Friday, March 24, 2017

A Change is as Good as a Rest

When I finished my obligatory year of indentured servitude with the company that had acquired Chowhound (long, surreal, hilarious story starts here), after having spent eight years slogging to manage the overgrown web community that had taken over my life, and which itself was launched in a state of exhaustion after an impossibly ambitious book project, I figured I'd need to really take things super easy for a while.

I discovered that no length of inactivity is sufficient. Lying in a hammock feels good, and I'm all for it. But we are not video game characters, so hammock-lying does not actually recharge our power levels. It doesn't work like that! Recharging's a myth! I spent a few years trying to recharge, and it never happened. It was only when I returned to doing stuff (e.g. writing this Slog, restoring my trombone technique, and various other quests and projects) that I began to finally recover.

Inactivity is not salve, nor is hard work detrimental. Anyone who makes a habit of trying hard - who commits - can testify that therein lies the greatest human satisfaction. How the hell did we ever suppose that trying less was a route to anything good?

I really know what I'm talking about here, having ample experience both with demoralized exhaustion and with prolonged efforts to "rest". Here's the short version (which I'm told is a cliché, though no one ever told me):
"A change is as good as a rest."
I've been smarter this time. Having recently finished the two year build of an ambitious new project that was every bit as taxing as Chowhound (and which launches shortly), I've been working with an Ecuadorian construction crew in the South Bronx. I paint ceilings with a 15 foot roller, and I’m told that I'm really fast. My friends think I've gone bonkers, but, even on cold days (there’s no heat at the job sites) it’s the perfect antidote to sending 150 emails/day, haggling with techies, and sweating over promotional copy. And $75 pays for like three dinners!

Two weeks on a nice beach wouldn’t change a damn thing. Recharging's a myth! But, exhausted though a day of this labor leaves me, it's just what I need. I look forward to the jobs. A change is as good as a rest!

Plus, I get to reply to snobs who ask what I've been doing by saying "Oh, I've been doing some painting," then blithely explain as they shrink with Dumontian horror. They figure I've degenerated into sordidness, while I figure they, despite their superiority, likely wolf down handfuls of daily Prozac.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Another Perspective on Truth Rejection

The Times today published the hundred quarillionth think piece on why it's so hard to get people to drop provenly wrong assumptions (e.g. a large majority of Republicans still believe Trump's evidence-free wiretapping claims).

There's been much talk lately about confirmation bias, and other explanations for why otherwise reasonable people hold onto patently unreasonable notions. The problem is that the people who write these think pieces - who consider things like confirmation bias - are isolated from the people they're writing about. They are intellectuals who've enjoyed fancy educations, and they socialize strictly within that narrow tribe.

Having experience with a much wider range of people, the answer is very evident to me. We need to understand confirmation bias by considering the alternative. Yes, people absolutely do retreat into the comfort and security of their ideological "igloo", seeking out only opinions which soothe their preconceptions. But that's only half of the issue - and not the important half. Think of it this way:

If someone who's neither well-educated nor disciplined in their thinking suddenly strips away their "igloo" beliefs, opinions, and stances, where is that person left? The answer is nowhere. If you're not conditioned to think nimbly - to bridge and hop between various stances - you are left in a blank, larval position. It's a brain fart that never ends.

Thing is, people aren't real deep. If you peel back their most superficial layer - where they say and think the sorts of things they usually say and think, largely parroting their favorite TV pundit - you'll discover there's distressingly little remaining, aside from primal drives and fears. Most people are "faking it till they make it." There's no "there" there, just a cobbled-together set of entirely imitative thoughts and behaviors barely sufficient to create a seamless impression of intellectual autonomy.

We look upon the senile with deep pity, observing that they've tragically lost themselves! No, they haven't. They're still right there! They've just had that puny and rather useless veneer removed; they've lost their bluffing tools. When their superficial wrapper of presentation is lost - the bundle of canned, unexamined stock opinions and reactions - little remains.

One can be trained to maintain discipline in the gap between the striking down of one assumption and the building up of a replacement. It's a small trick, but one few of us develop. As a philosophy major, I was trained to feel comfortable amid this gap, but most of my friends never learned this agility. Strip away their core beliefs and assumptions - deprive them of the canned policy statements they trigger when topics arise - and they'll find themselves infantilized. And, really, who wants that?

To urge wariness of cognitive bias is to assume that people have a choice in their beliefs. People who talk about cognitive bias often do have such a choice (though they, too, will admit that they themselves frequently fall victim). But most of the population does not have a choice. It's not "this" or "that" idea; it's an "on" or "off".

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Trump's Potemkin Village

From The Atlantic's profile of Kellyanne Conway:

"She's figured out that she doesn’t need to win the argument. All she has to do is craft a semi-plausible (if not entirely coherent) counternarrative, so that those who don’t want to look past the facade of Trump’s Potemkin village don’t have to."

If you don't know about Potemkin villages, it's actually a fantastic story.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chowhound Thread on Union Square Cafe

My Chowhound thread discussing what made Union Square Cafe unique in its time, and explaining why many people report the new place isn't the same.

Ravioli Thingee

This was a solid "9". Prep time: under ten minutes. As with all my cooking, this was improvised, and isn't something one could affix a name to.

    - 1/2 cup leftover stir-fried Swiss chard (originally prepared with lots of garlic and ginger and a splash of soy sauce, and stems cooked two minutes longer than leaves)
    - 5 Trader Joe's "Beef Bolognese Ravioli"

Boil and drain ravioli.

Reheat chard in covered nonstick sauce pan over low heat (no oil, no moisture; I wanted it dry).

Splash good olive oil and either some balsamico or else this magic ingredient (made from balsamic must) into a large bowl, and add ravioli.

Cut roughly* into quarters, add chard, and stir.

* - A word about "rough" cutting. I posted a recipe to Chowhound once that called for cutting chicken roughly with a butter knife directly in the pan, and a disbelieving poster questioned this. The answer, here and there, is that precision (in cutting and in any other artistic move) is an important skill to acquire, but should never be the sole approach in your arsenal. Precisely-cut chicken in that case, and precisely-cut ravioli in this case, would not be right for the intentions of the dish. Precision, in other words, is not always preferable.

I'm reminded of the many times I've seen stuffy classical violinists play a jazz piece with the same precision they'd apply to Mozart. It sounds terrible. It's not what the situation calls for, so it's bad musicianship, even though they're applying the skills drilled into them by their teachers. Good artists don't reflexively apply the same skill set in every instance, just because they can. If you don't maintain some pliancy (in life and in art), you'll be condemned to stuffy, narrow, priggishness.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Currently Good Pizza

I sent a friend a list of current pizza I like in (loosely) the Tristate area. In roughly north-to-south order, meandering between styles, and ignoring Staten Island, Long Island, and New Jersey. This was not written for public consumption, but the beauty of producing a sleepy little Slog is that I can hopefully share it on the down-low.

Pizza House
89 Howe Street
New Haven
Very good Greek-style pizza (warning: I haven't been there in a couple years). Slices lunch-only. FYI the best Greek pizza I know is Bill’s Pizza in Portland, Maine.

Trackside Brick Oven Pizza
118 Dudley Ave
Wallingford, CT
GREAT brick oven pizza in an old railroad car down in a gully, invisible from the main road, baked by Ecuadorian dudes who worked at Pepe's/Sally's during the glory days. I wrote about this over ten years ago, and haven't been back (just too far away for me). No idea if it's still good, but it was amazing then. Here's my report, with photos (scroll down past the gym comedy stuff)

600 Mamaroneck Ave
White Plains, NY
The last great southern Italian American restaurant in the Tristate area, in a grimy tavern frozen in amber from like 1956. Chef-owner is OLD....hurry to try. His rigatoni with broccoli rabe and sausage (must ask for hot, not sweet), his garlic bread, and his garlic bread with cheese are so great that you could almost miss the fact that his thin-crusted bar pizzas (I prefer meatball) are sensational. Don't come for dinner...his assistant usually cooks. Lunches only. Sit at the bar. Enjoy Fox News.

Johnny's Pizza
30 West Lincoln Ave
Mt. Vernon, NY
Whole pies only. Assholes. Great pizza.

Razza Pizza Artigianale
275 Grove St
Jersey City, NJ
Pretentious expensive place. Full menu, but only get two things: pizza (any pizza) and bread and butter (expensive and killer great). I haven't been there in a year, so no promises, but they had a Mexican dude manning the oven who cared so deeply that the place could burn down and he'd still be carefully monitoring the pies. He was clearly riding some unfathomable wave of divinity. IF he's still there, you'll have the best brick oven pizza I know in this country. Note that the PATH train's Grove St station is right nearby.

Best Pizza
33 Havemeyer Street
Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Really inspired. Whole pies MUCH better than slices. Several times I've finished eating here and my entire party rose to their feet and applauded the kitchen. And they didn't seem surprised. Great as pizza is, the meatball parmigiano hero (made from SCRATCH) is even better, and unmissable.

Paulie Gee's
60 Greenpoint Avenue
Greenpoint, Brooklyn
You probably know about them. Dude was an amateur pizza maker, won competitions, etc, finally opened this place. Crowded. Specializes in obscure salumeria toppings.

Joe's Pizza
7 Carmine Street (near Bleecker and 6th Avenue)
Been there forever, and somehow still great. This is the last remaining great 1979 suburban shopping mall style slice pizza.

Sal's Pizza
316 Mamaroneck Ave
Mamaroneck, NY
Woops, I lied. This is also really good 1979 suburban shopping mall style slice pizza.

Sal and Carmines'
2671 Broadway (@101/102 St)
Slice pizza. Not as great as years ago, but still a very interesting slice (from the "extra salty" school).

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I would give up my car to watch Obama frankly live blog the Trump presidency.

I might even give up my home. Sleep on friends' sofas for the duration.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Explaining My Aversion to Shiny Fun Manhattan Places

I've been straining to articulate my ambivalence about spotting new venues (nightclubs, etc) in Manhattan that push my "looks fun!" buttons despite my aversion to actually taking part. I have an innate sense that they're not for me.

I could explain that I'm too old for the crowd, or too grumpy/shlumpy, or that I lack the requisite spirit of carefree superiority that comes from being raised by rich Manhattanite parents. All these things are true, but it doesn't quite sum up the dynamic.

Finally, after years of trying to explain my own perspective to myself, I've got it. Watching people go in and out of such places feels exactly like watching kids trick-or-treating.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Follow My Twitter *Likes*

I've mentioned several times that Twitter is telling the story of Trump's downfall a month ahead of mainstream media. Mainstream press can't run with conjecture, while Twitter floats more primordial data points. Of course, conjecture is inherently less trustworthy ... unless you follow the right conjecturers - i.e. those with proven insight, connections and track record, as I do.

You may not have time/interest to deeply dive into a half dozen very active Twitter feeds every day as I do, but, as a service, I will start "favoriting" essential tweets as a leaving of breadcrumbs. Feel free to follow along here. Note that before today, my faves were usually marked for their cleverness, not their informational usefulness (still, I'd recommend delving a few months into the backlog).

You can also read this Twitter list of mine presenting the cumulative feeds of all my every day reads (mostly anti-Trumpers on the right and center, who have much better insight, discipline, and non-partisan motivations than the strident lefties who've been just wildly freaking out, usually counterproductively). Just remember one thing: Louise Mensch is breathless, overly dramatic, scarily manic, and appears to be way too wrapped up in frothy meth-head-ish conspiracy connections. She will ring every bell in your brain's "whack-job" detection center. But she's been right an awful lot, and many (though not all) of the staid, respected people I read respect her. If you want to see the full crazy, that'd be this guy. I don't know what to make of him.

How big a conspiracy is it? Well, I hold two truths to be self-evident: 1. the Trump campaign changed the Republican platform on Ukraine in exchange for Russia's DNC hacking, and 2. the Trump admin is full-to-bursting with people with questionable connections to Russia. I'd stress that connections to Russia are not necessarily a bad thing, and the left must avoid frothy McCarthyite hysteria (because that, in itself, is a patented Russian move). I have no problem with senators (e.g. Sessions) and presidents meeting Russian ambassadors and such. But when they lie about it, that's a great big problem.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Cornered Rat: The End Game Begins

The Obama wiretapping accusations are Trump's desperate attempt to pre-delegitimize the damning evidence soon to emerge from the various Trump/Russia intelligence investigations, which may be wrapping up. This is very important. It's the first serious step in the endgame of a cornered rat who'll do literally anything to save himself.

We are entering the stage of greatest danger. The real peril was never Supreme Court appointments, executive orders, nor kleptocracy. The danger is in the end game as it all crashes down; in the thrashing machinations of a monumentally powerful and single-minded billionaire engaged in an existential fight for survival of the only thing he holds dear.

Don't imagine it will go easily. Yes, Trump is willfully ignorant, unself-aware, narcissistic, and likely suffering from early-stage dementia. But when it comes to convoluted maneuvering, he's sharp as a tack. Sharper than most of us. Have you seen this map of his tangled business enterprises? I fancy myself a reasonably intelligent person, but I am shocked and awed at the ability (even with plenty of fancy, expensive help) to generate and manage anywhere near this level of strategic complexity. I couldn't keep it in my head. He can. Mock the enemy all you'd like, but it's foolish not to acknowledge and respect his skills.

Trump will lose in the end*, but it remains to be seen what shape we're left in. This is a very, very dangerous remorseless cornered rat.

* - And, no, Pence will absolutely not be "worse"; liberals who say so are as blinkered as conservatives who currently refuse to put country over party

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Weird (and Quite Unnecessary) Graft-On of the Whole Russia Thing

If you've followed the Twitter feeds I recommended a few weeks ago, you know that the Trump/Russia connection goes a lot deeper than election collusion. You ain't seen nothing yet. The natural and proper antipathy reasonable people like you and I feel toward conspiracy explanations is, rightly, delaying dissemination of the whole story. But let's skip that, and step back for a second to consider the larger picture. Imagine yourself in summer 2016, being told that Trump would win, and (after you'd been revived) that the major beef against him would be Russian collusion!

Wait. What??

It's this whole crazy, out-of-nowhere movie, like your evil, conniving boss being kidnapped by Vikings, or your horrid ex-girlfriend being accidentally shot into orbit, or Anthony Weiner's penis turning out to have the magical power to cure cancer.

Russia is completely ... unnecessary. The problem with Donald Trump ought not be that he's a Russian agent of influence (though he appears to be just that, and it is a big, big problem). A clown of Trump's ilk should collapse under the weight of his transparent authoritarian craziness and empty-headed ridiculousness. I grimace at this spaceship, this pink unicorn, this insane non sequitur that we find ourselves in re: the Russia thing, because the next authoritarian demagogue won't come with a Russia story to hang him by.

And even so, we'll be slow to hang. What if that same summer-2016-you was told that, even with this absurd development, it'd still take considerable time and effort for even this stuff to shake him loose? The big lesson here is the surprising persistence of certain infestations.

Much of his base will stick with him to the bitter end. Never forget that plenty of people like autocrats. Franco ravaged Spain; kept the populace in the dark ages for much of the 20th century, impoverished and terrorized, yet his base never deserted him. In fact, I played a gig in his home province on his birthday in the early 1990's, and saw peasants walking around in their formal Sunday finest. I will never forget that sight (never count on redemption).

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