Friday, October 10, 2008


I found these photographs at an antique book store in northern New Hampshire.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Erin Mckean really likes dictionaries and her enthusiasm is infectious. Just watch this video. Now I'm a tad stalkerish, so I signed up to follow Mckean's word a day on Twitter. It's fabulous. Here are two of my recent favorites. Preenacter: someone who enacts "historical" events that haven't happened yet, e.g., the first landing on Mars. Or, polinymous: having a personal name that is also a place name, e.g., a girl named Ann Arbor. But my favorite so far is mooreeffoc: relating to familiar things suddenly seen in a new and different way. What's the etymology of this wonderful word?

Though this word is rare to the point of never being used in its ostensible sense, but only as a keyword to initiate discussion, it has been keeping illustrious company, since its few appearances in print have been in works by G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien and Charles Dickens.
Dickens invented it, if that’s the right word to use. He mentions it in his autobiography, when he describes his poverty-stricken youth:
"In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood."
In his biography of Dickens, Chesterton said that it denoted the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. Tolkien read more into it still in his work On Fairy-stories:
"The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tidying Up

I’ve been reflecting lately on the organization of my email folders. It’s a trivial thing, much like cleaning one’s house. The trick, of course, is to find a place to put everything, but what interests me is the choice of storage place. Ideally we find a location that’s intuitive enough to find the item again, but there’s also the question of how the storage place reflects the item’s place in our lives. My old sweaters go into cedar chests pushed into the corners of various rooms. My old love letters go in boxes under my bed. So, too, with email. I’ve taken a closer look at the way I organize my virtual space, and much like the way I organize my house, email storage tells me something about my past, something about my relationship with the items I’m storing, and something about changes in my life.

Very few of my friends get their own folder. Most of them are subsumed in the "fun" folder (where I file anything that is remotely pleasing or funny or social or just has nowhere else to go) or the "Blackwell" folder if meeting these friends had anything to do with my time at Blackwell Publishing where I used to work. These are usually co-workers or editors from other publishers or authors who have become friends.

The “fun” folder is where I file emails from friends who don’t have their own folders, which always makes me wonder what that says about our relationship. On Facebook each friend has his or her own profile. On email many of my friends get lumped together. Seems undignified somehow and I occasionally feel guilty about it. My cousin Sam, for example, deserves his own folder. He shouldn’t be sharing a folder with Elizabeth, who I barely know and hardly like (but whose correspondence I need to keep track of nonetheless).

Some of the friends who have their own folders are no longer close friends. "Barbara", for example, is someone I was very close with years ago. We were working on our PhDs together. She finished, I didn’t. She moved to Scotland and we drifted apart but now and then I look at that folder and remember not only how close we were but also why we were close. Looking through some of our older correspondence, going through all the digital details of our lives, I realize how many things we gabbed about. But in some ways it’s like reading someone else’s mail; the struggles and events we discussed might be generally familiar to everyone, but any direct access to the urgency of those emotions is long gone. I’m not sure what to do with “Barbara”. To stick her into “fun” would be to diminish her significance in my life. Yet we barely speak anymore.

Another folder belongs to Rob, even though we were never really close friends. I met Rob on years ago and though there were never any sparks between us, we had a great connection and we stayed in touch. It's significant to me that I gave him his own folder. I’m not sure I can explain why, but even now I wouldn’t change it. Somehow he’s not someone to lump in with the rest.

“Jon and Jerome” have a joint folder because I met Jon through Jerome and for a brief time there were a lot of three-way messages.

Jeff, my boyfriend, and Peter, my ex, each have their own folders.

“Tami” has a folder even though much of the content is content-less: “Thanks!!”, “You’re welcome”, “Have a great day!”, etc. This style is uniquely Tami and so the folder and its content-less content stays despite the amount of space it occupies. To delete the “you’re welcome” emails would be to strip her of her Taminess and her Taminess is the reason we’re friends, so…

Katie’s messages all go into A-Blog. Which brings me to the folder-naming scheme.

My various essay, book ideas and miscellaneous writing projects are in folders named A-[insert folder name here] so that they’re sorted at the top of the alphabetical list of folders. The folders named Z-[insert name] are the ones I don't really want on my radar daily but I want to keep around just in case. They get sorted at the bottom. There are 9 A- folders and 4 Z-folders. Once a writing assignment is completed, it changes from an A- folder to a Z- folder.

Eminem has his own folder because I used to be obsessed with him. At one point I started making up little stories about meeting him and also commented in detail on his music, particularly his lyrical genius. That folder stays. Forever.

I’ve always wondered how others organize their personal email folders.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Desert is a Dish Best Served...

What is your philosophy?
You don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.
You deserve what you negotiate.
Desert is meaningless. free polls

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Artistry of the Aggregator

How do you show the richness of your inner life? What is its evidence? The creators of WALL-E had this problem, though it's a problem we all face in some way or other. God only knows. Repetition. Conformity. Data entry. Norms of expectation. We all cloak the bull's eye lantern within us, to use a metaphor from William James. But despite giving WALL-E wide eyes that fold down like binoculars, or hands that clasp like a child saying "oh goodie!", the boys and girls at Pixar still had to devise a way for WALL-E to convey his love for EVE and the accompanying joy he felt inside. So they made him a collector of idiosyncratic things--bras, fire extinguishers, paddles, empty ring cases, hubcaps--naturally, of course, since he was meant to be a garbage collector, only now his personality flourishes with each discriminating choice. And it's remarkable how alive he becomes when he combines this stuff. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film is when he uses a hubcap as a top hat to mimic the dance in Hello, Dolly!

::::::Put on your Sunday clothes there's lots of world out there!::::

Anyway, all WALL-E wants to do is hold EVE's hand--if only he can touch it!!!--because that's what he sees in Hello, Dolly!. Collection. Combination. Mimicry. It's part of what makes him alive.

I mention this because I have to disagree with David Brooks's latest piece of cultural criticism. The old code of intellectual one-upsmanship has vanished, Brooks says. In its place has arrived a new code, the code of Higher Eclectica. Whereas an intellectual snob in the 60s might quote from the hierophants of High Modernism, the Eliots, the Pounds, the Trillings...or later the Derridas, the Foucaults, and de Man...nowadays anyone with any pretension to intellectual seriousness collects. But it's not just any kind of collection. It must, Brooks notes, contain "nuggets of coolness" from the "obscure niches of the culture market." Sez Brooks:
This [cultural] transition has produced some new status rules. In the first place, prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.

My disagreement with Brooks begins with the observation that this is nothing new, certainly not in American literature. In fact, there is a deep and rich history to the artistry of the aggregator. The difference between then and now is that it's been democratized with the Web. It's also prospered. Take a look at this graphic from Kevin Kelly. It represents the profit-making elements of a Long Tail economy, whether it be songs, books, websites, movies and so on.
When explaining the Long Tail, Kelly points out that almost everyone makes a switch in what they're talking about. In pockets 1 and 2 in the graph, people talk about creators. But when people get to explaining the Long Tail in pocket 3, they switch and start talking about aggregators of other creators' work. "What happens to the creator?" Kelly asks. His answer:
The creator is dropped when we get to the long tail "pocket of profit" because the long tail is not profitable for the creator. It's profitable only for the audience and aggregators.

Kelly's talking about money making opportunities here, but Walt Whitman knew it applied equally well to poetry and the American experience. The poetry of yesteryear focused on individual experiences crystallized in works by single creators. The principal object, Wordsworth had said, was to choose incidents and situations from common life. But Whitman lit up the American sky by showing that there was poetry in aggregating, seizing upon the diverse ways of life and then laying it down for the record. The aggregator is also a creator--that's Whitman's genius. What is Leaves of Grass but a collection of nuggets from the "obscure niches of the culture market"? The interminably long lists of places, nouns piling on nouns, and gerunds flying this way and that, the pay off in sheer size and diversity--it's like he was writing a blog. (It was this thought that led me to combine two things in my previous post: Whitman and the gorgeous collection of old photographs I recently came across here.)

Nor is Whitman alone in this regard. T.S. Eliot, chief priest of modernism, darling of the old snobbery, mastered the artistry of the aggregator as well. The "heap of broken images" that is the Wasteland, all the allusions, quotes, the verbal collage--it's all a prayer against the fear represented by "a handful of dust," the fear that all of life's experiences may never amount to anything, that the whole will always be equal to, never more than the sum of its parts. The poem is paradoxical because what we collect, however haphazardly, comes to mean something, or at any rate, yearns to.

Does the aggregator create something of value? Is he an artist? I left the movie WALL-E sharing in that tiny robot's joy. I tend to think so.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Aggregating Whitman, Words 1856, Pics 1941

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walk of dreams,
I fear those realities are to melt from under your feet and hands;
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you.
What widens within you, Walt Whitman?
Each of us inevitable, each of us limitless
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth
Flood-tide of the river, flow on!
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,
And the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I project myself a moment to tell you--also I return.
What is it, then, between us?
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also.
Now I am curious, curious what gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman
or man that looks in my face
Thrive, cities! Flow on, river! Frolic on, crested and scallop-edged waves!
We descend upon you and all things, we arrest you all,
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I am good-fortune.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

At the Olympics: One Song, Two Girls

This story from the Wall Street Journal about lip syncing at the opening ceremony instantly reminded me of my adolescent years when it was revealed to me that the female voice in C & C Music Factory belonged to a large, off-camera woman, not the skinny woman moving her lips and hips in the popular "Gonna Make You Sweat" video.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Nine-year-old Lin Miaoke became an instant global celebrity when she ostensibly sang "Ode to the Motherland" Friday night, clad in a red party dress and her hair in pigtails. But the voice heard around the world was that of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi. Officials have said that while Ms. Yang's voice was "perfect," Ms. Lin's appearance was more suitable.

For a trip back to the early 90s with the C & C Music Factory, go here.

Image: screenshot from "Gonna Make You Sweat" Youtube video

Monday, August 11, 2008

Beans and Greens, part 2.

The farmers' market in Harvard Square finally had some shell beans.  I think these are borlotti beans, also called cranberry beans.  Pretty, speckled little things.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Will somebody please buy me this?

This adorable little wooden alarm clock wakes you up with the smell of fresh bacon cooking. If every morning started with a piece of sizzling bacon, I would be a very happy girl.

image from

Saturday, August 2, 2008

James Wood On Forgery

What are verbal fingerprints? Style, for one thing. In his latest work of criticism, James Wood mentions a test the poet Glyn Maxwell and perhaps W.H. Auden would use in their poetry writing classes. Maxwell would present Philip Larkin's poem "The Whitsun Weddings," with some of its words blacked out. (The poem recalls how Larkin's otherwise perfunctory train ride happened to coincide with the departure of newlyweds from their wedding parties in village towns, the train repeatedly leaving behind a confusion of family and guests on the platform.) Let's give Maxwell's test a try here, using one stanza, blacking out certain adjectives, adverbs and nouns:

All afternoon, through the XXXX heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and XXXXXXXX curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, XXXXX-XXXXXXXXX cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial XXXXX;
A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of XXXXXXXXXX cars.

Maxwell would tell his students the syntax of each missing word and how these words filled out the meter of the line. His students then had to fill in the blanks. Call it MadLibs for poets.

Wood focuses on one line. "A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped..." We're missing an adverb with three syllables. The line depicts the view out Larkin's window as he travels.

It's not clear to me what Wood means to illustrate with Maxwell's test. So far as I can tell, it's a brilliant way to demonstrate style, particularly as it concerns diction. The test forces us to appreciate the missing word. And it's a testament to Larkin's ability how surprising each choice is. But what the test doesn't do is measure the talent of the aspiring poets in Maxwell's class--for only Larkin was on the train that day and therefore only Larkin knew what the hothouse looked like as it passed by him at some 50 miles per hour. And even if we were there with Larkin that day, we wouldn't have seen it the same way. That's where the poem's genius lies: the play of mind upon world.

As it happens, Wood reports that not one student has ever filled in the correct word in the hothouse line. For Larkin, the hothouse flashed "uniquely." The students have all grasped at straws. Larkin's use of "uniquely", Wood then concludes, is unique. Which is cute, but it's no mark against others that they haven't supplied the same adverb. For one thing, I imagine they're sitting in a classroom when given the test. Would it be different if the test were given on a train traveling the same route Larkin took? The longer I consider Maxwell's test, the more it seems it's a test for forgers and not for poets. And ultimately it raises some interesting questions about artistic value. Would a student's poem, which had replicated Larkin's verbal fingerprints all over it, be of the same value as a poem by Larkin? I don't think so, but I'll have to spell that out another time.

Think of it another way. Consider an artificial intelligence that spews out versions of the poem. And suppose further that with each iteration, the program learns how to make each word choice more Larkin-like, as based on an extrapolation from every word used in Larkin's corpus and the teacher's feedback. Is there any point at which the machine would produce poems of commensurate value with Larkin's?

What's confusing is that the experience said to underlie the poem could be fiction. Maybe Larkin never rode the train that day and therefore the hothouse never flashed. In that case, is there any difference between Larkin producing the poem and an artificial intelligence programed to imitate his style?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Please to buy for me.

I want a robot that touches my soul. If not WALL-E, then this one.

Hmmm... on second thought, it looks too much like the Interpol evil puppet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Flying Car Sighting

Ever since that awesome, bad ass reporter broke the story last October, I've been following the progress of Terrafugia. It looks like they've got their prototype made and they're showing it off at AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, this week. Last summer, they only had a wing. ("But will it radically decentralize air travel?" someone asked. No, it's just cool, damn it.) Oh yeah, and hey, the Times has a jet pack story from the same air show today. Pretty cool, too.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nether Netherland & Hysterical Cosmopolitanism

If there were such a thing--and undoubtedly there should be--the novel Netherland would have scored the equivalent of a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for Books. In the New Yorker, James Wood said it was a "fictional achievement," one of the most remarkable "post-colonial books" he has ever read. Comparing it to the Great Gatsby, Michiko Kakutani called it a "resonant meditation on the American Dream." And in yet a second a review, the Times raised the stakes, calling it ""the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had" about post-9/11 life. Mark Sarvas at the Elegant Variation also praises it as "a Gatsby-like meditation on exclusion and otherness." And that's only a cursory summary of what's out there...

Unfortunately, whatever its merits, the book is none of these things. (Which raises my suspicions about why these critics fell so hard...) To be sure, the author, Joseph O'Neill, is extremely talented at the art of vivid description. He has a painterly eye. Perhaps cinemaphotographic is better. Individual sentences describing city scenes or sunsets or cricket fields or the Hudson River recur in your mind long after you've put the book down. He excels at creating a pastoral lyricism amidst the throng of New York. Conde Naste Traveller ought to employ him. And the curious cast of exotic characters--immigrants from just about every corner of the globe--set the stage for a remarkable New York story.

But O'Neill is no dramatist. There's no story to speak of other than a listless, but thoughtful protagonist learning not to bowl alone (on a cricket pitch). The inciting incident: Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker working in London, receives a phone call from a New York Times reporter asking him about Khamraj "Chuck" Ramkissoon, a wily Trinidadian Hans befriended in New York when his wife, Rachel, estranged him a few years back. The reporter tells Hans that Chuck was recently found dead in the Gowanus Canal. Since he hasn't thought about Chuck in a long time and since he's now back together with his wife, the phone call returns Hans to his lonely post 9/11 years in New York. This whole framing sets up the story's end: the tale will take us from separation to reunion, friendship to loss. The game of cricket in an unlikely place becomes a crucible for Hans's transformation. But as I said, O'Neill doesn't execute the story well. It's a rite of passage about a mid-life sag...but there no rising tension whatsoever. Instead, the story arcs weakly, meandering from flashbacks to flash forwards at a constant rate. It's easy to get lost, especially if you put book the down (the book has three chapters, but it's not clear why those breaks are meaningful). And the climax--Hans' reunion with Rachel--comes so softly and inexplicably, you're left wondering why Hans would ever want her back other than out of self-pity. A story about how cosmopolitan New York is would have been desirable. A still life painting, however well done, just isn't worth your attention for 256 pages.

If this were my own Rotten Tomatoes for Books: 60%.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Biologist 4 Obama Buttons

My friend Tina came up with clever customized buttons for biology-loving Obama supporters to show their pride.

If you're interested in your own Obama RNA and protein buttons, you can reach Tina at

Here's what she wrote about how the buttons came to be, what it all means, and how to eat like a true Obama supporter:

After hearing [a biologist friend and Obama supporter] recite YESWECAN YESWECAN YESWECAN about a thousand times, I realized that all the letters in the slogan are single letter abbreviations for amino acids. A few hours later and with the help of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Biodesigner, the YESWECAN biomolecular buttons were born! Now you can sport a button with Obama wielding his very own YESWECAN protein or shouting out his YESWECAN slogan in RNA code. For those of you who are a bit rusty on your college molecular biology, here’s how it works:
The genetics and proteomics of “YES WE CAN”

Single letter amino acid abbreviation:

Triple letter amino acid abbreviation:
Tyr, Glu, Ser, Trp, Glu, Cys, Ala, Asn,

Amino Acid:
Tyrosine, Glutamic acid, Serine, Tryptophan, Glutamic acid, Cystein, Alanine, Aspartic acid

RNA code:

If you’d like to know how you can eat a healthy dose of all of the YESWECAN amino acids in your diet, you should try beans, which contain moderate to high levels of all the amino acids above. As a side note, beans are truly an all-American food and more American than apple pie. Unlike apples, which were brought over by Europeans in the 16th century, the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris, was domesticated in the Americas around 2000 B.C., and has since been cultivated into dozens of tasty varieties. So, the next time you’re at a barbecue, help yourself to an extra spoonful of baked beans, sit back as you digest the proteins into YESWECAN amino acids, and sport your YESWECAN button proudly!

About the creator:
Tina Warinner is an anthropology Ph.D. student at Harvard University where she researches ancient Mesoamerican diet and disease. Her dissertation is on the isotopic and genetic diversity of an early colonial town in Oaxaca, Mexico and its relationship to evangelization and the slave trade.

And there are more buttons where these came from. Tina also has an infectious disease line (bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, etc), a mythical animal genetics line (yeti, big foot, etc.), and a hodgepodge of gay buttons ("Judith Butler made me queer," etc.).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's Mismatch Problem

Malcom Gladwell has a thought-provoking video up, this time on something he calls the mismatch problem. In a nutshell, we think we know how to measure talent. The problem is that we have no idea what we're doing. Our measurements appear to bear no relation to future performance. In Gladwell's words, it's a misjudgment that occurs when the criteria we use to assess someone's ability to do a job is radically out of step with the demands of the job itself.

Since S. recently heard about a consulting firm that gives a battery of tests to help you find a career that matches your strengths and weaknesses, and since I've taken an interest in something called the Signaling Theory of Education, it's worth rehearsing some of Gladwell's points.

Every year, for a week or weekend, before professional sports teams draft the incoming rookie class, they hold what are called combines, a sort of mini-camp where prospective draftees go through a dog and pony show for all the scouts. The combine's purpose is let scouts collect objective data about who these kids are and what they can do. Millions and millions of dollars are at stake after all, so naturally teams want some reliable way to predict how good of an investment they're making in whomever they draft. Will this guy help us win? Is he worth it? In the NBA combine, these kids jump, they run, they lift weights, they take IQ tests, run drills--anything and everything to predict how well these kids will play.

But do you know who D.J Strawberry is? I certainly don't. But last year his scores at the NBA combine were the highest of any incoming rookie. And yet he was awful. Strawberry averaged just two points a game during the entire year for the Phoenix Suns. All the top scorers at the combine turned out to be awful. Some didn't even play in the NBA. But what about Kevin Durant, who won the rookie of the year award? He ranked 78th at the combine. In fact, the top five draft picks all performed poorly at the combine. It's a remarkable waste of time--the combine and all of its tests are poor predictors for how well anyone plays basketball.

Or consider the Wonderlic test, an intelligence test given to NFL rookies in their combine. Being a quarterback in the NFL requires great cognitive demands and sophisticated decision making. Thousands of plays have to be memorized. Quarterbacks watch 100 hours of video every week to study the offense they plan to run and how the defense of the opposing team will react. So again, you might think that measuring intelligence with the Wonderlic might be important. But it turns out that among the 7 worst Wonderlic scorers in history are two of the best to ever play the game--Terry Bradshaw and Dan Marino. On the other hand, none of the seven best come close--Drew Henson, Eli Manning, Tony Romo...the list is laughable. So if in an industry where millions of dollars are at stake, where scouts are paid hundreds of thousands to measure talent in any quantifiable way, if in these multi-billion dollar industries our methods to predict productivity fail, then how about in other areas of work where measurements of productivity are even more vague and elusive?

When everything we use to assess talent has no correlation, or worse, a negative correlation with our actual performance on the job, it's time we start rethinking some of these institutions. Consider more from Gladwell:

How do we ensure which teachers we hire are the best? Currenlty teachers are required to have a BA, teaching training, license from the state, academic work associated with your specialty. Does this ensure a high quality teacher? Not at all. Do any of these requirements correlate with increasing student performance? Not at all. So it's the Combine all over again.

What about lawyers? Surely lawyers would know what correlates with what makes a good lawyer. But of course they don't. The University of Michigan has an extremely generous affirmative action program, meaning minority applicants with lower GPAs, test scores and so on are accepted more frequently than white candidates with those same scores. This then set up a natural experiment: measure the success across time of all UM Law graduates--30 years worth--and compare the success of those graduates who tested well with those minority graduates who did not. As it happens, on any measure of success, Gladwell claims there was no correlation (according to UM's research). So, yet again, we have a mismatch problem. The criteria, which we think are associated with being a good lawyer--high LSATs, high GPA--have no bearing on how good of a lawyer you end up becoming.

So why do mismatch problems occur? Gladwell says it's a madness for imposing certainty. A deep-seated need for clear and reliable statics, a hard-wired impulse for rational plan making. Also, he says, the complexity of jobs has increased. The cognitive demands required to succeed have multiplied and we can't track them. So the world has changed, but the way we hire people hasn't.

But there's only one reliable way to measure productivity: to wait until someone's on the job.

Monday, July 21, 2008


I want to introduce the Internet to mai meme: "nomg." NOMG = OMG + NOM. It's for when you are really, really hungry, or for when something is really, really delicious. Today I experienced both.

more cat pictures
This picture describes pretty well how I feel about the dinner I just ate, and seeing it earlier in the day when kspace sent it along (and talking about beans and greens on the T with kspace and Angela) inspired my dinner. Since we are turning into a food blog in the absence of posts by other Wind-Up Bloggaz, here is the recipe(ish).

NOMG Greens 'n' Beans
1) Slice up four pieces of bacon. Render them until browned in a cast iron skillet, then fish out and put on a plate with a paper towel to drain.

2) If you have an indecent amount of bacon fat in the skillet, take a bit out, or revel in it. Sautee three cloves of chopped garlic and a small sliced onion. You can add more veggies here if you want--some chunky sliced zucchini or half any color bell pepper and/or some diced hot pepper. Add some red pepper flakes if you're feeling it. Add probably a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds and get them a bit brown. Add half teaspoonish pimenton de la vera (smoked paprika). If you want to eliminate the bacon and just start off with olive oil, the smoked paprika is strongly, strongly urged upon you.

3) Deglaze with a good splash of white wine (beer is probably good too, or broth, or water). Before it all boils off add a slew of greens. Red amaranth from the farmer's market is pretty awesome. Chard. Tuscan kale. Whatever's your pleasure. Let those braise a bit and add more liquid if you want.

4) Stir in a can of drained canellini beans or black beans or probably any can of beans you've got. Add the bacon back in.

5) Nom. OMG. NOMG!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Put on Your Red Shoes

Put on your red shoes and dance the poodle blues
Thanks to my bro for this photo, taken at a farmer's market in Tucscon, AZ.

Lifetime Achievement

This morning I got an email from my sister. She is in Italy for six weeks doing a study-abroad program. It goes without saying that I am insanely jealous of her, but I'm also so happy that she's able to experience this. She had just gotten back from a weekend of hiking in the Alps and sent some pictures of her trip. The image below is one she sent.

There is something so enchanting about the teal water against the rocky mountains. It's because of this photo that I have added hiking in the Italian Alps to my life to-do list. It's a pretty short list, but it's stuff I know I truly want to achieve in my life. It includes qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon, living in NYC, and living in another country for more than 6 months. Maybe if I move to Italy, it won't be so difficult to do a little weekend hike...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dairy Dreams

A couple weeks ago the New York Times assured us that making homemade ricotta is super easy. The wind-up is here to tell you it's even easier than they let on. (The wind-up apologizes for lack of Blogger photo formatting skillz but simply cannot spend any more time trying to make this look better.)

Step 1: Pour two quarts whole milk and two cups buttermilk into a pot over high heat. Stir so it doesn't scorch.

Step 2: Stop stirring when curd-like things begin forming at the top. It's done when the curds stop forming and the whey gets greyish. NYT says curds form at 175-180 degrees. We didn't have a candy thermometer and didn't need one, but it would be interesting to use one next time just to watch what happens. It seems like it's hard to overdo it, so don't be afraid.

Step 3: Ladle curds into a collander lined with cheesecloth. Let it drip for 15 minutes. Now you have cheese.
And you can do things like this. Top something really rich and full-flavored, like orrechiette with bacon and tomato broth and fresh peas, with a dollop of the mild cheese and some fresh basil. Mix ricotta with a bit of sugar, spice, and toasted walnuts, and stuff peaches.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Taste the Explosion

According to The Wiki, the manufacture of Pop Rocks is similar to what happens inside a volcano. The ingredients are heated until molten and then exposed to pressurized carbon dioxide at 600 ppsi. The gas is trapped in the viscous mixture of sugars, to be released at a pressure of 40 atm when these sugars encounter saliva. (Did someone really measure the pressure inside a Pop Rock? How do you do that without puncturing it?)

Are Pop Rocks dangerous? There's the story of Mikey (the kid who liked it, may he rest in peace), who ate them with cola. Reports vary but either his stomach or mouth exploded, and he died. In 1989 I watched "Ghost Busters II" in the theater and when the painting of Vigo started talking, I started, spilling my pop rocks into my shorts (possibly culottes)--painful, but not deadly.

As practitioners of the scientific method, the Wind-Up Bloggers knew we had to move beyond this kind of anecdotal evidence. Hypothesis: mixing Pop Rocks with a carbonated beverage should cause no harm. Method: subject placed ~.5 gram pellet of green (watermelon flavor) pop rock into mouth containing a small sip of vinho verde, a cheap, lightly carbonated summer wine. Results: subject reported a tingling sensation. Popping sounds of increasing volume. Conclusion: Pop Rocks are not dangerous and mixing them with alcohol is a good idea. They are even better with some cheap sweetish red wine (more intense pops). Mixing pop rocks and a sip of beer is not too thrilling, probably because the beer's own, more aggressive carbonation masks the popping rocks.

Thanks to flickr user Jason Michael for image of Pop Rocks on a tanning bed (?!).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Brookings, Oregon...Let's Revisit History

Up past the Redwoods, some 10 hours from San Francisco along the coast on the 101, you come to the Oregon state line, one of the most beautiful places on the earth. (It's amazing how many of these beautiful places we've seen on this trip and how varied they are.) The topography dramatically changes across the border: the coasts turn into giant crescents, harbors for giant rock islands known as "sea stacks." The trees are verdant, the plains lush. And the wind! It's constantly driving, whipping waves shore-ward.

The first town across from the California border is Brookings, Oregon. And here I've come across another piece of strange history. On September 9, 1942, Nobuo Fujita, a japanese pilot, catapulted his plane off the deck of a submarine near the coast of Oregon. He then flew down the coast, from Cape Blanco to Brookings, and dropped two 168-pound fire bombs over the forests with the aim of setting the forests ablaze.

The bombs fizzled. They started small fires, which the forest rangers handled without incident. The Japanese didn't realize how wet the forests were at that time...

Meanwhile, Fujita turns out to have been a peculiar man. He survived the war, and afterwards, he felt ashamed for having bombed Brookings. So he arranged a visit in 1962, taking with him a samurai sword. In the New York Times's obituary, Fujita's daughter tells the story:
She recalled that her father had been very anxious before that visit, fretting about whether Oregonians would be angry at him for the bombing, and so he had decided to carry the sword so that if necessary he could appease their fury by committing ritual suicide, disemboweling himself with the sword in the traditional Japanese method known as seppuku.

''He thought perhaps people would still be angry and would throw eggs at him,'' Mrs. Asakura recalled, adding that ''if that happened, as a Japanese, he wanted to take responsibility for what he had done'' by committing seppuku.

In the end, the citizens welcomed him warmly, making him an honorary citizen. He offered them his sword and it now hangs in the Brookings Library.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Seattle: Portal to the Pacific

Seattle has been 70 degrees and sunny for the past three weeks. Here is a gorgeous day that sponsored a 12 mile bike ride (up hill both ways, like everything in this city) to see "the mountain". In person, the mountain was out; on film, not so much. But tilt your screen enough and you can just see the gigantic volcano looming in the clouds.
Looking the other way, a nice westbound welcome to the city on I-90, just down the street from my old Mass Pike.All that talk about dreary, rainy Seattle must just be a ploy to keep the Californians away...except for you, Katie.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Too early for earplugs

Overheard in Watertown* last evening, from a house across the driveway:

Young woman to her boyfriend/father of her child: You say you're 95% sure that you want to stay and marry me. So, am I supposed to just sit around waiting until you're at 100%?

Muffled male response.

Woman: If I told my parents this, that you're 95% sure, they'd tell me to dump you right now.

Muffled male response.

*Phrase borrowed from this.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Kevin Sez

Well, at least he's from Booklyn...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The International Language

Bronte, Australia. June 2008.
(But what's so funny?)

the original is too long to carry on the subway.

I had a very un-Cambridge experience this morning on the subway. I was sitting betweeen someone reading this book (Philosophy for Beginniners, which had a lot of ugly drawings including Hegel smashing a wooden box etc. and gives you about six thinkers per spread) and a woman studying a tiny pamphlet of Bible quotes. Then again, maybe this is a very Cambridge experience. Has anyone read this philosophy book? I'm e-looking at you, Mike.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Long black, mate. And a side of poo.

I just spent a week in Sydney, Australia, which is not the capital of the country (that's Canberra) but is world famous for its fjord-like harbour, iconic opera house, majestic bridge, immense zoo, and yummy but oddly named coffee.

(Also it's expensive as hell. This tube of lip balm--crappy, waxy, ineffectual lip balm--cost me $7.95.)

Sydneysiders don't drink Dunky-Doe-style brewed coffee when they go to cafes. It's all about variations on espresso, but with funked out names like "flat white," "skinny flat white," and "long black." The latter (which I mistakenly called "long dark" several times in cafes but was usually understood) was my drink, which is basically an Americano, or espresso with water. Scott drank flat white, which is an espresso with steamed milk. It sounds like a latte, but it apparently doesn't taste like one. (Not being a latte drinker, I can't elaborate.) The skinny flat white is with skim (or fat-free) milk rather than whole.

I didn't think they sold lattes (they weren't on the cafe menus I saw), but apparently Aussies make good ones: Con Haralambopoulos just won the World Latte Art Championship in Copenhagen, the third Australian in a row to do so. (An Aussie also placed second in the World Barista Championship, held at the same time.)

The coffee we had in Sydney cafes was delicious, dark, and dear, running $3 for a cup. Given the care that baristas take to make their coffee, I was surprised to find little wee packets of instant coffee in our hotel room. (Still no drip coffee maker.) They were from a Foreign Land (I forget which), and the package was dark, which made me think of dark roast, and because we were both often suffering from caffeine headaches at strange times of day (it is 14 hours ahead there), we tried it. The granules were small, almost like powder, and dark, and very unlike my Nana's Maxwell House instant coffee with its pebble-sized milk-chocolate brown granules that, mixed with boiling water, tasted like day-old diluted Tim Horton's.

The instant wasn't amazing, but it was better than ok, and it got rid of our headaches. I just read this startling fact from the Australasian Specialty Coffee Association: Australians consume more instant coffee at home than most others; about 85% of cups drunk in Aussie homes are instant. How very interesting!

A couple of other notes on food: The toast there is really thick. That's one of their "things," and it rocked my breakfast world. For dinners, we ate Chinese and Spanish and Italian, which all were much like their counterparts in North America--though in Chinatown our waitress tried to sell us a several hundred dollar "rock" lobster, which looked just like a B-movie alien and rather different from the red New England lobsters we're used to seeing. (We didn't buy it. )

And there were foods that are exactly the same as those in the US but are called something else, namely "Rice Bubbles" instead of "Rice Crispies." I tried to find out why this is (on the webby of course), but to no avail. Does "crispy" mean something dirty in Aussieland? Please do tell if you know.

Finally, the most disturbing food-related experience in our travels came at the Taronga Zoo, which sits on a big wooded hill across the harbour in North Sydney and provides extraordinary views. We saw giraffes and elephants and all manner of marsupials and birds and a killer leopard seal. We spent a big chunk of time watching the chimpanzees, who were (of course) so human-like. We saw one youngster pat the back of another as he passed, in a very "hey buddy, wassup" way, and we watched two females groom each other as a wee baby sat patiently between them, staring at the crowd. That baby was about the cutest thing I've ever seen.

And then we watch a grown-up dude (he looked like a guy) sit happily with his friends while munching on poo. Yeah, poo. His own poo? His mama's poo? What? It covered his mouth, but he didn't care. He had a stick of poo.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Voulez-vous Rendez-vous avec moi, ce soir?

Part of the problem is the name. It sounds like the kind of restaurant were Dockers-clad Cambridge dot-commers take their Match-dot-com third dates, hoping their $29.95 membership fee pays off.

My other issue with Rendezvous -- "dishing haute cuisine to Central 'mental' Square since 2005" -- is its fickle menu. Is it French? Is it American? Is Italian? Or even North African? Embracing its previous life as a Burger King, you get it your way at Rendezvous. In this case, it's muddled and mixed.

It's not that the food was bad. My charcuterie plate -- a Kandinsky-esque palette of duck griette, cured pork belly, and chicken liver mousse bedazzled with cornichons and caper berries cut so they resembled the Llyods of London's building -- was a highlight. I had to fend my dining companions away from the griette -- basically a glorified terrine that packed so much duck fat into 15 cubic centimeters that NASA scientists should contact the chef to learn how to optimize its payloads.

Katie's gnocchi with morels, maitake, microscopic black truffles and piave cheese also impressed, if -- and only if -- you got a morel-filled bite. Otherwise, as Katie notes, it was umami overload.

Ada's cheese plate boasted a nice blue goat that had to be quadruple creamed, but Angela's cold octopus salad -- Greek or Sicilian? -- was on the bland side. I didn't notice the fennel, lovage or smoked paprika on the menu, but there was cilantro aplenty.

The entrees also batted around .300. The skate -- cooked on the the bone, if you know what I mean -- was a delicious ode to the Pacific Northwest, combining fiddlehead ferns, hazlenuts, sage, and a little too much brown butter. But its sauteed potatoes were a superfluous sacrifice to the tyrannical triumvirate of meat, starch and vegetables. The shrimp came overcooked and the roast chicken unremarkable, though I admittedly tried only a bite of each, and I urge my dining companions to prove me wrong.

The wine list -- exclusively old world and Californian -- included a number of wines under $30. We tried an excellent $24 Spanish wine, proving that the cheapest plunk on the list may be the one to get -- unless you're on your third date and looking to close the deal. It was a 2006 Vino Sin Ley made of a grape I had never heard of -- Montestrall. I might order a case, if I can find it. Over dinner we had an unremarkable -- and more expensive -- Cote du Rhone. It had a nice earthiness that complemented the brown butter, err skate, and I bet it would have gone well with the gnocchi, as well. But no one bothered noting the winery or vintage -- 'nuf said.

We split two deserts: a lovely chocolate cake with a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream and, my favorite, an orange-spiked polenta cake topped with rosemary ice cream, strawberry and crunchy, tart rhubarb that reminded you of its kinship to celery. No complaints here.

So Rendezvous wasn't bad, but for $70, it wasn't fantastic, either. When Ada asked for her roast chicken wrapped to-go -- I see it reincarnated as a splendid sandwich -- it came back in a Chinese take out box. Next time I'm at Rendezvous, I'll order the Kung Pao escargot.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perfume counters

In the past year or two I've become obsessed with perfumes. I've managed to collect quite a few, and the number of fragrances I've sampled is well into the hundreds. Some perfume lovers have had an interest in fragrance since they were young, but I never did, not until I discovered the world of niche perfumery and scents that were unusual, unisex, and often rather natural-smelling. Before that, my only real knowledge of perfume was from the perfume counters at department stores.

The counters flanked department stores like fortresses, creating an obstacle course that required a strategy to cross unscathed. Averting the eyes and walking quickly and determinedly was the best hope, but not always successful. The women waited in crisp polyester suits, faces bronzed to an ocher sheen and lips pinched into lines of fuchsia, crimson, and coral. They looked bored but their eyes were predatory, tracking each customer winding her way around the bulging glass counters toward the escalators. As someone passed, their bodies lifted to attention and swayed forward, bangled arms stretching out to brandish bottles and paper test strips.

“Care to sample the newest fragrance from Gucci?”

They would lift the bottle, with its pale pink or lime-colored juice, and depress a thick spray on the paper, wafting the strip with a practice sweep. They would bestow it on the customer and watch her as she inhaled.

From the paper would emerge a chemical smell of fruit and flowers and sugar—sometimes a little more peach or a little more apple, a bit more freesia or rose, but always managing to be pretty and bland and suffocating all at once.

“Isn't it gorgeous?” they would say, mustering what appeared to be genuine rapture over the scent they had been smelling for days now.

Or, they would be practical. “It's a perfect scent for summer, not too heavy.”

Or simply appeal to consensus. “This is very popular.”

The latest perfume was always what they'd push, as they were directed to. Whether the person wanted something for day or night, something sheer or sinister, a perfume with florals or citrus or wood, they would steer their customers to the newest Gucci or Dior or Chanel as relentlessly as a jetstream.

They were not open to argument. “Oh, but this is very unique. It has lychee!”

Their enthusiasm was persistent but never personal. They remained ciphers with tight smiles and arched brows.

All around them the air was heavy with perfumes, heated by the bright lights of the makeup counters. The scents mixed together into a nondescript scent of femininity—a particular kind of femininity that sought to smooth over its anxiety with glittering powders and lifting creams. This femininity required perfumes that suggested flowers and fruit and candy, that had no dark shadows that could be interpreted as masculine, nothing that smelled of sex or sweat, nothing overtly natural, nothing that would stir souls or evoke memories. The bottles might be given names that suggested pleasure or danger or individuality, but the odor itself always conformed to a certain expected blandness. Perfume like this was meant to be functional, to promise passion but deliver safety.

And the sales associates always waited at the entrances of the department stores as if ushering one onto this narrow path of womanhood, their determined posture a signal that avoiding that journey was as impossible as crossing the sea of counters without a spritz.

Umami Rendezvous

After sitting down at 9 pm in a warm little wooden booth that compared quite favorably with the one at the IHOP in the burbs earlier in the day, the Wind-Up crew took some time with the wine list. Are we supposed to recognize these wines by name? Or is everyone just guessing like we are? We decided on red from Spain, eliminated the more expensive ones, then picked a grape none of us had heard of before, monastrell. (The Web tells me today that it’s also known as mourvèdre.) I don’t have the vocab for describing wine but I really liked this one; it was good to drink on its own and then held its ground against our decadently salty, fatty, earthy, spicy appetizer selections.

For my appetizer, I had umami pillows. I mean potato gnocchi with sauteed morels and maitake, black truffle and piave cheese (not to mention a rich, earthy broth that gets no official billing). I’ve had the gnocchi at Rendezvous several times before; they change it up all the time. After my first bite I was a bit disappointed, but then I figured out I needed to get a bit of everything in each bite. As you can see from the photo, it was quite a homey dish (except for the truffle shavings.) Ewen’s charcuterie plate was beautiful. Capers and cornichons stood up like transmitters, antennae, and skyscrapers on an alien planet admidst islands of fatty meat. A dollop of chicken-liver mousse looked like a Saarinen building and tasted like licking Cheeto dust off your fingers, but sweeter.

Our entrees were on the whole a bit lighter so we picked a Cote du Rhone for the next bottle. It was good for drinking with a meal but didn’t make much of an impression on me. Nor did my shrimp. At previous meals at Rendezvous I’ve had those tiny, tiny sweet shrimp local to New England, covered in chili powder and lime juice. These were larger and also quite sweet but ever so slightly overcooked. That shouldn’t happen at what Gourmet dubs one of the best restaurants in the country. But I loved the bed of black rice below them and ringed with butter that had a hint of spice and a hint of shrimpiness. The nutty arroz negro valenciano has a large amount of anthocyanins and of course there are a lot of nutritional claims about them on the Internet. What’s cool about anthocyanins to me: they’re in berries and blood oranges and experimental organic solar cells. And they stained the inside of my mouth. Angela ftw with the toasted orechiette and meatballs, for sure. (She had a head start on us all though, having outgeeked us by studying the menu and selecting her dishes before we even got there.)

The best thing about dessert, which I hope someone else will describe, were the thin, crunchy slices of macerated rhubarb and the rosemary ice cream plated with the polenta cake. The evening ended on Ewen’s roof amidst the orange-mist-shrouded chimneys of Inman Square with tiny sips of Old Chub. And then I floated off to sleep on an umami pillow...

more Tuscan kale, please

Last night was our Wind-Up group trip to Rendezvous in Central Square. There was a lot going on, so I'll just stick to telling you how good my food was.

For an appetizer I got the salad of chilled octopus, roasted peppers, fennel, lovage, black olive and smoked paprika. The octopus was sliced thin (I like mine chunkier), but was perfectly cooked and not too chewy. I was not a fan of the iceberg lettuce. If you are charging me that much for a small salad, I expect something more than iceberg. The smoked paprika added an assertive spiciness that went perfectly with the Spanish wine we were drinking. This dish made me even more excited for my trip to Madrid that's coming up.

My entré (which came out surprisingly quick) was the braised pork and veal meatballs with toasted orecchiette, tuscan kale and piave cheese.

My only complaint about the dish? Not enough Tuscan kale. (If you haven't noticed, I have a weird obsession with this vegetable.) I have never had toasted pasta before, but it gave a nice crunchy texture to the dish. The meatballs...what can I say? They were close to perfect. Not too heavy, but very moist and flavorful. I could have eaten five more. The salty piave cheese had a strong taste but paired very well with the meat. The broth at the bottom of the bowl might have been a little too garlicky for some, but I looove garlic and felt it brought all the elements together.

As you can see, I enjoyed the meal quite a bit. I had pretty high expectations for Rendezvous, and for the most part, they were met. Maybe we will return in a few months to check out the new seasonal menu.

As much as I enjoyed my dinner, it doesn't come close to my favorite meal ever, which was at a small cafe in Paris. It consisted of fresh baguettes, warm and melty camembert cheese, perfect scallops in a white wine butter sauce, and creme brulee. This summer I am going to Italy and Madrid, and you better believe I'll be blogging about all the amazing food I encounter there.