Everything you ever wanted to know about Shanghai soup dumplings

Depending on your culinary persuasions, you may find this piece on xiao long bao (Shanghai soup dumplings) to be overkill or just the type of deep examination this Chinese small dish deserves. As an aficionado of xiao long bao from an early age, I consider this a useful addition to the culinary literature. The piece culminates in the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index which “applies a quantitative framework to the existing qualitative descriptors of the Shanghai soup dumpling.” If one of you readers is in Shanghai and can pick me up a printed copy, ping me!

Four measurements were collected: the weight of the intact dumpling (g); the weight of the soup (g); the weight of the filling (g); and the thickness of the skin (mm). This data was then calculated with the formula [(Filling + Soup / Thickness of Skin) x100] to assign a score representing the quality of structural engineering, the major challenge in the construction of a xiao long bao that meets the colloquial standards.
An analysis of the results combined with directly observed sensory research found xiao long bao with a score of 12.00 or above to demonstrate successful engineering. From a sensory perspective, these samples showed only minor variations, and were classified as Class A. Xiao long bao below this threshold but above a score of 6.75 showed satisfactory engineering and were judged Class B.

Author Christopher St. Cavish gives a great overview of just what a xiao long bao is and isn't, and what common variants should be called.

A soup dumpling is basically a balance between two competing forces: a thin-as-possible skin (whose purpose is to transport a meatball and soup, and then get out of the way) and as much filling as possible. There is a debate here as well, over the thickness of the skin, and whether a thicker wrapper represents a lack of technical faculty or a theoretical position on the balance of wheat flavor a dumpling should achieve. I subscribe to the former school of thought. There is no shortage of thick-skinned dumplings in China, filled with pork, even with soup; if you want one like that, don’t eat a xiao long bao. The elegance of a soup dumpling is its poise, the narrow margin that a cook must master to overcome the physics of a hot, wet package that wants to break. Soup dumplings are feminine. Sheng jian bao, a doughy, leavened dumpling that’s tough enough to survive a pan-fry and retain its pork and soup, are masculine. They are built of different stuff.
The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index started with an ulterior motive: as a defense of Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung. This is another fraught issue in Shanghai that must be addressed up front: the contest between Shanghai’s homegrown Jia Jia Tang Bao (Shop #35; Class A) and Din Tai Fung (Shop #14; Class A), a corporate raider from Taiwan. There wasn’t a clear answer when I started, and I haven’t found once since, but I set out thinking I’d collect a bit of hard proof about skin thickness.

Din Tai Fung has a cult following in the United States, but it's become a bit overrated there perhaps because it's actually so hard to find a well-made xiao long bao in most U.S. cities. I've been to the Seattle and Arcadia Din Tai Fung outlets, and they're solid but not spectacular. Really good specimens can be found in other restaurants in New York and in the Eastern parts of Los Angeles, but I've been disappointed, thus far, in San Francisco's offerings. Most have skin that tears too easily, or the flavor isn't the perfect mix of just a bit sweet pork, or there is no soup whatsoever, or the skin is too thick, or some combination thereof.

The outlets in Taipei, including the original, however...they dabble in some real sorcery, because they achieve an impossibly thin skin, just the right amount of soup, and a clean and delicate pork flavor. The thickness of the skin of a xiao long bao matters a great deal, just as the ratio of bun to meat in a hamburger matters. No one wants to eat too much dough relative to the meat and soup, and the impossibly thin skin of Din Tai Fung's achieves, to my mind, an ideal ratio of skin to filling.

I happen to be in Taiwan now, and just this morning I had ten of Din Tai Fung's pork xiao long bao (that's the original recipe and still the best; leave all those truffle and crab and other gimmicky variants for the barbarians). All ten of them had a uniformly thin skin, and not a single one broke as I picked them up with my chopsticks and dipped them in the ginger-vinegar-soy sauce and transferred them to the soup spoon. Not that they should tear open if wrapped properly, but the fact that they didn't still felt like a miracle.

As with many Taiwanese restaurants, the chefs wrapping the xiao long bao worked in a glass-encased kitchen so diners could observe them in action. Each wore a surgical hat and mask and full length aprons or scrubs, all in resplendent white, rendering them visually less as chefs than chemists conducting research with combustible chemicals. Combined with the organized workspaces in the open kitchens, the sensation of watching them was one of cleanliness, delicacy, and precision. My friend, a local, told me it's a coveted position to wrap xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and that they try to screen for tall, good-looking candidates.

A Din Tai Fung outlet is coming to San Jose. It will be massive at 8,500 square feet with 200 seats, and still you should expect to wait in long lines after it opens, no matter the hour.

Visualizing open-ended travel via Google Flights

While I'm on this break from working, I've been planning some travel, and my new favorite site for open-ended travel exploration is Google Flights. Just enter your starting airport and a start date (and optionally an end date), leave the destination blank, and Google Flights can return you a map of the world with lowest one-way or round trip ticket prices for any destination (I assume this is powered by data from their ITA acquisition).

It looks like this (click it for a larger view).

You can use a price filter slider and drag it down in price to reduce the number of destinations. Now they just need to add in hotel pricing for all-in open-ended travel budgeting.

It's a luxury to be able to plan travel this way, but for those rare times when you can, this is a fun way to do it. I was using this just a few weeks ago and found a random discount fare to Taiwan, and now I'm onboard a flight there.

Once we all are wearing virtual reality goggles we'll undoubtedly be able to spin a virtual globe with this visualization mapped on top of it. Though I suppose, at that point, perhaps we'll just travel places virtually, for much lower prices.

Love letter to Point Break

There is absolutely nothing about Point Break that is not wonderful.  Even the bad parts (there are no bad parts).  You can watch this movie with anyone.  Your brother.  Your boyfriend.  Your crappy ex-boyfriend.  Your friends (all friends, over twenty years of your life).  Your students.  Maybe not your mother.  But maybe your mother-in-law.
But, this is not really what the movie is about.  Point Break is the most searing kind of love story—a love story in which its lovers only know in a very benighted way that they are in a love story.  Johnny Utah falls in love twice in the film.  First with his avatar, Tyler, a tiny, homuncular, foul-mouthed version of himself (played by Lori Petty).  Or, maybe the other love comes first—Johnny’s love for Bodhi (they call him the Bodhisattva, played with loose-jointed abandon by Patrick Swayze), the Zen-lite leader of a fierce gang of surfers. (Spoiler, he also leads the Ex-Presidents.  As Ronald Reagan).  You know that Johnny Utah has fallen in love with Bodhi when he chases him (in Reagan costume) down a series of narrow Los Angeles back-alleys, only to finally catch up with him in a drainage ditch. 
Leaping into the ditch, Johnny lands awkwardly on his bum knee (football) and collapses in agony to the ground.  At that moment, he catches Bodhi’s eye, small, pig-like and afraid-slash-defiant, through the Reagan mask and, ahem, unloads (his gun) furiously into the bland, grey Los Angeles sky.  Never mind that the sky is rarely bland in Los Angeles, this is the part of the movie that is the most realistic.  This is how love, when it’s frustratingly unrequited, feels.  Like you’re shooting bullet after bullet into a blank, low sky.

A profession of love to Point Break. Short, sweet. A love story.

Be the side(s) in your multi-sided market

Anyone who's tried to start a multi-sided market business (the most common being a two-sided marketplace, like eBay, with buyers and sellers) knows one of the first major challenges is the chicken-and-egg problem. In order to attract sellers, you need buyers, but in order to attract buyers, you need sellers. On a dating service, the two sides are obvious. And so on.

How to get out of this infinite loop of emptiness? Kickstart things by being one or more of the sides in your multi-sided market. In other words, fake it til you make it.

Seeding and Weeding
Dating services simulate initial traction by creating fake profiles and conversations. Users who come to the site see some activity and are incentivized to stay on. Marketplace sites may also show fake activity to attract buyers and sellers.
Seeding Demand
In the book, Paypal Wars, Eric M. Jackson talks about how PayPal grew a base of sellers who accepted PayPal by creating demand for the service among buyers. When Paypal figured that eBay was their key distribution platform, they came up with an ingenious plan to simulate demand. They created a bot that bought goods on eBay and then, insisted on paying for it using PayPal. Not only did sellers come to know about the service, they rushed onto it as it already seemed to be getting popular. The fact that it was way better than every other payment mechanism on eBay only helped repeated usage.

Other great war stories and tips within.

How to be Elon Musk

In response to the Quora thread “How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson?” Elon Musk's ex-wife Justine offered this great response.

Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider 'success', so know that you don't have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way. But if you're extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don't think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane. 
Be obsessed.
Be obsessed.
Be obsessed. 
If you're not obsessed, then stop what you're doing and find whatever does obsess you. It helps to have an ego, but you must be in service to something bigger if you are to inspire the people you need to help you  (and make no mistake, you will need them). That 'something bigger' prevents you from going off into the ether when people flock round you and tell you how fabulous you are when you aren't and how great your stuff is when it isn't. Don't pursue something because you "want to be great". Pursue something because it fascinates you, because the pursuit itself engages and compels you. Extreme people combine brilliance and talent with an *insane* work ethic, so if the work itself doesn't drive you, you will burn out or fall by the wayside or your extreme competitors will crush you and make you cry. 

The whole thing is great. However, if you're reading this, perhaps you already have no chance.

They are unlikely to be reading stuff like this. (This is *not* to slam or criticize people who do; I love to read this stuff myself.) They are more likely to go straight to a book: perhaps a biography of Alexander the Great or Catherine the Great* or someone else they consider Great. Surfing the 'Net is a deadly timesuck, and given what they know their time is worth -- even back in the day when technically it was not worth that -- they can't afford it.

Game theory of thrones

Peter Antonioni uses game theory to analyze the situation in Westeros to see if he can determine who will end up on the Iron Throne.

Game theory doesn’t look at behaviour so much as it looks at outcomes, assuming that people will choose the highest payoff if they can.

Martin even helps on a couple of occasions by spelling out those payoffs. Advising Joffrey, the fearsome Tywin Lannister gives a great example of what to do in a repeated game:
Joffrey, when your enemies defy you, you must serve them steel and fire. When they go to their knees, however, you must help them back to their feet. Elsewise no man will ever bend the knee to you.
This is a pretty good distillation of a what game theorists call tit-for-tat. If you start off with equal participants in a repeated game, the best overall strategies combine punishing transgression with forgiveness; there are variants, but all of them get better results than “all or nothing” punishment strategies such as the grim trigger.
Tywin’s strategy works in this case because it assumes a capability for punishment. In advising Joffrey, he’s not telling him how to gain the Iron Throne but how to hang on to it. The equilibrium stays stable as long as the Throne can dominate all of the potential competitors, as Aegon I could with his dragons. Then, rebellion is easily put down, and whatever the consequence to the smallfolk of Westeros, at least they don’t get the kind of devastation inflicted on the Riverlands by the War of the Five Kings.

The strategic maneuvering and statecraft are the most intriguing aspects of Game of Thrones. I'm less interested in the economics or religion, though I was amused by this proposal for a central bank in Westeros.

Overall, the rulers, religions, and other institutions of the known world all seem to lack the fundamental characteristics necessary to function as a central bank of Westeros. The difficulty of creating long lasting, independent, and benevolent institutions, I would argue, is why the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros use a commodity currency and lack monetary policy. But I don’t think a central bank in Westeros is impossible. In fact, there is one institution in the realm that does have these characteristics and could potentially serve as a central bank: the Night’s Watch.
The watch operates independently of the crown, has existed for thousands of years, and is dedicated to the public good. The longevity of the Watch is undebatable, as it was reportedly founded 8,000 years before the time of Game of Thrones.   Their staunch independence is evidenced by the nuetrality they maintained during the rebellion that unseated the Targaryens. The Watch’s military might ensures they can maintain that independence. Their dedication to the public good is seen in the mission of the Watch, which is the protection of the Seven Kingdoms.
Members of the watch currently serve in one of three groups: Rangers, Builders, and Stewards. It’s easy to imagine adding Economists as a fourth group, and adding price stability and full employment to oath that all members must swear to. Public acceptance would likely require the crown mandating that Night’s Watch currency be accepted as legal tender. But after that, the Night’s Watch could independently determine the money supply and even conduct monetary policy.

Sawmell Tarly, Westeros Fed Reserve Chairman?

Edward Tufte's grand truths about human behavior

Short, good. Some of my favorites:

"It is a principle that shines impartially on the just and the unjust that once you have a point of view all history will back you up." (Van Wyck Brooks)
All the world is multivariate.

Much of the world is distributed lognormally. 

In explanations of human activities, both muddling through and incompetence are under-estimated, and both rational optimizing and conspiracy over-estimated.

Nearly all self-assessments claim above-average performance.

"Upon expecting fair play in high places: You'll get it if enough folk are watching." ( J. P. Donleavy's variant of Wendell Phillips' "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.")


Interview with Jon Stewart

A few bits I dug from this good mini-profile of Jon Stewart:

Instead, he describes his decision to quit The Daily Show, the American satirical news programme he has hosted for 16 years, as something closer to the end of a long-term relationship. “It’s not like I thought the show wasn’t working any more, or that I didn’t know how to do it. It was more, ‘Yup, it’s working. But I’m not getting the same satisfaction.’” He slaps his hands on his desk, conclusively. 
“These things are cyclical. You have moments of dissatisfaction, and then you come out of it and it’s OK. But the cycles become longer and maybe more entrenched, and that’s when you realise, ‘OK, I’m on the back side of it now.’”
Like every TV celebrity, in person, Stewart is both better-looking than you expect and smaller, with his long torso making up most of his 5ft 7in, giving the illusion of height from behind his studio desk. He is dressed casually, and after years of watching him on TV wearing a suit, seeing him in a T-shirt and casual trousers feels almost like catching my father half-undressed.
Now that he is leaving The Daily Show, is there any circumstance in which he would watch Fox News again? He takes a few seconds to ponder the question. “Umm… All right, let’s say that it’s a nuclear winter, and I have been wandering, and there appears to be a flickering light through what appears to be a radioactive cloud and I think that light might be a food source that could help my family. I might glance at it for a moment until I realise, that’s Fox News, and then I shut it off. That’s the circumstance.”