Friday, December 10, 2010

First Taste: more Cupcakes

I had an appointment downtown at 9am today. Before I went in, I checked Twitter and saw that the more cupcakes truck (website, Twitter) was only a couple blocks away, parked near Christkindlmarket. Since I'm not often downtown, and the food trucks that I so wistfully follow rarely make it out to Hyde Park, I knew I had to jump on this chance. I crossed my fingers and hoped they would still be there in an hour.

I left 25 East Washington and headed west to Clark and Washington. I passed Christkindlmarket, just waking up for the day - nothing was open, unfortunately, but I did stop to look at some of the window displays and to savor the smells of currywurst, baked apples, and fruit fritters. I found a store which sells glass pickle ornaments - a German must for a Christmas tree, for those of you not in the know. I made plans to return when the stores were open and bustling.

Then, there - on the southwest corner of the intersection - a van with a display window in its side, and an awning propped open. Inside stood an attractive, friendly young guy who, based on the tea in my hand, recommended that I go for the salted caramel over the red velvet. There were thirteen flavors in the truck today, and I probably could have tried something more exotic, but I wanted to see how more managed a familiar flavor. I handed over my cash (about $3.50) and he handed me back a green-labelled takeout box, curiously hefty.

I got home and plunked the box on the kitchen table for immediate investigation.


I felt no remorse as I tore into the cute little package, revealing a gorgeous mini cake suspended in the center.


It was taller than I expected when I pulled it out...


...and the cake a lighter color.


Oh, well - nothing left to do but take a bite.


As you can see, there was an oozy pocket of caramel in the center of this gorgeous cupcake. It had soaked slightly into the surrounding cake, as well, adding a creamy texture and that lovely, almost smoky toffee flavor to every bite. The amount and sweetness of the frosting was, to my taste, exactly right. I could still get my mouth around the majority of the cupcake, and the frosting tasted like a lightly sweetened whipped cream. The cake itself was fairly sweet, which is fine, but the texture was a bit stiff and spongy. This may be for purposes of practicality; I love dense, moist, melty cake, which I imagine doesn't travel terribly well. This cake's crumb was airy and open, but strong.

In short: great caramel flavor, not too sweet, spongy crumb. B+

EDIT: It occurred to me that maybe my problems with the cake were just because the cupcake was on the chilly side, having sat out in an open van and then carried around outside and then eaten a mere five minutes after I got home. I'll have to try one at the storefront for comparison (this is my disappointed face).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Latke? But I hardly know 'er!

I made these.

They were good - a touch bland. I might salt them a little more next time, or include some seasonings. Is that an okay thing to do? I am Not Remotely Jewish, so I have no idea what's appropriate here.

The most important part, though, is the amount of time it took me to grate all the grating-required ingredients with my brand-new Cuisinart. It ended up being 33.2 seconds. I timed it. (Not really.)

Happy Christmahanukwansolsticewhatever!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Leftover Goddess

Last night, I was on my way home from the north side, looking to get home around 9 pm. I was debating whether to stop off and pick up some groceries - I was, pretty understandably, not enthusiastic to trudge through the cold and the snow. But then I had a brilliant brain flash.

Use Up Your Leftovers Fried Rice (based on this, which is - SURPRISE! - another Bittman recipe)

1/2 cup peas
1/2 cup corn kernels
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (or really, whatever you have lying in your fridge)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 cup cooked white rice
2 eggs
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup leftover dipping sauce from Shrimp and Cilantro Shu Mai (or to taste)

This is just what I used. Modify as needed to clean out your fridge.

First, heat some oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat. When hot, cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the peas and corn. If they're frozen, you may want to consider defrosting them first; however, I did not, and they turned out fine. Cook until everything is warmed through and the onions begin to color. Set veggies aside in a small bowl.

Add more oil - maybe 2 tablespoons - to the pan and let it warm up. When hot, add the garlic and ginger and saute for 15-30 seconds - any more and you will start to lose flavor. Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, tossing with the oil. Make a well in the center of the rice and add the eggs. Let them cook for a minute, then scramble them lightly and incorporate them into the rice. Add the vegetables back in and stir to combine.

Season as you see fit. I tossed in my leftover dipping sauce from the previous night's shu mai, which turned out lovely. I've also had success with soy sauce and black pepper, or even beer (pale ales work best). The best part? Plenty for leftovers, and a lot fewer bits and bobs in your fridge. Hooray!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mark Bittman's Homemade Shu Mai

Earlier today, when scrolling through the backlog of posts in my Google Reader "Food" folder, I spotted this. It's a recipe for shrimp and cilantro shu mai, courtesy of Mark Bittman. Can you count how many things about that sentence made me happy? Yes? Well, I'll still go ahead and list them for you, in case you missed any.

1) Shrimp. Delicious sea-insects. I don't eat them nearly as often as I used to when I lived on the Gulf Coast, because they're markedly more expensive in Chicago. (Actually, they're probably markedly more expensive back home in Texas now, too. Curse you, BP.)

2) Cilantro. Fairly self-explanatory.

3) Shu mai. Shu mai and I have an unholy bond, the kind of obsessive love that can only result from the satisfying of one's most basic needs in a fashion well above and beyond the call of duty. Essentially, I find them indescribably delicious.

4) Mark Bittman. If you don't know who he is, please see The Minimalist, his books, and his website. His cookbooks and blogs are my go-to resources when I'm looking for a simple, elegant dinner. I owe a great deal of my cooking style to his influence.

Immediately, I determined that a) this was the perfect excuse to finally buy a food processor and b) I must make these for dinner. An hour and a fight with my snow-boots later, I had acquired a Cuisinart:


and the ingredients, or the closest approximation thereof that I could manage:



Ingredients:

1/2 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine (I used mirin, a sweet rice wine)

1 tablespoon sesame oil (I used chili sesame oil, because it's what I had)

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (Seriously, what supermarket runs out of cilantro? I used parsley instead.)

1/4 cup roughly chopped scallions, white parts only

10 to 12 round dumpling skins (Mine were square. It's what they had.)

Juice of 1 lime.

First, whisk together the soy sauce, rice wine/mirin, sesame oil, and ginger.

Then, put half the shrimp, half the cilantro (or parsley), and all of the scallions into the food processor. Pulse until smooth.

Here, you can see me jumping the gun a bit. Add one or two tablespoons of your soy sauce mixture to the filling and pulse until you get a smooth paste. Then, the recipe instructs you to chop the remaining herbs and shrimp and add them to the filling, for textural variety. I just threw the remaining ingredients into the processor and pulsed it a few more times. Tsk tsk, lazy.

I swear I had a picture here of a dumpling wrapper, flat, with filling in the middle, but it seems to have gone missing. In any event, lay a wrapper flat, and brush the edges with water. Spoon some of the filling into the center. The recipe recommends about a teaspoon, but I used closer to two - possibly because my wrappers were square, and therefore larger.

Then gather the edges up around the filling, pinching them together, while leaving some of the filling exposed at the top.

Repeat as necessary. It's recommended that you keep your dumpling wrappers and dumplings under a damp cloth while working, but I neglected to do so and my dumplings (arguably) turned out fine. Just don't let them sit too long.

Set up a steamer in a large pot over about an inch of water. I actually have a steamer basket, but two ramekins and a plate (or something similar) works equally well. Bring the water to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Arrange a single layer of dumplings in the steamer and cover the pot. Meanwhile, add the lime juice to your soy sauce mixture.

Cook the shu mai until the filling is opaque and the wrapper is tender, 4-6 minutes. Transfer them to a serving platter, and repeat with the remaining dumplings. Serve them with the dipping sauce, like so:

As you can see, my square dumpling wrappers resulted in floppy little ears at the corners of my shu mai. Inelegant, sure, but no less delicious.

The filling has a variety of textures, but remains light, unlike a lot of Chinese-restaurant shu mai bricks. The greens add a bright, but not overpowering, flavor. I liked the parsley, but I think I would have preferred cilantro. However, I might have cut back on the amount of greens if I were using cilantro - it has a stronger flavor than parsley, and the parsley was pretty prominent. The dipping sauce was a great tangy complement to the dumplings; I love the combination of lime and seafood, though, so it would be hard-pressed to fail. In fact, if I were sure it wouldn't affect the texture of the filling too much, I might add some lime juice or a little extra dipping sauce to the filling before cooking. It certainly warrants experimentation.

The only real piece of advice I have regarding the recipe is this: don't be timid when shaping your dumplings! Squeeze that filling, pinch those corners, and don't be afraid if it squishes out the top a bit. I was a little shy with my first few dumplings, and they tried to fall apart on me in the steamer. Check out the Minimalist video if you need some guidance. They don't need to be origami works of art to be delicious.

Verdict: A+++ WOULD MAKE AGAIN.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kate Beaton

I've been reading through Hark! A Vagrant, and I think you should too, because Kate Beaton is wonderful and I'm fairly certain that I want to be her. This particular offering of hers never fails to make me lol.

EDIT: More Kate Beaton, specifically, the Pope comix, because I love JPII also.

One
Two
Three

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hot Doug's

Tall, Dark and Awkward and I went to Hot Doug's last Friday. He had never been, and I've made it my mission to broaden his palate with gourmet deliciousness of my own making and others'. I particularly wanted to go for the chardonnay and jalapeno rattlesnake sausage, with spicy guava mayonnaise and moody blue cheese. I am proud to say that the mission was successful, and I can now add rattlesnake to the list of animals that are delicious.

The line was surprisingly long for a Friday afternoon, and it was hot outside. I didn't mind too much - the line didn't extend past the end of the building, so we were standing in the shade. TDA had a bit of a hunger headache, though, so the wait was a bit fraught. "Doug," I thought, "whatever he orders had better be outrageously delicious, or he will probably dump me for making him do this." Fortunately, Doug came through for me. TDA had the smoked duck sausage with cherry mustard and goat cheese. He ploughed through it pretty fast, so I didn't get a chance to taste it - maybe I'll get him to do a guest post about it. My rattlesnake sausage was superb. For those who are unfamiliar, rattlesnake is a pinkish meat - it looks kind of like undercooked chicken, and tastes a bit meatier than frog. I didn't really get much of the chardonnay flavor, but the jalapenos did add a pleasant kick to the whole thing. The guava mayonnaise was tangy and sweet, and the blue cheese added a tartness that balanced the other flavors nicely. Moody blue was a good choice, I think, as it's not so strong as to overpower the flavor of the meat. This particular sausage is still on the menu, so I'd highly recommend giving it a shot if you're in the area. I'm headed out to Hot Doug's again this Friday with one Mr. Nick Simmons, so I'll have more to report on soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Giza Part 2

From the Solar Boat Museum, we drove to the Panorama. This spot isn't much in and of itself - it's a crowded patch of dirt, a foot- and tire-flattened, balady-dog-infested promontory that stands off to the side of the Pyramids. What it does have going for it is a peerless view of the three Pyramids (and the very top of the Sphinx's head, but that's less important). Here, let me show you:

20032010(002).jpg

Pretty cool, huh?

So we hung out there for a while, and let the sand bite our ankles and our eyes. Then we hopped back in the car and drove down to see the Sphinx. Let me tell you - one of the big advantages to having a curator as your personal tour guide is being able to park anywhere. The guards with their (probably non-functional, but I wouldn't want to test it) machine guns just wave and smile at you.

We threaded our way through the tourists and down into the temple. In one of the first courtyards was a pit, where one of the most famous statues in the Museum of Antiquities was found. Lisy had me pull out a five-pound note so that she could show me which one she meant. The floors in the temple were worn slick, like almost everything in Egypt seems to be, by millions of tourist feet. Hey, Mom and Dad, remember our trip to Spain? And how I wore those blue flip-flops with hard plastic bottoms, and I kept slipping and falling on my ass? Yeah, that's what it was like with me at the Sphinx. As we wound through the temple passageways, I had to shuffle my feet and adjust my weight so that my shoes didn't slide out from under me, all while avoiding other tourists and various kitsch-hawkers. The path slowly rose up toward an outcropping, which stands on the Sphinx's right side, up near its paw. This viewing platform took the lack of safety regulations to a new level. It stood nearly two stories high, and its top was natural bedrock - cracked and pitted and worn, and not a railing in sight. Lisy's hand hovered near my purse strap, ready to yank me back on to solid ground, because at this point I have to say that I wasn't paying much attention to where I was going. It was yet another overwhelming moment: standing before this giant monument, so iconic of the culture that I've loved since I was a child, shaped by the hands of workmen who lived longer ago than I can comprehend. The Sphinx really is magnificent, just as a work of art. The face is smooth and majestic, with the beatifically immobile features of the Old Kingdom perfectly embodied. Lisy finds it hilarious that if you follow the Sphinx's gaze, it stares directly into a Pizza Hut. And that, my friends, tells you just about everything you need to know about Egypt.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Pyramids at Giza

Heading to the Pyramids required a bit of preparation. Lisy, as the wife of a curator, is supposed to get in for free. At most other sites, she gets a reduced-price ticket as an Egyptian resident and the wife of an Egyptian. But of course, nothing is ever simple, and all of this is complicated by the fact that Lisy's about as white as they come. Since Wahied was guiding a group and couldn't come with us, he called ahead to pull a few strings. At the gate to the pyramid area, we asked for a particular guard by name, whose influence alone turned out to be not enough to let us through. He, however, was able to call Wahied's friend Mahmoud, a curator at the site, who I would learn that day is remarkably talented at opening doors.

With Mahmoud in our car, we pulled through the gate without a problem. He was tall and handsome, the kind of Jonesian figure that lends academia a little romance. We shook hands politely when Lisy introduced us. He pretended to be surprised that she even remembered his name. He apologized for his broken English, which was perfectly intelligible, and directed Lisy to a parking spot between the tourist buses.

There was no question where we would go first, and I trailed after Lisy and Mahmoud, trying not to lose my flip-flops in the sand. The Great Pyramid loomed overhead, crawling like an anthill with tourists speaking a Babel of languages. Mahmoud apologized for being tired; you see, he lives in Tanta, a Delta town three hours away from Cairo by car, and he drives in every day. Incredulous, Lisy asked why he would do that to himself. He loves his work, he explained, as he led us up the worn steps carved into the blocks of the Pyramid.

Uh, yeah. I guess I understand that.

After squeezing past about five gazillion other people on the narrow, guard-rail-less path, we came to a hole in the Pyramid's face. More than anything, it looked like the entrance to a cave. After the stinging brightness of the sands outside, it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the low glow of incandescent bulbs. The tunnel ahead was rough and twisting, hacked into the stone, and smelled cool and humid. Mahmoud led us the few meters to the end of the tunnel, and told us that he would wait for us here at the bottom. Forging onward, Lisy and I climbed a stone staircase. At the top were two iron rods, bent and hammered into the stone, serving as a short ladder to the hole which broke into the Pharaonic entryway.

This passage fits exactly every stereotype that has ever flitted through your head about exploring pyramids. Approximately three feet high, it led upward at an alarming slope. On the floor was a wooden plank, with steel bars at regular intervals providing footholds. (PROTIP: Don't wear flip-flops for this part. Trust me.) On either side were wooden banisters, for clinging - because that's really the only word for what you'll be doing to them. Every surface was worn smooth by millions of visitors. And thus, hunched over and fearing for our skeletal integrity, we began the trudge.

Just about the time you've gotten your heart rate up and settled into a nice cling-step-cling-step rhythm, the passageway opens up into an antechamber (called the Grand Gallery). The high ceilings step inward to create a crude vault, and a passageway to the Queen's Chamber diverges horizontally at this point. The wooden plank/steel crossbar arrangement splits around this passageway, and then continues up the Grand Gallery at the same unrelenting angle. I counted this as my cardio workout for the day. (Look, let's see you do it, alright? [Shut up, Dad.]) Contrary to what you may be thinking, being able to stand upright really doesn't make the climb any easier.

Finally, we reached the top, at which point we had to scuttle under a pair of massive stone blocks to enter the burial chamber. It was here that I learned the Great Truth concerning pyramids, which is universal and unbending: they all, every last one, smell of pee.

Ammonia haze aside, the gravitas of this moment is something I have difficulty conveying. The Great Pyramid, although certainly not the most interesting or elaborate Egyptian remnant, is nevertheless the best-known icon of my particular passion. To be standing in the burial chamber that I'd read about, seen pictures of, and even entered a virtual computer-game simulation of was a milestone. Add to that the sensation of being surrounded by thousands of tons of crushing stone, and you've got yourself a pretty dramatic moment. I whipped out my flashlight, as the chamber was actually quite dark, and investigated the monolithic sarcophagus on the far side of the room. Nothing in the chamber is carved or decorated; it's all plain surfaces of rough, dark stone. It's easy to see why the Pyramids engender such a sense of mystery. Still, with nothing much to see in a warm, stuffy room, we didn't stay terribly long. Out we scuttled, to do the entire process in reverse (it's harder that way!).

When we emerged, rubbery-legged and squinting in the sunlight, Mahmoud led us around the side of the Great Pyramid to the Solar Boat Museum. Built over the pit where the boat was found, the Museum is a top-heavy geometric structure nestled up against the Pyramid's base. Inside, we had to slip linen booties over our shoes to minimize the potential damage from sand and dust tracked in. We shup-shup-shupped through the first floor, examining models of the solar boat, which was found complete and disassembled in a massive rectangular pit. Several of the original limestone blocks still lay over the top of the pit, which took up half of the museum's ground floor. Nearby stood a case containing a tangled pile of the boat's original ropes, several of the knots still intact. The boat was most likely placed there by Khufu's son, approximately 4500 years ago.

We climbed to the second floor, which consists entirely of a viewing gallery for the boat itself, meticulously reassembled and conserved. It hangs above the ground-floor exhibits, lashed together with ropes, its oars propped in position. The four-thousand-year-old wood is in remarkable condition. The stern of the boat curves up and then drops in a graceful arc, the end carved like a lotus blossom. A small, roofed shelter with interior walls rises at the back end of the boat, supported by elegantly shaped poles. The whole structure is an impressive piece of craftsmanship, and a tangible connection to the pharaonic past. It is also a testament to the work of conservators and historians that it could be reconstructed so reliably and kept in such good condition. I spent most of my time at the Solar Boat Museum with my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open.

--Whelp, that's just the first half of the Giza trip, but it's a pretty long post. Soon to follow: Tombs! The Sphinx! More boring descriptions!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cairo: Traveling

Hey all! The Cairo posts are long overdue, I know. But it's awfully hard to sit down and write a worthwhile post when you're in the middle of such an amazing city.

To answer the most frequently asked questions, no, I did not line up a job, and no, I did not line up an apartment. But this is not as disastrous as it sounds. Firstly, I did have a meeting with ARCE, who told me that they don't usually take interns. They nevertheless told me that they might be able to offer me a volunteer position doing archival work. It would be GREAT experience, and would give me an opportunity to network in the Egyptian archaeological community. I also have part-time job prospects, at the expat cultural center in Maadi or as a proofreader for an English-language publication. Secondly, the agent - whom Lisy and Wahied informed of my travel schedule - contrived to be out of town while I was in Cairo. So I didn't get to look at any apartments. However, Lisy believes that finding an apartment will be decidedly easy, and the agent has told us that there will be more apartments available when I come back in June (and at better prices). Lisy has offered to let me stay with her until I find a place, which shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks. As you can see, things are falling into place fairly well.

Now, on to the part that you all really want to hear. I left Chicago at 10:30 PM Thursday, March 18 on a Turkish Airlines flight. This plane served to emphasize the fact that Middle Easterners have a special relationship with color; the seats and blankets were turquoise, the overhead lighting was navy blue, and the wall lighting was bright pink. The food on the flight was unexpectedly good, but bear in mind that I hadn't eaten anything for sixteen hours prior. Fasting is supposedly a ward against jetlag, and I'd recommend trying it - I had zero problems with the time difference.

The Istanbul airport is actually a really lovely place - but, like most airports, it's far less enticing when you're there for an hour longer than expected. On the other end, Lisy and Wahied had no way of knowing that my flight was delayed, as you have to pay to enter the Cairo airport if you aren't flying. Still, I arrived without event, and managed to pass through customs without a bag search. This was the subject of much discussion beforehand, with advice from Lisy on "looking clueless" and "authoritatively brandishing an American passport." She had a vested interest in my smooth exit, since I was "smuggling" ten pounds of puppy chow and assorted dog toys into the country for her.

Cairo is a brilliant city full of strange aesthetic juxtapositions, rather like if Daniel Burnham built a mobile home and then left his Christmas lights up year-round. Weird and tacky, classical and arresting, you're never quite sure what you'll see when you turn around. We drove down a brand-new freeway lined with palm trees on our way back to the greenery and classical villas of Lisy and Wahied's neighborhood. Driving in Cairo is like nothing else I've ever seen - it combines the free-for-all vehicular negotiation of Rome with the supremely confident pedestrian behavior of New York City. Cars maintain only centimeters of distance, and in fact most of them have a crushed and dented ring around their widest part. People amble carelessly across six lanes of high-speed traffic, prompting sudden stops and constant honking. And despite all of this, Lisy has managed to keep her two-year-old Honda from ever getting hit. I think she's gone native.

Well, that's a long enough post for now - I promise I'll get to the really cool stuff soon (maybe even this afternoon!). Next post: the Giza Pyramids!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ongoing Omnibus Autism rulings

The Omnibus Autism cases are continuing. The Special Masters ruled in favor of reality in Feb 2009, and they're continuing to do so this month. Let's hear it for SCIENCE!

That said, the antivaxxers are complaining that they'll never get a fair ruling in proceedings awash with big gub'mint money. So apparently, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear one of the cases. Now, I'm not sure how to feel about this - part of me is cranky that we're continuing to legitimize these people's complaints when they're so clearly unfounded. But another part of me hopes that all the publicity might convince a few more people who are teetering on the edge, and that would be a victory in and of itself.

What do you think?

ACTA Link Roundup

This morning, I read this article in the New York Times. In short, it discusses a recent study which has found that the Obama administration's efforts at greater governmental transparency (mostly in the form of FOIA requests) have been erratically implemented with heavily mixed results. The National Security Archive, a private research group affiliated with George Washington University, found that only 13 of the 90 government agencies that it queried had taken "concrete steps" to implement the administration's new policy on FOIA requests. That policy, for those playing the home game, places the burden back on the holders of sensitive information to show why it should not be released (as opposed to John Ashcroft and the Bush administration's policy, which placed the burden on requesters).

Those of you that have listened to me rant over the years know how I feel about transparency and freedom of information. My latest favorite attempt to screw us all over on this issue is the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Ten political entities (the US, the E.U., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates) are discussing this international network of policies for cracking down on copyright infringement. The real kicker? The content of the treaty is secret.

In fact, an official of the European Commission stated that several of its members were "uncomfortable" with the secrecy surrounding ACTA, according to a Computerworld article. And they're not the only ones. However, the treaty's contents cannot be released without the permission of all 10 negotiating parties. So who's stopping them? It turns out, according to a leaked Dutch government memo (Michael Geist's commentary, with links to the translated memo), that the holdouts are Denmark, Korea, Singapore, and - yeah, you guessed it - the US. The Obama administration has refused to release the content of the treaty due to "national security" concerns. (Seriously, what?)

So, what are the problems with the actual content of the trade agreement? I mean, it can't be all that bad - we've had the Digital Millennium Copyright Act since 1998, and it hasn't caused too many problems. (Ed. note - this is SARCASM.) Well, let me outline for you the issues that I have with ACTA:
  • Third-party liability: Service providers will be held responsible for infringing use of their services. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow's description, this would be like suing Kinko's every time someone used one of their Xerox machines for an infringing purpose.
    • Three-strikes policy: this is not, as far as I can tell, outlined in detail in ACTA; however, the treaty does require service providers to develop policies of action against infringing customers, potentially including termination of service to repeat offenders. Since France has already implemented such a three-strikes law, it would be easy to model any policies off of this existing one. This could potentially leave not only an infringer but her entire family without Internet access - cutting off their means of making a living, access to information, and civil involvement. Even more importantly, this policy is based solely on accusation by rights-holders, not on actual proof or conviction of infringement.
    • Restrictions on limited liability for third parties: Exactly what it sounds like. Service providers would have to meet certain requirements of enacting restrictive or punitive policies against their customers in order to be considered "safe" from their customers' infringing actions or content.
    • Notice and takedown: All participating countries would have to implement a DMCA-style notice and takedown procedure which removes infringing content based on an accusation by the rights-holder. As we've already seen with the DMCA, this kind of policy can be abused to censor criticism (c.f. Scientology).
  • Criminal penalties for non-commercial infringement: You heard me. You could go to jail for copying music or Camcordering a movie, even if it doesn't make you any money.
  • Prohibition on circumventing DRM: under ANY circumstances, even if it's for your own use. This fundamentally violates the concept of first sale, and essentially means that we're just leasing our content from the rights-holders, rather than actually trading our money for ownership.
The US and Japan were the main authors of the Internet chapter of ACTA (just so you know where this is all coming from).

This post is meant to be an extremely biased overview of why I feel strongly about this whole affair. For more information, check out the links below:

The ACTA Internet Chapter: Putting the Pieces Together
by Michael Geist, with more ACTA links along the left-hand side of the page
PDF of the leaked ACTA digital chapter

UPDATE: For an extra dose of surrealism, read this. I'm having trouble seeing how the two would play nicely (hint: not without some serious twisty logic).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I have to talk about this.

Okay, go read this article. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/us/politics/11texas.html

No really, I'll wait. Read it.

Done?

Ok, good. Let's go. Now, did that make you want to punch someone in the kidneys/breathe fire at your computer/dump a glass of water over your head? Yeah, you're not alone. The more I find out about the Texas State Board of Education, the angrier I get, especially about the fact that they have so much pull with textbook publishers. It's almost enough to make me ashamed of my home state. Almost.

As a person who works in the humanities, I can tell you first-hand that it's incredibly difficult to take any kind of absolute stance. Our discipline is all about interpretation. That said, in order to interpret, we need to have some kind of absolute starting point from which to extrapolate, and we also need to have a method for interpretation. In the case of archaeology, for example, the starting point is the collection of material culture from a particular site. These materials exist, can be examined, and their context is heavily documented - they're not up for question (well, okay, some might argue that, but that's a blog post for another day). Various methodologies exist for interpreting this hard data; this interpretation constitutes the practice of archaeological analysis, and ultimately of writing history. Methodologies are argued extensively, refined, reformed, reinvented, scrapped, and rediscovered. Despite what some archaeologists and historians may say, there is no single right way to go about interpreting a piece of archaeological data.

There is, however, a wrong way.

Take, for example, a piece of Persian sculpture, excavated at the exact same depth as a piece of Late Bronze pottery. An inexperienced archaeologist might conclude that hey, Persian culture existed a hell of a lot earlier than we originally thought! And that archaeologist would, most likely, be wrong. A not-wrong interpretation of the data is that the strata are tilted or sloped, based on the topography of the particular site. An even better interpretation is that in antiquity, a well or trench was dug into the Late Bronze and then backfilled with Persian material. Either one of these hypotheses can be confirmed or falsified with more contextual data. Essentially, training produces useful interpretations that can further elucidate a situation. Lack of training produces interpretations that add nothing to our understanding of the materials at hand.

Given this, let's take a look at what the Texas State Board of Education is trying to do by shoehorning a conservative agenda into social studies teaching standards. They've found several pieces of Persian sculpture within the context of American history - namely, conservative-identified politicians and movements. And now they're claiming that these pieces of sculpture are game-changing, and should overturn our current understanding of history. Now, to give credit to that inexperienced archaeologist in the example above, there was a very slim chance that he was not wrong. But the only people qualified to determine that are the people trained in solid methods of interpreting archaeological data. The same holds true for the State BoE. Should we change our understanding of American history to reflect a more prominent role for things like Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and "country and western music"? I don't know for sure, but I'd have to say that a DENTIST probably doesn't have any better idea than I do. You know who does? The historians who write textbooks. They're the ones that can tell us if these things are important, and what the most realistic method is for interpreting their existence.

In short: get your history from historians, not from a bunch of politics-driven armchair philosophizers.

Things to do today

Clean the litterbox
Clean my kitchen
Clean my room
Send out resumes
Go to the grocery store
And if there's time:
Bake bread
Blog properly

Well, cross your fingers for me. I'll either be much happier by the end of the day, or I will have chewed my own arm off with self-loathing. Hooray!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Writing

I spent all day thinking about restarting this blog, and writing, and other worthy endeavors, and here I was about to go to bed without having written a single word. Shame and ignominy. That said, there isn't much to say about today, so I'll leave you with a silly little scene I just thought up. It's a drabble (a 100-word piece of fiction), and I'll call it "Everyone Needs a Hero":

Anna leaned forward. Her eyebrow arched in anticipation. She had waited a lifetime to say this.

"No, Mr. Smith. I expect you to die."

The laugh broke through Smith's fear. He doubled over, guffawing so hard his chains jangled. "Really? You finally have me captured, I'm standing helpless in front of you, and all you have for me is a tired old Bond line? Christ, and I thought you were-"

He didn't even scream as he fell. Anna leaned back and puffed her cigar, immensely satisfied.

One of the trapdoor's hinges squeaked. She would have to remember to fix that.