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March 2005

The Bush Reality

Oh good!  My letter to the New York Times showed up today (that's two out of two!).  The letter references a long article by Ron Suskind that appeared in the New York Times magazine last October.  It costs $2.95 to get it out of the archive now, but it is well worth it -- the best piece of reporting that I've seen to explain the way the people in the White House think.  (It also costs $2.95 to read my earlier letter -- probably not worth it.)


Josephine Danielle Earnest

Our Valentine's Day plan was to have our potato pancakes and champagne, and then head back to bed to watch movies...  etc....

But I was just flipping the first batch when Marian called.  Josie was on the way.  So Lynn finished her brunch and headed to the hospital (appearing to be quite calm about it all, but I could see just how hysterically excited she was.  I suppose I was the same).   

Josie was born about 7:10 (8lbs, 8oz; 21 inches).  I got to hold her for the first time about an hour and a half later.  Standard practice at the Shelby Medical Center is to keep the mother for two nights, so Marian & Josie will be going home this afternoon.

Pictures to follow....


Potato Pancakes

It's Valentine's Day, so we're skipping work and spending the day in bed drinking champagne and eating potato pancakes.  Here's the recipe:

I was in my twenties before I knew that potato pancakes were an ethnic food.  When I was growing up they were just something wonderful that my mother made from time to time.  I learned from her when I went off to college (she gave me the electric skillet that she'd always made them in) and they've been a primary comfort food for me ever since.  In the last decade they've become the centerpiece to a brunch that I make for Lynn every chance I get.

It started while I was still living in St. Louis and she was in Birmingham.  She'd arrive for a weekend visit and we'd have dinner at one of our favorite restaurants and stay out late at the clubs.  We'd be hungry when we finally woke up around noon, and I'd make potato pancakes and serve them with champagene.  We'd stay in bed until it was dark and time to go out again.  When we got married, we promised each other that we'd still have days like that, so whenever we come upon a Saturday at home without a bunch of other things planned, I'll make the potato pancakes and champagne brunch. 

Start by taking a bottle of champagne out of the refrigerator.  Put it in the ice bucket and add ice.  Excuse me?  You don't keep a bottle champagne in the refrigerator at all times?  Shame on you!  (We use Freixinet Brut, a Spanish sparkling wine that costs about $10 a bottle).

Next, grate the potatoes.  The Colorado goldens work extremely well, and recently I've come across some butter goldens that are even better.  I'd only use Idahos as a last resort.  This is also a good way to use up old potatoes that you wouldn't want for anything else.  In fact, they're better if they're getting a little withered -- dig out the eyes and cut away the soft spots and they'll be just fine.

My rule of thumb is about a large potato and a half per person.  Turns out to be about 12 to 15 ounces of potato each.  It's easy to overeat these things, so you're better off not making too many.  Lynn keeps telling me that we can freeze them to have later.  Just ignore her.

I've seen (and occasionally used) recipes that call for grinding up the potatoes in a food processor, and I suppose that's fine, but it makes a smoother batter than I like.  I use an old four sided kitchen grater.  Yes, it's a bit of a pain, but think of it metaphorically.

After the potatoes are grated, I get the pan started.  That gives the shortening time to get hot while I finish making up the batter.  I have a large, round, non-stick stove top griddle now that works great, but any large frying pan will do.  I set it just a touch above medium heat.  You may find that you need to turn it down as you do additional batches -- you don't want to cook them too fast.  Add enough Crisco to fill the bottom of the pan.  Leave the canister next to the stove; you'll be adding more throughout the cooking process.  No, don't worry about calories!  You're planning on drinking champagne in the middle of the day with someone you love, for heaven's sake!  What in the world are you doing worrying about calories?  (Incidentally, I insist on Crisco; if you must use some other vegetable shortening, just don't tell me about it.)

While the shortening is getting hot, finish making the batter.  Add salt and pepper liberally.  Lightly beat one egg and mix that well into the ground potatoes.  Then add flour.  This is the most critical part of the whole process, but I can't tell you how much to use because it depends entirely on how much water is in the potatoes.  Start with about a quarter cup and mix that in well.  Lift out a spoonful of batter and pour it back into the bowl -- it should clump together slightly.  If it seems too runny, add just a little more flour.  If you use too much flour, the pancakes will be doughy and heavy and you won't be happy with them, so you're better off using less than you think you need until you get the hang of it.  (I've been making these for thirty years and I still get it wrong sometimes).

By now the shortening should be hot, but test it first  by dropping a smidgen of batter in, near the edge of the pan.  It should sizzle and start to brown immediately.  If the shortening isn't good and hot when you put the first batch in, the batter will soak up the shortening rather than fry in it.

Drop the batter in by large spoonfuls and use the back of the spoon to spread the batter out slightly.  I can fit four at a time into my pan.  It's okay if they touch a little.  If the burner that you're using is smaller than the circumference of the pan, they're going to cook unevenly.  After they've started to set, turn each one 180 degrees so that the undersides cook evenly.  The underside is done when the side you're looking at is dry.  Flip them over then and brown the other side.

While the first batch is cooking, you can get out the plates and flutes.  We generally serve the pancakes with cottage cheese (don't use low-fat!  See "Crisco," above).  I have mine with salt and butter, but Lynn has her own special seasoning blend that she sprinkles on.  I've included the recipe for that below.

When the pancakes are done, set them on a paper towel for a second to soak up the excess shortening.  Add another spoonful of shortening to the pan, and put in your second batch of pancakes.  Pop the champagne and serve.

If you're pacing yourself well, the second batch should be ready at just about the time you're done eating the first batch.  You should end up with five or six pancakes apiece.

By the time you finish, you should still have about a third of the bottle of champagne left -- take it back to bed with you.  Have a nice nap.

Variation:  I'll sometimes have these with steamed green beans.  Lynn thinks it's pretty weird, but she thinks a lot of things I do are pretty weird.  That's part of what keeps us together.

Lynn's potato pancake seasoning:

(You can mix this us and keep it in an emptied spice shaker jar)

1 TBL. Onion Powder

1 Tbl. Garlic Salt

1 Tbl. Butter Salt (not "Butter Buds")

1 tsp. Garlic Pepper

1 tsp. Paprika

(I have no idea how she comes up with this stuff)


Becoming Iran

When the Governor angrily calls for a professor at the University of Colorado to be fired for something inflammatory that he's written, my first thought is that this has got to be just for political points -- surely someone who has attained the position of Governor must understand that firing a university professor for something that he's written is absolutely antithetical to everything that this country is supposed to stand for.  He must just be pandering, trying get some easy political cred among the unthinking outraged.  But no, I sigh, he probably is a member of the unthinking outraged and is genuinely, honestly, trying to protect the citizens of his state from the despicable threat of unpopular ideas.

It's unlikely that he's actually read Churchill's essay, or Churchill's response to the controversy (available here).  If one actually reads the stuff, and tries to pay attention to what Churchill was actually saying, it gets complicated, and god, how we hate complicated ideas!    It's easier to just seize on that phrase about the "little Eichmans" that's been bruited about by O'Reilly and Limbaugh and their like; that's enough to inflame the rising tide of intolerance that is increasingly defining the American character.

The essence of Churchill's position is actually pretty straightforward:  the attack on the Twin Towers was not a "senseless" act, as in a random act of insane violence -- it was a considered response on the part of a group that had suffered terribly at the hands of the US-led embargo of Iraq, who saw that action as an act of war and responded with an act of war.  (I think he's wrong about that, by the way, but the position is not irrational).  Churchill does not defend the attack; he tries to put it in a broader context that relates the policies of the United States to Osama's decision to launch the attack.

There were other voices, in the immediate aftermath, that tried to raise the same issues -- Susan Sontag in the New York Times for one.  (Note that on Sontag's death she was heralded widely as a great American intellectual).  But we've pretty much eliminated that from our national mythology.  We are now all agreed (officially) that the attack was an insane and evil act carried out by insane and evil men who are jealous of our freedom.  Any other point of view is not tolerated.  What country am I living in, again? 

Churchill's essay is slapdash and his rhetorical choices were foolish (i.e., instead of emphasizing his point, they distracted from his point).  For these sins we should fire two-thirds of the faculty now working in our universities.


Ignorant By Choice

"I don't want my children exposed to evolution in school.  'Cause I don't believe in it.  I believe in the bible.  I don't want my children even hearing about evolution."  This from a woman at a hearing in Kansas on Monday as the state school board once again wrestles with whether or not to include evolution in the official curriculum.

We are a willfully ignorant nation.  The Bush administration understands this, and encourages it.  The Democratic opposition is unwilling to believe it.

For my own peace of mind, I'm trying to quit railing against it, and merely observe it with the (supposed) detachment of an anthropologist.  In the months before the election, as revelation after revelation of incompetence, deceit, abuse of principle, and corruption on both petty and grand scales on the part of the Bush administration and its supporters was detailed in the press, I'd think, "This is going to be the one!  This time the public won't be able to ignore the facts and they'll see what is really going on."  Of course, I was wrong every time.

The survey showing that people who got most of their news from Fox were most likely to believe (contrary to all facts) that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks was seized upon by the opposition as evidence that the public was being misled.  If only the true facts could be put before the people, they thought, opinions would change.  That's what Kerry tried to do -- put forth the facts.  It was an abysmal failure.  I suspect the reality is more along the lines that people who are inclined to believe the innuendos of someone like Cheney about Saddam's involvement were more likely to gravitate to Fox, because it reinforced a view of the world that they were predisposed to accept.  They already knew the Dan Rather was an untrustworthy liberal pinko, so why bother even listening to him?

The lead story in the New York Times today is that the prescription drug benefit is now predicted to cost $720 billion, rather than the $400 billion the administration claimed when they sold the program.  The Times predicts a "political firestorm" since politicians already feel burned by the fact that the administration knew at the time the bill was passed that the actual estimate was $534 billion -- and threatened to fire the analyst who suggested reporting the true figure to congress.

Maybe there will be a "political firestorm."  It'll have no impact outside the beltway.  That this administration lies to the public, manipulates facts and figures for its own political purposes, rewrites history to suit its own view of the world, and then promotes and rewards those who are most responsible for its abuses, is well documented.  The American public does not want to know.  They are firm in what they believe.  They will not be moved by anything as suspect as facts.


Who Do We Think Isn't Listening?

Why would one want to have a "confidential" email discussion list?  Who would you be trying to keep out of the discussion?  I'm wondering about this because the moderators of ERIL-L (electronic resources in libraries) have raised the question with the list's subscribers.

Since its inception (9/01), the moderators have attempted to keep it a "librarian-only" list -- i.e., they do not allow subscriptions from people whose email addresses indicate that they work for a vendor or a publisher.  Now, at 1700 subscribers, the moderators are asking whether the list members think it makes sense to continue to try to keep the list "closed."  Leaving aside the impossibility of confidentiality on the Internet, the fact that people can subscribe with neutral email addresses that don't reveal where they work, or the fact that many librarians (my wife, for example) work for vendors and might have much of value to contribute, the discussion has gotten me to wondering what exactly it is that we think we could say "amongst ourselves" that we wouldn't say if we knew a member of the vendor community was listening.

It has been suggested that members would not feel as free to criticize a vendor by name, or to discuss the pros and cons of a particular product or service, if they thought a representative of that vendor might read the message.  But why should that be the case?  In fact, if we're complaining about what a vendor is (or isn't) doing, wouldn't it be an advantage to have somebody from the company listening in?  And if we're discussing what we think are the advantages or disadvantages of a particular offering, wouldn't it be valuable for the company to know how we feel about that?

The two most active lists that I'm on -- MEDLIB-L and LIBLICENSE-L are both open lists.  People frequently use these lists to ask questions or raise issues about vendors; they are sometimes pointed, sometimes even harsh (although, by and large, people maintain a professional tone).  Having the list open is a tremendous advantage -- mistakes or misconceptions can be corrected, and vendors can be called to account and challenged when it appears that they may be giving inconsistent information to different customers.    It's clear that Elsevier, for example, follows the discussions on liblicense closely, and has adjusted its policies and offerings in response to the concerns raised by librarians on the list.

What I'm curious about is what, specifically, someone thinks they would be likely to say about a vendor on a closed list that they would feel inhibited from saying if they thought the comment wasn't private.  Do this as a thought experiment:  Imagine that we could have a perfectly closed list -- we could insure that no one who was not working in a library as a professional librarian was on the list, and we could insure that no message sent to that list was ever forwarded to a non-subscriber.  What would someone be likely to say that they would not be willing to say if the list were open?

This strikes me as a case where a natural tendency towards polite discretion leads us to a conclusion that is actually nonsensical and not in anyone's interest.  Unless, I suppose, the point is to be able to rant and rave about a commercial outfit without having to take responsiblity for one's complaints.   Surely, that can't be it.


The Black One

SG had stayed up late, standing in line to get the new iPod.  This was San Diego, May, 2003. 

I looked over his shoulder: "Is it some kind of PDA?" 

"No, it's for music," he said, without looking up, apparently mesmerized by the little screen. 

I shrugged.  I wasn't interested in the latest whizbang MP3 players.

Now I have two.

USA Today had a story yesterday headlined, "iPod America".  It's the usual stuff about the fervor of iPod devotees, with quotes about how it has "changed their lives."  I hate that kind of over-the-top enthusiasm.  This is why it pains me no end to acknowledge that it's true.

For years I'd kept a Discman that I took out with me when I went for my evening walks.  By the fall of '03 it needed replacing (that run in the pouring rain along the Chicago lakefront had been its undoing).  I mentioned to Lynn that she might want to get me a new one for my birthday.  She said, "Why don't you get an MP3 player?"  What a good idea, I thought.  I didn't imagine that I would use it any differently than I had the Discman.

It didn't take much research to see that the iPod was the only sensible choice (particularly in the fall of '03 -- the flood of competitors didn't come out until that Christmas), so in November, that's what she gave me.

Oh, hell.  It changed my life.

It didn't take me long to fill the thing up (it was 20GB -- but I have more than a thousand CDs).  Like most people, I was drawn to the shuffle feature.  I found the juxtaposition of a Dylan song against a Wagner aria against a Coltrane saxophone solo sharpened the way I listened to each cut, made me hear unexpected relationships among the different genres, made me hear new things in individual songs that I knew well.  Very quickly I was not only using it when I went out walking, but during my morning writing time I began to listen to the iPod rather than putting on CDs.  For Christmas, Lynn gave me the Altec-Lansing travel speakers -- finally, the solution to music on the road that I'd been seeking for years!  I bought a second dock and started listening while I was in my office. 

From the first, I was in awe of the design.  It is brilliantly seductive, astonishingly intuitive.  It deserves all those accolades.  The only thing I didn't like about it was the color choice -- from a design standpoint I could appreciate the decision to make them all white, and I even approved.  But it wasn't me.  When the minis came out, I was intrigued, but not tempted.  But then came the U2 Special Edition -- black with a red wheel.  That was the one I wanted.

But I couldn't justify it.  It was also a 20GB.  I'd filled up my own.  I needed a bigger capacity iPod (I thought), not a second one.   I wasn't sure how to manage two.  How would I split the music up?  I wasn't even sure you could have two iPods.  How would iTunes know what to do?  (Like most people, I didn't bother to go through the manuals to find the answers to these questions).  So every time I saw an ad for one, I'd wince with desire, but I was resigned to the fact that I'd never have one.  I'd wait another year or so, and then upgrade to the 40GB (or whatever was available then).

Then the Shuffle came out.  That tempted me.  I listen to my iPod every day, at least for a couple of hours, and while I often have it docked, the battery wear was becoming apparent.  It was cutting out on me even on relatively short airplane flights.  The Shuffle would take care of that.  The price was right.  I did a bit more reading on the iPod website about the Shuffle and how to manage it -- I came across the section in the manual about managing multiple iPods -- "Oh, I get it now!"

So in Atlanta last Saturday, we made our way gingerly across the ice to the Lenox Square Mall, and found the Apple store among the few shops that were open.  There was a Special Edition in the window.  I felt that twinge of desire.  But I was past it; I'd made that decision.  I went in and asked if they had the Shuffle in stock -- backordered 500 units.  So that was that.  Lynn and I went to lunch.

And quite to my surprise, by halfway through lunch, I realized that if they had that black iPod in stock, I was going to buy one.  It wasn't a choice.  It wasn't a decision that I made.  It was an awareness that came over me, unbidden. 

"I think, when we're done with lunch," I said to Lynn abruptly, "I want to go back to the Apple store and see if they've got the U2 iPod in stock." 

Her eyes twinkled in the way that they do when I'm amusing her.  "You didn't ask?" 

"No, because I wasn't planning to get one.  But now I'm not sure..."

After we got home from Atlanta, I spent the next couple of nights figuring out smart playlists and thinking through what stuff I wanted on which iPod.  Of course, it's very easy to do.  And having two iPods feels like the most sensible thing in the world. 

I think it's changing my life.