Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Slightly Overcaffeinated Daylight-Starved Scrooge Mix

  • For the last month, in the cafeteria where I work at the Cosmodemonic Institute for Science Policy, there's been a little boom box by the cash registers playing Bing Crosby. Every cell in my body has screams "NO! NO! NO!" whenever I go down there for a cup of coffee. I'm just now coming to terms with the dismally incontrovertible fact of Autumn, and already you want to rub Christmas in my face? I won't have it, I tell you. I won't.

    You know how the angel got on top of the Christmas tree, right? See, it was November 1st at the North Pole, and Santa Claus was taking down the Halloween decorations, and an angel walked up carrying a Christmas tree and said, "Hey, Mr. Claus, where do you want me to put this?"


  • Via Pandora, I've discovered the truly magnificent Midnight Evils, the greatest band you've never heard of (albeit only because I've already told you about Pylon). This, by god, is the music I want to play. Loud, violent, fast, unignorable. The wheels coming off. The center not holding. The guitars are probably lethal to mice. The singer sounds like he's filed his teeth. I love this shit. How the hell did I end up playing Irish music?

  • Ruhlman's new Elements of Cooking blog is a thoroughly awesome thing.

  • Along the same but somehow completely different lines, here's a nifty instructional video from the Household Hacker on how to cook an actual turkey in your actual home, using nothing more than an ordinary light bulb and a few DVD-Rs. Just make sure they're dual layer DVD-Rs. That's important.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

In case you've been sleeping too soundly

This is a lecture Naomi Wolf gave last month.

Her new book is called The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, and there's an interview with her on AlterNet about it here.

The most horrible thing to me about the past six years has been the trending of the government of our country towards what amounts to a fascist dictatorship. We've seen the early attempts by this administration to shut down our democracy already. We've seen manipulation of elections, harassment and intimidation of dissidents, control of the press, the eviscerating of our system of checks and balances, and the president declaring himself to be above the law. We've seen the whittling away of our constitutional freedoms in the name of keeping us safe from a shadowy, terrifying, largely theoretical Enemy who could be lurking anywhere, hating our freedom and plotting to kill us all. We've seen, incredibly, the legitimization of torture, which to any sane person should be evidence that our moral compass has gone seriously haywire.

Wolf lays it all out. The speech is long, but you should watch it. In short, she describes how every dictator since Mussolini has followed a similar methodology for taking power, every single step of which is happening right now, here in the Home of the Brave:

  • Invoking an enemy to keep the populace afraid of

  • Creating a secret prison system where torture takes place (can you name a single regime in all history that did this without eventually devolving into totalitarianism?)

  • Developing a paramilitary force

  • Setting up a surveillance apparatus aimed at ordinary citizens

  • Arbitrarily detaining and releasing citizens

  • Infiltrating citizen groups

  • Targeting key individuals

  • Restricting the press

  • Equating dissent with treason

  • Suspending the rule of law

None of this stuff is new, but Wolf states it cogently and convincingly. If you think it's nothing but overblown laughable paranoia, I'd love it if you were right. But I don't think you are.

By the way, Naomi Wolf is on the No-Fly List. Interesting, don't you think?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Seconds Before the Weekend Mix

I've been frantically busy lately, so a few choice items have heretofore escaped notice in this space...

  • This past Tuesday, Sonny Perdue, the governor of Georgia, wearing his ceremonial cloak of peacock feathers and attended by his court priest, his grand vizier, and a hundred vestal virgins, ascended the steps of the State Capitol and sacrificed nine white goats and forty white doves to implore the gods to deliver his state from drought. I'm only exaggerating a little. Do I ever think I might move back to Georgia? Well, what do you think?

  • Bob del Grosso visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras and blogged about it. If you're at all concerned about the issue, you should go read the post and have a look at his slide show of the trip. Yeah, ducks are force-fed and eventually slaughtered. But if what a duck goes through in the making of Hudson Valley Foie bothers you, you probably ought to throw in the towel and give up the meat thing altogether. Most animals in the food industry have it a whole hell of a lot worse.

  • I absolutely missed Bourdain's appearance at Lisner last week. Damn it all.

Roasting a Chicken

That's roast chicken, numbnuts! And if you can’t properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron. Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself. You do not deserve to wear the proud garment of generations of hardworking, dedicated cooks. Turn in those clogs, too. (Anthony Bourdain, Les Halles Cookbook)
Bourdain's recipe for roasting a chicken is easy and turns out beautifully, and I'm not going to quote it here because you already have the cookbook. It's a vast improvement over Julia Child's (presumably classically French) recipe, which involves basting every 8 to 10 minutes and turning the hot sizzling bird a total of five times throughout the cooking process. And there's a really obsessive recipe in one of James Beard's books that I can't find now; I used it the first time I roasted a chicken, and I remember it called for a stick and half of butter. The chicken wasn't so much roasted as sponge-fried. Of course it was delicious.

But when I'm roasting a chicken nowadays, especially if I've had a long day at work and I'm tired and hungry and cooking just for myself, my go-to recipe is from Marcella Hazan. It's the essence of simplicity, and it's dependably fantastic.

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Rinse a 4-lb. chicken in cold water inside and out. Pat it dry with a paper towel and prop it up so it can drain while the oven is heating.

(By the way, I don't have to tell you to get a decent chicken, do I? One that wasn't debeaked so that when it went insane from being crammed into a tiny cage with five or six other chickens it wouldn't peck them to death? One that was fed good honest grain that wasn't "fortified" with antibiotics and fat from other chickens? One that was able to walk around and scratch and flap its wings and socialize and generally live a happy chickenlike life? I don't have to tell you that, right? Good.)

Generously salt and pepper your chicken inside and out. Take two small lemons and pierce them all over with a skewer or a fork. Stick those inside your chicken. Truss the chicken if you like; I don't bother unless it's a special occasion. Set the bird breast side down in a roasting pan and roast it for half an hour. You don't need to baste, so pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in with a good book till the timer goes off. Turn the chicken over (I've got a huge pair of grill tongs I use for this) and roast for another half an hour. Turn the oven up to 400 degrees and roast for another 20 minutes. Total cooking time should be 20-25 minutes per pound.

Let the bird sit for about 15 minutes before carving. That should give you enough time to make whatever simple side dish you're in the mood for. When you carve the bird, copious juices will flow; that's all the sauce you need. Wonderful.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


As you would be able to see if the picture weren't so out of focus, I'm done graduating the top. I ended up leaving it kind of thickish -- around .115" inches in the recurve and a little less than .200 in the middle. As it turns out, the frame of my ghetto thickness caliper flexes a little more than it should, which means my measurements are kind of approximate. I didn't want to run the risk of getting the top too thin. I figure final sanding will take care of some of those extra thousandths of an inch.

The top came with the f-holes already cut, which saves me some work but makes for nerve-wracking sanding in that area. In the time since I ordered this kit, International Violins has started offering a version without the precut f-holes, which is what I'll opt for if I decide to build another A-style mando. But I think for my next build I want to do their version of the Gibson F4, which in my correct opinion is the most beautiful mandolin ever.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Olbermann on Waterboarding

Oh, hell. I can't embed it. Just go watch.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of waterboarding, watch this too. A reporter enlisted two professional interrogators to waterboard him and filmed the experience. There's a link there to the uncut video too. It's difficult but required viewing. Remember, if you're an American, this is being done in your name. How do you feel about that?

Which reminds me of what the Dear Leader said about Cuba a couple of weeks ago, with even more than his usual obliviousness to irony.

"... As with all totalitarian systems, [this] regime no doubt has other horrors still unknown to the rest of the world. Once revealed, they will shock the conscience of humanity. And they will shame the regime's defenders and all those democracies that have been silent."
(Thanks, Mike.)

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Scrape sand sand scrape scrape scrape sand

Sand sand sand sand sand scrape scrape scrape scrape scrape sand scrape sand sand scrape scrape sand fucking sand sand sand scrape.

The first area I'm working on is the recurve, the thinnest area of the top. When you play a note on a mandolin, it produces ripples throughout the whole top of the instrument. The further the ripples travel, the less energy they have, so the edges of the top need to be thinner to produce the same amount of resonance as the area under the bridge. So I'm basically sculpting a trench around the perimeter of the top, as you can see from the lighter area in the picture. Once I've gotten the bottom of the trench in the neighborhood of .110" thick, I'll start working on the center area. Then I'll smooth the thick part into the thin part. Then I'll do all that again on the back.

I'm using 3M sanding sponges and a gooseneck cabinet scraper. If I had a random orbital sander, I could probably accomplish this in less time. If I could burnish a scraper worth a damn, I could work more smoothly and consistently instead of having to go back and fix the little bits of tearout. If wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak.

Scrape sand sand scrape scrape sand sand sand scrape.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Step one

About a year and a half ago, the top collapsed on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, Chinese-made, 90-dollar-Ebay-special mandolin. This wasn't a big deal; I'd been planning to eventually knock a hole in it, fill it with potting soil, and plant herbs in it anyway. I was just hoping it would hold together long enough for me to upgrade to a better mandolin first.

Now, really good-quality carved-top mandolins are insanely expensive. Gibson's entry-level A9 model is around $2,000, and they go way, way up from there. To get a good instrument without selling my car, I figured I'd just have to make one myself.

Enter the International Violin Company Mandolin Kit. What could be better? All the grunt work is done. The sides are fitted to the top, the neck is put together and fretted, the top and back are roughed out. All that's left is the touchy-feely stuff (shaping and graduating the plates, installing and carving the tone bars, shaping the neck to my liking) and gluing it all together. And it ends up as a pretty nice instrument. Reviews of these kits on mandolin newsgroups I read have been pretty positive.

The one snag with the kit is that the back plate I got was about a quarter-inch too narrow to fit the sides. I exchanged a few emails with International Violins, whose attitude was, yeah, a lot of those kits are like that, I'll be glad to sell you another back, or maybe you could put binding on. By that point, my enthusiasm had waned, so I put the project on the back burner.

Last week, though, I was looking at the kit, and through some bizarre miracle of time, my back plate now fits just fine. Something shrank, or something else expanded, I don't know, but the upshot is I can work with what I have and build this thing. And just to keep myself on task, I'll tell you all about it here.

So. Step one. This morning I built the one specialized tool I'm going to need: a thickness caliper. All I had to do was saw some plywood and drive a few screws, but I'm still proud of it.

One of the keys to maximizing the tone of an arch-top stringed instrument (e.g. violins and mandolins and some guitars) is graduating the top and back to certain proportions. It's worth being very fussy about. Hence the caliper. I could have spent a hundred or so bucks at Stewart-MacDonald for a professional-grade one, but mine will do exactly the same thing, and it cost me about $12 in materials. Plus it's impressively crude.

My top plate is currently .235" in the bridge area and .175" at the edges; I'm going to take it down to about .180" and .110" respectively.