Archive for 2009

Eggnog recipe

18 December 2009
Categories: Uncategorized

This is based on the eggnog recipe from the one cookbook I consider completely indispensable: the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. Through trial and error and personal preference I’ve modified it slightly (my notes in parentheses).

6 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups whole milk
1 vanilla pod
1/2 cup bourbon
1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

(These are the standard amounts, but I recommend to double them—a double batch still makes only a little more than a half-gallon.)

In a large saucepan, whisk together the eggs, extra yolks, and the sugar.

Slowly whisk in the whole milk.

Add one vanilla pod, split lengthwise.

Heat slowly over low-medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is between 160 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit and is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. (160 is needed for safety, but go past 180 and you’ll have scrambled eggs. Use an instant-read thermometer to monitor the temp. I use the same digital thermometer with a probe on a long cord that we use for roasts; I thread it through the handles of a binder clip attached to the side of the saucepan to keep the probe tip from touching the sides or bottom, for a continuous, accurate, and hassle-free reading.)

(Pull up a chair, you’ll be stirring for a while. It should take around 25–30 minutes, but my first time I was overly cautious with the heat and spent nearly 2 hours.)

Strain the mixture into a large mixing bowl. (Straining gets the spent vanilla pods out and also removes some of the larger bits that might have congealed. I usually have to give it a little encouragement with a rubber spatula to push it through the strainer.)

Add the nutmeg and bourbon, and blend thoroughly for a few minutes with a stick blender or hand mixer. (Blending really improves the texture. Fresh-ground nutmeg is a must—pre-ground nutmeg is no better than sawdust. For bourbon, no need to waste the top-shelf stuff. This year I used what I usually choose for a mixed drink—Jim Beam—and it was at least as good as last year’s batch with Maker’s Mark. Also, the amount listed here is a fairly low-octane amount, so spike it to taste.)

Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic right down onto the surface to prevent it from skinning. Chill for at least 3 hours. (Overnight or two will really bring out the flavor.)

Shake well or blend one more time before serving.

(America’s Test Kitchen wants you to fold in some heavy whipped cream at the last minute before serving, but I find this makes it much too rich. For a fancy presentation, top the glass with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkle some nutmeg on for garnish.)

I hope this recipe doesn’t sound overly complicated, because it’s really very simple—and the results are so very worth the effort.

Book recommendations: All-time favourites (the Desert Island Ten)

10 December 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Quite possibly my all-time favourite book, I re-read it every few years and each time I get something more out of it. An investigation into the concepts of truth and quality, sprinkled with commentary on Western academia, it uses the metaphor of a motorcycle to explain logic and rational thought. Though the book uses the narrative framework of a cross-country trip, the motorcyle one is taught to maintain is not the piece of hardware on which the author rides: it is one’s own self. Here’s an odd book report.

cover“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman
Here’s a book report.

coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Winner of a Pulitzer prize, published posthumously by the author’s mother. I won’t even try to summarise it. A masterpiece of pure genius. Here’s a book report, if it can be called that.

coverPrometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson
A guidebook for self-programming what John Lilly called the “human biocomputer.” Wilson uses his incomparable humour to explain the eight-circuit model of the brain and how each circuit is imprinted and conditioned. Mental games and exercises help the reader to understand the “programs” unintentionally imprinted on one’s brain during various stages of development, and enable one to rewrite detrimental programs and augment beneficial ones. You’ll find lots of quarters, too. Avoids the whacked-out zealotry of Timothy Leary, who pioneered the eight-circuit model.

coverThe Straight Dope by Cecil Adams
When I was in high school my grandfather gave me an early printing of this book, and it has remained one of my most prized possessions ever since. It’s not so much because he died not long after, but because I’m still curious to know what prompted him to give me a book that tells the true story (and, of course, the bawdy rumour) about Catherine the Great and the horse, as well as the caloric content of human sperm. These are just two of the hundreds of questions unabashedly and caustically answered by Uncle Cecil in this book and its sequels. What are the original lyrics to “Louie, Louie?” Why is there no Channel One? How many Eskimo words for snow are there really? Hilarious and informative, truly a “Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

coverThe I Ching, or Book of Changes translated by Wilhelm/Baynes
Both an oracle and a philosophy. I have read several different translations of this classic. Some are overly New Age. Some are so cryptically and tersely written that you’re probably better off learning Chinese and reading the original. This version is a bit academic and has a definite European cant, but it conveys some nice poetry and contains extensive commentaries on each of the 64 hexagrams.

coverVALIS by Philip K. Dick
This is (partly) a semi-autobiographical attempt to come to terms with an inexplicable mind-altering experience that PKD had in the early ’70s, which among other things allowed him to diagnose a life-threatening congenital defect in his young son that had gone undetected by physicians. Could it be that the “living word” of early Christianity was really an intelligent, symbiotic information packet which, when learned under the proper conditions, gave a person immortality? Could orbiting satellites be capable of firing pink laser beams of information directly into a person’s mind? These are but two of PKD’s many theories on the origin of his strange visions.

coverThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Even before the moment in 1933 when Leo Szilard stepped off a curb and had his epiphany of nuclear fission, the Atomic Age was inevitable. Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winner makes the difficult concepts of physics and chemistry understandable without oversimplification, and explains the background of each discovery as well. This could have made for a dull, tedious read, but Rhodes uses honest drama and solid characterizations to create a ripping good tale. No other book covers both the history and the morality of this subject better.

coverSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

8 July 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFor whatever reason, when I’m given books as gifts, I often don’t read them for a very long time afterward. They sit on the “pending” shelf in my library, gathering dust like all the rest, taunting me by tacitly saying, “me next!” But they only rarely make it to the head of the reading queue.

I suppose I could speculate on some reasons for this. One is the basic assumption of friends that I’ll like to read what they like to read. That’s not always the case. Slightly more off-base is the assumption that I’ll like what they think I’ll like. These are, of course, the normal pitfalls of gift books. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that the majority of books I’ve gifted over the years have similarly languished on shelves. I have no hard feelings about that fact, and so I suppose I should not feel all that guilty for doing the same.

To be honest, nearly every book I add to my collection tends to sit on the shelf for quite a while before I get around to reading it. Such is the way of the avid book collector.

Moreover, though, there’s the simple fact of my tendencies when selecting new reading. I like to think that the next book chosen is generally either a logical progression or wildly divergent from the last, but perhaps that’s not really true. In a quick review of my reading selections of the past few years, I see that they hop between several of my favourite topics—in particular space and history, and their literary adjuncts sci-fi and historical fiction—with the occasional digression into what can only be termed research reading, mainly into the history of my alma mater, Michigan State University. And then, mixed amongst those, there’s the odd book that doesn’t really fit into my usual routine but piques my curiosity due to interesting reviews, or coincidences with other media, etc., such as In Cold Blood (the movie Capote), The Dangerous Book For Boys (several rave reviews and sale-priced at Costco), The Barn House (excerpted in the Chicago Reader), and The French Connection (again, the movie), to name a few.

Into this fray leapt my friend David, who presented me with a hardcover copy of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. I’d read a positive and intriguing article about this book in the Reader, and so it was on my radar as something I might want to read some day. Yet given that the article ran nearly three years ago, it’s clear that I would not have gotten to it any time soon—had David not pressed the issue by giving me a copy for my birthday, and later asking an innocent question about whether I’d started reading it yet.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve never read anything by James Tiptree Jr.

As a kid, I got into sci-fi in grade school and read a bunch of it over the years, mostly sticking to stuff by a few of the “heavies”: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Around the time I graduated from college, I decided to expand my horizons and look beyond the familiar… but not knowing quite where to start, I decided to delve into the lists of Hugo and Nebula award winners. I could not have made a better choice—it was like having my own personal sci-fi Virgil to guide me. That’s how I discovered many of my very favourite authors, including Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, and David Brin.

(As an aside, I’m interested to note that four visits to my website this week have been the result of searches on “sci-fi book recommendations”—it turns out Google has my page currently listed third. Awesome. Google still loves me. As a result, I amended that page to suggest the Hugo and Nebula lists.)

Helping me considerably in my quest for quality sci-fi was Curious Book Shop in East Lansing. Long before authors like Delany enjoyed a renewed interest and subsequent re-issuance, I could almost always count on Curious to have the out-of-print paperbacks. (Sad to say, despite having borrowed its name from a classic Alfred Bester title, Chicago’s now-defunct shop The Stars Our Destination always came in a distant second to Curious in terms of both selection and price.) For example, one of Bester’s works, The Computer Connection, didn’t make Vintage’s reprint cut a dozen years ago, but I didn’t mind because I’d already managed to find the Analog 1974/5 three-issue serialisation (with the unfortunate title The Indian Giver) in the basement at Curious.

But I never read Tiptree, and here’s why: he mainly wrote short stories. Back when I was hitting Curious on a weekly basis, it was in the very early days of the web and it was not as easy as it is now to determine where these stories have been published. On the rare occasion when I could figure out a source, it often involved some thick anthology, which felt unfrugal to purchase for the sake of a single entry. So I stuck to the Best Novel lists.

To my detriment, it would seem—Tiptree’s stories sound fascinating. And if I may offer one caveat regarding Phillips’ biography, having read fewer than a hundred pages into it, I fear that it might contain more than a few spoilers—it already has given away a couple of endings. Perhaps it would be in my best interest to seek out some of Tiptree’s work in advance of finishing the biography.

Easily done, of course. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects several of his best-regarded works, including the Nebula Award–winning “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” the Hugo Award–winning “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Nowadays, there’s something called the “Internet Speculative Fiction Database” that makes that kind of fact-finding simple; not to mention for a quick and easy shopping spree. (Sorry, Curious… just can’t make a 200-mile road trip right now.)

Trouble is, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon is awfully hard to put down. I’m fascinated by Alice’s childhood experiences in the disparate but equally wild jungles of the Belgian Congo and Chicago’s upper-class society. Julie Phillips employs clear understanding and deft phrasing to explain the origins of her “double life” in language that avoids stereotyping and value judgments. When discussing written works she treats Sheldon and Tiptree as distinct, using both gender-specific pronouns depending on whether she (Sheldon) or he (Tiptree) was the writer, a conceit I have followed here.

All in all, I doubt I’ll be able to hold off on finishing this terrific biography before a box with the familiar smiley-swoosh arrives. Thank you, David!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

30 June 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverFollowing a recommendation from a colleague at work, and attracted by his piecemeal summaries as he progressed through the book himself, I recently read House of Leaves, by first-time novelist Mark Z. Danielewski.

The grab-line from the front flap is catchy: “A young family… moves into a small house… where they discover something terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”

But that barely scratches the surface of what the book’s really about. The story is told (with occasional interjections by an unnamed “Editor”) by a twentysomething slacker named Johnny Truant who discovers a shambolic manuscript by a dead man named Zampanò, about a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer named Navidson, head of the aforementioned “young family,” who films the experience of moving into the little house in the country and the subsequent expeditions into its strange spaces, and edits it into an alternately acclaimed and despised cult film. Zampanò discusses and analyses the film with scholarly exactitude, yet his manuscript is a disheveled, incomplete mess; Truant reprints and organises Zampanò’s manuscript, completing his references and finding translators for its foreign-language excerpts. All the while, Truant’s footnotes frequently digress into rambling tales of his life and how working on the manuscript has invaded his mind and taken over his every moment.

The trouble with the manuscript, as Truant comes to discover, is that neither Navidson, his former-model wife, nor the film ever existed. And even if they had existed, Zampanò’s detailed descriptions of the cinematography would be suspect, considering that he was blind.

This nested concept, centered around a lengthy dissertation about a fictitious film that seems to engross the mind of anyone who comes into contact with it, makes a very interesting premise, and the book starts off promisingly, with frightening hints even in Truant’s introduction that things have gone terribly wrong for him as a result of editing Zampanò’s manuscript. After a while, though, despite a decent intertwining of love story and horror story, there’s something about the author’s arch conceits that becomes a distraction rather than an integration.

There are the little inscrutable typographical puzzles, like the fact that every instance of the word “house” throughout the book including the front cover, in any language, or even embedded within longer words, is printed in blue. Much more obvious (if not facile) were the pages that are meant to illustrate the sense of confusion and space-shifting that happens to the occupants of the house, with print that appears upside-down, or sideways, or only at the very top or bottom of the page.

There are the rampant footnotes, which I ordinarily wouldn’t mind, until it became clear that a great many (if not all) of them were citations of fake journals, magazine articles, and books, and simply a part of Zampanò’s elaborate hoax. I got to wondering if Danielewski got tired of making up fake article titles, because I certainly got tired of reading them all.

Then there’s the smugness of its self-reference. In a chapter where the lost expedition taps out S.O.S. in Morse code, Zampanò describes how Navidson’s film echoes the pattern of ••• ––– ••• with its editing: three short takes, followed by three long takes, followed by three more short takes. Meanwhile, the paragraphs describing these takes follow the same pattern. This might have been an ingenious idea—if not for the fact that by the end of the chapter Truant has pointed out the paragraph pattern to us, just in case we have missed it. I still haven’t decided whether Danielewski is being patronising or merely a spoiler by doing this; either way it’s annoying.

Annoying enough that when I got to the chapter about the labyrinth, with its mirror-image pages, and footnotes that tunnel down through page after page, or reverse back, or twist this way and that, with circular references and myriad dead-ends, it was all too easy as a reader to say, “Yes, I get it—the chapter about the labyrinth is itself a labyrinth. Can we move along now?”

I suppose mainly I just didn’t fathom House of Leaves. I wanted to like it, and much of it was interesting and intriguing. Yet its open-ended tendency to leave many of its notions unexplained might be best exemplified in the Ouroboros of self-reference that results when, in the final stages of deconstruction, Navidson burns the pages of the book he’s reading in order to provide the light he needs to read it—a book titled House of Leaves, presumably a copy of the very book we hold in our hands.

It’s only mentioned that one time, a throwaway comment that refuses to address its utter impossibility. It left me feeling much like Navidson must have felt—that I needed to hurry up and finish reading the book. Except that for him, the impetus was that he was swiftly running out of pages to burn before he caught up to the page he was reading; for me the impetus was tinged with the thought of getting it over with so that I could have closure and move on to something—anything—more enjoyable to read.

New cover, same old dog-eared book

13 May 2009
Categories: Self-referential

I have decided that this weblog is in need of a name change.

I originally named it Spontaneous Publicity on a whim, from the line in the movie The Jerk where Steve Martin’s character sees that the new phone books have arrived and excitedly exclaims, “This is the kind of spontaneous publicity—your name in print—that makes people.”

This was back in September 2005, when my first entries into a nascent weblog were about other weblogs having taken notice of my Blues Brothers map. To have other people talking about my website was, quite literally, “spontaneous publicity”—which immediately made me think of that movie line, and thus I had a title for my weblog.

Of course, since then my topics have ranged much further from self-referential contemplation of my website and its place in cyberspace (this entry notwithstanding). The title has no relevance to these topics.

In addition, I find that the domain name for the dot-com version of this title is held by some Microsofter and his family, and is used for the usual semi-literate stuff-going-on-in-our-lives rambling of all blogs—I won’t denigrate it any further than that, per the “glass houses” rule. Suffice to say that we both got our titles from the same source, but they bought the domain name when I didn’t bother to do so. By the way, my blog pre-dates theirs by more than two years. But no matter.

Here’s the funny thing, and the one reason I’m reluctant to change my weblog’s name. If you Google “spontaneous publicity weblog” my site, not theirs, comes up first. This is because Google loves me. (Of course, if you use the loogie-word “blog” instead of “weblog,” theirs wins.)

Still, that’s probably not enough reason not to change it. Moreover, a good reason to change the name is this: I’m not all that big a fan of The Jerk.

I have a front-running candidate for the new title. It comes from having clicked on an external link in my entry on Angelo Testa the other day, in order to check that it was still a good link. It came back successful, with this result: 460
Angelo Testa
USA, c. 1978
11.5 h x 28.5 w inches
: A Boolean argument was expected. Provenance: Collection Of The Artist; Daniel Czubak, Chicago

As I read the description, I thought to myself: that’s an interesting title for that work. It took me several seconds to realise it was in fact a database error—“A Boolean argument was expected.”

Here’s a point in favour: current Google results imply it would stand out a little more…

  • “spontaneous publicity” = 2440
  • “A Boolean argument was expected” = 1210

Best of all, the title is in a vague way a better reflection of what this weblog is about. The arguments one finds here are distinctly not Boolean. There are no clear-cut, black-and-white, Manichaean dichotomies here. Just a whole lot of shades of grey. Kind of like the new “inove” theme it’s using.