Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Spring Reading List


Let's begin at the beginning. 

Is reading a good thing for people? Our distant ancestors, who created language, must have been delighted when writing took on this novel, symbolic, signified value (as the material text), which it still has for us today. 

Language, and the system of signs and symbols which represent it in material (and abstract) space, is mankind's chief invention, which has enabled the development of communication, thought, calculation--all the things which a systematic medium can provide. A written language is the first distinct plateau which separates civilized man from a primitive nomadic oral society, for whom all cultural memory and accreted accomplishments were fragile artifacts, always in danger of being forgotten or lost. Recorded history is a benchmark in time, before which we have little first-hand account. 

My parents, who had grown up in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th Century, believed that the act of reading was a hygienic pastime, not merely a tool in the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, or the indulgence of a pleasurable diversion. They wanted me to acquire a comfort and familiarity with the text, that would develop into a habitual pastime. I suppose if you had asked them whether the simple act of reading, sans any connection to the nature of the text itself, was somehow a beneficial, healthy thing, they would have been puzzled; but I think, deep down, they probably believed that it was, though this would have seemed an ethically ambiguous position. Reading something wrong, to them, would probably have caused them some consternation in the formula. 





I don't recall when reading first became a habit for me. I remember reading a book called The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, by John Fox Jr. [1903] when I was perhaps 7 or 8. I can distinctly remember a sensation of cozy containment, curled up in a chair in our small living room, in which the unfolding narrative created its own mental pathway through suspended time and imaginative space. Earlier, my parents had sat me down and made me read books to them, as a kind of training or practice. The fact of being tested and drilled in this way prevented me from getting "lost" inside the text, so it would have to wait until I was solitary and at ease, before the magic of reading finally captured me.

Later, when I went to college, I lost this sense of reading as a recreation, having to pore over texts for meaning, regurgitation and interpretation. As early as the 11th grade in high school, I had picked up the idea of analyzing texts, and my critical sense was precocious. By the 12th grade, I was able to manipulate the meaning and significance of novels and poems and essays with ease, but this skill came with a price-tag. The more objectively I could read and interpret, the less unconscious my experience of reading became. As a young writer of poetry, I understood that the place it came from in my mind was irrational, generative, and mysterious. As I grew older, I understood that the imagination is like a muscle. But simply exercising that muscle didn't insure that what you imagined, or created, necessarily was good. The muse, unpredictable and capricious, might not smile on you, despite how hard you labored to keep it alive and in condition.  

People who read mostly for pleasure, have the luxury of experiencing it at a level that may be denied those who must work with texts as a profession, or out of necessity. My wife almost never reads serious books, but she routinely consumes a full-length mystery or romance, at an astounding rate of 4 or 5 a week. She's able to read as naturally as breathing; it's truly second nature to her. People read at different rates, and in different ways. 

When I read, I'm not just following a sequence of event. Reading is a savoring of the language, the grammar and word choice and turn of phrase a particular writer employs. I will often read a sentence or a paragraph over again, to completely comprehend it, or to study how it was done, or simply to ride it again. For me, the love of reading is composed of a number of different possible ways of apprehension, no one of which is useful in all texts, each of which may apply to a specific occasion. When I read a thriller, I'm looking to be swept up in a pursuit of intriguing details. When I read a critical book, I'm weighing the writer's point of view, his argument. When I'm reading poetry, I'm trying to appreciate the relationship between the sense of the words, the music and the ingenious wit, all in combination. 

Lately, in the last decade, I've become interested in biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. I've become convinced that autobiography is a fascinating form, in large measure because of the tension which exists between what people would like others to believe about them, and what they believe in their secret hearts is the actual truth of their lives. People may think they are better than they were, or less good than they've been regarded. It's interesting to see how people deal with this dilemma--the excuses or dismissals or emphases they may place on certain key events that happened to them, or acts which they committed.




This spring I've been reading several books at once, as usual. I happened to find a nice reading copy of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol [1985]. Forsyth fits the profile of a typical British spy thriller author of the Cold War period. He also published The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, among other well-known examples. His books are carefully researched, and have an air of authority, and of almost slavish attention to correct detail, which tends to detract a little from the narrative pace of the story. The Fourth Protocol revolves around a Soviet plot to set off a limited (small) nuclear device at an American air base in England, as a way of manipulating the British elections (during the Thatcher years) towards a Left victory, pitting the respective British and Russian intelligence services against each other in a race to apprehend the perpetrator before doomsday. The book was published just before the "fall" of the Soviet Union, in 1991, so it may seem quite dated now in its assumption of the static East-West Bloc stand-off, which more or less was officially ended then. This status is now undergoing a reappraisal, as Russia's President Putin appears to be attempting to reassert the Russian bear's hegemony over its far-flung recent satellite republics (in the Ukraine). Forsyth employs a familiar plot technique, beginning with a series of several seemingly random events occurring simultaneously in different places, gradually drawing these distinct threads into connected alignment until the two phalanxes join in the end with the apprehension of the Soviet Spy in a small English cottage town, barely preventing the detonation of the home-made nuclear device. 

The Fourth Protocol is interesting too as a kind of precursor of the age of terrorism which has developed over the succeeding decades. Pre-"9/11", events like this might have seemed improbable. The "fourth protocol" is the mutual agreement, contained in the Nuclear Arms Treaty of 1969-70, not to employ nuclear arms on a limited, secret basis. This protocol is violated, in the story, by a renegade Soviet Premier, who sees it as an irresistible weapon to manipulate public opinion, to weaken the Western democracies against the East. In 1985, people weren't thinking much about Arab terrorists, though the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) had just occurred, and young Osama bin-Laden had made his way into Afghanistan, where he was using his money to fund the mujahideen movement there, first against Russia, and later against the U.S. As America's focus shifted from the threat posed by the Soviet Union, to the Middle-Eastern Muslim extremists, many in our intelligence community continue to be concerned about the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack very much like the one sketched out by Forsyth. As the career of Forsyth's contemporary Le Carré shows, espionage genre authors have had to do some fancy foot-work to keep up with the changing complexion of world alliances and oppositions. Forsyth's novel is like a snapshot frozen in (recent) time, but with a surprisingly relevant theme.




Adam Gopnik's The Table Comes First [2011] is a collection of linked gastronomical essays which first appeared in The New Yorker. Gopnik's been a foodie all his life, from his childhood, surprisingly. His first book, Paris to the Moon (based on his Paris Journal columns for the same magazine) didn't appear until he was 43. Though covering a range of different cooking issues and styles, Gopnik's primary theme is the dialectic between high and low cooking styles--characterized by the European (primarily French) tradition of the restaurant versus the bistro. as divergent customary styles of cuisine. This dilemma becomes ambiguous in European and American fine cuisine, in the post-War period, as new styles of preparation and presentation compete for ascendancy. Gopnik reviews the food traditions which channeled these respective approaches, taking nothing for granted, letting his personal eclectic American curiosity lead him here and there. He imagines a correspondence between himself and a turn-of-the-century cook-book writer, in which he looks through her eyes and his, at their separate respective attitudes towards food, trying to find congruences and distinctions that resolve.  



Adam Gopnik

Gopnik has a fine way with a phrase, and is not above waxing poetic about a taste combination that really turns him on. In the end, he seems to come down on the side of those who put pure pleasure at the center of superior cooking (and eating), rejecting both "healthy" alternatives and super-chic finery, in favor of "what works." Though he doesn't say so in as many words, he seems to be advocating an approach to gastronomy that puts the food at the center of a mandala, in which expense is only one possible attribute of the ideal. It's possible to make fabulous dishes in the privacy of one's own kitchen, if you will take the trouble to find out what's good, and go to some little trouble to obtain it. His gastronomic writing is certainly as elegant and sophisticated as any by Elizabeth David or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, though considerably less "practical." It's not a cookbook. 





Norman Douglas [1868-1952] is an enigma, though you would never have that impression if you only read his works, which show a side of him that would not lead you to imagine the sort of fellow he probably was in the flesh, in private. I've been reading his Looking Back: An Autobiographical Excursion [1933]. During his long life, Douglas kept a card file of people he knew or had encountered over the years, and his autobiography consists of his review of these names, one after the other, in no particular chronological order. 


Douglas is mostly known today as the author of South Wind [1917], a fantasy novel with some frisky moral and sexual innuendos, set in Southern Italy. His other books are mostly forgotten, though holding the interest of connoisseurs of disreputable indulgence. Douglas was a bi-sexual, and a deviant one, eventually preferring young boys, and even children, as partners. His escapades led him into difficulties along the way, and he eventually found haven in Italy, with periods in England and France. For me, his chief interest is in his prose style, which is an odd combination of simplicity, casualness and elegance combined. He is interested in people, but more as types, or eccentric specimens, than as full three dimensional characters. 



Norman Douglas in later life

Douglas is first and foremost devoted to the good life, good food, good landscape, good houses, good travel, nice things, etc. In this book you will find passages about D.H. Lawrence, W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke, Frank Harris, etc., but these are less important to the overall effect than as a procession of types which parade across his memory. The point seems to be that a life devoted to notoriety, or accomplishment, for its own sake, is transparent and pointless, whereas a cultivated life accepts each individual moment, and each  incarnation of the race as an integral segment of the tapestry, none more meaningful than another, except as we choose to make it. Douglas presents an enigma of a modern man who grew up in late Victorian England (but with one foot in Germany), whose tastes and daring attitudes informed his life with a frisson of alertness. 

Douglas came to maturity while Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Algernon Charles Swinburne were still literary news, and by the time he died there were atom bombs, televisions, jet planes, and The Catcher in the Rye had been published.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Trojan Drones




Back in 2009, I discussed the issue of censorship in the blogosphere ["Thoughts on Blogging" -- April 8th, 2009]; and in 2010, I talked about the issue of information control, secrecy and the public media ["Assange & The Assault on Internet Exchange" -- December 14, 2010].

In the last three years, the public's attention has been altered, largely as a result of the augmentation of scale of the computer device, towards devices that are portable, instead of tied down by weight and size to a desk. The personal computer has been transformed from a machine in situ, to a kind of advanced cell phone device--a computer on wheels. 

The new phones are as powerful and facile in some respects as full-sized computers used to be. They can send and receive written messages (like e.mail), take pictures, surf the internet, record financial transactions with credit cards. Like the older cell phones, however, they must still be periodically re-charged.

New so-called "social media" sites have grown up around this new technology--such as Facebook, Twitter etc.--which have capitalized on the easy interconnectivity, linking up users anywhere in the world, to sequences of text-threads  

One major drawback of the new devices is that they aren't large enough to provide a classic QUERTY keyboard, though most have a tiny version of this which can be used in the traditional "hunt and peck" manner which people who had never memorized the typing keyboard were forced to employ. Hunting and pecking, or thumbing, is now the new mode for millions of people around the world. 

Like any new gadget, the new cell-cum-computer phones are popular toys. Kids and grown-ups can both appreciate the novelty of making quick, efficient communications from any location, not tied down to a heavy wired device. 

People have begun to speculate about the effects of this new revolutionary device, and how it may influence our culture. And they've begun to wonder about the implications of being constantly "connected" to vast, intricate webs of users, as well as the potential for loss of privacy and confidentiality these new gadgets create.

Since January 2009 I've become a committed blogger, posting over 750 pieces, or essays, on a wide variety of subjects. I have no idea how many bloggers there are in the world. Two years ago, estimates were as high as 173 million, worldwide. I suppose that number much have increased since that time. I'm not sure anyone cares to know the number. 

Blogging bears comparison to earlier kinds of written communication. You type your entries on a typewriter keyboard, and they're read on screens big enough to accommodate a "page" that can be read easily. They're then "loaded" onto the internet, where they are "received" or accessible, like a kind of permanent telegram, complete with pictures and bells & whistles (links, videos etc.). 

Blogging programs are a kind of application. New applications, or apps, as they are now called, can be loaded on to any computer and used to connect to new spheres of access. You can do personal banking, play games and see a live-feed video of a Paris street. 

The first thing to remember about new social media gadgets is that they are proprietary mechanical devices (machines) which are produced to make money. They aren't made available as a public service, but must be purchased by the user. In order to connect to any other entity on the world wide web, one must forfeit some personal privacy in exchange for access. 

Cell phones are not just symbols, but invasive trojan drones of the media industry, designed to hook us up, track our behavior and movements, and analyze our habits and likes and dislikes, the more easily to target us for yet more advertising. The gathering of this data for other purposes has become a hot topic now. Do companies that service these devices, suck up data from users, store and sort and trade it (at a profit), with or without our permission, need to be regulated? Do companies have our best interests at heart? Will the government, which has now begun to spy on the vast internet network of exchange, gathering and storing up messaging data, be responsible enough not to misuse it, for political or other purposes (such as law enforcement)? 

Back in 2010, I spoke out against the use of cell phones ["The New Generation of Inter-Com Devices -- Why They're Bad" -- June 30k, 2010], objecting to the pernicious affects upon users (and others) in public, and in private. 

Since then, the new apps have moved the live voice off to one side, further compressing the window through which the oceanic exchange touches individual devices. In my last foray into this grey area of media ["Death of the Twinkie - Birth of the Hand-Held" -- August 11, 2013], I speculated about the possible death of the hand-held, using the impending death of the Twinkie Snack Treat as a metaphor. 

In spite of its enormous reach, I suspect that the new Social Media sphere may be a short-lived phenomenon. Blogging was the new kid on the block, and it's still with us. A lot of people, probably mostly kids and teens and young adults, have wandered away to fritter their lives on Twitter and Facebook, but I suspect that, given the severe restraints on communications those apps impose, they may endure only as resorts to necessity. 

Once the novelty has worn off, people will easily tire of the triviality and pointlessness of setting down a dozen or so words, and expecting friends, or strangers, to appreciate or understand the meaning of our speech. Already, communication/media wonks have begun predicting the death of Twitter and Facebook. They're already old hat. 

People may tire of being persuaded to to constantly communicating--mostly for no purpose--but the companies and corporations who produce these devices, and the companies which run the apps which live on them, have other things in mind. What will they think of next?  

I joined the blogging party, but I refused to titillate myself with Twitter. I figure that the kind of people who "tweet" to and "face" each other, probably aren't interested in discussing anything seriously, and so I have no regrets about not being a part of their game. Never having wanted to be a joiner, or a clubby type, I ignore their buzz as much as I can.  Every so often, someone I once blogged with, or exchanged an e.mail message with, will send me a Tweet alert, that there's a message waiting for me. 

Anything important enough to communicate with another person deserves to be heard privately, If you need to tell the world, or your close circle of "friends" what's on your mind, I would think that limiting it to a sentence or two would be a pretty sad commentary on the state of your consciousness, and of the low esteem you hold your readers. 

The new social media is a dumbing down of communication. People may be stupid--they usually are--but even naive, unimaginative people will quickly tire of something once the fun of discovery has passed. The very qualities which the new media demands, insures that they won't be loyal customers for long. The attention span of an ape is probably longer than someone who habitually uses Facebook or Twitter. And that is what will kill it, eventually.

It won't be a nano-second too soon for me.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Collector's Corner - Nostalgia Reigns


Everything in America eventually turns into a corporate stock fight, for the rights to exploit something that kids once got an innocent kick out of.  

When I was a boy, it seemed that there were endless things that you could collect. There were marbles, silver dollars, steel pennies, hub caps, indian arrowheads, rocks, toy cars, shells, postage stamps, Pez dispensers, records, medals. You name it, we collected it. 

In 1958, I was 10, in the fifth grade, and before I knew it, I was walking down to the local drugstore to buy packages of Topps Bubblegum packs each of which contained 5 current baseball "trading cards"--with real pictures of major league players, with their stats on the reverse side. The cards were numbered, issued in "series"--successively through the Summer season. 

According to the Wikipedia entry, the hardest cards to acquire over time, were those issued at the end of the "trading" season, since interest would wain and fewer sets of the final series each year were published (or sold). That sounds logical, but during the Season, that wasn't how it worked at all.

The first series in 1958 included many of the most desirable cards (players) in the set, and because they were the first to go off market, they were the toughest to find. By the fourth series of the Season, everyone had multiples of those, but because they were so common, they were nearly worthless. 


"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be," Yogi was quoted as saying, among his collection of homely chestnuts. "If you come to a fork in the road, take it." 

Among the early cards issued, were Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle. Important players issued later might become just as sought after, but because they were on the market later, they always seemed easier to find. 

Mickey always looked like a hayseed, but his Oakie bluff was good enough for Yankee pride

I don't know how far I got with my collection by the end of the collecting year (in 1958), but by the end I probably had all but about a dozen of the toughest numbers. The San Francisco Giants came west in 1958, so though the cards all showed the statistics from the previous year (in New York), the team cards showed them as the San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers came west the same year to Los Angeles, so though their stats had been made in Brooklyn, their cards said Los Angeles Dodgers. 

For baseball fans, there was no magic quite like Willie's special charisma and physical grace

There was keen interest in all the Dodger cards that year, as much as for the Yankees, with their loaded line-up of stars. No one knew it at the time, of course, but a little-noticed young Southpaw named Sandy Koufax would, in a few short years, ascend into the limelight as perhaps the greatest pitcher in major league history, so his card wasn't worth much despite being a low #187. A young Puerto Rican outfielder named Orlando Cepeda hadn't yet played a game in the bigs by 1957, but he soon would become the Giants proud Rookie of the Year for 1958. 

In 1958, Hank Aaron was the most complete ballplayer in the game--power, speed, average, great in the clutch; he'd go on to play another 18 years, fulfilling the promise of his youth 

In 1958, the major leagues consisted of two divisions, the National and the American. There were eight teams in each league. The Pennant winners in each league played against each other in the World Series. There were no "play-offs" and no wild cards or also rans. With only 16 teams in the country, there was a lot of room in other places for minor league clubs. The talent was concentrated in these 16 franchises, not spread out and diluted as it is today. Any player who hoped to ascend to the majors, would have to be among the top 5 players in his minor league, or he wouldn't be noticed.    

National League

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Dodgers
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Cincinnati Redlegs
Philadelphia Phillies
Milwaukee Braves
San Francisco Giants


American League

New York Yankees
Kansas City Athletics
Detroit Tigers
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Boston Red Sox
Washington Senators
Baltimore Orioles


I remember that the players I most wanted, aside from the whole Giants team members, were the Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra cards. They were first, or early second series cards, and I'd missed  my chance to get them early, because I hadn't caught the bug until late June or early July of the year, well after they had gone out of print. The only way you could get those cards was by trading cards with other collectors. Once you had a tough card, you generally didn't try to acquire another one, so prying loose a card from someone who had one was nearly impossible. You had to give up something that the other collector didn't have, or a card he coveted which you didn't. I don't think I ever owned the Mantle card, but I did manage to wangle a Hank Aaron (the so-called "white lettered" version, which was easier to find than the "yellow lettered" one). 

For a long time, I looked in vain for the Ed Bouchee card, which had been numbered #145. A kid I knew on my paper route claimed to own this card, and used to tease me about it. But I read now, that Ed Bouchee was charged and convicted on exposing himself to young girls, and his card was withdrawn before it was ever published, and so #145 never appeared, a permanent missing link. Poor Ed Bouchee--what a thing to be famous for.

Collecting can become an obsession, even a kind of mental disease. Stamp companies trying to lure kids into the collecting game often mentioned that FDR had been an avid stamp collector, not mentioning that it was a sedentary pastime he'd adopted after being stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair--not something he would naturally have chosen, since he'd been an active, physical man prior to the disease. Serious collectors are occasionally described as addicts. Our obsession with physical objects, imbued with almost magical qualities that make them seem priceless possessions, is an uniquely human phenomenon, though there are apparently some birds which will "feather their nests" with bits of tin foil or colored ribbon, as if it were decoration. Blogging, of course, can become a bad habit. 

The collecting bug had bitten me, in 1958, and I was hooked. Reefer Madness. I longed to have a complete run of the whole set. Then one day in the early Fall of the year, my mom and I were downtown on an errand, and she had to buy some cigarettes at a dimestore counter. What should be resting on the counter by the cash register, but a box of Topps Baseball Card packs! And not only that--these were in the waxy black wrappers, the color of the first series cartons! I begged my mom to buy me a couple packs, which she did, reluctantly. Once outside the store, I tore open the packs and was overjoyed to find the new first series cards of players I'd never been able to get in stores before. This was a stash that had lain dormant for weeks behind the counter. Realizing that this was an opportunity not to be missed, I begged and begged my mother, who eventually ended up buying the whole box for me. I don't recall now what the per-pack price was--could it have been 5 cents a pack, or as much as a quarter?--almost certainly not--else she wouldn't have popped for all of them. It was a little like finding a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You just knew that chance had favored you and that it was folly to question your luck. 

As the years passed, the card collection ended up in the basement with my other childhood effects, and I would notice it whenever I went down there. After 1974, I stopped visiting home, and I have always supposed that my brother Clark, who was 13 years younger than I, must have discovered them at some point. He eventually became an avid vintage rock music record collector, so I assume he must have realized their potential, and sold them. I still have my old world stamp album--a behemoth of about 6 inches thick--which I retrieved from home in 1973. Stamps are harder to sell on the wholesale market, so I doubt they'd have any interesting value today.

In the 1970's and 1980's, the sports card memorabilia industry really got cranked up, with complete runs of sets like this going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The sports memorabilia auction scene has fed off the internet, evoking both rising and falling price spirals to all kinds of collectibles. The sports card market crashed in the '90's, but it may have come back up by now. It's not something I watch.     

When I worked for the government, back in the early 1980's, I knew a fellow who collected baseball cards seriously. He acquired special plastic envelopes for the cards, and could quote values for all the important numbers. Later, I met a Chinese gentleman in San Francisco, who had gotten seriously into the card business, investing over $200,000 in his own edition of sports cards; but he'd gotten in just a bit too late, and had lost his shirt. Once, years later, I was at a used book sale, and someone had donated several complete boxed sets of later Topps series cards, but someone said that they were so late in the game, even complete sets weren't worth the trouble of storing or listing them for sale.

In the 1990's, I became interested in collecting rare copies of modern (post 1900) first editions. As my interested intensified, I found myself spending the kind of money you usually reserve for big necessities, like engine overhauls or a new dress suit. It didn't take long to realize that if I wanted to collect seriously, really seriously, the best way was to become a trader, instead of just a collector. The rare book dealer I knew then, told me "collecting is for dummies, Curtis, you should become a dealer. You'll see books you never imagined you'd ever see, much less own, and you'll actually have the experience of holding and studying and appreciating them, albeit temporarily." I've never had better advice in my life.

It wasn't long before I had become a serious used rare book dealer, a profession I pursue now more or less full-time (since 1991, when I retired after 27 years with the Federal Government). No matter how long you live, or how much you love what you own, you can't take it with you. I like to tell my customers that we're all "custodians" of our stuff; we're just taking care of it until the next generation(s) arrive(s) to relieve us of our abandoned dreams and burdens. 

Harry "Suitcase" Simpson--so nicknamed because he was traded so often among various teams that he never needed to unpack his suitcase 

Here's to you, Don Mossi, still alive at 85, who'd win 17 games with Detroit in 1959, eventually retiring in 1965 at age 36. What a face!



Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bearing Fruit






Peaches on a White Tablecloth

Color has touched this fruit only in certain places, but with the greatest care.

The shadows of the muslin are of a cool blue, like that of crockery in a humble cottage just outside of Paris. Its white has yielded to the failing light.

They are nestled in gravity’s palm, as if just supporting them were a labor of love.

If color alone could sustain us, these peaches would be good enough to eat.

They are only orange by convergence of allied tints, such as the red of apples, or the yellow of lemons. But to combine these, without the proper restraint, could ruin everything.

Roundness, globular, is light folded into itself to make a translucence.

The half-life of any growth is a logarithm of its decay, turning sweetness into sour, green into yellow, and red, and finally brown.

The sugars sing their special white purity along the palette of the scraping knife.

Oxygen eats the space around them, as if hungry.

The peaches are actually blue.

After Cézanne

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Japanese Protest Nuclear Option



The Japanese national character is divided about equally between traditional respect for authority, and a commitment to technological progress. 

I lived in Japan for a year in 1985, and was able to see this phenomenon up close. Japan was ruled by an emperor all the way through the end of World War II. The Japanese post-War boom was built on the factory system, transforming its agrarian economy into a world economic leader, producing automobiles and computers and all kinds of manufacturing. The Japanese are proud of this accomplishment, but they still tend to worship authority, even when it may not be in their interest. They also prefer order to disorder, and are reluctant to stand up for individual rights or radical points of view.

Since the Fukushima disaster, however, they have begun to take a stand against the government's continued commitment to nuclear power technology. 

As readers of this blog know, I am against nuclear power development. There are at present several key unsolved problems with it. The dilemma of what to do with the nuclear waste it produces, the pollution produced when plant failures and accidents occur, and the continued dangers of handling radio-active materials. Our supposed "commitment" to containing the hot waste over several centuries is a legacy no society wants to inherit.

It's very possible that nuclear technology will advance over time, allowing us to produce energy with greater efficiency and safety than we now are capable of, given the state of our knowledge. It may well be that other methods of generating electricity will be developed before nuclear is improved. We can't predict the future. Necessity often drives innovation, but insisting on dangerous practices--in effect, making guinea-pigs out of human populations, when so-called "fail-safe" technologies are failing, with very serious consequences--to drive solutions is silly. Sometimes, a little prudence and patience are needed. 

The Japanese government's insistence on relying on nuclear power plant technology to meet the energy needs of its people may finally be hitting a wall of public indignation. It's unclear how many such nuclear disasters it will take before humankind realizes that this technology, in its present state, is simply unsuitable for future use. 

Now, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima melt-down, crowds of Japanese are taking to the streets to protest their nation's commitment to a nuclear future. In my experience, the Japanese are a very obedient people, who are reluctant to criticize their government, or its policies. They are a stoic people. 


But common sense has told them there's an enormous disconnect between these proven failures of a risky technology, which is endangering their population and its limited landmass, and industry's irresponsible insistence that everything is fine, and no one needs to worry. They simply don't believe it, and there's no reason they should.

Americans tend to have a similar kind of confidence and complacency about our own "know-how." Despite Three Mile Island, we believe that a similar "accident" or mistake is unlikely to occur here. But experience is teaching us that even small mistakes, or natural disasters, result in problems that are so devastating, and long lasting, and hard to fix, that the risk assessments must be revised. Were a huge earthquake to cause one of our West Coast facilities--such as Diablo Canyon, Humboldt Bay, etc.--to fail, the feeling of risk would suddenly be much less "remote" than it is. 

The message of Fukushima is clear. These accidents are going to happen in the future, and there is little in our current state of technology, either at the construction, running maintenance, or problem mitigation stages that will protect us from the consequences of such disasters. If safe sources of energy are inadequate to provide the fuel necessary to sustain our present state of consumption and living, then society will either have to moderate its needs, or reduce its numbers (and demand). 


Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Dilemma - An Intellectual Cocktail





In discourse, the weight of evidence may fall on one side or the other. Of course, it's up to the contestants to "interpret" what raw evidence may signify. Sometimes, in science, or philosophy, or politics, there is equal support for opposing positions. In those cases, a compromise may be in order, but sometimes there is no way to balance one viewpoint against another, without one side or the other feeling completely vanquished.

In matters of taste, sweetness and bitterness compete for attention, with sourness and saltiness and mouthfeel all complicating the mix. Sensibility, that complex mixture of feeling and cognition, is the quintessentially human trait which enables us to refine our appreciation of experience by combining the raw data of what we can measure and quantify, with the personal, idiosyncratic, emotional quality which we think unique to our species.

In taste, especially, we can combine different portions of taste influences to produce a happy coincidence of effects, though how each person senses things differs.  Lemon, for instance, is noticeably less dry than lime, which seems to contain less sweetness, and may be more acidic. 

Amaro, and Campari, are classic European dry liqueurs which Continentals may take straight, or with soda, or on the rocks, to cut the summer heat. Unlike Americans, Europeans seem less drawn to pure sweetness than to somewhat dry, spicy aperitifs. These highly spiced liqueurs make interesting components of cocktails, though they need to be handled with delicacy, lest they overwhelm a combination. 

I've tried the ginger/amaro tandem before here, and I decided to go out on a limb, figuratively speaking, and add another dry European spice, with Campari. 

Rum tends towards sweetness, being distilled from sugarcane. Taken straight, it is clearly reminiscent of the tropics, where sugar cane is harvested. But it can be coaxed into different kinds of effects through unusual combinations. Here, I've taken the Ginger Ale and Amaro duo, and built it onto a platform of Caribbean golden rum, and added Campari and lime. To balance this, I've kept the portion of Ginger Ale high, to avoid any rumor of dryness. What occurs, to my taste, is a kind of ultimate balancing act of tastes, the sweet, bitter, sour flavors all conspiring to create a flavor that is neither wholly ingratiating, nor dismissively dry. 

Can opposing flavors, like irreconcilable differences, cancel each other out, producing a bland result? Or might they co-exist in a happy harmony, a diversity of flavors which all sing their specific pitch, without disturbing the lyrical line?    

Mixed as always by proportion, this recipe would yield two cocktails, swirled and served up in frosted cocktail glasses (but be careful, the ginger ale will fizz up your shaker--better to let it breathe a bit so to top doesn't blow off and spill your creation!).


3 Parts Golden Rum
3 Parts fresh Ginger Ale
1 Part Amaro
1 Part Campari
1 Part fresh lime juice


Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Clover Blossom Mix



This is the season in California when the clover sprouts out. Clover is a weed, invasive and prolific, though not entirely unwelcome. Its leaves, rounded, in groups of three, make a pleasant ground-cover, at least as long as they're green, which usually isn't very long.  

Honey made from bees who forage in clover is sometimes called Clover Blossom Honey, a popular kind on the market.  





I used to think that so-called 4-leaf clover was a myth, but that's not the case. Four-leaf clover, though rare, occurs in nature. The odds of finding a four leaf clover are about 1 in 10,000, assuming you were patient enough to search for them. It's possible that you could pore over several thousands of plants before finding a single example. There must be a genetic disadvantage to four leaf clusters, since they occur in such a small ratio.   



I don't believe I've ever seen one, except in photos like the one above. In this age of computer manipulations, one can never be quite sure that what you see in a picture is real, or the result of some kind of customizing of the image. 

Four leaf clovers are said to be emblems of good luck, and finding one may presage good prospects in romance. In Ireland, where the clover (or shamrock) has most symbolic significance, wearing some in your coat lapel may be popular. I was only in Dublin briefly several years ago, and I don't remember seeing anyone wearing clover leaves, though the motif, being one of their national emblems (like the harp), is ubiquitous there.

Here's a concoction that's honey-based. The Barenjager is a German liqueur. The Germans are very big on sweet things. Their wines tend towards the syrupy, though they can be very delicate and sophisticated. They tend to go well with German food, which is no surprise. Along the borderlands between Germany and France, you'll find wonderful vintages, ranging between very sweet and crisply dry. 

Shaken and served in chilled (frosted) cocktail glasses. Very good with honeyed salted almonds, by the way. Pure honey has a kind of "burnt" smell, which is always associated in my mind with bee-stings. I've only been stung about half a dozen times, but it always gives me a super-sized pain, like being stabbed with a glowing needle. Something of the vividness of that memory, I think, informs the intensity of my taste buds towards honey. Putting it into a drink concoction softens the "heat" of the honey, and makes it seem the very essence of alpine purity. The dry vermouth smooths it out and balances the excessive sweetness.    

3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part Barenjager honey liqueur
1 part fresh lemon juice