Friday, May 26, 2006

Ramble & Rose


This rose lives near SW 4th & Montgomery, in downtown Portland.

The courts in California have ruled that I would have a right to protect my confidential sources, if I had any. Woohoo!

Bad, bad Apple. Shame on you. Very naughty.

I occasionally do a Word of the Day thing here (very occasionally), and today you get two for the price of one, and both are Japanese loan words. Chindogu is the art of inventing things that appear to solve everyday problems, but aren't actually useful or practical. Such as a hat with a roll of toilet paper attached, for the convenience of allergy sufferers, for example. There's a whole subculture of people who do this for fun, and I can see how it could be fun. I didn't realize there was such a thing until I recently stumbled across (and bought) a slim 1995 book about the pastime, 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu, by the gentleman who originated the art. Fun! For more fun, visit the International Chindogu Society.

Sangaku are geometry problems traditionally presented on tablets in Japanese temples. Never heard of such a thing? You're not alone. I understand they're obscure even in Japan. Here's a site from Japan (in English) devoted to preserving the surviving examples of the art. There's also a book in English about sangaku (which is how I first heard of it), unsurprisingly titled Japanese Temple Geometry Problems. A few college libraries around have it, but it seems there was only a limited print run back in the late 80's, and I haven't been able to find my own copy yet.

While I'm braindumping about books and linking repeatedly to Amazon, I was at the Multnomah County Library yesterday and found a math book I've been trying to track down for a while, On Quaternions and Octonions, by Derek Smith and John Conway (he of surreal numbers fame), continuing on with my weird recreational math interests. It's fairly technical and I only understand bits and pieces of it right now, but I do like a challenge.

I don't have a favorite book, or top ten favorite books.
Best beginning: Man's Fate, by Andre Malraux. The book as a whole isn't my favorite, but any book that starts off with an attack by stealthy Chinese assasins can't be all bad.
Best ending: Looking for a Ship, by John McPhee. The book is a look at the state of the US shipping industry. At the end of the book, McPhee's travelling on a rusty cargo ship, and the engine dies, leaving it adrift in the middle of the ocean, end of book.
Most overrated writer: Alice Walker. Strictly for people who like their politics predigested and spoon-fed to them. Sort of a matter of perspective -- if you filed her books under young adult, there would be less cause for criticism. There's a reason Toni Morrison got the Nobel, and Walker didn't.

Several recent good books about beer and brewing:

The beer in front of me at the moment is a Ruth, from the nice folks at Hair of the Dog Brewing. And right now, at this very moment, I'm eating tater tots. Ok, they're organic tater tots. No foolin'. Along with a little sauce I whipped up out of some yogurt, black pepper, and vast quantities of garlic. Mmmm.... garlic.... I wouldn't go so far as to say tater tots are a regional specialty in this part of the world, since that woudn't be strictly true, but they were invented here. My foodie friends, and I do have them, tend to ignore the contribution of the humble potato to our "regional cuisine" (such as it is). When people blather on about Pacific Northwest food, it's inevitably the usual salmon, blackberries, mushrooms, basically a subset of what the Indians presumably ate (in a very different form) before the pioneers showed up, with some upscale herbs and greens and so forth thrown in to keep the rich Californians happy. This is mostly restaurant food, imagined into existence by people with the very best of intentions. Nobody cooks the stuff at home. It would be nice, to be sure, if we had distinctive, regional, traditional food here, but we don't. The area simply hasn't been settled long enough for that to happen, and for most of that time, food was just something to keep you going while you were out in the cold, damp forest chopping down trees. I don't pretend to have made a thorough study of what people actually do eat, but one theme I've noticed is "Chicken-n-Starch". It's chicken in some form, plus a starch of some kind, with a sauce of some sort. For a long time this meant fried chicken with jojo potatoes. For the uninitiated, jojos are just potato wedges, lightly breaded and then deep-fried. The breading usualy has a little black pepper in it, but they usually aren't all that spicy. They're sort of like jumbo french fries, but they're served with ranch dressing, not ketchup. I don't know why, that's just how it is. You don't see fried chicken and jojos at restaurants very much. You do see them a lot at grocery store deli counters, and little gas station convenience stores out in the middle of nowhere. Although even rural gas stations have embraced the newer chicken-n-starch that's become popular in the last 20 years or so, the chicken teriyaki rice bowl. When moving back here after living in the deep south for a few years, I knew I was back in Oregon when gas stations outside small towns advertised "Gas-Bait-Espresso-Teriyaki". You don't see that sort of thing in rural Georgia, generally speaking. The teriyaki bowl is really simple: Just grilled chicken over rice, with sweetish teriyaki sauce over the top. Sometimes you get veggies too, and maybe a little pink pickled ginger on the side, if the place is trying to be fancy. Sometimes it's called a "bento", which in local terms means the exact same dish served in a rectangular box instead of a round bowl. This wouldn't be called a bento in Japan, but no matter. I think the teriyaki bowl became so popular because a.) it seems like a healthier choice than fried chicken with fried potatoes, which I'm sure is true; and b.) it's nonthreatening, not a big challenge to the palate, and doesn't contain any weird ingredients. It's just chicken-n-starch in a new form. Nobody hates it. How could anyone get worked up about it? It's fine. It'll do. It's the default lunch choice for office worker bees everywhere, myself included. Although I go with the Japanese curry sauce instead of the teriyaki if there's a choice (and usually there isn't). I mean, my foodie chums love to go on about Asian influences, but somehow that always translates into sesame-crusted ahi tuna sashimi, or something along those lines, when the real Asian influence is sitting right in front of them, and they haven't noticed it yet.
Regional food isn't always an unmixed blessing. The most disgusting and unhealthy thing I've ever eaten was cooked up by a great aunt of mine in Pennsylvania. I forget what she called it, but basically it was white bread soaked in bacon grease and sizzled around in a skillet until it blackened up a little and got nice and carcinogenic. I think there may have been added salt, too, but this was about 20 years ago, so the details are hazy. I remember her saying that everyone used to eat it around those parts, including her late husband, who inexplicably kicked off from a heart attack in his mid-50s. She did use the past tense when talking about it; maybe everyone who ate it on a regular basis had a heart attack in their mid-50's. I probably took a few months off my life just eating it once to be polite. (Thereby proving that politeness sometimes does have a downside.) The most disgusting thing I've ever cooked was an unnamed dish I cobbled up once, quite a few years ago, when I didn't want to go to the grocery store. I've blocked out the complete list of ingredients, but there was corn muffin mix involved, and tomato soup, and a canned vegetable of some kind, layered into a baking dish and baked. Ack! Phbbt! Looking back on it, I assume I must've had a couple of beers before inventing this dish. I tried a bite or two, and my lovely and understanding spouse was willing to at least look directly at the thing (very briefly), and then it went into the fridge, to be disposed of after a decent amount of time had elapsed. My sister still teases me about a little dessert item I made once, long ago, involving minute rice and strawberry jam. But really, it wasn't that bad. It would've been even better if I hadn't bungled the minute rice. I'm a much, much better cook these days, so maybe I'll try it again someday, just for kicks, if I have nothing better to do.
One of my hopes when I started this blog was that regular exercise would improve my writing. I've looked over some of my recent posts, and it's not time to haul up the Mission Accomplished sign just yet. At least it's exposing certain tics and quirks that keep cropping up again and again.
  • Overuse of qualifiers, adverbs, and filler words. I recently caught myself using the word "apparently" twice in the same sentence, which I doubt was strictly necessary. Other favorites include "basically", "probably", "a bit", "kind of", "sort of", "it seems that", and others that don't come to mind immediately. There's no reason to say "I think" in a blog, either.
  • I'm also prone to long sentences full of commas. I haven't checked yet, but I'm sure there must be style guidelines about how many commas it's reasonable to have in a single sentence.
  • With all of those complex compound sentences, I can run into trouble making sure that plurals and verb tenses all match up properly. I usually catch this before a post goes live, but not 100% of the time.
  • The overall effect is that it looks like I'm trying to talk super-fancy, sometimes succeeding, other times not. I could do a better job of avoiding twee-ness sometimes.
  • I sometimes wonder whether relying on bullet-point lists is a sign of laziness. I've insisted before that it's a proper engineer's way to approach writing, but one peek at the Gettysburg Powerpoint presentation, and my doubts are renewed.

Random philosophy and whatever, basically, mostly inspired by annoying yuppie twits at the grocery store who stand in front of whatever I'm trying to get, mulling over their choices for what seems like an eternity, because every last decision is so damn crucial for these people:
  • It's a cliche to say so, but you really do only live once. And for a limited amount of time, too. Those minutes you spent blocking my way in the grocery store are gone, and you'll never get them back. And I won't get mine back either, you bastard.
  • Exploring the whole "problem space" of life just isn't possible. If you intend to go to a certain restaurant, for example, and it closes forever before you get around to it, it's not the end of the world. You can't eat at all the world's good restaurants, or eat everything there is that's worth eating. So there's really no point in giving yourself a coronary or looking like a complete ass while desperately trying to squeeze every last drop out of life. Because you just can't. Period.
  • You can do something and have the time of your life (or not), and then move on to something else and never do it again, and it's ok. Really.
  • There's always a point where, no matter how good something is, you stop enjoying each bite and start just shovelling it in purely out of duty or out of habit. Time to do something else.
  • Do something to make today be different than every other day of your life. Even if nobody else knows.
  • Every now and then, when deciding what to eat for lunch, deliberately pick the "wrong" thing, just to remind yourself the sky doesn't fall when (not if) you do.
  • The actual end of the world is the end of the world, and everything else isn't. And unless you actually die if you choose wrong, it's not a life-or-death decision, now is it?

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