Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Should You Go to Cooking School?

Every once in a while, someone asks me if I'd advise them to go to culinary school. I'm obviously not a chef (though I'm a good cook), but I can offer a helpful answer because culinary school is exactly like music school, so I know what's what. I'll post this here so I can point to it for future reference.

First and foremost: understand the economic proposition: Pay us $$$$$ and we'll turn even the whiniest, most rudderless and talentless kid into a competent entry-level pro. These schools aren't about giving talented students the extra boost and inspiration to bloom into greatness. There's very little greatness in such places. Hang around a culinary school, and you'll eat some decent, fair, and lousy food, but nothing fantastic. And nary a note in a conservatory is going to move anyone. That's not what they're aiming for. It's about turning every mopey slob into an uninspired pro who can get the job done. It's an economic instrument, not a creative one. It's frickin' trade school.

In fact, if you enter with talent and momentum, the institution will do everything possible to snuff all that. The craggy, emotional, opinionated, unique creative qualities that make your pasta so wonderful will only get in the way of the process, which is not to foster your uniqueness but to make the most miserable slob competent. When you're in the business of elevating slobs to competency, you've got no choice but to crush the inspired. Welcome to the slob-molding machine!

You may already make superb lasagna. That's irrelevant. You're there to learn to make conventional, uninspiring lasagna, because that's the syllabus. Your quirky brainstorms will amuse and delight no one. You're being trained to throw down boring, unexciting, conventional lasagna, because the mission is teach you to throw down boring, unexciting, conventional everything, because that's what chef robots do, and the school turns out chef robots. Your preexisting notions, your personal touch, your creativity are like sand in this soufflé. You must be leveled and conformed into a standardized, predictable product. Because if it was about delicate creativity and fickle inspiration, only a few students, touched by the Muse, would graduate ready to roll, and the families of all those other students would be demanding their money back. This is vocational school, not an arty Shangri-La.

School administrators would point out that training for any trade involves learning the standard ways first, and then, once you've mastered it all, you are free to apply your creativity, your touch, your spark. Sure, they produce standardized cook-robots, but they're robots with skills and knowledge, free to go off and pursue their dreams.

Bullshit. Submitting to a standardized, institutional training process for years is dream-killing and soul-snuffing. Truly creative talented people cannot possibly emerge with spark fully intact.

Deliciousness and competence are very different things. In any given moment, mountains of competent food are being cooked - much of it by culinary school grads - that you or I would never want to eat. That drab hotel breakfast buffet is competent. That mediocre fund-raiser chicken dinner is competent. The expensive "gourmet" catering store where everything's precious but nothing has a lick of flavor? Competent! All the grim non-deliciousness out there, comprising 98% of food service, is prepared by competent robo-chefs who literally can't remember what deliciousness is. They believe they're nailing it, because they're doing the moves they were taught, and they're doing it all correctly.

All these hacky, uninspired chefs cook drab, spiritually neutral food that is, from a technical perspective, right on the money. It's hard to stock that breakfast buffet with ninety zillion individual items! It requires the logistical and execution skills of a small army, and the chefs can be rightfully proud of pulling it off day after day. But they may never register the fact that no customer has ever clenched eyes shut, pounded table with fist, and hollered "Holy CRAP that's great!". Such an outcome is not even on their radar.

Only the kookiest plumber would try to leave customers' pipes delightful, rather than merely functional. Same for the second horn player in your regional symphony or the bassist on some pop recording. There's skill and pride, and the tasks may be challenging. But the mission is to 1. not fuck up, and 2. serve competently as a widget in some machine. Nothing wrong with that, but you absolutely must understand what you're working towards! Never climb a ladder without a clear-eyed notion of where it leads! I made that mistake twice, with both music and writing. Do better!

Just like culinary schools, music schools turn out competent musicians, not inspired ones. And the former is not the larval stage for the latter. Competent musicians do not hatch into grandeur. Greatness is a separate track. Talented people are difficult, spotty, opinionated, and inherently non-uniform. They are a poor fit in institutions. Imagine if Tom Waits had spent four years studying opera and bel canto with some pompous prof at Julliard. Would he have packed anywhere near the same power and emotional intimacy after such sustained trauma? Would he still have been, like, Tom Waits?

If you're genuinely talented or creative, and want to do something genuinely good, you must not submit to the assembly line. It's not for you. It will wring all the character and inspiration out of you, and replace it with mere competence.

But if you're from a disadvantaged background, mildly enjoy working with food, and the notion of working 13 hour days in a hot, angry kitchen for pennies appeals to you, by all means, learn to make humdrum risotto in a consistent and efficient way. Use your diploma to get a job cooking on the banquet staff of some hotel, or peeling turnips for the Ecuadorian top chef in a fine dining restaurant fronted by some name dude who spends his days with image consultants. Just don't imagine that you're on a track to become the dude with the media fluffers. You'll never exceed the commitment and visceral drive of the Ecuadorian hero blocking your way...and even he will never, ever get proper credit (much less stardom), though he's to thank for every drop of quality.

If you want to fit into a pre-existing slot - e.g. play third trumpet with a symphony, or be salad bar manager for a shiny midtown cafe - go to the best school that will have you. But if you want to be a musician capable of playing a note that will make people’s hearts flutter, or a chef who can make customers moan like porn stars, that’s not teachable. To the contrary, any natural proclivity for such result will be wrung out of you.

The very fact that you're even considering culinary school is a bad sign. It shows a lack of ingenuity and drive. It's possible to learn stuff without pricy teacher-servants pushing it all at you. What sort of spoiled, passive person resorts to institutions to learn to do creative stuff? It demonstrates a lack of....creativity!

If you're not creative enough to figure out how to learn cooking technique under your own initiative, then you're not creative enough to cook anything personal, or to make any impact with that cooking. You probably ought to be turned into a robot! It’s the same with music school. If you dutifully shlep into “Swing Feel” class every Wednesday morning, 1. you’re likely never going to really swing, 2. you don’t really love swinging, and 3. you don’t possess the ballsiness to get done any of the things you’re eventually going to need to get done.

The problem is that our education system is so damned linear. Kids are led down a track - via punishment and empty reward - for so many years that they fall into a stupor, failing to recognize that there's no pot of gold at the end. If you remain tenaciously on the educational track after choosing the culinary option, you might, if you're lucky, pop out of the machine making a decent living helping run the juicing operation at some spa for rich ladies in Minneapolis. But this isn't North Korea. You're promised nothing. At some point, you'll be stepping off the long treadmill, and you'd better be ready to ignite some heavy self-propulsion.

If you want to do something real, something good, get eager to kiss the educational track goodbye, and maybe scorch the bejesus out of it with your exit burn, to boot. Go forth and grow and boldly make stuff happen. Shake off the educational/institutional stupor and grow some balls! Concentrate on these four things:

1. Get Good
However good you are now, get way way better, and then, when you're certain you're good enough, get way way better still. And then get better. Finally, realize you absolutely suck and triple it. Don't wait for an authority figure to goad you into improvement. Make it happen as a matter of survival.

2. Actively Acquire Knowledge/Experience
Schools will drill all the necessary skills, to instill versatility. On your own, you'll need to work hard to develop that versatility, but you don't necessarily need it. Tom Waits can't sing Mozart, and that's okay. But don't risk ever being hampered by lack of knowledge, skill, or experience. Read books, ask around, take a class or two here or there. Apprentice somewhere, or befriend someone talented and retired. Be thirsty for knowledge, and pull it toward you, rather than passively waiting for Mama Bird to regurgitate it down your throat. Take charge of your own development! Hustle for it and then practice like crazy (see #1).

3. Scheme
I used to play in a band with a singer who baked pies in her apartment each week, which she sold wholesale to high-end restaurants. She earned good money from this, and made connections. Finally, she opened Magnolia Bakery, and is now a multimillionaire. That all required a self-starting, creative attitude, and nobody at any point asked to see her culinary diploma. She taught herself how to bake, and didn’t stop relentlessly improving until she was so awesome no one could deny it. She had her own touch, and her own ideas, and she made it happen. Eye on the prize!

4. Network
One advantage of a school is the support system you'd develop among fellow students. You can make connections on your own out in the world, but you'll need to hustle. If you're an introvert, learn to pretend you're not. Shyness is not an affordable indulgence. Remember that 90% of all pursuits is politics - unless you just want to keep your head down and peel turnips!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #11

Tuesday, February 20, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 90,100 google search results, down a bit from last week's 101,000.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Saturday, February 17, 2018

What is Tai Chi?

I went to a screening of "The Professor", the Tai Chi film I wrote about here, and there was an appearance by Ed Young, one of the practice's most illustrious teachers. Young said, interestingly, that he used to be able to explain what Tai Chi is, but no longer can (it reminds me of the old line, usually misattributed to Oscar Wilde, that "I am not young enough to know everything").

I've been mulling it over for a couple of days, and came up with something:
Tai chi is the practice of embodying the natural flow one normally pretends not to be a part of.

Weird Fandom Stuff

I once wrote a posting about Fans which described the various types of weirdness that crop up between admirers and the objects of their admiration. I described one such category this way: you talk to them, it becomes eerily clear that they know almost nothing about you - haven't read a word you've written or listened to a note you've sung. They just recognize your name, and that you're well-known in a field they think is cool.

If it seems crazy that such people would consider themselves fans, take mental stock, yourself. Have you actually read every writer, heard every singer, and viewed the work of every filmmaker for whom you have a fond feeling? I'd bet good money that more than one person has approached Ann Coulter to tell her what fans they are, and to encourage her to keep giving hell to those damned conservatives.
People have trouble believing that this really happens. It seems counterintuitive that a "fan" could know nothing about the person's work. But I spotted an example the other day. I was watching the trailer for a film about pop music in the 60s. The narrator mentioned some of the artists appearing, and the list ended with "....and the incredible Ravi Shankar!"

How many music fans know anything about Indian music, and are in any position to judge Shankar's playing? How many are the least bit aware of his place in the Indian classical music hierarchy? How many could name even a single other Indian sitarist?

Answer: virtually zero. But Shankar's incredible, right? Not because we've spent hours listening to him play and our well-attuned ears have placed him above his peers, but because he's, like, Ravi Shankar! You know...Ravi Shankar, man! That dude! With the sitar! From, like, George Harrison or whatever!

If someone asked you for your favorite Indian musician, you'd probably call out his name. Even if you've never heard more than a few minutes of his playing. Even if you don't know what a raga is. Same thing, I'll bet, for the guy who wrote the trailer deeming him "incredible".

I can't tell you how many times times people back in the day would corner me at parties - having been told my background and vaguely recognizing my name - to discuss trendy restaurants, or places where they can "see and be seen," or to ask what Andrew Zimmer's really like. They'd ask me these things with eager expectation, expecting to hear the real deal, because I was, you know, one of those guys!

Friday, February 16, 2018

More on that Facebook Scam

The latest random Facebook "like" of the obscure posting I'd chosen to "boost" was by one Rajesh Thute, who

1. is apparently not in the United States (Facebook had promised to limit its boosting to this country, but he goes to school in Maharashtra), and

2. recently reported that he's "Started New Job at wark at Facebook V.I.P Account [sic]." And I'd guess from his grammar and spelling that he's not doing particularly high level work. Probably stuff like, oh, say, clicking "like" buttons for a few cents a pop.

Facebook's Bullshit Boost Campaigns

I made this fairly nondescript post to the Facebook page for my app, "Eat Everywhere".

As always, Facebook offered to "boost" the posting for $10. Even though it wasn't carefully constructed, and didn't really work as a standalone sales pitch, I figured what the hell. I've wasted $10 on greater frivolity.

What happened was very interesting. FB claimed the posting was seen by 202 people. It was "liked" by 54: one real human being (who co-edited the app) and 53 ciphers. Many appear not to be English speakers, most couldn't pass a social media Turing test, and none seem like they'd have the remotest interest in the app....and certainly not this chatty vague posting. What's more, Facebook said that they'd confine viewing to USA residents. Uh-uh!

Consider our new fan ‎سیدعباس‎. Here's his account. Does he seem like a fully-fleshed out person to you, much less someone who'd remotely be interested in my app? Continuing down the "like" list, how about Tran Muon, who could not possibly be more sketchily etched, or more unlikely to "like" this posting? What about 陽菜?

Go through a few more, like Brian Omes and Donna Ramirez and Crystalon Cryer, and you'll sense a pattern. They all have friends, but those friends' accounts are equally stillborn, random, and weird. The pattern is consistent: six to ten photos, few or no actual postings, and a few dozen friends who appear to be in comically different movies. Not one is somoene I'd expect to like the app, much less a vague posting about that app.

Throughout this supposed "campaign", there were no new hits to the Eat Everywhere web site, nor downloads of our iOS or Android apps.

I'm assuming most people who buy these $10 boosts are quite happy with a few dozen "likes" - the Mardi Gras beads of social media ("Ditzcoin"?). People engaged in actual business wouldn't be, but, then again, they wouldn't dabble in these micropayment dangles. So Facebook recruits a mixture of fake people (i.e. bots) with fake accounts, real people with fake accounts, and real people with real accounts to push "like" buttons, and the "client" gets the handful of Mardi Gras beads they hoped for.

I didn't expect much for my $10. But would it have been so tough for FB to zero in on, say, food lovers, when the app's title is so easily parsable to their algorithms? If not, I guess I understand why they can't simply play straight and show 202 real people. 202 actual people will not yield any tangible result. 202 people would not be offering me these 53 Ditzcoins. I mean, one could offer a bona fide update from Jesus Christ himself to 202 random people without drawing more than a single "like" or two....if even that.

But I don't understand how the hell they get away with this. It's so incredibly flagrant!

See followup here

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

SIGA Back From the Dead

I sold off most of my shares of SIGA years ago. The company produced a cure - not a vaccine - for all pox viruses, including weaponized varieties. There are no side effects and the government has already begun stockpiling it. But the history has been almost unbelievably star-crossed, with lawsuits and political shenanigans and reputation sabotage. I bought in at $3 and saw it shoot to $15 before it settled in for a multi-year slumber in the $1s and $2s.

I learned, expensively, that great science and a desperately-needed product with no real competition doesn't necessarily translate to stock market jackpot. Here is my first posting (of many), from June, 2008.

I did hold onto some shares as a long shot. If any of you bought along with me, and held on, congrats: the price touched $5.75 today. A new contract solicitation from the government has been created and will soon be posted, and it looks like there will finally be FDA approval this year (which might unlock foreign sales). They have also finally clawed their way back to the threshold for NASDAQ re-listing. That's a confluence of three pretty happy prospects, and while I'm way too bitter to pronounce the outlook "rosy", the worst appears to be over.

The one advantage we regular people have over super-fast, super-tapped-in, computer-enhanced traders is that we can wait years and years. We don't need to be constantly hitting home runs to sweeten our balance sheets. And, who knows, this long wait may pay off sooner rather than later.

Monday, February 12, 2018

"Cornered Rat" Report #10

Monday, February 12, 2018: The phrase "cornered rat" finds 101,000 google search results, a small increase over last week's 92,800.

All "Cornered Rat" postings in reverse chronological order

Pinball Nirvana: FunHouse

There's this place in Greenpoint Brooklyn called Sunshine Laundromat ("Air conditioned and free WiFi for your cleansing pleasure"). After you walk past the rows of washers and driers, if you push in on the drier wall at the back of the store, you'll enter an inner sanctum with cool bar (great beer!) and lots of classic pinball on beautifully-maintained machines. It's amazing.

The best machine of all is out front, however, in the laundromat. I'd never before heard of FunHouse, a loopy Williams machine from the 1990's featuring a heckling animatronic head named Rudy, but I fell instantly in love. It was designed by Pat Lawlor, who also did the famed and wonderful Adams Family machine (which can be played in the inner sanctum).

Here's a personal YouTube tour of FunHouse, part of the landmark “My Pinball Collection” series:

Read comments/reviews on the game from pinball nerds, and check out this inside info about how they put insane work into having Rudy assign each player a nickname, so he could heckle every one personally.

If you can't get to Greenpoint (and can't find a FunHouse at your local pinball parlor - most towns these days have one, by the way), you can play a terrific simulation of this and lots of other great pinball machines - including Adams Family - on all mobile computers and gaming systems courtesy of the Pinball arcade app. If you figure emulated pinball's got to be lame, you're wrong. They've nailed the physics and gameplay experience. It's a marvel.

FunHouse is great pinball, but the music is what puts it over the top. It was composed by a guy named Chris Granner. Below you can hear the score, but a lot of the brilliance is in how music interacts with gameplay. I’ve never seen/heard anything like it.

Courtesy of Granner's web site:

Funhouse soundtrack #1
Funhouse soundtrack #2
Funhouse soundtrack #3
Funhouse soundtrack #4
Funhouse soundtrack #5

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Green M&M Fallacy

Chowhound opened in July, 1997, and by that fall, it was described as having gone irredeemably downhill by several of our regulars. As the community had grown to 150 or so users, more and more stupid postings by stupid people had appeared, and I was told that they were ruining everything.

The same complaint was heard throughout our eight subsequent years of steep growth. And it completely mystified me, because the smart/stupid ratio hadn't budged. Sure, there were more stupid postings, overall, but we were enjoying a profusion of terrific reports from myriad expert food scouts uncovering massive deliciousness everywhere. How was this ruination?

At some point I had an epiphany, and understood what was going on. I dubbed it the Green M&M Fallacy.

If you hate green M&Ms, you'll prefer a small bowl to a large one, because more M&Ms means more of those nasty greens. Even if you greatly enjoy all the other M&M colors, and would presumably want tons of them, green hatred sharply overrides M&M love as quantities increase. Even if the ratio remains the same. In fact, even if the ratio improves. Mo M&Ms mo problems!

This is a natural consequence of scaling. For example, it explains why rural people are often scornful toward urban life. If you're from a small town in Kansas, and spend an afternoon sightseeing around Manhattan, you'll encounter a dozen openly rude people, two or three doors will not be held open for you, and there'll be instances of drunkenness, foul language, and people saying unkind things to one other. That's more bad behavior and nastiness than you'd see an an entire year back home, so it's understandable that this might be seen as a hellscape. The 6,000 other people you passed, who are quietly thoughtful and kind-hearted, don't register. (Nor does the fact that those 6,000 have made a deliberate decision to be virtuous, party to none of the pressures on small town inhabitants to behave civilly.)

This same fallacy is seen in single-issue politics. That's when a certain contingent - gun owners, pro-choice activists, etc. - are so absorbed by their issue that they support and vote for candidates strictly on that basis. If gay rights is your thing, to the exclusion of other societal concerns, you might have deemed Barack Obama a brutally repressive president for having supported gay marriage only late in his second term, somewhat behind the fast-changing national sentiment. There were political reasons for his delay, but, viewed from single issue tunnel vision, there is no acceptable excuse. At a national scale, the fallout from any delay, any half-measure, is multiplied by many millions. Whenever a president pauses to sip from his coffee mug, he might be wrecking a life or two. But, of course, it's fallacious to look at it this way. You've got to consider the whole.

The Green M&M Fallacy isn't always a fallacy. None of us would eat nine carrots in a single serving, but if you drink carrot juice, that's exactly what you're doing. So even if your carrots contain safe amounts of pesticide on a normal per-portion basis, carrot juice, over time, can be downright dangerous (when juicing or nut buttering, always pay up for organic!). You're not just aggregating vitamins, you're also aggregating the bad stuff. Scaling creates absolute problems above and beyond proportionality.

I've never seen another writer point out Green M&M Fallacy....until today. In his beautifully written New Yorker essay on paper jams(!), Joshua Rothman describes this bane of all offices as

"...a quintessential modern problem — a trivial consequence of an otherwise efficient technology that’s been made monumentally annoying by the scale on which that technology has been adopted."

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