Friday, March 22, 2013

Fun Jobs and Bastards

Leff's Fifth Law (as originally noted here):

The less fun the job, the more fun the workers.

People with fun jobs (food writers, toymakers, cookie bakers, children's party clowns, artists) tend to be miserable, nasty, back-stabbing bastards. People with drudgey jobs (mechanics, drywall specialists) tend to be friendly and fun.

More on vocation

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Leff's Law of Baked Goods

Leff's Law of Baked Goods: Anything tastes great right out of the oven. Pencils, styrofoam...anything. (So ignore any tips for baked goods that are "only good right out of the oven".)

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Maliciousness and Incompetence

Leff's Fourth Law: 95% of apparent maliciousness is actually incompetence.

The tendency is to vastly overestimate human villainy and to vastly underestimate human ineptness.

Woops, it turns out that Napoleon got here first.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Many thanks to my Catalan musician buddy Pau Bombardo (who has the all-time greatest drummer's's pronounced "Pow") for this tip:

Bullipedia, the upcoming production of the foundation behind Ferran AdriĆ 's El Bulli. It looks great. To be advised of the launch (at a different URL from the above link:, follow them on Twitter.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Send in the Locusts

Why haven't I posted in a few days? Well, I can't offer much excuse, aside from a dizzying procession of Biblical plagues.

First, my block's Internet and cable dried up for 24 hours (a latter-day plague, if ever I heard of one), which meant a full night trying to sleep with an enormo Verizon truck wheezing loudly in my driveway.

The next morning a power company truck exploded in front of my house, spraying a fine mist of hydraulic oil all over my property. Within hours, men in hazmat suits were vacuuming up my plants, grass, and topsoil into a convoy of beastly blue trucks which were screaming like the sandworms in Dune.

That's when the coughing started. And the tingly lips and fingers that are my usual symptoms around strong chemical smells.

The next morning, friends came over to help me rebuild my porch. The wood had been rotting at an alarming rate, threatening to make the whole thing slide down a hill. Being non-musicians, they're accustomed to starting work at 7:30am. Whereas I'm, uh, not. So I spent 9 hours shlepping timber on five hours sleep.

In the midst of construction, it began to snow - odd, given that the temperature was well above freezing. We gradually realized those weren't snowflakes, it was tons of hovering white ash. I don't know where it came from, but it was gone after a couple of hours.

After working a full day out in the toxic waste zone, my lips tingled as if I'd just eaten a very spicy Thai curry. As always, I consulted my friend, Pierre, who knows everything, and he informed me that I might be at risk of anaphylatic shock (I'm holding onto some Loratidine just in case).

So, yeah, I'm living in interesting times!

I once wrote:
I come from an "oh, shit!" family. I was taught from a young age that even the most petty of life's travails warrants an eruption of embittered pique. It's a means of expressing bitterness at the ongoing pattern of cosmic persecution of which these misplaced car keys or that stubbed toe was the latest in a long series of examples. Given that few turns in life fulfill our expectations, the "oh, shit!" reflex can grow to eventually poison one's entire existence.

Here's the antidote. In place of the exclamation, swap in this question: "If this is the worst thing that happens today, would that mean it's been a good day?"

In several years, I have yet to answer "no", though a few legitimately bad things have occurred in that time. That's because while human beings irritate easily at minutiae, we are remarkably resilient in the larger picture. And the act of stepping back to a wider view forces us to react to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from our oceans of resilience rather than our thin puddles of irritability.
My perfect record of no "no" replies still remains unbroken. It's not a matter of "positive thinking" or sunny pablum re: "The Gift of Life" (I find the whole life thing fairly overrated, actually). It's just that I've learned to limit the stories I tell myself. I no longer plug mishaps into my narrative of woe. And without that, it's all just stuff happening. "Bad" is an arbitrary label, and one of the secrets of human existence is discovering that we assign our own labels, and that that process can be discarded.

As I wrote here, everyone detests the situation of missing a highway exit and finding that the next one's 25 miles ahead. But, when you really think about it, what's so horrific about driving? If driving's so bad, why do we pine so strongly for green lights?

It helps that this week I also discovered what may be the best grandma-style, humble-steamtable-joint-hidden-in-a-deli type Mexican in the Tristate area.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jack Andraka Fixes Everything

15 year old Jack Andraka, grieving for a family friend who died of pancreatic cancer (difficult and expensive to detect early, and usually fatal if you don't), resolved to try to do something about it. Combining a eureka moment with dogged data mining, he devised a 30 cent test that seems to be 100% effective.

The test may have the potential to screen for other forms of cancer as well as heart disease or HIV/AIDS, and he's "currently working on something the size of a cube of sugar that could look through your skin and study blood or signs of almost any disease" for five bucks.

Genius? Hero? No. I'm sure he's a bright kid, but everyone will disregard the essential part here. This bit of earth-shaking creativity stemmed from higher, non-personal goals. In this case, Jack was deeply upset about his friend, and inspired to do something. No self-consciousness. No lofty aspirations or thirst for grandeur. And, obviously, no consideration of obstacles. He just went out and did what needed to be done, devoting himself to the task so completely that he disappeared into it, leaving behind only shakti.

You can feel the shakti second-hand just from reading the reports (see links, below). You've heard other tales of great achievement. Why does this particular one make your chest feel like it's burning? Shakti is incredibly contagious.

Here's the basic story that's circulating, and here's a more in-depth version.

See the Marcus Dupree documentary for another example of superhuman achievement stemming from that same place.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 8: The Director

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.

I saw a famous director (I wish I could remember who) on a late night talk show, complaining about how he can't find any great screenplays. The host smiled and replied, "You shouldn't have said that. Now everyone is going to try to get their scripts to you!" The director chuckled and said, "Good luck! I'm not very accessible, and scripts that come in just sit forever in a stack". The host, confused by the seeming contradiction, asked him how he expects to see the good scripts.

With a gleam in his eye, the director replied, "Anyone with the phenomenal talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to come up with a world class screenplay also has the talent, resourcefulness, and creativity to get it to me."

I understood immediately, and sent forward a postcard reminding myself to never, ever enter through front doors.

Read the next installment

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Maybe Dennis Rodman's Right

Basketball star Dennis Rodham, horse's ass that he is, just got back from North Korea, where he described Kim Jong Un as a "great leader", and declared him a friend for life. "I love him, he is an awesome guy," Rodham said, while the rest of us spat up a little.

But I'm coming around to a different way of looking at this, based on some personal experience of my own.

A pompous loud-mouthed fellow showed up fairly early on in Chowhound. He posted compulsively, chiming in on every topic, whether he had actual knowledge to contribute or not. He peed his opinion on any available fire hydrant, and attacked anyone who dared to disagree with him. He had a complicated relationship with me, alternately kissing up and antagonizing for attention. I wrote about him once:
I'll never forget the time one of the most piqued of the lot, a man I'd never met, sent me a profanity-laced email expressing in most damning terms what a "self-absorbed holier than thou sociopath" I am. He concluded with an earnest invitation to come to dinner with him and his wife the next weekend (he also once guessed my instant message screen name and popped up to say a chipper "Hi!"). It wasn't the first such invitation I've gotten over the years.
Increasingly unwelcome on Chowhound, he eventually stomped off to open his own food site, using his throne there to maintain a stream of invective against me, while sending me periodic emails offering to host Chowhound, and once even tried to break into our server - from his client's account, yet - to demonstrate that I needed someone like him as a security consultant (note to his lawyer: I kept the logs. By all means, please sue).

At one point, I commented to one of our staff that if I were ever to finally answer one of his emails, have dinner with him, and generally buddy up, his cottage industry of Jim hatred would immediately vanish. Tame as a puppy, he'd never give us another problem. Approval's all he ever sought in the first place (again, no one loves you like a hater does).

I chose not to go that route, because I needed him operating that other site, drawing away our lowest value users (the troublesome hotheads and shameless self-promoters) and absorbing excess traffic we couldn't technically accommodate.

But what if we actually did this with Kim Jong Un? What if we told him that we liked him, we really liked him? What if Obama flew over there, all smiles, and made like Nixon in China (was Mao any more worthy)? What if we fed his starving masses and treated him with the dignity he so scantly deserves, sending officials to respectfully observe his parades and to sip cognac with him late into the night? If we swapped arbitrary friendship for arbitrary enmity, perhaps this regime, no longer backed into a corner, might develop exportables other than nukes, and ease its way back from the paranoid brinkmanship we've stoked for a half-century.

Yes, his regime's despicable. But lord knows he wouldn't be the first murderous madman we'd cozied up to. And I'd prefer to see us stabilize the world rather than indulge our moral revulsion by cornering a nuclear rat.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Software Environments are the New Operating Systems

To fully take advantage of computers these days - especially the cloud-enhanced coordination of computers, tablets, and smart phones - you need to choose a software "environment". Many of us have done just that, and "live" in Evernote, or in Omnifocus, or DEVONthink Pro, Yojimbo, or Facebook (which is, under the hood, just another software). I myself "live" in The Hit List, a Mac to-do program.

All these software "environments" are fabulously open-ended. You can store vast amounts and types of data there, organize everything in myriad ways, and generally immerse to the point where you really do "live" there.

But you have to choose, because these environments aren't built to interact with each other. Developers want you hunkered down so completely that you'll never want to leave. So living in multiple software environments is like owning multiple houses; you'll face the endless frustration of discovering that a given book, cereal box, or sweater isn't close at hand.

Meanwhile, operating systems have become so meta that they hardly feel like environments at all. They've become transparent. So, in a sense, softwares like Evernote have assumed the role of the traditional operating system, and OS X, Windows, and Linux are transparent architecture with which most users hardly interact. They've lost their sexiness.

For one thing, the OSes have finally matured. I'm hardly curious about Mac OS 11 at all, because OS X does all I need. I wouldn't have said that in 1988, 1998, or 2008, but we're finally there. In fact, I really don't want new features on the OS level; they're distracting, a chore to learn, and often break my carefully polished work flow.

Really, major OS updates have mostly become burdens. They cost, they make us upgrade software (and, often, peripherals), and rarely give back much to compensate for those sacrifices. I'm more focused on the evolution of software environments; I have hardly any interest in - or patience for - OS updates anymore.

One hallmark of software environments is interoperability. They work on most devices. So the lines dividing computer users are starting to be drawn less on the basis of chips and hardware, and more on software environments, which will continue to grow ever larger and more OS-like.

Already these environments offer spin-off apps for specific purposes (e.g. "Evernote Food"), and this completes the cycle. Software has become OS, and widgets, spin-offs and applets have become applications. Really, the transformation is nearly complete, though few seem to have noticed.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Belgian Beer and American Jazz

Another golden oldie article has been added to the "Selected Writings" section of my web site. Belgian Beer and American Jazz compares European attitudes toward the latter with American attitudes toward the former. It's short.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 7: Competition

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

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

When I was 17 years old, I auditioned for the Eastman School of Music. I was told that of a hundred trombonists auditioning, only three would be selected. Hearing that completely psyched me out. I did not play well.

I wound up attending the University of Rochester, with which Eastman is associated. And I took a bunch of classes, and played in ensembles, at Eastman, so I had a chance to hear those three kids. And I was absolutely shocked to find that they weren't all that good!

I pondered it, and decided that, of the 100 kids, something like 70 must have been cloddishly untalented, 25 were good-not-great, and 5 were very good, like me, but had been psyched out. So the three best of the "good-not-great" pack won (clunk!). My conclusion (and the postcard) was: just because there's heavy competition doesn't mean winning is necessarily difficult.

Eventually, I realized that all competition is a self-defeating illusion. Just 1. be the best, and 2. do your best...and let the chips fall. If you're not the best, you ought to be way less concerned with competing, and way more concerned with getting better!

See also this.

Read the next installment

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