Saturday, August 30, 2014

Improved Albatrosses and Red Herrings

I've rewritten the bottom half of the previous posting, "Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings", in case you want to give it another read.

As I note in the piece, I've been straining to make this point for some time now, in various postings, and these changes help a bit, though I'm still not satisfied. As always, Leff's Seventh Law applies, so as my thinking clarifies, hopefully I'll be able to finally deliver this in a sharp way. Meanwhile, you can sadistically watch me struggle....

Friday, August 22, 2014

Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings

A few years ago, I lost a bunch of weight, worked out (hard) daily, and, for the first time in my life, looked really good with my shirt off. And yet nothing changed. No one was the least bit nicer to me, women did not throw themselves at me, nothing in my life got detectably better!

Strangers treated me exactly the same; it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them. Crowds didn't gather to gape in astonishment.

"Duh," you say. But if you'll think about it, you'll realize there's something bugging you about yourself that's precisely the same: thinning hair, too short, too old, etc. Whatever your Achilles heel, if you were to rectify it, the world would fail to celebrate. Things would still feel slightly "off". Decks would still seem a bit stacked against you. People wouldn't be quite nice enough, fair enough, caring enough. You might manage to shift yourself to some different inadequacy category, but those categories are surprisingly non-heirarchical. It doesn't get "better". The same vague undercurrent of malice, which we mistakenly take personally, persists.

I wrote last year here on the Slog that:
If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all injustice appears to stem from that....The world is "off", and it has nothing to do with you. Yet, whoever you are, including billionaires and movie stars, things seem stacked against you...and it feels personal. So we (mostly unconsciously) attribute the brunt of it to whichever personal characteristic we happen to focus on.
The ramifications are profound, particularly in how they affect minorities. If you're black or Muslim or old or a woman or short or Jewish or Asian or gay or disabled, you certainly endure some bona fide bigoted headwind. So it's natural that much of the world's non-specific harshness, malice, and injustice would strike you as more of that; as more personally focused than it truly is.  

This explains obsessive feminists who over-frame everything as gender issues, Jews who use the term "anti-semitic" several times per day, etc etc. In each case, there are legitimate fights to be fought, but there is an unrealistic notion of how the other side of the coin experiences the world - how good, exactly, it can get even when one's perceived shackles are removed (or are reclassified as something other than shackles). Watch crowds walk by (in a city, where people are less diligent about composing their public expression), and you'll see almost entirely grim, anxious, stressed, put-upon faces. Including people with plenty of whatever you feel persecuted for lacking.

Money is a great example. When people who've spent their lives fantasizing about riches and resenting the advantages of wealthy people get a windfall of cash, they soon discover an uneasy truth: they shift to become a different "one of them", that's all. Nothing essential changes. We've heard enough tales of lottery winners and child stars to know they don't often live happily ever after, and we falsely assume it's because they've been foolish enough to screw up a good thing. But that's not the problem. It's that the visceral sense of inadequacy and grievance remained; money didn't make it all better. The universe does not recognize your "win".

There is no "win". Whatever cards you've been dealt, you're playing a role, with upsides and downsides. It's possible to flip to a different role, but you never move up. Elevation turns out not to be a thing, because no particular role is better than any other. They're all mixed bags! All of them! Any illusions to the contrary stem from the neurotic human tendency to obsess over what's missing.

Related: my speculation that, in the most private corner of his psyche, Albert Einstein deemed himself a hopeless loser due to his funny-looking hair and disorganized desk.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

You're Old, Part 745

1977 - the year Fonzie jumped the shark on Happy Days and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz was arrested - was as close to today as it was to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

People Don't Fucking Listen

The Economist had an interesting article about research into the fact that one can say completely random stuff to people without their noticing, because people don't fucking listen to each other anyway.

At least, according to the study, 27-42% of study participants provably hadn't. But they unfortunately tested via remote discussion over text messages. If they'd done the study with people speaking face to face - where most communication takes place on the level of pheromones and facial micro-movements and other creepy factors not affected by the higher conscious attention human beings seldom apply - I bet the rate of non-listening would be far higher.

I've been on top of this for years, myself. Whenever I notice someone's attention wandering while I'm speaking, I try to extract what fun I can by linoleum buckling when you put all the chocolate sauce on it those people can all just go to Akron Ohio and wash their shoelaces for all I care how about you how's work?

In fact, I referred to it obliquely years ago here on the Slog in a posting titled "Saying Intentionally Dumb Things to Friends":
It's a good idea to periodically say intentionally really dumb things to your friends, and watch their reactions. If they react pretty much as they usually do, you're in deep trouble.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More TV Show Gushing

I'm going nuts trying to keep up with the Golden Age of Television (probably healthier than my efforts keeping up with the Golden Age of Food In The 90's).

Here's the top of the latest crop (Note: I hesitate to describe gimmick/set-up/genre, because shows this good transcend all that; you don't need to be a fantasy buff to dig Game of Thrones, a horror buff to love Hannibal, or a sci-fi fan to watch Orphan Black; these programs aren't time wasters for niche aficionados, they're bona fide art):

Rectify, on Sundance Channel. You can catch up with season one on Netflix.
This one's actually in its second year, but ratings indicate I may be the only one watching it. Thoughtful, introspective Daniel Holden has been sprung after decades on death row, returning to his lush and louche home town in rural Georgia, where he struggles to readjust to society. Incredibly subtle; the meditative pace bugs the bejesus out of viewers craving lots of action and plot (here's lead actor Aden Young ranting - e.g. "What coke-fuelled moron came up with the idea to criticise the concept of time while watching a show about the concept of time?" - at viewers who are "hate watching" it). Don't listen to the haters. This is a beautiful work of art. And remember that I was recommending Breaking Bad (among other things) to you before hardly anyone was touting it!

Manhattan on WGN, back episodes available only via Hulu Plus (which conveniently offers a free trial week...and you can also find a number of Criterion Collection films there).
A highly fictionalized story of the Manhattan Project, this one's been drawing me in in spite of initial reservations. Such beautiful cinematography, and excellent acting.

The Knick on Cinemax but also on HBO on a slight delay.
In this one, Steven Soderbergh directs/writes/edits Clive Owen in the tale of a cutting edge surgeon in 1900. It's the first depiction of the past where the characters appear to be living in a "now" rather than a mouldered "then". 1900 felt every bit as futuristic at the time as 2014 does now; maybe more so, because the acceleration of progress had just begun to superheat. It's one of the "now"-iest period pieces ever, and the choice of an electronic music score highlights this quite cleverly (that last observation was hoisted from critic Alan Sepinwall).

The Leftovers, on HBO, is another slow, meditative, and particularly bleak dystopian show about the near-future effects of 10% of the Earth's population having suddenly disappeared. It's not an old-school high-concept sci-fi thing making heavy-handed points about our society; it's a thoughtfully worked out feat of world building, and, like Rectify (see above), it will draw you in if given a chance...even if it's not quite the work of art that, say, Rectify is.

Outlander on Starz
Based on Diana Gabaldon's series about a tough but sensitive WW I nurse transported to 18th century Scotland, this one's produced by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald Moore. Yes, everyone's going historical - aka "period" - this year, but such flocking randomly happens, and, again, greatness transcends genre. Only...I'm not sure this one's truly great. We'll see, though. We're only one episode in at this point, and while I'm not seeing the meticulous attention to detail I'd prefer, there's a lot to like, so I'll be giving it a chance.

I'll list, below, ongoing series previously mentioned here on the Slog (if you do a search, note that most have been mentioned more than once). Every one of these is worth going out of your way to catch up with, but I've sorted them in descending order of oh-my-godness:

The Americans
Rick and Morty
Masters of Sex
Game of Thrones
Orphan Black
Orange is the New Black
Key and Peele
Good Wife

Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating things from 1 to 10, I'd say that Hannibal's a "10", the next six are "9"s, and everything from Orphan Black down is a solid "8" (compared not to previous TV series, but to movies and other well-respected art forms). For those catching up, bear in mind that the first three, while great in their first seasons, vastly improved in their second seasons (all completed as of now), and Louie trailed off just slightly in its most recent season (but was still great). Masters of Sex, currently in its second season, is also much improved.

Of the new crop listed above, Rectify's close to "10"ing, and the others are too new to say for sure, but all have a shot at "9"hood...or at least solid "8"ishness.

As always, you'd be smart to follow up your viewing (or catch-up binge viewing) by reading Alan Sepinwall's excellent recaps and reviews....and the often high-quality comments posted beneath his articles.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

More on Chowhound's Policy Shift

It dawns on me, that what I'm reading in this Chowhound policy change announcement is not what others may be reading. This explains, for one thing, the initial happy acceptance of some people in that thread.

A fast reading of the announcement might make someone feel delighted that food professionals will participate and share their know-how. One envisions artisanal cheese makers dropping by to discuss their rennet, or Danny Meyer explaining how Union Square Cafe gets their bar nuts so darned tasty.

No. That sort of thing has always been allowed. We've had many known figures drop by to offer info or just to swap tips. Chowhound's always been the sort of hip venue where they won't be mobbed or hassled.

So that's not it, in spite of the careful wording of the announcment. Thing is, people don't realize the fearsome slime pit perpetually flowing, ala "Ghostbusters" weakest plot gimmick, beneath the streets of I observed in my previous posting that "it's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden," and Chowhound's weed pile, thanks to its tireless moderators, is nothing short of epic. Chowhound is an artificially-created entity, in spite of how natural it may seem. It betrays no shadows of the crap continuously excised. As I posted just two weeks ago:
Every earnest effort eventually gets gamed...massively. That's why there's so little earnestness in the world (and why it feels so charming when it does occasionally arise). At a certain point, either 1. the operation's earnestness evaporates, 2. the operation gets so bunkered that it's no fun anymore, or 3. the operators shift their business plan to leverage the gaming (let's call this one the Yelp approach).
I had no foreknowledge of this announcement, but I guess I nailed it. This is a #3, but it's not even about revenue, directly (it appears that no money changes hands as a result of this policy change). It's simply wild flailing for traffic via the crazy notion that repelling parasites cuts into page view counts.

The community manager recently posted this:
Kneejerk deletion of anything that smacked of advertising was a whole lot faster and simpler than what we're doing now. Trying to help people understand the site and use it effectively is harder than telling them to go away.
So promoters and shills are just wounded children who need to be gently shown the way. Well, good luck with that....

How to use food sites as chowhounding tools

Just posted to Chowhound.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chowhound's Coup de Grace

Lots of links below, all well worth clicking, fwiw.

Well, this is supremely unsurprising. The bean counters and brainy corporate Subway-scarfing geniuses currently running Chowhound have decided on a major change of course. Can't say I didn't see it coming.

As I explained in my series of postings recounting the growth and sale of Chowhound, what made Chowhound good was a counterintuitive move: filtering. Rather than aim for the largest set of eyeballs, we did everything possible to discourage the overwhelming majority of visitors from using the site. The result was an incredibly distilled and valuable group of users whose info was amazingly savvy and reliable. This, in turn, drew hordes of onlookers, who might not be food crazies, but who couldn't resist staying apprised re: the latest soft shell crab discoveries by people whose entire waking lives centers around such quests. The axiom "less is more" has never been more aptly proven.

Every gardener knows that limitation is key. It's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden, and that work is almost entirely subtractive. The more meticulously you stave off bad stuff, the more good stuff happens.

In the case of Chowhound, "bad stuff" means postings which dilute or contaminate the savvy and reliability of the data. Self-promoters and shills contaminate, and the ditzy people who don't mind contamination dilute. This is a vicious circle. As I explained in part 8 of the aforementioned series:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.
Over the years, the moderators have done yeoman's work staving off contamination. But other factors have created dilution, leaving Chowhound a shadow of its former self. This latest decision - to embrace what was once heroically fended off - will be the coup de grace. And c'est la vie. I never expected the thing to run for 10 years, much less 17. How many other circa 1997 web sites remain, plying more or less the same mission?

As you can imagine, veterans have been messaging me like crazy all afternoon. Many will leave the site, which, alas, will only accelerate the decline. The people who make things good are much more skittish than the people who make things bad; that's why entropy and dilution usually win in the long run. In the human realm - even more than in the horticultural realm - flowers perish voluntarily at the sight of weeds (often even upon first glimpse).

My first thought is the same one that's nagged at me over the course of Chowhound's decline: perhaps I should open up a smaller, more soulful forum. My usual second thought is to consider something more pleasant, like grinding out lit cigarettes in my eye.

But, you know, none of the things that made Chowhound's management a horror (staving off contamination, dealing with jerks and psychopaths, coping with jury-rigged software, and flailing to pay bills) are unavoidable.

It strikes me that a private forum populated by a couple hundred serious hounds would avoid all those pitfalls. Heck, it could be a public forum, just so long as onlookers were read-only. I loved Chowhound when it had a couple hundred users. Those were the good days. If we could keep it limited, moderation wouldn't be an issue, dilution wouldn't be a peril, and there'd be no bills to pay. If I could think of a nice easy pre-existing platform to launch it on (Google or Facebook groups wouldn't cut it), I might not even mind spearheading it.

One of our best and most veteran hounds just told me that he no longer uses the site much. His chowhoundish friends simply text each other when they discover good places. That's obviously not a viable way to aggregate and archive tips. In a sense, it's like 1997 all over again, with chowhounds alienated from mainstream food coverage and resorting to tenuous and inadequate word-of-mouth networks. They could use a home.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Breakfast Cereal and the Vicious Circle of Untimely Quality Declines

I was briefly interviewed (via email) by a reporter writing about shifting trends in breakfast...specifically, the downturn in cereal sales.

I told her it didn't seem mysterious to me. The public is moving away from highly-processed empty carbs. Furthermore, while breakfast cereal has had a long run (most of the famous brands launched prior to 1955), it seems a bit of an anachronism these days.

The reporter asked what I eat for breakfast, and I replied:
Oatmeal, egg-white omelets, and granola-and-yogurt. Cereal-wise: Nature's Path Heritage Bites, Kashi Indigo Morning or Honey Sunshine with high quality milk. I used to really love Corn Flakes, but Kellogg's downgraded flavor/quality years ago. Trader Joe's version was better for a while but eventually they downgraded, too. There's a puzzling (and tremendously counter-intuitive) tendency for quality to decline in the face of a category's declining popularity.
That last part (which won't possibly make it into the final article) is of great interest to me. I'm pointing out a vicious circle seen in many sorts of undertakings. Quality tends to plummet the moment interest starts to fade. For example, precious few restaurants maintain standards as they conclude they're not catching on. Right at the point when they most need to show their best side, they present their worst (I can't count the number of times I've been treated brusquely in completely empty restaurants). Similarly, newspapers have seemed more poorly-written and edited - generally off their game - ever since that sector's future came into doubt. And most couples split up not from discord, but from the sourness which arises the moment malaise is detected in ones partner.

I wrote about this effect last year; how at the very moment when we most need to double down and persuasively prove our value, we (and our institutions) tend to go the exact other way. We are, alas, not a species predisposed to rise to occasions.

Consider this classic line from Albert Brook's character in Broadcast News:
"Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"
I'll re-quote per that last link from the chronicle I wrote for Slate about the noble, inspiring final weekend at Bo, the lamented Queens Korean restaurant, a sharp counterexample which deeply moved me:
...the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Oedipal Poultry

I just posted my account, on Chowhound, of Mami's, a Latino Steam-table in White Plains. Here's an excerpt:

As she apportioned, wrapped, and accepted payment for the food, I briefly wondered if I'd been recognized (for those who don't know, I've worked as a restaurant critic). I felt disproportionally IMPORTANT. She was paying way too much attention to me. Was she coming on to me? I couldn't tell. It was weird, though certainly anything but uncomfortable.

I rushed the food to my car, where I dipped in my fork for a quick taste, and that same brute force halo of attention and love roared forth. The young guys were correct. This is some extraordinarily sexy food. Oh my.

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