Sunday, October 15, 2017

Baking Fresh Every Time

This is roughly-expressed - an insight "under construction" - but it's both true and seldom observed. And it applies to many facets of life - especially anything creative:

If your toddler daughter skins her knee and wails from the fear, and you somehow manage to say just the right thing so she immediately calms and feels better, you may repeat those same words with her some other time, or with other children, and they might help, but they'll never work quite as well. The words (or, really, whatever magic is behind those words) were tailored for that unique moment.

It's less so with everyday speech. But at crucial moments, when stakes raise, or something arouses inspiration, the result is always best seen as a one-off - a bell that can't be rung twice. Reused, the words will never have that magical effect. There's no getting around it; we need to bake fresh every single time.

One reason people seem to petrify a bit as they age is that they stop baking fresh. As every chowhound well knows, canned products are never the same.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Perspective on the Scariness

An old friend asked the following on Facebook (in reply to this morning's scary posting):
I grew up in a country in which bigotry, racism and hatred were on the run. Equality, tolerance and acceptance were on the rise. What happened to that country? Why have we taken so many steps backwards??
Death throes. It's death throes.

The problem is that death throes and aftershocks can last a while, and be quite painful, even if, in retrospect, they're a negligible blip in the long march of history.

But look at these pathetic, incompetent idiots. Were the sad sacks at Charlottesville legitimately scary? Does Richard Spencer make you shake in your boots? For that matter, is Steve Bannon truly the diabolical mastermind he imagines himself to be? Or just a feces-throwing man-child?

75 years ago, someone like Bannon might have gotten real traction. Sean Hannity might have seemed like a bona fide gnarly superhero, and Sebastian Gorka a weighty visionary. But their time is past. We know it. We feel it. They're craptastic....not to say crap doesn't stink.

True, one of the Charlottesville mob killed someone. I'm not saying the situation is completely defanged, and I'm not saying things won't get worse before they get better (I've pointed out one possible avenue that might take). But this isn't the inky darkness of inevitable nihilism. This isn't all our hard-won gains collapsing. What this is is the impotent last stand of the assholes. It's their curtain call as they go out the door. They're entitled; they certainly had a long, long, long run!

Expect things to stink for a good while thanks to all the shit they'll be throwing. Hey, cleaning up is a dirty job. Did you really think it'd be easy?

My posting on Resilience included this relevant illustration:

See also The Un-Self-Aware Assholes’ Last Hurrah

Debbie Downer

Maybe I shouldn't post dark stuff like the previous, which needlessly puts people into an even gloomier frame of mind. That is not what these times call for.

But, as you likely recognize, I'm talking to myself here (while you eavesdrop). Working through ideas, making connections, trying to understand by explaining it all to myself. If I start directing this outward toward an audience, Slog might lose its sporadic, wheezing faculty for coughing up crude grains of insight.

I won't, however, linger in negativity. I like to mix it up! (that should probably be my epitaph...though I'm leaning toward "Kept all options open.").

Another Bone-Chilling Prediction (Sorry!)

I am not just non-tribal, I'm anti-tribal. And my parents knew better than to try to force me to be bar mitzvahed (at age 12 I spent after-school hours in full lotus position, wailing in Sanskrit. Not that my family paid the least attention, but even they got the idea and smartly gave me a pass). And I am a Muslim-loving race traitor. And I don't have a paranoid bone in my body, even when the world goes all Kafka on me.

So...that's where I'm coming from. You'll understand that I don't say the following in a knee-jerk way. It's not how I naturally think. This is not my intellectual groove:

The infectious smoldering of economic populism, of xenophobia, of white supremacy, and of vitriol at "coastal elites", media, "Wall Street types", etc., is not being pushed forward, I don't believe, primarily by anti-Semitic people (though plenty of rabid anti-Semites are, of course, conveniently enjoying that tide). However, The Jewish Problem is like super-dry, crackly, hyper-flammable kindling, lurking adjacently to it all, just out of frame.

Bring the intensity levels up just 20 or 30%, and anti-semitism will flash in a chain reaction so suddenly and so brightly that your retinas will scorch. It will arc, like lightning, through people who are not particularly anti-Semitic; who never quite connected their anger and bitterness to this particular scapegoat; who have Jewish friends and are generally decent people.

Millions lack clear awareness of the Nazi-ish mindset into which they've been gradually stirred. There's one essential chunk missing. Add it, and there will be a widespread, galvanizing sensation of fullness, momentum, and inevitability.

Re: my dire recent Puerto Rico prediction, I may, alas, have been right. See this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"The New Rules"

Want to hear a widespread viewpoint almost completely unheard beyond the right wing bubble? Ben Howe of Red State, a conservative never-Trumper, had this very interesting response on "All In" last night when asked about Trump's threat against broadcast licenses:
"[With] lot of conservatives in previous administrations, if a president was going to go after the press - at their license specifically - I think they would've said "Why is the government involved in licensing media anyway?" And they'd talk free markets and things. At least that's what I would've done! But instead they seem to play by what a lot of them call "The New Rules" which is: "The Liberals made the rules and now we're gonna play by them!" So even though it might conflict with what should be their conservative point of view, they're going to end up taking the position "Yeah, let's take their license away because we're just following their new rules anyway!"
This seems to amount to a third conservative response to Trumpism. Response #1 was disgust and recoil (see Rick Wilson, et al), i.e. "This shit ain't conservative!" And response #2 was capitulation and revision (see Hannity, et al), i.e. "This is what we meant all along, even when we were very recently arguing vehemently in the other direction". But the "New Rules" Howe describes fit the tenor of our times. For many folks, conservatism is anti-liberalism, period.

The new rules - of utter reciprocity, and no "there" there in terms of conservative principle - explain many mysteries, from Hillary's defeat, to softness re: Russian on the Right, to the right's absolute inability to govern - "anti" only works as an opposition credo; you can't rule from "anti" (though Trump is trying hard, by brutishly uprooting each and every Obama program and appointee).

Re: the press/first amendment threat, don't miss McKay Coppins' new piece for Columbia Journalism Review, "What if the right-wing media wins?"

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Know Thyself: 24 Cognitive Biases

Thanks to the legendary David Lerner, here's the placemat in the diner in philosopher heaven (I'm referring to the PDF linked at bottom).

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Heads Up

I added a footnote to my previous posting, about smart Internet commentary.

The Role of a Critic

Internet commentary is mostly so disappointingly awful (it's awfully easy to forget how good it was for a minute with Chowhound). Yet there are still gold nuggets amid the mud. A few years ago, I found a shimmering bit of wisdom in a comment on some crappy Buddhism site. And tonight I stumbled across the following elegant thought, buried in a discussion of Penn and Teller's mildly interesting film about an inventor who tried to recreate a Vermeer painting:
"A good [film] critic should tell you what to look for in a picture, not what you'll find."
The most incisive takedown of modern-day atheism I've ever seen came via a letter to the editor of Wired Magazine.

More Puerto Rico Dread

Despite all the happytalk from our president, I'm far from assured that Puerto Rico won't wind up as I feared a week and a half ago.

Check out these two videos posted to Twitter by a small band of veterans who flew down to help out. They have "an urgent message to get out about what's really going on here in western Puerto Rico." People are drinking sewer water and they're starving.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Don Peppe: Clam Palace Grandeur in Ozone Park

I just posted the following to Chowhound.

I recently called Francesco's, a preserved-in-amber 1961 Italian-American tavern in White Plains, "The Last Great Italian-American Restaurant." I stand by that assessment when it comes to full-out Italian-American stuff, which is easy to find but excruciatingly hard to find good.

But there's Italian-American, and then there's Italian-Italian cooking...with maybe some American inflection. Don Peppe's, in Ozone Park down near JFK, is more along those lines. And it's just ridiculous, with a level of precision and perfection well above most of the cooking I've enjoyed in my life.

Don Peppe's is the sort of expensive cash-only place where elderly Italian men dine in track suits but the waiter demands you remove your hat. And I can't say I'm accustomed to $85 lunchs (including tip and a couple glasses of frigid "homemade" red wine). But, man, is it great.

I once devised a surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods on a scale of 1 to 10, and everything we ate here was tennish ("Absolute certainty that no one at this moment, anywhere on Earth, is eating anything more delicious than what you're currently consuming").

I didn't shoot photos because Yelpers have abundantly documented this place (see here). Let's go through the courses:

Baked clams are pulled from the broiler with a plus/minus .5 second tolerance. Another second and they'd have burned. There is nothing in the flavor of these baked clams that might surprise or intrigue you. This is baked clams 101, but the exemplar of the style. The sauce is tangy, but not so tangy that you'd remark on its tanginess. It's garlicky, but not to the point where you'd ramark on its garlickiness. Every parameter is optimized and balanced without any palpable effort. Not a bit of this is "impressive", it's simply as good a neighborhood Sunday-dinner-style representation as you'll ever taste, period, amen.

Linguini in white clam sauce has the same effortless sauce perfection. For example, the parsley is optimized for taste, not for visual; there's much less than usual, but it's precisely the right amount. But the pasta - oh, the pasta - is a master class in al dente. Cooked, once again, to a plus/minus .5 second tolerance. I imagine the chef watching the pot with enormous, bloodshot, violently locked-on cartoon eyes, but I'm sure it's second nature at this point. This doesn't mean, however, that decades weren't spent tortured with OCD, learning to get things just right.

Let's take a brief intermezzo while you digest the preceding, so I can debunk the biggest lie in food. Anytime someone tells you that the best cooking involves simply letting great ingredients sing, they are lying to you. Ingredients do not sing on their own, as any chef quickly learns. It's chefs - talented chefs! - who make ingredients sing, to the limits of their skill and diligence. Particularly great chefs erase their own tracks, so their efforts are not apparent in the final result, but this requires insane degrees of skill, talent, and hustle. You need to drive yourself crazy to cook effortless-tasting food. But, in any case, it's human skill and love that transforms ingredients into deliciousness, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. A magic trick requires a magician, and a completely seamless magic trick requires a great magician.

Veal scallopini with lemon and butter featured, naturally, fork-tender veal, but it wasn't the overly tenderized version served by the usual show-off places, where the veal's more viscous than meaty. It's meaty-satisfying AND disarmingly tender. And while it's clobbered with butter, the copious butter doesn't scream for your attention. It's worked in and optimally balanced with the lemon and the garlic. Tracks erased!

All these dishes come with sauce studded with whole cloves of garlic, evenly golden and melting (though still substantial). They must prepare these separately, and toss them in during the sauté. You don't see that much.

Broccoli rabe ("broccoli" on the menu) was not denatured of its bitterness, which I appreciated. And it was tender without being overcooked or stringy. Again: non-remarkable perfection in all aspects.

I rarely order red sauce in restaurants, because paying for disappointment is not really my thing. But at this point my two companions and I still had some appetite (we figured from the high prices that these dishes would be family-sized, but not really), and we decided we trusted the house enough to take the risk. So I went against all my experience and training and requested a $25 plate of spaghetti marinara. Less dramatic leaps of faith were seen in Jonestown.

I honestly don't remember much about the sauce (all sauces here are unremarkable in the very best sense of the term; they are simply exactly what you want). But the texture of the spaghetti was to weep for. Again: a masterclass in al dente. What a difference a nano-second makes! My teeth have experienced non-stop phantom-spaghetti effect ever since. I am literally gnawing at thin air as I write this. My needy, sorry teeth never felt completely UNDERSTOOD before, in all my decades of life.

We skipped dessert, which surely would have been a letdown, and we pulled clutches of 20s from our wallets, and it was good.

Important note: we arrived at 3:30 on a weekday, so the place was nearly empty (waiters played cards at a big round table). The food might not have quite this degree of shimmering optimization at peak hours.

Next time, I want to try their "Chinese chicken", a unique dish that apparently takes 55 minutes (not an hour; 55 minutes) to cook.

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