April 25, 2011 § 4 Comments
By: Michael Sinanian
It was in 2006 when Facebook had registered its 12 millionth member, rolled out the controversial news feed and launched its official development platform. That was also when Justin Smith decided to found his “Inside Facebook” blog, the first news site dedicated solely to tracking the social web’s most prodigious product and business.
Will The Quora Review (TQR) spawn the same string of daily analytical pieces, research reports and even conferences that Inside Facebook did for their patron company? At the time of Inside’s debut, Facebook had just become a platform, a world unto itself, which made a third-party dedicated news site a viable enterprise.
Quora has not yet become that type of all-encompassing platform (and it may never be), but its service is so enticing that it has already spawned TQR. Today we ask: why, and ultimately for what?
A fair amount of TQR’s posts have thus far covered Quora as a technology and a business, not too unlike Inside Facebook. Attempting to answer questions about the aforementioned “platformization” is something we can reasonably infer about TQR’s coverage trajectory. “Will Quora’s monetization plans include advertising or premium subscription features,” are sure to follow the spate of articles about how Quora “is Google” or “isn’t Wikipedia.”
As you may have already realized, answering questions (even about itself) is Quora’s raison d’etre, so for what purpose would we frequent a site like TQR? Surely we could satisfy our craving for Quora news, analysis, events, corporate developments, and product innovations from within the site itself!
Yes, and no. It was Edmund Burke who famously labeled the Press the “fourth estate” of civil society, and in this same manner, we must examine TQR as the fourth estate of Quora’s Internet society (or “information community,” if you prefer).
First, we must come to recognize Quora as more than just a social web product. It is more akin to a 21st-century version of Enlightenment-era intellectual salons whose conversations weren’t as straightforward as question-and-answer. Indeed, reputations rested on more than just “who got things right,” but also certain political leanings and affiliations. In this sense, Quora is no different. In its current startup-focused orientation, many venture capitalists and entrepreneurs will positively answer questions about their vested interests while avoiding those that could leave more scathing marks. That’s just one example, but many abound, and so like all other communities, Quora’s stands to benefit from impartial journalistic coverage operating outside the scope of its “government.”
It might not be glaringly apparent to us now, but eventually Quora, like all other societies, will have its fair share of internal politics, agendas, opinions, and influences: hallmark maladies of a boisterous community that could incentivize power-grabs through placation of the society and its members. The French Revolution, after all, was indebted to quite a few of those salons!
In stark contrast to dedicated business/product sites like Inside, and what TQR has been up till now, I’d like to bring to light The Daily Dot, a recently founded media startup that aims to be the “hometown newspaper of the Internet.” Their angle isn’t tech news; it’s the community of people that call the Internet their home, that sort of inhabit the vast corners of the Net.
In this manner, they want to cover the Internet symbiotically, in the way that a daily town newspaper covers their community, benefitting their local readers through their coverage while profiting from ads or subscriptions.
As Quora’s user and topic-base expands, TQR should certainly incorporate this take on coverage if it is to best serve the needs of this specific information community. There will certainly be times when users forego asking a question on Quora about Quora to instead check “the official newspaper of Quradom.”
Take for example the recent “Answer Improvements” development. While this could be discussed and debated within Quora (and it is, through a near-unanimously positive comments thread), wouldn’t a third-party forum for discussion be more appropriate? TQR could offer that type of outlet, external to the patron site’s own administrative designs and wishes. We are the community after all, and TQR can be our impassioned voice of criticism and reason.
In the end, Quora’s product versatility could easily support discussions about these internal issues, but being a community newspaper has the legitimacy of being the fourth-estate, the great moderator. That alone makes TQR more valuable. As such, this site should embody the fourth-estate principle and provide coverage that lives up to such integrity, if only because Quora itself is a community, a society of sorts. In the vein of Inside Facebook, there should of course be plenty of coverage about Quora as a product and business; its own vitality depends on it. But we’ll also gather around TQR to discuss the community, the everlasting fabric of Quora that makes it all worthwhile: the curious people, the probing questions, the scurrying users who auto-curate, who debate. We’ll be with them.
April 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
As Quora users go, our next subject is pretty rare specimen. A working chef with encyclopedic knowledge of the chemical interactions that go into cooking, who somehow has the time to write as much as he does on quora and his own blog, feastcraft.com: Jonas Luster.
I am grateful he found time in his schedule to answer a few questions about himself:
As a working chef, how the hell do you find time to write?
I am writing this on my Xoom while watching my stocks and sauteeing some onions for a dish. Since I got this marvel of technology, I have become rather adept at writing in chunks, dropping a few lines here and there, until something decent emerges.
That sometimes leads to rather … disjointed … paragraphs which I have to fix after giving them the once-over. Or, horror over horrors, I might miss them. Recently someone wrote something to the effect of “this is such an egregious error, I have to question your whole answer”. He’s right, of course, but the mistake was to continue writing a sentence that I’d started an hour prior.
When writing your answers, how much of the food science comes off the top of your head, and how much is researched?
About 80:20. We’re two cooks in this kitchen with some semblance of food sciences background, so I run some past her when she’s in. Otherwise there’s always Harold McGee 🙂
Where did you pick up all of your scientific knowledge?
I have some amateur chemistry knowledge, augmented by books like Harold McGee’s “On Food And Cooking”, a few courses with the Research Chefs Association (culinology.org), which did’nt help much but got me in contact with others who think about food in a new way. It should be mentioned, that most of the things we consider “modernist cuisine” these days have been practiced by the “evil empire” of mircowave meal makers, fast food chains, and even the guys who sell you sacues and little packages of “just add water” foods for decades. We were just very, very, slow in adopting it into our work. There’s more dogma involved in food than most religions 🙂
Given your evident interest in chemistry, are you particularly drawn to “molecular gastronomy” kind of cooking of Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, and company? Is it a direction you would go yourself?
One of my heroes, Hans Heinrich Euler, once said “If we understood the Universe we could make it better or completely remake it into a new one”. I don’t have as much interest in making a new universe as I have into making this one (culinarily speaking) a better one. I believe that a lot of culinary dogma comes (again, religion comes to mind) from misunderstandings and simplifications. If we understand food, we can make better steaks, reduce waste, sautee better asparagus spears, and take the pain out of complicated sauces and dishes without sacrificing taste and healthy properties.
Take the “63 degree egg” for a second. For centuries people have devised better and better methods to establish the time an egg has to be in water to be of a certain consistency. A little bit of science, the “Chem 101” version, teaches us two things – egg whites firm up under lower temperatures than egg yolks, and egg yolk assumes a “soft boiled” consistency when it reaches 63 degrees for three minutes. The only question left over is, does it firm over time or temperature and, a few experiments later, Herve This figured out that time played no role. Chefs can breathe easier – all we have to do is take the eggs, drop them into 63 degree Celsius water, and we can walk off and forgget them. Once the egg is warmed through, after 45 minutes or so, it stays there until quite a long time has lapsed.
Would you like to one day be a chef/owner of your own restaurant? What would be the concept?
I want to modernize and make gourmet “comfort food”. Many have tried, but even the chosen gods of our profession don’t go much further than putting better cheese into better bread for a grilled cheese sandwich. I want to take that a few steps further. If I had to elevator pitch it, I want to use the holy trifecta of art, craft, and science in the kitchen to make the best Mac and Cheese you have ever had.
Professionally, what kind of cooking do you most enjoy making?
I am a fan of the New Nordic Cuisine. Bold, strong, flavors with many undertones, always seasonal and always rather spartan in its ingredients. I am happiest when I get to play with tthe preservation, smoking, curing, aspect of the cuisine and when I can work with the ingredient over long time spans.
When designing a menu, how do you draw the line between satisfying your desire to try new things, and satisfying the desires of the eating public?
I honestly don’t think there’s such a thing as a firm line. I am first and foremost in the “hospitality” business, which means I have to make people happy. I see my style of cooking as complimentary, another tool on the bench, in the pursuit of making great food that makes people smile. You can go overboard. “Crab and Oyster Espuma”, anyone? But when I look at a dish like that, my first question is always wether my mother would eat it, and secondly if, on a first date, it would get me invited upstairs for a coffee afterwards. If food doesn’t pass those two qualifiers it’s not going on the menu 🙂
Where do you enjoy eating the most?
Food is kind of sacred to me. People worked hard for it, ominvores like me eat stuff that some other living being gave its life for, the Universe provides. I enjoy eating most where it’s obvious that everyone involved, from growers and ranchers to cooks and servers, respects that sanctity. And because food is such a big deal it’s too big a deal to be eaten in bad company :). In other words, if I go have dinner with someone I really like them 🙂
What topics do you find yourself doing more reading and less writing?
I am but a dilettante in every aspect of life. In some, like cooking, I am enough of an educated dilettante to open my gob, but generally I avoid talking and spend more time listening 🙂
And the Proust Questionnaire:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Coming home and having my son laugh and run towards me.
What is your greatest fear?
Funny how stuff changes once you produce offspring. It’s all about perpetuating DNA, sure, but it does a hell of a number on most people’s perceptions of reality. My greatest fear used to be a catastrophic event like a quake, war, or something like that. Now it’s not being there to be able to protect my son from harm. Or failing to do so.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
The Brothers Grimm. They struck a fine balance between preserving history and lore, while being very experimental about things in their writing and publishing. And they were quite misunderstood :). In 43 versions of their book they often had to remove or add things because most people weren’t used to “that kind of story”. Over the decades, however, they really influence and changed things.
Which living person do you most admire?
Since you ask this of me in the context of cooking, I’ll narrow it down to that. Outside of the world of kitchens I admire a few people, from aid workers to human rights advocates, who are above anything in cooking. It’s hard to name just one, but in culinary sciences it’s definitely Herve This who didn’t let dogma and the “French style” get into his way to explore the boundaries of cuisine.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My temper. It tends to flare, especially at work.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Sheepishness and subservience. The willingness to accept without questioning, to take things at faith value. I find science and intelllectual pursuit to be the cornerstone and center of humanity.
What is your greatest extravagance?
My gadget obsession. At this very moment I am writing on a Xoom, tethered to a Droid X, listening to music on Grooveshark, waiting for a a few vacuum packed sprouts to finish bathing in an immersion circulator while checking the temperature with my infrared thermometer. And not ONE of those things is necessary, it’s pure indulgence 🙂
On what occasion do you lie?
Any time someone asks if I got enough sleep.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
I am 5’6. I am statistically not able to become a CEO or COO in a Fortune 500, desirable to less than four percent of all females (according to a match.com survey), and my back is hosed from working in kitchens designed for 5’8 fellas. Three inches would be nice to have (no, not the kind that’s flooding my inbox, I speak stature).
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
See “appearance” 🙂
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Nothing. My folks are perfect.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Beating Cancer. Since you asked for achievements, not accomplishments, that’d be it :). I am well aware that anything in this regard was accomplished by the people who fought it for me, generations of researchers, and a lot of factors I can’t control, but somehow I managed it. Which makes it my most treasured achievement :).
If you died and came back as a person or a thing what do you think it would be?
My dog. I’d be sleeping, eating, chasing squirrels, and basking on my porch all day.
What is your most treasured possession?
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Hopelessness. The feeling that there’s nothing you can do to change what needs changing. Maybe on par with subservience.
Who are your heroes in real life?
The men and women standing up and demanding democracy in places where this could very well mean pain or death. The aid workers flying into ravaged areas and doing what needs to be done, again often at the peril of their own lives. The French resistance during WWII.
What is it you most dislike?
Preconceived notions and shallowness. The unwillingness to give things or people a chance. Give it a try, be open about it, and then judge 🙂
How would you like to die?
Happy, quickly, by myself, and listening to Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World”. It’s the end of my existence, might as well make it a fun event.
What is your motto?
“Shut up and get out of my way” if you ask my coworkers and friends.
“This above all: to thine self be true”, if you ask me 🙂