Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Rise of Pseudo-AI

I just read an article from back in 2018 that reports that much supposed AI is fake, because "it’s cheaper and easier to get humans to behave like robots than it is to get machines to behave like humans."

AI is expensive and it's hard, and in many cases (especially, though not exclusively for new start-ups), it's easier to have zillions of tiny people in your computer typing really fast to make it look like the computer's working automatic magic. Those people, more often than not, are drawn from the vast hordes working, for micropayments, within Amazon's Mechanical Turk set-up (here's the 18th(!!) century origin of the name, and here's more on Amazon's operation).
“In 2017, the business expense management app Expensify admitted that it had been using humans to transcribe at least some of the receipts it claimed to process using its “smartscan technology”. Scans of the receipts were being posted to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourced labour tool, where low-paid workers were reading and transcribing them.

"I wonder if Expensify SmartScan users know MTurk workers enter their receipts,” said Rochelle LaPlante, a “Turker” and advocate for gig economy workers on Twitter. “I’m looking at someone’s Uber receipt with their full name, pick-up and drop-off addresses.”
It used to be that people would have all sorts of highly personal conversations in front of "the servants." They were like a lower form of life, so, somehow, they didn’t count.

Now we say lots of personal stuff in front of mechanical turk workers, whether disguised as AI or not. They don't seem to fully count. Really, that’s the new servant class.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Problem With Parler: People Prefer Shitting in Clean Toilets

"All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again." - Battlestar Galactica

In case you haven't heard, Twitter has begun to police its hate, propaganda, and cray-cray. They're purging the worst, pasting warning labels on the marginal, and banning those who've rejected multiple warnings.

Naturally, the crazies and assholes are less than perfectly content with this, so a mass of loopy raging blowhards has begun to migrate to an alternative service called Parler, hollering predictably about FREE SPEECH (which, as sane people know, applies to congressional legislation, not to the actions of private media companies which have no obligation to allow every human to scream into their microphone).

Parler has positioned itself as a safe zone for raging lunatics. And, inevitably, people are realizing that a community composed of raging lunatics lacks a certain sheen.

There are smokers who reserve no-smoking hotel rooms, because smoking rooms smell bad, and then smoke in them. The same principle applies here. A certain type wants a civilized, intelligent discussion they can smear their feces around in. It's just not the same to do so in, like, a toilet.

The Bulwark has a hilarious new article up today about the alleged migration to Parler. The authors are skeptical it will actually happen, because, essentially, people prefer shitting in clean toilets.

As the founder of, a very early and popular online community, I have some experience with, oh, every part of this. Don't imagine that jerks are only jerky about politics. They can be delightfully versatile; able to switch over to tacos and crawfish with great aplomb.

Chowhound started off like Twitter, sincerely devoted to weaving together every last voice. Like Twitter, we came to realize that not all children play nicely, and that a loud microphone becomes an irresistible magnet for users more interested in screaming into a loud microphone than in using the service for its intended purpose.

Like Twitter, we were forced to moderate discussion in order to protect the quality of our operation against the encroaching kudzu, and were met with screams of "FREE SPEECH NAZI CENSORSHIP", because screaming ridiculous bullshit was always this element's go-to move.

Like Twitter, we reluctantly began kicking off the worst of them, and, like Parler, alternative operations cropped up to serve as safe havens for those cruelly persecuted by our FREE SPEECH NAZI CENSORSHIP. I wrote about this here.

The Bulwark is correct in predicting that a garbage can is a less alluring environment for wreaking havoc. And so these people will feel an irresistible draw back to Twitter; back to the spotlight. But let me explain what comes next.

Parler, having drawn off the scumbags, trolls, malcontents, and crazies, will come to be moderated with enormous brutality (the guards are naturally tougher on Rikers Island than the ones in elementary school). So new safe haven garbage cans will arise to welcome users they repel. As the cycle endlessly recurs, a fractal pattern of loudmouthed nightmare communities will fan out to host Twitter-like interaction "but with FREE SPEECH!"

Finally, once the worst of Parler (or whichever service becomes the established FREE SPEECH alternative) has been driven off, it will gradually accumulate a decent number of relatively well-behaved shitheads (plus some oblivious normals), and remain, for a time, the Avis to Twitter's Hertz, until the inherently belligerent management, prone to poking sticks at its usership, mismanages the operation into the ground.

And thus unfolds the heat death of the universe.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Chowhound's Reading List

I just resurrected the old Chowhound Reading List. Take a look!

I'm particularly proud of my profile of John Thorne. If you don't know, he's the food writer's food writer - by far the best of the century, if not of all time.
John Thorne thinks deeply about food. In his personal, utterly unaffected voice (which is actually a hybrid of himself and wife Matt), he ponders the minutia of meatballs, the inner meaning of rice and beaning. Aptly illuminating quotations are cited, seemingly unrelated concepts elegantly connected; Thorne's rhythms are so honest, his erudition so copious and his iconoclastic conclusions so clever that the reader never suspects the daunting legwork that goes into it all. Thorne, the hardest working man in the food writing biz, erases all traces of these labors, so his prose goes down as easily--and as deliciously--as the most soulful polenta.

When the ruminations conclude--and you've discovered historical, cultural, scientific, and spiritual depths to, say, pancakes that you'd never suspected existed--Thorne presents recipes. Not dozens of variations on a cooking theme, but a few concentrated treasures, the distillation of the preceding essay's meditations. The recipes may or may not be to your taste, but such care went into their developement that they're manifestly more than tested, more than polished...they're downright perfected.
I like to flatter myself by imagining that this was the most befitting short profile of Thorne out there. He, in turn, had reviewed my first book, and his writing had the power to teach me who I am (most people don't know and really need to be told). It wasn't the praising that dazzled me. I'd have appreciated his perspective nearly as much if it were tepid or even negative. I was affected by the insight. With Thorne, it's always the insight. The rest of us are mere pikers.

John was also the only food "authority" to grok my smart phone app, "Eat Everywhere":
Eat Everywhere is the distillation of a lifetime of adventurous eating deftly brewed into an impressively designed and wickedly ingenious app: endlessly useful, surprisingly entertaining, and highly addictive.
A snarky reader would surely view this as a disgusting display of shameless back-scratching. But it was more than that. Yes, we were providing mutual support in a world that doesn't often comprehend, much less reward, heartfelt and idiosyncratic work. But more than that, we paid each other the honor of digging deep to extract real insight, the greatest gift a writer can offer one's subject and one's readership. Thorne and I both subscribe to the old-fashioned credo of a writer giving subjects their full due. Those of us who have the audacity to encapsulate a person or their work for crowds of other people have a duty to evoke and express the authentic heart, and not just blab descriptively (here are my Slog postings tagged as "profiles")

Chowhound and I received metric tons of press, all of it useful. But hardly a drop of it was insightful.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sautéing Onions

In yesterday's posting about salmon pasta, I wrote:
Roughly chop a small onion and sauté in minimal oil. Cook it about two notches cooler and twice as long as you ordinarily would. "Gentle" is your mantra..
That's a perilous instruction for unskilled cooks. During the first 45 years of my cooking career, when I poked around in kitchens, able to rotely conjure up a handful of familiar dishes but with no real idea of what I was doing, I recall lots of time spent watching ingredients lie flaccidly in pans not doing much. Standing around waiting for stuff to boil, to sizzle, and to brown. Heat was scary, and was applied with hesitance, because I was afraid to burn stuff.

Picture a driving student, puttering hesitantly forward, afraid to press the accelerator 'cuz speed's the thing that makes you crash.

You cannot simply tell a newbie cook "C'mon, turn up the heat" any more than you can urge a driving student to hit the damned gas. First they need to be able to control the power, and that takes time. But sporadic cooks and Sunday drivers never gather enough experience to develop control. The former are perpetually not-burning, just as the latter are constantly not-crashing. Not-burning is not cooking, and not-crashing's not driving!

So my instruction to be gentle with the onion (which, by the way, applies for most onion applications, and for all garlic ones) will just further tie the hands of many home cooks, who'll spend long periods of time flustered about the onions basically just sitting there.

It was transformative for me to read, years ago, an article about a famous chef who’d been  invited over a famous food writer's house to accept the challenge of improvising dinner from leftovers in his fridge. First thing the chef did was turn up all the stove burners to high and crank the oven. When I read it, I understood that cooking is all about heat. It's kinetic. So conjure up all the heat you can, and then, if necessary, cut it down here and there. Wield all the power, but do so with control.

I eventually learned that burnt food isn't like a sore throat. It's not an inevitable bad thing that occurs from time to time. I haven't burned food in years. Burning is what happens when you don't just stop paying attention (i.e. caring), but stop paying attention brazenly and flagrantly. Car crashes are not inevitable. They only happen if you're stupendously inattentive.

I once wrote that
Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less. Wrong. They fail as often as anyone, but they work within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but pros fail well.
If you're trying not to burn, that means you'll occasionally burn. If you're watching like a hawk to spot extremely subtle degrees of doneness, you'll never burn. You'll still feel like a failure, because, being human and thus doomed to periodic failure, you'll sometimes miss the OPTIMAL point. But burning? That's not inevitable. It's not even imaginable.

So when I said to cook the onion and garlic gently, I didn't mean meekly and feebly. I didn't mean sullen chunks languishing in tepid oil. I meant that the robust inertia of kinetic heat powering your entire cooking enterprise should be confidently tempered to the lower end of the curve.

Imagine an eight year old scratchily playing a cheap plywood violin told to play a certain passage softly. She'd produce especially hesitant scratchings, some barely speaking due to all the tense restraint. Now imagine Pinchas Zukerman asked to play softly, fluently channeling every iota of his normal power and rich expression into a galvanizing whisper.

That's how you do the onions.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Salmon Pasta

I've made several dozen versions of this basic dish over the past few months. Cooking's all about iteration. Forget the recipe, forget technique, forget ingredient quality. Those vaunted X factors are dwarfed by the magical power of iteration; fine-tuning your moves (and, even more importantly, your micro-moves). The easy informality of it all, combined with absolutely full attention and deep caring, is the trick.

My guiding principle is to be as lazy as I can get away with. Not because I'm lazy, but because I want to focus, and if I'm navigating a fraught obstacle course where every single task is a demanding stressor, my attention gets diluted and I find myself acting more like a harried project manager than a deeply attentive artisan. I know where to invest my care. That's one thing the iterations show you (of course, you need to carefully analyze your results, or else the iterations won't improve on each other).

The caring part has to be way more extreme than you'd ever imagine. That's why you're lazy; to clear space for excessive caring. Not a cinematic display of furrowed brow where you tell yourself stories about your own diligence. Don't pose, but really do it. Lose yourself in it. Cook like you're saving a life.
See the religious tract I once posted about the devotional level necessary for producing a properly toasted and buttered bagel.
Ok, here goes.

Have some leftover salmon that was broiled first flesh side up and then skin side up until the skin nearly burnt. The skin won't remain crispy in the fridge, but you'll be rejuvenating it.

Heat water in a pot (use minimal water so it becomes starchy and thick and useful for adding later to make final results glisten).

Roughly chop a small onion and sauté in minimal oil. Cook it (seasoned with salt/pepper) about two notches cooler and twice as long as you ordinarily would. "Gentle" is your mantra. Stir infrequently (laziness!).

When you start the pasta, add thinly-sliced garlic to the onions (if the pan's actively sizzling, you'll brown or burn the garlic, so be sure the heat's tame before you add).

Roughly chop salmon and place atop the onion/garlic mixture. You don't want to use a ton of salmon. One full handful, roughly chopped, is sufficient per person. Don't do the ugly American move of deeming your protein the equivalent of a steak dinner. Be poor tonight.

Cut the salmon skin into small strips with paring knife, and add to sauté pan, keeping it separate from the other items.

Slice some tomatoes (I used Camparis) and place above the salmon which sits atop the onion/garlic. You don't want to cook the tomatoes to mushiness.

Drain pasta, saving water.

Hastily sauté a handful of spinach per serving in a little too much olive oil in the pasta pot (excess oil will help compose the sauce).

Critical checks before proceeding:
Salmon skin must be dry and crisp - almost starting to curl up.
Onions and garlic must be soft and golden.
Tomatoes must be relaxed but not gooey.
Spinach must be limp but still deeply green.

Remove salmon skin from pan, and keep handy on a plate.

Mix salmon, onions, and garlic.

The following should take about 30 seconds:

Add cooked pasta to pot with spinach, hoist the pot with one hand and stir aggressively and disrespectfully with the other hand, using a wooden or bamboo spoon or spatula.

Add a dab of cooking water.

Add salmon/onions/garlic/tomato (don't stop stirring!).

Add a dab of cooking water.

Stir in some seasoning (I used leftover Ecuadorian creamy hot sauce from a previous day's takeout, but sky's the limit: chili flakes, za'atar, any fresh herbs, etc.).

Add a dab of cooking water.

Add some grated Parmesan (not too much; this needs to be subliminal; cheese is great with salmon, but you don't want to flaunt the broken taboo).

Keep stirring violently until it looks like something you'd be eager to eat.

Transfer to plate.
If you're using lengthy pasta (linguini, spaghetti, etc), use tongs and give the mound a twist as you plate it. Carefully study 2'29" in this classic short video for spaghetti limone, where Frank Prisinzano makes that move look way too easy.
Arrange salmon skin atop.


Read this followup posting more closely explaining about the onions.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Optima for PC Users...and Breaking the Word Processor Habit

A few days ago, I highly recommended the Optima type face for writing (though not necessarily for publishing/printing).

It looks like Optima is only free for Mac users; Apple paid the price to make it one of the system fonts. PC users need to buy it here. You want the first choice, "Optima Pro Roman, which costs $35. If you want the font, you need to pay, because no PC system font looks anything like Optima, and you don't want to download freebie Optima knock-offs, which will likely be malware.

Italic and bold versions cost more, but I never use those styles, because I write in a text editor, not a word processor. Text editors only handle vanilla plain text. If I need to signify "bold" or "italic", I do so via tagging, in either Markdown (easy - it looks like *this* or like _this_) or HTML (higher learning curve - it looks, roughly, like [b]this[/b] or like [i]this[/i]). These tags, written in plain old text, get translated into visible (aka WYSIWYG, aka "What You See is What You Get") styles later, when I set up the finalized text for printing or publication in a different environment with different fonts.

I understand this is puzzling to those caught up in the 20th century word processor model, but millions have made the leap and feel deliriously free and happy. Writing is just writing (whether for work, email, reports, your great unpublished novel, or whatever), stripped of fidgety layout/design considerations. You work on words, not words-as-graphical-elements. Styling and layout enter into the equation once you're done writing, and you can set up templates and automation so the tagged text pipes right into your desired finished format (just for starters, your hoary word processor can easily import tagged text from text editors).

So plain old Optima (the best writing font) is sufficient. You don't need bold or italic because a writing font is strictly for wrangling words. And while that's a low-pizzazz undertaking, you still need to stare at these characters for as long as it takes, which makes the $35 a worthwhile investment.

If you buy and load Optima, you can certainly use it in word processors, but it won't do bold or italic. If you insist on sticking with the word processor, you can workaround by using all-caps, or else just spend the money on the bold and italic versions (but know that you're up-spending to service a moldly and archaic word processing habit!).

More on Markdown:
An extensive screencast by an affable Brit. Requires 7 day free trial, but you might want to consider joining the site (their library of tech screencasts is extensive and terrific).

This $9.99 e-book goes deep into Markdown but also extends a helping hand to newbies.

This overview is a bit geeky but makes a handy guide

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

An Epiphany on How We Got Here

I just had a realization of something completely obvious (I can be very, very slow).

Bring me some recipe or restaurant recommendation you got from network TV or some other mainstream channel, and I'll just smirk. I'll assume it's crap. I'm skeptical of mainstream media food reporting, which supplies bland fluff for thoughtless masses. The parties disseminating this information have ulterior motives. They've been bought, or are complacent to the status quo. I disregard such mainstream pablum, sticking with extra-good tips ferreted out by in-the-know types like myself.

This is how the extreme right and left consume news! They're connoisseurs. Mainstream channels are stupid and gullible and malignant and bought out. You can't trust those people. That's not the good stuff. Stick with reliably kindred sources.

Same with science news, medical news, etc.. A vast consensus of experts may agree about climate change or vaccines. But these mainstream channels, representing shady Big Science, Big Medicine, etc., dish out dodgy bla-bla-bla to the thoughtless herds. That's not the extra-good elite information they require, ferreted out by connoisseurs like them.

Extremism is a useful trait for a chowhound. High eagerness benefits trivial pursuits. Less so when it comes to health and public policy, and any important civic sphere requiring serious training to duly comprehend (and radical indoctrination is not a substitute for that "serious training")

I really like being able to occupy the mindset of people who mystify me. I know I'm supposed to scream at them and hate them, but my curiosity wins out. A lot of times, I share my findings under the tag right whispering. These days, with both extremes increasingly engaged and scary, I'm working both ends of the horseshoe pretty evenly (though I'll keep using that tag for now).

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Fonts and Type Faces for Writing

This isn't ultimately Mac-only...if you're a PC dupe user, just skip the first few paragraphs.

The latest MacOS has all these cool fonts built-in. It's like someone spent $$$ on font licenses for you. Strangely Apple didn't announce this, and you need to go to extra trouble to load them. Quick explainer here.

So I went to the trouble, and loaded Domaine, Produkt, Canela, and Proxima Nova. While I was at it, I got some advice on good writer's fonts in this Reddit thread (here’s a polished survey of actual writers). Garamond isn't available on Mac, but the others are, if you search for them (google: [font name] for Mac).

So I created a new Collection in my Font Book app, called Writing, and stocked it with candidates.

Note that this is about fonts for writing, not for printing or publication. If you're still caught in the 1980's word processing model of composing in whatever font and app will represent the final output, see the "Stop Using Word Processors" section of this posting to unchain yourself from unnecessary constraint.
  • Arial
  • Avenir
  • Baskerville
  • Bembo
  • Bodoni
  • Calibri
  • Cochin
  • Courier Prime
  • Georgia
  • and Times New Roman
I quit Font Book, opened BBEdit, my text editor which I use as a word processor (per previous link), created a page full of text, selected all text, typed Command-T to bring up the font selector, and flipped between the type families. Here are the results (click the font name to see a text example). I'm not judging how they "look" - i.e. this isn't about final presentation. It's a question of what you'd want to stare at and work with all day.
Avenir: Squat and slightly wispy.

Arial: The store brand version of Avenir.

Baskerville: Busy and dense.

Bembo: Slightly less busy and dense, but still pretty busy and dense.

Bodoni: Exactly the same as Bembo; what's up with that?

Calibri: Is screen space so expensive that everything needs to be squashed together horizontally?

Cochin: Are you trying to give yourself a migraine?

Courier Prime: Just no (unless you're a screenwriter).

Georgia: Spiders nesting in your monitor.

NewTimes Roman: Comfortingly familiar but would you really want to land your cursor between those intricate characters hundreds or thousands of times per day?
I also tried Domaine, Produkt, Canela, and Proxima Nova. Like the above, these are all exquisite-looking fonts, and would be nice to read in, and to use for certain end results. But not to write in.

The Optima I've always used seems perfect. You'll say that's 'cuz I'm used to it. But I honestly don't think so.

Optima, FYI, is Latin for "best". It's right there in the name.

Followup for PC users (and further discussion of the obsolescence of word processors) here.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

John Cleese on Extremism

I keep repeating the following statement, hoping to nag everyone into recognizing the problem pretty much everywhere we look:
Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?
The great John Cleese gets to the core of the issue in a two minute video clip:

I agree with Stephen Fry (whose own wisely delightful video I linked to here), who tweeted out this reply to Cleese:
"If I didn’t already think you were a genius I would now..."
Take the insight one step deeper by considering The Segregating Outcome of Selective Attention...
We notice the flaws to which we're all heir much more precisely in The Other, whom we instinctively observe with great care. Me and my tribe receive a blurrier, more forgiving appraisal, due not to vanity but to familiarity. We're less instinctively alert to the familiar, because it's innately safer.
...and you can get pretty close to a holistic view of the Human Problem (do also factor in the sorely-missing recognition that noticing stupidity and craziness doesn’t mean you’re smart and sane; it just means you’re observant). 

Thanks to Dave Feldman for hipping me to Cleese's video.

So much of life - including life well beyond politics - is explained by this dynamic. I've spilled much virtual ink hunting down its corollaries and origins. But I'll add a fresh (for me) one: Young people are particularly attracted to extremism out of eagerness to jump-start a sense of personal grandeur (it's easier than developing talent or knowledge). In fact, to widen the framing, anyone frustrated - whose grandiose self-image fails to jibe with real world evidence - is susceptible to extremism of one sort or another.

That's the thesis of Eric Hoffer's classic book "The True Believer". I'll beg you to read it. It's short and written with brilliant clarity. A fantastically quick and life-changing read.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Defunding the Police

For the love of god, people (or, for those less ambitious or religious, for the survival of the republic and our way of life): Don't make the rallying cry this summer and fall "Defund the Police". It would be less insanely self-defeating to strip off all our clothes and devote our lives to meekly servicing the president's corpulent flesh.

"De-Militarize the Police"
"Purge Bad Cops"
"Restore Decency"
"Black Lives Matter"

All fine! But "Defund the Police"? How about we offer some faint quantity of vaunted "#Resistance" to the ogres and scumbags scheming their way toward a second term? How about we don't cut our own throats and drop our bodies on their doorstep with a massive "We Surrender" sign?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Corn and Egg Panini

Carefully cut a savory Hispanic "pan" (bread) in half with a serrated bread knife.
If you're mystified by the non-sweet end of the Hispanic "pan" spectrum, the panini treatment is your first step to enlightenment. Savory breads are either crumbly (which works great in panini), or eggy, which works great in panini. This one was more crumbly (with added cheese). I got it from the best hispanic bread bakery in the Tristate Area, Sabor Ambateño (which has branches in Peekskill, Ossining, Elizabeth, and, Jesus, I see they just opened in Danbury (they're everywhere all of a sudden). They do highly regional breads from the part of Ecuador most local immigrants aren't from, always with a great selection and friendly service. Sweet stuff is hit or miss (though they play up their intricate cakes...see the Ossining branch's Instagram account).

Trader Joe's Chili Onion Crunch is my current go-to agent of je ne sai qua. I smeared it sparingly on one side of the bread. You could butter the other side, or drizzle good olive oil on it. I'm too austere for that.

I steamed an ear of corn and cut off the kernels (serrated knife!) and arranged them on the bread.

I flopped over over an egg white omelet, heavy on the black pepper, and added some split grape tomatoes.

I press/toasted in my panini machine.

....and cut.

Note that the cutting step is essential. Home chefs sometimes ignore it. It's a mistake, especially with panini. The cutting changes everything. I use one of these KAI Ultimate Utility Sandwich Knives, which Williams Sonoma has been trying to unload for months now. At a crazy-low $10, it's a steal and I highly recommend it (great for splitting bagels, btw).

This was my latest kooky pandemic cooking experiment (see also Unnameable Breakfast).

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