Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More TV Show Gushing

I'm going nuts trying to keep up with the Golden Age of Television (probably healthier than my efforts keeping up with the Golden Age of Food In The 90's).

Here's the top of the latest crop (Note: I hesitate to describe gimmick/set-up/genre, because shows this good transcend all that; you don't need to be a fantasy buff to dig Game of Thrones, a horror buff to love Hannibal, or a sci-fi fan to watch Orphan Black; these programs aren't time wasters for niche aficionados, they're bona fide art):

Rectify, on Sundance Channel. You can catch up with season one on Netflix.
This one's actually in its second year, but ratings indicate I may be the only one watching it. Thoughtful, introspective Daniel Holden has been sprung after decades on death row, returning to his lush and louche home town in rural Georgia, where he struggles to readjust to society. Incredibly subtle; the meditative pace bugs the bejesus out of viewers craving lots of action and plot (here's lead actor Aden Young ranting - e.g. "What coke-fuelled moron came up with the idea to criticise the concept of time while watching a show about the concept of time?" - at viewers who are "hate watching" it). Don't listen to the haters. This is a beautiful work of art. And remember that I was recommending Breaking Bad (among other things) to you before hardly anyone was touting it!

Manhattan on WGN, back episodes available only via Hulu Plus (which conveniently offers a free trial week...and you can also find a number of Criterion Collection films there).
A highly fictionalized story of the Manhattan Project, this one's been drawing me in in spite of initial reservations. Such beautiful cinematography, and excellent acting.

The Knick on Cinemax but also on HBO on a slight delay.
In this one, Steven Soderbergh directs/writes/edits Clive Owen in the tale of a cutting edge surgeon in 1900. It's the first depiction of the past where the characters appear to be living in a "now" rather than a mouldered "then". 1900 felt every bit as futuristic at the time as 2014 does now; maybe more so, because the acceleration of progress had just begun to superheat. It's one of the "now"-iest period pieces ever, and the choice of an electronic music score highlights this quite cleverly (that last observation was hoisted from critic Alan Sepinwall).

The Leftovers, on HBO, is another slow, meditative, and particularly bleak dystopian show about the near-future effects of 10% of the Earth's population having suddenly disappeared. It's not an old-school high-concept sci-fi thing making heavy-handed points about our society; it's a thoughtfully worked out feat of world building, and, like Rectify (see above), it will draw you in if given a chance...even if it's not quite the work of art that, say, Rectify is.

Outlander on Starz
Based on Diana Gabaldon's series about a tough but sensitive WW I nurse transported to 18th century Scotland, this one's produced by Battlestar Galactica's Ronald Moore. Yes, everyone's going historical - aka "period" - this year, but such flocking randomly happens, and, again, greatness transcends genre. Only...I'm not sure this one's truly great. We'll see, though. We're only one episode in at this point, and while I'm not seeing the meticulous attention to detail I'd prefer, there's a lot to like, so I'll be giving it a chance.

I'll list, below, ongoing series previously mentioned here on the Slog (if you do a search, note that most have been mentioned more than once). Every one of these is worth going out of your way to catch up with, but I've sorted them in descending order of oh-my-godness:

The Americans
Rick and Morty
Masters of Sex
Game of Thrones
Orphan Black
Orange is the New Black
Key and Peele
Good Wife

Using my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating things from 1 to 10, I'd say that Hannibal's a "10", the next six are "9"s, and everything from Orphan Black down is a solid "8" (compared not to previous TV series, but to movies and other well-respected art forms). For those catching up, bear in mind that the first three, while great in their first seasons, vastly improved in their second seasons (all completed as of now), and Louie trailed off just slightly in its most recent season (but was still great). Masters of Sex, currently in its second season, is also much improved.

Of the new crop listed above, Rectify's close to "10"ing, and the others are too new to say for sure, but all have a shot at "9"hood...or at least solid "8"ishness.

As always, you'd be smart to follow up your viewing (or catch-up binge viewing) by reading Alan Sepinwall's excellent recaps and reviews....and the often high-quality comments posted beneath his articles.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

More on Chowhound's Policy Shift

It dawns on me, that what I'm reading in this Chowhound policy change announcement is not what others may be reading. This explains, for one thing, the initial happy acceptance of some people in that thread.

A fast reading of the announcement might make someone feel delighted that food professionals will participate and share their know-how. One envisions artisanal cheese makers dropping by to discuss their rennet, or Danny Meyer explaining how Union Square Cafe gets their bar nuts so darned tasty.

No. That sort of thing has always been allowed. We've had many known figures drop by to offer info or just to swap tips. Chowhound's always been the sort of hip venue where they won't be mobbed or hassled.

So that's not it, in spite of the careful wording of the announcment. Thing is, people don't realize the fearsome slime pit perpetually flowing, ala "Ghostbusters" weakest plot gimmick, beneath the streets of I observed in my previous posting that "it's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden," and Chowhound's weed pile, thanks to its tireless moderators, is nothing short of epic. Chowhound is an artificially-created entity, in spite of how natural it may seem. It betrays no shadows of the crap continuously excised. As I posted just two weeks ago:
Every earnest effort eventually gets gamed...massively. That's why there's so little earnestness in the world (and why it feels so charming when it does occasionally arise). At a certain point, either 1. the operation's earnestness evaporates, 2. the operation gets so bunkered that it's no fun anymore, or 3. the operators shift their business plan to leverage the gaming (let's call this one the Yelp approach).
I had no foreknowledge of this announcement, but I guess I nailed it. This is a #3, but it's not even about revenue, directly (it appears that no money changes hands as a result of this policy change). It's simply wild flailing for traffic via the crazy notion that repelling parasites cuts into page view counts.

The community manager recently posted this:
Kneejerk deletion of anything that smacked of advertising was a whole lot faster and simpler than what we're doing now. Trying to help people understand the site and use it effectively is harder than telling them to go away.
So promoters and shills are just wounded children who need to be gently shown the way. Well, good luck with that....

How to use food sites as chowhounding tools

Just posted to Chowhound.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chowhound's Coup de Grace

Lots of links below, all well worth clicking, fwiw.

Well, this is supremely unsurprising. The bean counters and brainy corporate Subway-scarfing geniuses currently running Chowhound have decided on a major change of course. Can't say I didn't see it coming.

As I explained in my series of postings recounting the growth and sale of Chowhound, what made Chowhound good was a counterintuitive move: filtering. Rather than aim for the largest set of eyeballs, we did everything possible to discourage the overwhelming majority of visitors from using the site. The result was an incredibly distilled and valuable group of users whose info was amazingly savvy and reliable. This, in turn, drew hordes of onlookers, who might not be food crazies, but who couldn't resist staying apprised re: the latest soft shell crab discoveries by people whose entire waking lives centers around such quests. The axiom "less is more" has never been more aptly proven.

Every gardener knows that limitation is key. It's easy to cultivate an overgrown thatch of weeds and scrub, but it takes a great deal of work to cultivate a really beautiful garden, and that work is almost entirely subtractive. The more meticulously you stave off bad stuff, the more good stuff happens.

In the case of Chowhound, "bad stuff" means postings which dilute or contaminate the savvy and reliability of the data. Self-promoters and shills contaminate, and the ditzy people who don't mind contamination dilute. This is a vicious circle. As I explained in part 8 of the aforementioned series:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.
Over the years, the moderators have done yeoman's work staving off contamination. But other factors have created dilution, leaving Chowhound a shadow of its former self. This latest decision - to embrace what was once heroically fended off - will be the coup de grace. And c'est la vie. I never expected the thing to run for 10 years, much less 17. How many other circa 1997 web sites remain, plying more or less the same mission?

As you can imagine, veterans have been messaging me like crazy all afternoon. Many will leave the site, which, alas, will only accelerate the decline. The people who make things good are much more skittish than the people who make things bad; that's why entropy and dilution usually win in the long run. In the human realm - even more than in the horticultural realm - flowers perish voluntarily at the sight of weeds (often even upon first glimpse).

My first thought is the same one that's nagged at me over the course of Chowhound's decline: perhaps I should open up a smaller, more soulful forum. My usual second thought is to consider something more pleasant, like grinding out lit cigarettes in my eye.

But, you know, none of the things that made Chowhound's management a horror (staving off contamination, dealing with jerks and psychopaths, coping with jury-rigged software, and flailing to pay bills) are unavoidable.

It strikes me that a private forum populated by a couple hundred serious hounds would avoid all those pitfalls. Heck, it could be a public forum, just so long as onlookers were read-only. I loved Chowhound when it had a couple hundred users. Those were the good days. If we could keep it limited, moderation wouldn't be an issue, dilution wouldn't be a peril, and there'd be no bills to pay. If I could think of a nice easy pre-existing platform to launch it on (Google or Facebook groups wouldn't cut it), I might not even mind spearheading it.

One of our best and most veteran hounds just told me that he no longer uses the site much. His chowhoundish friends simply text each other when they discover good places. That's obviously not a viable way to aggregate and archive tips. In a sense, it's like 1997 all over again, with chowhounds alienated from mainstream food coverage and resorting to tenuous and inadequate word-of-mouth networks. They could use a home.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Breakfast Cereal and the Vicious Circle of Untimely Quality Declines

I was briefly interviewed (via email) by a reporter writing about shifting trends in breakfast...specifically, the downturn in cereal sales.

I told her it didn't seem mysterious to me. The public is moving away from highly-processed empty carbs. Furthermore, while breakfast cereal has had a long run (most of the famous brands launched prior to 1955), it seems a bit of an anachronism these days.

The reporter asked what I eat for breakfast, and I replied:
Oatmeal, egg-white omelets, and granola-and-yogurt. Cereal-wise: Nature's Path Heritage Bites, Kashi Indigo Morning or Honey Sunshine with high quality milk. I used to really love Corn Flakes, but Kellogg's downgraded flavor/quality years ago. Trader Joe's version was better for a while but eventually they downgraded, too. There's a puzzling (and tremendously counter-intuitive) tendency for quality to decline in the face of a category's declining popularity.
That last part (which won't possibly make it into the final article) is of great interest to me. I'm pointing out a vicious circle seen in many sorts of undertakings. Quality tends to plummet the moment interest starts to fade. For example, precious few restaurants maintain standards as they conclude they're not catching on. Right at the point when they most need to show their best side, they present their worst (I can't count the number of times I've been treated brusquely in completely empty restaurants). Similarly, newspapers have seemed more poorly-written and edited - generally off their game - ever since that sector's future came into doubt. And most couples split up not from discord, but from the sourness which arises the moment malaise is detected in ones partner.

I wrote about this effect last year; how at the very moment when we most need to double down and persuasively prove our value, we (and our institutions) tend to go the exact other way. We are, alas, not a species predisposed to rise to occasions.

Consider this classic line from Albert Brook's character in Broadcast News:
"Wouldn't it be great if we lived in a world where insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?"
I'll re-quote per that last link from the chronicle I wrote for Slate about the noble, inspiring final weekend at Bo, the lamented Queens Korean restaurant, a sharp counterexample which deeply moved me:
...the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Oedipal Poultry

I just posted my account, on Chowhound, of Mami's, a Latino Steam-table in White Plains. Here's an excerpt:

As she apportioned, wrapped, and accepted payment for the food, I briefly wondered if I'd been recognized (for those who don't know, I've worked as a restaurant critic). I felt disproportionally IMPORTANT. She was paying way too much attention to me. Was she coming on to me? I couldn't tell. It was weird, though certainly anything but uncomfortable.

I rushed the food to my car, where I dipped in my fork for a quick taste, and that same brute force halo of attention and love roared forth. The young guys were correct. This is some extraordinarily sexy food. Oh my.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"What Are You, Crazy?"

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 aggression. This is a new thing.

Up until a couple decades ago, it was common to tell people you respected that they were being idiotic. But since then, corporate modes of communication have came to prevail even in private social dealings, and that style of communication is entirely about never, ever chancing even the slightest offense. So patronization has became the default reaction. There was a time when patronization was the worst thing one could do. Now, honest challenge is the worst thing, while well-concealed patronization strikes people as soothing.

As challenge grew rarer and rarer (and people perfected their poker faces - i.e. patronized much more professionally), a vicious circle was created. Less challenge, over all, makes any errant challenge sting that much more. Challenge has thus grown rarer and rarer, to the point where people only dare contradict each other with the blandly passive-aggressive jujitsu of an HR exec.

It's now offensive to let a smart, sane person know they've coughed up a conversational hairball. We've learned to smile blandly and nod; to patronize even those we respect. There's less offense, but also less respect - the institutionalization of patronization makes people feel more silently superior than ever. Also: way more stupid and crazy stuff is being said, because we've lost the vital gauge of peer feedback. Finally, this change makes people absolutely hate family events (comedians make way more Thanksgiving dinner jokes than they used to), because more naturalistic interplay feels like a shooting gallery - whereas, in decades past, it just felt normal because society itself was more naturalistic (and less corporate).

The other day I walked out of a public rest room with a bit of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. My small group of friends said nothing, but their embarrassment was palpable. I proceeded to check myself - wiping my nose with my napkin, glancing down at my fly, etc.. It was unnerving. Finally, at long last, one of them leaned in towards me, and in the most gentle, honeyed, truckloads-of-sugar-making-the-medicine-go-down tones, apologetically clued me in, letting me down very very very very gently.

If they'd just pointed at me and laughed, I'd have felt like a regular guy who just happened to get toilet paper on my shoe. But this uber-gentle coddling made me feel like my toilet paper problem is, like, congenital or something! When people let you down gently, doesn't that mean something grievous just happened?

Here's something similar.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bug in the Human Operating System #726

If I'm driving and you're sitting next to me and I take my eyes and my attention off the road to snatch something swiftly from my drink holder or change drawer, it will hardly bother you at all, even though I completely gave up control of the car for those few seconds.

But if I do it the proper way - keeping my eyes and most of my attention on the road, and letting my hand fumble around for a while until it finds the object - that will likely drive you just about crazy.

We subconsciously interpret a fumbling action as an expression of fraught frustration and diverted attention, even when the fumbling represents the complete opposite.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

More on Kickstarter Ethics

Apropos of my recent posting about Kickstarter ethics, here's a story about con men who've been flagrantly fleecing Kickstarter supporters as well as AirBnB hosts.

It can't be helped. Ideally, Chowhound would have remained a place where earnest food lovers shared their favorite tips. In reality, after the first year all behind-scenes time was (and is still) spent staving off a blizzard of shills, con men, promoters, and social media marketing professionals.

Every earnest effort eventually gets gamed...massively. That's why there's so little earnestness in the world (and why it feels so charming when it does occasionally arise). At a certain point, either 1. the operation's earnestness evaporates, 2. the operation gets so bunkered that it's no fun anymore, or 3. the operators shift their business plan to leverage the gaming (let's call this one the Yelp approach).

Kid's Story

Here's a story I wrote this week along with my precocious 6 year old niece, Allegra, who provided the lead characters' names (no idea where she got "Heliotrope Fairy" from) and two key plot points (they had to have a swimming pool and hot tub, and had to learn their real real names). I've never before written fiction, and haven't written longhand in ages, and this was composed in a feverish sprint with my cramped hand clutching a crayon.

The Heliotrope Fairy (who got her name from the hairy purple flowers her father, The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer, planted in the garden under her bedroom window) lived in a microwave oven with her sister the Fuchsia Fairy. The Fuchsia Fairy was named for the color of those same heliotrope flowers. The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer had a very limited imagination and named everything for these flowers. He had a son, The Purple Else, and another son, The Purple Flower Elf, and he called his car, which was fuchsia with purple stripes, the Flowermobile.

When the two fairies were living with their parents they had a big house and a big garden (did I mention there were flowers growing there?). But when they went out on their own they found a job market with few opportunities for fairies, and the only place they could afford to live in was the microwave oven. It sounds terrible, but they were happy because 1. they were only two inches tall, and 2. they liked spinning around on the turntable, and 3. it was always nice and warm, and 4. they could eat baked potatoes whenever they wanted to. When they wanted to go swimming, they had an orange juice glass full of water to swim in.

They were happy. They worked a little bit whenever people needed fuchsia-colored fairy magic. For example, one time when a kid walked down the street with his lollipop, crying because it was cherry and he loved grape, the two fairies snapped their fingers and changed the lollipop. This sort of work was very satisfying, but didn't pay well (first, not so many kids love grape lollipops, and second, little kids don't have a lot of money).

Then, one day, a lady named Alice Walker wrote a very famous and popular book called "The Color Purple", which was produced as a major motion picture by Amblin Entertainment, grossing in the high eight figures. Suddenly, purple was everybody's favorite color. People bought purple shirts, purple iPhones, purple swimming pools, purple houses, and purple helicopters. The Fuchsia Fairy and the Heliotrope Fairy were suddenly the most important people in the world. People lined up outside of the microwave, waiting patiently for the two fairies to give them purpleness. They didn't even have time to swim in the orange juice glass.

But even though they were very busy, they were very kind. Anytime kids asked them to turn their lollipops purple, they never said no. They spent all morning, all afternoon, all twilight, all early-evening, and all late-night turning things purple (the fairies still called it "fuchsia", but of course it's the same color).

One day their father, The Hyperkinetic Sorcerer, came to talk to them. He was very excited. The most beautiful fuchsia color in the world was to be found in the flowers he had planted. People were starting to offer to buy the flowers, and everybody was so crazy for purple stuff that one very very very rich guy offered him 100 quillion dollars for the single nicest flower – the most perfectly purple thing in the world. So he sold the flower, and he and his wife, the fairies' mother, The Narcissistic Sorceress Queen, were going to move into a giant castle, and the two sisters would be allowed to move into their old house, with the flowers! And there was enough money left over to put in a hot tub and a pool they could go swimming in.

Very very happy, the two sisters moved out of the microwave and into the house, and with all the new room, they started to grow into normal height for young ladies. One day, while they were swimming in the pool, they figured out their real real names: Susun and Scarlet. Fairies no longer, they couldn't change lollipops. But they let anyone come over and swim in the pool, which made lots of people happy. And as people stopped talking about the book and the movie, nobody was interested in fuchsia, anyway. But still sometimes Susun and Scarlet would take their favorite people to see the magical flowers, which still grew beneath their windows. And those people would forever love purple as much as they did.

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