle fervidity.

For some of those people (few of whom, thank goodness, act on the impulse), the prospect of becoming a jihadi martyr, or shooting up a school, or assassinating a president or a Beatle, is their NBA dream. It's their only shot to glory. Some take that route consciously for the glory. Others are drawn by a murkier, more unconscious drive toward general empowerment, or personal expression writ large ("I was here!"), and/or the devotion to a larger cause (read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer" for a classic explanation of the latter).

And the media is in the habit of turning the John Hinckleys, the Sons of Sam, and the Adam Lanzas into celebrities - anti-Michael Jordans, if you will. But don't blame the media; they're accommodating the public's thirsty demand for anti-celebrity news. If we cared more about victims than perps, the channel would close and there'd be far much less glory to be reaped by committing horrific acts.

Conscientious media types are trying to kick this back. CNN's Anderson Cooper made a valiant stand last week in refusing to name the killer, or to delve into his motivation or history. Kudos, Mr. Cooper, but....good luck with that.

It has dawned on me, sickeningly, that the mighty vortex I was pulled into last week wasn't due to my knowing a tragic victim, but because I knew the mother of a major celebrity. In fact, I experienced a brief moment of celebrity myself merely by my association with the association - to the point where a respected media outlet deemed it appropriate to run - as breaking news - an article connecting my comments about the tragedy to my background as founder of Chowhound (the previous mountain of press had only described me as a musician). Another piece of the puzzle revealed by a hard-hitting journalist (the anti-Anderson Cooper?).

The notion that mental illness incites violence is as misguided as the notion that blackness makes you speedy, or Jewishness makes you greedy, or being Irish makes you want to direct traffic, or being Moslem makes you terroristic, or that a woman's just gotta bake. No, it's that there's a clear system of reward in place, and human beings always clutch at rewards.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hobbit's New Tech is a Graft-On

I just saw The Hobbit - in a theater offering a grand slam of IMAX, 3-D, and high frame-rate (here's a list of which theaters are playing which formats). And I have an observation to offer which I haven't seen others making.

It's true that the high frame rate yields a sharp video-ish look more reminiscent of television soap operas than what's normally thought of as "cinematic". And, yes, the extra sharpness sometimes reveals stagecraft (makeup, fake-looking sets, etc.). But I tried to lose myself in the storytelling rather than obsess over technicals. And it quickly became apparent that the only time I was disturbed by the new technology was when the film aimed to look old-school cinematic.

The problem is that Jackson seems to be adopting this technology as a graft-on. He's carried over his bag of filmmaking tricks from the Lord of the Rings films, changing only the theater presentation. This is, in other words, a conventional film unconventionally projected, which results in a gap so distracting that many viewers report being taken out of the story. Indeed, each time I found myself wincing at the "soap opera" look, I noticed it was a moment when Jackson was misapplying an old-school move which no longer washed. Viewers at this higher frame rate have too keen a vantage point; filmmakers can't get away with falling back on old ways. They need to not just step up their game (e.g. makeup and sets); they also must reinvent it.

Technicolor films weren't just black and white films with color added. Nor were talkies silent films with attached soundtracks. Each advance forced deep rethinking; in fact, innovation usually wasn't fully absorbed until a new vanguard of filmmakers arrived to completely digest and incorporate what at first had seemed an empty gimmick.

But The Hobbit is nowhere near that. I wish it was a good enough film to merit multiple viewings, so you could sample various formats and judge for yourself. But unless you're a Tolkien fanatic, this is one you'll only watch once. And since (with a few exceptions), Jackson is using the exact same approach as his previous work, I'd suggest you view it the way he himself was obviously visualizing as he shot: in 2D, with normal frame rate, just like The Lord of the Rings.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Translating Obfuscatory Cuisine Labels

"Spanish food" means Dominican

"European food" means Russian

"Korean/Japanese food" means Korean

"Brazilian/Portuguese food" means Portuguese

"French/Moroccan food" means Moroccan

"Himalayan food" means Nepali

"Indian/Chinese food" is cooked by Nepalis but is its own thing

"Chinese-American food" is usually cooked by Fuzhous but is its own thing

"Szechuan/Cantonese/Hunan food" means Chinese-American

"Chinese-Mexican food" is contrived by Taiwanese

"Tibetan food" is increasingly made and marketed by Chinese (who truly consider Tibet a part of China).*

"Uyghur food" (aka Xinjiang food): ibid

"Creole food" (outside Louisiana) means Haitian

"Mediterranean food" means Middle Eastern (often Lebanese)

"Jordanian food" means Palestinian (ask for kunefeh, pronounced koo-NEF-uh)

"Afghan [plus anything else] food" means anything but Afghan

"Indo/Pak/Bangladeshi food" means Bangladeshi (i.e. Bengali)

"Gourmet food" means marketing

Rule of thumb: restaurants advertising hyphenated cuisines are usually run by immigrants from the lesser-known, poorer, and/or less culinarily renowned country...unless the hybrid includes "Chinese", in which case the cuisine is usually a true hybrid (unless "Mexican" is involved).

* - look for a photo of the Dalai Lama to confirm bona fide Tibetan ownership.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Things Grieve Better With Scapegoats

Having Aspergers in the 2010s is going to be like being Muslim was in the 2000s.

Help the Cambodian Cuisine Food Truck

Sign a petition to allow the Cambodian Cuisine food truck to serve yummy Cambodian food on-premises to NYU students (those lucky bastards).

This, however:
Jerry Ley was the first to open a Cambodian restaurant in NYC a lie.

Anyway, don't ever say this Slog doesn't foster hard-hitting social action! (Actually, signing would in fact be doing a good deed; read the sad tale of the truck's proprietor in the article linked above.)

You can follow the truck's location via Twitter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chat With a Friend

I just had the following discussion with an old friend:

Friend: Jim, I read the NY Times article, and I don't understand what the problem is. You were adding to public knowledge of this person. Isn't that a good thing?

Me: Well, first, why does the public deserve knowledge about this private person? How does it help anything? Why is it any of the public's business, aside from satisfying their morbid voyeurism? And, second, you and I are friends. If, god forbid, something terrible happened to you, you wouldn't want me mouthing off about you, would you? I'd be betraying our friendship!

Friend: Ouch. Ok, I get it. So why did you speak up?

Me: I was upset, and when I get upset, I do what I do best: I write. I sat down and tried to work out my feelings here on my sleepy little blog [read my remembrance here]. I had no way of knowing that, at that moment, I was the only person in the world publicly speaking about this person. Disaster reporting abhors a vacuum, so out-of-context quotes got sucked into a huge vortex. [read a description of how this happened here]

Friend: Why wasn't anyone else talking about her?

Me: Because my extremely non-media-savvy buddies up in Newtown turn out to be a lot savvier than I am. I can't tell you how much I respect the way they've handled all this. They're amazing. And I hope they're still speaking to me.

Friend: The Times article includes a quote from you about her interest in guns. I don't see that anywhere on your Slog. Where did they get that?

Me: It was an idle comment buried in the discussion beneath one of my postings. Should I have said it publicly? No. Did I realize the entire world would be hearing about my idle blog comment? No. Was I a naive fool? Yep.

Friend: So are you going to sue the Times, or write a nasty letter or something?

Me: No! The reporter was just doing his job, which was to pull out informative nuggets, not to faithfully convey the dignified tone of some blogger's remembrance. I'm actually not sure the extraction could have been done much more sensitively. And the fault was mine. As someone with extensive press experience, I should have remembered the prime directive: anything you say publicly can be extracted and played as a stand-alone quote. That's why Obama always speaks so haltingly.

But here's the thing: I'm so accustomed to speaking freely here that it never occurred to me to switch into press-defense mode. I never thought I'd need to again, post-Chowhound. There were a couple of press hit-jobs during those years, and they weren't much fun - it's a big reason why I jumped out of the spotlight so fast. But, alas, here I am again, and it's excruciating (though I'm having a sublimely happy week compared to some of my friends, and you can bet your ass I won't forget that).

Friend: Wanna go get some beers?

Me: Yes. Yes, I would.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Small Upside

I've been feeling worse and worse about seeing my blog piece carved up and quotes extracted sans context in tomorrow's NY Times (the reporter was the first who contacted me, and I made the mistake of returning the call to say, essentially, "no comment" to all his questions, which gave him leeway to claim an interview with me and to lift quotes from the blog piece). I pray that I don't come off like the victim's cousin's barber, pontificating about a dim acquaintance to horn in on the spectacle. The article's already been picked up elsewhere (again, disaster reporting abhors a vacuum), and no one's linking to my original piece for context.

It's been a surreal day. I'm used to happily giving interviews about brownies and tacos, not to stonewalling tides of desperate reporters. But I just spotted the following kind responses to my original remembrance, on the Book of Faces, reassuring me that I've done at least some small good in all this:
"Thanks for sharing this. Stories about the people, for me at least, add much more meaning than just names and photos."

"This is better insight into the whole situation than you will ever see, hear, or read in the MSM. Thank you for sharing."

Heartfelt thanks to the many who've emailed praise for my original piece and sympathy for the butchering.

The paper's out today, but I find myself relaxing within a serendipitous bubble. Times readers assume I'm a loudmouthed opportunist. But those who venture here to read the original article know I was trying (naively) to do something sweet and dignified. And while there are millions of the former (including syndication), and mere hundreds of the latter, I'm not getting feedback from the millions, because they have to come here to talk to me...and if they do that, they'll read that article and see what happened!

So for all I know, you guys are all there is, and I'm sticking with that conclusion. This attitude could be seen as childish denial; a willful attempt to replace reality with fantasy.But I had a huge insight recently from viewing a fantastic, warm-hearted and revelatory documentary called Marwencol (which is on streaming Netflix). I've said this once before here on the Slog, but it bears repeating:
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell.

That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some bizarre reason, childish and loopy.

Pity the Reporters (Seriously)

The press blitz fascinates me. By "press blitz", I mean my email box. And my unlisted cell phone's voice mail. As I just posted to the Book of Faces, disaster reporting, like nature, abhors a vacuum. No one's been tap dancing on-camera about victims, and the media's gone batshit crazy, practically begging casual acquaintances to come forward and sate the voracious thirst. Reporters hate doing this - they well understand that everyone's grieving - but it's their job. Gotta feed the machine.

It would be easy, especially if I were more closely linked to victims, to label these reporters as vultures (in fact, I myself used the term "vulturish" somewhere around here today). But the fact is, these guys are plainly mortified about doing what their job compels them to do today. Here's a representative example, nearly heartbreaking if you read between the lines:

I have the sorry job of trying to explain to an inquiring world who Nancy Lanza was, and what happened with her son. I loved the story you told on your blog, and would like to join the queue of those who'd like to speak with you.


It obviously sucks to be them now. In the world of drugs, the poor coca farmers are only responding to a voracious, unrelenting demand. Same with the poor reporters. The vultures are us. Those guys are just scrambling to deliver our fix.

I've started writing more sympathetic kiss-off responses. I'm really afraid some of these people are on the verge of cracking. Can someone get them some coffee and blankets or something?

No Further Comment (and the need for slack)

Dear Media,

It was naive of me to figure I could offer a quiet little remembrance here on my sleepy little slog in the midst of a highly competitive reportorial frenzy where journalists are desperately scurrying for any nugget of info they can find.

As I stated in my piece, I didn't know Nancy well. In fact, what I said was pretty much all I've got to say. She's a friend-of-friends who I periodically would briefly bump into, and who always seemed kind-hearted...and, yes, a bit high-strung. But with ample reason, as it turns out.

That was actually the main reason I shared the story. There's a lesson I keep needing to relearn: one never knows what people are dealing with in their private lives. During my Chowhound years, I was highly stressed, and people who didn't understand this may have concluded that I'm naturally anxious or uptight. So I shouldn't need to be constantly retaught that I ought to give people lots of slack. We all ought to give people lots of slack! You never know what someone's quietly putting up with.

But back to the media frenzy thing...I've dumped everything I've got. It's not for me to speak up and be the person who paints the picture of who Nancy Lanza was. Perhaps someone who knew her a lot better than I did will step up. Lord knows every reporter from here to jabip is trying to scratch their way to that person. But the truth is, no one who really knew and loved her is going to be speaking out at length so soon after this (insert weary aside about the vulturishness of the 24 hour news cycle here)

But since I'm not that guy, I have no further comment. So please, reporters, if you're reading this, don't waste time by emailing or calling me.

Support Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

If you're in the habit of giving support to victims of tragedies, but feel stymied because the Red Cross has nothing physical to rescue or rebuild in Connecticut, please consider sending a nice fat check to Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

These guys are not right-wing or left-wing. And they're not trying to take anyone's hunting rifles away from them. This organization, named for Ronald Reagan's stricken press secretary, is just a voice for sanity.

If you're into guns and hunting and all that, I'd suggest that it's extra incumbent on you to support efforts to stave off violent scenarios you'd certainly never defend, by imposing grown-up limits on gun ownership. With the power of firearms and the freedom to buy them comes a responsibility to diligently help stave off depraved results.

I can't understand why events like yesterday's only make the NRA more strident and more extreme. They should be investing millions into organizations like Brady's while lobbying for the rights of responsible owners. That's the sort of conscientious approach I'd expect from Americans defending a right out of principle, and who share my horror at the thought of dozens of helpless kindergarden kids shot to death (or of the many underprivileged neighborhoods in this country whose inhabitants are terrified to walk the streets for fear of gun violence).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Personal Thoughts on Newtown

Nancy Lanza, mother of the gunman and his first victim this morning, was a lovely person. I have friends in the area (all of whom were good friends of hers), and am around there a lot (in fact, I was there just last night, when the town was characteristically peaceful). I didn't know her well, but one memory keeps replaying tonight.

A mutual friend was in trouble, and I'd driven up to Newtown to discuss a loan. It wasn't for a ton of money, but more than just a few bucks. We discussed drawing up a letter of agreement, and that I'd hold the title to his little sailboat as collateral. Nancy overheard the discussion, and, unblinkingly, told him she'd just write him a check then and there. While I'm far from the most generous guy in the world, it's not often that I feel stingy. But I learned something from that. I should have just written him the check. She was right.

I never really befriended Nancy, though we exchanged greetings whenever we crossed paths. What held me back was my impression that she was a little high-strung. But now that I've been filled in by friends about how difficult her troubled son (the shooter) was making things for her, I understand that it wasn't that Nancy was overwrought about the trivialities of everyday life, but that she was handling a very difficult situation with uncommon grace. Plus, she was a big fan of my trombone playing. My next jazz solo's for you, Nancy.

Other scattered thoughts:

Whenever the press reports on something I'm familiar with or close to, it's painfully obvious how much they get wrong. I've been hearing nonsense from major media all day. The info I received via text message from friends early today was much higher quality than press reporting even hours later.

Speaking of which, if I read one more report about the shooting in "suburban Connecticut", I'll scream. This is a small town, not a suburb. It is, in fact, pretty much the Platonic form of a small town - which makes the events that much more horrific.

I'm in favor of gun control, but as a devout civil libertarian, I'm susceptible to the guns-don't-kill-people-people-kill-people argument. I want the government to exercise extreme restraint in determining what's too dangerous for people to do or to own. But, y'know, we (quite properly) don't allow people to own anti-aircraft guns, or tanks, or lots of other deadly instruments, though that same argument could apply. And while I understand the slippery slope perils of government intervention, human beings are just too damned crazy for guns to be so freely and easily available.

Finally, it really infuriates me to hear right wingers, at times like this, insist that "this is not the time to discuss gun control". I remember how, during the worst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Mitch McConnell said the same thing: this is not the time to discuss regulating deep water drilling. Was September, 2001, not the time to discuss counterattacks on al-Qaeda? Was Katrina not the time to discuss levee engineering in Louisiana? I respect those whose opinions on guns differ from mine. But people taking this particular tack are loathsome.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Postcards From My Childhood Part 5: The Strong Drunk

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

When I was 16, I took the train into Manhattan for my weekly trombone lessons in a claustrophobic little music studio near scary Times Square. This was 1978, the era of unending strikes, racial unrest, corruption, budget defaults, crumbling infrastructure and rampant muggings and car thefts. When it came out in 1981, the sci-fi film "Escape From New York" didn't seem like so huge a stretch.

So I picked up a book about "urban survival", which turned out to be pretty silly, though highly amusing. But it did contain one insight which I've retained. In the chapter about surviving bar fights, it explained that drunk people are sluggish and clumsy, so it's easy to outrun or outmaneuver them. But if they ever get their hands firmly on you, watch out, because drunks are stronger than sober people.

I've never been in a bar fight, but the image of the strong drunk has become a touchstone for me. Time and again I've found myself confronting people (or institutions) functioning as Strong Drunks, and who therefore needed to be finessed or adroitly outmaneuvered. The mantra is: don't ever let them get you in their clutches!

Cops, for example, are strong drunks. If a policeman decides, rightly or wrongly, that you're on the wrong team, and has you within his grasp, you will be out of options. There's ample maneuvering room in defusing that determination, but if it goes the wrong way, and you're within their range, you'll find yourself utterly powerless.

Cockroaches are the opposite. A roach can't hold or harm you...but they hide well and they run fast. If you manage to catch one, it can be effortlessly stamped out, but there are always more of them craftily evading you, and you can't do much about it. To a cockroach, you are the strong drunk.

Read the next installment

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jerry Seinfeld's Tiny Masterpieces

One theme of this Slog is the joy of lavishing effort on small - or even publicly invisible - creations. For example, I wrote the following in my explanation of JD Salinger:
"What makes me 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."
As commenters pointed out, Salinger was far from the only person who reached the same conclusion. For example, there were John Hughes, Bill Whithers, Sam Shephard, and Irving Rosenthal. And we can now add, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, who's created a superb series of heartfelt little web videos titled "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee". This is about as small as things can get and still be visible: humble concept, tiny crew, minimal production values, short length, no marketing whatsoever, all playing out on a site nobody's ever heard of. They're just hovering out there - rhapsodies in small awaiting discovery.

There's nothing conspicuously impressive. These quietly personal little films are funny, but not guffaw-inducing. Yet they somehow stick with you - none more than the Carl Reiner episode, where it's revealed, over coffee, that Mel Brooks comes over Reiner's house each night to watch TV. Seinfeld asks if he can join in, and the result is as amusing as you'd expect, but also unforgettably touching - and it offers a glimpse of something rarely caught on film.

The sole dud is the Ricky Gervais episode, which never quite sparks. Aside from that, I'd strongly recommend them all, including the "spare parts". Jerry Seinfeld may not be the warmest guy in the world; any remnants of his heart were long ago dry cleaned from his sleeve. But he loves cars and he loves comedians, so he went from there, bravely resisting any impulse to biz it up, or to even need have people watching it. He just did it. And it's beautiful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Not Getting Pushed in Subways

Regarding that poor Queens guy who was pushed onto the subway tracks....

There were a rash of these in the 1980's, so I trained myself to be conscious of my center of gravity while on subway platforms, and to lean ever-so-slightly away from the track at all times, even when I'm not close to the edge. I still do this.

Studying judo as a kid, I learned that you can't move another body very far via brute strength (consider how tough it is to move a corpse). You can only disrupt someone's center of gravity, so they move themselves as they flail to recover balance. So small balance adjustments can yield large defensive benefits.

I'm not saying that by planting feet and leaning imperceptibly away from tracks you'll become utterly impervious. But, as any martial artist will attest, this small move makes you much, much harder to push. Surprisingly so. Furthermore, in so doing you send a signal which others unconsciously pick up on: You seem less pushable (as, indeed, you are.)

Another example of an unconscious signal: if you're walking in a busy area and someone's aggressively walking straight toward you, and there's no way for you to easily/safely get out of the way, slow down a little. The other person will be unconsciously compelled to walk around you (please wield this trick only for defensive purposes!).

World's Greatest Quote

"We are here on Earth to help others. What the others are here for, I’ve no idea."
- W.H. Auden (as quoted by John Lloyd)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

iPhone/iPad App Tips

Fantastical is a new iOs app, just released. I'm a big fan of their Mac app, and this one shows the same slick functionality. Basically, it replaces your Calendar app. You type (or, if you have recent hardware, dictate) something like "Lunch with Joe on thurs at 1", and it creates a "Lunch with Joe" calendar entry perfectly configured for the correct time and date. This is how Apple's Calendar should work, but doesn't, and for $1.99 you can fix that (twice the price if you wait; this is a special launch pricing). The interface is a joy to use. Just get it (here's a review).

If you don't have Siri, you ought to know that a recent update of the free Google iPhone app adds powerful voice control. Ask it when Tom's Diner in Mamaroneck closes today, or what time Skyfall's playing near you (btw, here's some Internet dude making a plausible case that Bond died at the beginning of the film, making the entire Bond series a dream) or what "fecund" means, and you'll not just get search results but an actual out-loud voice answer. It's great for driving. And, actually, it's worth using even if you do have Siri, as several web demonstrations show that Google's comprehension is keener.

Downcast is a much better podcast manager than the incredibly buggy native iOs app. It's worth $1.99 if you have even a nodding interest in podcasts (and if you don't, you should. Check out The Tobolowsky Files, Radio Lab, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, Alec Baldwin's "Here's the Thing", Elvis Mitchell's "The Treatment", The Nerdist or WTF with Marc Maron for starters).

Flow Free is an awesome addictive game. It's hard to describe, but the best way to check it (or any iOs game) out is via video demo. FWIW I dislike their follow-up game, "Flow Free Bridges".

Other games I love: "AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!" (an adrenalin-pumping base jumper game that's so clever and funny; so meticulously crafted); Dark Meadow, a droll horror adventure with great ambiance, loosely based on the mind-blowing Bio Shock (which, by the way, is a must-play for your Mac). And anything at all by Pangea, whose games look juvenile in screenshots, but play like crafted treasures. I also love Osmos and MiniSquardron.

You probably figure viewing Wikipedia via web browser is more than good enough. No. It's not. Believe me, I understand the reluctance to have separate apps for every damn thing, but Wikipanion just makes Wikipedia so vastly more surf-able and enjoyable (not to mention bookmark-able). Unlikely though it sounds, it's one of my most-used apps. And it's free for both iPhone and iPad versions.

iPhone cameras are poor at photographing documents, signs...anything flat and hard-angled and informative. I use Scanner Pro for that stuff. Among other things, it makes my collection of takeout menus in Evernote that much more readable.

The big, expensive dictionaries for iOs periodically go on sale. I track expensive apps like these on AppShopper, which lets me know if one of them has a price drop. For example, I scored the $29 New Oxford American Dictionary for a mere 99 cents. AppShopper also has its own free app, making it even more convenient to monitor your wish list.

Did you miss my rave for the freebie Bongiovi DPS, which makes everything on your iPhone or iPad sound miraculously better? Or my recommendation of Hopstop to recoup the transit data stricken from iOs 6's lousy Maps app? Or my suggestions for using iPad as a laptop? Or the trick to resurrect lost browser tabs in iPad? Here are all Apple-related postings in reverse chronological order.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hillary's Running

Hillary Clinton, yesterday (as quoted in Haaretz):
"That fragile cease-fire is holding, the skies above Israel are clear... but the world knows - and always will know - that whenever Israel is threatened, the U.S. will be there. What threatens Israel threatens America, what strengthens Israel, strengthens America."
I taught myself to write by dissecting other people's writing, both good and bad. In the process, I learned to decode intentions via word choice and rhythms. And to me, that quote is extraordinarily revealing. The first sentence is a good, crisp bit of diplomat-speak, burnished and conveying the requisite clarity. Nothing further was needed; the communication was effective, and complete. Done. Nailed it!

But the second sentence was a graft-on, and the clumsy, greasy thumbprints weren't even wiped away. It's patently redundant, and bears a jarringly different tone. That's no longer the voice of the Secretary of State, it's someone else - someone shamelessly political. And it doesn't present itself as a mild thrust of political option bolstering. Rather, it's a full, headlong, cheesy, sanctimonious lunge, to the point of overreach. It is, in other words, a classic example of Hillary Clinton's distinctive campaigning style.

And I'm definitely not a fan.

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