Monday, May 29, 2017

Creative Amnesia and Granola Decline

I once wrote about a terrific small brand of granola which trumpets itself as all about The Love, man. It was made by hippies who'd earnestly bought into the rap. And who was I to argue? The love truly was palpable!

The founder appreciated my praise (I was the first food writer to take notice), and sent me a couple of emails reaffirming the love that goes into their loving with the love and how they love that I love the love they love into get the idea.

A couple of years later, the company had grown, and I noticed they'd made it onto the shelves at Whole Foods. I bought a bag, and, predictably, the special touch had not survived the growth required to scale into a business this size. It tasted like pretty good commercial granola.

I sent a brief note, asking what happened to the granola. The founder wrote back with intense apology. Must have been a bad batch! She sent me a great big box full of love love love love love. Sure enough, every bite was good-not-great.

I tried to explain to her that when the sentiment of love becomes untethered from actual love lavished into an actual thing, it becomes mere marketing shtick. I wished her well, affirming that this is the inevitable way of things. I once played in a band with the founder of Magnolia Bakery, and her cakes and pies (just pretty good even during the bakery's heyday) were deliriously wonderful when she used to bake them by hand. You can't have your cake and fully capitalize on it, too.

I don't believe it penetrated. She figured her believing was what made it good, and the money coming in was confirmation. The granola what it is.

It's not very interesting to point out that when operations scale, they lose that certain (dare I say "loving"?) touch. What I find interesting, though, is that even someone who knows what it is to produce something sensational - who did it once, and who therefore understands the required effort and care - would be shocked by the observation that great effort and care are required. Why is that surprising? Why would you attribute quality to magical thinking when you yourself know what it takes?

The baker of some of the best French bread in the country - a guy who has tinkered with every iota of every baking minutiae, finally managing to bake loaves a nanostep from burnt, from leathery-crusted, from noticeably salty, and from over-dense - is hoping to branch out into cookies. He gave me one to try.

I told him they need perfecting. He seemed confused. "What, you think they're too sweet? Too crunchy?" I replied, "No, not necessarily either of those things. But there are a thousand micro-decisions to be made here before they're truly delicious, and you've just whipped up some cookies. They can't possibly be great yet. You need to sweat and work and consider and polish. Why would you, of all people, not realize this?"

He was nonplussed. He hadn't made any obvious errors, and, hey, they tasted pretty good to him.

Again: how can someone who's discovered what it takes to produce greatness be surprised that any old thing doesn't turn out great?

This is how people who've never done anything great talk. They assume they could easily do so if they tried, with just a bit more than their usual middling, grudging effort. Just by virtue of their own fabulousness and full-heartedness. I get that. Everyone's a latent superstar in their own mind. But I do not understand how this can be the mindset of someone who's seen the falseness of those assumptions; who's reached a peak and knows the agonies required.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Schiff/Yates 2020!

"But wait...we don't know anything about Sally Yates' ideology," you might note.

I don't care. She's competent, honorable, and honest. At this juncture, that's quite sufficient.

Even if I found a politician who was a perfect match for my political positions, there's no assurance they'd actually pursue them, much less successfully implement them.

I've come to recognize that all those people who always voted for president on their guts (rather than on hard/fast issues) may have been onto something. At this point, I'm post-issue. I thirst for honor and decency above all else. 

The question, of course, is whether I can be conned. Not being conned requires an awful lot of experience, insight, and self-discipline. And I'm more cynical than ever about political systems requiring such attributes.

If it sounds like I don't have an answer, well, welcome to human society. If there were an ideal solution, we'd all be living happily and equitably. In fact, if you believe there even is an ideal solution, I inherently mistrust you. From that last link:
"...every century or so eggheads proclaim some smug new utopian plan (which always sounds great on paper) destined to create a permanent steady state of prosperity and happiness. Communism was one. Libertarianism is another. But pure intellectual concepts always lack real world pragmatism. You can announce your brilliant pure plan but I don't believe it, I don't trust it, and I know it's bullshit before you even explain it to me."

Monday, May 22, 2017


Here's what John Thorne, my favorite food writer - and the favorite food writer of many food writers - had to say about my new app, Eat Everywhere:
"An impressively designed and wickedly ingenious app. Endlessly useful, surprisingly entertaining, and highly addictive....the distillation of a lifetime of adventurous eating."
Here's my announcement of the app
Here's the app's Facebook page
...and here, once again, is the app's official web page (containing direct links to the App Store and Google Play Store pages), which you might want to pass around your friends and circles if you think they might like to have my chow knowledge instantly available on their phone for highly effective use in any restaurant of any nationality anywhere, or simply edutaining armchair reading):

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Soft Urges: The Gentle Siren's Song

I go to Philly Beer Week each year with beer geek friends. It means four or so days of drinking all day - 15 or so glassfuls in a typical one. Since they're well-spaced, we never get drunk. But neither are we ever fully sober. It's grueling, to be honest, but great to sample so many terrific brews we wouldn't otherwise try.

Each year, after I get back home, in a moment of repose after a day of recuperation, a familiar voice in my head will pipe up to ask "Hey, why not have a beer?" It's no big deal. And, no, I never do have that beer. Fine! The voice is ok with that. And, a few minutes later, I'll have a great idea: why not open up a beer? I can again refuse. The compulsion is weak, though persistent. And so it goes for a couple of days. Gentle frequent urges, easily overridden. I recognize the route to alcoholism: capitulation to soft urges. So I don't.

Over the years I've come to understand most of the workings of my mind. This Slog is largely a registry of that. But one dark monster has persisted: once in a while there's a task I just don't want to do, and the longer I don't do it, the more of a sinkhole I fall into. It can get very bad. I can lose days/weeks/months. It looks like depression, but it's really more of a paralysis. The puzzling thing is that the task is never very fearsome. When I eventually get to it, it's no big deal at all. So why the aversion?

In fact, there's one such pending task right now. Again, it's no big deal. But the very gentlest of headwinds is enough so that, at any given point, I'll choose a different activity. For example, ten minutes ago, I took a deep breath and resolved to get over the hump - to do the thing I don't particularly want to do. And a familiar voice in my head piped up to ask "Hey, why not write a Slog piece about this?" It was a soft urge, easily overridden. Yet here I am, having given in to the gentle siren song.

Procrastination is complicated.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Driver Ed

Strong people live in a weak world.
Beautiful people live in an ugly world.
Brilliant people live in a stupid world.
Generous people live in a selfish world.
Be careful what you wish for.

My driver education teacher back in high school always said that the greatest danger is when you're either the fastest or the slowest car on the highway.

Break Glass In Case of Ego

Monday, May 15, 2017


I've been hinting, for some time, about an ambitious project I've been working on. Well, here it is. It's an app (for Android and iOS) called Eat Everywhere, which guides you in navigating virtually every cuisine. And it's on sale now.

Eat Everywhere offers on-the-fly help in restaurants nearby or abroad. Based on many years of experience guiding people through eating adventures, it's chock-full of strategies and pro tips for scoring slam-dunk dishes. Everybody loves lasagna, samosa, and pad Thai, duh. But chebureki, pambazos, and mishti doi - and thousands more - are equally lovable. This unlocks everything!

It includes pronunciations for all terms (can you believe no one's ever offered that before?), and painstakingly selected web sites with deep info on each cuisine (can you believe no one's ever offered that before, either?). There are dish suggestions for vegetarians, and for kids and other fussy eaters. "Litmus test" dishes (to quickly gauge restaurant quality). "Ice-Breaker" dishes (not always available, but you'll impress the hell out of your waiter by asking!). And more. Plus, it's witty. Once you dive in, you'll be lost for hours.

I myself constantly refer to this app. It contains not just everything I know, it's everything I wish I could remember, and the chow-how of a team of expert eaters. We spent two years building this 200,000 word magnum opus together.

This has been a dream of mine for decades. Like Chowhound, it's something I desperately wanted as an eater. The Internet needed, and your smart phone needs Eat Everywhere. You won't imagine how you lived without it. Click the logo, above, for more info.

If you'll buy it, I promise you way more than your five dollars' worth. And if you'll also star-rate it in App Store/Google Play, and share our web page with your friends and social network, this might get a little popular, which could help increase appreciation for immigrants and foreigners (we all do what we can)!

Eat Everywhere makes a great gift. It's one of the only food resources that's useful for both experts and newbies. Whichever you are, you surely have someone at the other extreme in your life who could use this! Shoot, who wouldn't want this tucked away on their phone - a lifeline for whenever you find yourself eating outside your comfort zone, or seeking a change of pace, or traveling?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Decent Don

Don't miss this.

The Presidency Looking Forward

The next demagogic populist president with authoritarian instincts won't arrive with an impeachable portfolio of traitorous Russian collusion and mobbed-up money laundering.

Never forget how hard it is to expunge even a brazen cartoon villain. The filter needs to be front-loaded. Always register, and always vote.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Donald Trump and Theory of Mind

Way back in 2015, I tried to analyze the mental process, such as it is, of Donald Trump in a posting titled "Trump in the Skinner Box,". It read, in part:
As for what Trump really thinks, he's a narcissist in an enormous Skinner box. That's all you need to understand about him.
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.
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.
Today I saw, on Twitter, a more intellectual way of expressing this, in terms of "Theory of Mind". It's a quick read, and worth checking out.

Update: the Twitter link is dead, but it was expanded into this article by the same writer.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Schiff/Yates 2020!

I'm just land-grabbing the first online mention here...

Really, I'm stunned that no one else has said it. I'm nearly giddy at the thought of two smart, competent, forthright, thoughtful, non-extremists running the country. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Brexit and Trump: Same Plan, Same Shady People

The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked is a new article from The Guardian showing how Trump and Brexit were both products of the same plan hatched by the same characters. It delves deeply into the shenanigans, temporarily setting aside Russian influence, and it's way deeper than anything the anemic American press has managed to produce, though the overview is well-known to everyone who's paid attention.

This is old-school reporting, full of names and facts, but, while it's great that the reporter laid it all out (for other reporters to draw from), don't feel compelled to familiarize with all the data points. Just quickly skim, and know that the bottom third of the article puts it all together.

The really scary thing is that it's not over. Trump and Brexit were just the beginning. Don't imagine the French election has returned us to normalcy.

A few highlights:
"The company that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pentagon and the US state department. Its former vice-president Steve Bannon now sits in the White House. It is also reported to be in discussions for “military and homeland security work”.

In the US, the government is bound by strict laws about what data it can collect on individuals. But, for private companies anything goes. Is it unreasonable to see in this the possible beginnings of an authoritarian surveillance state?"

"Palantir is a company that is trusted to handle vast datasets on UK and US citizens for GCHQ and the NSA, as well as many other countries.

Now though, they are both owned by ideologically aligned billionaires: Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel. The Trump campaign has said that Thiel helped it with data. A campaign that was led by Steve Bannon, who was then at Cambridge Analytica."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New Pepperidge Farm Cookies

Pepperidge Farm's new "Farmhouse" cookies are a tribute to how strong a brand Tate's has become. It's a total knock-off (at a lower price point).

I can't understand why Tate's very best flavor by far - butterscotch - remains so unfindable. Pepperidge Farm doesn't offer the flavor (apparently too clumsy to have noticed the opportunity).

Blog Archive