Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Curse, Part 9: The Mind Spins with Theories

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At this point I don't know what to make of Gary, the alternative version of my Demonic Fisherman. I'm not sure how this changes things. It's something to mull over. But I will point out that I noted, back in Installment #2, that
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.

So. What we've lacked so far are explanations. Listen, I'm a curious and analytical fellow, and, obviously, I've given this whole Curse thing plenty of thought, so I've probably already thought of any theories you might propose. I've conjured up too many explanations - and tried too many countermeasures - to recount them all.

But, above all, I understood that the answer would never be some pat, easy thing. I wouldn't smack my forehead, crying "Of course!" This was all way too bizarre for easy explanation. No, the answer would be subtle, multithreaded, and a challenge to fully understand.

It was very lucky that the Curse applied even when I didn't speak. It meant I could overlook the complexities of personality and communication, a potential quagmire. No, this was something more internal. Some unconscious cocktail of, like, pheromones, energies, and the mirrored funhouse of human expectations.

My very first theory was that I was simply hallucinating all of it. Two problems: 1. that would be paranoia, but paranoiacs blame a nefarious conspiracy revolving around them, while I imagine no such thing (I don't think anything revolves around me!), and 2. other people verified enough incidents to leave me assured that something strange truly was going on.

The Curse was real, it was non-verbal, and it was me - though, I'd finally decided, to my considerable relief, a misreading of me.

Since there can be no thunderously revealing uptake for all this, the tale is a bit of a shaggy dog story, with no fully satisfying ending. My theories are interesting, and I'll share them in the following installments. But there's nothing to "spoil", so let's zoom ahead to the outcome: At some point I reverted back to my usual love-him/hate-him status. Which can actually be worse. A story:
There was a farm stand I shopped at a few years ago. The elderly proprietor was never kind to me, but one day, late in the season, we exchanged a couple of thoughtful words, and connected for a moment. She looked at me as if for the first time. It was absolutely nothing romantic for either of us, just a touch of soulful bonding. Nice!

The next season, I didn't have a chance to return to the stand. But the summer after that, I did stop by. When the woman caught sight of me, she gasped, and I realized that I'd stumbled into a late scene of a very bad movie. "Where did you go?" she implored in a hoarse, tremulous whisper, her eyes dark wells of pain.
I, ah, ghaaahh, uh, I, ah....wuh, er, I, ah....*

* - Pronunciation

I wish I could say that was a one-off. And you'll surely understand why I much prefer senseless rejection. The Curse was a trial but also an amusingly goofy story. This, however, was some sort of bona fide tragedy...and, for whatever unfathomable reason, it seemed to be on me! Yikes! I don't want that!! Who would want that???

Continue to part 10

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rethinking Presidential Fawning

If you had three minutes with Donald Trump, what would you do?

I'd imagine most anti-Trumpers would get in his face and "talk sense into him". As if his 70 years on this planet had awaited penetration by their particular brand of sense-talking. Others would simply tell him off. Neither would help.

Here's what I'd do. I'd build as much rapport as I could. I'd look at him like the poor, unloved boy he clearly is, and make the encounter chummy, fun and humorous for him. I'd superficially agree with whatever rambling nonsense came out of his mouth (no biggie; we all spend our lives amiably agreeing with the rambling nonsense of family, friends, and coworkers, no?). And right when there was the slightest point of connection - any connection at all - I'd share.
You know, with my kookie career - writing about all these little restaurants run and patronized by immigrants - I've spent more time than anyone with those folks, mostly Moslem and Hispanic/Latino. Man, I wish you could have seen what I've seen. These are the kindest, most sincere, America-loving, hard-working people in this whole country. They're not lazy and complacent, like the rest of us. They actually get things done! In fact, most of what gets done in our country is thanks to immigrants, I really don't know how we'd survive without them!
Something like that.

But you know how such an encounter would play on video? Especially that superficial agreement with rambling nonsense? Toadying. Sycophantic. Dancing with the devil. Awful.

It seems bizarre to see so many powerful, idealistic people buttering up Trump. It appears that he's broken their will. But it's the only way in, even for benign persuasion. Presidents must make themselves persuadable - that's part of the job! And Trump could use more diverse persuasion - that's part of the problem! But we need to recognize that the sole channel of Trumpian persuasion - chummy rapport - presents like sycophancy and/or nefarious manipulation. Even when it's benign.

We're all becoming sensitized. When we spot even an iota of this rapport-building, we're ready to spit at the offending party. But while full-out Pence-ian testaments to the majesty of Dear Leader are obviously a whole other thing, we ought to consider whether the jolly camaraderie, which plays so poorly to third parties (think Billy Bush in that damned bus), might not always be what it seems.

Here's an example of that sensitization. NY Times reporter Michael Schmidt recently got a half hour alone with Trump, and treated him with deference, encouraging his free ramblings and dissemblance. He let him talk himself into various traps. As a result, Schmidt's been assaulted by the left for not hectoring and badgering him; for not confronting Trump with his errors and lies. It seems obvious to me that, if he'd done so, the interview would have been over before it began (or, at least, turned out less revealingly free and unguarded). To the left, Schmidt was kissing Trump's ass. To me, he took the one approach that might accomplish something worthwhile.

Here's an insightful Joy Reid Twitter thread about that same interview.

The Curse, Part 8: Gary

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I am very, very slow sometimes. I can't imagine what took me so long to see this. It's dawned on me only just now.

Back in Installment 3, I told the chilling tale of the demonic fisherman, describing the title character like this:
...a rather large fisherman had appeared. I wasn't sure where he'd come from; there had been no signs of life only 5 minutes earlier. And the guy seemed awfully wound up.

As I paddled closer, I noticed that he appeared to be deranged. He was violently, twitchily flinging his line into the pond, yanking it back, and re-flinging. Over and over. Fast. There was a small problem with my kayak, so I needed to land, but there was nowhere to do so but right beneath where he was. And I got the strong sense that he was not going to accommodate me.

As I drew closer, I saw sunlight glisten off the large, shiny metal hook at the end of his line, which repeatedly flew toward me and then retracted. The guy was paying absolutely no attention to my approach. It was almost as if he were in another movie. If the hook hit my kayak, it would immediately sink. If it hit my face, it would tear my flesh. But he persisted, as if I were invisible. And, again, he seemed awfully wound up. If he had a soundtrack, it would have been extreme hardcore.

I was mentally rehearsing a statement (e.g. "Hey, buddy, can you give me just a sec to get out of this boat?"). But when I drew close enough to clearly see his face, something told me: No. Don't talk to him. Don't deal with him. Get away from him. Now.

The same street smarts also kept me from panicking. I mentally let him exist in his separate kookie movie, took a deep, fatalistic breath, pulled in, got off, grabbed the kayak, threw it in my car, and calmly drove away, ignoring him completely. No turbulence was made in the emotional time/space continuum. But I was very aware that I'd experienced a waking nightmare, which had unfolded with pure dream logic.
C'mon, really? You don't see it? Ok, let me spell it out:

I wonder whether that guy is currently writing a series of essays about a "Curse" of his own.

Maybe he was out that day trying to relax after intensely stressful events, fishing for the first time with his new rod, much as I was testing out my new kayak. Maybe he was clumsily trying to get his equipment under control when a stranger startled him, paddling at him from out of nowhere. And this stranger ignored him, wouldn't look at him or say a word to him, and hustled off in a huge rush, as if he'd seen a demon or something.

Maybe his name's Gary, and he writes elegant poetry, and would do anything to help someone in need. And maybe upsetting little scenes like this happen to him all the time. Maybe lots of people have intuitive hunches not to talk to him, not to deal with him, and to get away from him immediately. 

Maybe Gary watches Casper, too.

Continue to part 9

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Curse, Part 7: Countermeasure: Casper

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Time jump!

I'd been keeping up a heavy meditation regimen for a long while. This built on the fact that I'm naturally suited toward meditation, and had meditated as a child with the impassioned devotion of a 12th century fanatic. So, by this point, natural opiates coursed through my body, very little could trigger me, and I viewed pretty much everything with equanimous bemusement. If I were any more relaxed, my arms would have fallen off and rolled around on the my giggling delight.

It occurred to me that my years running Chowhound had mirrored many elements of monasticism:

I was often too busy to eat. Fasting!

No time for girlfriends. Celibacy!

Chowhound had been bulldozing me, but I kept it up because I knew it was helpful for people. Service!

My work communications were via email and instant message, and work took up all my time. So I often went days without speaking. Vow of silence!

Factor in my mission to purge negativity, impatience and self-centeredness, plus loads of meditation, and the spiritual side of things started getting sort of juicy - perhaps overly so for a while. And, meanwhile, I was undergoing the tumultuous aftermath of Chowhound's sale to CNET. Suffering!

But while the Curse was bothering me a lot less, it was, alas, still there, and still weird. No one would use an adjoining gym treadmill, clerks seized up making change, always the damned cough from passing strangers, and innocent encounters could unpredictably turn toxic.

At some point I bought a Casper the Friendly Ghost DVD, hoping to pick up some pointers. I was inspired by Casper's fortitude and hopefulness. He never stopped trying, and never got mad at people for their reactions. I emulated this. To this day, my home wifi network is named "Casper".

Continue to part 8

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Slog Comments

Complaints have been received from Slog readers who've found it inconvenient to leave comments. I've relaxed some of the permissions. Now, you should be able to comment simply by entering a confirmed gmail address. Email me (via link to the left) if you hit snags.

If you've been saving up thoughts on older postings, go ahead and post. I'm notified of all comments, and will point attention toward anything that seems important to share.

A Seven Year Old's Approach to Spending

I use, literally, a seven year-old's approach to nonessential spending. I invented it at age 7, and, as with many of my childhood insights, I've stuck with it because it never stopped working. It's gotten me through times of feast and famine, and leveled out the swings. I think I might have nailed it!

When I was 7, I had a ton of pennies. I decided that I could spend them freely, with hardly a thought (I could not, however, go nuts, because then they'd run out. So I certainly wouldn't go looking for excuses to spend them, but didn't limit myself when there was genuine desire). Nickels required vigilance, and dimes were spent only on special occasions. Quarters? Practically never!

Bubblegum, costing a penny, could be enjoyed freely (though, in practice, rarely more than a few at a time). Baseball cards (a nickel) could be bought judiciously. I can't really remember what cost a dime, because such items were mostly out of my league. Comic books, which cost a quarter, might as well have been bicycles. They were acquired only as gifts.

At age 18, working a part time job in college, I could spend quarters freely (just in time for Asteroids!), though, in practice, rarely more than a few at a time. Dollars required some vigilance (my weekly bacon cheeseburger at the local diner). Fives were for special occasions, and tens, practically never.

In the early days of my music career, I could spend ones freely (this is when I started building my ethnic dining expertise), though, in practice, rarely more than a few at a time. Fives required vigilance (an occasional batido de guanabana along with that roast pork), and tens only on special occasions. Twenties practically never.

Now I can spend twenties freely (DVDs! Multiple craft beers! Parking garages! $15 entrées!), rarely, in practice, more than a few at a time. Fifties are spent judiciously (cheap travel), and hundreds when absolutely necessary. Thousands practically never. And, as was true at all previous levels, I feel content. I have never in my life hankered to level up (am I the only such American?). I can't imagine I'd have any more fun with free-flowing fifties or hundreds. Really, I was having an awfully good time with Asteroids and unadorned roast pork!

I believe my sensible approach to money stems from this lifelong system. I've never had to tightly budget myself, because expenses are always under control. I don't feel much pull toward compulsive spending. I'm neither stingy nor extravagant.

The essential part is that I've never gone nuts within the freely-spendable quantity. If I had, I'd have been forced me to reappraise that privilege (once you've worked through your trove of pennies, you'll need to cool it with the bubblegum...and I don't want to cool it with the bubblegum!).

It's simplistic and juvenile, sure, but there are realms where grown-up complications mostly just help us hide from the truth.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Curse, Part 6: Countermeasure: Yoga and Meditation

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Eventually, I found that I'd blanded and blanched myself nearly to the Mr. Rogers point. I remember one evening standing around with a few square small town guys who were passing a joint. One began to offer it to me, but another said "Oh, this dude's not going to get high!" He went on to guess that I was an accounting professor at the local junior college (I wrote more about this phenomenon now you know the full background).

Yep! Correct! A chipper "hello" to you! I'm Morris Morrisblatt CPA, I eat mostly liverwurst sandwiches, I'm in bed by 8:30, and please spare me your evil weed cigarettes and your non-conformist ideas!

I'd made myself the least interesting person in the world (never was a fan of Dos Equis), yet it hadn't affected the Curse. I was, however, becoming near-certain that it wasn't a function of actual monstrousness on my part. Morris Morrisblat, eater of liverwurst, ain't no monster.

A couple random Curse observations:

1. I came to expect nearly everyone I passed to cough. Always the same short, dry, phony cough, releasing some of the tension. God, how I loathed that cough.

2. Also...clerks making change would nervously drop coins or lock up in frozen paralysis, as if I were hollering at them to HURRY THE FUCK UP!!!!!!, even when I had all the time in the world and wanted nothing more than to make them comfortable. I would studiously read aspirin bottles or rebutton my cuffs. I'd goofily wander a few feet away from the register to carefully survey the gum selection. I did not want to disturb people! I wanted to make things better, not leave a wake of stress and unease!

I decided that my own Chowhound management stress had somehow made itself contagious. I might not feel stressed in a given moment, but some animal mechanism could be ensnaring others in my unconscious tension. I had to admit that my energy was messed up. Maybe it was way worse than I'd realized.

I'd practiced yoga and meditation since childhood, but that had been cut loose when Chowhound became a frenzy. I didn't feel up for meditation, so I started with an epic 2 hour daily yoga asana practice - really grueling stuff, with lots of upside-down things, jumping-around things, etc. This extreme yoga practice took up nearly all my free time in the later Chowhound years. Eventually, feeling somewhat cleared-out, I switched to a two hour daily meditation practice.

Calendar pages flipping, calendar pages flipping, calendar pages flipping.....

Continue to part 7

The Curse, Part 5: Countermeasure: Self-Improvement

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Whatever the hell was going on, it was due to something in me. This was obviously an "in-here" problem, not "out-there". The world doesn't organize itself around me. By my own definition ("Maturity is the correction of the misconception that you're the protagonist in this drama"), I'm mature. So the only thing to do was to work on me. The next few installments will be about the countermeasures I used to try to address this bizarre turn of events.

I need to emphasize that the Curse was not a matter of people reacting poorly to my brash retorts, my sarcasm, my abrasiveness, assertiveness, over-enthusiasm, or whatever other personality traits might have rubbed people wrong. First, as I explained previously, even remaining silent didn't help, so it wasn't a matter of what I said, or how I said it. Second, I gave most of those traits up. Like bacon cheeseburgers, they were indulgences I could no longer afford.

I've always had a cutting sense of humor, but I extinguished it. No more teasing or sarcasm, except with old, trusted friends. Lots of other stuff was disposed of as well. I had no choice. If people were getting the (hopefully false) impression that I was a horrible person, my best move, obviously, was to expunge as much bona fide horribleness as possible. Honestly, I'd never felt particularly horrible. But what horrible person does?

If I responded to extremes with extremes by becoming especially non-awful, it might not help my situation, but at least I'd have the high ground. I'd know for sure that it wasn't me; that my real self wasn't being mirrored back at me. Such knowledge would be like salvation. But so long as I was the least bit genuinely awful, I could never be sure!

This is actually is a musician thing. The following credo is shared by every excellent musician I know: if you play badly at an audition, go home and practice your ass off. If you play better than anyone but still don't get the gig, go practice your ass off. If someone fails to acknowledge your ability, even if they're incredibly wrong...practice your ass off. If your girlfriend breaks up with you, practice your ass off. If your car gets towed, practice your ass off. The answer to every bad outcome life throws at you is: work to play even better. Don't waste even an microsecond contemplating how good you already are. Channel all bad results into a voracious drive to improve. Betterbetterbetterbetterbetterbetterbetter!

I took that approach. I responded to each sneer and rebuff as if it was fully deserved. Not out of masochism or self-pity, but a cheerful eagerness to detect and extinguish selfishness, self-centeredness, impatience, and neediness. Saying "No, no, no!" to the universe is rarely beneficial. My attitude was "You're absolutely right!!"

Above all, I'd make everything super, super not-about-me, and I'd enjoy that repose. A fun project!

It mirrors this, a little.

Continue to Part Six

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Four Mexican Dishes, Two Mexican Restaurants

Recent meals at my two current favorite places for grandmotherly Mexican cooking (as opposed to the macho sizzly fast food grill stuff, e.g. tacos, sopes, etc.):

La Frontera Taqueria Deli (257 Battle Ave, White Plains), which I wrote about here, and Cienaga Grocery And Deli (10432 Corona Ave, Corona, Queens; 347-353-2366),which I wrote about here. Cienaga is Oaxacan, La Frontera is straight-ahead Pueblan (or at least I suppose they are).

Chile relleño at La Frontera with eggy string beans, rice, and beans. Never a remarkable bite here, totally non-artisanal; it registers solely in the animal brain.This is real Mexican home cooking, without needing to marry in or anything!

Meatballs in tomato sauce, potatoes, rice, again at La Frontera. I am a 12 year old Mexican kid, just home from school, and my grandma serves me this.

Barbacoa, weekends-only at Cienaga. Unforgettable. Just....I can't. Every bite a profound celebration.

Tlayuda, a Oaxacan-only treat that predated (and outclassed) pizza by millennia. This is actually only a C+ by Oaxacan standards, but it's A++ for up here.Why is that tomato so good? What madness is this?

More Paradoxes of Brewing Tea....or Producing Anything of Quality

In my post "Almost Nothing is Harder Than Brewing Tea", I forgot to mention an important parameter: quantity of tea. Obviously, I'm not using pre-measured teabag tea here. And every extra tea molecule makes a difference! Limster (co-editor of the "Eat Everywhere" app, and a tea enthusiast) notes some other parameters:
Besides steeping time and temperature, also important are the tea pot matters (aeration, how fast or slow the water cools, absorption of various aromatics), and the water (mineral content and pH dictate what can and cannot be extracted from the tea leaves at a given temperature and within a certain time). It is advanced chemistry.

My friend with the tea shop basically tries a range of waters including easily available commercial brands to limited bottled at source stuff. They use kettles with no plastic parts. Maybe no aluminium. They use handmade tea ware from some of the top potters in China.

Once, we did tastings with identical tea, water, kettle, brewed with the exact same timing (side by side at the same time) in different brewing containers (gai wan/covered cup) versus clay teapot and the results were very different. It wasn’t better or worse, as some people preferred the tea from the pot while the tea from the gai wan, but we all agreed on what the differences were. And the effects were consistent - doing the same comparison on a different day with a different batch of tea, water, brewing times etc led to similar effects from the different brewing containers.
While the choice of all those materials will be, er, material, I don't think variables like teapot or water source are limiting factors. Great tea (and also lousy tea) has been made using every conceivable type of teapot and water chemistry. You can brew bad tea with perfect water, pot, and cup (and, even, tea!). And you can also create perfection with bad tools and ingredients. An awful lot of evidence compels you to accept that quality is not a function of any of these things, in spite of great commercial effort to make us think otherwise.

I pointed once before to this sensational article by Ken Rockwell, the online photography guru, about how you can take great photos with a bad camera. Ansel Adams worked with equipment vastly inferior to my iPhone's camera, but his stuff turned out pretty good.

If you accept (and I don't know how you can avoid it) that ideal results can be achieved with mediocre ingredients and tools, and that superb ingredients and tools can yield mediocrity - that a great whole is much more than the sum of its parts - then it becomes very hard to proceed without using mushy terms like magic, which upset narrowly scientific-minded people (Von, featured in my video, was very scientific-minded...which is why he was so embarrassed and skeptical as I insisted on pointing out the paradox of his earth-shatteringly delicious cookies being made from lousy ingredients via the oatmeal box recipe). It's a sticky wicket, and it's not logical. John Locke surely brewed lousy tea!

I propose another experiment. Try, with your friend, brewing identical tea, water, kettle, the exact same timing in the same brewing containers! But have a different person produce each one (without cross-consultation/communication/synchronization; i.e. both mind their own business). I think you'll find the results surprising. Even more so if it can be one of you, along with someone meticulous about following instructions but unexperienced in brewing tea (maybe you know a lab technician?).

You can probably throw away most of your fancy cooking gear (and every other kind of fancy gear) - at least if you buy that stuff thinking it will improve results. It may increase your efficiency and/or help you avoid careless errors, but it won't help you create deliciousness. In fact, if you replaced all your pots and pans and such with fabulous quality cookware, it would not take you long to unconsciously find a way to use your new gear to make things taste exactly as before (see "George's New Piano").

"Cornered Rat" Report #3

December 26, 2017. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 76,900 google search results, a bit more than last week's 76,300.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Almost Nothing is Harder Than Brewing Tea

My final stop on the big Chow Tour I did soon after selling Chowhound was a visit to Chinese tea pioneer David Hoffman (see the film about him), which made for one of my favorite reports. I described the high point:
David casually asks whether you’d like some tea. Even though you don’t ordinarily drink tea after meals — even though it’s late and you’re afraid that tea at this point might keep you up — you immediately and enthusiastically agree. Yes, David. Sure, I’ll have a little tea.

He retreats into one of the tea aging/staging areas, and emerges to hand you a tiny thimble of a cup, filled with about six sips of greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue. You sip. And you quietly gasp.
I own some good quality pu-erh (an earthy, complex type of tea especially suited for long aging, often sold in hashish-like bricks) which came, in fact, from David. And I've been working literally for years on producing this "greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue" result. The same pu-erh can be so-so, tasty, or devastating, depending on brewing skill...which makes no sense at all.

You boil to the right temperature, you steep the right length, and that's that. A robot could do it - or so you'd imagine. But it's like pasta. Perfectly al dente pasta is an entirely different thing than a slightly lesser al dente, and it takes years to get it perfect - even though it's just a simple matter of boiling for the right length of time.

The simple things are always the hardest to get right. A couple of years ago, after much effort, I attained greasiness. My tea had texture, it had bite. It was more than the sum of its scant few parts. I was finally making tea, if not yet phenomenally great tea. But I haven't brewed for a while, and I now find myself back at square one, with results that are watery and unfocused.

I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms). But tea brewing, with multiple moving parts to its process, each ridiculously sensitive to minute variation, is so, so much harder.

See my video "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies" for more on the conundrum of how super-quality gets into ordinary foods.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Thoughts

You've surely heard by now about the "Christmas Truce". During World War I, British and German soldiers spontaneously rose from their opposing trenches on Christmas, sang songs together, played football, danced and dined and made merry. The detail that most affects me is that many of them exchanged addresses so they could get together "after the war". Then Christmas passed and they all went back to blowing each other up. It's even a true story, (says

Update: historian John Schindler, who I trust, says it's largely a myth. Nonetheless, the following thoughts apply even if only a small number of soldiers took part...or even as a mere thought experiment.

And it illustrates many of the points I've recently been making.

In my somewhat mysterious "Good and Evil" posting, I proposed that goodness isn't an actual thing; it's just an opting-out of malevolence. In my follow-up, "More Good and Evil", I elaborated:
The empathy, love, and creativity embedded in every person shines through, unavoidably (you needn't industriously build up a tally) the moment you remove the malevolence that shrinks perspective, cheapens aims, and twists emotions. Expunge that needless, counterproductive constriction and it's nothing but light, love, and creativity. Those things aren't cultivated. They were there to begin with (they're what we actually are), and radiate forth as blocks are removed - as we stop choosing to unnecessarily gnarl and armor ourselves.
Question: was the Christmas Truce a clean flip? Were these soldiers alternating symmetrically? Or did the truce represent their true selves, while the blowing-each-other-up part involved a constriction of fear and other transient emotions, accompanied by a sense of obligation to fit a mental narrative? Was this a matter of neutral entities bouncing between poles of good and evil, or naturally good entities being their true selves for a moment before being re-distracted? Which scenario seems more deeply truthful? Which seems more like mere fluffy drama? To me, there's no contest there.

Humans don't need a reason to be good. Intrinsic love and kindness radiate whenever, for whatever reason, we happen to release our malevolence. When we let go a little. But the reverse isn't true. We don't "release" goodness when we behave badly; we're always grasping actively toward something - contracting, gnarling, fearing, needing...for some reason. There's always a motivator, while Goodness simply "Is", whenever there's no pending reason to get caught up in grasping/contracting/gnarling/fearing/needing. As I wrote in "Good and Evil",
"Goodness" is just a subjective impression of the absence of malevolence. There's no being a "good person"; even saints are merely opting out of malevolence.
This is why it's often observed that people get meaner and more selfish when stakes rise. Notice that it's not normally observed that people get kinder, more loving and generous when stakes lower. That's because there's no symmetry. On that side of things, malevolence is released and we settle back into what we truly are. It's not even interesting enough to comment upon!

There's one more connection to be made between this Slog and the Christmas Truce story. In my recent series about my Curse, I described how the world suddenly turned sharply malevolent, even when I remained silent and minded my own business. And how every once in a while - almost with a wink and a nod - polarity would flip and I'd find myself the toast of the town. As I concluded the most recent installment,
"The whole social gamut was being deconstructed - shown to be utterly superficial and untethered from any deeper reality. "
It's a theme that comes up a lot here on the Slog: We're all telling ourselves stories all the time, then identifying with those stories. The world becomes The World via pretending and drama. And much as even the cheesiest movie can still draw us in, it all works effectively despite being nowhere near as seamless as it seems. If you explore and examine this world - if you watch for plot holes with the smug vigilance of a film blogger - you'll find that it's actually pretty threadbare (the Curse was only an extreme example).

(That would be an alarming and sad observation, if the underlying truth weren't delightful: that beneath the spotty drama is nothing but the peace we actually are. We know it, too. This essential truth is eternally (though quietly) registered. In the end, it will be plainly obvious to all. Per previous link, "Over the eons, playing our civilizational game on this minutely tilted table, we can not forever resist that minute, blessed tilt.")

That's why it is thoroughly unsurprising to learn that warring soldiers are but one perceptual reframing away from embrace. Or that glum, numbed-out crowds have the potential to instantly erupt into joy and celebration. Or that a "curse" might happen where the world turns laughably surreal, almost as if to mock your fraught demand for some other result. It's all pretty thin...and, beneath the thinness lies the profound eternal peace which is the only true thing.

Oh, and my annual reminder: Please don't parse my Jewiness before offering your holiday greetings (though I have a friend - a perfectly reasonable guy, normally - who feels differently, so I sympathize with your confusion).

Finally, I'd like to point you toward what I've called the pivotal slog posting. It's the story of how I spent one Christmas ping-ponging between what was actually happening (joyful, peaceful) and what my mind was telling me was happening (empty, lonely, disappointing), forcing the realization that we are the dramatists of our life story. Torrents of mental claptrap are generated to make ourselves needlessly miserable (ballasting our happiness?). We have a choice. We can opt to make ourselves slaves to drama...or to remain free.

The links are important.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

APPL May Climb Some More

Apple's stock price has barely fluttered amid the latest sensationalized "issue".

I have greedily declined to sell my last few shares during the most recent run-up. And, given the absence of fraught fear, I figure we still haven't gotten close to the peak. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Curse, Part 4: Polarity Flips and Legacy Weirdness

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

The Curse was more tolerable for me than it would have been for most people. I'd always been a love-him/hate-him kind of guy. This was just a much more extreme version of that....without the "love-him"s. So it seemed less weird than you'd imagine. This wasn't like finding myself trapped in the Twilight Zone, but more like my usual Twilight Zone situation was given an intriguing new plot twist.

In fact, swinging between extremes had been worse. Rats rewarded for a certain behavior, and punished for another, learn to perform the rewarded behavior and avoid the punished one, no problem. But psychologists have observed that if you dole out reward and punishment randomly for the same behavior, the rat will eventually lose its fur and go nuts. So it felt like a relief to have the world finally make up its damned mind. With consistency, there are possibilities!

But every once in a while the polarity would entirely flip for a few hours, and strangers would find me wonderful and fascinating and women would act strangely flirty. On one such day, not one but two pigeons separately flew into me as I walked around Manhattan. I've never even heard of that happening before!

To be honest, this version was far more upsetting. First, I saw the potential to manipulate and exploit - and I'd made a strict rule against that sort of thing for myself back when I was my wisest, as a child. What's more, only an unhinged narcissist would conclude, in a scenario where people are randomly belligerent, that equal, opposite randomness was, like, the truer thing. To remain realistic - to retain my compass - I needed to downplay both aberrations, and it's more painful to overlook flattery than cruelty.

If I was being taught a lesson here (I always assume any given situation is teaching something essential), it certainly wasn't "People are awful most of the time, but a few really get me!" Whatever was happening, it obviously had nothing to do with flattery or cruelty. Rather, the whole social gamut was being deconstructed - shown to be utterly superficial and untethered from any deeper reality.

A couple years into this craziness, I took drastic action.

Continue to Part 5

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Curse, Part 3: The Demon Fisherman

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". Part two explained how it had expanded to complete surreality, and how I reacted by shrinking myself into near invisibility.

My comfort zone is quite wide. I have a wider range of interests, and feel comfortable in a wider range of places and with a wider range of people, than anyone I know. The downside is that anything outside my wide comfort zone can nearly paralyze me. Even banal stuff. It takes superpower fortitude for me to attend a party.

I'm not someone who'd buy a kayak, drop it in unfamiliar water, and happily paddle around. I love kayaking, but making that happen on my own isn't really my storyline.

However, I managed it. I bought this cool inflatable kayak, and dropped it into a murky pond, unsure whether it was permitted, or if there were unknown risks. Tentatively and tightly, I paddled across the pond. Then, as I was just beginning to relax and grin, I turned back and saw that, on the landing, a rather large fisherman had appeared. I wasn't sure where he'd come from; there had been no signs of life only 5 minutes earlier. And the guy seemed awfully wound up.

As I paddled closer, I noticed that he appeared to be deranged. He was violently, twitchily flinging his line into the pond, yanking it back, and re-flinging. Over and over. Fast. There was a small problem with my kayak, so I needed to land, but there was nowhere to do so but right beneath where he was. And I got the strong sense that he was not going to accommodate me.

As I drew closer, I saw sunlight glisten off the large, shiny metal hook at the end of his line, which repeatedly flew toward me and then retracted. The guy was paying absolutely no attention to my approach. It was almost as if he were in another movie. If the hook hit my kayak, it would immediately sink. If it hit my face, it would tear my flesh. But he persisted, as if I were invisible. And, again, he seemed awfully wound up. If he had a soundtrack, it would have been extreme hardcore.

I was mentally rehearsing a statement (e.g. "Hey, buddy, can you give me just a sec to get out of this boat?"). But when I drew close enough to clearly see his face, something told me: No. Don't talk to him. Don't deal with him. Get away from him. Now.

The same street smarts also kept me from panicking. I mentally let him exist in his separate kookie movie, took a deep, fatalistic breath, pulled in, got off, grabbed the kayak, threw it in my car, and calmly drove away, ignoring him completely. No turbulence was made in the emotional time/space continuum. But I was very aware that I'd experienced a waking nightmare, which had unfolded with pure dream logic.

It made no sense in the real world. This is a suburb distant from NYC, filled with quiet, meek people. The sort of people who hit the brakes and wait if they think you might be toying with the notion of stepping off the sidewalk. The kind who linger at stop signs even when they have the right of way. There's no crime or disturbance. I have never spotted anyone the least bit scary here. This inexplicable guy in this inexplicable place doing this inexplicable activity was many deviations from the mean. The far end of the bell curve.

This was the low point of the Curse. I recounted all this to a Sicilian friend, who wagged his head very gravely. My day-to-day experience had jumped the shark. But along with the extremeness came a certain unreality - a sense of "don't worry, it's only a movie." And, indeed, I'd gotten through this completely unscathed. It was one of many instances during this period that I felt sort of...winked at.

Continue to Part Four

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Helpful Words for Late-Stage Addicts

They say there's nothing you can say or do to help an addict (or alcoholic). But that's not necessarily true.

There's nothing you can say/do to help a narcissist, because they lack experience with any other reality. They have no choice but to process whatever you say narcissistically. But even the most virulent addict had a "Before", and you can try to bridge that for them. That's important, because they may have stopped trying to reconnect with their own seemingly fading reality.

This works best for people you don't know well. If there's a long history of trying to help, it may sound like last-ditch wishful thinking. I sent it many years ago to a musician colleague I'd always respected, who was in legal trouble for shockingly bad behavior completely unlike him:
Just a note to say that I can see you clearly - your kindness, intelligence, and morality. Regardless of where life steers you, I’ll always know who you actually are at heart.

See also this extreme case.

Also: the Depression Resuscitation Kit and the Grief Survival Kit

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Does The Truth exert a pull? Can a sufficiently eloquent statement of reason generally land? Underneath the stress and static of everyday life, does truth exert even a slight magnetic attraction? With respect to larger truths - above and beyond skirmishy realms like politics - does the human mind innately resonate, at any subtle level, with that which is True?

It's the ultimate 2017 question (though, again, I'm divorcing it from politics), but it's something I've wondered about for years. And while I once believed that Truth does exert a pervasive mild pull, I no longer do.

What pulls is confirmation bias. This explains the bizarrely selective nature of people's rationality. The most intelligent, rational people are capable of the stupidest irrationality - see Libertarianism, Communism, and neo-Atheism, or most of the other -isms that once swayed populations during the brief period (i.e. the Enlightnment, an intellectual overreaction to the brutally ignorant Dark Ages*), when thunderous intellectuals were mistakenly imagined to hold the magical key of rightness.

* - Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?)

Humans are squishy flesh bags, not crisp computation devices. They feel a deep, visceral pleasure when their assumptions are reinforced, and smart people are especially prone to mistaking this for intellectual rigor. By flattering their preconceptions, you're Truth Telling. You're, like, magical. This explains the fervor for Marx, Rand, etc.

So while an elegant statement of truth may indeed elicit a potent resonance, it holds only for those sharing the viewpoint. And they, inevitably, celebrate the psychic stroking more than the statement itself. Purring like kittens, we deem the petting hand all that's right and true in the world.

Writing about Skinner Boxes, where subjects are rewarded for a certain behavior, I said:
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.
Disrupt the reward cycle by voicing truths across tribal lines, and you will quickly infuriate everyone within range. Your facility for truth-telling will appear dangerously inconsistent.

So let's forget about pulls, magnetism, and resonance. Those things are entirely about emotional drives - and rarely our more admirable ones. The good news (and it might be the single most solid cause for optimism in the entire human realm) is that while truth doesn't pull, it truly does register.

Smart people don't particularly mind being called stupid. But stupid people sure do; including stupid people who falsely assume - even vehemently - they're smart (same for all dichotomies - crazy/sane, ugly/attractive, etc.). This proves that, at some level, the truth registers. They know. As a self-aware stupid person, I frequently note that
I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be less of an idiot. By contrast, most people recoil quite strongly from acknowledging to themselves any idiocy in their thought or behavior. They'd much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.
Watch those denialists closely, however, and you'll observe that they do know. Deep inside, perhaps only unconsciously, they always do. Pay attention not to their words and their posture, but to their emotions and their insecurities, which always reveal the registration of Truth.

I once told a story about a friend who suffered from mysterious and disabling muscle tears. He'd obviously caused them, himself, via foolish over-stretching. I didn't even call him on it; I just let his own words echo in conversational silence, and watched the rage gather in his eyes - rage directed at me, for having trapped and embarrassed him; for having made him consider the stupidity that had caused this pain and suffering. The hopeful part is that he was dancing his dysfunctional dance in reaction to truth. Perhaps it wasn't a terribly useful dance, and lord knows no congratulatory cigar was offered, but it's not as if the truth hadn't landed.

The truth always lands, but it usually does so very quietly. Writing about distinguishing genuine intuition from the mind's multilayered noise, I noted that, amid the cacophony,
Truth speaks softly, and does not repeat itself.
We engage with truth in many ways - with dances of repulsion as well as of attraction. But truth is always, at some level, recognized. And while this recognition, like truth itself, is quiet and easily missed amid the tumultuous emotional hoo-ha, the latter always passes, while truth, alone, forever endures.

Truth is oh-so-lightly favored, in the scheme of things, simply by virtue of its singular persistence. Over the eons, playing our civilizational game on this minutely tilted table, we can not forever resist that minute, blessed tilt.

Monday, December 18, 2017

"Cornered Rat" Report #2

December 18, 2017. The phrase "cornered rat" finds 76,300 google search results, roughly 3% more than last week.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

More Good and Evil

I wish I could easily cough up terse epithets that say it all (I do very rarely; here's a compendium). The problem is that once you get used to writing wordy essays, every topic starts requiring that treatment ("Maslow's Hammered Keyboard"?).

In a posting titled "Good and Evil", I wrote:
"Cold" isn't a thing. It's just a subjective impression of the absence of heat.

Similarly, "Goodness" is just a subjective impression of the absence of malevolence. There's no being a "good person"; even saints are merely opting out of malevolence.

Why do people act malevolently? Simple. It's resistance, born of fear, insecurity, or other internal turmoil. Think of it as aggrieved friction between one's internal and external world; between how one needs it to be and the way it really is; between the burden of the myriad stories one carries around and the utter simplicity and lightness of the actual flow of it all. People are frustrated by the ineffectual toy steering wheel they've spent their lives grasping, and feel compelled to force a result of some sort.
I hoped this pithy take might spur thought, without my filling in all the blanks.

A Facebook friend replied:
If I walk by a lake and see someone drowning, I am malevolent if I throw rocks at them to make them drown faster. If I do nothing, I am malevolent because I am letting them drown when I could have helped (unless it’s too dangerous to help them or I can’t swim). Saving the drowning person will take work, I have to find a long stick for the person to grab on to, or, I have to jump in and get wet in the process, which is a huge hassle, especially if the water is cold. So, being good and saving someone is not simply a lack of malevolence, but a purposeful action that takes effort. I dove in:
People have different concepts of what "good" is. Yours, apparently, involves willingness to extend oneself for another. But that is an extraordinarily complicated matter that couldn't possibly be characterized with such a simple conceptual term.

I can list 100 scenarios where the person extending themselves does so out of selfishness, vanity, fear, even predation. And another 100 scenarios where the do-gooder makes things catastrophically worse - not always perfectly innocently. And 10,000 scenarios where the recipient didn't actually want help, so the would-be hero looks like an oafish busybody. In fact, that is the rule, not the exception.

If you give vodka to an alcoholic, who wants literally nothing else, are you "good"? If you tear away an alcoholic's vodka, are you "good"? How much is it about meeting desires or expectations? Who assesses the "need"? It's complicated!

More people than you might imagine fall in love with their problems and pain, so if you try to rescue them by vanquishing those things, you will find yourself the villain. There's a reason non-malevolent people often don't take the initiative to rescue, solve or save. Try being a hero or a saint, and see where it gets you!

In the end, demonstrating goodness by accumulating a tally sheet of cinematically noble-seeming acts is a ridiculous notion. I know people with such tally sheets, and they are, every one of them, nightmares of unbridled vanity. Batman was not a super cool dude.

If you pull apart the strands of most notions of Goodness, as I've just done for this one, it always unknots into nothingness. It's because there's no "there" there. However!!! The empathy, love, and creativity embedded in every person shines through, unavoidably (you needn't industriously build up a tally) the moment you remove the malevolence that shrinks perspective, cheapens aims, and twists emotions. Expunge that needless, counterproductive constriction and it's nothing but light, love, and creativity. Those things aren't cultivated. They were there to begin with (they're what we actually are), and radiate forth as blocks are removed - as we stop choosing to unnecessarily gnarl and armor ourselves.

That's why so many proclaimed "heros" inevitably tell reporters "This wasn't heroic. This is just what everyone should do". How many times have you heard that?
Again: "Goodness" is just a subjective impression of the absence of malevolence.

More here

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Farewell, Compuserve

Before there was a Web, before there was even AOL, there was Compuserve. Back in the early-to-mid 1990s, you'd call in via dial-up modem, and be charged by the minute to participate in various discussions. The newness of the tech, plus the time pressure, filtered out the lazy, the trolls, the idly snarky - all the characters that diluted most subsequent online discussion. Compuserve was like Paradise before The Fall. It never got better than Compuserve, circa 1995. And Compuserve disappeared this week.

I helped run the Bacchus Beer/Wine forum, where I learned a ton, and participated in some legendary tastings and wine dinners. They were memorable not just for the stunning quality of the grog, but also for the truly amazing people. The forum's regulars represented an entirely new species of food/wine-lovers, who inspired and informed everything I did afterwards.

I just posted the following to a Facebook conversation between many of the old-timers:
The lack of snobbery was what always really impressed and disarmed me about you guys. Nowadays, snobbery is the exception, not the rule, but back then (and forever preceding), most wine buffs were deeply invested in status (aesthetic and/or financial).

You guys blew that all up, and you gave me the conviction to write about food and drink without paying even the slightest heed to that layer. The credo "All good stuff is to be appreciated earnestly and eagerly" doesn't sound ground-breaking nowadays, but it sure was back then. It was like a crack in the clouds.

Also: the generosity of knowledge. No one on the forum used their knowledge (often substantial) as a cudgel. Know-how was always to be shared. Joy, not ego. This, too, was rare, necessary, and inspiring (though this one is, alas, still not universally practiced, even at this late date!).

I remember being on a flight with forumites Dave Sit and Elliot Apter, discussing some wine issue, when a stranger interrupted to ask "Hey, you guys are into wine? I had one last night I really liked; what do you think of Lancer's Rose?" Elliot engaged with him for a long time, inquiring about what he liked about the Lancers, finally writing down a list of fruity, drinkable wines that maybe were even a little better (I would't be surprised if he sent him a case, as well). At no point was Lancer's ever put down, nor was the guy made to feel dumb. Nor did he ever realize he was being educated. Joy, not ego. That's the spirit!

I ran a food/drink web site for a while based on those same principles, doing my part to advance this fresh (at the time) attitude. But that came after. You guys were an important cauldron for a modern shift in attitude, and it created huge ripples (mine was just one of many). You surely never realized it at the time, but you catalyzed big changes.

With appreciation,

Jim (not Jeff)

I can't find a decent online report to link to re: Compuserve's closure. All the articles I've browsed are lazy, trollish, and idly snarky. Even paid writers these days are cut from a cheaper cloth than the forumites of that golden era.

Parsing McCarthyism

It seems like Russian influence runs unfettered at all levels of our government (this short video clip of Roy Moore speaking fluent Russian obviously proves nothing nefarious, but it nearly broke my mind). I want them out, and I feel a patriotic duty to call for action on this until the government shows proper diligence.

So, wait. Joseph McCarthy - who also saw Russian influence everywhere and wanted them out - was a bad guy, right?

I ask this only half-ironically, being fully aware of McCarthy's excesses. But I've been grappling with the fun house mirror, as you likely are, as well. It doesn't help that so many members of "The Resistance" have shown a fondness for branding anyone they mildly dislike as a traitorous Russian spy.

Here's the answer, courtesy of former NSA spook John Schindler, whose articles for The Observer on Trump/Russia, counter-intelligence, and history are must-reads (as is his Twitter feed). From Schindler's recent piece, "The Truth About Espionage":
"Let’s take the example of the spy-mania of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Senator Joe McCarthy convinced millions of Americans that Washington was teeming with secret Red agents burrowed deep in our government. Although he was never more than a boozy charlatan, McCarthy was more accurate than not in a very generalized way: Our nation’s capital indeed was swiss-cheesed with Kremlin spies."

... "While it’s important that Robert Mueller and his investigators unravel the full extent of Kremlin intelligence operations against our country in 2016—particularly because there’s every indication that Moscow will do the same again in 2018 and 2020—this needs to be done with seriousness, not sensationalism. Counterintelligence work driven by politics rather than facts can prove ruinous, as Senator McCarthy demonstrated."
Yes, Russian infiltration happens. The problem is when you politicize or sensationalize it. Best to let the cynical, coffee-breathed intelligence pros handle it competently and neutrally. Don't turn it into a "scare". Don't make it a "thing". Just get it fixed - and, if necessary, exert pressure on those standing in the way of fixing it.

Just for maximal 2017-style layered irony and craziness, Schindler himself has a big rivalry going with TV counter-intelligence pundits Naveed Jamali and Malcolm Nance, who may or may not have fake qualifications and may or may not deserve the TV gigs and acclaim as much as Schindler. So what does Schindler do? Yup: he frequently insinuates that they're part of the Russian conspiracy.

This house-of-mirrors, everything-is-topsy-turvy feeling of not having firm ground beneath our feet is a chain reaction that's only been catalyzed - not finely orchestrated - by Russia. But it's dangerous to imagine yourself immune. In this clusterfuck, we're all Russian agents (willing or not).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Massive Mac Info Dump

Feel free to share with Mac enthusiasts (or add your own tips in the comments). I won't polish this at all (hopefully it's coherent); I just want to toss the know-how out there. See also My Favorite iPhone Apps

Open Apps, Folders, Files With Crazy Speed and Ease
There are a zillion ways to launch apps, docs, and folders. I don't like to take my hands off the keyboard, and I don't like going through third-party control center thingees. I want to be able to type, for example, command/option X and instantly launch (or return to) Safari. I've been doing it this way since System 7, and it's still the fastest and most efficient approach. However, the apps I've used to get this behavior keep disappearing. Currently, I use Alfred.

It's actually crazily ironic, given that Alfred is the ultimate "third-party control center thingee". You trigger an Alfred box, then type commands. But if you pay Alfred a few bucks for their powerpack, it unlocks un-Alfred-like behavior, allowing you to create "launch app/file hotkeys", totally independently from Alfred's interface. I have it set up, with custom keystrokes, to launch all my most frequently used apps (including Finder), all my most frequently accessed folders (downloads, documents, applications, current project), and documents (food list, tip of tongue list, etc). Properly set up (and Alfred is, alas, an infuriating ballbuster to configure), I become a wizard, wielding my Mac at lightning speed. I don't need "Spaces" to distinguish work spaces. I just type a keystroke to launch or return to whatever I need. I also set a shortcut to launch Isolator, which allows me to see ONLY windows of a given app against a black background (note: Isolator doesn't work in the latest MacOS Catalina. Use, instead, HazeOver.

The Hit List
I raved in "My Favorite iPhone Apps" about "The Hit List", which has a Mac desktop app as well as the mobile.
I live in this app, both for Mac and for iOs. Nominally it's a to-do app, but it's so freeform that you can use it for nearly anything - notes, text, etc (no graphics, though). And the custom paid synch is a dream - the best synching experience I've had on any platform ever. This is my preferred way of transferring info between phone and Mac. Rock-solid app, always updated for latest OS.

File Renaming
I've tried literally every file renaming app. This freebie is by far the best.

Two Cool Little Reference Apps
KeyCue gathers all your keyboard shortcuts in an app-sensitive window you can always bring up by holding the command key. Expensive for what it is, and I don't really grok some of the deeper power stuff, but I find it super handy.

Dashkards takes another approach.

Beloved Software Companies
I'm loyal to quality. The following are all ingenious and beloved software publishers. Not all produce perfectly polished wares, but they're all lovingly developed and clever/useful in some respect. Each one of them makes me say "Show me how to send you more money," because I don't want to live in a world where they no longer do business, and I want to be surrounded by quality and cleverness.

Pangea Software produces game apps that look sort of juvenile at first glance. But give them some time. Gameplay is so, so, smart and thouthfully produced. Even the music. Try Bugdom 2 on your Mac or iPad. And give it some time - like at least a half hour - to really discover the subtle goodness. Not enough people do these days (the company was more popular years ago), so this wondrous company appears to be fading.

Bruji, mentioned below for their "Pedias" series (though if they produce anything else, I will buy).

Sanford Selznick of "Selznick Scientific Software" has been around as long as the Mac. His interfaces are homely and inefficient, and it takes him at least to an x.4 release to get bugs out. But his apps are deeply loveable. Like many people, I use 1Password in-browser to unlock sites. But I use Passwordwallet to store all confidential stuff, including that same website data. And nobody out there is developing great stuff like his SmartWrap anymore.

Everyone uses - and complains about - TextExpander, which has somehow become the default app on Mac for auto-expanding short bits of text into canned outcomes like email sigs, mailing addresses, salutations, etc. It's expensive and greedy about constantly knocking users for upgrades, including bug fixes, and I don't love the app to begin with. But Typeit4Me from Ettore Software has been around or decades, fairly priced, and still works great. I registered this back in 1995, and Riccardo Ettore is still going strong. I'll buy anything he produces.

Irradiated makes RecUp, which I raved about in my iPhone round-up. I haven't had time to dive deeply, but I trust anything they make.

I don't understand why Napkin isn't super famous. It's so honed and perfect that they've never needed to release a followup to their initial v1.0. It's basically an environment for marking up images in useful ways. Awesome for brainstorming. I don't save or export the final napkin....I just screenshot it and distribute a web link to the uploaded PNG (I auto-upload to Imgur via an app that unfortunately is no longer're on your own!).

Odd little app that does one thing beautifully. Hate to read on your Mac? Don't just reflexively send everything to Instapaper or Pocket. Consider letting Tofu make it more elegantly readable on-screen.

Also in that "My Favorite iPhone Apps" thingee, mentioned that
I catalog all my books, CDs, and DVDs in Bookpedia, CDpedia, and DVDpedia, respectively. These are Mac programs from a great company called Bruji.
Get all these apps. This is a scrappy little company, totally sincere about building great stuff and helping out. Great support. Their stuff is fun to use (the inevitable outcome of really thoughtful app design), and you can even use bar codes (scanned via your phone) to enter currently owned items into the database, which is totally fun.

Screencasts Online
For years I've enjoyed the Mac and iPhone/iPad tutorials at Screencasts Online, hosted by the affable and comforting voice-of-sanity, Don McAllister (who I can't help thinking of as Wallace, from the "Wallace and Gromit" films). A few of Don's associates host screencasts, as well, but they're good-not-great. Eventually I couldn't come up with an excuse to not join and pay and support the effort. I'm glad I did. Not just for the big epic explainers, but for some great little tips. Like the one about PicoText (here's an App Store link). I won't describe it to you. Instead, check out the screencast, fall in love with the site, go absolutely cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs nuts about PicoText (which is something you've always wanted), and send Don your money.

Stop Using Word Processors
Word processors are archaic for nearly everyone. You don't need WYSIWYG treatment in this century; html and markup tags rule the roost, and the best way to work with them is via a text editor, not a word processor.

Best of the lot is BBEdit, perhaps the most loved Mac app there is, and it's free unless you want to upgrade for higher functionality (mostly programmer stuff). BBEdit offers insane power re: text (best of all: life-changing GREP, which allows you to search for patterns of text, rather than just exact text strings)

But it's built for coders, which makes it very intimidating for writers. However, here are steps you can take to make BBEdit windows look and behave like more familiar text composition windows. I use BBEdit for all my writing, and below I describe how I've set up the app.

To proof the output of your html or markup tags in real time, use BBEdit alongside the essential "Marked 2"

Prefs: Appearance
Deselect line numbers and gutter

Prefs: Application
Deselect “Always Show Full Paths in Open Recent Menu
Select “When Bbedit Becomes Active, New Text Document”

Prefs: Editing
"Show Text Completions Only Manually"
Deselect “Display Instances of Selected Text

Prefs: Editor Defaults
Select “Softwrap Text to: Character Width: 70 (if you want to see more text per line, try 80).
Default Font: I like Optima Regular 14

Prefs: Printing
Deselect “Print Page Headers”
Deselect “Print Full Pathname”
Deselect “Print Line Numbers”
Deselect “Print Color Syntax”
Unfortunately, we’re stuck with either time stamp or "date saved" stamp
Consider printing from Mark 2 (see above), or other apps that show the output of markup or HTML tags. BBedit will, obviously, not print styled text.
Prefs: Text Files
Select "Make Backup Before Saving"
Select "Keep Historical Backgrounds"

Prefs: menus and shortcuts
Choose "Simple Menus" (button at lower left)
Deselect #!,

View Menu Hide Navigation Bar
Text Display: Hide Page Guide
Text Display: Hide Gutter

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jim At Long Last Goes Home

"So what's your home cuisine, Jim?" no one's ever asked me.

Good question! I suppose Cantonese. I spent my formative years in a restaurant called Shing Kee in Manhattan Chinatown, where I memorized the menu, and where the waiters came to treat me like a complete paisano. To this day, Cantonese feels like my culinary ground zero.

"No," insists nonexistent person, "I mean your family's food!"

That'd be burnt brisket and Green Giant canned French-cut string beans - over-boiled and cooled to room temperature before serving. And, on (very) good days, slice pizza, normally consumed while driving.

"But what are you, exactly? Your people must come from somewhere!"

Well, my grandparents had accents, so I figured they were immigrants. But they didn't like to talk about the old country. My paternal grandparents were from "Russia", but that seemed like an amorphous blob. I knew my grandmother was from Minsk, and my grandfather was from Pinsk, though I had no concept of these places, and it freaked the bejesus out of me when Corporal Agarn on F-Troop recounted the exact same origin story. Anyway, you are now thoroughly up to speed with every data point I have concerning my heritage.

Ace chowhound Barry Strugatz (new movie out next spring; read his lightly anonymized story here) recently told me about a brand new Belarusian restaurant in Brooklyn that's crazy-popular. I perused the food shots on Yelp, and felt a strange stirring in my chest.

A few days later, having made the trek to Sheepshead Bay, I awaited the waiter at Belarussian Xata. Playing out a hunch, I checked the Wikipedia entry for Minsk, discovering that, geez, yeah, I'm actually Belarusian. Honey, I'm home!

Felt like it, too. The place is outfitted like a Russian village. See plenty of interior photos on the Yelp page, but I shot a couple minor touches:

I've never eaten Belarusian before. I had my grandmother's cooking a few times, but, being a "picky eater" as a kid, I pretty much confined myself to her fried potato pancakes. Nobody has ever made them the way she taught me. I figured it was a family thing.

Starting off in food critic mode, I ordered a couple of high-difficulty items, to troll my tablemate and prove myself worthy to the establishment: garlic toast with salo (unrendered pork fat), and hog's ears.

The "garlic toast" consists of fingers of pumpernickel that are fried crunchy. They're super garlicky, and, combined with the lard, offered a glimpse of a magic land I'll never fully enter without a couple new stents in my chest. I contented myself with a few small dips, but they were life-changing.

Them hog's ears was about three times normal size (see dollar bill for scale). Do they sew them together, ala Silence of the Lambs? Or crush them in some fearsome lobe press? They were chewy, of course, but a bit dull. I like how the Portuguese prepare them way better. But the visual was astonishing. I was thinking more "Dumbo" than "Babe":

The Belarussian borscht tasted like somebody at long last got borscht exactly right. It was neither a clobber of beety sweetness, nor watery/dull. So soulful, with a few chunks of floating over-cooked meat - the ingestion of which stirred some muttering deep in my deep brain that could only represent innumerable generations of ancestors approving, finally, of an action of mine (or maybe they were just screaming bloody murder re: the hog and the pig fat). My tablemate and I were so mesmerized by this soup that we forgot to add sour cream - leaving me embarrassed to the point that I seriously considered hiding the untouched cream in a nearby potted plant. Amateur error (tsk, don't buy my app after all). 

Then things got all primordial as the potatoes began arriving.

First up: Potato koduni with meat. These are the gordita form of potato pancakes - a couple inches high, glistening with grease, and full of very black-peppery ground mystery meat. I've never had anything like this, yet it was like giving an elephant its first peanuts. I didn't so much enjoy it - it didn't have much flavor to speak of, aside from groaning tonnages of spuddy starch and fat - as meld with it. I suspect this may be what I'm meant to have been eating all along. It was so heavy and greasy and unlively and burdensome...and something in me liked that.

Then came the potato pancakes "with meat", which consisted of bovine chunks and sausage in a creamy, black peppery sauce (the "old country" always tastes like black pepper), all served atop a murderer's row of oversized potato pancakes that are my grandma's latkes...for the first time ever (including Hanukah latke parties at the Jewy functions my parents would occasionally drag me to, where like 40 families all brought their versions, none resembling ours in the least).

These are not "fun" potato pancakes. They are not a special "treat". Non-delightful. These are staple, akin to rice...or, more precisely, Ethiopian injera, given that they serve primarily as a spongey mop for the creamy sauce and residual grease. I've been potato obsessed my whole life - apparently, it's in my blood - but now I've finally spotted them in their natural habitat.

Neither the latkes nor the koduni are crispy, but my grandma's weren't, either, and neither are mine. I can achieve crispy edges, but the middles are always soggy. I've seen latkes as crispy as Mississippi fried chicken, but I've never managed it, myself. I figured it was a character flaw. Little did I realize, this is The Way of My People.

These limp, homely, very familiar potato pancakes also contained no onion (rendering them even more staple-ish and non-delightful, yet still highly satisfying). I happen to use onion, but I suddenly recall, out of my distant memory, a note of controversy on the matter. I believe we didn't normally use onion, either. I am Remembering.

At this point, I'm in pain. Not badly over-full, just over-full of the sort of thing I never ever eat. But I craved a bite of vareniki (dumplings) stuffed with sour cherries, another ancient youthful memory, and the waiter talked us into also getting "cottage cheese cakes 'orshanskie'" - cheesey dough balls in pot cheese and cream with loads of vanilla.

The vareniki are not exactly light in the dough. In fact, I nearly requested a steak knife. And this, too, seems deeply right to me. The cherry filling is resolutely tart (very little sugar), and, oddly, you can taste grease, which seems to come from out of nowhere. You know how Game of Thrones has gratuitous nudity? This place is like that with grease.

The cheesey thing was devastating - figuratively and (in my condition) literally.

As I rued the wrecked state of my digestive system, I found myself plotting ways to raise funds for passage to a new land, a modern place where people eat green foods and everything isn't so goddamned heavy and burdensome. America! I must make my way to America!

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