Bits

The stretches between my posts here are lengthening. Perhaps the best way to ease back into things is in the new year is in bits and pieces. Repetition of small victories, perhaps it's the rough sketch of a resolution?



  • The single best thing I tasted over Christmas break in New York was the Crispy Frogs Legs appetizer at Veritas. The legs were encased in a crunchy, stringy crust and served with butternut squash gnocchi, pork belly, chanterelle mushroom, parsley coulis, and parmesan foam. Spectacular, one reason being that it combined the three primary food textures: crisp/crunchy, meaty, and soft.

  • I learned about the three primary food textures from a book I read over break: Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition. It took me a day of intermittent reading to plow through it on my Kindle. It appealed to me by combining many of my interests: food/cooking, contest/competition I've never heard of (shall we call that the Bloodsport factor?), obsessive people (Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, among dozens of others), long odds/underdog story (can the Americans finally medal at Bocuse d'Or, long dominated by the French and, surprisingly, the Norwegians?), a true story, and heavy doses of conflict. My only complaint is that the author Andrew Friedman telegraphs the outcome by interspersing hindsight quotes from many of the key players. You can do that in a way that doesn't give away the ending; any modern reality TV show that sprinkles in post-event interviews has to deal with the problem. If you read reviews of the print edition, the spoiler issue is worse; the photos in the center of the book depict the ultimate winners. That amateurish mistake aside, I still recommend the book. The world's leading chefs are all borderline psychotic and reading about their obsessive natures put in the mood to cook sous vide and scrub my kitchen to a sparkle.

  • Back to Veritas, they are known for their world class wine list (PDF). Martin stopped by and treated us a bottle of the 1995 Eisele Araujo Cabernet. That's not a bottle of wine one drinks every day, the price tag will incinerate your credit card, so many thanks, Martin. It was a true California cabernet fruit bomb. If you are an oenophile in search of a good meal in NYC, Veritas belongs on your shortlist.

  • I have a MOMA membership so I was able to bypass the massive line outside and walk right into the Tim Burton exhibit. But there was no avoiding the mob inside, and even had it been empty, it would have failed to hold my interest, consisting mostly of old sketches. You have to be a fanatic of someone's work to want to see their early sketches. I appreciate reading about people's processes, but I mostly enjoy seeing their final products. It's like watching deleted scenes on a DVD, you rarely find one you want to undelete.

  • Obama should hire Bruce Schneier to be our nation's security czar. I love his term "security theater," and his summary of U.S. aviation security in light of the Nigerian terrorist plot on the flight to Detroit will sound maddeningly sensible to every air traveler standing in their socks in a U.S. airport this holiday season.


I wasn't looking at my watch last night and so my passage into the new year slipped right by. And we're off.



Why we use cookbooks


The potential miracle of the cookbook was immediately apparent: you start with a feeling of greed, find a list of rules, assemble a bunch of ingredients, and then you have something to be greedy about. You begin with the ache and end with the object, where in most of the life of appetites—courtship, marriage—you start with the object and end with the ache.



That's Adam Gopnik in this a recent New Yorker on why we keep buying, reading, and using cookbooks. Great read.



Interview with Tobias Wolff

Robert Birnbaum interviews Tobias Wolff (one of my favorite writers) for The Morning News. Among the topics he covers are the difficulties of making a living on short story collections, the state of the publishing industry, and the impact of megabookstores.


I loved reading short stories in creative writing classes in college because they were so finely crafted and perfect, and it's a sentiment Wolff echoes here:



Somebody once described the novel as a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it. I can think of a few novels that seem to have nothing wrong with them at all, but I can think of a lot more short stories that seem to me to be perfect. Carver’s “Cathedral

Miscellany

Google Reader asked some notable folks what their top picks were for Google Reader. Good idea, but I find it a bit offputting that so many folks chose their own website as one of their short list? Their sites are already listed and linked under their names, are we to believe they really spend time reading their own writing in Google Reader?


***


This past weekend, I was driving home on the 405 and saw a massive, odd-looking cloud standing alone in a clear blue sky, like a single head of cauliflower poking its head up through a bed of smog. Then I realized it was smoke from the fires in the San Gabriel mountains. It looked like a scene from 24, as if someone had dropped a nuclear bomb on LA. Here's one tightly-cropped time-lapse video of the smoke from the fires.








To truly appreciate how terrifying it looks, watch this wider-framed time-lapse which will give you a sense of the magnitude of this latest SoCal conflagration.


***


Hitchcock is a storyboarding app for the iPhone that can use photos. You're limited to the fixed focal length lens of the iPhone, but I could see it being a handy tool on set. We were shooting our Alec Baldwin Super Bowl commercial earlier this year in NYC, and the director Peter Berg grabbed my iPhone at one point and used the camera to help us visualize a shot he envisioned. He mentioned offhand that he wouldn't mind having a simple tool on the iPhone for quick previz.


It's $19.99, but there are more specialty tools coming to the iPhone that aren't intended for mass audiences, and those can justify higher prices.


Incidentally, I wish the iPhone app store had a way to put apps on a wishlist, or save them for later view. I often see apps that I think I might want to buy later, and I never have a way to remember them. Like this one cool app I saw last week, what did it do again, it was something about...oh, forget it.


***


A BMW concept diesel-hybrid. As with all concept cars, it looks absurdly futuristic, but it's heartening to see higher end manufacturers committing to the sustainability movement. Design can lift up the mundane and make it desirable, and having manufacturers like BMW or Tesla pushing the high end of this market can only help.


***


On Japanese simplicity.




In just over 30 years Hello Kitty has become a multibillion-dollar model of resourceful minimalism within the global juggernaut of Japanese pop culture. From Tokyo to Tehran, her expressionless, barely sketched visage adorns key chains, backpacks, toiletries and even a Hello Kitty-themed airline jet. Late last year an entire maternity hospital with Hello Kitty imagery adorning bedspreads and birth certificates opened to great fanfare in Taiwan.


But why is she mouthless? Because when you look at Hello Kitty, or “Kitty-chan,

El Bulli, Dan Brown, et al

Man hits the culinary lottery and gets a reservation at El Bulli, then recounts his meal in comic book form. 30 courses! I felt engorged and exhausted just reading about all the dishes.


***


Bill Maher rants at Huffington Post about the idiocy of Americans in an article titled "New Rule: Smart President ≠ Smart Country." Bryan Caplan would be proud.


At times like this, trying to pass some form of healthcare reform, even a watered-down version because of the difficulty of getting any big change through the conservative institutional roadblock that we call the Senate, one wonders how the government has ever achieved anything on behalf of anyone other than a special interest.


Obama took his argument directly to the people in an Op-Ed in the NYTimes. I'm curious who was the last President of the U.S. to write an Op-Ed in a major American newspaper. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it wasn't the previous occupant of the office.


An interesting sidenote to the whole debate on healthcare reform is the uproar over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing against the health care bill on the table. The Opinionator over the the NYTimes tracks the timeline of the whole brouhaha. If you disagree with Mackey, I don't think boycotting Whole Foods is the solution, but I do think CEO's of companies need to be careful of what they say because it's too convenient to read their comments as representative of the views of Whole Foods as a company, and it's dangerous to ascribe too many coherent policy decisions to a capitalist institution, even one like Whole Foods which many people associate with a progressive lifestyle.


***


Andrew Collins examines the global phenomenon that is Dan Brown, universally reviled by literary critics and other writers but whose next novel The Lost Symbol will command the largest first print run in Random House history at 6.5 million.


I'm not sure it's such a paradox that someone can be a bad writer yet spin a real page-turner. What grabbed me about The Da Vinci Code was the fabricated secret that tied together so many known quantities in history in a clever way, from The Last Supper to Mary Magdalene and everything in between.


The plots of his stories themselves never strike me as plausible or gripping, his characters are two-dimensional (and that may be generous, though perhaps I'm being sexist in finding gorgeous and leggy nuclear physicist Vittoria Vetra of Angels and Demons a bit implausible), nor is his command of the English language that noteworthy. After all, one chapter of The Da Vinci Code concludes with this sentence, one that would have failed me out of my first year fiction writing class in college:



Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.



***


A physicist writes that The Time Traveler's Wife may be the most scientifically accurate movie treatment of time travel ever. No comment on whether the cheesy slow dissolve of Eric Bana each time he travels through time is also consistent with the laws of physics, or whether his expressionless acting is a consequence of too many leaps through time and space.


The article's a good read, though, as I didn't realize that physicists had come to such consensus around these constraints of time travel. I still say The Terminator remains the most brilliant time travel movie because of its stunning revelation that by going back in time to change the future you just create it, illustrated in the movie by the Moebius strip of a plot in which John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mom, only to have Kyle Reese become his father.


In that twist, the movie adheres to one of the principles stated in this article, the so-called "self-consistency problem," that is, "You can't kill your own grandfather."


***


Justice Antonin Scalia and Thomas, the Twiddle Dee and Dum of the Supreme Court, argued in the minority against allowing a prisoner to challenge his murder conviction after many witnesses recanted their testimony and implicated another person as the actual murderer. Scalia, in his dissent (PDF), claims the following:



This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually

So...

Ann Shaff examines the ascent of the word "so" among this technology-raised generation.


***


Pics from some lucky person who received the Mad Men season 3 press kit.


The season 3 premiere is this Sunday at 10pm. I will be planted in front of my TV then, yes.


***


Can you measure grit? Maybe so.


Many books and articles have been written recently about how genius is overrated and hard work underrated, so that idea isn't the interesting point here. The idea that a survey can assess a person's grit with some accuracy is a bit surprising. Let's get this to be a standard test in the NFL so I can use the data in my upcoming fantasy football draft.


***


My So-Called Life is on Hulu now. Among the most beloved of the "one and done" shows in my lifetime, I'm looking forward to catching up on it online.








Lists

Roger Ebert draws attention to another "best movies of all time" list, this one by Spectator magazine. The top one on their list is one I haven't seen atop these lists before, The Night of the Hunter: Here's the top 12 from the list, and you can see the rest here.


1. The Night of the Hunter, Laughton

2. Apocalypse Now, Coppola

3. Sunrise, Murnau

4. Black Narcissus, Powell & Pressburger

5. L'avventura, Antonioni

6. The Searchers, Ford

7. The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles

8. The Seventh Seal , Bergman

9. L'atalante, Vigo

10. Rio Bravo, Hawks

11. The Godfather: Part I and Part II, Coppola

12. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer


***


The Times (UK) selects the 60 best novels of the last 60 years, with the twist that they could only choose one book published each year. This list is provocative in its mix of classics and more populist fare: on few lists will you see Twilight (as the best novel of 2005) sharing a podium with Lolita.



Books to boot from the Canon

The Second Pass nominates ten books to kick out of the "Western canon":



  • White Noise by Don DeLillo

  • Absalom, Absalom by Faulkner

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  • The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

  • The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

  • Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


It's a strong list (amen about One Hundred Years of Solitude), and even the criticism of the ones on the list that I've read and enjoyed are valid.


If I was to add an addendum for books that aren't necessarily part of the Western canon but that were pressed into my hands with the highest of personal recommendations and left those same hands tumbling to the ground by the force of gravity when I'd lost all patience, I'd name the following:



  • The Fountainhead

  • Lord of the Rings

  • Cold Mountain


There are probably others (e.g. the first Harry Potter book, whatever it was titled) but those are the ones that jump to mind immediately.






The Informant

Years ago I read Kurt Eichenwald's The Informant. It's a beast of a book, but it falls in a category of book I'm fond of, the white collar crime or falls-from-grace chronicles (see also The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Den of Thieves, Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management, Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street). It's also a great read.


I was surprised to hear Steven Soderbergh was turning it into a movie, and even more surprised after watching this trailer.







The book always struck me as fairly somber, more of a tragedy or melodrama than what this trailer seems to convey, something more comic in tone. No doubt that informant Mark Whitacre, played here by a mustachioed Matt Damon, was a nut. But this adaptation seems to seek the humor in the witness and FBI's ineptitude rather than the tragedy of their shaky efforts to bring down Archer Daniels Midland.


It's always dangerous concluding too much based on a trailer, but the intent to set audience expectations on tone is very strong here, down to the exclamation point that punctuates the title (the official title listed at IMDb right now is "The Informant!").



Books I'm looking forward to

First is Tyler Cowen's Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. I have no idea what this book will be about, but I suspect it will be like his writings on Marginal Revolution, spanning topics from culture to food to the internet, all with strong opinions as befitting an economist. It's when economists write about macroeconomics that my eyes roll, but on topics I have more knowledge their thinking is instructive. Releases July 9.



Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy. Sports Guy fans have had to live with fewer columns for quite some time now, but this promises to be our reward. Releases October 27.





Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur. In a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Klosterman described this book as similar to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto in format, that is, a series of essays. As I enjoyed that earlier essay collection, I've already placed my order for thisone. Releases October 20.




David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. It has been a long time since his last graphic novel, an adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass. Releases July 7.






Random debates

One space or two spaces after a period?


Saying you use two spaces after a period tends to date you. Older folks tend to adhere to this rule, not having been taught that the only reason to do so was because in the old printer/typewriter days, every character took up the same amount of space, and so you needed two spaces after a period to improve readability and more clearly mark the end of a sentence and the start of the next. I used to use two spaces because I'm old enough that I learned to type on a typewriter and my first computer printer was a daisy wheel.


But now, of course, I'm strictly a "one space after a period guy," and you should be two. Computers do all the heavy lifting and do the kerning for you, so putting two spaces after a period looks odd, as if you're trying to pad the page count of a term paper. A good test is to pick up any book and look at the text--it's all one space after the period.


***


A longstanding debate in the world of usage is that of the phrase "begging the question". The most common usage these days is in the sense of "inviting the obvious question to be asked." But that is an erroneous use of the term which descends from a logic concept first formulated in a book by Aristotle.


This is Safire on the issue. And of course, my go-to source on usage is Garner, who writes:



begging the question does not mean "evading the issue" or "inviting the obvious questions," as some mistakenly believe. The proper meaning of begging the question is "basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself." The formal name for this logical fallacy is Petitio principii. Following are two classic examples: "Reasonable people are those who think and reason intelligently." (This statement begs the question, "What does it mean to think and reason intelligently?")/ "Life begins at conception, which is defined as the beginning of life."



The larger issue here is whether to just accept this common misuse since most English speakers understand the intent of the usage, even if it's incorrect.


I tend to be particular about usage, and I try to adhere to the recommendations of usage gods like Garner. At the same time, I do take into account intent when interpreting the writing or speech of others.


For example, I differentiate between the kid on the playground in second grade who called me an Oriental to try to get a rise out of me from the grandmother of a friend of mine who once asked me what type of Oriental I was. That word is generally considered racially charged nowadays, but some people missed that memo and still just use it broadly to refer to things from Asian countries.


So I didn't take offense at my friend's grandmother's question. But, with a smile, I still filled her in on the sensitivity around the term. I couldn't help myself.


As for the kid on the playground, he got the reaction he wanted. I beat him up.



Kindle book pricing, and the Kindle DX

Short article in Wired a few weeks back about Kindle users protesting prices higher than $9.99 for digital books. It's as if users are valuing the books as just pure digital bits. When you buy books at a bookstore, you have some visual justification for why some books are more expensive than others. The book may be thicker, with more pages, or with glossy heavy stock paper with beautiful photographs, or an expensive leather binding. The varying form factor for books has allowed that industry to get away with much more pricing variation than, say, the music industry, where most CDs and LPs are shaped exactly the same, or the theatrical exhibition industry, where going to the movies costs the same regardless of what movie you're seeing and how much it cost to make (on an absolute basis, the cost variance for producing one movie versus another is much larger than in books and music). To the viewer, many elements of the moviegoing experience are the same regardless of which movie you're seeing: they are about the same length, shown in theaters that are shaped, for the most part, the same, with screens of roughly comparable size. That along with years of uniform pricing have pretty much ensured that the only theaters that can get away with varied pricing are ones offering a unique experience (e.g. a price premium for the massive curved screens of IMAX, or a price discount for the really old movies offered at second-run theaters).


With books for the Kindle, you have few visual cues to distinguish the value of one book from the other. And so it's understandable that users might be inclined to think every digital book should cost the same. In one sense, they're right, as the digital cost of storing one book versus another will not vary by much at all.


What is missing, of course, is the understanding of all that has gone into the production and marketing of that work, or a linkage between the quality of the book and the price. The uniform price that Apple placed on songs in the iTunes music store at launch ($0.99 per track) removed price variance as an element of the shopping decision, for better or worse. That is now a mental anchor, and any deviation seems, well, deviant.


As a retailer, Amazon and Apple have roughly the same costs for whichever digital book or song they sell, so I can understand their interest in standardizing the pricing and encouraging impulse buying with the simplified decision structure. I can also understand why a publisher or music label would prefer pricing variance, to better account for their costs in acquiring and marketing the different books in question.


As for my Kindle 2 , I have owned and used it just about long enough that I am ready to share an overall assessment soon (quick summary is that it's solid but with lots of room for improvement), but not long enough to avoid the disappointment of hearing Amazon announce the Kindle DX today. I've barely had my Kindle 2 for 3 months, and already a replacement has been announced?


I can understand and accept product obsolescence and early adopter risk in technology, in fact I'm well-versed in it what with iPods and iPhones and digital SLRs and laptops getting replaced by newer, higher-performance models every half year to a year, but the Kindle 2 barely started shipping 3 months ago. I feel like Kindle 2 buyers should have either received a heads up that the Kindle DX would be coming or that we should be offered an option for trading in our Kindle 2 for the DX. The Kindle DX seems a bit pricey to me at $489, not a slamdunk purchase, but one of my biggest issues with the current Kindle 2 is its screen size, and I would have liked to have known the DX was coming at this price point back when I was making my Kindle-buying decision back in February.


Amazon rarely disappoints me, but today it did.



First round tourney upset

March Madness is underway! I'm referring, of course, to The Morning News' annual Tournament of Books.


The first big upset: Unaccustomed Earth gets sent packing in the first round by City of Refuge.


Perhaps upset is too strong a word. After all, I haven't read City of Refuge. But Unaccustomed Earth was one of my favorite books of 2008, so count me intrigued.


Perusing the list of contenders, I realize I've read about as many of them as I've seen NCAA men's basketball teams play. The only other book on the list I've read, in part, is 2666, which I'm about a third of the way through and which I'd assume is the presumptive #1 seed based on the critical praise it's garnered to date (it also has the sentimental vote a la Heath Ledger at the Oscars as author Roberto Bolano is no longer with us).


My attention span for reading new fiction novels seems to shrink just a little bit more each year.


     


UPDATE: Oops, I'm just fractionally more well-read than I thought. I have read The Dart League King, and I recommend that for your reading list also.





Visible remains

Tyler Cowen:



One advantage of Kindle is that it provides a new tool for mental accounting. Call me irrational but formerly I could not read more than seven or eight books at a time without abandoning some of them midway. Kindle (like Netflix, I might add) gives me a new queue and allows me to have more "hanging," partially unread books at any point in time, yet without disrupting my mental equilibrium.



I have just one book on my Kindle so far, so I have not yet been able to gauge whether Cowen's assessment fits my experience. But it sounds like a reasonable hypothesis, especially considering I have to hurdle a metropolis of partially-read books on the scale of the trash-built apocolypse in Wall-E just to climb into bed.



John Ziegler

Here's a transcript of an interview between Nate Silver and right wing kook John Ziegler about a Zogby poll that Ziegler commissioned. Ziegler uses a lot of foul language, a lot of it daring Silver to post the transcript. So Silver did.


Ziegler was the subject of a David Foster Wallace essay that ran in The Atlantic and that was anthologized in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays. On hearing that DFW had committed suicide, Ziegler posted an entry at his website that confirms the sunny personality that comes through in the Silver transcript.



I know that it is considered bad form, or worse, to speak ill of the newly dead, but to me all bets are off when one commits suicide, especially when that person is a husband and a father (speaking of bad form, when did the news media change their rule about not reporting extensively on the suicides of marginally famous people?). I strongly believe that a large ingredient of the toxic mix that ended up forming Wallace’s self-inflicted poison was the pressure he felt of living up to the hype surrounding his writing and the guilt he must have felt for not really having the true talent to back up his formidable reputation.


While I have absolutely no evidence to back up this assertion, I also think it is quite possible that he knew that killing himself in his “prime

Buffalo

Wikipedia entry on an odd but grammatically correct sentence:


Buffalo buffalo, Buffalo buffalo buffalo, buffalo Buffalo buffalo.



The sentence is unpunctuated and uses three different readings of the word "buffalo". In order of their first use, these are


* c. the city of Buffalo, New York (or any other place named "Buffalo"), which is used as an adjective in the sentence and is followed by the animal;


* a. the animal buffalo, in the plural (equivalent to "buffaloes" or "buffalos"), in order to avoid articles (a noun);


* v. the verb "buffalo" meaning to bully, confuse, deceive, or intimidate.


Marking each "buffalo" with its use as shown above gives


Buffalo (c) buffalo (a) Buffalo (c) buffalo (a) buffalo (v) buffalo (v) Buffalo (c) buffalo (a).


Thus, the sentence when parsed reads as a description of the pecking order in the social hierarchy of buffaloes living in Buffalo:


[Those] (Buffalo buffalo) [whom] (Buffalo buffalo buffalo) buffalo (Buffalo buffalo).


[Those] buffalo(es) from Buffalo [that are intimidated by] buffalo(es) from Buffalo intimidate buffalo(es) from Buffalo.


Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community.


THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo.




NYMag Profile of Malcolm Gladwell

Another profile of Malcolm Gladwell, this with his next book Outliers: The Story of Success set to release Tuesday.



Outliers is at once Gladwell’s least and most ambitious book. Unlike The Tipping Point and Blink, which took their counterintuitiveness to extremes, the conventional wisdom Gladwell seeks to demolish in Outliers isn’t even really CW anymore. Is there anyone who still believes that “success is exclusively a matter of individual merit,