Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe Covid-19 is Inherited from Neanderthals

The Slog's illustrious technical advisor Pierre Jelenc - who curmudges 99.99% of science news for being both banal and sensational (bansational?) - sends the following. His language choices signal an emotional pitch that, for Pierre, represents swooning enthusiasm:
The major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neanderthals, courtesy of Nature

(Svante Pääbo is the god of ancient DNA)

Discussion and glosses
We mere mortals would do best with the second ("glosses") link.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Antagonists of Creativity

"Deliciousness"

When would-be chef Joe Randazzo applied for cooking jobs, he'd whip up blow-out demonstration meals for prospective employers. Beautiful spreads, every bite releasing torrents of soul and love.

The response, time and time again, was "Well, okay, great, you can cook delicious food. But anybody can do that...." and they'd continue with a miserably petty litany of irrelevant tasks one could train a monkey to perform. You know, the important stuff.

This is why nearly all food sucks; why so much of everything sucks: this is the attitude of gatekeepers. Quality is not only not an overriding goal, it's no goal at all. It's a dreamy scrap of irrelevant bullshit; something to nonchalantly grind beneath your heel like an expired cigarette. Such people utter quality terms with weary quotation marks. "Deliciousness". Yeah, you go make some "deliciousness", champ.

We're All Brilliant Jazz Players

When I was in my early 20s, I played with unbelievably cheesy wedding/bar mitzvah bands led by guys with cheap toupees and names like Hymie Lipschitz who couldn't wait for weekends to transform into show biz alter egos with impossibly waspy names ala "Hal Lane". They'd play - excruciatingly badly - Top-40 hits, horas, and tarantellas hunched between ice sculptures and chopped liver terrains. They were living the dream - the glamorous life of a musician - while I, an actual full-time musician, hid behind the speaker praying for the sweet release of death. The money, alas, was good.

The cheesiest bandleader of all was a guy named Joseph whose pot belly stretched his cumberbund to the snapping point. Joseph managed to play only half the chords of any tune - essentially a harmonica version, where everything's either blowing out or sucking in. Joseph performed on a student-model keyboard that fishtailed cheaply as he pounded it with his fat stupid fingers, and spent most of the gig screaming at his wife, Rhonda, the band's "female vocalist", her unexceptional tits polished and displayed like Harry and David grapefruit. I'd play runs at top NYC jazz clubs and sneak in a Saturday afternoon hit with these guys (the come-down to beat all come-downs), though if rent weren't due each month I'd have tipped over the buffet’s flambé station and gleefully watched it all burn.

One time, on a break, Joseph was harshly criticizing a sax player who'd substituted with the band on the previous weekend. I observed that the fellow was a brilliant jazz player. "Dude,” Joseph shmuck-splained with bottomless eye-rolling contempt, “we're all brilliant jazz players."

Creativity's Easy

A few years ago, a profoundly uncreative person I know announced, haughtily, that creativity is easy. Anyone can fuck around creatively. That's the easy, fun stuff.

Loathing

I feel inexpressibly deep loathing over these three traumatic memories. I can forgive atrocities, but these are something worse.

It's not just the dismissive hand-waving at everything that matters to me, or the immense lack of self awareness. It's that their smug contempt reveals their position as antagonists to all that is good and true. These are Devils.

The world doesn't suck due to the machinations of clear-eyed people efficiently marching the wrong way. The world sucks because oblivious slobs claw their way into positions of authority and reflexively shit all over the good stuff, people who do good stuff, and the very notion that stuff can be - much less should be - good. Once they've buried every iota of quality, they proceed to smugly work their magic, as if they'd just laid down a nice clean coat of primer.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Joe Randazzo

NYC trombonist Joe Randazzo died.

A lot of musicians never knew that, in the 90s, Joe tried to switch careers and become a chef. When he landed a gig cooking in the cafeteria of a specialty college on the Upper West Side, I heard about it and ran right over. The food was absolutely slamming. Just the sort of under-radar deliciousness I loved to discover.

I wrote it up in NY Press, but my time there was strange. Some places I raved about (Mississippi BBQ Shack, Kabab Cafe, Arepa Lady, DiFara Pizza, etc) became sensations, while others, equally good, garnered no movement at all. I was never able to figure out the formula.

Despite the disappointing lack of interest, Joe was excited to have his name in print, and tried to parlay it into better gigs, but industry types wanted to hire sharp, culinary school type chefs, not soulful street-smart jazzbos who could make veal sing.

Joe returned to trombone, we lost touch, and now he's gone.

RIP, Joe. Bone appetit.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Joining Team Walter

Walter the Substitute Bus Driver

When I was very young, there was a substitute school bus driver named Walter, an older gentleman who'd periodically appear, like an apparition, and give out bubblegum to kids as they got on the bus.

It gobsmacked me that such a person could exist. Bus drivers - I recognized with the instinctive reflex of those low on a food chain - were a nemesis for children to fear and avoid. You don't need to be a particularly clever bunny rabbit to know to run like crazy when a german shephard comes prowling. So you get on the stupid bus, walk all the way to the back, and try to avoid setting off the driver at all costs.
Imagine if you discovered that a certain mosquito, once you slow down its whine, is actually singing Mozart arias just to soothe you.
Walter Crowther rocked my world. Representing more than just a good version of a bad thing, he spurred a fundamental shift in my childhood experience. It had never occurred to me that anything positive could ever come from a bus driver. I suddenly realized, thunderstruck, that the world was studded with hidden and delightful Easter Eggs. A hunk of bubblegum had squarely launched me on my life path.


The Fabulous Mrs. Montesano

My first grade teacher was a sourpuss; a stuck-up, humorless horror. I just barely made it through the year, and was trepidatious about returning to school the next September. But I was assigned, for second grade, the fabulous Mrs. Gloria Montesano.

The prototypical Mrs. Montesano vignette took place the day Steven Bazone raised his hand and asked what "dash" meant. Without hesitation - not even a blink - Mrs. Montesano kicked off her heels and ran out the door.

She disappeared, leaving us unsupervised and completely mystified, for several minutes. Finally, someone pointed eagerly - almost hysterically - out the classroom window to the distant football field, which Mrs. Montesano was traversing at a very impressive speed.

We all gathered around the window screaming our heads off, pointing and jumping around in utter delight as Mrs. Montesano ran as if her life depended on it. Frankly, I'd never realized she was so athletic.

Finally, she arrived back at the classroom, winded and gasping. She put on her heels, and, with her remaining breath, explained that that's what dashing is.

It goes without saying that after my arteries harden in old age, the very final memory to vanish down my cognitive sink hole will be this word. I'll forget pizza, "2001", the 1973 Mets, and my own name long before I forget what it is to "dash".

Not all of Mrs. Montesano's lessons were flamboyant. I remember vividly how she explained how to remember "desert" versus "dessert". You want more “dessert” than “desert”. More esses! She explained this with such relish that it wasn't just a memory trick, it was like she'd initiated an entirely new way of seeing the world. Plentitude, even of mere consonants, felt like a gift.

I wish Mrs. Montesano had explained everything to me, but, alas, I had only one short year with her before it was back to the prigs.

Mrs. Montesano always encouraged my writing, and when I published my first book, I dedicated it to her, though I was too overwhelmed at the time (creating Chowhound) to get around to sending her a copy (I hadn't spoken to her since 1974). Finally, in late 2004, right at the time my life was turning upside down, I was going through my childhood boxes and found this ancient postcard from her, and I photocopied it and send it to her along with this reply.


The Painters

I mentioned a few postings ago that I've been having my house painted. Every day, I served the workers lunch. Really good lunch. And generally treated them like family. I blasted Radio Guatemala out of my windows all day and we shared beer at the end of most workdays. It was more like summer camp than a job. They called it "Camp Jimmy".

This is how I do it because of a tenet of Christianity that I particularly like - which also happens to be, in my opinion, badly misunderstood.

Everyone assumes "Love thy neighbor" refers to the person in the condo next door. But I am convinced that's not what it means. It means whoever you encounter right here right now. The clerk at CVS. The FedEx guy. The house painters.

You don't have to make an ostentatious big deal. You don't need to slap birthday hats on their heads and tell them how wonderful they are. But I go Pashtun. If you smash your thumb, you're going to get ice from me, stat, carefully wrapped, and you're going to eat a lunch that's the very best I can whip up - likely better than what I myself eat for lunch. With dessert, too (double "s" 'cuz you want more of it). Plus a bottle of really good beer to take home at the end of the day. And jokes. And respect. And knowing when to leave you the hell alone because it's not all about me.

But the one week job stretched to three weeks. So the expense went far beyond what I'd expected. With the guys working six days/week for three weeks, I likely blew close to four figures on hospitality expenses. Yikes.

By week three, it began to hurt a little, and I welcomed that pain. It signaled the collision of my vanity - my image of myself as a good person - with actual stakes. Everyone's a philanthropist with orange peels and used toilet paper. This was a test to see if I really meant it.

I welcomed the test. I embraced the raised stakes. Lunch got better and better. The sole problem in this scenario was my own discomfort, so I made an antagonist of it. No longer dressing panini with raw spinach, I'd begun to sauté the greens...and then escalated by sautéing with garlic. If they'd remained another few weeks, I'd have shaved in white truffles and sold computer equipment to finance purchase of rare caviar.

I steered straight into the skid, into my discomfort (and the residual wisps of hypocrisy lurking just behind it). I applied my Mazlow Hammer of commitment, upping my game. A friend asked why I was doing all this, and I explained about Christianity. He replied, yeah, great, lovely, but why are you actually doing it?


Switching Teams

I had to think about it for a few weeks (because I didn’t know, and I'm very slow), but suddenly Walter's face flashed in my mind, and I realized this is the same irrational impulse that compelled Walter and Mrs. Montesano to induce delight. Not hoping that I, myself, would be considered delightful (hardly a risk for me, fortunately, as I don’t seem so, and seeming is everything), but just for its own sake.

I hadn’t planned it that way, so I never registered a point where I went from perennially wishing for a Walter to becoming a Walter ("being the change"). I'm just living out the spin imparted in me by he and Mrs. Montesano. Someone, many links back in the chain, had found a different way of doing things, and Walter, Mrs. Montesano, and I...and now the painters (and you!) were haplessly caught in the ripple effect.

Perhaps a blogger in 2060 will recall the dude who delighted him with delicious panini during his youthful summer painting job. But I'm not shooting for that. It's not about me. The guys were here. They got fed. Full stop. Why does there need to be further rationale? Does it really make so little sense as-is? That's why Walter gave out gum, and why Mrs. Montesano went overboard to teach not-especially-significant words. They were just moved to do what they did. Not much self-consciousness was involved.

I'm a bit more self-conscious, because I need to intellectually understand myself and my world or else I start feeling very lost and confused (hence this Slog). Yet I never noticed myself switching teams; from being a grateful admirer of Walter to being Walter. I never made a mental story out of it. It was just what happened. It took a while to even notice.

I remain a grateful admirer of Walter and Mrs. Montesano. More than ever, in fact. And I can't imagine placing myself fully in their pantheon. I'm not all that. I'll just keep making panini and icing thumbs and blasting Radio Guatemala, when appropriate, here at Camp Jimmy, and explaining my weirdo ideas here for the scattering of readers who offer their attention. I don’t think I’ll ever come up with a better explanation of my motivation. I’m comfortable with it as-is. I conjure up memories of Walter and Mrs. Montesano, and feel relieved to be preserving, in my small way, the customs of our random little tribe.


Further reading: The Generosity Impulse

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Susan Feldman Incident

The seminal event of my childhood was when, in first grade, Susan Feldman - the apple of my eye (aside, of course, from the utterly aloof and unattainable Suzanne Castrino) - told me, in front of the whole lunchroom table, "I can't believe I liked you in kindergarten!"

It was my first experience with ambivalence. My immediate reaction was "What...wait...Susan Feldman liked me in kindergarten???" I'd had no idea (this was also my introduction to the opaqueness of female attraction). But the part about my having grown into an unappealing schlub struck me as sad but fair. I'd peaked, sexually, at age 6. I knew it, everyone knew it. Susan was merely stating the obvious.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Jesus Muffins

I can't say these are the best muffins I've ever had, but I've never had better. Click to expand for the full effect.

I get them from an Ecuadorian chicken place in Ossining, about a mile from the jail. They don't really know what muffins are. They don't know what to call them. They can't tell you which flavor is which. There are never more than two on hand at any time of day. They don't know what they cost. They struggle to figure out which cash register button to press. They are at a loss as to how to pack them (currently they toss them individually into large supermarket paper bags and roll them up).

There is nowhere in Ecuadorian culture for muffins. These are like alien artifacts for them. And that's why I think they're so unbelievably good. My guess is someone told the owner he could make money selling muffins to his gringo customers. So he had an employee go online and get a muffin recipe. And, only since it was all so foreign, they cooked them from scratch....CAREFULLY, using only use gloriously ripe fruit and take aching care with every step (including the sugar syrup wash that leaves the tops shatteringly glass-like in their crispness).

They don't do this because they're artists. And it's not that they care deeply. It's just that they haven't yet realized they don't *have* to. Nobody told them a big truck from Indiana could pull up and deliver them dozens of sticky sweet awful muffins from some big factory (or veterinary grade pre-made batter) for mere pennies.

So this is a temporary condition, a miracle, a cosmic Jesus accident, and I'm enjoying the hell of it. I'm like a native of the Kenyan savanna lavishing in cool breezy August weather, unable to explain or even fully describe it, but out-of-his-mind with undeserved and unexpected joy.


These are as good as the muffins at Briermere Farms in Riverhead and the ones at Coffee An' in Westport, and I think they're as good as the late, lamented Michael's Muffins of Greenwich Village in the early 90's.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Value and Salability

I've been puzzling over some recent learning experiences about economic value. I'm sure all of this would be incredibly banal for an economist. But there are plenty of known economic truisms that even educated people never connect with.

For example, I've paid my bills for years via the brutally simple strategy of buying Apple stock whenever it goes way down and selling whenever it goes way up. There's nothing clever about it, yet I don't know anyone else doing it. Savvy investors execute far cleverer strategies, making less money at greater risk. Simplicity often escapes notice, even by - especially by! - smart people.

With that in mind, I have some simple observations.

Houses

I bought my current house despite two expensive issues which the previous home owners couldn't afford to fix. They lowered the price accordingly, and while I finally came along and bought it, it had sat on the market for a good long while. This should have been a premonition!

So now I'm getting ready to sell, and had to decide whether to empty my bank account to resolve those issues or to simply pass along the discount. And the reality of it became suddenly clear to me. I could try to sell a house saddled with asbestos pipe insulation and an unsightly exterior full of curling lead paint (impossible to repaint without much exorbitant work sanding away in HAZMAT suits). The house looks like hell, and "asbestos" is a scary word, but, no problem. I could just mark down the price. It's all the same in the end, no?

No!

Houses aren't soybeans or widgets. The housing market doesn't respond rationally because it's not a faceless mob. There is a limited pool of buyers, all subject to emotion. Most don't want asbestos or ugly peeling paint at any price. They'd rather avoid the hassle even if I discounted the bejesus out of it. Serious issues, even steeply discounted, would repel most prospective buyers, who don't want a fixer-upper at any price.

Let's say I offered you a late model car that had housed a dead body for a few weeks. It stinks and the interior's stained. If the car were normally worth $25,000 but I offered it to you for $6000 with the assurance that you could have it cleaned and deodorized for $19,000, would you buy? What about $5000? $4000? $800?

That's an extreme example, but you get the idea. Every issue - every nose-wrinkling sub-optimality - filters out a swathe of prospective buyers, regardless of discount. And there is not an infinitude of buyers. So your house could sit unsold for years despite a perfectly fair price, though a misreading of economics might make you think that result simply doesn't happen.

Even extreme discounting would have limited effect. Most buyers want a nice house in nice condition that looks nice and presents no obvious headaches. Faults, even priced-in, require a fault-tolerant buyer, which is an edge case. As you increase your discount, you're still seeking edge cases the whole way down. There’s no price low enough to attract mainstream buyers. It takes a certain type of person to buy a corpse car at any price!

So...I painted the damn house (using lead encapsulation rather than abatement, a compromise solution with no sanding - the hazardous part - but they just scrape, power-wash, and encase remaining lead paint in a thick primer that lets new paint stick. The result is not super smooth, but it looks ok and costs half the price of full abatement) and I had the asbestos removed. When I sell the house, I'll ask full price, which would repay my outlay with, alas, no profit for my substantial hassle. But it will be attractive to 100% of the market rather than just to problem-tolerant bargain hunters. So I'll save hassle and delay. It will actually sell, which is more than a minor consideration!

Coins

On a similar tack, one of the first things newbie coin collectors need to learn is to ignore pricing lists. Well-respected sources might value your 1931-S Lincoln wheat cent at 87¢, and this may be correct, but you will never, ever, get 87¢ for that coin. It's an accurate value, but not one you can get - and the difference is absolutely not just semantic.

87¢ would be the average price of many transactions, nearly all involving dealers who can assure customers that the coins are genuine, and, for example, have never been washed (which drastically reduces value, but you need to be trained to spot it). If you were to spend $35 to have a grading service authenticate, grade, and encase the coin in a plastic slab sealed with hologram stickers, you might be able to sell it for $35.87 on eBay (though you'd lose money after paying shipping and eBay transaction costs). But, even then, it will sit forever on eBay because, while the price is correct, no one wants a stupid circulated penny that badly, except for rare and extenuating circumstances (i.e. circumstances which, in aggregate, led to the 87¢ valuation you found in your price list!).

To be sure, the coin's worth 87¢. You just can't sell it for 87¢, exactly the way my house is worth $X minus paint/asbestos cost...but no one will buy it. Value and salability are different things. Greater value increases salability, but it's rarely linear, much less predictable. So never assume you can simply adjust price in order to sell stuff. Economics, it turns out, don't actually work that way.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Puny Sacrifices for Infinitesimal Decency

I hired a painting company to do my house, and, mid-way, we're haggling over various issues, shortcomings, and miscommunications on their end. The latest was a fake $1500 carpentry job they tried to get me to sign off on.

The project manager, who stops by a couple times a week to check up on the nice Guatemalan guys who do the actual work, is, himself, a Guatemalan immigrant. But his English is good, and he's bright, and he's been fully accepted into this large white family business. That's quite an accomplishment for a Guatemalan, a nationality at the leading edge of current immigration.

He wasn't deliberately trying to screw me. In fact, he likes me. We talk in Spanish, and sometimes he comes by to share the lunches I cook for the workers. I've earned most-favored-client status with him. What happened was that one of the guys had mumbled something about problematic shingles (the shingles aren't perfect, though no one in his right mind would pay to swap them out), so the issue got automatically added to my roster, and the accounting guy affixed the usual shingle repair price, and the machinery mindlessly spit out a request that I pay $1500 for a job that clearly did not require doing.

Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.

I made the project manager come out and look, and he freely admitted the work was completely unnecessary. He briskly slashed the line off of my file and asked whether I'd approve the remaining (legit) carpentry work. And I unloaded on him. I told him I no longer trust his company; that I am a good customer who feeds his guys and pays on time and makes no trouble. I'm not a cow to be milked (it worked better in Spanish). This was really really not okay.

He tried to explain that the worker had tagged a problem, and the system had picked it up, and, man, he can't supervise everything. I pointed out that supervising everything was literally his job, and that I had nearly paid $1500 for unnecessary work. It was effectively every bit as bad as a deliberate rip-off.

He was stricken at having let me down, plus he'd cost his company the work I'd just nixed. Serious mess-up on his end. And I could have used this tale to bolster my position in my ongoing squabbles with his company. But I didn't. I told them the project manager was doing a wonderful job. He got no blame for anything. I protected him.

Why? Because I don't like how my country is treating immigrants. By protecting him, I compensated in an infinitesimal way.

Persecution isn't fought via lofty oratory about multiculturalism, or raking through Twitter detecting and exterminating RACISM. It's not mitigated by windy gestures, righteous outrage, or the sloppy smiting of seeming villains. You mitigate it with your compensatory gentle touch. Maybe you willingly let certain stuff go by - even if you were wronged. Even if it might help you a little to not let it go by. This is how you tip scales. Again: infinitesimally.

When Trump took office, friends of mine went to DC to march, and they were offended by my comments here about such vain, empty gestures. Marching made them feel better, but did not help. By contrast, the incident with my project manager made me feel a little worse...and helped a (very) little. You know you're helping if you take a hit; if you come out a little worse. If you ever find yourself feeling grand and righteous, that's entirely about you. It's performance; an empty display of self-regard. It's silly and repulsive.

There's very little we can do to help. All we've got are micro-touches and micro-considerations (e.g. the meek puniness of voting). We're not studly super-heros, we're dweeby dweebs. But no one seems interested in acknowledging this. All around me, I see people - particularly young people - shouting into the hot microphones of social media or joining voices in street protests; gloriously projecting their outrage in the macro. But I don't see any consideration in the micro - i.e. in Reality. Nobody’s engaged in the non-heroism of micro-consideration (which, per previous link, is why young people don't vote). Enticed by the shiny allure of Seeming, it would scarcely occur to them to actually Do.

United Flight 93

I am replaying this posting from 2008 in honor of the anniversary. 

When I first heard that United Flight 93 had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and that it was long enough after the World Trade Center catastrophe that people both on the ground and in the plane were aware that a similar fate was in store for this flight, and that its path had it aimed squarely at Washington DC, I assumed, as did anyone else with a functioning brain, that it had been shot down. And while I could argue both ways, there was certainly a case to be made for having done so. 

I remember seeing on CNN how tightly the crash area had been sealed off, with absolutely no journalists permitted within the perimeters. I remember how the story disseminated that heroic passengers had engineered this result, not military missles. I was skeptical, to say the least.

But when, months later, I learned that Linda Gronlund had been on board the flight, there was reason to reconsider. The Gronlunds were family friends when I was growing up, and Linda, a race car driver, karate expert, sailor, mechanic, EMT, environmentalist, and lots more, was pretty much the most can-do, resolute, fiercely determined person I've ever met. 

Linda called her sister Elsa via cellphone from the flight, and told her that the passengers understood the situation and that there was a plan to storm the cockpit. Demonstrating Linda's cool steely clarity of mind, she remembered to give Elsa precise instructions about where to find her will and other paperwork. Amazing. 

I haven't seen the films or TV movies made about Flight 93, but I understand that none of them much featured Linda. I'm absolutely sure, though, that she was on the vanguard of whatever happened on that flight. Linda was born to storm cockpits. 

Of course, what's unexplained is why the plane actually went down. One might guess that the hijackers, aware of a mob breaking down the cockpit door, executed a hard dive. But that would only have been a last ditch maneuver, as their goal wasn't to murder airplaine passengers, but to bomb the White House. I can't imagine geared-up fanatics executing an abortive dive without a fight. And, heroic as the passengers may well have been, they undoubtedly were aiming to gain control of the aircraft, rather than ditch it. So whence the downward plunge? 

My guess is that both stories are right. I think the cockpit was stormed (Linda Gronlund would not have sat quietly and failed to take action), and the plane was indeed shot down as it passed over the last rural landscape before entering more populated areas.  My heartfelt hope is that the passengers hadn't just prevailed over the hijackers when the missiles arrived. I must avoid imagining that scenario. But Linda would have understood even if it had played out that way.

Charlie Kaufman

I just caught Charlie Kaufman's new film, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," which was released straight to Netflix. Since I was, for once, at home when the credits rolled instead of ambling out of a movie theater, I finally remembered to actually follow up on the mental note I always make while viewing a Kaufman film. I googled this:
"If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit" "Charlie Kaufman"
...but, oddly, no one on the Internet appears to have applied that old chestnut to him.

So now I've rectified that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Armchair Chowhounding: Tapas in Malaysia

Welcome to the strangest food posting of my entire life.


The least cool thing to do while traveling is to seek out familiar food (American, French, Italian, etc). The slightly cooler thing is to seek out local food. Like, duh. But coolest of all would be to go all the way to Malaysia for Spanish tapas. That's the sweet spot, right there. I can't travel right now, but am remotely surveying tapas options in Penang, an especially interesting Malaysian food region (making it all the more gleefully perverse to go there for tapas)

I'm not proposing some cold-blooded hipster scavenger hunt for Insta-worthy food oddity trophies. It's deeper than that. The way Culture X cooks Cuisine Y is deeply revealing. It sheds light on the whole situation. If you order something ubiquitous like laksa in Penang, the chef would be working under loads of expectation, every nuance and deviation registered and judged under a microscope. But something like wienerschnitzel flies free. Pure id. Less Anthony Bourdain and more Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell.

While Malaysian wienerschnitzel will surely be wrong - though most likely weirdly delicious (because food matters here, so chefs are conscientious) - there's something greater to be gained by poking around the edges for the unhinged and the feral. You can learn things you'll never get from under-microscope cooking.
Dear lord. Sure enough, here, courtesy of Tripadvisor user John K, is the wienerschnitzel (plus menacing potatoes) at the cheekily-named (in a Muslim nation!) El Cerdo ("The Pig") in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Anyhoo, without further adieu, here are two restaurants serving Spanish tapas in Penang, Malaysia. The first is, confusingly, Indian-owned Hygge Dining & Bar. Photos courtesy of Peter Yeoh.

Having stalked Malaysian food for some time (I've never actually been), my distinct impression is that it's essentially Asian Mexico

Definitely Asian Mexico, though.

Here we are

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli.

My Spanish friends' heads all just exploded. I can't even begin to explain. Just know that this is an "11" on the disorienting weirdness scale. The surreality actually doubles back to make it extra Spanish in its breathtaking non-Spanishness. 

Click this, and subsequent photos, to expand. Really. Do it. 

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli (detail)

Corned beef croquetas!

An Irish touch by an Indian chef in a Malaysian restaurant serving Spanish food. Bravo, tío; bravo. Gutsy fusion that actually makes sense (though I’d like to see a croqueta cross-section). 

Pork belly with potatoes.

I don't know if they think this is Spanish. Basques do a bunch of things with pork belly, but nothing like this. I'm guessing it's a riff on Japanese buta no kakuni, or perhaps, at least, a version of buta no kakuni filtered through Taiwan, the most Japanese of estranged Chinese regions, via Fijian immigrants. I'm pretty sure it's not Indian, though whenever you make a declarative statement about Indian food, 900,000 lurking counterexamples are poised to prove you wrong.

"Ang Moh" Lamb Curry - slow-cooked lamb meatballs, served with rice, masala, and papadum.

I don’t think this is on the tapas menu, but Spaniards would agree that those are serendipitously righteous-looking Andalusian albondigas (meatballs). Crazy!

Hygge Signature Laksa, with prawns, chicken, fishcake, bean-curd and hard-boiled egg

If you eat, say, Chinese food in Spain, you'll be served bread and wine with your meal, because, c’mon, we're not savages here. Similarly, I don't think you're allowed to open a restaurant in Penang without laksa on the menu. My instinct would be to avoid it here, but that's why I travel; to scrape away caked-on expectations. Hygge‘s laksa is apparently ace. Kent Hunt Food says

"Unlike any ordinary Curry Laksa in Malaysia, the broth is cooked using loads of Prawns and Flower Crabs... simmered for hours to fully accentuate the flavors of the sea. The seafood flavor is so rich and it almost feels like eating a seafood broth soup instead of a Laksa. The dish is good on its own but even better with a dash of Lemon juice and a spoonful of their home-made Chilies. The addition of acidity increases the depth while the Chilies introduces a peculiar smokiness which makes it instantly becomes multi-dimensional. The price is a little steep [28 ringgit, just under 7 bucks] but definitely worth the experience."
Laksa detail

So trippy

Here's the tapas menu

....and here's the regular menu, with microdots of skewed kookiness.

For example "Papa's Bolognese" contains "house made beef, spiced tomato sauce, parmesan cheese". I could pick that apart for hours (for one thing, I thought only God made beef - also let's also remember this dude's Indian - and who the hell "spices" the tomato sauce, or lists parmesan cheese as an ingredient, or declines to mention, much less specify, the presence of pasta), but it's time to continue our paseo... at Patois Kafe & Bistro at @ Burmah Square, with photos courtesy of Ken of Ken Hunts Food (here's his review of Patois).

American readers might not fully grok how insanely odd this paella is.

The mini wok for one thing, the cilantro (cilantro???) for another, the chili powder, and even just the grain of the rice are all crazy. Every photon spraying from this photo represents the polar opposite of paella. Though I’m sure it’s dandy. 

Calling crostini a tapa is like calling key lime pie "cajun food". Nice tomatoes (again, this is Malaysia, so all this stuff's surely delicious), but....man.

Those onions are fooling no one. You can almost taste the fermented soy sweetness in that sauce. And also... mustard! Look, I realize Bavaria seems nearly Mediterranean from this distant viewpoint, but....no. No food (possible exception: Sugar Frosted Flakes) could look less desirous of mustard than those glazed oniony sausages. OTOH, I'm assuming, just from the presence of that mustard, that they're bratwurst or something close...which would just add a whole new dimension of head-swimming wrongness. 


Special bonus weirdness: I threw in, way above, a link to a photo of some wienerschnitzel at El Cerdo, an all-pork restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, just for laughs. I just returned to the restaurant's Tripadvisor page, and found this, which left me gob-smacked:

...but not for the reasons you think - i.e. the bright red sauce or the non-sequitur slab of meat ("NSSoM").

This appears to be an ultra-rare field sighting of an extinct Sicilian soul food that’s among my holy grails: fried spaghetti (though the restaurant calls the pasta part "Aglio Olio”).

Fried spaghetti is the most peasanty of Sicilian peasant dishes. You fry leftover pasta in a pan with garlic and maybe some chili, and set the plate down hard on the cheap kitchen table with a scornful (perhaps hungover) clatter. This is exclusively home cooking, never something you'd find in a restaurant, and - forget the sauce and the meat - the grease-saturated, pan-seared, garlic-studded pasta in that photo might strike foodies as hilariously wrong, but it's stupendously right if you're an old Sicilian (or grew up in a neighborhood full of old Sicilians, as I did).

A Sicilian I know who is ridiculously touchy about such things pronounced the garlic’s coloration "on point". Woah.

This must have been taught to this chef - or to his great-grandfather - by someone with deep Sicilian roots. This is the only restaurant in the world I currently know to be serving fried spaghetti (whether they realize what they're really serving or not), which was never really a restaurant dish to begin with (you used to be able to ask for it off-menu in an obscure joint under the elevated subway in Woodhaven, Queens that had some connection to Bernadette Peters' father, but they closed like twenty years ago).

Also while I'd rather ignore the bright red sauce and NSSoM, the former is actually more apt than you'd imagine. Early 20th century working class Sicilians went nuts with tomato paste, which resembled their forefathers' strattu, a paste of sun-dried tomatoes. I dare to propose that this might represent strattu yearnings self-resurrecting via tomato paste in a kitchen in Koala Lumpur. Jesus.

I may be reading way too much into this (what, me???), but I don't think so. Those garlic cloves are too on point for this to be a serenditous accident. I don't see any ingenuous Asian wok non sequitur here. I don't believe that's what they're shooting for, nor what they've produced. Again, it looks exactly, precisely like an old Sicilian's fried leftover spaghetti (aside from the sauce and NSSoM). I do not understand what is happening here.


ISIS and Stubbed Toes

A friend of mine has had a very bad couple of years. First there was a health crisis with excruciating pain. Then his wife flipped out and divorced him for no good reason, breaking up a family with two young children. Then came Covid19, and he works in personal care so his income shrank by 75%. The office he co-ran with his unstable business partner was still doing a decent trickle of business, keeping his kids fed, when the partner decided to suddenly shut it all down (after ten years), leaving my friend without a penny of income.

My friend has been running around, trying to turn lemons into lemonade, and it's starting to get better. He found a new office willing to sublet, and won back a major client from his ex partner. He was set to get going when some minor bureaucracy interfered, stalling his return to work. "Yup it’s always something," he texted me. 

Where most people would groan and express sympathy, I saw a way to reframe it. "Bureaucracy problems are relatively easy, though. Easier than crazy business partners and worldwide pandemics," I noted.

He accepted the fresh perspective, typing back "True!!!!" But the thing about perspectives is, when strong emotions are involved, they're often spring-loaded. You can see it happen, if you watch for it. Sure enough, he snapped right back. 

"Yeah I’m just a little frustrated," he said.

I took a deep breath and reached for a reframing that might really seize his attention. I recognized that he was setting a mental trap for himself - one that could derail him - and I needed to impart a bigger-picture view. Here's what I sent:
Once you’ve escaped the ISIS prison camp, and made it back home, it’s a good idea, when you stub your toe, to resist the urge to cry “DOES IT EVER END??”

If you don’t watch out, that can be the rest of your life. It can really happen. And it’s needless.
It was a surprising way to look at things, which was very much my intention.
Whenever I use the word "reframe", you could substitute "surprise", though I don't mean a "whoopee cushion" type of chaotic surprise. Rather, a carefully constructed, purposefully propulsive one. It's like how comedians pace and massage a punch line for maximum impact.
Re-framings are always surprising. Nobody ever, like, expects uplift or epiphany, which are disorienting breaks from status quo. Yet most people, oddly, aren't receptive to surprise during hard times, though you'd think they'd appreciate being lifted from their mire. So it's a tricky gambit. It's much safer to cluck your tongue and lazily reinforce their assessment that Life Sure Sucks.

But this time it worked.


If someone were a few notches better than me at this (for me it only works with people who know to assume I'm always trying to be helpful and who recognize that my surprises often deliver a useful jolt), they could be the Messiah.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Great French TV Series

I haven't offered any TV round-ups in a while (here are previous ones in reverse chronological order).

I just finished "The Bureau" (French title "Le Bureau des Légendes"). It was a high-difficulty binge, but well worth it. It's a terrific espionage drama, highly realistic/naturalistic, all about Process. It's quite subtle and methodical and plenty tense despite a measured pace and lack of special effects. Despite a modest budget, you get soaringly evocative glimpses of different cultures and landscapes. This is how you squeeze every last nickel out of your budget!

It's also authentic. I follow a few intelligence service veterans on Twitter (John Sipher is a particularly erudite rascal...don't just view his tweets, you've got to check out his replies), and they agree that this program shows the real deal. If you wished "Homeland" made way more sense and wasn't so hammy/pandering, "The Bureau" is your jam. It gets one of the highest IMDB ratings of any series out there.

I call it "high-difficulty" because the only way to view it is to sign up for Sundance Channel (if you already have that one in your cable package, this might be available to you for free on-demand), e.g. via Amazon or Apple, for about $7/month, then play the shows over your Roku or Apple TV or Fire or whatever. And, when you do, there's no online support. No recaps or discussion. I resorted to auto-translating the French episode-by-episode discussion here. It wasn't great, but it was something. There's also a sleepy Reddit group, and the episode summaries at Wikipedia. And that's about it. You're on your own. Good luck.

One note: The final two episodes of the 50 episode run were handed off to a different writer/director who completely shakes up texture and pacing, turning it into a whole different show. The fans were horrified, but it was just beautiful. The program as an espionage piece ends in the third-from-last episode. The last two are strictly coda - the downshifting to normality for adrenalin-loaded deep-cover spies - produced with heart-breaking and fully cinematic beauty. View them as a languid, impressionistic tapping of brakes and playing out of well-telegraphed inevitable karma. Fantastic.

Up next for me: Borgen, the famous Danish political drama, which just came to Netflix. I'm told not to expect it to always make perfect sense.

After doing some serious asking around, it looks like the two runners-up to "The Bureau" as best French TV series are "Un Village Francais" and "Spiral", both available free on Amazon Prime. Also, I remain an enormous fan of "The Young Pope" (which morphed into "The New Pope"), a kinda-sorta French production (though in Italian) available on HBO/HBOMAX. It's not for everyone, but it absolutely slayed me - every moment of every episode. All-time classic.

And, back to American TV, "Succession", which I've raved over before here, only gets better in rewatching. I haven't viewed any episodes more than three times, but there are people online who swear that the fourth time's exquisite. If you view nothing else, make it "Succession" (on HBO).

Here's a terrific round-up of great recent international tv series from the NY Times.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Deeper Understanding via Deafness

I've got a bad case of "musician's ears", my self-flattering term for "deafness" (I explained how it came to this here).

I don't always wear my hearing aids (they play poorly with the stretchy ear loops in face masks). And my hearing loss is, alas, right at human vocal range. So it's hard to understand speech, especially from a distance or in a noisy room.

But there's a lot to be learned from despecification - forcing attention from the specifics to the overarching contour. Attention determines perspective (aka “framing”), and deficiency is only deficient from a close-up framing

For example, I learned a lot one night from listening to political speeches without paying attention to the actual words (not from deafness, but just exasperation with the posturing cliché of it all). As I wrote here:
I'm watching the DNC, and every politician is giving The Speech.

Not a speech. It's always the same speech. The same cadences. The same tone. The same pacing. You don't need to speak English to get the full idea. Even with the sound turned off, you know The Speech. I don't know why I'm watching this. I know every single thing before it happens.
In that same piece, I went on to expand the observation into an all-encompassing credo for human perspective and creativity. All that from ignoring the words! Filtering out the trees is a terrific trick for seeing the forest! 

As a kid, I delighted in fleeting moments of forgetting, say, what I'd had for dinner the night before, or which movie I'd watched, or who I'd spent time with. Rather than strain to remember the details, I'd comfortably relax into the vacuum and use the opportunity to gauge my actual raw feelings toward the forgotten. Often I'd be surprised. I thought I was ambivalent toward a person or thing, but remembering the residual flavor of the pure experience, divorced from mental associations and backstories, sometimes I found that my genuine feelings were not what I'd thought. I came to value moments of forgetting, and still do. It offers a valuable fresh perspective; a new framing. 

So now, in my Helen Keller-ish deafness, rather than feel alarmed about how everyone murmurs incomprehensibly, I eagerly accept the fresh perspective: the opportunity to detach content from speech. Frankly, most people are not offering sterling, galvanizing verbal content, anyway. They're spraying memes, clichés and platitudes. As anyone who's socialized without speaking the language quickly comes to learn, the specifics are mostly just yadda-yadda. Every politician gives the same speech, and your cousin Vinnie is no less predictable. 

Snark stands in for humor, canned soothing fluff stands in for empathy, and most people are mostly just talking to themselves most of the time, convincing themselves (“It’s all good!!”)  they're a certain sort of person - an identity/personality type they originally copied from movies or TV and/or from their social circles. As I recently wrote:  
[People] eagerly make themselves clones of a certain type of person (have you never noticed there are only a few dozen models of people?).
It's especially easy to note all this when you're despecified by being too deaf to understand. It proves something you'd long suspected: everyone's mostly just doing canned movie/tv dialog, to suit the dramatic scene they’re watching themselves play in their head. How often do people go off-script? Is this really a world of freshness and creativity? No, if speech warranted attention, we’d all be motivated to listen more. We’ve evolved into a society of shoddy listeners because there’s not much to hear. 

[Related: I once explained how courtesy and politeness refer to a staunch commitment to keep up the dull patter without startling anyone via off-script improvised surprises.]


Weaving all these strands together, yesterday I sat in my car while a young woman wandered toward me, chatting on her phone. She wound up 15 feet from me, and stayed there for a while. Unable to make out the words, I heard it as music, and, spontaneously and very quietly - under my mask - began to join in. I got better and better at it. It was easy, because no actual words were involved. It was all score with no libretto. After ten minutes of singing along, I was fully synchronized. It was such an exhilerating experience that I recorded a sample into my phone:



I know; I know. It sounds like I'm mocking her. But that's not it. This is quite faithfully what I, with my shitty ears, hear. I'm not caricaturing at all. I feel like I've distilled her, captured the overarching music of her self-portrayal in the world. These are the aural gestures she deliberately projects. The words scarcely matter (I couldn't imagine being surprised by a word she ever spoke). Gleaning her soul without understanding a word makes me feel less deficient in my deafness...plus, it explains some things about the world.

This is entirely her choice. This is what she's going for. If she didn't want to sound this way, she wouldn't. There is no instinct here; it's a matter of identity preference. Remember "vocal fry", the lightly-raspy speech affected by a certain stratum of urban female in the 00s? Nobody does it anymore. It's passé. And this is one of its successors; a variety of what more serious-minded women call "babytalk".

Admit it: you know this woman! Most likely several of them! If you can rise above the oddness of my endeavor, you'll have to agree it gave you a sense of deja vu. This illuminates my recent postings on "seeming" vs "being". Seemers can be encapsulated in this way. Doers cannot. The overarching contour of a creative person's speech reveals little of value about the person. Seemers, by contrast, aim to be easily encapsulated. 


This ties into my explanation of autism. Autistic people (extra "doing" oriented, with no facility for - or comprehension of - "seeming") are unable to parse posing, aka "seeming". To them, wordless murmuring may sound superficially familiar, but the personality type being conveyed  - and which I've keyed in on - would not register. The projection of evocative personality wallpaper - a shortcut to telegraphing the "sort of person I am" doesn't land for an autistic person, who considers the literal words. This is  frustrating for non-autisic people, who are given the creepy impression that their special uniqueness (i.e. their cloned personality type) isn't landing. It's not working. The fault must be with the autistic person, who clearly isn’t empathic.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Check and Checkmate: Why Many Anti-MAGAs Need Four More Years

Progressives continue to carp about Biden (some conservative never-Trumpers are doing the same, but we'll get to that later). Given a choice between a cookie and a knot of rusty razor wire coated with anthrax, they bitch about the cookie. It's not their favorite cookie.

I figured it out a few months ago, when some on the Left were bellowing about how Biden would be as bad as Trump. Given that those same people had been pulling their hair out over Trump, it dawned on me that this is their baseline. Outrage doesn't mean the same thing to them as it does to me, as someone who doesn't enjoy that sort of thing. I put it like this:
After screaming bloody murder about Trump for three years (and appropriately so), how could the radical left imagine for even a second committing even a nuance of a whisper of an action that might harm Biden's chances of removing him?

Of course, many have done far more than that. They've noisily sworn not to vote for him, turning Twitter into a Taoist wet dream where crazy right and the crazy left find common cause in deluded cray-cray.

How can people who hate Trump so demonstratively - who prayed for Mueller, and then for Impeachment - work against the only shot at finally unseating him? I know Republicans, who viscerally oppose Biden's entire agenda, but who support him with relish. That seems a lot more to get past than "he's not my most favorite possible candidate."

I think I've got it.

Yes, they've been screaming bloody murder about Trump. But “screaming bloody murder” is their resting state.

Me? I'm not normally a screamer. So when I scream bloody murder about Trump, it's because I find him an existential threat to the republic and the world. My screaming is not just pro forma. But to radicals, Trump represents just one of innumerable furies. And they're highly adept at loathing multiple things simultaneously. Trump, Biden, and, while we're at it, this Jim Leff guy who's mocking us. Throw them all on the pile. The more the merrier.

I think I've found a way to empathize with the mindset. I often condemn the food at Olive Garden, but if one opened near me I wouldn’t protest, nor would I pressure town government to block their permit. After all, I bitch about loads of bad food…which I deem inevitable. In the end, the bitching doesn’t mean anything. I bitch just to bitch. It’s just my reflexive take on Shit World.
Discontent is their brand. They haven’t see Trump as a uniquely existential threat to democracy, like I do. They were yelling because NOT GOOD

Mental experiment. Say you try feeding sawdust to a hungry baby. Baby screams and knocks spoon from your hand, right? Then you offer strong French cheese. Baby screams and knocks spoon from your hand again, obviously. You might peer at the baby in consternation for being so foolish as to equate expensive cheese, which is edible and delicious, with sawdust, which is not. But is there not a certain baby logic to a baby wanting what it wants?

You and I may be exhausted and demoralized over Trump and ready to move to Tristan da Cunha (world's most remote inhabited island), but that's because we're unaccustomed to colicky pique. But some of us are like elite athletes, able to rise to every occasion with maximal bombast. They're like Energizer Bunnies who never wind down. After four years of screaming TRUMP NOT GOOD, they are perfectly prepared to scream BIDEN NOT GOOD right through to November. In fact, we seem loopy for having a problem with that. We look like pushovers and appeasers. Why would we settle for anything but the yummiest banana pudding?

It's not just the Left. Here's a conservative never-Trumper boggling the minds of friends and allies engaged in rescuing the nation from an authoritarian, corrosive, corrupt, bungling threat:
Only one conclusion can be drawn: Many people, on both sides, who profess to be mortally stricken by Trump simply haven't had enough Trump yet.

They need four more years, hundreds of thousands more deaths, more norms and institutions eviscerated, more chaos and division and lying and stupidity, and further brutal cooption of law enforcement, the justice department, and intelligence services. They still don't quite see the end game. It's not quite fully in focus yet. "Check" is not sufficient. They must hear "checkmate".

I once noted that most people don't actually do anything. We're now stress-testing that theory by gauging just how bad things must be to propel people into the extreme measure of strolling into a polling place and checking a box...even if they haven't been fully galvanized by creamy waves of optimally-tuned confirmation bias from a perfect candidate running an optimal campaign...and even if the opponent is an addled beast. We're seeing what it takes for rich-world people to willingly accept nutrition even when it's not the banana pudding they had their hearts set on.

It has to get worse than this, it appears. But at least we're learning. Extreme circumstance illuminates certain truths. Dr. Mengele compiled data that would have forever eluded normal researchers. If we're going to undergo obscene experiments, let's at least try to learn a thing or two.


The following should probably be filed as a "Postcard From My Childhood" (messages sent forward from my childhood to my elder self which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget; here they are in reverse chronological order), but here goes. I noticed this at age eight, and it applies to the many Americans who require something more persuasive than mere excruciation to achieve focus, perspective, and propulsion:
You shouldn't have to bash your nose bloody against every single dead end to solve a maze.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Barometer

The smarter you feel, the dumber you are. The dumber you feel, the smarter you are. It’s a barometer. This is why arrogance is like wearing a big red MAGA cap. You're brashly announcing your stupidity.


Further Reading
Being Smart vs Feeling Smart
Arrogance is Elective
Confidence vs Arrogance

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Perfect Being/Seeming Dichotomy

Following up on "YA Posting on Being and Seeming"...


Nowhere is the difference between "being" and "seeming" better delineated than on a film set. Even in Hollywood, humanity's great temple of Seeming, the grim sunken-cheeked dude who looks like he takes out the garbage is the one actually getting the movie made, while Ms. Radiant, in velvet and diamonds, is merely the help.

Ron Howard is exhausted, put-upon and unaffected. He doesn't care what you or I think because he's immersed in the doing, with no time/energy/interest leftover to attend to seeming like anything in particular. You can't tell much from looking at him. He's not projecting an image; he's doing. And most people don't do much at all.

Next to him, Audrey Hepburn demonstrates her "seeming" skills. It's all projection. That, right there, is pretty much what she's got. You're not seeing a gateway to some deeper world of sophistication. It's all about the surface, a projection of image.

Really focus on those photos for a moment, resisting your innate captivation/revulsion. You can learn a great deal about the world and yourself from really puzzling this out.


Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Q-Anon

Whenever I briefly remove my mask in public for food or drink, I take the opportunity to bellow Q-Anon slogans, just to dip my toe.

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