Saturday, September 30, 2017

Puerto Rico

The day after the hurricane, when I learned that the majority of Puerto Ricans had NO DRINKING WATER, my face turned pale. I could not imagine a way that thousands wouldn't die.

I am not expert in such things; I just know human beings can't live without water. So I can't understand how our government - even our corrupt, fake one - failed to recognize the severity of this for over a week. A trombonist reacting to TV news should not be more clued in than FEMA, the White House, and our armed forces, with all their data and expertise, when it comes to matters of disaster aftermath.

I pray it's not actually that bad, and that the military, having finally arrived, will stabilize things and this will turn out to be a trauma and not an apocalypse. But, again: I know, even without special expertise, that human beings can't live nine days without drinking water.

When we finally see what happened, it may chill the world. I have a choking fear that it's been a killing field. If so, this, not the Russian collusion, will be Trump's downfall. Those football tweets may one day be recalled like Nero's fiddling amid Rome's burning - an epic display of failure and evil that will echo in shocked disgust for centuries.

Hopefully I'm wrong. I'm overreacting, and there've been dozens of deaths, not thousands, and Trump will be just an idiotic transient blot on history rather than a Nero. That would be fantastic. But something tells me we need to brace for impact when the full outcome (e.g. from rural sections) finally emerges.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Situational Awareness Vs Narcisissm

People prefer to walk in straight lines. It irritates them to deviate. The problem is you can't have a world where everyone walks in straight lines. At least one person has to budge. I am that person.

Cars and Shopping Carts
Whether pointing a shopping cart, baby carriage, or Toyota Prius, people want to get to where they want to get to next. This of course leads to clashes, because often other people want to get there, too. This is an offshoot of the walk-in-straight-lines thing, and, again, the world would not work if no one backed down. Someone needs to anticipate the clash, and willingly step aside. That person is me.

Stopping and Going
When halted, you expect others to go around you. When moving, go-arounders humiliate you. This becomes a problem when stoppers start going. At that moment, the sloppily-stopped (counting on the community to accommodate) instantly transform into proud individualists. But what about the people currently going around them?

Someone needs to endure the aggravation of starting to go around, then hitting brakes to gallantly allow a thoughtless impediment to blossom into a dynamic predator. That'd be me.

Emergency Vehicles
True fact: emergency vehicles originally were outfitted with lights and sirens for practical purposes beyond merely annoying everyone. In olden times, they reminded us of our obligation to move aside and let them pass. Nowadays, of course, we've all agreed that emergency vehicles can go fuck themselves, and their drivers have adapted by learning to weave through traffic.

Still, traffic lights are a problem. While permitted to pass red lights, emergency vehicles can't do so while other cars wait behind the intersection. Someone must be willing to undergo the contortions of working their budged car sufficiently aside to permit passage. Me.

Situational Awareness
I am, it appears, the only remaining human being with situational awareness. But the crux of the problem is not that others lack it. To accommodate other people, you first need to register their existence. Once you recognize that there are other human beings - and if that fact holds any interest for you - you may then, and only then, proceed down the path of developing situational awareness. You must 1. know, then 2. care, then 3. learn, then 4. apply. The problem lies at step one, not step four, for our sour-pussed, self-involved population of oblivious rich-world narcissists.

Yep, I just got back from Trader Joe's.

I lack situational awareness for the movement and needs of unicorns because I've never seen a unicorn. People lack situational awareness for the movement and needs of other people because they've never seen a person.

Mexican Photos

I dreamed about that Mexican place all night last night. Had to go back for lunch today. I ordered pork ribs in green sauce with black beans (note: do NOT expect spicy, jazzy blackbeans, ala Cuba, from Mexican chefs, who make them as homely and grounded as pinto beans). For what this place is (no cleverness, no assured flavor layerings, nothing but authentic grandmotherly love), it's, again, a 10.

I also took photos of the squeeze bottle of chile (maybe you can get some vibe out of it), and my strawberry drink (agua de fresa). The fact that I'd order any such drink speaks to my deep confidence for these guys. As always, lunch was $12.

They have not yet registered that I always finish my tortillas. Once they do, and ask me if I want more tortillas, I'll know I've arrived..

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Singapore Score

My binge of ultra-low-budget travel continues. Upcoming in November: Singapore for $435 (roundtrip, including taxes and fees). Courtesy, as usual, of, which I previously wrote about here.

Loads of AirBnB rooms are available in Tiong Bahru, near the hawker food center, for circa $25 USD. If I keep food expenses low (I don't expect to do blow-out meals), the five days will cost under $750. That's actually still a record high for me, but, hey, it's Singapore! My first trip there! What's more, native Singaporean, Chowhound veteran (and Eat Everywhere editor) Limster will be in town for at least part of that (here's a report from Boston Globe of the time we chowhounded Boston).

Any tips? Please leave comments!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Like Your Mexican Grandma Cooking for You

I just posted to Chowhound about "La Frontera Taqueria Deli" (257 Battle Ave, White Plains, NY; 914-607-7684), an astounding little Mexican place up in White Plains offering an ultra-rare glimpse of serious Mexican home cooking:
It's pure grandmotherliness. This is how kids eat in Mexico when they come home from school and grandma cooks for them. It's all permeated with love, and utterly transportive. This is the serious stuff. We shouldn't be able to just walk in here and eat this. Usually you need to marry into a family.
In that posting I included a side mention of The Best Mexican I Ever Found in NYC, Oaxacan "Cienaga Grocery And Deli" (10432 Corona Ave, Corona; 347-353-2366) in Queens, which apparently no one ever tried. Some places I rave about become immortal legends, while equally great ones remain untouched. I realize chowhounding isn't for everyone, but if 20 year-old me was a reader of 30 year-old me, he'd be out the door to try every single one of these places.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Curse, Part 2: Going Kafka

In part one, I described how, at a moment of extreme stress and pressure, I'd infuriated a stranger with whom I'd been kind and friendly. It marked the beginning of a very strange, very painful period which I and a few friends would come to call "The Curse".

It got worse. Everywhere I went, people would be visibly angered by my presence. Old friends weren't affected as much; this was mostly in encounters with new people, including randos like cashiers and waiters. If you've ever played role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, you know about "reaction rolls". Whenever your in-game character meets a stranger, dice are thrown to determine the other person's reaction. Usually, it will be unsurprising. But, every great once in a while, a stranger will want to worship you...or else immediately attack you for no particular reason, even if they're normally peaceful. As in real life, it's a matter of bell curves and edge cases. Well, virtually all my reaction rolls were edge cases. It reached a point where I started to worry that I might be randomly assaulted. If this sounds overly dramatic, that's only because you weren't there. It truly was that bad.

One good result: I learned I don't have a paranoid bone in my body. It was perfectly clear that the problem was with me, not "them". Something about me was triggering people. And while I didn't enjoy my outcomes much, the main horror was in provoking such negativity in people - nice people! Good people! Never mind what the world was doing to me; I was doing terrible things to the world, increasing its load of poison and anger. This predicament - this "curse" - was the perfect ironic punishment for someone who makes a point of trying (certainly not always consistently, let alone successfully) to be helpful and to lighten loads.

More out of curiosity than anything, I would ask people (either the strangers who'd rage at me, or friends and observers who watched it happen) what, exactly, was going on. I never got back anything useful. Observers would shrug helplessly, and the strangers never managed anything more than a sputtering, inarticulate reaction amounting to "You know what you are!".

Have you ever seen an emotionally riled-up person try to explain themselves, and they 1. can't, but 2. this doesn't make them question their emotional state? Strong emotions always feel valid. If you push someone to explain, they'll pull out some random thing to hang it on, but, really, it stems from a deeper knowing; a self-evident obviousness. So it was "You know what you've done!"; "You know who you are!" There was no "there" there. It was entirely emotional - perhaps even pheromonal.

The friendlier I'd try to be, the worse things got, so I went the other way, trying to retract into being an "extra" in the movie of life...the guy who whisper/mutters "thanks" to the pharmacy cashier, eyes downward, and gets the hell out ASAP. It started to feel far more comfortable to be wholly disregarded than to be noticed, so I shrank down to nothing, ala a Kafka character.

Talking and engaging less was my first step. But it didn't help. I'd walk into a bar, silently sip my beer, and, within minutes, stools on both sides of me would clear. There were times when entire restaurants would empty. Jogging at my gym, no one - even at prime hours - would use an adjacent treadmill. If someone did step on, there'd be a frozen moment, followed by a hasty dismount. Body odor was not a problem (it was checked). I wasn't drooling or muttering to myself (it was checked). I wasn't staring at anyone, or engaging with anyone. I was just concentrating on my jogging. Minding my own business.

There are lots of greyed-out, fuzzy-focused, seldom-noticed people out there who very studiously mind their own business. Not just introverts, but people who intentionally shrink down to nothing with an almost palpable degree of self-awareness. Not depressed, defeated, nor malevolent, yet deliberately evading attention. I can't help but wonder whether such a "curse" might be less unusual than we imagine.

Continue to Part Three

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Loch Kelly

Loch Kelly is a spiritual teacher of the unaffected, down-to-earth sort. He's from the very interesting and little-known Dzogchen school of Buddhism. No ritual, no believing, no joining, no authority structure. Stripped bare, in other words.

Kelly has written a book that's one of the best Dzogchen resources in English, but it's flawed (like all of Kelly's stuff) by his verbosity and intellectualism. It takes effort to persevere through his prose, so he's not for everybody. Kelly's not for beginners; a lot of what he says will be gobbledygook for those without previous experience in this realm, but for others, he's uncommonly sincere and long as you're willing to parse his language.

Kelly recently announced a six week online course in "mindfulness". I recommend it because while Kelly is gifted at instilling a sense of expansiveness and coaxing people easily into a perceptual flip, that sort of thing greatly benefits from reinforcement/repetition. And this offers six sessions - in which you can even ask questions. And it's inexpensively priced (considering the rarity of the teaching - this is way deeper stuff than your average YouTube spiritual homily).

Sign up here. There's a "sample" available at the bottom of the page, which will help you determine whether his style of expression is a deal-killer.

Loch Kelly teaches under the aegis of a teacher named Adyashanti, who's pretty much the most solid and expressive English-language spiritual teacher of his generation (he was a Zen guy, but doesn't teach from any particular tradition). If Kelly isn't for you (and even if he is), Adyashanti is able to express things way more simply - though he doesn't offer much in the way of daily practice. If you'll take time to read this older interview, you may feel moved to seek out his videos and writings.

If you're looking for a simple, stripped-down, highly effective no-bullshit meditation practice, this is what I do - and have done for twelve years. Over the years, I've also gradually added this and this. I do not recommend the associated forum, retreats, etc. Just the core lessons.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

6% Profit, Very Low Risk

Apple is 6% off its recent high due to a connectivity issue with their new watches. Want to make an easy 6% profit (not bad at today's interest rates)? Buy the stock. Want to make a little more? Wait till it goes down further.

The stock market is populated by twitchy short term geniuses. So when there's a problem, the stock price must go down, whether it's an existential problem or a superficial one. With most (perhaps all) other companies, it's hard to distinguish. But not Apple.

If Apple is so rocked by this crappy little problem that it gives up its watch business entirely, and, for that matter, its computer business....and demolishes its brand new $5 billion campus and builds another one from scratch at twice that expense, and becomes a luxury yacht maker, and fails, and becomes a candy company, and fails, it can still buy Boeing and a couple other companies, and apply their superior talent and vision for success, all while maintaining at least a multi-tens-of-billions war chest to lean on for years as they ratchet up to speed.

Apple won't be dominant forever, but this watch issue will not be the death of them. Count on them springing back from this dip. I just can't tell you when. (Unlike the aforementioned twitchy geniuses, you and I have the patience to wait.)

As I noted earlier this year, upon selling most of my shares at $133 after the company had rebounded from its latest drift to the nineties for no substantial reason:
[Their $250 billion] "cash horde alone - which doesn't even do anything! - dwarfs the total market value of all but seven other corporations. Apple could throw their entire mega-successful business in the garbage and buy Starbucks, Boeing, and Goldman Sachs. If customers update their iPads more slowly than expected, or a phone antenna doesn't work properly, or a new product line undersells expectations, that's just not going to cause a death spiral."
I won't buy here, myself. I'm not a day trader. I don't like paying taxes on short term gains, and this seems like a quick blip. But if I'm wrong and this is the start of yet another months-long 30% Apple sell-off, that'd be great. Count me in (though I'll wait for it to drop way more)! I've made a good living with the past three sell-offs. But if you invest here, and it's a blip, you may have some extra Christmas money come December. Or, if it keeps falling, just forget about it until it hits the low hundreds and/or nineties, then buy more and go back to forgetting about it.

Either way, I'm confident you at least won't lose your shirt. Is it 100% certain that Apple will spring back all the way to $165? Nothing's 100% certain. But the company is not going bankrupt any time soon. So every dip, and every sell-off, is a buying opportunity.


Sympathy doesn't exist.

Empathy does exist. Empathy spurs action. It makes us help each other, solving problems. That's a thing! But sympathy - the static expression of emotional commiseration - is a phantom. Three unhealthy mechanisms are mistaken for this apocryphal "sympathy" thing:

1. Pity
" sucks to be you!"

Never helpful. Never pleasant.
2. Leverage
"I can see you're in pain. Let me make a display of saying and doing the sorts of time-tested cinematic things people do when they want to come off as sympathetic, so I can bank your gratitude and trust."

If you want to attract predators, indiscriminately project your vulnerability.

3. Reflected Schadenfreude
"Hearing your grueling story, I place myself in your shoes, and....YEESH."

You've shared your woes, asking someone to identify with them - to experience your anguish. But making people unhappy is not a healthy thing to want to do. If you watch them cringe (i.e. register "sympathy") and that makes you feel better, you need some garage time for major repairs.

I've experienced touches of this. There've been people in my life who, when I told them about bad things that had happened to me, would get agitated, and even lash out at me - just because they were perturbed and had no one else handy to unleash on. It was a backfire of my play for sympathy, and while my first instinct was to blame them for their "lack of support", I eventually saw that my intentions were twisted in the first place.

Some people may have the bandwidth to go through the motions of trying to soothe you, despite what you just put them through. But that doesn't change what you've done. If you feel better by making people unhappy, then you're the problem, not the victim.
In my early twenties, I believed that I was a rarity - a genuinely sympathetic person. But I discovered that people who seek sympathy are highly manipulative (again, feeling strengthened by making others unhappy is not healthy). If who're someone who aims to be helpful, you'll eventually learn not to submit to the will of control freaks, nor to bring vodka to alcoholics. You don't enable.

This was the same period when I began to recognize that people's "problems" usually turn out to be fake drama, anyway. That's why so few of us actually want our problems resolved (in fact, we often bitterly repel efforts at solution). What is more often sought is sympathy, not solution. Problems are treasured, because they confer a special power never enjoyed by the less flamboyantly burdened. Consider the many people whose proudest accomplishment is to be, say, a "cancer survivor" or "family of the victims". Victimhood nostalgia is not a resilient attitude. It's possible to fall in love with problems to the point where they become fundamental to one's very identity.

I'm no longer sympathetic (or whatever psychic glitch I'd confused with sympathy). Having largely stopped creating my own fake drama, I don't want to get entangled with anyone else's! I will, however, do whatever I can to help fix genuine problems (which are very rare in the First World). That's empathy, not sympathy. Up with empathy, down with "sympathy"!

Here's what all those "strong/silent" types are telling you: "If you don't want to work on fixing it, then I don't want to hear about it!"

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

I Want an Autonomous Camper

Here's where autonomous cars will hit very bigly: campers. This sector - which does not yet exist - will one day be a phenomenal investment for stockholders of whatever carmaker jumps into this.

Past a certain age, it's enormous strain to get yourself to an airport, onto a plane, and then reverse that process...with luggage. Shoot, that's a strain even for 35 year-olds! Same with trains or buses. Cars are easier, but you still have the long drives, the transfer to hotel, etc. Older people miss out because the overhead of going out and about becomes too much (anyone who's ever had the flu can relate!).

Here's what I want for my 75th birthday: an autonomously-driving camper. If I hear about a great breakfast place in Maine, I can get into my camper at midnight, crash in the back, and wake up in front of the place at 6 am. I can shop and sight-see without hassle, calling my vehicle back whenever I need it.

This will be awesome; the greatest lifestyle enhancement an elderly person could hope for. Really, it's shockingly anachronistic that such a huge swathe of our population barely participates in day-to-day life. With an autonomous camper, all you need to do is get yourself and your overnight bag out to the driveway, and, after a night's sleep, step off the curb and into your destination, while the camper parks itself. I could manage that even with a walker!

Older people are already famously into RVs, though they're clunky to drive and difficult to park. Remove those issues, and this would be a must-have. There will be 80 million elderly Americans by 2050. While not all will be able to afford an autonomous camper (though I suspect much car ownership will be replaced by spot-rentals from a fleet), I can't imagine even one of them not wanting this. Shoot, I'm only 54 and I'd buy an autonomous camper now in a second if it were affordable (and electric-powered, to avoid gasoline cost). For comparison, about 18 million new vehicles are sold annually in America. See the possibilities?

I'll be watching for it. This new electric motorhome covered with solar panels is a start, at least, but the field is still wide open. If Tesla's stock ever finally dips a little (I've been waiting since July), I might buy in on the mere chance they'll eventually think of doing this.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Cure Cancer, Kill Social Order

We appear to have turned a corner, where cures for many forms of cancer may finally be within sight. This is very bad news. I'm not sure humanity will survive it.

First, it helps to understand that "cancer" is another way of saying "dying of old age". If you don't develop actual disease (a heart attack, a stroke, flu, malaria, etc.), or get eaten by a lion, then, congratulations, you've won, and will live long enough to be taken down by the normal processes of old age, which usually involves tumors and other familiar signs of DNA break-down, like a calculator running on depleted batteries.

I'm talking about prevalent cancers, e.g. liver, prostate, etc. Rarer and earlier-onset forms of cancer are exceptional, and I'm certainly rooting - and contributing - for their cures ASAP.

Why is there so much cancer now? The Whole Foods crowd will attribute it to those nasty chemicals everywhere. But the actual reason is that many of us are finally living long enough to get cancer. And that's a win. Cancer's not a scourge. Mortality is the scourge, and cancer is a symptom.

Removing cancer from human society would change everything. We're well aware of the mounting problems of financial inequality, though it's seldom pointed out that it skews toward the elderly. Society counts on parents dying and passing stuff on. But that process has been seriously disrupted by people living into their 90s the way they once approached their 70s. That's like wedging in a whole extra generation, and meanwhile our inflation-adjusted income and standard of living have, for the first time ever, gone stagnant. There's less upward mobility in the workplace, college grads are listless and blocked, and it can't possibly be coincidence that so many 70 and 80 year olds are holding the reigns of control (Reagan was a shocking and precarious 70 when he took office, yet no one had serious trepidations about Trump and Clinton both being that same age).

We've messed with our churn, and curing cancer will mess it up way, way more. If, twenty years from now, 95 year olds hold on to their jobs and their assets, consider the fate of 70 year olds (much less 25 year olds), finding themselves caught in a half-century holding pattern, perhaps many of them still living in mom and dad's basement. The pitiful experience of England's Prince Charles may turn out to have foreshadowed a looming new normal.

Who knows; we might manage to shift our social norms to adjust to this radically different framework. But history shows that far less massive shifts can be enormously destabilizing. This is not good.

I touched upon a similar point in this posting from last year. Here's an excerpt:
You may have noticed some tension in our body politic these days, on both right and left. Income inequality is a huge, toxic problem, poisoning society in all sorts of ways. Same for power inequality. As the Olds enjoy greater and greater lock on both, and maintain that lock for longer and longer, there will come a tipping point when the imbalance becomes parsed in these terms. Youngs aren't going to like it. The energy and momentum of Occupy Wall Street, and the anger of Bernie and Trump's followers may be recalled as minor foreshadowings once a generation is clearly seen as refusing to step out of the way.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Curse (Part 1)

In May of 2002, I was entering the excruciating final marathon stretch of my web site, Chowhound (as described in the first installment of the series I wrote about all that). Someone had offered to connect me with a wine industry mogul who might sponsor the site, so I'd flown to California, where it turned out that this had been an idle bluff (here's a lesson I wish I'd never learned: when life starts really crumbling, a very few angels arrive to help, but demons are also attracted, to rub salt in wounds for no perceivable reason).

This person needed to cover herself by manufacturing a reason not to present me to her big fish. It involved explaining to me what a terrible, awful, and undeserving person I am. So this woman - who I'd never previously met - went full throttle to deflect from her own awfulness, managing to press several buttons I hadn't even realized I had. This echoed a scene several months earlier when my girlfriend at the time manufactured a savage, hurtful fight so she could stomp off angrily as cover for a week-long vacation she'd scheduled with the guy she turned out to have been two-timing me with all along. Good times!

(I'm not insightful because I was born that way. I'm insightful because I've been through multiple wringers. If your computer keeps breaking, you will eventually become deeply expert at computers. By that token, I've learned things about human behavior and associated mysteries via some expensive schooling!)

I'd spent a precious, irreplaceable $700 for absolutely nothing. But one reason I know I'm not a terrible, awful person is that in times of stress - and of inebriation - I only get friendlier. I'm a kindly drunk. And so I headed to one of my favorite beer temples, San Francisco's Toronado, still trembling, but smiling wanly as I entered and asked for a delicious half-pint of Drake's ale. The bartender asked me to repeat - I wanted a half pint? Yes, so I could try more beers! This is my favorite bar, and I don't get here often, and I want to try to catch up on the good stuff!

My beer was poured. I was served, and I tipped more than half the price of the beer. I'm usually a good tipper, plus I over-compensate on bad days. I didn't want anything to go wrong here. Something inside me seemed to have broken, and I needed to hunker down and enjoy what there was to enjoy (resilience is my coping mechanism).

I ordered another half-pint of something else, the bartender served me with a detectable sneer, which I ignored, and I again received my glass like precious cargo and tipped an additional couple bucks. I drank blissfully, imagining myself to be radiating good vibes, relieved to have put a horrific scene behind me.

The third time, I was brought a full pint. I smilingly pointed out that I'd ordered a half. Woopsie!

"No, you really didn't" he replied. Taken aback, I reminded him that I'd been drinking half pints all along, and that I'd explained I'm from NYC and wanted to try as many local beers as possible.

"You ordered a full pint. And I'll charge you for a half, whatever. But I do not want to take any more bullshit from you tonight. I've had it with you."

All blood drained from my face, and I asked where I'd gone wrong. Was it my friendly demeanor? My grateful acceptance of the beer? Or maybe my excessive tipping? I wasn't challenging him; I truly wanted to know! But he couldn't find words. He just scowled and moved on to the next customer. I was one step from being thrown out of a bar. My favorite bar.

This was the beginning of a very strange, very painful period which I and a few friends would come to call "The Curse".

Continue to Part Two

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Credit Due

When he does something good for the country, I'll applaud. It doesn't need to be "for the right reason" (though I see no indication that this is not). I'm not his priest/confessor, I'm an American who wants good policy.

So while the Right, in its hatred of Obama, raged whenever Obama did the things they'd previously said they wanted, I'm not going to do that. Hard though it is, I try to be consistent in spite of my biases, preferences and emotions.

So....Yay, DACA. Yay, humanitarianism. Yay, Trump. Full stop.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Hill

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

Strangers treated me exactly the same; it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them. Crowds didn't gather to gape in astonishment.
I eventually gained back all the weight. This involved no orgies of pizza and barbecue, despite what you'd imagine from my protruding belly. Actually, I kept an austere diet the entire time. But my workouts grew spotty, so rather than losing a plodding 1/2 pound per week, I began gaining 1/4 pound per week. Not a big diff, but the trend's a killer. So I gained 35 pounds without having any fun at all. I looked like I'd let myself go, while eating like a freaking ascetic. Perfect!

It took two years to produce my app, "Eat Everywhere", the hardest task I've ever set myself. I didn't get much exercise during that time (focused commitment may be a great boon for creativity, but it does not lend itself to a balanced lifestyle). And while I enjoy a gym habit once I'm in it, the habit strikes for me as readily as wet matches. I can't hit the gym unless I've summoned some exuberance. Lacking that, I've been pretty inactive. Checkmate!

I live at the bottom of a hill. One day last month, I opened my door, and strode up the hill. And I've been doing likewise most nights. An hour of hill walking, which translates to 500 calories. I've already tightened my belt one notch. I walk up the hill, I lose weight, and I feel better. It feels like I've stumbled into a magical solution. I must be some sort of genius, to think of walking up a hill - the hill I'd lived on, and barely noticed, for five years while I wondered how to burn some calories!

To an idiot, the ridiculously obvious solution feels like pure brilliance.

It reminds me of the time I managed to work around the high expense of sticky notes via my discovery of glue).

The Equifax Crisis

Good non-panicky advice for handling the Equifax crisis. A must-read.

Monday, September 11, 2017


Shamelessness is a super power.

Humanity's Level Two: Unlocked?

When some people speak, they simply say what they have to say in whatever manner they happen to say it. They blurt. Others consider the listener and adjust themselves accordingly. There's a significant difference between the two, both in intention and in effect.

The second is difficult. It requires several concurrent mental processes. First, you need to hear yourself as you speak, which is mentally taxing. Second, you need to be able to shift to the other person's perspective - a very specialized (and likely unexplainable) feat of reframing. And, third, you need to factor the input (from your self-monitoring) into your output (your speech). And you must do all of this simultaneously as you speak. Speech and language alone are difficult - we're the only species that can do it with any complexity. But these additional processes require a whole greater level of sophistication.

Extra processes require greater horsepower. But I believe it's like supplemental battery range on a Tesla - the capability is built into the hardware, but must be unlocked. The price, in this case, is simply wanting to. Empathy is the trigger.

There are countless instances where humans may choose to apply an extra level of thoughtfulness...or else to take the easy way out by doing what comes naturally, without the reflective add-on. Viral forces affect this choice. In other words: it's contagious.

People under 50 may not realize that, during the Vietnam War, our armed forces were disrespected by civilians. Why? Because many of us didn't approve of the Vietnam war. It made fuzzy sense:

I don't approve of war.
Soldiers are part of war.
I don't approve of soldiers.

As a ten year old, I remember jeering at people passing by in uniform. I wasn't thinking deeply. It just seemed like the thing to do, man. Peace 'n love and all.

Similarly fuzzy reasoning makes some Americans hate Muslims:

Muslims drove planes into buildings and killed Americans.
Fuck Muslims.

It's the sort of lazy conclusion a human mind whips up when it's not trying hard. If you imagine you don't harbor a multitude of similarly lazy conclusions strewn around your brain like sugary sprinkles, you're fooling yourself.

But something's happening. To be sure, gargantuan stupidity is still on display every nanosecond. However, an additional layer of mental sophistication has arisen and spread. Even the most ardent anti-war protesters nowadays are (properly) grateful and appreciative of servicemen. And a large number of people decline to hate a billion Muslims just because a few thousand of them are terrorists. In fact, many of us must work hard to even relate to the other perspective. Maybe a corner has been turned.

I think Stephen Pinker's right. The marvel isn't how many yahoos are caught up in nonsense like anti-Muslim bigotry. It's how few. Very many people are opting out of lazy knee jerk reactions, and that's new. It's unprecedented, really, in human history. I frequently despair at our failure to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism. But maybe my dismay stems from heightened sensitivity to a shrinking problem.

Are we becoming more intelligent? Nah. Human faculties don't improve in fast gulps.

Are we becoming more high-minded? I hope not. That would be nothing more than a social trend, and those are cyclical (some believe Trumpism reflects a cycle's downturn, but the smart money suggests it represents the un-self-aware assholes' last hurrah).

I believe it's something more fundamental than a passing social trend or anything lofty. Mind frame and perspective have dilated a notch. A critical mass has opted to unlock an extra iota of innate cognitive horsepower, allowing them to think in a slightly more nuanced way....because they want to. The driver is a mere speck of empathy, but the end result is an abundance of it.

And I'd argue that Trumpism is the inevitable counteraction, fated to be seen, in hindsight, as laughably feeble.

It's a first step; humanity weening off diapers rather than achieving real maturity. And the public will continue, as always, to be morally ahead of its leaders and trendsetters.

So if it's getting better, why does it all feel so awful?

We don't thrill to the emerging light as readily as we sensitize to the remaining darkness, so it paradoxically hurts more as things improve. Again: heightened sensitivity to a shrinking problem. A Trump would have pained us far less in 1920, and I remember a time when a mere few dozen Nazi morons in Charlottsville would have seemed pathetic rather than shocking. By 2040, Marx Brothers films and Road Runner cartoons will be seen as brutal, unfunny relics of a barbaric world. Really, I'm not entirely sure I like where this is going.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cassini's Death Plunge

Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, was so great. I'll miss it. See a terrific overview (with well-chosen links and photos) here.

The following is the current schedule (subject to adjustment; updates posted here) for Cassini's final depth plunge into Saturn's atmosphere.

Why the death plunge? NASA takes way greater pains than you'd imagine to avoid infecting bodies like Titan and Europa - which might host primitive life or building blocks thereof - from microbes which, believe it or not, might remain intact despite twenty years in the harsh vacuum of space. By crashing into Saturn, the immense gravity and atmospheric pressure will ensure safe disposal. As for the metals, fuel, etc., there's nothing to Cassini that Saturn doesn't already boast in profusion.

In its final week, Cassini will pass several milestones en route to its science-rich Saturn plunge. (times below are predicted and may change slightly; see for updated times.)
Sept. 9: Cassini will make the last of 22 passes between Saturn itself and its rings: closest approach is 1,044 miles (1,680 kilometers) above the clouds tops.

Sept. 11: Cassini will make a distant flyby of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Even though the spacecraft will be at 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometers) away, the gravitational influence of the moon will slow down the spacecraft slightly as it speeds past. A few days later, instead of passing through the outermost fringes of Saturn's atmosphere, Cassini will dive in too deep to survive the friction and heating.

Sept. 14: Cassini's imaging cameras take their last look around the Saturn system, sending back pictures of moons Titan and Enceladus, the hexagon-shaped jet stream around the planet's north pole, and features in the rings.

Sept. 14 (5:45 p.m. EDT / 2:45 p.m. PDT): Cassini turns its antenna to point at Earth, begins a communications link that will continue until end of mission, and sends back its final images and other data collected along the way.

Sept. 15 (4:37 a.m. EDT / 1:37 a.m. PDT): The "final plunge" begins. The spacecraft starts a 5-minute roll to position INMS for optimal sampling of the atmosphere, transmitting data in near real time from now to end of mission.

Sept. 15 (7:53 a.m. EDT / 4:53 a.m. PDT): Cassini enters Saturn's atmosphere. Its thrusters fire at 10 percent of their capacity to maintain directional stability, enabling the spacecraft's high-gain antenna to remain pointed at Earth and allowing continued transmission of data.

Sept. 15 (7:54 a.m. EDT / 4:54 a.m. PDT): Cassini's thrusters are at 100 percent of capacity. Atmospheric forces overwhelm the thrusters' capacity to maintain control of the spacecraft's orientation, and the high-gain antenna loses its lock on Earth. At this moment, expected to occur about 940 miles (1,510 kilometers) above Saturn's cloud tops, communication from the spacecraft will cease, and Cassini's mission of exploration will have concluded. The spacecraft will break up like a meteor moments later.

Testing for Genuine Awfulness

Do you have someone awful in your life? Someone you're forced to deal with, to your pained displeasure, certain that nothing good can ever come from them?

If you do, does it compound your pain and displeasure to worry that maybe this person isn't so awful, but that you've let your irritation get the best of you? Hey, nobody's all bad, right? "Shades of grey" and all that!

In fact, maybe you are the awful one, for having given up on this person! If you consider a fellow human "awful", that's downright dehumanizing, no? Perhaps you should add "shame" to your feeling of pain and displeasure!

This calls for a test! And here it is: Does the person still disappoint you?

If so, then you're not underrating. On the contrary, you're overrating. So don't sweat it.

The day an awful person stops disappointing you is the day you need to start questioning your assessment.

Here, fwiw, is the test for hatred.

Cooking Tip Applied to Eggs

More expansion of Frank's cooking tip, and the subsequent discussion of other ways a bit of steam can be a cook's best friend.

A reader writes:
Have you tried cooking eggs with a bit of water? Back in college my buddy was cooking his eggs, sunny side up, and showed me how does the water/cover trick to get rid of the runny stuff on top.
Paul Trapani (quoted in the previous posting on this topic) replies:
Yes, learned from Rouxbe course. It's called "basted eggs" or else "steam basted eggs" (to distinguish this from oil basting).

Monday, September 4, 2017

More on Frank's Cooking Tip

Yesterday, I wrote about a cooking tip I'd gotten from Frank, renowned chef/owner of Francesco's, the last great Italian-American restaurant .

Here's some interesting response from friend-of-the-slog Paul Trapani:
The latest rage in ovens is what's called a "combi" oven - an oven that also produces steam. You can set a humidity level. The thinking is that air makes a terrible conductor of heat, whereas steam is awesome (consider: you can put your hand in a hot oven, but not in a hot steamer). The "modernist" cooking people are all over this, and it looks like Frank hacked into it on his own.

This is the combi equivalent for stovetop cooking. Increasing conduction via water droplets. And the advantage here is that when you're working in a pan, you're simultaneously searing, which is good on its own, but it also ensures the meat doesn't over-moisturize. So it's kind of like deglazing but with the added benefits of steam (it will also unstick the meat if your pan wasn't heated to the exact right temperature to begin with).

A genius move by Frank, and I have not seen it anywhere before!
I've randomly bumped into another, similar, move over the years, come to think of it. As a restaurant critic, I've had many terrifying experiences of beholding a fridge stuffed with several dozen takeout packages (investigation leftovers; if I'd eaten every bite I ordered, they'd need to lift me out of bed with a crane). I tried every possible reheating technique, and finally settled on the following (which actually makes food better than fresh:

Heat a quality non-stick pan to medium-high. Add a tablespoon or two of water. Throw in leftovers (putting meats and other items requiring thorough heat at bottom). Cover, wait for sizzling sounds, then reduce heat to low. Don't touch it! You'll know it's ready when the kitchen is full of aroma.

Again, that bit of humidity appears to be a big trick.

The Pivotal Slog Posting

When I first posted my essay "The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues" in 2009, I realized I was on to something. But I never imagined the extent of what I was explaining.

The essay - which has nothing to do with holidays, per se - describes, quite matter-of-factly, how we create drama, and then identify with that drama, and then make ourselves needlessly miserable by getting lost in it all. It pinpoints the very moment of choice, where we opt to make ourselves slaves to drama...or else to remain free. Choose your perspective: hell or heaven?

In hindsight, though it wasn't my intention at the time, this turned out to be a surprisingly illuminating examination of the source of human misery. Working gradually from this (like many Slog postings, it intentionally rewards multiple re-readings), things can be understood re: who we are and what we're doing here.

To trace where I gradually took this insight, read this essay about our predisposition for drama. And then this one on what happens when you get lost in drama. And this broader overview of the whole enchilada. And, finally, this emergency strategy for those so utterly lost that they're unable to see anything beyond drama.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Food Porn Addendum

I added a pork tenderloin shot to the previous posting.

Revelatory Cooking Tip: Throw a Little Water

I've been doing a few weeks of Blue Apron (see my notes), just to expand my cooking perspective. Nothing they offer is surprising or even particularly interesting. But it's a different thing to actually do a cooking move rather than to just know about it.

(My father's cousin Manny would always drive to a destination the day before an appointment, just to orient himself. I always chalked this up to neurosis, but, I have to admit, there've been restaurants I'd known about for years which I'd never tried...and, having drove by the place - even if I didn't go in - it would suddenly became a concrete entity, much more likely to be visited in future.)

One such move: slap a steak, or some chicken thighs, or a pork chop, into a hot pan. Cook a while. Flip. Cook for a slightly shorter while. Serve.

Naturally, I'm aware of this technique. I think of it as the classic 1953 bachelor approach, performed with dangling cigarette and a tumbler of whiskey. But this is not usually my thing. I broil, I grill, I sauce, I cut up and stir fry. I never do steak at home (home is for health), and I'm generally not a guy who slaps flesh in a pan, sprinkles salt and pepper, and walks away to clean my revolver or holler out my window to the neighboring tenement.

It works ok, but, by coincidence, I was recently talking to one of my hero chefs, Frank, the owner of Francesco's in White Plains (see photo essay here), who was explaining how he cooks meat at home. It's exactly this move, which makes sense given how old-school Frank is. Except....he splashes a little water in the pan toward the end, when the meat starts to look slightly dry. Then he covers it for a while. And then uncovers again.

It's the sort of suggestion that seems too slight to really matter. But I did it, and it's a miracle. It utterly changes everything - texture, flavor. It's the missing piece. A little water!

A recent example
(accompanied by pan-blistered shisitos, this roast potato recipe, sliced cukes,
and scraped up scallions and garlic from the pan).

Same treatment with pork tenderloin.
Note that I've seasoned both meats with Penzey's Ozark Seasoning. Also: the combo of blistered shisitos (you can get them at Trader Joe's) and roast potatoes is great, and reheats like a dream.

Per my nature, I've been giddily expanding on this. If I'm preparing chicken thighs, I'll smash cloves of garlic, and throw one under each thigh to start. Plus a couple bay leaves. I've used white wine instead of water, and I've started dumping leftover starches (rice, chopped-up baked potato, whatever) into the pan alongside the meat at the flip point (I'm not cooking particularly greasy meats). Maybe some frozen or leftover vegetables, as well (though more often I'll steam or roast separately).

With the wine and garlic version, I've sort of reinvented chicken scarpariello. If I keep going, I may reinvent lots more things...just as my year of total panini immersion led eventually to tacos (but that's another story).

More on Frank's Cooking Tip
Cooking Tip Applied to Eggs

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Francesco's: The Last Great Italian-American Restaurant

Francesco's (600 Mamaroneck Ave, White Plains, NY; 914-946-3359) is the last surviving great Italian-American restaurant, to my knowledge. It's what everybody hopes Rao's to be, and, in its own way, it's just as elusive.

The restaurant is set up pub-style, a la 1961. A dim, gloomy bar with blaring TV occupies one half, and tavern-style tables fill the other. It's not cheerful. And prices are two or three notches higher than you'd expect - the natural course of a restaurant that's been around for ages taking the easier route of creeping up prices rather than changing habits on their end. If Francesco's was amenable to change, it wouldn't be what it is: a living museum of Italian-American cooking from a half-century ago.

I'll let the photos and captions do the talking, food-wise. But here's the thing to know:

When chef/owner Frank cooks, it's like angels singing. But Frank's getting older, and lets his assistants do most of the cooking. And they're good-not-great. Which, per my theory of the non-linearity of deliciousness, means their food's about 1/10000th as good, though still the best Italian-American in the county.

Frank almost never cooks dinner, and only sometimes cooks lunch. Your best bet is to show up around 3:30 pm, when the place is dead and Frank's doing paperwork at the bar. Then, he has no choice but to cook for you. Just don't make him feel pressured. Order some wine (Pinot Noir is your best choice) and chill until Frank can muster the energy to go hit the kitchen - and be damned glad that, creeky and recalcitrant though he is, Frank is still doing this at all.

However you try to game it, odds are high you'll wind up being cooked for by Frank's minions. Price that in! It's worth multiple visits to strike gold. Results this good should never come easily.

The restaurant offers a large menu, but I suggest sticking to the following dishes. A smart first-visit order would be pasta with (hot) sausage and broccoli rabe, garlic bread (with or without cheese), and a bar pizza (bathe in the carbs). Those are can't-fail greatest hits - especially if Frank's cooking.

Ok, let's go to the videotape:

Penne with broccoli rabe and hot sausage. I wasn't aiming for photogenic results from my shakes of cheese and chili flakes, so ignore the porny element and just behold the underlying food.

Same dish, another day. Not made by Frank. Broccoli rabe appears to be mourning. But still worthy!

Tripe, a special. GAWD. I never remember to order this, or to recommend it to others, even though this photo always makes me shudder (I revisit my Francesca's photos often). It was so good that it sort of burnt out my memory circuits as I ate it. No trace remains, just a shudder response.

One of Frank's "creative" specials. Only he can get away with such a thing. You can imagine what happens when a non-Frank attempts this.

Cautionary tale. You don't want to stray too far on the menu. This is one of Francesco's myriad chicken dishes, and while it's certainly not bad at all, you'll instantly wish you'd ordered one of the hits. All the more so if Frank's not cooking.

Sicilian baked ziti, with eggplant. Nobody makes it like this anymore.

The thin crackery crust bar pizza is perfection, baked in the ovens in Plato's cave. I've settled on meatball/onion (not garlic, because I often accompany with garlicky food like that pasta dish). With any other restaurant, this would be the headline. Also, the minions do a good job with pizza.

I haven't had great garlic bread since early childhood, the era when 2nd and 3rd generation Italians were going to law or medical school rather than working in restaurants. 1st generation Frank is a holdover. If you remember 1970s garlic bread, this will be like a homecoming. Cross this off the "extinct" list.

Cheesy garlic bread. Remarkably different effect. Is it great cheese? No. Is it even good cheese? Uh-uh. Yet Frank's alchemy evokes grandeur.

I type through tears: in-progress meatball parm with broccoli rabe hero...on....wait for it...garlic bread.

Broccoli rabe with garlic. I know.

Mashed potatoes. Francesco's, as I said, serves Italian-American food. Not Italian. Frank was born in Italy, and has a heavy accent, but he long ago took the plunge and cut the cord. However, these mashed potatoes might have been made by any nonna back in the old country. Only here does Frank reveal his roots.

For an awesome cooking tip from Frank, see here.

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