Monday, December 18, 2006

On December 10th Agusto Pinochet died. He was the dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1989. Being a Chilean expatriate, I am saddened by the news that Mr. Pinochet passed away without ever facing judgement for his spectacular cowardice. The process to bring him to justice was laborious, yet its proponents travelled a road through the bowels of bureraucratic democracy that few have travelled before - a sort of Cocteauesque journey that was cut short when the old man expired at the tender age of 91.

This may be a good time to recognize the amazing efforts of those people through the years who have followed due process in bringing Mr. Pinochet's killing and stealing to light. My hat's off to them, knowing that his death makes their road doubly difficult. The funny thing was that the old man died last weekend (coincidentally on International Human Rights Day), and Monday morning my inbox was peppered wth notes from friends who wrote things like "I bet you're happy that he's gone", etc. Sometimes, tragedy strikes in the strangest ways.

But the story does not end there. I remember being horrified some eight years ago when reading that Pol Pot, architect of the deaths of conservatively 100,000 Vietnamese, died in bed, never having answered Vietnamese or international tribunals for his Killing Fields. More recently, Ariel Sharon checked out without ever facing a rekoning for the human rights atrocities like the controversial Sabra and Shatila massacres. Likewise Pinochet has escaped a public proceeding to recognize him as a murderer at least three-thousand times over within Chile and the architect of a plot to kill any remaining political opposition abroad (again, akin to Israel's state sponsored assassins).

It is sad that Pinochet will not atend his own trial. I hope the trial still takes place one day. The ironic thing is that it is far more likely to happen with Pinochet than with the current administration of the US, or the past several of Israel, or many others.

Just in case anyone out there feels that picking on the US is not fair, or is starting to lose count, the Lancet published a paper two months ago estimating that 600,000 Iraqis have died as a direct result of the US invasion there thus far. The US government (you know, informed by Ari Fleischer, elected by selected folk in Florida and others whose votes are counted by opinionated secret computers, enforcing laws made by Foley) has dismissed the study, although the same scientific methods inform the same government that smoking is dangerous, that seatbelts save lives, etc. Seeing Mr. Pinochet off without a proper accounting, then, I have to ask: Will Alberto Gonzales ever face the music for calling the Geneva Convention "quaint" when he decided that it did not apply to prisoners of our United States? More to the point, and even less likely: will Mr. Bush or any of his cabinet ever face the music for putting to death ove 600,000 Iraquis? My guess is that Mr. Bush and his board of directors will face about as much justice as Pol Pot, Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, and Agusto Pinochet among others. - But I've been wrong before, and I can only hope I'm wrong again this time...

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hunan Harvest Pork

This twice-cooked dish is served year-round in the Hunan province of China. Hunan cuisine was not very well-known outside China until the 70's. Henry Chan, a famous San Francisco chef, writes that this is principally because this rugged and lush land offered its inhabitants virtually no reason to emigrate, so the Hunan native elsewhere in China is a relatively rare bird. In California people have better reasons to emigrate on occasion, but the richness of the land is nonpareil. Especially when it comes to good food, the natural resources here are great. Produce is available from meticulous farmers for delicate dishes that flirt with disaster, such as French food, alongside hearty greens produced by farmers who use traditional methods and down-to-earth approaches for the highest-quality yield at reasonable prices.

My eyes were first opened to the surprising delicacy of Chinese cuisines in 1997, when I went to Hong Kong to pay my respects to the last remaining bastion of non-PRC Chinese culture outside of Taiwan, before the hand-over. To my surprise, I ended up spending most of my time in food markets, learning about ingredients and their tastes when prepared right there in simple, traditional ways, and about the exquisite delicacy of a food that has as its most stunning attribute harmony among ingredients and the showcasing of simple fresh flavors.

Many of the dishes I tried then, much to my surprise, were every bit as respectful to quality ingredients as the cuisine that has made California famous in the US. The indiscriminate corn-starching, greasing, and salting of cookie-cutter Chinese eateries in the west was gone altogether, replaced by perfectly steamed flowering broccoli with ribbons of lightly sauteed goose-intestine, and the like. I was in love.

In any case, cooking is a bit like traveling. You will be happiest if you work with what is available and remain as flexible as necessary. Otherwise you will find yourself quickly using substandard or overpriced ingredients out of season, and losing heart as the resulting dishes turn out less than inspirational. There are, however, many dishes that can be made quite well most of the time, as they rely on nothing too seasonal. Here is my family's favorite, Henry Chan's recipe for harvest pork, a la Juan Cristián:

During harvest-time, the pork is sliced thicker because landlords want to show their generosity to the workers, thus insuring that the workers will take care to waste nothing when harvesting the fields. This dish is also served to the sixteen pall-bearers in a traditional funeral. A group of pall-bearers might consume an entire pig in one sitting. My family of 4 can hardly get through a pound of pork in one sitting when we're starving....

-A note about ingredients: The importance of quality ingredients cannot be overstated. This dish does not make heavy demands on the ingredients beyond basic quality. The beauty of this kind of cuisine is that there is such profound harmony among the ingredients that it's hard to mess it up completely. This is not sauce Bordelaise or any such acrobatic combination of ingredients and temperatures, so an absolute disaster is not likely. There are six sacred ingredients, however, attention to which will make the difference between a memorably delicious dish and a perfectly lackluster one: water, rice, stock, chile, bean-paste, and oil.

Water carries a lot of flavor, good and bad. I use carbon-filtered San Francisco tap water for everything edible. It makes a big difference. Cast off notions of tap-water being sub-standard. It is, in most municipalities in Europe and North America at least, a far sight cleaner and better regulated than bottled waters, and tastes quite good. The best tap-water smells of chlorine when it comes out of the faucet, and is not too hard. Many modern municipalities use chloramine for water treatment, because it does not smell like chlorine. The thing is that chlorine smells because it evaporates, can be boiled off, and disappears completely from water aged two or three days, whereas chloramine is not volatile and has health-risks associated with it, though it does not alter the flavor of water significantly.

A younger rice will usually work better than a drier, older one. Buy new crop rice when you can get it. I personally prefer slightly sticky rices, those that have a little more than 20% amylose (the remaining starch being amylopectin) for the bed of this dish, but any rice will do as long as it cooked well. A rice-cooker is cheap and will do it perfectly for you every time. Just put the rice in with enough water to cover the rice under a layer of water 1/2 inch thick, soak it there for 30m or so and replenish if it is an older rice (to keep the layer of water over the rice nearly 1/2 inch thick), and then let the rice-cooker do it's thing.

Chicken or pork stock can be used almost interchangeably in this dish. The trick is to be sure that the stock has a hearty concentrated flavor. Better Than Bullion concentrated stock works great, is very practical, and commonly available. I usually start with a normal-strength stock made from this, and reduce the result of boiling three or four pork-butts in this over time, to end up with an unusually concentrated stock.

There is a Hunan chile pepper of legend, but I have never found it locally. Hunan restaurants use dried chile de arbol flakes that are found everywhere. I find that if you have access to a Chinese farmer's market, there are small red Thai chile peppers that bought whole and processed or finely diced make a better flavor. The trouble with these is that they are seasonal, but once you try them, you'll be happy to fall back to the flaky dry stuff during the off-season and enjoy the change in the dish as they come back in. Beware, though, that chili peppers mold very easily, so keep them airtight in the refrigerator after dicing, or parboil them.

Any dish that calls for black- bean paste will be deeply insulted by most of the pastes available at your local grocery store. The best black bean paste is made at home. Preserved black beans from the Yang Jian State Operated Black Bean Facility in Kwang Tunc, PRC, are good and readily available at many Chinese grocery stores. It comes in these cardboard containers that look like old Morton Salt cans, wrapped in yellow paper. Put some in a container (about a cup) and just cover them with water. After an hour or so, toss the mess in a food processor, make a paste out of it, and there you have it. If you cannot find this, Lan Chi bean paste with chili is quite good, but I have only seen it once. Not easy to find. Barring these, preserved black-beans in  plastic vacuum-packs are a little easier to find in most Asian grocery stores and work fine.

Sesame oil has a high flash-point and the hotter you get the wok before tossing stuff into it, the better everything will turn out. In a pinch, olive oil works, but sesame is better for this. Short searings are the general idea.

About the cooking: There is one absolutely essential thing about this dish, and most Chinese dishes - start the rice, prep all the ingredients, and don't heat up the wok until the rice is done! Trying to prep as you cook is inviting disaster, as the cooking part happens very fast. You will dirty lots of small containers. We find that an assortment one-cup and half-cup french ceramic pastry bowls works great.

Step 1 - Cooking the pork

  • 1/2 lb pork butt
  • 2c chicken stock


Put the pork in the stock over a high flame. Reduce the heat as soon as it boils, and simmer until it is just pink in the middle - about 10 minutes for 3/4" thick slices. We typically do 2 or 3lbs at a time, to have a supply for the week. This one step done well in advance renders the dish a much lower-effort proposition than trying to cook the meat as part of the prep.

Save off the strained stock, and let the pork drain for a couple of minutes.

Step 2 - Cooking the dish: Harvest Pork

Ingredients -

  • 1/2 lb lightly boiled pork, in 1/4" slices, about 1" square
  • 1 tbsp black bean paste
  • 1/2 tbsp garlic, fresh minced
  • 1 tsp fresh grated ginger
  • 1 cup cabbage, cut into ribbons about 1/2" think and 1" long
  • 1/2 cup bell-pepper, cut into 1" slices - cut red bell-pepper longitudinally, or green pepper diagonally to get more sweetness out of it
  • 1/2 cup scallions (green garlic is a great substitute when it's available) - cut the scallions into 1/3" slices, as far up the green part as you can - the green is actually the best flavor for this dish
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp diced Thai chiles (or less, depending on how hot you like it - skip them if you're serving kids)
  • 1c rice

  • Heat the work over high heat with a sprinkling of sesame oil until the oil just starts to smoke.
  • Add a teaspoon of oil, and the pork, garlic and ginger, bean-paste, cabbage, and bell pepper all at the same time. Stir everything in the wok constantly.
  • As soon as the aroma of the garlic, ginger, and bean-paste get stronger (1 to 2 minutes) toss in the remaining ingredients
  • Cook until the scallions glisten evenly, about 2 minutes, and serve over rice.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thanks for Letting Me Vent.

In September of 2001 a terrorist attack that closely serviced then-recent recommendations by a think-tank called Project for the New American Century, led to the deaths of somewhere between 2000 and 3000, or 1/15th to 1/20th of the number of US traffic fatalities for that year.

Today I read a sad and sobering statistic in the Economist relating to the population publicity event from Tuesday: some 650000 people have died in Iraq since the invation (kudos to the Economist for not callng it a "war" or a "liberation", for God's sake...) that would not be dead had the US not shown up. Of course, George Bush quickly dismissed the findings by, taking a page from Ari Fleischer, spiritual leader of the US Government, simply saying something completely indefensible and leaving the honest fools to pick up the pieces with pesky facts...

So how does this relate to you and me?
Well, first, it means that for every 450 of us, there is one dead Iraqui who would be alive today had we simply disallowed the blatant fraud that put George Bush in office, twice. Or, looking at it another way, every one of us has separately allowed about 1/4 lb of living Iraqui flesh to be taken to the grave by our henchmen. This makes me feel bad, though it makes me wonder what that figure would look like if we go clear back to the United Fruit Company and add up the death-toll that underpins our "American way of Life".
Second, on the eve of more comedy elections in the US, it is inconvenient to deal with, so it makes it a lot more attractive to kick up a lot of dust over North Korea's nuclear test - nevermind that the only country in history who has successfully tested nuclear arms and given them up at the request of an international community is South Africa, and that genocidal maniacs all over the globe have all kinds of nasty weapons no one on earth should have..

So I guess the point is that there is numerological evidence constantly surfacing of the scope of terror that the US has spread around the world since George Bush occupied the White House. Wonder how these elections are going to go...

Monday, October 16, 2006

US Population to hit 300M - Set your clocks..

I saw a comedy routine once - it was these American Indian guys making fun of white people - you know, shooting fish in a barrel. They would stand up there on stage and one of them would roll up his sleeve, look at his wristwatch, startle, and inform the other: "Hey, Bob, look! Time to be hungry!"... Try the same thing with Hispanics, or, God forbid, blacks, and see where it lands you. You'll be telling your story to Mel in nothing flat, 'cos no one else will acknowledge you exist...

But, as ususal, I digress... The US poplulation is gong to hit 300M at 1146 GMT Tuesday morning, Oct 17, 2006. Of course, by 2006 tghe majority of Americans are way out of their depth understanding the relation between GMT and their local daylight savings time, but the notion that the moment is meant to signify something momentuous about meat-accounting is, I am sure, not lost on most who find out about it...

I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of understanding, in my head, what that means in the first place. I mean, I think visualizing 300M is doable, but not for the faint of heart, to start with, and then there's the nasty business of the planets. I mean, if we can't trust officialdom to count to 9 in our stead, how the hell are we supposed to believe a bunch of lower level bureaucrats about a bigger and harder number in the first place? I mean, stop & consider it for a second: - OK - I need to digress again.

So the truth is,my life is beautiful in some ways but not so in others. Specifically, I made the titanic mistake of marrying someone who, shall we say, has issues, a while ago. This particular wife of mine, who shall remain nameless, of course, has laid every obstacle from lying about residences to threatening me and our daughter, all to get a taste of power. The bottom line is that I have a net worth that is negative enough that I don't want to go into it, and she has a tidy little nest-egg inherited from dad's knowledge of who to slip a bill to and mom's judicious use of divorce lawyers - if the number started with a one, it would have seven zeroes behind it.

Ok - so the point of the digresson is that hypothetical wife has a hypothetical lawyer who routinely threatens me with horrible things. If she existed, I'd worry. For example they're trying to figure out how to get finanical sanctions against me for being poor about now. Beautiful, classic, it's own reward.

Point being that although I am infinitely more fortunate, I think I have an inkling of how the average homeless guy feels pushing that shopping cart against the traffic during rush-hour, and you know he was not really happy about being counted at all, let alone having some stiff census worker ask a bunch of personal questions.

The old ways are best, and there are certain countries where the population is virtually unknown because of the social stigma against beign counted. African nations are often a reality check because they have been around in the form of neighbourhoods long before the faddish notion of the nation state caught on. The point is that if I have a motive for wanting to disappear from a machinery that supports dishonest people with bad motives, while I have 6Mbit broadband at home, I believe it's fair to assume that 9 out of 10 people living in the streets will actively avoid this particular form of accounting, lest they have to endure similar and much more damaging affronts.

So the official anniversary of the US reaching 300M this morning gives rise to several interesting questions:
  • How many people really live in the US?
  • How unreliable is the official estimate?
  • Is the number knowable?
  • Are there observational factors that render it unknowable more so than political/cultural factors?
  • If we knew how many people live in one place at one time, would we know how many planets there are in the solar sstem?
  • Why does everyone freak out about this number (of people in a given space).
  • Is there a number that is "too much" - based on what?
Will everybody please quit using the word "war" for state-sponsored terrorism, be it in Iraq or Lebanon?

It's amazing, the power of repetition. The Republicans have used it to absolve themselves of their recent tenancy in the Whitehouse, possibly the biggest crime American democracy has ever suffered. Nonetheless, this is not about stolen elections or bitter little subliterate attorney generals calling the Geneva convention "quaint" - oh no. This is about North Korea, wouldn't you know it.

Here's the finer point of this little rant in a nutshell. North Korea, so I hear, tested a nuclear bomb recently and everybody's up in arms that nuclear power is falling into the wrong hands. Ahem. Hello? Nuclear power fell into the wrong hands when the US decided to use the pavement in Hiroshima & Nagasaki as photographic paper. It is fair to take some heat off the US's incredibly bad records by remembering that if it were Russia, China, Saudi, France, or Japan that were at the helm, let alone Rwanda, or Somalia, to give somewhat more sobering examples, things might be a mesure worse than they are today.

What fascinates me is the use of the word "terrorist" instead of "yellow dog" or any other more straightforward appeal to xenophobic cowardice in condemning the actions of anyone who does not share our laudable agenda of stamping out democratic processes wherever they might rear their ugly heads and threaten to stifle coporate operations with due process, minimum wages, universal health-care, or any of the myriad other anti-US activities which advocate for mere individuals ahead of corporate stockholders.

I would not argue that North Korea seems like a dangerous sate - basically run by a psychopath. I would just ask - exactly how is that different from the US?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Million Dollar Earrings...

On August 22nd, the International Congress of Mathematics awarded Grisha Perelman of Saint Petersburg the teraennial Fields medal for a solution to the Poincare conjecture, wich Dr. Perelman posted on the internet three years ago. The elusive Poincare conjecture is one of seven mathematics problems singled out as the Millenium Prize Problems by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which set aside seven $1M prizes for the solution to each of these.
Grisha Perelman stayed home. He did not collect the medal, nor the $1M... There is something so simultaneously heroic and annoying about that, sort of like a good math problem. It got me thinking, like millions of others, I am certain, about simply connected closed manifolds.
People are open 2-manifolds that treat ourselves as closed. There is no loop we can draw on our bodies that cannot be collapsed into a point, with the exception of loops drawn through a piercing, or the slightly more off-color string that Arne Kinski used to eat over and over, documented, I think, in the 1995 documentary Crumb. The string is a tangent, however. The point is that an earring is an affirmation of our openness, in a topological, if somewhat circuitous, way.
So, if Grisha Perelman had gone to get the medal, or the $1M, do you suppose he might have worn an earring?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Long Titles, Short Titles, and "I Know When to Shut Up; I'm Not One To Keep Yapping; When Somebody Tells ME To Shut Up I Shut Right Up Right Away and Don't Keep Prattling On Like SOME People I Know" Titles...

There's a lot of stuff going on. Living in a country where the democratic process is deeply compromised and where the populace at large won't remmeber past 40 days and don't want to discuss it is alienating at best. Living in a country where lawyers lie with impunity in open court and judges are so full of ennui because they have virtually no oversight (I could tell you stories - and I will, later) is exasperating. Living in a place where the courts that decide the future of our children, family court, are a badge of failure to judges, and the public education system is a huge failure and a low priority, where the future of our children and the well-being of our citizens seem to be the state's lowest priorities, is downright alarming and causes one to fall silent once in a while. It would be as psychotic as an upbeat drum-majorette to just keep smiling through all that, and I think to resolve issues one must first face them.

Plus my thinking about the planet thing (still going on) is that it's a pretty big deal and there's really no need to move on and step one's own issues while said issues remaion unresolved, and I suspect the planet thing cannot be easily resolved without some collective soul-searchign about the social nature of "scientific truth". All little tremors and aftershocks of rationalism, the enlightenment, and the exceptionally misguided error in logic that this philosophy represents, pushing the idea that because the gardeners at Versailles can do nice topiary designs using applied trigonometry, our mathematical models are somehow the puppet-strings that move the universe... so the need for doing another posting in the next fifty years or so is in question, if I take the view that my audience (bless her heart - I don't know how she puts up with me) can only be distracted from the theoretically lofty concept put forth in one post if we push it out with a subsequent post before the point of the first is cleared up; but I digress...

So a few months ago I was working at this startup, a press for the long tail of vanity publishing. It is a very solid idea to appeal to that part of the spirit, and Dan, perhaps the technology mastermind behind the original expressions of the idea, is a brilliant evangelist and gave me to understand that I would basically be some cobination of Jean Paul Sartre and Mikhail Gorbachov if I came on board and got my head and some code around process and the concept of architecting the community aspects of their technology, which I did. Brilliant. Dan appealed to my vanity and it worked like a charm. Unfortunately, the character of the company changed rapidly, and its roadmap started to differ substantially from my own and those of my friends and sponsors within, so there was a changing of the guard. More power to them. They take great pride in never streching their content beyond a third-grade reading level, and they do produce very nice books for a virtually zero initial outlay. Pretty nice, really.

The funny thing is, once you jump on the bandwagon and start thinking of your stuff in terms of books (you know, the "Picnic at Golden Gate Park on a Foggy Summer Afternoon" coffee-table picture book) there's this titling problem - some of these titles need to be as long as the books are short, and some longer ones also want for longer titles. So the title of this post is just by implication that perhaps long-titling is my own malaise, but the funny thing was that I found it very limiting to produce books with such abbreviated titles that they could only be dramatic representatons. I suppose there's nothign wrong with titling every book, paper, letter, or poem you write with "One", "Two", and so on, but I have always had a special place in my heart for Bugs Bunny and that line...