Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why People Don't Learn

Learning requires feeling dumb for a while. And that's why people don't learn.

Everyone tasked with teaching anything to adults has ample experience with students feeling anxious and embarrassed for not instantly and perfectly grasping some point or other. It's just not about getting something wrong. It's about the unwillingness to acknowledge or display any deficit at all.

People are accustomed to masking their ignorance and other flaws, but learning requires dropping the mask. And that is horribly, horribly upsetting for most people. So they flail to show both themselves and their teachers that they hardly needed instruction in the first place. Believe it or not, this is incredibly common; the rule rather than the exception. Exactly at the moment when receptive curiosity would serve them best, they're trying to prove how very clever they are.

Children don't do this. Lacking a firm self-image, they're perfectly fine serving as empty cups. That's one reason they learn so easily, while adults are famously incapable of doing so past a certain age. It's not a cognitive problem, it's an emotional one. Learning requires feeling dumb for a minute, and that's just a deal-killer.

This expands on something I previously wrote: I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be more of an obnoxious know-it-all. By contrast, most people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

More thoughts on impedences of adult learning:
Two Obstructions to Learning
Learn Like a Kid
Gradual, Thorough, Incremental Learning is Obsolete

Also see all postings tagged "education".

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cool Crazy Science Geeky Stuff

XKCD is a comic which prides itself on inside science geek humor. It's rarely quite this arcane, though:

Thankfully, there's an entire site dedicated to explaining XKCD comics, titled, logically enough, explainxkcd.com. This week's comic will mystify most non-technical readers, but the explanation page is absolutely fascinating for lay science geeks like me.

A few things I learned:

1. The use of Earth for gravitational assists (i.e. to accelerate spacecraft), aka "flybys", sometimes results in speed gains that can't be accounted for. It's called "Flyby anomaly", and sometimes it's just a little bit of a difference, but other times it can be a substantial amount. And get this: one possible explanation is the existence of a dark matter halo around Earth!! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Please, please let it be a dark matter halo! Man...I'm having a geek meltdown!

2. According to the explanation for the comic's mention of dark energy: "It's possible space itself has intrinsic energy." Oh boy! I'm having a tantric meltdown!

3. The cosmic background radiation is "incredibly uniform". I find that, for some reason, incredibly consoling. We are being sung to sleep from a chorus spread with painstaking evenness across the heavens.

4. Protons don't seem to be decaying. But it's cool, because their freshness expiration date is likely way in the future. Matter is only just getting started.

5. While hopping around Wikipedia reading up on all this stuff, I stumbled across a page explaining the Anthropic principle. I understand it only enough to be dangerous, so this summary will almost surely be both inept and inapt (heh...I'm having a linguistic meltdown), but here goes. The various cosmic rules we've worked out show remarkably scant overhead. Tinker just a bit with a constant here, a ratio there, and the universe would be vastly different, and couldn't possibly support intelligent life (I take issue with the apparent assumption that our sort of intelligent life is the only kind). So the Anthropic principle says (again, I'll get this wrong) that in a multiverse (an infinite - or at least extremely large - set of parallel universes), that very same intelligence is what  selects the universe supporting the intelligence. It's tautological, but the theory's proponents recognize this.

Thing is, I already live in an unnaturally serendipitous universe in which any changed element would erase me. If my dad had used a condom, if the school bus hadn't braked in time, if my every single ancestral couple extending back tens of thousands of years hadn't fallen in love (or, at least, lust), I'd go "zoop". The current situation - any current situation - is built upon a tower of preposterous coincidences. But isn't that the intrinsic nature of all things in a time continuum - i.e. subject to cause/effect?

Also, I wish cosmologists and philosophers would consult mystics once in a while. Pretty much anyone who carries out diligent spiritual practice - regardless of background and tradition - will eventually have the same insight: consciousness is non-local, and the universe exists in consciousness, rather than vice versa. These days, with serious, starchy scientists taking in stride notions like quantum theory and (much less so, of course) this Anthropic principle, science is drawing closer to recognition of the full magnitude of the subject/object issue. We humans carry laboratories for the exploration of consciousness around with us, and over the eons many of us have compiled a model. It's a waste to ignore these hard-won findings.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

In Defense of Salted (and Even Whipped) Butter

A chowhound poster found some lovely-looking Welsh butter at Trader Joe's, but demurred because it is (gasp) salted.

Here's Bbmorecupcake's photo:

I posted, in reply, the following defense of salted - and even (double gasp) whipped - butter:
I think the "never use salted" credo is an overblown relic of the 1980s, when salted product was often older or crappier quality (i.e. the salt hid sins). People said it made it hard to adjust salt in recipes, but unless you're using gobs and gobs of butter, the salt content of your TB of butter couldn't make that big a difference....and/or could be compensated for, albeit not to 100% precision.

Thing is, pro chefs often DO need that level of precision, so they're compelled to eschew salted butter. And back in the late 1980s, home cooks were starting to fancy themselves mini-pro chefs...but that's a whole other story (of frustration and of unhealthful home cooking habits).

For cooking, salted butter is a micro-variable easily compensated for.

For buttering, like, toast, salted is way better than applying unsalted, then raining down a minuscule shower of salt (good luck getting it even!).

And salted lasts WAY longer in the fridge.

If you trust the quality of the producer (i.e. they haven't subsumed that extra storage time before you bought it), IMO salted is a no-brainer.

In fact, I double sin. I use Kriemhild butter, which is salted AND whipped. The whipping means I can't use it for recipes (I keep solid butter as well), but I know the producer isn't using the whipping process to mask crap, and the whipping means I can use less, total, while spreading more evenly on toast, etc.. And it tastes way, way better than circa 1980 whipped butters, which really were crap.

Crap salted butter and crap whipped butter from bad producers are, obviously, no-gos. But this is another era, when we have Kriemhild and other wonderful products (like this Welsh stuff appears to be) to enjoy. Holding onto an anti-salted, anti-whipped bias in this very different era of product availability would be a shame.

The following reply was posted:
With unsalted butter, you can control the amount of salt in a dish. With salted butter, not so much. I use it when the recipe specifically calls for it, unsalted otherwise.

You can also control the amount of salt by reducing some added salt to compensate for the salted butter.

If you believe you must work to extreme precision as a home chef, that would perplex me. Why would you want to replicate the exact flavor/seasoning profile each time you home cook a dish? Such tight regimentation is the burden of restaurant professionals, accommodating customers who demand extreme consistency. Home chefs are free to vary approach, avoiding boredom both in prep and in ingestion. There's no conceivable mandate to work within extremely tight tolerances as a home chef.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Trying to Understand Apple Investors

So Apple's stock is down 25% from its high, thanks to the random herd scare du jour. And no one smart doubts it will eventually recover...as it always eventually does.

So why not buy here? If the price recovers in two years, you'd make a return of 12.5%, plus dividends. If it recovers sooner, you'd do better, still. And risk is crazy low; no one imagines that Apple is poised at some horrendous cliff of extinction (then again, I didn't think so with SIGA, either).

It seems absurd to think that my shlubby self has spotted a clear pathway to profit no one else did. Plenty of other people surely see what I see. So why aren't they buying at this bargain price? Two reasons, I think:

1. They're too greedy to buy until the current dip goes all the way down. 25% discount's good, but 26% would be even better! Of course, one can't possibly spot a bottom as events unfold. But greed keeps buyers on sidelines, which prolongs the plunge. They'll buy - probably higher than at the current $106 - on the way back up.
This is why one should always park at the near end of big events. Disappointed multitudes park en masse on the other side, all the way to the horizon.
2. They're too greedy to wait the year or two for recovery; they think they can do better than 12-25%. Nobody likes to park their investment.

OTOH, I've bought upon all of Apple's irrational dips over the years, and the profits have paid an awful lot of bills.

Will I be wrong this time? Will Apple forever remain at this price (I'd lose nothing, but not make any profit, either)? Or, worse, are they about to crumble, messing me up as badly as the aforementioned SIGA did? I don't see either happening. So I can't imagine a reason to turn down a 25% profit. Even if it means parking my investment, and losing a shot at 26%.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Resistance and Surrender

Whatever practice you do, whether it's meditation, prayer, mindfulness, or something else, you will eventually, inevitably, have the sensation that you've been pushing a string.

You can't push toward Unity (or Love, or Silence, or Awareness, or "What Is", or God, or however else you might unwisely choose to name the unnameable entirety). You can only allow yourself to be pulled. All that's resisting is you.

"Yoga" is Sanskrit for "yoke". It's often claimed to refer to a union - a bilateral treaty of sorts between you and everything else in the Universe. But that's not it. The rest of the universe acknowledges only unconditional surrender.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Chowhound Revival

In 2005, I made an appearance at Manhattan's Coliseum Books (now defunct) to publicize the "Chowhound's Guide" series published by Penguin. See a report of this rather jolly event, including photos, at Slice. As you can see in the photos, I did the event in a dog mask, for food critic anonymity purposes.

Anyway, I just found the script I'd written for myself, including canned "ad-libs", because I was worried I'd be nervous and need the extra help. I staged it like a religious revival (at that time, Chowhound had a much more fervid tone to it). Enjoy this rather odd artifact. (I recited the prayer at the end in a long crescendo, reaching a full-throated defiant wail - no kidding, I was pretty much screaming - with "kooky obsessive")


Yes, brother and sister chowhounds, for a great many eaters - and who among us is not an eater? - things are...rough. Rough indeed.

As we sit here together, many of us delighting in the after tingle of a morsel of delicious this or that, the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of people are at this very moment heading to dinners where they will willingly....gladly.....blindly....ignorantly....insanely... ingest.....CRAP!!!

Let's all bow heads for a prayer for those less fortunate souls.
Oh, chow father, who art in the Big Kitchen, please help our confused, unthinking bretheren to realize that they don't have to follow the crowd that follows the marketing. Please help them awaken to the fact that they have been hypnotized by the forces of greed and cynicism into being led like sheep to compromised ingestion. They knoweth not what they eat.

The forces of evil have deluded these wretched souls into consuming in slavish lockstep in the pursuit not of happiness or self-interest but of order and predictability. Oh, chow father, let the prevalant, the pandemic, the highly touted hold less sway over these souls. Let them see the light, let them partakath of the Difara's pizza slice. Let them partaketh of the Arepa Lady's stunningly holy corncakes. Let them awaken to the ambrosial joys all around them, that they might live better and support those who cooketh from heart and soul. Amen.
You, sir. What did YOU eat for lunch today?

You, madam. are you settling for Snapple? Why the undelicious drink?

Brother and sister hounds, like many of you, I have been ridiculed for demanding that the food I eat be delicious. But many have lost track of the notion that food even CAN be delicious. For many, deliciousness has been purged from the equation, and as a result, the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who cook delicious, loving, inspiring food have but a precarious foothold in a market increasingly dominated by those who convey no message at all - much less a deep and loving message - via their cooking.

In the interest of mass market efficiency and lowest common denominator consistency, food is increasingly manufactured rather than cooked, by minimum wage cogs rather than by devoted artisans, and the only flair, the only intelligence, the only human empathy in the entire process is in the geniuses who create the marketing campaigns. Those are the artisans, the magicians of today. There is a fixed quantity of human genius in the world, and today's are not writing literature or leading governments or building theories of relativity. No. They're working to hypnotize and persuade the rest of us to consume things we don't want, don't need, don't like, can't use, and won't help. People eat soulless crap, and have lost all sight of deliciousness.

I see a day, not too far in the future, when our dining choices will be as radically pruned down as our choices of hardware stores or book stores. Fast food has already crushed the diners, automats, and food carts. And recently, we've seen an incursion of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Panera and their ilk, which are putting incredible pressure on midpriced restaurants around the country. Countless "best of" reader polls around the country award these abominations top honors in their niches. Marketing trumps quality.

Now we're on the verge of seeing the same in expensive restaurants. The notion of "star chefs" is branding, no more and no less. People like Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges have reduced themselves to upscale Ronald McDonalds, engaged in a land grab as they spin off multiple branches where they'll never actually cook. You're not buying their talent, you're buying their branding.

I'm not saying every Chinese take-out, every taco joint, every French bistro, every sushi parlor will be crushed by an upscale, downscale, or midscale chain operation. A few independent bookstores and hardware stores survive these days, and there'll be still more cracks and crevices in the dining market. But consider this: right now, at very best, restaurants are shaky propositions. Their foothold is precarious, and even great places are more likely to fail than succeed. And that's without immense pressure from huge massive marketing and its proven ability to hypnotize consumers into gladly ingesting garbage.

So what happens when companies like Barnes and Noble or Home Depot enter this market and apply economic and marketing pressure to an already insanely difficult industry? The only hope is if enough of us care. As people are lulled into soulless places which craftily push their buttons without offering actual quality, people will lose even more of their abilitiy to even distinguish quality.

If you think that's impossible, consider orange juice. In just a few decades, we've gone from drinking fresh squeezed, which is delicious, to drinking frozen concentrate, which is not, to drinking TANG, which isn't even food. If you offered someone in 1911 a glass of Minute Maid frozen concentrate, they'd spit it out in revulsion.

Our human adaptability makes us vulnerable to those who work to wean us off of deliciousness and onto crap. Like live lobsters heating slooooowly in a pot, we don't realize how bad it's gotten until we're cooked. Becuse of marketing, Adam Smith's invisible hand reaches for lousy home fries!

Chowhound is an antidote. A red pill, designed to wake up consumers from their marketing hypnosis and make them aware that treasure is all around them, ripe and low on the trees, if they'll simply ignore the marketing messages and make smart decisions for themselves.

Please turn to page 338 in The Book.
"It's extremely important that we never settle for anything undelicious when there are so many geniuses, hold-outs, and proud craftsmen investing hearts and souls into cooking edible treasure which can sate our deepest hankerings. Just venture a bit further and care a bit more, and all occasions can be special...and the good guys will win."
This incredible chowy period we're all enjoying, this bonafide rennaisance of chow with a multitude of geniuses, holdouts and madmen producing food of heightened deliciousness virtually everywhere you look, will not last forever unless we make it last forever. Every bite we take makes a significant difference. Where you choose to eat your muffin - and where you choose NOT to eat your muffin - makes a political statement and affects the quality of all muffinhood. We must vote with our forks and support the good guys who make the good stuff!

Are you with me?

Then everyone, please rise....and hold your forking hand in the air for the chowhound pledge. Please repeat after me in a good, clear, loud, strong voice!

I pledge
never to settle
for anything less than fully delicious
ever again
so help me
[insert deity of your choice]
and the next time I'm hungry
looking around for something to eat
I will NOT cave
and just eat in some stupid place
just because it's easy or convenient
even if the person with me
gets really mad
and calls me a kooky obsessive
For refusing to settle for crap!!!
I didn't write this book. I'm just the spokesperson, Vanna White in a dog mask. So it's a bit silly for me to autograph anyone's book, but I'll autograph yours if you'll autograph mine. Okay, let's get to it!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Two Points of Spiritual Progress

(spoken in a bitter, self-pitying voice)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!
(spoken in a voice of bemused relief)
All my hopes and dreams were just a bunch of empty drama! There's nothing to look forward to! This, right now, is as good as it's ever going to be!

Here's a more verbose treatment.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Non-Evident Goals and Unrecognizable Devotions

As a jazz musician, I poured my attention into listening very closely to the musicians I was playing with. No one noticed this, of course. Not even my colleagues, who were rarely listening closely enough to notice they were being listened to. Audiences were consumed with the superficial layer, so while I was giving everything I had to forge a deeper connection with the music, they were mostly just noticing the occasional missed note.

As a food writer, I poured my attention into doing justice to my subjects. They struck me as heroic in their commitment to create sublime deliciousness, so I felt obliged to try to convey the truth of it via words. But readers were paying attention to the most superficial layer, so while I was giving it everything I had to doing justice to my subjects, they were mostly ascertaining whether the restaurant was worth a trip, and what to order.

As an entrepreneur, running Chowhound, I poured my attention into preserving the honesty of the resource. I understood that shilling and self-promotion could undermine the site's value, so I was perpetually at war with characters hoping to use our open microphone for their own ends. Site users had no idea this was going on. Participating at a more superficial layer, they couldn't understand why I was so geared up, and managing in non-transparent ways.

One more example, before I get to my point. As an author, with my last effort ("The Chowhound's Guide" series for Penguin), I decided to present a smorgasbord of chow tips in a manner that would foster serendipity for readers who couldn't decide where or what to eat. I arranged the material not geographically, nor by food type, but in whimsical alphabetical order, compensating for the caprice with nearly 100 pages of clever indexes, cross-referencing venues, neighborhoods, and food types. The series failed, because readers cracked open the books, saw the alphabetical ordering, missed my explanations (which never work anyway), and decided the books sucked. Again, my thoughtful intentions were non-evident.

It's taken me 53 years to notice that this is what I do: I occupy myself with solving problems no one cares about, in ways nobody notices. That's neither a boast nor a lament. It's just the truth.

I've been building a new project for the past few months. And I just realized I'm doing it again. I'm so hellbent on making the product work a certain way for one type of user that the result will perplex everyone else. It will give the impression of sloppy conception, though every detail has been closely examined. It makes sense, but they won't recognize the sense.

So don't say I never learn, or never compromise! I've reversed course, and the team and I will let that one portion of our audience down a little bit. We will leave them hanging...just a little bit. And they won't even blame us. Because this is a problem no one sees as a problem! So no one will realize that we declined to solve it. They'll figure it's "just them". Our asses will be covered.

More importantly, the users we would have confused by our tortured attempts to solve an unrecognized problem won't be confused. And we'll still solve the problem somewhat for the people I was originally hoping to help. But not all the way. I won't pilot the ship into the rocks to fulfill my stubborn vision. I will compromise this time...a little!

Whenever I see people doing something stupid (e.g. crossing a street without looking), I take a moment to reflect. If such carelessness is survivable (every one of these people has successfully reached their current age!), why do I, being so much more heedful, still wind up in mishaps and quagmires? If these mopes are in the game, why haven't I, like, won it?

Now I have the answer. I've spent my life pouring energy into unrecognizable devotions. And the game is won by being blunt and relentless; by never budging from the most superficial level, where victories are registered and rewarded. (So, really, it's a miracle I wasn't run over, in some manner of speaking, years ago.)

And while winning isn't everything (I'm not Donald Trump), it ought to at least be a minor consideration.

In this Slog, I have two goals, neither of them recognizable. The first is to create a Web of my mind disguised as a blog. And the second is to write articles that reward multiple re-readings.

Trump in the Skinner Box

The following comment was posted beneath my previous posting, "The Trump Thing":
After the latest round of super-crazy, I'm really leaning towards the conspiracy theory camp that this is all just a big joke that got out of control. I think that Trump wanted to have some fun, get some TV time, and never had any particular intention of moving on out of the debates - and purposefully set up an "extreme" campaign to meet those goals.

If you look at his positions over time, they've continued to ratchet up to the point that initial-candidate-Trump seems downright reasonable compared to present-day Trump. You really couldn't get much more fascist at this point unless he starts building a TrumpCamp (never say never).

I do wonder if somewhere in there he's both proud of his coverage and horrified at the number of people who keep going along with whatever he says when he doubles down...
I also got several emails reading something to the effect of "I don't know which is worse; if he believes his rantings, or not."

I said, in my original posting:
As for what Trump really thinks, he's a narcissist in an enormous Skinner box. That's all you need to understand about him.
For those who didn't click that link (when I was a lad, people read explanatory links!), a Skinner Box is a laboratory device that systematically rewards one particular behavior. When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.

Donald Trump is a narcissist. He has an infinite, unhindered need for public attention. And he's spent the past few months in a Skinner Box, being taught what to say to get the reward his brain needs above all other rewards.

Does he believe what he says? You and I have a need to check back and compare our mouth's output against our belief structures. That's our Skinner Box (we feel rewarded when there's unity between what we think and what we say). But that's not Trump's need. He'd look at such a need and be as baffled as we are at his. What? "Check back"? "Beliefs???" That's all completely beside the point. A non-factor.

So, no, he doesn't sit in his limo after each appearance, rubbing his hands gleefully, saying "those clueless assholes ate that right up!". There's no fiendish master plan. He's just at a latter stage of figuring out what he needs to do to get the really good heroin injected in his bloodstream.

Of course, that's not how he sees it. Test subjects in Skinner Boxes, deeply engaged with the satisfaction of their deepest needs, aren't deconstructing the scenario. Neither the chicken with the pellets, nor the rat with the orgasm electrode, nor Trump with acclaim, can glimpse what's happening to them with any clarity. At a certain point, they simply need - like an alcoholic needs vodka - more reward at any cost.

Bodybuilders say it's possible to be completely lean and still be, effectively, fat (if your metabolism is sluggish and you have no muscle tone). They call this condition "skinny-fat". Mr. Trump is poor-rich. He has all the money in the world, yet exhibits the most impoverished neediness. In Buddhist terms, he's a Hungry Ghost.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Trump Thing

The following is a conversation I've been having with a friend about the scary Mr. Trump.

"I'm having a hard time with The Trump thing. I don't like the man at all, but I cannot believe that he is so stupid that he himself believes the crap about stopping all Muslims from entering the country. I have to think that he knows better, but that he's somehow intoxicated with the possibility that he has a shot at the election, and is just trying every way possible to pander to the frustrated masses. That he has come this far is truly scary."
Not masses. 30% of identified Republicans, or roughly 6% of the electorate overall. And 6% of the country believes we faked the moon landings. Read this classic 1964 article, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" to see that this very same fringe has long been a part of our scene. That set finally has a candidate to call their own (it's about paranoia, not politics, which is why someone with terrible conservative bona-fides is being embraced). That's a rare situation for them, and I hope they feel warm and cozy for now, because he'll never win an election.

Meanwhile, seeing people like Lindsay Graham condemn him for going too far with his fear-mongering is not a bad thing. I wasn't sure Graham and his ilk even had a "too far" threshold. Nice to have found a bottom.
"I'm thankful that they have found a bottom (more likely because they see him as the real threat that he is to their party). But the question that remains for me is what Trump thinks. Does he really believe the shit that he is spouting, or does he understand in some level that he is playing the demagogue card?"
Yes, there are political considerations to their condemnations of Trump, but that doesn't matter; it doesn't cheapen it. Remember: to politicians, politics aren't something that "intrudes". It's their life blood. It's way more important than values. So it'll do. It's not full-on terra firma, but it's the best we can expect for now.

As for what Trump really thinks, he's a narcissist in an enormous Skinner box. That's all you need to understand about him.

The real problem is that his words are being seen in the Moslem world. The extremists' goal - to provoke and to polarize, in order to breed more extremists - is being furthered. We are slowly but surely being pulled into the "War Against Islam" these monsters use as their prime recruitment slogan.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Angels From Both Perspectives

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers." -- Mr. Rogers

Angels are real but they're not what you think. Angels don't appear with beatific smiles or soothing tones of voice. They're neutral and unremarkable. They fix things and leave quickly, before you can fully register what's happened. The best adjective I can think of is the very last one you'd expect: they seem ridiculously normal.

I was late for a very important gig at a famous jazz club in Madrid. I was beyond lost; I was hopelessly, miserably lost in the city streets, trying to find the club. This was very very bad, and I was starting to become hysterical. Suddenly, I reached a corner, and someone who seemed to have been waiting there came towards me, and pointed me down a cross street, indicating where I'd need to turn left. I turned to thank him, but he was gone, and I followed the directions straight to the club. It was all so unremarkable, that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice the strangeness of what had happened. What had happened? To this day, I have no idea. I'd never performed in Madrid before. And this all took place in the bustling city center, where countless people were on their busy way to countless destinations.

A few years earlier, coming home from a gig, I'd gotten stuck in a snowbank in the most dangerous part of Queens, right next to a particularly notorious housing project. In sub-zero conditions at 4 in the morning. With $8000 of music and sound equipement in my car. Three figures appeared, out of nowhere, startling me at first, but it somehow was immediately clear that they were righting my car. A few minutes later, I was on my way. I tried to tip them and thank them, but they were gone. It was all so smooth and matter-of-fact that it would have been phenomenally easy to fail to notice what had happened. Again, too normal-seeming to jar me with the strangeness.

I have a handful of other such stories (one happened just today, in fact; once again, it wasn't immediately obvious how unaccountable the situation was, and it was only upon later reflexion that it dawned on me that there was no rational explanation). And I'm certain there've been plenty of times that the smooth ordinariness of unexplainable aid has lulled me into failing to register that anything strange had happened. No elderly magical black man winking at me, no radiant blonde babe with a wand. In fact, I can't remember any of the faces. They were all as if in my peripheral vision. Those are the guys who get your car out of the snowbank, that's all. And this is the guy who tells you where you're headed. Nothing remarkable. They blur into the background.

It should be no surprise that the other side of the equation is just as disquietingly humdrum.

I was friends, at age 9, with a 19-year-old. We went to movies and stuff. Eventually, she got married, and I got busy, and we fell out of touch. I'd heard that her son had died, that she'd gone through a nasty divorce, and had withdrawn from friends. But I hadn't spoken with her in 35 years.

One day, out of the blue, I thought of her. I did a web search, and found out that she'd been having health problems and money problems a few years ago. I couldn't verify that this was still the case, but I had an intuition that something needful was happening in the very moment.
I'll digress to offer a brief explanation of intuition. People often confuse it with hunches - i.e. random guesses we make about the state of something. But while hunches make you think, or worry, real intuition makes you act. The brain does not intermediate. You don't feel a suspicion of something, you feel the actual thing.

If I slow down my car while passing a restaurant and remark that it looks good, it probably is good. A good hunch! But if my car suddenly screeches to the curb and stops and I find myself getting out, without actual thinking, then the restaurant will be great. It's always great. It's never not great.

If you've never found yourself simply acting in some circumstance, without thinking, then you've never experienced true intuition. It most often occurs under great duress, when a deeper, calmer awareness seizes control for a moment. You can easily miss it when it happens. The deeper awareness doesn't call attention to itself. It doesn't change the flavor of things. It quietly steps forward and acts. It does what needs to be done, and then it fades. It's not at all remarkable (have you spotted the connection?)
I found myself writing a check an order of magnitude larger than I'd ordinarily offer to help an old friend, and I also found myself writing a note.
I won't reprint the note here, because very, very few people would understand it. I'll just say this: there are people whose lives have been a never-ending stream of undeserved calamities, and while such people often wind up broken and embittered, they may also wind up illuminated (this, it turns out, is a very touchy thing to remark out loud; I was once tar-and-feathered by a Facebook friend's circle for having offered this observation, so I'm far more careful now).

But even those lucky/unlucky few can forget the hard-won lesson, and be partially pulled back into the drama they'd previously learned to transcend. Such people need reminders, and we're such a vanishingly small group that there is really no place to go for reminding. So what I did was to remind her of this expensive insight, and I congratulated her for having earned it in the first place. How did I figure out she'd earned it, or that she needed reminding? I didn't. Sometimes the car screeches to a halt.
I dug up her address via the Internet, and sent my note. I heard back, and the message had, indeed, been just what she needed to hear; a reminder of something she'd already noticed. And the money had come at just the right time, as well. She asked to speak by phone, and we didn't exchange pleasantries or "catch up". It was as if none of those 35 years had gone by, and I simply got to it, restating, in several ways, that same reminder (which helped engrain it in my own mind more deeply, too). We said goodbye, and that was that. The entire interlude was normal, in a very strange way. Or, maybe, strange in a very normal way.

I'm figuring she hung up the phone, smiled, then, as she went about her day, asked herself "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?" The entire thing was so matter-of-fact, while also completely unexplainable. I can't explain it, either. I just did what needed to be done, and it certainly wasn't my idea.

I've found myself in this position a few times (a word here, a pointer there, sometimes just a strategic smile), and found that people for the most part don't consciously notice. They distractedly accept the help and dozily move on to the next thing. Which is as it should be. If you spill entirely out of their peripheral vision to occupy clear central attention, you're not fully in the flow of it. That's a whole other thing. It's favor-doing, or do-gooding, or some other bold gesture stoking your ego (Superman, you'll remember, wore that super-bright suit; there was no missing him). It's highly explainable kindness.

There's really very little for me to say about any of this, either way. Sometimes the car screeches to the curb, and one gets out and enjoys radiant noodles. And that's just that. Attention-getting remarkableness is merely part of your personal drama. But the really good stuff? It barely registers.

Founding Principles

The Paris attacks killed 130 and injured about 360. Anti-Muslim bigots, generally, were driven into a tizzy of cowardice over 130 dead Frenchmen. And all the Republican candidates came out favoring actions in stark opposition to America's founding principles.

As of this writing (statistics suggest the following figures will be obsolete by day's end), 462 people have died (1314 wounded) in 355 mass shootings this year right here in America. And those same candidates insist that even sane, reasonable gun control measures, favored by a steep majority of the population, must be rejected, because any control at all would be in stark opposition to America's founding principles.

I do understand that gun control issues are more nuanced than the left will concede. What I don't understand is the failure of our national risk assessment skills. Is it really so difficult to distinguish the actual, larger threat? Or is it that bigotry is the MSG of fear, elevating mild worry far beyond its measure?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Dumbest Move We Could Possibly Make

A few months ago I tried to define the word "character:
"Character" is measured by the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise.
The people who propose abandoning our nation's core principles - when we're in no imminent danger, no less - have no character. Like many cowards, they've mastered the trick of sounding tough while displaying their cowardice. But make no mistake about it: they're pussies. All of them.

The French, who've suffered actual losses, are accepting more refuges now, not less. To quote from an excellent editorial by author John Scalzi,
Congratulations, America. We’ve successfully wrested the title of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” from France. Enjoy it.
As usual, the salient point is being lost beneath a lot of invective. Here's the fact that counts: the perpetrators of the French attack could visit this country without the slightest screening. They're not Syrians. They're not refugees. They're Frenchmen and Belgians, and we don't screen them! The Syrian refugees, by contrast, are screened within an inch of their lives, and they're the enemies of our enemies!

And what happened to our risk assessment skills? John Oliver, as usual, expressed it eloquently and wittily on his "Last Week Tonight" show:
"As reasonable adults, we accept tiny amounts of risk baked into our everyday lives," Oliver said. "We drive cars despite knowing around 30,000 of us die in them each year. We go swimming despite the fact 10 people a day die from drowning. Twenty Americans every year are killed by cows, but no one is saying we should expel all cows from the country!"
I'll gladly accept a one in ten million chance of being shot in a shopping mall by someone foolish enough to spend 18 months sneaking through the vetting process for a refugee visa (when there are far easier ways to get here) if it means maintaining our values as a country. Has everyone forgotten that people are getting shot all over the place here already? Come to think of it, those same aforementioned pussies don't seem very alarmed about that!

We need to extend open arms to the victims of our enemy (Daesh/ISIS). Duh! We need to be extraordinarily clear in delineating that this is a conflict between 7.2999 billion human beings versus a hundred thousand monsters, rather than needlessly make fresh enemies. Duh! And we need to recognize that playing into the hands of petty provocateurs by responding with bigotry and persecution against our Muslim friends and neighbors is the dumbest (not to mention most dishonorable) move we could possibly make.

Friday, November 20, 2015

"I Will Always Be Ignorant, But I Will Soon Be Rich"

Why do poor and working class Republicans vote against their own economic interests, going along with tax cuts for billionaires, dismantling of the safety net, annihilation of the Affordable Care Act, etc etc?

It's not a mystery. This puzzle was solved years ago. Poor Republicans are convinced they're just a few steps away from becoming rich Republicans (this is one of several reasons they flock to Donald Trump; they very closely identify with him as the guy they're destined to be: just as belligerent and as lazily uninformed as them, only with a huuuuge bank account).

But there's another question. Why do they hate "experts" of any stripe, be they journalists, professors, scientists, or anyone else with the stuck-up gall to proffer "facts"?

It's because such people don't reflect who they are, nor who they expect to ever be. A sizable chunk of the populace feels on the brink of prosperity, but can't even entertain the notion of being educated. And that's astounding, given that it's so much easier to get educated than to get rich.

On the other hand, what am I doing exploring quaint problems like this when American leaders are pointing to WWII Japanese internment camps as smart historical precedents? I'll just say this: if they start registering Muslims, I'll be first on line to sign up.

Also, remember: at times like this, even moderate Americans tend to shun Muslim businesses run by their friends and neighbors. Lebanese, Egyptian, Indonesian restaurants go empty. Consider joining me in going out for falafal for the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Italian-Japanese Sweet Potato "Chaat"

I bought a sack of homely-looking Murasaki sweet potatoes at Trader Joe's:

I peeled, sliced, oiled, and dusted them with cumin and black pepper, and threw them in a 425 degree oven. While they roasted, I plotted!

For an upcoming project, I've been writing about North Indian chaat. This is where they festoon crunchy/starchy items (like samosas) with various sauces, chutneys, and doodads...
"...like a five-year-old gone beserk in the kitchen. The chaat treatment turns blah snacks into filling flavor/texture riots."
It occurred to me that the chaat treatment could embrace any number of capricious additions. So I ransacked my pantry, and found some small San Marzano tomatoes (which may be immortal), tiny green chili peppers, cilantro, scallions, and a profusion of condiments.

I coarsely chopped the tomatoes, and (more finely) the peppers and scallions. I removed the cilantro leaves from the stems, and tossed it all along with the sweet potato chunks, lightly dousing it all with balsamic vinegar (well, not exactly balsamico; I used this balsamic must, which I see is no longer being sold...by the way, everything from Academia Barilla is fantastic; many people confuse it with regular Barilla, which is mass-market, but the Academia stuff is their prideful just-for-aficionados line).

The result tasted awfully expensive:


As a writer, as a community manager, and as someone who moves in many circles, and among some extraordinarily difficult people, I've been informed innumerable times about words, concepts, or references which offend someone or other.

Running Chowhound, I found offense-taking to be viral. Get people examining and broadcasting what offends them, and there will be literally no end to it. It will completely take over any discussion. It is kudzu.

But the strange thing is, though I've constantly been informed of other people's issues, hot buttons, triggers, and issues, no one has EVER asked about mine. In fact, no one's shown even the slightest interest. Isn't that odd? I've found myself commanded to fit myriad bills - cushioning, assuaging, and gingerly sidestepping a minefield of petty contention points, but my position as chai wallah to the piqued multitudes has been strictly unilateral.

Since no one's ever asked, I've never had cause to examine, much less broadcast, my own requirements for how people must discourse in my midst. Lord knows I have my preferences, but it would feel bizarre to turn those preferences into demands. Having realized all this, I've pretty much stopped giving a fuck about what offends anyone.

It sounds harsh, I know. So you'll be surprised to hear that I adhere quite closely to the yogic principle of ahimsa, or non-violence (of word and deed). I make it a top priority to at least try not to hurt anyone. Contradiction? No. The equation of umbrage with injury is ridiculous; it could arise only in a society so rich and so mild that actual injury is rare. Princesses in such places lower their thresholds to ever tinier peas of perturbation, until mere dust grains provoke howls.

Someone's issues don't need to become my issues, and it's pure narcissism to presume otherwise. What's more, as far as I can see, chronic offense-takers enjoy the friction. Why else would they make it a central preoccupation? In that light, I dutifully accept my occasional role to serve as the grist they so evidently crave.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


I'm kind of proud of a metaphor I buried in my Chowhound posting about my recent Dallas/Austin trip, so I thought I'd float it as its own posting. Speaking of two high-end Austin restaurants:

Juniper and Laundrette: chi-chi scenes serving Purina Trust Fund Chow. Both very good at what they do, I hate to be a downer. But this sort of place always leaves me a bit cold. Does anyone ever, ever, EVER shut their eyes and pound the table with their fist over the deliciousness at such places? They're like comedy shows where you never actually laugh, but frequently nod sagely and pronounce, grim-faced, "Funny!".
Understand that I'm certainly not damning all high-end restaurants. Some things can't be done cheaply, and I enjoy that part of the spectrum when it's good. Rather, I'm describing the genre of intense, reverential, slightly arrogant "tasting menu"-ish small plate operations (Momofuku and Luksus come to mind in NYC), which in my experience elicit far more analysis than inspiration. And per Leff's Sixth Law , if you're analyzing what you're eating, that means you're not eating something truly great. The very greatest things make you lose your mind.

It's not a matter of "comfort food" preference; i.e. massaging one's brain with dully nostalgic primal taste cues. I'm not tossing aside your black miso foie gras so I can strap on a feedbag of pasty mashed potatoes. I'm talking about the other extreme; of elevation. Toss back a sip of 1959 Château Margaux and just try to speak coherently about the experience in its immediate aftermath.

Austin/Dallas Trip

I want to write here on the Slog about the two most interesting places I found on my recent Dallas/Austin trip, but until I get to it, here's a massive rundown of trip highlights, posted to Chowhound.

Click the photos to expand them for extra porn.

Shrimp Enchiladas at Campuzano's Fine Mexican Food in Waxahachie.

Soggy Potato Chips with Canned Corn, Chile Sauce, and Cheese at Sabor Fresco
(the Jean Georges of junky Mexican street food) in Pflugerville, near Austin.

Pie at Lula Jane's in Waco

Burnt Ends App at 18th & Vine (a perverse Kansas City-style barbecue in Dallas)

Fried Okra at 18th & Vine

Monday, November 9, 2015

Salmon Pancakes

These aren't anything like conventional salmon cakes...or, really, anything else I've ever seen. I broil or grill a small slab of salmon with chopped scallions, chop the fish, and use it to make savory salmon pancakes (using superb Kodiak pancake mix, which is better than anything I can make from scratch). I got the inspiration from Jacques Pepin's Scallop Pancakes (admittedly an entirely different thing).

I've not yet worked out how to ensure they remain intact, but at least they taste good. However, sauce is needed. I got some suggestions at Chowhound
. Not all the replies appealed to me, but I "favorited" the ones that did.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Punjabi Joe's Ancient Lentil Tofu Soup With Saag Dregs

Last week, I cooked sarson ka saag (spicy puree of greens) and makki di roti (Punjabi cornbread). The next night, I perked up the leftovers by making Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti. Then, as the makki di roti were drying out, I made Tofu Saag With Corny Crackers.

And now, down to dregs, I heated a few tablespoons of Trader Joe's Lentil Soup With Ancient Grains (which is great on its own, but I also like to treat it as an ingredient), dumped in the saag dregs, along with some frozen mixed vegetables and artichoke hearts, a whole bunch of leftover watercress, and, once again, some tofu for protein:

Other postings in this series:
Part 1 (previous)
Part 2 (previous)
Part 3 (previous)

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tofu Saag With Corny Crackers

Earlier this week, I cooked sarson ka saag (spicy puree of greens) and makki di roti (Punjabi cornbread). The next night, I perked up the leftovers by making Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti.

Today, I'd eaten chicken for lunch and didn't want to repeat, but I always try to eat a protein of some sort. So I cubed some tofu, braised it with cumin and jalapeño, then added it to the leftover saag. The makki di roti had dried out, so I made a virtue of it by grilling it (greaselessly) until quite dry, then I tore it up into pieces and floated it atop, ala corny crackers:

Other postings in this series:
Part 1 (previous)
Part 2 (previous)
Part 4

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chicken Saag With Makki di Roti

I previously explained how I'd cooked sarson ka saag (a spicy, garlicky dish of pureed greens) and makki di roti (corn roti).

And then there were leftovers! Here was my first variation:

I marinated (see my primer on marination) a couple pounds of chicken breast tenders in milk (sorry, ancestors), onion, saffron, cumin, and jalapeño for 45 minutes, then broiled until just barely brown on both sides. I chopped the chicken into bite sized chunks, added them to rewarmed sarson ka saag, and immediately served with leftover makki di roti, which I'd heated gently on the same cast iron griddle (no oil, just heat and a very watchful eye).

Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods on a scale of 1 to 10, the previous night's efforts had rated a "7": Soulless but good (hey, it was my first time; I never expected to nail "good"!). Adding chicken (plus refrigeration's salubrious effect on the stew) bumped it up to an 8 ("Elicits vocal expression of pleasure. Appreciated with gusto").

As the French say, walla:

Since I'd used very little ghee, it was even healthy!

A note about chicken cutting. While I like vegetables cut professionally and evenly, I prefer bite-sized meat chunks cut more raggedly. I dislike the fibrous face of smoothly-cut cooked meats...there's a reason "pulled pork" (pulled everything these days) is so popular. Many creative triumphs stem from a willingness to try the wrong way!

Have a close look at the frontmost poultry in that photo, and I think you'll understand why I opted to hack it haphazardly with a dull butter knife. Same goes for the chicken in my very proud 5 minute taco recipe. You get better texture, mouthfeel diversity, and sauce-clingability with rough cutting.

Other postings in this series:
Part 1 (previous)
Part 3
Part 4

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cooking Punjabi Soul Food

(click images for close-ups)

Last night I made one of my favorite Indian dishes, the widely beloved Punjabi soul food dish of sarson ka saag and makki di roti. The former is a spicy, garlicky dish of pureed greens (similar to the various palak dishes you've had), and the latter is roti made with corn meal, which sounds strange until you realize how much corn Indians actually eat over there (if not over here).

Good luck getting Indians to agree on which green "saag" actually is; credible authorities say mustard greens, spinach, or chopped broccoli. But I went to Patel Brothers (the essential Indian grocery chain in the NY tristate region), and they've hung their "saag" sign over a bin of broccoli rabe. So I went with that.

This was the first time I've cooked Indian food in 25 years (long story), and I learned stuff. Notice that this is all work in progress; I've only made this once, so I'll surely refine everything in future attempts.

Have you ever embarked on a new recipe and realized, midway through, that far more work was involved than you'd expected? This was the opposite. I'd briefly read through a number of sarson ka saag recipes (this one, this one, this one, and this one) and makki di roti ones (this one and this one), and they all seemed rather vague. Now I understand why. These dishes are almost crazily error tolerant. These are the Toyota Camrys of recipes.

And even though I was mostly working from this recipe, itself so stripped down that the author felt obliged to defend herself ("You can add onion, tomatoes and different other spices if you like it. Try this one and i am sure you’ll forget all the other seasonings"), it could be stripped down further still. A lot of pains I took in cooking this stuff were unnecessary. So I've distilled it to its essentials. Just read these straight through; you can truly learn/grasp/internalize both recipes from a light read:

Sarson Ka Saag

Clean and stem a bunch or two each of mustard greens, broccoli rabe, spinach, and, if you can find them, "bathua leaves" (aka amaranth, lamb's quarters, pigweed). Boil a couple cups of water in a dutch oven, and toss in the leaves. Cook for a while (doesn't matter how long) at medium heat, then use an immersion blender on them.

Reduce heat to low, and add plenty of finely-chopped garlic and three or four finely-sliced small green chilis, 1/2 teaspoon asafoetida (available at any Indian market), plenty of salt, and a couple tablespoons of corn flour (for thickening). Add the corn flour gradually or else it'll lump up. Cook at low heat. Check for thickness, and add more corn flour if it's very runny.

In a pan, fry crushed garlic and a whole lot of freshly-grated ginger in as much ghee as you can stomach. Add to the pot and stir (you can also dole out the cooked ginger/garlic atop individual portions at serving time). Done!

Makki di Roti

Mix fine corn flour (Mexican masa mix is easiest to find) and corn meal (proportion doesn't matter) to total 3 cups. Throw in a bowl with some salt, a handful of finely chopped cilantro leaves, a few finely sliced small green chilis, and 1/2 tsp ajwain/carom seeds (again, available at Indian markets, and these are essential). Mix thoroughly. Add very hot water, mixing lightly with a spoon or spatula, until it's wet enough to hand-knead. Let cool until you can handle without burning hands, then knead until texture is even.

Grease the insides of a sealable bag. Form a small dough ball, place in bag, and flatten - with a roller if the dough is tough, or with your hand if it's moist. Remove very carefully*, and cook over medium heat in a cast iron skillet lightly (or not so lightly) greased with ghee. Be careful to cook both sides thoroughly. Clean pan between batches, or you'll wind up with burnt bits on your roti (per my bottom photo).

That's the whole thing. There are very intricate recipes out there, but this was the easiest cooking imaginable, and turned out great and authentic!

* - Removing the roti from the greased bag is the tricky part. One alternative is to place the dough ball directly in the pan, and smash it down with your (wet) hand - being careful not to burn yourself. Don't let the dough dry out so much that you can't make it reasonably thin and flat. One tip is to aim for thinner centers and thicker circumferences.

Other postings in this series:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hillary's Week

Everyone's been commenting on Hillary Clinton's two big boosts this week: her very fine performance at the Benghazi hearings, and Biden's decision not to run. It's strange (and symptomatic of the quality of political punditry) that no one's thought to note the third - and greatest - boost: Jeb Bush's fade. He's laid off of 40% of his staff due to lack of hard money (the sort of funds that pay payrolls, as opposed to his hundreds of millions in soft money - i.e. super PAC funds usable for blitzing ads).

A Clinton vs Bush showdown would bore the bejesus out of both sides of the equation, especially in an election where extreme political boredom has boosted out-of-the-mold candidates like Trump, Carson, and Sanders. Clinton vs Bush apathy would have disproportionally affected Democrats and independents (re the old chestnut: "Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line"), but there's nothing boring about Clinton vs Rubio. So Bush's fade was the best news for Hillary Clinton all week.

Speaking of the Benghazi hearings, I watched the last couple hours and was impressed. For two decades, Mrs. Clinton has been mostly an enormous Thanksgiving parade balloon head to me. Like Oprah Winfrey, she's seemed to have been celebrated mostly for her indefatigable omnipresence; I never quite understood what either of them was actually good at, aside from an unshakable core of preternatural self-satisfaction. Merely "being a strong, successful woman", at this late date (when there are lots of them out there) seems like an awfully sparse trigger for mass adulation.

But at those hearings (for which she was, obviously, prepped within an inch of her life, but still), she seemed solid. Not just calculating, but highly competent, controlled, level-headed, and steady. I hadn't seen this side before, and these are very good qualities for a president. I can't even look at Clinton when she's campaigning (where she projects nothing so much as smug neediness and vapidity), but she struck me as exactly the kind of steady decision-maker who'd make a good president*.

But I am (depending on his eventual running mate) still for Lessig.

There's something Obama keeps repeating which has finally sunk in for me: no easy decisions reach the president, so he's constantly choosing between distasteful options. This explains why so many decisions inevitably disappoint a president's supporters; the latitude simply isn't as wide as we'd imagine. Obama, whatever you think of him, has been brilliant at the long game of choosing moderately distasteful solutions which, in the aggregate, push his principles forward long run.

I think this is really pretty much the whole gig; the ability to cooly, nimbly take the two steps backward that will, in time, spur situations three steps forward. George W Bush and Ronald Reagan profoundly lacked this ability; they operated from conviction in blunt gestures, never letting prickly details confuse their "clarity". After watching Hillary Clinton at the Benghazi hearings, I'm above all convinced she has a deep facility (which I can't imagine to be matched by any current candidate; certainly not Bernie Sanders) for the sort of detail-informed pragmatic decision-making which, again, is pretty much the whole gig.

Maybe it's not that she's a cold-blooded calculator/triangulator, after all. Maybe she's just highly deliberate and thoughtful.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Involuntarily Blurting Out Random Stuff After Flashing Recollections of Embarrassment

Thank god for the Internet.

This is something which has embarrassed me all my life, and made me suspect I'm neurologically miswired (perhaps Tourettes?). But according to this discussion on wonderful Ask Metafilter , it turns out that a great many people do the same thing...and feel the same way about it. Surprisingly, most people do it in strikingly similar fashion. They even blurt out the same exact random phrases!

Further googling reveals more and more and more overgrown discussions where multitudes confess they do the same. Perhaps everyone does?

I'd assumed this was anxiety-related behavior, but after a decade of very rigorous meditation, that could hardly be a factor...yet the behavior remains. Perhaps it's a side-effect of a particularly vivid imagination. Another downside, like depression, for those gifted/cursed with creativity.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Leff's Law of Explanations

If you build something which you think might confuse people, and try to compensate via explanation, most people won’t notice the explanation...and of those who do notice, most will misunderstand it...and of those who do understand, most won’t remember it.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

No One's Deleting the Chowhound Archives!

At the bottom of a long comment thread in reply to an old posting to this sparsely trafficked Slog, I noted that when Chowhound is no longer economically viable, it will be turned off, along with the incredibly important archives (I also ripped into a commenter who'd cavalierly and wrongly insisted that archive loss was a non-concern).

So now people are in a panic, worried that CBS is about to delete the archives. Rumors spread fast when people are upset. Sigh, sorry about that.

As I reassured hounds here, there is NO reason to think CBS will EVER delete the archives so long as there's a Chowhound on the Internet. The archives are a huge part of the attraction!

But if the "Fuck CBS!" paramilitary partisans were to succeed in killing all Chowhound participation (they have nowhere near such power; it ain't gonna happen), the archives would die with it...and that would be bad news for all Chowkind. So my point was "be more careful what you wish for". That's all.

I've long urged more people to open more forums, and I wish luck to everyone doing so now. May their communities flourish, and may Chowhound benefit from some welcome churn and new blood at year seventeen in its long history. Everyone eat, post, and be happy!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

More Chowhound Redesign Angst

Another day, another email from a disconsolate Chowhound member (here was the last one).

Hi Jim --

You don't know me, but..... Is there any chance I could prevail upon you to use your considerable power [sic] to do something about that disaster of a new site?

You've no doubt seen the reactions of others. I was hoping I could take advantage of a desire on your part to preserve the incredible gem you created.

THANK YOU, in advance, just for reading this.
Hi! Thanks for writing!

Some historical perspective for you. The old Chowhound site, while I ran it, delivered 100mb index files to every user every three clicks or so....over dial-up connections. If you’re not technical, what I’m saying is that the software was almost completely unviable. It was sheer torture to use. It was something to work around and put up with. (Here's an explanation of how this came to be, though you may want to read this series from the beginning).

It also worked really well to ensure that the only people who stuck around through the duress were really serious food lovers. To this day, whatever level of expertise remains in force is due to that adversity, which did a fantastic job of filtering our usership by repelling nearly all the casual eaters.

No doubt, this redesign was awful. It’s almost unusable. But it’s still way more usable than it once was. Here’s the thing: the hounds who remain, who squat within this awkward new landscape and calculate ways to work around it, will be awesome. The community will be better than ever. All the causal ditzy users will give up and split.

I’m not a masochist, but I kinda look forward to apocalypse. Great things happen amid ruin. That’s where humanity does its best work. Make people comfortable in the perfect software environment (or any other perfect environment) and they'll get lazy and ditzy. That’s when the Olive Garden people took over. Now they'll be gone (and hopefully CBS will keep the lights on in spite of the traffic dip).

Just some very long view perspective; hope it helps!


My previous posting about this redesign spurred many comments. I think my final reply within that comment stream managed to get to the heart of things. I'll reprint it below:
What really makes no sense are the folks in total anguish about losing this really important community and part of their existence, when there really is nothing chasing them away.

Exactly. Even as one of them even insists it's about people, not software.

I've seen the same happen after every make-over, upgrade, and re-do of every online forum I've ever run or participated in. Even when the changes are smart, reason has no part of the response. Freaking out and acting irrationally (e.g. the notion that a FB group would provide a better environment) is what humans do when their communities are radically upended.

It's easiest to understand by visualizing reaction if real-world communities were radically and unilaterally changed overnight. Even if you woke up to discover that the water faucets pour champagne, there'd be extreme angst. It's deep. It's limbic.

Obviously, this ain't just software. And companies like CBS Interactive should understand that change (even positive change) must be gentle if you don't want to outrage the citizenry. And, 20 years into Internet culture, community members should have learned that they're ALWAYS forced into workarounds. The old workarounds feel comfortable, and the new problems will spur new workarounds that will come to feel equally comfortable. We're all squatters; always were, always will be.

But, no. It's the ancient dynamic of ham-handed administrators and anguished users. They can't even hear each other.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Famous Rosa Making Orecchiette

Holy crap. I had no idea this is how orecchiette are made. You can stop around the 2 minute point.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Chowhound Redesign (and the urge to stomp away in a pique)

Chowhound's completed a ghastly convoluted redesign, making the site so crazily flexible that no one could possibly make use of it.

For years now, I've heard complaints of CBS's neglect of the property, and have frequently reminded people that neglect is not necessarily a bad thing (see "Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority" here). Now we're seeing the proof - i.e. what happens when authorities get their hands all up in it. It's not pretty.

So I just got an email from a longtime user:
Hi Jim,

The new chowhound site design is awful, so I'm helping migrate [my local user community] to a Facebook group. I recognize Facebook Groups might not be the perfect platform choice, but I figured the reach provided might enable the communities to get back to critical mass. Perhaps you can suggest others setup similar local groups (that can be loosely strung together)? Would be sad to see such a great global community die as a result of this redesign!
I'll offer my reply publicly, in case it's of use to others.


I'd urge you to carefully weigh, clarify, and separate issues in your mind.

It would, as you suspect, be super uncomfortable using Facebook for this. It will be particularly hard to access/search previous discussion, and, as you know, previous discussion's where the gold is.

So you can scout alternatives, e.g. Google Groups and other forum communities, or the installation of forum software on your own server, etc.. Any solution will involve huge compromises; none will feel "right". But, after much consideration, you may settle on something, at which point you may need to recruit a techie to set it all up, plus you'll need to get word out to participants.

Then you'll need to moderate the discussion, and that's a nightmare (for an idea of what's involved there, see my tale of the sale of Chowhound, where I reveal what goes on behind the curtain). Even if you make it private and keep out the kooks, it will be no surprise to any student of human nature that groups of people resist management, so bad feeling is inevitable. Unmoderated discussion, even in a closed group, quickly devolves to useless chat, off-topic sprawl, and fighting.

I'm leaving out a couple dozen other hurdles, but understand that, no matter what, you'll kill yourself to maintain a community amid an uncomfortable, inadequate, ill-fitting software environment.

Or…..you can use CBS's current uncomfortable, inadequate, ill-fitting software environment, with no time/work/recruitment/tech/moderation overhead whatsoever.

I feel your pain. I understand the impulse to angrily walk away. But consider what you're walking into. No matter what, you'll have to find clever workarounds to make wrong software work, but, hey, Chowhounds are good at workarounds! Finding workaround to the current obstacles would be eminently saner than leaving in a huff and finding yourself out of the frying pan and into a fire. OTOH, I wish you godspeed (and vast deliciousness) either way!


See also the commentary, below, as well as this follow-up posting.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sucrose = Fructose

Guess what? The high-fructose corn syrup furor was yet another trumped-up diet hysteria. Sugar, in any form, isn't good for you, especially in excess. But it's been proven that high fructose corn syrup's no worse.

See: Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

5 Minute Tacos

After thousands of experiments, this is the most reliable, fastest, easiest taco recipe I've devised. With no prep, you can be eating delicious chicken tacos within five minutes.

The principles, obviously, also work with other proteins.

Applebee's Forever

Still going with the Applebee's.

Monday, September 7, 2015

I'm (Provisionally) for Lessig

I can't vote for any of the Republicans. I believe immigrants are the engine of our economy (plus I value diversity), I don't think taxes are too high, I think austerity's a self-defeating approach to recession, I've had it with dim-witted neo-conservative hawkish hubris, and I prefer an evenly-split Supreme Court (a Republican's appointee(s) would skew it firmly conservative for at least a generation).

Plus, I'm incensed over a few Republican moves that struck me as near-treasonous - the government shutdown brinksmanship, the letter to the Iranian mullahs insisting we won't honor an elected president's negotiated treaties, and the openly-stated policy to oppose literally every Obama proposal from day one (no matter how much the nation might need it, like the Jobs Bill), including even Republican-originated policy such as the Affordable Care Act. The Democrats were certainly obstructive under Bush, but nothing like that. Dems came together for the good of the country (and, re: the Military Authorization Against Iraq, for the bad of the country, too). You can put party ahead of nation, but you'll have certainly lost my vote. Buh-bye.

Hillary's a hawk (pretend long enough and it freezes), and I honestly suspect something's seriously wrong with her (if you're Hillary Clinton, you do not give scandal-happy foes red meat like this clunk-headed email situation, which was perfectly avoidable; it eerily reminds me of Bill and his blowjobs).

I admire some of Bernie Sanders' positions, but while I've long ago outgrown my Libertarianism, and no longer see the government as my enemy, I recoil from someone so callow as to call himself a Socialist. As I once wrote:
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.
Sanders seems downright fond of 1973. And while no one president has the latitude to sharply change a society's direction, I'm mistrustful of his hand on the rudder. Like Trump, he strikes me as more of a venter than a political pragmatist. The left rues Obama's half-measures, but he's gotten an enormous amount done via patient and skilled realpolitik. He's been an incredible centrist president (and I suspect history will judge him so). And Bernie ain't that.

That leaves Lawrence Lessig, who declared his candidacy yesterday after raising $1M in small donations. As someone who creates for a living, I was incensed by Lessig's "Information Must Be Free" shtick - his defense of file-sharing, etc.. I saw him as pandering, and found it hypocritical from a guy who writes expensive books, himself. In fact, I at one point planned to dump the sum total of Lessig's on-sale writings into public domain, but finally decided not to, because it would have harmed his publishers.

But he's right on this one. He announced yesterday he's definitely running for president, and you ought to read his statement, which is short, readable, and persuasive. He'll be a one-issue "referendum" candidate; the plan is to win office, effect drastic campaign finance reform, and immediately quit. I agree that the issue of money in politics precedes all other problems (for example, climate change will never be addressed unless we ease the chokehold of billionaires on politics....it's one of many issues the people want addressed but the donor class does not).

I'm not normally a referendum kind of guy, but I agree this issue has developed into a cancer, and must be stamped out. Even if Lessig loses, his support base will register with the other candidates. I want to see that base be huge. If you feel likewise, please consider contributing (so he can communicate more) and spreading the word. Let's all be his collective billionaire.

In the end, it will all come down to the quality of Lessig's VP candidate (the person who'll actually serve). But for now, I'm in.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Applebee's Raves on Chowhound

A Chowhound user raves about his swell meal at Applebees. And I respond.

I'm not tilting at windmills. This is the way to do it: by enticing, rather than shaming...one person at a time (always remember: many are silently reading along).

If you abandon good resources when you spot dilution, you are just as responsible for the dilution as the clueless encroachers. More so, in fact, because those guys usually don't know better.

Chowhound isn't a remote TV station to be passively watched. Every user's a program director. We can invest effort to make it a wonderland, or permit it to devolve. It's up to every last user. You determine the dilution. Consider: when Chowhound's gone - or useless - where exactly will you go?

Skilled chowhounds who complain about how not enough good stuff's posted anymore remind me of this:
My parents were perpetually indignant about how, as they kept moving further eastward on Long Island, the assholes from Brooklyn kept following them and ruining the rural landscape. They never realized that we, ourselves, were the Brooklyn assholes who kept moving eastward and ruining things!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

A Unique Perspective on Depression

Nothing I've read on the subject of depression has ever rung true for me. Depression isn't a lack of energy (though the sufferer seems, to external observers, to lack it), and it doesn't feel like sadness. It's a whole other thing. And I believe I have a fresh way to articulate it.

The core mental process is very simple, even though outcomes may be complex: the mind obsessively locks into endless rumination.

There are great benefits to the ability to invest attention in repetition. A composer, for example, faces impasses where he's unsure of the best next note. The time-tested method is to loop back for another running start at the impasse, hoping something new/fresh/useful pops up. If not, repeat. Again and again and again and again! That's the underpinning of creativity: the capacity for deeply immersed mental repetition.

Most people are incapable of it. Uncreative people marvel at those able to create beauty. They assume it simply "comes to them". Which is both true and false...it indeed "comes to them" (no creative person believes they own their epiphanies), but nothing about it is simple. Creative people give inspiration ample opportunity to arrive. Myriad match strikes might draw nary a flicker. You ceaselessly roll the impasse around in your mind, attention locked like a vise. Eventually, ingeniousness arrives. Eureka! And you move on to the next impasse.

Creative people don't ignite ingenious flickers more easily. They're just more committed to the process. They tolerate the tedious looping, because it's their nature to thirst for the treasure at the end of the infinite loop.

Obsessive rumination is a great boon to humanity; it's responsible for all our beauty, all our insights. It's also the worst of human curses when rumination locks onto something unanswerable, e.g. Why are humans so cruel? Why does my life seem to lack meaning? Why did my friend/child/parent die?

You may ruminate and ruminate, but there's no answering. No flame to be kindled, no ingenious solution, no treasure at the end of the loop. Just a misuse of rumination for a "problem" you well know to be insolvable. It's the creative mind's version of angrily shaking one's fist at heaven and crying "Why must it be thus?"; an endless re-steeping in the drama of a fait accompli; a neurotic looping of outraged despair. Outrage and despair are natural (and useful) human emotions. The looping, however, is another thing.

In its healthier applications, repetitive rumination works best when it's all-consuming. The outer world dims as all resources obsessively feed the rumination. We literally create a new internal world, and nourish it with our attention. Everyday creation (with a lower-case 'c') is much like Creation. For a new reality to be born, one loses touch with the outside world - the old reality - for a while. Observers think you lack energy, but your internal furnace roars. The disconnection is a sacrifice creative people periodically make (Beethoven worked in a diaper). It's worth it for the eventual beauty, insight, or "eureka!". The deeper your lock, the deeper your result.

However, when rumination is tenaciously applied to unsolvable issues, you're taken out of the world without reward or result. The lights go out but nobody's home. One endlessly sucks a lozenge of horror in response to some inescapable reality. That's depression. And a given bout of depression or grieving only ends when one tires of the empty, fruitless repetition. The obsessive reconsideration of unviable options simply gets boring.

The strategy of taking myriad running starts at an impasse, hoping for a breakthrough, has created all our art and science, but it is a failed approach for emotional impasses. That's the misapplication of a useful tool; a self-inflicted torture of horrific immersion for no good purpose.

Creative people aren't prone to depression because the creative life is difficult. They get depressed from misuse of the unique faculties of their creative minds.

Further reading:
The Main Cause of Major Depression
Depression Resuscitation Kit
A Surprisingly Uplifting Examination of Suicide
The Evolution of a Perspective
Framing as Hilarious or as Catastrophe
All writings on depression in reverse chronological order

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