Thursday, February 28, 2013

How The iWatch Could Also Look

A couple of weeks ago I explained why Apple's upcoming watch might be a mistake, but hopefully it won't be this bad! Click to expand:

(thanks to Bill Monk for the tip):

You Are Not the Gangster of Me...

Recently said to a musician who was trying to intimidate me:
"Dude, I've been to Mordor. You're just a Hobbit."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Short Essay About Money

The thing money can most effectively buy is comfort. An extra $2000 will buy you a slightly wider plane seat and an extra $300 commands nicer sheets on your hotel bed. If you're not obsessed with comfort, then having extra money (beyond the amount you need to comfortably survive) will not be particularly significant for you. Don't waste time climbing a ladder unless you've considered whether you actually want the thing you're striving toward.

Money at least appears to buy peace of mind. When I was a struggling jazz trombonist, if I'd get a parking ticket, it would ruin my day. I'd feel dejected...and I'd pay the damned ticket. Now, when I get a parking ticket, I remain calm...and I pay the damned ticket. Calmness was always an option, so the only change was internal; I arbitrarily changed the story I told myself about the situation. I could just as easily have reacted calmly before - lord knows the stress and dejection never helped. It was always indulgent.

And it's good to bear in mind that even if you're at the poverty line in America, you are rich beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of humanity. You are richer than 99% of humans who've ever lived. In terms of sheer comfort (again, money = comfort), you are far better pampered than any historical king or emperor, with your indoor plumbing, central heating, automobile (and highway system), overabundance of food and entertainment, nearly-assured personal safety and broadband Internet. Julius Caesar would have swapped places with you in a heartbeat, for the antibiotics alone.

Remember this the next time you notice someone has a bigger TV or nicer apartment than you, making you feel "poor". You're not poor. You're just slightly less fabulously wealthy.

Hail (and Pay For) Yellow Cabs With Your Smartphone

Until now, there's only been Uber. As I once wrote:
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).
Now comes Hailo, a smartphone app (iPhone and Android) that calls, and automatically pays for, yellow cabs in these cities: Barcelona, Boston, Chicago, Dublin, London, Madrid, New York, Tokyo,, Toronto. I'm assuming there'll be a surcharge, but it won't be as expensive as Uber, with its fancy town cars.

It's due to start in NYC next month, and you can sign up now for a $10 credit.

See this video for more info:

Bad Boss, Good Boss, Great Boss

Bad bosses think their employees work for them. They delight in saying "no".

Good bosses realize Marx was right about one thing: the workers are the engine. These bosses work for their workers, and say "no" as seldom as possible.

Great bosses do all that, but when they do say "no", it's respected.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

You're On Mars

This is amazing.

If you're on (or own) a tablet or smartphone, go here right now (the page works on desktop computers, too, but it's nowhere near as cool).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

What Jim Had For Dinner

I noted in my previous entry that "the general interest level in my food finds and opinions resembles Zagat's, circa 1985." And it's dawned on me that I'm addressing the people who'd likely be interested in hearing about those finds. So I'll dump some of my faves below.

Why such fits and starts? Understand: I'm deeply relieved to have been released from the obligation of relentlessly reporting every single find. Over time, that can get a bit surreal, and then exhausting, and, finally, maddening. As I blearily reported in the final installment of the "Chow Tour" I was sent on by my corporate overlords:
When I was assigned this project, my employer confirmed that I'd be entitled to weekends off, which helped the assignment seem more viable.

What was I thinking? Here's how it really went: I'd wake up on the morning of my supposed "day off." Before long, I'd grow hungry and head out to rustle up a bite. What do you suppose I was going to do, grab some Wendy's? No, I went out and chowhounded, of course. And, because I'd hate to miss good material, I'd grab camera, notebook, and recorder. And you know how the rest went. Off I'd go on adventures, tantalized by the hunt. days off!

But what is a day off from chowhounding? Eating poorly? This question haunted me throughout the trip. Even at the airport in Montreal with my stupid fajitas at a waiting-room bar, feeling as off-duty as I could possibly be, it was all still fodder for an unholy amalgam of work/play/life. There's a fine line (OK, no line whatsoever) between "the tour" and 1. other reporting I do, 2. the general chowconnaissance necessary to keep my knowledge up to date, and 3. my own personal life, given that we humans not only live to eat, but must, several times per day, eat to live...and I strongly resist doing so undeliciously.

All this troubled me in a way it never had before. The sheer intensity and staggering length of the assignment held a lens up to the chowhound's existential abyss. My friends keep asking me when the CHOW Tour will be over. I just stare glassily into space. I don't know how to explain to them that the CHOW Tour is never over.
Even so, every once in a while I should probably cough up an accounting. The following is a selection of places I'm currently fascinated with. It's not complete, but aiming for completion would toss me back into the aforementioned briar patch (plus, this list is already ungainly long), so the following will have to do. And if I attempted to write in a composed, thorough way about these spots, I'd never get this done. So I'm flinging the list at you in all its glaring, sloppy, first-draft, stream-of-consciousness rawness.

Note: This list jumps around, so you may want to read all the way thru (a lot are drive-worthy destinations, anyway)

Note: These are in the NYC Tristate region. I'll do a follow-up posting about nationally-available mail order favorites.

Note: The following are all great. Some are great only for certain things, in which case I've noted what those things are:

Genesis (538 W 207th St, Manhattan; 212-942-1222) is a known place, and well-rated....though still vastly underrated. It's not only the city's best Ecuadorian, it's one of the best restaurants, period. I dream of this place. There is a problem, however. This is the larger second location, and it will soon close as they consolidate back down to the smaller first place (at 511 West 181st Street). They promise to keep the good chef on, but last time I ate on 207th, it clearly was not the same chef's cooking. Instead of consistent 9s and 10s, everything was 8-ish. Still real good, but non-miraculous. So either the good chef was sick, or he's already moved back to 181st St, or something else is going on. Sussing such mysteries is part of chowhounding. Until it's resolved...caveat eater.

Same intersection: El Viejo Jobo (231 Sherman Ave, Manhattan; 212-567-5050) is about the best Dominican luncheonette I've found, for grandmotherly soul food like goat stew and pollo al caldero.

Same block: Los Compadres (524 W 207th St, Manhattan; 212-942-1300). I've never been (aforementioned Genesis is like a tractor beam), but the steam tables in the window are full of the most unbelievably home-ish looking Puerto Rican grandma soul food, including "pegao" (the rice that sticks to the pot).

On the same block, there's an Empanadas Guy with a cart at the southeast corner of Sherman and 207. The care he takes in all his items is near-heartbreaking. Very friendly, very cheap. Try everything, but don't miss the quipe (the Dominican variation on Lebanese kibbe).

Even better Dominican quipe is in Corona, at a hole-in-wall called Empanada Rosario (9807 37th Ave, Corona, Queens; 718-507-8668). Great roast chicken, too, and so, so friendly. Take-out only.

Tops on my radar (I haven't tried either yet, but both look fantastic): Upstairs at 319 5th Ave (enter on 32nd). is really trippy, minimal Korean Pub Pan, serving dinner only. Downstairs, Ishiama Japanese Restaurant is much higher class and has an interesting menu.

It's a Yelp favorite, but you don't hear much talk about Num Pang Sandwich Shop (140 E 41st St, Manhattan; 212-867-8889). Cambodians run it, and there are Southeast Asian touches, but, really, this is its own place. There's a vibe to the food here, and it begs further exploration (I've only scanned the surface, myself).

The Bengali Bread Ladies, who I've written about several times, at Tawa Deli Express (3738 72nd St, Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-457-7766) are still making their sublime roti, but the place, like the nabe, has been overrun by Nepalis. Here, it's an in-store concession with amazing momo (dumplings), either hot or frozen, and other Nepali dishes. If you can get them to make sweet/savory sel roti (no relationship to the Bengali bready roti; these are more like doughtnuts) to order, don't miss it, it's one of the best things you'll eat in NYC.

Best Pizza (33 Havemeyer Street between 7/8 718-599-2210) is another in the category of "not-unknown, yet still vastly underrated". I like it better than Difara's. I always get a slice each of whatever they've got set up on the counter. And the meatball parm heroes, made entirely scratch, are so good I don't get them much (1. I'm not deserving, 2. I don't ever want to get tired of them).

Lots of people know about Laziza Pastry in Astoria (at 23-78 Steinway, Astoria; 718-777-7676), but few seem to realize that the best/proudest/rarest item is Palestinian kunefeh. It's a whole different kunefeh than the usual stuff, revered in the Middle East, and is a very rare holy grail. Get them to heat your slice. It's pure bliss. Like many Palestinian businesses in NYC, they identify as "Jordanian", so I usually order it as "Jordanian kunefeh"...or, with a wink, the good kunefeh.

Grey Dog's Coffee 90 University Pl, Manhattan; 212-414-4739. Overcrowded, and many things underwhelm, but their cookies and brownies are killing.

Speaking of cookies, best I currently know are at sherry b dessert studio (65 King Street, Chappaqua, NY; 914-238-8300). It's painfully pretentious, and it's agonizingly expensive (both of which are telegraphed by the name's lower case), but if you can sell some old gear on eBay or take out a second mortgage on your house to cobble together sufficient cash to afford a cookie, you'll find it's actually worth it.

Mine is very much a minority opinion, but I like Schnippers better in just about every way than Shake Shack. Don't miss the green chili cheeseburger (really tastes like the southwest), the mahi mahi tacos, and the sweet potato fries. Good fancy milkshakes, too. I only know their location at 41st and 8th, but they have others.

Pecosa Bakery (2055 Front Street, East Meadow, Long Island) is a delightful Colombian bakery and lunch place (lunches are good-not-great). Best pastry is "casado", with caramel, guava paste, and cheese. Killerissimo.

In Westchester, Padamina's Brazilian Bakery (66 W Lincoln Ave, Mt Vernon, NY; 914-667-9101) is the only good local source for a holy grail: Brazilian biscoito de queijo, which are the ur-Cheetos.

Next door, J Lincoln Barbeque (68 W Lincoln Ave, Mt Vernon, NY; 914-665-8800) is scary, as it should be. It's a very very authentic refuge for Portuguese (not Brazilian, like the rest of the nabe) ex-pats, and does not pander to outsiders. They do serve meaty stuff (it'd only be labeled "bbq" in Portugal), best sampled on weekends when they do it outside over coals, but it's really an all-purpose Portuguese restaurant, and the most authentic one I know.

MINT (19 Main St, Tarrytown, NY; 914-703-6511) is such an oddball. It used to be a little "gourmet" store with takeout, but moved into a large space to include a real restaurant. The food is extraordinarily variable (never bad, but not always great). But the cheese counter up front has stuff you won't see elsewhere, such as Dutch potato cheese. They're generous with the tastes, especially if you show early on that you're actually going to buy stuff (always a chowhounding key). And the little gourmet-ish packaged items carelessly strewn around, which look like the usual gourmet shop food-kitsch, are actually mind-blowing. Lots of stuff that really oughtn't be here, such as Holland's best stroopwafels (Gilda's Gild), which you just don't find anywhere, Argan Oil from Morocco (a drop of it makes anything taste great), and an ever-shifting assortment of other mind-bending things, displayed and sold without the slightest fanfare. Closed Mondays.

Dante's Deli (429 Central Avenue, White Plains, NY; 914-946-3609) is a big deal in White Plains, but completely unknown outside. This is about as good an Italian deli as you ever need to find (arrive at peak lunch hour at your peril). I go crazy for their panini, especially roast veal panini with asiago, broccoli rabe, aged figs, and hot peppers. Jesus!

The only deli in their league is Mr. Sausage3 Union Place, Huntington; 631-271-3836), just off the main drag of Huntington Village (they have a satellite store in Elwood (2058 Jericho Turnpike, East Northport, NY; 631-486-4589). This is one of the few places I'll buy novelty ravioli. Rice balls are a huge specialty.

Favorite current corned beef hashes

Grandma's of Yorktown (3525 Crompond Rd. Yorktown Heights, NY; 914-739-7770)

Paradise Diner (579 Veterans Memorial Hwy Smithtown, NY)

Eveready Diner (90 Independent Way, Brewster, NY; 845-279-9009)

Community Food & Juice (2893 Broadway (112/113), Manhattan; 212-665-2800), corned beef hash is brunch only (though even better is the potato pancake w/Petrossian smoked salmon and caviar cream, and even better than that is the supernal butterscotch pudding).

Mikey's Burgers (134 Ludlow St 212-979-9211) makes burgers topped with corned beef hash. Canned, but, still....topped with corned beef hash!

Near the Paradise Diner, Tap and Barrel (550 Smithtown Bypass, Smithtown, NY; 631-780-5471) is an amazing and extremely out-of-place beer bar.

In the same shopping center as Eveready Diner, there's an even better beer bar tucked into a grocery store at Decicco's. They close early, though (when the store closes), but they have a high-tech growler system so you can take it with you.

Also close by, the best chicken parm rolls and eggplant parm rolls I know are at Aversano's (1620 Route 22 at rt 312, Brewster, NY 845-279-2233). Don't buy the rolls on Thursdays.

A few miles away, Stanziatto's (35 Lake Avenue Extension Danbury, CT; 203-885-1057) has excellent brick oven pizza and, again, a great beer selection.

A few miles even further east, Kabab Grill (35 White St, Danbury, CT; 203-205-2222) is the best North Indian/Pakistani in the tristate area. Zero ambiance, long wait times, sometimes spacey service, but...the food, oh, the food.

Best soul food I know in Bed-Stuy right now

Bed-Stuy Fish Fry (801 Halsey Street 347-405-9820) makes insane fish sandwiches, excellent mac and cheese, collards with neck bones (like pulled bbq), good ice tea, corn muffins are real (and better than they look). Sparkling and friendly and fresh and great food, but service is absolutely insanely inefficient and the dining area is, shall we say, a bit raw.

Halsey Street Grill (260 Halsey St, Brooklyn; 347-365-5075). Like the nabe itself, this place doesn't know if it's a down-home soul food parlor or a glimmering all-purpose yuppie takout grill. At the intersection between the two lies turkey wings, which are unbelievably great (and I'm not a big fan of turkey wings). Very friendly.

I need to check out Ma N Pop Soul Food (349 Lewis Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-574-6735) further. It's the polar opposite of Halsey Street Grill and its broad, intensely lit field of takeout options. Here there's only a severely limited, outsider-unfriendly menu (hamhocks, neck bones, etc), and one single reasonably nice lady (whose feet appear to ache) slowly making it all happen, one order at a time. But the place, which is only partially transitioned from its former life as a barbershop, conveys some shimmering joy. I once had baked chicken here with mesmerizingly deep flavor.

The Brooklyn Rectangle

Hidden on St. Marks Place between 4th and 5th Avenues is Die Koelner Bierhalle, a cavernous German bier hall that will make you feel like you're in Hamburg. They pour dozens of fine and obscure german lagers on tap (note: when I say "obscure", I say so as a die-hard beer geek; here's their tap list), serve some decent food (from an open kitchen). Downside is the noise level (it's a booming space with hard surfaces) and slow service (they get crushed at peak hours). Settle in and drink a Zwick'l Kellerbier from a pewter boot. It's light, bright, and quenching, yet so very deep and alive. I wrote a few months ago about a twilight state I'd sunk into after having drank a couple of Bud Lites in a painful bar. For days, I couldn't enjoy beer. I broke that curse here, drinking a Zwick'l Kellerbier.

Nearby is 4th Avenue Pub (76 Fourth Ave 718-643-2273). Other beer aficionado bars have much wider selection, but here you'll find a relatively modest number of carefully, lovingly chosen taps. And service is just so friendly. I've learned, from places like this, that you never want to drink in a town's first-tier famous beer places. The servers in those places are always arrogant, and the vibe is always joyless. (Yes, I do mean "always". There are no exceptions.) The 2nd and 3rd tier places are for me, and 4th Avenue Pub is a sterling example of why.

Pacific Standard (82 4th Ave Brooklyn, 718-858-1951), just down the block, is less friendly and more hipstered out. But they do offer different sorts of beers (mostly hoppy west coast products). Good for variety.

South Brooklyn Pizza (64 4th Ave, Brooklyn; 718-399-7770) is much better than it looks. I really like their pizza.

Just up and around on Atlantic Avenue is Nunu Chocolates (529 Atlantic Ave 718-834-1818), which makes incredible chocolate, pours a few esoteric beers (a couple of taps and a scattering of bottles, but all "WTF??" level exotica, carefully chosen), and makes beer/chocolate combos, and all sorts of other great bizarre chocolate things, including some of NYC's best hot chocolate. Cool relaxing little shop.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Eating Like An Alien

Colman Andrews has compiled a "101 Best Restaurants in America" list. It's kind of cool that a few places I brought to public attention are included. And, in case you're wondering, er, no, I wasn't included among the "panel of 176 food critics, cookbook writers and others in the food business." Which provides an odd symmetry to my long relationship with food and food media.

In my late teens and early twenties, before I began writing, I'd offer zillions of write-in votes for unlisted places on my Zagat ballots. None made it into the book. I felt more and more disconnected from the foodie scene, which focused on chasing hype rather than sussing out great unsung treasure. Realizing I was eating to a different drummer, I became a writer, eventually founding Chowhound to provide a clubhouse for kindred spirits - hype-averse treasure hunters alienated by foodies and food media.

Cut to 2013, and my perspective on food seems like crazy talk on Chowhound, and the general interest level in my food finds and opinions resembles Zagat's, circa 1985. So I find myself eating exactly like I did at age 19: deliciously and marginally. It's come full circle, except that a random few of my ancient faves have been engraved in the hypey pantheon I always spurned.

You can't refuse co-option by the status quo and still expect its embrace. Maintaining an alienated attitude ensures alienation. Yet I still thoroughly enjoy chowhounding, same as ever, blithely going my merry way and finding all sorts of great stuff. I guess alienation suits me!

But, still, thanks for thinking of me, A.O. Scott!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Now's The Time to Buy DVDs and Blu-Rays

I continue to fill out my movie collection. It's astonishing to see so many great titles available for just a few bucks, particularly second-hand (I only buy big studio films second-hand; smaller filmmakers need my support). Right now, you can build a great film library for the lowest cost in history. But the opportunity is fleeting. This is a transitional period en route to a future where all media will be streamed.

Streaming offers certain advantages (convenience, no physical storage) but there are downsides:

1. Extras
It remains to be seen if streaming companies find a way to show the sort of extras (commentary tracks, outtakes, etc.) that are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. My guess is they won't. Extras currently serve as enticements for disk buyers. In an all-streaming future, producers may lack incentive to create them. So the extras currently available only on disk media may die with that media. By buying disks now, I'm assured access.

2. Obedience
Different titles (and different editions of each title) are available in different areas at different prices. I hacked my DVD player to play all regions (Google your model number; instructions for many models are available on the web), and buy plenty of region 2 DVDs from In a streaming future, I'll only be able to view what the powers that be want me to view. Buy buying disks now, I'll hold on to that freedom.

3. Obscurity
Netflix is considered to offer a very "long tail" of options. But their idea of obscure films and mine are very different. I own stuff on DVD (e.g. custom burns from small filmmakers) that Netflix has never heard of. And in the future, when one or two huge corporations control all streaming media, selection may narrow further still. By buying disks now, I'll be well stocked with great little films that may eventually be lost to public viewing.

DVDs were made obsolete by Blu-Ray, and Blu-Ray's already obsolete before having fully caught on. The market knows these are dead-end formats, and is pricing them accordingly. Blu-Ray disks, in particular, are available at fire sale prices - often cheaper than DVDs of the same film. As a result, people are unloading their DVDs and Blu-Rays en masse, resulting in ridiculously cheap second-hand prices (check and This presents an unprecedented opportunity to stock up, and that's what I've been doing. You might want to, too!

Non-technical people sometimes over-fear obsolescence, failing to realize that their equipment will continue to do whatever it always did, regardless. An obsolete format doesn't cease to deliver. So long as my DVD and Blu-Ray players work (or replacements are available), my library will continue to be available to me (and there are cheap Blu-Ray players out there).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

When Gurus Go Bad

Yet another spiritual teacher has been caught up in a sex scandal. Here's my (unorthodox) view of that sort of thing

In olden times, your teacher was god, period. And I don't just mean your Zen or yoga or Tibetan Buddhist teacher, I mean any teacher. We associate the Sanskrit term "guru" with high-level spirtuality, but it applies to any teacher/disciple relationship. If you were studying to be a musician or a ditch digger, your teacher was your guru, and you cleaned his house and washed his clothes, and did literally anything he instructed you to do. He was akin to God, and it's only natural that these relationships were prone to exploitation, sexual and otherwise. For eons, that's just how it was.

(And still is! Even in the modern era, parents still molest their charges, as do priests. We have an instinct to subjugate and exploit those subservient to us, and neither cultural norms nor legislation can ever completely suppress human instinct.)

In the West, the old-fashioned style of mentor/disciple relationship is obsolete - except in spirituality. Western spiritual students, who don't understand the context, believe that spiritual accomplishment makes their teacher uniquely worthy of unquestioning obedience. In other words, spirituality transforms people into supermen - perfect human beings who'd never operate in anything but your best interest, and who've completely extinguished their base human instincts.

An understanding of the context sheds a lot of light. Before, every teacher of everything was superman; perfect, and deserving of your unquestioning compliance. There was nothing unique about spirituality. But as teacher/student relationships in other realms have modernized, spiritual teacher/student relationships have remained staunchly traditional, leaving the impression that spiritual teachers are an entirely different breed of teacher.

They're not. Even the really really good ones are still just teachers. And human beings can be great at stuff without being perfected supermen. Because there's no such thing. Human beings remain animals, no matter how diligently they cultivate their divine nature.

Our culture still retains an anachronistic tendency to deify people of great accomplishment (spiritual or otherwise). That's why we are shocked when celebrities and sports heroes behave badly. We expect our heroes to behave immaculately in all realms, not just the ones they've mastered. And we are, again and again, disappointed.

There are no heroes. There are just individuals who act heroically at some given time.

One final piece of the puzzle: the West has modernized teacher/student spiritual relationships in just one single aspect: they're now co-ed. It's a horrendous mistake. Teaching styles should either be completely modernized (no more teacher worship) or else completely restored to monastic-style sexual segregation (with as many checks in place against homosexual predation as possible). The way things stand is just begging for trouble.

Interesting Zen books:
"Zen at War" explains how many of the greatest 20th century Zen teachers banded together not only to defend and acclaim Japanese Imperialism and genocide in World War II, but to subvert peaceful Buddhist teachings to justify them (check out the interesting Amazon reviews at that link).

"The Dude and the Zen Master", by Jeff Bridges and zen teacher Bernie Glassman. I haven't read it, but it sounds intriguing, and will surely bring new interest to this great teaching.

Eugen Herrigel's "Zen and the Art of Archery" is an un-missable classic (no relation to "Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", which has as much to do with Zen as jazz dance has to do with jazz).

Previous Zen-ish Postings
The Monks and the Coffee
Problem Solving Solved
Insanity Versus Revelation
....and the Zen story underscoring my recent posting The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reviewing Predictions Past and Future

Immigration Reform and Split

On election night, I predicted Republicans would do an immediate about-face and embrace immigration reform as one of their first acts in the new Congress. Obviously, that came true.

The about-face is hilariously captured by The Daily Show's contrasting of John Mccain's response to the call for immigration reform in 2012's State of the Union speech with his response to this year's:

I also predicted that the right would, as a result, split into two parties. We'll see what happens with that, but my belief is that the Tea Party was just a pre-tremor, and we'll soon see the appearance of an ultranationalist, overtly racist third party.

The Republicans are starting to back away, horrified, from the crazies at the extreme of their base. That dalliance was doomed from the start. But the crazies aren't going anywhere. There've always been right-wing nuts, but only now do they have an Internet where they can organize and amplify their voices, plus a media segment whose business model is to cater to paranoia and anger via a relentless feeding schedule of flatteringly glossy demagoguery.


When the iPod Mini was first introduced, I worried that Apple would set a precedent of non-indispensableness. I already owned an iPod, an iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook Pro, and while all were highly useful, it was starting to feel like a bit too many black rectangles.
But now there's this. I'm certainly not buying a mini iPad, too. It required some persuasion to get me to reluctantly add an iPad, but no marketing can entice me to add this fourth device. I doubt Apple will even make a case for the indispensableness of mini iPad. This one is, for the first time, strictly optional.

The sense of momentum - that each new device improves our information ecosystem in essential and inevitable ways - will be lost. If I'd lost that sense of momentum two years ago, I'd never have sprung for iPad. But I will now be a much tougher sell for any sort of future iDevices. I'll be asking myself whether I really need to buy, rather than whether I can make the sacrifice of not buying.
Here's what I hadn't anticipated: it turns out that the iPad Mini is the good one. People insist this is the ideal size; that their old iPads feel huge and clunky by comparison, and that it's ever so better to be able to hold the thing in one hand. And the next regular iPad is supposed to be close to the Mini's dimensions. They won't have to shrink the screen; instead, they'll just reduce the bezel - the black outline around the screen (don't worry, there's software to detect when your fingers are holding the device rather than pointing at something on-screen). So the progression of inevitability should remain intact.


But Apple is about to do a stupid thing. They're apparently working on wristwatches. The NY Times reports that Apple is "experimenting" with smart watches made of curved glass. Big plasticky wraparound wristwatches.

A lot of people don't wear watches anymore. They read the time from their cellphones. And those who do wear them aren't wearing big clunky brainiac watches. Those days are long gone. The only people who might still wear big clunky watches with lots of features are Silicon Valley types. So I suspect this is a phenomenon we all should have expected.

Since Apple never takes the pulse of what consumers want, preferring to offer products consumers hadn't known they wanted, Apple execs are in the habit of relying on their own taste. And while their taste works with gadgety gadgets, this is something people will wear. Like, fashion. And Tim Cook is lots of things, but he's no fashion leader.

As a stockholder, I have a very bad feeling about this watch idea. The iPad Mini may not have killed inevitability, but this might.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pave Paradise, Put Up a Parking Lot

Something bad's happening (see press release here, and/or just keep reading). Know anyone in North Carolina? If so, please consider enlisting their help. Here's a page with more information, including addresses of people who need to be written to. Here's my letter to the relevant congressman, senator, and local officials:

Dear [XXXX],

I'm a food writer/author, and the founder of the popular dining site, (now owned by CBS).

I write about great food and great people making great food around the country, and have built a reputation for having an unusually keen eye for little operations doing fantastic work. I have, on several occasions, raved about Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis.

Their sustainable farming methods are highly creative, and an inspiration to lots of other small and family farmers. They improve life in their community by selling their exceptionally high-quality produce and by hosting farm dinners unlike anything else seen in the community.

But most impressive is the infectiousness of their idealistic and their smart methods. Over the decades, this farm, owned by a long-established local family, has inspired countless people - especially young people - to go into family farming, and to farm smart. It's amazing to see kids with fancy degrees from fancy schools choosing not to move to big cities to become marketers or lawyers, but to put on overalls and work the land.

I don't see how Maverick Farms isn't great for Watauga County and for North Carolina, which needs its marketers and lawyers, but also needs idealistic small farms upholding proud local traditions...and bringing them into the new millennium via creative new methods.

We live in a big country, but I've singled out Maverick Farms in my writing as particularly important. It's influential well beyond its small scale. But in a few weeks, the DOT plans to destroy it, on short notice, by paving a road through its fields, at the behest of some local developers.

I'm all for progress, but my understanding is that there are problems with this project - it will, for one thing, create a dangerous traffic bottleneck between two bridges. This is a poorly considered move, rushed through on short notice without consideration, community input, or discussion. And it will kill one of the best family businesses in the area.

It's a crime. Please consider doing this more thoughtfully. Get the deadline extended so there's time to think and compromise. Reconsider plans, and find a way to allow transportation progress to continue without needlessly paving over one of the best things in Watauga County.


Jim Leff
For Those Who Live to Eat

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Anderson Cooper's Empathy

I know you don't come here for this sort of thing, but I'm hoping you won't mind if every two years or so I post a funny video (I think this was the last one).

For some reason this short "Moment of Zen" from last nights' Daily Show had me in hysterics (and if you actually like this kind of thing, see all Slog posts tagged "funny"):

SIGA: The Wait Winds Down

Andrew Tobias published the following thoughts from me last week (his influence may have contributed to the recent run-up), and I just realized I ought to put it up here, as well, in case any of you own a few shares.

A friend who’s also a SIGA investor tells me that an investment analysis firm hired a distinguished Delaware (retired) judge to look over SIGA’s supreme court appeal and to share his findings for their big-wig investors. The judge agrees that the lower court decision (which “split the baby,” awarding the plaintiff half the future revenue from SIGA’s smallpox drug) was overreaching. He’s confident that SIGA will be on the hook for a much, much, much lower amount (that’s been my expectation, as well). This came to light late on February 6th.

I listened to the oral argument before the Delaware Supreme Court last month, and one judge seemed overtly skeptical of the ruling against SIGA. It turns out that he’s the most powerful and respected judge in the state. This corroborates the likeliness that the Court will drastically lower the penalty.

SIGA has been playing possum throughout this legal dispute, doing everything possible to keep a low profile. That’s why we’re at $3 (even if the ruling stood, and SIGA lost half the billions in profits from their drug, they’d still be worth far more than $3). The Delaware Supreme Court prides itself on turning around decisions within 90-120 days (usually 90) of oral argument, so that puts a likely decision around mid-April.

Meanwhile, biological weapons, including smallpox, are very much in the news, particularly weaponized smallpox (thought to be held by Iran, North Korea, and Syria), which vaccines do NOT address, but which SIGA’s drug very likely does (depending on how novel the weaponization techniques are….i.e. if it’s anything like pox, SIGA’s drug is good).

It made curiously little news, but Israel has flown inside Syria’s borders to attack chemical and biological weapons stores. So smallpox is a big, big deal, and Israel has publicly included SIGA in its war scenario planning for several years. I expect an order there.

Also meanwhile, the FDA approved a drug called raxibacumab against anthrax, based solely on animal testing. This has been the hold-up for SIGA with FDA — it’s not possible to test smallpox on humans, so you must resort to monkeys, and that’s not standard for FDA. But it appears FDA has finally accepted the standard, which is very good news. (Either way, though, SIGA doesn’t require FDA approval to keep selling to the government for their emergency stockpile, and the government has explicitly stated its attention to acquire billions of dollars worth of this drug.)

I think it’s quite likely this could turn out well, although it could take time to shake out: the decision may remand back to the lower court to finalize, plus it will take time for SIGA to regain momentum and re-attract skittish investors. But I’m quite confident.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Ash, Dust, Darwin, Rome, St. Louis Ribs

Chowhound went wrong by becoming too big. It wasn't CNET/CBS' fault, it was mine. When an operation grows beyond the capacity for a personal touch to be felt across its entire range, and when kindred spirits are too thin on the ground to set tone and help acculturate newcomers, things quickly revert into less useful things. Founding principles are forgotten to the point where they sound like crazy talk.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" describes not just human lives, but also human pursuits. If you build something different and radical, odds are it will, over time, be subsumed back into status quo. The gravitational pull may be mild, but it's very patient, ceaselessly working to reabsorb change and progress (Darwin in schools, anyone?) and to denature whatever is new and different.

Have a look at this discussion on Chowhound's "Great Plains" message board. The participants have no idea who I am - which is fine, as the site's never been about me. But see how alien Chowhound's founding principles strike them.

It's not their fault. They're using the forum as their instincts tell them to, because no other example has been set. And, of course, aggressive, parochial know-it-alls are inevitable in online forums. But if the site's credo had been more evenly dispersed, chowhoundish assertions, though not shared by all, at least wouldn't seem so bafflingly new. And pushy folks, who repel newcomers and reject the unconventional, wouldn't be allowed to dominate. Even without me around, there'd still be cultural critical mass (as there still is on some of Chowhound's message boards).

It's the result of scaling. In the first installment of "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out", the tale of Chowhound's sale to CNET, I linked to a goodbye page which we'd prepared to throw up to announce the site's demise. It reads, in part:

The solution would be for a plethora of small communities to flourish, with kindred spirits sharing notes via email, Yahoo Groups, etc.. Small groups can ferret out much treasure, and participants will learn to trust one another. And small groups minimize expenses, headaches and nuts, and offer less incentive for opportunists to subvert. Small private groups would be better still. Resist the urge to consolidate. Eschew ambition. Keep things small and managable and in the spirit you value.
In the second century, Rome conquered the furthest eastward region ever to be absorbed under its control. After the victory, the emperor stood for a moment, thinking. Realizing it was just too damned far from Rome to effectively administer, he granted them their independence and marched home. History judges the empire's decline to have begun at that moment. To some historians, he's the shmuck who let glory slip away. To me, he freaking nailed it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rogers and Me

Apropos coming after a posting about neighbors...

I didn't like Mr. Rogers as a kid. I was a cynic from birth, developing wide-eyed innocence only later in life. But now I'm totally into him. Not out of some arch hipster impulse; it's just that after forty years of yoga and meditation, after the trippy mystical stages and the dark-night-of-the-soul stages, etc., I guess one eventually reaches stage "Fred", where the depths of Mr. Rogers become apparent. If I knew it'd all wind up so square, I'd never have gotten into that stuff.

The following Mr. Rogers quote went viral shortly after Sandy Hook. After a hurricane, a mass murder, a blizzard, and the closing of Sason Grill all in four months, I'm feeling a bit frayed around the edges, as I'm sure many of you are. This is pure salve, but only because it's so true:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."— Mister Rogers
If that intrigues you, and makes you want to see more, here are some great Mr. Rogers links:

The classic profile from Esquire Magazine

Here's the Emmy speech mentioned in the Esquire piece

"Mr. Rogers and Me" is a great documentary (available for $15 from Amazon). Background info here.

A NY Times review of "I'm Proud Of You, My Friendship With Fred Rogers". Another review.

Mr. Rogers wrote a book! Great reviews on amazon for "The World According Mister Rogers"

One final thing. Fred Rogers composed all the music for his show. And I can tell you, with a jazz musician's knowledge, that a lot of it is really quite hip. Apparently he'd blow off steam after tapings by sitting down and improvising at the keyboard. I wish I could have been there.

The more I learn about Mr. Rogers, the more I believe he had a full dose of the je ne sais quoi I wrote about in this posting (which refers to "the kindness of New Yorkers on 9/12/01", dovetailing nicely with his message about "helpers").

Open Letter to My Neighbor

I'm starting to realize that a neighbor is paying a bit more attention to me than I'd prefer. I suppose it's a foregone conclusion that this person's googled me and found my blog, so I'd like to take a moment to set a few things straight.

I can't imagine this person bears me any ill-will. Our fleeting in-person encounters have been mostly polite. And I certainly don't mean this person any ill-will, either. I do realize I'm a strange fit in a conservative, family-oriented neighborhood, being a single middle-aged guy who keeps odd hours and plays weird music (never after 9pm, though). It's true that I'm not chatty, but I spent most of my adult life in NYC apartments, where you give neighbors their space. But if there was ever a problem or disaster, I'd surprise you with how responsive and helpful I'd be. I rise to occasions well.

I had some bad years (here's the story), and am still a tad post-traumatic. You may have noticed that I occasionally mutter quietly to myself. What I'm doing is reassuring myself. Loopy though that may seem, I believe it's saner than more "normal" inner monologues. I once explained it like this:
Human beings spend their lives in conflict with imaginary people: mentally rearguing old arguments, worrying about faceless attackers and detractors, reliving bygone humiliations, and generally using our imaginations to make our lives a living hell. That's considered "normal", but using the same faculty in positive ways to help us cope seems, for some reason, childish and loopy.
You can read back articles here on the Slog for a good idea of who I am and where I'm coming from. Nothing so mysterious, though I may seem to have beamed here from another planet!

Anyway, I'll make you a deal. I'll quietly wish for your family's lives to turn out well, and maybe you can do the same for me. And we'll just keep living here in geographic parallel, you pretending you never saw this, and me pretending I never registered your disapproving gaze. There are evil people in this world, and neither of us is one of them. So we'll be just fine.

For those reading along: consider this outreach-via-proxy from the shy nonconformist in your realm.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ignore the Snark; it was a Freaky Blizzard After All

The meme on the Internet today is: It's winter. There was a storm. Snow fell. What's the big freakin' deal?

Indeed, the New York Tristate area did a lot better than predicted. This was merely a severe winter storm, rather than a catastrophe. New England, which got upward of three feet of snow, feels differently, of course.

The gist behind the snark is that authorities and media over-caution. And that's dangerous snark, because it fuels the cynical complacency that prevented people from heeding warnings prior to Hurricane Sandy.

It's the same willful snarky ignorance that makes climate change deniers sneer about global warming during cold snaps, and makes climate change proponents sanctimonious whenever there's a forest fire or flood. One event proves nothing. An underwhelming superstorm doesn't mean all storms will underwhelm, a cold snap doesn't disprove overall warming, and a given weather quirk can't be blamed on carbon.

But this was a crazy, crazy storm. Winds may not have been savage, and snowfall might not have broken records everywhere, but the following NY Times report, about a driver on the Long Island Expressway, illustrates the freakiness:
"Barbara Barkiano, 43, a housecleaner, tried to make her way along the highway behind the plows, but the snow snapped both windshield wipers on her Honda Civic hybrid."
Snapped her windshield wipers as she was driving? Who ever heard of such a thing??

The wiper-snapping rate of snowfall, and the Sandy-ish massive size of the storm (neither obvious from day-after observation) were just crazy.

Heroes and Shmucks

Better to be a hapless shmuck who occasionally surprises than to be a hero who inevitably disappoints.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Do we get miserable because bad things happen to us, or do we make ourselves miserable with the stories we tell ourselves about what's happening? The older I get, and the more I observe, the more convinced I become that Hell is a place human beings voluntarily condemn themselves to.

The big eye-opener for me came while watching my emotions careen between extremes one Christmas Eve. Nothing was changing in the real world; there was only my inner narrative flipping between interpretations. Ever since, I've noticed this mental maneuver literally everywhere.

A friend visited yesterday. Ray's 70, and is worried about a lump in his abdomen, so he's getting a CAT scan next week. As he sat sipping beer in my living room, I saw the resignation in his eyes as he mournfully said, "Well, at my age, this is what you have to expect." He was willing himself into decrepitude, but I couldn't help noticing the disparity between the sad story he was telling and his overall youthful vigor. He was perched jauntily on my couch, a picture of vitality, enjoying a terrific German lager. He wasn't old. He wasn't suffering. Nothing was actually wrong! Except, that is, in his internal monologue, where he's another person entirely: old, sick, and pitiful.

The CAT scan may, god forbid, bring bad news. But Ray will remain as youthful and as vigorous as he allows himself to feel. In reality, it won't be until things actually go wrong that anything goes wrong. But Ray's not living in the real world. He's living in Story World. And I realize that's considered completely appropriate. We assume that Story World is a valid place to live, even if the story's horrific and leaves us dejected even though we are, to any neutral observer, feeling fine and simply enjoying a nice beer.

"Hey, Ray!" I interrupted. He looked up, startled, from his woeful reverie. "Here you are!" I pointed out, with a bright smile, "Same as always! It's still you!" He looked startled for a moment, as if woken suddenly from a dream. And he laughed. He got it. He saw what he was building.

Another example. I met a bass player who I hadn't seen for 25 years, and asked how things were. He recounted a horrific tale of hardship, betrayal, and loss. When he was done, he stared into the distance, his face a knot of aggrieved suffering. I felt badly for him; I really did! Just as I pray for Ray's lump! But while he was certain his life had been ruined, I, not bound by the story, noticed that standing next to him in 2013 felt a lot like standing next to him in 1988 (he hadn't been very joyful then, either!). "But, Phil," I urged, "after all that you still are! Still looking out of the same eyes! Here we are, same as ever!" Phil, too, was startled out of his dream for a moment, and saw that the story isn't real. Reality's what's really happening right here, right now.

Final example. My friend Paolo recently had his company nearly ruined by a disreputable accountant. The situation was particularly perilous, because the company's debt was pinned on him, personally (it was the only way he could get credit). Back in December, he'd been at risk of losing everything. We had dinner a few nights ago (at an incongruous Ghanian restaurant in the sprawl of Suffolk County), and Paolo was a basket case, barely able to follow conversation. Every few minutes, he'd randomly utter a deep "oy" from deep in his chest, even though he's not Jewish (everyone turns a little Jewish when things go wrong).

Poor guy, right? But wait. He'd patched the accounting, and was navigating his business back into the clear. If he works hard for a few months - while drawing a nice salary - the business will survive. The worst peril's been avoided, and there's not much to decide or to worry about; just proceed to Point B. In the real world, he's doing fine. But in Story World, he's living a nightmare.

So we have Ray, who's not sick yet, and who may never be sick, but who's talking himself into being old and sick against all evidence. He's pre-suffering. And we have Phil and Paolo post-suffering, though their lives are completely normal. The question is: if you shave off the pre-suffering and the post-suffering - if you drop the storytelling - how much suffering was ever necessary?

Very little. The suffering is in the stories we tell ourselves. When bona-fide bad stuff happens, you don't suffer. There's no time. You deal with the problem, as best you can. If someone started shooting a gun in your room right now, your impulse wouldn't be to bemoan your lot in life. You'd be diving under your chair! Problems spur action. The suffering, which is optional, comes later. The mind always lags behind reality, and sometimes gets stuck there.

Pain in life is a given. And results seldom align with expectations. But pain is pain, and expectations were whimsical in the first place. Suffering's different. It's entirely in the storytelling. Consider my favorite book title: "What's Wrong with Right Now...Unless You Think About It?"

Old Zen Joke (visualize accompanying koto music):
Two monks were traveling together, an older monk and a younger monk. They noticed a young woman at the edge of a stream, afraid to cross. The older monk picked her up, carried her across the stream and put her down safely on the other side. The younger monk was astonished, but he didn't say anything until miles later. "Why did you carry that woman across the stream? Monks aren't supposed to touch any member of the opposite sex." said the younger monk. The older monk replied "I left her at the edge of the river, are you still carrying her?"

Old Jewish Joke (visualize a thick Yiddish accent):
Sol and Shmuel are riding a train. Sol keeps moaning, "Boy, am I thirsty." He does this mile after mile, driving Shmuel crazy. Finally, Shmuel jumps off the train at the next stop, returning with a soda which he hands to Sol, telling him "Here! Drink, for gods sake!" For the next mile or so, Sol is quiet. But then he starts in again: "Boy, was I thirsty..."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"A cloud of critics..."

"A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators darkened the face of learning and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste."
-- Gibbon's "Decline of the Roman Empire"

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Arepa Lady Neglect

The Arepa Lady has only 386 followers on her Twitter feed (I love her new logos, by the way). Meanwhile, Mario Batali has 420,517 followers.

That's just deeply wrong. You're following her, right?

Friday, February 1, 2013

More TV Rapture

My conviction continues that TV's where the culture is flourishing these days. I've been paying nearly as much attention to my idiot box as I devoted to restaurants in the 1990's. It's not that everything on TV is great now, or even good. Nor was all jazz great in 1953, or films in 1971, or lasagnas in 1996. It's not a universal thing. It's just a matter of reaching a tipping point with a migration of inspiration into a particular realm. At that point, the human flocking instinct kicks in and quality can soar. I'm not a big fan of flocking humans, generally, but in this sort of scenario, it's downright thrilling. Remember how once Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile, everyone else could suddenly do it?

Film people are recognizing this, and are flooding into TV en masse. Movies have become increasingly formulaic and cliched; it's hard to get much depth in two hours, and the industry's in a state of creative stagnation. The best television series are now akin to really long movies (here's how that came about), and the longer form offers freedom - the opportunity to fully develop characters, and to engage in fine subtleties.

Consider "Luck", the HBO series directed by Michael Mann and starring Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman. You've heard about this as "the show about horse racing where horses died so they had to cancel it". That outrage was a publicity stunt trumped up by PETA (the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights). For what it's worth, here's the real story with the dead horses.

I just voraciously viewed the series, and I think Luck's a masterpiece. Its ratings were microscopic, because it demands a lot from viewers. First of all, writer David Milch ("NYPD Blue", "Deadwood", etc.) is quirky as all get-out, and plies a syntax all his own. But that can be a great boon for actors this good. Just as negotiating the tricky linguistic terrain of Shakespeare can bring out an actor's best, Milch makes his players work deeply. Also, Luck plunges viewers into the arcane rituals of horse racing without much hand-holding (this helpful tutorial is de rigueur, and I recommend studying the great Alan Sepinwall's episodic run-downs after you see each show, and perhaps Todd VanDerWerff's, as well).

The first four episodes can be maddeningly confusing, the language is hard to parse (I watch with the subtitles on), and you'll need to rewatch certain scenes (and want to review whole episodes), but it's all chewy-rewarding rather than chewy-opaque. By the middle of the season you'll find yourself drawn in as with a great novel, and by the end, you'll be mourning the show's premature cancellation. Quality's so high that, as I viewed, I kept flashing back to the Shakespeare analogy. The first season doesn't always hit "for-the-ages" heights, but it's certainly headed there. It's a tragedy that there'll be no second season.

Nowhere near the same league, but still damned good, is "The Americans", on FX. It's a new espionage thriller that premiered this week, set in the 1980's, about a Russian sleeper cell in the American suburbs. It's a seemingly normal American couple under such deep cover that they don't even speak Russian, or reveal their earlier lives, to each other, even in private moments. And the show's as much an exploration of their sixteen year marriage (even they're not sure what's "cover" and what's "real") as of their spycraft.

There are little flaws - e.g. an FBI counter-espionage agent just happens to move in across the street (wince). And it's become popular on the Internet to dissect and excoriate a series' flaws. But in spite of our massively networked culture of criticism (which, god help me, I helped start), here's an essential truth, which I hope to write more about: the best stuff isn't stuff with the fewest flaws. The best creations are created with great love and care and talent. Flawlessness, in and of itself, is worthless. The pianist who makes no mistakes is, more than likely, a boring pianist who takes no chances. What matters - all that matters - is the magic.

Also, big news: did you know David Fincher's "House of Cards", starring (speaking of migrating film people) Kevin Spacey, is available, starting today, exclusively via Netflix streaming? I haven't seen it, but it sounds terrific, according to my go-to television critic, the aforementioned Alan Sepinwall (here's his rundown). Per Netflix's business model, they released the whole season at once, so you can "binge view" to your heart's content. This could be the start of something big.

Finally, three great series few people know about: "The Hour", Britain's "The Sandbaggers", and CBC's "Intelligence" (dubbed "The Canadian Wire" by Slate).

"Game of Thrones" third season begins March 31, and season two of "Veep" airs in April, and, best of all, "Breaking Bad" is back for the final arc this summer.

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