Saturday, December 31, 2016

DCReport: New Trump Watchdog Operation

I've previously urged everyone to subscribe to Washington Post and NY Times (digital subscriptions), and any other media fighting the good fight. Journalism will be under siege, and we need smart reporting more than ever.

David Cay Johnston is a veteran, old-school, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. He's covered Donald Trump for 30 years(!) and recently wrote a definitive book on Trump (here's a quick overview). He does non-sensationalist, painstakingly reported work. He's not a screamer, he's a nerd, and is thorough and dogged in his investigations. You know, like journalism used to be!

Johnston is starting a new venture, DCReport ("A new kind of news operation for the Trump era") to serve as a watchdog on the new administration (read their short mission statement), and he's working unpaid, because it's too important not to start immediately, before his ducks are in a row. He's seeking public support, and his mantra is "Others quote what Trump Tweets. We report on what the Trump Administration does."

Consider donating today, then again next week (for a 2017 tax deduction). Perhaps increase your standard donation quantity. The Trump administration is well aware that tens of millions of people don't like them, so marching and moaning are of little usefulness. Support operations like like Johnston and crew, that can shed light and counterbalance.

Pass it on, please.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Followup to "The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told"

The wildest and wooliest story of the entire hyper-ambitious "Chow Tour" I undertook for CNET (which started here) was reported in installment #31: "The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told". It was an agony/ecstasy tale of driving all day in pursuit of multiple holy grails which all fizzled, only to find redemption and divine consolation at the very moment me and my friend JB were sure we'd have our yankee asses trotted off to jail by law enforcement in the hamlet of Mount Vernon, Kentucky. God bless you, Officer Bill, wherever you are.

After you've read it, check out JB's notes from his recent follow-up visit:
10 years after "The Greatest Chowhounding Story Ever Told" I am finally in Kentucky for a Christmas family weekend when Derby City Truck Stop is open for fish fry Friday.

Forget the fresh-from-the-freezer crinkle fries; the store bought coconut cream pie; the overly bread-y hush puppies, and the indelicate frying of the okra. These are only signs that Derby City Truck Stop lacks the staffing to do all things right (with one man in the kitchen and one woman staffing the rest of the restaurant on her own), not that they have lost their touch, which was so evident 10 years ago.

The fried catfish was the experienced headliner, well worth the hour long drive. Appropriately greasy, flavorful, fresh, and apparently limited in quantity -- only three orders available to be hungrily shared by our party of six.

A bonus from the fryer: fried green tomatoes. If the fish wasn't quite the best (those memories of 10 years ago are so hard to top), the tomatoes take that trophy this time. Delicately crunchy, deceptively sweet, savory without being salty, I've never before had food appear as if one more moment in the fryer could have ruined it and one less wouldn't have been enough.

Dessert starred, as well. Cobbler was a touch low on fruit-to-crust ratio, but was the best from first bite to last; fully ripe fruit with an almost savory balance. Bread pudding was indescribable in detail, the heady taste of forgotten nostalgia. 

- JB
Click on each of these to expand for full mouthwateringness...

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Trump's Nixonian Playbook

I praised it last month, and Washington Post's invaluable "Daily 202" email (sign up here or read on web here) continues to offer some of the most insightful and non-dramatic coverage of the Trump situation. Always cogent analysis and pointers to stuff I'd missed. The feature assumes you've heard the loud reactions to big ticket news items, so it goes deeper and feeds you fresh thoughts, connections, and reports.

This was a particularly good one, about Trump's would-be "crazy like a fox" foreign policy, and how much he's drawing on Nixon's playbook (and even some of Nixon's players). An excerpt:
THE BIG IDEA: Donald Trump appears to have embraced, with gusto, Richard Nixon’s “Madman Theory” of foreign policy. He thinks he can use his reputation for unpredictability and lack of respect for long-standing international norms to unnerve and then intimidate America’s adversaries into making concessions that they would not otherwise make.

The Chinese government’s decision yesterday to return the naval drone that it had seized in the South China Sea, despite howls of protest about Trump’s braggadocio, might be the first vindication of this approach.

-- A generation ago, Nixon wanted to convince the Soviets and their North Vietnamese clients that he was a hot-head willing to use nuclear weapons. The goal then was to scare the communists into negotiating. In some ways, this was the nub of the secret plan he talked so much about during the 1968 campaign – just as Trump insisted that he had a secret plan to get rid of ISIS during the 2016 race. “I call it the Madman Theory,” the then-president explained to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, as they walked along a foggy beach one day. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘For God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button!’ And Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Elites in Washington and across the world think Trump is crazy, but the president-elect has demonstrated repeatedly that he can be crazy like a fox. He knew exactly what he was doing when he called for a Muslim ban, for instance, or picked fights with people on Twitter to distract the press from much bigger problems. We’ve already learned that Trump’s phone call with the leader of Taiwan was not some spontaneous faux pas but a carefully-planned recalibration of U.S. policy.

For Trump’s stratagem to work, foreign leaders must continue to believe that he’s erratic and prone to irrational overreaction. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” Trump often said on the campaign trail. “We have to be unpredictable!”
Washington Post has been great throughout this catastrophe; support independent journalism by springing for a $99 digital subscription. Don't just moan and groan; support and strengthen the institutions that can push back!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Subtlety of Truth

When I was a child, I worked intently at developing my intuition. I had a feeling (an intuition!) that amid my generally anxious, confused mental activity there was solid stuff. The rub was distinguishing signal from noise. So I worked at that.

Here's what I discovered: real intuition - i.e. "truth" - speaks softly, and does not repeat itself. Here's the glib billboard-ready version: "The Devil shouts, but God whispers." If you have a "feeling" about something, and it's beating you over the head, it's surely just a projection of your fears and hopes. Quiet knowing is easy to miss amid louder, flashier mental activity, but it's always the solid stuff.

I wrote, a year ago:
...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.
I wrote here about a friend who suffered from crippling muscle bruises. I asked him if he'd tried stretching, and he told me, sure, he does that all the time. He stretches each muscle to the point of pain....and then he stretches it a bunch more. I stared at him, waiting for the sound of his own voice to penetrate. It did not. So I stated the obvious. And he grew angry at me (click the link for the full story).

When I was a young man, I'd holler and harangue to make people see their own folly. It did not go well. After years of meditation, I've turned the volume down and down, until, at this point, I say it very quietly (almost intentionally letting it be missed), and I don't repeat. Sometimes it's heard and it helps, but mostly it's missed. But I no longer feel a sputtering sense of anxiety. It's okay that it's missed. It's okay for people to make themselves needlessly miserable, and it's okay to listen to their complaints and tales of sorrow. At some level they want this - it's the movie they've selected for themselves. Who am I to insist?

Once you've let go of the steering wheel, and dropped the baggage, you find yourself playing for a different team. Instead of awaiting the quiet intuitive voice, you discover that you've given yourself over to it. Your voice speaks that intuition. And it speaks quietly.

Every word of this is horribly counterintuitive for most people. It certainly was for me. Shouldn't truth be loud and brash and all-consuming? Wouldn't the shouting devil tend to win out over a whispering God? It's an important question, seldom-asked.

Take a look around you. Whatever process put these stupendously beautiful trees all over this planet for our delight never bellows from the skies, cajoling us to look up at them more often. "Creation" is the most modest act of creation ever. We are absolutely free to miss beauty, to choose misery, to focus on whatever obsession we please, and, having narrowed our focus, to bitterly decry the world's dreary narrowness. We enjoy the ultimate free-play explorative video game. No card's forced. Humans act in a plethora of ways, many of them bat-shit insane, and that diversity seems to be the beauty of it all. Yet the truth - the solid stuff - pervades, as a silent whisper, far too subtle for most ears (Atlas brushes off the truth-telling because he's so occupied with holding up the universe). It tilts our conviction and will alter our perspective if we make ourselves even the least bit responsive. It's so small. It's so almost-nothing.

But it's inextinguishable. That .00001% tilt of the playing field will, over time, pull in all players. Bold, showy forces frequently seize our attention, but the unwavering truth will eventually prevail.

But how does this apply to Donald Trump, you ask? Strangely, that actually is where I'm headed. Everyone is, understandably, freaking out about our devolution into a post-factual society. With so much falsehood screaming, how can the truth find any foothold? Has connection with the truth been lost?

The quiet answer: humanity is finding yet another knot to tie itself up in. These big, bold moves - up and down, side-to-side - are the game we make for ourselves. It's cyclical (comedy/drama/comedy/drama etc), and it's for our own entertainment (to ponder: why do humans love rollercoasters?). But this tempestuous entertainment plays out on a slightly tilted table.

So don't worry about the truth. With the distinct advantage of being true, it pervades, always, however quietly. It may not grab, but it always tugs - even when we get riled up and ignore those subtle tugs in the midst of bigger bigness. The Devil shouts, but God whispers. As the show gets tempestuous - as the devil shouts louder and we grok the Chinese warning about "living in interesting times" - stay responsive to subtlety. Don't expect God to shout back. That's just not how it works. Nietzsche was wrong; it's not that He's given up.

Every link is essential. They spare me from having to write ponderous 10,000 word essays, rather than ponderous 1000 word ones! My problem in life is that my thoughts hang on a jenga tower of opaque, sadly unique assumptions and conclusions. Only here in my Slog can I refer directly to those building blocks. This is, essentially, my only possible means of expression. If blogging hadn't been invented, I'd be forever trapped in banal smalltalk and manic food enthusing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Best Sichuan I've Ever Found in NYC

Totally, unquestionably worth a special trip from anywhere. This is The Best Sichuan I've Ever Found in NYC.

Legend of Taste
2002 Utopia Pkwy, Whitestone, Queens
Good photos on Yelp.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Oh, Tannenbaum...."

Ah, the holidays. Relentless infection by the earworm of Jingle Bell Rock, plus having my Jewy-ness sized up by everyone I meet as they determine the appropriate salutation ("Don't mention Christmas," goes their inner monologue, "I think he's one of them!"). Fun!

Time to trot out my Guide To Holiday Greetings For Christians. Enjoy a taste of my bitterness via the excerpt, below (if you click to read the rest, it actually turns sweet and weirdly ├╝ber-Christian at the end; it was one of those postings where I didn't know where I was going till I got there):

The first and foremost thing to remember is that even though I look kinda Jewy, you will not offend me by wishing me a Merry Christmas.

Christmas is, as Fox News adamantly reminds us, a religious holiday. But in America it's also, of course, a secular holiday. "White Christmas" was written by a Jew named Irving. "The Christmas Song" (with the chestnuts roasting) was another Jew, Mel. And these weren't Jew-for-Jesus Jews. We're talking real staunchly Jewy Jews, neither of whom, obviously, blanched at the concept of Christmas. And yet you're still all nervous and weird about this whole thing!

When you peer at the size of my shnozz toward the end of a conversation, gauging my Jewiness in order to appropriately tailor your parting holiday greeting, that's offensive. My shnozz size tells you nothing about my spiritual inclinations. Watching you silently gauge whether I'm one of *Them* doesn't feel, to me, like polite or sympathetic consideration, though I realize that's your intention. It's actually quite an unpleasant sensation.

I do understand the root of it. One will indeed occasionally encounter Jews who smirk ironically when wished a merry Christmas, or even feel offended. But it's not that they're touchy Jews, per se; it's that they're touchy assholes. Every tribe has some, and striving not to offend them is a fool's errand. They'll always find something.

Such people are ridiculous to be offended by a friendly greeting. But if you genuinely offend the rest of us by 1. gauging shnozz size 2. making us feel excluded from an American holiday, and 3. acting all nervous and weird around us, all to stave off any chance of offending the touchy, well, that's just nuts.
More here.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Missing Video Link

In my last posting, I recommended a ten minute video, but forgot to provide a link. Here it is.

Is anyone even out there? Or is it that I'm so obtuse that my lapses and errors leave you assuming I've got something intentional in mind?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Race, Trump, Obama

I really dislike how race is discussed on both the Left and the Right (here are my postings on the topic), and ground zero of the liberal variety of ditzy race discussion is MSNBC. Even Chris Hayes, the network's least talking-point-oriented host, usually turns rigidly doctrinaire on racial issues.

Worse, he had, as his guest last night, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, a very bright guy and talented writer who strikes me as wielding his intellect primarily to project a deep and implacable sneer. He seems to be what I've often heard black people describe as "militant" (white people use the term, as well, but that's a different shading, and not the one I'm trying to apply). If you've read this Slog for a while, you know I strongly believe in conciliation - bending over backwards to empathize with seemingly alien perspectives. To me, staunch militancy is often The Problem, even when it serves convictions with which I agree. I get way too much mileage from pliancy - a willingness, or even eagerness, to flip perspective - for me to be a fan of the approach of digging in and scarring over. So he is not really my favorite guy.

Coates recently wrote a much-discussed mega-article for The Atlantic titled "My President Was Black." I haven't gotten around to reading it yet (smelling sanctimony in the title), but I did catch Coates on Haye's TV show last night, and found the discussion profound, thoughtful, and pliant. Coates was uncharacteristically humble, low-key, and un-embittered (and he just nailed the problem of Bernie Sanders, however reluctantly). Truth be told, I was blown away. I urge you to watch it (it's just under ten minutes).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Management, Art, and The Price

George W Bush was correct: management is primarily about decision-making. Many, many, many decisions. You must be a decision machine, just spitting them out, one after another. Steve Jobs didn't wear those black turtlenecks as shtick; it simply removed a layer of decision-making from his day. Anyone who's ever managed anything can relate.

To be successful, 95% of those decisions must be smart (I cherish my beloved headroom of 5% stupidity, and viciously defend it whenever astonishment is expressed at my lapses). That's a lot of pressure. And a certain number needs to be beyond smart - either brilliant or else just super creative. That's not pressure, however, because that's a pull, not a push. As I once wrote: "the really good stuff arrives via epiphany, eureka, and inspiration - 'out of nowhere' and hard to claim credit for."

Creativity works the same way - it's all about decisions. This note or that? This color over here or over there? Which word in that place? In fact, art (in all its myriad forms) is a much denser aggregation of decisions - by at least an order of magnitude.

It is very serious over-exertion to try to do both at once. I did it once and barely survived, and now I'm doing it again - and once again experiencing the sensation of trying to warm an ocean. But it will be over soon.

The most important part of myself absolutely thrives from giving my all, but extreme commitment also exacts a terrible price.

When my impending project - which will be unlike anything that's come before - launches in January, I really hope people enjoy it, and support it by spreading the word. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tightening Loop of Historical Repetition

In an election season bursting with horrible news, perhaps the most significant macro issue has scarcely been discussed.

Many, many people voted for Trump as a protest vote, assuming he'd never win. Or they voted Stein or Johnson as protest votes from that same assumption. Quoting the DNC's Andrew Tobias:
According to one pollster, 25% of [Trump's] votes came from people who — knowing for certain he had no path to 270 electoral votes, because that’s what the media assured them — voted for him to make a statement, but would not have if they had thought he might actually win. If that’s true, and had they voted for Hillary instead, the vote would have been something like 47 million for Trump, 80 million for Clinton. Even more if some Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters would have voted Clinton if they’d thought Trump could win."
Political observers are correctly blaming the Clinton campaign for projecting over-confidence, the cardinal political sin. They had, in countless ways, signaled that victory was inevitable, leading to false confidence among an electorate which therefore voted for reasons opposed to their fundamental interest in keeping a lunatic out of power.

But what has me queasy is that the exact same thing happened with Brexit. Countless Brexit voters, who voted for something they didn't actually want to happen, because they were confident it wouldn't happen, woke up profoundly rattled the next day. We watched that happen, and proceeded to march straight off the very same cliff.

I accept that societies endlessly repeat mistakes. We forget the lessons of history, and repeat them. The younger generation's waning enthusiasm for democratic systems, for example, makes sense, because the despots of the early 20th Century are gone from personal memory. This crop didn't grow up in the wake of WWII, so history's due for a repeat. I don't like it, but I understand it.

But the Brexit vote was just five months ago! So either our memories are getting so flighty that we now forget our history not within decades, but within weeks...or else we've lost the ability to learn entirely.

This leaves me floundering. World events have always unfolded via an unending series of reactions (usually overreactions) to the previous thing. If we no longer react - even unwisely! - but just randomly poke ahead, then all bets are off.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Jnani Train

You arrive in the midst of the story, like in a dream, finding yourself standing in the aisle of a speeding train, greatly stressed from carrying a titanic load you can neither view nor explain.

Your hands clutch many handles, your shoulders tremble with unseen weight, and the burdens on your back, hips, trunk and neck are impossible to account for - you have no idea where your body ends and the load begins. And you've been here a very, very long time; since before you can remember.

Two things seem certain: 1. The burden is nearly unendurable, and 2. It's crucial that you not drop any of it.

Why must you not let go? Strangely, you'd never considered the issue. Here you are; self-evidently the bearer of this load! Does Atlas*, who holds up the entire world, ever take a moment to ponder the necessity of his sacrifice? Of course not; he's got a world to hold up!

But suddenly there is an epiphany. The train is moving; bringing you somewhere, and your load with it. You don't need to personally transport it; it's not on you! You can drop it - drop it all! - and the train will continue to bear the weight, just as it's actually been doing all along. Your efforts were unnecessary. Unhelpful. Redundant. Wasted energy, all. Silly, really. You surrender and let go with a sense of titanic relief, but also some sheepishness. You'd somehow failed to recognize it was never your load to bear in the first place.

Glancing around the train, you see, clearly for the first time, innumerable others with similarly crushing burdens, and plead with them to simply let it drop. They are, after all, here on the train, which easily bears the weight! But your urgings only irritate them. With all they've got to struggle with, there's no patience for your nonsense.

* - Regarding Atlas, the Greek God who holds up the Earth...first, that's actually a mistranslation. Atlas wasn't holding up the Earth, he was holding up the entire universe. But the Earth makes for a better visual, so let's go with that. Here's the truth: Atlas, poor shmuck, could have let go at any time. It'd have been fine.

The Toddler and The Steering Wheel
The Evolution of a Perspective

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My First Book on Tape; My First Hemingway

I've never been a fiction reader, not sure why. I read the novels one reads in school, the de rigueur sci-fi, and the adolescent classics (Vonnegut, Salinger, Gibran, Robbins, etc.). But I never did a serious read of the classics. Being blessed/cursed with a lifestyle that exposed me to a wide range of people and places, I tried to fathom the human condition via direct observation rather than through the eyes of others.

I never read a lick of Hemingway before last year, when I bought the unabridged audiobook of William Hurt reading "The Sun Also Rises." I planned a drive to Detroit and back to accommodate the 8 hours of playing time, and I popped the disks into my car stereo.

And I quickly realized why I haven't been more attracted to fiction: my internal narrator is incredibly flat. The voices in my head as I read strike a dull monotone. I didn't realize there was any other way until I heard Hurt read. I always found nuance in the language, but never dramatic tone and contour. Strangely, I've had some acting training, and am expressive when reading aloud. But my interior "reading voice" developed before that, and I might be stuck with it.

I don't often do long drives, and my mind's too excitable to submit to a steady regimen of multi-hour books on tape. Instead, I've been trying to train my imagination to be a better actor. However, I'm certainly convinced of the power of great actors to heighten this experience.

Alas, there aren't many truly great actors reading audiobooks. But the Hurt recording is just one of a series of "name" actors Simon & Schuster hired to read Hemingway classics in a series known as "The Ernest Hemingway Audiobook Library" (reviewed by NY Times here)

In the same series:

A Farewell To Arms, read by John Slattery
To Have & Have Not, read by Will Patton
For Whom The Bell Tolls, read by Campbell Scott
Across The River & Into The Trees, read by Boyd Gaines
The Old Man & The Sea, read by Donald Sutherland
Islands In The Stream, read by Bruce Greenwood
The Garden Of Eden, read by Patrick Wilson
True At First Light, read by Brian Dennehy
Death in the Afternoon, read by Boyd Gaines
Green Hills of Africa, read by Josh Lucas
A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, read by John Bedford Lloyd
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, read by Campbell Scott
The Short Stories (three volumes), read by Stacy Keach

You can order individual ones on iTunes, Amazon, or Audbible or the whole collection, which is expensive (I got lucky and scored a used set on eBay for $75).

Audiobooks Links:
10 Audiobooks That Are Worth Getting for the Voice Acting Alone
The 10 Greatest Audiobook Narrators
The complete, original BBC radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Free Audiobooks Courtesy of's acclaimed audio version of "Heart of Darkness" " for free on iTunes
A master index of free audiobooks, including ones read by well-known figures such as Neil Gaiman and Julian Barnes.
(How to) Put your audiobooks in the cloud with iTunes Match

Friday, December 2, 2016

Westworld: The Reveal is Never That Great!

I know lots of people are watching "Westworld". Here's my gripe (no spoilers):

The problem with shows that tease and tease some mega-awesome mythology, mystery, or puzzle is that when the answer is finally revealed, it can never possibly be that mega-awesome. Wasn't this the cautionary tale of shows like "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica"? Isn't this the lesson well-learned by "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof and insightfully applied to his wonderful follow-up series, "The Leftovers" (where he's made very clear that he'll never, ever explain the show's foundational gimmick)?

Mythologies are wonderful things to bounce characters off of, to see how interesting characters respond to interesting circumstances. But if you make the puzzle the focus, you create impossible expectations...because TRINTG ("The reveal is never that great"). Humans are interesting in the micro ("Rectify"! "Hannibal"! "Louie"!). If you're imaginative, you can make the macro interesting, for a short while (e.g. a two hour film). But the downside of the the length of serialized TV is that your macro gimmick gets tedious fast, and the viewers can feel - even if only subconsciously- that TRINTG.

You could spoil me about "Westworld". Write the answer on an index card, and I'll glance at it, shrug and toss it in the trash. I just don't care! This mythology they're constantly cudgeling us with is nothing but distraction and disruption. The show drops us in a fascinating world, and it's beautifully shot and acted, and I'd like to hang out here week by week, without being constantly clobbered with the pushy demand that I figure out uninteresting mysteries whose reveal will most likely do nothing for me.

More on some of the shows mentioned

There are deeper implications: e.g. human narrative is not as mythic as we'd like to imagine. We're clever livestock. The ways in which we creatively grind against the banal contours of our worldly dramatic narratives can be beautiful and surprising (and no television show has ever risen to the level of "Rectify" in the unflappable commitment to examine the nuances of that). That's our saving grace; our transcendence. But the contours themselves - including juicy conspiracies and mysteries - are non-awesome. That's what makes our desperately hopeful overuse of the word "awesome" so adorable.

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