Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Real Deal Behind the Amazon/Queens Fiasco

In case you're curious about the real story behind the cancelled Amazon HQ in Queens, see this rare burst of sanity and clarity from New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica (h.t. Paul Trapani).

Mujica makes great points with great precision, though he lets his emotions run away from him a couple times (which, of course, is the reciprocal version of the emotionality that fueled this fiasco to begin with; will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?). For example, it may be true that outsiders with separate agendas ginned up lots of seemingly grassroots furor, but this goes way too far:
"The true local residents who actually supported the project and its benefits for their community are badly hurt."
I know plenty of "true local residents" who were strongly opposed. And I do understand that he artfully phrased his way around this. But "true" was an indulgence he should not have allowed himself. He was otherwise holding it together so well.

But, overall, it's a very strong and sharp and a great read for anyone.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Judging, Pre-Judging, and Post-Judging

When I was four years old, I made an observation: when someone does something stupid, you can expect that same person to do lots more stupid things. Same for meanness, dependability, generosity, etc. Once you see one solid example - good or bad - from someone, you can pretty much stamp it on their head and count on more.

As I matured, I realized this view was overly harsh. Things aren't black and white; we are all shades of grey. People can surprise you! Also: every one of us is stupid from time to time, or mean, selfish, or unreliable if caught at the wrong moment. That's why we must avoid putting people in boxes.

So for a few decades, I avoided categorization. But eventually I realized that I'd been right the first time. Most people are uncomplicated. Their choices are consistent and predictable, which leads to consistent behavior. People who let you down will do so again. And people who save your ass will do that again. Count on it. A rule I noticed when I first learned to drive: the more rudely someone turns onto the road ahead of you, the sooner he'll step on his brakes to turn, forcing you onto your brakes a second time. Now that I've pointed it out, you'll find it to be true time and time again. So I now put people in boxes again, but I've made two important modifications:

1. I'm not inflexible. I leave open the possibility that people might surprise me (spoiler: they rarely do).

2. I don't do so condescendingly. I'm aware of my own limits and failings, and recognize that they don't make me a lesser person. There's a widespread virus I've managed to stave off: the notion that spotting other people's inadequacy makes me superior. That's the root of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, and it's easily disproven via honest self-assessment (I, too, am a fool) and by the realization that any supposed superpower shared by literally every 15 year old can't possibly be an actual superpower.

We all judge, but nearly everyone gets the timing wrong. If you categorize people before they actually do anything - i.e. on mere appearance, or qualifications, or the image they project, that's not only unfair, but it will steer you wrong. There's insufficient evidence!

That is, of course, also how we pre-judge on the basis of race, gender, and orientation. While those biases are taboo, we're free to go bananas applying social bias in less verboten realms (e.g. against old, unattractive, overweight, nonconformist, slow-witted, or mentally ill people, or - especially! - those holding different political positions). Every one of us still pre-judges as savagely as any Klansman or Nazi. We just studiously restrain ourselves in certain protected instances.

So we judge too soon - before the person actually does anything! - or we judge too late - after the person has shown their proclivities multiple times as we've patiently awaited shades of grey. The world has not caught up to my early delineation of the sweet spot: simply expect a fuck-up to fuck up.

Related: "Filtering the Zombie Army"

Note: I would never want to see this line of thought used to justify the excesses of an angry mob, or to actually persecute anyone. I'm just outlining the quiet reckoning of an individual trying to make his way through a confusing world (hey, I've found a new tagline for the Slog!).

Friday, February 22, 2019

Meet the Framer

Jim Leff doesn’t choose a framing. Jim Leff is a framing.

We are subject, not object.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Sammy Davis Jr.

The PBS series "American Masters" is currently repeating a two hour show about Sammy Davis Jr, and it's a marvel. There are many aspects, both creative and personal, to Sammy, and this covers them all, without taking rigid stances about nuanced issues, e.g. his obsequious support of Richard Nixon, which brought him great scorn from Black people. Like with most things, it was complicated. And the show explains the complications.

I played with Illinois Jacquet's big band for a few years. I was one of the youngest guys in the group, and my best friend was the oldest, Johnny Grimes. Johnny was a Zelig of mid-century black music, appearing on a bunch of classic James Brown records, and touring with many superstars, including Sammy, with whom he worked for years. Here are two Sammy stories courtesy of my buddy, the late, great Johnny Grimes:

Sammy Davis Jr Story #1

I need to set this up. Musicians are cynical bastards. We don't give a damn about celebrity (which is not to say we won't toady ourselves in the presence of anyone famous enough to hire us; I was once invited to a jam session/get-to-know-each-other with some 20-year-old pop sensation - can't even remember her name, but you've heard of her - along with a militantly Jewish trumpeter friend. She felt like playing Christmas carols, and my friend never flinched, playing the bejesus out of "Oh, Holy Night" while making all the right pious faces, to boot).

We roll our eyes at the public's passing fancies and the mediocrities they anoint (while angling to maximally profit). We don't get caught up in hype; our esteem is earned only by genuine talent, and genuine talent isn't a marketable commodity. So if you've clawed your way to popularity despite real talent, that means you're mostly impressing the band, and nobody cares about impressing the band. This is why we are, again, cynical bastards.

But here's what Johnny said about Sammy: "Sammy is the greatest entertainer who ever lived." He said this solemnly, making clear that no argument would be tolerated. Johnny Grimes, who'd graduated in the same high school class as Sun Ra, and who by age 90 had seen, and often worked with, everyone from Count Basie to Prince, was stating an unequivocal fact which carried substantial weight.

Sammy Davis Jr Story #2 (aka "The Sammy Davis Jr Show Biz Zen Koan")

I will present this exactly as Johnny did, without commentary or explanation.

It was the sax player's birthday, and the guys were celebrating backstage after the gig with beer and snacks. The door opens. Sammy's head appears in the doorway.

Sammy: "Uh...hi, guys! What's going on?"

Johnny: "Hey, Sammy! It's Bobby's birthday! Come in and have a beer with us!"

[Sammy looks quizzically at Johnny, then at Bobby, then at the others, then at the beer]

Sammy: I'm still Sammy Davis!

[Sammy's head disappears and the door closes firmly, not quite a slam]

See also the tale of how I recently came upon an obscure Sammy Davis Jr TV movie I'd been searching for since childhood.

Extra bonus TV tip: "The Other Two" - a Comedy Central series about the shiftless older brother and sister of a viral Internet child sensation - makes me scream with laughter at least once per show. Not just "funny", but new, highly creative ways of wrangling humor. I'm used to formulaic humor (which can be amusing when done right), but this blows it up. It may not be the greatest or most lovable show in the world, but if you, like me, live for unexpected brilliant cleverness, you should not miss this. Here's Alan Sepinwall's series review.

Investors Want Apple to Do a Big Acquisition

"Investors Want Apple to Do a Big Acquisition, JP Morgan Says", Barron's says. While there may well be short term technical financial reasons for acquisition, it's ludicrous to imagine that such a move would be beneficial for a company's long-term well-being (much less a company like Apple whose strongly unified culture makes a great virtue of non-fragmentation). You can't buy integrated breadth. That's just not how it works. Whenever I hear such a thing proposed, I remember this story:

Shortly after Chowhound was acquired by CNET, we were trying to figure out ways to integrate photos into the message boards. I was having trouble coming up with anything creative, so I made a suggestion to "Clay" (the nom-de-gloom I created for my boss in my tale of our acquisition). CNET had also bought a large, popular photo-sharing operation. (It was an expensive acquisition of a very famous web company which no longer exists. In fact, I can't even recall its name. Ah, Internet....)

Why don't I go upstairs and talk to those guys? They live/breathe photo sharing. They'll surely have good ideas! Let's take advantage of this corporate inter-brand synergy you guys are always talking to the press about! Give me just 10 minutes to get their input!

Clay erupted in laughter. Never even answered my question. I didn't get my 10 minutes, never met "those guys", and Chowhound's photo sharing feature was laughably, embarrassingly poor for a full decade (it's slightly better now, but still a weak point).

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Sublime and Ridiculous Consequences of an Unfragmented Life

The waiter in a restaurant where I often lunch solo was excited to see me. He had another regular customer he’d always thought I'd just love to meet. He brought over "Brad", a chipper openly gay fellow who settled in with his plate across my table from me. Brad and I had a pleasant conversation, though we don't have much in common (he mostly wanted to talk about music - he's learning ukulele via an online course - and he remembers that the trombonists were the kings of his high school marching band). It was thoughtful of the waiter to try to fix me up, but Brad is not my sherbet flavor.

This wasn't the first time in recent years that people have made the wrong call about my orientation (I previously discussed it atop this posting), and though I don't worry about what people think of me, just generally (I'm not someone who's trying to project an image or hone a reputation), mysteries spur my curiosity. So I mulled it over, and soon coughed up the answer.

It's that I never stopped being 11. I've gotten so used to it that I forgot that it throws people - especially now at age 56. And it creates a heap of strange misapprehensions. This is just one of many.

Lots of guys deserve the dreaded epithet "man-child". They're immature and unreliable; stuck in annoying childishness. That's not me. I'm pretty mature and stable. You can count on me, and I know how to commit. I solidly understand that I'm not the protagonist in this movie, and I don't discard my values as stakes raise. So I'm not a man-child. What I am is kookier.

People discard their childhood persona as they mature because they recognize the limitations. Having grown beyond that persona, they cast it aside, graduating to bigger and better things. But what if you were an amazing, wise 11 year old?

That's when I peaked! That kid seemed awesome, so I've never seen any reason to switch him out. In fact, I've spent my life scrambling to reclaim even a fraction of my 11-year-old self's clarity, open-heartedness, and intelligence (here's the first of thirteen postcards I sent myself forward in time as a breadcrumb trail).

I couldn't have written fluent articles back then (and didn't know a bourek from a banitza), but I was far more clear-eyed and centered. At this point, I'm Punchy McSpacegiggle. I'm the wryly disoriented comic relief zombie on next season's "Walking Dead". I feel like "The Incredible Husk". If this incarnation were who I really am, I'd surely have shut down 80% of my internal furnace by now. But this is just a character being played by a precocious and lively 11 year old. He's really outdone himself with the late-middle-age portion. It's hilarious!

I've learned and experienced much since age 11, but it was him doing it all. I'm still that guy. I never lost the continuity. Speaking of which, I once wrote that...
Virtually no one has ever driven from NYC to Boston. We drive from NYC to the Bronx, and from the Bronx into Westchester, from there into Connecticut, then through a boring patch, possibly involving bathrooms and food. Then we drive to Sturbridge Mass to get on the Mass Pike. From there we might glide into Boston in more or less one swoop. But the drive, overall, is six drives, minimum, and more often 60 or 600. I defy you to get in a car in NYC and simply drive to Boston. You can't do it. You will lose the flow. It will fragment.
As one of the few 11 year olds who ever celebrated his own 56th birthday, I never fragmented at my turning points. I've surfed the long contour in one continuous swoop. A lot has gotten done and been figured out, and I'm proud of how it unfolded. It worked! If I hadn't taken this route, I wouldn't be capable of creative nano magic tricks, or of stretching so broadly and so curiously. But the downside, I suddenly realize, is coming off like an inexplicable weirdo. By never fragmenting, I appear oddly fragmented!

When I was in my twenties, people often said that I reminded them of Tom Hanks in "Big". They thought it endearing; women especially so (they found the discrepancy attractive, explaining my surprising popularity despite my goofy looks). But as I aged, it became harder and harder, at least for guys, to figure out my deal. I seemed "off". Probably crazy, likely sexually "deviant", and perhaps even dangerous.

At age 56, one beholds a gruff, balding, bleary old buzzard, yet I am also noticeably not that guy (I can relate, more than I'd care to admit, to Vincent Adultman). And for those who live primarily in a sexual world - i.e. most guys - that's got to mean "gay", because it's the only explanation they can imagine for this unsettling disjoint; for the gleaming, giggling presence palpable behind my grim outer surface.

So it totally makes sense! I get it! In fact, even these exuberant exclamation points send certain "signals"! They're the perfect encapsulation of the problem!! In your face with even more of them!!!!!
56-year old guys aren't supposed to be precocious and lively...for the same reason that they're never supposed to jump.

Joke's on you, readers. Turns out you've wasted your time following the blatherings of a declining 11-year-old.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Treating Thieves Like Professionals

Parking in NYC in the crime-filled 80’s, I’d leave all packages open and in very plain view, with the open side courteously facing the side window. That way thieves could easily triage my potential victimhood. I’m sure they appreciated the effort and risk I'd saved them, and I appreciated not having my window broken. Win/win.

My friends thought I was being eccentric*. They took the more "normal" route, hiding all questionable-looking packages beneath the seat. But I understood that thieves would recognize my gesture - the intentionality behind it - and not need to look under my seat. They knew I had their best interest at heart. I was treating them like professionals.

* - "Eccentric" means different and wrong. Eccentrics try to build perpetual motion machines, or find ways to pointlessly sip lemonade through PVC tubing. If you come up with genuinely superior solutions, that's not eccentric.

"Better" isn't "weird"! (That might be my epitaph if I weren't already committed to "Kept all options open!")

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Wall is Solely a Cattle Prod

He doesn’t want to build a wall. He just wants to be seen as fighting to build a wall.

In fact, the longer he’s obstructed, the longer he gets to play out this show where he’s 1. the victim (i.e. his safe space) and 2. the only one trying to create border security.

That’s why he didn’t try hard at all to get it done with the Republican Congress. No clear juicy victimhood. And that’s why Nancy Pelosi didn’t “outplay“ him. It was never going to happen anyway, and he didn’t even want it to happen. Again: he does not want to build a wall. Stop listening to what he says he wants!

If he can manage to not have his way on the wall all the way through to the campaign, then he can flog the Deep State DC-Swampy Fake News Libtards over their lack of patriotism, campaign as an outsider, generate several seasons worth of Kayfabe, and hold on to his surefire tagline.

“If you reelect me, you will super-fortify my power so I can build you this beautiful wall, and also, please, give me an all-Republican Congress and Senate, but this time a much better one than the feckless RINOs I had to try to work with last time.”

He’s a dimwit but has crafty instincts (like all salesmen, he's a natural born demagogue). So he knows what no one else seems to: an accomplishment is good, but vowing to accomplish something is vastly more mob-electric. And given that the whole thing is a patently unviable pipe dream to begin with, this one is nothing but cattle prod.

Reheating Frozen Leftover Pizza

This will not restore leftover frozen pizza to the way it tasted while fresh....
My first rule of leftovers (I'm very very good with leftovers; as a food critic, I've had to cope with a fridge perennially full of greasy brown paper bags) is: don't try to recreate the original meal. Just find some way to make it delicious. If you aim to recreate the original meal, you will 1. fail, and 2. work within a low ceiling of possible quality, which is why everyone normally hates leftovers. I view leftovers as mere fodder to be disrespectfully repurposed, retrofitted, and recycled rather than resurrected.
...but it will result in something tasty and worth eating.

I assume you've wrapped the frozen slices individually in tight aluminum foil. If that's not true, improve your procedure, fast forward, then proceed.

Open the foil to expose the top surface of the slice. Place it directly on the rack your toaster oven at 350 degrees (preheating's unnecessary). Check frequently after four minutes. When the cheese begins to just barely loosen (not warm but not fully frozen), heat a cast iron skillet or griddle on medium. A couple minutes later, transfer slice (still encased in foil, which should now be lightly re-closed) from the toaster oven to the skillet/griddle. After three minutes, watch carefully, as the crust can suddenly burn right through the aluminum (I'd suggest, btw, using thick heavy-duty aluminum, which also offers better freezer protection).

When the kitchen smells like pizza, and the crust's underside is beginning to pick up some additional color (perhaps there are minor dark (not black) patches appearing; that's ok...again, we're not recreating the original experience), serve. Note that while crust will be hot, the cheese will be pleasantly warm, not hot. If you want the whole thing raging hot, you'll be forced to eat a dried-out cracker with unpleasantly molten twice-cooked cheese. Ick.

If the slice has significant toppings, and they're not quite warm, open up the top foil and pop the slice back into toaster oven at high temperature (broil, if possible) for just a short time...and watch it like a hawk. Do not wait till cheese bubbles or top crust begins to brown! That's much too late! This isn’t like the original baking of the pizza (again: don’t try to recreate).

Further Reading:
A Toasted Bagel Tutorial and Manifesto

Saturday, February 16, 2019

My 30 Minutes as LeBron James

I was always a naturally gifted athlete, but very slow to learn physical moves. The two are absolutely not contradictory.

This is why I'm extremely respectful toward slow thinkers, though I myself think swiftly. As I once posted to Quora (my most popular answer there!), in answer to someone asking how to recognize a person's intelligence:
You need to look past appearances. I know very smart people who are uneducated, inarticulate, barely literate, and who need to be explained complicated ideas over and over before they understand - who are what you'd call slow-thinking. They'll ponder stuff practically forever - long after the educated, snappy people in the room have given their opinions....perhaps days or weeks after. And then they'll cough up a conclusion that's so clever, so surprising, so creative that your head wants to explode. Fast thinkers aren't necessarily smarter, nor are slow thinkers necessarily dumber.

The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. In fact, most truly intelligent people I've met haven't been very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. Watch out for seemers!
I contrasted my syrupy physical learning curve with my snappy cognitive one in a Slog posting titled "The Infinite Potential of Slow Learners":
I've driven several yoga teachers to near breakdowns with my thick-headed sluggishness. "Do this," they'd instruct the class, and I'd stare in dumbfounded confusion while the others simply did the move. They'd talk slooooowly to me and raise their volume, assuming me to be an idiot. But my mind isn't the problem. It just takes a while for my body to absorb new instructions.

At this point, I've practiced yoga for 35 years, and can do some really hard poses. I'd "impress" those same teachers if they saw me! And because it took decades, rather than months, to, say, plant my palms on the floor in a forward bend, I've learned an awful lot. Every millimeter of progress produced a tiny jewel of insight. If you watch me bend forward, you'll feel like something's happening. That's not true of naturally bendy people. They just bend!

I've tried over the years to take Salsa dance classes, because I love the music so much. But dance teachers are the sort of people who learn dance moves quickly, so it's impossible for them to relate to a below-average student who needs to practice each step dozens of times. Once a step sinks in, I can perform it with good feel (maybe more so than "naturals" can!). But it's tough to find a teacher with sufficient patience.

These are areas where I learn slowly, and that's just how it is. They will not get faster. But the important thing is that my potential in these realms is as high as anyone's. In fact, maybe a tad higher, because in taking my time and pondering minutiae, I go deeper.
With that all in mind, here's a story. I was always very fast, very strong, and very energetic. But because no gym teacher ever offered me extra time to sharpen skills - and I also had a preternatural loathing of dodgeball, "the sport of douchebags" - I developed a reputation as a klutz (also, I was precociously working on spiritual practices that set me on the wrong path for skills such as shooting a basketball). But one day things clicked.

I was playing two-on-two half court basketball with some of the better players in 6th grade - surely because no one better was available for my slot. And I could not miss a shot, or fumble the ball. The player guarding me seemed absolutely vestigial; I just couldn't conceive of him as any obstacle between me and the basket. He was like a cloud drifting overhead on a sunny day. And the ball unerringly did what I wanted it to do, and went where I wanted it to go, so I scored point after point after point, like butter. I saw no other players on the court. It was as if LeBron James were puppeteering me (if he'd been born yet).

The other three were dumbfounded, but didn't say a word that day, or at any time after.
The universe has done a meticulous job of force-starving my potentially expansive ego. Another example: I once phoned a friend, out of a sudden sense of unease, to make sure she was okay, and her roommate answered with a flat "sure, she's fine" though she knew that, a few moments earlier, my friend had been mugged at knifepoint in the building's lobby.

I only heard about this later, when my friend told me her roommate had had an incomprehensible but powerful urge to keep it from me. This happens a lot. I've lived most of my life with no idea of what I'm actually good at, because no one ever tells me (people who think I suck are, however, generally quite outspoken).
While I was exhilarated, I couldn't consider it remarkable because it felt so natural. That had been the entire texture of the experience: naturalness. It's hard to remark upon what's supremely natural. You'll never think to yourself that you've just taken a particularly super-terrific breath.

So I simply let it go (as I've done with even grander breakthroughs), and returned to fulfilling klutzy expectations, though the memory has remained in the back of my mind. I'd like to say that memory has changed me, somehow, but I'm not certain it's any more meaningful than, say, my memories of dream-flying.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Things Seem Worse as Things Get Better

For centuries, things have been going to hell, the next generation has been disappointing, the language has been bastardizing, and we've been heading in the wrong direction. In my 56 years I haven't seen a single New Years Eve where anyone said "You know, this was a damn good year!" It's always "Good frikkin' riddance!"

It’s all been going straight to hell ever since Ancient Greece, and yet here we are. Vastly healthier, safer, more comfortable, entertained, and well-fed than any human beings anywhere ever. Vastly less violence, pestilence, racism, sexism, and war. It's been falling apart for as far back as we can remember, even as it's all come together, and despite the fact that we're obviously the generation our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents sacrificed for.

If you think this is First World gloating, consider the most startling fact of all: extreme poverty is down almost 36% over a mere 25 years (1990 thru 2015). That's crazy!

As I wrote earlier this week, it's NOT all turning to shit. And yet people are angrier, more pessimistic and stressed and fearful and outraged than ever. Why? Here's the answer, seldom-observed: wealthy people (you, yes you, are unfathomably wealthy) behave like aristocrats, and we are princes and princesses afflicted by greater and greater vexation over smaller and smaller mattress peas.

As I wrote in that last link:
Unfortunately, the present crop of humans - with its unique wealth, health, comfort, interconnection, and security - is uniquely prone to terror. We may not fully register what we have, but we sure as hell fear its loss. We may not acknowledge our wealth, but we typify the “more to lose” anxieties of the wealthy. Hence our hair trigger.
I realize we're a dim and blinkered species, so allowances must be made. But how many millennia will it take before we get even the slightest perspective, and recognize that we have some very serious problems with how we frame it all? My guess is it will never happen. Rather, we'll perish en masse from the infinite pain caused by the last infinitesimal speck of displeasure.

For some reason, I enjoy the bejesus out of life here in the future, even cognizant of the irritants and non-optimalities. In fact, I giggle as I walk...and people glare at me for it. Remember when I contrasted (here) the framing of finding things hilarious vs the framing of "it's not funny"? Ever contrarian, I opt for the former in an increasingly humorless, angry, scowling society.

BTW, if you feel likewise, DVR Nichole Wallace's show on MSNBC. She manages sober analysis of our national politics (by far the best on TV; her guests are ace) while never losing touch with its slapstick comedy aspect. Same goes for the invaluable Rick Wilson on Twitter.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

A Dialog on Racism and Mob Shaming

Below is my dialog on racism and mob shaming with Ken White, one of my Twitter heroes. That was fun!
Here's that podcast, btw, where this guy, Ken White (a lawyer) explains to Josh Barro (a smart centrist journalist/commentator) the legal issues behind AMI vs Jeff Bezos. "All The President's Lawyers" is consistently a worthy podcast to listen to, just generally.

I never enjoy the smug feeling that I've won an argument. I'd have been happier if he'd come back and explained why I'm wrong (honestly, he probably just got too busy to keep arguing with some Twitter rando). I love to be shown why I'm wrong.

Queued Responses

When I was younger, if I believed I'd been wronged, I would fire off an angry letter or email.

Gradually, I reduced the anger. I was firm, but less hotly emotional.

A couple years ago, I started something new. I would indulge my impulse to dash off missives, but would hold onto them (in a folder titled "Queued Responses"). And, first, I'd send a short friendly query to verify my understanding of the situation.

I suspected that this might prevent a few unjustified accusations, confrontations, and escalations. But, to my utter shock, I almost never need to send the queued communication. It's almost never called for.

When I browse that folder, it looks like madness. Metric tons of stress-causing uproar - like trapped carbon - unreleased into the atmosphere. Adding this simple step to my workflow was probably the most philanthropic thing I've ever done. Want to really save the planet? Keep your heavy-flow shower head, but do this.

This is a very different thing from choking down rightful anger. I'm not talking about going out of one's way to avoid confrontation, or allowing people to get away scot-free with injurious behavior. It's that polite error-checks very often show me I had the wrong impression. That, plus the extra time buffer, almost always illuminate the truth: confrontation is not only disagreeable, but most often misguided and unnecessary.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Last Analysis You Need to Read About Trump

What's the only thing I have less patience for than I have for Donald Trump? People who think they're adding something, at this late date, via yet another hot take on how awful Trump is.

I have a Facebook friend who's made a name for himself by frequently posting "Fuck Trump". Just that. People think it's a hoot. Me? I've muted him.

Donald Trump is neither complicated nor surprising, so there is nothing new to say, nor will there ever be. Endless regurgitation of his flaws and failings simply plays into his plan - in fact, the only game he knows - of getting in, and staying in, our brains. You're not doing anyone a favor by gratuitously dipping us in that murk.

So it takes a pretty fresh and insightful "take" to leave me glad to have read 650 words characterizing the guy. And this, a clever examination from the British perspective, is it (yes, he fails to acknowledge that Britain is full of Trumpism - um, Brexit? - but I forgive him).

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

It's NOT All Turning to Shit

If you appreciate my efforts to try to make sense of an insane world and to spot the underlying fallacies and subconscious drives making so many people so puzzlingly wrong so often, you should follow Tom Nichols on Twitter.
I actually disagree with Nichols' central shtick; as the author of "The Death of Expertise," he's crustily sick and tired of know-nothings spouting off on stuff they know nothing about and people like him know tons about.

It goes without saying that society is in the midst of a Dunning Kruger jubilee, where even our uplifting credos ("Keepin' it real", "You go girl"; etc.) seem to encourage blindly uninformed willfulness. But while a consensus of experts is a compelling thing, usually best deferred to (I'm talking to you, climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers), the problem is that individual experts disagree. All the time. Whatever you think, there's a bona fide expert to back you up. And even consensus shifts around aimlessly (saturated fat was helping us, then killing us, then helping us again, then killing us again). So my expertise doesn't make me right, nor you wrong. If you don't like my favorite taco shack, that's perfectly ok.
Tom's latest bugaboo is great. He's on a tear about wealthy, comfortable, privileged people (and you, yes you, are unfathomably wealthy, comfortable, and privileged) who rant about how everything sucks and it's all getting worse and we're living in hell....when we're all unfathomably wealthy and comfortable and privileged.

Watch him fence with hot-heads, infuriated by his patriarchal something something complacency, as he effortlessly drops bodies one after another:
"Yelling at your wife and dog while throwing beer cans at the TV." Yep, that was about it in those days. And now you see yahoos wielding an omnipresent open mic via their very own personal supercomputer over a miraculous nearly free global network to rage about their voiceless disempowerment.

We are so phenomenally spoiled that we confuse discomfort with poverty, and this has kindled a movement on the extreme left (which encompasses a whopping slice of young people), that I've dubbed Liberal Materialism, which uses Marxist constructs and revolutionary zeal to furiously and unashamedly demand unfettered access for all to the fruits of extreme consumerism. I characterized it this way:
We fight not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like our righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers. The have-obscenely-much will be compelled to share their Riedel stemware with the have-slightly-less-obscenely-much. Vive la revolution!

Here are some more contrasts between Then and Now I came up with:

Cars never stall (i.e. they “just work”), don’t need to be warmed up, are almost never broken into, and last twice as long.

No gross haze of leaded fuel fumes and cigarette smoke.

It’s vanishingly unlikely you’ll ever be punched in the mouth, even if you’re an insufferable asshole.

Most people are anti-war, whereas that was once a weirdo minority with a semi-derogatory title: “pacifists” (when was the last time you even heard the term?).

The experience of “getting lost” feels like a freaky, outrageous edge case. I used to spend as much time dealing with being lost as I did trying to hunt down facts at the library or looking for a payphone (or for change for the payphone).

Television is a vast portal of endless rich inspiration.

Nobody gets headaches anymore (since bottled water). We were absolutely plagued with them before (I don't mean migraines).

Food that’s better than basic nourishment for under $$$, and waiters who don’t scowl if you’re not wearing expensive shoes.

Sushi, spicy food, fresh vegetables; espresso and lattes; organics; and Thai, Mexican, and (authentic) Chinese restaurants.

All human knowledge, media, products, and music plus infinite free worldwide communication on a slab of glass in your pocket.

Nice wood floors; not always crappy synthetic carpeting everywhere.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Framing as Hilarious or as Catastrophe

Regular readers know I'm extremely interested in perceptual framing. You can read all postings with that label here (I'd start from the bottom), or start with this short posting, which explains that we have no actual control of our thought stream (though we imagine we do), while we do completely control our framing (though we imagine it's imposed on us).

I've never provided a clear example of what framing is - though you can get a strong sense via the primordial Slog posting, "The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues", recounting how my mind on one Christmas Eve kept flipping between the framing of my being sublimely comfortable and happy and the framing of my tragic failure to personify a prefab notion of Christmas Eve. I found it oddly difficult at the time to distinguish the truer framing, even though the latter one was so patently contrived, gratuitously dramatic, and not based in any actual reality.

Over the years since, I've explored this issue thoroughly, discovering that framing is positively everything. It determines who you are and what your world is. This free, instant choice - literally the blink of an eye - can imprison you or set you free.
Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.
Depression happens when you get stuck in a framing. Likewise nearly all human suffering (you can't frame away from pain, but you definitely can from suffering). If you can re-frame at will (and you can; it's like a cell phone feature you didn't realize you had) you'll never get stuck again.

So here's that strong, clear example:

Have you ever read news about the Trump administration and erupted into giggles over their sheer stupidity and incompetence? And then suddenly stopped yourself by remembering that this isn't funny?

A new framing transforms everything, externally as well as internally. It's suddenly not the same Trump, and it's suddenly not the same you.

In the slapstick comedy framing, it's all a riot, and it's impossible to be stressed. In the grim framing, it's impossible not to be stressed. Like an optical illusion, one can flip from one perspective to the other, but never inhabit both at the same time.

In daily life, we habitually favor one sort of framing (it's the primary way we ballast our happiness). Why is "laughter the best medicine"? Because it's the most easily available means of instantly reframing a fraught, stressful perspective (forgiveness is an even better one, but it’s inhibited by most people).

But it's not all binary - fraught-or-funny. Potential framings are infinite. The only limit is your own creativity and litheness - and, most of all, your ability to remember that you actually own this faculty.

To offer a rather surprising and expansive reframing (my favorite kind!): this is how one traverses the multiverse. Each reframing (we do it all the time, though usually subconsciously; just as fish swim without realizing they do it, frequent reframing's our characteristic trait) shifts us into a parallel universe.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Makes Restaurants Go Downhill?

One of the founding features of Chowhound was "Downhill Alert", an ongoing list of good places that had deteriorated. Avid eaters understand that most places eventually go downhill. Along with the frequency of closure, it's part of the restaurant business' notorious churn. One thing that drives chowhounds is an imperative to catch treasure while it's still good.

But while the industry's closure frequency is well-discussed, you seldom hear anyone accounting for Downhill Syndrome. I think I can explain it, and while I was going to disclaim my lack of operational experience, it's probably actually an advantage. Few restaurateurs dine out as widely as I do. They have firsthand experience, but I have data points.

Most people would attribute Downhill Syndrome to these factors:
  • Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
  • Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
  • Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
But while these do occur, they're nowhere near prevalent or severe enough to account for widespread dramatic downhilling (see footnote). A mysterious gravitational force inexorably pulls down quality; it's the restaurant industry's dark matter. And I believe it stems from a widespread miscalculation among restaurateurs.

Restaurateurs work very hard. They invest and sacrifice a great deal, and make lots of big decisions. So they naturally take credit for the quality of their operation. Why wouldn't they? That's how organizations work: the top dog enjoys the kudos and weathers the failures. But this industry has a built-in aberration. We don't eat at Tony's Trattoria primarily because Tony is great. It's because Miguel, the Salvadoran chef, happens to have a certain touch.

I don't patronize places for the lighting fixtures and tablewear; the busboy uniforms or awnings or atmosphere or server training. I'm not there for the menu, or for the wine list (that last might tempt me, but 99% restauranteurs accept whatever their sales reps push at them - awful, highly-branded plonk - rather than ferret out bargain deliciousness). I'm not even there because Tony was high-minded enough to spend $2/lb more for superior veal. Better is better, but I'd much prefer a great chef with mediocre ingredients than vice versa. I'm there mostly for one reason: the chef's touch. I'm there for Miguel.

So there's a very sharp disjoint between what actually makes a restaurant good (i.e. Miguel) and what Tony thinks makes the restaurant good (i.e. Tony). I do understand Tony's viewpoint. After all, he hired Miguel. He pays Miguel and is the boss of Miguel. In his mind, Tony encompasses Miguel...and much much more.

Music business execs have a dismissive term for musicians. We're "the talent". It's a chillingly condescending way to refer to the thing that really matters: the people making the music. But musicians by themselves aren’t a business, so it's not that business people have no important role. There are two discrete frames from which to view things, and they are utterly irreconcilable, and the rub between them creates friction and miscalculation.

No restaurateur would ever recognize a given chef as indispensable. To do so would be to acknowledge that Tony's a mere figurehead at Tony's Trattoria. Like the music exec, he's built the damned platform. Chefs, like waiters and accountants, are modules in that platform - software, not hardware - to be switched in and out at will. Tony's Trattoria is great due to myriad factors and decisions, and quality ultimately flows from Tony, who can always slide in another chef module.

Or so believes Tony. And he'll continue believing this even when Miguel's good-not-great replacement has crashed revenue. Hey, it's still Tony's! His formula is proven, and business is notoriously cyclical, so he just needs to give it time and believe in himself. Thus whithers Tony's Trattoria. That's the lifecycle, right there.

Understand that I'm not simply saying restaurants go downhill because chefs tend to move around. It's true, they do, but that doesn't get to the root of the problem. Chefs wander for the same reason musicians do: they are conditioned - by the very foundation of the industry and by indifference from the suits above - to deem themselves expendable modules. And modules gonna module.

I have, on a few occasions, asked restaurateurs whether they've recently lost their chef. It's always the same response; barely-concealed outrage at my poking my nose into the stagecraft - the backstage magic. Focus right here, on the branding! The chef's an expendable shlep; a cog in a machine serving an overarching vision. You, customer/asshole, are concerning yourself with the wrong part!

No. Miguel is not a cog. Never was. And the vision and branding were never the salient factors. That’s a delusion; I know it, Miguel knows it, and even Tony, at some level, suspects it, to his immense agitation. So until owners fully recognize that deliciousness is the outcome not of sound management, diligent investment, and clear vision, but mostly of how lovingly the chef flips the next pancake, chefs (not snazzy, aloof “executive chefs”; I mean the guy who actually cooks food) will remain modular and restaurants will keep mysteriously going downhill (and chef/owners will continue to have a big long-term advantage).

De-factoring the factors mentioned above:

Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
This is way less common than you'd think. Every line of work has its baseline element. If you drive trains, you carefully watch your speed and brakes - i.e. the only controls you've got. The ingredient budget is intrinsically baked into a restaurant's entire business plan from day one. Restaurateurs may have delusions about the source of their quality, but the one factor 100% under their direct control is this one, and they very well realize it. The portions might shrink, the whisky might be watered down and the beef stew might be frozen and reheated in batches, but by the time you're eyeing the ingredient budget as a revenue source, things are likely terminal. And, per above, chef skill/touch trumps ingredient quality anyway. The Arepa Lady squirted cheap supermarket margarine on her sublime wares.

Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
Course corrections occur, but they're big, expensive turns - think cruise ships - too difficult and expensive to execute while desperate. As such, they rarely degrade quality, which is a separate parameter. No owner ever brightly exclaims "I know; we'll make the food shittier!"

Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
There are many subtle differences between professionals and amateurs, but the most obvious is that pros can do many iterations without slumping. An amateur actor will buckle if called to do 115 takes, but a professional makes it work. And even lousy professional chefs, if they have any real experience in the industry, are professionals through and through. As a musician, I once backed up Tony Bennett on his 41,274rd performance of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". The dude was a legend, who easily could have coasted. But he dug in. Hard. He made it fresh; he made it music. Not because he's a genius (though he might well be), but because he's a pro.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Breathtaking Expansion of Cultural Shunning

A guy no one accuses of actual racism wore a tasteless costume as a teenager 35 years ago, and this was the top story in American news for 48 hours, including wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, ala OJ in the Bronco.

Consider where we're at: non-racists who showed poor taste once are now to be shunned. They must lose their jobs and crawl up and die. They must be disinfected.

I couldn't have made this up as an extreme example of the sort of insane behavior backlashed by MAGA insanity. Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

The two poles of American society are stoking each other. Civil War imagery no longer applies. Rather, it's like two blazing stars caught in a gravitational death spiral, warping space-time so enormously that fundamental laws no longer apply. To the bitter end, everyone will see only the excesses of the other side.

What happens if someone dressed up for Halloween as Harvey Weinstein? Would it matter if it was done as a joke by someone unerringly respectful to women? If dressing up, strictly as a goof, as a klansman is beyond the pale, what do we do about Chevy Chase?

And if dressing up as a monster makes you a monster even if you're a reasonably nice person, what about anyone who's ever donned a Freddie Kruger or Charles Manson mask at a costume party?

There was a similar mass fainting spell recently over a photo of Prince Harry at a Halloween Party in a Nazi costume. No one imagines Prince Harry to be the least bit sympathetic to Nazis. But facts don't matter, because it's not about what he does or believes, it's about diligently minding one’s symbolic moves and gestures, so one isn’t rotely pattern-matched by the outrage machine. 

It's no longer a matter of one's history of actual discriminative, hateful actions or statements. You can be deemed a monster by stumbling into any of a fast-growing terrain of tripwires set to auto-sort you into the "beyond-the-pale" bin, where you must lose your career and crawl up and die. What's more, it all applies retroactively. Even as far back as three decades.

Update your outrage definition database frequently, watch your ass, keep your head down, and hope they never come for you. Better yet, join the mob and scream for blood even more viciously than your peers to get on the right side of all this and clearly signal (the reciprocal "symbol and gesture"!) your super-hyper-mega anti-racist bonafides (just like closeted gays are inevitably the most homophobic and vice versa). In any case, welcome to the future, where anyone might be disinfected.

Last year, I offered a cheeky suggestion about how to treat racists:
What if we simply let racists be racists, given that 1. racists are going to be racists whether we let them or not, and 2. we're all somewhat racist - in fact, nothing feels more racist to me than people who find my Jewishness absolutely delightful, or else something so potentially touchy that they feel compelled to very politely never ever mention it, though it evidently remains the top-most thing on their minds.

What if we let racists live and work among us, in peace? What if we tolerate their free use of language as part of that same glorious rainbow? And what if we club them over the head with the full weight of the legal system if they ever ever act on it by discriminating - i.e. doing actual harm? What if you can be a racist, think like a racist, talk like a racist, but we prevent you from acting on it? Conveniently, we have a legal system, with lots of preexisting legislation, to handle exactly that.
Just six months later, that's as outdated as a horse and buggy. We've evolved to shunning non-racists who jokingly dressed up like a racist 40 years ago. What's next as the righteous wildfire of outrage culture is given oxygen? As I've predicted before, Marx Brothers films and Road Runner cartoons will soon be taboo, and comedy, generally, will come to be seen a relic of the past. With smaller and smaller offense drawing geometrically greater and greater punishment, comedy will be a transgression no one dares risk.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Seeds of Tyranny

The Left has always been correct in sniffing the inherent latent fascism of the right. The Right has always been correct in sniffing the inherent latent Sovietism in the left. Both detect tyranny, and both are right.

Libertarians or anarchists might nod their heads smugly, but it’s no coincidence that libertarians tend to be over-privileged and anarchists unusually aggressive. Both are ideally positioned to gain all once regulation disappears and jungle law reigns.

The instinctual human competitive drive ensures that societies always move toward tyranny - ie a steady state run by a Big Boss of one ilk or another. Every game - however well-balanced - is susceptible to a winner, whose first priority is to toss out the balances. Our saving grace is that this competitive drive knows no satisfaction (plus there’s always an upstart boss in the wings), so overreach inevitably undoes the steady tyrannical state. Democracy might, if we're lucky, occur in the ramp-up (libertarianism if we‘re not), and anarchy after the smash-down. But tyranny is both inevitable and fragile, and it will ever be thus.

An article in the current The Atlantic is making the rounds. It’s called “The Corruption of the Republican Party”, and the sub-header reads “The GOP is best understood as an insurgency that carried the seeds of its own corruption from the start.” That’s an incomplete observation. Everything carries the seeds of its own corruption! If you detect the rot only in the other side, you’re only seeing half the problem.

Whenever you spot ugliness or evil in The Other (which is easy), look, unflinchingly, for that same stuff within your own tribe, and within yourself (which is hard). Then forgive (which is hardest). That's the only sane strategy for this Earthly game. Every other reaction makes you the problem rather than the solution.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Conciliation Was Just Re-Framed out of Existence

Trump damages the very notion of “unity“ by equating it with submission to an authoritarian leader.

Uncompromising extremists of every stripe associate consensus with docility, and unreasonably so. Fleeting self-awareness of their own unreasonable impulses restrains them to at least some extent. But those moorings are snapping from this Orwellian use of language, which negates the mere possibility of principled conciliation even as it purports to cherish it.Conciliationis being reframed out of existence.

Re: societal/political dynamics, you always need to consider not just the action, but also the reaction.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Demagoguery and Everyman Outsiders

This entire administration could be seen as a sober, realistic sequel to “Mr. Smith goes to Washington“...if the character were elected president rather than senator(I drew this comparison a couple years ago from a slightly different perspective).

Americans have, for a very long time, been infatuated with the notion of the everyman outsider cowboying in to power and loosening things up and injecting some good strong common sense, even if the resident fuddyfuds despise him for it. This explains Trump’s puzzlingly enduring approval from conservatives who’ve marinated in Fox News for years; with all the anger and fear. This feels - to them and to us! - like just one of those guys…who this time miraculously got in.

Be aware that a solid chunk of the Left is similarly attracted to populist demagoguery, and would enjoy seeing someone “fresh” - who echoes the angry shit they and their friends say - go in there and tear apart all the decrepit stodginess and make the outer veneer of the office align better with the insides of their heads.

I keep hearing people on the left endlessly saying “this is not normal“. But nothing about this administration is intended to be normal. He certainly didn’t run on “normality”. And I wonder how much some of these people would value “normality” if a shameless firebrand of their own tribe ever got in.

I think there are a lot of people who, like me, favor structure, institutionalism, and normality regardless of which side has the upper hand. I hope we can maintain our equilibrium amid the careening waves of reciprocal extremism we’re about to experience, and reserve our contempt for extremism, period, rather than any particular shading of it.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Two Food Miracles in Peekskill, NY

Many of our most sublime foods stem from unappetizing, dirt-cheap ingredients. Cut down a few stalks of grain, grind it into a tasteless powder, combine with mineral scrapings from cave walls and a spoonful of minuscule wriggling cooties. Heat it a while, and, somehow, maxi pleasure ensues. If you're not astonished by this gift, you should spend some time stranded on an Arctic ice shelf or desert sand dune, resetting your baselines.

That said, bread's usually not sublime, due to the appalling meanness of our species. We observe this gaping headroom between price and quality, and deem it opportunity. People don't need "sublime", so let's make it even cheaper and easier, saving 1/4¢, at the cost of a mere 75% quality reduction! Throw in some additives to keep it fresher longer, to make the yeast work faster, and to create better color with less care, and still more to cover up those shortcuts, and...well, here we are in 2019. We're desperately trying to backtrack ourselves away from gratuitous meanness and avarice - and, ironically, charging even more for that. We're like double hostages.

Consider: there is no reason for a chocolate chip cookie to ever be less than stellar. Any earnest baker with an iota of talent can make reliably great ones. Yet how many are indeed great? And how shitty and mean and evil do you need to be to deliberately erode quality in something so intrinsically delicious and dirt-cheap? I don't add additives to my cookies, and they taste great. Yet all the ones I can buy are loaded with them, and they suck. "Pave paradise, put up a shitty chocolate chip cookie"!

The miracle of deliciousness perpetually awaits our rediscovery. It doesn't need to be expensive. In fact, that ruins the beauty - the intrinsic generosity - of it all. But it's out there, even if Yelp doesn't catalog it*.

I've been in dozens of Ecuadorian bakeries, and most are run by immigrants from Quito, the capital. Sabor Ambateño (630 Washington St, Peekskill, NY; 914-930-7160) is run by folks from Ambato, a city in the central Tungurahua region. It's all different stuff; they stock more than a dozen roll-sized, colorfully-named breads I've never heard of. To all appearances, it's all just the usual humble brown Hispanic pan. You'd expect either fluffy or chewy texture plus two notches more sweetness than seems necessary. You know the drill.

But try the stuff here, and experience miracles. It's the gift of bread, seldom seen these days. Their stuff may not be particularly natural, or fancy. In fact, I don't know how they arrived at greatness; only that I experienced the shock of taking a bite into something I thought I knew and being brought to new worlds; of recharging my expectations of what an entire class of food can be.

I bought three types of bread (polishing one off before taking this shot of the other two), all woozy-making. Not luxe, no secret ingredients, just a bittersweet reminder of what bread can be when people stop inhibiting quality via their meanness.

The cashier-in-training at Ty's Bread Basket (922 Main St, Peekskill, NY; 914-402-5135), in downtown Peekskill, is about six years old, and it looks like she designed the place, as well. It's a boxy, colorful, capriciously configured space with way too much seating, hopeful affirmations covering the walls (you'll wonder if you've wandered into a community center), and nary a single customer. Items for sale are sparsely displayed in unlit cases. There's good music playing in the back room, but you only hear glimpses of it when the door happens to swing open.

There's no salesmanship whatsoever in this guilelessly unpolished place, much less the usual bakery psy-ops. So it took quite a bit of work for me to ferret out a couple items that might be worth a try: a conventional-looking round tart filled with lots of cloying/gummy-looking cherry product (the sliced almonds - way too thickly cut - caught my eye), and unique-looking bagels, only eleven, total, on display (and it wasn't that they'd run out; it appears that they bake like a dozen per day; again, with a six-year-old mastermind, everything's a bit skewed).

It took the better part of five minutes for the clerk - who appears to exist in another time zone and who I suspect could cure major ailments by glancing at you - to gather, pack, and charge me for my tart and two bagels (16% of total stock). And, after reluctantly bringing my boring-looking tart to the car and taking a bite, I found myself lost in reverie for a very long time.

I tried and tried to pin down what was special, but my attempts to analyze were defied by cascading waves of overpowering consolation. It was reminiscent of the Medusa Gruel I'd tasted years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico (the only "11" I ever experienced). Forgive my shameful lack of specificity, but I am amnesiac of the worlds I encountered during the ingestion of that totally normal-seeming cherry tart, and of the lingering ecstasy that followed.
So ordinary looking. And, to be honest, ordinary tasting...on the surface. I lack words to describe what the cherry filling If The Lord is ever spotted descending in a golden chariot toward Main Street, Peekskill, please do whatever's necessary to keep Him the hell away from this place. If He ever tastes the cherry filling, I worry that he'll realize He’s been beat, and might, in a destructive pique, shut it all down.

The bagels currently sit on my kitchen counter. I can hear a low hum from upstairs. I'll report back once I've worked up the fortitude to try them. [Update: charming but weirdly over-yeasty]

Not gluten free.

* - Neither place is listed in Yelp. Yelp sucks for many reasons, but its perpetual disregard for non-white-facing immigrant places like Sabor Ambateño, and humble beneath-radar operations like Ty's Bread Basket, is not only a shame, but defies Yelp's founding mission of covering the whole Long Tail.

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