Monday, December 30, 2013

"Forget Setting Goals"

Here's a short article from "Entrepreneur" magazine about a point often raised here on the Slog. Here's the gist:

The Difference Between Goals and Systems
What’s the difference between goals and systems?

If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is what your team does at practice each day.
If you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is the writing schedule that you follow each week.
If you’re a runner, your goal is to run a marathon. Your system is your training schedule for the month.
If you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a million dollar business. Your system is your sales and marketing process.

Now for the really interesting question:

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?

For example, if you were a basketball coach and you ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results?

I think you would.
Yup. This is why competition is a fallacy (as I tried to explain here and here). The trick is to do the thing you do with all the love you've got and let the chips fall. Pushing for an outcome never helps.

Plus, there's a larger point about motivation (e.g. most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing...which is why most singers are so awful).

There are a jillion ways to make this point - which explains why it's been made a jillion ways since the dawn of humanity (though most people still can't seem to grok it). But I'm surprised this article made it into a business journal. Back in the 1970's, you saw a lot of this published, as hippy businessmen tried to square their worldview with their capitalist impulses, and patrician money managers dug into their own psychologies to gain an investment edge.

The most successful popular financial writer of his time, who wrote under the name "Adam Smith", published a book titled "Powers of Mind" which was hugely influential on me as a child. But while there are still money managers out there with profound insight into human behavior from a lifetime of constantly focusing there, the business press has fallen out of the habit of giving voice to this sort of thing.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Using Evernote to Stave Off Hoarding (plus my customary buried lede)

Here's an article by Casey Johnston urging those who hold on to collections, curios and mementos to consider, instead, holding onto photos of these things. We save this stuff (and trudge it around whenever we move) mostly for its memory-evoking power, but memories can also be evoked photographically. It's smart!

I'm one of those hard-to-let-go people, too. As sentimental as your average Labrador retriever, I'm capable of falling in love with any random this or that, and I dream of unburdening myself of the several never-opened boxes I've shlepped from domicile to domicile. So I read the article and found myself agreeing, at least in theory. But there's an obvious shortfall: a photo of a thing is not, after all, the thing. Something would be lost!

But then I set eyes on Johnston's heart-breakingly beautiful "reference" photo of an angel figurine (used below with permission):

The angel was Johnston's Rosebud; she carried it around everywhere as a child. And the photo just kills me (remember, I'm a nano-aesthete).

What, exactly, is the juju behind this image's power? Is it an exquisite figurine? Nope. Is it an especially artful photo? Nope. So why's it so affecting? The explanation is slippery, and I've broached it from various angles over the years (see many of my articles on "creativity", especially this one and this one). Mostly, it's about the care, the care, the heart-breaking care (the fact that the photographer's prone on the ground is only the beginning of it): ten thousand micro-decisions, most of them unconscious, faithfully aligned via unswerving love upon a final goodbye. It is, as ever, all about the shakti.

Explanations aside, the image captures not only the objective photons, but also the subjective love of the photographer. If Johnston's love were ever to thin over time, a glance at this photo, which has been pre-loaded, would rekindle it more effectively than the object itself - which to cold eyes was just some kitsch figurine.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Passage of Time

Woodstock took place 24 years after the end of World War II. And Woodstock was 44 years ago. So World War II was much, much closer to Woodstock than we currently are.

In fact, World War I, so lost to the distant past that no veterans remain, ended 50 years before Woodstock...which means that in just six years, World War frickin' I will have been closer to Woodstock than we will be.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Guide To Holiday Greetings For Christians

The first and foremost thing to remember is that even though I look kinda Jewy, you will not offend me by wishing me a Merry Christmas.

Christmas is, as Fox News adamantly reminds us, a religious holiday. But in America it's also, of course, a secular holiday. "White Christmas" was written by a Jew named Irving. "The Christmas Song" (with the chestnuts roasting) was another Jew, Mel. And these weren't Jew-for-Jesus Jews. We're talking real staunchly Jewy Jews, neither of whom, obviously, blanched at the concept of Christmas. And yet you're still all nervous and weird about this whole thing!

When you peer at the size of my shnozz toward the end of a conversation, gauging my Jewiness in order to appropriately tailor your parting holiday greeting, that's offensive. My shnozz size tells you nothing about my spiritual inclinations. Watching you silently gauge whether I'm one of *Them* doesn't feel, to me, like polite or sympathetic consideration, though I realize that's your intention. It's actually quite an unpleasant sensation.

I do understand the root of it. One will indeed occasionally encounter Jews who smirk ironically when wished a merry Christmas, or even feel offended. But it's not that they're touchy Jews, per se; it's that they're touchy assholes*. Every tribe has some, and striving not to offend them is a fool's errand. They'll always find something.

* - Update: No offense to my friend Jon, who's neither touchy nor an asshole.

Such people are ridiculous to be offended by a friendly greeting. But if you genuinely offend the rest of us by 1. gauging shnozz size 2. making us feel excluded from an American holiday, and 3. acting all nervous and weird around us, all to stave off any chance of offending the touchy... well, that's just nuts.

Worse, your careful circumspection means you suspect that I myself might be a touchy fussbudget requiring delicate handling (note to liberals: you're so much worse than the most ham-fistedly explicit racists on the right, with whom I can feel genuine friendship and affection because they don't act as if I have some terrible condition which must never ever be mentioned yet must perpetually be monitored and finessed).

Jews aren't diminished by mention of your lord and savior, his birthday, or, the secular American celebration of same. Remember, he was one of us to begin with. And we wrote your songs. And we like trees and stockings and sleds and hot cocoa and candy canes. We like values such as peace, love and good will. And, if you're religious about it, we're happy for your celebration. We don't sit in the dark, bitterly gnashing our teeth until it passes (that said, I am getting really sick of the soundtrack - though perhaps that's just me being a self-hating Jew, given that my paisanos wrote that stuff).

If you're a devout Christian, and your "Merry Christmas" greeting carries actual spiritual implications, please don't deprive me of that, either. I won't join your team, but genuine spirituality's like soybeans. It's commoditized. Anyone who's ever surrendered experiences the very same infinite love. There are not distinct varieties of infinity, nor of the very deepest love. Really, it doesn't matter what you call it; we're all on the same team. So, holiday-wise, what the hey, I'll have what you're having, please.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Idiot Math

I'm bad at math. So I do what I think of as "idiot math", which I do really well, frequently leaving people with the mistaken impression that I'm good at math. I'm not good at math, I'm just good at doing idiot math.*

The other day I needed to buy eight 46 cent shelf brackets at the hardware store. As the guy was trying to find his calculator, I doubled 46 to get 92, and doubled that to get 1.84, and doubled that to get 3.68. Voila.

If I need to multiply 197 x 9, I multiply 200 x 9 instead, just 'cuz it's easier. So that's 1800, and I need to make up for my laziness by subtracting the missing 3 x 9 (or 27) to get 1773. If I'm feeling too bleary to subtract 27 from 1800, I subtract 30 instead, to get 1770, and then add back the missing 3 to get 1773. I just take the easiest nearby calculation, then compensate for the overage/underage, and it can go back and forth in a cascade of simple-minded calculation and diligent compensation.

I know, it reads super complicated, but the point is that no one calculation is at all difficult. If you keep the calculations easy, then it's possible to focus on the big picture - of exactly how much you're miscalculating - so you can compensate. Let go of the calculations, in other words, and direct attention toward the overarching logic.

* it's not paradoxical to say you're good at doing things poorly. I have the same situation with Spanish, where I don't have a great vocabulary, but am very fast and agile at applying the wrong words. For example, I may not know how to say "drapes", but can very fluently rattle off "the cloth things which cover windows so light doesn't come in").

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Is Coming

Just six days till winter!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

E-Manual Ask

I compulsively stockpile future treasure for myself, but those checks are seldom cashed. I have great books I'll never read, great CDs I'll never listen to, and a fridge door-full of decrepit condiments bought in a prior millennium.

One move that unexpectedly paid off big was a mere afterthought. I keep a folder on my computer to store PDF manuals for all my appliances and gadgets. There was no need to scan hardcopy; you can find manuals for most anything on the Internet. That's really kind of what the Internet was made for, if you look past all the porn, snark, and promotion.

Whenever anything goes wrong with my stereo speakers, my clothes dryer, my printer, my drill, my thermostat, my lawn mower, my car stereo, my car, or any of the rest, it's all right there. For that matter, if I need to know a model number, again, it's all right there. I store it all in my DropBox, so I can access it from my smart phone (I could also throw it all into Evernote).

It sounds small, but I find myself eagerly opening this folder several times per week. Year after year, this has proved one of the most useful moves I've made with my computer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Food Writers and Popes

There was a food radio program I used to guest on, and I'd drive the host - an imperious authority - absolutely crazy when I'd insist to his call-in listeners that my opinions held no more weight than their's. "But, Jim," he'd interrupt, "you can't deny that you're a food expert!" I'd point out that I'm just a dude who happened to get some gigs writing about a subject which tons of people know a ton about (this was shortly before I proved the point by founding Chowhound).

To him, I was calling into question his own haughty expertise. As he saw it, his relationship with his audience was based on the unshakeable assumption that he chewed and swallowed more knowingly than they. This was, of course, completely ridiculous. What attracted them (and, for that matter, me) to him was his umatched ability to clearly explain and describe. He wrote with warmth and flair, spinning tales of cuisine well beyond the surface level of potatoes and crock pots. But in his mind, he was, above all, an expert, and reigning from above his audience was the basis of simply everything.

And so I, a fellow expert, left him gasping by renouncing my expertise in front of his people. He saw it as a brutal betrayal. For my part, I never understood why he couldn't recognize that elitism isn't a necessary part of a writer's job description, and that he was unnecessarily exhausting himself by flailing to maintain the pretense (as is true of anyone trying to project infallibility).

Meanwhile, we now have a Pope who washes people's feet, keying into the simple essence of a priest's job description, which is about loving service rather than weighty grandeur. And I'm figuring the other cardinals must absolutely freaking hate the guy.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ranting About Locavore/Organic/Eco Sanctimony

This essay, originally published some years ago, sparked negative response from readers who found it bizarrely aggressive and angry. I've added a postscript explaining.

This morning "Up With Chris Hayes" had chef Tom Colicchio on. Hayes played a hilarious parody clip where sanctimonious diners grill their waiter about the organic and local credentials of the chicken - and of the chicken's feed - until, finally, to everyone's delight, the waiter brings out the fowl's resume, explaining that its name was Colin, and....

After that, Chris asks Colicchio a reasonable question:
"At one level, there's a critique of the current industrial food system that says "we have this huge directory of farms, subsidies, lots of cheap calories, corn gets in everything because we're subsidizing corn, etc." And the reaction is to create something that's more local-farm-to-table. But that can sometimes feel fetishistic. So what is the middle path in-between knowing the name of your chicken...and eating nothing but canned goods and sugary sodas?"
Hayes goes on to mock this "bourgeois hipster obsession", but that's only half right. The style may be hipster, but the impulse itself is pure bourgeois. Since the dawn of humanity, the very root of classism has been the visceral feeling that those beneath us on the social ladder are filthy. It sounds archaic, I know, but don't be sure such thinking doesn't remain lodged in our collective DNA. It plays into this phenomenon, albeit stealthily.

Have you ever observed shoppers at Whole Foods? With their natural fiber carrying bags and their exorbitant wild-caught arctic char and their glossy Yoga Journals and their Priuses, they're living a certain lifestyle, and they are Well. Really really Well. The wellness is high. And they're marketed to, fervidly, along that line. If the messaging was completely explicit, the tagline would be "Whole Foods: Flattering Your Smug Wellness".

It's a type. To recall a bygone vulgarism, their shit don't stink. Remember the Food Emporium jingle? The evil genius who wrote it completely understood this mindset. See how skillfully he gets inside the narcissism and patronization of it all:
"Someone made a store just for me
Someone's got my kind of quality
Someone got the message that people like things better
Even when they're shopping for
The simple things."

Here it is, in fact:

As I explained in my screed about Panera, I don't deny that therein lies an uncomfortable resemblance to my chowhound shtick. Yeah, I'm a picky mo-fo myself, obviously, when it comes to food. But this is a very different sort of pickiness. It's all about self-image.

Whole Foods shoppers imagine themselves as glowing with vitality. That's how the company's marketing attempts to mirror them, and I assume they know their customers. And it's by no means irrelevant that these shoppers are paying through the nose for the Whole Foods vitality experience. But the sanctimonious, eco-conscious, mega-well people wandering around Whole Foods with their environmentally green hued injection-molded plastic baskets appear to be as fat and distracted and grim and messed up and sickly as anyone else. And the deeper reality, never explicitly called out, is that they're all rich.

The experience of pursuing a premium level of wellness and a premium level of eco-consciousness and a premium level of sanctimony is available only to premium people. Poor people are lucky to eat at all. You know...the filthy poor people who eat the sort of shit which a glowing-with-vitality and expensively self-actualized Whole Foods shopper would never touch in a million years.

Same for restaurants catering to fervid locavores. Don't believe for a second it's not just yet another trendy way to indulge rich people in their desperate urge for a sense of elevation. Money, in and of itself, ought to bring an elevated sensation, but doesn't. It's just green paper. So many wealthy people desperately try to consume their way to that sensation. But when it comes to nutrition, it's a fool's errand. We spend our lives soaking in toxins and impurities. That stuff's everywhere, it can't be avoided, and it's absurd to assume you're rising above in any meaningful way via the purchase of eco/organic/local/free-trade wares marketed to flatter your self-image of wholesome purity.

Consider: while the government has no way to track each soybean or spinach leaf, they do know the quantity grown and the quantity purchased, and the inconvenient truth is that way more organic food is sold than is grown. Get it? If you believe you're being told the true story of your food much of the time, I've got some pink-sludge horsemeat hamburger to sell you. And even legitimately "organic" foods aren't what you think. Organic standards were diluted and corrupted years ago. Believe me, your free range chicken is not a healthy chicken. Unless you're prepared to walk the walk and go "back to the land", you're mostly just up-paying for a false sense of confidence and superiority.

So, sorry, sanctimonious wellness strivers. Your bubble is illusory. You will more than likely get cancer, anyway. You're not shielded. You're not elite. You overpay for smug delusion.

But you know what? I myself buy organic when I can (especially with concentrated foods like juices and butters). And I try to buy local when I can. And I even shop at Whole Foods sometimes (for sale-priced produce and a few brands I can't find elsewhere, e.g. Taste Nirvana coconut water). But there's a difference: I don't do so with a prissy sense of elevation. I don't drink the (organic, fair-trade) Kool-Aid. Chris Hayes asked about a middle path, and, for me, that involves stripping away the sanctimony, obsession, and delusion.

I don't delude myself about a bubble of purity and wellness - about transcending the squalor of plebeian existence. I just eat as healthily as I can afford to. That's it! When I eat organic and local, I accept the reality that I'm paying up a steep curve of declining results for the luxury of perhaps doing a scant notch better for myself. All with the wry understanding that I'll likely be run over by a bus on the way home.

Above all, be real. You can't be squeaky clean. You're neither virtuous nor pure. Purchasing fair trade coffee doesn't right your myriad eco wrongs, and organic cotton fiber clothing will not elevate you. And neither will a conventional hamburger and fries nor a slice of corporate white bread defile you. You come pre-defiled, and to imagine otherwise is to be an entitled, rich, narcissistic ninny.

No matter what, chemicals will keep pouring into you (breathe much?). A bowlful of Rice Krispies with milk from Stupid Farms in Ohio won't make the slightest diff. But, if you can, sure, by all means, do your best. Favor the organic; favor the local, favor fresh in-season (lowercase) whole foods. Just don't make it a religion, be grateful you can afford the capricious luxury - recognizing that's all it really is - and every once in a while send a check to help support those who'd be deliriously grateful for a box of Oreos. Because actual hunger is where the real problem lies, and where our money can do the most good.

If you think I'm ranting with more anger than is appropriate, then you may not be considering the full breadth of my argument. I'm not over-clucking my tongue at a silly food trend, or acidly judging people for patronizing a retail chain I happen to dislike. What I'm describing is something larger: a creepy pattern in the food world of pandering to the ugliest sort of classism. What's worse, a great many people fall for it.

Classism was, until fairly recently, quite open and acceptable. But nowadays that sort of thing has become taboo, and deeply repressed. So consumers, unaware subliminal buttons are being pushed, fail to notice that messages apparently speaking to their desire for sparkly, spiritual, well-scrubbed shiny good health actually appeal to darker sensibilities, e.g. a sense of sanctimonious superiority to one's social inferiors - those dirty, unwashed, impure souls down the ladder.

We have no idea this is happening because it's all so repressed (political correctness is a dangerous thing; I'd rather have folks warmly calling me "jewboy" than live in a society nervously feigning color-blindness). So I feel obliged to yell a bit to shake folks out of the trance.

For most of human history, people down the social ladder from us were perceived to eat filthy disgusting things. These days, millionaires swoon over tacos and dumplings, but the same prejudice has taken on new forms....all of them walled up in our dark mental recesses. And there's nothing marketers like better than an opportunity to engage a walled-up impulse.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Ugly Roots of Language Pedantry

In response to yesterday's posting, "Vanquishing the Language Pedants", my Brazilian friend Kita reports:
"Here in Brasil we have the same Portuguese language police...and it is so silly."
Of course you do! This is everywhere, because it involves a faculty as commonplace as language: arrogance. Such people never advanced beyond the silly adolescent notion that spotting flaws in others makes one superior.

But there's a much uglier impulse behind it all. What this really is (and I'm sure it's the same in Brazil and elsewhere) is a form of classism. The "bad" language which pedants decry is nearly always the sort of language used by their perceived social inferiors.

It's always been like this; people of lower classes have always been perceived to use language appallingly (and also to eat filthy disgusting things, exhibit poor hygiene, etc etc.). Since explicit classism is socially taboo these days, this sense of superiority and revulsion has become masked behind a pretense of academic rigor (to the point where most pedants have lost awareness of the true root of their impulse). But the irony is that academics, again, are definitely not on that side, and haven't been for decades. And Stephen Fry has blasted away all pretense that this is about anything but bald snobbery.

It's an ugliness, and thank goodness it's dying. But other forms of classism will pop up to replace it. These days everyone respects the foods of lower classes, but don't imagine for a moment that we don't still find ways to express classism in our eating habits.

Note: I've updated the article at that final link by adding a postscript, and will push that article back to the top of the Slog tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Vanquishing the Language Pedants

We seem to have hit a tipping point. Academics have long agreed that language is dynamic and personal, so it's really quite daft for anyone to suppose they have the authority to pronounce what sort of usage is "right" and what sort is "wrong".

Yet there remain legions of citizen pedant/vigilantes who make it their task to indignantly scold what they deem incorrect use. Such people never imagine that few academics would back them up in that sort of thing. As I wrote several years ago , the noxious influence of William Fowler (author of "Fowler's Modern English Usage") has been overcome, and modern lexicographers work descriptively (cataloging the myriad varieties of language use and tracking its continuous revision) rather than prescriptively (telling people - as if they were in any position to do so - what's right and what's wrong).

Well, this is finally beginning to penetrate to the public. And I've never heard the issue tackled as beautifully and eruditely as in this short, entertaining video where British actor and comedian Stephen Fry annihilates language pedants with such logic and eloquence that I can't imagine how any of them could ever possibly pipe up again:

Another sign of the mainstreaming of language counter-pedantry: this NPR page explaining how the substitution of "axe" for "ask" has been standard English for a thousand years - used by, among others, Chaucer.

Personally, that sort of thing makes me completely nucular.

Daily Show Taping

I was in the audience for the taping of last night's Daily Show. I've heard accounts from friends who've been there, and there are plenty of blog articles on the experience, so rather than run it down beat for beat, I'll try to offer some stray observations I haven't seen elsewhere.

As always with TV, the set is crap in real life. The desk is crap. The "newsroom" monitors in the background are cheap, blurry paint-ons. Everything seems small and tacky. I tried to capture the tackiness, below, but via some magic I don't understand, it all looks great in the photo. Chalk it up to lens-versus-eye juju.

Most of the audience followed the beats of the show, swiveling their heads toward monitors to view clips, etc.. I can watch the show at home, so I kept my eye on Stewart and his crew, hoping to see what the process is like for them after so many years on the air. I played a bit with Tony Bennett back in the day, and it was fascinating to watch him approach "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" for the umpteenth time.

As clips play, Stewart positions early for whatever mug he needs to have on his face when the camera returns. He doesn't view the clips - he's spent all afternoon watching them. Instead, he's cupping his forehead with his hand, leaning back apprehensively in his chair, or whatever...and cooly awaiting the camera. It doesn't seem forced or phony, just highly technical and tactical. Like a ballet where all movements have been pre-mapped, and attention's focused entirely on flow and pacing. You feel the pacing much more acutely in the studio than on TV.

Stewart mostly ad-libs; he barely follows his script. It wasn't that he was decorating or riffing off of it; more like he was so familiar with the material (again, he'd been working on it all day) that the script was just a guide. This rang home when, before the final segment, the teleprompter cued up "That's our show. Here it is, your moment of zen", as if he needed that. Stewart seems to do the show mostly by memory, while the script runs for security.

Before the show, Stewart was asked a couple of interesting questions: one was (winkingly) whether he and the staff had gotten together to revamp policies in light of last week's bizarre Jennifer Lawrence interview (which was referenced several times in the show):


He didn't have much insightful to say, but it was abundantly clear that he wasn't fazed in the least. I don't imagine much rattles him. This is, literally, a daily show, rolling forward ala sausage production. I can't imagine Stewart often frets on the drive home about stuff he might have done better. At least not with this gig, which he's been doing for a long, long 14 years. It's execution, period. Tactical.

Someone else asked when his movie would be released, and he froze in an uncharacteristic grimace of pain. I figure he's been killing himself with post-production on the film while doing the show - and he's at the agony point. He couldn't crack a joke about it. He just stood there mumbling something about how the film's not funny and he hoped people like it anyway. Bad moment. If you ever run into Jon Stewart, don't mention the movie.

Between segments, production people approach the desk to say serious-seeming things, to which Stewart seriously replies. You'd imagine they're making last minute tweaks to upcoming segments, but the odd thing is the same bar conference occurred before the Moment of Zen throw. There's nothing to adjust at that point - the show's pretty much over - so I have no idea what the conferencing was about.

The staff's still tickled after all these years. Production assistants line up along the side of the room, genuinely laughing their asses off. And the crew, surprisingly, was into the comedy as well. Even the cameramen, who you normally expect to be unflinching, kept chortling. Nobody's grinding it out.

There's very little cuing. Stewart was given one single time cue midway through the guest interview (with Ian McKellen, who, by the way, has a voice like burnished golden velvet chocolate), and guided things to commercial with no subsequent guidance. Having been at this for so long, his internal clock seems perfectly calibrated.

Woops, I missed the boat on that last part. Now that I've seen the show on TV, I understand that the producer was signaling that they had enough. Stewart let the conversation end organically, then they edited it down later.

Stewart never seemed to let up - not after the interview, which essentially closes the show, nor after the throw to Moment of Zen. Straight through, the energy never wavered; focused, clinical, un-stressed yet nothing taken for granted. No change even as he left the studio after thanking the audience. Of course, he was probably headed to an editing bay for nine or ten hours of film work, poor guy.

As I said, the set doesn't look like it does at home. Same for Stewart's body language. Live, he seems like a guy naturally moving and reacting. It's small and it's organic, though carefully timed and poised. Only on TV did it compose into the familiar animated mugging and gesturing. Glancing up at the monitor, I'd see what looked like the standard Daily Show. Quite a cognitive dissonance.

The guest segment was the converse. You can't hear well in the studio (mics are for broadcast only; voices aren't put through the PA), so I mostly watched body movement. And he and McKellen appeared to be moving way too much; like an exaggerated hyperkinetic ballet. On the monitor, though, you couldn't see any of that. It looked stone-cold natural. Though the mugging blows up on TV, the interview dynamics were reduced - which is, of course, why they intentionally overplay. McKellen's such a pro that he effortlessly matched the movement; the two seemed engaged in a coordinated dance; it was mesmerizing - though, on TV, you just saw a couple guys talking on a TV show. I suppose if they'd had a more normal conversation, they'd have looked like boring 1970's PBS talking heads. That certainly wouldn't cut it, so there's effort made to be extra dynamic for the camera.

From fifteen feet away, 74 year-old McKellen appears to have the body of a 19 year old, and I'll bet he works extremely hard to keep it that way. Movie star obligation stuff.

One thought: for regular viewers, it may seem like Jon Stewart draws from a limited - though highly effective - bag of tricks. But watching it happen live, I get the impression it's more that this is simply who he is, and, appearing on TV four nights per week, he has no choice but to be who he is. How many moves could you or I wield night after night, year after year?

All in all, this is a really lousy way to view a TV show (they make you wait forever, you can't hear much, camera men block your view, and it's over super fast), but a fascinating journey into the appearance/reality funhouse.

Oh, I spotted this in the staff kitchen, and I'm not sure if it's a joke or not:

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Billions, Millions, Thousands

Billions of people yearn for greatness.

Millions of people do things they hope will make them great.

Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

Friday, November 29, 2013


A "challenge" is an aggravation with an insipid sparkly bow tied around it.

Accounting for Bourbon and Rye Variation

SKU, of the Sku's Recent Eats Blog (a great source of cutting-edge info on bourbons and ryes), was kind enough to post an informative comment to my "Rye Whisky Tasting" post:
Great tasting! As a matter of background, Riverboat is distilled by Midwest Grain Products, a large contract distiller in Indiana which also makes Bulleit, Templeton and many other popular ryes, including the two year old rye used in High West Double Rye. They use a 95% rye mash, which is much higher than any of the Kentucky ryes (though lower than the 100% ryes made in Canada, such as WhistlePig). Overholt is Beam Rye with a bit more time in the barrel.
It's interesting and useful to know what's distilled where, and I thank SKU for the posting. But it offers a good opportunity to share the big lesson I learned from a week spent in Bardstown, KY at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (where I reported, with photos, in five installments: So Where's the Bourbon?, Barrels, Barrels, Everywhere, The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told, Madly in Love with Maxine's, and Bourbon Redux).

The lesson is this: it's all about the barrels. At Four Roses, we had a chance to taste newborn bourbon straight out of the distilling process, and, much to my surprise and dismay, it was indistinguishable from vodka. It's a neutral grain spirit with no detectable aroma or flavor.

As my bourbon buddy JB and I toured lots of barrel houses (and we hit a bunch of them, because there is no greater smell on Earth; I compared it to "angels puffing into your unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla which sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation"), we learned that the whole game is in barrel selection and placement. Temperature varies by a few degrees between interior-stored barrels and ones closer to the walls. And cycling them between locations as they age folds in another layer of complexity. Tiny aging decisions like these - plus, of course, aging length and grain proportions- account for nearly all variation. The actual spirit is so generic that it doesn't matter all that much who makes the stuff. It's all about the barrels.

Every few months, some media outlet will report how the dozens of brands are made by the same tiny handful of distilleries. The implication is that aficionados are chuckleheads who've been conned into buying the same damned stuff in a range of snazzy bottles. But my blind tasting demonstrates the tremendous variation.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I find myself increasingly finding inspiration and delight in the tiniest of things. A mere gesture, a glance, a single word choice, in art or in day-to-day life, can sustain me for hours. At times I feel able to experience the richness and breadth of thick Russian novels within the blink of an eye.

I call it nano-aesthetics, and it's a core tenet of Apprecianity. Sweeping statements and ambitious undertakings are often contaminated by ego and vanity. The raw divinity of human beings is most purely expressed via tiny things, which most often go unnoticed. As an Apprecianist, it's my obligation to notice.

Truthfully, I'm a bit embarrassed about this. In a society where everyone dreams giant dreams of cataclysmic delights, here I am quietly doting upon dust motes, like a hobo greedily pulling grains of rice from the trash. Smallness in America can feel awfully....well...small. But after my revulsion at the bigness of my Chowhound experience, I've gone thoroughly nano. My ego hates it, but my soul loves it.

The Apple iWatch May Be a Red Herring

I've said before that I don't like the idea of Apple's heavily-rumored under-development iWatch. But here's what I'm thinking now: I don't think it's real. I think it's a fake-out; a red herring. 

I suspect they're fueling these rumors to drive competitors to waste time and money ramping up their own watches to compete, when Apple has no intention of launching any such thing....because, per the reasoning in the above link, it's really quite a dumb idea.

I may turn out to have been embarrassingly wrong on this, but....let's see!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ben & Jerry's Butterscotch Ice Cream

How much do you love butterscotch? Do you love it enough to submerge yourself in a tank of tacky butterscotch syrup, rub butterscotch crunchies from your sleepy eyes, and lard butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch onto butterscotch?

Are you eager to not just welcome back an old, nearly extinct flavor, but to lavish in it, to roll around the floor with it, to have it tear all your clothes off and have its way with you? How deep is your love...of butterscotch?

Ben & Jerry's latest, Ron Burgundy's Scotchy Scotch Scotch (yet another B&J show biz tie-in) is very strong medicine, a semi-consensual rape via butterscotch. It's intensely potent butterscotch ice cream with a huge ribbon of the richest butterscotch syrup, littered with butterscotch micro-crunchies. It's likely more than you can handle. I can't eat more than a couple tablespoons at a time, myself, and I'm a huge butterscotch fan. I've been yearning, pleading, begging for the stuff on Chowhound since back in the 1990's, but, Jesus Christ, this may be more butterscotch than even I can handle.

Here's where to find some.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Sport Jacket (or: "The Nigerian Ambassador Composed His Features")

I was headed for an awesome trip via frequent flyer miles to Spain and Morocco (I've started recounting the food side of the trip here). Spain to play some jazz gigs (a nostalgic return; up until the mid-1990's, I used to tour all the jazz clubs there two or three times per year) and Morocco because an old bass player friend had been appointed as the Belgian ambassador, and had invited me to come hang out at the residence...and also play a couple of gigs (including one where we'd literally rock the casbah in the old part of Tangiers).

I'm not really a dresser-to-impresser, but I needed at least one good, hip sports coat to wear on stage in Spain and during my stay in the embassy in Rabat. So I went shopping, starting at Nordstrum's Outlet, which I'd heard offered Nordstrum's quality at deeply discounted prices. The place was indistinguishable from other low-end retailers, ala Marshall's and TJ Maxx, and so was the clothing. None of this stuff had ever been anywhere near an actual Nordstrum's; the whole operation's a sham. Sure, I could buy a $72 blazer, but it was the cheapest crap imaginable.

I've now invested 45 minutes in this quest, and my trip is one week away.

So I hit up Macy's, where I found a bunch of $150 blazers, all of them so unhip that my own hipness was sucked out of me just by standing near them. This is what assistant branch managers wear for prime rib night at the second best steakhouse in some suburban hell. Not quite navy blue blazers with nautical buttons, but close to it.

Now I'm ninety minutes into the quest, and my trip's five days away.

So I headed to SOHO, where I tried Uniqlo (imagine Ikea - and Ikea quality - for clothes) and Original Penguin (Uniqlo quality at thrice the price). At those shops and others, the XL size jackets were so skimpy I was ready to hightail it out to a Big & Tall Man shop (I'm 6 feet and 200 lbs....not slender, but, geez, no Chris Christie). Shiny and skinny, these jackets were apparently designed for European pimps.

Ted Baker is for people who blithely shrug at paying $650 for a jacket. Such people can go to Ted Baker, and, yep, they've got lots of $650 jackets there. Nice, and nicely tailored. But for that price, I'd expect "wow", and this is not a place for "wow", it's just a place to blithely drop big money on merely okay jackets. Except: everything has a horrible obtrusive Ted Baker logo sewn in. Jesus.

I'm now at the four hour mark, and the trip's four days away. And, again, I really need a nice sports jacket. I can't show up at the embassy looking like something the cat dragged in. Effort is required. One peril of being fifty is that you need to try twice as hard for half the result.

In search of a genuinely great brand at serious discount, I tried Ina Men, an upscale consignment shop, where I fell in love with a $130 Prada cotton jacket exactly one size too small for me. With only 3 or 4 jackets of any given size, it's suit roulette, and I lost.

Five hours, four days from departure.

Figuring that Prada was my thing, I innocently headed into their shop, where I threw off the room's suave vibe for the ten minutes I spent wandering around, disoriented by the absence of inventory and posted prices. I grubbily rooted around a couple jacket linings for price tags (I'd never before realized that I move Jewishly), and, reading all those digits, nearly fell over dead on the floor.

Six hours, three days.

Someone suggested I try the sales rack at Sak's Fifth Avenue. I knew the name, of course, but didn't know where the store was or what it was about. But I ascended six or seven escalator levels to be greeted by a men's department saleswoman whom I regaled with my tale of jazz gigs, homecomings, embassies, and casbahs. She agreed I needed the perfect jacket, and snatched from some unseen corner a radiant, creamy hunk of fabric which she glided onto my body in a single buttery-smooth motion. Woosh. I stood there, blinking into a mirror, realizing that I was wearing exactly That Jacket. Saleswoman grinned approvingly. She'd nailed it.

All that remained was the trivial matter of cost. I asked, she answered, and I wormed my way out of That Jacket with distinctly ethnic haste. I asked to be shown the sales rack, and was obliged. But after That Jacket, everything else seemed like remainders. My memory may be distorted, but I recall one jacket missing a left arm, and another being made out of sandpaper.

"You know," the saleswoman confided in her low voice - suddenly just a tad more ethnic (Puerto Rican in her case), "if you buy That Jacket, it will serve you well for many, many years. It will save you from needing to buy a succession of cheaper jackets, none a shadow of the quality of this one. And you'll look sharp as a tack at your performances, which means one less thing to worry about."

I had, at this point, spent seven hours on this frustrating quest during the busy lead-up to my big trip, and didn't have an acceptable jacket anywhere near my sights...aside from That Jacket, in its radiant creamy perfection. That Jacket was quite obviously the jacket. And while I'd be spending more on this garment than any member of my family had ever spent on a single item of clothing since the dawn of the Leff line, the saleswoman had a point. Buying once and right is better than consecutive half-assed struggles. And I needed a goddam jacket for this trip and was completely out of time.

All the blood drained from my face as all the money was drained from my bank account. My stupor was interrupted with a follow-up question: Would I like a pocket square? Uh, sure. Yes! What do I look like, a farmer?

I was shown a gorgeous $150 pocket square, and instantly understood the trap I'd set for myself. That Jacket could never really fit into my life, because I don't have That Shirt, Those Pants, Those Shoes, Those Socks, That Belt, and That friggin' Pocket Square. Gathering all those items together would amount to a mortgageable undertaking. And even if I managed it, then what would I wear on, like, Tuesday?

I decided to stop the train right then and there. I spoke a few sentences never before uttered in Saks Fifth Avenue. I said it a bit too loudly, and everything around me froze into shocked tense silence:
I can't buy this. I've spent all my money on the jacket. I have nothing left.
Hushed astonishment all around. Another salesmen who'd been standing nearby murmured something into my saleswoman's ear. The charade over, the spell broken, she spoke to me in full-out Puerto Rican, with coarsely borough-ish body gestures, telling me, with genuine warmth, not to worry. They had one for fifteen bucks in a drawer somewhere which they could iron up and make look nice for me. She actually said the phrase "make look nice for you". Also a Saks first, I believe.

In a state of deep sticker shock and buyer's remorse (really more like buyer's crippled nauseated paralysis), I left the store, having left That Jacket for sleeve adjustment with the oily, aloof, patronizing tailor who'd taken one look at my sneaker/shoes and decided he abhorred everything I stood for.

So I got to Spain and found out that the gigs hadn't materialized. No problem, I'd play around informally and build back my reputation; that's how I did it the first time, plus I had a great time with my many friends there. I did show up to sit in on my bassist friend Nono's gig in That Jacket, and as soon as he spotted me, he started laughing uproariously. "Leff, what the fuck are you wearing?" he asked between peals of hysterical giggling. I snarled at him, figuring I'd fit right in when I got to Morocco.

A few days later, I found myself encamped at the Belgian ambassador's residence in the Moroccan capital, a glamorous, sprawling villa with indoor palm tree terrariums, designed by a fellow who'd clearly been instructed to whip up something resembling a Bond villain lair. That first night, there'd be a diplomatic reception, and I'd be supplying the music (with my ambassador buddy on bass). I had no intention of glad-handing diplomats; my plan was to stick with the musicians. So as the hour rolled near, and I was finishing preparations - kicking equipment cables out of sight and adjusting music stands - I took one last walk across the residence to grab my horn, moving swiftly to avoid the influx soon to arrive.

As I passed through the main hallway, the first guest was arriving. The Nigerian ambassador was a bit early, still slightly discombobulated from the process of coming out of his car, snapping shut his cell phone, and adjusting his tie. It was an unguarded moment; he figured he had three or four footsteps before he'd need to get fully into character. But then I crossed, some twenty feet in front of him. He didn't have time to fully survey me, but, on sheer instinct, the Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

The Nigerian ambassador composed his features.

I'm not normally a person who inspires much in the way of feature composing. I'm more the guy you mistakenly hand off your overcoat or car keys to, or, at least, go have a beer with after the caviar tasting. So having the Nigerian ambassador bloom radiantly into solicitously smiling "show time" in my presence was just about the strangest possible thing. It was, of course, That Jacket. I instantly understood why people buy such jackets, why they spend those sums. And I saw what an idiot I'd been to walk that road, because I'm not one of those people. I don't yearn to be someone for whom features are composed. More than that, I didn't like it. So I just kept walking. You're mistaken, excellency. This may be That Jacket, but I'm not That Guy.

I played well, but it goes without saying that I spilled some food on the jacket that night. Not a big conspicuous splotch, just a deeply demoralizing and world-crushing little dab of color on the sleeve (a few weeks later the Mexican kid at my local dry cleaners took a Brillo to it and got it out, no prob). It's safely in my closet, to which I've considered adding a lock. And I think I probably won't ever take That Jacket out again. The lesson cost dearly, but it was a hell of an interesting insight I never would have otherwise received.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The "Dessert" Memorization Trick

This works whenever you need to memorize something just a bit too long to remember in one swoop. For example, I had to copy the following password into an app on my iPhone: vze179wnv. I could have easily memorized any six digits of that, but the whole thing? No way. So here's what I did:

As I said, six digits seemed memorable. So I mentally separated the overflow - the final three digits. I stared at them for a couple of moments and told myself I wouldn't need to memorize them. The "wnv" portion I'd just know. The rest, I'd memorize. This part would simply come, without effort.

Then I used my familiar memorization technique to remember "vze179": repeating it over and over aloud and typing it in an agitated rush - all while completely disregarding "wnv". Then, relaxed and blithe, I pecked in the characters "wnv", which seemed to come from a very different part of my brain.

You know how dessert goes to a different part of the stomach? Like, even after a cripplingly filling meal, dessert somehow seems like another thing? It's exactly like that!

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Social Media"

Spotted in a suburban storefront:

So that's over. Time for something new...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"There's a Soldier in All of Us"

TV commercials aren't supposed to inspire deep thoughts, but this one threw my mind into overdrive, contemplating issues of violence, masculinity, repression and sublimation of primal instincts, the fragility of modern civilization and the viability of human survival. I doubt even Solzhenitsyn could inspire all that in a 60 second TV spot!

What's more, do I dare confess that it strikes me as a really cool game?

Previous Slog articles about violence:

The Better Angels of Our Nature`
"...It strikes me as obvious that evolution favors the most violently competitive (which explains why there aren't indications of intelligent life in the universe). That said, a subtle evolutionary process does work the other way..."

Does Peace Have a Chance?
"...The development of the notion of an "us" relies upon the contrasting presence of a "them". From primitive societies to American anti-Muslim bigots, one hallmark of provincialism is the dehumanization of the barbaric tribe across the river..."

Give Carnage a Chance
"...Aggression drives everything, even evolution. In a pasture full of blissfully moo-ing cows and a few angry bulls, who's going to run the show?..."

Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome
"...Bus drivers there have an unwritten but firm agreement with gangs and drug lords: they do not interfere with or testify against crimes and violence perpetrated on their buses, and, in exchange, they themselves are spared. The question is: what does this situation do, psychologically, to those drivers? ..."

A Case For More, Not Less, Calling of "Nazi!"
"....Isn't that the supreme lesson to be drawn from the horrors of the twentieth century? That humanity is capable of heinous evil, and it may recur in any era with a f├╝hrer du jour? That we need to remember how low we can go, and try to stanch situations before they devolve to the ghastly point?..."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rye Whiskey Tasting

My favorite rye - which I like so much that it's become a category killer for me - is Riverboat. It's something of a fluke. The makers were aiming to create a cheap bottom-shelf product for bartenders to use in cocktails, so it's young, unfiltered, unrefined, and, quite by accident, incredibly delicious. Persuaded to market it as a consumer product, it costs around $20/bottle and everyone I serve it to goes crazy for it. Which makes it awfully hard to justify paying much more for rye.

But most of the others do cost more - some way more. The most expensive, WhistlePig at $65, was among my least-favorite. And a brand I'd always regarded as near-rotgut, Old Overholt, though flawed, beat the competition in one respect (its long, long finish). With spirits, you don't necessarily get what you pay for!

We sampled everything blind, which led to some surprises, none more startling than the positive reaction to Old Overholt. And High West, though an old favorite of mine, was even better than expected (their double rye blends an intense 2-year-old rye with a smooth 16-year-old. As they put it, "the older rye has a 'barely legal' rye mashbill of 53% rye and 37% corn. The extra age and corn provides some extra sweetness to calm the "bite" of the younger rye"). I was certainly taken aback by the poor showing of the Rittenhouse, but suspect this might have been an off bottle.

Here's the upshot:

Most friendly rye: Riverboat
Most fun rye: High West
Most stately/deep rye: Willett

Here are the tasting notes, in the order in which we tasted:

Riverboat, $21
Lots of rye character, but it's all the high mid-range flavors - no deeper/darker flavors. This makes for a friendly character and easy/breezy drinking. Sweetness is exactly, precisely what it needs to be. Aftertaste is well-baked cookies. This would work incredibly well with a wide range of foods.

Old Overholt, $15
Very little aroma, and the flavor itself starts out confined and chintzy, tasting like tongue depressor sticks. But then it all opens up into a beautifully long, deep, round finish which hardly seems like it belongs to the same drink.

WhistlePig, $65
An intense, concentrated, in-your-face wallop of flavor, including some off notes (I suspect they're not careful with their grain bill - the important procedure of inspecting the grain delivered to the distillery). No structure, just that big vulgar hit, and, unsurprisingly, the finish is muddled, finally leaving a sticky candy-ish aftertaste in the mouth.

Willett, $35
Nice spicy aroma. Flavor is as intense as WhistlePig - rich, broad, and bracing - but it's also meticulously clean and refined and multi-layered. So much deeper, and light years more elegant. This one's a ride, a tad bombastic but classy all the way. A Wagnerian opera in a glass!

Rittenhouse, $25
Turkish taffy aroma. Just not much here; can't really find much to observe, much less appreciate. No elegance or depth, just gestures of rye flavor.

High West Double Rye, $35
Smells like Chanel perfume, but not in a bad way. Lots of flavor drama (nearly as operatic as the Willett, though nowhere near as deep), all against a unified background structure which I compared to a string section holding a long note while the brass and woodwinds blast. A wild and delicious ride.

Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye, $40
I get skeptical whenever I see the term "organic" appearing where it doesn't belong. And, indeed, I found myself missing all the yummy toxins and pesticides. Or something. This one's lackluster and unworthy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Here's how it always works: I find something great, fall in love, and quickly discover that no one else is paying the least attention to the obscure thing that's been captivating me. I'm forced to drive to the ends of the earth for my fixes, and everyone thinks I'm nuts for my devotion to something no one else cares about (as I wrote last month, "we're only supposed to go apeshit for the things we've previously been told to go apeshit about. Independent, uncorroborated apeshit-going is the mark of a crazy person").

Then, after a few years, the mainstream latches on, and for a brief moment, I enjoy easy availability and a profusion of kindred spirits. But soon after - right around the time the money and attention have begun to subvert things - it becomes yesterday's thing, and I'm left feeling ridiculous once again - this time for being one of those unfortunate people who cling cluelessly to stale trends.

Check out Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog ranking on the annoying legions of craft beer freaks, just as I was beginning to celebrate the mainstreaming of beer appreciation (ironically, I was a Robert Smigel fan long before he became popular):

I had a fantastic idea for a reality TV food show in 1994, before there was reality TV. By the time I was in a position to pitch it, I was perceived as just another sad wannabe trying to scratch his way onto the receding tail of a big trend.

Hey, it even happened with chowhounding!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Who Elected Rob Ford?

With all the press coverage of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, no one has taken time to explain how this clown was elected in the first place. He clearly has his supporters...lots of them.

Here's an explanation from a knowledgable local. Amid the over-written trolling comparison lies this nugget:
[Ford's constituency is] the Ontario equivalent of the Tea Party. Peel back the veneer, and you find someone who truly, deeply feels that "Toronto The Good" doesn't work. Who feels that it works for someone else. For downtowners, or liberals, or cyclists, or unionized employees, or something else.

Ford Nation thinks Toronto is all about "someone else," not about them. To Ford Nation, Toronto looks down upon the suburbs and taxpayers, and Ford Nation is angry about that
Anarchism exploded in America at the turn of the last century. The movement's little-remembered now, though it terrorized the nation for a few years, and even led to the assasination of President McKinley. And it all stemmed from an economic crisis, the Panic of 1893.

The financial crisis of 2007–08 brought its own anarchistic reaction, from the Tea Party (launched in 2009) to the angry nihilistic mobs who put Rob Ford in office in 2010.

Writers both liberal and mainstream conservative have always warned of the gruesomeness lurking in the right wing fringe. Yet conservative politicians have long pandered to that fringe, stoking it to a critical mass where it's now able to elect its own candidates who, in turn, consume the panderers.

Of course, the explosive combination of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960's empowered a left-wing fringe with equally harsh "tear it all down" objectives. But neither fringe has ever held real power until now. And those who pine for the days of moderate conservatives ought to temper their nostalgia with an awareness that those were the guys who stoked and empowered these loonies in the first place.*

Republicans who cynically pretended to believe that evolution's just a theory and that the president was born in Kenya, etc. etc., have been violently replaced by kooks and morons who actually buy all that. Is crack-smoking really so far beyond?

* For that matter, bear in mind who inflamed and armed radical Islam in the first place (hint: it was a country that really really wanted to see the Soviets pushed out of Afghanistan).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Never Sad Time

I hadn't planned to share this, but what the heck. A friend lost a hard-fought election yesterday, and here, for whatever it's worth, is what I sent him:
The world says we're supposed to be sad when we don't get what we want. But if what you want is to fully immerse in the ride - to exuberantly learn stuff and gain experience - there's never reason to ever be less than 100% gleeful, even when the world tells you it's a "sad time".

Because there's no such thing as Sad Time. Life's short and you've just experienced a whole lot of cool stuff.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

More on "Tips For Art Critics"

Re: my previous posting, I was asked:
"I'm not sure I buy the part about ignoring motivation. Certainly your best chowhounding was all about understanding who made the thing and why, no?"
Yes, but I always kept my eye on the ball. I'd broach that stuff in order to try to heighten a diligently fleshed-out story which hopefully conveyed a vicarious experience of the thing.

But that stuff would never be the sole focus, or serve as an easy way to get me off the hook of doing the hard work of doing justice to the thing.

Think of movie or book reviews that talk almost entirely about the topic of the movie/book, rather than the work itself. It's self-indulgence. Film critics tire of the narrow confines of discussing direction, acting, lighting, etc. all the time. This guy's saying: too freaking bad. Critics ought to invest 1% of the creativity and resourcefulness of the folks they're judging into finding fresh ways to work within those confines.

It's absolutely a fair point, and it alludes to the higher indignity of creative people being criticized by uncreative hacks. That's the point I'd stress, but I admire Zak Smith for keeping his criticisms so sharply pragmatic. Much food for thought therein, though.

Zak Smith’s Tips For Art Critics

Arts criticism (including film, music, food, etc.) is almost universally lazy, superficial, wrong-headed, lazy, and hackneyed ("lazy" intentionally listed twice). I know a lot of those guys. Shoot, I was one of those guys. The notion of an obligation to truly do justice to the person or thing one is writing about barely exists.

It's tough to articulate the many ways in which critics fail to do even a reasonably competent job, but Zak Smith has (for the most part) nailed it, and with great economy. It's always revelatory to see journalism viewed through the eyes of its subjects. If only critics had the keen and penetrating eye for their subjects that he focuses on them.

Obviously, most of his tips apply to critics beyond the realm of visual art.

Monday, November 4, 2013

James Booker

I've been a huge fan of New Orleans pianist/singer James Booker since childhood. Booker, a perennially under-acclaimed honky-tonk genius, died in 1983 but his name still sparks gleams in the eyes of musicians and others in-the-know. James Booker is just The Guy. He's as good as it gets, and even those from that scene who've risen to fame and fortune (Dr. John, Harry Connick, etc) will freely admit it.

He's becoming a little less obscure thanks to the new film "Bayou Maharajah: The troubled genius of James Booker". I've heard it's un-frickin-believably terrific (musician friends tell me it's one of the greatest music films ever), but it's near the end of its festival circuit, and will likely never get a full release. I'll be sure and let you know when the DVD comes out.

I'd suggest you buy his CDs, buy the transcriptions of his miraculous piano work, and await the DVD. But don't take my word for it. Check this out, if you can even stand hearing music so honest, funky, gorgeous, and brilliant:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Beauty of Water, of Whiteness, and of Silence

Just as spices and herbs were originally used to mask the off tastes of decaying foodstuffs, anything that flavors water has its origins as a masking agent. Most of what we enjoy about cuisine has its origin not in delighting the palate but in hiding rot.

It's only recently that un-doctored water has been widely safe to drink, and many of us retain an aversion to its seemingly lackluster flavor, much as people habituated to chile pepper find un-spicy chow horridly bland. Accustomed to masks, we are recoiled by purity!

If you're not drinking water, you are drinking something designed to mask water, not improve it. Call to mind, say, Pepsi, Yoo Hoo, or supermarket orange juice. Can you even think of water while drinking such things? I challenge you to sip a soft drink while visualizing a pristine mountain spring. You can't. The water which makes up the vast majority of the content is unrecognizable. It's thoroughly masked. We've gotten good at it!

The same is true even with delicious drinks. A terrific strawberry milkshake, a fine pint of beer, or a fancy glass of wine are still just premium-quality water-maskers.

But here's the thing. Having tasted 1929 Chateau Lafite, and many of the very greatest sakes, wines, beers, Chinese teas and spirits of the past century, I can report that those diverse experiences all triggered a similar observation: they all struck me as improvements on water. They uplifted its essential purity rather then masked it. All I've thought about while drinking those masterpieces was....water. I reveled in water. It's a miraculous feat! While anyone can mask water, improving on it is a seemingly impossible task because water is perfection.

Similarly, nearly all artists mask the blankness of white, rather than improve upon its perfection. And nearly all musicians mask silence rather than improve upon its perfection. The masks may be beautiful, brilliant, and inspiring. But it's important to understand the stagecraft - the intentions behind the things you're appreciating. Nearly everything humans do involves cleverly masking perfection.

The beauty of water, whiteness, and silence is perfect and unsurpassable. So improving the unsurpassable is quite an accomplishment. It's a magic trick pulled off only very rarely.

If you're about to play or compose music, try holding back until you have a note to offer that can improve upon the perfection of silence (if you haven't yet fallen deeply in love with silence, you have no business making music). If you're about to paint, try holding back until you have a brushstroke to offer that can improve upon the perfection of the white canvass. And if you're creating some sort of drink, try holding back until you can improve upon the perfection of water. With this perspective, you can't fail.

It's only after realizing that everything's perfect, as-is, that one is in a position to make a contribution that contributes.

Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna was an example of this reported in real time.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

New Label: Right Whispering

One of the perqs of being a moderate is that I can pretty much relate to what both sides are trying to say. And I've found that I'm sometimes able to convey what the Right is feeling to people on the Left  - which is something people on the Right seem incapable of doing, themselves (of course, the reverse is true, as well).

I've launched a new "label" (see a list of all labels along the left side of the page, just beneath "Popular Entries") called "Right Whispering".

Here are all entries with the new label.


Hello, John, how are you?
I am fine Sally, and you?
Very well, thank you. Beautiful day, isn't it?
Yes, it is a beautiful day. Good bye, Sally!
Goodbye, John!

Whether you're a beginning language student or a native speaker, cliched dialogs are mindless bits of conversational fluff requiring little thought. The cadences of such conversations are delivered on auto-pilot, and this can be problematic if one party needs the other to pay close attention. The most dangerous example is "Keep this to yourself".

The next time you need to pause a discussion to ask someone to keep something confidential, pay close attention to their response. They'll hastily and effusively assure you of their complete and absolute discretion the moment they catch your drift - before you've actually explained what needs to be kept secret and why.

They won't hear any such explanation, because they'll have flipped into "keeping a secret mode", which isn't about secret-keeping, per se. Rather, it's about effusively assuring the other person via the usual yadda-yadda so that the conversation can continue. That's all it is: moving the dialog along. Beautiful day, isn't it, Sally? Yes, it is a beautiful day, John.

These snatches of canned conversation take place in a semi-trance state. It's a little bit like how when two people speak at the same time, and one invites the other to go ahead, he will often begin with "I was just gonna say...." That verbiage is devoid of information, and the person who says it isn't fully conscious at the moment. It's about rhythm, pace and continuity. Flow. They're revving themselves back up to conversational speed after the interruption, and doing so with a snippet of unconscious patterned dialog they've heard others use. Nothing's actually being said, even though someone's vocalizing.

"Keeping a secret" mode is, similarly, a canned conversational placeholder delivered in a light trance. What's essentially being said is non-informational; it's all gesture and posture, as if to say "Of course I'll keep this secret! You know me; I never say anything to anyone about anything! My default setting is to shut my mouth and assume complete silence as I go through my day to day life! You can trust me!"

Nonsense. We share things we're told all the time. It's what human beings do. If close, solicitous attention isn't paid to what, specifically, must be kept quiet, then it's just empty assurance. If you've ever met a special forces soldier or an Apple exec - or anyone else who really, truly needs to keep secrets - you'll observe that there's effort involved. Such people have put thought into what can and can't be said, and discipline is exercised. Keeping secrets is hard work. It's not nothing. But given that we've habitually reduced the request for secrecy to sleepy patterned behavior, it's extremely difficult to establish a bona fide secret.

Indeed, secrets are broadcasted all the time. And it's not that people are compulsively loose-lipped. It's just that it's nearly impossible to get them to focus on (much less execute) a commitment to keep quiet. Tranced-out, patterned gesturing represents the very opposite of the keen attention required to establish real discretion. It's a serious problem.

Some time back, a lawyer friend was trying to drum up investment for an enterprise we were working on together. I asked him to fill in one of his contacts about our project, but only after swearing the guy to secrecy. He got back to me to say that the investor wanted me to know he really liked the idea, and that he had a friend who was also interested in investing.

I blinked for a moment. Wait a minute. How did that friend even hear about what we were doing? The lawyer stammered something about how the guy hadn't blabbed or anything; that he'd just briefly filled in his friend. But wasn't that precisely what he'd promised not to do?

The lawyer (who should have known better) had allowed the confidentiality assurance to be canned and unconscious. It hadn't sunk in. It's not that the investor was being duplicitous. He hadn't, after all, made the slightest effort to cover up the broken promise. It's that no conscious promise was made; just a fluffy bit of yadda-yadda (I refused to get involved with the guy; not because he was dishonest, but because I couldn't trust him to steadily respect his commitments.)

This is why many people in such circumstances ask people to sign non-disclosure agreements, threatening legal action if secrets are blabbed. Such documents are laughably unenforceable; all they are is a means for getting a person to focus - really focus - on exactly what's being asked of them, and what they're promising. But, predictably, even the signing of these things has sunk into unconscious habitual behavior. There are no easy routes cutting through this hindrance!

Human beings appear to be uncontrollably blabber-mouthed, dishonest, and duplicitous. But much of that behavior stems from foggy-headedness rather than villainy. Per Leff's Fourth Law, 95% of apparent maliciousness is actually incompetence.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


The following is a graph of all-time traffic statistics to this Slog (courtesy of Blogger, our host):

The big crazy peak was the eerie, highly impersonal moment last month when my "How I Outgrew Libertarianism" article exploded in a brief mayhem of confirmation bias and snark. The smaller peak was the Newtown shooting, when I tried to work out my feelings here, not realizing I'd be publishing the first-ever online reference to the killer's mom, casting me into the midst of the sensationalism. Good times. Of course, I lived through a different sort of traffic peak from 1997 to 2005, and that wasn't much fun, either.

I've occasionally played prominent music gigs with famous people. The experiences were rarely satisfying, but they made my family and friends deeply happy (in much the same way, come to think of it, as my weight loss does). By contrast, if I report spending a deeply satisfying evening playing in an obscure black bar near the airport, eyes glaze. I can seriously impress anyone in their late 20's by telling them I played the crazed jungle bone solos on the cartoon "Rocko's Modern Life"...but that gig meant nothing to me.*

Peaks of mass attention are only pleasant for extreme narcissists. Real people get the heebie-jeebies, at best. Yet most of us think you'd have to be completely bonkers to eschew the spotlight, ala Salinger. If one isn't angling to do the thing one does in front of the largest possible crowd, one seems not to be doing anything at all. A well-meaning friend who faithfully reads the Slog asked me the other day whether I've been doing any writing lately. God bless America!

Looking at that graph, I recall happily giving life to ideas that would have otherwise forever vaguely flitted around in my head. I remember reveling in the freedom to broach difficult and obscure concepts without worrying about losing readers, and the joy of not having to persuade square editors to publish my work. Most of all: the blessed relief from the professional obligation to untangle and pre-chew every concept for effortless swallowing. And, speaking of swallowing, I've discussed food here with a frequency proportional to the topic's actual (non-predominant) priority in my life.

And, emerging from it all is a result that makes me blink in disbelief: I seem to have unwittingly assembled an accessible, highly-interconnected model of my (for better or worse) unique way of viewing things - a Web of my mind disguised as a blog. Sometimes I read myself here to understand who I am and how I think. For so many years I had no idea.

As I view the modest traffic curve, I intuit that among the few hundred steady readers some have been with me from the beginning, since long before Chowhound, and perhaps even dating back to my NY Press days. We've survived the Chowhound deluge and here we are, dry and safe, and still together.

That's what I feel when I look at the graph. Then I notice those two peaks, and I cringe.

* - Trombonist Garnett Brown has the converse problem: I've heard that his all-time favorite recorded solo is on the "Deep Throat" soundtrack, and, of course, absolutely nobody cares.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Technical Difficulties

Technical difficulties caused yesterday's entry ("Surprising Behavior Breaks Things") to be cut off, and then removed, and then restored as an older draft, and only just right now brought to its final intended form.

Ironically, I was trying to edit and publish via a different method. Which broke things.

If you read it previously, you might want to give it another look.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Surprising Behavior Breaks Things

An exploration of Groucho Marx, computer hackers, beta testers, Banksy, and Kali the Goddess of Death

Most channels of action in this world are established with the expectation that they'll be used in certain prescribed ways. Builders anticipate the potential range of actions, and they build to accommodate them. They also try to anticipate "edge cases" - the surprising and unconventional behavior of a small portion of the public. Of course, no one can anticipate all edge cases. Surprisingness, by its nature, is hard to anticipate.

If you do surprising things, you will tend to break things, because things are not made to withstand (much less accommodate) surprising behavior. If you rename your computer's innermost system kernel file to "I Love You", your computer will probably behave erratically. If you attach scramjet engines to your Dodge Dart and accelerate it to 5000 mph, the airbag system is likely to cause more harm than good. And so on.

Most people are not creative, so stuff doesn't break for them as often. Things generally work in a diverse society because most people are surprisingly unsurprising, and so most behavior is engineers, lawmakers, and other architects and managers.

Being creative, breaking stuff comes naturally to me, and that's made me a very good beta tester. It's the task of a beta tester to push a given piece of technology past its breaking point so builders can make their work as impervious as possible to edge-case usage. Beta testing has been a cherished hobby of mine for many years; it's the only legitimate arena these days for the inquisitive, explorative type of person who proudly identified ourselves as "hackers" before the term became laden with shame.

[A hacker, in the original sense of the word, is someone who finds surprising ways to use technology never anticipated by its builders. Yes, this includes abusive actions such as vandalizing home pages, stealing credit card numbers, and disseminating viruses, but that's just the inevitable asshole side of a broad realm. At its heart, hacking is very similar to "tinkering"; it's about pushing beyond limits and intentions, a pursuit that's innately immoral only for those who equate morality with blind, trudging conformity.]

But while the clever misuse of systems represents a joyful expression of freedom and creativity (I must again link to Banksy as the current champion of that sort of thing), a distinction must be made between that and the random and heedless misuse of systems.

There is risk in making yourself an edge case. Parking lots, for example, are designed for slow driving. Those who navigate them at high speed will tend to have drivers crash into them, because anticipating really fast cars while backing out of parking spaces requires more violent neck-craning than most people apply. Again, surprising behavior breaks things. So it's important to consider the stakes.

But, either way, some level of breakage is always involved. So, from the perspective of those bound by blind, trudging conformity, creativity is indistinguishable from destructiveness. That's why creative people are feared. To Margaret Dumont (the stout, stuck-up lady who was forever trying to throw fabulous fancy parties and sing regal cantatas in the Marx Brothers movies) Groucho and his brothers were evil destructive forces, barging in with their wisecracks and their disrespectful behavior and ruining everything. And it's key to remember that the world is pretty much entirely composed of Margaret Dumonts.

I'm a big fan of Mayor Bloomberg, but I wasn't surprised in the least by his reaction to Bansky's recent New York escapades:
"There are some places for art and there are some places [not for] art. And running up to somebody's property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art.... it’s a sign of decay and loss of control
There it is! People prefer control over surprise, so it's the mission of those in charge to defend the former from the latter. Or at least try to, with the grim acknowledgement that entropy always wins in the end.

The Dumontian resistance to surprise is what gave rise to the Hindu goddess Kali being known as the goddess of destruction (remember those depraved cultists in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"?). Like the hackers, she gets a bad rap. What she actually is is the goddess of creativity. But to those who tenaciously cling to status quo, her bottomless thirst for change and the immense energy she wields in empowering the world's ceaseless churning represent all that is destructive, dangerous, and deathly. She's the very root of all our fears because, being infinitely surprising, over time she breaks absolutely everything.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Banksy's Grumpy Truck

Banksy expresses in nine words an observation to which I've devoted thousands:

The truck's owner, no fool, has put the vehicle up for sale.

Previous Slog mentions of Banksy:
The Quandary of Unacclaimed Genius
Explaining Armstrong
The Shallow and Self-Defeating Illusion of Competition (same quote, making a different point)

Snowden: Greater Threat to Whistle-Blowing than to the Government

Per this troubling news story, Snowden has some really heavy information. He insists it's encrypted and stored wisely, and that he'll reveal it only selectively and judiciously.
'"I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest," he told the Guardian newspaper. "There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is."'
I'm sympathetic to the goal of transparency. But I'm not sure I want an Edward Snowden determining what's harmful. Nor do I want an Edward Snowden assuming responsibility for encrypting and storing these documents. In a feat of power jujitsu, the whistle-blower has taken on the responsibilities of the institution, and while I lack confidence in the wisdom and competence of institutions, I have exponentially less confidence in the wisdom and competence of a Snowden.

Even if Snowden's completely sincere and his actions are immaculate, he'll still have done great harm to the future of whistle-blowing by bringing to light - for those of us predisposed to applaud whistle-blowers - conflicting moral issues not previously clearly seen. Many of us hearken to the image of a moral individual taking a stand against an immoral institution. That image is baked into the American psyche as an indisputable good. Those Nazi soldiers "just following orders" were morally obligated to disobey those orders, no?

The problem is that different people have differing notions of morality, and if every institution required the consent and approval of each individual, nothing would ever function (consider our Congress). Whistle-blowing should be reserved for only extreme evil, corruption, and immorality, but that's difficult to gauge when one's dander is up (and someone's dander always is). It's only clear in retrospect.

Many of us - at least those who don't run large institutions - have maintained an innate sense that whistle-blowers are good, and should never be thwarted. But along with the baby comes torrents of bathwater. Should one minor, unproven individual have the power to blow up an institution? And, furthermore, do we want individuals - even those as principled and judicious as Snowden claims to be - taking upon themselves the full brunt of that institution's power?

These are questions I'd never previously asked myself. But now whistle-blowing seems a much more nuanced scenario. Edward Snowden, by pushing these boundaries, has raised such questions even among those inclined to sympathize. In so doing, he's enduringly harmed the cherished institution of whistle-blowing. This episode has been an enormous boon for those who seek to hinder that sort of thing for all the wrong reasons.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vast Realms of Human Craziness

Sometimes XKCD comics can be a bit obscure, and this one made me ponder for a minute:

The point is that many people, believe it or not, assume they have a pre-assigned email address waiting for them at or It's crazy just on the face of it, but misunderstanding technology is one thing, and assuming you're the special Bob Jefferson who gets that address is nuttier still. And yet many people, asked for their email address, really do just make one up. They enter on forms - or pass on to friends - addresses they've never actually signed up for, ala

Breathe. Don't forget to breathe.

The comic left me perplexed yesterday, as I pondered it all, but it's even worse than that. For about the hundredth time, I just typed in a URL I'd found on a restaurant takeout menu and found that there's no such site. I'd always assumed this happened because someone made the mistake of publicizing the address before the site went live. But now I's the same phenomenon. They're just making it up.

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