Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Font for Dyslexics

I'm astounded at how few dyslexics know there's a font which makes reading easier for them. I guess that's because learning about such things requires the sort of fluent web surfing so essential to modern life and so difficult for dyslexics.

If you are one or know one, please pass along the word about opendyslexic.org, which offers an open-source font which can be used as a computer system font. It even works with some smart phone apps (those configurable enough to accommodate custom fonts - and you can always lobby software authors to include this functionality; it's not the hardest thing in the world to program as operating systems often prioritize accessibility) such as text readers and web browsers.


If you're not dyslexic, having to spell out that word a few times in a row could almost make you that way. There almost seems to be a cruelty baked into language - consider the silent "b" in "dumb" which seems almost intentionally to throw off the uneducated...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dr. Grell

When I was in third grade, we took a field trip to the local high school for a science lecture by the famous Dr. Einar Grell, a high school teacher so popular that there was, we were told, a waiting list to get into his class.

Years later, when I finally made it to high school, I made a beeline for Dr. Grell's AP biology class, and was puzzled at how easy it was to find a spot. I seemed to be the only one excited to be there.

Grell was what they used to call "a real character". His teaching style involved constant digression and non-sequitor; while covering genetics or asexual reproduction, Doc slipped in so much information on fishing, diving, and his countless other fascinations/obsessions that the more unimaginative students (the wonks with pens constantly poised) quickly became exasperated. After a week in Doc's class, they stopped asking their perennial question of "will this be on the test?" They were completely disoriented by what seemed like mad ravings from this sad excuse for a teacher.

Meanwhile, I hardly ever took a note, simply drinking in all the fascinating information. Doc showed us slide shows of his diving trips to the Caribbean, expertly describing the fish and wildlife and ecosystems and such, punctuated occasionally by shots of stout native girls dressed in shorts and ill-fitting second-hand brassieres. He was a hoot, galaxies more energetic, intelligent and funny than the rest of the ploddish teaching staff. He was so quick, and so bright, that they could barely perceive him. What was a brilliant Columbia PhD doing teaching in our sleepy suburban school district?

It was close to where he liked to fish. I only later learned that Grell held (and holds still) a number of fishing world records. It goes without saying that he had all sorts of unique and clever techniques. A fellow fisherman (chiming in at that last link) memorialized him thus:
He would study fishing habits and knew more what the fish liked to eat then the fish themselves. He was deadly with the ugly stik and used a repetoire of tricks that would baffle most fishing buddies by his side. We spent countless hours chasing [weakfish] in the back drains of the Great South Bay,
Unsurprisingly, Grell's colleagues and supervisors viewed him with enormous condescension and annoyance. The era when wild, wooly, wonderful teachers were considered a boon was over. Grell wasn't focusing on the state's Regents exam (the first incarnation of the current teach-to-the-test climate). He was off-script, off-message, and it was abundantly clear that pretty much the entire school community would have been much happier swapping in some robotic coffee-breathed dweeb in his place. He was precisely the thing he took the most pains to educate us about: a vanishing species.

Society doesn't value characters any more. We've become far more conformist, and off-script types terrify us. But you know what? I learned a ton about biology from Dr. Grell. My attention was actually held through every class, and he made me happy to come to school and to be alive. He "got it done" (I aced the Regents exam), while also brimming with, yes, totally superfluous humor, propositions, and raving theatrics. I thought then, as I do now, that he stuck out not because he was a madman, but because he, alone, was doing it right. But I was in the minority. Everyone else patronized him from below. He was, they'd say with a sardonic grin, an eccentric.

If you hold world's records, you are not an "eccentric" fisherman; you've simply found a better way. The best teacher in his district is not an "eccentric" teacher. Doing stuff much better requires doing stuff differently. Eccentrics, by contrast, are self-indulgers who do stuff differently merely for difference's sake. Why would we be so stupid as to lump resourceful innovators in with them?

I once wrote about eccentricity:
"Eccentric" means "odd and wrong". "Eccentric" people build perpetual motion machines, or believe they've found a way to communicate with the dead. They're absorbed in cranky, flaky quests which will never amount to much, but at least they're entertaining. It's a term of condescension; this is how we condescend to non-conformists. But is that an appropriate way to describe bona fide miracle workers?

Ants v Humans

I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable round of smashings, and who only with great suffering manage to soldier on with the reconstruction - are the sad ones.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Close Mayoral Encounters (plus: Jessie Helms Goes Hassidic)

Musicians spend lots of time near politicians. It's one of the weird things about the music business. You're playing for crowds, and nobody loves crowds more than a politician. So it's a natural collision.

This is how I managed to view extraordinary sights like shit-kicking arch conservative North Carolina senator Jesse Helms weraring a yarmulka at a Hassidic fund-raiser for Israel (this was when evangelicals were just beginning to realize that, by golly, they have common interest with those Jewy folks after all, 'cuz they all need to return to Israel before the Messiah - who, by the way, won't be, like, pissed off in the least about what's transpired in His name - will come back). This was, alas, in the era before camera phones.

Also, I've spent time standing poker-faced behind three NYC mayors. If you're someone with street smarts, one can get some mileage out of the close-vicinity behind-scenes view.

Ed Koch, for example, was an egotistical asshole. This was clear even before his arrival. When the aides for his successor, David Dinkins, approached a bandstand to prep his entrance, they'd politely ask if the band could play "Take the A Train". Koch's brash scumbags, by contrast, imperiously informed us that we will play "New York, New York". Standing three feet behind Koch as he alternatively milked and drank the applause, I knew that I'd never again witness such an epic and utterly shameless display of vampiric sucking. Being mayor wasn't sufficient; it was apparent that he required such ovations to function. Without them, I suppose he'd have swiftly desiccated into the petty, choleric old putz he truly was. At the time, I was also performing with Lionel Hampton's band, led by the music business' most notorious applause whore, but Hamp was a Benedictine monk compared to Koch.

Even worse, in his own way: Giuliani. My god, Giuliani. The atmosphere around him scintillated with edgy paranoid malevolence. My colleagues and I snuck off stage in mid-speech, and I noticed, to my horror, that wherever I stood in the very large crowd, he seemed to be staring right at me. With hatred. The other musicians, scattered around the area, all reported the same. I still shudder.

Any suspicion that my impressions were exaggerated due to the heightened nature of celebrity encounters was dashed by David Dinkins. The man was, as far as I could tell, walking dead. Dead eyes, dead vibe, Absolutely nada. No idea how he got that job, or who was pulling the strings.

These memories flood back because a few minutes ago I turned on my TV, which was playing a public television documentary about Ed Koch, and the show opened with the following remarkable statement:
"Whenever I would fly home - especially if it was at night - there was the city of New York laid out below me. And I thought to myself, 'This belongs to me!'"
This guy is remembered with great warmth and affection. While Michael Bloomberg, who really didn't need the aggravation, and who reigned selflessly and with great passion and competence, motivated entirely by civic-mindedness, is mostly remembered as that super-rich dude who outlawed soda.

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Great Dumplings of New York" Tour

I led a "Great Dumplings of New York" tour last weekend (in support of Leanne Brown's charitable "Good and Cheap" project; read her account of the tour here), and I thought I'd share the itinerary. Considerable time and advance research was invested in the venue choices:

Pirosmani (2222 Avenue U, Brooklyn; 718-368-3237)
...for Georgian khinkali (steamed soup dumplings full of soulful ground meat* and dill-flecked broth, with a doughy button baked in for easy hoisting). These are good ones, achieving the trick of being sturdy yet melting. It killed us not to dig into a host of other great Georgian treats (platters of garlicky roast potatoes and shimmering katchapuri kept sweeping by), but a dumpling tour's a dumpling tour. Onward, to....

* I'd always assumed khinkali were made with lamb, just out of sheer blind idiotic assumption, but I just realized with a sudden epiphany that I've never eaten one with the least lamby flavor (I see my food knowledge as perennially blurry, and always coming into greater focus.....and contentedly so, because I long ago resigned myself to the fact that no one can possibly know everything about cuisine). Wikipedia says it's pork and beef, and, of course, Wikipedia's never wrong).

Li's Henan Food (136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, Queens at the New World Mall, stall 12; 718-888-9393.
I found out about Kaifeng-style dumplings only recently. Take a look:


Photo (and venue discovery) credit: ace trumpeter Jerry Sokolov


Viewed from the top, it's a huge mottled, crunchy, oily crepe, but flip it over and you'll see that dumplings adhere. My guess is they fry up a starchy slurry along with the dumplings, creating an irresistible crunchy mass. I'm pretty sure this is the only place you can find it in NYC. Read more discussion (including, alas, much baseless conjecture further down) in this Chowhound thread. Nice review (with photos) of the venue here.

Note: I've been tracking Flushing shopping mall food court food for many years, and New World Mall is really the apotheosis of the genre. One of our group had recently been in China, and said this enormous, almost overwhelming basement felt more like China than many places she'd seen in China.

Henan Feng Wei (136-31 41st Ave, Flushing, Queens; 718-762-1818 )
Alas, we couldn't get here before closing. A shame, as these may the best B-flat boiled pork & chive dumplings in town. Interestingly, this place is from the same province as Li's Henan Food, but they don't make the weird crepey dumplings (I showed the staff a photo once, and they wagged their heads ruefully, clearly recognizing the dish).

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao; 59-16 Main St, Flushing, Queens; 718-)
These are my current picks for XLB right now (conveniently right off the LIE exit for Main Street, perfect on the way to the airport). Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao on Prince Street in Flushing is the more popular contender, but I tasted both back to back last week and there's no contest. As I reported on Chowhound:
"every time I go [to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao], I'm less and less happy and this was no exception. Service was horrendous (there's a very strong not-giving-a-crap vibe, though when they first opened - I was one of their first customers - these guys were fastidious). The crab/pork XLBs were extra crabby, but it was a trashy crabbiness, tasting as much like shell as crab meat. Whatever the opposite of "refined" is, that's what they were. Unfocused, with thick and extra sticky wrappers. Just not real good.

Immediately after, I hit Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao. Huge diff. Night and day. There was a cleanliness to the flavor utterly lacking at Nan Xiang. Really true crabmeat flavor, more generous broth, and better textured and flavored wrappers.
Alas, the XLB cook had left early, a mortal wound to the heart of the tour. We could have sampled some of the fine-looking Shanghai cold appetizers, but instead we moved on to....

Gangjong Kitchen, 72-24 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside, Queens; 347-848-0349)
I predicted over a decade ago that this micro-nabe would become Little Nepal (and that Elmhurst would be Little Banghkok), and I guess I was right. You could throw a tennis ball at three, maybe four Nepali or Tibetan eateries from here, and this tiny one's the least well-known and least presentational. But I love everything about it, especially their devastating red sauce. Tibetans feel unrestrained pride and affection for two things: their Dalai Lama and their red sauce....not necessarily in that order. There's no one recipe - each sauce is a snowflake - and the one here is great.

We got chicken momo because it was all they had left. Also, they steamed them, though I'd asked for fried. The chicken wasn't quite robust enough, and without the requisite pan frying, they reminded us of mini kinkhali. But damned good mini kinkhali! Their fried beef momo, though, are devastating.

Quick non-dumpling stop at my beloved Bangladeshi Bread Ladies (aka Tawa Food, aka Dhaulagiri Kitchen, 37-38 72nd St). Like the nabe itself, this storefront is Nepalicizing. Back in the day, it was a time machine portal where Bangladeshi women doggedly pounded out roti and paratha in the back and grilled them on an enormous, ancient grill (Tawa). Then a Nepali concession took a share of the already-tiny space, making a few things better than anyone else in the neighborhood (momo - not as good as the more recent Gangjong - and tsel roti, still the best anywhere and one of the most delicious things available in NYC). We arrived late, and Nepalis had completely taken over the joint. We did buy some bags of alu paratha and whole wheat roti left by the Ladies, but we got very lucky and tsel roti were just coming out of the oil. These are huge loops of crunchy fried rice flour, impossible to analyze or describe as the brain refuses to do anything but undulate during their ingestion. They rated a "10" on my surprisingly unditzy scale for rating foods (and other things) on a scale of 1-10.

We passed the new Arepa Lady restaurant (owned and operated by her kids, who are very nice but who disprove Lamarckism with every good-not-great corncake they churn out), and moved on to the real thing. The Arepa Lady, at her cart, was in fine form, though she's making her arepas de choclo (the sweetish crepes made from fresh corn) ahead and rewarming to order. The arepas were better than the tsel roti. Better, in other words, than a "10".

Philosophical question: is pie a dumpling?
We decided that an essential characteristic of dumplings is their compact portability. Which, of course, raises the question of mini-pies.

Forgot to hit: Cassinelli's (31-12 23 ave, Astoria; 718-274-4881) (or, at least, the deli next door, which sells lots of Cassinelli's products, frozen, 24 hrs/day)...for NYC's best ravioli (I like the spinach cheese) and tortellini.

Three great-looking new (or, at least, newly noticed by me) non-dumpling places spotted en route:
Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn; 718-998-2827)
Rural Restaurant (42-85 Main St, Flushing; 718-353-0086), and...
Chicken on Fire (94-09 101st Ave at Woodhaven Blvd, Ozone Park, 718-845-6433)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Walking Shape" versus "Running Shape"

I've always ran to get into shape. I've never been much of a walker. Running's far more efficient, after all. So in active periods, I run (and otherwise drive), and during lazy periods, I drive. I'm a true child of suburbia!

Recent medical problems forced me to temporarily lay off the running, but I was encouraged to walk as much as possible. So I've done 4-5 miles most days, mostly up and down hills. This is very new for me. I've been a sporadic hiker, but it's never been a daily routine.

After a few months, I've noticed something very surprising. Being in "walking shape" isn't, after all, just a cheaper version of "running shape". It's a whole other thing. I live up a hill, and am long accustomed to being a tad winded from the final stretch, even at times when I've been doing lots of running. But lately, when my body begins that climb, a voice inside says "Oh, good!", and I find myself accelerating up the hill, eating the climb like it's absolutely nothing. As if I was driving my car. Even at my physical peak, I've never experienced this.


(the downside is that, even with an incredibly careful diet, I've only lost a few pounds. No running means no weight loss, so I'm starting running again this week).

Fix for Sluggish Mac Performance in Yosemite

Does your Mac seem sluggish after updating to Yosemite? Here's a fix. Go to System Preferences -> Accessibility and check "reduce transparency". Sleep and then wake. You should be better.

Also: make sure you have plenty of empty disk space.

You can also try Resetting the System Management Controller (SMC)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Is reheated pasta less fattening?

Pasta gets more and more glycemic as you overcook it (i.e. it comes to have more or less the effect of sugar on your body; so a plate of overcooked ziti might be thought of as the equivalent of a slice of chocolate cake). That's why al dente's healthiest.

Problem is, while I love al dente pasta, I also happen to love leftover pasta. I always assumed the reheating tacked on glycemic effect, making the pasta less healthful. Aw, contraire!

Courtesy of Slog technical advisor Pierre Jelenc (note: Pierre is not in any way responsible for errors, speculations, or outright lies I publish; he doesn't actually review stuff, he just answers questions), here's a BBC report about a finding that reheated pasta (potatoes, too) is actually less fattening.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

iPad Upgrade Opportunity

Note: all prices below are for wi-fi only models.

You can buy one of the fancy new iPad Air 2s at $600 for the 64GB model (the cheaper 16GB model has too little storage to be viable).

Or you can buy last year's model for $450, with a barely adequate 32GB (Apple no longer sells a 64GB version). (Here's a handy guide to all prices of all options).

Or you can buy last year's model, with a full 64GB, second-hand on eBay for $550-600 (wuuuh???).

So what I don't understand is this: why would anyone in the market not buy a 64GB refurbished iPad Air from Apple for $439, with full warranty? You save $161 over the newer model (touch i.d. is cool, but not $161 cool). You save a few bucks over the previous model with half the storage, and you're beating even scuzzy eBay prices by miles.

Unsung Massive Societal Changes

I'm enjoying "How We Got to Now," a six-part PBS series (here's a NY Times review) explaining how things we take for granted about the modern world came to be - often with much struggle by people we hardly remember.

A mere 150 years ago, for example, we traipsed through human and animal excrement whenever we went out. Modern waste management was grafted on more recently than we recall, and only via herculean effort (series host Steven Johnson tells the tale of a planner in Chicago named Chesbrough who hatched a plan to jack up the entire city by ten feet to allow run-off).

It's amazing how clean our world is (cleaner even than my childhood, due to the demise of unleaded gas and smoking and to the clean air act), but we've forgotten to appreciate it. Humans have a peculiar amnesia for major shifts. At age 50, a few such shifts have occurred during my lifetime. And not all of them, of course, have constituted progress. The most fundamental shift has been so all-encompassing that it seems hardly anyone even noticed it.

A friend recently made a flatly incorrect remark about something I know a great deal about. I argued against her statement with vehemence and passion. Midway through my spirited rebuttal, I realized that people don't do this anymore. Have you (those of you over 40) noticed that hardly anyone argues these days? If someone's wrong, and you know with certainty they're wrong, the polite, friendly, enlightened, modern move is to blandly smile and feign agreement (while internally registering one's "superior" understanding). Better to let erroneous conclusions stand than to risk friction.

And that's new. We used to treat only incorrigible morons - those who couldn't be made to see reason - this way. It was a response born of disrespect. Nowadays, one winces at the very word "moron". The distinction is unfashionable, so we disrespect everyone like morons, and deem ourselves more civilized for it.

As I wrote a few months ago,
To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.
I attribute it to the increasing influence of corporations. Corporations once seemed like incredibly odd places where friction (with coworkers, with customers, with everyone) was avoided so strenuously, and at such great cost (of accountability, of honesty, of humanity), that they were seen as suffocating environments. In my lifetime, corporation culture has become omnipresent, and a tipping point was passed where corporate-style communications became the prevalent mode even in social and private lives. The world is now corporate. In fact, the very term "corporate" is hardly used anymore, because there's no longer a distinction to be drawn. The dryly uptight, creepily artificial culture described by that word has become our culture, inescapable even for those holdouts still working outside that system.

Ever since it became fashionable to adopt the mores of corporate customer service representatives, we rarely contradict each other. We pamper, placate, and pander even friends and loved ones. The sole reprieve is when conversation takes place under the cloak of anonymity (i.e. on the Internet). In such cases, the popular move is to excoriate, with infinite savagery, anyone who's so much as omitted an apostrophe. Online trolling, flaming, and general snark has become a suffocatingly corporate society's sole outlet for conflict.

In corporate work life, the avoidance of conflict and contradiction has given rise to the notoriously imperious American consumer, relishing life in an artificial ecosystem where they're denied nothing, challenged never, and flattered perpetually.

In corporate private life, the inviolable expectation to never be challenged or contradicted has given rise to the strange custom where a great many people would rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Blog Archive