Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Wunderkammer to explore when next in London.

Curio shops--are they even called that any more, I wonder, or are they now all lumped under the sign "antique and resale shop"--are something that I've loved since I was a kid. My mom and stepfather used to visit one in Gulfport, Miss., called The Purple Lantern. I was enchanted with it; the interior was done in a vaguely Arabian manner, with flowing fabrics covering the walls and dividing the shop into sections, each with a rambling assortment of curiosities linked loosely by theme. No surprise, then, that this article on Viktor Wynd's Little Shop of Horrors (tip o' the hat to BoingBoing) caught my eye.

Only I call my office a Wunderkammer. If I had, as Viktor Wynd does, "a box reputed to contain some of the original darkness that Moses called down upon the Earth (nailed tightly shut, I’m glad to say)," then perhaps my office would measure up. For now, my miniature D&D figures, New Orleans Saints toy ball, glow-in-the-dark skull, reproduction antique tin of dog treats, and plastic jellyfish will have to do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Obligatory drink post, the second.

The hubby made a batch of these for a party we're got this afternoon. They should make a big splash; the hosting couple have their own regulation-size beer pong table, so it's going to be one of those kinds of parties. And frankly, it's about time.

Important safety tip: Cut the jelly slab into 1"/2.54 cm squares, no matter what the devil on your shoulder urges. The shots are potent. I used Mandarin orange segments and maraschino cherries, cut into fourths, for the garnish. Mine do not look nearly as nice as the photo here, which is from the linked article.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Obligatory drink post, the first.

I confess that I am devoted to vintage cocktails, and for a couple of reasons. One, I remain a bit miffed at bartenders today who repackage vintage cocktails and call them something new. Who can trust a bartender practicing such trickery? Someone needs to be present who can call them out when they've taken a sidecar and renamed it a "Belly Button Licker." Two, I find myself still reeling from the recent barrage of 'tini drinks; this should require no explanation.*

Before I start sounding too arch, I must also confess my love of tiki culture and tiki drinks. (There goes my rep.) I grew up with an interior designer for a mother, and when I was a preschooler and schoolchild, our living room was done Polynesian style--thatching on the walls, palm trees in each corner, solid teak furniture with legs and columns carved like tiki gods, war masks on the walls, emerald green carpet and draperies, and a 50-gallon fish tank with an actual, live, real piranha in it (my mom bought him on the black market, and yes, I know they're from South America). I even love the cheap tiki stuff at party stores.

In other words, the following tiki drink recommendations are inescapable. These are all good for mixing in big batches. The links will take you to Serious Eats recipes, but that's just to get you started.

Scorpion: This is a pleasant change of pace from the age-old pina colada, which to me should be served only to children (alcoholic or not).

Mai Tai: Many, many variations and ripoffs of this drink abound. The original cannot be duplicated; it called for a vintage of rum that has all been drunk. (Seriously. You can't get that kind of rum any more; no bottles are left outside of private collections.) The key is to not get the ingredients out of balance. If you've had a Mai Tai from a bar, chances are you've had an overload of juice and syrup. This recipe should be a pleasant change.

Fog Cutter: I'll always have a special place in my heart for Fog Cutters (or as my mom jokingly called them after a night of one too many and slurred speech, Frog Cutters). You'll notice a trend in these recipes: Lighter, more naturally sweet, and nuanced. If you've had a Fog Cutter in a bad Chinese restaurant before, don't despair. This recipe should help.

Planter's Punch: I have made many a bad pitcher of this punch and drank them gleefully. I've also ordered many a glass of this drink; no two were alike. Yes, it can be a fruity, oversyruped concoction with umbrellas AND fruit AND a whirlygig AND a plastic whale; Planter's Punch can also be a more streamlined and classic cocktail. I've included recipe links for both here.

It's getting to be time to plan a tiki party. Aloha kakou!

*Yes, I understand that you, you right there, have a favorite 'tini, and I know that the cosmopolitan is a classic cocktail that was stomped to death by Sex and the City. I can't help preference and history.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Gauss facts.

Tip o' the hat to Sam Waltz on the GenX-Ms email list for this one. A sample:

Gauss can get to the other side of a Möbius strip.
Gauss can colour any map using only one colour.
There are no postulates, only theorems Gauss believes are unworthy of a proof.
Gauss disproved Godel's Incompleteness Theorem by exhaustion.

The Wikipedia article on Gauss is here.

Corruption and its contexts.

Corruption is one of those words that's been cheapened through overuse. Still, with regard to some subjects, there's no better way to describe it. This article by Stratfor gives a good overview of the broadest context of corruption within Mexico today. Here's a quote:

The example of the Guatemalan DOAN (and of more recent Mexican police reform efforts) demonstrates that even a competent, well-paid and well-equipped police institution cannot stand alone within a culture that is not prepared to support it and keep it clean. In other words, over time, an institution will take on the characteristics of, and essentially reflect, the environment surrounding it.

As unlikely as it is to happen, the solution for now seems to be to protect the United States as best as possible from the violence that has taken over northern Mexico's hinterlands, whether by constructing more walls, setting up more armed forces, or something else. The situation strikes me as being much like that between Israel and the Palestinian territory. I very much agree with Israel's construction of the security walls (recognizing that I am in the minority on that, usually) and from day one I've been in favor of the walls along the southern US border. Like Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.

Human permeability is behind institutional permeability, despite our efforts in the US to give institutions a life of their own through legal definitions and court decisions. I think this environmental effect goes through every area, every level of life. As I've posted on Facebook before, if you want to change your life, you have to change your values. This is way more complicated than blithely observing, "Do what you always did, get what you always got." The latter is so easy that it's dismissive. Changing values is some of the hardest work anyone will do. If it's that difficult on a personal level, then how much more difficult must it be on the national and international level? People rail about incremental change, but frankly, I don't see any other way that change can happen. So for now, I approve of the walls, the increased numbers of guns and agents, and the heightened awareness being used along the US-Mexico border.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Happy Towel Day!

"A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value--you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you--daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

"More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit, etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost." What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cocktail culture and its reversals.

Flirty aprons. Highball glasses with inexplicable designs. Polynesian themes. Safe exotica. Men and women playing subtextual games with cool intensity. That was my childhood environment; I watch Mad Men with a feeling of both pleasure and surprise, as I'm sure a lot of us do, and marvel at what it recalls.

But that was then. I think we've inverted all those behaviors, despite the recent (and now fading) popularity of that vintage. Courtship practically no longer exists. I suppose people still flirt, though in my experience we have lost our sense of subtext. Using subtext to flirt requires mindfulness, delicacy, respect, all of which are time-consuming activities and which require attention to others' responses.

I think that's what people are trying to get back. Cocktail culture has a set of understandable, attainable codes, and even though those codes are a bit old-fashioned, they're not so out of date that they can't offer us anything. I'd even go so far as to argue that there was more sexual equality in the original cocktail culture than there is now. Flirting, coyness, playing hard to get--all of those things are games, and games are for those on equal ground (if the rules don't potentially apply to all, i.e., if all players don't get an equal chance to win, then it's not a game). Might there be a difference between the balance of the sexes and their equality?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Context, trustworthiness, and truth-telling.

Multiple links behind this idea: Here is an interesting blog post about context by Stijn Debrouwere, and here is the source for the quote below, an article by Jay Rosen of the NYT about where journalism may be headed:

Long ago, something went awry in professional journalism the way the Americans do it, and it left these visible deformations. In my own criticism I have given various names to this pattern: agendalessness, the quest for innocence—most often, the View From Nowhere. The problem is not what it is usually said to be: that the press is supposed to remain “objective” but no one can be totally unbiased. The problem is equating trustworthiness with the prohibition on taking sides, when the actual result may be exasperation with he said, she said, rage at the helplessness that “leaving it there” creates, and mistrust of the formulaic ways in which journalists try to advertise their even-handedness.

This is part of the problem that I keep coming back to with regard to truth. Again I quote Mark Clark, my classics and Greek professor in my undergraduate studies, who asserted that in order to be a good skeptic, one had to believe in the truth. I immediately saw the wisdom in his statement and adopted it as one of my own truths. Here, though, the question is, how can we have journalism if we can't have truth? How can we have anything at all, really, if we can't have truth? We are slowly being reduced to facts only, yet we refuse to endorse science, which functions on facts, wholeheartedly, out of our fear of offending the religious. Facts are data; truth is our understanding of the larger implications of facts. Where will the idea of the truth be when we need it? Locked away somewhere because we can't trust ourselves to be right? Hidden because we are too afraid to take a stand? We have reduced truth-telling to court decisions and legal documents; that's the only safe place left for the truth to be judged, and I fear that even that is disappearing.

We have given up our responsibility to gather facts, understand them, and judge for ourselves, instead becoming wheedling and fearful. I fear that there may be a tipping point already passed, that we've taken on too much fear as a culture and will not be able to overcome it in order to reach the truths we'll need to survive.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Buildings in LEGO at the National Building Museum.

I've never quite been sure how LEGOs create a world once they're assembled. Maybe it's the strength of the image on the box; maybe it's the detail that the LEGO builders manage to include despite the essential clunkiness of the blocks. Maybe it's wishful thinking. This exhibition is running until September 5. I'll be there with my microscope.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

George Washington's rules of civility.

Is civility relative? Given that by its nature, civility is about common ground, do we have a sense of what that is? Is our generation--and by "our" I mean mine, GenX--the last generation raised with the duty of civility? Is it possible that civility is something that we truly hold in common?

I ask this because Washington's rules of civility strike me as being just as apt today as they were when he copied them from the Jesuits. (Now that I've been to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, I cannot picture him without a Masonic apron.) I cannot profess an ability to get inside the minds of all classes and creeds, nor do I pretend to include the most extreme or isolated groups in this. I mean the middle ground. Is a sense of civility what begins to define the lower edge, so to speak, of that middle ground?

I think a lot about social markers and markers of privilege. Washington, DC, is a battleground of those markers; we are each assessed, day in, day out, by those in each rung. Civility as self-discipline, as an external signification of self-control and self-mastery, is the least of the lessons that we carry forward from Roman stoicism. Yet these limits imposed on the self seem to be slipping away from us. Perhaps it's not that we've lose a sense of civility so much as we're losing belief in ourselves. After all, self-discipline requires one believe that such discipline is possible and fruitful.

Bread and circuses did not help Imperial Rome outlast external aggression. For all our democratizing of education and social access, we still cast bread about and set up circuses to entertain. What will it take for us to believe in ourselves enough to master ourselves?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Unspoken Truths.

Hitchens is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. If it overcomes him, it will be a great loss to the world of writers. This essay is a simple, fine example of that. I don't mean that statement to be a pre-emptive eulogy, either; it'll be a damned bloody loss if the cancer takes him. We do not have enough Hitchenses to replace him.

In this essay, Hitchens's topics range from the painful mundanity of radiation therapy to the friendship of Heraclitus and Callimachus; and of course that's the range, because Hitchens is learned and mindful. But the idea of voice goes farther than that. Here's a quote that I, as a former college writing instructor, identified with:

"To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice."

Italics are Hitchens's. Unbeknownst to me that Hitchens used these ideas to harangue his students, I was doing the same thing when teaching. I'd even have my students read their essays aloud in small groups so that they could hear the flaws and correct them (and they did, scratching out swaths and making margin notes). Funny how good ideas survive through movement among persons, not the stasis of pages and screens. At any rate, Hitchens's essay is a reminder that voice, a voice worth hearing, is not simply sound.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Brownian motion of the borderland.

When I first read the Stratfor article linked above five years ago, it fundamentally changed the way that I looked at immigration in America. Here's a quote.

"Sicilians might remember Sicily, they might harbor a cultural commitment to its values and they might even have a sense of residual loyalty to Sicily or to Italy — but Italy was thousands of miles away. The Italian government could neither control nor exploit the migrant’s presence in the United States. Simply put, these immigrants did not represent a geopolitical threat; even if they did not assimilate to American culture — remaining huddled together in their “little Italys” — they did not threaten the United States in any way. Their strength was in the country they had left, and that country was far away. That is why, in the end, these immigrants assimilated, or their children did. Without assimilation, they were adrift....

"The immigration debate in the U.S. Congress, which conflates Asian immigrations with Mexican immigrations, is mixing apples and oranges. Chinese immigration is part of the process of populating the United States — a process that has been occurring since the founding of the Republic. Mexican immigration is, to borrow a term from physics, the Brownian motion of the borderland. This process is nearly as old as the Republic, but there is a crucial difference: It is not about populating the continent nearly as much as it is about the dynamics of the borderland."

I recommend Stratfor to people all the time (and no, I don't receive anything for doing so, nor do I work for them). This article in particular is refreshing in its clarity and precision. I need more of that, daily; I think we all do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zombie preparedness: CDC gets on board.

For a bit, the CDC servers crashed from the traffic, but the post title link above should work now. Meanwhile, the debate on DCist over proper home defense supplies is raging. I am in favor of a flamethrower for perimeter control and possible group control should retreat to another safe house be required, but others are adamant about its lack of efficacy.

Yes, and.

I've been reading and thinking lately about people who live life according to the principles of improvisation. The title link above is to the blog I found this morning; looks like it's got good insights, or at the very least foundational ones. So the questions are, do changes really happen when people shift to a "yes, and..." way of doing things; do those changes reflect only a different inner state; and does that distinction matter?

Our souls against the weight of a feather. I am still convinced that this is by what we will be judged. Thinking again about a "yes, and..." way of living, the emotional work required to shift one's inner space would necessarily change the weight in the scale pans.

NB: Yes, I watched the Jim Carrey film Yes Man. I think it lacked the core of ideas necessary to make it an equivalent to Groundhog Day, which is unfortunate because we could use another film like that.

I've also been thinking about how the film Eyes Wide Shut seems like Hollywood allegorizing itself yet again, but that may be unnecessarily reductive. Might turn into another blog post.