Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Told You So

A few years ago, I wrote a long series of articles titled "How (Perennially) Fat People Diet", sharing lots of information I'd acquired while losing 35 pounds. Every statement in that series had a basis in science, with one exception (which I'd found to be empirically true, though scientifically unproven):
Ayurvedic medicine suggests losing weight by eating larger lunches and smaller dinners. I can't explain why, but it's true. Eating at night is more fattening and jarring to the system.
Well, now that's been proven.

If you're trying to lose weight, have a look at that series, starting here (and do read the three articles linked atop that page).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Cold, Hard Truth About Obesity

We can talk about metabolism and heredity all we want, but if you'd care to view the cold, hard truth about obesity, stand around any location where an escalator and a staircase are side-by-side. And just watch the size of the people choosing each respective option. Within thirty seconds, you'll see what I mean.

You might protest that heavier people choose the escalator because their extra weight makes them more sluggish (i.e. weight is the cause, not the effect). But that observation can be demolished by going anywhere bells are rung to signal meals. You'll see how fast fat people can move. I've done this, and noticed, to my horror, that the first wave to arrive is always overweight. Thin people come last.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Key to Saltless Cooking

For the past few years, I've been cooking salt-free. This has been for a number of reasons:
  1. My mechanic's mom, who's as good a chef as I've ever met, uses no salt. This intrigues and inspires me.

  2. Reducing salt makes food taste "cleaner", and clarity's not always a good thing. So salt is often used like makeup - a fast, cheap way to blur and mask the truth. I'd rather cook honestly.

  3. I don't have high blood pressure, but I retain water when I eat salty food.

  4. As I wrote a few months ago, "When cooking at home...I want healthy food that leaves me not impressed but deeply nourished, my batteries refreshed."
After years of practice, I don't miss salt in my cooking, nor do my guests (exception: scrambled eggs absolutely require at least a pinch of salt). I use plenty of spices and herbs, and am meticulous about details. Saltlessness is like working without a net; you can't get away with overcooking, undercooking, unfresh ingredients, or any of the other common flaws often mitigated with sodium (or grease). No-salt cookery keeps me honest.

But every once in a while, I'll make a dish that turns out horribly bland-tasting, though I can never figure out why. I usually just sprinkle some salt, and chalk it up to juju. But last night I figured it out. I've gravitated to using carrots, corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, apple cider, and onion in my cooking. All these ingredients are sweet. And whenever I don't use at least one of those items, the result tastes bland.

Last night I made chicken thighs cooked with vegetables and heirloom tiny rice. There were onions, but not many. And there were diced carrots, but they weren't evenly distributed. And my first bite, which contained no carrots, painfully lacked for salt (though it brimmed with kala jeera, ginger, cumin, black pepper, and Turkish aleppo pepper).

My second bite included a clump of carrots, and it tasted just fine. My third bite was carrot-less, but it still worked. And that's when I realized that we're conditioned to saltlessness in sweets. Sweetness is a trigger: with it, we crave no salt. Without it, we cry out for salt.

Fortunately, it doesn't take much. A shred of caramelized onion, a dab of tomato, a splash of cider in the sauce, any of these things are sufficient to reprogram the brain and make it accept a lack of salt. Everything needn't be sweet; there just has to be a dash. Think of the raisins in the pilaf; the prunes in the tajine, the parsnips in the stew (all dishes developed before salt became widely available).

Friday, January 18, 2013

Web Design Finally Trends to Simplicity

Chowhound, before it was redesigned by CNET, had a look and feel that was widely considered dowdy. And I remain a dinosaur to this day. Consider my home page, which has the same 1997-ish, typewritten look.

It's intentional. I like that approach. I still think of the Web as a place to go for ideas, data, opinions...stuff. I'm thirsty for data, yet most Internet data is doled out in distracting and inaccessible ways in order to serve design, which has become a tyrant. As someone who remembers an Internet surfed entirely via text prompts, this exasperates me. The vast majority of web pages strike me as gussied up beyond recognition. That's why I've retained my curmudgeonly fixation with the typewriter model.

But, as I noted a few years ago, "Just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem!" There's finally a new movement, and it makes me very happy...and also abashed. They're calling it "flat" interface design. The LayerVault Blog describes the credo:
"Well-loved products on the web share a similar design aesthetic, with roughly the same kinds of bevels, inset shadows, and drop shadows. For designers, achieving this level of “lickable” interface is a point of pride. For us, and for a minority of UI designers out there, it feels wrong...[so] we stripped the design down to the bone. It looked closer to a wireframe than a final interface — but it was a start, and it was damn honest."
Count me in. Unless I'm shopping Ben & Jerry's site, I don't want lickability. I want a personal voice conveying data in a lean and forthright way. Click that last link for an example. It's my beloved typewriter model....with deft touches, nudges, and decisions making the page also look inviting. Snipping examples from the bottom of that same page, have a look here and here and here.

Whether graphical or text-based, web pages from this new vanguard share these traits: 1. simplicity, 2. directness, 3. accessibility and 4. tiny cleverness (by which I mean that design decisions are subtle and unobtrusive; they support, rather than override, the message). Plus, they're elegant. There's been no shortage of pretentious, fussy web design in the past twenty years, but there hasn't been much elegance.

All these pages fit my bill. But I'm abashed, because I see that typewritten was never enough. Data-accessible, lean, simply accessible sites can also be extremely attractive if you're willing to apply tiny cleverness. So I shouldn't have been so dismissive. Design's not the enemy....just ditzy, inappropriate design.

More on this from John Gruber

Thursday, January 17, 2013

St. Louis: Disneyworld for Beer Geeks

I've already recounted my food finds in St. Louis. Here's the beer side of things:

In my food roundup, I described the great mashed potatoes (and very good mahi-mahi tacos) at Schlafly's. Their beers are also winners: artfully crafted, with great balance and consistency across their long line of offerings.

Tasmanian IPA was a delightful evocation of New Zealand's aromatic, tropical fruity hops, and Tripel was as close to the classic Westmalle version as I've ever tasted from an American brewer. The beautifully balanced Single Malt Scottish Ale avoids the excessive booziness that's trendy in barrel-aged brewing, and the Barleywine's Tootsie Roll-ish mellowness ably cloaks its daunting alcoholic heat. And the Rauchbier, though just a bit light in the smoke, is eminently drinkable. Ask for Phil, the most knowledgable bartender; he loves to guide and discuss.

Urban Chestnut (3229 Washington Ave; 314-222-0143) is another local brewpub, this one run by a guy who's put in time at Germany's Weihenstephaner brewery, reknowned for its skilled lagers and characterful yeast. Yeast is put to good use here, too, and while a few English styles are available, I stuck to Germans and was impressed.

Their Hopfen is the first-ever "German IPA", and is one of the most creative beers I've tried lately. It's a full-bodied German lager with a big blast of hops...but there are no American hops. Instead, it's all Hallertau, so the result is nothing like hoppy American IPAs, with their citric hops and gripping bitterness. This one's delicious and utterly unique.

Urban Chestnut also makes what may be America's finest kellar beer, which they call Zwickel (served, appropriately, in pewter mugs). Kellar is an ancient style that's unfiltered, subtle, slightly earthy, and oh-so-drinkable, and their's is catching on; it's available all over town.

The only Urban Chestnut beer I didn't love (in fact, the only beer in St. Louis I didn't love) is their eponymous chestnut beer, which I found sweet and nebbishy.

Perennial Artisan Ales (8125 Michigan Ave; 314-631-7300) is yet another great local brewpub, this one an intense out-of-the-way spot for serious beer geekery. I got a laugh from the online reviews frowning at the lack of pool tables, TV sports, and fried foods.

Saison de Lis, brewed with chamomile flowers, manages to meld the slightly cloying aroma into a balanced, drinkable quaff rather than a mere novelty. It's the best chamomile beer I've had. Aria is a saison with just a touch of brettanomyces - lending funk rather than full-out sourness. Heart of Gold, an ultra strong wheat beer ("wheat wine"), is beautifully lush though still drinkable.

These are intense, mostly high-gravity beers, so you'll want to have a bite. The menu's not exactly ambitious, but I loved Prairie Breeze cheddar from Iowa's Milton Creamery.

I tried to hit The Civil Life (3714 Holt Ave; no listed phone), but was crestfallen to learn they close early - 10 pm even on weekend nights. These guys specialize in "session" beers - the term for friendly, lo-alcohol beers that can be enjoyed all night without getting blotto (not an issue for me on this trip, as I was trying tiny samples). Hence their name.

Mild needn't mean watery; marvelously tasty beers can be brewed at low strength. Their line-up of German kellars, alts, kolsches, and dunkelweizen, and British milds and milk stouts are supposed to be quite good.

It's a timely business model, getting in ahead of an incipient trend (in a year or two you'll see low-alcohol session beers trending everywhere). And it's also an indication of how far the craft beer market has come in the Midwest.

The first wave of local craft brewers specialized in big, bombastic ales in backlash to the insipid output of hometown villain Anheuser-Busch. A new market was established, but there was a hole, and the success of Urban Chestnut's Zwickel, and of The Civil Life, proves there's demand for subtler, mellower beers. Neophytes might superficially compare them to mass-market American lagers, but they have all the quality of fine craft beer. And since local beer lovers have grown savvy, local brewers no longer feel compelled to scream in their faces to stake out turf. No more proving yourself the "Anti-Bud". This means the market's maturing. Much more so than NYC, SF, Denver, and lots of other supposedly sophisticated markets.

I missed 4 Hands Brewing Co (1220 South 8th St; 314-436-1559), whose IPA comes very highly recommended.

It should be no surprise that St. Louis' beer is so good, given that the Midwest has, recently, transformed into an epicenter of great brewing. Nor is it surprising the town's so under-radar, with Anheuser-Busch casting its dark shadow of sudsy shame. But I know no American city boasting a better, broader, and more consistently delicious bunch of brewpubs. I really liked nearly every beer I tried (and I'm a hard-ass).

You won't find any of the listless blond ales, pandering apricot weizens, or ashy oatmeal stouts so endemic to most American brewpubs, nor any noxious beer snobbery. Terrific beer, cutting across all styles, in four very different settings, with serious beer geeks next to you at the bar, everyone friendly, easy parking, low prices, and some very good food. St. Louis is Disneyworld for beer geeks, and I'd recommend it for a special trip.

Why Your Health Insurance Premiums Went Up

Are you on an individual or small business health insurance plan, and found that your rates went up this year?

The reason isn't widely-known, and it's interesting: The recession's so bad that healthy people are choosing to forego health insurance, leaving a higher proportion of higher-cost, sicker people on the rolls, driving up premiums for all.

NYC Parking Data Bonanza

Did you know there's a web page that will tell you parking regulations for any block in New York City?

Plus, check out all the delicious data on this page, including a downloadable csv file with all the street parking data used by the search engine linked above. God bless our technocratic mayor.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 6: Guileless Clunk

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.

At age 12, I signed up for a ping pong competition. The best player, Ricky, was an arrogant, tanned, broad-shouldered 15 year old California adonis with a custom-made paddle. I, pallid and short for my age, was not deemed a hot prospect, so they matched me against Ricky in the first round. I was a pawn to be plowed through en route to Ricky's inevitable triumph.

Ricky sneered at me and launched his famous serve, tossing the ball very, very high into the air, then slicing it so fast the eye couldn't follow the motion. It tore by me. I never even moved. And it dawned on me that I could never beat Ricky on his own terms. I couldn't match his vicious slams, or counter his esoteric spins and slices. I'd miss a lot more of those shots than he would. So I decided to concentrate entirely on missing less than him.

When Ricky's shots, humming with topspin, sizzled toward my side of the table, I'd simply return them. Clunk. Right down the middle of the table. Nothing fancy. No english. No pace. Just a big, dumb, clunking return - volley after volley, point after point. And Ricky, sensing my strategy, began tightening up, returning my cloddish volleys with increasingly hostile smashes....some of which missed. Meanwhile, none of mine missed. Clunk. Right down the middle. Clunk. Clunk.

I won, of course. And, of course, he refused to shake my hand. Poor guy. I may, to this day, be the worst thing that ever happened to him; the sole blot on Ricky's otherwise immaculately golden life record. Here's to you, Ricky, and the botoxed pilates teacher with whom I visualize you sipping overly buttery Chardonnay in your Malibu hot tub. Remember me by my sound: "Clunk".

Sometimes a person works hard, learns all the moves, develops talent with arduous training, and some lazy, no-talent shmuck comes along and finds a way to undercut you. While it's important to develop one's talents with due discipline (as I've done in a number of realms, myself), it's also fun to sometimes be the undercutting shmuck. The guy who gets there via guileless clunks.

Consider my little video, "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies". It's dreadfully shot and edited, the sound's abysmal, and the whole thing seems pretty aimless. I'm incredibly bad at every necessary skill, and used lousy tools to record it (a smartphone camera and a Radio Shack microphone).

Yet it's got something. As time has passed, and I view it with a fresh eye, I see that it's actually good - in vibe and overall effect, if not on any actual merits. Guileless clunk won the game. Lots of people really like it (I got a beautiful note from Von's surviving daughter - Von, alas, passed away shortly after the video was shot), but a friend who's a legendary film director, and who otherwise likes my endeavors, detests it. In fact, it makes him apoplectic. He's certainly not jealous, any more than Ricky was jealous of my table tennis skills. After all, my video's not 1/1000th as good as the worst of his films. But all he can hear is the "Clunk", and it's pure anathema. He wouldn't hate it this much if he didn't recognize that it works. Failure doesn't provoke hatred.

Guileless clunk can be used even at higher skill levels. For instance, I've played piano since age six, but never really learned piano technique. My left hand is kind of gimpy, and where a serious pianist might have nine hundred different ways to do a certain thing, I have only four or five. But that's enough to get by. I'm no clod; I've put in my 10,000 hours of practice. But I'm not versatile or elegant or well-taught or "proper". I take liberties and cheat with quirky shortcuts. Never having taken the pains to become a "real" pianist; I opt for the easy route. If you heard me, you'd think I was professional. But when pro pianists hear me, all they hear is the "clunk". And they want to strangle me. Because it works.

My father, a wonderful sculptor, always wanted to try painting, but he knew he had no facility with color. Finally, he came up with a dazzlingly creative solution: he'd paint only with primary colors. Brilliant! And the results were distinctive and appealing, though not very painterly. But they antagonized his second wife, a well-trained serious painter. Noticing months later that he'd stopped painting, I asked him why, and all he'd say was that his marriage was more important.

Read the next installment

Chowhounding St. Louis

Here are the highlights from fifteen hours of chowhounding in St. Louis:

The Buttery Restaurant (3659 S Grand Blvd; 314-771-4443)
I'm not often thrown into rapture by restaurant names, but I got all Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs about The Buttery Restaurant. Veering off of Grand Blvd and tearing through back streets to circle back to the Buttery parking lot, I worried I was losing my mind when everything for several blocks around appeared to be butter-colored - buildings, streets, the ground, everything. Maybe it was real, or maybe it was hysterical faux-glaucoma. I'm just reporting what I saw. In my saturated stigmata, there was butter in the streets.

Inside The Buttery Restaurant, things are crusty (one might even say congealed). The vibe augured low deliciousness, but just when I'd surmised that a great little greasy spoon had been shot to hell by management changes and long neglect, I spied the cook laying on hands for an elderly gentleman at the cash register, the vignette illuminated by a beam of cold white January sunlight filtered through the filthy front window. I'd been considering bolting, but, after that, no. I'd strap in for the ride.

Big prize for anyone who can parse out number 40 for me

And what a ride it was. The cook, a tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold woman of a certain age with more odd procedural ticks than Art Carney, was a joy and an enigma to watch. One hopes that the small pitcher serving as both source and disposal tank for cooking grease gets changed every few months, but the proof's in the eating: her grilled cheese sandwiches are perfect. Perfect! They're made with white bread that makes Wonder seem like a hearty peasant loaf. This is bread so irredeemably shitty that the sides of your crisp sandwich flop out dejectedly around your fingers. But her culinary techniques have evolved amid these woesome provisions, and she makes it work. My sandwich, consisting of Satan's own white bread, government surplus orange cheese, and The Grease of Perpetual Resurrection, was, again, perfect. Forgive my lack of specificity, but perfection's inherently indescribable. It's simply the grilled cheese you dream of in your deepest, most archetypal grilled cheese dreams.

The hash browns accompanying skillfully-cooked, oh-so-buttery eggs were frozen processed grey tuberous shreds which clearly hadn't experienced Mother Earth in a very, very long time. They were put through a grilling procedure both deft and daft, involving plump-ups within cooking rings, subsequent smashing-downs, and endless tides of inbound and outbound resurrection grease. They, too, displayed a sort of perfection, despite their blandness (the Buttery Restaurant does not cook for a sodium-tolerant crowd).

The individually-wrapped cupcakes positioned by the cash register were baked from an off-brand, veterinary-grade mix. But they were so startlingly fresh, and so heartbreakingly tender (from, no doubt, a goodly injection of resurrection grease). Chocolate chips had been conscientiously added to the batter to compensate for the mix's utter flavorlessness. I'd approached the cupcake with purposefulness, as one of many data points to be dutifully captured in my greater chowhounding mission, but by mid-bite I found myself transported to a treehouse full of five-year-olds all wondering, with confused frowny concern, why I was acting so busy and grown-uppish. I slowed down, slackened my jaw, and felt a sudden urge to pet kittens or do some finger painting or practice my whistling or something.

It's hard to describe the glow I felt leaving The Buttery Restaurant. But I'll say this: this place truly does have the power to transform an entire neighborhood into butter.

[see my short film, The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies, which explores the mystery of how lousy ingredients and humdrum recipes can yield culinary magic]

Celeb spotting: the guy who produced the original Beggin' Strips commerical leaves The Buttery Restaurant

Nasiib (3445 S Grand; 314-664-4143) serves Somalian food, one of the more interesting African cuisines. With culinary influence from India, Italy, and Ethiopia, you'll see things like goat curry served over spaghetti, eaten with one's hands. We were too early for goat, but the sambosas (the local samosa variation) were meticulously fresh and crisp, and fiendishly flavor-nuanced. They come in various configurations - served with homemade excruciatingly hot sauce - and we opted for fish-flavored, which were remarkably unfishy. Also: sukhar with beef - a deceptively simple stir fry of beef chunks, onion, and green pepper. It was so simple, yet deeply satisfying, thanks to a caring touch. I hate green pepper, but here, and only here, I appreciated its inclusion. I temporarily forgave the grievous damage it's long done to home fries. Which is to say, I loved the sukhar, eaten with pinched morsels of spongey injera and flakey chapati. This place was surely the best find of the trip.

The people working there (as well as folks just hanging out) could not have been friendlier. And the "The Safari Sandwich", an original invention that's essentially a Somali chicken sandwich, looked great. I suspect everything here is great; I would have liked to have worked through the whole menu. It'd be a kick to do so, seeing as how this is the sort of place where if you stopped by three times, you'd find yourself warmly accepted into the local Somalian community. But, alas, it was time to move on. No full meals - and no lingering - in the midst of serious chowconnaissance!

Every other place in this report was discovered on the fly, without consulting guidebooks or web sites. but I did want to be sure to have great ribs, so I did fall back on just one found tip: on the north side of town, Roper's Ribs (6929 W Florissant Ave 314-381-6200) has won impressive awards, is greatly admired by locals, and is owned by the nicest people on planet earth. So I'd have loved with all my heart to report that their barbecue is great...but it isn't even close. But they do make terrific snoots - pig snouts flattened and fried, they're like pork rinds that went to grad school (likely Harvard, for maximal snootiness).

There's better barbecue in the north, I can feel it (I didn't give the jive big box downtown rib spots a second glance). But that's a discovery for another trip or another hound. I did spot Taylor's Place (4064 S Grand Blvd, 314-457-0130), a barbecue joint which hardly googles (and is super easy to miss driving by), but it was closed. I'll bet you it's at least very good.

Who can resist a town with not one but two pinball lounges? I hit The Silver Ballroom (4701 Morganford; 314-832-9223) - 'silver ball' room, get it? - which boasts vintage machines (including the legendary "Adams Family") in the back room, and punked-out (yet impeccably polite and cheery) bartenders in the front room, and some of the best Australian meat pies I've ever had. Their fillings (choose your favorite: meat/cheese or meat/bacon/cheese) are just ok, but the pastry, my god, the pastry. Even better than NYC's Tuck Shop. The other pinball spot, which I didn't try, is Orbit Pinball Lounge (7401 Hazel Ave; 314-769-9954).

There's really good, really strong, really funky Vietnamese ice coffee at a barebones cafe a block or two south of Banh Mi So 1 Saigon Gourmet (4071 South Grand Boulevard) and on the same side of Grand Blvd.. Non-Vietnamese make splashy entrances, but one great thing about Southeast Asians is how relaxed they are toward outsiders once they get used to you. This would be a great place to spend an afternoon, playing pool and sipping thick, sweet, dark, creamy coffee.

I noticed a Bosnian population, sparking a sub-quest for boureks (savory pastry pies). Alas, the only lead I got (from a family at a Bosnian supermarket) was Asw Bakery (5617 Gravois Ave 314-832-2212), which was closed. I later felt good vibes from Grbic Restaurant (4071 Keokuk St; 314-772-3100), a full-service Bosnian restaurant which I'm guessing doesn't do boureks, but has a great-looking menu.

Another looked-good/didn't-try: Thai Pizza Company (608 Eastgate Ave; 314-862-4429), which offers creations like chicken satay pizza. Not in a clever, exotic way, but in an unprepossessing way in a semi-cavernous gin mill. Nice!

Saint Louis Brewery / Schlafly Tap Room (2100 Locust St; 314-241-BEER) is a huge, famous, commercialized, institutionalized, fervidly merchandising monster in a suspiciously good location. They even have a branch at the airport. If ever a place should suck, Schlafly Tap Room is it.

But no. Food's great, beer's great, service's great. How do you keep quality so high for twenty two years in such a bean-counting, branded-up-the-wazoo operation? Easy. Put it in the Midwest, where people can't help being human.

Mahi Mahi tacos radiated a gaping Midwestern/Hispanic disconnect, as I'd feared, having been drizzled with hideous-looking day-glo orange sauce, but they ate like a dream. As a spud-o-phile, I can't not order mashed potatoes when offered as a side dish choice, however repulsive a combination they might make with, say, mahi mahi tacos. Good move in this case. These were the Enigma Spuds; chunky, waxy, and pleasingly near-al dente, they came with a side car of brown gravy, which I naturally expected to lend meaty/roasty flavors. But, no. The gravy was, magically, unbrown-tasting. In fact, it had the effect of liquid potato. It was like pouring potato on potato, yielding a hyperpotatoey result. This was brown gravy that had sacrificed its brownness to buoy the tuber, like a ballet dancer selflessly hoisting his graceful female partner. I can't recall ever having eaten better mashed potatoes. God, how I love the Midwest.

I'm compiling my beer notes (including Schlafly's offerings) into a separate article, which will hopefully go up tomorrow. (Update: here they are]

Would someone please find the great, unsung, rib place?!?

Similar Reads:
Follow vicariously my epic continental Chow Tour, with lots of food-porn photos.
Highlights:Attempted Culinary Seclusion in Florence, Alabama
Madly in Love with Maxine's (a dive in Kentucky)
36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland
Vacation Tamales in Puerto Vallarta
and, of course, The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told

Previous trip reports here on the Slog:
New Orleans
Spain (with a Brussels layover)
Budapest (in reverse chronological order)
Oaxaca (in reverse chronological order)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Transcription" Updated and Improved

If you've been using the transcription freeware I mentioned here, and would like an updated/improved version (also free), shoot me an email...or leave a comment.

Disclaimers: I make no guarantees. Your computer could blow up and life as we know it might end. I'm not only not responsible, but I'll even come snicker darkly amid the smoking cinders of your domicile.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gabby Giffords' New Gun Violence Movement

In my article "Empathizing With Pro-Gun People", I noted that the paranoia toward gun regulation shown by many conservative gun owners is understandable. Gun violence activism needs to convincingly show itself not to hide an outspoken agenda of outlawing handguns outright. It must be constantly noted that hunters and other responsible gun owners ought to have well-controlled access to a reasonable number of non-assault firearms. Per the link above, to understand their skittishness, consider the level of assurance you'd need before you'd stomach the deliberation of reasonable abortion regulations.

It's not easy to cede ground after spending decades in a defensive crouch, even if one happens to agree with such proposals. Those who want to utterly revoke gun rights must be kept far away from any effort to regulate those rights.

Shortly after the Newtown shootings, I recommended the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But there's a new development. Courtesy of Andrew Tobias' blog:
Gabby Giffords, the terrific Tucson Congresswoman (and gun owner) who got shot in the head by a lunatic, and her terrific astronaut husband Mark Kelly (also a gun owner), have launched Americans for Responsible Solutions to help blunt the power of the NRA — most of whose members agree its positions are too extreme. If you think you might want to help, click the link to learn more.
I'm not sure Ms. Giffords is the best person for this effort. Yes, she's a gun-owner, and yes, she's a moderate Democrat who sought compromise with conservatives. And, yes, the country admires her tenaciousness. But I'm not sure this fight ought to be led by a Democrat. In the push-me/pull-you environment of modern American politics, her affiliation launches this particular pendulum with considerable momentum. I'd have loved to see this done by a breakaway group of disaffected NRA conservatives, but the fact that none have stepped up to the plate grieves me. It not only displays a lack of courageous initiative, but a lack of political imagination, because any conservative helming such an effort would quickly draw immense admiration from independents and find themselves positioned to lead a viable pragmatic conservative movement).

But I'm hoping Giffords' new organization can be effective, and will consider donating. Have a look at their mission statement.

P.S. - I was back in Newtown last week for the first time since the shootings. I was expecting a heavy, apocalyptic atmosphere, similar to NYC shortly after 9/11. But while the town's a bit subdued, it's also surprisingly normal. There are, no doubt, people still in profound shock and grief hidden out of view in their houses, but the mainstream seems to be moving on. People are a little softer and kinder (a fellow I know only moderately well shook my hand hello and goodbye with an intense heartfulness that would have seemed eerie under any other circumstances), but nobody's focusing on the catastrophe. Nor is it the five hundred pound gorilla in the room no one wants to talk about. Small towns are resilient; maybe even more so than large cities. Read Brian Schwartz's fantastic "A World of Villages" for a convincing argument that villages are where humanity does best (it's also a great read).

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Making Transcription Pleasurable

Do you ever need to transcribe speech? I often dictate into the "voice memos" app on my smartphone, but typing stuff out's such a drag that it rarely sees the light of day.

Until now! I just found an obscure little open source program for OS X that makes transcription so much easier that it's almost fun. It's called Transcriptions, and you can download the latest version (from 2008) here.

The interface is minimal, and there are no instructions, but it's beautifully simple. Open a window, drag a sound file to the upper right corner, and hit the play button. While the audio plays, you can type away into the text field on the left. It's easy to stop the audio, or back it up a few seconds.

The coolest thing is that every time you type a line break, the program inserts a time stamp showing where that part resides on the recording, and you can hit a stamp to be taken directly to that point in the audio. Genius! You can turn this off by deselecting "auto timestamp" in the "Media" menu, and still insert time stamps with a "control T" anytime you'd like.

With a little configuration, you can really soup things up. Go to System Preferences/Keyboard/Application Shortcuts, and hit the "+" icon. Choose "Transcriptions" on top, then type next to Menu Title "Play" (without the quotation marks, and capitalization counts). Then click in "keyboard shortcut" and hit the control and right-arrow keys. Add that shortcut, then repeat the process for the following Menu Titles:

Repeat RePlay (control left-arrow)
Goto End (control command right-arrow)
Goto Beginning (control command left-arrow)
Pause (control down-arrow)
Show Ruler (command R)

You can now control the audio entirely with keyboard shortcuts as you easily kill (or restore) the ruler which appears atop each window whether you want it or not. It takes a little while to get the hang of these controls, but, once you do, you can really fly. The application's own preferences page offers customized shortcuts, but "Play" isn't configurable. Plus I couldn't get these prefs to work. Better to do it via System Preferences!

I hope a developer adds a visual sound wave, so users can easily advance through silent parts. Also, I believe OS X includes the ability to play audio at higher or lower speeds without affecting pitch. That'd be great. Oh, and fix "Goto End", which is broken!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Charlie's Jam Session

Today is my friend Charlie's 93rd birthday. Charlie hosts a weekly jam session in his pre-war apartment, at which I'm a regular.

Here's Charlie, genteelly greeting a guest at his 91st birthday party:

For years, Charlie led Lester Lanin's famous society band. The difference between a society band and your garden-variety event band is that while the latter performs amid towers of chopped liver at catering halls, society bands would play stuffy affairs like Charles and Diana's wedding reception (one of Charlie's gigs). And rather than "Eye of the Tiger" and "Celebrate Good Times", society bands would play "Cheek to Cheek" or "The Night They Invented Champagne". You know the scene: guys with toupees in tuxedos, playing seated. A bit bloodless. But their sound was the sound of a generation for a certain class of person.

Charlie was widely recognized as the most kind-hearted, least apoplectic leader in the business, renowned for treating everyone with respect and dignity. He was also, I understand, a good trumpet player. But I wouldn't know. I came into the story only recently, after Charlie had retired from the business and put his horn away. At the jam, he contributes via spirited chorusus of scat singing, and he gives it his all, applying such energy and intensity that he often cracks himself (and the rest of us) up.

Here's how the jam session came about: Charlie lost his wife, a minor 1940's theater star (there's an eye-popping black and white glossy of her on his wall, and another with her and Louis Armstrong giggling together), and he was feeling blue. So some of his old bandmates began dropping by to play and hang out. Strangely, even though they'd worked together for many years, none of them had ever played jazz together.

Our drummer, Bobby, was a show drummer all his life. Last week, after we played "C'est Si Bon", Bobby wistfully recalled playing the tune every night with Eartha Kitt (here's a video of Kitt, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's Bobby on the soundtrack). It's only lately that he's even tried to play much jazz....but he plays great and swings hard. It comes naturally, because that music flowered during his time, even if he wasn't directly involved.

Our pianist is my old trombone teacher, Ephie. At age 81, Ephie's teeth became too loose to keep playing, forcing him to abandon his lifelong obsessive quest for the quality that had always eluded him: consistency (the same quest has driven more than a few brass players mad, human beings never having been designed to buzz lips into metal). Ephie resourcefully switched to piano, where he makes himself just as obsessively crazy - and plays just as beautifully.

They say we lose the ability to master new skills after age 30, but Ephie has transformed over the last five years from a (legendary) trombonist who noodles a little on piano to a terrific and distinctive pianist. You can hear Ephie's trombone at its glorious peak as the soundtrack to this bittersweet slideshow showing the buckets of food I was forced to eat when the genius installed in charge of Chowhound after it was sold to CNET commanded me to eat, nonstop and solo, across America for two solid months.

I just called Charlie to wish him 93 more happy years. Charlie - who's still sharp as a tack and who speaks in the nearly extinct tones of the sort of guys who used to carry around The New York Review of Books under their arms - wished me, in turn, another fifty. I demurred, replying that another twelve or so would probably suffice.

I agree with Jerry Seinfeld's insistence that life's not too short, it's too long. We do the same crap over and over for decades; it's mind-numbingly repetitive. While some people are comforted by familiar routines, I'm not wired that way. And I'm surprised less and less often as I get older, compelling me to try harder and harder to seek out fresh surprise.

And I also try to "be the change", by being as surprising as I can, for example via my trombone playing, though I fall back to the familiar way too often. Same for this blog, though I'm more repetitive here than I'd prefer, as well. As anyone with a grandparent can attest, people grow more repetitious as they get older. So I'm figuring the curve of diminishing results will dry up my ability to be surprised at around the same point where I, myself, become largely unsurprising. Hence the twelve year outlook I expressed to Charlie.

On the other hand, Charlie - who was my current age during Woodstock, who was 65 when I graduated college, and who is of a previous and forgotten generation even for present-day 75-year-olds - can still surprise with his scat singing, as well as with his overall joie de vivre (however hesitantly it may occasionally flow). So I can only hope I'll be like Charlie when I grow up.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

iOs Tip: "Reader" and "Reading List"

Here's an iOs 6 tip I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere:

If you receive an email on your iPhone or iPad which contains lots of interesting web links (such as the wonderful weekly digests from Quora, which are a me if you need an invitation to their site), and you don't want to keep switching from Mail to browser to read them, you can touch and hold a link, and you'll be invited to add the link to your "Reading List", which can be accessed from the topmost folder in your Safari bookmarks. You can also send web links to your Reading List straight from Safari.

Along the same lines, "Reader" is a seldom-discussed feature of Safari where the text of a web page is reformatted into comfortably readable form. This is particularly useful if you're reading a busy page on the go, and your finger keeps accidentally hitting links or ads - or the page keeps updating. Just send the article to Reader and you'll have it all rendered in nice stable comfy text (you can also add stuff to your Reading List directly from Reader).

Reader appears to overlap some of the function of Instapaper, but I remain a loyal user of the former (for those who don't know, Instapaper lets you quickly mark articles you find on the web and want to read later; it downloads and formats the text and stores it for later reading on your smart phone, even if you don't have an Internet connection). But both have their uses: Instapaper's the serious industrial-strength tool to store my entire backlog of web article reading, waiting for me to get to it. Safari's "Reader" feature is more of a stop-gap for the stuff I'm reading more or less right now.

It may sound like overkill, but I also use Pinboard to bookmark and archive web pages I may need to refer back to (more detail here). Listen, we all spend lots of time on the web, and the days when your browser's bookmark feature were all you needed to keep track of stuff are long gone. I couldn't manage without all four of these tools: Instapaper, Pinboard, Safari Reader and Reading List.

No One Owns Grammar, No One Owns Usage

A Facebook friend just reposted the following:

...and I figured I'd share my response here.

The problem is that no one owns language. Usage rules are written after a language develops, to explain conventions that have arisen via natural processes. And then, backwardsly, the people who've mocked up those rules feel proprietary about them, and bray indignantly at those who dare break them.

The problem is that language is always changing. Only dead languages stand still. And, as they change, the people who devised the ex post facto rules find their contrivances crumbling and tend to lash out, telling people they're speaking incorrectly. Of course, it's like shouting at the tide. Because language is not "owned" by the rule-makers, who daftly figure this natural process ought to freeze upon their command. Language is, again, a natural process owned by no one.

But the real underbelly of this dynamic is classism. There are always way more plebes than elites, so the plebes exert the most influence on language usage, while the elites are the ones who mock up the rules. So after the masses, doing what they do in human social communities, have dynamically developed a language, elites try to codify it, and get nasty/snobby/indignant when language declines to freeze for them. As they see it, it's all about the vulgarity of the lower classes, bastardizing this beautiful frozen thing (which they themselves built!), ruining everything. Nasty unwashed swine!

This photo speaks to that. It's snobbery, pure and simple.

I'm friends with the guy who edits the Oxford American dictionary. I used to email him to ask whether a given construction is a "real" word (ala "backwardsly", above). He'd gasp in exasperation and inform me that as an adult native English speaker, anything I say, which has the ability to effectively communicate, is a word. What he, or anyone else, deems "proper" is laughably irrelevant. So even among academics - the supposed gatekeepers of linguistic propriety - the Victorian-era "prescriptive" approach is discredited. They understand their role is descriptive, not prescriptive, because, as I said at the start, no one owns language, and all the rules come after, explaining conventions naturally established. Those very conventions will likely find themselves overturned, and the cycle will begin anew.

We must teach children to effectively communicate within the conventions of the moment, as a utilitarian skill. And we produce reference books to catalog those ever-changing conventions. But the people who ply those trades don't own grammar. They don't own spelling. They don't own usage. And once kids leave school, more or less aware of contemporary conventions, whichever way they wish to speak or write is fair game. You may tsk at them, but that's your problem, not theirs, because, even if they're poorer or less educated or more slovenly-appearing, you have no higher claim to language use. Language is a last bastion of freedom.

One can command the tide not to come in, but it's not going to pay attention. One can then curse the tide for its vulgarity, but it's going to continue to flow. And one can rue how the world's been shot all to hell by these unruly tides, but one would just look like a crackpot.

Here's that same lexicographer friend's classic article on the subject, from The Atlantic. Forward it to all your grammar snob/usage snob/spelling snob friends!

A Really Transportive Tour of the Int'l Space Station

We've all seen videos of astronauts conducting video tours of spacecraft from orbit. They're usually cramped, grainy, awkward, and presented in a neutral military tone which only adds to the unreality.

But this video's different. First, the International Space Station is more spacious than, say, the space shuttle, so people can really move around. And the recording quality is much better than usual. And affable guide Sunita Williams somehow manages to convey the feeling of being there. Plus, it's quite touching to hear her unaffected tone of respect for the Russian space pioneers (the station's half staffed by Russians), whose accomplishments "remind us of our roots". Our roots (Williams is American). Right on.

The end result is the most vicarious experience of space I've ever seen. I started watching casually, but was held in rapt, slack-jawed attention for the entire 25 minutes. And the same's true for lots of viewers, judging by the comments.

I realize the Internet's full of people urging you to check out this or that video link, but this one's different. If you watch it, you'll be glad you did. I promise!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The First Big Chowhound Press Piece

One of the things I learned from running Chowhound was just how titanic an echo chamber the media is. Reading through pull-quotes from Chowhound's press reports would leave people flabbergasted by the blinding repetition.

The first full-length national article about the site was carried by Associated Press thirteen years ago. It was written by the great Bob Tanner who, thankfully, not only understood the Chowhound ethos but embodied it. In fact, Bob and I agree that this article was unique, in that the reporter and the subject could have switched places; he could just as easily have run the site, and I could just as easily have written the profile.

Anyway, the incessant media meme started there, with this line: "Spirited conversations about tortillas in Mexico, an Iranian spice called khah shir, the merits of various Korean dumplings." And since I just noticed that the article's still available online, I thought I'd link to it.

Yet More iPhone Stuff

The first Microsoft product I've ever loved: recently released for iPhone, Wordament (which works perfectly well on iPad, too) is awesome. It's a word game much like Boggle - sort of like lightning-round Scrabble - and, like all great games, an enormous amount of subtle fine-tuning has yielded an incredible, and incredibly addictive, playing experience.

If you try Wordament, some things to bear in mind: the top scorers, with their seemingly impossible numbers, are not cheating. And Wordament allows contractions (they've, c'mon, tick-tock, etc). And if you try to sign in but it's not working, read this.

In the more-clever-than-useful department: Cycloramic, an app that takes panoramic videos spinning your iPhone around via the "vibrate" feature.

And, at last, an app with realtime NYC subway arrival info (for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 trains plus 42nd Street shuttle, at least to start).

On second thought, maybe don't break your iPhone out on that subway platform. A significant portion of all city-wide thefts involves iPhones. It's a bona-fide crime wave, so never forget that when you display your phone you're essentially flashing several hundred dollar bills.

If you're more Zsa-Zsa Gabor than Jimmy Breslin, Uber efficiently sends you the closest nice black town car on their massive computerized grid, and charges you a fair price(plus stiff surcharge). It's considerably more than a taxi, but provides a much better and faster experience. Even if you're not Zsa-Sza, it's great in the rain, in the boonies, or when you simply need to get the hell out of where you are (I think of it as my seldom-used hyperspace button).

Lots of people know about Uber, but did you know that, starting in February, you'll be able to hail NYC yellow cabs via smartphones? Here's info, and go here to pre-register.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Explaining Absent-Minded Professors (and the re-defining of "arrogance")

If you're a plumber, or teacher, or graphic designer, you may be terrific at what you do, but that doesn't carry much weight with family or friends, or with people you meet at parties. And so you must pretend to be flawless. If you reveal a flaw, you risk looking like a shmuck. And to look like a shmuck is to be a shmuck. So people learn to mask, pose and bluff.

Not academics, though. If you're professor of astrophysics at Dartmouth, that may not make you better than anyone else, but you have a free pass out of shmuckdom. You don't need to be awesome at anything else, because people know, beyond doubt, that you're awesome at at least one thing - because academia is one of the few realms where accreditation holds sway with general society.

If a stock analyst stutters or limps...if he spills stuff or forgets your name, it might seem natural to feel a certain condescension. That's why stock analysts try hard not to stutter, limp, spill, or forget. But if a molecular biologist does those things, know how those scientists are! It's wonderfully freeing, and allows specialized people to concentrate on their specialties, rather than waste effort creating the illusion of seamless well-roundedness. And, conversely, it gives them the self-confidence to publicly and unabashedly pursue activities in which they're inept.

I came out of the closet years ago as a flawed human being. I'll happily admit that I read painfully slowly, and that I have trouble filling out forms or following instructions. I can't always follow plots in novels or films, and have trouble remembering both names and faces. I'm graceful when relaxed, but clumsy when anxious, and painfully slow at learning physical moves. My memory's awful unless my attention's engaged, and I'm constantly pausing to think of words (as a writer, I can stare at my screen all day until the right one dislodges). I was a "B" student, and once spent several days trying to saw through the thick plastic bolts securing my toilet seat before a friend kindly showed me they simply unscrew. Lots of people take one look at me and assume I'm a driveling lunatic.

But that's ok, because at some point I decided that the things I'm good at make me worthwhile. So I don't sweat the rest. It's freeing. By contrast, my dad, like much of his generation, lived in a constant state of desperately needing to appear right. It was obviously exhausting, and I'll politely defer comment on his success rate.

Academics are seen as quirky and absent-minded, but the other adjective is "arrogant". If you - as I do - draw confidence from your competence, it will strike less secure people as arrogance. But it's not necessarily so. The characteristic which distinguishes confidence from arrogance is condescension. "I know something you don't, and that makes me better than you!" is a very different stance from "I know something you don't, so let me fill you in!"

The distinction has been lost, however, as egocentric modern people have come to reflexively conflate superiority with superciliousness. As a result, it's become fashionable to feign uncertainty. Knowing has become a faux-pas, but knowing you know is downright inexcusable. This is a reaction to pressures from both the right (with its visceral distrust of "elitism") and from the left (with its fervid relativism).

But the problem with modesty is that it requires a deep and condescending conviction that the quality being veiled is intimidatingly awesome. Whenever modesty's on display, you're always in the presence of great arrogance (in the original sense of the word!).

Me? I take the Richard Scarry approach. It takes all kinds, and by contributing our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole (and juice the free market). We're each holding up one end or another of it all, experienced at some things, and pathetically helpless in most others. By pretending not to know the few things I know, or not to be good at the few things I'm good at, I'd be depriving the hive. I sure don't want you to pretend not to know stuff that might help me! I, like you, need all the help I can get!

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