(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Chocolate Project, episode 3: Baker's unsweetened, part 1

(This picture is a link: you can buy this chocolate on Amazon.)

I wasn't going to do this at first, but then I figured, why not?  After all, this is what I used when I first started making hot chocolate the old-fashioned way.  For a long time, this was practically the only chocolate I used.  And despite what I wrote about not knowing better, this chocolate is not bad.  It's a decent, nice everyday chocolate, if you're into drinking this kind of stuff frequently -

like 17th-century Spaniards.  In A New Voyage Round the World (that link will take you to a free ebook) William Dampier wrote:

The nuts of this coast of Caracas, though less than those of Costa Rica, which are large flat nuts, yet are better and fatter, in my opinion, being so very oily that we are forced to use water in rubbing them up; and the Spaniards that live here, instead of parching them to get off the shell before they pound or rub them to make chocolate, do in a manner burn them to dry up the oil; for else, they say, it would fill them too full of blood, drinking chocolate as they do five or six times a day.

I'm not to the point of drinking chocolate that often - not yet.  And I'm sure that Baker's, as cheap as it is, isn't made from high-quality Venezuelan beans.  (I'm guessing that it's made from forastero beans grown in West Africa.)  This chocolate strikes me as a good one to use for backpacking trips or something of the sort.  I say this because I'm thinking of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, which carried chocolate as part of its provisions.  I don't know for sure what kind of chocolate they had in Santa Fe to outfit overland expeditions like that, but I imagine it might have been relatively cheap, rugged stuff like this.

So, to establish a baseline, I whipped up some of this stuff for the family the other night.  Here's the recipe:
  • 4 ounces chocolate
  • 4 Tablespoons raw cane sugar
  • a little splash of fine vanilla (my sister taught us how to make it by soaking vanilla beans in brandy)
  • 1 cup boiling water
I'll try other sweeteners later; I think the raw cane sugar works very nicely with the flavor of the chocolate.  Baker's doesn't taste as "dark" as others, with what I consider more mid-tones than low or high.  Even the color is paler.  So the more caramel-ish character of the raw sugar fits it nicely.

My sweetie described the flavor as milder and subtler, and that for some reason it reminded her of trees.  Our seven-year-old found it rather bitter, while I found the sweetness level just about right.  The baby thought it was grand, as always.
Detail from Le Dejeuner by François Boucher; the full image is at the bottom of this post.
In conclusion, Baker's unsweetened chocolate makes a good drinking chocolate for common use.  And since it's usually very affordable (right now you can get a box on Amazon for a little over $2, which is as good a deal as you usually find in grocery stores), it's a good one to start with if you're interested in learning how to make it this way.  It's sad that they don't sell it in eight ounce boxes anymore: they're only four ounces now.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Sigur Rós fantasies, part 2 (or, brass buttons)

Brass buttons!  I have a navy peacoat that has brass buttons.  My sister gave it to me over 20 years ago and it used to fit me very nicely.  The thick wool is like armor.  It's shapewear, really: can you tell in this picture that I was overweight?

In Boston, at the birthplace of a great-great grandfather, 1998
Trench coats or dusters are a standard nerd uniform, but they don't have anywhere near the panache of thick wool and brass buttons.  I've decided that if I'm going to be odd, I'd rather do it in a way that aspired to an absolute elegance.

When Sigur Rós released Kveikur in 2012, I held off from getting it for a while, because I was sad that Kjartan had left.  But it's become one of my favorites - especially "Stormur" and "Bláþráður" which share a very similar sound.

In the video for "Glosoli" from their 2006 release Takk, a drummer boy in an old military-style coat leads a group of children.

And the band members have sported costumes reminiscent of military uniforms (or marching band - anyway, with lots of buttons):

Maybe that's why, when I listen to "Stormur" and "Bláþráður," I feel like some kind of fabulous cosmic dragoon, decked out in a splendid coat of sober color, with the thick wool covering a body formed in appropriately manly proportions.  Somewhat like that drummer boy, I imagine myself soaring above the landscape, taking in the vastness of it, or marching along on some purposeful errand - or maybe just on one of my hikes (I'll write more about that later).

I mentioned that my coat feels like armor.  In fact, I credit part of the impetus for my novel in progress to that coat: the refinement and elegance of industrialized aesthetics that produced the clean lines of such a coat (instead of the sweeping curves of 18th-century military dress) attract me greatly, but I wanted to visualize a society that could achieve this sort of thing - and early industrial technology - but without the dehumanizing weapons of modern warfare.  I imagined trains, wool coats, brass buttons and sabers - without firearms.

This was in my head long before I ever heard of steampunk - and my vision was of a cleaner look than the clutter I often see in steampunk illustration and cosplay.  It's been interesting to observe emanations of my teenage visions appearing in contemporary fantasy - from the Mistborn Trilogy to Frozen.

Frozen: Scandinavian aesthetics.  Is this my Danish background coming through?  I saw Babette's Feast for the first time in college, and those snappy military uniforms made quite an impression.  (One of my favorite scenes also is where the storekeeper puts on his postal hat to deliver a letter.)  I grew up in a household with Danish furniture and utensils and so maybe I imbibed an appreciation for Nordic design that way.

I also grew up in a family where we were expected to dress up for many occasions.  This meant that I quite often wore a blazer - and hated it.  I think back on this as something like the way I hated math, even though I was good at it, and for a time even was a member of a competitive "Math League" in junior high.  It turned out that wearing a navy blue wool jacket - with brass buttons - was ideal for playing soldiers after church.  Perhaps I would have been mollified more often in my father's dress code requirements had he appealed to that sense of fantasy - you don't have to dress up, you get to do cosplay.  After all, I did find his old military gear and regalia irresistible, and I have enjoyed dressing in olive and khaki, despite my pacifism.
Minneopa State Park, Mankato, Minnesota, 1999

But that's another story. 
 (This post contains affiliate links, which I put in whenever and however I like.  Click or don't, as you wish.)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

I can't quit science fiction: LTUE 2016

(This post is quite unpolished, but I'm putting it up anyway, because if I wait too long it won't be as relevant.)
I just got done with another year of Life, the Universe, and Everything, the annual science fiction and fantasy symposium held in Provo every February.  I've been involved with this on and off over the years ever since attending my first one in 1995.  While in college in the late 1990s I served on the planning committee, and now that I'm living in the area again I hope to serve on the committee for next year's meeting.

This thing has been going on since 1983.  It's a symposium, or supposed to be.  I haven't observed it continuously for the past 20 years because I've been away for such large gaps, but when I think back on the times I attended in the 1990s and the last few years, I perceive some differences.  Subcultures of science fiction and fantasy appreciation have grown immensely since I was a teenager, with people scrambling to claim the title of "geek" as a badge of honor.  My memory might be distorted, but from what I recall, this did not happen in 1994.

Now there are multiplying fandoms burgeoning with eager new geeks.  I have relatives who number among these, but they're nowhere near as hardcore as the people at LTUE.  Here you see the older generations of nerds: people who were nerds before it was cool.  And now they bring their children.  Fandom and geekdom might be getting popular, but these people are the real deal and they still don't blend in to the mainstream.

I'm reminded of a Cory Doctorow essay I read:

Standing in Melbourne airport on the day before this year’s World Science Fiction convention, I found myself playing the familiar road-game known to all who travel to cons: spot the fan. Sometimes, “spot the fan” is pitched as a pejorative, a bit of fun at fannish expense, a sneer about the fannish BMI, B-O, and general hairiness.
. . . 
Looking for fans isn’t just about looking for heavyset people, or guys with big beards, or people who are sloppily dressed. Looking for fans is about looking for people who appear to have given a great deal of thought to how they dress and what they’re doing, and who have, in the process of applying all this thought to their daily lives, concluded that they would like to behave differently from the norm. It is about spotting people who are dressed as they are not because of fashion, nor because of aspiration, but because they have decided, quite deliberately, that this is the best thing for them to wear.  ("A Cosmopolitan Literature for a Cosmopolitan Web," from Context, available here for free download)

I've thought a lot about wearing costumes to LTUE - some people do.  It's nowhere near as extreme as, say, DragonCon.  It's really not a convention, but I perceive an entropic sort of impulse to devolve it into simply a time and place for misunderstood people to geek out.  I've seen these forces operating since I started attending, and that's part of what drives me to want to stay involved: I want to help maintain its academic mission, keep it focused on and aspiring toward academic rigor.  Along with that goes a recognition of what Cory wrote, and a realization of why I can't stay away from speculative fiction: in its purity, this isn't about pumping out infinite pulpy repetitions of predictable escape fantasies, it's about exploring ideas - and for me, ultimately, it's about imagining how this world might be different - better.

Mormon SF/F fandom - the old kind - is a strange and wonderful subculture.  I don't wholly fit in, and I have my frustrations with it, but I feel at ease there (more at ease than in mainstream Mormon culture for sure).  Despite the many ways I see the culture falling short of what I see as its potential - or because of them - I am drawn back again and again, and after attending LTUE this year I feel even more strongly oriented to who and what I am.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Chocolate Project, episode 2: Winco buttons

I discovered these around 2009, if I remember right.  I'm not sure who makes them, but they're in the bulk section of Winco, an employee-owned chain of grocery stores spreading through the inter-mountain west.  They're 64% cacao solids, and they have extra cocoa butter added, which gives them a smooth velvety feeling when beaten up into a drink.  They melt fairly quickly and are obviously made from pretty good beans.

I've been drinking these for a long time, usually with spices added, but of course for this first phase of the experiment, I did them plain, as before, using a third cup of water for two ounces of chocolate.

Our girls thought it was perfect.

My sweetie describes it as quite sweet, with a nice round flavor and a nice aftertaste.  Kind of a fruity note.

I thought so too: to my taste it seems to have more mid-high notes than the Guittard chips, and a reasonably clean finish.  Again, the added cocoa butter gives the drink an extra smoothness, which helps lubricate the thick consistency.

I will continue to use these for as long as I can foresee.  Although a little sweeter than I sometimes prefer, they're nice and luxurious and a good mainstay.  They're particularly good with some flavors that I'll write about later.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Sigur Rós fantasies, part 1

(Part 1: Introduction)

I discovered Sigur Rós in 2001, right as they were starting to make big waves across the Atlantic.  Like countless other 20-somethings, I swooned to "Svefn-g-englar" in my candlelit bachelor apartment.  I saw them perform in DC that year, and after the show I stuck around to bug them.  I remember talking to Orri as he smoked and looked around as if he couldn't wait to finish talking with me and get on with the rest of his evening.  As I was leaving the venue I spotted Kjartan and called out "Thanks for the show!"  "No problem," he replied.

Afterwards I felt foolish.  I already knew about fame and how it puts sensible musicians on their guard (I listen to Rush, for heaven's sake).  Watching the interview sections in Heima I was reminded of that.  When people make music that reaches a large audience, their music comes to mean many things for all those different people, and that means there has to be a boundary set up, to prevent the listeners from imposing their projections on their fellow human beings who make the music, who have their own separate lives.

I recognize this, and despite my seven-year-old daughter's wish to fly to Iceland and visit Jónsi (yes, she's a fan too, like many children, as I understand) I know that most likely I'll never be in the same room with those guys again and that I have no right to expect that just because I like their music they'd want to be my friends.

But in my own personal take on their music, and my own interaction with the copy of the version of their persona that reaches me, Sigur Rós is my band in a way that few others are.  For one thing, those guys are my age (I'm not quite two months older than Orri).  Right now the only other band I can think of that I listen to, with members my age, is Aloha.  Since I discovered them I've followed them through the phases of the twenties and thirties, and I've had moments of deep empathetic resonance (which again I recognize can only go so far).  For example, when I saw a clip of their second film Inni, especially with Orri wearing that crown of his.  I can't quite explain, but something in that sight struck me with a deep familiarity.  What was it?  I don't know if I can explain.

Maybe it was a simple recognition of the impulse to dress up when playing the drums.  I have done my share of theatrical self-presentation as a drummer:

And as I wrote not too long ago, I have been feeling this desire for more personal adornment lately.  I wonder how much of it comes from my approaching middle age.  I've been wearing jeans and t-shirts for over 20 years, and as I see more grey hairs in the mirror, not only do I feel a wish to present myself to the world with a dignity and a distinction, but I still have enough of my youthful idealism and turn-of-the-century experience that I want my distinction and dignity to be something more universal, more human, more psychologically whole than the dominant image of the businessman of the 20th century industrialized world.

Sporting my rainforest jasper pendant, brass cuff and a homemade bead bracelet.
  So seeing Orri in that garb was an affirmation, but I could say it was a reminder of our collective mortality also.  However I might explain it, something clicked as I watched, spoke a kind of resigned peace to my mind: these guys will grow old too, as I will.  Watching this with the benefit of my limited experience in a drum chair on the stage, and with the amplification of my own imaginings, I felt I was arriving at a better understanding of what it looks like "from both sides now" to be a creator who reaches a large audience - a goal I still aspire to.

It helps to sweep away even more of the hero-worship that held sway over me in my youth.

I'm going to write in later posts about some of the things their music means to me.  After all, they have encouraged this, with the wordless liner notes and title-less tracks of their third album, and their experimental video projects.  So this is the introduction and there will be more to come in this series.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"It's hard to be humble . . . when you're Danish"

I'm still working on my grandmother's research notes.  Today I'm in the local library, with a carrel by the window and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert on my headphones.  It's nice.

I just found some notes she took from William James - I like William James.  I had started to read The Varieties of Religious Experience a couple of years ago, and this reminds me I ought to try to finish it.  (You can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.)

These notes were bundled with some drafts she had written about Danish history.  My great-grandmother was born in Utah to parents who had recently immigrated from Denmark - Scandinavia supplied a huge number of Mormon immigrants in the early days.  My great-great-grandfather, in fact, was called as a missionary to southern Minnesota (where I also lived for 12 years) and met many fellow Danes there.

So my father has one Danish grandparent, and my mother does too.  And I can feel a certain pride in that heritage when my grandmother wrote: "Denmark came to appreciate and give worth to peace.  She developed ways by which peace could be maintained without aggressiveness in conquest and control of other nations."

I have felt a lot of pride in my Danish heritage and hope to go visit Denmark some day.  I continue to be curious about what Grandma thought and wrote concerning the history of Salina.  Many times I've reflected on what a shock it must have been for inhabitants of a prosperous green low land bordering the sea, to find themselves in a dry landlocked country with red cliffs towering over their new homes.  I think that's one of the distinguishing oddities of American history in general: how many groups of people have tried to adapt ways of life that evolved in certain environments, to new environments that are radically different. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Chocolate Project, episode 1: Guittard Extra Dark chips

It has begun!  The Chocolate Project is officially underway with the first family tasting.  For the first few rounds, we will try a variety of chocolate, plain, without spices (other than vanilla).  Then we'll start adding different spices and flavorings and making notes of what works well with what.  Oh yes, this is going to be fun!

I discovered Guittard Extra Dark chocolate chips a few years ago, after having used Winco's chocolate buttons for a while.  These things are 63% cacao, which is a bit sweeter than I generally prefer, but they're convenient to use (they melt quickly into the hot water) and they're made with pretty good beans.  They don't quite have the complex richness that some of the finer brands have, but they're a lot closer that Baker's (which I used for a long time before I knew better).  Their ingredient list: Cacao beans, sugar, sunflower lecithin and real vanilla.

Ready to begin.  (I'm not very happy about the color here - I'll try to do better in following pictures.)
The method is the same for each one we try: heat the water to boiling, pour into the pitcher and beat it with the molinillo.  I got my main molinillo (pictured above) in a Mexican import store in Pittsburgh, and as for the pitcher, I don't know where you can get one.  My sweetie found it for me it at the local DI (Deseret Industries, a chain of thrift stores managed by the LDS Church).  But it's similar to one I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  Sorry not to have a link to buy one of those yet.

I used 2 oz of chocolate chips and 1/3 cup of water per serving, and made three servings total (I shared mine with the baby).  Here's what we thought:

The baby said: "Nomnomnomnom!"

My sweetie and our seven-year-old both thought it was quite sweet, grabbing at the back of the mouth, with an earthy kind of flavor.  I found it slightly caustic on the roof of my mouth, with a reasonably clean finish and a rich dark flavor.  Not as elegant or delicate in its bouquet of aromas as some varieties, but good and dark.  There's something in its flavor that to me suggests beets, in a good way.  Thick and maybe I would say somewhat fuzzy.

All in all, an excellent chocolate for common drinking.  I've used these for demonstrations in schools due to their ease of preparation and relative cheapness, and I expect I will continue to use them often.  If you want to buy some online, Amazon sells them in packs of four: