Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Perfect is the Enemy of Good

"...le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."

- Voltaire, La Bégueule

In my experience, this is true. But, like so many things in this world, the truth becomes more elusive the harder I search for it. Achieving perfection may be impossible, but I do not believe making a start is meaningless, or that extra effort always results in diminishing returns. Voltaire is often quoted too easily by those who never take a chance, or who are content with mediocrity.
As a computer programmer, I deal with co-workers of every ilk. Some are remarkably precise and thorough. Others are unorganized and inconsistent. Some are solution-driven; prioritizing tasks and ordering work to reach a specific goal via the most-direct route. Others feel no impulse to complete anything. Some become mired in insignificant details; never stepping back to undertand the big picture. Some (those who claim to have a "creative" gift) are constantly moving the target, or rather, moving their own vector to the target, and never manage to find a relevant trajectory. The catalogue of human natures could continue here, but that is not my point. Instead, I would like to offer a few thoughts that each of us can use (myself included) to reflect on our own behaviors.
Do you ever compare real things with unrealistic or idealized alternatives? You probably do. We all do. Think of a time when things went badly and you imagined a different outcome. One seldon pictures better when it is just as easy to conjure up perfect. Philosophers call this a False Dichotomy. As an example, I have made gnocchi a thousand times, but not every batch is tender, light, and delicious. If I am absolutely honest with myself, I have never made gnocchi as good as I imagine it can be. In fact, the best gnocchi I have ever eaten is not as good as that which I can imagine.
Essentially, a False Dichotomy assumes the middle (mediocre gnocchi) can not exist, and that a solution is either absolutely perfect or entirely without worth. To argue that any course of action that is not a perfect solution is hopeless (called a Perfect Solution Fallacy) is a classic example of black and white thinking, in which a person fails to see the complex interplay between multiple parts of a complex problem, and as a result, reduces it to two extremes. Don't worry. I still make lots of pretty good, but never perfect, and seldon really bad, gnocchi.
After thinking about this a while, I started to see examples of False Dichotomy all around me. Politicians present an amendment to a bill which is obviously advantageous but completely implausible. They then attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. Of course, what would really serve the citizenry is a choice between one realistic possibility and another which is merely better; not utopian.
In 1969 economist Harold Demsetz used the expression Nirvana Fallacy when he claimed that public policy economics implicitly presents choices between an ideal norm and the existing 'imperfect.' Perhaps economists in the U.S. are less-delusional today, but watching the European Central Bank demand absolute measures from struggling countries makes me wonder if they still believe in strudel-in-the-sky solutions to desperate economic problems.
On the other hand...
There are those who assert that the truth must be found as a compromise between two opposite positions; in the gray area - the middle ground. Philosophers call this Argument to Moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam). Beginning from the belief that any two positions represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, and that such extremes are always wrong, they reason that a solution from somewhere in between is always correct. Of course, any solution from the middle ground can be invalidated quite easily. Simply present another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will become an extreme. This does not mean the middle ground position is always bad or wrong; only that the fact it is moderate cannot be used as evidence of its truthfulness.
Anyone who has worked in a committee or other group charged with making a decision understands how easy (and how perilous) Argument to Moderation can be. When I encounter an ill-conceived solution to a problem, I claim it to have been "designed by committee," sometimes because it is hopelessly inadequate to solve any single problem, or more-often, because it offers many very poor solutions to several diverse problems. The U.S. Congress comes to mind.
A second cousin to Argument to Moderation is Consensus. Consensus seeks the consent of all participants in a group to reach an acceptable resolution; one that can be supported by each individual even if not their ideal. With consensus we leave the practice of logic and moved into the world of human emotions; not always the wise way to make an important decision.
So, I don't subscribe to the belief that a solution must be all (perfect) or nothing (worthless), nor that compromise or consensus is always best. I do believe that a right solution always leaves some failure in the balance. This is illustrated in a concept familiar to business-management types as the Pareto Principle (named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto). Also known as the 80-20 Rule or the Law of the Vital Few, the Pareto Principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, and conversely, it takes 80% of total effort to effect 20% of total change. In business it is translated as 80% of sales comes from 20% of clients.
What does any of this have to do with my work as a computer programmer? Well, it is my nature (I was taught) to do things right. Unfortunately, as the discussion above illustrates, what is 'right' is not always possible to pin down. Anyone can make a good logical argument against my definition of 'right' in any particular situation. There are times when I must take several hours (or even days) to re-engineer a previous passable solution to create a new 'right' one. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Fortunately, I work for bosses who trust me to find the best (if not perfect) solutions while maintaining a balance between time and cost, between attention to details and the big picture, and between extra effort and increasingly inefficiency. If not exact, the 80-20 Rule comes pretty close to explaining my daily output.
In very few ways is my life like that of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, but I can identify with his character in the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy." For years the Pope comes to the Sistine Chapel, time and time again, stares up at the massive scaffolding and asks, "Michelangelo... when will you make an end?" From high above the artist shouts back "When I'm finished!"
In conclusion, I rest assured that my personal quest for truth will never be finished, as the last 20% of the search will require %80 of life's effort. It's a good thing my glass of wine is half-full and my plate of gnocchi is pretty good.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Food and Sex - Preface

"Pizza is like sex, when it is good, it's really good, and when it's bad... it's still pretty good.”

― Anon.

Although I don't often find myself making conversation with strangers at cocktails parties, it brings me some satisfaction to know that, when required, I can stand and chat pleasantly with almost anyone for a few minutes. My method is simple: ask a question about the other person and they will take charge of the topic. Listen carefully, and in an instant you get a sense of what interests them, how they define themselves, and to what degree they are willing to have a real exchange of ideas and opinions. Even when the stranger seems "chat-friendly," I often choose to act the role of listener, as this requires less of an effort, and leaves the other person with the impression that I find them fascinating.
Occasionally, a conversation calls for just the right "spark" to get everyone engaged. I am always happy to provide the thesis: "Food and Sex are Fundamentally Linked." Two of my favorite topics. I dare say, two of everyone's favorite topics.
I wrote the notes below a few years ago as the preface to a cookbook. It was really more of a guide for young men to teach them basic cooking skills, but it also taught how to use food as a way to learn about a woman's (really any person's) sensibilities, character traits, and passions. Perhaps, if there is enough interest in this post, one day I will return to finish this project. For now I offer only a beginning.
*** Preface ***
Deeply coded in our genetic program - indeed, in the programs of all living things - is the desire to procreate. The best way to assure our own survival and the survival of our species is to leave other organisms of our own kind after us to grow, spread, improve, and have offspring of their own.
Even before Freudian psychology was mainstream, most adult people were, to some degree, personally aware of this deeply rooted need to survive. Early humans spent the greater part of their lives trying simply to stay alive from day to day; and with luck, a few years into adulthood. Survival was the primary motivation for every act. At some point, survival became the catylist for increased cognitive function, inspiring the use of tools and the building of communities. Against the odds humankind, unlike many, many other species, did survive. Yet, despite remarkable improvements in our survival skills, the world has tended toward disorder, and human life has been defined as the struggle to keep things from falling apart. Civilization is the product of the human need to triumph over chaos, by bringing order to our world. History is the story of our attempt to keep our own species from being swept away in the maelstrom of nature.
Because modern humans are a product of millions of years of evolution, shaped by our ability to adapt and progress, evidence of our past nature is present still in our daily lives. In the evolutionary process physical, mental, and behavioral strengths have become manifest which contibute to our ability to carry on. And although sometimes we are reluctant to admit it, the most enduring of our survival skills are also our most ancient: sex.
Sex alone is not enough (now that's a statement with two meanings). We must survive long enough to procreate if we are to survive as a species. We need food to survive. Therefore, sex and food are linked at the most-basic levels of human nature.
Many who read this will stubbornly refuse to admit that humans today are the result of a long process of change governed by random genetic mutation. One does not need to be a Darwin-ist to honestly admit that humans love to eat and have sex. Others will find it difficult to concede that our most-base instincts are as influential on our 'modern' daily actions as are our rational, conscious choices. Self-control is a noble quality that we admire in great leaders, co-workers, and close friends. But I contend it is a very healthy act to acknowlege to one’s self that you like to eat with gusto and make passionate love. The desire to do so is central to your very being. If you can be honest to yourself about this, many (perhaps most) of the other psychological baggage that encumbers your life will fall away.
This book not about sex; it is about food. Along with our essential physical requirements of nutrition and water, humans have developed an elaborate sensory system to guide us as we prepare our food. Culinary science has indirectly codified how humans respond to various smells, tastes, colors, and textures. There is often a ‘meaning behind the meal.’ In its most simple expression, sex is also about the senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch. This is more than coincidence. Rather, it is further evidence that the two instincts of food and sex are rooted very deeply and very closely in our brains; down in the most ancient campus, hardwired directly for sensory input.
This book is also about relationships. By relationship I mean a mutually beneficial union that provides more reward for each party than could be had if they continued to live apart as individuals. Again, it is through millions of years of fitness-filtering that the ideal of two-living-as-one has become the norm. To be clear, marriage is not the goal. Marriage is a religious invention, where as coupling is part of our nature. In truth, there is no goal. The best relationships are dynamic, ever-changing, and always evolving for the betterment of both parties involved.
I am writing from a male perspective; primarily because I see a need today for men to reevaluate how they factor into in the food/sex equation. Our role as ‘provider’ has become distorted by a society that values a person by how much they produce, how much fortune they can accumulate, and how much austentatious wealth they can wave in front of a potential sexual conquest. Nothing against the modern hunter-gatherer, of course, but I think such notions tend to stack the world vertically, in a sort of infinitely layered chaste system. Where does the woman fit in such a world? According to this social strategy, women are little more than trophies by which men measure the size of each other’s... well, checkbook. Just look around. How many beautiful women marry the ideal man and then go on to live unfulfilled lives, tomented by loneliness, seething with resentment, and acting out a shopping list of self-destructive behaviors?
I prefer to view humankind as a web of individuals, men and women, any two of which are capable of reaching out and building a resonant relationship together; either as friends, or lovers. My primary reasoning for such a schema is that the behavior of women is also driven by the food/sex instinct. Our culture's social code has been founded on a matrix of puritanical, Victorian morals, and the tireless efforts of the orthodox church to fight bad behavior with shame and guilt. We have, as a result, grown accustomed to seeing women through a lens that distorts their true nature - hungry. The tired double standard that so differently defines appropriate behavior for men and women is a prejudice no less unfair than to judge a person by their ethnicity or skin color. If we include both sexes in the mix, and require an equal amount of investment from both to grow the new relationship, much good food and great sex will be found in the balance.
You may wonder if I am suggesting that the man do this or that to manipulate a woman. Manipulation is unhealthy in any relationship, and I certainly do not advocate doing anything that will covertly influence an outcome that serves only one partner. However, I will offer advice on how the man can (without the woman always knowing it) keep a relationship on the right track and growing. Also, over the past twenty years there has been an alarming increase in the number of people, mostly young women, who are diagnosted with eating disorders. Mental health professionals agree that these diseases are not about food, but rather, about control. Some women have lost so much of their own identity, or feel themselves so trapped in hopeless circumstances, that they use food and drink, or the self-withholding thereof, in an unconscious, pathological attempt to grab for any thread of selfworth. In a rich and meaningful relationship, both partners feel valued, and find reassurance and comfort in each other.
This book is not about hedonism. It is about the absolutely natural joys of sensuality. For the record, I am not advocating using our best natural instincts as an excuse for wreckless behavior. Remember, life is (at the core) about survival. Thousands of other books can explain better how too much food and/or sex is damaging to the body and mind.
OK. There it is. If enough readers are interested, I propose to write the entire book on-line - in this blog - one chapter at a time. You can be my contibuting editor! Just sign up to "follow."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Wine Made Simple

“Accept what life offers you
and try to drink from every cup.
All wines should be tasted;
some should only be sipped,
but with others,
drink the whole bottle.”

― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Four years ago, Lori (my wife) and I returned from Italy having experienced our own personal “Renaissance.” Her eye was clearer, her willingness to take risks unreserved, and her aspiration to be a great painter honed razor-sharp. My mind was more-open, my spirit more idealistic, and my palate reawakened to the beauty, simplicity, and essential joy of good food and wine.
Back in 2009 I felt the desire to share with others, via this blog, my reborn world-view. Perhaps, I believed, if others could get a glimpse of life through my eyes they would understand what had changed in me. If they could taste a morsel of goodness in their own life, they would find a renewed sense of happiness, hope, love... and good taste.
It was not in vain, but it was also not the “seed of change” I had imagined. After ten essays I had exactly five comments from readers and five blog followers. Alas, just because I felt like I had something to say did not dispose others to read. Honest discourse, it seems, is not the best way to inspire people these days. Lori has found a way through her paintings. I am still searching.
Then, a few days ago, I had a very short, very polite, exchange of opinions with someone on FaceBook. An author had published a download-able graphic; a guide to pairing wine with food. Dozens of readers had posted comments celebrating the chart as a Grand Unified Theory of wine selection. I was confused, and troubled to think that many people thought of wine as something one should “fit” into a meal like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. For the first time in three years, I had something to write about!
Simplification is not the issue. In fact, much too much over-sophisticated blather makes wine unapproachable for too many. The availability of so many different wines, each with a label hawking its merits, can be overwhelming. It would be a real benefit if there was a rubric one could follow to make a good choice. Not possible; but framing the topic from a fresh point-of-view may help others rediscover the joy that is wine.
The Basics. If you can understand what is written below, you can buy, pair, and drink wine without worry. All of these statements are generalizations, so I will use the words most and some with frequency.
• Most wine is made from grapes. Most of those grapes are varieties of the species Vitis vinifera.
• A wine that is made predominantly from grapes of only one variety is called a “varietal,” such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. In the New World, most winemakers create varietal wines to show off the quality of the grapes used, and to concentrate flavors that come from the soil, air, and water that nurtured the fruit.
• Other wines are made by combining the juice of different varieties of grapes to create a blended wine. These wines can be designed to impact your taste experience in a specific way. By blending grape varieties, a winemaker can make a wine that effects the drinker with intention, and expresses their own personal sense of “style.” Most European wines are blends. They are often named after the region where tradition has shape the basic blending practice; think Bordeaux or Chianti.
• Red wine is made from grapes with color in their skins. Those skins (and the grape seeds) also contain compounds that are flavorful and/or effect the wine as it is made and aged. Winemakers allow the crushed skins of the grapes to soak in the juice during the wine-making process to transfer those compounds to the liquid. The actual color of a red wine can range from light-pink to almost black.
• White wines are not necessarily made with grapes with less color in their skins, although this is often the case. White wines are more clear because the juice spends little or no time in contact with the broken grape skins during the wine-making process. The actual color of a white wine can range from virtually clear to almost opaque (in many hues).
• From the above descriptions, you can already deduce that most red wines are more complex than white wines (at least until white wine is aged in oak). It is correct to pair less complex wines with foods with subtle flavors.
• Most wine contains sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannin. Tannin is an astringent that reacts with other compounds in grape juice during the wine-making process and as the wine ages. Red wines contain more tannin than white wines.
• It is not helpful to single out each of the four components listed above when tasting wine. It is better to consider how they balance together, or if one aspect is more pronounced than the others.
• More excellent-quality wine grapes are grown today than ever before. Industrial methods have improved the availability of well-made wine to the mass-market. There are also many makers who care little for the quality of their product.
• You can buy many excellent wines at a reasonable price. However, maintaining high standards, even in a wine factory, comes with a cost. Cheap wine is cheap because the maker has not invested in their product. Of course, cost is relative to the economic health of the region where the wine is produced. As an example: in remote western Argentina they can grow excellent fruit and make a truly delicious wine, then ship it to the U.S., and sell it to me for less money than a California maker can make a bottle of undrinkable plunk.
• The best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Wine effects us at a very primitive level (our most-ancient senses of taste, smell, and sight), so the qualities of the wine will register deep inside you. No need to keep elaborate notes. Just trust your own memory.
• When selecting a wine to go with food, add the imagined flavors of the food to the “balance” equation and ask yourself what would make the taste experience more-completely satisfying. For example: if you are serving a rich pot roast with hearty vegetables, a wine with a little brightness (higher acidity, white or red) might help refresh the palate after each bite, keeping the taste buds from tiring out. Sugar robs the mouth of much of its sensitivity (that’s why we serve dessert last). Alcohol helps re-awaken numbed taste buds, so try brandy or whiskey instead of wine with that piece of chocolate cake.
• There is no wrong way to select or pair wine. When you shop for wine, always buy a bottle you have never tried. Maybe you’ll love it... or not. Give any wine/food combination a try, and you will immediately understand why some basic pairing rules have evolved. You will, in the process, develop your own schema.
• Not everyone likes wine. Not every wine drinker likes the same kinds of wine. It is possible to make bad wine. Even good wine can go bad because it is a biological product susceptible to spoilage. Do not drink wine you are not enjoying; whether because it is of poor quality, has gone off, or simply does not bring you pleasure.
• That’s right. Wine should bring pleasure. So ask yourself - Is the color beautiful? Does the combination of flavors contribute to a agreeable aroma and a mouthful of sensation? Do I want another glass, or is this stuff going down the drain?
If you want specific wine advice, please feel free to send me a note. I can only make suggestions based on my own experience, but am willing to point you in some possible “right directions” so you can grow your own wine drinking experience.