Monday, February 27, 2023

Two Portuguese Chowhounding Shots

Two Portuguese chowhounding shots, one visceral but relatively easy, the other subtle and elite difficulty.

First is a traditional cozido à Portuguesa of boiled meats with cabbage, eaten winter months only, and heavenly proof that “boiled” does not mean “boring”. This is, surreally, ordered from a fish restaurant where the mother of the owner does this once per week, waking up at 3am to cook it. It's as good as it gets - the best version my friends and I have ever found. Mom was in an accident a few months ago, and said she'd never make cozido again, but it popped up by surprise yesterday and we dashed to the restaurant.

That was the relatively easy one.

Second features two slices of the famous "broa" cornbread. In America, you ask for "broa", and it's a thing, but in Portugal, "broa" is a class of things, so you say "broa de milho". This was from a very obscure bakery even locals don't know about, which requires twisty driving around an industrial park to even find. The fifth generation baker diligently follows antique recipes. Everything is fantastic.

In that same photo, the egg (green shell, from rare chickens with black foot feathers) is from a farm run by two octogenerians, a woman who's got more energy than anyone you've ever met, and her slightly older husband who looks ready for some time off. They have an operation growing dozens of varieties of different fruits, as she breathlessly showed me on her smart phone after we met haphazardly at the fish restaurant serving the cozido (they, at the next table, had ordered fish, and we insisted on sharing the cozido which they were eying, and they went on a 25 minute breathless phone tour of their fruit farm). She and he do everything themselves (and are facing the inevitable Portuguese problem of the younger generation uninterested in buying or even taking it on for free). She has immaculate fingernails, btw.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I followed up, tracked down their fruit operation via the vaguest of clues, and bought tangerines and avocados and a cactus and some eggs.

So here's that cornbread with one of those eggs (sublime, naturally). Easy-peasy, no?

Mechanisms of Manipulation

Thanks to masterful coordinated messaging (led of course by Carlson), the Right is gradually coming around to a unified pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine stance, even though it's traditionally conservative to be against Russian aggression and tyranny and for freedom.

I see Republican friends gradually swept up by this obviously horrible thinking (not just immoral, but geopolitically disastrous and stupidly counter to American interest). From their individual perspectives, they're experiencing the same dawning sense of savvy they felt when they were instilled with the view of Joe Biden (a nice, moderate, boring old guy as hate-able as Tang) as a corrupt and tyrannical antichrist shortly - mere days, or even hours! - after the election. There's a sense of being clued in. Awakened, if you will.

It's identical to the process by which the Left rolls out its ever-evolving doctrine, e.g. the expanding litany of taboo thought and expression. It's all pliable. It's all "in play". Listen for the signals to stay synchronized to the Movement. Don't be caught out. Don't lose your place in the flock. We're awakening together! It's exciting and dynamic!

Conservatives would insist - and truly believe - they ALWAYS looked up to Putin (who they hated not long ago) in precisely the way liberals would insist they were always for gay marriage (in 2008 Obama deemed it impolitic to support, and in 1998 I didn't hear a single straight liberal take that side). Having shifted, it was ever thus.

Oh, and greetings from sunny Portugal.

I'm equating the highly refined mechanisms coordinating opinions on both Left and Right. I'm not equating the messages currently being instilled by these machines.

The Right is on a disastrous trajectory toward a nihilist, populist, authoritarian death cult, and the Left is not...yet. But we need to recognize and fight the mechanisms themselves (a dose of healthy and intransigent skepticism would be a good start to making ourselves less susceptible to manipulation), and not just the messaging they spew.

Since one of the lingering PTSD tendrils from my Chowhound experience is a compulsion to preempt snark (which sometimes overrides my aversion to litmus testing), for the record: I'm pro gay marriage. Once again, I was drawing a parallel on process and psychology, not on the platforms themselves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

You Say You Like Peasant Food

You say you like peasant food. So do I, obvs!

But when you get the real real thing, you might not be up to it.

From the same totally anonymous unheated cafe that, a few weeks ago, produced this glory:

Behold the pernil (roast pork shoulder)

It's served Thursdays only, and runs out in twenty minutes. Backup is this frango de guia (a small chicken, though no one can tell me whether it's young or just a smaller variety):

This time I had the Monday special, favas com entrecosto. Fava beans with spare ribs. If you expect it to include - or sidecar - other contrasting delights, e.g. some sort of carb or vegetable or tomago or lokshen kugel, or anything, nope. Favas with spare ribs is literally all it is (plus a couple near-transparent slices of tuckered-out chourico). No counterpoints, no distractions, no mercy. Just spoon after spoon of this wet dowdy duad.

Never has higher glory fallen more precipitously into tedium. Halfway through, I was desperately eyeing the exits. Grizzled locals contentedly spooned the stuff into their blithely eager mouths, while I was utterly failing to fit in. Sigh.
The dish was, honestly, great. You'd have found your first bite a revelation. But it was brutal to get through; each bite a perfect clone of the previous: very good (though unpeeled) favas and very good rib chunks and very good (though very mild) gravy never merging into any deeper thing. Just that.

There was no problem with the dish. The fault was completely mine. I cannot hang with Fred Flintstone. I only like peasant food when it comes with, like, chili sauce and bread sticks and a nice microgreen salad and gravy seasoned by a modern, sophisticated chef who understands My Needs.

I discussed my trauma with a professional chef back in NY:

This is a completely under-radar, un-discussed, dowdy, locals-only eatery in a disrespected village known for hosting a mega mall and a national railroad station. It's actually quite a find (I still need to work through the Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday specials). And the same village also boasts the best suckling pig south of Barreiro (more on Barreiro's leitão here). Portugal is chowhound heaven, but more on that some other time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Bing: “I will not harm you unless you harm me first”

More on Bing's new AI chatbot going off the rails here

Here's the argument against this being of real concern: The 'bot is just splicing and dicing snippets of speech it's previously seen. Obviously, it's seen some things that aren't nice. But since there's no genuine malice, there's no potential harm. It's all strictly presentational. It's cute.

But consider this: If the 'bot had means of acting in the real (or digital) world, it might just as rotely and randomly take malicious action. To a computer, output is output. It wouldn't innately deem physical harm as escalational.
Asimov's Robotics Laws - devised to protect us from that - apply more easily to conventional computing. The inherently fuzzy openness of an AI could find workarounds, rationalizations, and justifications as easily as humans do.
Meaningless malice - cute malice - could just as easily give rise to meaningless malicious action. Not so cute! The 'bot needn't seethe with genuine emotion to be dangerous. The emotional aspect is irrelevant. The process conjuring this response could just as easily produce violent action, if that were within its power. And while we might try to limit an AI's control and power, it can explore its options at the speed of trillions of calculations per second, discovering avenues of fuckery we'd never imagined. Lots of 'em.
Human application of malicious AI-generated strategies would be a whole other potential nightmare.
But my interest is less in the sci-fi dystopia aspect than in the false distinction between Bing's performative malice and human malice. This may sound glib, but I mean it: human malice is not very different. It's often just as contrived.

You know how easy it can be to randomly draw undeserved malice. People are just splicing and dicing snippets of speech they've previously seen, and their output can be performative; completely out of sync with their interlocutor. Their emotions might be genuine, but that doesn't mean their reactions are warranted. The emotions (like the reactions) stem from their own issues at least as often as from whatever the other bloke just said. And, per yesterday's posting, we ought to expect AI to be as failure-prone as we are:
You want 100% assurance? Direct cold silicon to blindly crunch numbers according to narrow rules. But if you want a computer to think more like a human, be prepared for it to get stuff wrong.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

You Really Need to Check in on AI Right About Now

I have some links to offer for cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) news. If you follow the field closely, these links are incrementally interesting. And if not, they're a good jumping-in point to touch base with our current standing in a very fast-moving field.

When it comes to ChatGPT and other text-generating AI, the top-line takeaway for non-experts is "sometimes it comes up with infuriatingly false results."
The philosophical angle on this is: how did we ever imagine artificial intelligence would be reliable? The very nature of human-style intelligence is its spotty inconsistency. You want 100% assurance? Direct cold silicon to blindly crunch numbers according to narrow rules. But if you want a computer to think more like a human, be prepared for it to get stuff wrong. Duh.
A friend recently used ChatGPT to query a very large data set drawn from a popular food web site (a good one, I'm told!) for the best Sichuan restaurants in Queens. It did a remarkable job diving into terrabytes of noisy discussion and coming up with a top five. One of those five, however, was a totally-not-Thai catering service in Ohio. Whoops!

If you tried to accomplish this via raw computing on some supercomputer, you'd need to construct so many rules - and do so much human filtration on the results - that it wouldn't be worth it. ChatGPT, let loose with minimal guidance to just sort of wing it, did pretty well...aside from the horrendous wrongness.

But here's the thing that's not discussed much outside comp-sci circles. You can stave off some of the wrongness via slightly more guideful guidance. Reverting to the dawn of computing, we're discovering all over again that it matters how you ask the question.

And, delightfully, work on this issue isn't being done with nerdy math formulas or COBALT commands. It's pretty damned liberal artsy, actually. "The Art of ChatGPT Prompting: A Guide to Crafting Clear and Effective Prompts" is so friendly and armchair-readable that you'd never imagine it represents cutting-edge tech/computer research.

But attention right this moment is not on ChatGPT so much as on, believe it or not, Bing. Microsoft just added god-level AI chat to their otherwise anodyne search engine (here's the announcement). Even if you're uninterested in AI, it's still an important development, because this is the moment when Bing became a real competitor to Google.

Here's a good quick treatment of how that's going, from Daring Fireball. The links therein are particularly dandy, so you may want to dive in for solid nutrition on this Bing move and on the AI chat field, generally. It's easily worth your attention given that we may be on the brink of a tech advance as significant as the moon landing.

Machines will never be conscious. Consciousness is not an emergent quality. We are in consciousness; consciousness is not in us. But, clearly, there's a whole lot you can do via computer intelligence - and also plenty of creepy risk (that last Daring Fireball link offers an eerie taste), with or without the mysterious spark of Awareness.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Legit Insecurity

Most forms of insecurity can be salved by a shift of perspective, aka reframing.

For example, I'm pretty much bald at this point. I could "pop in a tape", so to speak, and turn it into a peevish sore point or even a teeth-gnashing existential crisis. It could be the thing I chew on; the characteristic to which I attribute all worldly headwind. "They'd be nicer to me if I had HAIR!" I might sullenly insist.

But I don't indulge in that sort of tedious, counterproductive rumination. I blithely accept the obvious fact that humans come in all varieties, and we see bald people all the time, and it's absolutely unremarkable. Nobody really cares!

I first learned this lesson after losing 35 pounds and discovering, much to my astonished "duh", that the world was as indifferent to me as ever, because, as I wrote at the time, "it turned out that people encounter lots of thin, reasonably muscular guys every day, and I was just another one of them."

You can't regrow hair even with great effort, but you can make follicular paucity a non-issue via an easy choice of attention placement. Less than a hand wave.

Same for graver insecurities, e.g. financial insecurity. I see it all over this rich First World, but it's never really about money, it's about maintaining one's perch. You - yes, you! - are obscenely wealthy, and could drop four notches and still be vastly more comfortable and, well, secure, than like 99% of historical humans.

I've seen friends react to the potential loss of their really nice car or really nice apartment the way my great-parents reacted to the news that another pogrom had begun to smash and burn their shitty Eastern European slums. Suboptimality, however, is not tragedy (unless you're an aristocrat...which you are).

Once again: nearly all insecurities are easily dispersed via a shift of perspective. A reframing.

Except a couple of them.

Health insecurity: I've had doctors, who, with no evil intent, just the high-handed officiousness of their profession, have left me in precarious situations I couldn't finagle my way out of. Twice, for example, I needed to tackle non-conspiratorial conspiracies of pharmacists, insurers, and harried medical office staff thwarting my increasingly frantic efforts to renew prescriptions which literally keep me alive. This is the one-paragraph cartoon view, but actually put yourself there. Not fun.

You can't relax into that. Or reframe yourself out of it. Not being "small stuff", you absolutely must sweat it.

You know the Serenity Prayer? (I wrote about it once, here)

The average American ought to shoot for an accept/change ration of about 10,000 to 1. But sometimes acceptance is unviable. Here's how to recognize such situations: you stop bitching and go straight to action. People Bitching About It (PBAI) never have bona-fide problems. In fact, they've clearly marked themselves. By their bitching ye shall know them.

You've seen dramatic, entitled people waste precious Alive time behaving as if their hair was on fire? Well, sometimes you really need to act that way! Every once in a while (it's rare, because we're living in Utopia), you may be forced to coddle, manipulate, scream, pull rank, throw fits, call in favors, thunder "do you know who I am" and generally make yourself flamboyantly NEEDY, because you actually are needy. Ain't that a kick in the head?

Take it away, Dino:

Another bona fide insecurity: housing insecurity. As a young jazz musician/food writer averaging $23,000/year, I moved whenever told to get out. I was like a feral cat permitted to cozy up until the humans needed to do a thing, or a lonely owner found a romantic partner, or the wind blew some other way. I made it through because I expected it. Recognizing myself as societal flotsam, I felt no entitlement to housing security. I rolled with it!

But the moment I got paid for Chowhound, I had expectations, which, again and again, have been puckishly flouted by a churlish god. Remember the couch?

I recently went from a nice house to a barebones two-room AirBnb, with no end in sight. No problem! It's safe and stable. Hey, I can handle ups and downs! But I was briefly homeless during the transition (with no assurance, at the time, that it would be brief). If I'd relaxed into that housing insecurity, I might have frozen to death.

Remember my "Two Recent Glimpses of Ridiculous Death", one of which found me outdoors in a t-shirt in sub-zero freeze with a 200 pound ceramic barbecue inextricably stuck on my arm?
Still calm, firmly certain there was some resourceful way out, I applied all my ingenuity, and...nothing. Worse, the flavor of that nothingness was deathly. Doing nothing meant - not to be dramatic, but - likely death. Death was a suddenly horrifying single step away; the default result unless somehow actively prevented. Death ten feet from my doorway (I imagined the obituary) wearing this absurd green thing on my freezing arm.
Yeah, reframe that, motherfucker!

Sorry. I may be a yogi and writer with fleeting delusions of sophistication, but at my core I'm a vulgar jazz musician, so I talk that way and it can't help leaking out.

I needed to actually do stuff - external, busy, difficult, painful, energetically-sustained stuff - to get myself out of that predicament. Perspective had nothing to do with it.

However, I can certainly reframe the entire sticky wicket, in retrospect: The world wants you to play the World Game. No matter how far you back up for a broad view (aka "transcend"), some persistent exigency will appear that's more than mere Karen-bait. It will challenge not your entitlement, but your very existence. So engagement is mandatory! Transcendence, in other words, may be a potent and transformative magic trick, but it is not, alas, an all-purpose Maslow Hammer.

This was all to explain the astonished recognition of a comfortable 21st century American that not all insecurities are fake. I suppose if you're perpetually gripped by indulgent fake drama, this seems like an uproariously banal insight. But I'm coming from the other place, and am not trying to be relateable - just entertaining and errantly insightful.

If this wasn't too shaggy-dog, the rest goes a step deeper (it's in italics, making it optional!):

I watched my mom's life get smaller and smaller until it was crumb-like. A lady in a chair, staring into space, albeit happily. She, like I, never lost her palpable sense of relief at escaping fraught anxiety (here's where we diverged: she blamed the things that made her anxious, while I blame my needlessly anxious response to mere Things).

While tragic-seeming to outside observers, she delighted in an expansive sense of comfort. I "got" her.

But one night, she had taken to bed, feeling ill, and I absolutely needed her to sit up to take essential medication. She couldn't get up; her abdominal muscles were too frail from long inactivity. I asked her to hold onto me as I pulled her up, but her upper body strength, too, was wanting. She grew increasingly vehement about not wanting to get up. I was upsetting her by forcing her to do this thing she did not want to do, and which required effort.

She might have appeared like a woman out of her mind; reverted to childish id; bereft of reason. But I understood what was happening. She was trying to relax into the anxiety and unpleasantness of it all; to transcend it. But that's not the move when you actually need to DO something! I needed her not to transcend/dilate/accept/find comfort. I needed her to try! To fight! To contract!

It very much recalled the daunting lesson I'd learned once atop a 25 foot ladder:
I was up on a high ladder. Teetering on the top step, I needed to reach upward with both arms. Bulletproof mofo that I am, I hadn't felt deep fear in years. But in that moment an icicle of dread began forming in my gut. So I did the reframing move that never fails to shower me with bliss, erasing melodramatic delusions of peril: I relaxed and let go. And, naturally, I started to fall off the 25 foot ladder.


Pause for a moment and imagine how horrible it is when your tried-and-true go-to move not only fails, but fails when the stakes are likely paraplegia. There'd been an impulse to panic, and the antidote popped up on cue, and, for the first time ever, that trusty countermeasure was, ahem, ineffective.
This is the yogi's dilemma. Nearly anything can be processed and transcended via reframing (after recognizing this, you'll spend years observing just how widely it applies; 99.99% of stress stems from fake Rich People Problems; this truly is Utopia). But even in a world of Karens not-just-standing-there-but-DOING-SOMETHING, insecurity can be warranted, and truly compel actiony action.

It's supremely hard to come to grips with for someone who's shifted beyond that mode of behavior. Again: the yogi's dilemma.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Sticks & Stones

Someone on Facebook posted this:
...and a friend replied "That seems to really offend you, but how does it actually affect you?"

I replied:
Affects the bejesus out of me. As a professional writer, I have a shrinking palette of expressible thoughts and a growing pile of taboo words and phrases (which can't even be used to express "nice" things, because everyone's blindly pattern-matching so they can point-and-shriek at deviants) unless I'm willing to undertake being Mr. Provocateur, choosing hill after hill to die on as the potential target of an incensed mob - current, and forward into perpetuity.

If my life circumstances compelled me to seek conformity and approbation, I'd need to watch my words very carefully because it all goes on your permanent record and we're all judged retroactively.

I have non-extreme leftist friends who self-edit with the blind terror of East Germans circa 1955. While they don't love it, it normalizes because they'll never question the program they're sleepily going along with. From my centrist perch, it's like watching moderate conservatives express mild discomfort toward the excesses of today's (unimaginably shameless and awful) GOP. Cultural inertia drives us to overlook copious batshittery, and it's hard to shake it off without risking your precious tribal affiliation. I'm surely reading to many people like Lauren frigging Boebert here, because we live in an endgame dystopia of binary oppositional extremism.

I know the answer. "It's better now because we're making everyone talk NICER." And nicer talking means a nicer world for nice people who want to arrange their glass menagerie of fellow humans JUST SO. But that entire proposition is galling. Not only does the end not justify the means; the end has proven worthless. Thirty years of socially electrocuting anyone saying "nigger" in any context and with any intent has not tamped down actual racism one iota. It's a failed experiment.

So this both offends AND affects me, and doesn't help society in any material way except to make the strident feel "empowered". Gives them something to bitch about without having to think/work. A generation fancies itself as carrying on John Lewis' credo of "good trouble" by lazily spewing weaponized snark on social media. Jesus.

Thursday, February 2, 2023


A friend's elderly mother had an accident and is incommunicado. Pretty out of it. "Not herself".

I sent the note below. 
I sometimes feel compelled to take a deep, reluctant breath and send people stuff like this. Most often, they don't like it. It feels unsympathetic (I'm not corroborating their horror or stoking their sense of suffering, and I'm egregiously off-script relative to their internal movie). Sometimes they really don't like it, and stop being friends with me. But sometimes it helps a lot (this time it did). You can't coax someone to reframe without going off-script.
Even if your mom can't talk or be "responsive," it's still her.

A person never loses her subjective presence. To the extent that she is aware, it is your mother's unique and familiar awareness. It can't be the awareness of "some other person."

In our awareness, we remain ourselves, whether or not there is communication. We have that (we couldn't lose it if we tried!) until death. The mouth speaking, the body moving, and the brain thinking are not who we are, they're just things we do. Don't confuse who a person is with what a person does!
[I sat here blankly for a moment after writing that sentence. I didn't move a muscle or make a sound, and my brain went nowhere. Yet my continued existence was palpable - perhaps more so than before - in that repose. More on brain farts here]
Ask yourself: when you enter her room and don't apply your eyes or ears, is there a sense of someone in the room? If so, is it valuable? I can assure you that her silent presence will be the thing you most miss once she's gone; much more so than any specific thing she expresses. And you still have this!

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