10 more browser tabs

Still trying to clear out browser tabs, though it's going about as well as my brief flirtation with inbox zero. At some point, I just decided inbox zero was a waste of time, solving a problem that didn't exist, but browser tab proliferation is a problem I'm much more complicit in.

1. Why the coming-of-age narrative is a conformist lie

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.
 
‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
 

I've written about this before, but almost always, the worst type of film festival movie is about a young white male protagonist coming of age. Often he's quiet, introverted, but he has a sensitive soul. As my first year film school professor said, these protagonists are inert, but they just "feel things." Think Wes Bentley in American Beauty filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind for fifteen minutes with a camcorder, then showing it to a girl as if it's Citizen Kane.

If they have any scars or wounds, they are compensated for with extreme gifts. Think Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver; cursed with tinnitus since childhood, he listens to music on a retro iPod (let's squeeze some nostalgic product placement in here, what the hell, we're also going to give him a deaf black foster father to stack the moral cards in his favor, might as well go all the way) and is, that's right, the best getaway driver in the business.

Despite having about as much personality as a damp elephant turd, their beautiful souls are both recognized and extracted by a trope which this genre of film invented just for this purpose, the manic pixie dream girl.

[Nathan Rabin, who invented the term manic pixie dream girl, has since disavowed the term as sometimes misogynist, and it can be applied too broadly like a hammer seeking nails, but it doesn't undo the reality that largely white male writing blocs, from guilds to writer's rooms, aren't great at writing women or people of color with deep inner lives.]

This is tangential to the broader point, that the coming-of-age story as a genre is, in and of itself, a lie. It reminds me of the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, the classic book from James Carse. The Hollywood film has always promised a finite game, and thus it's a story that must have an ending. Coming-of-age is an infinite game, or at least until death, and so we should all be skeptical of its close-ended narrative.

(h/t Michael Dempsey)

2. Finite and Infinite Games and The Confederate

This isn't a browser tab, really, but while I'm on the topic of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, a book which provides a framework with which so much of the world can be bifurcated, and while I'm thinking about the white male dominated Hollywood profession, I can't help but think of the TV project The Confederate, by the showrunners of Game of Thrones.

"White people” is seen by many whites as a pejorative because it lowers them to a racial class whereas before they were simply the default. They are not accustomed to having spent their entire lives being named in almost every piece of culture as a race, the way women, people of color, and the union of the two are, every single day, by society and culture.

All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter is to pretend that we're all playing the same finite game when almost everyone who are losers in that game know it is not true. Blacks do not feel like they “won” the Civil War; every day today they live with the consequences and the shadow of America's founding racism, every day they continue to play a game that is rigged against them. That is why Ta Nehisi Coates writes that the question of The Confederate is a lie, and that only the victors of this finite game of America would want to relitigate the Civil War in some Alt History television show for HBO. It's as if a New England Patriot fan asked an Atlanta Falcons fan to watch last year's Super Bowl again, with Armie Hammer playing Tom Brady.

“Give us your poor, your huddled” is a promise that the United States is an infinite game, an experiment that struggles constantly towards bettering itself, evening the playing field, such that even someone starting poor and huddled might one day make a better life and escape their beginning state. That is why Stephen Miller and other white nationalists spitting on that inscription on the Statue of Liberty is so offensive, so dangerous.

On society, Carse writes:

The prizes won by its citizens can be protected only if the society as a whole remains powerful in relation to other societies. Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play. 
 
Because power is inherently patriotic, is is characteristic of finite players to seek a growth of power in a society as a way of increasing the power of a society.
 

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem is seen as unpatriotic by many in America, including the wealthy white owners of such teams, which is not surprising, as racism is a form of patriotism, per Carse, and part and parcel of American society when defined as a finite game.

Donald Trump and his large adult sons are proof of just how powerful the inheritance of title and money are in America, and the irony that they are elected by those who feel that successive rounds of finite games have started to be rigged against them is not lost on anyone, not even, I suspect, them. One could argue they need to take a lesson from those oppressed for far longer as to how a turn to nihilism works out in such situations.

Those attacking Affirmative Action want to close off the American experiment and turn it into a series of supposedly level finite games because they have accumulated a healthy lead in this game and wish to preserve it in every form.

White nationalists like Trump all treat America as not just a finite game, but a zero sum finite game. The idea of immigrants being additive to America, to its potential, its output, is to treat America as an infinite game, open-ended. The truth lies, as usual, between the poles, but closer to the latter.

Beware the prophet who comes with stories of zero-sum games, or as Jim Collins once wrote, beware the "tyranny of the or." One of my definitions of leadership is the ability to turn zero-sum into positive sum games.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Running Out of People to Offend

Speaking of fatigue with white male protagonists:

But if Larry David’s casual cruelty mirrors the times more than ever, the show might still fit awkwardly in the current moment. Watching the première of Season 9 on Sunday night, I kept thinking of a popular line from George Costanza, David’s avatar on “Seinfeld”: “You know, we’re living in a society!” Larry, in this first episode of the season, seems to have abandoned society altogether. In the opening shot, the camera sails over a tony swath of L.A., with no people and only a few cars visible amid the manicured lawns and terra-cotta roofs. It descends on Larry’s palatial, ivy-walled house, where he showers alone, singing Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” and bludgeoning a bottle of soap. (Its dispenser pump is broken—grounds for execution under the David regime.) He’s the master of his domain, yes, but only by default: no one else is around.
 
“Curb” has always felt insulated, and a lot of its best jokes are borne of the fact that Larry’s immense wealth has warped his world view over the years. (On the most recent season he had no compunction about spending a princely sum on Girl Scout Cookies, only to rescind the order out of spite.) But the beginning of Season 9 offers new degrees of isolation. Like a tech bro ensconced in a hoodie and headphones, Larry seems to have removed himself almost entirely from public life. Both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” like to press the limits of etiquette and social mores, but the latter often tested these on subway cars and buses, in parks or on the street. Much of “Curb,” by contrast, unfolds in a faceless Los Angeles of air-conditioned mansions, organic restaurants, and schmoozy fund-raisers, a long chain of private spaces. The only time Larry encounters a true stranger, it’s in the liminal zone between his car and the lobby of Jeff’s office. She’s a barber on her way to see Jeff at work—even haircuts happen behind closed doors now.
 

Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable

Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
 

If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man. 

In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.

Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.

Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.

[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]

4. Nathan for You

I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.

Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:

My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
 

If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.

For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.

For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.

In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.

But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.

[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]

BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?

What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?

It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.

5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere

I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.

So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.

6. Tuning AIs through captchas

Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.

AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"

7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker

I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:

But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
 
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the after­noon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
 

By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.

More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:

My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
 

So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:

The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
 

Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.

Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.

Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
 
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
 

Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls. 

He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.

What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.

8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus

Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.

Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.

I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.

I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."

Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.

9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights

When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.

What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.

What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.

This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.

As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.

A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?

The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.

Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.

I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.

People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.

10. Raising a teenage daughter

Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.

It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.

[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]

This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

How to spot a food critic

From an interview with Ruth Reichl.

There are very few food critics you can’t find a picture of. Go on the Internet and circulate them to your staff. I went out with a big deal critic this week, and I was kind of stunned that he was not recognized in the restaurant we went to. His picture is everywhere.
 
There are a few really obvious things. If you’ve got a four-top and you’ve got four different appetizers, four different main courses, and four different desserts, probably you’ve got a food critic there. Usually two people will want the Steak Diane, or something.
 
If people are passing the plates around, see who they’re going to. Every critic has to taste everything on the table. A sharp-eyed waiter will notice people are actually passing plates around or passing a bread plate with a taste to one person at the table.
 
I never got up and went to the bathroom, because it was another opportunity for someone who is not my waiter to spot me. But most critics go to the bathroom to take notes. If someone is going at the end of every course, it may be a giveaway that it’s a critic.
 
Another sign is if you see someone coming in twice at a time when no one wants to eat. When you’re a critic, if you can go at 5:30 you go at 5:30, and if you can go at 10:30 you go at 10:30. If you see the same person come in twice at 5:30 or 10:30, take a look at them. Why are they agreeing to come at odd times? Especially early reservations are a good giveaway.
 

All of us who aren't restaurant critics can read this as "how to impersonate a food critic."

However, in this day and age of Yelp, the real answer to the question of how to spot a food critic is to open your eyes. Everyone's a critic. It's no longer necessary to pretend to be a food critic to receive attentive service. It can be a bit much, these often entitled trauma narratives disguised as restaurant reviews on Yelp, but it's progress that discriminatory service is less of an issue.

This, from Reichl, seems like just sensible advice in general for dealing with criticism in this age since you can take slings and arrows from any direction if you so much as set up a presence on the internet.

What would you say to a restaurateur who’s thinking about responding to a bad review? 
 
I would follow the Danny Meyer model. Good review or bad, I never wrote a review that Danny Meyer didn’t send me a personal note, always thoughtful and not defensive. If it was a bad review, it was thank you for pointing this out, and I’ll deal with it. If it was a good review, he always added something to it. I think you have nothing to lose by writing a thoughtful note or response to a critic. You have everything to lose by writing a nasty note. The nastier the note you write, the more it will be picked up by social media and the worse it will be for you. No matter how angry you get about it, imagine a million people reading your response. Whining gets you nowhere.

Optimal pricing for bread and circuses

A survey (pdf) by Anthony Krautmann and David Berri has found that most fans in many popular sports pay less for their tickets than conventional economic theory would predict.
 
Which poses the question: are team owners therefore irrational?
 
Not necessarily. There are (at least?) four justifications for such apparent under-pricing.
 

Lots of things in the real world are underpriced. Most popular concerts and sporting contests lose some volume of revenue to aftermarket transactions on sites like StubHub and SeatGeek. It's nearly impossible to get a reservation at some of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco like State Bird Provisions. There's a waiting list for NOMA Sydney that's 27,000 people long.

If you were pricing to maximize revenue, to match supply and demand exactly, you'd boost prices or perhaps auction off all the seats. What would NOMA Sydney have to charge until its waiting list dropped to zero? I can't even begin toguess, but would it surprise you if it was well north of $2,000 a head for dinner?

Given all of that, I was curious to see what this author thought might explain football ticket underpricing.

The first argument is that underpricing tickets leaves more revenue to be gathered through ancillary sales like souvenirs or overpriced concessions. Without data, I'm skeptical. My instinct is that concession and souvenir sales are less elastic with ticket prices than hypothesized.

The second point is that it's better to have a full stadium for team morale and to influence the officiating. But again, you could sell tickets via a mechanism like a Dutch Auction and maximize revenue while still filling the stadium.

The other two arguments are more convincing.

Thirdly, higher ticket prices can have adverse compositional effects: they might price out younger and poorer fans but replace them with tourists – the sort who buy those half-and-half scarves and should, therefore be shot on sight. This increases uncertainty about longer-term revenues: a potentially life-long loyal young supporter is lost and a more fickle one is gained. It also diminishes home advantage: refs are more likely to give dodgy decisions in front of thousands of screaming Scousers than in front quiet Japanese tourists.
 

I went to a couple games at the old Chicago Stadium, during Jordan's early years with the Bulls, and that place was loud. When they moved to the United Center and the ticket prices went way up, the crowd felt different. More wealthy, and definitely not as loud. It could just be the acoustics of the new space, but anecdotally, I saw fewer fans standing and screaming. Also, the rise of the smartphone means more of the dead moments in a game are filled with people scrolling on their phones, quietly.

Fourthly, high ticket prices can make life harder for owners. They raise fans’ expectations: if you’re spending £50 to see a game you’ll expect better football than if you spend just £10: I suspect that a big reason why Arsene Wenger has been criticised so much in recent years is not so much that Arsenal’s performances have been poor but because high prices have raised expectations. 
 

It's hard to lower prices. Some sports teams may have done it at some point, but I've never seen it. You can raise prices when the team is good and on the rise, but those prices tend to stick when the team declines, and that's when stadiums start to empty out.

Saison is the restaurant in San Francisco that feels closest to pricing to match supply and demand. When I first moved to San Francisco, I had a meal there for $79. The next time there, the meal price had jumped over $100. Then the next time, it was up to $149. Later I heard the tasting menu had risen yet again to $248. The last time I went, thankfully on some banker's expense account, the price was $398 for dinner.

The dining room is usually full, but it's usually possible to get a table the same week. It feels like they've finally reached a price that about as close as you can get to where the supply and demand curves meet. Since the number of seats and turns is limited each night, perhaps this is revenue maximizing pricing, but the margin of error is razor thin.

My guess is that optimal pricing is somewhere below the price that matches supply and demand perfectly. Always being sold out adds a feeling of exclusivity, and no one knows how sold out you are, so being just sold out may be as good from a perception standpoint as being having a massive waiting list.

At the same time, I have a sneaking suspicion continuing to raise the price of a dinner would actually raise demand at some high end restaurants. There may be some Veblen-like qualities to restaurant pricing.

The lady had dropped her napkin

The lady had dropped her napkin.
 
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
 
Such is Per Se’s mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurant’s identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef, Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise. So I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy.
 
But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011, its most recent review in The New York Times, needs a hard look.
 

Pete Wells of the NYTimes drops Per Se from 4 stars to 2.

I have no idea if Wells is right or not, but I can't think of too many other food writers who can make a restaurant review as pleasurable to read. Writing about food is like writing about music; language can feel like an inadequate medium for describing something which we experience through our senses, bypassing the symbolic representations of words. Wells avoids those traps by, in large part, not trying to describe tastes.

The Hottest Restaurant of 2081

Matt Buchanan conjures an interview with New York's hottest chef...of the year 2081.

On a warm, very yellow November morning, I met the chef Paul Nova in front of his new restaurant, Farm & Table, which is finally set to open next week after two years of intensely secret research and development. 2081’s most anticipated new opening occupies the first flood-safe floor of a six-story trapezoid of condos, but it's a remarkable contrast to the checkerboard of glass and steel that wraps around the top five stories—bright, heavy wood doors open into a room of fifty seats that's lit by scavenged orange incandescent bulbs, littered with the occasional hunk of heirloom cast-iron industrial equipment. Otherwise, the space is a collection of all-wood everything, from wall to wall to wall—festooned with the occasional animal trophy, half of the species extinct—that looks and feels sturdy and knotted, not like re-composited bamboo or synthetics, but old, lived-in wood from trees that once grew tall and strong.
 
Nova’s new project is both of a piece and pointedly different from his first megahit restaurant. Toro! Toro! Toro! was a revival of the clubby, twentieth-century fin de siècle sushi restaurants where Nova’s exquisitely perfect reproductions of extinct fish—in terms of fidelity of texture and clarity of flavor, years beyond practically any other plant-based replication of seafood in the last decade—revealed him as a trailblazer in the medium of engineered protein. Predictably, it spawned wave after wave of imitators, and while no one has come close to his craftsmanship or success, the rumors are that with his second revivalist restaurant, Nova is pushing beyond optimized protein to a new horizon, one that has been uncharted for years: real meat.
 

I often ask people what common practice of today will be regarded by subsequent generations as horrific, because it's inevitable, isn't it? As much as I'd like to say retweeting praise, I'm more confident that we'll look back on our raising of animals in horrific conditions for our consumption to be abhorrent.

That's not the only thing Buchanan imagines will be an opportunity for nostalgia in 2081.

The biggest aspect of it, besides the real food, will be real service. We're going a step further than Toro! Toro! Toro!, and you won't even interact with any software when you come in: We're going to have human hosts in these wonderful knit hats and chambray shirts and classic selvedge jeans who take you to your seat, another human who takes your order, and another who brings the food to you, and yet another who clears the table. I don't know any other restaurant that will have as many bodies as ours will, certainly not as carefully adorned in period dress.
 
You'll even get the bill written down on paper—we found a lot of these GREAT vintage Moleskine pads, very period—and you'll pay a separate small fee, like twenty percent, to the servers if they do a good job. (It sounds weird, but people used to do this routinely! We're including a keepsake booklet for every guest that explains how to figure out the amount.) We're even chucking dynamic pricing for this restaurant. The only things that'll be different than how it used to be back then is that you can't pay with paper like people used to, because of the blockchain, though if we could figure out a way to make that work, we totally would.

Can kitchens be happier?

Rene Redzepi of Noma fame wonders if it's possible to for restaurant kitchens to be something other than terrifying dictatorships.

I started cooking in a time when it was common to see my fellow cooks get slapped across the face for making simple mistakes, to see plates fly across a room, crashing into someone who was doing his job too slowly. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be called a worthless cunt or worse. It wasn’t uncommon to reach for a pan only to find that someone had stuck the handle in the fire and then put it back on my station just to mess with me.
 
I watched chefs—mine and others—use bullying and humiliation to wring results out of their cooks. I would think to myself: Why is that necessary? I’ll never be like that.
 
But then I became a chef. I had my own restaurant, with my own money invested, with the weight of all the expectation in the world. And within a few months I started to feel something rumbling inside of me. I could feel it bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. And then one day the lid came flying off. The smallest transgressions sent me into an absolute rage: Why the hell have you not picked the thyme correctly? Why have you overcooked the fish? What is wrong with you? Suddenly I was going crazy about someone’s mise en place or some small thing they said wrong.
 

I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen, but I know many people who have, and I've always been struck by the horrifying stories of chefs dressing down their staff in front of everyone else,ten bordering on physical abuse. How did that become the norm? Is it just an inherited playbook with just one strategy in it? Are the staff not trained properly before getting into the kitchen? Are the expectations unreasonable?

What of other professions where screaming and throwing objects at underlings is the norm? I can think of some technology CEOs and movie directors, many TV show runners, coaches in certain sports...perhaps the popularity of such a management style across all these disparate areas has common roots.

Decoding restaurants

Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of restaurant desegregation, we celebrated a signifying moment in the long march toward full and equal citizenship for black Americans. But we delude ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that there is a difference between being admitted and being welcomed.
 
The court order that ended desegregation stipulated that every cafe, tavern, Waffle House, and roadside joint must open its doors to all. It did not, could not, stipulate that whites in the South must also open their hearts and minds to all. Welcome was, and is, the final barrier to racial parity.
 
We have witnessed remarkable progress over the past five decades, yes, and we should acknowledge this, too. What seemed fanciful, even utopian, a generation ago is now so commonplace as to not bear any comment at all. We have come to expect and accept black and white in the workplace, on the playing field, in politics, in the military, and we congratulate ourselves on our steady march to racial harmony. But our neighborhoods and our restaurants do not look much different today than they did fifty years ago. That Kingly vision of sitting down at the same table together and breaking bread is as smudgy as it’s ever been.
 

Todd Kliman set out to try to understand why, decades after desegregation, so few restaurants host a mixed clientele of black and white. Of course, the issues is about more than just restaurants. The questions he asks and the theories he uncovers can be pointed at bars, clubs, neighborhoods, and schools.

It was a man named Andy Shallal who helped me to understand the possibilities for a better, more integrated future while also reinforcing the manifold problems of the present. Shallal made me understand that no one ever need say, “keep out.” That a message is embedded in the room, in the menu, in the plates and silverware, in the music, in the color scheme. That a restaurant is a network of codes. It’s a phrase that, yes, has all sorts of overtones and undertones, still, in the South. I’m using it, here, in the semiotic sense—the communication by signs and symbols and patterns.
 
I don’t see coding as inherently malicious. But we need to remember that restaurants have long existed to perpetuate a class of insiders and a class of outsiders, the better to cultivate an air of desirability. Tablecloths, waiters in jackets and ties, soft music—these are all forms of code. They all send a very specific, clear message. That is, they communicate without words (and so without incurring a legal risk or inviting criticism or censure from the public) the policy, the philosophy, the aim of the establishment.
 
Today, there are many more forms of code than the old codes of the aristocracy. Bass-thumping music. Cement floors and lights dangling from the ceiling. Tattooed cooks. But these are still forms of code. They simultaneously send an unmistakable signal to the target audience and repel all those who fall outside that desired group.
 

The same codes are at work in websites and applications, though they often act subconsciously. Color, typography, imagery, layout, and so many other aspects of the user experience make different users feel more welcome than others.

Is your service more welcoming to the old or the young? Women or men? One ethnicity or another? The rich or the poor? The tech savvy or those less so? Those with fast internet access or those without? The visually inclined or the more textually focused? To new users or longtime users? The famous or the not-so-famous? Content creators or consumers?

It's rare the service that is perfectly neutral.

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.