Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Higher Perspective of Moderation

I used to think Conservatives were hysterical in smelling Communism within any statement the least bit liberal, and when Liberals smelled Fascism in any statement the least bit conservative. Having started off as a Libertarian, I settled into my newfound moderation by turning a jaundiced eye toward either knee-jerk reaction. Things are never as extreme as extremists think!

But having lived long enough to watch cycles repeat a few times - to compile a deeper data set - I've reversed course. I now smell what they smell. Both sides!

When Liberals dictate, with infinite arrogance, the latest words we're no longer allowed to use, or the latest trendy viewpoints all well-meaning persons must immediately adopt (or be intolerantly shunned for one's lack of tolerance!), I do catch a whiff of Soviet/Maoist lockstep. And when Conservatives vent their whacko paranoia and xenophobic jingoism, I do smell the jackboots.

It turns out both are right. As are the Taoists, who observe that extremes bleed into each other. The Stasi and the Gestapo may have talked very different talks, but they had more in common than not. In the end, it's less about one's particular dogma and more about one's penchant for assholery. The true conflict, in other words, lies between humanity's better, loving nature versus our crueler, more divisive impulses (and our cursed tendency to mistake one for the other).

Most human conflicts can be viewed within that light. As I once wrote:
Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy. We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.
From the highest perspective, one finds true moderation. But the case for "high-mindedness" is a sticky-wicket, because even the noblest credos can become monsters. Look at what liberals have done with a swell credo like "tolerance" - wielding it into its very opposite - and what conservatives have done with such lovely credos as "individualism" and "morality".

So what can be done with a species that makes cudgels of its highest principles? The best suggestion to date may be the Christian injunction to hate the sin but love the sinner. High-mindedness may degrade into monstrousness, but that also means the darkest and most inhuman results may stem, however murkily, from virtuous human impulses. To see this requires a loftier perspective than is fashionable, but if we can try to keep our eye there, there's hope for us.

In fact, my quoting of Christianity is, itself, an example of such perspective. Given the centuries of unimaginable cruelty my ancestors withstood in the name of Christian doctrine (supposedly all about the love, baby!), I, as a Jew, have to look past quite a bit to arrive at the beautiful kernel underpinning those many cudgels. I can't say this higher perspective makes the cruelty any more attractive, but it does help pinpoint the true culprit - so we can react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bundy's Racism is Completely Beside the Point

The fact that Cliven Bundy is a racist, doofy ass does not invalidate his position with regard to the bureau of land management.

What invalidates his position is the complete illogic and fecklessness of his argument. Bundy exemplifies the contradiction of American Libertarianism, which is that our staunchest libertarians have always been the western ranchers, ala Bundy, who are, themselves, vigorously unrepentant welfare queens (just one example: the grazing fees Bundy refuses to pay are hugely subsidized by the federal government; they're priced far, far below market value). Their issue with the country isn't that people are on the dole. It's that the wrong people are getting a piece of that dole.

They say wisdom's the ability to tolerate paradox. If so, Bundy's a Buddha. There's also his claim of being an American patriot - and waving flags everywhere - while denying the existence of the United States. That's some profound non-linearity, but the best counterargument the Left can muster has been to scream "Racist!".

The Left, which has seen pretty much every worthy movement degraded by the participation of goofballs, flakes, and extremists of their own base, should know better. In fact, they do know better! But it's easier to scream "Racist!" than it is to dismantle a faulty argument (just as it's easier for a conservative to rail against those damned hippie liberals than to grapple with their arguments). If you're a racist (or a damned hippie liberal), everything you say or do is without value or basis. It's a word one can utter to refute not merely an argument but a person's right to make any argument at all (it's all about tolerance!).

Jon Stewart, alone, did a pretty good job with Bundy's argument on its merits (see below). He's an idol for the Left because he's the only one apparently able to parse and express anything in a coherent and persuasive manner. But even he missed the central paradox of the patriotic flag-waving brio of Bundy and his posse as they deny the existence of a United States of America.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Russians in Ukraine, etc

The Economist has an article on Putin's latest in Ukraine, which includes this:

"Russian agents have turned up in custody and in reporters’ notebooks, organising the protests and, some say, paying for them. Russia has been meddling in eastern Ukraine for weeks, occasionally with results from the pages of Gogol. On April 6th “local people” stormed what they thought was the regional administrative headquarters in Kharkiv only to find that they had taken control of the opera house."

Russia is - and has long been - a prototypical example of a strong drunk

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Uncommon Terseness

A Slog reader who prefers to remain anonymous was kind enough to share her favorite pull-quotes from past postings. I honestly can't recall writing more than half of these (I remember more clearly the labored overlong ones!):

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

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. (link)

We over-emphasize first-movers, crediting them with creating waves when, truly, they're just surfing them like everyone else. Causality has nothing to do with it. The first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop. (link)

I wouldn't want to return to 1973. We went too far. You could feel society slogging and smell the rot (and pay a tax rate north of 90%). 1973 could have made a Tea Party partisan out of any but the most fervid of current liberals. (link)

When people are determined to misunderstand, misunderstanding's unavoidable. Per Maslow's hammer, if all you have is snark, everyone looks like an asshole. (link)

Billions of people yearn for greatness. Millions of people do things they hope will make them great. Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them. (link)

Richard Scarry was right: it takes all kinds, and by contributing our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole (which liberals romanticize as cooperation and which conservatives theorize as competition - a false dichotomy that was the "original sin" of political theory). (link)

The opposite of being a discriminated-against minority isn't becoming an empowered minority, it's pluralism. Boring old pluralism. The reason gay rights have transformed with such miraculous speed is that this is exactly the tack they took. "We just want to love who we love, like any American." Not 'a gay thing', just an American thing. The message was delivered by boring, well-dressed, reasonable people, not dudes defiantly flaunting their nipple clamps. (link)

Why on earth would I want a female presidency, or a Jewish presidency? Administrations aren't like novelty flavors of KitKat bars. I don't want some glorious rainbow, I want smart governance. (link)

I've never met anyone who's consistently lived with integrity and who regrets it. (link)

The miracle of human beings is that we're finite - i.e. limited - in every respect, yet we're capable of infinite love, infinite creativity, infinite joy, and infinite wisdom within those limitations. (link)

The really good stuff arrives via epiphany, eureka, and inspiration - "out of nowhere" and hard to claim credit for. (link)

I never understood how anyone could experience transcendent greatness and not want to devote their lives to it. (link)

If you love transcendence, you've got to cherish the obstacles which spur it; the necessity which mothers the invention. (link)

Anxiety is the bain of deep-carers. (link)

The care, the love, the discipline and thoughtfulness we invest in our most prosaic actions changes absolutely everything. That's how the future is perpetually created. (link)

If you simply sweat the small stuff, sans self-consciousness or aspiration (just "because!"), angels will sing. (link)

While the present day feels like a new corporate era - one where a CFO might play bass in a punk band and vote Democrat, and the encubicled set deems themselves cool and creative - make no mistake about it: corporate attitude remains 1956ishly square. Deep-down, these guys are all still crewcuts-and-tie-clips. (link)

Just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem! (link)

Quality oughtn't be a side effect. (link)

You have no idea how disorienting it is to spend your life plying an art form that's so extraordinarily marginalized - even ridiculed - when that same art form is the unanimous commercial choice for setting a tone of hip urbanity. (link)

Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy. (link)

As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?"(link)

If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all injustice appears to stem from that. (link)

I no longer plug mishaps into my narrative of woe. And without that, it's all just stuff happening. (link)

Qualities such as kindness, intelligence, generosity, and a sense of humor are of service to others. Beauty, by contrast, serves only its possessor. (link)

I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot. By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior. They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots. (link)

Nationalism is always a noble-seeming mask for xenophobia. Show me someone who loves "Us", and I'll show you someone who hates "Them". (link)

History always unfolds via a succession of immoderately reactive pendulum swings. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism? (link and another)

Scientists say it's very difficult to learn new skills after one's mid-twenties. I think they're slicing that wrong. What happens is that it becomes very difficult to imagine (and to tolerate) change as one's self-image solidifies. And learning is change. (link)

America is so rich that we mistake mere discomfort for bona fide poverty. (link)

Anyone in the first world yearning to get rich is really just dreaming of getting richer. (link)

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

Hell is a place human beings voluntarily condemn themselves to. (link)

The real secret is not to learn to get what you want. It's to learn to want what you get. link

Two Random Thoughts

1. "Righteous anger" is an oxymoron.

2. Am I only the person in the world who thinks the "before" photo always looks better?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Butter's Okay Again....etc, etc.

"How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy" is a fine article by Tom Philpott, a chef and organic farmer who I've eaten with and know to be smart, and who writes thoughtfully on food issues in Mother Jones (check out his take on GMOs). "Mark Bittman," Philpott writes, "argues that the real demon is processed foods. Here's why he's right."

One problem is that the term "processed foods" is like "wealthy" or "southern Italy"; it inevitably draws a line just beyond one's current position. To someone sanctimoniously buying organic frozen madras curry at Whole Foods, "processed food" means Cheetos. And so forth.

Don't get me wrong; I like both the frozen curry and the Cheetos. But they're not my staples. One's staples should be prepared (preferably with love) in one's home from scratch out of unsexy foodstuffs available prior to 1920. But very few people seem to do that anymore. And the blame for this shift is misplaced.

America's obsession with processed food is often construed as growing out of the 1950's/1960's culture of canned and frozen foods. But that's not it. In fact, canned and frozen foods in and of themselves are nutritionally sound....at least if they're simple ingredients (e.g. spinach or corn). The problem isn't technology or commerciality, it's the unholy industry built around the concoction of prepared foods on a mass basis. Such food is less healthful because, aside from the obvious shortcuts and compromises, the inevitable bland undeliciousness must be compensated for by larding on tons of saturated fats, salt, and sugar.

Think how unpalatable your leftovers are. Commercially-prepared foods are essentially someone else's leftovers! It's not magic that renders them appealing; it's just choices you yourself would never ever make with your own cooking.

There is, obviously, another realm where food is prepared outside the home: restaurants and take-out shops. But even though the cooking in these settings is less contrived, here, too, choices are made which don't make for righteous everyday consumption. The customer must be pleased, and the cheap/easy route to pleasure (saturated fats, salt, and sugar) is larded on. My conclusion after 40 years of careful and extremely wide-ranging eating is that the difference between fine dining and cheap eats - aside from ambiance, cutlery and other trappings - is that fine dining kitchens are more stealthily meticulous in erasing their tracks re: the application of saturated fats, salt, and sugar. It's in there, believe me. If it wasn't, you wouldn't imagine paying $75+ for your supper. It simply wouldn't taste worth it.

Healthful cooking isn't bland and deprivational, if it's done with care. But it's not grabby/zippy/wow. Home-style cooking offers an earthier, homelier sort of pleasure. And very few restaurants can take the time to create and nurture this deeper deliciousness. It just isn't their model - much as restaurant-style cooking was always a poor fit for the home-cooking model.

The big problem happened when modern home cooks started trying to recreate the restaurant experience. The cookbook rage of the late 1980s and 1990s (which metastasized into the Food Network obsession), encouraged home cooks to believe they could - and should - brew up restaurant-style meals. All of a sudden, we sauced, we smoked, we adorned, we deglazed. In transforming home cooking into restaurant-style cooking, we also ratcheted up the fat, salt, and sugar just like the pros we emulate (pro chefs, ironically, rarely cook like that at home). How many home cooks serve up pot roast and broccoli these days? The premium-restaurant-experience-at-home phenomenon requires choices an earlier generation of home cooks would abhor. But we're all more premium-minded these days.

Yet even this transformation wasn't the final coup de grace. The problem is that the trend fizzled a bit, we got busy, and began short-cutting with highly-processed alternatives. And since we've grown accustomed to the Great Premium Restaurant Taste, we started scarfing up pre-prepared versions of that stuff - someone else's leftovers - so jazzed up as to be deadly as everyday eating (even if that box of organic frozen madras curry comes festooned with Roget's every synonym for "natural").

Somehow, we lost our baseline. We've all come to crave sizzly zip all the time (I apologize for my part in that; it wasn't expedient to stop mid-blather to note that healthful foods and true home cooking offer their own sort of hyper-deliciousness when well-prepared, and that this sort ought to predominate).

Don't blame Green Giant. Blame star chefs. Blame me. For that matter, blame Bittman, who was right in the middle of all that (though, in classic pundit style, he's run ahead of the marching masses and yelled "follow me!").

The solution isn't to warn people away from "processed foods". That's a poorly-understood phrase with plenty of irrational associations. The solution is to get people to calm down enough to rediscover and appreciate the subtler, earthier pleasures of simpler cooking - true home cooking. Ingestion needn't always be sexy. If we can reestablish appreciation for steamed green beans and creamy lentil soup and sauceless crispily-broiled salmon and even the occasional entirely cheeseless meal, this problem will take care of itself.

If not, then the processed/unprocessed distinction is irrelevant, because our eating choices are more wired in to our aesthetic than to any nutritional precept. Indeed, the unintended results of reductionism (e.g. "fat is bad") have screwed up our national health more than mere ignorance ever could.

Even if butter turns out not to cause instant death, no one's suggesting we lard it on. But if there's one thing the public clearly doesn't grok, it's nuanced nutritional advice. So let's not throw open floodgates on that, and let's not declare war on "processed foods", either. Rathee, let's address aesthetics, and encourage everyone to appreciate simpler, earthier, more innocently grounded flavors, and relegate the zippier, grabbier, sexier kind of eating to special occasions. The public health can be improved by improving diet, but a diet can't be meaningfully improved without reconfiguring preference.

Don't Re-Use Passwords

Timely reposting:

At one point amid the blur of late-stage Chowhound.com, before we sold the thing to CNET, something fell apart and needed repair. When my business partner Bob explained the problem, I suggested we look at the user passwords in order to easily solve the problem. Bob immediately cut in, and sharply told me we couldn't look at the passwords....ever! I asked why not, since we controlled (and could see into) the areas the passwords protected, anyway.

He told me something which startled me: most people use the same password for everything. So if we looked at someone's password for Chowhound, we'd know their password for lots of other things, as well.


I abandoned the idea of ever so much as glancing at a password. [I can't for the life of me remember what this was all about; the site itself didn't require passwords to register, and our commerce site was third party, so viewing passwords was not an option. But I know it happened and I didn't just hallucinate it!]

I'm telling you this story to explain why you shouldn't use the same password for different purposes. Because at some point, some clerical worker somewhere will be able to see your password for the operation he works at, and he can google you, and then easily find his way into many aspects of your life with that same password.

Memorize your email password, and a few of the other critically important passwords. For the rest, use a password manager (I like 1Password, which also is a smartphone app).

Note that for non-critical sites (where you read but don't post or do transactions), this is much less less important. So you may want to have the same shared password for, say, knitting discussion sites and the NY Times site. Just don't buy anything or post anything from such sites without first changing to a unique password.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mike Judge's New Series: "Silicon Valley"

It bums me out, but I haven't been able to watch the HBO series Treme. The daily life of a jazz trombonist is way too close to home for me, so the show absolutely reeks of fakery. Even though it's the labor of love of one of my idols, David Simon (creator of The Wire), and even though I've heard he took pains to plunge deeply into the musician scene in order to portray it authentically, I can't watch for more than a few minutes without groaning. Everything's cringingly "off".

When the media portrays a milieu you know well, that's when you really notice the falseness. Same thing with journalism; if you're ever inside a news story, you'll inevitably be flabbergasted with how wrong they report stuff.

But I just caught the premier of Mike Judge's latest, Silicon Valley, a comedy about high-tech startups. In spite of a rave from TV critic/god Alan Sepinwall, I expected to dislike it, because this, too, seems too close to my wheelhouse.

But quite the contrary. In fact, this series may be the antithesis of Treme; viewers may find it overly broad and unrealistic, but I have the perspective to know how close to home it hits.

The first episode starts with an obnoxious young insta-zillionaire smugly announcing to his team:
"Yes, we're making a lot of money. And, yes, we're disrupting digital media. But most importantly [grave pause] we're making the world a better place....through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximal code reuse and extensibility. "
Nailed it.

Then there's the shady self-important parasite running an incubator (burning through funds earned from selling his water-fountain-locator app), hoping to leech 10% off any unlikely hits among his stable.

Within that stable is, among other things, a web site called "Nip Alert" which "gives you the location of a woman with erect nipples". And a would-be incubatee pitches his idea for BitSoup - canned soup with pasta shaped not like alphabets but like ones and zeroes.

Sad to say, this is all way less broad than general audiences might imagine. In fact, some parts may be more authentic than the producers themselves realize. The disoriented haplessness of the lead character, who finds himself suddenly and somewhat randomly caught in the machinations of powerful entities, is something readers of my Chowhound epic tale will find startlingly familiar.

I'm not suggesting this is any sort of hyper-realistic treatment. After all, it's satire. But, damn, it's satisfying!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pyramid Pan Silicone Baking Mat

Like a shmuck, I let myself be enticed into buying a Pyramid Pan Silicone Baking Mat (As Seen On TV!).

The supposed upsides are:
1. Fat is drained away, since the food sits elevated upon the spiky silicone pyramid tips

2. You don't need to flip food, because heat circulates underneath

3. Food cooks quicker, because, again, heat circulates underneath

4. The pad can be cleaned in a dishwasher
In reality, cook time was the same, cleanup was a major drag, and the food turned out exactly the same as ever. Let's go point by point:

1. Fat is drained away, since the food is elevated up on the spiky pyramid tips
Sort of. But in actual use, fat quickly accumulates in the wells, which fill and still soak/fry the food. Maybe a bit less so than with a ridged broiler pan. But there's not a significant difference.

2. You don't need to flip food, because the heat circulates underneath
Obviously, not as much heat circulates underneath, so the bottom side still cooks slower. If you want any sort of evenness in the result, you still have to flip. But, anyway, is flipping really such a nuisance?

3. Food cooks quicker, because, again, the heat circulates underneath
The catch is that you need to keep oven heat below 420 degrees. And that slows cooking time, removing any marginal improvement.

4. The pad can be cleaned in a dishwasher
Sure...if you have room in an average dishwasher load to unfurl this sprawling rubber pad. And if you run your dishwasher daily. But consider, too, the pan you've got to use beneath the pad, which also needs cleaning. Before my life was transformed by this miracle product, I used small aluminum broiler pans, which I tossed out with the trash. Not terribly "green", but neither is the considerable hot water used to clean a large pad and a large pan, and the more frequent dishwasher runs. And it was a zillion times easier.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

It's All About the TV

The golden age of television continues to wail. If you're not spending a decent amount of your leisure time watching television, you're missing out on some of the most thoughtful and creative work being accomplished in our era. I'm a big film fan, but hardly ever go out to the movies anymore; the best stuff's on the tube (which is why many of my favorite actors and directors are also flocking to the medium).

As I wrote back in 2012 (and things have only gotten better since):
"Television has been so transformed that those trapped in outdated prejudices have been caught out. In every era, there's a realm where creative talent happens to cluster. In the 50's, it was jazz; in the early 70's, it was filmmaking; and in the 90's, it was restaurants. Right now, the zeitgeist is in television. Truly great work is being done; hearts poured out and brilliance expressed while the creative bar raises higher and higher. And if you don't dive into a zeitgeist, you may has well be dead. I'd certainly have spent the 1950's in smokey nightclubs and the 70's in movie houses (if I were alive in the 10's, I'd have been sipping absinthe and arguing philosophy in European cafes). And lord knows I put in my restaurant time in the 90's."
Sadly, people are declining to watch Hannibal (on NBC, though it's as good as anything on HBO) because they don't like scary stuff and/or are tired of the movie franchise. That's a pity. This reinvention renders the Anthony Hopkins canon completely laughable. And it's not scary, per se, nor is it particularly violent. This isn't genre at all. It's just a superb, classic psychological study utterly unlike anything you've ever seen. Everyone I know who's been watching is absolutely spellbound - not by the suspense (there is none; everyone knows Hannibal gets caught in the end), but by the swooning beauty of the imagery and skill of the acting, especially by Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, and Mads Mikkelsen (as a stunningly subtle and believable Hannibal Lechter).

And The Americans, about deep-covered KGB agents posing as a normal 1980's American family (on FX), is midway through a second season which is somehow managing to far exceed its tremendous first season (which I wrote about here).

About to start new seasons, and absolutely un-missable: Veep, a scathingly hilarious and acid political satire with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (4/6 on HBO), Orphan Black, featuring Tatiana Maslany somehow managing to portray a dozen or so impeccably characterized and differentiated clones (4/19 on BBC America), Game of Thrones, a richly sumptuous work that's more cinematic than cinema (4/6 on HBO), and Orange is the New Black, the sharply-written and produced woman's prison dramedy (6/6 on Netflix).

If you skip Game of Thrones because you don't like fantasy, or Orphan Black because you don't like sci-fi, or Hannibal because you don't like horror, you need to understand that these shows transcend genre. Don't watch them because you like "that sort of thing". Watch because they're serious artistic accomplishments.

More TV tips (plus links to previous TV writings)

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