Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grandeur Is Not A Goal

As I once wrote:
Billions of people yearn for greatness.

Millions of people do things they hope will make them great.

Thousands of people do great things with nary a thought about where it will leave them.

Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful.

After CNET bought a failed upstart magazine brand called CHOW (over my strenuous objections) to graft onto Chowhound as a slick editorial front-end, I observed the accumulation of something quite alien to me: a whirlwind of empty self-feeding hype.

As hires were made and editorial mission statements concocted, I watched the shiny, new faces go on and on about how this instant-on titanic online brand - which didn't, at the time, even exist - would take cyberspace by storm. Their managers watched with glee, delighted by the momentum and team spirit they'd instilled within this not-yet team.

What struck me was the certainty - the absolute unwavering certainty that the result would be terrific and hugely popular. Really, there was no reason to think any such thing. These was just an unproven bunch of eager twenty-somethings. But CHOW, it was felt, would inevitably be huge, simply because it was an operation characterized by people phenomenally confident about its inevitable hugeness. The audacity of tautology!

There was never any "there" there. A short-lived bit of of fluffy fluff, it was quickly pruned down to a skeleton crew once the Chowhound community - and then the Internet at large - failed to catch the fever.

How could it have turned out otherwise? You can't create greatness by posing as someone creating greatness. Greatness isn't even a thing, it's a side effect...of talent and very hard work. If you're working hard enough to create something of genuine value, you'll be the very last to notice. After all, the greatness isn't for you, it's for the folks out there - the customers, the audience, the users - to appreciate while you keep on absolutely killing yourself behind scenes.

But nobody understands this. They think it's about aiming for grandeur, as if that were an actual thing. This is why things mostly suck. As Banksy once said, working to get famous is like eating a great dinner to take a shit.

Here, by contrast, is Stewart Butterfield, CEO of a really terrific service called Slack, discussing how he sees things:
I try to instill this into the rest of the team but certainly I feel that what we have right now is just a giant piece of shit. Like, it’s just terrible and we should be humiliated that we offer this to the public. Not everyone finds that motivational, though.
Yup. Not everyone finds that motivational. People want to feel satisfied, not dissatisfied. But nothing great comes from satisfaction. It comes from aggravating the bejesus out yourself with the painful slog of transforming entropy into order; from grappling perpetually in the muck with an insanely pig-headed refusal to ever say "good enough", much less "great".

Monday, November 17, 2014

Great Daily Show Line

John Stewart makes an elegant point I hadn't heard anyone else make this week (uttered sarcastically regarding Republican reaction to the President's executive order):
"You don't govern through executive orders. You govern through shutdowns and impeachment."


When I was running Chowhound, I was forced to limit my accessibility because I was busy, not because I was important. There were too many people trying to occupy my limited time and attention, and I had no choice but to take countermeasures if I was to get anything done besides engaging with strangers.

The moment I left Chowhound, I dropped my deflector screens with considerable relief. The "send me email" link at the upper left of this screen has been there since day one (though it doesn't link to my personal email address). Of course, a few errant haters use the open channel to fling profanity-laced screeds my way, but I long ago came to recognize these as offerings of love from people too twisted to love in healthier ways (it's the thought that counts!). But, all in all, free accessibility is a much more enjoyable way to live. And lots of people way better-known than I ever was feel the same.

This is why it cracks me up to see non-inundated people limiting their access as a pretense. Limited access is not natural; it's not fun. It's a prison people relegate themselves too when the sunny freedom of the public world sadly becomes a pleasure which circumstance no longer allows them to enjoy. Choosing to inhabit that prison just so one can project importance is as crazy as chopping off one's leg to garner sympathy (and people actually do that).

The pretense is rarely recognized. The public doesn't think twice when someone they've heard of turns out to be inaccessible. We expect such people to be arrogant, aloof, and generally out of our spheres. We think these things come with the territory, but they really don't. As I once wrote:
Like most people, I always assumed arrogance was the inevitable trait of smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people. After all, why wouldn't superiority be palpable?

But I kept meeting really smart, accomplished, distinguished, successful people who weren't arrogant. Nor were they falsely modest (which is just another sort of arrogance). They were just....people.

If arrogance isn't inevitable, then it must be strictly elective. People actually choose to act this way! And ever since I realized this, I've found arrogance hysterically funny.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Donnie Osmond Killing It

I'm not a Weird Al Yankovic fan - and didn't think I was a Donnie Osmond fan - and I try not to link to amusing videos more than once per year. But you've got to see this.

Weird Al hired Donnie for his "White & Nerdy" rap video, and, for a first take, told him to go wild doing whatever he wanted. The result defies description. Sign me up for Team Donny (did I just really say that?)

Here's the final version, which is harmed by the inclusion of Donnie-less parts.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cooking Versus Painting

These cooking infographics (scroll down that page), explaining how to use spices, herbs, and such, have gone viral. It's a whole new graphical way to present the same old blockheaded advice: use coriander with chicken, beef, fish, pork, or tofu*. Garlic powder pairs well with oregano, cumin, coriander, and turmeric**. Got it? Go forth and season!

* - 'Cuz who in his right mind would use coriander with shrimp???

** - hell.

Aside from the fact that such info is always insanely arbitrary and often flat-out wrong, the problem is that it just doesn't work like this. There are no rules in cooking beyond the dictum to create deliciousness. Any rules that arise have been arbitrarily concocted based on what the concocters, in their limited experience, have observed other people doing. They don't help you cook; they help you conform!

As I once wrote:
In composing his chorales, JS Bach invented modern four part harmony. His methods were subsequently analyzed and formulated into a series of rules which have been rigorously followed for centuries. Interestingly, Bach himself broke those "rules" repeatedly! His chorales, judged according to this abstract framework, weren't very "good"!

Of course, Bach wasn't trying to compose "correct" chorales, he was following his muse to achieve a result that would foster a certain effect.
For some reason, we're more clear-headed about this in the visual realm. How does the following strike you?
Let me teach you about color: blue works well alongside green, lemon yellow, and certain shades of pink. It's used to depict sky, trousers, and cars. Avoid using it with orange, because the two are opposites!
Ridiculous, no? We'd urge anyone consulting such rules to simply go out and watch for blue in the world, and then go home and use his blue paint/ink/crayon to bring out that aspect in his art. We expect people to recognize blueness for what it is, and to harness it in imaginative and original ways.

Why should the chef's palette resist our direct, natural acquaintance when the painter's palette does not? Why not notice flavors as we eat, and then bring out those aspects in our cooking? Why does one so seldom hear this suggested? Why is it so much more difficult for people to make this leap in flavor than in other realms?

In the visual realm only rank beginners would be caught dead painting from recipes (i.e. paint-by-numbers). Yet the vast majority of cooks are utterly helpless without guidance. They need to be issued daft orders like "use mint with carrots, eggplant, watermelon, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes, and zucchini."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

NYC's Most Dystopian Subway Station

I'm a fan of the 96th Street 6 train (IRT) station, which looks straight out of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil". I took these shots a few weeks ago:

Weirder still, the station's entrances are right out of Logan's Run. The following are other people's photos: photo 1, photo 2

Friday, October 31, 2014

Mass Delusions (or: Tulips, Gluten and Ebola)

The New Yorker covered gluten madness this week. It's a remarkably long, cautious, and meandering article, clearly written from a position of terror of offending the, Jesus, 1/3 of American adults who say they're trying to eliminate gluten from their diets. The crux comes midway through the article:
"How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening?"
The answer - the obvious, simple, Occam's Razor-sharp answer - is that only mass delusion can do that (same as the Ebola hysteria, where the American death toll's climbed to "still zero"). Mass delusions happen often and are well-studied, yet we still get caught up in them. If you want to understand the craziness crowds of humans are capable of, the definitive work is "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" (here it is for a little more than a buck in a Kindle version; here's the Wiki rundown). History reveals that human throngs have always had some irrational and massive this-or-that going on.

It seems like everyone's forgotten that we used to swoon, and to succumb to "nervous exhaustion". Only recently, a very large number of people suffered from "chronic fatigue syndrome" and TMJ, but we don't hear much about that stuff anymore, either. With all those conditions and syndromes, there was actual virulence at work, but it was an idea virus. And such viruses can absolutely flair bona-fide physical symptoms ("psychosomatic" is, after all, half somatic!). It's been evident for some time that mass sentiment can foment real malady, just as it can foment courage or hatred. And tummy-aches - endlessly rebranded under a succession of serious-sounding names - have perennially been a go-to complaint for the high-strung.

And, of course, business fans the flames, because there's always profit to be made from a nice fat mass delusion (check out Mcdonalds' response to gluten madness). But it's a risky move, because, like any virus, these things die out as swiftly as they conflate. We'll eventually move on to new ways to account for the fact that idle time - a new development in human life - gives neurotic people the opportunity to pay lots of attention to the fact that they don't feel quite as vibrant as they imagine they're entitled to feel.

One more observation. Mass delusions are stirred up tribally, and anti-gluten craziness is particularly popular on the left. Same for anti-vaccine craziness (I heard a statistic recently - which I haven't been able to confirm - that in parts of northern California vaccine non-compliance among children approaches 75%). It's illuminating to note that adherents of both tend to be highly-educated people (smart people aren't immune to human folly!); the same people who stridently chastise the right for being anti-science. And they're correct: the right is anti-science. But so's the left. Human beings are anti-science.

It's a useful exercise, when observing bad thinking or behavior in others, to pin it not on their most noticable distinguishing characteristic (lazy blacks, greedy jews, chuckle-headed Republicans, bleeding-heart Democrats, etc etc), but on their humanity. As I once wrote:
We study the Other...and we don't like what we see. Men rue the cruelty of women; women rue the cruelty of men. Both are quite correct, really.

Racism, sexism, classism, etc. are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

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, 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.

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