Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Satyrday, by Steven Bauer

They say you can’t go back: I was twelve years old, and the cover (they have a saying about that too) was exotic-looking enough to scream deep and unexpected meaning from the squeaky library carousel. As I remember it, a sleek typeface against a solid gray background, one letter evolving below into a silhouette, a faun emerging from a crack or from behind a door, evil and alluring, coaxing hidden thoughts with his pipes. Not an accurate impression of the book itself, as it turned out, but when I got to the message, it still seemed a significant statement, some touchstone to reveal that uneasy but beautiful union between primitiveness and humanity. Not so much a question of why are we here, but why should I care? At twelve, I was needing that sort of fable. (A couple months later, I was all over Lord of the Rings, discovered in similarly epic circumstances stuffed on a shelf in my aunt's old bookcase, which made a more indelible impression, for better or worse.)

Those of you with young children are probably aware that there is a fantasy movie about birds currently in the theaters, the latest disposable CGI masterpiece, presented with a gloriously extraneous dimension. I didn't need to worry that they were destroying the cherished childhood pleasure, as it's based on a young adult series, which is probably light enough to adapt to film easily. (There is, parenthetically, also a rule about heavily apostrophed names in this sort of literature. Ga'Hoole is in the title? Bad sign.) But I ordered Satyrday anyway, to see if it still held any magic.

I don't find I have a lot to say about it anymore. There were several things I liked about it, but they were showing promise sorts of things, and it's got to be telling is that I read the book with my editor's hat fitting much more comfortably than my reader's (not that I have ever been an editor, but I've read advice-for-new-writers obsessively at times, and dabbled in a slush pile for a couple months, enough to learn why some of those things are advised). It's a sort of short semi-mythic story of a boy raised by a satyr, both gone off to free the moon from an imperious giant owl, and find out the child's own origins. Along the way they meet with a fox, who is also a nymph, and a raven traitor to the owl's cause of bringin' on the dark. All of the birds made for creative scenery and enjoyable points of view, and as a general rule, he anthopomorphized the various animals cleverly and affectionately. This was less true for the characters with actual anthropic attributes, unfortunately. The dynamic between the faun and the sometimes-nymph had some potential, but it would have been better served if he (Mathew, the satyr) were shown to be more lusty, and she (Vera, the fox) more flirtatious, or if the boy Derin were awake to any sexual tension, if he served as some frustrated counterpoint to their half-animal drama, but then again, it's hard to get a reasonable sense of "animal-ness" when every creature speaks and reasons.

The dialogue between the protagonists tended to be brief and at times cryptic, and even if the kid was suffering the horrors of adolescence, we still needed to have the fundamental relationships and tensions evoked more solidly in the early going. Steven Bauer was a published poet before he knocked off his first novel, and there is some meter to the lines, and some pleasing use of words, but if some scenes were well-served by the sparse style (an idiot falling in love), other times the prose also felt like it needed to be let loose and flow (when describing the scenery, maybe). I found several of the scenes to be evocative, but not like when I was a kid. The ending had just the dollop of irony needed to make it interesting.

There are a handful of authors that like to play with mythology who can write outside of the clear constraints of real settings and occupy some sort of metafictional "storyworld" space, and some of those stories have ended up as favorites. There can be an advantage to leaving explanatory details unstated in something like this, but I found myself more annoyed than usual with the unanswered obvious questions, and maybe I needed the world to be more strongly established as something outside, some winking presence of the author perhaps, to get me to ignore those details. If there are no people, then where the hell is the wine, leather, gauze, etc (not to mention the authorial metaphors) coming from? And where are the rest of the animals? If there's one owl, three hawks, two weasels, three hundred fish, and a hundred thousand ravens, then the food chain and the local genetics are seriously fucked up. How big is the world, why can they walk across it in a week, and what's with the familiar Norse-etymologized weekdays, Christain names, and Latin taxonomy? There's a rule among slush pile readers--one of the top ten things they tell aspiring fantasists-- to just leave the goddamn Adam and Eve story on the table. It's not as original and meaningful outside of your head, and they have to read about a hundred of them a day. Satyrday might get away with it in a squeaker, and if we confine it to the YA bin or the fantasy ghetto, it comes off better than similar books, and even if it didn't live up to my memory, I'm going to leave it on the pile of books my kids might like.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Conferee II

"'Christmas,' said Dr. Drinkwater, 'is a kind of day, like no other in the year, that doesn't seem to succeed the day if follows...every Christmas seems to follow immediately after the last one; all the months that came between don't figure in. Christmases succeed each other, not the falls that follow.'"—from Little, Big

My current job doesn't usually spot me a trip for the big meetings (for reasons including both stinginess and my usual failure to impress), but as I mentioned earlier, having been prepped and then somehow gainfully employed in the sciences for a decade and a half makes it difficult to completely avoid them. Here I am at a mini-symposium at the nearby university, my first permitted outing since the disaster in December, maybe let out because I don't have to actually talk at this one. Whether or not I succeed at identifying like-minded friends at these things (I am not likely to even stay for the open bar tonight), I still recognize a lot of recurring faces and names, some I've seen for the better part of that 15-year span, for the purposes of a handshake or even just to note and observe. The good doctor didn't quite nail it: it's not unique. Technical conferences follow Christmas time too. Even for those folks you see on the outside, the hotel-confined microcosms proceed one after the other in a succession of neckties and nametags, with elves, perhaps, (or grad students) filling new data and research trends into the talks like the gifts that must have somehow been purchased and deposited from outside the Christmas continuum.

This more or less yearly schedule makes observing people an unsettling experience. It's bad enough that time keeps eroding our bodies in analog, but watching our colleagues decay in a discretized, time-lapsed slideshow, it's horrific. Occupying some independent timesteam, the lost intervals are confused with a continuous experience, and the sudden eruption of wrinkles and unburdening of jowls appear to be the action of intervening hours instead of missing months. It's actually similar to what you notice in actors, when you catch a long-running series all at once, graying and drooping in the ivisible spaces between each year's shoots. Even finding forgotten acquaintances on Facebook hasn't been this bad. Ten years later, I expect us to have all noticably aged; my mind registers the intervening years in a way that is obviated during these recurring encounters in supertime.

Since I personally recognize a handful of these characters, I am pretty sure that my impression is correct, but I do have a competing theory. As I said before, there's a whole taxonomy of conference archetypes to be examined (and if they can make good hay with categorizing web personalities, someone really has to go to the trouble to describe them. It's not going to have to be me, is it?). I feel like I'm cheating, but one thing I've noticed about my own aging process is that I increasingly cast people I meet into a big array of character types. If I identify enough people who remind me of each other, then they become family in my limited mind. So running with that thought, there's a possibility that I don't actually recognize anyone here at all, that I've mapped them all to people I noticed back in grad school (or maybe grade school). I guess the test would be to start attending conferences in completely alien fields, to see if I can convince myself I know anyone, or everyone, or if it feels more like I'm crashing someone else's Christmas party.

Friday, September 17, 2010

After All Those Silver Linings: A Cloud

The electronics retailier Best Buy, as you may have read, has begun phasing out its CD and DVD sales. It was inevitable even in the conventional sense of technology progression. The compact disc is a nearly 30-year-old format, which worked fine for music playlists of the usual album length (back when measuring things that way mattered more) and you could back up a few dozen photos once they made 'em writable, but the RW was on the wall from the beginning. They just didn't have enough capacity for what people were already using magnetic media for. Not that magnetic tape wasn't shit. The sleek, discreet (and discrete!), silver-lined disks* only have to worry about getting damaged from the rigors of storage and abuse, not so much in the course of using them. But it took a while for video signal to make the awkward transition off tape. Anyone remember those early video disks? The size of a platter, and you had to flip them over halfway through. Got a friend from college who's probably still geeking out to The Empire Strikes Back on that thing.

If you look back on bubble-vintage tech literature (e.g.), they were very excited about the upcoming 4.7 GB capacity in optical media (which would be your standard DVD), and the promises to extend that to 70 GB this decade (which is approximately what you get out of your standard one-sided blu-ray disk). Big fucking deal. I fell into an interesting conversation yesterday about media formats and obsolescene. (These were old photographic film industry people, with a perspective on their former company's innovations and terminal flaws.) All this investment in optical disks—and the read/write technology is pretty impressive from a materials science geek's perspective—and pretty much no one was thinking about how boring old magnetic media would come along and totally kick their ass.

In terms of data density—how many ones or zeroes you can fit per unit area—a blu-ray gets about 12 GB per square inch. From your hard disk, you're getting 200. Today, a hundred-dollar external hard disk can store all of your music, and a dozen or two high definition movies in a device the size of a deck of cards. A DVR can store the week's worth of television programming that most people care about. It is expected that magnetic data storage will top out at a TB per square inch(!).

The promise of optical computing is speed and maybe bandwidth, not really the inherent size. Optical resolution is usually diffraction limited, meaning, in storage media, that the smallest spot is depends on wavelength of the reading laser (and aperture of the focusing optics). This limits how tiny a bit you can read. I had mistakenly thought that the innovation of DVD was merely doubling up the layers to increase the density, but they also adopted a new laser diode. The old CDs use a red laser with 705 nm wavelength, and the move to a DVD was to a 605 nm laser which shrunk the smallest bits that could be addressed to about 4 um. (Obligatory points of reference: there are a thousand nm in a micrometer; a typical atom is about 1/10 nm; a typical cell is about 10 um, or 10000 nm; record grooves are about 50 um. I am not going to compare to human hairs.) Commercial blu-ray technologies has been enabled in part by the invention of reliable 405 nm laser diodes. The bumps on the blu-ray are down to about 150 nm, and you get more storage off of one layer than you do on the doubled-up DVDs. (The blu-ray disks also managed to get content closer to the surface to increase the aperture.) You can sort of see where it goes, as photolithography had the same issues in making objects of sufficiently small size, but it probably needs better diodes again to happen: it's hard to imagine adopting excimer lasers, mercury lamps, or immersion techniques for my home video. (For optical storage the obvious-ish way to go subwavelength is to go near-field, and who knows, given the tolerances of magnetic disks, it might be made to work. Holographic storage has always been up and coming, but isn't enough of a breakthrough to even propose better than magnetic, even though it's extremely cool. Holography is diffraction, and the data limit, Wikipedia says anyway, is about 1 bit per cubic wavelength.)

The fact that you can write, in controlled circumstances, 150 nm features in your cheap home drive boggles my mind. Just like records, they used to make and distribute music cds from master templates. With a stash of proprietary plates, injection mold the polycarbonate in custom machines, microscopic grooves and all, stamping them out like license plates, and then metallizing them, before packing and shipping out pallets of Better than Ezra's testament to the musical suckiness of the late 90s. (This is essentially what my dad has spent a lifetime doing in a plant that makes decorative plastic containers. Not at quite the same level of precision.) I don't really know if its cheaper to stamp out higher density optical disks than it is to thermally write them, and I don't know how they mass produce the ones you purchase from Best Buy, but you definitely can do it that way. People have imagined this kind of pattern transfer as the cheap way out of photolithography (which is also subject to diffraction limits) for electronics production for many years now (although of course you still need to make a master somehow), and claim resolutions below 10 nm. It is, in fact, on the official roadmap. Even now, a couple hundred nanometers in a production setting is pretty feasible.

A magnetic domain in a ferromagnetic solid can be as small as 20 nm, which, keen observers will note is somewhat smaller than the wavelength of your normal laser-emitted photon. There's a lot of research that has gone into into manipulating magnetic domain size, and I fail you by having kept up with none of it over the years, and I compound that failure by having over the course of the day decided that it was more than I cared to study for a blog post. So how it ends up making sense in polycrystalline materials, thin films, etc., I don't really know, but I suspect is impressive. (I will mention that I have written proposals saying that making magnetic crystals several nanometers across might necessarily be single domain and make for some interesting physical comparisons, but those were justly unrewarded.) That you can move a read head with sufficient precision with something as primitive as a voice coil is fucking insane; the engineering of these devices is really fabulous when you get down to it. On the other hand, it's a little disappointing that the basic tech is as old as my parents, and we're merely spinning ever-smaller plates to get the information out. (Digitization was a big conceptual advance of course, but in some ways, the fact that analog devices work predictably impresses me more. Making record grooves and encoding data without knowing what the code is, that's pretty radical. I mean, I know in my mind that it's not any weirder than a guitar pickup, but still...)

They still make magnetic tape, and the market is data less-than-urgent data storage, such as nightly backups or the kind of stuff you back up or hold in a box for a half-century. The company I spoke to yesterday make optical tape, sort of a reel-to-reel DVD, which offers amazing storage ona bytes-per-dollar basis, and is intended for archival information. It doesn't sit completely well with me. It's probably better than magnetic tape, which is subject to activated bit-flipping with warmth and time, but on the other hand, I think of classic celluloid reels rotting in their cans, or of how Stevie B got deep and garbled at either end of the casette back in 1988 after a couple months of play.** Maybe lets etch it all in stone.

The musical revolutions of the living generations were pioneered by storage technology (and other technology miniaturization). We can trace our experience of music from records to tape to optical media to high denisty magnetic and dynamic memory. Records brought the concert to our living room, and Walkmen to our gym. God knows, enough low-value digital copy has been expended speculating on the low value of digital copying. What's it like when it's pure information, etceterblah. Making information storage and transfer cheap made content even cheaper, and for consumers, it's been pretty great. (Although I have read that the digitization rate of CDs is the bare minimum to fool the ear, just over 44 kHz. That was pretty goddamn lazy, and if I can't hear the difference, diligent audiophiles claim they can. One reason to cling to analog.)

And it's a funny thing. Consumers love storage capacity, so manufacturers like to sell it to them (free markets as actually working). On the other hand, content providers fucking hate the capacity to store and share fungible bits (free markets as they prefer to fail to work). Sometimes the conflict falls within the same entity. Apple has recently made the future clear, let's make the content user-independent. I say, fuck the cloud.

The whole move is to subscription-based media. That's what net neutrality is all about, and while I've never overestimated the democratizing ability of the internet, fair access to greater information has never been a bad thing. It's not so terrible in all the aspects--it would be nice to listen to your music library anywhere, and yeah, I've grown content accessing my email this way, and maybe I'd rather pay a little for the handful of shows I watch a week than let the networks rent my eyeballs to advertisers. But music hits me harder. Maybe it was all the arguments I remember from the Napster days. It's good to pay artists (although bundling album sales must have improve the sales of their deeper tracks), but the RIAA and the broadcasters are the essence of evil. They would like the control over content that used to bring predictable record sales. There's precious few movies I'd rather keep copies of, and normally renting a viewing isn't a biggie. Music though? It's good to borrow before owning, but it's too integral and too much a part of my life to be constantly on lease. I romance a body of music, I fall in love with it, marry it, and then slowly grow apart. Music is a commitment, for which the law only needs to be involved at critical stages. (Books are somewhere in between. I'd prefer to own them as a permanent record, for all sorts of reasons ranging from physical pleasure to the throwback notions of knowledge guarded.) Music needs to stay at home.

I don't know why DVR has to be a subscription service either,and I don't like it. It's a local disk, and I used to be able to program my VCR just fine. It pisses me off that an unnecessary transmission service gets disguised as content. It reminds me of when AT&T under their monopoly used to rent us telephones . When it gets down to it, these fuckers have a fine history of treating both ends of the transaction like shit, making a fortune off of limiting the flow. I have no burning desire to get yet another middleman skimming money from the daily interaction of me and my life. Or, for that matter, to obviate my stored media in a controlled fashion so that I can pay for a lifetime of upgrades and format changes. They've been trying to make music subscription based for years now, and I don't want to restore the greedy bastards to power.

* One year, a friend of mine gave me the gold CD edition of Rush's 2112 for Christmas, the idea being that the oxidative stability of gold will keep the integrity of the bits indefinitely. That's not quite one of the 15 personally influential albums that I would prefer not be admitted, but it's pretty close.

** There's the second-most embarrassing, and probably the first-most dorky, one of those, were I willing to be honest. For my 15th birthday, Mom and Dad got me a home weightlifting set that I set up in the basement, and that's what I worked out to for a few months. "Spring Love" spoke to me, man. Shut up.

[Also, the loudmouth thing again. Edits no doubt to follow.]

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Airport books come with their own sorts of baggage. It's not that my expectations are low going in so much as that they're negative. Unless you're lucky enough to have that big Borders store in your terminal (which will stock a fair supply of canon and cult, for irritatingly precious travelers like myself), then the selection is geared toward more saleable names (I don't know what kind of books Nicholas Sparks writes, and I don't want to know), political and economics schlock (the cover with a white background, high-contrast typeface, and either a catchy graphic or a picture of some sweat-soaked hack trying to look stern), paperback mysteries and romances (the two science fiction books are of the embossed cover variety), and recent literary fads (you can bet that they're stocking up with Jonathon Franzen as I type). Also, David Sedaris, who's entertaining enough those rare times I catch him on the radio, but I'm disinclined to read something called "when you are engulfed in flames" as I fly.

My best bet is usually to pick up the popular-but-indeterminate-genre selection (i.e., the fad) if I can find any connection to it at all. I've come across lots of people with tastes similar to mine who like Pynchon, and there's a stable of authors who can't avoid saying dropping an homage every once in a while. And Inherent Vice, unlike the doorstops he's more famous for, is nice and short, so I figure it was a good time to introduce myself to the author. It was important for the blurbs to communicate that there's an essential Pyncon represented here. It's not a good sign when the pocket reviews invoke an indescribable style to tell me why I should read the book: it's not convincing for a newbie, and it's not a good sign if the faithful need to be reassured like that. You can find a good normal-length review here of Pynchon's early book, The Crying of Lot 49, which, looking at in hindsight, comes out as a good guide for Inherent Vice as well. So let's call the style discursive, willing to take a detour for humor's sake or to showcase an entertaining character sketch (not inconsistent with the guy who broke his lifelong reclusiveness for a silly guest spot on The Simpsons), some intentional blurring of perception and reality, and a simmering critique of the social order. (See? Blurbs aren't so hard.) I am given to understand that Pynchon also likes to indulge in point-of-view experiments and shifts that are nearly Joycean (which, I must admit, could be a good deal more enjoyable to read in a contemporary author with a worldview closer to my own—same playground, lower monkeybars), but that's not so much in evidence with this novel.

Our hero in Inherent Vice is Larry "Doc" Sportello, P.I. and connoisseur of beach culture, and if his grip on reality is slipping by a claw or two, then all the weed isn't helping. I've said it before: intoxicated people are funny when they accomplish stuff, when they're successful in spite of their best efforts. Acting nonchalant in unlikely circumstances is a timeless humor device. Doc admittedly appears to be sharp at drawing connections (even the questionable ones), and the indignation and paranoia endemic to the counterculture serves him well, but he's easily distracted, by women, friends and acquaintances, unlikely food, good tunes, and kind bud. The forced and unforced detours he finds on his investigation are made up for by some certain cosmic juju imparted by (entertaining) bodily excursions and the general grooviness that gives him a needed perspective. Among the various characters of his acquaintance, Doc's admirably countered by the hyperarticulate Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornson (got him as Kevin Smith meets Jesse Ventura), a Nazi square of a cop who, when they fall into moments of honesty, occupies only a small blue shift from Sportello on the spectrum between humanity and authority.

Doc doesn't sound like the private dick type, but part of the brilliance is just how well these styles mesh. I'm not a bit mystery guy, or noir guy: I'm not, as a rule, convinced that the trip through discovery is honest in these kinds of books. In mysteries, it's always easy enough to manipulate the reader by just lying about the stuff, or failing to divulge key information. I generally like the uncovering of a theme better than I like the gradual discovery of an act, but then, I have to be careful with those sorts of statements, as everything's always in the execution anyway. I am just suspicious of mysteries, in a way that's obviously not fair. I am always reminded of seminal stuff like The Murders in the Rue Morgue, trying to outguess the reader by moving beyond reason. It was an ape, Edgar? That's fucking stupid. Or maybe I just don't really impressed by superhuman deduction when the author is always able to whisper in the protagonist's ear. In any case, when I find myself in certain kinds of mystery—and noir is one of those kinds-- I'm not willing to fatten up my own conclusions with the author's early fodder, not without a sign that such attention is worth it. I let the case wash over me as it develops, trusting the writer to guide the thing along or not. If it's a good book, it'll have made sense all along and when I look back, I will be happy. If the plotting is sloppy, at least I can hope for some interesting scenery to accompany the ride. I finally clicked on Pynchon when I realized that he's a good enough writer to be playing with those not-necessarily-rational leaps. He is cognizant enough of his style that the flood of random-looking, significant-sounding, and culturally-referential information, which may or not be connected very well, is a knowing part of the whole mystery-solving schtick. I mean, Sportello is basically following Batman logic to crack the case, but getting along through inherent brains (vice?) and a certain infumated Grace. It's a funny understanding of noir, and it's perfect for druggies, not to mention the uncertain strain of semiotics that Pynchon likes to monkey with.

From my personal perspective, I can spot another common element between the Chandler-esque mystery and the Pynchon-ified plot. In both cases, I'm more familiar with the influences than I am with the original material. Detective fiction often enough serves as an entertaining cross-genre experiment (and since I have, like, four readers, I'll note that it ain't hard to derive a common genealogy for Sportello and the likes of Tom Robbins' Switters). When it comes down to it, the combination of jokes, winking technological revisionism (I remain puzzled how ArpaNet fit into the plot, or how what we saw fit within 1960s computational capabilities), deep cultural and mythological signifiers (Lemuria, frex), and vague shadow conspiracies (a minor word about the Golden Fang in a sec) may fall better among the small handful of science fiction authors that you don't know you're missing out on--I mean, I loves me some Neal Stephenson novels--but Pynchon gets big points as an innovator, for such a strong sense of his own flavor, and he wins hands down when it comes to the zany and the madcap. He gives us surreality that is sneakily real. I don't think Joseph Heller and Hunter Thompson are young enough to be Pynchon's heirs, but that's more of the same school.

I have read that deep conspiracy is a big part of Pynchon's M.O., but it took some time for this novel to get there. If it introduced thematic elements as fast as it introduced characters, I'd have been more down with it at the beginning. The connections to the Golden Fang eventually start to bring heavy drama, and [spoilers follow, but I don't think they're the hurtful sort] I like how it culminated with some token rich old fuck shipped in as a proxy to argue for The Man ("the bums always lose..."). I don't know if Pynchon really puts so much stock in the hippie as a revolutionary; they're steeped in their local American cultures far too heavily to be very useful, and they're still consumers, part of the machine like everyone else. In fact, Sportello's intermediate life as a private investigator might be telling: here he is, half cop and half citizen. The band's corrupted by an unspecified zombie mojo, and, for one dude, by the sinister attention of the Fang. It took the whole novel to finally force a confrontation with the string-pullers, and not unusually, it was like a man screaming attention from the universe. Which is unsatisfying, solves nothing, but seems like a worthy effort just the same.

[Minor edits. I was sipping glasses of loudmouth as I wrote that up last night, and if the prose fell apart by the end of the fist draft, then that's why. I have no excuse for the second draft.]

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Five More Thoughts: Whine Tasting Ed.

You folks don't know how lucky you are. A lengthy post months (garnering months in the procrastination) has been averted yet again due to some recent reminders about both being boring and the overestimation of sincerity. So maybe just this once, I'm going to limit my woeful indictment of society and shadowy conspiracy theories to more obviously deserving microcosms (the NFL and the French wine mafia), and then crank up the goth records and complain bitterly to the dog. Meantime, let's keep it light, 'kay K?

1. Back East – What's up with that?
When I was on the left coast last month, I kept telling people I was from back east, in Massachusetts. Now, this made sense considering the relative geography, but I worry that "back" is a universal modifier in this country for "east." Do people who grew up on the west coast also say "back east?" I am pretty sure I have never heard anyone come from back west, instead they are from "out west." At least the latitude is more sensible. When one is from "down south," you might go and visit "up north," perhaps reluctantly if you are sensitive about your redneck cred. People who are already up north only have the option of visiting "upstate," even if they live in a different state.

2. Maybe ...mesquite?
Little did I suspect that I am incapable of a week straight of wine tasting. In the course of a day, your palate gets so swamped with tannins (mostly Bordeaux styles in Napa and Sonoma) that you can taste little else after a while. Even worse, I have somehow inherited the stamina of a 37-year-old, and day after day of drinking just wore me the hell out. By the third day, I was actually using the spit cups. The indignity, I tell ya.

A lot of your wine's flavor (naturally enough) comes from the fermentation conditions, and I heard some interesting discussions about the grades and sources for the oak barrels that are often used. I'll concede that toasted oak does possess many similar flavor notes as the grapes do, but my smoking experiments verified earlier impressions that oak, and especially burnt oak, is about the most chemically intense, acrid tree you'll find among the common hardwoods.

The tradition of aging wine in oak barrels is, I believe a French invention, and at least seems consistent with their culinary heritage of twisting out the most variety and subtle perfection out of a limited set of ingredients. I mean, just look what they did with eggs and dairy. (Is French oak considered superior to American oak? Do American oaks produce garrulous obnoxious wines? Naturellement! Or at least some of them are, where it occurred to them somewhat earlier to be careful about cutting them all down. Older trees (and different species also may) have tighter grains, which gets you less surface area and more subtlety of flavor.) So oak because it's been known for centuries, but man, it's just so inherently nasty, and there other fine woods out there—when will the innovation in wine-making finally hit us?

As just one example, Twif mentioned the awesomeness of smoking meat with bourbon-soaked maple. Something like this has real possibilities. People love the flavors you get out of maple, and think of all the pleasing nuances it could impart to wine, ramp up the vanillas and cooking spices maybe, with less of the peppery or astringent. Or let's defy Europe and take a purely American wood, age a wine in hickory, maybe, see what we get. How about cherry wood to age a nice cab or anything else with a big dark fruit character? Walnut is pretty heavy with tannins, and probably is to be avoided unless you're an oak nut (an acorn?), but maybe age a brandy in it. A port made with walnut brandy? Now we're talking.

When I mentioned this question to a guy on one of the wine tours, he said that one reason was a shortage of coopers these days. He told me that some of the early California vintners worked with barrels made from the local redwoods. You must get some really shitty flavor notes from conifers. Mmmm, turpentine...

I'm also convinced that while it takes a well-trained palate to appreciate wine, any half-drunk oaf can make it. (Not grow the grapes or make a predictable batch, but rather make something that tastes like wine that you can explain after.) Some people were fermenting with wild yeast out there. The high sugar content in the grapes ensures that once the yeast gets chomping, their populations will soar and exclude any other bugs. The high alcohol content keeps them from growing afterwards. Your off flavors come from the grapes (and all that went in growing them) and your barrels, and in wine, let's face it: off flavors are a feature.* Grain, on the other hand, takes major coaxing to ferment, and there's something that can go wrong at pretty much every one of the 3,204 stages, including brushing your hand on some piece of equipment and infecting the whole batch with your disgusting finger-print bacteria. This guy at the winery was manhandling a siphon, that he dipped right into the storage barrel. Right into the barrel! If you did this to beer, you'd be growing macaroni noodles** in it.

*I'm exaggerating, if only a little. It's interesting that these flavor notes all correspond to known chemicals, and, since they have to remain soluble, there's a good concentration of fairly simple chemical species that add flavor. Some of these are common in an industrial chemical lab. Ethyl acetate is easy as hell to spot, and some reds develop simple thiols. I react very negatively to these flavors. Will avoid the Semillon grape in the former case, and catching the latter in the occasional red made for the very rare times I called something undrinkable. (I had to really choke it down.)

**True story.

3. What happened to Engineering?
Back when I was more impressed with myself (the 90s, roughly), I thought engineering was the shit. I liked what Scott Adams said (back then) about other fields appending "engineer" to lend themselves significance. We engineering students mocked the sciences as people who couldn't do honest math. By grad school, of course I'd learn that this was wrong for any discipline that had the "physic" strung anywhere in its title sequence, or any discipline given to modeling complex systems, but (especially when it comes to the Chem/ChemE chasm) here are engineers more invested in questions that anyone cares about or can ever make work. (Chemists were the sorts of hopeless buffoons that'd spend four years synthesizing just barely enough of a chemical they could hope to prove existed.) In the internet age, I've been horrified to see a diminution of the engineer. Somehow, we've gone back to automatons who can't handle the deeper understanding and the thirst for fundamental knowledge that is the provenance of big-S Science. People see that engineering badge I once wore proudly as something like a junior technician of the sciences. Possibly it's because I approximately joined the sciences, and this is just their prejudice surfacing.

In the research areas, they blur anyway, and on a good day, I can't tell you where I fall on the spectrum (applied scientist? that's probably closest), and what the hell, it's not like I'm a sterling example of either anyway. I guess the trouble is more conversational. I've always imagined "engineer" to carry a certain freight, and I've been derailed by short comments or funny looks. Different times, or different circumstances, and most importantly, how come everyone doesn't think exactly like me?

4. A Good Doodle, Spoiled.
Recently quipped (and deleted): Writing is a lot like golf. Early on, you hit a few good ones and think, "yeah, this could be a really satisfying activity for me." Keep going, and you find that not only is it difficult to relive those positive performances of your style, you somehow get worse trying to repeat or improve them. Even longer, and there's the grudging realization that at best you can achieve terminal mediocrity, unable to stop, and unable to prevent yourself from doing the same dumb things over and over again.

And look, I know it's not true of everyone. Some people can swing the club or dash a sentence with a natural talent, or can actually improve to amazing levels. And it's no less true of any other field or activity you'd ever want to take up. Why compare it to golf, and not, say, music, or science? Well, I have been wise enough to not take up golf.

5. At Least They Still Have To Share It.
I'm finally starting to understand why people have hated the Patriots for the past ten years. I always blamed it on the fact that they were awesome and their team wasn't, or on Bill Belichick's lifelong dyspeptic troll impression, or on Tom Brady's clean-cut good looks and junior partner attitude. Or maybe the conservative NFL was supporting the 2001-vintage jingoism by shedding a little love for the Revolutionary-themed team. But I'm finally starting to see that there was something specially annoying about getting the national media soft-pedal for ten years, and it's taken a shift in affection to the hated rivals to really make me understand it.

The Jets have brought in a few named, although not young, players, and Darelle Revis finally signed, and yeah, part of it is the loud blathering of their coach Rex "strong men also cry" Ryan. And there's the HBO special, which seems to have gained some traction, but it's hard for me to tell because (a) I don't watch it, and (b) I never sprang for the service before this year. But there's something even more: the perennially disappointing Jets seem to have a whiff of media magic about them this year. As a full disclosure, I don't hate the Jets as much as a good New Englander should. Got me some close friends who are big fans, and the only NFL games I've ever attended were home games at the Old Meadowlands, and there's something cute about their colorful, loudmouth, drunken, asshole fans you meet there. But I am conditioned to not really respect them either, and I remain enough of a local to wrinkle my nose at the attention they're getting.

You can't watch a televised Pats game without one of the flaks telling you how amazing the stadium is. This is because three years ago, the Krafts teamed with CBS to develop some silly mall complex around the stadium, which combined the business genius of bringing in the crowds to absorb more sports-themed crap at gametime and getting big plugs in every CBS broadcast. I'm a fan of the team, but it's a little hard to listen to them lionize the civic goodness of the pie-faced old nepotist who dandled Hartford and Providence on his knee in a successful effort to leverage $70 million in state infrastructure, subornation of existing zoning codes, etc. from Massachusetts just in time for me to move here and help pay for.

One thing I didn't realize was that Kraft secured a hefty loan for the stadium from the NFL itself. I assume that this is not uncommon, and I picture the owners' meetings as proceeding according to rules of shadow organizations you find in Bond films, with lots of hairless cats. As stadiums go, Gilette was not so expensive as the more recent builds, but he seems to have been pretty shrewd in investing the broadcast media into local fame as well winning some conspiratorial league support, as mentioned above. I remember some enhanced positive chatter about Indy when they built their stadium, although they were actually winning games in '08 and the constant-circumference head of Peyton Manning was already achieving Orwellian ubiquity, and the Cowboys (who deserve an eternity of ignominy for being a Texas product ever labeled "America's team") also got the HBO deal coincidentally with their then-record stadium build. A new bowl rehabilitated Arizona's record, but I'd be committing the fallacy of small numbers to get too impressed about that one, and anyway they did land them some talent. Maybe anyone in Chicago can tell me if Soldier Field, the sequel, did anything for the team.

I don't know what soul-selling it took to get the New Meadowlands stadium built. I know that the fucker was expensive ($1.6B) enough to price workaday lawyers and marketing pukes out of season tickets, and one assumes the blue collars in green jerseys will be watching on teevee a sea of greige suits ogling the Flight Crew from the stands. Go corporatism! Man, I expect nothing less from the NFL. Just so long as they don't start winning.