Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cognitive Dissidents

Sorry to be caught blogging again, not to mention riding this hobby horse once more, but I'd like to use up my monthly allotment of diacriticals to recommend this article by Slavoj Žižek at the London Review of Books (via). It's a discussion of the relationship between the Party and the government using a couple of famous Communist examples (he is reviewing a book called The Party, by Allen Lane), dwelling on the carefully held democratic fiction (as he calls it), especially prevalent in China, that the entities are separate, that the central role of the Communists remains the country's biggest open secret. Since you may have problems with the LRB link (it has made my computer implode five or six times now, although I can see the article on my Blackberry), here are some pull-quotes and paraphrases:

"One consequence of the [Chinese Communist] Party’s need to maintain hegemony is its close monitoring and regulation of the way Chinese history is presented, especially that of the last two centuries. [...] When history is used for the purposes of legitimation, it cannot support any substantial self-critique.[...]"

"The government and other state organs, ‘which ostensibly behave much as they do in many countries’, are centre stage: the Ministry of Finance proposes the budget, courts deliver verdicts, universities teach and award degrees, priests lead rituals. So, on the one hand, we have the legal system, the government, the elected national assembly, the judiciary, the rule of law etc. But on the other [...] we have the Party, which is omnipresent but always in the background [...] The Party committees (known as ‘leading small groups’) which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing it, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions."

"The irony is that the Party itself, its complex workings hidden from public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of corruption. The inner circle, comprising top Party and state functionaries as well as chiefs of industry, communicate via an exclusive phone network, the ‘Red Machine’ – possessing one of its unlisted numbers is a clear sign of one’s status. A vice-minister tells McGregor that ‘more than half of the calls he received on his “red machine” were requests for favours from senior Party officials, along the lines of: “Can you give my son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or good friend and so on, a job?”’"

"This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power."

Žižek doesn't go to the next step here, to relate it to western democracies, and I want to be careful myself with those sorts of extrapolations. Obviously the U.S. is not China: we have no formal Party in place to secretly pull strings and direct both the government and economy. Whatever networks inform these things here are more de facto affairs, composed of, I think, the integrated total of individual or corporate acts of opportunism, as mild as padding a bonus or hiring your son-in-law, or as nasty as Dick Cheney's energy task force. The existence of a class on this continent that is both more capable and less encumbered by legal constraints than the rest of the citizenry might similarly appear to be a more free-form and emergent, an outgrowth of our establishment of separate legal classifications for businesses, investments, and property. There has been justification for this—companies do different things than citizens do, and there are advantages to forming groups of similar or competing interests which will naturally behave differently than individuals—and it's inevitable that any social institution will coalesce around its own jargon. But you know, all this was true of Communism too, and of the perceived need for Communism. In the U.S., there are limits to business success without moving into, employing, and acting within that loose network. It's not the same as The Party, but I see each manifestation as something consistent with a general human organizational behavior under the parameters of modern times (which doesn't get less boring the more I write about it). Whether the U.S. version has been based on egalitarian first-principles—which is one of our democratic fictions—or whether it's been designed from the get-go to enable an American-style class distinction is an open question. Personally, I don't think those aims have proved mutually exclusive.

It should probably also be noted that we have a different history of what those democratic fictions belie. Rarely has the United States approached Communist levels of murder and disappearance of political dissenters, and speech here remains relatively free, among other things—I'm happy that writing my conscience is unlikely to get me jailed. But that's not to say that everything is just awesome. [To point out the more obvious cracks in our democratic fiction, we shutter up the underclass at a rate six or seven times that of China, while looking the other way at a finance apparatus whose collective effect has been to claim jus primae noctis on our savings and assets as a condition of managing them, and we also hesitate to acknowledge this loose internal network that would rather avoid paying workers (or paying benefits for workers or other citizens) even while they want them to buy stuff (and let the people at large pick up the tab for punishing the deprivations of the destitute, among other externalities). We're also the most recent major power to cultivate a slave class, and we've rounded up and penned the indiginous people we didn't roll over or outright butcher. To say nothing of 200 years of dubious foreign adventures. No saints, us.] I don't want to sound too radical in this post, but let's admit we have our own brand of governing lies and undiscussed licenses. The tendency to avoid any substantial self-critique is what I am calling out as the similar thing.

I am sick of weaseling that a flawed democracy is better than anything else. The flaws suck. What gets me is that if there are any objective historians several hundred years from now, the social conditions of current empires will look obvious, or at least the will not be argued about too much: overextended military, insufficient domestic economy, costly maintenance of various forms of class segregation, and, probably, a wind-down of readily available fossil fuel energy. But when we're living in it, it's hard to see (I mean, how isn't seven and a half percent of the population in jail what oppression looks like?) and the discussion on those stark and universal terms isn't taken very seriously among people who would be criticized under them. To make a metaphor, we constantly bitch about the weather, and obsess over the mapped fronts and the three-day forecasts, when so many of the problems are really associated with the political climate. We can judge easily across geography too, calling out, as a hilarious example, the corruption of leaders who take money from other people than us. But looking at corruption at home? So much of the anger seems to miss its target, or even when it's pointed the right way, the target is too well-protected for it to matter. We can't easily believe how thoroughly we fail ourselves. We have too much invested in our own mythology here too.

(Title stolen from a William Gibson novel.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ad Hominem Three-fer

Let's face it, it's not like I have much mojo to lose here. I look around and think that I'm clearly doing it the hard way, too few naked links and too many big questions that I address in too poor a generalizing manner. Reviews of unpopular books, and of literature above my reading level. Science for dummies. The ticket to this blog thing, where the big bucks really start to flow in, is in baseless opinions, mercurial little eels that they may be, and in current events, the dynamic national equilibrium, as it were, where the sum total of all that sound and fury really gets together to signify nothing. Well, why can't I be that idiot?

Obviously, instead of beating up on myself, it's healthier to go after deserving targets. Research is difficult though, and getting accurate details of these actors is only going to end up revealing them as challengingly human, or else frighteningly reptilian, and who wants to go to either of those places. It's a lot easier to speculate and embellish, to create characters out of them, than it is go into the subtle territory of really knowing someone. It's not as though they're insufficiently loathsome. For your reading pleasure, here is the newest edition of my nasty book:

1. Chuck Todd
Elections are sort of like the holiday season of the television networks. The whole dynamic of reporting changes: festive bunting rolling across the screen, and there's a certain cheer in the air. The Nooze is in its most energetic element when there's a campaign on. There are observances to be kept, rubber chickens to consume, and cash bars to be swarmed. Powerful people pay attention to the reporters for awhile, and the new kids get a chance to clamor for the freely given facetime, and some cynical old Scrooge or other may choke up with emotion on election morning.

Reporting is never easier than during an election. They might smugly get a "fact-check" or two in, but by and large, it's a business of monitoring ad campaigns, speculating about murky polls, retrofitting the same contest stories yet again. A reporter is called upon to demonstrate his vast knowledge of left/right stereotypes and faux demographic and geographical niches. The guy or gal who comes up with this year's "Soccer Moms" ("Twitter Youth?" "Working Hispanics?" "Heartland Knowledge-Voters?" "Medicare Patriots?") gets some kind of prize. The truly great thing about elections, for reporters, is that the most ludicrous campaign-related crap counts as newsworthy, and any analysis that's not based on utterly unquantifiable garbage like compellingness of narratives, resonance of platforms, or feelings about ideologies can be safely avoided. It's not a discussion of facts, not even of reasoned arguments, but of weighing opinions, which gleefully can never be refuted. Cost analysis? Historical context? That shit's for suckers, and where's your campaign spirit anyway?

It seems unfair to single out Chuck Todd for this, not that he doesn't deserve it as much as anybody (one may remember Glenn Greenwald embarrassing the little guy in an argument a while ago). It might be because he (Todd) is my age, and I feel like I could place him in one of my old homerooms. He was that dim but eager little fellow who'd occasionally become animated in class with an idea, jaw slightly adrop, and eyes flickering, as if the lightbulb were struggling for an audible crackle or two, and invariably ask a stupid question to which he'd fail to understand the answer. I don't want to confuse that kind of enthusiasm with energy or animation (and certainly not with creativity), but more a kind of a benign and unresourceful persistence, the basically happy kid who wouldn't lose interest, no matter how many times things were repeated. He once called himself a news junkie (not a historian, demographer, etc, "oddly excited" as Peter Sagal put it) in a way that did bother me, for which those character traits must be his major qualification. He probably watches it for hours and claps like a three-year-old parked in front of Sesame Street. Fuck, maybe he's my generation's legacy of being babysat by the tube.

Anyway, this otherwise harmless dude would be perfectly tolerable if his job wasn't to inform me of stuff. Hell, in other circumstances, I'd be more appreciative (or jealous) of his ability to happily pretend. There, but for self-awareness, go I. He's avoided my radar screen since the Greenwald thing, and I'd actually forgotten that he was NBC's head Washington correspondent, but now it's mid-term elections, and there he is again, dully unflappable, opining about the Commuter-rail Grandpas, or something like that, on the morning fare that even news junkies must find insipid, and my teeth grind. Thank god the sound was off.

2. Virginia Thomas
When my daughter was a little younger, she'd storm around the house in certain moods (usually after we'd been asking for a week that she do some avoided chore), performing inconsequential services, and growling out a "You're welcome!" after every one.

"C—, could you hand me a pencil?"

[pause, scowl]

"Uh, could you hand that to me?"

[glower, thrust] "You're welcome, Daddy. I said, you're welcome!"

It's textbook passive aggression, perhaps not rare in seven-year-olds, and of course you could imagine how the exasperated requests to stop screaming at her sister tended to go. I've never been the sort of parent to demand insincere apologies (which has to count for something in the cosmic balance), but it's not exactly a stretch to extrapolate how they might have gone.

It's just not how you normally go about mending fences. "Hey Anita, I know it's been twenty years since my husband allegedly harassed you, but I thought I'd call and give you the opportunity to apologize for nearly ruining his prestigious career of shaping the Republic."

"Um, is this..."

" You're welcome."

What do you suppose the interior lives of the Thomases is like? Ginny is the acerbic sweetheart that dresses up in a foam Statue of Liberty hat, breaking out as a would-be star in the currently popular role of inciting the rubes, fomenting angry cognitive dissonance. Clarence is the guy in perpetual danger of a broken nose should Antonin Scalia ever stop suddenly, and would surely be adjudicating with a faceguard were not both men so amply padded. I imagine Clarence and Ginny as either incredibly frustrated sexually, taking it out, in their respective ways, on the American public, or else as totally uninhibited freaks, pursuing their passions outside the boudoir as much as they do inside it, a lot of dominance play, insults (which is fine among the consenting, don't get me wrong, but where's my safe word when the cops are rifling the closet at gunpoint), nasty porn flickering on the big-screen. Either would be consistent with their antipathy for women, or for people with less power than them. Since this is America, and they're conservative, I'm voting for the frustrated perversion. For Clarence, there's testimony to the fact.

3. Juan Williams
I've never been a fan of this guy as a commentator. On NPR, his job was to report, in the usual boring sort of both-sidesism, the conservative point of view in a reasonable-sounding but unconvincing way. On FOX, (best I can tell with the mute on, anyway) his job is to do the same thing describing a liberal point of view. By this, I conclude that (a) he has no point of view of his own, and (b) he is generally unconvincing. I guess that leaves reasonable-sounding, which is everything you need to explain his NPR career. Good riddance and all, but it was pretty hard this morning to stomach the always-gloating Fox and Friends as they struggled to find NPR stories that proved who the real bigots are. Or that Everybody Does It, or whatever the fuck it was that they were trying to scold. Why, one time Public Television weighted a discussion with panelists who were against the Israeli commando raid on peace activists, which makes them total hypocrites, not like those gentlefolks at FOX. (They also did not decline the opportunity to shit on the continued employment of Nina Totenberg, a little revenge ploy no doubt too subtle for their viewers.) Assholes.

I wanted to call out Williams' chief sin as hackery (I mean, uninspired careerism is endemic to the biz, but I'll take ten Helen Thomases over that schmuck), but that's already been done better than I was about to. Maybe if their hands are digging among the pink slips, they can finally shitcan Mara Liasson as well? (Dammit, beat to that one too!)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death, Violence, Grief, War, Brain-Eater, Tea Parties

It's been bugging me for a very long time, and who knows, I may yet be motivated to finish that ginormous post expressing my opinion of the long trajectory of civilization and our point on the arc. The short version is that I think there has in fact been progress in several important measures, and, like any miniature Odysseus who imagines that the gods are swirling portentiously around me, that the progress of the world has peaked, or is peaking, in my lifetime. Not peaking culturally—that's an even more foolish conceit—but in terms of the opportunity to attain and examine that which makes it all feel worth doing. Is there a good basic measure for the quality of our lives? There are a lot of lines that I liked in Eduardo Galeano's Mirrors, but one that took it home pitted the human spirit against an excess of grief:

Love wanes, life weighs, death wastes.

Some griefs are inevitable. That is the way it is, and not much can be done about it.

But those in charge of the planet pile grief on top of grief, and then charge us for the favor.

We pay the value-added tax every day in cold hard cash.

And every day in cold hard misfortune, we pay the grief-added tax.

The added grief comes disguised as fate or destiny, as if the anguish born of the fleeting nature of life were the same as the anguish born of the fleeting nature of jobs.

Well, the spirit of the book is to extend it beyond an economic argument, but death and taxes have always gone together. There is no doubt that sadness is our ultimate due, but a good evaluation of the state of the species is a number for how long how big a fraction of us can coast without a loved one dying in our arms, without suffering crippling pain, succumbing to disease, isolating ourselves, becoming impoverished, or any of the mountain of things that make the big nap seem like a fitting end. (There are many more subjective ways that the quality of life is limited—subjectivity is one thing that has held back that awful post—although it's telling who gets to assert what experience you deserve, and how stable it is perceived to be.) It's difficult to really work out a balance of things in our own times, never mind in the long view back. For example, in the United States, crime statistics suggest that we are less likely to suffer violence from each other, but these analyses usually fail to consider that we've got a greater number of people suffering the official and pre-emptive version, wasting in our teeming jails or simmering in our shantytowns. It also soft-pedals any crimes rich people might do, even if they add grief to the lives of the underclass or to other populations. Arrestable crime in this country has zigzagged over a more or less constant mean value for the past century or so. If you go back to the centuries before that, then the likelihood of murder and assault was depressingly higher. We're a good deal less likely be killed by another civilian here and now than if we lived in 14th century Europe, which enjoyed a homicide rate that was ten times higher than America's today.

Life expectency and other mortality rates are frequent measures of progress when pitting the first world against the third, or when making comparisons between groups. Mortality rates (I like to cope here with jokes about inevitability, but any good physical chemist will automatically think of a rate as 1/lifetime) are a good measure of excess grief in Galeano's sense: we all die, but how often are people dropping around us? Statistics for mortality are also more accessable and less debatable than other measures of misery. In those terms, humans appear to have improved drastically. Life expectancy in U.S. has nearly doubled since 1850, and infant mortality has dropped by an order of magnitude, which puts us (much as with other useful measures) at about number 20 in the world, but it's still pretty awesome historically. In the greater impoverished globe, the death rate has dropped by a factor of three over the last century. It appears to be more due to a scientific understanding of health and hygiene than anything else, whatever political ideologes like to claim. It may also be due to a more universal discovery and dissemination of knowledge, images and communication technologies take us to the battlefronts, wide access to art and literature that gives us personal glimpses into other lives—all modern vehicles to help establish empathy. But that's probably more hopeful than true.

If people can experience a greater freedom from grief, then what does that say about war? The univeral balance must include how much grief we spare ourselves, but also how much we spread to others. Would longer lives make them more precious, and be an impediment to large-scale murder? It doesn't seem to stop it. I remain unconvinced about the additional humanity that the modern American war strategy profers: hell of a low bar for one thing, and you know, the point is still to destroy people. COIN is shameful enough, but when the demons are really let fly, the murderous endeavor has become far more devastating in its scope and scale (and unthinkable in its potential scope and scale).

I spent some time wandering about this site, a compilation of mortality studies put together by one Matthew White. (It is very interesting to wade through, if you don't think too personally about the water. I wish the site had some interesting and handy compilation figures and was more conveniently indexed, but it was evidently produced a few web generations ago.) According to its stats, intentional death, mostly by war and its effects (attendant starvation and lawlessness, and other such minor details) in the 20th century was suffered by about 5% of the population, whereas "only" 1-2% of the world population suffered unnatural death in the nineteenth century. Beating the age of colonialism in a murder contest is a hell of an achievment. White finds a source estimating about a 15% likelihood of death by violence for prehistorical times, obviously a rough estimate, and some similar level of validation by other sources would have been nice. If it's true, it's a point for civilization. Finally.

A picture this big tends to smooth out the details to a point that can easily become offensively glib, which is another reason I keep not wanting to write these things up. Where war occurs, it has become more concentrated and more monstrous, and the quantity of dead has only grown. World War II remains, according to the same body of statistics, the singular horrorshow our species had yet produced by 2005. The disappearance of the Native Americans (however variously intentioned it may have been), and enslavement of native Africans also make the top ten (abetted by how long those things went on, but not a bad effort for an upstart empire), right up there with Stalin's purges and Mao's famine-enhanced revolution. Technology and (possibly) organization have decreased the overall mortality rate and may, arguably, palliate some burdens of living, but they have also let us achieve more spectacular evil, and we were more likely to be killed by other people last century than in the century before. I can not bring myself to say that the one justifies the other, especially when people have to face ever-more-unnatural death. Nor am I clear what the trend was between prehistory and 1900. It may have been better to live as some frictionless, spherical average world citizen in 1945 than it was in 1345, in other words, but it is hard to think of that in terms of anyone lucky enough to shamble out of a concentration camp or the ruins of Nagasaki.

I usually think of these things after reading a John Varley novel, but election season brings it out too. I've paid attention through several rounds of campaigns by now, and the recurrence of theme has become insufferable. Jesus fuck, how many times are they going to tell the lie that a budget has enough pareable waste to balance itself? How many times will they reinvent a dangerous Other to not quite threaten a dire world scenario? How many times are we going to try to introduce bogus economic fixes that enrich the rich and empower the powerful? We've been soaking in conservative principles for 40 years now (after a brief industrial-inspired disruption of the similar order that was going on 350 years or so on these shores), and the media fawns over the Tea Party when it spouts the same platitudes as if they've discovered a new continent. Are they retarded?

Well, they are probably not bright or motivated enough to carefully report and tell a new story, and campaigns, more than other reporting, don't require a presentation of challenging facts, and the thrill it induces in reporters should embarrass them. But more than that, politics survives when people keep stepping up to buy the same old snake oil. Where mortality rate comes in, is that it takes a steady supply of the inexperienced to keep the votes coming. P. T. Barnum obviously had it right, but looking closer at the aphorism, he was concerned about the birthrate of suckers, thinking perhaps, that after a few dozen times, even partisans might outgrow their faith in the more ludicrous cons. If economic impacts were to develop in the space of a generation, would we have as much faith in them? If generations were longer, then maybe we'd borrow less from the future. The news, too, is famously reported on a fifth grade level, and it's probably stayed back a year or two since the early telelvision era (but promoted from the early newspapers). Neglecting such variations, the tone of the news mostly stays constant as people mature around it. I suppose the average information consumer can expect to learn it the popular narrative, then embrace it, and finally outgrow it. If people had time to develop a more thorough understanding of things, would the representative grade-level also float up, and could we expect a better product? Or else maybe given enough time, the race for meaning would get less frenetic, and we'd give up on believing anything after a while.

It's a nice theory. The average age of the Tea Party doesn't inspire confidence (and it's probably worth noting that I'm writing as a middle-aged man) about the likelihood of people to know better by now. People like to get set in their ways, and don't like to change their minds even as circumstances evolve. The bullshit that Reagan told people resonated, dammit, and who wants to acknowledge that life isn't much like Mayberry, or that it wasn't like Mayberry back then either. In science fiction geekdom, it would be sometimes imagined that an author might succumb to brain-eater if he or she lived long enough, divested of all the good and original ideas that powered the early career. And any casual observation of sf nerds further suggests that people can hit a level of emotional maturity, and then stay there. Peak age is a common belief for other achievers too, from athletes to mathletes, there's a window at which we're the best. So let's extend the definition of the grief rate to include infirmity—would the world improve if we could live longer and also suffer less of our time enduring the depredations of age?

A correlated question is whether any intellectual change would occur if people didn't constantly replace themselves. Do we need to die off to change? (I know, time to read Kuhn, shut up.) But on the opposite side, I wonder if resistance is just the end game, the need to validate youth as the inevitability of death looms closer. If there's no lifetime benefit to changing your mind, then clinging to some notion of posterity seems more logical. I also wonder if the extreme late life of a thinker just tends to give way to fatalism or opportunism: I mean, if you grow out of the overheated race for meaning that the young pursue, and that causes you to stop believing in things, then what's left? Does it worry anyone else that we're ruled by an assembly of desiccated old bastards who have selected themselves out by their ability to peddle the same lies for 40 years?

Some people don't lose it, keeping their wonder of discovery, or keep developing their thoughtful sense of values. They manage to keep expanding their notions of dignity and decency and knowledge until it goes black, and it impresses the hell out of me. If I can't go out like that, then I hope that whatever understanding I attain leads me to ignore the bullshit, so that I am able to concentrate on the good stuff, the timeless stuff, that's left. Or maybe I can postpone the end indefinitely. That would be nice.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lesson Two: Wine and Food

Wine education at Chateau Keifus has turned out to be a sporadic but pleasant and social family activity. We've done our best to package up our early lessons on tasting and bring relatives and friends into the mix, especially if the grownups are willing to foot a big part of the bill. This year, lacking funds to fly off to preferred destinations in France or Tuscany or something along those lines, we settled that the once-a-decade trip (as either reader of this blog is no doubt tired of hearing by now) would take us to California wine country to immerse ourselves in the grape, and provided we succeeded in learning anything, proceed to a suitable Lesson Two for the rest of the hometown amateur crowd. It coincided closely enough with my mother's birthday to build it into a celebration. I've promised a couple interested people that I'd share the recipes and other secrets, and this is a convenient place to do that. I go through the lesson below, and recipes follow. (As far as the regular blog thing goes, it serves nicely to fill up space as well. Election season has made the state of the country more ridiculous and loathsome than usual, and the press narrative more puerile, and while that all fuels a rant or two, it doesn't scare up too many entertaining ones.)

The wine and food evening was in two parts. For the first, we examined the basic flavors that you find in wine and food, and did some clever experiments to see how they interact. The results, as they say, will astound you. This was followed by a tasting dinner, where wine was paired for each dish. We had to adjust to east-coast pantries, and the fact that the growing season here is winding down. If you can somehow find fresh peas in October, in other words, you deserve whatever horror they taste like. (And it turns out they don't ship in kumquats year-round from Chile, even if the asparagus got us by.) This was followed, as it generally does in our family, with general consumption, so maybe it's more accurate to say that the evening was a three-parter. As I told my dad: you can learn something and get drunk.

Finally, before the nitty gets gritty, I need to make a couple of acknowledgements. I did cook it all, expanding where I thought to, but my wife did the hard work of organizing the damn thing, including acquisition of place settings and making party books, and the tasting itself we pretty much cribbed from Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena, CA. The kid did a good job hosting—and gave us an excellent brewpub recommendation to satisfy our less pretentious pleasures—and I tried to copy his style for my mom's party. Maybe for the sake of free advertising, they'll forgive me for using their ideas and recipes to make myself more popular.

Alright, I know you all know this, but to review the basic wine flavors or sensations—mostly in terms of the stuff you get on the tongue—we have five:

  • Acidic (Our token crisp wine was a Fume Blanc by Dry Creek Vineyard. I get the acid in this and in most white wines more as a sour green-apply bite on the tongue than a pleasant tingle, and I think I'm getting tired of them. It worked well for our experiment though.)
  • Tannic (A selection of reds, including a 2005 Merlot from Franciscan and a Bear Boat Pinot Noir which were mildly tannic, and a Cabernet from Oberon (uh, not that Mondavi, the other one) which was aggressively so, especially after sipping the other two; usually I smell fruit on the nose with a cab, but not so much on this one. Both the Bordeaux styles had sort of "unrefined" tannins, that stood not unpleasantly against the red and dark fruit flavors, but it wasn't exactly a seamless transition--none of the wines are very spendy, which is good for education.)
  • Barrel (I tried to describe the oak flavors as consisting of specific spice and chemical notes, specific signatures like vanilla, toast, clove, diacetyl (which isn't quite correct), and things like that. Not to mention "oak," if you've ever sawed it. The Merlot had the most definable of these sorts of flavors. Here's me blathering more about barrels here.)
  • Sweet (Since I forgot the "sweet" until the extreme last minute, I pulled a cloyingly floral Moscato from Jacob's Creek at the packy on my way home from work Friday night. It wasn't ideal.)
  • Alcohol (This is more of a concern for the young or the congenitally sober. Regardless, it's the fiery and vapory sensation you get from a shot of vodka or something.)

    These wine sensations were set off against the five food tastes (five?) we all know: sour, salt, bitter, sweet, and, to throw a little curveball at the apple-polishers in the class, spiciness. On little tasting plates, we neatly arranged a couple lemon wedges, a little mound of salt, a walnut segment, a little pile of sugar (raw sugar so it looked different from the salt), and some spicy cheese with one end dusted with a hot curry powder.

    I want to include the lesson, just because I found it so damn useful. Resourceful oenophytes can do it themselves without divesting much scratch. It goes like this: "Take a sip of the sauvignon blanc, and describe it." It's reassuring to realize that not everyone's palate is the same, and we register flavors differently depending on our physiology as well as our experience. The composition of everyone's glass was the same, however, and while I tried to suggest acidity, but to hold onto that thought. "Now take a good bite of that lemon, and sip the wine again. Does it taste the same?

    I encourage you to try it if you haven't and come to your own conclusions, but since it's less boring to read an anecdote than a lesson plan, I can give you my own set of punchlines. The acid in the lemon pretty well washes out the acid in the wine, and our Fume Blanc doesn't really have a whole lot else going on. The rule of thumb (imparted on us from chef Eric down the street, and you should eat there too, if you ever get the chance) is that the wine should be more acidic than the food, at least if you want to taste the wine. Since tannins are acids too, you should get a similar effect for red wines. We tasted the Merlot with the lemon too, and although it was much less dramatic, I thought it did wash out the back end a lot, or maybe say it was replaced with some brighter stuff, which didn't feel necessary.

    Next comes the salt. The Merlot gives us a dramatic lesson in saline. Put some on your tongue, and sip again, go ahead. When I did this, it was like a magic trick. The Merlot vanished in my mouth, leaving not much but a ghost of barrel flavors. It did a similar thing with the cab too (and presumably the Pinot). We tried it with the Sauv. Blanc and the Moscato too. Salt cut the sweet and sour less dramatically, and less unpleasantly. Eric says that it's basically the chips and lemonade thing; salt makes you crave sour, and vice versa. Chips and lemonade, or, if you prefer, chips and Champagne.

    Munch on that walnut for a couple seconds, and you get some nice oily and bitter flavors. After careful screening, I felt that this went best in an experiment with the Merlot. Mmm-mm, give it a try and find that somehow the bitterness brings out all of that barrel flavor, and for that particular Merlot, it was very nice to have them brought out. Now, my wife and I have been talking about it and haven't reached a conclusion. Flavor subtraction makes sense if there are competitive receptors for what you are trying to taste—you've flooded your tongue with the other stuff, and the wine doesn't manage to get in. (Either that or your buds get fatigued, receiving such a shock of sour (or whatever) that you spike the detector. Your brain has done its job to register that tartness is there, and refuses to acknowledge further.) Plausible so far as I understand these things, but then tell me why bitter flavors are additive. Why does the walnut enhance the barrel notes? My best guess is that it neutralizes mysterious taste entities that otherwise drown those chemicals out. Or something. I'm working on it.

    When you get to sugar, although you obviously have taste receptors for that too, it's thought of more as coating the tongue. (Fat coats the tongue even more effectively, but who'd want a dollop of Crisco on the taste plate.) Putting sugar on your tongue tends to cut the tannins more than other things, and I thought that it toned down our Cabernet in a pleasant way. And for people who hated tannic wines, or who'd only eat them with a steak, I took the chance to act like a know-it-all. Cutting those tannins can make a difficult wine very agreeable, and free up subtler flavors to play nice with the nuances in your dish. Or leave you something to enjoy once the food has taken its share of the tastes.

    For the last tasting, we note that spicy food doesn't coat the mouth, but scours it, making it sensitive to alcohol (and vice versa, I guess). None of the wines were very boozy, so no good lesson there, but tongue-coating can compete favorably against tongue-scrubbing. A nice sweet wine should tone down spicy elements in food, which is why Margaritas are so awesome with Mexican. Our pairing of pepperjack and Moscato wasn't particularly pleasant though. My favorite sweet wine pairing with red spicy food is an extremely local one. Last plug, and the end of the class.

    The following dinner consisted of small bites. The Fume Blanc went against some cheese-filled spring rolls with a lemon aioli. I didn't have a thermometer for the oil and didn't heat it enough, and although these tasted nice, the texture was disappointing. Neither roll nor sauce was aggressively lemony, and the wine filled in that role nicely. Our next bite was (my favorite), the duck meatballs in porcini broth, paired with the Pinot, lots of earthy savory flavors, and the five spice blended nicely with the minimal barrel notes that the wine gave us. We bought a beautiful whole duck from Long Island for this, and ground it up, which was difficult to get myself to do. The short rib had plenty of salt and fat, as well as some citrus (it was really great), and it was paired with the Merlot. At the winery they did this with lamb and a lighter stock, I think because they had available small riblets, with the bones exposed so you could pick it up. Ours is much darker, fattier, and deeper and I liked it more. We warmed it by braising twelve bite-sized pieces for another hour with all of the liquid, and it probably made it that much better. The tannins in both wines were subdued, which made most of our guests happy. The Merlot was acidic enough, I guess, to deal with the cooked-down orange and lemon. The cab, of course, went with our steak bite. The kids made parfaits for dessert, and it was followed by the usual general-purpose shnookering.

    Here are the recipes:

    Duck Meatballs in Porcini Broth
    • Meatballs:
      • 1 lb. ground duck (best if you have a meat grinder: buy a whole duck, grind the meat, and reserve the bones to make the broth)
      • 2 eggs, beaten
      • 1 c. fresh bread crumbs
      • 2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
      • 1 small onion, minced
      • ¼ c. Parmesan cheese, grated
      • 1 tsp. five spice powder
      • 4 tsp. salt
      • 2 tsp. fresh pepper

    • Meatballs:
      • bones from the duck (or use 2 lb. chicken bones)
      • 1 large onion, large diced
      • 1 c. carrot, large diced
      • 1 c. celery, large diced
      • 4 cloves garlic, whole
      • 4 quarts chicken stock
      • 1 c. dried porcini mushrooms
      • 4 parsley sprigs
      • small handful of thyme sprigs
      • 2 bay leaves

    Combine all the ingredients for meatballs (makes a loose mixture). Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours. When ready, roll out to about ½ in. spheres. Refrigerate until ready.

    For the broth, place the bones, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic on a sheet tray and bake at 375 °F for about an hour. Drain excess fat (and use a little water to get any of the brown bits stuck to the tray), and add the bones and vegetables, and remaining broth ingredients to a big stockpot. Simmer for about an hour and then strain.

    To cook the meatballs, put 1-2 c. of the broth in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add meatballs in batches and cook 7-10 minutes or until they are cooked. Discard the cooking broth.

    To serve, heat remaining broth. Place cooked meatballs in a bowl, and pour the hot broth over them.

    New York Strip Steaks with Turnip Puree
    • Puree
      • 1 T. butter
      • ¼ c. spring onions (or leeks), thinly sliced
      • 1 c. turnip, small dice
      • 1 c. milk
      • 1 bay leaf
      • ½ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
      • 1 tsp salt
      • ¼ tsp. white pepper

    • 8 oz. NY strip steak
    • fresh chives

    For the puree, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the spring garlic (or leeks) and sweat until soft (don't brown). Add the turnip, cover with milk, and add bay leaf and nutmeg. Simmer 20 minutes or until turnips are soft and starting to fall apart. Remove the bay leaf and puree the turnip with half of the milk (until texture). Season before serving.

    Season the steak and grill or pan-sear it in grapeseed oil to medium rare. Let rest and then slice when ready to serve.

    To serve, reheat the puree if necessary. Spoon a little into a Chinese soup spoon and top with the sliced beef, and a little fresh chives for garnish.

    Orange and Olive Short Ribs

    (I don't think you can call a dish "Moroccan" without the properly available ingredients, and kitchen infrastructure. So I don't.)

    • about 4 lb. beef short ribs (4 servings with six short bones apiece.)
    • Rub (ras el hanout, more or less):
      • 1 tsp. cumin
      • 1 tsp. ground ginger
      • 1 tsp. turmeric
      • 1 tsp. salt
      • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
      • ¾ tsp. pepper
      • ½ tsp. white pepper
      • ½ tsp. ground coriander
      • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
      • ½ tsp. ground allspice
      • ½ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
      • ¼ tsp. ground cloves

    • 6 c. beef stock
    • 1 c. orange marmalade
    • 2 c. cured black olives or kalamata olives
    • 2 heads of garlic, split into cloves
    • 2 bay leaves
    • candied lemons:
      • 12 very thin lemon slices
      • 1 c. sugar
      • water

    Preheat the oven to 375 °F. Rub the ribs with the ras el hanout, and place them on a sheet ban. Bake for 30 minutes.

    For lemons, blanch for 1-2 min. in boiling water until softened. Then, in a skillet, make a simple syrup of 1 c. sugar and 1 c. water. Bring this to a simmer and place in lemons. Simmer gently for 1 hr, then remove to cool.

    Remove from the oven, and place the ribs in a baking dish (or split into two dishes). Add remaining ingredients. Cover tightly with foil, and return to the oven, and bake for 2 hours or until tender.

    Remove ribs and set aside. Strain cooking liquid and set aside olives. Remove garlic cloves and bay leaves.

    To serve, garnish with the lemons.

    Spring Rolls with Asparagus, Ricotta and Lemon Aioli

    (This didn't work very well for regular spring rolls; they don't seal as well, and needed to cook a little longer, which lends to filling exploding.)

    • 12 wonton wrappers
    • ~½ c. spinach leaves
    • ~½ c. asparagus, julienned (or use fresh peas if in season)
    • 3 cups canola oil for frying
    • Filling:
      • 6 oz. ricotta cheese
      • 2 oz. chevre, room temperature
      • 1 tsp. tarragon, finely chopped
      • zest of one lemon
      • 1 tsp. salt
      • ½ tsp. white pepper

    • Aioli:
      • 1 egg yolks
      • ½ tsp. fresh garlic paste
      • 2 tsp. lemon juice
      • ¾ c. grapeseed oil
      • 1 tsp. tarragon, finely chopped
      • 1 tsp salt
      • pepper to taste

    Mix together filling ingredients.

    Place a new wrapper on a clean work surface. Put on a spinach leaf, add a small spoonful of the cheese filling, and some asparagus. Roll into tiny spring rolls. Lay on a lined cookie sheet, and place the rolls in the freezer.

    For the aioli, mix the egg yolks, garlic and lemon juice. While whisking, drizzle in the oil. Spoon into a bowl, and mix in tarragon, salt, and pepper. Refrigerate until time to serve.

    To cook the rolls, heat the oil to 325 °F. Carefully drop in the frozen rolls, and cook about three minutes, or until golden brown.

  • Thursday, October 07, 2010

    Review: Drop City, by T. C. Boyle

    My sister-in-law recommended this one to me a couple months ago, after, as it turns out, a nice spin through the landscape. My wife and I had just spent a few days in Sonoma county, including a nice drive, and later a pleasant paddle, down the Russian River, where a lot of the written action takes place. When I was visiting, I was mentally painting rural Sonoma as an especially interesting collision between the filthy rich and the dirt poor, exhibiting some horrifying little off-of-the-path communities we accidently drove through, and ugly little trailer parks and shabby vacation bungalows with beamers in the drive, that have evidently seen tourism ebb and flow over the years. The tiny urban centers like Guerneville (Norm and Marco might have stopped at the same Safeway that we did, forty years later) somehow cater to both elements, and I found myself wondering how the trends of waste and want have gone over the years, looking at the architecture like a geologist puzzling out rock strata. There was open space along the river, and also some ritzy places where wealthy people live right on it (reminding me a little of tubing down the Farmington back in Connecticut, but with infinitely nicer weather and scenery) . It's full of farms and vineyards, currently booming, but they are not so uniformly wealthy as to speak to a history of cash. It's not, to summarize, at all hard to imagine an experimental commune somewhere in the area. (Communism on the Russian? As if!) The book, much like the area, speaks about different ways of defying the rat race, neither of which much resemble the ways that the (yet another) little river community managed in Jayber Crow, but which may be just as doomed. I think it adds up to a good book pairing.

    The other frontier that Boyle finds is along the Yukon river in central Alaska, nearly cut off (at least in 1970) from any aspect of civilization that you can't carry on your back in the summer. There's little doubt which is the harder survival environment, and the hippies make do in California with a lot of extra help, both from the climate and from the readily accessible world. The story proceeds for a while merely exploring parallel points of view: from Star, Pan and Marco in the commune, developing a romantic rivalry and navigating the politics of free love and alleged equality, to the trapper Sess Harder and his unlikely blessing of a want-ad wife, unwillingly escalating a feud with one of the other locals. It runs along for a bit as an interesting contrast, enough to get you to care about the main characters' individual stories, but the commune, facing certain eviction, suddenly decides to cut loose to Norm's uncle's place way up north and the direction is finally made clear. When these worlds start pointing at one another, the tension of seeing how they're going to collide is interesting, and really keeps things moving along. The prose keeps clanging along with a forward momentum too, powering through any dropped metaphor or repeated phrase. It doesn't read badly, it just reads fast, a bon mot here or there, but it is not especially philosophical or contemplative on the line level. That sort of thing works out more in terms of plot, character, and theme.

    More prose energy is given up to a loving homage to human function and activity. Boyle gets excited about the interlaced assembly of the human body, back muscles describing a character's attractiveness more than the face. There are pleasures in gardens and in layouts of space, how food items are stacked, what survival goods get nailed to the wall, what garden items grow where, and how a tiny cabin (I'd have thought it'd take longer to scrape, notch, and hoist the logs), treehouse (and longer than a day), or party bus is constructed. No meal goes quite under the radar, the composition of every course deserving of a quick mention. The food is about as gourmet as the prose is, satisfying if not subtle, going so far as to contrast bland, vegetarian hippie mush with wholesomely doctored survivor fare. You will cook a muskrat out there, sure, but you also develop it into a simple and real pleasure, filling the pot with stewed tomatoes and onions. Boyle is in love with digestion too (all of which, as my wife can tell you, I can't disapprove) and he does not neglect how we must deal with food once it gets turned into shit, the attention to which separates the more disparaged hippies ("there was a coil of human waste behind every rock, tree, and knee-high scrap of weed on the property") from the worthwhile members of the commune.

    Another thing I liked was the qualified description of roughing it. Even up in Alaska, the natural experience remains irrevocably connected to society's umbilical. It's more true for the California commune, for Drop City South, as they call it. Their existence is not just a gift of the weather, but runs on Norm's (the founder's), inherited personal fortune, and through food stamps and welfare. Everywhere in their subsistence is canned goods and storebought necessities, to say nothing of the drugs. (They'd later make an attempt to propagate weed and--somehow!--homebrew.) Even among the crustiest Alaskans, there's some dependence on rounding out the diet and procuring other staples from local suppliers. Sess's cabin is a three-hour canoe trip from civilization's terminus, which is enough to cut it off for six forty-below moonlit months at a time, but it still keeps him in touch, evidently a requirement for even the craziest of the bush coots. It's nice to have something separating this story from the old conflicts of man vs. the elements, even though the winter looms large. The struggle against nature is more a matter-of-fact issue, and the ability to deal with the unforgiving setting is less a question of man-drama than it is of general character. Can you hole up in a single room for six months when it's hitting 60 below and the sun winks out for 24-hour stretches? Do you have what it takes to plan during the warm season and set aside for the winter? It's more about the psychological fortitude of modern people than raw primitive strength or lunatic stoicism.

    And if it sounds like there's some preachiness creeping in, there is. The hippies are treated as object lessons from the get-go. They're the bad version of the experiment, the how-not-to, and it ain't so much the drugs and sex as the shirking of responsibility, the unseriousness. (It's worth noting that the residents of Drop City are given from the start as the better breed of hippie, who've tried to do something a little deeper than just pursue free love at the male member's convenience.) I think he approves of the fun to an extent, but even there, the heroes of that community are the ones with heads on their shoulders. They are the subgroup that is more inclined to conventional modes decency: to monogamy, to only moderate indulgence, and you know, who are good enough to stand up to rapists. When they got up north, I kept waiting for the inevitable winter's attrition to weed out the characters that Boyle has loudly telegraphed as unfit.

    And when winter does finally arrive, it wasn't like I expected. Sess's nemesis is by all appearances an asshole, almost rising to a sort of under-characterized evil presence. (He hides behind mirror shades, and three of his four speaking lines consist of "fuck you." And yeah, he makes a living heartlessly running booze to the local Indians, who I guess are less entitled to experiment with it than suburban American kids, but if you can take a step back, the sides we're led to pick don't make a hell of a lot of sense. It started when Bosky actually did the right thing and evacuated Sess's former girlfriend when she desperately wanted out—no fault of Sess's—when she couldn't take the winter and wrote an SOS in the snow for passing planes.) As the summer finally starts to close, the characters start to peel off into camps like something out of The Stand, drifting either to the forces of the technological but soulless evil or to the simple but true good folks. The point-of-view character Pan, undisguised as a shiftless jerk, flirts briefly with a redemption (his role as meat-gatherer signified laziness in California, but was useful in Alaska) but loses, and defects. I don't know how well the story and the theme were ultimately served by straying so far from anecdote to tempt allegory, but it did develop into an unexpected angle, and it gave us the means for a suitable close.

    Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    All right, this is cool

    I hate to "blog," that is, to post clips and useless comments instead of trying to write something, but just one more thing before the boss catches me here...

    Andre Geim has won the Nobel prize in Physics for his work with graphene. [Graphene? It's interesting stuff to be sure, and I don't doubt the worthiness of the research, but on the other hand, we've known the structure and properties of graphite (stacked graphene layers) since forever, and didn't Smalley just get the Nobel 15 years ago for fullerenes?]

    What's awesome about this (if you follow the link) is that Geim had previously won the Ig Nobel prize in 2000 for performing one of the coolest experiments ever: diamagnetically levitating a frog. I believe he is the only person to move from the Annals of Improbable Research to the Nobel Lectures, at least outside of the Peace Prize.

    Monday, October 04, 2010


    Maybe by now, you've read about the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, and maybe, if you're unfortunate, or have your ear to the ground for that sort of thing, you've discovered some of our more glib morality police gloating over it. I'm not sure why it's getting to me specifically--this miserable world doesn't lack for unjust death, so much of it already inflicted with my alleged citizen's consent. It is probably a matter of identification: I have always loathed bullies, and this poor Clementi kid, I can sense his pain. On the other hand, I remember college pretty well, and otherwise decent kids can be monsters absent any real life experience and without knowing many people outside their high school clique, and no one's worse than young people (or young straight white guys) this way. I don't think I'd have done this thing to anyone, but I can look back and extrapolate myself to either side of the situation.

    It's where my own thoughts keep leading. I'm not that old, but I can tell you that when I tally up my life, I really cherish some of those early sexual explorations, those too-rare times with mutually interested partners, respectful of or equal to my own inexperience. (I don't think I'm alone in that. There are entire music genres that exist to celebrate the first kiss with Suzy under the bleachers, narrow a script as that may be.) And when I look back at the times when I've caused people shame they didn't deserve, didn't deal with them enough as individuals, or those times when I was just a dick, and that's what I most regret, the moments I'd take back if I could. I think this is a fairly typical life experience.

    [Often, I want to defend immaturity at that age. It's a rational response to the relentlessly patronizing authority of college institutions. In-jokes and self-inflicted misery can be funny too, as well as certain breeds of mayhem, and I hold that all fondly. But there are lines and responsibilities even then, and it's easy to play really close to them.]

    And what's so fucked up about our society is that it has it exactly backwards. The assholes aggrandize themselves and get away with it, and the innocent are humiliated to the point of suicide. The roommate will deeply regret this, if he doesn't already. Maybe Vox and Alex will live long enough to develop a shred of empathy too, who knows. In the meantime, what the fuck? We were all immature at some point, to some degree or other, but why does immaturity rule the goddamn world?

    [Added: I see that Ed at Gin and Tacos has a similar take, and covers it better.]