Monthly Archives: July 2010

How to Cook Restaurant-Quality Food

Last year the always worthwhile Adam Gopnik wrote a great piece about cookbooks. Delightful reading for anyone unusually interested in cooking. For the rest of us, there was one big overarching practical nugget:

…hyper-seasoning, and, in particular, high salting, is a big part of what makes pro cooks’ food taste like pro cooks’ food….

Mark Peel, in his Campanile cookbook, comes near to giving the game away: “We chefs all lie about our mashed potatoes,” he admits. “We don’t tell you we’ve used 1½ pounds of cream and butter with 1¾ pounds of potatoes. You don’t need to know.” (Joël Robuchon, the king of his generation of French cooks, first became famous for a purée that had an even higher proportion of butter beaten into starch.)…

After reading hundreds of cookbooks, you may have the feeling that every recipe, every cookbook, is an attempt to get you to attain this ideal sugarsalt-saturated-fat state without having to see it head on, just as every love poem is an attempt to maneuver a girl or a boy into bed by talking as fast, and as eloquently, as possible about something else.

I've learned a bit about cooking over the past several months. Below, I add two points of advice to Gopnik's:

1. Add salt.

2. Buy rotisserie chickens from the supermarket.

3. Buy a rice cooker.

Tacit Liberal Support of Afghanistan War

MoveOn.org, one of the most influential liberal organizations in American politics, tops its homepage today with this key issue: “Rescue government from corporations and lobbyists.”

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in the longest war in U.S. history, costing billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and ironically “increasing and multiplying the terror threats we face”…and there is no end in sight.

If John McCain were president making the same decisions as Barack Obama on the war in Afghanistan — sending 30,000 more troops, backpedaling on withdrawal dates — my liberal friends would be in the streets protesting. Instead, liberals are peddling decades-old lines about corporate greed. Is the glamour of Barack Obama really so strong that they quietly accept his agenda even if they disagree?

I am not qualified to analyze Afghanistan in a serious way. I have never been there, I have never served in the military, I know little about the region. But from everything I read, it appears the counterinsurgency operation right now is a clusterfuck. If you read about the history of Afghanistan, perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. In George Friedman’s credible analysis, these sentences stood out: “The United States is trying to invent a national army where no nation exists, a task that assumes the primary loyalty of Afghans will shift from their clans to a national government, an unlikely proposition.”

Andrew Sullivan has been heating up the rhetoric on Obama:

This much we also know: Obama will run for re-election with far more troops in Afghanistan than Bush ever had – and a war and occupation stretching for ever into the future, with no realistic chance of success. Make no mistake: this is an imperialism of self-defense, a commitment to civilize even the least tractable culture on earth because Americans are too afraid of the consequences of withdrawal. And its deepest irony is that continuing this struggle will actually increase and multiply the terror threats we face – as it becomes once again a recruitment tool for Jihadists the world over.

Or here:

This is a war based on fear, premised on a contradiction, and doomed to carry on against reason and resources for the rest of our lives. Maybe this is why you supported Obama – to see the folly of nation-building extended indefinitely to the least promising wastelands on earth, as the US heads toward late-imperial bankruptcy. It is not a betrayal as such. But it is, in my view, a huge and metastasizing mistake.

So will Obama’s liberal base — the people he must listen to more than any other — speak up? Will they acknowledge that not actively opposing Obama’s insane escalation of the war in Afghanistan constitutes tacit support?

Andreessen: Smart = Curiosity + Drive

In a video interview with Fortune magazine (embed below), Marc Andreessen says that in the context of early stage entrepreneurship, smart = curiosity + drive. He says an entrepreneur should be curious their whole life (presumably about the world in general) and then when starting the company be curious about the company, industry, etc.

This is kind of surprising to me. I take ‘curious their whole life’ to mean they’re curious about many different things. I take ‘curious about the company’ to mean curious about the company in a monogamous, all-consuming, obsessive way.

What’s the likelihood that someone who’s generally curious can turn off that radar for 5-10 years and focus the curiosity on one thing? Do “curious” and “obsessive” go together in one human package with any frequency?

Or if not, is Marc saying that an entrepreneur can be intensely curious about the company at the same as being curious (at a noted level) about the world in general? If this is the case, is the entrepreneur requirement of crazy focus a myth?

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Here is my old post asking whether you’d rather hang out with business people or academics if you wanted to maximize interestingness. The comments section is outstanding. As of now, my ideal life is working with entrepreneurs (broadly defined) all day, but having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with journalists and academics. With entrepreneurs you get driven people who want to change the world. With public intellectuals you get big thinkers who are relentlessly curious.

Of my icons list of nine people, three are entrepreneurs, two are academics, two are political thinkers, one writer, one comedian. This analysis of Where’s Waldo makes me want to add Werner Herzog to the list.

Cached Thoughts in Conversation

Kaj Sotala, on LessWrong, says that in oral conversation he frequently has trouble formulating sentences and thoughts fast enough to keep up. His solution: cached thoughts.

Both of these problems are solvable by having a sufficiently well built-up storage of cached thoughts that I don’t need to generate everything in real time. On the occasions when a conversations happens to drift into a topic I’m sufficiently familiar with, I’m often able to overcome the limitations and contribute meaningfully to the discussion. This implies two things. First, that I need to generate cached thoughts in more subjects than I currently have. Seconds, that I need an ability to more reliably steer conversation into subjects that I actually do have cached thoughts about.

I agree it’s hard to think new thoughts in real-time. 90% of the things I say in conversation are probably formulations of stuff I’ve already said / written / thought about.

But if the most fluid conversations between two people rely on each person drawing upon the appropriate cached thought to suit the moment, doesn’t this mean that neither party is learning very much or generating new thoughts?

Possibly. However, in oral conversation there is spontaneity and randomness. You can never be certain where a conversation will lead. The joy is in following a conversation’s natural arc.

Real-time interaction with another mind can introduce — in the same frame, in the same moment — two or three of four cached thoughts you have never before thought about at the same time. In this way, conversation can still be a learning device inasmuch as it helps you make connections among your existing ideas and knowledge. Oral conversation may not generate brand new thoughts, but it can enrich and make interconnected your old ones.

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Here’s my popular post on in-person conversation skills. Here are annoying conversation stoppers.

What I’ve Been Reading

A few highlights.

1. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Montefiore. The satisfying feeling of finishing a 600 page biography! It delivered knowledge and entertainment on a remarkably high percentage of its pages. Montefiore brings to life both the man and moment thanks to lots of dialogue which draws on new archive material. I knew little about Stalin going in other than that he was a mass murderer of epic proportions. I came away horrified at the extent of his brutality, yet intrigued / confused by his apparent normalcy. Among other things, he was highly intellectual, and honest-thinking about emotional issues relating to his family and his loneliness. Montefiore conveys this humanity without dulling the main story which is death and evilness. By the end of the section on the Great Terror the numbers are mind-boggling. 700,000 killed in the Great Terror alone. “Stalin had more lives on his conscience than Hitler.”

As part of my learn-history-through-biography approach, I especially enjoyed getting the Russian perspective on Stalin’s meetings with Roosevelt and Truman at Potsdam and comparing it to Truman’s account as told in McCullough’s spellbinding biography. Having now read about Truman and Stalin, I’m next going to read Mao, Churchill, and Roosevelt biographies.

2. Behind the Cloud: The Untold Story of How Salesforce.com Went from Idea to Billion-Dollar Company-and Revolutionized an Industry by Marc Benioff and Caryle Adler. Marc and Carlye do a great job of telling the story of salesforce.com and sharing the lessons. Most books like this stink. This one doesn’t. The storytelling is well-executed, the lessons are for the most part original or at least told in a compelling way, and there’s plenty of non-business musings on philosophy and philanthropy which are provocative.

Nine times out of ten, companies fail because they don’t set up a large enough sales force and thus have no way to collect enough revenue. Don’t skimp on sales reps: 25 to 50 percent of the employee base should be salespeople who report to the head of sales. (Half of our company is in sales.) ….

I played the role of revolutionary at our launch party and even wore army fatigues because I needed to demonstrate that I was ready to lead our battle against the established software industry.

I recommend this book to anyone in the software industry.

3. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need by Dan Pink. I try to follow whatever Pink is writing / doing / thinking. This is a short career guide broken into six rules and presented in Japanese manga form. The format just works. The advice is solid — and more sophisticated than the graphic format would suggest — though anyone who’s up on this stuff will find points such as intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation somewhat familiar. This would be a good gift to anyone in their teens or 20’s who’s not particularly bookish.

Living Out the “Do One Thing That Scares You” Advice

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “Do one thing each day that scares you.” Last week I did one thing that scared me: I attended an introductory hip-hop dance class.

Who doesn’t want to dance better? Is it possible to watch this flash mob at Ole Miss dancing to Jai Ho without wanting to be teleported to that cafeteria and join in? Or watch my Spanish teachers in Santiago perform their rendition of Shakira’s Waka-Waka without cheering them on? (The official version was watched 70 million times in one month.) Still, the thought of letting it loose on a real dance floor makes many a heart pound — including mine. Heeding Roosevelt’s dictum, though, I added “hip hop dance class” to my June to-do list.

On the appointed night, I put on my Nike Air Max gray sneakers, my gray sweatpants which I’ve owned for 8 years, and my Air Force Academy gray hooded sweatshirt. (Hood up. Obviously.) I made my way over to the Bellavista neighborhood not sure what to expect. I found the building, pre-paid $10 for the one-hour class and waited nervously in the locker room area. Because I was taller than the walls of both the women’s and men’s locker room, I stood in the hallway with my head politely down, and gathered my composure, B-Rabbit style.

The dance room looked like a yoga studio except the speakers were big and blaring and the front mirror stretched wall-to-wall. Each of the 20 students found a place in the room. Without any introductory remarks, the teacher turned on loud dance music and began to lead us in stretches. Five minutes later we began to go step-by-step through a choreographed dance to a generic dance beat.

Almost immediately, I fell behind. Having never taken a dance class or in any way moved my body to a beat, I was lumbering, awkward, inflexible, and incompetent. While I can usually handle myself on a dance floor where there are no rules, keeping up with the (mostly) girls around me who moved briskly through each choreographed stage was impossible. If I wasn’t a step or two behind everyone else, I was instead frozen as I had forgotten the next step in the sequence. I was quite clearly the worst in the class.

As I sat at KFC afterwards reflecting on the class, a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, I knew I’d get a blog post out of the night, which tends to justify most new experiences. Second, there are not many things I do where I am truly the worst. I wouldn’t call it “humbling” — the most cliche of lessons these days, isn’t it? — but hip hop dance did put me out of my comfort zone and generated feelings of frustration I haven’t felt for years. Finally, I’m confident that if I took 5-10 classes I could become halfway decent. There’s a lesson in here about the power of practice.

Bottom Line: As we get older we tend to do stuff we already know we’re good at. Experimenting outside this zone of competence can be fun, mind-expanding, and even a bit scary.

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One year ago I received an epic, unforgettable Chinese massage in Beijing. The short version of a Chinese massage is you’re thrown into a co-ed room with others, the lights are bright, you lie on a futon naked, an overweight old woman comes in and slaps your ass, stuffs her fingers into your ears, pounds your head with clenched fists, grabs your balls, gives you scalding hot tea halfway through, and then 10 seconds after she finishes she hands you a feedback form to fill in on what you thought of the experience.

Strictly for purposes of comparison, over the weekend I got one-hour massage in Santiago. Not everything in Chile is cheap, but some things like apartments and lunch menus can be had at third world prices. Apparently massages too: USD $14 for an hour! The basic Chilean massage is more dignified than the Chinese. Suave music in the background, a dark room, a gentle masseuse. The only oddity was that the massuse didn’t touch my quads or buttocks — two of the largest muscle groups on the body. Instead, she obsessed with my feet. I happen to have very ticklish toes and feet. When she grabbed them, I left my meditative state, started sweating, and gripped the massage table. My leg convulsed with every touch. None of this dented her enthusiasm. In the face of such stress, all of my usted conjugations escaped me, so I said nothing except curse under my breath. I’m 0-2 with massages the last two years.

July 4th Fun Fact of the Day

I've been abroad the last four July 4ths.

2007: Italy

2008: Costa Rica

2009: Argentina

2010: Chile

How to Get Hired

Derek Sivers, who started CD Baby and sold it to eBay, generally writes great stuff. However, I think he misfires in his recent post How to Get Hired. His advice for landing a job is:

1. Focus on one company

2. Tell them how much you want to work for them

3. Be persistent (though succinct)

4. Do this until hired

There's more detail under each step over at his post. I agree with the general principle that instead of blasting your resume out to a hundred firms you should be more strategic and proactive and very persistent in your follow-up.

The gaping hole in the advice is simple: How do you know which company to focus on and relentlessly pitch? Under Step 1, he writes: "Do some soul-searching to decide what you really want to do." Those are 12 words of a 432 word post. Yet it's the hardest thing to do.

Calling it "soul searching" is problematic. Had he said, "Figure out which company you want to work for," it would have left open the possibility to arrive at the answer in various ways. But by saying one needs to search one's soul, it furthers two myths that I see.

The first is that we all have one or two things we are destined to do. In fact, I think you can become good (and thus) really interested in a range of things. The second is that the way to find what you "really want to do" is through inspection and reflection. In fact, introspection seems never to bear the fruit you're promised; personal discoveries and self-knowledge seem sooner found via experiments and activity.

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Here's Derek's great post on how to hire a programmer to make your idea happen. Here's his thoughtful post titled A real person, a lot like you, about how the web can sometimes make us forget that a real person is behind the other computer you're interacting with.