A Nightly Dinner Out as Therapy

Harry Rosen is 103 years old and lives in New York City. He made a fortune in his life in America as a supply company owner, after fleeing the pograms of Russia, having arrived to Ellis Island with his family. These days, he goes out to fancy restaurants in the city, which he considers his therapy:

“I haven’t eaten dinner home in many years,” said Mr. Rosen, who tried singles groups and other activities after his wife of 70 years, Lillian, died five years ago, when she was 95.

But nothing brought him the comfort of a fine restaurant.

“It’s my therapy, it lifts my spirits,” he said Wednesday evening while examining the menu with a magnifying glass at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street.

Twice a week, a server there greets him, walks him to his usual corner table and brings his regular glass of chardonnay, his appetizer of raw salmon and tuna, and then the swordfish, skin removed, with vegetables specially puréed for his dentures to handle.

“The food and the ambience, it’s my therapy — it gives me energy,” he said.

His favorite restaurants are Café Boulud on East 76th Street, Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, and Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street.

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Paul Saffo in 1993: The Written Word Remains

In the May/June 1993 issue of Wired, Paul Saffo reflected on digital media and the proliferation of video and virtual reality. But, true today as it was twenty years ago, he explained that our core still remains with text:

In fact, the written word doesn’t just remain; it is flourishing like kudzu vines at the boundaries of the digital revolution. The explosion of e-mail traffic on the Internet represents the largest boom in letter writing since the 18th century. Today’s cutting-edge infonauts are flooding cyberspace with gigabyte upon gigabyte of ASCII musings.

But we hardly notice this textual explosion because, mercifully, it is in large part paperless. Vague clouds of electrons flitting to and fro over the Net have replaced pulverized trees lugged by postal carriers. This has spared our landfills, but it has also obscured a critical media shift. Words have been decoupled from paper. Like the stuff of Horace’s affection, text is still comprised of 26 letters, but freed from the entombing, distancing oppression of paper, it has become as novel as the hottest new media.

In fact, our electronic novelties are transforming the word as profoundly as the printing press did half a millennium ago. For starters, we are smashing arbitrary print-centric boundaries among author, editor, and audience. These categories did not exist before the invention of moveable type, and they will not survive this decade. Just as monk scriveners at once wrote, edited, and read, information surfers browsing online services today routinely play all three roles: selectively scanning, absorbing, editing, and creating on-the-fly in real time. The printing press gave life and reach to the word, but at the terrible cost of making text formal and immutable. Printed words became as immobile as flies in amber, and readers knew that they could look, but not change.

Electronic text has become a new medium that combines print’s fixity with a manuscript-like mutability. Flick a key and volumes of text disappear in virtual smoke; flick another and they are replicated over the Net in a flash. Severed from unreliable paper, text has become all but inextinguishable. E-mail passed between Oliver North and his Iran- Contra conspirators survived numerous attempts at expungement, and now resides in the National Security Archives for all to inspect, even as historians naively lament that the switch to electronic media is depriving them of important research fodder. They needn’t worry; paper may be on the skids, but text is eternal.

Immortality may be the least of the surprises that this new medium of electronic text will deliver. Video enthusiasts are quick to argue that images are intrinsically more compelling than words, but they ignore a quality unique to text. While video is received by the eyes, text resonates in the mind. Text invites our minds to complete the word-based images it serves up, while video excludes such mental extensions. Until physical brain-to-machine links become a reality, text will offer the most direct of paths between the mind and the external world.

Video suffers from a deeper problem, one of ever diminishing reliability in the face of ever more capable morphing technologies. By decade’s end, we will look back at 1992 and wonder how a video of police beating a citizen could move Los Angeles to riot. The age of camcorder innocence will evaporate as teenage morphers routinely manipulate the most prosaic of images into vivid, convincing fictions. We will no longer trust our eyes when observing video-mediated reality. Text will emerge as a primary indicator of trustworthiness, and images will transit the Net as multimedia surrounded by a bodyguard of words, just as medieval scholars routinely added textual glosses in the margins of their tomes.

Of course words can be as false as images, but there is something to text that keeps our credulity at bay. Perhaps the intellectual labor required to decode words keeps us mentally alert, while visual stimuli encourage passivity. Studies conducted during the Gulf War hinted at such a possibility: Researchers found that citizens who read about the war’s events in daily publications had a far better grasp of the issues than avid real-time TV news junkies.

Talk about a way-back time machine… And how prescient, no?

On Henry David Thoreau and “Eat the Donuts”

In this lengthy post titled “The Inferno of Independence,” Frank Chimero summarizes the dissonance and reflections one might feel when doing a solo project, working as an entrepreneur, and/or working independently. I particularly liked this analogy to Henry David Thoreau and the concept of “Eat the Donuts.” Contrary to popular belief, Thoreau didn’t live totally alone in the cabin that he built; his mother and sister visited him and supplied him with cookies and donuts:

The quote comes from my favorite talk of the conference, by Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard. “Eat the donuts” is a bit of a tangled metaphor that requires a small summary of Maciej’s talk, so I’ll try my best to be brief.

Maciej spent the better part of 20 minutes looking at Henry David Thoreau’s life and work (specifically Walden, of course) as a template for cultural criticism. Maciej was more artful and didn’t summarize things quite this bang-on, but I want to get to the donuts as soon as I can.

A lot of things can be held against Thoreau, mainly his privilege. Thoreau came from a well-to-do family that allowed him the finances to build that cabin in the woods, and, of course, it takes a certain amount of affluence and privilege to be able to “opt out” of the dominant culture, stand back, and critique it. Still, Thoreau was a man with clear principles that embraced those with less opportunity than himself, and attempted to define the good life as something accessible to anyone. He valued convening with nature, going slow, stepping back, and—this is the donut part—accepting help. Thoreau was independent and he isolated himself, but he was not alone. Each week, his mother and sister would come to the cabin with pastries and donuts. And you know what? Thoreau ate those goddamn donuts.

Maciej’s lesson, through Thoreau? While living an independent life on principle, you should not refuse the help so generously offered. “Eat the donuts.” Take the good things as they come to you, and do not be ashamed or bashful to accept help.

And—if I can be so bold as to add something—make the donuts, too. Do that for the people who are building their cabins and pursuing their independence. If you’re living your dream, you need all the help you can get. Dreams are hard, and much too much work for just one person alone.

Bravo. Highly recommended reading the entire post.

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I also like Frank’s extension of independence becoming co-dependence over time, once you unveil your thing for the world:

Once the work is done, it’s not yours anymore. You draw the comic, write the book, make the app, and then it makes its way out into the world. And it starts to talk back to you. It’s the weirdest thing—if the thing you make goes anywhere, it’s because other people carried it. Your thing becomes our thing. This is deeply unsettling, but it is also a beautiful situation that binds us to one another. So much for independence. It’s a false dream. What we really have is co-dependence, and what we desire when we speak of independence is equity and autonomy. Those are our goals.

We need each other, no matter what. The trick is producing the best terms—the ones most beneficial for everyone—that prioritize longevity, sustainability, and creativity over flash in the pans that burn out quick and get buried. That track is for investors who want to buy low and sell high, and the confidence men who skip town once the cash changes hands. It’s not for the creative people who put their identity in their work. If you make things, you’re playing the long game. There is no rise and fall, no sell it off and start again, because this is you, and if it goes, you go.

Can Evernote Succeed as a Lifestyle Company Selling Physical Goods?

I like the idea of Evernote expanding into the physical goods business, and The Verge has a very good overview of what the CEO of Evernote, Phil Libin, has in mind about the direction of the 330-employee company.

Today, at its third annual conference in San Francisco, Evernote is unveiling a marketplace for high-end physical goods carrying the company’s brand. There’s the Evernote ScanSnap, a high-end scanner that integrates deeply with its note-taking software. There’s a fine-tipped stylus for writing on tablets and smartphones with added precision. There’s a partnership with 3M to brand its iconic Post-Its with Evernote’s logo and encourage people to digitize them using new features in the company’s software. Then there are lifestyle goods, selected for their “smartness,” including a triangle-shaped messenger bag that sits flat when you set it on the ground; a wallet as slim as a money clip, built from a single piece of fine-grained leather; and a laptop sleeve that fits perfectly even though it has no zipper.

 All told, Evernote Market reflects the company’s enthusiasm for products that make you smarter. But it also represents an important evolution of the company’s business model. Evernote has long been the poster child for “freemium” software, in which a small fraction of its customers pay for added features while the rest use it without paying. Lately, the company has embraced a more old-fashioned business model: selling goods for money. Evernote sold hundreds of thousands of the Moleskine Smart Notebooks, giving the company hope that its customers will buy other physical goods. Libin sees Evernote as the ultimate brand for the knowledge worker, and says there’s no reason that has to begin and end with software.

Libin’s idea for Evernote Market is to go beyond the stores you find at most tech companies and begin to sell the company itself as a lifestyle brand. It’s not that Libin thinks his users are clamoring for Evernote-branded gear. He thinks they’re clamoring for great gear, period — and Evernote wants to sell it to them, sharing the revenue with its partners. If his plan succeeds, other tech companies might be inspired to start selling physical goods — Dropbox hard drives, say, or Pinterest scrapbooks. On the other hand, if it fails, “Evernote backpack” could become synonymous with wild-eyed Silicon Valley overreach.

Libin is prepared for the criticism. “There’s always this trade-off perceptually in the public space between focus and stagnation,” he says. “And which of those two things you wind up being accused of depends on how successful the products are. If you make different products and they’re great, people are like, ‘That’s genius! Clearly, the right thing to do.’ And if you focus on one product and it fails, people are like, ‘That company is no longer capable of innovating.'”

“Everything we do is about staying a startup,” he continues. “How do we keep innovating, how do we keep creative, how do we keep inspiring new ideas?” Pushing a vision of smart objects in the real world will lead to innovations in the company’s software, he says. Designing a scanner, a stylus, and other goods have already led to new features in the product, and more are on the way. “I’m trying to find a way to keep the app innovative for the next decade. Doing this is the way to do that. This is how we make Evernote better.”

Browsing the online store, the company is clearly not targeting college students but someone with deep discretionary cash. I, for one, think spending $242 on a rucksack is too much (you can buy a racksack on Amazon for $18!). And don’t even get me started on the $75 stylus.

Speed Dating was Invented by an Orthodox Rabbi

A brief but fascinating piece in The New York Times on how speed dating was invented:

At a matchmaking event he organized in 1998, Rabbi Yaacov Deyo brought along a gragger, the noisemaker Jews use during Purim. That night, in a Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Beverly Hills, the Orthodox rabbi twirled his gragger to signal when it was time for the single men and women present to switch partners and spark up a conversation with the next stranger. “We thought 10 minutes for each date, because that was just an easier number to use in a busy coffeehouse,” Deyo says. This entirely practical measure would inspire matchmakers all around the world — Jews and Gentiles alike.

Weeks before, Deyo invited a group of friends to convene in his living room and brainstorm about how he could best serve the local Jewish community. This being L.A., Deyo’s group included several entertainment-industry people, including someone who produced game shows. The rabbi and his think tank decided that Jewish singles needed to identify marriage partners with maximum efficiency, and they designed a wacky game in which participants would table-hop their way through a dozen dates in a night. Soon they began their experiment (under the auspices of American Friends of Aish HaTorah, the nonprofit group that employed Deyo), using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the singles and their responses on feedback cards. Within a year or so, the speed-dating idea had gone viral, with imitators around the country.

After he and his friends trademarked SpeedDating, they began the process of filing a patent. But as the trend exploded, Deyo realized he had lost control of the idea…

I hope this is a trivia question some day!

There’s a funny quote about Atlanta in the article.

Nate Silver on Learning, Intuition, Boredom, and Changing Jobs

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with Nate Silver, everyone’s favorite stat nerd and author of The Signal and the Noise, for an interview. The whole thing is worth the read, but I enjoyed the following two exchanges.

On learning and intuition:

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

On being listened to, being bored at work, and changing jobs:

HBR: You’ve had obviously some very public experience with the fact that even when the data is good and the model is good, people can push back a lot for various reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Any advice for once you’re in that position, you have a seat at the table, but the other people around the table are really just not buying what you’re selling?

Silver: If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In Moneyball that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.’ Not that hard a battle to fight.

Now, if you feel like you’re expressing yourself and getting the gist of something and you’re still not being listened to, then maybe it’s time to change careers. It is the case [that] people who have analytic talent are very much in demand right now across a lot of fields so people can afford to be picky to an extent.

Don’t take a job where you feel bored. If it’s challenging, you feel like you’re growing, you have good internal debates, that’s fine. Some friction can be healthy. But if you feel like you’re not being listened to, then you’re going just want to slit your wrists after too much longer. It’s time to move on.

Excellent advice.

The Weirdest Game to Be Seen at Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan

The New York Times profiles the city of Astana, Kazakhstan. In the article, we learn about the national sport of the country called kokpar (which is equestrian in nature, but… played with a carcass of a headless goat). Also known as buzkashi:

Recently, on the outskirts of the city at a stadium slick with rain and mud, the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, an equestrian sport, was in full swing.

Mr. Nazarbayev’s capital seemed a world away. Kokpar, known as buzkashi in Afghanistan, is a tough version of that gentlemanly game, polo. Instead of playing from the back of a horse with wooden mallets and a ball, riders use their bare hands and lean to pick up a headless sheep or goat from the ground. They then race to the goal clutching the dead animal.

Instead of goal posts, large caldrons, a bit like inflatable backyard swimming pools, serve as goals. Riders score by heaving the dead animal over the rim of the goal.

Each team plays four riders on horses, and the scrum of horses and riders pushing, colliding and surging around the goal with whips cracking creates a rough and violent contact sport.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

Kazakhs in traditional dress at the first Central Asian championship of kokpar, similar to polo, in Astana.

“It’s a kind of cruel game playing with a dead sheep, but in our country it’s normal,” said Marat Baytugelov, a retired player, who was watching from the stands as the home team routed the players from Tajikistan. (In the old days, villagers would cluster on hilltops to get a better view.) “The most difficult thing is getting the goal. You have to have strong arms, strong stamina, and you must ride the horse well.”

The animal carcass, he added, cannot be just any weight. Heft is mandatory. It must weigh at least 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds.

The Central Asian tournament was organized as a prelude to Expo 2017, when Astana will be the host city. Kokpar is expected to be a star attraction, at least for the Central Asian crowd, and even for fans farther afield.

Wikipedia adds that Kazakhstan had a commission in the 1950s to set the rules of the sport:

  1. There are two teams with 10 participants in each
  2. Only 4 players a team are allowed to play on a field at a given time
  3. Teams are allowed to substitute players or their horses
  4. Game is played on a field of 200 meters long and 80 meters wide
  5. Two kazans – big goals with a diameter of 3.6 meters and 1.5 meter high are placed on opposite sides of a field
  6. A goal is scored each time a kokpar (goat carcass) is placed in an opponent’s kazan.
  7. A kokpar is brought to the field center after scoring a goal

You learn something new every day.