Thursday, January 29, 2009

Drunkard's Walk: Ten Short Thoughts

1. More digital age obsolescence: Cars, at least until recently, still got sold listing AM/FM radio (yup, frequency modulated signals processed at no extra charge) and tape decks, and while I'm aware that you can get modern car audio at a premium, I am not willing to pay for it. It was a shock that my '06 had come so far as to include a CD player standard. I don't want the fucking bluetooth, nor do I want to drop an extra hundred bucks (forty more than my beloved little MP3 player) on that broadcaster that sends signal to my radio, but Jesus, let's ease the transition here. It strikes me that it would be a simple engineering matter to add one of those TRS style audio jacks that have been around since forever, and which every pocket audio device has sported for the last 30 years as a headphone connector. In a sane world, I could just use my car stereo as an amplifier for whatever, without necessitating hundreds of dollars of electronics in between. Is it not expensive enough a solution to add on every car radio? It'd sure make me happy.

2. Warpaint: When the Black Crowes' seventh CD came out last year, and some hack at Maxim took the opportunity to unload his pent up opinions about the band without wasting the time to listen to it, I totally put the album on my to-buy list. Naturally, it took awhile. Admittedly, the project is not terribly inspired: the tracks have the casual brio of a talented hippie-party jam band, and compared to Shake Your Money Maker, the whole thing sounds a little...optional. But still. Criticizing them for knocking off the Rolling Stones? I am pretty sure that the Rolling Stones (not even mentioning their more embarrassing efforts) are not even aware that you can put so many instruments in a band, and tired as the Robinsons may be, when they play the bluesy, weed-baked, countrified rock songs, it sounds like they're at least vaguely in tune with wherever it is they came from.

3. Via IOZ (and recycling my comment): I don't know much about running companies, but from my passing association with certain kinds of nerds, I'm pretty sure that Carly Fiorina is the reason why people now say "Hewlett ...what?". But at least you could call her an economic expert by dint of some ruinous joyrides through corporate America. What have George Will, Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, or George Stephanopolous ever fucking done or learned? Check out the video. Paul Krugman looks like the tired foodie ringer they put in with the actors and celebrities that for unknown reasons make up the Iron Chef judging panels. At least there, people don't live and die by culinary art.

4. But let's not get carried away: But then, I don't fully accept economics anyway. No matter how furiously you model, how clever your mathematical simulations, even if you uncover some amazing truths about behavior in the ensemble, no matter how interesting it is, or how useful, and even if it can be an excellent approximation, economics ain't quite dealing with natural law. (Uh, probably.) How much people will pay for stuff is not, at the bottom of it all, a fact--it's an opinion. And let's face it, people's opinions tend to be stupid.

5. Anyway, we're still damned if we do: Speaking of economics, the new bailout is super (if you're creating money, then let's print a little for everyone) and so are green jobs, and maybe you can even change some of the deeply held public opinions about our relationship with energy (not that that's the intention), which would be awesome. But you can't trump physics with enthusiasm. No amount of legislated work projects is going to circumvent the usual conservation laws. If we're lucky, we'll keep ourselves from going too far or too quickly down the other side of the peak (and maybe economics will slow it naturally, provided we don't all lose the public faith), and maybe if we're far luckier than we deserve, we'll buy enough time for nuclear fusion to come on line or some such shit, but let's not pretend we're not limited by the rapidly disappearing black ooze. This is the second-biggest reason I hate American politicians, by the way, and if Obama's less aggravating than most of them, then, well, he's still going to molest my children sometime down the line. Maybe keeping up the infrastructure that connects the burbs with easy highway access shouldn't be the first priority going forward.

6. Bad Graphs: That said, while I buy into some version of peak oil, there are good and bad arguments going on there. The charts are famous enough, and it's easy to grasp how regional production peaks and then tails (pace Dr. Hubbert), and to picture that fact against how much many regions are still likely to be out there (e.g.). On the other hand, graphs that pretend to pinpoint the dramatic peak have to make their point by extrapolating heavily, and should therefore be regarded with caution. Penciling a line that tanks starting, always, one year from now (some more egregiously than others) is particularly inelegant. I believe you in the general sense, so please stop going out of your way to look like you're lying.

7. Spelling America with a 'K' are we?: Reading John Dos Passos (link forthcoming) got me thinking about the timing of anti-Communist sentiment in America. It Anti-Labor feelings had settled in pretty hard before the Great War, and a good historian would probably catalogue the movement as a response to conditions following the good ole industrial revolution, an answer to the new aristocracy and the condition of the filthy underpaid masses that grew out of those innovative times. Anti-communismlabor was, naturally enough, the response of that aristocracy, of the political and economic power. The Bolsheviks across the sea were hated by authority well before they earned it, and although they were conceived as anti-Capitalist, the notion of resisting Soviet geographic expansion came about somewhat later. That the Communist revolutions turned out to generate their own tyrants, that Communism turned into a competitor for big global all would be sort of funny if it weren't for the millions dead.

8. Last bit of radicalism, I promise: And you know, as a good technical guy (bourgoisie by way of Sallie Mae), I'm not a huge fan of labor unions, I'm unimpressed by their leadership, and have been occasionally miffed by their (okay: media-exaggerated) demands. If bad business practices must be countered with organization, then I still don't cherish the idea of yet another numbnut garnishing my wages in the name of alleged representation. This morning, WBUR's media analyst (now there's a job) John Carroll, showcased some ads on either side of the Employee Free Choice Act, featuring caricatures of both Labor and Corporate bosses, and I felt tempted to acknowledge a truth that might lie somewhere in between, if just this once. But if Communism was a disaster, limited Socialism didn't seem to tank Western Europe, and on a national or corporate level, either economic model can serve its people well or poorly enough. Democracy may be a bulwark against tyranny, but it's a temporary and often marginal one. The bottom line is not the vote and it's not the economic model--it's really more what we're conditioned, by ourselves and by experience, to expect. (You know, in the aggregate. I don't think any of us can just will our job back, at least if we don't work in marketing.) That can be changed in rare instances, sometimes surprisingly, and within some constraints, and for sure, it can be supressed.

9. Thought experiment: It's hard for humans to avoid identifying with one another according to sex or tribe, but the average opinion seems to be a little bit malleable vis a vis inclusivity. I'd argue that with some good marketing, and without longstanding systemic barriers (slavery, complicated pregnancy, and a good justification for the division of labor come to mind--admittedly I'm talking a sort of frictionless spherical social paradigm here), racism and sexism would likely relax to some inclusive equilibrium within the American tribe, such as it is. Unfortunately, homogenization still appears to be an ugly, generations-long process, walking toward uniformity according to some slow-ass rate law, a few hundred million individually diffusive events, human bumping into human. In this experiment, I think sexism would let go of its hold on public opinion sooner than racism. Why? Because we all have at least one parent that's of the opposite gender. (We could outgrow racism the same way of course, but I haven't had the nerve to even mention the Bulworth plan to my wife.)

10. My tribe didn't even make the playoffs: I'm rooting for the Steelers next week because it reinforces my long-held notion that the Arizona Cardinals are a clown factory of football, a perennially laughable franchise where stars go to underperform, and where playoffs are best viewed from a drunken self-loathing stupor. And it's not that it should have been so much different this year, with a 9-7 record going in, but, like, there they are. It took getting to the conference championship to match the win record of the New England Patriots. Now there may be some irony to take this position as a New England fan--you want to talk about your decades of quasi-football--but I point out that the Pats earlier Super Bowl appearances (even under that douchebag Parcells) were hard to imagine too back then too. On purely aesthetic grounds, if this be Arizona's 1997, then the world remains fathomable. I can live with however well or poorly they perform afterwards.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Layered Roasted Goodness

It's not a good week when you come home too tired to drink. It's depressing when you're so damned important that by Thursday, you've already suffered through three late lunches with the boss, and skipped the fourth. Job security in tough times, sure, but if I really must work, then the whole enterprise is a lot more bearable when I have my daily allotted hour to hole up in my office and eat the food I cook as I dejectedly denote my inconsequence.

So all week, my fabulous leftovers--roasted vegetable lasagna--have been gathering mold in the nasty, crowded corporate fridge while I scarf free sandwiches on the fly. The original recipe below comes from my wife's chef, as a rough outline. It's one of those where the exact quantities are sort of flexible, at least as far as satisfaction goes, but we're still working out some of the ratios to get the flavors and textures we like best.

Roasted vegetables are one of those food items that are just great, so use a lot of them. Almost anything becomes distinctive and delicious when roasted, even things most people tend to hate. Roasted Brussels sprouts rule, as do roasted turnips. My Dad grew up with a special loathing for parsnips until Wifey and I roasted them for him. If you start out with something that everyone already loves, onions say, then you roast them then the result is heavenly. For the recipe, I go with most carrots, onions, and mushrooms, fewer parsnips, turnips, maybe a little Brussels sprouts or fennel or green beans or sweet potatoes if they're kicking around. I recommend avoiding red peppers, or none at all--at least if you want taste anything else--and zucchini works, but it's not my favorite. Generally, I roast them at 350o for an hour or so, but if you're cooking something else, you can do in whatever oven. Here, it doesn't really matter if they're crispy.

As for eggplant, I'm not, as a rule, a fan, but when you process it enough it enough to abolish the spongy mouthfeel and infuse it something like taste, then, hey, it's fine. My favorite eggplant preparations roast it to goo and then flood it with savory goodness. Someday (soon, if I keep finding nothing to say), I'll post a recipe for Indian "eggplant mush," which is where the idea of grilling whole eggplant comes from. Just poke a few holes in the skin so it doesn't explode, and then cook the whole squash over low heat on your covered Charmglow. (If it's January, you can do it in the oven with veggies, but there won't be that slight smoky taste.) It'll get soft inside and a little burnt on the outside, and that's when it can be most convinced to be delicious.

This lasagna recipe has no tomatoes, by the way, and a good amount of pasta, and it doesn't ever come out like soup. It's not as starchy as it sounds, and it tastes wonderful. Here's a recipe for approximately one large and one smaller lasagna.

Roated Vegetable Lasagna:
- about 4 cookie sheets worth of vegetables (carrots, onions, mushrooms mostly, and whatever else you like), cut up into ~3/4' chunks and spread in a single layer
- 3 good-sized eggplants
- 2 lb. marscapone cheese
- 3 lb. fresh mozzerella, sliced or grated as best you can (I get the soft packaged logs usually, but real fresh mozz is surely better. Whatever you do, don't buy the bagged shredded crap, not for this.)
- about 1 cup fresh grated paremsan cheese
- stale bread or dry breadcrumbs
- lasagna noodles (you know, "enough" noodles. Two boxes, maybe, I forget.)
- olive oil, salt, fresh pepper

Toss the vegetables in oil, salt and pepper, and spread them on their pans. Prick the eggplant. Roast the vegetables and grill (or roast) the eggplant, as discussed above--the veggies are done when they're a little black and crispy on the outside (and you can't stop putting them in your moth); they'll shrink a lot. About halfway through, turn or toss them (they'll stick to the sheets a little, which is fine), turn the eggplant every once in a while too. The eggplant are done when they're soft. Do this in advance and let the eggplant cool. Set out the marscapone too and let it come to room temperature, so it's spreadable.

Peel the eggplant and dump the pulp in a food processor. Add the parmesan and some bread/breadcrumbs. Process, adding bread until the mixture is firm but spreads easily.

Cook the noodles until almost done. (Usually, I leave them in the water and let it cool a little, pulling them out with tongs as I nee them: a venial sin probably.)

To assemble the lasagna, drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom, then place a full layer of noodles. (I leave a little extra noodle going up the sides, for the first layer anyway.) On top of this, I spread some marscapone, layer some mozzarella, then more noodles, then the eggplant spread, then the vegetables, then noodles, etc. I try to get two whole rotations. The top is a layer of noodles, and on that, I distribute more mozzarella over it all, maybe add a couple twists of pepper.

[You can prep this on Sunday, by the way, and leave it in the refrigerator to cook during the week. I freeze the second lasagna, and then thaw and cook it during a less enthusiastic food week.]

Bake the assembled lasagna at 325 o for an hour. The top will get a little crispy, but since there's relatively little liquid, you don't need to let it rest very long before you serve it. Dig in.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Five More Thoughts, LCD Ed.

1. I join the digital age, whining all the way
I know I talk a big game about the evils of consumerism, but the truth of the matter is that I really enjoy my technological comforts, and as such, I'm willing to devote some small fraction of my undeserved paycheck for the purposes of entertainment. My desire to get a flat television was actually less to bow before the alter of the great glass-eyed Polyphemus (I kid, please put that stick down), and more to float that gigantic old blown-speakered CRT box off the floor of my tiny living room. Like a good American, I got a big TV with all the latest available interfaces, which, unsurprisingly, is pushing my aging video equipment into obselescence, but if I ever get a signal that's good enough for this television, I tell you, it's going to be awesome.

So far, my biggest gripe is the aspect ratio. Naively anticipating cinematic film viewing and football games with enough resolution to pick out chipped teeth, I quickly discovered that all of my cable and DVD content is broadcast in 4:3 aspect ratio. Even the "widescreen" content coming from my cable and my two DVDs is still spaced 4:3 and keeps those letterbox stripes, which ends up giving me a box all around the picture, which in the end is about the same image as on my old TV. For the lo-res widescreen stuff, I can get fiddle the settings around to make it to fill the screen with approximately the right proportion, but it's imperfect (top and bottom edges cut off), and it's kind of a pain in the ass. When blown up, it acquires texture too, like a film projected onto burlap. Although the unit has some preset settings for different viewing environments (not to mention plenty of extra buttons on the remote), there's evidently no way to customize them, nor to toggle quickly between them.

To get signals that are meant fit in the viewing box, it looks like I need to spring for blu-ray or for HD cable, which I'm sure is part of the marketing plan. I half suspect they're intentionally blurring any picture riding an old style feed. And yet I'm sure I don't care to spend any more money to boast an additional six inches of picture. Damn you, Samsung.

2. The Wire, Season 1
Now that I have something to watch stuff on, I opted into a Netflix free trial to find out what all the stuff was about. I've seen The Wire advertised as the best show ever, the sort of thing that (to paraphrase some commenter somewhere) art historians will review centuries from now, and deem, disregarding everything else that has wandered pixellated space, to have made the invention of the medium worth it. Or at least good enough to justify owning a TV. Some praise. I decided to check it out.

And let's be clear, I could've cared less if I ever saw another police procedural. Opening up, here's yet another charismatic-but-rough-around-the-edges white guy in what looks to be the lead, putting in long hours, bending the rules for the sake of the case. I mean really, is police detecting such an all-encompassing job? Really the sort of thing that pulls in the top analytical (and intuitive) talent, staffing an assortment of geniuses that's willing to scrape every stain, yank every file, bend every rule for the sake of an infallible personal sense of public Justice? How much does a detective even get paid, anyway? I'm watching the first episode of The Wire, and I'm thinking, wow, it's the same old crap with bonus office politics. Cop drama written by Aaron Sorkin with a humorectomy. A first impression mind you: it took the introduction of the unlovable crowd of incompetents to warm me up to the environment of the cop shop, and the thin, human line the writers drew between the police competence and the actual underworld made it suddenly more interesting. I'm leaning toward buying in, at least for the sake of enjoying the drama. (But still, if the competent multiracial policewoman isn't (a) killed (b) a victim of violent crime or (c) addicted to drugs by the end of the first season, then I don't know television writing.)

The setting in the projects is more engaging from the get-go, even if they'll leave no metaphor untortured. (Will I ever see that chess set again?) We quickly find young murderer D'Angelo plying his trade with what, once he can get past the wretched necessities of the job, could almost be called decency toward his customers and employees. It shapes up rapidly to highlight the accident of birth and the arbitrariness of the law, and the way lives are accordingly shaped. I think the moment The Wire won me over was when D'Angelo noted that the inventor of Chicken McNuggets probably is not, in fact, rich, but is probably still shuttered in his bolthole in the nether reaches of the McDonaldland empire, concocting taste sensations for a pittance as the executives get rich and neighborhood kids juice up on corn oil and chicken by-products. I'm sure that bit would have hit home even more if I'd ever invented anything of value.

3. Burn after Watching
[Spoiled!] Okay, just after watching the last 15 minutes. The first 3/4 of Burn After Reading brought us through a series of comically unlikable people behaving like assholes to one another, and I like that just fine. Highlights include (an ever-more emaciated) John Malkovich taking his turn at indignant white collar anger mismanagement (would that Ted Knight were still alive), Tilda "White Witch" Swinton's bedside manner as a pediatrician, Brad Pitt in his most natural role since he played Floyd, horrifying geek intercourse, and a secret project that works up to a great sight gag. Some Netflix troll mentioned that the film would have benefitted from better dialogue, and I can't disagree. Even if the acting was top notch, a little repartee would have sold the comedy more. Quite possibly, it's one of those that works better on repeat viewings (like the Coens' other comic masterpiece).

Well and good as it went, right up to the point where it got splattered against the back of the closet wall.

I'll take my dark comedy with a mordant dose of cynicism, usually. But I can't get myself to laugh about the gray matter spewed across the back of the car--one fucking Tarantino is already too much. I mean, I make a plenty of exceptions to graphic violence, but the context is, you know, everything. We wouldn't have been too worked up had even the Malkovich character been murdered on screen, it's a common enough literary conclusion to fate-tempting, but taking the opportunity to dash the brains out of the two people in the film who could be called anything like "innocent" broke my amused suspension of disbelief entirely. Charitably, I could say it made me think about my assumptions about film violence, but so much for my entertainment.

4. Polarize me, sensitize me
Empirical evidence of the relationship between electrical currents and magnetic fields had been plugged away for a while by then, and the equations themselves look suspiciously similar to the famous Euler or Navier-Stokes formulations for fluid mechanics, and yet James Clerk Maxwell's contributions to physics sure feel like one of those lightning-bolt strikes of brilliance that changed everything. It's as if he took all that bizarre phenomenology, derived something like Newton's laws from it, and then instantly mapped the subsequent 150 years of post-Newtonian theoretical development onto electromagetics to bring it perfectly up to speed. Good stuff, and the mad genius part is that he also brought an explanation of light into the fold. Maxwell told us that light was an electromagnetic phenomenon, a coupled wave, and while it didn't quite resolve the physical argument (even Maxwell didn't believe it propagated without a medium, and there were still a few odd tricks it did with materials), it did offer a rigorous mathematical framework for electromagnetic theory, which, at least according to the hagiography in my old undergrad physics book, hasn't needed revision since.

So we all know that light can be thought of as an oscillating electric field, which jiggles up and down perpendicular to the line of the wave's propagation, and a coupled magnetic field also jiggles along at 90o to the electric one, also along the line. The orientation of that single wave in the picture is up-and-down, but light from most sources is understandably going to have the orientation going every-which-way, made up of lots of little waves. The orientation of the electric field (for a given wave) is the polarization direction (when you're talking about visible light, pretty much all materials don't have any disagreement with the magnetic component and everyone just ignores it, but pretty much all the materials we see interact with the electric field).

When light is incident on a flat surface, some part will reflect, some transmit (and some absorb, but we don't have to go there just now). Where it all meets, the component of the electric field of light that's actually aligned with the surface needs to be the same. For light polarized parallel to the surface, that would be all of the electric field, and for light polarized differently, only a component of the electric field needs to satisfy those conditions. For all angles, a beam of light reflected off of a flat surface will be polarized a little more in a direction parallel to that surface (and for one special angle, it'll be completely polarized) than for other orientations. [Fresnel worked this all out before Maxwell was born, by the way, but I guess he didn't have to acknowledge any electromagnetic character of the light wave.] It's like a handful of skipping stones get thrown at the surface, and the ones that hit it flat manage to bounce off more often.

That horrible road glare is polarized a little more in the horizontal plane, which is why polarized sunglasses (that is, which will only pass light polarized in the vertical direction) are supposed to be better than just dark ones without any directional sensitivity. I got myself a pair of those this Christmas too, and I love them. I can't tell the difference compared to regular sunglasses, but it's a lot of fun walking around with a couple of polarizers on my head.

LCD displays use polarizers too. Depending on whether voltage is applied or not, the liquid crystal molecules will orient so as to pass light of one polarization or another. There's a polarizer on the front of the display which will either block the output, or pass it, and that's one pixel blinking on or off, depending on which way the LCs inside it are orienting the light. I've had a lot of fun this past week looking at LCD displays, including my spiffy new TV, through my sunglasses. Twist my head parallel to the output polarizer and it's nice and bright; turn at a right angle and it all goes black. Turns out that pretty much all LCDs are oriented 45o from the vertical. Who knew?

5. Spoon!
My internal conversation is full of ridiculous little in-jokes, some of which were once shared with people, and some that no one gets but me. Now and then, they sneak out, and after subjecting my kids to apposite quotes from the olden days when cartoon binges were limited to Saturday morning and an hour after school, I finally thought to just buy the DVD and share the source of more than a little bit of my nonsense.

The Tick vs. Season 2 suffers from a missing episode, and also because the second season only ever gave a certain bomb-throwing anarchist a cameo and denied us scenes of the superhero night life, but still I'm watching it a dozen years later, with my kids, and I'm having giggling fits at the extended Doctor Strangelove outtakes, at blaxploitation star ShTaft (complete with funky theme music) working as an orderly where he dresses up to assist in a series of confrontation therapies, and I'm wondering to myself what the hell was this ever doing on Saturday morning? (And why did the Disney empire ever gets it's verminous claws on it?) To get it's place in the kiddie slot, a lot of adult humor had to be filtered through the G-rated personality of the infantile man of action, and the sensibility really had to target the silly to make the balance work. The bizarre part is that it did work, that it was such a winning combination. Unfortunately for the producers, immature college kids were the only demographic that would ever think to watch the show more than once. I guess it could have had a worse run than three seasons.

(It was also a comic book, one of several mock-superhero titles that I never read. The cartoon evolved into a live-action show, which was awful by any measure.)

American animation often suffers from the whims of marketing, shifting from adult to childish orbits, with more or less artistic effort, depending on the times and the people in charge. Some manages to break through to universality (good writing is good writing), and if I seem overly impressed by this, then you have to keep in mind that I grew up in the absoulte nadir of cartoon artistry. It's also a pretty common trick to pepper some adult jokes into kiddie fare, throw a bone to the parents forced to sitt through another jejeune pile of crap (or maybe the writers do it to keep themselves sane). It's rare that the adult and the childish humor manage to feed off of each, rounding out the simplicity of kids' tastes, and highlighting the basic absurity of adults'. I don't think I'd recommend it unreservedly, but The Tick did manage that silly synergy brilliantly, probably because it was forced to. Good times.

[Will append a screen capture if I can ever get it to work.]

Friday, January 09, 2009


My wife nailed the good lunch this morning, dammit. I'm dreaming of my savory, lip-smacking piccata, and the little lady is no doubt gloating with every bite.

I don't think there's a better optimum in the cooking parameter space of effort, reward, and cost than chicken piccata. It's the number one meal requested by my kids, and it's ready to go in half an hour, even starting from scratch. My wife and I have judged restaurants by this dish, because it's so wonderfully unfuckuppable, and making it well is a good sign that the chef is at least awake. (Now you may wonder why on that extremely rare excursion to some place we actually want to be, we order something we do better at home. the answer is because we're idiots.)

Piccata translates as "pricked" (which only happens if comes out real good), but generally it's taken to mean cutlets cooked in some kind of lemon sauce. Since my version is so lemony, I like to drink one of those potently citrus down-under savignon blancs with it, which is great for cooking too, but as an inveterate cheapskate, I more often use the yeasty California stuff in the pan. (We keep it on hand for my Mom if she visits, or else for the occasional binge.) If I'm planning to make this stuff during the week, I'll usually buy a couple chickens on Sunday and fillet the breasts and thighs, and pound them out to paillards, using the backs and other assorted remains to make the stock (canned stock is pretty serviceable here too).

I get the fried lemons from Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, which also more or less supplies the recipe below. The lemons are delicious little wagonwheels of leathery tartness, with a flavor a that's identifiably the fruit, but not the same as raw juice, richer, less acid. They're almost impossible to catch at that golden moment, and you'll inevitably end up with some black specks of burnt pulp in the pan. Sometimes I continue with the same oil for that extra lemon flavor, but the floaties aren't that appealing, and sometimes I am motivated to change it. You simply can't wipe out the pan after cooking the chicken, however. Piccata comes out even better when you make more servings, cycling through a couple batches of cutlets and ending up with more fonds sticking to the bottom of the pan. If you prefer a colorless piccata to a flavorful one, I'm not sure I can help you.

Chicken Piccata:

~3 lemons
1-2 lb. thin chicken cutlets
2-3 tablespoons of fresh minced garlic (thinking closer to 2)
olive oil
salt and fresh pepper
~3/4 cup white wine
~2 cups chicken stock
~1/4 c. capers (or more; I like the little nonpariels)
chopped fresh parsely (optional)
pasta for serving

Thinly slice up enough lemon for two or three slices per plate. Squeeze out the rest of them for juice. Anywhere between a third and half a cup is pretty good.

Fry the lemon slices over medium heat in olive oil, flipping when one side is golden brown. Keep an eye on them, because they're black (but still edible) about a second later. When you've cooked both sides, remove them and set aside. Wipe out the pan if you want to.

Salt and pepper the chicken. Add oil and butter to the pan. Dredge the chicken in flour, and in batches, brown the cutlets nicely on each side. Add oil between batches if you need to. Set aside when done.

Add the garlic, and let it cook a minute or two, just until that sauteed aroma really begins to float up, then deglaze the hot pan (with the garlic and brown junk in it) with the wine, scraping the bottom and letting the liquid reduce. Add the juice and the stock, the capers, and the cooked chicken, and let it simmer until the flour on the meat thickens the sauce a little. It can sit for awhile like this.

Add a little chopped parsely at the end. Serve over pasta, with plenty of sauce, with the lemon rings on top.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Sins of Our Fathers

...Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:7)

Several months ago, I caught Traces of the Trade on PBS, a documentary about the descendants of a prominent North American family that, back in the day, made its fortune shipping and selling African slaves. As film goes, the whole thing is hit and miss. It indulges in long, heavy-handed sessions of modern confrontation and reconciliation, and while the accessibility of the various present-day DeWolfs is relatively interesting (why, they look just like my family), there's only so much wallowing in guilt that I really want to see. The lengthy discussions looked too much like half a dozen white folks struggling to find some depth of character. The documentary does establish, however, a fairly innovative and damn interesting historical context. The largest traders in sugar, rum, and forced labor were centered in Bristol, Rhode Island (America's most patriotic town!), and operated with special government dispensation well into the 1800s, well after slavery was officially banned in the state, and well after we normally imagine the peculiar institution to be a strictly southern evil and a strictly southern economic base. I mean, think about it--Rhode Island was a Quaker hotbed of abolitionism. The film documents the attenuated boons that the trade has provided the family in the late generations, some hundred fifty years out. Even if an hour and a half of self-flagellation is too much for you, I still recommend reading PBS's synopsis.

The documentary managed to illustrate the way that slavery fit into the small northern community. The DeWolfs were honored residents of Bristol, philanthropists, men of station, worthwhile citizens, and the reputation passed down through the generations. The presence of Africans in town, according to the film, was surprisingly low-key, but there was plenty of influence--the DeWolfs were traders and sugar magnates, sucking in money from operations in Cuba and customers in the south. And the slave fortune eventually dissolved, but the heirs of it have still done well in the birth lottery, made it as Harvard legacies, and come from of a family tradition of success, measured against good stock. More than a boon to the individual DeWolfs, the trade floated the local economy even for those not directly involved, even for those who objected to the fucking practice. Thanks to the family's filthy enterprise, all sorts of outfitters had jobs, and so did shipbuilders, grocers, construction workers, retailers, and Bristol prospered, owing its collective livlihood to slavery. Did J. Random Cooper love or hate the slave trade for granting him his livlihood? More likely he was just trying to keep up with the property values. But Bristol loved the DeWolfs just fine.

In the engineering community, Rhode Island these days remains a center for ocean and fluid mechanics research. The Navy Undersea Research Center is there, and General Dynamics, builders and designers of fine Navy submarines, keeps half the state, as well as a good chunk of southeastern Connecticut, employed. Slavery ranks up there with the Nazi movement as an example of uncontested nastiness, but it's not hard to extend the thought to other industries. What's defense busy applying itself to these days? Old-moneyed dorks like Tom Friedman may extol the sciences, but if you're ill-disposed to university research, there's not a hell of a lot of alternative funding outside of the defense sector, and even entering the academy your odds of serving it are still pretty high. In the world of contracting, health sciences take a distant second to defense, and the Department of Energy labs are not much differentiated from the contractors anymore. And to be fair, they're just giddy when civilian applications are generated from the effort, and for serving the military, you can get a pretty sweet entrepreneurial deal. Government funding is a business model that ain't entirely broken, at least for applied science, and if you think it's fine to offer a little extra libation to the DoD in exchange for egghead welfare, then it's doing fine indeed. But let's not kid ourselves: the potential to kill or defend is what drives the development. How much defense do we need?

And that's not the only industry that's centrally enhanced. How much power do we really need to grant capital? You will do better than other workers if you're skilled in a challenging field, but Jesus, you still can't do better than your cut-rate simpleton who has his hands on the payroll. The finance industry is absurdly lucrative because that's where the money is, and thanks to policy, it's been that much safer a bet, provided you're deep enough in the game. Investment is a good thing, and opportunities for innovation and ownership are great, but when capital concentrates it has a damnable tendency to keep itself in the in-club over the generations, and iniquity seems to be the usual historical course.*

It would have been nice to see working people benefit more from the recent boom, but wages pretty much crapped out in the midst of the valuation balloon, but there's another unpleasant truth here too: the whole American economy tends to ride just a little bit high. The macroeconomic balance begins to address this global inequality a little--we've been consuming a whole lot more than we produce for a while now--but there's more than that. The American economy has often grown at the expanse of injustice to others, and you can quibble about how the tide affects the boats, but have you looked what you're floating on? In our case, the idea of the inviolability of American capital seems to be contemporary with its seizure (but we're a young country and all of our atrocities are relatively recent). I'd rather leave the important discussion of the precise timing of individualism, classical economics and colonialism to better historical minds (these things are all roughly simultaneous in my cartoon brain), but it's hard to deny that slavery and genocide really got us that leg up. In an otherwise reasonable economics discussion, Charles Wheelan has ascribed the woes of the third world to craptastic government policies--which they no doubt have--but that's not why they suck. They were on the losing side of slavery, colonialism and military-industrial complexes two centuries ago. You don't break into the top tier overnight.

I'm sure that many a crafty preacher has woven a fine sermon around the biblical passage. The most charitable analysis I can think of would require that worldly success is trumped by supernatural disapproval, which seems to fit a Christian message well enough. After all, sin at a big scale has often made the generations stinkin' rich, and just ask the DeWolfs for starters. It's difficult, at least for me, to picture the many mechanisms of how rational individual decisions can result in a collective political evil (or good), although it's not hard to accept that they do. Unfortunately, I have fuckall of an idea what to do about any of it, but if it wasn't a hard question, if it would ride on any number of convenient approximations, and the economists, sociologists and politicians paid to ponder it would earn no respect. It's an easier ride for Americans than for a lot of other people, and if that's not really fair, it's not like very many of us has the luxury to quit.

*I'm really sorry for this post, by the way--I keep bumping into radicalism from every angle, and I swear it's not my fault. I didn't expect, for example, that Neil Peart's favorite author would be a hardcore communist sympathizer. I'm not clear how much Dos Passos documented his late-life conservative turn--I suspect it had something to do with how those workers' revolutions actually turned out.