Sunday, June 30, 2013

Spain Has No Paella Problem

An article about "Spain's paella problem" was published last year, and it drew some attention in spite of being quite wrong-headed. It's not my job to police food writing, but I have a particular love for Spain in general and for paella in particular - plus an aversion to food writers who feign expertise while getting stuff completely wrong. So I posted a comment politely debunking the article. I see my comment's no longer present there, so I'll throw it up here.
“The fact that the Spaniards have a word that means “the crispy bits of rice that caramelize and cling to the bottom of the pan” is evidence of how seriously they take their rice.”

Puerto Ricans call it pegao. Ghanaians call it kanzo. Iraqis call it hkaka. Ecuadorians call it concolon. Filipinos call it tutong. Koreans call it Nurungji. Dominicans call it conc√≥n. Cubans call it La Raspa. Chinese call it guoba. I could go on. Most cultures that eat rice name this stuff. If you eat something, you’re serious about it, period. The Spaniards are no more serious about it than anyone else.

So you need to watch your generalizations. In fact, the basis for this article is an incorrect generalization. Paella isn’t going downhill in Spain.

First, it was ALWAYS lousy outside the Valencia area. It’s not really a Spanish dish. Sort of like jambalaya, which one might classify as American but is a bad order outside Louisiana.

Second, even in the Valencian area, paealla has NEVER been a restaurant dish. There’ve always been restaurants making it, but they’re touristic and inferior. Well, varyingly inferior. Sometimes you can find a place making a kinda decent version (Levante sounds pretty good), and they always talk a good game, and can win over tourists because even merely decent paella is pretty wonderful. That’s what you were lucky enough to stumble into in Barcelona and Alicante. Pretty wonderful paella, but not the real deal.

The real deal has always been made outdoors on weekends in the country cabins of urban Valencians, in the mountains or near the beach. Or it’s made, again outdoors, on-the-fly at picnics. That’s where paella’s always been best, and continues on magnificently preserved by hordes of proud traditionalists.

So there’s no “problem” with paella, at all. And until you’ve tried exactly that sort of paella, in that setting (it never translates completely to restaurants, regardless of your Levante guy’s marketing efforts), most Valencians I know would say you’ve never had real paella. I offer this not as a withering rebuke, but as an enticing invitation. Keep eating! I’d suggest you try to make friends with Valencians during the week. Just convey your love and fascination for paella, and there’s nothing you could do to AVOID an invitation for a country house paella that weekend. And you may be illuminated by what you taste!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sweet Deal on the Best Portable Vacuum

If my posting about got you addicted to that site, you may have been tempted by their raved-over portable vacuum, Black & Decker's 20V MAX Lithium Flex Vac BDH2000FL.

The problem is its price: a stratospheric $150. I despise my aging Dustbuster as much as the next guy, but that's just way too much dough.

But Best buy has it on sale right now for $117, with free shipping (for that matter, Amazon's dropped the price to $139, though lacks the ability to track price shifts).

You can't, alas, wall mount this thing (at least not in a way that allows charging), but I'm figuring I can leave it charging on a low bookshelf shelf or something....

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate Bar

I don't know how I turned into such a chocolate snob so quickly, but it's easy to do. This is a realm where 95% of options are crap, yet greatness is findable with effort. It is, in other words, a classic Leff Trap.

I've been preparing a magnum opus dumping everything I've learned about chocolate, and where to find the good stuff, but the specifics keep changing. So this is just a short preamble plus tip.

None of the chocolate at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods has ever been worth a damn. Same for most fancy gourmet markets. Fairway has a couple of good things (Cafe Tasse 77% Extra Noir and the fat little fruit/nut bars near the cash register which are Fairway branded but actually made by Lake Champlain), but nothing else of interest in branded chocolate (their bulk chocolate's a different thing, but also a long story...which I'll get to eventually).

As with so many things, once you've deeply dived in, none of the choices you've heard of remain within the pale. The good stuff's devastating, not super expensive, and will spoil you to the point where you can't touch Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Callebaut, et al.

But there is one exception: "The Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate Bar" from Trader Joe's, 85%, is very nearly as good as my fancy stuff. It's only barely sweet, and I understand if you believe you don't like that sort of thing (I myself once prefered milk chocolate), but the fact is that super dark/bitter chocolate that's really great is really great (the aesthete's tautology). And this one's nearly really great, with all the subtle-yet-lavish complexity you find in single origin chocolate. The only problem is the bars are way too thin. Great chocolate requires in-mouth time to yield its flavor, and if the stuff has melted and drizzled down your throat before it fully develops, you're missing the full show.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Comparative Fairfield County Whole Belly Clam Survey

I just posted the results of my Comparative Fairfield County Whole Belly Clam Survey (with digressions about the nature of funk and the roots of soul food) to Chowhound.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hanauer Economics

I don't agree with the right's feigned perspective that enriching "job creators" (i.e. the wealthy) is the route to a healthy economy.

And I don't agree with the right's actual goal of shielding the rich from paying taxes, regardless of societal cost.

And I don't agree with the left's perspective that government's the best vehicle for providing charity for the poor.

I'm with Nick Hanauer, a billionaire who's been pushing the notion that extreme income inequality is bad for everyone, not just the poor. He sees it not as a moral issue, but as an economic one. The middle and lower classes are the engine of any economy, so impoverishing them to massively enrich the upper classes will inevitably lead to catastrophe for the entire economy.

This perspective's neither liberal nor conservative. It's simply rational.

Here's Hanauer's wonderfully stated, highly persuasive TED talk from last year (a very worthwhile 6 minutes):

...and here's his latest, a proposal for a $15/hour minimum wage. Not out of a paternalistic leftie urge to boost working people's standard of living, but out of a wise economic desire to stoke economic fire by ensuring that the bottom of the pyramid has sufficient buying power to keep the economy rolling.
The fundamental law of capitalism is that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers. That’s why the extreme, and widening, wealth gap in our economy presents not just a moral challenge, but an economic one, too. In a capitalist system, rising inequality creates a death spiral of falling demand that ultimately takes everyone down.
Credit to Andrew Tobias for the link - and the excerpting.

Some of the billionaires pushing the policies (e.g. tax cuts for "job creators") leading to extreme income inequality are simply short-sighted, but not all of them. There's been a push by the extreme right over the past half century toward internationalism, where companies draw demand (as well as cheap labor) from the developing world. It's a business-centered view of economics where demand's treated as a resource to be squeezed in an effort to draw all money to the top. This explains some of the blithe disregard for the health of the American economy.

The mindset stems from a predatory, long-term nonviable, and monstrously distorted view of free market capitalism, which is supposed to result in a happy, stable equilibrium; symbiosis between buyers and sellers rather than unbridled parasitism by the latter.

We've reached a level of distorted economic view where even that term, "symbiosis", would offend many conservatives. Up is down, down is up. The Christian Right is intolerant and unloving, and free market economists view consumers as disposable fodder for scorched-earth business domination.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Miracles, Paste Wax, and Eccentricity

My friend John is a high-end car detailer. Yesterday he agreed to work on mine, though it has to be the cheapest, shabbiest vehicle he's ever washed. After several hours of esoteric and highly original maneuverings, the car looked as nice as the day I bought it. Nicer, in fact. He actually improved on its actual design. Its lines suddenly made complete sense, in a way they don't even in the company's own brochures. My vehicle looked so regal - not just in its shiny cleanness, but in its actual styling - that I was almost embarrassed to drive it home.

"It's impossible," you understandably reply. Washing a car, after all, cannot change its fundamental design. There's only so much a good wash and wax can accomplish! Well, my rational mind agrees completely. But I've seen this before. There is a level of care and ingenuity where miracles happen - though few appreciate them (the Bible's got it all wrong; miracles aren't big flashy affairs, they are subtle and easily overlooked). Wherever mere greatness is possible, there's always "a whole higher level" waiting to be mined in the asymptotic real estate atop the curve of declining results.

Argue all you'd like, but this is a tenet of my religion. As I explained here, the secret involves a wanton lavishing of embarrassingly earnest qualities such as love, attention, intention, and commitment.

John's an original thinker, and he says people often call him eccentric. I told him how much that word offends me. "Eccentric" means "odd and wrong". "Eccentric" people build perpetual motion machines, or believe they've found a way to communicate with the dead. They're absorbed in cranky, flaky quests which will never amount to much, but at least they're entertaining. It's a term of condescension; this is how we condescend to non-conformists. But is that an appropriate way to describe bona fide miracle workers?

We need a word for "odd and right", for those who march to different drummers with truly great results. I'm thinking "splendcentric". Or, come to think of it, how about "creative"?

Monday, June 17, 2013

You Do Not Have a Gluten Allergy

I understand that you often feel like crap, and that while being human often means feeling like crap, a sense of entitlement leaves you convinced that you deserve better.

And I understand that a certain segment of the population has always badgered doctors into coming up with a label to pin on their crap-feeling...and that "nervous exhaustion", "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome", "Epstein Barr", and the rest of that long line of pseudo syndromes (which only seem to afflict narcissists) are, at this point, hideously unstylish.

And I also understand that any placebo's as good as another in addressing feelings of indeterminate malaise, and that placebos aren't fake - they truly do make a difference (including negative placebos of renunciation).

Finally, I realize that naming the source of your malaise feels so empowering that you fail to register how crappy you actually mostly still feel, just 'cuz you're doing something about it.

But let's get something straight: unless you're one of the 0.02% of the population with Coeliac disease, you do not have a gluten problem. So eat your breadsticks and just shut the hell up, ok?

Thank you.

PS - if you're certain it's a legitimate medical problem rather than purely psychological, then why are you furious at me? Even climate change deniers don't receive half the rage directed at gluten allergy deniers. Anti-Darwinists are rarely screamed at, so why would my smug ignorance particularly infuriate you unless your gluten fixation was about way more than just your digestive particulars?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Knee-Jerk Outrage

Here's a heart-warming viral video. Jonathan Allen was kicked out of his parents' lives on his 18th birthday for being gay, then went on America's Got Talent, knocked 'em dead, and was told by host Howie Mandel that he's a "good person" who is now part of a TV family.

It's really quite affecting. Have a look:

...or read the Huffington Post article.

Why do we respond so strongly? Because this is the sort of thing that drills straight down into our psyches, resonating with our inner symbology, our hopes and fears, much as fairy tales do. We don't need to hear more specifics, because we feel we know what this is about. We know who the white-hat good guy is and who the black-hat bad guys are.

But do we? America's swooning over Jonathan and seething over his parents. One typical diatribe reads, in part, "You [Allen's parents] are indeed the worst parents in the world who raised the best kid in the world." But check out this comment posted just below that same piece:
Too bad most everything he said is a lie. Too bad not one word was said about how he stole from his parents, stole his dad's truck and wallet and took a minor for three days until cops found him, or all the money his parents put into all singing classes, or the fact that he chose to leave, not forced to. But we fail to ever hear both sides of any story.
Yes, it's an anonymous comment, and it may well be untrue. But after spending the better part of a decade sussing out devious, dishonest online postings, my Spidey sense is second to none. And this comment rings true to me.

There are matters deserving our outrage. But so few Americans give a crap about bona-fide points of outrage (no bankers in jail, global warming, Panera's baked goods) that on those occasions when outrage arises, it's nearly always trumped-up and manipulated. And I recoil from manipulation, so I'm extremely leery about outraged crowds.

Same thing for the Trayvon Martin shooting - another case of deep symbology drilling down into our psyches. We immediately felt as though we understood that situation: obviously, an asshole white vigilante got trigger happy all over an innocent kid who just happened to be black. And that one, too, played out in an environment where bona-fide bad things do occur. Just as there's nasty homophobia in Jonathan Allen's native Tennessee, Florida's repugnant "Stand Your Ground" law is a perfect shield for perpetrating racist shootings. In both cases, the actual points of fact don't seem to matter, because we hearken to a larger, more overarching point (Tawana Brawley, anyone?). Even if it's not something that was done, it's something that would be done, and that's quite enough.

But Jonathan Allen's parents may be lovely people, and George Zimmerman might have been desperately defending himself. Why do we, time and time again, fall, emotionally, for fairy-tale simple media stories when we know that life's actually complicated?

If Zimmerman's a trigger-happy vigilante, he deserves jail time. If Jonathan Allen's parents disowned a nice kid just for being gay, they deserve our scorn. In any case, "Stand Your Ground" and homophobia must be reversed. But I've stopped drinking the Kool-Aid. I don't sign on to knee-jerk outrage anymore. I've been fooled too many times.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Playing With My Toy Cars

Am I allowed to link a funny video just a couple times per year (I think this was the last one)?

In case you don't know. Vine is the hip video sharing site right now. All the videos loop, and users outdo each other thinking of clever new things to do. Like this:


In the past three days, I've gone from supermarket to supermarket searching out an obscure variety of toilet paper, I've run to cookware stores in search of a certain frying pan, and ordered wiper blades and a slew of other items from Amazon. I'm actually going to return the frying pan because once I settled down and my eyes cleared I realized I don't even really need it. I've gone completely out of my mind in a consumerist frenzy.

Such is the power of the terrifyingly sticky web site The Sweethome, which reviews household goods. It's hardly an unusual proposition, but these guys have hit upon the perfect formula, by:

Reviewing a catchy assortment of products not already reviewed to death
I don't need more opinions on Roomba, Game of Thrones, or Toyota Camry. But motor oil, ice cube trays, and LED bulbs? You bet!

Providing a meta synopsis of the usual web dross reviews
I can (and do) spend two hours surfing and weighing web and other reviews before buying stuff, but Sweethome does this for me - and, importantly, seems to do a thoughtful, thorough job of it.

Striking the right tone of smart, level-headed reviewing
There's a temperate, methodical approach here, and the reviews go fairly broad into the constellation of options. What's more, there's a good balance of science and subjective opinion. Consumer Reports is too left-brained, and most web reviews are too right-brained. This one's a "just-right".

Relieving consumer frustration
There's so much hyper-shitty Chinese merchandise on the markets to cut through that it's easy to feel a sense of hopelessness as one shops for household staples. Remember those stainless steel steamer baskets that last forever? You can't buy a decent one anymore.

I actually hate to send you there at this moment, because their featured review, "The Best Sponge", is the only bad one I've seen. Scotch Brites are too soft on one side, too abrasive on the other, and they clog up and fall apart (all over your dishes and pots) in no time. I've found perfection using a Dobie Pad for most tasks, and a copper Chore Boy for killer ones. Of course one of the innate problems with these sorts of reviews is that when your task is to review X, you're necessarily tunnel-visioned from offering solutions of X + Y. That's what leads to anointing tepid compromises such as Scotch Brites.

I can remember my excitement when I first came across Consumer Reports as a teenager, and Sweethome feels a lot like that. Only this incorporates the chaotic Web Hive Mind, while reflecting the judgement of a smart person who's put the time into doing exactly the research I myself would opposed to a panel of CR geeks performing weirdly arcane tests. If you followed CR advice over the years, you'd have made out pretty poorly. But most of the tips on Sweethome seem canny. Except those sponges.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Remembering Professor Sharpless

I'm a big fan of the "Astronomy Picture of the Day" site (and the forum where each photo's discussed - accessible via the "discuss" link beneath each picture). Today's picture contained the latest references to astronomy legend Stewart Sharpless (who created the renowned Sharpless Catalog of emission nebulae), and this time I finally got around to writing a remembrance...because I actually knew Professor Sharpless.

I posted it here, but I'll reprint it below.
I attended U of Rochester in the early 1980's, and while I had a life-long interest in astronomy, I was dismayed to discover that serious astrophysics courses required hardcore math skills I lacked. So I studied other topics, including, in my senior year, "The Physics of Music", taught by Professor Sharpless, who had a lifelong love of music and considered this seminar (which was very hands-on with equipment like acoustic spectrum analyzers) his labor of love. He was an incredibly kind-hearted, down-to-earth, personable fellow, and if there was an Internet back then, I'd have have quickly looked him up and found out who he actually was. But this was Rochester, not, like, Yale, so one didn't expect one's professors to be celebs.

So I never found out, but really enjoyed my time with him. There was something personal and heartfelt about that class that was far from the norm. I couldn't attribute it to anything, being just a kid at the time, but I now understand it was the palpable patina of the oh-so-rare combination of stature and earnestness. Eminence without arrogance, pomposity, condescension or cynicism. Prof Sharpless obviously retained his child-like earnest eagerness about science, and he treated everyone like a colleague. He was a low-gravitas individual (LGI?).

I went on to degrees in things like philosophy, music, and politics, but never lost interest in astronomy, though I still lack math skills to this day. I'm a faithful APOD viewer, where every reference to Prof. Sharpless and his famous catalog gives me a sad smile. It was great to be in his class, but, oh, man, how I wish I'd milked more astronomy stories from him, lobbied for an invitation to the observatory, etc (he mentioned something about taking the class there some Saturday, but it never came together). I just didn't realize who he was - though, on a deeper level, "who he was" did quietly inspire me.

Friday, June 7, 2013


My religion - which doesn't have a name - revolves around a single article of faith: that human greatness is nearly always overlooked, and by searching it out and appreciating it we help humanity flourish. When this circle's completed, hell is transformed into heaven. Admiring and supporting unheralded greatness is what the universe wants us to do. The angels swoon when we discover their hidden treasure - their fiendishly clever and luminously beautiful Easter eggs.

In my religion, blithely settling - floating with the tide of conventional wisdom - is a sin. Failure to herald unheralded brilliance is the root of all evil.

In my religion, your plumber might be a Da Vinci-level genius (mine actually is; more on that another time). An obscure, empty little pizzeria may be a gastronomic point of light. And a modest little post found randomly on the Internet can shimmer with radiant wisdom.

The paragraph below, which I stumbled across last month, reads like a lot of spiritual stuff you may have read, just as Di Fara Pizzeria makes what superficially looks like the sort of pizza you've had elsewhere. Can you recognize the depths, even if you don't understand all the concepts? And, just generally, as you live your life, is your appreciation honed to recognize greatness even when those around you remain oblivious? Can you accept being deemed hyperbolic when you're simply giving greatness its due? And, most of all, can you do these things earnestly, without arrogantly basking in your own discernment***?

From an otherwise not terribly interesting Internet discussion on Buddhism [the comment is no longer visible on that page]:
Duality Is embedded into brains, taught and retaught. Quiet the concept and see that suffering is also only embedded into brains. telling heart how to feel.. Hush your thoughts to control emotional reaction to such ideas and allow feelings of love for the potentials of all, as well as the experiencing of here and now. Heart is unfolding. Focus with this. You are Not an endpoint, nor were you the beginning. only the continuation of seeing-knowing, leading mind to reward for discipline in acknowledging, pursuing only what truly resonates with heart. Finding peace in the quiet of acceptance of the moment

*** - ...recognizing that others needn't share your particular assessments, just so long as they're earnestly applying their own unique capacities for appreciation?

Nano-Aesthetics is a core tenet of Apprecianity.

Depression Resuscitation Kit

I have a friend whose circumstances are, to all outward appearances, not very encouraging. Understandably, he's fallen into a deep depression. I just sent him the following. You may want to save it to read if you're ever severely depressed (or to forward to friends):

I've known severe depression. But there's one thing I've come to notice, which you may have noticed, too: Depression is what happens when you think about it; when you obsessively tell yourself sad stories about what's happening.

In terms of reality - what's actually happening at any given moment - there's only one thing to say: "Here I am!" Just like always, right here with your eyes blinking and shining, taking it all in. That "here I am" feeling has existed for as long as you can remember. It's never varied. Everything else changes around that.

Sometimes events spur you to tell yourself happy stories, and sometimes they spur you to tell yourself sad ones. But there you are, either way. Same you. Same aliveness. Same "here I am", regardless of the story.

Nothing really changes but the stories you tell yourself about what's happening. But the stories aren't you. You, at your heart, are constant. You're awareness, softly humming. Feel the hum! It's been there for your entire life; the same hum as when you were five years old. That's what's real. The stories are arbitrary. They're a caprice. Any life circumstance can be interpreted a thousand different ways, as you know. Go ahead and choose whichever interpretation you'd like; that's your prerogative. Sad's fine! Just don't forget you're the storyteller, not the story.

Further reading:
A Unique Perspective on Depression
A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide
The Evolution of a Perspective
Framing as Hilarious or as Catastrophe
Previous writings on depression

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Intelligence, Wisdom, Creativity

Intelligence is the capacity to tolerate complexity.

Wisdom is the capacity to tolerate paradox.

Creativity is the ability to generate and wisely choose among a complex set of options.

Stupidity is the reduction of complexity into ill-fitting simplicity.

Stupidity feels like creativity, because a choice is been made. That's why many stupidity-inclined people are drawn to creative pursuits; careless reductionism comes naturally to them. There are relatively few awful plumbers or school principals, compared to the hordes of terrible guitarists and graphic designers. True creativity is rare.

For more definitions, see all postings labeled "definitions" here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Busted For Being Under the Legal Limit

A friend was caught driving under the legal limit of alcohol. But since there was some alcohol in his system, he's forced to pay $10,000 in penalties and legal fees and lose his license for three months (and go through hell to get it back).

That wasn't a typo. It's true: he was found driving under the legal limit! Here's what he told me:
If pulled over with any alcohol in your system, you are screwed in New York state. According to the judge, almost every patron at a bar or restaurant could be arrested under these laws...DMV has mandated courses I have to take to get my license back and I have to pay a penalty assessment fee of $250 a year for the next three years to DMV. There are fines and fees hidden everywhere with this. One drink could do all this to someone...
I see two factors at play here:

1. No politician ever got elected advocating on a platform of easing DWI penalties (this also explains why our jails are full of harmless, mellow pot smokers).

2. MADD sounds like a great organization. Who could possibly object to moms fighting drunk driving? Well, the problem is that's no longer what they are. The group has evolved into a neo-prohibitionist movement - against drinking rather than against drunk driving.

How did that happen? Consider the NRA, which, to justify its existence and maintain funding streams, must keep looking for fights to wage even though they've already won every issue of concern. That's why the NRA keeps getting kookier and more puzzlingly bombastic over time. To survive, they must aim for infinity. MADD is another big money operation with no choice but to endlessly pound away at an issue that's been well under control for years now.

Of course I'm not suggesting that every driver's sober. But the behavior's been as stigmatized and penalized as anyone might reasonably wish there's nothing left to do but penalize in ways no one would wish for.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Wine Corollary to Leff's Sixth Law

Leff's Sixth Law says: "If you're analyzing what you're eating, that means you're not eating something truly great."

Here's a corollary. At wine tastings, don't listen to what people say or read what they write. Disregard how they themselves rate and rank the wines. Tune all that out, and pay attention only to two things:

1. How much they write about each wine
Great wines provoke shorter, less analytical descriptions.

2. How much wine they've left in each glass
The empty glasses are the wines you want to know about.

Here are all Leff's Laws

Leff's Sixth Law

If you're analyzing what you're eating, that means you're not eating something truly great.

I once mapped out a surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating food on a scale of one to ten. At "9", I wrote, "rational thought breaks down. You don't analyze, you just want to keep enjoying, blocking out all distraction."

As you ascend the heady realm between "9" and "10", it becomes logarithmically more difficult to analyze, describe, and discuss what you're experiencing. In fact, the very best thing I've ever eaten (which I rated an "11") left me completely catatonic and blanked out.

The same applies, of course, to any aesthetic experience.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

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