The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Oct 14 30 2014

How To Roast

by Michael Ruhlman

Conventional food writing assumes that, aside from “serious” cooks, people simply want cooking to be fast, easy, and (if possible) nutritious. Take-out food is ideal fast and easy and could be nutritious: why cook? Lots of people don’t cook much: Ruhlman wants to change that.

What Ruhlman argues in his superb Twenty is that even serious cooking isn’t terribly hard or mysterious. There are a bundle of techniques — Ruhlman counts twenty — to master, and a bundle of ingredients one might acquire from your market. Match those ingredients with the techniques and you’re pretty well set.

Another way to put this is: you don’t need recipes. The core techniques give a dish a basic structure; once you've got that structure, you can do just about anything. This has also been Sally Schneider’s indispensable message: once you’ve got a general idea, you can do wonders with variations. For example, vinaigrette+anchovy+garlic+cheese makes a caesar salad, a bagna cauda, a stuffed artichoke, or a tasty roast mackerel.

Twenty is a dandy book, but it’s a big brick, and people who Don’t Cook don’t need another big brick. How To Roast takes one technique, gives people permission to try it, and shows a small spectrum of variations. You’ve got roast chicken, roast beef, roast cauliflower, roast peaches. You can roast in a roasting pan, you can roast in a skillet, you can roast on your charcoal grill. You can even roast in butter in your Le Creuset, which is as close as you can get to not roasting at all, but it’s poêlé and transgressive so let’s give it a try. (Ruhlman doesn’t talk about it, but you can roast in your toaster oven, too.)

One thing that set the wonderful Making Of A Chef apart, and that distinguishes the very best of Ruhlman’s food writing, is his flair for character, for Erica whose roux caught fire and for angry fellow-student Adam, the working man who hopes someday to open a restaurant/gallery/performance space. There’s not enough scope for character here in How To Roast, or for drama, other than the shadowy partner with whom we can enjoy an hour’s frolic while the chicken roasts. That’s fine, but there’s space for more.

Roast chicken is a very interesting dish, when you come to think about it, in the controversy about home cooking.

  • Given an oven and the simplest bones of knowing what to do, it’s hard to really foul up a roast chicken.
  • Even the simplest of techniques and very mediocre execution will leave you with a dish that’s pretty good, especially if you're accustomed to frozen food.
  • All the likely failures are obvious. (Not done? You didn't use your thermometer. Put it back. Burnt? You entirely forgot the roast was cooking. Bland? More salt — and you can fix that right now at the table.)
  • There’s enough scope for Doing It Right that you can add some variation and you can improve. It’s quite possible to make really good roast chicken. Aside from not making silly mistakes, there’s using a better bird, using a much better bird, brining, basting, rubbing with dry southwestern spices, smoking, stuffing with lemon, making pan gravy, maybe sauce supreme: right there you’ve got two months of roast chicken of the week without repeating yourself.

One thing that I do miss is that, along with the 20 techniques (and of course the modest number of Ratios – an early Ruhlman systematization), there are a modest number of basic structures and symmetries that compose kitchen idioms. A French sauce, for example, is flavored water, flavored fat, and acid: veal stock+shallots sautéed in pan dripping+mustard is sauce Robert; egg yolk+ olive oil + lemon is mayonnaise; vanilla-infused milk+egg yolks+sugar is crême anglais, and you get the acid from the fruit in your dessert.

But it’s not just fancy stuff.

  • What is dinner? A protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Get them all, and everyone will recognize this as a proper meal. Leave one out, and the kids might complain.
  • What is a sandwich? I always thought it was two slices of bread with something in between, but now that you mention it, a sandwich crucially has a sauce between the bread and the payload. The exceptions are easy to work out: peanut butter and jelly (two sauces, one of which acts as the payload), or hot pastrami (a payload with enough spicy fat to provide a built-in sauce). Otherwise, you need the condiment. Salami and mustard on rye is a nice sandwich; a slice of salami between two slices of bread is a crying shame. Someone should have explained this to me before I turned fifty, but there you are.
  • What is a dinner party? A table for eight, with drinks, an appetizer, a dinner plate, and dessert. You can add a salad and no one will complain. I tend to add a course between the appetizer and the dinner plate – they do this routinely in Italy and they do it in every Victorian novel. I started doing this because I misunderstood a book by Susan Goin about menus, but it works because it introduces a little tension in the dinner (what’s he doing?) without frightening the audience (well, at least we won’t go hungry). A second dessert is another fun trick – ridiculous and festive.

There are a bunch of these structures and strictures for each style of eating. McGee covers some of these issues, and Ruhlman’s Ratio looks at others, but there’s still plenty to do. I’d love to see more.

But How To Roast is a terrific little book. It’s friendly, approachable, and it will give your oven a pleasant workout.

My grandmother was, for a time, a newspaper woman. She was a rare bird in that role, and it must have helped that she brought a college degree to a job where, for men, a high school diploma was plenty. And I expect she worked cheap.

My mother was, for a time, a newspaper woman. She wasn’t such a rare bird: her boss was a woman, and there were plenty of women on the paper in all sorts of roles. “Don’t every let them know you can type, Patsy” was her boss’s sage advice.

After first wave and second wave feminism had hit the beach and after the sixties had opened the professions (and Chicago’s Berghof restaurant) to women, that particular fight seemed to be settled. I’ve worked in science, engineering, and technology since I left college, and while women were seldom the majority in the room, they were seldom scarce. That has certainly been the case in hypertext research, the corner of computing I know best: women have always made up a substantial plurality of the audience, about half the program committee, and perhaps a little more than half of the top jobs.

In short, I’ve pretty much assumed that the work of our generation was incremental, a matter of getting from 40% to 50% and smoothing out the welds. Tough work, sure, and not to be minimized, but this was also work not to be compared to the early days of suffrage and barricade.

Well, not so fast. Women now make up almost 50% of medical students and more than 40% of physical science students, but only 17% of computer science majors. I find Bob Martin’s diagnosis unconvincing and his final anecdote, intended to be demonstrate redemption, is deeply wrong-headed.

When I get a program to work, I feel like I've slain the beast and I'm bringing home meat. She responded by saying that she felt that she had nurtured something into being.

Bob Martin, of all people, should know in his bones that these are two different kinds of programming, that both are needed, and that neither has anything at all to do with sex or gender. Few have written better, and no one has written more, about the interconnection of debugging and design. Debugging, in my experience, always demands intensity and sometimes requires rage. When rage slips into design, you’re in terrible trouble: you detest your pointy-haired management, you despise your ignorant users, you loathe the code, and either your work won’t communicate what you really think (in which case it is a dishonest lie and everyone will know it), or it will. To be intelligible is to be found out.

The conventional wisdom used to dictate that you build separate teams with separate responsibilities: designers and coders and testers. Of course, that always leads to wrangles over who’s in charge and how much they get paid, and all that rage shifts from the bugs to the company, to those sons and daughters of bitches who won’t let you do your work properly and who are wrecking the product. Martin himself was instrumental in showing us a better way, demonstrating how refactoring (relentless refactoring forsooth) could slay the beast and nurture the design. These a guns to which we should stick.

Stacey Mason skillfully argues the case for a plague on all houses without asserting the false equivalence that is the worst nonsense of #gamergate.

I’m disappointed with 4chan for a harassment campaign of such incredible scale, but I’m disappointed with social justice because I expected more from us than name-calling, mocking, and immaturity.

One aspect of the computer science numbers to which I think we need to pay attention is the context of the Great Recession. Lots of people in school are desperately worried about jobs. Medicine no longer promises the prospect of luxurious sinecures, but you’ve got to figure that you can get a job. Physical science opens lots of doors. A generation ago, you could hope to get a job at some startup like Microsoft and come away, a decade later, with a few million bucks. A generation ago, Route 128 was dotted with computer companies. They’re all gone now, gone with the hope of making a lot of money by being Employee 37, doing your job and not getting fired.

Chemists and physicists can learn a ton of programming if they want to, and they can wind up in science or industry, in research or finance or software. I went that route, and while it’s probably harder to do nowadays, I bet you could still do it. I think it’s much harder for someone with a CS degree to do research in physics or chemistry.

So CS enrollments are way down, across the board. I don’t know why these forces would exert differential pressure on men and women. I don’t know that they do. If they do, I don’t know how one would demonstrate the effect.

But the notion that dumb jokes and boors are responsible for driving women from computing doesn’t ring true, not to my ear. I don’t really know many men or many women who would be scared off by bad jokes and innuendo. I admit I don’t know a lot of college kids, but it seems unlikely that kids today have less gumption than we had. The women I’ve known in computing and in science wouldn’t be deterred, and in point of fact they weren’t.

Nor were my mother and my grandmother, and surely, back then, those reporters were a plenty hostile to their intrusions. First wave, second wave: I guess we’re still storming that beach.

by Alex Marwood

This Edgar Award winner is no fun at all.

Years ago, school girls Annabelle and Jade met on a summer day, came across a very annoying four-year-old, and everything went as wrong as they possibly could go. Years have passed, they have been released from prison. They have new names and identities; no one knows anything about their childhood, and they never speak of it. A condition of their parole is that they never, ever meet. Jade is now Kirsty, a reporter. Bel manages night-cleaning in a horrible little amusement park in a ghastly British resort town where someone is killing young women, and where the ghouls of the British media are gathering.

Much could have been made of this, and indeed much has been made of it: it won an Edgar and its atmosphere of claustrophobic, creepy, slime is rendered with skill and detail. Marwood does not shy away from challenges: in the crucial final chase, we have three separate heroes, all isolated, blundering about on a deserted amusement park pier on a dark and stormy night, all told in present tense through internal dialogue. As a mystery, The Wicked Girls does not precisely play by the rules, but it never promised to obey those rules and it doesn’t profit from the transgression.

One conspicuously-withheld bit of information is what really happened on that long-ago summer day when two unknown girls transformed themselves into notorious murderers. This story is doled out incrementally in flashbacks which are resolved only as the climax approaches, and this natural choice creates a problem. Readers will recognize at once that the accepted story of what happened cannot be right: first, because this is a mystery, and second, because mystery readers will all know Anne Perry. The gradual disclosure must necessarily build toward a revelation, but here the revelation can only reveal pretty much what we expect. The longer the arc, the greater the apparent tension, the angrier we grow because Marwood is, in effect, making a great show of withholding from us something that is already ours. Even if the backstory had gone completely otherwise, we’d tell ourselves that we expected that. and we would not be wrong. It might have been better to avoid the drama entirely: after all, as both women tell themselves many time, they know perfectly well what happened, and it was a very long time ago.

Oct 14 24 2014

More Notes

In the wake of my recent note about Maps In Maps, Ben Worthington shares a real-life example.

Elsewhere, Alex Strick van Linschoten follows up the Sources And Methods podcast with a detailed look at the workflow behind his books on Afghanistan.

Finally, a listener to the podcast bought a copy of The Tinderbox Way and enclosed a special request.

The Sources and Methods interview helped me realize that I have to commit to Tinderbox in a deeper way if I am ever to get what I need from it.

Mark's point about how you have to spend significant time working out methods of capturing and recording ideas was very well put and finally made my mind up for me….

I think you would be well-served by figuring out how to carry out more of this kind of in-depth advocacy--more than Mark's blog posts and yet short of the Tinderbox weekend events. If you're more "in your face" with people with deep thinking like this, you could very well reach a new level.

Krugman:

Obama is essentially what we used to call a liberal Republican, who faces implacable opposition from a very hard right.
Oct 14 23 2014

#WorthAssigning

Nick Carbone discusses my recent appearance at Sources and Methods.

There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking.

The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and find order.

Oct 14 22 2014

Maps In Maps

Occasionally, Tinderbox image adornments can provide a handy way to organize notes. For the Tinderbox Experiment, I’m working on planning an fictitious fiction writer’s research trek to the West of England. I don’t know Cornwall from Kent, and so to keep things organized while getting my bearings I pasted a tourism map into my Tinderbox map and let it provide some preliminary organization.

Maps In Maps
click to enlarge

Have you done something along these line? If so, I’d love to see a screenshot!

At the Atlantic Monthly website:

One about Berkeley, two about China, one more on the art and science of “information farming,” and all worth checking out.
Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”

In the New York Times, Judith Newman has a wonderful essay on the relationship between her autistic 13-year-old son Gus and Siri. Gus likes to talk – a lot – about turtles and weather patterns; Siri doesn’t mind the odd topics and has all the time in the world.

What’s also remarkable about Siri is the care which SRI and Apple have taken to write good responses to garbage queries. This is the Eliza problem: if you allow open-ended input to a program, then eventually people will test the limits of the system. You’d better have a good answer to

Siri: fuck this shit!

and to

Frboz grbz!

What’s cool is that Siri winds up with great answers to wild questions. Did you know you can ask Siri

Siri: what planes are above me right now?

I didn’t, either. But because it’s in the New York Times, you know now. When I tried, Siri answered:

Someone asked me that recently. Here are the planes above you.

Someone asked me that recently. Lovely detailing, it only takes a second, and yet it somehow sells the whole thing.

Incidentally, I recently switched Siri to Australian English; so far, she still understands me, but she’s got an interesting new voice.

Louis Menand’s masterful review of The Cat In The Hat has a new URL

From this blog, back in 2002:


Do not miss Louis Menand's brilliant analysis of The Cat In The Hat in the December 20 New Yorker.

The children hate the cat. They take no joy in his stupid pet tricks, and they resent his attempt to distract them from what they really want to be doing, which is staring out the window for a sign of their mother's return. Next to that consummation, cake on a rake is pretty feeble entertainment.

This is the fish's constantly iterated point, and the fish is not wrong.

Menand mentions in passing that The Cat In The Hat Comes Back is the Grammatology of Dr. Seuss.

Oct 14 20 2014

Hard Times

We’ve received two indignant letters from educators whose old copies of Tinderbox require upgrades to work with OS X Yosemite. Why do they have to pay for upgrades?

I suspect this is a much more significant leading economic indicator than the declining stock market: educated people with exceptionally secure and good jobs in cosmopolitan cities are willing to damage long-standing relationships to save less than $100.

Some day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.

Hard Times

by Charles Phan

Just started this new book by restauranteur Charles Phan. who along with Chicago’s Rick Bayless shares an incredible knack for keeping a good restaurant good. It’s doubly impressive for Phan because his location pretty much ensures that he’d do fine, just selling the view; the food is great.

The cookbook’s gorgeous, too. $25 at Amazon, these days, gets you amazing cookbook production values: a very fancy custom color, coated paper, two-color printing for recipe pages and plentifully gorgeous photography and design.

One caveat: the recipes look frighteningly simple. Still, it looks like lots of fun. Has anyone cooked from this yet?

Oct 14 17 2014

Commonplace

“Aviva is always trying to broaden herself, to try things for which she has no aptitude: music theory, volunteering in the nursing home, drugs.” – Pamela Erens, The Virgins

I’m at Sources and Methods this week, with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick.

Matt and Alex talk with programmer and note-taker Mark Bernstein. Mark is the force behind the notetaking and outlining software, Tinderbox, much beloved by knowledge workers. This episode is about note-taking, its uses and why people need to think reflexively about the work they're doing. Show notes are available at sourcesandmethods.com.

The show notes are exceptionally good.

Kathryn Cramer:

As I drove, I turned certain phrases over in my head like agates in a rock polisher. One was Joanna Russ's paraphrasing of Bion of Borysthenes from The Female Man:

As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest. But the frogs die in earnest.

The longer quote is here.

Another of the phrases, this one being revised and refined:

Over the past five years, women with established careers in the science fiction field have been treated like they are cheap, plentiful, and easily replaced; disposable as light bulbs. And this treatment has come mostly at the hands of other women.

by Lev Grossman

The conclusion of the promising series begun with The Magicians and The Magician King, this completes Grossman’s exploration of fantasy in the mode of high realism. We thought perhaps this would be Julia’s book, but it belongs instead to Alice, our lost lover who gave up her life (and indeed her humanity) in the first volume to save her former lover, young Quentin Coldwater, and incidentally to save Fillory, the land of faerie he loves.

This trilogy is a fine, engaging, and memorable story. It’s a single work; the novels stand alone, more or less, but the overall story is the entire point. Grossman’s trilogy is, of course, a response to Harry Potter, and its argument is well worth hearing.

Grossman’s land of faerie, Fillory, is also a response and a tribute to Narnia, but where heroic fantasy tries to evoke awe and wonder, Grossman strives to retain realism even when things are happening that simply don’t take place in the fields we know. This could work, but it Grossman subverts his world even as he builds it. Fillory is filled with myriad marvelous beasts, wonders so numerous that no one cares very much about anything because another marvel is bound to crop up soon. This had a promising effect back in The Magician, since it reflected the louche, feckless, but engaging protagonists who had so recently graduated from Brakebills and who were engaged in discovering all sorts of marvels: whiskey, wine, sex, and mastery. But this is a long journey, the marvels tend to blend together, and the relentless cynicism of the your narrator necessarily undercuts the sense of wonder that is the whole point of faerie.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies at terrific personal risk restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

There’s a great hunger for information about Tinderbox, both among novices and among people who’ve used Tinderbox for years. People often attribute this to the learning curve of the program, though in part it’s because Tinderbox addresses some difficult tasks, and because it uses some comparatively new computing techniques that many of us didn’t learn in school.

I’m planning to spend some time this Fall to flesh out some Tinderbox documents that are realistic explorations of an actual project, showing how I might address the task. That’s not necessarily the right way or the best way to use Tinderbox – especially as your task is probably not precisely the task we’re exploring! Still, it’s a place to start.

As a first project, I imagine a novelist in the early stages of planning a new book. The book hasn’t been written yet: it’s just a concept, a general idea for setting and handful of characters. We’ve got ten months to deliver the manuscript.

The story is set in an imaginary place that is meant to feel English. Seven or eight months from now, we plan to take a trip to England to research some locations, to gather local flavor and to check some details. We won’t have much time. We’ll want to visit some old friends, if we can, and no doubt we’ll want to meet some publishers, visit some booksellers, perhaps do a signing or two. Perhaps someone will invite us to give a talk. In any case, we want to plan this well.

Planning this trip is the underlying task for this Tinderbox document. At the start, we have lots of questions – far more questions than answers! We can sort these into a number of categories:

  • Questions about logistics. (When do we leave? What flight?)
  • Questions about time management. (Do I have time to visit Joe in Edinburgh? Can I spend an afternoon at the National Portrait Gallery?)
  • Questions about the fictive world. (What do people wear? What do they eat? What do the buildings look like?)

We need to start thinking about these questions now. That’s hard: we haven’t yet written the scenes for which we need details. We don’t know what questions to ask. But if we wait to plan the trip, it may be too late to make necessary arrangements.

One place to start, clearly, is to imagine a bit of our fictional world. Here’s a schematic Tinderbox map of our setting, Hill Academy – a fictitious school that has some flavor of an English boarding school (Hogwarts, Brakebills) and also of a small American liberal arts college – set in an imaginary Occupied country.

A Tinderbox Experiment
click to enlarge

This is a set of adornments, zoomed out and then cropped so the map isn’t too big for our purposes here. It’s meant merely to be schematic, and mostly includes only the places I’m fairly confident we’ll need. We can add notes here to represent queries we’ll need to follow up, or perhaps to contain photo references of similar places that actually exist.

If you’re a Tinderbox user and you see things here you don’t know how to do, or if you’d like to suggest a better approach: Email me.

Oct 14 12 2014

Chicken

Michael Ruhlman wrote about weekday coq a vin, arguing that we should stop treating food as medicine, stuff we eat because it’s good for us while always keeping an eye one for allergic reactions.

It was Friday, but Friday’s sort of a weekend. And it worked well!

  • An interesting twist here is that the onions are cooked with the bacon, and then the flour is mixed in to make a fast ersatz roux. It's backward, but it saves a pan!
  • I used Niman Ranch bacon; if I’m going to use bacon at all, I want to use the good stuff. But it's too lean for this task, or needs more help rendering. I wound up adding some olive oil.
  • The sauce was really good, but a bit too thick. I should’ve added stock, not water: Ruhlman was surely thinking “don’t scare people by asking for stock here,” but I’ve got a quart of stock sitting in the frig and it’s not getting and younger. Think!
Oct 14 5 2014

Oh dear

There’s a new mess around Kathy Sierra. Tim Bray explains.

…Even af­ter all this there are peo­ple still de­ter­mined to de­fend weev-the-person (not weev-the-case) to the point of sug­gest­ing I’m trolling so peo­ple will troll me back…

I do NOT feel [name omit­ted] in any way ha­rassed me, and that I just was tired of having that con­ver­sa­tion, and dis­heart­ened that there are still promi­nent peo­ple in tech that sup­port and be­lieve him.

That’s al­l.

Tim says, “This is re­al­ly not OK.” It’s clearly too bad. But I suppose that people might defend Weev, hypothetically, and I can understand not wanting to rehash things again and again. Like Tim, though, I don’t see the alternative.

Brent Simmons is losing patience with all the silly internet scams.

And now, by my estimation, people have tried to scam me 693,500 times via email. (Assume an average of 100 scams a day for the last 19 years. These days it’s closer to 200 a day.)

Grifters used to have to work hard for a living. I miss that.

Actually, I suspect that grifters today have to work pretty hard. Sure, we all get thousands of silly fraudulent emails, and someone probably makes an occasional buck off them. The yield must be astronomically low, and I imagine the risks are considerable.

This is the problem that puzzles me about routine credit card fraud. Leaving the whole matter of it’s wrong aside, it’s generally stupid. On the one hand, you win and get $2500 in stuff you didn't have to pay for. On the other hand, you lose and get a few years in jail. It’s just not proportionate, not most of the time for most people. (Sure, there are times when you’d risk prison for two grand, or for Jean Valjean’s loaf of bread.)

Imagine if you could make an appointment with The Council Of Spam Operators. You say, “You have a business: you work, you make some money. But your business happens to be annoying my cat. Suppose I paid you some money to sit on the beach, or do anything else, and you stop annoying my cat. How much would it take?”

I bet the number would be shockingly low. I bet it would be far less than the cost of the agents the FBI employs to chase this stuff down, much less the cost of all the firewalls and spam filters and wasted disk space we all incur.